SARAH LUCAS: The Venice Biennale, France and Feminism

The 2015 Venice Biennale is now underway, and chosen to represent Britain, is artist Sarah Lucas.

Her show, entitled, I SCREAM DADDIO is said to “reprise and reinvent the themes that have come to define her powerfully irreverent art – gender, death, sex, and the innuendo residing in everyday objects.” The show revolves around themes of ‘the body’, featuring Lucas’s characteristic dark humour and confrontation.

“Humour is about negotiating the contradictions thrown up by convention. To a certain extent, humour and seriousness are interchangeable. Otherwise it wouldn’t be funny. Or devastating.”  – Lucas

For me, this is the exciting part of Lucas’s work – the questioning of convention, and highlighting the absurdity of normality. Her work makes frequent and sly nods to art historical references; Picasso’s strange women, Duchamp’s ready-mades and traditional notions of femininity. But what does this tell us about art, and art history itself?

In the words of John Stuart Mill; “whatever ‘is’ is seen as natural” – and within the European artistic canon this has undoubtedly been the domination of the white male.

The truly revolutionary aspect of Feminist discourse on the history of Art has been the misleadingly simple task of highlighting such assumptions. This is what the entrance to Lucas’s Venice pavilion proudly states. Maradona – “a grandiose figure in joyous repose – part man, part maypole, part praying mantis” shouts this at the viewer as they approach. Named after the iconic Argentine footballer, the figure squats on the ground while an enormous phallus soars into the air.  This isn’t merely a feminist critique – just attempting to add female artists into the annals of art history – it is a paradigm shift – a whole new conception of what we are looking at and why.

With Lucas’s past emphasis on the female body, voyeurism, mass-consumption (especially the tabloid press), and a rapidly changing society – the struggles of nineteenth century art and feminist critique thereafter are brought strongly to mind. The French impressionists painted against the dynamic backdrop of newly Haussmanised Paris, attempting to change and alter art historical methods. They may have changed artistic techniques, but gender relationships stayed firmly put. As a YBA in 1980s London, Lucas was also part of an unprecedented growth of radicalism, political involvement, and feminist critique in the arts (think Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine). The 1990s further offered a generation of women the freedom to further expand boundaries – and forever changed the countries artistic scene.

In this post, I will explore how these seemingly disparate worlds coincide.

In mid-nineteenth century France, an artistic paradigm shift was occurring; the new modernism. The newly widened boulevards and bustling cafes of Paris provided the setting for the ‘experience of modernity’, quintessentially defined by the writing of Charles Baudelaire and the art of Edouard Manet. But of course, these new spaces of modernity, were more simply, the spaces of masculinity. A woman could not experience everyday life as defined by Baudelaire and the modernist school. “The Flâneur” – the perennial voyeur – simply did not have a female counterpart.

The white male has always been implicitly present within western discourse; necessarily the controlling gaze for which artwork is intended. Linda Nochlin in Politics of Vision has identified not only the possessive gaze over the female subject but also the implied dominance of the white male audience over other races in works such as Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Slave Market, Eugène Delacroix’s ‘Death of Sardanapalus’, or Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ The Turkish Bath.

Such powerful depictions of male domination and sexual possession caused little stir in their reception amongst the artistic elite of Paris; they were sufficiently distanced in their exotic location from everyday similarities at home. Whilst Gerome’s Slave Market was accepted at the Salon of that year, Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera was rejected. This was largely due to the supposedly ‘scandalous’ implications of Manet’s work; it rejected traditional methods of stylistic practice, using modern and recognisable participants in the erotic commerce – an altogether unacceptable proposition.

Edouard Manet - The Masked Ball at the Opera

Women in their ‘provocative anonymity’ are the central focus of Manet’s ‘Masked ball at the Opera’, at such an event, identities can very easily be deleted, and many of the women only enter the composition in parts. The swinging pair of legs abruptly cropped at the peak of the picture plane can be understood as the locus of the feminist interpretation of modernist art. They form a brilliant trope of sexual commerce, acting like a shop sign for merchandise, suggesting the continuing and inexhaustible supply of women’s bodies beyond the boundaries of the image.

“The swinging, disembodied legs act as an ‘easily understood non-transferable synecdoche for female attractiveness and female availability’; an objectified source of passivity, the very essence of the fetishizing male gaze.” – Linda Nochlin

Now, take a look at the inside of Lucas’s pavilion.

To me, the circles on the wall are reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s ‘Spot Paintings’; the ‘present-day male artistic genius’ surrounded by disembodied female forms. The photograph on one wall of Lucas’s creations is highly evocative of Francis Bacon’s troubling paintings. Such themes are also present in Lucas’s older work. ‘Bunny Gets Snookered’ (1997) is a particularly pertinent example – a disturbing presentation of disembodied stuffed tights, and stockings – sitting limply, whilst clamped to chairs. Or another piece; Two Fried Eggs and  Kebab (1992) – a presentation of derogatory slang for women’s bodies. This work was as much an icon of the YBA, as Manet’s Opera was to the impressionists.

Through appropriating masculine constructions, Lucas confronts and dissects them. Instead of portraying the feminine as beauty (as in Manet), Lucas’s work is fuelled by casual misogyny of everyday life. Akin to Manet’s work though, Lucas channels the vernacular of the street – her work is a part of everyday life, coming out of, responding to, and firmly part of it.

Of course, as Lucas demonstrates, the female practitioner is not necessarily without the voyeuristic potential of the Flâneur. This was as much the case for the female impressionists. Mary Cassatt has long considered an unproblematic artist, depicting the conventional realm of women and children within the domestic sphere and henceforth below the threshold of intellectual analysis. These are feminine subjects. But in fact, this interpretation is very far from reality. Cassatt used a highly incisive eye to analyse and deconstruct the gestures and customs of everyday life – the public realm in which the concepts of femininity are founded.

Mary Cassatt - In the Lodge - At the Opera

In the Lodge is a case in point. The main subject of the work is a woman actively looking across the picture plane; a subject remarkable within the European tradition, as such possession of the active gaze was rarely (if at all) attributed to women. However if one follows her line of sight, intersecting this and breaking its trajectory is a man in the distance whose gaze is steadfastly set on the woman herself. The intersection of the male gaze is a key issue within Cassatt’s work; the constant male influence to which women are subject to. The location of the observing male implicates the viewer as well – they too are drawn in to the problematic gaze over the female subject. As Lucas states, the artist acts as a mirror for sexism, but doesn’t necessarily comment on it; “I’m not trying to solve the problem. I’m exploring the dilemma by incorporating it.”

Such themes are replicated in Lucas’s self portraits – with eggs, skulls and bannanas. Her confronting stare takes the gaze, the male dominated objects (the ‘memento mori’ so common in art history, the derogatory ‘fried eggs’ or the sexuality of the phallic banana), and by staring right back at the viewer, destabilises the hitherto established dynamic. Cassatt’s painting can also  be understood as created with the male viewer in mind, however in a representation entirely incongruous with the traditional satisfaction of the controlling gaze. It actively confronts such cultural norms. The woman’s eyes are masked by the opera glasses and her proximity to the front of the picture space ensures the prevention of her objectification. The female is close and confronting.

Both artists are rearticulating the space surrounding the female subject – not as a space for the mastering gaze, but as the central focus of differing relationships. Lucas’s self portraits are in your face – repositioning male-dominated references firmly in the feminine domain – thus, self-referentially, taking ‘women’s work’ out of the feminine sphere. This is not personal, self-referential and auto-biographical, but aggressive, antagonistic, and unapologetically, art. Although ‘woman as spectacle’ continues to dominate, female spectatorship, the confrontation of norms and objectification, is also on the rise.

One need only take the briefest of looks at Lucas’s works, to see that the issues that feminist art historians have brought to light – are still very much with us today. The issues identified in the work of Manet, are still being dealt with in the present, and the gaze so prominent in Cassatt’s portrait is very firmly, still looking. In the words of the artist – it is both funny and devastating, in its absurd normality.

For more information on Lucas at the Biennale – See the British Council’s Website

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2 thoughts on “SARAH LUCAS: The Venice Biennale, France and Feminism

  1. Very interesting! A simple question, though: will Lucas’ work be still valued as high as it is if it was made by a male artist? Would it be supported by feminist art historians? I am not setting up a provocation. I am genuinely interested in your opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

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