The Lesbian Paintbrush

Essay by writer and visual artist Jane Eaton Hamilton, Canada

Jane Eaton Hamilton in ParisI’ve been studying art in Paris museums further to my certificate work in painting from Emily Carr University in Vancouver, BC, Canada. I have investigated the collections at the Musée d’Orsay, Musée Marmottan Monet, Musée de Montmartre, Centre Pompidou and the Palais de Chaigall (Art Deco exhibit). The art in the galleries, particularly the art from 1850-1950, is almost without exception male. I have been chasing down information and further artworks of women artists as I discover them – Lucy Bason, Henrietta Shore, Marie Bashkirtseff, Anna Boch, Rosa Bonheur, Anna Klumke, Olga Boznaska, Marie Bracquemond, Mary Cassatt, Camille Claudel, Marie Ellenrieder, Kate Greenaway, Kitty Lange Kielland, Edmonia Lewis, Constance Mayer, Victorine Meurent, Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzales, Suzanne Valadon, Romaine Brookes, Enid Yandell, Wilhelmina Weber Furlong, Marie-Denise Villers, Jeanne Elizabeth Claudette, to name a few.

Heterosexual women see (heterosexual figurative) art differently than do men. Their gaze cannot help but encompass what they know of being female, the experience of being gazed upon–the model’s body and heart. Thus, for instance, to view a Picasso cubism painting that has deconstructed a woman asks more of a female viewer than it does of the male, and this fact is entirely ignored by museums. What does it mean to a woman viewer that her torso has come off, her teeth are jagged, her body bony (Seated Bather 1930)? Did the painter despise his model, and if he did (likely since they were at the time breaking up), what does it mean for a female viewer to respond to the image—to admire it as a piece of art, to be scintillated by its shapes, aroused by it, moved by it, to love it?

It is not a simple act to engage with male figurative art as a female, but a freighted and uneasy experience.

For a lesbian, the dis-ease compounds and skews. A lesbian identifies as the subject, just as does her heterosexual sister. She is the (stand-in) owner of the viewed body, but she is also much more. She is a woman who has been intimate with the body she views. She knows what it is to touch a woman’s breasts, to dry her tears, to dip between her legs, to offer up her heart. She is subject but also her own experience may compromise her; she may feel complicit.

What then if she also has extra-textual knowledge of the painter, if she knows that Picasso was a womanizer, Modigliani a roué, Shiele a probable pedophile, Gauguin a wife-batterer? If she knows that Degas took advantage of a system at the Paris Opera where men could “sponsor” a child dancer to gain unfettered access? If he made dozens of sketches and sculptures of nude pre-pubescent Marie van Goethem? At the Paris Ballet, there were hosts of poor, unprotected, vulnerable girls who were systematically exploited; are the artists’ acts to be dismissed because it was a different era with alternate standards?

Feminists understand that seemingly neutral expressions of art are far from neutrality and that misogyny and curatorial practices have subordinated women. The gender-imbalance in Paris museums, where, among thousands of pieces, I have seen scant evidence of women (Berthe Morisot at the Marmottan; Marie Laurencin at L’Orangerie; Louise Bourgeois at the Pompidou) is scandalous and I imagine goes mostly unremarked. At L’Orangerie, a room is devoted to Maurice Utrillo but not a single painting by his mother, famed artist Suzanne Valadon, is hung. At her very home in Montmartre, the situation repeats, with only two sketches belonging to her hand, while Utrillo’s paintings, hung next to them, dwarf them.

Do we keep looking at major installations, do we keep bifurcating the artist and the art? Picasso the man is not Picasso the artist? Gauguin the man is not Gauguin the artist?

Then we have to ask what really is art for? Contemplation? Use? Does it take what is broken in the world and make it whole, or can it, all on its own, break us?

If we find ourselves responding favourably to an artwork that depicts or references abuse, are we, to a minor degree, in the position of a child whose body (without her consent) responds to a sexual attack? Does doing so disintegrate our claim to integrity? Should we, perhaps, balk at looking? These are our foremothers splayed and fetishized; do we steady our gaze, or should we look away and towards women’s art, towards, in particular, lesbian art? Do we wait for the rare exhibit like Elles out of the Pompidou that (at least in part) reflects our lives as lesbians?

Will museums ever court exhibitions made up of entirely lesbian art to show how lesbians have altered art? (Or would they say that the public wouldn’t come, the public would be put off and they need a revenue they wouldn’t be able to pull from this?)

Will a museum ever curate, out and proud, and exhibit of art that was collected by famous lesbians? The Cone sisters of Baltimore’s collection blended with the Stein collection blended with, say, lesbian author Jane Rule’s strong art collection?

Photo above: Jane Eaton Hamilton in Paris 2014

Jane Eaton Hamilton

is the author of seven books of fiction and poetry. Her poetry volume “Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes” is coming out fall 2014. Her book “July Nights” was shortlisted for the BC Book Prizes and “Hunger” was shortlisted for the Ferro Grumley Award. “Body Rain,” her first book of poetry, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award, and her chapbook, “Going Santa Fe,” won the League of Canadian Poets Poetry Chapbook Award. She has been included in the Journey Prize Anthology, Best Canadian Short Stories, and has been cited in the Best American Short Stories. She has won many prizes for her short fiction, including first prize in fiction in the CBC Literary Awards and the Prism International short fiction award. She has published in the NY Times, Seventeen magazine, Salon, Numero Cinq, Macleans, the Globe and Mail, the Missouri Review, Ms blog, the Alaska Quarterly Review and many other places. She has been a recipient of arts awards from the BC Arts Council and the Canada Council. Jane’s work is upcoming in the anthology MESS, and in Geist, the Rusty Toque, Plenitude and Siécle 21 in Paris. Jane is also a photographer and visual artist and was a litigant in Canada’s same-sex marriage case. She lives in Vancouver.

Related Link

Jane Eaton Hamilton’s website