The trauma and talent of some of the greatest female artists in history


Rebellion, revolution and resilience
Five hundred years of female self-portraits
By Jennifer Higgie

“I’ve written a lot about art and artists and cultivated a pretty deep envy of them,” novelist Rachel Cusk recently told an interviewer for The Paris Review. “Acting outside of language – this seems to be the most lasting contribution. Yet the painting is, has been, so masculine. The history of women in art is brutal. “The mirror and the palette”, a new story of self-portraits of women artists, proves him right about brutality.

In this candid book by Jennifer Higgie, an Australian art critic, each painter experiences a life-changing trauma. The clear message is that women need pain to make great paintings, and trauma is the necessary alchemical ingredient to turn talent into genius.

Higgie has structured his book into thematic rather than strictly chronological chapters. The first is “Easel” and the last is “Naked”. It begins with Catharina van Hemessen, a Flemish artist who painted in 1548 her small self-portrait – widely regarded as the oldest of an artist of any gender sitting on an easel – and ends with Alice Neel, the American painter, who is died 1984. Neel provides the last quote from the book: “You inherit the world. Either way, you find a place for yourself.

Is there a “female voice” in painting? Is there a pictorial equivalent of Charlotte Brontë, Jean Rhys or Annie Ernaux? This book suggests that there is and that it is defined by injury.

The worthy female artists who diligently persevered in their craft from 1548 onwards sometimes made a name for themselves by brilliantly evoking the styles of famous male artists of their time; 17th-century Dutch painter Judith Leyster perfectly imitated the style of her compatriot Frans Hals, for example. In the sequence of women artists featured here, the first to blossom with an original feminine style was Frida Kahlo: her paintings expressed an undeniable authenticity, a newly experienced awareness of the world unlike any other.

Kahlo was born in Mexico City in 1907. Higgie writes: “At the age of 6, Frida contracted polio” and at 18, “she was involved in a cataclysmic accident: a streetcar crashed into the bus she was on. was traveling. A handrail pierced his body. His pelvis, collarbone, spine and ribs were broken; his leg, parched from childhood illness, was fractured in 11 places; his shoulder was dislocated and one of his feet was crushed. … She had 32 operations. … One of his legs got gangrenous and was amputated. Her husband, painter Diego Rivera, also caused her emotional pain. According to Higgie, “Their relationship was tumultuous, adoring, furious; both have had affairs.

Still, nothing prevented Kahlo from painting. When she was bedridden, she hung a mirror over her bed so that she could paint herself. She said: “I paint myself because I am alone. I am the subject I know best. There is an energy, an almost supernatural force, in his work that is very difficult to describe in words; it is about the urgency of the traces of paint: the need which led her to transcribe her handicap and her psychological instability in beauty and permanence.

In Higgie’s fifth chapter, “Solitude”, she talks about the life and work of two artists who mean a lot to me: Helene Schjerfbeck, born in Helsinki in 1862, and Gwen John, born in Haverfordwest, in the Land of Wales, in 1876. their signature styles in retiring from the world. Unlike Kahlo, their injury appears to have been self-imposed. But the pain of their desire was the fuel that kept them going.

I saw the first solo exhibition of Schjerfbeck’s work in Britain at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2019. I had never heard of her before. The large exhibition hall was devoted to his self-portraits. The deceased are among the most extraordinary self-explorations ever, by a woman or a man. The first paintings are charming, but conventional. Then something happens.

Higgie explains that Schjerfbeck, after studying in Paris – where she was happy and successful – and traveling abroad, returned to Finland, eventually retiring to a small town in the countryside to care for her mother. She supported them both by selling her art and gradually gained recognition in the Finnish art world. Then she fell in love with “forester, painter, writer and art collector Einar Reuter”. When she learned he was engaged to someone else, the news “was such a shock” that she “spent three months recovering in a hospital”.

Upon his return home, his art was transformed. Higgie describes one of these new self-portraits: “Thin lines heal the surface of the painting, most violently around his eyes. Her body, as dark as a hole… as if there was no demarcation between her own skin and that of her painting. In pain, she harms the image she has made of herself. After the death of her mother, Schjerfbeck fell ill again. Even though she was now famous, she could only handle her grief by painting in solitude. When he died in 1946, writes Higgie, “his easel, like his family, was at his bedside.”

I have always felt a close connection to Gwen John, and her work is intimately familiar to me. Throughout her life, John had to deal with her brother, Augustus John, who became a much more successful painter than she was. They both attended the Slade School of Art in London and lived together as students. Gwen found Augustus bossy. His search for self-knowledge was precipitated by his need to escape his influence. Two self-portraits capture his transformation.

In the first, around 1900, she pictured herself with one hand on her hip, her fingers almost touching the male buckle of her belt. She looks directly and defiantly at the viewer. She painted like a man, like her brother. The energy of the brush marks flows outward, not inward. She has yet to find the quiet intensity that would define her subsequent work.

About two years later, she painted another self-portrait. Her expression is as distant as that of a figurehead on a ship: she says she’s ready to take on whatever the world has in store for her, but that she won’t be part of any family circle or club. art. His brother had recently married his close friend and the couple had a baby. John understood that to be a mother you had to compromise, and she wasn’t ready to do it. Instead, she was going to choose solitude and deprivation. In doing so, she became one of the greatest spiritual painters of all time.

When we come to Alice Neel, born 1900 in Philadelphia, it’s as if she effortlessly opens a door that previously seemed closed, bringing with her the possibility of freedom and humor. God knows she had her share of tragedy: her first daughter died of diphtheria before she was 1; her second daughter was abducted by her husband; she developed depression as a result and was hospitalized. Various relationships with troubled and abusive partners followed her recovery, along with two sons, whom she raised almost alone in poverty.

Yet his invincible spirit shines through and his life ended in triumph. At the age of 70, she was commissioned to paint feminist critic Kate Millett, author of “Sexual Politics,” for the cover of Time magazine. It made her famous. At 74, she had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York. She said the experience had convinced her that she “had the right to paint”. She painted her first solo self-portrait at the age of 80. She painted herself naked and said, “Scary, isn’t it? … I love it. At least it shows some revolt against anything decent. Somehow, Neel managed to pass off the injury as joy.


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