Of the 35 renaissance artists to feature in this copy of Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, there is only one woman. And it is a surprise half way through Book III to discover even one.
This was Properzia de’ Rossi and the three pages dedicated to her life are among the most engaging in Vasari’s exhaustive and occasionally riveting masterpiece.
It may be apocryphal, but she is said to have proved her fine art chops by carving a multitude of figures into a peach stone for a scene of the passion of Christ.
But her greatest triumph was to carve a marble panel, which, Vasari claims, reflected some of her own autobiographical circumstances, on the doors of San Petronio in Bologna
The scene in question comes from the Old Testament and shows the wife of Potiphar disrobing for Joseph in a bid for his attention, ‘with a womanly grace that is more than admirable’.
De’ Rossi was also suffering from unrequited love and a footnote in the Oxford World’s Classics edition reprimands Vasari for ascribing mere ‘romantic or sentimental inspiration’ to a woman.
But seems to me rather that this work is all the stronger for the apparent comment on de’ Rossi’s own life. It gives the work so much more honesty and front.
And if women were generally excluded from public life in 16th century Bologna, what Vasari calls this artist’s ‘burning passion’ may have been socially challenging. It’s almost Tracey Emin.
Or am I just lumping women artists together? in the same way Vasari does when he uses his chapter on de’Rossi to fill us in about Sister Plautilla, Madonna Lucrezia and Sophonisba of Cremona.
He tells us that in one drawing by the latter, ‘a young girl is laughing and a small boy crying because, after she had placed a basket full of lobsters in front of him, one of them bit his finger’.
That does seem very early in the history of art for comic lobsters, only perhaps not so early for proto-feminist statements.
Most of those lucky enough to see Edwina Ashton’s performance at Jerwood Space in the next five weeks will be, presumably, non-plussed. How else to react to people dressed as lobsters?
For three hour stretches the lobsters may be seen to rearrange objects. There may be more to it, but that’s the gist. It’s a response to the little known fact that real lobsters rearrange their caves.
This is an extensive a tribute to a crustacean whose most famous fan was the 19th century French poet Gérard de Nerval. It was him that characterised them as “peaceful, serious creatures.”
Said term might of course also apply to artists. In which case, the piece is a good demonstration of “the choreography of positions between artist, artwork and audience.”
It is only through this arrangement, according to Catherine Wood, that dancing lobsters and the like can be comprehended. This curator’s essay is well worth reading in the online catalogue.
And this rule applies to painting and sculpture just as much as performance; performance merely foregrounds it. The implications are incredible and a little frightening.
Positions on a dancefloor or indeed a stage change all the time. The movement of the audience will therefore determine the meaning and certainly the value of any piece of art.
But of course we are being moved around in our turn by the artist, via whatever channels they hope to communicate, and the various appearances of the work.
If proof be needed that the quality of your aesthetic experience boils down to social context, look no further than lobsters and a second essay, this one by David Foster Wallace.
The novelist points out that until the 19th century, lobster was dished up in prisons. Many said it was inhumane to make the inmates eat today’s delicacy more than once a week.
You would think that a taste for food might be less subjective than a taste for art. But as lobster numbers dwindled they became more desirable dance partners. Inevitable really.
We can only be non-plussed for so long and no one can respond to a piece of art in isolation. Other people’s discourses are then part of what we are looking at. It’s lobster, after all. Eat it up!
I haven’t even seen this piece yet, by the way. I’m planning to next week and will report back. It’s being performed at Jerwood Space as part of SHOW, until April 21 (Tuesdays and Thursdays 2–5pm). See gallery website for directions.