Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gender roles, Sex, and Power

The Middle Ages was a time when women were given an insignificant amount of power in society. The sector of women who had some influence and position in society were those who were a part of the monasteries. Although the nuns were considered to be part of the upper class, they were suppressed by male dominance. It should be noted that, "within the convent women had access to learning even though they were prohibited from teaching by St. Paul's caution that a woman must be a learner, listening quietly, and with due submission. I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must a woman domineer over a man; she should be quiet"(Chadwick 45). This was the prevailing attitude during the Middle Ages and was consequentially reflected in the artwork as well. 

The embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestry depicted military soldiers who served as actors throughout this piece of work. It has been said that the Bayeux Tapestry was the "most important monument of secular art of the middle ages" (Chadwick 48). At this point in time, embroidery was exclusively a female occupation. This particular scene of Aelfgya illustrates how under Feudalism, "the works structure and language displace women from power" (Chadwick 48). This is an accurate depiction of how women were situated outside any form of political power, and as nuns they were forced to follow the strict regulations of the clerical celibacy. There is also some amount of aggression present because the male soldier is physically restraining the woman and she is confined to her space.  Here is a link that explains in greater detail how the Feudal system was depicted in art. 

Alefgyva and the Cleric-Bayeux Tapestry 1085

Moving on to the Renaissance period, the focus shifted more towards "what a women could do" (Chadwick 87). One of the famous female artistes from this time period, Artemisia Gentileschi, had an unquestionable historical significance. In the painting of Susanna and the Elders, the woman in the painting has agency. She is acting, as opposed to merely appearing. More specifically the women is not being passive and available, instead she is resisting the actions of the elders. There is a drastic change here because now the women in art are avoiding the male gaze, an are not succumbing to male dominance. Susanna is not looking at the spectator/owner, instead she has a disturbed expression on her face and is avoiding any sort of interaction with the elders. While observing the elders, it is also clear that they have a role in this painting. From their expression it is clear that they are aware of their wrong-doings and they are conveying a message to the audience to remain silent.

Susanna and the Elders: Artemisia Gentileschi 1610

18th century artwork was focused on opposing male dominance. One of many famous painters
Angelica Kauffman was the "first women painter to "challenge the masculine monopoly" (Chadwick 158). Although she was persistent in her beliefs, there were several challenges that women were faced with during this time period. For example, "women were assigned to the domestic sphere and labeled as being inclined toward irrationality"(Chadwick 160). There were always attacks being made of the stature of women and women artists were in a disadvantage when it came to showcasing their artwork. However Kauffman's artwork of Zeuxis Selecting Models for His Picture of Helen of Troy was painted from neoclassical influence. Her artwork "suggests both an early awareness of what were then the most popular antique themes among english painters and a keen attentiveness to prevailing societal constructions of women and femininity" (Chadwick 154).Kauffman was ambitious to produce artwork that illustrated historical events on a large scale, and was strongly influenced by painters that surrender her

Zeuxis Selecting Models for his Picture of Helen of Troy: Angelica Kauffman 1764

One of the well known artists from the 19th century, Rosa Bonheur was an admired animal painter. Her work appealed to the middle class, and the significance of her work related to the constraints and rights of women. One of her works The Horse Fair, in 1855, was her main source of fame and recognition. Although this portrait is of horses, it implies a debate about rights that appealed mainly to women. This image also identifies the aspect of control, and dominance which are factors that women endured on a daily basis. It is important to realize that the "same images which expose helplessness of animals were used to reinforce the subordinate and powerless position of women in relation to the institutions of male power and privilege (Chadwick 195). This painting had a significant impact on women and their position in society. This particular piece of art symbolized the "unconventional woman." 

The Horse Fair: Rose Bonheur 1855

Overall, women were faced with multiple challenges over the centuries. Although they were given some amount of freedom, they were still contained by the males in society. Their plight is accurately depicted in their works of art as women are shown in various roles. From the middle ages through the 19th century women roles change from being strictly religious to having some freedom of expression. This societal change was also depicted in their artwork. Women artists began painting women without men, or of women doing something besides domestic work. Women began to express themselves through art and were causing awareness to society that they should be considered just as talented and just as able to be successful with their work. 

Works Cited
Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2002. Print.

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