Book Review: Rejection of Femininity ; Why Did Modernism Spurn Women? and What Can Women Artists Do about It? Asks Ruth Padel; the Trouble with Beauty by Wendy Steiner HEINEMANN Pounds 20
Padel, Ruth, The Independent (London, England)
Until the 20th century, says Wendy Steiner in The Trouble With Beauty, male artists identified beauty with the object men find most emotive: the female body. But modernism turned brutally against both. Aesthetic judgement was compromised by desire; women were disgustingly implicated in seductive ornament, in gratification. They were a hopeless basis for aesthetic experience, which should be (big avant-garde buzz-word) "pure". Painting suddenly found a brand- new way of achieving the ideal: alienating the creator emotionally from the object he represented, by breaking up beauty's template, dissolving the female body into spatial relations, and flinging away the image of woman, a burden art had carried for far too long. In Picasso, form, line and volume became the new yardstick of aesthetic value. The new aesthetic was garbage, waste, the underworld. See TS Eliot's The Waste Land. Modernism involved a powerfully misogynist rejection of femininity. The avant garde rejected women along with bourgeois values such as intimacy, charm, and pleasure in the object depicted.
For background to all this, Steiner invokes Romantic reactions to Kant's vision of the masculine sublime - which transcended human boundaries, while the merely beautiful was limitedly feminine - and reads Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a critique of Kantian aesthetics. Frankenstein's creation transcends humanity but destroys it. After making his monster, Dr Frankenstein dreams of kissing his fiancee, but her flesh turns dead and starts to fester in his arms. The monster loves human beauty but desire turns to hate as he realises he can never possess it. He demands a wife; Frankenstein, denying any connection between himself and his creation, will not make him one. Mary Shelley portrays "sublimity" as monstrous. It is deadly, horrific, to create something transcendent and dissociate yourself from it. But exactly that alienation from your own creation was the driving force of modernism. Fast-forward to Damien Hirst, and you get an aesthetic in which shock, rather than beauty, becomes the gauge of a work of art's success. However, says Steiner, in their use of woman-associated objects, clothes and enclosed spaces, women artists like Rachel Whiteread are re- claiming beauty, re- evaluating domesticity and femininity.
That's an appallingly simplified version of Steiner's story - which, as a discussion of 20th-century art and its rejection of the feminine, is fizzily associative, documented with fascinating connections and abundant cultural reportage. There are shining pages, for instance, on Manet's nude "Olympia", 1970s …
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Publication information: Article title: Book Review: Rejection of Femininity ; Why Did Modernism Spurn Women? and What Can Women Artists Do about It? Asks Ruth Padel; the Trouble with Beauty by Wendy Steiner HEINEMANN Pounds 20. Contributors: Padel, Ruth - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: June 3, 2001. Page number: 43. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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