Putting the nouvelle women back on their pedestal

Oh ye, all ye that walk in Willowood, 1902.

Oh ye, all ye that walk in Willowood, 1902. Margaret MacDonald(Wikimedia Commons)

The ‘nouvelle woman’ with her ‘whiplash curves’ surrounded by flowing plants and flowers, is iconic and instantly recognisable on posters and calendars. Male artists have created art which features the idealised and dreamlike female muse. Names such as Aubrey Beardsley, Charles Rennie Macintosh and Gustav Klimt are all familiar, but where were the women in this movement, except modelling, usually with their clothes off?

‘Sex and Sensibility: the allure of Art Nouveau’, introduced by Stephen Smith, partly answers this.  As well as providing a whistlestop tour of some of the key figures in the movement, this programme also celebrates the work of some of the female artists who were influential in Art Nouveau, as makers and artists themselves, rather than just the muse.

Episode 2, particularly, focusses on the British influence (we are rather good at letting women be artists, but not so good at celebrating their achievements, it seems), with the stunning arts and crafts style work of Mary Watts (The Watts Chapel), and the extraordinary work of Mackintosh’s wife, Margaret MacDonald, of whom Mackintosh said, “Margaret has genius, I have only talent”. Her work inspired Gustav Klimt and along with her sister Frances, she was part of Glasgow ‘group of four’ – the key figures in the Scottish Art Nouveau movement.

Like Restoration playwright Aphra Behn and the queens in BBC4’s excellent ‘She-Wolves’, these little-known women have suffered at the hands of a patriarchal discourse. They were key figures in their time, yet biographers and commentators soon after began to play down, misrepresent, or in the worst cases, edit them entirely out of the timelines. Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth in action.

The important role women in art (of all forms) have played and play, actually creating art, needs more acknowledgement. If we don’t try and raise our knowledge and consciousness of art by women, it becomes a vicious circle and we begin to subscribe to and reinforce the one viewpoint. Usually male. Usually white. Usually middle-class. If we want to move towards a more equal place, we need to start seeing more and different parts of the picture.

Of course, times are changing, we do live in a time where women’s achievements can be, and often are, celebrated, but remember, we also live in a time where the Prime Minister tells a fellow female politician to ‘calm down dear’, so we’re clearly not there yet.

It is essential that programmes such as ‘Sex and sensibility’ continue to acknowledge and celebrate women’s roles as the creator and instigator, not just the passive muse.

‘Sex and sensibility’ is available on the BBC iPlayer.

About 17Percent

A campaign to get more plays by women playwrights onto UK stages.
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