japonisme: medium as message

09 April 2007

medium as message

once again i intend to do far too much in one post. this began, the seed, was ed weekly's wonderful post on swedish japonist, anders zorn. i had especially liked, of his choices, the little girls, sisters, playing beauty parlour in kimono.

another i had picked was his woman in a hammock. his is the one where the hat is on the ground beside her, and there are orange flowers. then i remembered tissot's images with a hammock, and went and dug up his two, the ones with the parasol.

then i wondered who else did a woman in a hammock, and found the wonderful courbet, with the flowing red hair. but then i started thinking about how many images there are of women lying down, resting, or ill, or even dead (think of the pre-raphaelite ophelia). a book called 'idols of perversity,' by bram dijkstra addresses just this in his profusely illustrated book.

"Art has only one gender," wrote The 19th-century French political philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. "It is masculine." Not only were the creators of the works almost universally male, but so was their audience. And their subject was women. Men looked, women were seen. The power to look is the power to name, to locate and thus the power to control, to manage the boundaries of acceptability.

" And when men looked at women at the end of the 19th century, they saw them through the lens of ideal domesticity-passive and indolent, the saintly asexual housewife. She was a "mindless, vacant creature whose only reason for being resided in her beauty and her reproduction function," writes Bram Dijkstra in his utterly fascinating, if disturbing book, Idols of Perversity. Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture (Oxford University Press, $37.95). In this profusely illustrated volume, Dijkstra, a professor of comparative literature at the University of California, San Diego, documents a virulent misogyny that infected the arts in turn-of-the-century Europe and America. Combing through hundreds of art magazines and discussing the most celebrated painters of the time, Dijkstra uncovers a virtual "iconography of misogyny" in the representations of women in both popular and high culture.

" Dijkstra's lucid psychosocial reading of late 19th-century canvasses is unsettling. The progression of images of women he arrays-from invalid to seductress, from earth mother to sex-crazed monster-illustrates a persistent male terror of women's sexual awakening and a backlash against women's efforts to improve their social position. The closing of the frontier, the gradual disappearance of the independent worker and farmer and the rise of the assembly line had eroded the foundations of masculinity. With these traditional sources for the validation of masculinity decimated, men projected their anger, and their own sexual fears, onto women, into the acute, lurid, antifeminine symbolism" of late 19th-century art."1

not for nothing, the men are alarmed: "Femme Fatale is the first exhibition to explore the sexual politics of women's fashion in turn-of- the-century Paris, when courtesans and actresses set the latest styles."2 just as they had done in japan for centuries.

so now we come to where my brain just keeps circling around. in the art of the period in the west, as dijkstra has said, everyone is lying down. in all of the japanese prints, it's nearly impossible to find a reclining figure. and when you look for nudity, you have to wait a number of decades, whereas, in the west, it practically defined the arts.

in advertising, however, women in the west were standing up, often square shouldered, chin up, eyes forward, soldiers in feathers with grace. the japanese prints reveal women who rarely lift their heads up; all we incorporated is their posture. the graceful s-shape was adopted, as style, and as statement.

so it's all running through my synapses. the women in the japanese prints were very often courtesans, but never dressed provocatively. the women in the west had "morals" far more pristine, even if some experimentation was being done. and they were definitely not prostitutes.

i don't have any conclusion yet. please feel free to offer one if you'd like.

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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