My History of Art degree at the Courtauld had a predominantly female intake. By ‘predominantly’, I mean that in a class of eight people, seven were women. On my first day, as I gazed around the lecture theatre at that year’s intake – roughly 150 students – I could count on one hand the number of male students. What was somewhat harder to count was the number of students called Pippa, Rosie, or Maisy.
In my subsequent internship at a London-based arts publishing house, I sat on a floor of other editorial staff who – apart from the commissioning editor and one other senior editorial staff – were entirely women. On the floor above, the managerial level, the women were largely, if not entirely, secretarial staff. On one particular day, we gathered in the kitchen to slice a cake for a colleague’s birthday. A secretary from upstairs asked where all the men were before correcting herself, “Of course, they’re all out! Directorial training day.”
I now work for a private arts company. My office is, save one wonderful man, all wonderful women. My company’s highest tiers, however, remain male-dominated. The oft-used statistic that there are more CEOs called John than there are total women CEOs hardly feels untrue when the senior positions in my company have just been filled by Joseph and Jeffrey.
So, what happens between the time of studying the arts at university and the higher tiers of the working world? What gendered filter comes into place? When? And will naming my sons James and Joshua ensure myself a plush old folks’ home? Continue reading
A regular series of posts in which an individual, historical or present-day, is highlighted for their creative or political impact.
In her 1928 essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, the modernist mammoth Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be a woman-manly, or a man-womanly.’ The urgent connection Woolf draws between androgyny and liberation is perhaps best embodied by Claude Cahun.
Cahun (1894 – 1954) was a French photographer and artist whose surrealist self-portraits have recently undergone much critical revision, including an exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery in which she was coupled with Gillian Wearing. Deemed worthy of retrospective inclusion in the art historical narrative, Cahun’s place within the modernist canon sits most comfortably in that well-worn pigeonhole, ‘Female-Surrealist-of-the-Androgynist-Lesbian-Convict-variety’.
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Her photographs portray the artist donning a variety of eccentric costumes, reflective of the fluidity with which she ascribed her identity. These polymorphous pictures depict an individual who, in suffering societal prejudice to almost every facet of her identity, sought solace in the undefinable.
The young Cahun was subject to anti-Semitic acts ensuing the Dreyfus Affair. At 15, she met Suzanne Malherbe, who would not only become her life-long partner, but whose mother would, several years later, become Cahun’s step-mother. However, Cahun’s art is perhaps made most powerful when coupled with her political prowess. Following the invasion of Cahun’s then-home, Jersey, by the Germans in 1940, Cahun and Malherbe produced counter-propaganda tracts. They were consequently arrested and imprisoned in separate cells for almost a year. In 1951, she received the Medal of French Gratitude for her efforts during the Second World War.