In the article, “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity”, Griselda Pollock attempts to extrapolate the underlying factors that form the concept of modernity. The author pays special attention to the issue of gender representation in art, i.e. a woman as both an object of art and its creator. The leitmotif of Pollock’s argument lies in the following extract, “Woman is just a sign, a fiction, a confection of meanings and fantasies. Femininity is not the natural condition of female persons. It is a historically variable ideological construction of meanings for a sign WOMAN”. Pollock argues that modernism in art is not a means of a valid and historically accurate depiction of life and females, in particular, but also a mythologized, canonized and somewhat biased portrayal of the art fashion of that time, as well as the artist’s inner vision – male or female. This paper will test the applicability of the argument to “A Box at the Italian Theatre” by Eva Gonzales.
Naturally for men, women often serve as the objects of lust and stay that way when transcending from everyday reality into canvas. Interestingly, the eloquent illustration to this statement can be found in one of the paintings of the period of interest, namely “At the Opera” by Mary Cassautt, one of Pollock’s favorite artists. The picture portrays a man in the background who uses his binoculars to watch a woman instead of watching the play. Although the painting was created by a female artist, it mirrors, unveils and even ridicules the trend in male art. In her argument, Pollock asks a half-rhetorical question, “Why the territory of modernism so often is a way of dealing with masculine sexuality and its sign, the bodies of women – why the nude, the brothel, the bar?” Pollock says that the answer lies in the initial historical asymmetry in gender roles, freedoms (including the freedom of expression) and empowerment. In this regard, it would be insightful to assess the images of females as being the products of the female artists’ vision of their own gender.
In the context of Pollock’s debate, a work by Eva Gonzales called “A Box at the Italian Theatre” deserves special attention. Without Pollock’s “foreword” to the art of the chosen decade and genre, the viewer would probably overlook the essential details that make the artwork differ from its contemporaries. If not for the accent on the gender code of the paintings, the viewer would not feel the urge to mentally divide them into two groups, according to the artist’s gender. In such a case, much of the subtext would be lost to mere aesthetic observation. However, if armed with Pollock’s enlightening ideas, one will see “A Box at the Italian Theatre” as a manifestation of the female version of the historical “truth” – a decent woman in an elegant dress that expresses the kind of a canonical “virgin” dignity of the class to which the woman belongs. In other words, it is a woman, as she wants to be seen and perceived, by men, included.
In many cases, as pointed out by Pollock, male paintings of women bring private scenes to the public realm. Mostly, the scenes have a sexual subtext and depict bars and similar places that were accessible to men at that time and were a taboo for “decent” women. In contrast, the female artists’ portrayal of themselves (i.e. their gender) is less provocative though, nonetheless, intimate and private. They show scenes from dining rooms or theaters – the places available to women of those times. These scenes lack the rogue sexuality of bars or brothels, as imagined and imaged by male artists, though they possess a veiled, hinted eroticism of a dressed woman. Thus, within the framework of Pollock’s analysis, Gonzales’ painting appears to be the antonym of the “brothel” image of a female as popularized and worshiped by some male artists, a pure, platonic, female “yin” contrasting with the physical, lust-driven, male “yang” of modernist art that portrays women.
Arguably, the difference in depiction lies deep in the gender psychology (i.e. the differences in male and female perception of the depicted sex), and the “zoning” of the social and private space available to either gender. In this respect, it would be reasonable to address one of the focal points of Pollock’s argument, namely the spatial arrangement, e.g. a balcony, or balustrade that serves as a boundary separating spaces. According to Pollock, such spatial objects demonstrate “not the boundary between public and private but between the spaces of masculinity and femininity.” The rule of boundary-like spatial arrangements is present in Gonzales’ “A Box at the Italian Theatre”. One can see the rim of the loge that serves as a visual boundary between the loge’s inner part and the assumed theatrical environment with hundreds of other people engaged in a socio-cultural event. Balcony, thus, encircles and encapsulates the man and the woman as intimate partners within the social space. Such an interpretation resonates with Pollock’s words, “The spaces of femininity are those from which femininity is lived as a positionality in discourse and social practice.”
When analyzing Cassatt’s paining, “The Loge”, Pollock indicates the formal poses as the testimonies of constraints and unease the women embody. One of the women is holding a bouquet that, in Pollock’s view, is a part of the general atmosphere of tenseness, artificial erectness and exposure. Such an interpretation may be valid in regard to Cassatt’s artwork, but it, along with Pollock’s vision, seems to fail in relation to “A Box at the Italian Theatre” by Eva Gonzales. The female’s posture is far from tense or restrained. In fact, the paining expresses the atmosphere of ease and relaxation. The woman is free to look the assumed painter or the actual viewer in the eye, much similar to the one on Renoir’s “The Loge”. Thus, in terms of posture and its meaning, Gonzales’ image of a woman is unexpectedly closer to Renoir’s male vision than to Cassatt’s idea or Pollock’s generalizations in regard to the subject.
An apparent similarity between Cassatt’s visual work and Gonzales’ painting is the flower bouquet. Interestingly, it serves different purposes in the two artistic contexts. As interpreted by Pollock, Cassatt’s bouquet is a mere fetish that emphasizes the girl’s tenseness within the code of social conduct. In contrast, Gonzales’ bouquet arouses an involuntary and lively association with the woman. One of the keys to drawing parallels is the presence of flowers on the young woman’s dress and hair. An additional marker is the color. Evidently, the bouquet with its blue and creamy-white elements resembles a woman with pale-white skin in an elegant blue garment. If the symbolism is intended, then one may conclude that the parallel between the women and the bouquet is called to emphasize the tender female beauty. Furthermore, the presence of the flower bouquet refers the viewer to the persona of a man who stands nearby. The flowers may be the testimony of courting. For that matter, the flower bouquet may be regarded as a sign of a particular attitude of a man toward a woman. Thus, while women portrayed by male artists are frequent objects of men’s lust, the one from Gonzales’ painting embodies an object of respectful attitude.
In conclusion, Pollock argues that art is not a means of an accurate depiction of life and females, but primarily a product of a canonized and biased fashion of that time, as well as the artist’s inner vision – male or female. Although Gonzales’ “A Box at the Italian Theatre” runs counter to some of the generalized canons of female artists’ modernism, it does fall within the pivotal rules of showing a decent woman in a bourgeois socio-cultural environment, as an object of platonic admiration and not physical lust.