As art historian Catherine McCormack points out in Women in the Picture: What Culture Does With Female Bodies, galleries and museums are full of paintings and statues of women in various guises and genres. Indeed, there are so many that we rarely take time to consider the implications of how they are depicted. We see a Madonna, and we think, "That's a Madonna." Few question how the Madonna is depicted, or even why the Madonna is depicted.
McCormack wants us to ask these questions, but she also wants us to consider by whom and for whom an artwork was created. She examines four archetypes of women in Western European art—Venus, the Madonna, the damsel in distress and the monstrous woman—to examine their impact on not only how we look at art but also how we view women in general.
Because so much of this art was created by male artists for male clients, McCormack argues, we have become accustomed to viewing these images through male eyes. As a result, when we see Titian's "Rape of Europa," we see a technically brilliant, erotically charged depiction of a myth, not the terror and brutality of the rape that is about to take place. When we see a Madonna, we see an idealized vision of motherhood, not how that mother is trapped by her hearth and home. Sphinxes, witches and gorgons, McCormack believes, are not existential threats to male heroes but the projection of misogynistic fears of powerful women.
McCormack's purpose is twofold. First, rather than ditching Western European art, she wants us to engage with it critically, deliberately and honestly so that we can begin to recognize the impact of the male artist's perspective and reinterpret his art with fresh eyes. Second, she wants to encourage women artists to take these subjects and represent them in ways that expose their realities to future generations. As a result, Women in the Picture is a thought-provoking call to action for artists and viewers alike.
Catherine McCormack looks closely at four archetypes of women in art to examine not only how we look at art but also how we view women in general.
Art can redeem suffering, but it can also reveal brutalities that degrade the human spirit. Art can capture the hopelessness of individuals hemmed in by fences not of their own making, even as it portrays the hopefulness of scaling those barriers and strolling in the expansive paths beyond. In Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, Winfred Rembert recounts to co-author Erin I. Kelly his own gripping, often harrowing stories of growing up in Cuthbert, Georgia, and of turning to painting to represent the atrocities and celebrations of his life.
Rembert opens his memoir by recalling the journey to find his birth mother, who gave him away as a baby. He stole away from Cuthbert and walked up the railroad tracks 40 miles to Leslie, Georgia, where he found his mother but discovered she was none too happy to see him. Back in Cuthbert, Rembert celebrates the bustling juke joints and stores on Hamilton Avenue, depicting flourishing scenes of Black men and women going about their daily lives.
Life turned bleak when Rembert was arrested while fleeing a civil rights demonstration in 1965. He was brutalized and nearly lynched by law enforcement officers and a gang of white men. Eventually Rembert was sent to a chain gang, which he describes as being “like slavery. You have to meet all those demands and keep a sense of yourself as well.” In a stroke of good fortune, Rembert met a young woman named Patsy, whom he eventually married when he was released from prison.
While imprisoned, Rembert developed his artistic skills, and he continued to carve and paint on leather until his death in 2021. His art, which is reproduced throughout the book, depicts the people of Cuthbert, his family and his time on the chain gang. “With my paintings I tried to make a bad situation look good,” Rembert writes. “You can’t make the chain gang look good in any way besides by painting it in art.”
Chasing Me to My Grave is a testament to the ways one man used his art to educate, delight and depict the trauma that arises out of memory.
Winfred Rembert recounts gripping, often harrowing stories of growing up in Georgia, surviving a lynching and discovering art while imprisoned in a chain gang.
“I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies,” writes Lilly Dancyger. “Both of these things are true.” Her father, Joe Schactman, was not a famous artist, but he was prolific and left deep impressions on those who knew him. His sudden death when Dancyger was 12 threw her into a tailspin but also cemented Schactman as an artistic idol in her mind.
In her memoir, Negative Space, Dancyger carries us back to New York City’s gritty East Village in the 1980s as she investigates Schactman’s tumultuous life. She pages through her father’s old notebooks that she saved after his death. She studies his often strange artwork (depicted throughout the book) made from found objects and roadkill. And she interviews Schactman’s friends, colleagues and even her own mother to learn how and why he descended into heroin addiction.
Dancyger’s struggle to escape the need to prove herself to everyone, including her dead father, is moving. Mourning is not linear, and she skillfully shows how grief mutates during different stages of life. The phantasm of closure stalks all of us who have experienced loss, as both Dancyger’s writing and Schactman’s artwork make clear.
The strongest portions of Negative Space explore Dancyger’s experience as the child of addicts. She largely parented herself, and when she builds a more stable adulthood than the one modeled by her parents, it’s a hard-won victory. Other children of addicts who experienced difficult transitions into adulthood will find much to relate to here.
To this end, Dancyger’s bravery in the face of negative revelations about her dad is admirable. She wants the whole truth, no matter how painful it is to reopen these wounds. Dancyger knew little about Schactman’s addiction when she was young, and she knew nothing about his sometimes abusive relationships with women. But in Negative Space, Dancyger allows her father to be an imperfect and much loved person—her idol still, but a troubled and complicated one.
Lilly Dancyger sets out to uncover the whole truth about her late father’s art, relationships and addiction, no matter how painful.
Four fresh art and design books inspire, enlighten and cultivate creativity. Perfect for accomplished artists, occasional dabblers or anyone in search of a new hobby, these terrific titles provide instant inspiration.
The 99% Invisible City
Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt are the dynamic duo behind the architecture and design podcast “99% Invisible,” and their intriguing book, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, draws upon the podcast’s concepts by picking out smartly conceived, frequently overlooked components of the urban landscape and explaining how they contribute to a thriving civic environment.
From traffic lights, public signage and historical plaques to manhole covers and city monuments, the book examines design elements big and small, revealing the ways in which they bring clarity to the chaos of modern life. The volume is organized into brief, easy-to-process sections, and it touches down in boroughs around the globe. Filled with nifty line illustrations in bold black and white, this eye-opening book will give readers a fresh appreciation for the beauty and functionality that are inherent—but not immediately apparent—in the urban world.
Open Studio: Do-It-Yourself Art Projects by Contemporary Artists gives readers the chance to craft along with major makers. The authors, curator Sharon Coplan Hurowitz and journalist-filmmaker Amanda Benchley, recruited a group of A-list participants for the volume (Marina Abramovic, William Wegman, Maya Lin—the list goes on), which is packed with brilliant photography, including candid shots of the artists at work.
The book’s 17 wide-ranging projects offer something for everyone. Sculptor Rachel Feinstein’s “Rococo Hut” is a small-scale architectural wonder that you can recreate with cutouts, while multimedia artist Wangechi Mutu’s “Earth Androids,” composed of paper pulp, soil, ink and paint, are simply out of this world. Painter Will Cotton’s foil-paper “The Royal Crown of Candyland” will bring out the kid in any crafter. The step-by-step instructions and how-to photos that accompany each project make staying on track a snap. Open Studio shows that getting creative is easy—especially when you can take cues from world-class artists.
Life in the Studio
Stimulation, motivation and encouragement—that’s what artistic minds will find in Life in the Studio: Inspiration and Lessons on Creativity, Frances Palmer’s guide to starting—and maintaining—a creative practice. In this beautifully photographed book, Palmer, a celebrated ceramics artist, art historian and successful businesswoman, delivers big-picture advice without neglecting the small details. She shares tips on how to establish a creative routine, identify sources of inspiration and stay engaged. She also provides guidance on hands-on matters such as setting up a studio, with an overview of must-have tools and more.
Throughout the volume, Palmer reflects on how her skills and methods have evolved over her 30-year career. Through pottery projects, flower-arranging tutorials and recipes, she proves that creativity can manifest itself in unexpected ways. Both the seasoned artist and the beginner will be enriched by this stunning guide.
Abigail Crompton’s Truth Bomb: Inspiration From the Mouths and Minds of Women Artists is as provocative as the title suggests. With a design that combines audacious colors and not-to-be-ignored graphics, the volume spotlights 22 prominent female artists—women from diverse backgrounds working in a wide range of media, including photography, video, painting and performance art.
Crompton, an artist and design-studio entrepreneur, assembled a stellar lineup for the book: Judy Chicago, Mickalene Thomas, Miranda July, Yayoi Kusama and the Guerrilla Girls are among the featured makers. She provides profiles of each, delving into their creative processes and techniques. Along the way, these extraordinary women share bits of hard-won wisdom, words of encouragement and practical advice. The book is also filled with beautifully reproduced examples of their work. Truth Bomb is an invaluable resource for anyone with creative inclinations. From start to finish, it’s a spirited homage to the artistic life.
Four fresh art and design books inspire, enlighten and cultivate creativity.
In The Woman Who Stole Vermeer: The True Story of Rose Dugdale and the Russborough House Art Heist, Anthony M. Amore expertly combines extraordinary history with gripping true crime. Amore, author of The Art of the Con and director of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, is an authority on art crimes and homeland security. His new book recounts the life of heiress Rose Dugdale, one of few women in the world to pull off a great art heist. The book starts with her privileged beginnings in England and college years at Oxford studying philosophy and economics, and progresses through her radical transformation into an incredible art thief.
Rich in tantalizing details, The Woman Who Stole Vermeer is filled with personal anecdotes from those who knew Dugdale the best— old college friends, colleagues and political compatriots who all remember her as wholly original and completely fearless. Several dramatic events in Dugdale’s life led her to follow revolutionary politics, but none affected her more than Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British soldiers killed more than two dozen demonstrators at a protest march in Northern Ireland. From then on, she became dedicated to ending British imperialism and helping the Irish Liberation Army.
The reasons for Dugdale’s prolific art heists were complicated and surprising, but they were never selfish. In 1973, to help fund her political causes, Dugdale stole valuable artwork from her family’s estate. As her crimes escalated, she stole a helicopter and attempted to bomb a police station. In 1974, along with three other people, she entered Ireland’s Russborough House, which was then the home of a British Member of Parliament, and stole 19 priceless paintings, including Johannes Vermeer’s “The Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid.” In striking detail, Amore describes how Dugdale was identified as the one who orchestrated the heist. Her subsequent arrest, theatrical trial and most dramatic crimes are also vividly explained. This exciting biography of a singular woman is for anyone who loves true crime, art, politics and history.
In The Woman Who Stole Vermeer: The True Story of Rose Dugdale and the Russborough House Art Heist, Anthony M. Amore expertly combines extraordinary history with gripping true crime. Amore, author of The Art of the Con and director of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, is an authority on art crimes […]
From fashion to flowers to foodie comforts, this month's best lifestyles books are here to inform, delight and soothe.
I am not a big sewer (OK, I am not a sewer at all), but I can’t stop poring over Kate Sekules’ Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto. A seasoned travel editor and writer, Sekules brings a refreshingly fierce voice to an assemblage of topics: the wastefulness and exploitative practices of the fashion industry, the sustainability of slow fashion, the history of clothing, stars of the mending scene and more. Visible mending, or VM, is her chief cause. “To stitch or sport a VM is to declare independence from consumer culture with a beautiful scar and badge of honor,” she writes. A prim sewing guide this is not, and I am here for it. If you want sewing basics, Sekules does offer them, but along the way she will school you on where fashion has been and where it’s going (to the grave?).
For some time now I have been a big admirer of Jessica Roux’s illustrations, which feel rooted in a time that’s decidedly not the present. So I was thrilled to discover her new book, Floriography, an A to Z of flowers and the meanings they were given by flower-mad Victorians. Back then, people weren’t so quick to emote socially; rather, they let petals do the talking for them. Roux provides a brief but fascinating history of this coded discourse and then shows us the flowers, in her distinct style, from amaryllis (pride) to zinnia (everlasting friendship). A final section illustrates bouquets—for new beginnings, bitter ends, warnings and more—and an index lists the flowers by meaning.
The Art of Cake
Alice Oehr’s The Art of Cake is not a cake cookbook—just a whimsically illustrated book about cake, with precise physical descriptions of and historical and cultural context for 50 cakes, such as Pavlova, linzertorte, charlotte and pound cake. “I am not a professional baker by any stretch of the imagination,” Oehr writes in a note about the final section of the book, in which she provides recipes (the only ones in the book) for six cakes. I’m intrigued by Oehr’s inclusion of banoffee pie, a dessert that she describes as “pie” twice in addition to its name. But particularly in these times, such quibbles are minor, and we could all use a bit more cake.
From fashion to flowers to foodie comforts, this month's best lifestyles books are here to inform, delight and soothe. ★ Mend! I am not a big sewer (OK, I am not a sewer at all), but I can’t stop poring over Kate Sekules’ Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto. A seasoned travel editor and writer, Sekules […]
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Fans of polymath Maria Popova’s popular website, Brain Pickings, will find themselves right at home in Figuring, her audacious new work of intellectual history that focuses on the lives of a coterie of brilliant women, some well-known and others less so, whose gifts in fields like astronomy, literature, ecology and art have helped shape our world.