Griselda Wept

For my own benefit and also for the vindication of revisionist art histories... and to post my reading notes.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Class and Gender in Albert Gleizes' Woman with Animals

The painting Woman with Animals by Albert Gleizes exists in the corner of PC1 where it is overshadowed by the works of Picasso, Brancusi, and Duchamp. Its lack of an audioguide entry further marginalizes its position within the collection, where it seems to only be acknowledged by the passerby as another Cubist painting, albeit a large one reminiscent of Peggy, a woman surrounded by her animals, whose visage has been maimed by the artist’s representation of a large unattractive nose.

There are several striking things about this work, which necessitate a closer reading of its content. First is the fact that although Gleizes was a Cubist, in the sense that he co-wrote the seminal treatise On Cubism in 1912, but the work itself is a hybrid of several styles. It represents both the diversity and limits of Cubism as a construct in the identification of artistic styles, as well as commenting on class and gender. Gleizes practiced a heavily theorized and politicized version of Cubism, which was equally indebted to Orphism, especially the work of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, and Italian Futurism, which was accessible to the artist by heavily promoted exhibitions across western Europe at the time. The use of bright colors and the gradation of the shading within planes represent Orphist concerns with simultaneity, a looser and more dynamic rendering of multiple perspectives than cubism. Repeated and curved lines cutting across the composition diagonally predominantly in the lower half of the painting are Futurist devices which image movement, such as the hand moving to pet the dog, and also the tail of the dog wagging.

The cross pollination of stylistic influences began in Gleizes’ work when he established an artists commune in 1906 which reflected his socialist ideals of creating a collective brotherhood, where art could be created in an environment free from economic pressures and influences. There he collaborated with artists from Mexico, Russia, Italy, Germany as well as France. In these years he met with the Cubist sculptor Raymond Duchamp Villon, with whom he would exhibit work in the Armory Show in New York during 1913.

This piece was created after the Armory Show but several months before the outbreak of the First World War. In this brief historical moment the pressures which would contribute to profound changes in art and society is documented in this composition by a ideologically motivated use of Cubism which does not display several physical perspectives at one but instead constructs reality from multiple symbolic views of its subject. In On Cubism Gleizes states that the collapse of the foreground, middle ground, and background into one another functions to explore the influence that forms have on each other. In his work Gleizes uses this framework to establish the complex social relations of subjects to their changing environments.

Women with Animals takes on a largely unconventional modernist subject matter a middle class woman in a domestic interior in order to comment on class. Mrs. Raymond Duchamp-Villon is pictured flattened against a backdrop of the domestic interior, which reflects the social conventions of women of the upper class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At a time when women were agitating en masse for suffrage, this image, which the catalogue identifies as one of “bourgeois complacency,” serves as a biting critique of the participation of the upper middle class in what was an especially sore point for women in France. After the Revolution French women had the right to vote, own property, and have legal representation but these were rescinded less than a century later during the Paris Commune. The status of women was dictated by their class standing, which was conveyed by a combination of clothing, occupation, and location.

Duchamp-Villon’s class is evidenced in the painting by her clothing. The details are not fractured in a Cubist style but exist in their own undisturbed planes of color, specifically, the wedding ring on her hand, a string of beads, hat, embellished shoes, and a leg which reveals a silk stocking. Multiple perspectives of her face, reveal less flattering views of the bourgeois lifestyle. The immersion of this figure into the background infers that Duchamp-Villon exists as just another pet within her husband’s household. Just as the dog is satisfied with attention from its owner, this woman has been placated by luxury goods and a comfortable lifestyle. The title alludes to the fact that Yvonne, or Mrs. Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s, identity rests solely on the social status of her husband. The creature comforts of her surroundings is contrasted by a grey, lifeless, mask used to convey the emotional emptiness of material possessions. One of the planes has been rotated to create the illusion of a mustache atop of her blackened lips adding to the ugliness of the disproportionate nose which further places the subject in a negative light.

Gleizes had come from a family of textile workers, and had apprenticed in his father’s shop as a youth before attending art school. His pre- 1914 work generally reflected his socialist politics and he submitted a portrait of a worker in the Armory Show of 1913, which was more conventionally modernist. This piece used the same conventions as Woman with Animals of collapsing pictorial space to fuse the worker with environment, a building site, but positions the figure as a constructive force in the creation of a modern and therefore more equal world. During the Armory Show, which introduced European avant guarde art to America, there was a massive strike in the neighboring county of Passiac, New Jersey which proved to be a decisive battle in labour history. The Paterson Silk Strike began as a dispute between textile workers and factor owners, which grew to encompass a total of 25,000 workers and lasted for five months. At this time the World Workers International, an international labour organization represented a major front on the second international and in general the brotherhood of a global socialist movement. The strike was unsuccessful and this defeat represented the failure of international socialism resulting in the radicalization of the fragments of this group as evidenced in the proliferation of Communist parties across Europe, Latin America and North America during the 20th Century.

The fact that Gleizes was intimately acquainted with both socialist politics and textile manufacturing is essential to understanding his choice of subject and manner of representation. He images the wrongs in society as a woman, a practice which is congruent with male dominated structures of modern art, which often polarizes women as objects of desire or deviance. Before the developments of nylon and other plastics in the 1920s only upper-class women could afford silk stockings, which in this image serve as one of the identifying accouterments of social class. Woman with Animals may also be responding to its contemporary movements in art such as the Russian Constructivist clothing design and the fabric collages of Sonia Delaunay. As one of the last figurative representational pieces Gleizes makes before retreating into abstraction during and after the war, this work is an interesting document which records not only the alternative histories of women’s and labour rights but also the loose parameters of Cubism as a movement.


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