Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Art and the Gendering of Historical Perception

The Angel-Assassin of the French Revolution

How do frames of gender or ideology affect our knowledge of the past?  How have gendered perceptions of bodily appearance been used to valorize (Judith, Joan of Arc) and stigmatize (Eve, Marie-Antoinette) powerful women? Our spring event will draw upon history, art history, and feminism to investigate how perceptions informed by bodily and gendered stereotypes may distort our understandings not only of everyday life but also of key events in the history of the West. 

The Angel-Assassin
Depictions of Corday and her act vary greatly: while many with immediate experience of Corday painted her with dark or at least brunette hair, a handful of early portraits presented Corday as blonde or with powdered hair.  This fair image of Corday – sometimes evoking an angelic sense, sometimes connoting the decadence of the French aristocracy – has marked the historical memory of the French Revolution.  Writers, even up to the present day, seem mesmerized by the image of the assassin with voluptuous blonde locks. 
Why has the gaze of historical memory needed to remake Corday’s body  in  a  stereotypical  way - and  those  of  so many  other powerful
A Brunette Charlotte Corday (1793)
women (and men) of the past?  Why, in particular, has blondeness exercised such a grip on the imagination?  More generally, how might careful attention to the gendering of perception and historical understanding help us to critique the foibles of western societies and to navigate better the challenges of our diverse orders?  The workshop will open up possibilities for exploring questions like these – while giving us visual confirmation of the strangeness of the historical gaze, in the form of a lively introductory slideshow of artistic renderings of Corday.

A Blonde Charlotte Corday Awaiting Execution (1889)

Thoughts from "The Blonding of Charlotte Corday":
"Joanna Pitman, in On Blondes, tracing the evolution of blondness as a cultural code, stresses its mixed message. 'Every age has restyled blonde hair in its own image, invested it with its own preoccupations.' Never a mere color, it was and is always a blazing symbol, but a profoundly ambivalent one. Because so few are truly blonde, light hair often indicates artificiality, hence deception. Blondeness had early erotic connotations in both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures (the golden-haired seductress Aphrodite, the disobedient, lascivious Eve, the sexually sinful Mary Magdalene) but it was also a fairy tale symbol of youthful charm, innocence and sweetness (Goldilocks and Cinderella) and of immaculate saintliness and virtue (the Virgin Mary, the female martyrs, and the ubiquitous angels). So blondness could signify the root of all evil, or the brightness and luminosity of the divine. It could code vanity and folly, or incorruptible purity..."
"What is happening here? Some have made the case that colors reside in the beholder’s eye rather than in the perceived object. Umberto Eco, in his essay, ‘How Culture Conditions the Colors We See,’ argues that we are very bad at discriminating between colors, that our 'chromatic competence' is severely limited by our words for different hues, and that the names we give to colors have no chromatic content. Instead, our chromatic perception is shaped by language, and by the requirements of the moment and the surrounding culture."

David's Death of Marat (1793)-- with an absent Corday

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