What Happens When the Art Monster Is a Woman?

What Happens When the Art Monster Is a Woman?

Last month, a pair of climate activists attacked a painting known as “The Rokeby Venus,” by the Spanish master Diego Velázquez, which hangs in London’s National Gallery, using hammers to smash the protective glass covering the work. It is Velázquez’s only surviving nude and features the Roman goddess of love, her dazzling back turned toward us, reclining on a divan as she gazes into a mirror held up by a winged Cupid. The activists, members of the British group Just Stop Oil, were not protesting oil painting per se but, rather, their government’s licensing of new oil and gas projects. They said they chose that particular canvas because it had been attacked in the service of social justice before. In 1914, the Canadian-born suffragette Mary Richardson entered the National Gallery and, after making her way over to the painting, slashed it half a dozen times with a meat cleaver.

Slasher Mary, as she came to be known, was media savvy; in taking an axe to Velázquez’s paean to feminine sensuality, she claimed to want to draw attention to the plight of the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, who had been repeatedly arrested and subjected to forced feeding in Holloway Prison. Then, too, as Richardson recalled later, she was disturbed by “the way men gaped at it all day long.”

Mary Richardson puts in an appearance in “Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art,” the essayist, critic, and translator Lauren Elkin’s erudite, provocative, and relentlessly eclectic ramble through the overlapping terrains of art, feminism, and society. Elkin’s ostensible subject is the work that emerged in tandem with second-wave feminism during the nineteen-sixties and seventies by artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, and Ana Mendieta, women who often took their clothes off in the service of exploring form and fomenting artistic revolution. At the time, accusations of narcissism, essentialism, and pandering to men’s baser instincts were lobbed against them, even by some feminist critics, while mainstream critics, gallerists, museum curators, and collectors tended to ignore or devalue their work.

But don’t mistake “Art Monsters” for an in-depth history of a particular artistic movement. In assembling what Elkin calls a “constellation of correspondences around the radical feminist art” of that era, she reaches back to examine Victorian ideals of womanhood and forward to reconsider contemporary art-world discussions around race and colonialism—often considered blind spots of second-wave feminism. While she focusses mainly on art, she also crosses disciplines, drawing on the works of writers from Virginia Woolf to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Audre Lorde, and offering excursions into French theory by Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva. (Though Mary Shelley—the daughter of the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the author of “Frankenstein,” a tale that gave terrifying form to ambivalence about creation of all kinds—is surprisingly absent.) Throughout, Elkin seeks to define a “monstrous art,” one that is at once highly personal and political, rooted in experiences of the body and a determination to break down binaries.

Mary Richardson leaving court.Photograph from Museum of London / Heritage Images / Getty

In this context, Mary Richardson’s assault on the Velázquez painting becomes a shorthand for feminist iconoclasm. Elkin praises “the slash” as both an element of grammar, allowing a reader to keep two alternatives in mind simultaneously, and as a destructive force in feminist art and history. A photograph by the genderqueer artist Del LaGrace Volcano of the writer and punk avatar Kathy Acker in 1997, for example—with Acker’s shaved hair dyed blond and the scars of a recent mastectomy clearly visible—is, for Elkin, “another slash through the body of the Rokeby Venus.” And, in describing the performance artist and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann’s “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera” (1963), Elkin notes that the artist had herself photographed “naked and smeared with grease and paint and chalk, her hair bedecked with rope—a cross between an Amazon and a survivor of a shipwreck.” For Elkin, she appears “completely capable of slashing a major painting in a museum.”

What if the National Gallery had left the painting unrestored, Elkin asks, with Richardson’s hatchet marks still clearly visible? The work would then have become a “collaboration across the centuries,” she writes, between Velázquez, who by painting a nude risked excommunication in fervently Catholic seventeenth-century Spain, and Richardson, a very different kind of revolutionary.

Yet the slashed canvas—reproduced as an illustration in “Art Monsters”—is painful to look at, even more so in the light of this most recent attack. We learn, in a footnote, that Richardson later joined the British Union of Fascists under Oswald Mosley. In 1934, she became chief organizer for its Women’s Section, but left after two years, “disappointed with the party’s lack of commitment to women.” (Her single-mindedness of purpose might have been impressive if only she hadn’t been blind to some of the other factors that made British fascism unpalatable.)

“BEWARE OF FASCIST FEMINISM” the artist Hannah Wilke warned on a poster that she created in 1977, beneath a photograph of herself nearly naked from the waist up, wearing a patterned men’s necktie and not much else. It’s likely she was responding, in part, to a critique of her work the previous year by the leading feminist art critic and activist Lucy Lippard. By revisiting a number of internecine feminist and art-world quarrels from that era, Elkin highlights the disruptive power of representations of the body, even for the avant-garde. And, in regrouping this kind of art under the rallying cry of “the monstrous,” Elkin seeks to reappropriate some of the space-grabbing, boundary-transgressing, in-your-face assertiveness, and destructive power, of men.

So she returns to an ad that the sculptor Lynda Benglis designed to promote her work, and then persuaded Paula Cooper, her gallerist at the time, to place in a 1974 issue of Artforum. It was a nudie shot of the thirty-three-year-old artist, her body oiled and pert, sporting only a pair of white cat’s-eye sunglasses and a buzz cut and holding an enormous dildo.

Elkin doesn’t spend a lot of time addressing the relationship between this ad and Benglis’s sculptures—sensual and formally sophisticated experiments of poured, neon-hued liquid rubber or metallic-flecked rolls of cotton bunting tied in knots, which give form to the paradoxes of inhabiting a body that is subject to the forces of gravity and time. Instead, she seizes on the ad’s “Rabelaisian” energy, its biting sendup of art-world sexism. She tells us that five of Artforum’s editors wrote a letter decrying the ad’s “extreme vulgarity” and condemning it as “a shabby mockery of the aims of [women’s liberation].” Two of the editors—Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson—resigned and went on to found October magazine.

“It is vulgar,” Elkin writes, “loud and slick and tacky. That tan, the oiled skin, the sunglasses! It has all the hue and subtlety of a car-wash calendar.” But she offers an incisive reading of the image, suggesting the “pop queer erotics” at work in it, and the way Benglis looks like “some dude heartthrob in a teen magazine. It is clearly an attempt to wrong-foot people’s expectations about the ‘female’ body, what it should look like, what attributes it should have.” What interests her most, it seems, is that the work “turns machismo into a myth, as well as feminine passivity.”

Elkin borrows the phrase “art monster” from Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel, “Dept. of Speculation,” whose narrator, a writer and the mother of a young child, uses it to describe a male artist’s traditional privilege of remaining laser-focussed on his work, while his dishes are washed and children raised by feminine hands often lost to history. “Art monsters only concern themselves with art,” Offill writes, “never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

“Art Monsters” introduces us to the flesh-and-blood woman who inspired the Victorian ideal of saintly domesticity. Emily Augusta Patmore was married to the poet and literary critic Coventry Patmore and bore him six children before dying of tuberculosis at thirty-eight. Mrs. Patmore, who became something of a pre-Raphaelite muse, was also an author, but if she is remembered at all today it is because of a wildly popular poem, “The Angel in the House,” which her husband wrote in her honor. Virginia Woolf, more famously, used that phrase to represent everything that she had to kill off—specifically, the internalized, middle-class feminine ideals of placidity and servitude—in order to give birth to herself as a writer.

Monstrosity, meanwhile, is having a moment, especially in the way we think about artistic legacies. Claire Dederer’s “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma” (2023) poses the question of how to approach the work of great artists who, as people, have forfeited our admiration, by examining a rogue’s gallery of mostly male creators.

What happens when the art monster is a woman? “You shall know the art monster by her dirty house, empty of children,” Elkin writes. Maternity doesn’t generally suit these aberrant creatures. “Mothers who became art monsters,” she tells us, “did it by leaving or harming their offspring, through abandonment or suicide or abuse.” She marshals the evidence with a list of names: “Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton.”

Recent films and novels have also featured female characters who assume equal rights to selfishness and artistic self-obsession. In the director Todd Field’s “Tár,” from 2022, a celebrated orchestra conductor (played by Cate Blanchett), having broken through one of classical music’s most resistant glass ceilings, stands accused of abusing her power over a young disciple. And Catherine Lacey’s 2023 experimental novel, “Biography of X,” offers readers a fictional portrait of a female art monster, a charismatic artist who is faithless to all but her own creative energy and freedom.

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