I’ve been mulling over various random ideas about women and art for a long time, trying to connect the dots. I’ve hesitated for a long time writing about it because it’s very personal. Strange. I’ve always been quite the girly-girl my whole life, except in art, where I’ve often stared wistfully at the boys’ tree house.
I stumbled across The Art of Dora Carrington by Jane Hill at a used book store last year. I was familiar, of course, with the Bloomsbury group, Lytton Strachey, and Dora Carrington (she went by the name Carrington for most of her life) in a general sort of way, but I’d never read as much about them as I had about, say, the Pre-Raphaelites. I bought the book and then let it lie around for quite a while, as I am wont to do, before finally picking it up one day. By that time I’d already watched the movie Carrington, starring Emma Thompson, when it came out in video. Or most of it. It appears I may have fallen asleep on the sofa before it was over.
Although I rather like Carrington’s portrait of Lytton Strachey on the cover of the book, I’ve never really been passionately drawn to her painting. The Bloomsbury style’s slightly chalky opacity, naivety, and broken brushwork doesn’t immediately appeal in a visceral way. (Of course that means very little. My attractions to various painters are quite irrational!) As I read the book, though, she and her painting began to grow on me, especially as I learned about her shyness and dislike of self-promotion. She painted anything and everything. Her charmingly painted furniture, for instance, has been oddly influential. Even now, almost a hundred years later, you can see similarly decorated and repurposed furniture, almost identical in style, in many shops. She even painted signs for pubs! I felt a kinship with this eclectic side of her, because I’ve done so many different things over the years, often to the point of being extremely scattered.
But I also began to feel exasperated at the woman. First she fell madly in love with a gay man. Nooooo, Carrington, No! I confess, I have very little patience with women who do that, in spite of almost having done it myself once long ago, and catching myself just in time. And then, oh hell, in the last chapter she shot herself — before she was forty! What? I was truly shocked and appalled. How could I have forgotten that part? (See above.)
Finally, there was this zinger Carrington quote I couldn’t get out of my head, which was the last straw: “I should so hate to become one of those stout old ladies painting watercolors.” This is not exact, because after I read that line I threw the book into a corner in a fit of pique and then returned it to the used book store for credit. So I never quite finished it and now I don’t have the book to look up the quote and I didn’t even get very much for it because the cover was bent.
Like Carrington, I always dreaded becoming what I call an Art Lady, a slightly pretentious middle-aged or older woman with minor local reputation as an artist about town. She dresses a bit eccentrically in flowing purple, with lots of hand-crafted jewelry, appears in small gallery shows, goes to gallery openings, takes classes and teaches. I didn’t want to be an Art Lady any more than Carrington did.
Carrington mercifully escaped the shame of becoming a stout old lady painting watercolors. I, however, failed utterly to expire at the appointed time, so here I am, quite stout (Kristy Alley says I should call her friend Jenny Craig, and I think I shall), painting in oils and egg tempera and acrylics. Despite all my protestations official Art Ladydom has overtaken me. Well, it’s not so bad, Carrington!
I can hear some of you saying that there might actually be certain advantages to being an older woman painter. As long as our health cooperates, we get better technically. We have more confidence, or we certainly ought to by now. There is a certain relief in being older and freeing ourselves from our earlier insecurities. And there are certain problems I won’t have to face anymore, like the gaming publisher who wants to see my portfolio, and then in the elevator lets slip about his “open marriage.” Nope, I won’t miss that.
But that brings to mind a secret fear. Sometimes this little voice chips away in my head, and I find myself wondering if now that I am no longer young, I may simply be ignored, just another “Art Lady,” relegated to the stuffy Art Lady sub-basement for aging Carringtons. There’s a bunch of them down there now sculpting dream journals out of coffee grounds and acrylic medium, and they’re calling my name! Well, I won’t go. I’ll just hang around up here, jangling my handcrafted jewelry.
When I went to college I was clueless. I imagined that someone in the art department of a state university could teach me how to paint real-looking people, as if anyone there knew at the time. An attitude of corrosive hostility toward realism, and most especially towards narrative painting, pervaded the department. I should add that a) there were some nice people there, sometimes even “Professor Rothko;” and b) I work at this very same university to this day (in another department, thankfully!); and c) things might be changing over there.
At the time, there was considerable subtle pressure to stop painting realistically (all A’s went to non-figurative work), and if I did insist on trying, I was instructed to make it look as flat as possible. Well, I can be quite the little people-pleaser in other areas, but I had no choice here: I knew exactly what I wanted and nothing else would do. But all the other women students in the art department went either abstract, semi-realistic but non-figurative, or conceptual, and they made better grades than me, except in drawing, where a lone wolf traditionalist professor encouraged me.
I’ve discussed with other women painters the question of whether female art students in departments dominated by abstract and conceptual teachers are pressured to give up ambitions to draw and paint realistically and, because they are feminine and compliant, more often yield to that pressure. After many years of observation, I believe they do. In my case, I experienced a sense of exclusion, an intangible penalty for continuing on my own path. You know what it felt like? It felt like being the bad girl. And it took its toll: for five years after graduation I did not paint. I met another woman years later who had the very same experience at that school and she had the same reaction. She stopped painting and I don’t know if she ever started again.
I still haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of why women artists are pushed into polite, pastel abstraction so often. About twenty years ago, I almost caved, and painted a semi-abstract painting for a local show. It was gray and pink. Everyone loved it! “Why don’t you paint more like this?” they cried in unison. I walked around the show three times before I could find my own painting. It was wallpaper. Invisible.
The following is a confession of sorts.
Not long ago, I met a painter, a very young woman. I had seen her stupendous studio work online, stacked with huge canvases, but when I finally connected her in person with her work, and realized who she was, I was openly stunned, slack-jawed with amazement. “You painted all that?” She was very gracious, but later, I was embarrassed by my reaction and carefully examined my possibly prehistoric attitudes. I couldn’t help wondering if I would have reacted so had she been a young man. Was I really thinking, How could such a very young woman who looks like a model be so talented and accomplished?
As I sat pondering later, I realized that, although my studio is nowhere near as spectacular as hers (in spite of having forty extra years to work on it) and I do not look like a model, people had said similar things to me a few times. On open studio nights someone would walk up to my paintings, look at me with a puzzled expression on their face, then at the wall of paintings again and say, “Did you do that??? It’s flattering, for a minute, but sometimes they kept going: “Did you draw that?” Or even: “Did you trace that?” NO! No, I did not!
But who exactly do people think does that? Well, that’s why I started wearing paint-stained jeans, topped with a Christian Dior jacket bought at Unclaimed Freight in Scottsboro, Alabama, to open studio night! The outfit works wonders, even if Tom Wolfe ridiculed paint-smeared jeans in “The Painted Word.” I may get a beret, too. Sadly, I cannot grow a beard. Yet.
By the way, have any male representational painters out there experienced “Did You do That”? If you have, please comment! I could be completely off base about it being a gender thing.
I used to get nice handwritten notes from fantasy magazines saying, “We like your work, but it’s very romantic. We will keep your portfolio on hand. Thank you.” After I got a few of those, I lined up some prints of my paintings and made up a man’s name (Scott T. Morgan sounds very professional and completely heterosexual which is important to get the Male Gaze thing right), wrote it on a piece of paper like a pretend business card, and put it next to my own work.
Did it look different to me? Yes, it did! It looked, somehow, less “feminine.” Less “romantic.” Strangely, a man’s paintings of ruffles and pretty women looked . . . better! They actually looked better, even when I knew perfectly well I had painted them myself! Damn, I cried, stamping my tiny feet. This Scott T. Morgan fellow could draw better than me! What was wrong with my brain? With my eyes? More importantly, what was wrong with that art director’s eyes?
After my Male Gaze experiment (meaning Male Gaze as both imputed creator and potential observer), I considered sending out a portfolio with this talented upstart Scott T. Morgan’s name on it. That idea foundered when I realized the art director might actually call me on the phone. “Hullo. Scott T. here.” I didn’t think I could carry it off.
So I started avoiding painting my beloved satin, ruffles, and flowers at all cost in an attempt to “man up” artistically. At one point this involved painting my next-door neighbor with flies coming out of his mouth. I also bought a doll at the Goodwill, burned holes it, and photographed it under a tree in my yard as photo reference. I got my husband to pose tied up in his fencing shirt like a straitjacket and then painted him with blood dripping out of his mouth. I ended up painting some pictures I could not even look at, much less hang up in my house or studio, although they did get me into a juried show sponsored by Heavy Metal Magazine.
Happily for my family and the neighbors, I finally decided that avoiding everything cute and feminine was counterproductive, and stopped making them pose for me as hideous vampires and zombies. Women should be able to paint feminine confections if they want. Oh heck, I may paint another kitten with wings! And fairies. Fairies with gauzy wings.
Well, those are my random thoughts. If I were eighteen again, I’m quite sure I would be heading to some atelier to study. But I had never heard of such a thing, and neither had my parents. So here I am, a “stout old lady” painting as best I can. I’m thrilled to see that girls are now climbing into the boys’ painting tree house in droves, paintbrushes thrust rakishly into their belts, and even building their own tree houses, too. Good for them! Meanwhile, I’m just trying not to trip over my purple caftan and fall into the workshop down there in the Art Lady sub-basement. The music is loud and they are drinking wine whilst gluing bits of cat hair and glitter onto used greeting cards. I intend to persevere as I always have. And call Jenny Craig on Monday! Sixty is the new Forty!
Carrington, you would have made a great Art Lady, too.