Women’s role in society and Art

“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size[1]”.

Virginia Woolf


Women’s condition and role in society and art, through a comparative reading of Balzac’s novella The Unknown Masterpiece, Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and Yasmina Reza’s play Art.

     Women’s presence in the realm of Art, in any contributory form (except as models) as artists, viewers, critics, collectors or connoisseurs has been very spare in History. Women have been accepted in art, through the centuries, mostly in the form of a subject or, more appropriately speaking, as an object prone to male artist action of observation, representation, expression and depiction. According to this notion, Balzac’s novella The Unknown Masterpiece includes a female character in a story involving substantially three male artists.

     Collectors and viewers, who traditionally were exclusively male, have also considered women as an object but in a different way than artists. For them women were mere targets of their gaze, i.e. an object of desire. Whatever that desire means, possession, eroticism, aesthesia, romanticism, it is often (if not always) identifiable with a psychological complex of male superiority. Women represent for men, as Virginia Woolf claims in the quotation above, a motivational force for powerful existential agency. In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray such psychological inclination may be directly identified in Dorian Gray through his relationship with the secondary female characters he encounters. In a more diaphanous way Yasmina Reza’s play Art regards women in the same relation of dependence with men. The play involves only three characters, three male friends arguing about art. In their conversations they mention eventually some women referring to them as male “possessions” or “acquisitions”.

     Any of the three works of literature, The Unknown Masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Art, may be summarized as a story about three men and a painting. With painting it is intended oil painting on canvas. I think this detail is relevant since, according to John Berger, oil painting is the medium that “did to appearances what capital did to social relations: it reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity[2]”. Women’s appearance and objectification, in art as well as in society, will be the central topic of this essay.

     Gillette, Poussin’s girlfriend in The Unknown Masterpiece, mirrors another woman, Catherine Lescault alias La Belle Noiseuse, who is the depicted subject in one of Frenhofer’s paintings, an incomplete masterpiece. Poussin offers to Frenhofer his own lover, Gillette, as a potential model for completing the painting. As counterpart he asks him to see that masterpiece so jealously kept in secret custody. Both Gilette and Catherine are involved in art not as protagonists but as models, the first one as a physical model functional to a representational copy, the second one as a conceptual model condensing an ideal of nature, perfection and beauty. Both are, according to respective painters’ words, object of profound love: an ideal love in Frenhofer’s case and a romantic passionate love in Poussin’s case. However both artists do not hesitate to “betray” their beloved driven by a mighty passion for art, which conforms almost as ambition and egoism.

     Another interesting parallelism between Gillette and Catherine should be remarked. Both women reject the respective painters’ aspirations of possession. Gillette’s sensation that a “vague suspicion that the painter (Poussin ed.) had fallen somewhat in her eyes” implies a pride, a sense of herself and her independence contrasting with the general idea of submissive woman of the 19th century, a woman in a relationship of dependence with the man who provided to her economic subsistence. In the same way Catherine as a painted subject escapes Frenhofer’s expert, skilful definition denying to indulge in his representative wishes. At the very end only one little fragment of her body, a foot, may be acknowledged in the chaotic mess of colors on the canvas, as though she is refusing to “appear”. In a feminist theoretical perspective it represents a reactionary and radical negation of the principle of appearance which has permeated four centuries of woman’s representation in art. Catherine does not appear, she “is” behind the sparkles of colors and light as Frenhofer himself claims in his final rant.

The Unknown Masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Art in three adaptations for theaters.

     Balzac’s novella takes women in such a modern consideration and dignity as much as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray depicts them in their very usual, traditional, submissive role: subordinate to men, oppressed and annihilated by social conventions, unable to express their own personality and aspirations. We could say Wilde uses women as functional to Dorian, to make relevant his charm, to make noticeable his narcissism or using Virginia Woolf’s words “to reflect the figure of a man at twice its natural size”. The most prominent female characters in the story is Sibyl Vane a young and talented actress who falls in love with Dorian and in despair for his refusal kills herself. Sibyl’s suicide represents an extreme act of love for Dorian, who consequently is “elevated” as a lead character in a classic tragedy.

     Sibyl’s death might be regarded, hypothetically, as an extreme consequence of a complex of psychological, cultural, social pressures upon a woman in a patriarchal society and Dorian’s proposal of marriage with a subsequent refusal may be part of such pressures. But it is hardly believable. Wilde depicts Sybil carefully as a faint personality. Her name recalls the classic mythological figures whose oracular sentences had two opposite meanings at the same time, practically useless in their vagueness.
Indeed Lord Henry, Dorian’s negative mentor, talks of her as a “girl [who] never really lived, and so […] never really died”. She is insignificant per se. She becomes significant only when related to Dorian, as a slave to the master. Actually another Lord Henry’s utterance generalizes women’s social behavior saying “they remain slaves looking for their masters” when he discusses female emancipation. If we should deduce Wilde’s consideration of women from The Picture of Dorian Gray the result would be undoubtedly unfortunate. Nevertheless it must be remarked that Dorian’s portrait changes for the first time after Sibyl’s tragic episode, revealing finally the painting as the depositary of his conscience. A moral reparatory judgment emerges even if it is not sufficient to plainly rehabilitate a degrading idea of women. Sibyl remains significant only by virtue of her sacrifice for Dorian, by romanticizing, as a heroine in an old classic tragedy, her inferiority.

     The epilog of Dorian Gray’s story reflects this statement. Dorian has the illusion of recovering his immorality if only he manages to obliterate his first evil action. He meets a poor girl in the country who resembles Sybil and he does not seduce her, strongly believing his cursed painting would come back to its “normality” (and so his soul). Dorian is not taking advantage of his male, aesthetical, nobiliary superiority upon that girl, which would be enough, in his beliefs, to restore his initial innocence. Unfortunately Dorian still intends Sybil’s reconsideration more in the form of pity than real respect and that ominously foresees his miserable failure.

     In Yasmina Reza’s play Art, women’s role is apparently even more marginal than in Wilde’s novel and it is surprising if considered that the author is actually a woman. In the play no female character appears at all. Art narrates the relationship between three friends, Marc, Serge and Yvan who dispute about the worth of a contemporary abstract white painting Serge has bought. At a certain point, when he is strongly criticized by his friends for his supposedly bad decision, Serge reacts, mentioning Marc’s and Yvan’s respective fiancés, Paula and Catherine, as examples of as bad decisions as his own. In a certain sense women are considered here the same way as acquisitions, as possessions, as things a man choses to take within his belongings. Serge’s intention is clearly to humiliate his friends by using their beloved as a tool able to reach inner sensitive chords. The message seems to be that a woman, as a painting, is a matter of taste and of intimate choice, of virtue and self-realization. Reza depicts two women through men’s eyes and of course the judgment that emerges is inevitably discouraging. At the end of the play however Paula and Catherine are mentioned in a positive light. The first one, the selfish woman who did not care about her manners while smoking, is able to offer a very wise advice and the second one shows a sensibility that contrasts with her previous depiction as an hysterical type.

     In conclusion Art conveys the same idea of woman as a passive object of a male gaze but in a different way than in The Picture of Dorian Gray. While the last one depicts woman’s condition in the 19th century as a matter of fact, even if it is inscribed in a critical context of overall decadence, the first one subtly addresses a sexist question. Art seems to give as much importance to absent features than to present ones according to a model of deconstructive narrative. Can we imagine three women, three female friends instead of Serge, Marc and Yvan, arguing about a piece of art that finally affects their relationships? I think we could, not only because art is an universal means of expression, also since women in contemporary society (differently from Balzac’s and Wilde’s times) have reached sufficient access to education, to important working positions (which means economic independence from men) and most of all they have conquered a relevant artistic segment, either in the production or the consume of art. Would the play be the same with three female character instead of three males? Can we imagine Marceline getting jealous because Sergine has substituted her friendship with a painting, while Yvonne gratify both without assuming any firm position? Of course we can. So why has Yasmina Reza chosen three male character if she did not imply subtly that the discourse about art is still a strong prerogative of male sex? Art involves three men and their familiarity with an argument that has been their heritage for ages. Three women would not be in the same situation as much at ease.

[1] Virginia Wolf, A Room of One’s Own. http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/ last access 07/28/2012.

[2] John Berger, Ways of Seeing. London : British Broadcasting Corporation ; New York : Penguin, c1972, 1979 printing ;

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