Monsters and Phantoms

This post was contributed by Oyedepo Olukotun a student on Birkbeck’s MA History Of Art with Photography.

In Professor T.J. Clark’s talk Was Picasso a Woman? : Reflections on Nude, Green Leaves and Bust hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities on Friday June 7 to accompany the launch of his book Picasso And Truth: From Cubism To Guernica, it soon became clear that Picasso was not gender swapping but was casting himself as a woman artistically. Speaking even artistically, in light of statements Clark attributes to Picasso, the notion of the artist as a woman seemed far-fetched. “I would love to paint like a blind man who pictures an arse by the way it feels” or “Like any artist, I am primarily the painter of woman, and for me, woman is essentially a machine for suffering” did not lend credence to Picasso’s case.

Monsters and Phantoms

In light of the above statements Picasso’s terse “I am a woman” is soon sidelined. However, what proceeded to catch my attention in Professor Clark’s talk, which focused on Picasso’s Nude, Green leaves and Bust (1932) and Nude on a Black Sofa (1932), was Clark’s periodical refrain of “monsters and phantoms”. In Lecture 4 of his book, Clark embarks on an analysis of Picasso’s The Painter and His Model (1927) to explore the artist’s fixation with monsters. At a basic level Clark, in his capacity as a social art historian, aims to divorce Picasso’s art, one painting at a time, from a connoisseurial or biographical interpretation.

The transcendental truth that Clark reveals in Picasso’s paintings is the long tradition of art with the objectification of women. That Western art depicts women the way it does is a practice Picasso inherited from a deep-rooted tradition as the British Museum’s Ice Age art: Arrival of the modern mind exhibition has shown us. That this depiction is because he is artistically a woman and Picasso’s sexualised reasons for his stance made for fascinating and revelatory observation in Clark’s talk. Further on Picasso’s stance aligned with his depiction of women as monsters makes for an interesting juxtaposition in Clark’s book and talk.

Women as Monsters

The practice of depicting women as monsters may or may not have began with Picasso however it is not unique to him. In her article The MoMA’s Hot Mamas Carol Duncan points us in the direction of artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Willem de Kooning and Robert Heinecken who, among many, depict women as monstrous, grotesque, menacing and castrating. Duncan uses Picasso’s paintings as a prime example of this genre of women deprecating art; this would have met with the approval of the artist who, according to Clark, was concerned with posterity.

Clark, fascinatingly, traces for us the genealogy and journey of Picasso’s monstrous women and sets us up for the excitement of discovering the truth that transcends autobiography in art which would explain the root of the emotion that has led artists to depict women as monsters.

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Was Picasso a Woman?

This post was contributed by Janine Freeston, a PhD student in the Department of History of Art and Screen Media.

On the warm summer evening of Friday June 7 the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and the Department of History of Art and Screen Media hosted Professor T.J. Clark’s lecture, Was Picasso a Woman?: Reflections on a Nude, Green leaves and Bust, to a packed theatre in celebration of the launch of his latest in a long line of esteemed publications, Picasso and Truth from Cubism to Guernica.

In a similar style to his 2006 book, The sight of Death: An experiment in Art Writing, in which Clark compares two paintings by Poussin, he set out to expose the myriad of complexities and revelations embedded within Picasso’s Nude, Green leaves and Bust,  juxtaposing it to its partner image Nude on a Black Sofa. This would reflect the contents of his latest book and move beyond it through a hybrid analysis. The fascinating exploration of the two portraits was woven together with deftly crafted theoretical and textual threads forming the canvas upon which Clark rendered his interpretation of their resemblances, dissimilarity and equivalents. We were transported through Picasso’s galumphing nudes, lavish still lives to the monsters, freaks and phantoms which framed the 1932 paintings of Picasso’s lover Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Clark’s mediation twisted and turned from the brutal and shocking to pensive and sensual perspectives of proximity and containment, life, identity and sexuality, through the perceptive multiplicity of readings relating to the artist’s work. Citing the artist himself and a myriad of prominent commentators he identified connections and formed relationships between the artist and his environment and how it was perceived. As Clark quoted from Kahnweiler he orated with the energy and excitement of the original author’s response to Picasso’s paintings at the time of their production. His scrutiny of the elements within the work revealed layer upon layer of complexity, metaphor and provocation from the apperception of the blue face to elaborate sexual artifice, took the audience on a journey into and around the painting.

Picasso stated that artistically speaking “I am woman”, and Clark‘s examination of Picassos truths reveal the artists metaphysic. Presenting  Picasso’s  premise that depicting woman as an entity of desire could only be achieved by that depiction being as woman might desire it  reveals conditions of seeing that impact the artist’s proximity and fragmentation. Clark examined the nature of eroticism in Picasso’s art and autobiography which emanated from personal experiences. Picasso’s axiom, that man was an instrument of nature which imposes its character on him, was reflected in one of his favourite quotes from Rimbaud “I is someone else”.

Clark’s meditations through his extended viewing of Nude, Green leaves and Bus, modelled potentials for art historians to enhance investigations in the same incisive, engaging, vibrant, fluency found in his books.

 

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Loose Muse: Four Women Poets

This post was contributed by Emily Best, who will be starting an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck this September.

A week before the Orange Prize winner is announced, the debate rages on about whether there is a “canon” of women writers. Last week in a little room at 43 Gordon Square four lady wordsmiths made their case in favour. Loose Muse is a collective run by Agnes Meadows and runs London’s only all-female writing open mic night at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. It’s not just poetry: women writers of all genres and experience can take part. Last week’s event was a showcase for some of the finest she-poets in the capital to showcase their work amongst a small audience, discuss their poetry and open up the floor.

The event opened with Kate McLoughlin, whose poetry collections Plums is a response to William Carlos Williams’ great American fridge-note-poem This is Just to Say. Kate’s fifty-eight variations on a reply to Williams, which also allude to Picasso’s reimagining of Velazquez’ Las Meninas, explore the variances and nuances of domestic interaction. Kate moves beautifully and sensitively from flippant to epic, on occasion nearing parody, engaging wholly with Williams’ poem (and in turn addressing the critical tradition that surrounds it) but at the same time reclaiming what Williams leaves unsaid and open-ended. I couldn’t help thinking as I listened, is that what these women are doing? What so many people do? Establishing a new tradition; a new canon; picking up where others have left off.

Following Kate was Agnes Meadows herself. I immediately warmed to Agnes – a force of energy in the room, inspiring and welcoming. As she talked of Poetry Café and the work of Loose Muse I knew that in front of me was a woman genuinely committed to the promotion of women poets. I was very happy to discover that her poetry had the same enthusiasm as she did for the project. Reading from  At Damascus Gate on Good Friday, This One is for You and Woman, Agnes went from recounting the fear of sleeping through bombs in Palestine in They’re Bombing the Port again at Gaza to the pain of watching a sibling get your man in Juliet’s Sister. The passion and sensitivity in these poems tell of a woman who has lived and of a poet who feels and writes to the tips of her fingers.

In a complete change of pace, Sally Blackmore came next. Sally had to give up work five years ago and, wanting to use the time usefully, started writing and painting and took a creative writing course at the Open University. Her son, who is in the army, recently got sent to Afghanistan and Sally found that her new-found gift provided a tool for dealing with this. To begin with, I couldn’t believe that Sally had only been writing for five years. The first poem she read, Soldier, had a bittersweet wariness and grace to it that seemed borne of a mind that had always worked in verse. Here was a woman who took pain and fear in her hand like a proverbial nettle and refigured them as something good.

The final poet on the bill was Camilla Reeve. Again, Camilla brought a different energy to the room. Though Camilla has an aura of earnest seriousness about her, her poetry had a lyrical, tender and humorous quality that reminded me a little of Jake Thackray. Where Kate had acrobatic wit and Agnes had exuberance Camilla, like Sally, had contained dignity. Winter Angel was a particular favourite and, on further research, I discovered Dark Bird Turning and fell a little bit in love. Camilla’s poetry concerns itself with trajectories of emotion and the rudiments of relationships between people and places and things. It is entirely and only what it needs to be.

In a nice epilogue to the event, the floor opened up to poets in the audience. Somewhat ironically the two volunteers were both men and I was intrigued to see how this would work. Criton Tomazos read some extracts of what he announced to be nonsense poetry – Unspecified Space-Time was my favourite – playful, witty and at once hesitant and determined in a style reminiscent of Cummings. Criton was followed by Marcin Gozdzik who writes all his poems on a smartphone, each one lasting precisely the length of his tube journey. In his poems that seemed to concern themselves mostly with his being a bad boyfriend, Marcin was affectionate and self-effacing with a detached irony. These two gentlemen, bravely standing in a room of confident women poets whose womanliness defined their union, proved that there is a voice to be welcomed no matter how many chromosomes you have. More importantly though, they demonstrated what the four women proved, each in their own way – every voice is there to be reclaimed and used as necessary and at a time when women are still fighting for those voices, reclamation is as important as ever.

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