Exhibiting gender – Sarah Hyde on Ghislaine Howard and Jacob Epstein – 1997
Sister Wendy Becket
Cleft in the rocks, Flamborough Head Oil on canvas 127cm x 101.5cm 50″ x 40″
Ghislaine Howard is a figurative artist who finds such passionate excitement in the abstract glories of colour and light that the well-worn distinction seems pointless. Her images work on both levels with equal power: we are swept away by the beauty of the actual paint even before we start to take delight in the image which she is celebrating.Her mother and child studies have a quieter beauty, expressing the protectiveness integral to this age-old symbol, yet in Cleft in the rocks, Flamborough Head there is a similar sense of interiority and protection.
Howard is referring in her title to a phrase from the article of Solomon in the Bible, where the Lover calls to his “dove, his lovely one, hiding in the clefts of the rock” and begs to see her face.
Howard’s cleavage cuts down into a gleam of deepest blue, the wild sea caught and held safe between the sunlit masses of the pure rock. It is both landscape and seascape, but it is also something deeper. It recalls with imaginative intensity the wild spaces of the ocean, untamed and untameable, and the fortress of the cliffs, where the surging waters can gently come to rest.In becoming aware of the beauty of the painting, we are drawn into an awareness of the beauty of repose, protection, and constant give and take of love. Howard clearly loves what she paints, and what she paints is in itself, in a strange symbolic fashion, love also.
Sea and stone here unite in a dazzle of chromatic clarity. The cleft has an almost erotic splendour, but it is an eroticism of the profoundest purity. The azure of the waters reflects up onto the chalky smoothness of the cliffs, the head jutting out into the sea to enclose the wash and be purified by it. Both give; both receive; the essence of a love relationship.
- Sister Wendy Becket (from Women Critics Select Women Artists The Bruton Street Gallery, London, 1992)
A Shared Experience
Robert Clark, The Guardian
Ghislaine Howard ManchesterPOPPING in with with my mum to the City Art Gallery for my occasional look at the Lowry room, I’m disappointed to find that it’s disappeared. Why?
In its place, though, until April 25 anyway, is a series of gutsy paintings and drawings by Ghislaine Howard. Called A Shared Experience, Paintings and Drawings, the work is the result of a four-month artist’s residency at St Mary’s Maternity Unit during which Howard had the opportunity to record the dramatic life of the ante-natal services, the central delivery unit and the special care baby unit. One is struck immediately on entering the gallery that this is a surprisingly, almost shockingly, rare subject in modern Western painting.
Then this is obviously because of the comparative exclusion of women’s subjective experience from the art arena until very recently.
So here are paintings entitled Inserting the Catheter,Before the Caesarean and Breech Birth. If it weren’t for the subject matter Howard might fit neatly within the British serious painterly tradition of Bomberg, Auerbach and Kossoff. Her drawings are wild networks of charcoal gestures. Her oil paintings are weaved with broad dynamic brushstrokes that narrowly avoid stylistic flamboyance.
So it’s through Howard’s moving embodiment of empathy with her subjects that she really makes her individual mark. And several images here – for instance one painting entitled Second Dayshowing a baby’s top heavy sleeping head, already weary with the weight of life, cradled in the mother’s giant hands – are so intimately tender in approach, they could hardly have been painted by any male, at any time, anywhere.
- Robert Clark The Guardian, 29 March 1993
Joan Crossley, Women’s Art
A Shared Experience Ghislaine Howard City Art Galleries Manchester
Ante-natal examination 1993
Joan Crossley on Ghislaine Howard’s work documentingreal life in a busy maternity unit
THIS EXHIBITION of Ghislaine Howard’s work was the result of four months spent as artist-in-residence at a women’s hospital in central Manchester. The paintings, drawings and etchings are redolent of the atmosphere of the busy maternity unit.
To describe the work as documentary would be to suggest a level of emotional and intellectual detachment so often found in artist/observers. On the contrary, Howard became part of the self-contained world of the hospital with its routines and crises. She brought to the process of observing an unobtrusive and deeply sympathetic intelligence, arising from experience in hacing had two babies in the same hospital.
Her desire to understand her own feelings of fear, helplessness and joy enabled her to establish close bonds with long-stay mothers. She was allowed extraordinary intimacy with women who came to take her presence for granted. The time spent listening and watching was well spent and informs the urgent sketches.
There is a rightnessand accuracy about the strong strokes which demonstrate a sense of collaboration between Howard and her women about the boredom of waiting, expecting. It is about the sense of helplessness and the objectification of the female body when in the hands of medical professionals. The drama of natural childbirth is juxtaposed to the fearful mysteries of the Caesarian operation. The gowned figures loom and hover above the patient in anonymous detachment. Back in the wards the green shapes resolve into nurses, individual and prosaic.
Howard claims that “the depictions of the events shown in these paintings and drawings are rare in western art. It is a salutary thought that an experience that all humans have shared is so rarely seen in art galleries”. Yet walking round the show, the viewer catches echoes of gestures and poses from the tradition of Renaissance religious painting. In part it is because the artist has absorbed some of the vocabulary of religious art (she is currently working on a series based on the Stations of the Cross), but it is also because the actual rituals of delivery, the lifting of the anaesthetised body, the presentation of the Caesarian baby, share some of choreographed grandeur of a Deposition or a Pieta. Although each pregnancy and delivery is unique and individual, it is also archetypal and timeless.
The comments from the Mancunian audience, registered in the visitors’ book, show a striking lack of embarrassment, either with the gynaecological frankness or the emotional transparency of the work. It is an honest show, deeply felt and compassionately executed; the artist has dared not to distance herself.
- Joan Crossley
Women’s Art, July 1993
Joan Crossley lectures in art history at the University of Leicester.
Richard Kendall, GalleriesGhislaine Howard Boundary Gallery
Londoners still believe themselves to be at the centre of the artistic universe, and it comes as a rude shock to discover talent existing, even flourishing, away from the capital. Ghislaine Howard has chosen to work in the north-west, within reach of two increasingly vital cultural centres, Manchester and Liverpool, but even closer to the wild and unpopulated landscapes that recur in her pictures.
Her densely-coloured oil paintings of the Yorkshire coast and her Derbyshire surroundings, as well as the domestic landscape of home and family, have featured in more than a dozen solo and mixed exhibitions in the north of England. During September , however, the tables are turned and Londoners will get their first chance to see an extended showing of her work at the Boundary Gallery.
In the best possible sense, these are a young person’s paintings. There is energy, excess and a kind of muscularity in her canvases, untainted by cynicism and art circuit chic. Ghislaine Howard paints directly, sometimes furiously, attacking both subject and canvas with a passion for her colours and her craft. The massiveness of rocks, the swell of the sea and the tints of stormy skies are all translated into the stuff of paint, in a way that sometimes suggests late Bomberg.
As a mother of two young children, Ghislaine Howard has also set herself the project of responding, in her art, to the experiences of motherhood and child-rearing. Dramatic charcoal drawings of parents and their offspring, and delicate, almost miniature studies of children at play, have often complemented her landscape repertoire. Drawing, colour and the signature of touch come together in these elemental subjects, in pictures that could only have been painted in the late twentieth century.
- Richard Kendall Galleries, September 1991
Jim Aulich, City LifeGhislaine Howard: Recent Work Salford Art Gallery
Ghislaine Howard’s Recent Work [shows] the dignity of the human figure and an almost French sensuality in the love and the freedom of the paint.
Domestic and intimate subject-matter tells of the artist’s pregnancy, and the birth and suckling of her child, while in the bath lies the image of a man in a self-conscious inversion of Bonnard’s theme of the woman in the bath.
Michael in the bath 1984 Acrylic on canvas
Luscious and unorthodox, these pictures are strikingly original in what they depict within the context of the museum and the tradition of figure painting.
- Jim Aulich City Life, 3 May 1985
An extract from Sarah Hyde‘s book, Exhibiting gender,in which she compares perceptions of the portrayalof pregnancy by Ghislaine Howard and Jacob EpsteinFrom Exhibiting gender by Sarah Hyde, Manchester University Press, 1997
Ghislaine Howard, b 1953
Pregnant self-portrait 1987 Charcoal on paper 75.8cm x 55.9cm 30″ x 22″
Jacob Epstein, 1880-1959
Genesis c. 1930 Marble 162.5cm x 78.7cm 64″ x 31″
The main reason for comparing these two works is to ask readers firstly, before looking at the answer, to consider whether they expect to see a difference in the way this subject is treated by a man and a woman, and secondly, once they know the answer, to see if they can detect any difference between the treatment of pregnancy by a man, who cannot have had any personal experience of the subject, and by a woman artist who was in fact studying her own pregnant body.There are several important differences between these two representations. The first is that […] one was produced over fifty years earlier than the other. Ghislaine Howard’s drawing is in a style which could have been produced at almost any time this century, so that anyone who had not seen it before would probably find it very difficult to date.
Nevertheless, the fact that it was produced recently is crucial to the comparison between the two works, since it is only in the last twenty years or so that significant numbers of women artists have begun to explore pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing in their art, and such subject matter has gradually become acceptable to many art gallery visitors.
Part of this development was the exhibition A Shared Experience held at Manchester City Art Gallery in 1993, which drew on work produced by Ghislaine Howard when working as an artist in residence in the maternity unit of Saint Mary’s Hospital in Manchester.
Howard has said that one of the greatest challenges she encountered was the fact that she felt she had no artistic tradition to draw on. She was familiar with centuries of representations of mothers and children in the ‘Madonna and Child’ form, and yet had never seen a Western painting of the most important subject that she was confronted with at the hospital: a woman giving birth.
Further major differences between the two works can be found in their physical nature – their size and medium – and the purposes for which they were produced.
Howard’s drawing is under half the size of Epstein’s work, and her chosen medium – charcoal – is, unless sprayed with fixative, impermanent, and has connotations of informality and privacy. The drawing, although standing as a work in its own right, was in fact part of an extensive series which led to a group of oil paintings charting the physical and psychological changes which Howard experienced during pregnancy.
Epstein’s work, however, was produced on a large scale in the formal and public medium of marble.
These basic differences go some way towards explaining the vastly different receptions accorded to the two works when they were first produced. Howard’s work caused hardly a murmur when it was purchased for the Whitworth [Art Gallery] in 1989, and likewise Epstein’s work now provokes few comments from visitors to the Whitworth.
When it was first displayed in 1931 at the Leicester Galleries in London, however, Genesis provoked howls of protest and abuse. The extent of the response prompted Alfred Bossom to purchase the work in order to tour it around Britain, thus raising a substantial amount of money for charity by charging a small fee to the crowds of people who flocked to see it. Subsequently the sculpture was shown alongside other works by Epstein to similarly large crowds at Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks on the Golden Mile at Blackpool beach.
Epstein’s initial reaction, on hearing that his work was to be shown at Tussaud’s, was outrage; however, he later declared himself in favour of the work being seen by as many people as possible. In making this claim, however, the artist showed himself widely out of step with much contemporary thinking about art.
Reaction to an earlier work by Epstein – five figures for the British Medical Association on the Strand – had shown that most contemporary critics felt that certain types of art, and in particular nude figures, should only be seen in carefully controlled circumstances by carefully selected people.
The Evening Standard declared that ‘figures in an art gallery are seen, for the most part, by those who know how to appreciate the art they represent’ (*Epstein 1963:23), whereas to show naked figures, as Epstein proposed, on the façade of a building in the Strand, ‘To have art of the kind indicated laid bare to the gaze of all classes, young and old, in perhaps the busiest thoroughfare of the Metropolis… is another matter’.
It was the duty of adult males to control and censor the kind of art to which the working classes and women were allowed access, and Epstein’s nudes were ‘a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating young man, his fiancée, to see’ (Epstein 1963:23).
The context in which a work of art is interpreted is, however, created not only by its physical and cultural surroundings but also by the title appended by the artist or a curator.
Ghislaine Howard did not give a title to her work; the title Pregnant Self-portrait was given by a curator when it entered the Whitworth Art Gallery, and presents it as simply an artist’s study of her own pregnancy.
The title Genesis, however, suggests that Epstein’s work is not about a particular pregnancy, or even about the subject of maternity in general, but is instead dealing with a much larger topic: the ‘genesis’ of the human race, a universal beginning.
It was this larger aim which brought Epstein into conflict with so many people amongst Genesis‘ original audience. In order to express his idea of the primitive beginnings of mankind, Epstein turned for inspiration to art from Africa and the Pacific islands, of which he was a great admirer and collector. However, whereas for Epstein the work of African sculptors could suggest something fundamental, ‘primitive’ in the sense of marking the earliest beginnings, for contemporary reviewers the word ‘primitive’ meant backward, underdeveloped.
This in turn constrained the way in which the expression on the face of Epstein’s pregnant woman was interpreted. Whereas Epstein wanted to suggest ‘calm, mindless wonder’, uneducated in the sense of still being instinctual, not overlaid with the unnecessary trappings of civilisation, the racism inherent in so much of British society in the years leading up to the Second World War meant that most responses to this sculpture were conditioned by a tendency to see certain facial features – thick lips, for example – as indicative of a lack of intelligence.
The Daily Express headline of 7 February 1931 ran: ‘Epstein’s bad joke in stone. Mongolian moron that is obscene.’ (Epstein 1963:274). The choice of the word ‘Mongol’ here was dependent not on the actual features of Genesis herself, since Epstein based this on studies of African masks, rather than the features of the East Asian peoples of Mongolia. Instead the reference is again to the insistent link between non-Western racial types and an assumed lack of intelligence underpinning the labelling of people born with Downes Syndrome as ‘Mongols’ which has only recently been eradicated from common English usage.
However, in the context of the subject matter of Genesis this is especially important in that non-European racial types are also presented as having not only lesser intelligence but also greater moral and sexual licence. The idea that black men are both more sexually potent and less restrained than European men can be traced back to the eighteenth century and beyond. In this context Genesis caused particular outrage in that a subject matter which Epstein’s critics insisted should be treated with delicacy was mixed with associations of those qualities of ‘primitive’ societies which most Westerners liked to congratulate themselves on having overcome.
The final insult was not only that this woman appeared to be non-European and unintelligent; she was also not beautiful, and this was if anything the most problematic issue. Epstein was violating two fundamental assumptions: that art, and women, should be beautiful. When told by a friend that most people could not understand why he had made Genesis so ugly, Epstein, with deliberately assumed incomprehension, replied that he thought she was beautiful. But in another context he made it clear that he was trying to create an image of feminity that deliberately eschewed contemporary notions of delicacy and beauty.
I felt the necessity for giving expression to the profoundly elemental in motherhood, the deep down instinctive female, without the trappings and charm of what is known as feminine… How a figure like this contrasts with our coquetries and fanciful erotic nudes of modern sculpture. (Epstein 1963:139-40)
Here it may be useful to draw a comparison between the response to Epstein’s work and that provoked by a modern image of pregnancy. In August 1991 the front cover of Vanity Fair magazine featured a photograph by Annie Leibovitz of the naked, pregnant actress Demi Moore. It aroused a storm of protest which has been compared to that caused by the first exhibition of Genesis, but which in fact contains significant differences.Amongst the vociferous minority defending the publication of the photo were a number who thought it demonstrated that pregnant women could still be beautiful and sexy: ‘what a pretty sight it is!’, ‘Who says women can’t… retain their sexuality during pregnancy?’ (Vanity Fair, October 1991:18-20).
The problem here is that pregnancy entails a number of changes to a woman’s body – swollen abdomen, enlarged breasts – which conflict fundamentally with the current ideal of slimness as feminine beauty, propagated by magazines such as Vanity Fair. Responses to the photo of Demi Moore demonstrated that attractiveness to men is still seen as the most important function of both art and a woman’s body, in the latter case overriding any other function, such as that of producing a child.
If any art form presents a pregnant woman as unattractive, for example with what the Daily Telegraph described in 1931 as Genesis’ ‘Face like an ape’s… breasts like pumpkins… hands twice as large and gross as those of a navvy [and] hair like a ship’s hawser’ (Epstein 1963:276) she represents a challenge and a threat.
Sarah Hyde is the Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Courtauld Gallery, University of London.
* Epstein, J. , Epstein, An Autobiography(1963), ed. R. Buckle, London, Vista Books.