In that regards, it was very useful for Borzello to really lay out the distinct history of self-portrature in a (significnatly!) more modern context than one I am familiar with.
I was surprised at the (contextual) modernity of many of the works, some of which did not seem to fit into what I think of as their 'stereotypical' period styles. This made me feel really excited and energised by the works, that women are doing innovative and wonderful things that push boundaries both by the style of their works and, probably most importantly, by the subject matter. Themselves.
The book also made me start thinking about what the purpose of my writing about the books I read is. It's difficult to step out of the 'academic' desire to review each book, but that is not what I want to achieve from these posts. I want to think about how the various things fit into the work that I am doing, not as an academic or an art historian, but as a practitioner. As a painter.
To that end, this book has inspired me to start thinking deeply about the way that I portray myself, about my desire to paint self-portraits. About tapping into some of the convetions that female artists have set down - I'm not a good musician, but the painting of self-with-piano, for example, can mean something incredibly telling for me as we have a piano at home and my husband plays. Thinking about the ways I can represent that while still playing on and with the convention set down by artists like Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola in the sixteenth century. Portraits with a closed piano in the background, or with my husband playing, back turned. Although this is something that I'd never considered before, reading about the way that women in the past have emphasised their competencies in a world that continually denied them agency has been incredibly thought provoking and inspiring.
What are you looking at?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye (WAYLA) is a deceptively well written and self-effacing book, written by William Gompertz, the arts correspondent of the BBC, and former Tate Media director. His writing is engaging and the narrative he weaves around the artists, movements, and key artworks is dense and intelligent but approachable. It title is somewhat misleading, though, as this book cannot be read in the blink of an eye. It is a tome. Of sorts.
WAYLA approaches broad movements of the art world in each chapter, moving forward though time in general, but with some stilting back and forward as various movements overlap but are treated in different chapters. This works well for the reader, as there are clear delineations between movements, but Gompertz could do more to make this clear within the text itself.
Like Kemp (2014), women don't get a look in until relatively late in the book, but unlike Kemp, Gompertz explicitly acknowledges this, and looks at some of the systemic reasons why women have been pushed to the background: 'Where, you might wonder,' he says, 'are the female artists? Evidence suggests that if you were a female artist practising between 1850 and 1930 you might be tolerated, but you probably wouldn't be venerated' (location 3864 of 6225 [Kindle*]). While I might argue that including some of those 'tolerated' female artists producing ground-breaking work alongside their male peers might be preferable to just mentioning that they were there, this acknowledgement does two things that a simple inclusion doesn't do. First, it forces the reader to confront their own complicity in forgetting female artists. 'Where, you might wonder...' Had you wondered? You can pretend you had, of course, but very few of us actually would do. Second, it forces us to think critically about the system of 'ground-breaking progressives' - Gompertz says as much: 'But then weren't the pioneering artists and the movements they championed supposed to be challenging society and the status quo?' (3872-3875) - and how they were not (always, nor in every way) as progressive as we might think. That is to say, it forces us to remember that even progressives have progressed - we cannot anachronistically apply our own cultural norms onto people who did not share those norms.
And therein lays what is really great about Gompertz's book. It's light, witty, presents sometimes fictionalised accounts (Gompertz confesses this early on) of many of the most influential artists, movements, and artworks of 'modern art'. But it is no less critical of those movements - and of what is left out of 'modern art' because it just doesn't really fit, or because of social 'faults' (or what we may consider such now). And, crucially, it makes us - the reader, as artists, or art historians, or interested lay people - to understand the role that we - as 'society' - have played in those people and movements who have been left out.
I'm not quite sure how to begin on Kemp's Art in History. I found it troubling that the first mention of a woman was on page 187 (out of 214 pages of text), and the small spate of women here included Artemisia Gentileschi (who should probably have been mentioned during the discussion of the Baroque period, given she is one of it's more enduring figures...). I also expected to be put on the wrong foot from the off, as the book opens with a chapter on ancient art, which is something I teach as a professional ancient historian. But the chapter was both clear and (mostly) correct, so that was a nice surprise.
The book is well illustrated and written in an engaging style, that tries to play to both the interest in talking about the artists' lives and the necessity to talk about their work. I particularly liked that Kemp also discussed the way that media changed across the centuries.
All in all, this was a nice smooth introduction back into reading about art for me - something I have not done (with the exception of ancient art) for a long time. I suspect it will take me a bit longer to start remembering how to write about art (and about art scholarship) though.