Paper about Art and Feminism, 1974, page 4
lasting values. Forms have been generalized and idealized to emphasize the muscular vitality of the animals. The surge of move- ment is heightened by skillful manipulation of the dynamics of the composition. Adrienne Rich in a recent issue of MS maga- zine commented on the stifling of women's energies and the resulting vague sorrow, melancholia and despair characteristic of women's poetry in the nineteenth century. When we look at The Horse Fair how refreshing it is to find an artistic statement in which a woman’s energy, all her vigor and power, far from being stifled, find a direct equivalent in the grandeur and dynamism of the work itself. For the real subject of The Horse Fair is energy, physi- cal freedom and power: energy as displayed by a woman and the pride and joy that both humans and animals take in the visible demonstration of energy. While many mod- ern critics have disparaged Bonheur's masterpiece as a typical salon machine of its time—-for instance John Rewald, an ‘authority on the art of the nineteenth cen- tury, recently characterized The Horse Fair as “highly expendable” and a “majestic exercise in futile dexterity"——it is well to remember that present-day judgments of nineteenth century art are themselves in the process of reevaluation. Many of the works cast aside earlier in the twentieth century as salon machines or kitsch are now being reconsidered in contexts less exclusively determined by formalism and the emphasis on “pure” pictorial qualities. In the light of this reevaluation it is again worthwhile to look back at the positive judgments of the paintings by Bonheur’s contemporaries. like the reviewer in the British Art Journal who wrote about The Horse Fair in 1857, “There is a freshness in this picture and a living power and a deep yet simple sympathy with nature which causes it to grow upon the spectator and make one wish to look on it again and again.” Here, then, is an instance of how a feminist approach may bring about reevalua- tion, making us look again at pictures which have been cast aside and really rethink of the implications of this rejection, making us ask what elements exist within the work of art that one might look at from a feminist viewpoint. Still another area in art history that I have been examining is that of nineteenth century V .. Britain. It surprised me to find out that approximately 3000 names of women artists were listed in Grave's catalogue of artists who exhibited in London during the nine- teenth century. A lot of them it's true showed one flower painting in one minor show, but many of them showed consistently in the most prestigious showplace of all-—The Royal Academy. How many people can call to mind a single nineteenth-century British woman painter? It is hard. These women, 3000 strong, have been simply dropped from the rolls of his- tory. Since art history demands detective work and a desire to track down historical facts,.l wanted to find out who these women were and what had happened to them. And I did find quite an interesting group of artists for a big exhibition of women paint- ers which will take place at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1976 or '77. This exhibi- tion is itself an example of how feminism can affect our cultural institutions, because such a large scale show of women artists at a major museum would, I think, have been unthinkable ten years ago. This is an exam- ple of how feminist pressure, women's inter- est in the arts, and the work of feminist art groups, in Los Angeles particularly, have assured the fact that women are finally going to reappear in art history. Some of the most interesting nineteenth- century British women painters are those who did narrative painting, painting which tells a story, which is generally realist in character and which follows in the great British tradition established by Hogarth and carried on throughout the nineteenth cen- tury. Narrative painting has been singularly neglected and rejected for a variety of reasons (having nothing to do with the issue of women artists) by critics and art histo- rians of today. Through my study of these nineteenth-century women painters, my admiration for and my interest in the whole realm of narrative and genre painting has risen enormously. And I began to ask my- self why it is that traditional art history has taught us to admire, respect and devote our lives to the difficult and complex iconogra- phy of Van Eyck or Diirer or Michelangelo‘ with its erudite religious references, its neo- platonic double meanings, its hidden refer- ences to contemporary events, and has simply cast aside or laughed at the equally rich, meaningful and in many ways complex 85 ...-~«......... ..... t-.. ..,..,.