Monday, November 29

Jennifer Higgie’s Mirror and Palette Review: Five Centuries of Feminine Gaze | Biography books

In 2019, the Royal Academy hosted an exhibition by the great Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck. The day I saw it, the galleries were supernaturally quiet (the crowd that is so crazy about Frida Kahlo seems not to have heard of Schjerfbeck) and in the room where the curators had hung 17 of their self-portraits, a time-lapse sequence dating back to from 1884 to 1946, I was surprised to find myself completely alone. Only he wasn’t, not really. She was everywhere. Schjerfbeck’s colors are often mossy, shades of greenish gray that are reminiscent not only of nature at its finest, but also of gravestones, mottled and cool to the touch. In the ghostly silence, I saw a woman first grow into herself, then move beyond that self – as death drew closer and closer, the self-portraits became more and more abstract – and it was indescribably reinforced. I could have faced anyone that day. An invisible presence had sprinkled courage on my wrists.

Why would an artist choose to paint herself? When women were still excluded from life classes (it was 1893 before female students were allowed to look at a “partially covered” body at the Royal Academy), it was about being the best model of yourself. The artist turned to herself, familiar and available, both as a means of presentation (“here I am, see what I can do”), and as an artistic statement (“this is what I believe”). But there is also the question of self-realization, and it is this that has most recently fueled the momentum of the self-portrait. “People are like shadows to me,” said Gwen John. “And I am a shadow.” Too often women are invisible; It remains for us to point out what others refuse to see. In A corner of the artist’s room in Paris (1907-09), an umbrella leaning against the arm of a wicker chair replaces John; she is absent, elsewhere. His self-portraits, however, are by no means gloomy. She seems like a person we’d do well to pay attention to: solid, determined, unabashed.

In The mirror and the palette, Jennifer Higgie, former editor of the art magazine Frieze, tells the story of the female self-portrait beginning in the 16th century, her inevitably extensive narrative takes its structure from what is essentially a group biography, although she seems to be reluctant to admit this, titled her chapters not for women to portray, but for states mood and vague themes (Loneliness, Hallucinations, Naked). Artemisia Gentileschi, Angelica Kauffman, Alice Neel, Helene Schjerfbeck, Suzanne Valadon and, yes, Frida Kahlo – they’re all here. Among the lesser-known names it includes are Australian artist Nora Heysen and New Zealand artist Rita Angus.

Group biographies are extremely difficult to pull off successfully: the danger is that the narrative will seem rushed and superficial, and that the connections between its subjects, to the extent that they exist, will feel forced and contingent. In theory, The mirror and the palette it is my ideal book. Could hardly be more interested in your topic. But I’m afraid these two problems are evident here. Obediently gliding over territory that will be very familiar to many readers by now, Higgie struggles to justify the way in which he has brought together artists who have relatively little in common. With some desperation, he keeps asking if this artist ever met that artist, or even knew about her work, and then answers his own question with the words, “We don’t know.”

A Corner of the Artist's Room by Gwen John in Paris, in which an umbrella replaces John
A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, by Gwen John, in which an umbrella replaces John. Photography: Alamy

As I read, I longed for a deeper interrogation of the artist’s force of tension practicing, metaphorically speaking, in a corner. As Higgie points out, drawing on the work done by art historians Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock in the 1980s, it is surprising that even as the number of female artists grew, they continued to be ignored (in the first edition of the EH Gombrich classic Art history, published in 1950, not a single female artist is mentioned). Surely there is something important to say about the retrograde gap between, say, the 30s and 40s, and our own time, when female artists can be celebrities, but only of a certain type (their work, if it is to attract attention, must have to do with their bodies, their pain, their sex life).

But perhaps the real problem with this book is that it is already written. Frances Borzello’s Looking at ourselves: self-portraits of women it was first published in 1998. It hasn’t been out of print since then, and it’s so good, so richly illustrated, and so mind-blowing that I have two copies. The first of them is battered, with a cracked spine. The other, pristine, I reserve to pass out, something I find myself doing more and more as the edges of my own face begin to inexplicably fade.

The mirror and the palette by Jennifer Higgie is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£ 20). To order a copy, go to Shipping charges may apply

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