por Mónica Ramírez, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
March 17, 2018 – June 9, 2018
Elements of Violence: an Image is Never Only an Image
This is March 1914 and Velázquez’s Venus del espejo rests calmly in the National Gallery of London. Untouchable, she basks in the impressed faces of the visitors.
Suffragette Mary Richardson enters the museum, approaches the painting, and slashes it with a knife. Seven cuts in the naked Venus’ body. How did she manage to do this? She hid a meat cleaver in her sleeve, and as she pretended to be sketching the painting, she struck.
The Venus is impressed, the admiring visitors are shocked, they do not understand how a painting with the technical mastery of Velázquez could be stabbed in this manner.
This scene is repeated several times on different paintings by great masters. Who are these women—maybe we should call them monsters—who dare to destroy this high art? No one sees the obvious, not even the paintings are aware of their own violence.
Let us now go forward in time. This is 2018, 110 years have elapsed since the attack, and Brazilian artist Carla Zaccagnini, in her Elements of beauty: a tea set is never only a tea set, has undertaken to document all the works that were attacked by the suffragettes between 1913 and 1914.
The installation is presented at Ladera Oeste, Guadalajara, Mexico, since March 18. It displays the perimeter of the 29 paintings attacked in the early 20th century by those pioneers for women’s rights. The gaps are accompanied by an audioguide wherein the artists talks about the works and the events surrounding the attacks, allowing to understand the suffragettes’ action in relation to what each of the works had in common: the symbolic denigration of women. All those images had been ratified by the dominating male gaze for centuries.
When we enter the exhibition, the first question that comes to mind is: what are we looking at? Or rather, what are we not looking at?
To see the pieces by Carla Zaccagnini is to stand among the corpses of the paintings, those which no longer are, no longer exist, paintings of which only the frames remain.
We cannot think of the act committed by the suffragettes and their physical attacks on paintings by great masters without making a parallel with the Christian iconoclasts of the 16th century. Against the representation of the divine, and most of all, looking for coherence with their discourse on humility, they burned, broke and destroyed all the paintings they could find.
The suffragettes’ attacks were not against art itself, but against violent representations of women. As poststructuralist feminism has claimed since the 1970s: we cannot think of images without thinking of ideas, i.e., images and ideas are simultaneous. And by destroying these images, they were also destroying the ideas that created them.
Carla Zaccagnini brings the iconoclastic discourse a step further, as the paintings do not even exist; instead, there is barely a trace of what they used to be. The exhibition consists of the contour of each of the paintings, making the emptiness of the works obvious in relation with the context of the struggle form equality. Thus, Zaccagnini avoids talking about the paintings themselves, keeping them white, rather speaking about the women who sought to end the violence represented by the images.
We find many such women in the cultural scene of Guadalajara. Hundred years later, such actions are still valid and necessary.
This is the month of March, and several demonstrations commemorating Women’s Day are being organised throughout the city. More than in any other month, the air is loaded with the demand for a secure place to live and for respect for the individual rights of all women.
Around mid-March, actually just one day before the Zaccagnini exhibition opened, another event was inaugurated at the Museo de las Artes de la Universidad de Guadalajara (MUSA): Hembras is an exhibition that seeks to “pay tribute” to women. 39 installations are exhibited in the rooms of the museum, where artists Juan Carlos Macías and Victor Hugo Pérez display their personal iconography, or how they see women: images of “females” with animal features, like six breasts and animal legs. One of the drawings shows the body of a dog with the head of a woman, holding a glass in its hand, claiming “today I will wear my bitch dress”. Another presents a naked woman on a bike, the brand of which is “nos saliva” (“it drools us”).
What kind of tribute is the MUSA trying to pay to the women of Guadalajara, by letting two men represent them, instead of opening a space for women themselves? What does it mean for women to be pictured by men in a museum? Is this not precisely why the suffragettes intervened hundred years ago? What Carla Zaccagnini, a few kilometres further, is pointing out?
Let us remember that female artistic creativity was one of the arguments for negating women the right to vote in the early 20th century. Artist and suffragette Mary Lowndes asks in The Common Cause: “How many times have women been reminded, in season and out of season, in conversation, by platform speakers, in print— that their sex has produced no Michael Angelo, and that Raphael was a man?” How can we doubt the reasons for there being so few names of female artists in the history of art, if, hundred years after this was said, public institutions prefer giving spaces to male artists to “pay tribute”?
As a response to the exhibition, just as happened with the suffragettes in the 20th century, a group of women created the Liga de Artistas y Creadoras (League of Artists and Creative Women). The league began to meet periodically to reflect on how to curb sexist violence, and on May 13, 2018, they made their first public action, intervening in the building of the exhibition. The protest was explained in a series of texts written by members of the League, that were read out loud in a guided tour which anyone could join.
The members of the LAC told us: “We cover ourselves terrified, sometimes because we have no choice and not out of shame, but, fortunately, these gentlemen came, and undressed us, and saved us. And it is a tribute payed to us. We did not make it ourselves for ourselves, we are not qualified (perhaps because we would have done it otherwise and those who pay tribute to us as they fucking please do not care about this)”.
Let us look at these two scenes in the same city: in the Museo de las Artes, paintings by men, violently celebrating women and ignoring female artists who have spoken against the exhibition and what it stands for; elsewhere, at Ladera Oeste, the exhibition by Carla Zaccagnini, Elements of beauty: a tea set is never only a tea set. The artist decided to ignore the pictures by men who violently painted women, and, conversely, celebrates female artists who stood up against this kind of representation.
During the tour of the exhibition, Carla Zaccagnini tells us the following story:
Let us go back to 1914. A few days after the attack on Velázquez’s Venus, suffragette Frieda Graham enters the Venetian room of the National Gallery, and attacks five pictures by Giovanni Bellini, among which The assassination of Saint Peter Martyr.
In this painting, Saint Peter is fatally stabbed in the chest, as opposed to the traditional representation of his death, by a knife cutting off the top of his head. In the background stand several men chopping off trees with axes.
Zaccagnini shares the following statement: The image was stabbed on three different levels: on a physical level, when the wood was chopped to make the panel, stabbed in the representation of the men in the background cutting the trees and the moment the saint receives a dagger through his chest, and it was stabbed in discourse, when Frieda Graham slashed the canvas.
What does it mean for a painting to be stabbed? What is actually being stabbed when an image is attacked in one of its dimensions? The suffragettes slashed the images which were violent towards women on a physical level, as evidenced by Carla Zaccagnini, whereas the League of Artists and Creative Women stabs the image on a symbolic level, slashing the discourse.
Hundred years ago, the suffragettes knew that by attacking the “truths” of the museum, they were also threatening the structures supporting the political and economic discourses underlying these institutions.
Very little has changed in 2018, and the League of Artists and Creative Women knows that by intervening on the level of the discourse of artists supported by the museum, they are threatening its sexist structures. On May 13, they claimed: “Let it be made clear that images and language are not neutral, but have a symbolic dimension. [Their] concepts are of ongoing stereotypes, ways of seeing and representing the others.”
Thus, in the way Carla Zaccagnini reminds us, remembering the suffragettes in Elements of beauty: a tea set is never only a tea set, here, in Guadalajara, we claim: an image is never only an image.