Thursday, 26 November 2020

Podcast for Sabinna and interview for Jakarta Fashion Week 2021

I am unashamedly blowing my own trumpet, here, thus this will be a short post. 

Yesterday 25th November, Sabinna. com released a podcast on ageism, a discussion of ageism in fashion, with myself, Venus Apovo and Jacynth Bassett.

You can listen to it on Spotify and also on Apple Podcasts.

Yesterday was also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 2020.  Journalist Julia Suryakusuma has written a piece for The Jakarta Post,  of which she is a regular columnist, to mark the day. It can be read on my Facebook page.  If you are using beauty products containing palm oil (or even food) , it might be a good idea to think of the conditions in which the women that work in palm oil plantations, where exploitation, including rape, is rampant.

Finally,  I am really happy to share the video recording of my interview with Subkhan J. Hakim, managing editor of Dewi magazine, for Jakarta Fashion week 2021, which started today. 

Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

The colourful exploits of a beautiful Renaissance aristocrat


Barbara Sanseverino, Duchess of Sala

You may be familiar with Gina Sanseverina, the Duchess portrayed by Stendhal in his masterpiece, The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), a novel  praised in turn by Honoré de Balzac, Lev Tolstoy, André Gide and Henry James, as groundbreaking.  It seems that Stendhal's inspiration for the character of Gina was Barbara Sanseverino, Duchess of Sala, a Renaissance woman for whom the celebrated poet Torquato Tasso (he of The Jerusalem Delivered, 1581)  composed a  theatrical prologue, and passionate sonnets, a woman of great beauty known for her ability to stage elaborate games, involving masquerades and more, in the spirit of Renaisssance court  entertainment. That the games included bedroom antics is to be taken as a given. The Duchess of Sala behaved rather freely and was a most charming, refined, sophisticated companion. Renaissance court life was lascivious, and a noblewoman's ability to entertain at all levels was highly prized.

Gigliola Fragnito

In a new biographical account, the Italian writer and academic Gigliola Fragnito, a specialist of this period, author of countless studies  and of a  biography of Clelia Farnese, set in Counter-Reformation Rome, tells us the story of Barbara Sanseverino, her penchant for and ability to entertain, her love affairs and, most of all,  her tragic death by decapitation, on a charge of lèse majesté, due to her alleged participation in a conspiracy against the ruling Duke of Parma, Renuccio.

Fragnito has a personal investment in presenting to us the multi-faceted, unconventional Duchess of Sala. From her mother's side, Fragnito is a Sanseverino of Bisignano, a branch of the family. Barbara Sanseverino, from the Caiazzo side,  had no issue, thus Fragnito is not a direct descendant. But Fragnito was always greatly fascinated by the Duchess, and indeed wrote the book while staying in a small house located in the grounds of the Palace, currently belonging to the Caiazzo family. Thus, as she says, she wrote in the knowledge that whenever she went for a stroll in the beautiful gardens she treaded on the Duchess' steps. 

Among the women of the day,  Barbara Sanseverino shone for her beauty and her ingegno (wits), living a life of unusual independence from male control and always willing to push boundaries. Several princes were infatuated with her.  Energetic and resourceful, she was a first-class reveller and an indefatigable organiser of games, which were indeed all-important at court.

As for her role in the conspiracy, this may have well been inflated, bolstered by her ludic persona. Her death was marked by indignity. The executioner failed to kill her instantly and had to change weapon, the crowd demanded that her dress be lifted and the executioner slapped her naked bottom before using a smaller axe, normally employed for animals - there was no guillotine (a French invention)  in those days. 

Severino was a pioneer and paid a high price for her freedom. As  Fragnito says,  in the sordid conspiracy affair she was a  loser,  above all, for her challenge to social conventions, despising all conformism,  and adopting behaviours that did not suit her gender within the rigid constraints of her time. It will be a longtime before  a woman will be  allowed to cross the boundaries of the narrow perimeter that social norms had assigned her and that Barbara Sanseverino repeatedly overstepped. 

This was her real crime. Today, we salute her as a strong-willed woman who asserted her independence at a time when most women had none.

Gigliola Fragnito La Sanseverino. Giochi erotici e congiure nell'Italia della controriforma  Bologna, Il Mulino, 2020

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Gentileschi and other Italian women painters of Renaissance and Baroque

Artemisia Gentileschi 'Head of Holofernes'

Before the second lockdown, I was fortunate enough to be able to view the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery. It's a great exhibition, which of course cannot be seen at the moment, but hopefully the Gallery  will reopen to the general public when this lockdown is over. 

Of Artemisia Gentileschi I have written in several blogposts, such as this one (you can do a search for the others) thus I will not repeat myself. A friend I met at the exhibition -  did not recognise him at first, it is difficult when people wear masks - wondered whether there were other famous women painters prior to the 19th and 20th century. Was Artemisia an exception? She was definitely very talented, a star among painters, but no, she was not unique. There were other women in Italy and beyond, who painted. The point is that art history books have,  by and large, been written by men - or perhaps I should say were - so it took a while for female talent to be acknowledged. 

Sofonisba Anguissola 'Self Portrait '

But women were indeed very active as painters during the Renaissance and the Baroque. In Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (1997) with 'picturing' meaning both women who painted and women as they were represented in paintings, a number of art historians of both genders discuss the phenomenon of nuns as artists, and noblewomen as patrons, and write about the celebrated Lavinia Fontana, a Renaissance painter from Bologna, daughter of a painter, who achieved fame for her portraits of nobildonne, gentlewomen, to whom she had privileged access, by virtue of being a woman. The volume highlights the role played in early modern Italian culture by women as subjects, producers, patrons and viewers of art.

Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque is the title of an exhibition held in Washington DC in 2007. I did not see it, but I have with me the catalogue with a number of illuminating essays. The exhibition comprised the work of 17 artists, starting with the 15th-century abbess Caterina Vigri, from Bologna and ending with Elisabetta Sirani, also from Bologna but separated from Vigri by two centuries and painting in a very different style. The others are Properzia de Rossi, Eufrasia Burlamacchi, Plautilla Necchi, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lucia Anguissola (her younger sister), Diana Scultori (aka Ghisi), Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi, Fede Galizia, Lucrina Fetti, Chiara Varotari, Elisabetta Cattanea Parasole, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia e Giovanna Garzoni. All these women were figlie d'arte - daughters of art - in other words, born in a family in which painting and sculpture were the main activities. They showed talent and began to receive commissions, but their work was always regarded even by themselves as 'that of a woman', except in the case of Artemisia. In her interactions with patrons and would-be-patrons, she emphasised that hers was  a male brain (and talent) in a woman's body.  It was this perceived extraordinariness that valorised these artists' work, the underlying principle being that women, as women, could not produce excellence. 

Orsola Maddalena Caccia. Detail Birth of the Virgin 

I am particularly interested in the women painters who made work in Naples and the South of Italy. We know that Artemisia Gentileschi was most productive when she established her bottega or atelier in Naples and we also know from art historian Ornella Scornamiglio of other women painters from Naples and surroundings such as Mariangela Criscuolo, Luisa Capomazza, Annella De Rosa, Caterina de Julianis. These are women mentioned in passing in works that discuss known male painters and one wonders about the many others who collaborated with their fathers or husbands and whose work is now lost. 

Elisabetta Sirani. Portia wounding her thigh

As Scornamiglio writes, Rosalia Novelli, Mariangiola De Matteis, Angela Maria Beinaschi, Cristina Beltrano, Angela Siscara, Angela Mansini, Elena Recco are almost totally unknown. Nothing is also known of other daughters of painters,  even in the case of the daughters of  Artemisia Gentileschi and Teresa Del Po, nor do we know of the pupils of Mariangiola Criscuolo or of Sister Maria de Dominici and many more.  The Neapolitan Baroque saw the rise of practitioners from the whole of southern Italy, among them De Rosa, Ribera, Giordano, Solimena who are regarded as part of the Barocco Leccese - but of the women of their household who worked with them, as that was the practice at the time, nothing is known. 

Why do we want to know about women artists? Clearly to redress the balance and understand that artistic talent should not be gendered, without denying that issues of gender do affect visual culture and in turn the visual culture of a given time is affected by them. 


Thursday, 5 November 2020

Alice and Peter Pan: take 2

Alice in the 2010 movie

I have been writing this blog for so long that I sometimes forget what I have written about.  As I began this post about Alice and Peter Pan,  I realised halfway through that I already wrote about them ten years ago. Not to worry, this is going to be a complementary post. 

In the intervening years between my two posts, Peter Pan as a character got a bit sullied by the association with Michael Jackson, whose ranch was called Neverland and who identified with Peter Pan. His alleged paedophilia was discussed in Leaving Neverland (2019).  I am not going to add to that discussion, it really does not pertain to this post. 

I would like to point out, at the risk of stating the obvious,  that Peter Pan has nothing to do with paedophilia, even though there have been allegations that Barrie, author of the famous play (which then became a book), had a sexual interest in young boys. Similar allegations have been made about Charles Dogdson aka Lewis Carroll, in connection with his photos of a seminude Alice Liddell, upon whom the Alice of Alice in Wonderland is based.  But as Douglas-Fairhurst, author of The Story of Alice, comments  “the most probable conclusion is that Carroll’s strongest feelings were sentimental rather than sexual” and this would be in line with the Victorian idealisation of children and childhood.

The existence of a so-called Peter Pan syndrome (not a medically acknowledged one) also turns Peter Pan into a rather unsavoury character, whereas I would like to think of Peter Pan as a free spirit. Forget the syndrome and the charges of immaturity. You can interpret Peter Pan in a more positive key. A good friend of mine, who is in fact a responsible person,  definitely not lacking by way of commitment and maturity, tells me that he feels, in his heart of heart, like a teen. A Peter Pan, in other words, as he is a free spirit, a bit of a rebel, someone who tries to live in the moment and does not worry too much about the future. For him, life is for living and experiencing and there should be room for improvisation and the unexpected, rather than plan everything in the minutest detail.

Johnny Depp as Mad Hatter, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

There is no reason for believing, that Peter Pan could only be a boy -  traits such as those described can also be easily applied to girls.

Do I then identify with Peter Pan? No. In my case the character I identify with is  Alice, from the celebrated Alice in Wonderland.  Alice is curious and embarks on an adventure in search for knowledge and identity. Through her journey she matures and grows; she is a young woman with agency, unusually so for a Victorian girl.  

Wonderland is not Neverland. It is none other than the mad world of adults. In Wonderland, Alice learns to be herself. When she says 'you are nothing but a pack of cards' Alice displays her autonomy and agency. Alice teaches you how to go through life, approaching it with curiosity and inquisitiveness and making up your mind about who and what you encounter. It applies to me at all levels. Even my penchant for research, as an academic,  is Alice's style curiosity.  

My favourite Alice quote?

“It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” How very true.