This morning I read an article from The New Yorker about George Elliot, the 19th century writer.
In the article Rebecca Mead probes beyond the “traditional” boxes that George Elliot is often put into, namely, “less than conventionally beautiful appearance and her possession of a sexual drive” and goes on to write about her gift as a brilliant writer.
But James also noted an interesting phenomenon about Eliot’s supposed ugliness: when she began to converse, her expression was one of such tenderness and sympathy that it left her interlocutor with an abiding sense of beauty. “Behold me, literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking!” James wrote after his first encounter with her. Many others who met her made similar comments, including Lucy Clifford, a novelist, who said that Eliot did, indeed, look like a horse—“a strange variety of horse that was full of knowledge, and beauty of thought, and mysteries of which the human being had no conception.” Eliot was possessed of a radiant, luminous intelligence that outshone her perceived deficits…
My curiosity is piqued. I am intrigued by the use of a animal as a comparative description of George Elliot’s unconventional beauty. Horses are magnificent beasts; large, mysterious, agentic–all qualities that are not feminine. Sure women can be a little mysterious, but always a mystery that the viewer can catch at [his] will. Real mystery is actually difficult to deal with for people who need to be in control, And traditional ideas of women’s beauty is all about control.
Writing about European tradition of the female nude in art, John Berger brilliantly sums it up:
“A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. …A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of to you or for you. …By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. …the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite differnt way from men… because the “ideal” spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of woman is designed to flatter him.”
At the center of this “flattering”, at the heart of the masculine ideal, is the notion of control and power. Traditionally. There are examples of men who are unconventional, but they are just that–unconventional. If you have any doubt, just try transforming men into the visual place that women occupy. The Hawkeye Initiative is an example of a website that does just that, trying to expose the rampant sexism in comic book drawings. Again, quoting John Berger, “Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.” What are you, the viewer, asked to do to the viewed?
But I want to go beyond just exposing this–I want to begin re-imaging women. I want to contribute to the visual arts world images of “unconventionally beautiful” women. But where to begin? Well, I suppose I had better catch up on a visual history of women in art.