Monday, February 11, 2008

Reclaiming the Feminine: Gendering Post-Impressionism

The first question that leaps to mind when trying to understand a shift in schools of art is this: Is post-impressionism a reaction against impressionism (as post-modernism is to modernism) or is it the next step in the logical progression of interacting artistically with the natural world? First we observe, then we record, then we interact, then we record our interactions, then we observe and interpret those interactions. Impressionism is step two. Post impressionism is step five. This is true, however, only as far as post-impressionism was defined in its infancy. As Clive Bell in particular began to evolve the definition, post-impressionism ceased to represent the next level of interaction with an object and instead rejected the object altogether in favor of the nature of the interpretation. As an artist, I have always been grounded in realism with elements of impressionism entering my work on occasion. I tend to view the act of creation and the technique of representation as a means to an end. As the concept of post-impressionism evolved, it seems that the “end,” a word whose definition as it applies to art would include the word “rendering,” became, itself, redefined. Rendering was not the function of art, but rather the nature of the art itself as a thing essentially unrelated to the object it initially was to represent, became the end. The bohemian part of me is in love with the idea of art for art’s sake and the idea that art exists to interact with the mind rather than the outside world, but I can’t help feeling that striking the importance of “rendering” from art is a dangerous practice that could lead to the dissolution of art as it serves society. Perhaps the post-impressionists didn’t feel that it ought to be a function of art to serve society. Perhaps they just wanted to redefine that service.

When Goldman suggested that we “consider the gender implications” I was hoping that she would outline several. Instead, we are left to consider them on their own. As a television/film student, my gender studies background is couched in terms like “male gaze,” which was introduced by pioneering feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her ground-breaking essay Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema. The idea that Goldman seems to dance around is that if the artist is gendered male and “nature” and the “natural world,” which serve as the focus of objective study for that artist, is gendered female, then impressionistic art is by definition voyeuristic. Mulvey uses the idea of male gaze, which in essence means that the camera is gendered male and therefore film is constructed as a voyeuristic endeavor even if the director and or the audience is female, to show that film operates as a medium to objectify women. If I may be so bold as to take the leap, the impressionists functioned under the same blanket, employing a similar male gaze. That is to say, the artist, or male, observes, records and objectifies the natural world, the female. Regardless of how a woman my try to interpret the finished work, she must adopt the male gaze by necessity. The conclusion is that impressionism, like the cinema that Laura Mulvey described years later, has, at its core, an anti-feminist construction. What does this mean for post-impressionism? Because post-impressionism does not seek to convey the reality of an object, but instead endeavors to interact with it on a personal, individual level, it perhaps escapes the male gaze. The fundamental difference is between objectivity, which seeks to define Truth and therefore can hardly help objectifying its subject matter, and subjectivity, which concedes no Truth, only truths to be discovered by interacting emotionally with the subject matter. By eschewing objectivity, post-impressionism moves beyond the boundaries of male gaze and phallocentric art into a realm that admits far more possibilities, including art that has a feminine construction.

I also cannot let pass without comment, Gauguin’s redefinition of Eve and by extension, woman. As civilization has developed, the shamelessly beautiful, exposed but ultimately damning figure of Eve has been raised as a representation of the duel nature of women. Exceptional beauty hides a monstrous evil suggests every source from classical sources and religious texts to all manner of art, music and literature. By discarding Eve as she resonates throughout the consciousness of mankind, Gauguin rejects the pigeonholing of woman as they are traditionally viewed, particularly in art. By forcing Eve into the light and dismissing the rendered light and dark that define her inherent oppositions, Gauguin reclaims her not for himself, but for her. Bold and colorful and lit, she is not an archetype, but an actual woman.

There is a great deal more to be said about the evolving sense of what post-impressionism means as both an artistic and a social movement. It represented a shift in the way people view the world. There is a great difference, for example, in considering an argument in black and white or light and dark and opening your mind to not just the suggestions of right and wrong on a two dimensional plane, but incorporating the infinite hues and tones of color into how you view the situation. If art, as I believe, tends to represent and even document the nature of thought at a given time, it is possible to recognize why the post-impressionist movement is so vital to understanding modernism as a whole. Like walking from a moodily lit alleyway into a field of infinite color and motion, post-impressionism depicts modernist thought.

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