Saturday 15 January 2022

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Review: Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking by Catherine McCormack (#Ad)

Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking by Catherine McCormack

I received this eProof for free from Icon Books via NetGalley for the purposes of providing an honest review.

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Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking by Catherine McCormack

Published: 6th May 2021 | Publisher: Icon Books | Source: NetGalley
Catherine McCormack's Website

Art historian Catherine McCormack challenges how culture teaches us to see and value women, their bodies, and their lives.

Cultural archetypes have long been used to subjugate women, binding them within the restrictive roles of Venus, bride, wife, mother, and monster. These portrayals echo throughout the paintings and sculptures of western art―Titian, Botticelli, and Giambologna―and more contemporaneously in fashion photographs, ads, and across social media. By society empowering men to represent women, women imbibe a distorted vision of themselves and their bodies, coming up against notions of impossible beauty, idealized passivity and violence, and horrifying Medusas.

In this impassioned work, art historian Catherine McCormack evaluates the production and display of portrayals of women, exposing the underlying meanings, whether overt or symbolic. She counters them by turning to women artists like Berthe Morisot, BeyoncĂ©, Suzanne Lacy, and Faith Ringgold. These women have been overturning confining depictions of identity, sexuality, race, and power to explore the breadth and multiplicity of women’s visions of their own lives.
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Something you may not know about me is that I have a love of art. I am absolutely not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do enjoy art as a form of storytelling. I'm a big fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, and I also love paintings depicting scenes from mythology or of mythological creatures and other stories. How art can capture a moment of a story and say so much. When I fall down an online rabbit hole about myths, I almost always also fall down a rabbit hole about how various artists depicted scenes from those stories. I get a lot out of going to galleries, admiring beautiful paintings, and then learning about the stories that inspired those paintings. A lot of the art I tend to like does tend to be inspired by stories of damsels in distress, female mythological creatures like sirens/mermaids, lamia, and faerie queens, and the women often tend to be partially undressed or naked. With this in mind, when I heard about Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking by Catherine McCormack, I knew it would be right up my street. It also didn’t hurt that The Toilet of Venus, one of my favourite paintings, is on the cover. And it was absolutely fantastic.

Women in the Picture is art history with a feminist slant. It takes a look works of art - mostly paintings - featuring women, and examines who the artist was, why they created them, who the intended audience was, and who commissioned them. Most of the works of art McCormack covers are by men, for men, with a very male gaze, with very specific ideas about women, with inherent misogyny and sexism. She takes you beyond the artwork and the story it tells, and places it within the context of the time it was painted, and why; what the man commissioning the painted wanted from the artwork - a gift for his new bride to show what he expects of her in the bedroom, for example.

McCormack breaks it down by looking at archetypes, the roles women take in the artworks, and what they say about the view men had/have of women, how we are valued, and in turn, how those ideas about us skew how we see ourselves. There’s Venus - the sexualisation of women’s bodies, women depicted feeling shame around their bodies, and a woman’s duty in pleasing her husband. Mothers - children and home being a woman’s responsibility, romanticising the nurturing, female caregiver, and also how that is ultimately a woman’s purpose/role/place. Maidens and Dead Damsels - women as victims of rape and violence, but also the moment of a woman’s death or the actual dead bodies of women, and the idea that we are at our most beautiful then because we are now an idea of a person, a body men's ideas of women can be projected onto. And Monstrous Women - women who don’t obey by the rules, who don’t conform to what is expected, as shown through female mythological creatures and villainesses, and the consequences to those women, conquering the villainess. McCormack also looks at how these archetypes, or the ideas behind them, are still present in media today, by looking at adverts, movies, photos of women deemed inappropriate on social media and why.

What’s wonderful is that once McCormack has gone through well-known works of art by men, she also then looks at artwork by women for each of these archetypes/roles, and how they turn those archetypes completely on their head, and show women as we really are, the truth, or something more empowering. She also looks at celebrity women who are very much in control of their image and how they are depicted, how they are seen, in art and media. And for every archetype, when looking at the artworks by men, McCormanck discusses how the artworks are very white, with no women of colour at all, or when they are depicted, the inherent racism. To counter this, when talking about art by women, she makes sure to discuss art by women artists of colour,and specifically looks at those artworks as depicting women of colour, by women of colour.

What I really loved about Women in the Picture is how accessible it is. You don’t need to have a degree in art history to understand what McCormack is telling us. I’m not the most intellectual of people, so while I was very much interested in Women in the Picture, I was concerned that it might be a bit beyond me, and might go over my head. But this wasn’t the case at all; no matter your knowledge of art, this is a book than can be enjoyed and understood by all.

Women in the Picture was absolutely fascinating! It was really eye-opening, thought-provoking, and definitely rage-inducing, and it’s absolutely changed the way I look at art now. I want to point out that McCormack isn’t trying to say we should all hate the artworks by men she discusses because of the misogyny; she’s giving you the context behind the paintings, and asking you to think more critically about what you see. I still love all my favourite paintings, but I’m able to look at them and see so much more now. Honestly, I enjoyed this book so much, I’ll definitely be reading it again. If you have any interest in art and feminism, Women in the Picture is very much worth a read.

Thank you to Icon Books via NetGalley for the eProof.

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