Genesis • June 2016
Female sculptor and creation

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Abstract

The text below is like a daydream based on some pictures of sculptors of the late 19th century. Written for an exhibition catalogue, this short analysis is supported by several theories related to the history of the emancipation of female artists. First, one focuses on women who steadfastly claimed their role as an artist. Represented by a painter, sculptor and photographer, they illustrate the artistic gesture, regardless of whether they have a woman's body. They therefore clearly take their place in art and this position does indeed sound like a declaration.

Article's keywords

Female artist, sculptor, France, 19th century, nudity, emancipation of women, art history, fine arts.

Table of Contents

Prolog

The text below [ 1 ] is like a daydream based on some pictures of sculptors of the late 19th century. Written for an exhibition catalogue, this short analysis is supported by several theories related to the history of the emancipation of female artists. First, one focuses on women who steadfastly claimed their role as an artist. Represented by a painter, sculptor and photographer, they illustrate the artistic gesture, regardless of whether they have a woman’s body. They therefore clearly take their place in art and this position does indeed sound like a declaration.

Secondly, the allegorical painting in a public building reveals a contradiction between the nudity of the artist and the hard work of being a sculptor. This contradiction is part of the ‘deregulation’ [ 2 ]  of representation initiated by the democratic era, a deregulation in the traditional distribution among the sexes, or, to sum up, the muse being female and the genius being male. The freedom of becoming an artist for women expresses a profound transformation after the revolutionary rupture, and the position of the creative subject, whatever that may be. 

Thus, our third argument is that changing the old rules therefore created original questions. In fact, what becomes of the model if women become creators? What right have female artists to work from life models, whether men or women, whether nude or dressed? And finally, what about the issue of nudity in art when truth has long been associated by philosophy to female nakedness? Let us remember that this period marks the time when truth was no longer supported by its metaphysical version.

The new female sculptor in the 19th century

In the great hall of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, the centre of the Third Republic, the four allegories of the arts are there for all to see. One represents sculpture; it is by Prix de Rome winner, Joseph-Fortuné Layraud. If I am passing by, which is not very often, I always go and see it and, if possible, photograph it. It intrigues me. A woman with her back to us, naked above the waist, some fabric tied around her hips, antique sandals on her feet, is carving elaborate drapery in stone. We see neither the face, nor the breasts of the sculptor, we do not see the face either, apparently female, of the sculpted figure. Double uncertainty…

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Female sculptor at rest by Antoine Bourdelle, 1906, Credit: Musée Bourdelle, Paris, D.R.

Before analysing the allegory, let’s be realistic for a moment: the female sculptor is at work, mallet hand. This surely is something new in the history of art and I immediately think of two other images of female sculptors, almost contemporary with Layraud. One is an actual sculpture representing Bourdelle’s lover, Cléopâtre, and the other is a photograph of Camille Claudel working on Sakountala. Bourdelle (a student of Rodin) puts a mallet in the hand of his female sculptor and portrays a sweeping, almost majestic gesture. On the other hand, Camille Claudel, wearing the mandatory protective smock, is holding the chisel reserved for detailed work. Stylized representation on one hand, realistic image on the other: two versions of the female sculptor. 

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Female sculptor at work by Antoine Bourdelle, 1906. Credit: Musée Bourdelle, Paris, D.R.

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Camille Claudel working on Sakountala, photograph by William Elborne, 1887, D.R.

Here are three women at work, devoted to this artistic activity for which they have been frugally paid for a long time. One must emphasize the fact that showing a female sculptor is not an ordinary image. The painting by Layraud and the sculpture by Bourdelle choose the heaviest tool to represent them: the mallet, the hammer. The photograph of Camille Claudel shows a lighter side of this artistic practice, sculpture. Is the image of women at work, doing an unusual job, not a new and striking vision at the end of the 19th century?

The traditional image of the inspirational woman, the companion of the male artist, lover, model, muse, however, is not far away. These female artists, remember, were first the models and then the lovers of their teachers. They thus occupy two positions, the old and the new. Curiously, Bourdelle gives of his lover Cléo, a young sculptor student, a second image, that of the sculptor at rest. Today, the two sculptures, the woman at work and the woman at rest, are opposite each other in the Musée Bourdelle in the 15th district of Paris. What a strange pose indeed for this artist at rest: the body erect and the arm resting on the knee. Here, resting is like having a break, an integral part of the artistic activity: it is not like the image of a woman resting on a sofa; it’s a pause in the very movement of the artist. The image of women in the artist’s studio, however, is well known to us. The model of the artist, so often present in paintings, show, in general, a woman seen through the painter’s eye, whether immobile in her pose, or surrendering herself to rest, letting go. Is the sculptor at rest similar to the model at rest? The question does not really arise. But the idea of rest is interesting. The model at rest, as seen in a painting by Marie Petiet, in the Musée de l’Échevinage in Saintes, Charente-Maritime, shows her naked torso, a cloth loosely tied around the lower body. The weariness of the young woman sitting on a couch does not surprise us, her half covered nakedness either, but the sadness of her face marks the finiteness of her position in the painter’s studio. It is worth noting that this painting is the work of a woman. The model seems to be there by chance, at least accidentally, although she could also be the artist’s lover. There is probably no future after this rest, granted by the creator. However, Cléo at rest, sculpted by Bourdelle, has an attitude of reverence and determination; she is surely trying to find in herself a way to continue her work, her work in progress. She is surely modelling for her lover, but who cares; the interesting thing is that she has also taken her place as an artist. The fact that Bourdelle makes two almost complementary sculptures of her, working and resting, reflects a certain awareness of the novelty of the female artist. In her diary, Marie Bashkirtseff, a brilliant student at the Académie Julian, always refers to the time dedicated to sculpture, after painting, which always needs daylight; Marie therefore decides to sculpt at night, at a time lost for painting. For the young artist, sculpting is a horizon.

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The Resting Model by Marie Petiet, Musée de l’Échevinage, Saintes, 1882, D.R.

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Female sculptor at rest by Antoine Bourdelle, 1906, Credit: Musée Bourdelle, Paris, D.R.

The switch from model to artist, from women depicted to women producing art, is a transformation that is almost unknown. It began in the second half of the 19th century. One of the exemplary figures is Suzanne Valadon in her dual role of model, then painter. And she is her own model in a topless self-portrait. Naked under the gaze of others as a model, then naked through her own eyes as an artist. And what can we say about the fact she chose nudity? This is a major shift: she is not only taking the place of the artist, but she is also appropriating the tradition of the female image by showing her naked body. Women and nudity: the story gets more complicated as soon as the old roles of male artist and female muse change. The deregulation of traditional representations emerges from the right and the pleasure of creating, [ 3 ] (Fraisse, 2010, chapters ‘La muse et le génie’ and ‘Le sommeil des muses’), of being an artist; and this deregulation has also appeared within a wider debate since the 18th century, regarding the capacity of representing the nude (male or female, history differs according to gender and countries [ 4 ] . Camille Claudel is once again an example of this: in 1892, people criticized the nakedness in one of her works, showing a couple waltzing, asking her to cover their bodies. She first refused, wanting to show the nudity, but in the end, she covered the lower half of her figures’ bodies.

In our reflection, nudity occurs at all times. This is precisely the issue at stake in the allegorical painting by Layraud. The artist shows nudity that the sculpted figure ignores. What should we think about this?

Here we must remind ourselves of the history of academic teaching and go back a little further in time. In 1793, the female nude was still banned from academic schools and the male nude still prevailed. In 1864, the female nude became a subject of study, but not of artistic competition. Moreover, women were prohibited from copying the naked female form once they were finally allowed to enter the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and therefore the Academy in 1897. The issue of female nudity therefore seemed of great importance.

But what was at stake? Obviously, the moral argument is the first to be put forward: nudity offended morals and aroused conflicting emotions combining both desire and disgust, depending on the convictions of the viewer. But this moral argument only provides us with what it promises: some sort of social explanation, nothing more; the 19th century is indeed well-known for its prudishness.

The second argument is about aesthetic reflection. The beautiful, embodied by a nude, cannot be shown to women, who should be kept at a distance from the absolute. The nude refers to aesthetic perfection and the aesthetic issue, being philosophical, is too important for women. However, the sculpture painted by Layraud, under the hammer of the female artist, is dressed precisely because it was out of the question to copy a female nude in painting, or to reproduce it in sculpture. The female nude was not to be copied by women.

The real issue is therefore copying. One can access the academic truth, the truth of nature (both coexist easily). But one should not ‘copy’ the truth, reproduce or repeat it. Multiple interpretations are then possible: women inspire rather than imitate; copying means changing posture, like taking the place of the artist, and not only sticking to the role of the model. Therefore, copying is imitating, practising mimesis, reviled by Plato; the perfect argument (imitation is inferior to inspiration) to dismiss women.

In any case, women had to be kept away from symbolism, from the truth, whether absolute or not, whether reproducible or not. It would indeed be an unforgivable outrageousness for the female sex, women artists having just been authorised to become official students of the Republic. Copying or reproducing the nude therefore meant mastering it; hence appropriating it. Is it the excessiveness of human ambition, or simple competition with the male sex?

But, ultimately, the derisory nature of this prevention and interdiction seems obvious: copying as an issue to access the truth or the symbolic, disappeared with photography. At the end of the 19th century, there was indeed a proliferation of photographs of naked women. An irony of history, women were fighting for what already belonged to the past… The students of the Republic were indeed too well-behaved!

Let’s now go back to the allegory in the great hall of the Hôtel de ville in Paris. Here, the painter granted nudity to the sculptor, not to the model or object being sculpted. Nudity is seen from the back, without any human singularity (no face), or sexual specificity (the breasts are invisible); the sculptor is shown in the nude against all likelihood as, when sculpting, one must be protected from head to toe by a smock (the photograph of Camille Claudel is convincing evidence of this). The allegory is therefore talking nonsense in terms of factual reality. It shows nudity out of place. Of course, an allegory is not meant to be realistic; it chooses to gather significant elements together. An allegory is not a symbol, either. Still, this allegory intrigues us by its oddity. But perhaps it simply reflects the deregulation of the relationship between women and art. Indeed, giving access to women to the academic practice of sculpture meant increasing the number of potential artists. As the Republican law was broadly applied, women could enter the Ecole des Beaux Arts (just a few years after Layraud’s painting was made). This revolution is less due to this right of access than to the number and multiplication of potential artists.

Two phenomena therefore merge here: access to art education (i.e. the end of the exceptional status of the female artist) and dissolution of the ‘muse/genius’ rigid pattern. The deregulation of representations, or more precisely the end of the divide between the male genius and the female muse, initiated after the French Revolution, was growing…

And this is how I understand this intriguing allegory: nudity is assigned, against all likelihood, to the artist sculpting; the veil is imposed on the work being sculpted; and these two women, both of flesh and stone, have no face… Should we regret this absence or see it as a sign of universality, of the artist to come, whether male or female?

Notes de bas de page   [ + ]

1. A first version of this text was published in the exhibition catalogue under the title La sculptrice à l’œuvre (2011). Sculpture’ELLES, les sculpteurs femmes du XVIIIème siècle à nos jours, Boulogne-Billancourt: Musée des Années Trente, Paris: Somogy éditions d’art, p. 210-214.
2. Fraisse, G. (September 2011). The Deregulation of Representations. Paper given at the seminar Le Genre à l’œuvre. Paris, Sorbonne University. Both French and English versions are available on: https://cnrs.academia.edu/genevieveFraisse/
3. See the chapters ‘La muse et le génie’ and ‘Le sommeil des muses’ in Fraisse, G. (2010) A côté du genre, sexe et philosophie de l’égalité. Lormont: Le Bord de l’eau.
4. Nochlin, L. (1989, published in 1993) Femmes, art et pouvoir. Nîmes: Jacqueline Chambon.

Bibliography

Fraisse, G. (2010) A côté du genre, sexe et philosophie de l’égalité. Lormont: Le Bord de l’eau.

Fraisse, G. (September 2011). The Deregulation of Representations. Paper given at the seminar Le Genre à l'œuvre. Paris, Sorbonne University. Both French and English versions are available on: https://cnrs.academia.edu/genevieveFraisse/

Nochlin, L. (1989, published in 1993) Femmes, art et pouvoir. Nîmes: Jacqueline Chambon.

To quote this article

, Female sculptor and creation, published 14 June 2016

URL : https://wikicreation.fr/en/female-sculptor-and-creation/

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