The Restoration of Venus : the Nude, Beauty and Modernist Misogyny
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The title of this project is intended to convey the main thrust of my studio research, in which I articulate a series of female nudes in an Australian landscape. It is also, however, a response to Wendy Steiner’s book, The Exile of Venus: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art, which argues that, in many respects, the history of elite art in the twentieth century is one of resistance to the female subject as the symbol of beauty. Steiner traces this resistance to Kant’s theory of the sublime in art, whose effect was to identify feminine beauty with impurity, an identification taken to extremes by avant-garde modernists whose art, in the words of abstract expressionist Barnett Newman, sought “to destroy beauty.” The result was art that, in Steiner’s words, turned the female subject from paragon into “a monster, an animal, an exotic, a prostitute … in the name of purity and civilized values.” I argue that modernism’s quest for purity was actually a quest for truth which took art in two broad directions: a) toward increasing abstraction and minimalism that sought the unadorned pure forms that underpin all art, giving it value; and b) toward the deliberate portrayal of abject ugliness on the assumption that reality was, after all, not beautiful and that truthfulness therefore demanded that we represent it as it was. The first path is not (necessarily) inimical to beauty, but the rejection of beauty by the latter caused not just a rejection of the female form as symbol, but, as Steiner claims, a misogynistic denigration of woman that led to a century of pornography, shock and alienation in work that often provoked anger and outrage. Although I had commenced my nudes-in-the-landscape project some years before reading Steiner’s work, her analysis offered me an explanation for my own alienation from much of the modern art world, with what seemed to me its repeated and deliberate perversions. It also helped confirm and support my persistent interest, not only in pursuing traditional modes of art practice, but in creating works intended to be beautiful. If the twentieth century proved that art need not be beautiful to be art, it nevertheless did not succeed in expunging the human desire for and responsiveness to beauty, certainly not in the female form which became more blatantly deployed, often in debased form, in popular culture. The challenge for an artist now concerned with beauty and the female nude is to inquire how and whether the undeniable but problematic power of female beauty can any longer be used for artistic purposes. My research also inevitably raised the question of the place of theory in art. Against the theory-dominated practice of much modern art, I felt the need to defend an older idea (which I felt verified in my personal history) that theory may grow significantly out of the practice as much as the other way around. The five panels completed for this DVA project are my response to these challenges using the most traditional symbol of beauty, the female nude drawn from life. Indeed the paintings try to make an emphatic point by using multiple nudes integrated into a Queensland rainforest landscape and painted on such a scale as to envelop the viewer. This exegesis expounds this work by explaining first the artist and her artistic trajectory, with both her persistent and developing concerns, and second the means and methods she employed to try to achieve the strong but implicit structure of composition that must support any work that aspires to beauty.
Thesis (Professional Doctorate)
Doctor of Visual Arts (DVA)
Queensland College of Art
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