A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women
WHAT artists say about their own work is compelling because it tells us something about what they believe they are doing. Their words speak to an orientation or an idea, but those orientations and ideas are never complete. Artists (of all kinds) are only partly aware of what they do. Much of what happens in making art is unconscious. But in these comments, Picasso, Beckmann, and de Kooning all connect their art to feeling—to love in the first two cases and to irritation in the third—and for each artist, women have somehow been implicated in the process. For Picasso, loving a woman is a metaphor for painting. His “we” is clearly masculine. Beckmann is giving advice to an imaginary “woman painter,” and de Kooning is trying to explain how his “women” were created by evoking the woman in himself, albeit in a defensive and worried way. All three claim that there is a fundamental feeling relation between their inner states and the reality of the canvas, and in one way or another, an idea of womanhood haunts their creativity.
What am I seeing? In this exhibition, Women, which includes only paintings of women by the three artists, I am seeing images of one woman after another by artists who must be called Modernists and whose depictions of the human figure were no longer constrained by classical notions of resemblance and naturalism. For all three painters, “woman” seems to embrace
much more than the definition in Webster’s: “an adult human female.” In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argued that one is not born a woman but becomes a woman. It is certainly true that meanings of the word accumulate and change even over the course of a single lifetime. Since the 1950s, a distinction between sex and gender has emerged. The former is a marker of female and male biological bodies and the latter socially constructed ideas of femininity and masculinity that vary with time and culture, but even this division has become theoretically perplexing.
We have no recourse to living bodies in art. I am looking into fictive spaces. Hearts are not pumping. Blood is not running. The markers of the human female in biology—breasts and genitalia that I see in these images (when I see them)—are representations. Pregnancy and birth do not figure explicitly in these pictures, but sometimes what is not there is powerful nevertheless. I am looking at inhabitants of the world of the imaginary, of play, and of fantasy made by painters who are now dead, but who were all making art in the twentieth century. Only the signs of the artist’s bodily gestures remain: the traces left by an arm that once moved violently or cautiously in space, a head and torso that leaned forward, then back, feet planted beside each other or at an angle, and eyes that took in what was there and what was not yet there on the canvas, and the feelings and thoughts that guided the brush, that revised, altered, and established the rhythms of motion, which I feel in my own body as I look at the pictures. The visual is also tactile and motoric.
I do not see myself as I look at a painting. I see the imaginary person in the canvas. I haven’t disappeared from myself. I am aware of my feelings—my awe, irritation, distress, and admiration—but for the time being my perception is filled up by the painted person. She is of me while I look and, later, she is of me when I remember her. In memory, she may not be exactly as she is when I stand directly in front of the painting but rather some version of her that I carry in my mind. While I am perceiving her, I establish a relation to this imaginary woman, to Picasso’s Weeping Woman, to Beckmann’s masked Columbine, to de Kooning’s goofy monster, Woman II. I animate them, as do you. Without a viewer, a reader, a listener, art is
dead. Something happens between me and it, an “it” that carries in itself another person’s willed act, a thing suffused with another person’s subjectivity, and in it I may feel pain, humor, sexual desire, discomfort. And that is why I don’t treat artworks as I would treat a chair, but I don’t treat them as a real person either.
A work of art has no sex.
The sex of the artist does not determine a work’s gender, which may be one or another, or multiple versions thereof.
Who are the female figments of these artists, and how do I perceive them?
My perception of the three canvases is not exclusively visual or even purely sensory. Emotion is always part of perception, not distinct from it.
Emotion and art have had a long and uneasy relation ever since Plato banned poets from his republic. Philosophers and scientists are still arguing over what emotion or affects are and how they work, but a stubborn sense of emotion as dangerous, as something that must be controlled, put down, and subjugated to reason has remained a part of Western culture. Most art historians are similarly queasy about emotion and instead write about form, color, influences, or historical context. Feeling, however, is not only unavoidable; it is crucial to understanding a work of art. Indeed, an artwork becomes senseless without it. In a letter to a friend, Henry James wrote, “In the arts feeling is always meaning.”4
In his book on his fellow art historian Aby Warburg, E. H. Gombrich quotes Warburg: “Moreover, I have acquired an honest disgust of the aestheticizing of art history. The formal approach to the image devoid of understanding of its biological necessity as a product between religion and art . . . appeared to me to lead merely to barren word mongering.”5
The German word Einfühlung was first introduced by Robert Vischer in 1873 as an aesthetic term, a way of feeling oneself into a work of art, a word that through various historical convolutions would become “empathy” in English. Contemporary neurobiological research on emotion is attempting to parse the complex affective processes at work in visual perception. As Mariann Weierich and Lisa Feldman Barrett write in “Affect as a Source of Visual Attention,” “People don’t come
to know the world exclusively through their senses; rather, their affective states influence the processing of sensory stimulation from the very moment an object is encountered.”6
A vital aspect of any object’s meaning resides in the feelings it evokes of pleasure, distress, admiration, confusion. For example, depending on its emotional importance or salience, a viewer may perceive an object as closer or more distant. And this psychobiological feeling is a creature of the past, of expectation, of having learned to read the world. In this neurobiological model what is learned—feelings in relation to people and objects and the language we use to express them—become body, are of bodies. The mental does not hover over the physical as a Cartesian ghost.
She Is Sobbing
I look at Picasso’s Weeping Woman, and before I have time to analyze what I am seeing, to speak of color or form or gesture or style, I have registered the face, hand, and part of a torso on the canvas and have an immediate emotional response to the image. The picture upsets me. I feel a tension in the corners of my own mouth. I want to continue looking, but I am also repelled by this figure. Although I am looking at a person crying, I find the depiction cruel. What is happening?
The face is the locus of identity—the place on the body to which we give our attention. We do not recognize people by their hands and feet, even those intimate to us. Infants only hours old can imitate the facial expressions of adults, although they do not know what or whom they are looking at and will not be able to recognize their own images in the mirror for many months to come. Babies seem to have a visual-motor-sensory awareness of the other person’s face, what some researchers have called a “like-me” response that results in imitation, also referred to as “primary intersubjectivity.” A friend of mine, the philosopher Maria Brincker, who is working on theories of mirroring, was musing aloud to her six-year-old daughter, Oona, about infant imitation.
“A tiny child can imitate my expressions,” she said. “Isn’t that hard to understand?”
“No, Mom,” said Oona. “That’s easy. The baby has your face.”
To some degree at least, while we are looking at someone in life, in a photograph, or in a painting, we have her face. The face we perceive supplants our own. Maurice Merleau-Ponty understood this as human intercorporeality, which is not gained through self-conscious analogy but is immediately present in our perception.7
Exactly when gender recognition comes about in development is not clear, although research seems to show an ability in infants only six months old to distinguish between male and female faces and voices.8
Of course, there are also many nonessential cues—length of hair, dress, makeup, etc. But my apprehension and reading of Picasso’s canvas participates in a dyadic reality, my I and the you of the canvas. The figure before me is not naturalistic. How do I even know it’s a woman? I read her hair, her eyelashes, the scallops of her handkerchief, the rounded line of one visible breast as feminine. The weeping woman is only paint, and yet the corners of my mouth move as a motor-sensory echo of the face before me.
The weeping woman is an image of wholly externalized grief. Compare this canvas to the neoclassical painting from 1923 of Picasso’s first wife, Olga Khokhlova, which conveys the stillness of a statue, a serene object that nevertheless seems to harbor a hidden interiority and the suggestion of thoughtfulness, or to Nude Standing by the Sea (1929), in which recognition of this comical thing as person relies on the suggestion of legs, arms, and buttocks. Two absurd cones—allusions to breasts—inscribe its femininity, as does its posture—odalisque-like, an Ingres nude turned grotesque. No measuring of limbs necessary. In the former, the illusion of realism allows me to project an inner life onto the representation, what Warburg called “mimetic intensification as subjective action.”9
In the latter, no such projection is possible. The “like-me” exchange is fundamentally disturbed. This person-thing is a not-I.
My feeling for the weeping woman is more complex, somewhere between subjective engagement and objectifying distance. The perspective of the woman’s face is wrenched. I see a nose and agonized mouth in profile, but with both eyes and both nostrils also in view, which creates the paradox
of a paralyzed shudder—the heaving motion of sobs as a head moves back and forth. The tears are mapped as two black lines with small bulbous circles beneath. The violet, blues, and somber browns and blacks are the culturally coded colors of sorrow in the West. We sing the blues and wear black for mourning. And the handkerchief she holds to her face evokes a waterfall. The black lines of its folds remind me of more tears, a torrent of tears. But she is also an alien. The visible hand she holds out, with its thumb and two fingers, has nails that resemble both knives and talons. There is a dangerous quality to this grief, as well as something faintly ridiculous. Notice: her ear is on backward.
Art history always tells a story. The question is: How to tell the story? And how does telling the story affect my looking at and reading of the painting?
The Story of the Girls
I know that I am looking at a picture of Dora Maar, the artist and intellectual, whose haunting photographs are among my favorite Surrealist images. Her extraordinary photo Père Ubu, which was included in the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, embodies for me the very idea of the gentle monster. I know, too, that she had an affair with Picasso and that the standard Picasso narrative now includes the women with whom he was sexually involved, often called his “muses,” part of the canon of Picasso’s periods and styles. Over and over, he depicted an artist before his easel, brush in hand, with a naked woman as model. Picasso’s link between sexual desire and art is obsessively presented in the work itself.
In the Picasso literature, which is vast, these women are almost always referred to by their first names: Fernande, Olga, Marie-Thérèse, Dora, etc. The art historians and biographers have appropriated the artist’s intimacy with them, but the painter is rarely, if ever, Pablo, unless the reference is to him as a child—a small but telling sign of the condescension inherent in this art historical framing of a life’s work. John Richardson is exemplary. In his three-volume biography of Picasso, the women in the artist’s life all go by first names. And Gertrude Stein, the great American writer and friend, but
not lover, of Picasso, is repeatedly called “Gertrude.”10
Intimate male friends (famous or obscure) always merit surnames. I am fascinated that no one I have read seems to have noticed that the literature on Picasso continually turns grown-up women into girls.
The War Story
Picasso painted Maar as a weeper several times in 1937, the year of the April bombing of the Basque region Guernica in Spain, an event that prompted Picasso’s harrowing painting by the same name. The canvases of the weeping women are therefore often read as part of an outraged response to the Spanish Civil War. She also did the series of photographs documenting the progress of the work.
The Cruel Love Story
According to Françoise Gilot, Picasso described Maar’s image as an inner vision. “For me she is the weeping woman. For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, not through pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one.”11
During one of Maar’s early encounters with Picasso, he watched her play the knife game at a café, repeatedly stabbing the spaces between her splayed fingers. Inevitably she missed, cut herself, and bled. As the story goes, Picasso asked for the gloves she had removed and displayed them in a vitrine in his apartment. In 1936, he drew Maar as a beautiful harpy, her head on a bird’s body. Picasso’s biographers have cast their subject’s misogyny and sadism in various lights, but none of them doubts that his fear, cruelty, and ambivalence found their way onto his canvases. Perhaps this was most succinctly stated by Angela Carter: “Picasso liked cutting up women.”12
The tearful woman with her weapon-like fingernails clearly has multiple dream-like associations: war, grief, sadistic pleasure. They are all there in the weeping woman.
Ideas become part of our perceptions, but we are not always conscious of them.
The story of art is continually being revised by art movements, by money and collectors, by “definitive” museum shows, by new concerns, discoveries, and ideologies that alter the telling of the past. Every story yokes together disparate elements in time, and every story, by its very nature, leaps over a lot.
The Grand Narrative of Modernism and Its Kinks
The name “Picasso” is instantly recognizable to many people all over the world as a sign of modern art. “Picasso” has come to signify a heroic myth of greatness—an agonistic narrative of influences and stylistic revolutions—that coincides with a sequence of women and their consequent ouster from favor: Picasso as Henry VIII. Willem de Kooning called Picasso “the man to beat,” as if art were a fistfight, a fitting metaphor in the New York world of Abstract Expressionism, in which a simmering nervousness that painting itself might be a pursuit for “sissies” resulted in a kind of broad parody of the American cowboy and tough-guy hero, perfectly embodied in the media image of a swaggering, brawling Jackson Pollock. But women, too, played the game. Joan Mitchell was revolted by what she regarded as “lady” art, but at the time, her work, always respected, was a side story to the larger drama. Not until after her death would her art find the recognition it deserved. Elaine de Kooning painted sexualized images of men in the 1950s in reaction to the prevailing mood. She said, “I wanted to paint men as sex objects,”13
but she too was and remains marginalized. Louise Bourgeois was making astounding work, but until she was seventy, it, too, did not belong to history. The reiterated art historical narrative goes like this: When Pollock died in a car crash, it left de Kooning the undisputed “king” of modern art in the United States, the biggest boy of all the big boys. But even de Kooning would suffer critical barbs for not giving up the figure and conforming to the dictates of a new canon that allowed no nods to representation.
Max Beckmann does not fit well into this grand narrative. He is an open
question, a hole in the story. Although, like Picasso and de Kooning, he was prodigiously gifted very young, was recognized and became famous, he never fit neatly into the macho narrative of the modern assault on tradition that continually led to new forms. He could not be pressed into an ism. Before the First World War, in his 1912 “Thoughts on Timely and Untimely Art,” he fought against Fauvism, Cubism, and Expressionism as “feeble and overly aesthetic.”14
He derided the new movements in art as decorative and feminine and opposed them to the masculinity and depth of Germanic art. Beckmann criticized “Gauguin wallpapers, Matisse fabrics,” and “Picasso chessboards,”15
linking the artists to home decorating, to domestic rather than public space. For Beckmann, flatness and prettiness, Picasso’s art included, were girly, but his telling of the tale would not win the day.
In a 1931 essay for an exhibition of German painting and sculpture that included Beckmann, Alfred H. Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, described German art as “very different” from French and American art:
Most German artists are romantic, they seem to be less interested in form and style as ends in themselves and more in feeling, in emotional values and even in moral, religious, social and philosophical considerations. German art is not pure art . . . they frequently confuse art with life.16
This passage is nothing if not peculiar. Barr’s discomfort is palpable. As Karen Lang points out, for Barr the emotional, religious, social, and philosophical are “impurities.”17
What does this mean? In 1931, there has to have been political anxiety at work. In Barr’s famous catalogue cover for the 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at MoMA (the year before the Nazis’ Degenerate Art exhibition in Berlin with Beckmann in it), German artists have vanished, and modern art is depicted as a cross-functional flowchart, a diagram first used by industrial engineers in the 1920s. Complete with arrows and “swim lanes” and labeled with various “isms,” it presented modern art to the public as a bizarre algorithm of cause and effect, a reductive formula, as if to say, Look! It’s scientific.
The hierarchy is old. Barr’s use of the words “style” and “purity,” and his abstract flowchart, stand in for the intellect, reason, and cleanliness, “romantic” and “emotion” for the body and figure and corporeal mess, where the boundaries between inside and outside may begin to blur. Intellect codes as male; body as female (the ultimate expulsion from a body happens in birth, after all). Manly culture and science are opposed to chaotic womanly nature. But for Beckmann the emphasis on style and form over meaning, over raw emotion, was precisely the force that feminized and emasculated art, a fey reliance on surfaces, which he regarded as female frippery. Depending on one’s cultural point of view, what was coded as masculine and feminine changed. It all depended on how you articulated your binary opposition woman/man and how you told the story. What on earth does Barr mean by saying that Germans confused art and life? Surely, he was not saying that Germans thought artworks were living bodies. How could art come from anything but life? The dead do not make it. Form cannot be separated from meaning in painting, and meaning cannot be extricated from the viewer’s feelings as he or she looks at a work of art.
Beckmann’s Carnival Mask, Green, Violet, and Pink (Columbine) was painted during the last year of his life, 1950, in the United States. Like many German artists and intellectuals, he became an exile. What am I seeing? I feel a powerful presence, imperious, forbidding, and masked. But I could bathe in the colors—luminous pinks and purples against the black. I am not struck by a single emotion but have mingled feelings—attraction, a touch of awe, and something of the excitement I feel the moment the curtain opens when I go to the theater. I am drawn to the face as usual to try to read it, but I cannot find one emotion there as in the Picasso. She seems to be looking at me, cool, disdainful perhaps, or maybe merely indifferent. Her right hand holds a cigarette, her left, a carnival hat. Her open thighs with their black stockings are oversized, as if foregrounded, which creates the sensation that she looms above me. I have a child’s point of view. On the stool in front of her are five cards with oblique images on them. The defining black line of one rectangle crosses the black paint that defines her thigh.
It is easy to read this canvas as an archetype of feminine mystery and sexuality, as yet another edition of woman as other, and there is something to this, of course. This late picture does not champion “depth.” Beckmann’s pictures became shallower after the First World War, and he was certainly influenced by the very movements he criticized, by Picasso, in particular, but I am interested in my unease and puzzlement as a spectator. The themes of masquerade, carnival, commedia dell’arte, the circus, masks, and masking return in Beckmann. Carnival is the world upside down, the topsy-turvy realm of inversions and reversals, in which the mask serves as not only disguise but revelation. Political power and authority are turned into pathetic jokes; sexual desire runs rampant. The bourgeois Beckmann was the author of the fiercely ironic treatise “The Social Stance of the Artist by the Black Tightrope Walker” (1927). “The budding genius,” he wrote, “must learn above all else to respect money and power.”18
As a medic in the First World War, Beckmann saw the world upside down or inside out. In a 1915 letter, he wrote of a wounded soldier, “Horrible, the way you could suddenly look right through his face, somewhere near the left eye, as if it were a broken porcelain pitcher.”19
The inversions are in the art. So many of his paintings can literally be turned upside down without losing their form, as if they are intended to be hung up upside down and sideways. A good example is The Journey on a Fish, with its male and female masks, a woman’s for the man, a man’s for the woman. Gender interplay. Switching roles.
Why Letters to a Woman Painter?
She is nobody real. Jay A. Clarke notes that Beckmann uses his aesthetic statement to insult women painters as easily distracted, shallow creatures who gaze at their own nail polish.20
This is true. In Beckmann’s writing about art, femininity signifies superficial. And yet, why give advice to a woman painter? He was hardly a feminist. Man and woman, Adam and Eve are poles, often pitted in a struggle in his paintings. But Beckmann’s exhortations in the letters are both serious and passionate. His imaginary woman painter seems like nothing so much as his stubborn artistic self, another high-wire walker who must depend on “balance,” resisting both
the “thoughtless imitation of nature” and “sterile abstraction.”21
She is Beckmann’s mask: woman’s for man’s. A carnivalesque reversal: upside down, inside out, top to bottom, as M. M. Bakhtin would argue in his book on Rabelais. Look at Columbine. And then look at the many self-portraits of Beckmann: cigarette in hand, staring enigmatically out at the viewer. The cigarette switches hands—sometimes left, sometimes right. Beckmann was right-handed, but he also depicted himself mirrored, another reversal of the self.
I think the magisterial Columbine has Beckmann’s face or, rather, the face of that inner self that merges with the visible world and is seen inside out. Maybe he was painting the woman in himself. Ironically, she is far more confident and impenetrable than Beckmann’s last true self-portrait of the same year, in which he is at once poignant and clownish and, for the first time, is seen sucking on his cigarette rather than using it as an elegant prop.
De Kooning’s Women created a stir at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953. Clement Greenberg called them “savage dissections.” Another critic saw them as “a savage sado-masochistic drama of painting as a kind of intercourse.”22
“Savage” is the operative word, it seems. The canvases still upset people. In his introductory essay to the 2011 de Kooning retrospective at MoMA, John Elderfield tells us that the question of misogyny in the Woman paintings “depended and still depends on how the subject and the pictorial language are understood to relate to each other.” In this explication there is no unified perception of the canvas but two rival parts of it that will answer the problem of woman hating. This is rather like Barr’s distinction of style and form versus emotion and “life.” Elderfield goes on to speak of “muscled, masculine strokes—angry strokes that reflect an inner turmoil” and claims that these manly swipes at the canvas are responsible for “the charge of misogyny—and have also invited the consideration of whether this charge is mistaken.”23
(Elderfield seems to beg the question by using the adjective “masculine,” without irony, as a synonym for “power.”) In all events, Elderfield is wrong. The shock in the viewer does not come from brawny paint strokes in relation to the figure but from her or his immediate perception
of someone with a face—a variously grinning, snarling, monstrous woman on a canvas made from strokes that create an illusion of hectic motion. And she looks crazy.
What am I seeing? The women are big, scary, and loony. Most of them are smiling. Woman II’s grinning mouth is slashed from the rest of her face. She has huge eyes (like a cartoon character’s), enormous breasts, and meaty arms, and her thighs are parted, open like Beckmann’s Columbine. Her hands resemble claws, talons, knives, reminiscent of Picasso’s weeping woman. One hand is in the vicinity of what should be her sex. No genitalia visible. Is she masturbating? The boundaries of her body are ill defined, figure and ground mix. She merges into the environment. The colors are complex. Reds, pinks, and oranges predominate on and near the body. Her throat is slashed by red, pink, and white. She’s a wild woman who won’t keep still. After I have looked at her for a while, I am less afraid. She becomes more comic. She looks good sideways, if not upside down. She is a sexed-up, charged-up, big-bodied carnival woman. Woman III has a penis, a gray-black pointed erection right at her crotch. No one I have read has commented on this, but it’s pretty obvious. In a pastel and charcoal from 1954, Two Women, the phalluses are again present—one a huge codpiece like those from an Aristophanes comedy. A couple of hermaphrodites on parade? The irritating woman in de Kooning? The man in the woman? An image of heterosexual coupling? A touch of the homoeroticism that de Kooning defended himself against? The womanly man? Mixing and mingling genders? All of the above?
These weird beings remind me of my presleep visions and of my vivid dreams, when one grotesque face and body blends into another, when one sex becomes another in the brilliant carnival of altered consciousness.
The women from this series are far fiercer than those that came before or after. Look at the goony grinning person of The Visit with her legs open. You can almost hear her giggling, but she does not inspire fear, awe, or shock. Woman II is potent, fertile, and potentially violent.
Julia Kristeva wrote, “One of the most accurate representations of creation, that is, of artistic practice, is the series of paintings by de Kooning entitled Women: savage, explosive, funny and inaccessible creatures in spite of the fact that they have been massacred by the artist. But what if they had been created by a woman? Obviously she would have had to deal with her own mother, and therefore with herself, which is a lot less funny.”24
Kristeva acknowledges the power of de Kooning’s works and wonders what would have happened if a woman had painted them. A woman, she claims, would have to identify with the woman as her mother and as herself. Does this identification become a kind of mourning that prevents comedy? Must we say, She is I or she is not I? Either/or? The mother is powerful and, in her power, frightening for all infants—male or female. Every child must separate from its mother. But boys can use their difference to pull away from that dependence in a way girls often can’t. For Kristeva, sexual identification complicates de Kooning’s images.
In their biography of de Kooning, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan describe the artist’s last meeting with his mother in Amsterdam, not long before she died. He described his mother as “a trembling little old bird.” And then, after he had left her, he said, “That’s the person I feared most in the world.”25
Cornelia Lassooy beat her son when he was a child.
We were all inside our mothers’ bodies once. We were all infants once, and then our mothers were huge. We suckled milk from their breasts. We don’t remember any of it, but our motor-sensory, emotional-perceptual learning begins long before our conscious memories. It begins even before birth, and we are shaped by it, and then by the myriad symbolic associations that come with language and culture and a gendered life that cuts the world in half and inscribes a border between us, as if we were more different than the same.
I don’t know how to tell a single story about these fantasy women, these loved and hated and irritating and frightening figments on canvas. I can
only make a fragmented argument. But then, every story and every argument is partial. So much is always missing. I know that as an artist, I resist every suffocating categorical box that divides content and form, emotion and reason, body and mind, woman and man, as well as every narrative that turns art into a history of epic masculine rivalries. We are all creatures of these deep chasms and choking myths, and Picasso’s, Beckmann’s, and de Kooning’s imaginary beings partake of them as well. But with paintings, when you look hard and keep looking, every once in a while you may begin to suffer a feeling of vertigo, and that is a sign that the world may be turning upside down.