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.