A month or so ago Stuck-in-a-Book wrote a piece about not knowing much about art, there are a number of interesting comments at the end of it with some excellent recommendations for places to discover more. I particularly rate the BBC Your Paintings site which has catalogued over 210,000 of the nations oil paintings - this is a brilliant project (if you don't already know it) that has set out to catalogue all the paintings (oil, acrylic, and tempura only - to add watercolours and drawings would push the numbers unmanageably high) in public collections. So far the project has turned up a couple of old masters that had been miss-attributed, which has been nice publicity, but is in no way the most exciting thing about this catalogue - I'll come on to that in a bit.
Why Simon's post stuck in my mind is this - I commented that analysing a painting was as valid as analysing a book - a position that Simon was unconvinced by, he felt that 'it would be a bizarre coincidence if they were equally analysable forms' because he believes that words offer more scope for analysis than images. My feeling is that he's entirely wrong, but then my degree is in History of Art, whereas Simon is on the last leg of his doctorate and reads Virginia Woolf for fun so it's an understandable difference of opinion. Still, it was one of those differences that stopped me short for a moment and it's been at the back of my mind ever since.
|Evelyn Dunbar - A Canning Demonstration|
At the Penguin bloggers do last week I had a brief conversation with Alicia Foster about her book 'Warpaint' and about art, and history of art generally. Both book and conversation gave me plenty to think about and also took me back to that earlier conversation with Simon. I accept that one of the wonderful things about the visual arts is that you can just look at them and enjoy them - on one level it's immediately accessible - but, and this matters, the more you know about what you're looking at the more you get from it. A little bit of context is a wonderful thing, and that's obviously true for books as well. I also think it's easy to take images for granted, after all what book is as well known as the Mona Lisa, or what icon more potent than the statue of liberty? These are images that have been used and manipulated so many times that they have as many layers of meaning as an onion has skins.
When I went off to university roughly 20 years ago women weren't a big part of either the literary of artistic canon and it wasn't unusual to meet the opinion that there were no great women artists in either field because they just didn't have the talent (mostly met it should be said in undergraduate boys). It's the sort of statement that you obviously know is rubbish but is very hard to counter when you don't have the works to back you up. When it comes to literature the success of publishers like Virago and Persephone, the current cult for Jane Austen, and the high profile of writers like Hilary Mantel amongst others have changed that conversation. I think what the likes of Virago and Persephone have done is particularly important because they've made the point that quietly domestic fiction matters too.
With art it doesn't feel like we've come as far, which is all the more curious when I think that in my day at least 90% of the students were female - though 80% of the lecturers were male. Art schools throughout the twentieth century were full of women, women have been making a living with a paintbrush for much longer than that, but they're not easy to find. One benefit of the Your Paintings project is that they should now be easier to track down and that's a very good thing, if we don't get the balance right then we don't really understand what our history looks like.