Feminism and Contemporary Art: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Laughter

By Jo Anna Isaak | Go to book overview

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THE REVOLUTIONARY POWER OF WOMEN’S LAUGHTER

In the beginning was the gest he f jousstly says, for the end is with woman, flesh-without-word, while the man to be is in a worse case after than before since sheon the supine satisfies the verb to him! Toughtough, Tootoological. Thou the first person shingeller. Art, an imperfect subjunctive.

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

The history of Western art begins with images of laughterthe laughter of women. In Lives of the Artists, the founding text for the discipline of art history, Giorgio Vasari tells us that the young Leonardo da Vinci began his artistic career by portraying laughing women. These heads of laughing women, “teste di femmine, che ridono,” first fashioned in clay and then cast in plaster, were “as beautiful as if they had been modelled by the hand of a master” (quoted in Freud 1910:111). The laughing heads have been lost from the canon of Leonardo’s art, but when Freud turns art historian in his analysis of the childhood of Leonardo, he returns to Vasari’s account of these images of laughing women: “The passage, since it is not intended to prove anything, is quite beyond suspicion,” Freud assures us, thereby arousing our suspicions (ibid.).

Something is at stake here: Freud suspects some obsessional behavior in the way Leonardo returns to images of laughing women in subsequent portraits. He examines the account of the lost fragments for a clue to the most famous enigma in the history of art—the unsolved riddle of the expression on the Mona Lisa’s face. Haunted by the smile himself, Freud discovers that it has become an obsessional topic amongst art historians. He presents the early commentary on this painting as one might set out pieces of evidence in an unsolved mystery. Freud finds, as he sifts through various biographers of Leonardo, that they too have become obsessed with the enigmatic smile: “Walter Pater, who sees in the picture of Mona Lisa a ‘presence…expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men have come to desire’…writes very sensitively of ‘the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo’s work’” (ibid.: 110). The idea that two contrary elements

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Feminism and Contemporary Art: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Laughter
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • List of Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgements xiii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter 11
  • 2 - Art History and Its (dis)contents 47
  • 3 - Reflections of Resistance: Women Artists on the Other Side of the Mir 77
  • 4 - Mothers of Invention 139
  • 5 - Mapping the Imaginary 156
  • 6 - Encore 182
  • Notes 226
  • Bibliography 229
  • Index 236
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