Wendy Steiner: How women disappeared from modern art

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The Independent Online

In Andy Warhol's early "shoe" works, the future Pop master paints a number of very beautiful shoes with legends adapted from literature: "A la recherché du shoe perdu," "Beauty is shoe," and so on. As a camp undermining of one of the great aphorisms of romanticism, Keats's "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," "Beauty is shoe" says a lot about the meaning of beauty in 20th-century art and the aesthetic images that express it. In particular, it suggests the extreme ambivalence we now feel toward beauty both within and outside art. We distrust it; we fear its power; we associate it with the compulsion and uncontrollable desire of a sexual fetish. Embarrassed by our yearning for beauty, we demean it as something tawdry, self-indulgent, or sentimental.

This aesthetic anxiety is especially evident in the treatment of one of the perennial images of artistic beauty, the female subject. Symptomatic is Marlene Dumas's watercolour The Image as Burden. In this work, a man carries a woman, who stands for "the image" ­ the representational subject of art, the allure of the visual, all that was perennially symbolised as woman. This has become a burden. If Warhol's "Beauty is shoe" reduces modern art to a fetish or a quotation, this watercolour reveals what has been sacrificed along the way: woman as an aesthetic subject and as the focus of idealism and value (and, no doubt, hypocrisy and false consciousness as well).

The insight came some years ago when I was visiting museums in Paris. In the morning I went to the Musée d'Orsay, a predominantly 19th-century collection full of paintings of women ­ elegant ladies or odalisques, gorgeous fashion plates or nudes, allegorical symbols or realistically rendered individuals. In the afternoon, at the modernist Pompidou Centre, these beauties were nowhere in evidence. In fact, it is hard to think of a canonic 20th-century artist who depicted women as symbols of the beauty and pleasure of art. Typical is a Modernist such as De Kooning, who painted endless works called "woman", which barely attend to the female subject of their title except through the lushness of their flesh-toned paint.

Of course, one could argue that not only did women disappear in Modernism, but men did, too. In fact, any sort of beautiful ­ or ugly ­ subject matter fell out of painting. Since representation was suspended or attenuated, the disappearance of woman as subject could be just an instance of the general turn away from content.

But for Modernist artists, woman was not just any other subject. Here is Georges Braque in 1910: "I couldn't portray a woman in all her natural loveliness. I haven't the skill. No one has. I must, therefore, create a new sort of beauty, the beauty that appears to me in terms of volume, of line, of mass, of weight, and through that beauty interpret my subjective impression... I want to expose the Absolute, and not merely the factitious woman."

This is not to say that high Modernist art was not beautiful, for it often was. However, the experience of beauty it aimed at was different. Purity, transcendence, disinterest and shock were its hallmarks. The pleasure, gratification, and interested response elicited by the female subject thus made her unsuitable as a symbol of avant-garde beauty, and ornament was likewise compromised.

With Postmodernism, ornament made a comeback, but meanwhile feminism had warned against "The Temptation to Be a Beautiful Object", and the slogan "Black is beautiful" had revealed the ideological assumptions hidden in the alleged transcendence of beauty. As a result, "the burden of the image" is still heavy, but we are beginning to see a new interest in beauty and the female subject among artists and theorists. And in the interplay of the four symbols of beauty ­ form, fetish, ornament, and woman ­ we can gain new insight into the unfolding of 20th-century aesthetics.