Paperworks contd.

14 Dec

Slaving away in the ‘brary as per usual in this, the last week before Winter Break and professors’ last stab at sucking knowledge out of our battered skulls, to sap our last energy reserves in hopes we’ll be utterly spent by Saturday — a sneaky, futile attempt to kill the party in us.  Luckily, the work I’m doing now is still centered around what my earlier post posited and is of great interest to me — so, here’s the start of an elaborated paper:

“I examine three female artists who are responsible for creating positive images of female smokers: Jane Atché, Louise Lavrut and Frances Benjamin Johnston.  They created a space for female smokers in an art world and social climate that depicted them as either a femme fatale or object of desire.  The phallic form of cigarettes and cigars had an inherently male association, however the objects themselves were personified by their owners as feminine.  By the turn of the 19th century, a public female smoker was still an anomaly in society.  The only women who smoked brazenly were women already marginalized outside of polite, bourgeois society, otherwise known as prostitutes or popular dancers.  The lesson to women in mainstream society was that smoking was an immoral act for women and showed looseness of character – smoking and drinking were a quick way to falter and destroy one’s reputation and upright morals.

It follows then, that the iconography surrounding women and smoking functioned within a morally-low context; portraying either a femme fatale in the cafés and dance halls or a sexualized female reaction to the symbolically male cigarette. The literal translation of femme fatale in terms of drinking can be seen in Picasso’s Le Moulin de la Gallete.

Here men and women commingle in a public space at night, however it is the women’s faces that get the artists attention and striking details whereas as the men are placed either high above the swarming crowd below or have their backs to the viewer.  The women are given lurid red lips or flashing white smiles with darkly painted eyes, housed in sharp, pointed faces.  The four women closest to the frontal plane of the painting are of particular interest:  the three seated ladies lean over the table and into each other next to an empty wine carafe while the lady in black on the right, who is reminiscent of Dracula iconography, commands here faceless blur of a partner with a strong arm, her bent elbow mimicking her elongated jaw line.

The sexualized female reaction is best portrayed in Mucha’s JOB: the ribbons of cigarette smoke encompass the incredibly stylized hair of a diaphanous young woman.  Her elongated neck, closed eyelids and parted lips suggest  a sexual enjoyment.

It is the female artists who depict women smoking and drinking as usurping what was supposed to be an exclusively male power and claiming it as an inclusive activity.  There is a perceptible shift in iconography, from male to female Impressionist and Art Nouveau artists, of women enjoying the traditionally male leisure activities of smoking and drinking.  With the advent of the “New Woman”, the suffragettes and wider accessibility to manufactured cigarettes, women moved from the private sphere to the public sphere to enjoy the We can see this clearly in the difference between Mucha’s and Atché’s JOB.

In Atché’s rendition, the woman is wearing appropriately middle to upper-class garb covering her entire body, including her neck.  Her hair is kept neatly pinned behind her head and painted with a solitary color – there are no wild tendrils seen here, as in Mucha’s, taking control of the woman or the scene depicted.  The harsh vertical of her cape reinforces her rigid posture while her face seems to reflect on the object in her hand.

Louise Lavrut and Frances Benjamin Johnston, each working in different mediums (Lavrut in oils and Johnston in photography) both depicted the pensive and reflective female in charge of her own pleasure while smoking and drinking for enjoyment.

Lavrut depicts The Girl of the Montmartre (c. 1900), the same year as Picasso’s Le Moulin de la Gallete, as a stable, middle-class woman closely cropped by the frame making her the center of attention.  Her posture is upright and her clothes are simple, reserved but refined.  The paint around her is characterized by brushy strokes while her face is sharpened by her dark clothes and tighter lines.  She smokes and drinks a beer next to a poster by Jules Chéret of tightly corseted, voluptuous dancers.

Lavrut’s response to paintings such as Chéret’s Fumar el Papel shows a marked contrast in perspectives on women and their role in society: in Lavrut’s work the viewer is meant to view the woman’s gaze as self-reflective not as coquettish or seductive.  Another image of self-reflection can be seen in Johnston’s self-portrait which shows the epitome of a positively addressed “new woman”.

She poses seated in a position of engaged conversation with an invisible companion, a lit cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other.  She’s surrounded by her own personal elements in her Washington, D.C. studio – the seat of her professional success – but still in front of the hearth, showing she can keep the home fires alive while still being a professionally active woman.. Her leg is crossed squarely over her other stockinged leg, revealing a bright-white petticoat – however, this is not the same type of revealing pose one would find during the can-can at Le Moulin Rouge.”

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