Monday, December 2, 2019

Kudos by Cusk and Two Important Reads

I finished the third book in the trilogy I have been writing about here by Rachel Cusk.  In the final book Kudos there are two passages about female artists that struck a nerve.  First, a character is describing the work of Louise Bourgeois:

And then she goes on to some commentary on Joan Eardley:

Very powerful.

I was then excited to read a recent article by Cusk in the New York Times about similar topics:

While I found some passages important, I did not like the format of more or less pitting Celia Paul's experience against Cecily Brown's.  Paul having negotiated the complicated existence of being Freud's muse and lover and the fall out and Brown sort of mimicking the existence of a man in the arts.  She finds nuance but is there not a third, fourth, fifth example of what it means to be a woman painter?  It can feel limiting to try to carve a career as a female painter but to simply draw that binary of options does not feel useful.  And as her discussion of Bourgeois and Eardley points out there are examples of women tackling the art world in other ways even if they are denied the attention they deserve.

The really satisfying follow up I read was Zadie Smith's review of Celia Paul's new book: 

Here is an excerpt:

"This debate is usually posed in the banal form of an either/or. As in: Can I still love X great artist given that he or she behaved in Y way? Or must I shun them? In the case of misogyny, this mode of argument may miss the point. Lucian Freud’s art, whatever its merits, contains within itself the fundamental limitation of misogyny, which is a form of partial sight, a handicap with precise consequences if you happen to be a portraitist whose subjects were often women. For example, the Celia Paul whom Freud believed he saw, whom he set out to paint—that pretty, mild girl with her eyes downcast, “meekly ‘there,’ for him to do whatever he wanted with me”—was not really the person lying before him. This is not to claim that Freud’s portraits of Paul are either “wrong” (whatever such a word could mean in this context) or even bad, but simply that they are notably partial, being blind to so much, indeed, to the essential quality of the subject in question. Freud thought he saw it all, purely, clearly, without distortion—that was his fame.
Painter and Model, 2012; painting by Celia Paul
Celia Paul/Victoria Miro, London and Venice
Celia Paul: Painter and Model, 2012
But, when it came to women, he did not see. Misogyny, whatever else it might be, is a form of distortion, a way of not seeing, of assuming both too much and too little. It was beneath—or beyond—his notice to capture that the pretty, apparently passive body lying naked before him thrummed with painterly ambition, just like his, and intended to save itself for the purposes of art, just as he did. And even when Freud realized, belatedly, that Paul was a painter (rather than a muse or a mere art student), he was blind to the idea that this person, the “woman painter,” might still be a whole human, capable of erotic passion, just like himself, and not a fake man, with a set of violently phallic toes. (Perhaps to demonstrate this, Paul shocked Freud, two months into new motherhood, by having an affair with an eighteen-year-old student she met on a train.) Many years later, after Freud died, Paul painted her own Painter and Model (2012), in which she need make no choices between being a woman and an artist:“I have it all. I am both artist and sitter. By looking at myself I don’t need to stage a drama about power; I am empowered by the very fact that I am representing myself as I am: a painter.”


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