Monday 27 March 2017

Bad Hair Day

Occasionally, you are just casually looking at Victorian art and you are struck by a picture.  Possibly you are struck by its beauty, but sometimes you are just struck by the utter...well, striking-ness of it.  Sorry, that isn't explaining it very well.  This is what I am talking about...

Medusa (1891) Wilhelm Trubner
Well, flipping heck.

I don't know what disturbed me more - the snakes, the very odd eyes or the blood-stained, forked tongue.  Yes, it's probably the tongue. Yikes.  It was so far removed from the images of Medusa I was more familiar with, for example the Burne-Jones Perseus cycle...

The Death of Medusa (1882) Edward Burne-Jones
There is a graceful sterility to Burne-Jones' death scene, Medusa as pale as the stone figures she created, and Perseus and Pegasus both in tasteful pastel colours.  There are no weird tongues or rolling eyes here, thank you very much.

Perseus and Medusa (1898) Frederick Pomeroy
I have been fascinated by Medusa since I was about four years old.  I used to stay with a neighbour who had the Frederick Pomeroy figure as a lamp and I would stare at the severed head clasped in the naked man's hand while I ate fish fingers, wondering what on earth was going on there.  Probably around the same time I saw Clash of the Titans, with Ray Harryhausen's spectacular Medusa hissing and rattling her way around her lair.  Who could resist? Anyway, I got to thinking after seeing Trubner's gorgon, did any other artist share my fascination...?

Medusa (1895) Carlos Schwabe

I was not disappointed because there are a marvellous hissing bevy of Medusas, wiggling forth from the nineteenth century.  Given the chance of portraying a woman with a head covered with snakes, I think we'd all jump at the chance. It can't help but be dramatic.  I also don't think it's a coincidence that most of the images come from the latter years of the 19th century, around the time women were fighting for their rights, but I'll come to that in a minute...

Medusa (1867) Elihu Vedder
Perseus is a proper hero.  He has a flying horse, he kills a vile monster and uses it to save a semi-naked lady from another monster.  He then turned the rowdy elements at his wedding to stone too.  That's pretty good going.  Much of the portrayals of Medusa in the middle of the 19th century are based around her part in Perseus' story, mainly getting her head cut off.

Perseus and Andromeda (1874) Henri Picou
Often, poor old Medusa appears as second fiddle to the creamily naked Andromeda.  Who's going to be looking at the severed head when there are perky boobs in the room?  T'uh, typical.  We've all been there, metaphorically, obviously.

Perseus Showing the Gorgon's Head (1892) Walter Crane
It would be very easy to keep Medusa as just an incident in someone else's story.  She's like Excalibur, or the One True Ring, just the thing that denotes the greatness (or whatever) in someone else.  What is interesting is that artists started to explore Medusa and her backstory.  It's not pretty...

Aspecta Medusa (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Aspecta Medusa (1860s) D G Rossetti
For ages I couldn't work out why this beautiful image of Alexa Wilding would have 'Medusa' in the title until I realised that she is actually Andromeda, finally being allowed to see the 'aspect' or face of Medusa, by bending over a mirror surface.  Mind you, it did make me wonder if it is related to other images of Alexa as beautiful but evil women (such as Lilith), or some other part of Medusa's past.  How exactly did she get those snakes?  Had she always had such difficult hair?

Medusa (1896) Winifred Hope Thomson
Isn't that a beautiful painting?  Not what you would be expecting from something called 'Medusa' but then the snaked-haired girl was not always a monster.  Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl, according to Ovid, 'the jealous aspiration of many suitors' (Book 4 of Metamorphoses).  On such suitor was Poseidon, who raped Medusa in Athena's Temple.  For reasons best known to the ancients, Athena was so angry with Medusa that she transformed her into a monster that no man would ever want to look upon.  Well, that's a Daily Mail level of victim blaming that takes your breath away.

Medusa Elihu Vedder
Suddenly at the end of the century, images of Medusa move from strictly monstrous to something other.  Both Vedder and Thomson show beautiful women with qualities that leave you slightly uneasy.  There is something in Thomson's smile that seems to hint at a secret, like the snake hiding in her russet hair.  Vedder's woman has hair that is curling into snakes before our eyes as her face hardens.  Maybe Carlos Schwabe's scream-queen above (very reminiscent of the Bride of Frankenstein, I thought) was based on the actual moment when the woman became the monster. It's a cruelty upon a cruelty, a woman at the mercy of two Gods, who destroy her because of their whims.

The Gorgon and the Heroes (1890s) Giulio Sartorio
The snakes are not specifically a part of the Medusa myth.  In some versions of the tale, she remained beautiful and was just evil, like a siren, luring the cream of manhood to a terrible end. In some ways, snake-haired or red-haired, created or born, Medusa's grip on the fin-de-siecle had more to do with 19th century womanhood.

Medusa Erotica Simeon Solomon
By the end of the nineteenth century women were becoming monstrous.  They were campaigning for votes, they were pushing out of their sphere, they were threatening the place of men.  In times like this, I always turn to Idols of Perversity by Bram Dijkstra, who naturally touches on the subject and its sexual  connotations.  The snakes suggest the Garden of Eden and temptation.  The rolling coil of snakes is both sexual and threatening, each fanged mouth biting at a tail, consuming and being consumed in a futile, lust-filled, hungry struggle.  There is definitely the air of angry, destructive sex about Medusa.  Often Medusa is portrayed as opened mouth, screaming.  So many bitey mouths, no wonder men were worried...

Medusa (1897) Levy Dhurmer
Medusa is seen as mad, destructive, angry, powerful and most of all unhappy.  She is a woman crazy with power which seems to often cause her pain.  Women shouldn't be powerful, it only makes them angry.  Apparently.  If you start giving women equal rights they go all weird and turn people to stone.  Where will it all end.  Probably kinder to outsmart her with a mirror and cut her head off. No woman can resist a mirror...

The Blood of Medusa (1898) Fernand Khnopff
The severed head of Medusa is a symbol of conquered power.  Perseus doesn't just kill Medusa, he kills her in order to use her power for his own ends.  He uses the severed head of one woman to gain the heart of another.  That's not as romantic as it sounds.  

Medusa (1878) Arnold Bocklin
There is a sorrowful quality in Bocklin's Medusa that I can't quite find in other depictions.  Her head floats there, the snakes still wriggling, but she looks exhausted.  Her expression is an echo of her traditional screaming anger, the mouth open, but it is pitiful.  Compare that with Trubner right at the beginning of the post.  Is Trubner's Medusa licking her own blood off her lips?  For goodness sake.

Medusa (1909) Joseph Mullner
I suppose it is unsurprising that Medusa's head was a tempting subject for sculptors.  It was a chance to make a life-size piece that looked both fantastic and true-to-life all at once.  Mullner's snakes are especially life-like, with their oily-black coils of horror. Yikes.

Medusa (1900) Fernand Khnopff
Not exactly understated, Khnopff goes with more of a 'screaming' vibe for his severed head.  I suppose the head did have the same treacherous potency after severing so there is no reason why poor Medusa would be allowed to be all peaceful and quiet.  There is nothing human in Khnopff's imaging of her, either in 2D or 3D.  On paper, he renders her a monolith, a hard-faced slab of evil, possibly echoing the stone she will turn us to just by looking at her.  In sculpture, she is a dripping head of snakes, running like blood down the pedestal.  There is no pity for her as she obviously would have no pity for us.

Medusa (1854) Harriet Hosmer

So what do we take away from Victorian depictions of Medusa? The image of a beautiful woman destined to be monstrous held possibilities.  At what point did this beauty turn to evil, what happened to her, was it always in her?  Women and snakes are so tightly linked, the potential of woman to bring temptation and destruction, that it is almost impossible not to read male fear of the growth of female emancipation.  A woman can't have power without the corruption of men, a woman can't have power without the destruction of herself - the power in women seems to inevitably come at the price of everyone.  Power is rationed apparently, if one gender has it, it must be at the cost of the other. Apart form men.  men can have the power, that's all fine.  Don't get any ideas about equality now, it will all end in tears.

To some, for example Burne-Jones, she is merely a part of a greater story, an episode on the way to a triumph.  His Perseus cycle was painted during the decade after his affair with Maria Zambaco, a woman some found monstrous yet beautiful.  Could it be read that Burne-Jones conquered his own gorgon in order to save his love? That is not a fair depiction of Zambaco and Burne-Jones' actions were not exactly heroic, but the sadness that colours the cycle could reflect his state of mind.  For Georgiana Burne-Jones, the aspect of Zambaco in her husband's art was indeed horrifying. 

Maybe it's no coincidence that some of Burne-Jones' best known pictures contain the head of Maria Zambaco, after all that's where the power is...

Friday 17 March 2017

Joy is of the Will that Labours

At this happy intersection between Women's History Month and St Patrick's Day, it seemed only right and proper that I did a post today on an Irish woman.  I've wanted to do this post for a while as it neatly demonstrates the problem of women's history and the probable reasoning why women are often passed over when histories are written.  This is the story of Meave O'Byrne Doggett.

The Harbour at 'Kingstown' (Dun Laoghaire), Dublin
Born in Blackrock, a suburb of Dublin, Meave was the eldest daughter of William O'Byrne, a school inspector, and his American wife, Mary. Siblings Una, Brenda, Mona and Barry followed, but not swiftly.  By the time Barry, the youngest (and I'm guessing longed-for son) arrived in 1899, Meave Esther Magdalina O'Byrne was an art student in her mid teens.  In the 1901 census, the family had moved to Dun Laoghaire (or Kingstown, as it was known then), and were wealthy enough to afford a cook and a maid and nurse for the younger children.  They also had a lodger, Francis Doggett, a mechanical engineer apprentice, born in India.  The O'Byrne's were Roman Catholic and Francis was Church of England, which only proves that whilst we cared enough to note these things it didn't stop us living under the same roof.  Francis was apprenticed to Great Southern and Western Railway, at Inchicore, Dublin as an 'improver' while attending the Technical School.  I'll come back to Mr Doggett presently...

In the Life Modelling Room at the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin
Meave attended the Metropolitan School of Art as a teacher in training.  She was taught under such luminaries as Percy Oswald Reeves and Alice Jacobs, and was awarded the Bronze Medal for Design Outline in a Historic Style and for her 'Celtic Interlacing'.  She was mentioned in the 'Every Woman's Encyclopedia' in the section on 'Where to Study' (c.1910):
"In the arts of enamelling and metal work the Dublin school is well known throughout the world, and here again the women students are specially successful. Some of the best enamel workers among the students are Miss K. Fox, Miss E. Symes, Miss E. Luke, Miss Meave O'Byrne, Miss E. Johnstone, Miss N. O'Kelly, Miss M. Doran, and Miss D. Allen. The two latter are now executing commissions in their own studios."
The Designing Room at the Metropolitan School of Art
 The Metropolitan School of Art had been the Royal Dublin Society's Schools of Drawing, established 1746, renamed in 1877.  In the Headmaster's report of 1907, it was the school's aim 'not only to provide instruction in drawing, painting, modeling and design to all students, but also to make workmen better workmen, and to educate the public in art matters and to create a more extended taste in all kinds of art...'  Classes in subjects like stained glass and enamelling became an aspect of the curriculum just as Meave joined the school, and her artistic output reflects this, together with more traditional medium and textile work.

Percy Oswald Reeves instructing students in enamelling
Percy Oswald Reeves joined the school at around the same time as Meave and taught her metalwork and enamel.  For textile work, she had the botanical artist, Alice Jacob.  Successful in her own life time, Jacob is really only remembered for her floral illustrations now, but she was primarily a lace designer, supplying a variety of linen firms with designs that incorporated botanical motifs.  She also worked with other textiles and was a strong proponent of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, demonstrated by the output of her students.

Lace Fan (c.1900) Alice Jacob
Dendrobium Acuminatum (1910) Alice Jacob
Percy Oswald Reeves again is an artist who has slipped into obscurity in this country, yet his work with the Arts and Craft movement was very influential, for example The Virgin Mary (left) and the utterly astonishing War Memorial in All Saints Grangegorman Parish Church, Dublin.  Born in Birmingham and trained at Birmingham School of Art, Reeves listed himself as a Buddist in the 1911 census.  Mind you, Alice Jacob was a Quaker so Dublin seems to have been a far more religiously cosmopolitan place in the early years of the twentieth century than I ignorantly believed.  No wonder such amazing art came out of it.

When Reeves wrote an article for the Studio magazine in 1918, he mentioned Meave and her work in relation to the Arts and Craft movement in Ireland.  By featuring her pendent, The Water Lily, he affirmed her place as one of Ireland's important craftsmen, and it was also under his and Jacob's tutelage that Meave's work appeared in the Irish International Exhibition of 1907.

The Water Lily (c.1905-18)
So, what do we know of her art?  The reason I became interested in her work was that three other pieces (as well as The Water Lily) were donated to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery collection (by Meave herself) and I was asked to do some research.  The pieces dated from her time at the Metropolitan School of Art and are utterly beautiful.  Firstly, we have The Sundial...

The Sundial (1909-11)
Created with limoges enamel on copper, The Sundial depicts a fairy stretched out along the arm of a sundial, indicating the hour.  She holds a dandelion clock which is shedding its seeds as if to emphasize the passing of time and the briefness of existence.  Whilst on the surface it is a very decorative piece, it holds a far deeper message than at first glance, hinted at by the solemn expression on the fairy's face.  Those dandelion heads behind her are shedding at quite a rate...

The Spirit of the Rain Cloud (1909-11)
In comparison, The Spirit of the Rain Cloud seems a far simpler affair.  The rather Symbolist sprite pours water from its spirit-y bowl and forms a glittering rainbow at its feet.  The fae figure this time is a far more androgynous being, formed of light and cloud, whose sole job it seems is to skip around the heavens with its rainbow holdall and bowl, pouring out glitter.  However, the title does not mention rainbows, only rain clouds and I am left wondering if the meaning of the work is that the two go together if you look for it: in order to have the rainbow, you have to have the rain, and that beauty is valued more because it comes out of darkness.  That same darkness carries that beauty within in, it is the very spirit of it, they are indistinguishable, one and the same.  For fear of sounding like a motivational poster, I shall move on.

The Lady Shinain at the Well of Knowledge (1905-15)
Possibly the best known of Meave's work is one I've featured here before.  The Lady Shinain (or Sionann) was the granddaughter of the Irish sea god Lir.  She went to Connla's Well to receive wisdom, or to catch the salmon of wisdom.  This made her the wisest person on earth but only briefly as her presence made the well burst and drown her.  Shinain was the goddess of the river and the resultant flood became the river Shannon, and the goddess' 'dissolving' into the water provided blessings and fertility for all.  Again, enamelled on copper, it is a stunning piece of work around the size of a piece of A4 paper.  Its message that women will always be prevented from achieving greatness yet enriching the fields in which they work is perhaps coincidental but nontheless accurate.

Here's where I have a request:  it would be splendid if you knew of the whereabouts of any other pieces by Meave, so if you own one or work in a museum that has one, please get in touch.  We know that she created other pieces, not least because some were included in the Irish International Exhibition of 1907...

The queue at Limerick Railway Station to board for the Exhibition
In 1907, Ireland still was part of the United Kingdom but the work for Home Rule took many forms.  An interest in improving trading led to the Irish International Exhibition, where the best work of the country's craftspeople could be seen.  There were separate pavilions for British and Irish goods, reflecting the distance that was growing, although the movement would wait another 15 years before Home Rule.  Meave had several works in the exhibition: a stencilled chiffon scarf (created under Alice Jacobs), an enamelled copper bowl (created under Percy Reeves), a hand mirror with leather panels and a leather case (both again under Alice Jacobs).  All of these items were actually lent to the exhibition by the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) which implies that they owned her work.  Meave had won book prizes from DATI in 1905 for studies of plant form and designs based on flowering plants, presumably under the teaching of Alice Jacob.
Darlington Ladies Training College, Vans Terrace, Darlington (1898)
After she graduated as a teacher, Meave's first post seems to have been at the Darlington Ladies Training College, where she is recorded as being on the 1911 census.  Her posting there cannot have been for a long time as she was off to Canada in July of 1911 to display her works in the Royal Canadian Academy of Art.  In the 1912 exhibition catalogue, Meave is listed as showing The Lady Shinain, The Sunbeam, The Spirit of the Rain Cloud and a triptych entitled St Columcille.  Furthering her artistic reputation wasn't the only thing she managed while over in Canada; on 12 July 1911, Meave married Francis Hamilton Doggett, former lodger and mechanical engineer, in Winnipeg.

At the outbreak of war, Meave did not return home immediately.  She travelled to Boston and from 10 April to 1 May held an exhibition of enamel work, before she and Francis returned to Dublin just over four years after their wedding.  Francis became a lieutenant in the Royal Army Ordnance Corp, with the No.1 Heavy Ordnance Mobile Workshop in France.  Meave returned to school attending the Metropolitan free of charge so it is possible she also worked as a teacher.  In the summer of 1917, as a member of the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland, she exhibited at the 5th Exhibition of Irish Arts and Crafts which showed at Dublin, Belfast and Cork.  Francis returned from the War in 1918 and became a Freemason in Dublin, as well as a registered mechanical engineer with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, and Meave studied until 1919.  Then something unexpected happened.

In 1920, Meave Esther Magdalen Doggett became a registered physiotherapist and masseuse.  As far as we know, she never produced another piece of art after this date.  She and Francis moved from Dublin to Cavendish Avenue in Sidcup, to a rather lovely bay-windowed semi without even a hint of Celtic Revivalism.  The couple then moved to Boundstone near Farnham, again a very well-appointed area.  The couple might have moved to be nearer Francis' family who had retired to Surrey, but after Francis' father died in 1938, the couple moved again, to Bournemouth, where Francis died in 1966.  It was possibly this event that caused Meave to visit the Russell-Cotes and donate the four pieces still in her possession.  She died just two years after her husband, in 1968, but in her final years she left a small collection of Celtic magic in an unsuspecting gallery overlooking the sea.

The reason I find Meave's story so poignant is the unanswered question of if and why she stopped producing art.  In some ways it could be that she felt all the art she had in her had been expressed and she felt more joy in assisting people back to health.  The end of her work seems so sudden, just after her return to the classroom and the mention in the Studio, but we shall never know unless Meave left record of what happened to quell her artistic will.  The couple moved from her native Dublin to Surrey, so you could argue that she left her art in Dublin, fed by the goddess in the river Shannon, but her years abroad in North America did nothing to stifle her artistic spirit, so why should Sidcup?  Maybe in the life of a busy married woman there just wasn't room for art.  Although she married in 1911, many years of that first decade together were spent either travelling or apart from her husband due to War.  Maybe the life of a respectable married woman did not lend itself to enamelled works of gem-like glory.  Often it is easy to blame the appearance of children, who eat all spare time along with their dinner, for the stifling of women's creative lives, but the Doggetts had no offspring.  It remains a mystery but an all too familiar one.  Whilst Meave's work is beautiful, it is easy to forget that this is her student work and her apparent ceasing deprives us of her growth, her maturity.  If The Lady Shinain is her bud, imagine what her bloom would have been. There were, and arguably still are, more forces pushing women to remain in the feminine sphere of providing, not creating, and unless women fight the daily barrier that stops us stepping further, we will only get one month dedicated to our contribution to history.  

Let's catch the salmon and flood the year.