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In a trilogy of works brought together in a single volume, Siri Hustvedt demonstrates the striking range and depth of her knowledge in both the humanities and the sciences. Armed with passionate curiosity, a sense of humor, and insights from many disciplines she repeatedly upends received ideas and cultural truisms.
She is the author of a book of poems, seven novels, four collections of essays, and two works of nonfiction. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Tell Looking a wooman what you like and we'll recommend books you'll love. up and get a free ebook! Trade Paperback eBook. Table of Contents Excerpt. About The Book. 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. 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 Looking a wooman 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.
It is certainly true that meanings of the word accumulate and change even over the course of a single lifetime. Since the s, 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. The visual is also tactile and motoric. I do not see myself as I look at a painting. I see the imaginary person Looking a wooman the canvas. 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.
I animate them, as do you. Without a viewer, a reader, a listener, art is dead. A work of art has no sex. 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. The formal approach to the image devoid of understanding of its biological necessity as a product between religion and art. Contemporary neurobiological research on emotion is attempting to parse the complex affective processes at work in visual perception. 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. 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.
The baby has your 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. The figure before me is not naturalistic. 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.
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. This person-thing is a not-I. My feeling for the weeping woman is more complex, somewhere between subjective engagement and objectifying distance. 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. Over and over, he depicted an artist before his easel, brush in hand, with a naked woman as model. John Richardson is exemplary. I am fascinated that no one I have read seems to have noticed that the literature on Picasso continually turns grown-up Looking a wooman into girls.
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. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one. Inevitably she Looking a wooman, 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. They are all there in the weeping woman. Ideas become part of our perceptions, but we are not always conscious of them. Every story yokes together disparate elements in time, and every story, by its very nature, leaps over a lot. But women, too, played the game. Not until after her death would her art find the recognition it deserved. Elaine de Kooning painted sexualized images of men in the s in reaction to the prevailing mood. Louise Bourgeois was making astounding work, but until she was seventy, it, too, did not belong to history.
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 Looking a wooman 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. In a essay for an exhibition of German painting and sculpture that included Beckmann, Alfred H. German art is not pure art. Inthere has to have been political anxiety at work. The hierarchy is old. Intellect codes as male; body as female the ultimate expulsion from a body happens in birth, after all. Manly culture and Looking a wooman 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. 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. Like many German artists and intellectuals, he became an exile. 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. On the stool in front of her are five cards with oblique images on them.Looking a wooman
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A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind