Quite apart from the intrinsic merits of her work, Sofonisba helps us appreciate certain of the constraints under which a woman artist of her time--and for some centuries afterward--labored, which kept women from achieving a recognition only male artists could attain, namely as producers of historical paintings in which the human, and particularly the male, figure was shown in heroic action. There was simply no way a woman was able to train herself by drawing the male figure, and this meant, externally, that women were restricted to what would have been regarded as lesser categories of art, like portraits and still lifes. What it may have meant internally is brought out by Vasari in discussing the work of a Sister Plautilla: "It is manifest that she would have effected admirable things if she had been able to study as men do, from the life, and had been furnished with the advantages of various kinds which the student in design acquires in drawing from nature." He seeks to demonstrate this by pointing out that "the figures and faces of women, whom she could study at her pleasure, are much more satisfactorily rendered in her work than those of men, and have a much closer resemblance to the truth of nature." Though Sofonisba's fame was such that it is hard to imagine she was greatly affected by the external limit--to have been appointed an official painter of Spanish royalty was a pretty high distinction--there is no doubt that the internal limit induced a certain awkwardness in her work. But my sense is that, in compensation, she observed certain expressions more keenly than anyone else had done, expressions of a kind there would be no great use for in historical or religious paintings. And this gives her work a quality one would not find in paintings by male artists. In brief, it could be argued that part of what made her so extraordinary an artist was the fact that she transformed her limits into a vision that would have been available only to a woman. That we do not find a parallel vision in other women artists of her time is a mark of her tremendous originality.
Let us consider the bewitching The Chess Game, an elegant and amusing depiction of the moment of victory in which one of Sofonisba's sisters, Minerva, signals her defeat to another, Lucia, who looks slyly pleased with herself, while Europa, still a girl of perhaps 8, grins in great glee at Minerva and a maidservant looks on sympathetically. The girls wear elaborate coiffures and are dressed in heavy brocades; the game has taken place in the garden, with a distant view of hills and chateaus, and the artist has inscribed on the inlaid chessboard, itself placed on the kind of oriental rug we see covering tables in Dutch and Flemish interiors, SOPHONISBA ANGUSSOLA VIRGO AMILCARUS FILIA EX VERA EFFIGIE TRES SUAS SORORES ET ANCILAM PINXIT MDLV.
Sofonisba must have been about 20 years old when she achieved this classy picture, and it shows her at once as both extraordinary and limited in the ways I have indicated. The figure and face of Lucia, who engages us with a look of selfsatisfied complicity, are beautifully modeled, though Sofonisba evidently did not want to lose the dark left side of her sister's face in the oak leaves behind her, a problem she solved, awkwardly and rather artificially, by painting a cuticle of blue sky between the cheek and the leaves. Minerva is in full profile, raising her right arm in a gesture of surrender, and one feels Sofonisba had problems in visualizing the connection between the arm and the shoulder, so that the action is rather wooden. There is a further clumsiness in getting the servant into the picture: The artist does not succeed in integrating her with the sisters, who form a natural group. But all these failings dissolve in the light of the extraordinary expression on Europa's face, unlike anything I recall ever having seen. It is a look of absolute mischievousness and glee, a child's innocent pleasure in the discomfiture of an older person. The arpeggio of feelings registered across the three youthful faces makes the painting wonderful, but it is Europa's expression that makes it great.
We can get a sense of Sofonisba's originality by situating The Chess Game in the art-historical context in which she acquired her craft. Scholars have postulated a relationship between the painting and an allegorical chess game depicted by Lucas van Leyden, which Sofonisba could have known about through an adaptation of it by her teacher, Giulio Campo. The relationship would be neither one of influence nor of copying in any passive sense but rather one of Sofonisba seizing and making her own, altogether in the manner of the sixteenth-century painter, certain figurative and compositional elements she found in other artists. There is a fascinating exhibition in the East Section of the National Gallery (through August 6) titled "Imitation and Invention: Old Master Prints and their Sources" in which one can perceive Durer and Rembrandt appropriating to their own ends features from the prints of van Leyden or Martin Schongauer. Engravings were repositories of transmissible visual resolutions: An ornamental building in a print of Durer's all at once will appear in prints made by Italian artists, even if the building has no architectural counterpart in Italy. This was not plagiarism: There is a marvelous text reproduced for the show from Van Zander's Schilder-boeck, which advises artists to steal arms and legs and entire bodies that, when well cooked, "make a good stew." A pictorial stew is a fusion of someone else's ingredients and one's own integrative finesse. I have seen some scrapbooks of Mark Tansey's in which he has cut pictures of figures in various postures from magazines, to form the conjugation of a complete action--a kind of pictorial verb that he draws upon for his paintings. But pictures were not as readily come by in the sixteenth century, and as opportunities for observation of the figure were limited, copying was a necessity as well as tribute to those copied. A powerfully rendered nude by Rembrandt, seen from the rear, in fact derives from one of van Leyden's engravings, of which Rembrandt owned a great many. And while Rembrandt certainly had the opportunity to observe the female behind, it was plain that he found what he wanted in van Leyden, even if there could be no mistaking the difference in treatment. Sofonisba herself was widely copied: Her portrait of Isabel with a "flea-fur"--the pelt of a marten worn to attract the fleas that might in its absence have attacked the wearer--was the most widely copied portrait in Spain, most famously by Peter Paul Rubens, who visited her in her old age in Genoa. Alas, the painting is known only through its copies: Like a Platonic form, it is available only through its appearances (including a copy by Sofonisba herself). In any case, the practice of copying compensated, though clearly not entirely, for reduced opportunities to draw from life. Copying was a prosthetic for the imagination, but no substitute for the discipline of drawing from nature when paintings were judged by mimetic standards.
Lucas van Leyden's Chess Game is an allegorical contest between a knight and a lady, where presumably the stakes are the traditional ones of her virtue against his life. It is an elaborate composition with eight kibitzers as well as the two contestants, and a lot going on. The grossly featured knight looks smug and even bored, as if certain of victory, and mentally comparing him with Lucia is delicious. The lady is delicately lifting a chess piece between thumb and forefinger, and the rather heavy man beside her, evidently a guardian who has an interest in preserving her chastity, seems as if he is trying to stop the move, which I read as a sly, deliberately losing one: What good is a dead knight to a lusty lady? Campo's Chess Game has fewer kibitzers, but the lady's lustfulness is made manifest in the opulence of her flesh, and her flower is already symbolically on the table. As she makes her move, her gaze is directed not at the heavily armored knight, whose back is to us, but at a fool who squats in the lower right-hand corner. These are worldly and allusive paintings, replete with symbolic references and an unmistakable prurient undertaste: Each of them brings us into the action with a figurative bawdy wink. Sofonisba has substituted the maidservant for the fool, and moved her into the upper right corner, where nobody, least of all the loser, pays her any heed. I cannot help but feel this is a reference to her teacher's work and a way of stigmatizing the maidservant as a fool--after all, the circle of those who appreciated paintings in Cremona cannot have been large, and a lot of local allusions would have been for its benefit and pleasure. Pictures, here as always, were about other pictures as much as they were about the artist's world. Sofonisba's The Chess Game was not painted en plein air. The sisters, who had busy schedules, did not in all likelihood hold their poses while Sofonisba got them down right. It was composed on the basis of disjointed observations. She has reduced the number of kibitzers to one, in part out of weakness--she probably could not compose that many figures into a coherent group, as we can see from the failure with the maidservant--but in part out of strength. She gives to her sister Europa the role of commenting on the comedy of the two older girls playing at being Mars and Venus. And she has given her as well that wonderful expression of merriment and mild malice that was entirely her own. Sofonisba's comedy was cooler than that of her predecessors. She was making fun of them quite as much as she was painting a minor episode in the life of an intellectual family.
In sixteenth-century religious or historical painting, the expression of grander, more operatic emotions than Europa's would occupy an artist's physiognomic gifts: rapture, agony, devotion, adoration, pity, anger, terror. But Europa's is a look that registers someone's response to absurdity, silliness, indiscretion or dottiness, and expresses amusement, mockery, derision. We could not imagine the Virgin wearing such a look at the Annunciation, or John the Baptist as he pours water over Christ. It would be radically out of place at a Descent From the Cross, an Agony in the Garden, an Expulsion From Paradise, a Last Judgment. So it falls outside the physiognomic repertory of the male artist, bent on high pictorial business. It belongs in the intimate play of expressions that define family life, and as I see it, it would be the kind of look to which a woman artist, then confined to draw her subject from domestic reality, would have been especially sensitive. It belongs in the world to which giggles belong. It belongs in the world of fun.
Yet one also feels Europa's face expresses Sofonisba's essential personality, as if at any moment, in one of those prim self-portraits she made of herself painting or playing the spinet or holding open a book, she might suddenly stick her tongue out at us. One feels that, left to her own, she would restrict herself to the small comedies. It was Sofonisba's drawing of a girl barely stifling her laughter at an old woman she is trying to teach to read that won Michelangelo's admiration. Indeed, Michelangelo challenged Sofonisba to make a drawing of someone crying, and it was characteristic of her marvelously impudent nature that she did not depict a Mater Dolorosa or Apostles weeping by the sepulcher but--the description is Vasari's--"a little girl, who is laughing at a boy, because the latter, having plunged his hand into a basket of crabs, which she has held out to him, is caught by one of them, which is pinching his finger, and the boy is weeping and bemoaning his pain." This drawing was sent by Tomasso Cavaliere, a young man on whom Michelangelo had something of a crush, to Cosimo de Medici, together with a drawing of Cleopatra by Michelangelo.
Sofonisba's life changed when she left her family to join the Spanish court, and though it was a tremendous recognition, I am not certain it was to her advantage artistically. Her output was largely confined to official portraits executed to the somewhat rigid Spanish taste, and there was little outlet for the comic spirit of The Chess Game. One senses a certain repressed merriment in her portrait of Philip II that Velazquez would not have allowed to show through in his portraits of Philip IV in the next century. Her paintings of Isabel de Valois and of her successor, Anne of Austria, are luminous and alive, and an immense amount of energy went into rendering the intricate gowns and elaborate jewelry essential to the royal presence. I am not sure whether any of the Spanish paintings were known directly by Vasari, though he was aware that the fame of her work "moved Pope Pius IV to make known to her that he desired to have the portrait of the ... most illustrious Queen of Spain from her hand," which Sofonisba duly sent.
Vasari devotes two discussions to Sofonisba, the first of which concludes a chapter of his Lives and uses the occasion of a critical account of "Madonna Properzia de Rossi, Sculptress of Bologna" to talk in general about women in the arts. He had at that time seen only the drawing of the crying boy, of which he thought enough to place it in his famous album of drawings "as a memorial to Sofonisba, of whose works, since she is dwelling in Spain, Italy possesses no copy." When he next wrote of Sofonisba, he had seen The Chess Game in her father's house in Cremona, as well as a portrait of Minerva with their father. This time he writes of Sofonisba not as one of the "women artists" but as an artist in her own right, a representative, along with her sisters and the Campo brothers, of the School of Cremona. That is the kind of progress in perception women artists today are asking be made general, and one wishes, as a matter of symbolism, that Sofonisba's work had not been exclusively shown at a museum dedicated to women's art, grateful as one might be to the latter for the initiative.
The external limits that until relatively late in the nineteenth century kept women from drawing the male figure in life class, which became the monopoly of the academy, necessarily kept them from high attainment in painting as defined by the academic hierarchy that accorded historical painting the highest excellence. In a fascinating study, "Male Trouble," Abigail Solomon-Godeau recently observed that "of all the winning Prix de Rome entries from 1793 to 1863, most of which feature nude or partially draped male figures, there is only one painting depicting a female nude." So how was a girl to compete? The preponderance of male over female nudes perhaps calls into question one of the dogmas of feminist aesthetics, namely the "male gaze," which turns out to have been fixated on the male rather than the female body during the long ascendancy of historical painting. "In fact the female nude," Solomon-Godeau writes, "whose classical lineage is considerably less venerable, has historically occupied a far more equivocal and indeed marginal position." In 1863 an edict was issued that more or less cracked the academy's monopoly and stressed originality rather than "finish." Once women were allowed access to the male nude, there was no longer much institutional reason for learning to draw it! In any case, Modernism was about to begin when the academy underwent reform, and a whole new class of reasons had to be invented to keep women in their place.
As part of this year's Ritual of the Overlooked, enacted whenever the Whitney Museum discloses the artists selected for its Biennial exhibition, the March issue of Artforum devoted a column to what its author, Jeffrey Slonim, wittily designated as 1995's salon des refuses. From the thirteen people he interviewed, 172 overlooked artists were mentioned by name, and an indeterminate number of artists were mentioned by gender. A spokesperson for the activist collective Guerrilla Girls, who identified herself as "Alice Neel," had this to say: "Looking at this list, it seems that less than a third of the artists are women. There's no excuse for this anymore. We want to expand the vision of the art world beyond that of white men to include more women and people of color." I must admit that my first response to "Alice Neel" was a certain impatience. I am a great admirer of the Guerrilla Girl as a superordinate being, like Hobbes's Leviathan or General Motors, who expresses herself with an ingenuity, creativity and wit rarely encountered in the art world, where one might have supposed such attributes commonplace. The Guerrilla Girl is known for political theater, where clever representatives, dressed in full gorilla masks and in fishnet stockings worn sardonically, engage in mocking repartee with members of the audience. "She" is even more widely known for vivid posters that hold a mirror up to the art world's inequities. And she has just published a kind of collective self-portrait, Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls (HarperCollins). So I expected something rather more pungent from one of its porte-paroles, especially one who had taken the name of Alice Neel, an artist known for her edge. What does Guerrilla Girl want? I asked myself, echoing Freud's famous question. Thirty percent is already something!
But as my responses to the Biennial, when I finally saw it, sorted themselves out, I began to think the Guerrilla Girls were right. There may have been moments in the recent history of art where the best work was undoubtedly being done by men: Female Abstract Expressionists in the first generation were marginal, and there were no women Pop artists to speak of. But in today's pluralistic art world, there really is no excuse for anything less than full parity. Whatever relevant criterion anyone can name must be met by at least as many women artists as by men, even by the daunting criterion of "quality," which cannot have played a major role in the Whitney's 1995 choices. It should be part of the charge to future Whitney curators that equity be sought. Whether this will "widen vision" is something nobody really knows. How much of what might be classed as "women's vision" is due to the kinds of limitations equity would erase is probably an imponderable, though that is no reason not to erase them. We are in any case the beneficiaries of the limitations that defined Sofonisba's vision. She was, in the memorial words of her second husband--a sea captain she fell in love with while sailing from Palermo to Genoa--"although small for such a woman, great among mortals."
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|Title Annotation:||painting; Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.|
|Author:||Danto, Arthur Coleman|
|Date:||Jul 31, 1995|
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