Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking

Catherine McCormack

Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking
Icon Books Ltd
United Kingdom
1 February 2022

Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking

Catherine McCormack

‘I’m glad this book was written because it felt like the scales were falling from my eyes as I read it. Women will continue to be objectified in art and in popular culture, but the book sheds a generous amount of angry light on how we got here.’ - The Herald

A perfect pin-up, a damsel in distress, a saintly mother, a femme fatale…

Women’s identity has long been stifled by a limited set of archetypes, found everywhere in pictures from art history’s classics to advertising, while women artists have been overlooked and held back from shaping more empowering roles.

In this impassioned book, art historian Catherine McCormack asks us to look again at what these images have told us to value, opening up our most loved images - from those of Titian and Botticelli to Picasso and the Pre-Raphaelites. She also shows us how women artists - from Berthe Morisot to Beyonce, Judy Chicago to Kara Walker - have offered us new ways of thinking about women’s identity, sexuality, race and power.

Women in the Picture gives us new ways of seeing the art of the past and the familiar images of today so that we might free women from these restrictive roles and embrace the breadth of women’s vision.


Reading Catherine McCormack’s new book is an antidote to something I didn’t know had been happening to me. I have read writers that McCormack references such as Griselda Pollock, Hélène Cixous and Barbara Creed, and their ideas informed me deeply. Yet somehow, the insidious pervasiveness of the visual dialogue of misogyny continues to colour my life.

In Women in the Picture, McCormack analyses how women have been portrayed in art through a set of popular archetypes and myths: Venus, Mother, Maiden and Monster. The messages and implications of patriarchal cultural privilege and the male gaze, within a predominantly White European agenda of control and power, are adroitly addressed. The discussion is not a simple one: how, for example, do we change the way we look, and understand what we are looking at? The book addresses this topic in an engaging way. Acknowledging the difficulty in deconstructing the power of beloved famous paintings such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the discussion moves through the groundbreaking, messy artof feminism in the 1960s and 1970s and examines how contemporary artists like Beyoncé play with and turn the tropes on their heads.

Feminist art is often powerfully confronting in broaching and breaking social taboos but as McCormack points out, images of breastfeeding and menstrual blood are still routinely censored on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. McCormack also explores how the imagery of social media has become separated from an awareness of the representation of women in art history, especially in images of disempowerment and control. Observe how Julia Gillard, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and others have been vilified as witches, as if we had somehow started living in the 15th century again, and how misogynistic art images help to give those negative social media images credence. This is a great introduction to an ongoing dialogue.

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