The Representation of Women in Western Art
By Linda Smith (28th October 2021)

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Walking into Beech Village Hall for the Special Interest Day on October 28th one immediately knew that this would be an Art Society Alton day to remember!

The beautifully arranged hall with Tussie Mussie floral decorations on each table reflected the attention to detail and high-quality event that was in store for us all.

Our speaker for the day, was the outstanding Linda Smith MA , who authoritatively and fluently described how women have been represented in western art since ancient times.  From antiquity to the modern day, Linda presented a wide range of images of women, questioning the functions of such images in their own times, and how we might read them today. For example, the sumptuous medieval portraits of fashionable women which were designed to display the wealth and power of their husbands

 

From times when women were regarded as goods and chattels, Linda introduced us to independent and inspirational women such as the 14th Century poet and author, Christine de Pizan, who managed to maintain her reputation as a chaste and respectable widow whilst supporting herself and three children by means of her writing. The first woman recorded to have done so.

 

Linda explained some symbolism such as how the medieval depictions of women in walled gardens conveyed virginity whilst the confined, domestic settings portrayed the restrictions imposed on their lives. Some hilarious illuminations from texts of the time were shown subverting these conventions.

In the 14th and 15th centuries there were very few recognised female artists, a notable exception being Sofonisba Anguissola one of the first and most successful female official court painters, at the Spanish court of King Philip II.  Her great success opened the way for other female artists.

 

The talk was delivered with such verve and vivacity that time flew, and we were soon on to the second session. This focused on British art, c.1550-c.1900 looking at the influence of European conventions around images of women. The examples of art shown reflected British society of the times and considered various factors, including sumptuary laws, propriety, beauty regimes, and changing attitudes towards eroticism and sexual behaviour.

A wide range of women were shown, from all-powerful monarchs such as Elizabeth I, controlling her image as a means of propaganda, to Emily Osborn’s painting, Nameless and Friendless depicting the precarious situation of women without their own means of financial support.

Linda’s talk picked up on the themes of women as artists and activists by looking at the rise of the Women’s Movement and the implications that such things as the Cult of Beauty and the Rational Dress Movement had for the representation of women in art. 

The first two lectures were followed by the most delicious homemade, two course lunch, which was provided and served by Dawn and Chris Perry. The morning’s talks had given everyone plenty to discuss whilst savouring the meal.  

The final session introduced Twentieth Century Art and Feminism 

This started by examining some late nineteenth-century images of women, showing some of the ways in which the early avant-garde challenged and subverted European traditions in art. Examples such as Manet’s Olympia, which referenced sex workers but was composed on the basis of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, had caused outrage when first exhibited.  Linda’s talk went on to discuss the parallel rise of the cult of Bohemia and what that meant for women trying to succeed as artists. She showed the difficulties women had making their voices heard in the 1950s and moved on to explain the confrontational strategies employed by feminist artists in the 1970s, such as Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. This was then compared with the nuanced attitudes of more recent feminist art such as Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills and works by the Guerrilla Girls.

 

All in all, this was an exhilarating, thought provoking and hugely enjoyable day.

We highly recommend that you come along to the next Special Interest Day and experience such a memorable occasion for yourself!

Kate Faulkner