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

Catherine McCormack

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

Catherine McCormack

Women in the Picture is a fierce challenge to the ways we depict, and are taught to see, women’s bodies.

Plunging into the realms of art history, popular visual culture and advertising, McCormack opens our eyes to how archetypal depictions of women - as mothers, daughters, Venuses, whores or ‘nasty women’ - have encouraged us to objectify and subjugate, and to normalise violence towards them.

Taking in classic works of art by the likes of Titian and Picasso, as well as contemporary representations of women in everything from Hollywood films to perfume advertisements to censored Instagram images, we’ll reconsider the context in which images of women have been produced, displayed and reproduced - and the appeal to ‘beauty’ that has stopped us from seeing the misogyny of some of the world’s ‘greatest’ artists and public figures.

It’s time to learn new ways of seeing.


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 art of 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.

Margaret Snowden is the art and design buyer at Readings Carlton.

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