Orbiting. A word used in a speech made at the Human Rights Campaign’s National Dinner by Anne Hathaway, where she accepted the National Equality Award, and spoke of the story and myth that we are all told; where “gayness orbits around straightness, transgender orbits around cisgender, and that all races orbit around whiteness.” And it is this same idea that we can apply to female artists; orbiting around male artists.
As moons and suns do to planets, we do to our own pillars and centres of gravity. Except ours are man-made(excuse the pun) by the culture and norms of the society that surrounds us.
In this case, society, too many times, has written creative women out of history. It is not a lack of such creatives that is the problem, but societies’ inability to recognise them.
Female artists have been sheltered for too long. They are censored and edited until their ghostly outline dissolves leaving nothing of them at all. To say women have done “f***k all” in the last 100 years-even in jest- is to allow such a sheltered existence to continue. These ghostly absences must be given shape and form and Dr Trowbridge, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University, has done just that.
“My Lady’s Soul: The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall” has now been published, by Dr Serena Trowbridge, in a bid to repurpose the original and talented poetry of a woman, effaced by her male contemporaries. Historically, we remember her as the face of Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia and wife to Dante Rossetti, the self-effacing muse to the pre-Raphaelites- an aesthetic vision from which men drew creatively. Dr Trowbridge aims, in this publication, to rectify Siddall’s image as a poet and creative in her own right. Not as some feeble orbiting accompaniment.
Siddall was eventually published posthumously, which is more than many women of her time could say, but she was heavily edited by her brother-in-law William Rossetti. He corrected her grammar and removed anything too emotional. He also ‘deleted’ anything that was indicative of her lower social status. But in doing so, he removed the true Elisabeth.
If anything, she was, by association, an emblem for one of the most iconic representations of the woman as “mad”. Having posed for days in a bath heated by candles, for Millais’ painting of Shakespeare’s drowned Ophelia, we imagine her upturned face, lying in a river, a fine silvery embroidered dress floating around her “mermaid-like” body, driven to madness by her father Polonius’ murder. So, with the image that made her famous in mind, it seems ironic that Siddall’s brother-in-law William Rossetti did everything he could to portray her as anything but emotional.
From the original ‘medical’ diagnosis of women as hysterical through to the more current version of the millennial “psycho”, women have consistently throughout history been characterised as overly emotional beings and discriminated against because of this. Their professional progression has been stunted as a result, their creativity denied, and the term genius rarely applied.
So perhaps her brother-in-law was protecting Siddall and her credibility as an artist by removing any emotion? But what does such censorship do to creativity and to the idea of women as creative? If you take the emotion out of art, where is the art? And why is it that male creativity is seen as genius but female creativity as hysteria?
Throughout history, the creativity and successes of women are ‘forgotten’ or ‘deleted’ in accordance with the success of their male peers. Have you ever heard of Nannerl Mozart? Adele Astaire?
Nannerl was a child prodigy, like her brother Mozart, and toured with him as the “wunderkinder” or wonder kids. But when she turned 18, everything changed. Being a creative and a woman was not socially acceptable and put her respectability on the line. So, she stopped, and her genius was effaced.
Adele Astaire, sister to acclaimed dancer and actor Fred Astaire, was also a performer like her brother, but admitted to feeling intimidated by his reputation. And only now can we question his dominating creative force as perhaps more than just talent?
And these are but a few examples of the many women unable to professionally advance due to societies values at the time. The only way to advance was to pretend to be male: think of the women authors made famous by way of their male pseudonyms: George Sand, George Elliot, Ellis Bell (Wuthering Heights)- YES- all women! Even Zelda Fitzgerald is thought to be the true author behind many of The Great Gatsby’s seemingly eternal words.
The 48 women that have been awarded the Nobel Prize compared to the whopping 833 men tells its own story- showing us that it is not a lack of women creative successes but a lack of recognition throughout history that is the real problem.
Some women are now using art itself to claim these forgotten histories back.
Groups like the provocative 1980s collective of female artists: Guerrilla Girls, used art to question the lack of representation of female artists throughout history. Placing a gorilla head onto the nude body of Jean-August-Dominique’s La Grande Odalisque, they ask in sprawled bold writing: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”- aptly repurposed in 2014 to become: “Do women have to be naked to get into music videos?” For it is indeed museums that define and can subvert gender roles and representation.
Judy Chicago’s gargantuan 1979 installation piece: The Dinner Party is a celebration of these forgotten female narratives. She turned a supposed female space of domesticity on its head; questioning and playing humorously with its form. She incorporates 1038 female names, in gold lettering across banners, place settings and tableware, both familiar and unfamiliar, in a shrine to unlauded female accomplishments and important artistic work; too often relegated to spheres of mere ‘craft’.
But in doing research for the project over the span of 5 years, her 400 strong team found a significant lack of information from which to draw on. Chicago said herself that they were literally making “herstory”.
And we see that it is not history itself that is questioned but its’ writings. After all, who is it that has been writing the history books?
“The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, but in our institutions and our education”- Art Historian Linda Nochlin, 1971
My Lady’s Soul: The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall will be officially launched during an event at the Birmingham & Midland Institute on Friday 28 September.