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The Painted Witch : How Western Artists Have Viewed the Sexuality of Women : by Edwin Mullins (Carroll & Graf: $25; 230 pp., illustrated)

December 29, 1985|Bram Dijkstra | Dijkstra's book "Idols of Perversity: The war on Woman in turn-of-the-Century Culture" will be published by Oxford University in 1986

The atom bomb that devastated Hiroshima was sent on its way with a photograph of Rita Hayworth pasted to its shell--at least so people say. Edwin Mullins considers it of little importance whether or not there is truth to the rumor. Its very persistence is to him a graphic expression of the extreme dualism of men's attitudes toward women: "The most beautiful, desirable woman of her time, focus of tens of millions of erotic fantasies, is cast as guardian angel of the most destructive weapon in history."

"The Painted Witch" is a man's account of what men have done unto women in the name of art during 500 years of European history. Mullins argues cogently that a major reason for the continued admiration we show for certain paintings of past centuries is not their intrinsic aesthetic value but their continued ability to reflect "who we are and what we hold to be true." Seen in this light, large chunks of the history of Western art cease to present a pretty picture, and many of our culture's most cherished images become instead documents recording the history of men's cruel and quite usual punishment of women's sexual appeal.

Painters such as Peter Paul Rubens, Francois Boucher, Jean Auguste Ingres and Pierre Auguste Renoir, are but a few of those who undergo Mullins scrutiny. For once, they are not kept cradled within the protective "moral neutrality" of most stylistic analysis. Instead "The Painted Witch," in a manner certain to rankle orthodox art historians, calls these artists to task for their endlessly repeated images in glorification of immaculate super-virgins, wilting brides and menial moms. Women who did not fit snugly within that trinity of categories were portrayed as sinners, man-eating dragons or sword-carrying murderesses.

Mullins points out that many of the paintings in the world's most dignified museums advocate veritable "banquets of rape." Such paintings as Rubens' "Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus," he argues, are in effect prime examples of "how the conventions of art allow the skills of a great painter to make an ugly act seem beautiful, and thereby lodge in our minds the view that the act itself is beautiful--that rape is fair sport."

One of Mullins' explicitly stated goals in this book is to alert his readers to the dangerous complicity of art historians in the continued dissemination of notions of this sort. Their emphasis on form over content, their fashionable unwillingness to consider humane values or moral outrage a legitimate part of the art-evaluative process, Mullins argues, has enshrined the dubious notion that questions of value, meaning and influence must at all times take a back seat to formal analysis.

All this, Mullins remarks, leads to the chilling realization "that the museums of the world could be hung exclusively with pictures of women being tortured and raped, and the language of scholarship would remain the same. Why our civilization has produced these pictures, and why we continue to revere them--this is forbidden territory too uncomfortable to trespass upon, and perhaps too dangerous. Pillars of culture might be shaken, and experts whose sense of security rests upon that culture might get hurt."

Mullins, himself a widely published journalist and writer on art, documents the origins of his very personal sense of outrage concerning this state of critical affairs in a somewhat ponderous and slow-moving first chapter. His account of his conversion sounds a little overly dramatic and ingenuous, but it may well be honest and true. The paralyzing hold which formalist criticism has exercised over students of the humanities during this century, is today slowly weakening, and as it does, it is bound to give way to precisely the sort of sense of outrage and betrayal to be found in the pages of "The Painted Witch."

Mullins' writing is refreshingly unpretentious and jargon-free, and this makes his descriptions of the implied narrative--or if you will, the male ideology--of many of the "great" paintings of European art history eminently accessible to the general reader. Indeed, these descriptions are the most consistently interesting feature of his book.

Mullins breaks rapidly through the frozen surfaces of many of the most familiar images of classic European art, and he is very good at translating their unspoken messages into plain English. His description of Ingres' "Ruggiero and Angelica," for instance, quickly clarifies how the artist succeeded in equating the act of rape with the essence of manhood in a painting generally seen as a rather harmless, mildly titillating and very "literary" work: "He is entirely clothed, she entirely naked. He bears an enormous weapon; she is bound. The jewels in her hair award her sexual status--she is a princess; his ardor and the size of his lance award him sexual status--he is a real man."

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