Giorgio Vasari

The Gender of Paintings by Chris Hall

Christopher Hall,  General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection , c 2009

Christopher Hall, General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection, c 2009

In his book The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey writes an essay on the perceived gender shift of art (most especially paintings), from Renaissance to Modern times, and then again in our contemporary times.  To do this, Hickey sets up two aesthetics, “masculine” and “feminine,” and assigns them attributes appropriately (though perhaps using “aggressive” and “passive” in place of “masculine” or “feminine” may have been more appropriate).  Critical language is important when setting up gender aesthetics in art.  Hickey writes that “The demotic of Vasari's time invested work with attributes traditionally characterized as “feminine”:  beauty, harmony, generosity.  Modern critical language validates works on the basis of their “masculine” characteristics:  strength, singularity, autonomy.”  Hickey explains later that the illusionistic painting of Renaissance times is more receptive to the viewer's gaze.  When looking into a painting with illusionistic space, the viewer's eyes penetrates the picture plane, which is generously offered, shared, and ceded by the artist.  In this regard, paintings with illusionistic space do have “feminine” qualities.  According to Hickey, beginning in Baroque times, paining began a march toward a more “masculine” aesthetic, gradually encroaching on the viewer's space.  With the rise of Modern Art, the “masculine” aesthetic of flatness began to dominate, with paintings seeking to reclaim the illusionistic space, at times even seeking to penetrate outside the picture plane, and overwhelm the viewer.  Modern painting, then, can be said to have an aggressive aesthetic.  

About 50 years ago, beginning with the so called “Death of Paining,” masculinity and Modern Art aesthetics have come under fire.  Postmodern critics have disparaged painting, instead favoring conceptual, photographic, three-dimensional, installation, and time based practices.  This criticism of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World was, perhaps, made with the best of intentions.  Yes, there were a few assholes among the Modern artists and Modern Art supporters, and yes, it was a bit of a patriarchy – but it doesn't follow that the Modernist, “masculine” aesthetic is sexist and patriarchal.  If we follow Hickey's logic of assigning gender attributes to illusionistic depth - or the lack of it as the aesthetic goes in Modern Art - couldn't we also assign gender attributes to color theory?  Red (and warm colors) are aggressive and advance in space, while blue (and other cool colors) are passive and recede into space.  Surely it would be madness to suggest that a painting dominated by the color red is an affront to sensitive eyes and thus an example of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World, but sadly that is where this logic carries us.

So I have to ask, what is exactly is wrong with the “masculine” aesthetic, with celebrating masculinity?  What harm does it do?  Why is it so damned?  Sometimes it seems to me that art with so called “masculine” attributes is too quickly dismissed and damned by critics, dispatched without much investigation.  If a work of art has “masculine” attributes, it is sometimes assumed that author is an insensitive pig and on the wrong side of history.  Even Hickey, a man who is himself sometimes accused of being a chauvinist, compares Modern Art aesthetics to a “dysfunctional male parent in the tradition of the biblical patriarch.”  But just because a work has a “masculine” aesthetic, it shouldn't follow that the artist is a neanderthal male chauvinist pig.  Sadly, though, that is the impression I sometimes get from critics, as if a Modern Art painting is capable eye raping their grandmother and leaving her corpse in a ditch.  The last time I check, neither Van Gogh nor his Starry Night, has ever raped anyone.  Someone should take the time to remind Sherrie Levine of this.

Surely we can each have our own tastes and opinions concerning what we may find beautiful or useful, whether it be “masculine” or “feminine” aesthetics, and Hickey sets up his argument in this way, sharing with us his preference for painting with a “feminine” aesthetic, that is paintings with illusionistic space.  While there are many gender politic issues that still need to be addressed, (pay inequality, for example), Modern Art aesthetics is not one of them.  I fear, though, that by assigning gender roles to art and aesthetics, we are only giving more ammunition to the deconstructionists who already look for any excuse to dismiss Modern At aesthetics based on gender politics.

I have been thinking about the subject of masculinity in art quite a bit recently, as I submitted a short statement along with images of my work for a future show entitled #Masculinity at the Low Museum in Atlanta.  I was excited about the prospect of participating, as I think the time is now ripe to re-examine our positions, and re-open an honest dialogue on what exactly it means to be masculine in our contemporary culture.  I think we will find that it may be safe to once again celebrate and reclaim some aspects of masculinity while at the same time also being careful and critical of some of its more ridiculous and, perhaps, more harmful aspects.  My proposal was turned down, which was kind of hurtful, considering how important the subject is to me and my work (I offered them 60 drawings directly related to the subject -  it is hard to believe they couldn't find at least one drawing that would have worked).  But you can't always win.  It would make for a pissed off Chris, though, if all the art in the show ends up being dismissive and critical of masculinity and masculine aesthetics in art, which considering today's critical climate, is a distinct possibility.  

Sandro Botticelli by Chris Hall

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from  Adoration of the Magi  (1475).

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from Adoration of the Magi (1475).

Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter, born in the crucible of art that was Renaissance Florence.  Very little is known of Botticelli's early life.  We know that by 1462 he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi, from whom he learned intimacy and detail, and we know that he was also influenced by the monumentality of Masaccio's painting.  Botticelli would use both of these influences to great effect later in life.  It is possible that when he was apprenticed in Filippo Lippi's workshop, he may have traveled to Esztergom, Hungary to work on a fresco commission.  By 1470, however, Botticelli had opened his own studio.  In 1475, Botticelli painted what is thought by some to be his first masterpiece, the Adoration of the Magi for the church Santa Maria Novella.  The painting contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni, and his grandsons, Lorenzo and Giuliano.  It also contains what may be Botticelli's self-portrait, as the blond figure in the yellow robe on the far right.  The work was so successful that he was commissioned to repaint it seven more times.

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV invited Botticelli, and a few other Florentine artists, to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.  Botticelli's contributions included The Temptations of Christ, The Punishment of the Rebels, and The Trials of Moses.  Having completed the work in 1482, Botticelli returned to Florence, where he became enamored with Dante's Divine Comedy.  He wrote a commentary for portions of the work, painted a Portrait of Dante, his Map of Hell, and made 92 illustrations for the Inferno, which he then had printed (printing was a then a new art-form).  Botticelli's two most famous works, Primavera, and The Birth of Venus  were commissioned works by Florentine ruler Lorenzo de' Medici.  Both works reflect Botticelli's and the Medici's interest in mythological and Neoplatonic subject matter.  Known for their linear grace, both iconic paintings are considered by many to be among the most beautiful works of art in all of art history.

In late life, Botticelli became one of the followers of the puritanical, fire and brimstone Dominican zealot, Girolamo Savonarola, who preached in Florence from 1490 until his execution in 1498.  Savonarola, at first, was extremely popular with the Florentines, who expelled the Medici and put Savonarola into power as head of the republic in 1494.  Savonarola quickly established a strict theocracy in an attempt to rid the city of vice.  Bands of morality police patrolled the streets, curbing immodest dress and behavior.  Most significant, however, was Savonarola's notorious “Bonfire of the Vanities,” where citizens were pressured into burning condemned items which might tempt a person to sin.  Among the condemned items were mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and musical instruments.  Secular books and artworks were also targeted.  Among the participants in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” was Sandro Botticelli, who reportedly burned his own pagan themed works.  Giorgio Vasari writes that Savonarola's influence on Botticelli was so great, “that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.  For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone he abandoned his work."  Eventually the Florentines grew tired of Savonarola's repressive government and his claims of prophecy and miracle making (he claimed to have saved Florence from God's wrath from another flood and claimed to be able to walk through fire).  Popular legend has it that when Savonarola attempted to close down the taverns, the Florentines rebelled, and Savonarola was executed, simultaneously hanged and burned in a bonfire in the Piazza della Signoria.  

Botticelli produced little in his later years, and he quickly grew into obscurity.  He lived long enough to see his work eclipsed by another Florentine, young Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Botticelli was all but forgotten after his death, a footnote in art history, until he was later rediscovered in the late 19th century.  It is hard for me to accept that an artist can go against their very nature, and stop creating art.  When ordered to stop painting by the Nazis, Emil Nolde found a way to still paint.  How willing a participant Botticelli was in Savonarola's government, we can not ever know.  Perhaps there were other reasons why Botticelli stopped painting.  It is also hard for me to accept that great art, such as The Birth of Venus, can be forgotten, lost to time.  Such works seem timeless today.  When I was in the Uffizi in Florence, I spent what felt like an eternity in front of the painting.  Realizing that Botticelli's works were once unappreciated and forgotten is a reminder that every culture, every age, has its own spirit and aesthetic tastes.  What may be great today, could be considered irrelevant and meaningless tomorrow – and vice versa.