Statement by Susan Felleman
'Four Ways to Be a Woman Artist… According to the Movies', my first video essay, emerges from longstanding research and teaching preoccupations, as reflected especially in my book, Art in the Cinematic Imagination (2006), and in Modern Artists as Cinema Subjects, a course I co-teach with Peter Chametzky. I like the way evidence can be deployed directly in the video essay form. Patterns and tropes typical of representations of art and artists on screen can be highlighted and deconstructed. Critical insights, irony, and ambivalence can be engaged by structure and commentary.
Comedy, it is said, is all (or mostly) in the timing and, although humor is only one facet of this critique, it’s an important one, and timing was a major focus of the rather minimal but salient text-based elements of the essay. Humor allows Hannah Shikle, my collaborator, and I to express our affection for and pleasure in these films, even as we critique their underlying sexism and stereotyping. The editing often emphasizes reaction shots, usually of men to women artists and their art. Onscreen text is tinged with irony. There are vicissitudes of ambivalence here, as the films featured reflect a range of attitudes, from the self-seriousness of the two French biopics in the first 'chapter' to outright parody in the two black comedies in the last. They also reflect a range (albeit not global) of historical and cultural origins, from the postwar American thriller to the European art film and the American indie of the 1980s and 1990s.
Hitchcock, whose Vertigo plays a part in the essay’s introduction and whose Strangers on a Train and Rear Window are featured in the second 'chapter', was an art lover and collector, yet art and artists are often sources of humor in his work, as I and others have discussed vis Suspicion (Felleman 2006, 6-17), as well as The Trouble with Harry (Felleman 2014, 89-105). When it came to art, he really liked to have his cake and eat it too. I recently learned that Louise Patterson, the woman artist in the Kenneth Fearing novel from which The Big Clock was adapted, was based on Alice Neel, a close friend of Fearing’s (Schleier, 321). Eccentric already in the novel, but one of its narrators and not marginal, in the movie she becomes minor and ridiculous. Like the lady artists in other postwar dramas—Body and Soul, Strangers on a Train, and Rear Window—she is comic relief.
Gallerist Arne Glimcher was associate producer of Legal Eagles ('chapter' 3), a thriller that takes art seriously, and the scene we extract is a performance that, for all the improbability of its impromptu and pyrotechnic staging, is impressive, aesthetically and thematically. It is credited as a collaboration between Glimcher, Daryl Hannah, and performance artist Lin Hixson. Nonetheless, the scene exudes an aura which often attends the femme fatale, as I have argued:
…this performance makes evident how deeply imbricated are the film’s understanding of art and femininity. It draws on manifold aspects of fire: its fascinating kinetic and formal properties, its erotic connotations, its consuming, destructive power—aspects contemplated by Gaston Bachelard in his Psychoanalysis of Fire —and collapses all these properties of the performance into the performer, Chelsea herself, drawn as a fascinating, erotic, dangerous flame. (Felleman 2006, 132)
This conflicted spectacle reflects a cultural disturbance felt in the art world and beyond by the 1980s, an outcome of the growing prominence of feminism and new (less saleable) forms and media—including video, installation, and performance—often employed by feminist artists. This disturbance is echoed in The Big Lebowski, set in the early 1990s, which also inserts mystifying feminist performativity into a thriller centered around the value of things. As Carolee Schneemann, a pioneer of performance—the very pioneer parodied by Julianne Moore’s Maude Lebowski—maintained, 'there’s something female about performance itself, I think, because of how it is ephemeral and close to the unconscious— involving display, use of the self' (Jones, 151). As with After Hours and Legal Eagles, the Coens’ film knowingly narrativizes a fear of emasculation that may arise from such cultural and psychosocial disturbances. And speaking of emasculation, we only noticed when the essay was nearly complete that our first 'chapter' begins with a woman artist’s refusal to regard a penis as a phallus and the last ends with a woman artist’s apotropaic brandishing of the word 'vagina'.
Emasculation is a threat emanating from women artists in other movies, for instance Maggie (Meg Ryan) in Addicted to Love (1997), Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) in The Shape of Things (2003), and the aptly named Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) in Synecdoche, New York (2008). We expect viewers of this essay will find more evidence in popular film that supports our analysis and little that does not. Unifying all these films are intransigent and transhistorical notions of art and femininity that—whether conscious or not—underlie representations of the woman artist.
Bachelard, Gaston. 1964. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Trans. Alan C.M. Ross. Boston: Beacon.
Felleman, Susan. 2006. Art in the Cinematic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas.
-----------. 2014. Real Objects in Unreal Situations: Modern Art in Fiction Films. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect.
Jones, Amelia. 1998. Body Art: Performing the Subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Schleier, Merrill. 2009. Skyscraper Cinema: Architecture and Gender in American Film. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Susan Felleman (writer-director) is Professor of Art History and Film and Media Studies at the University of South Carolina and author of Real Objects in Unreal Situations: Modern Art in Fiction Films (Intellect 2014), Art in the Cinematic Imagination (Texas 2006), Botticelli in Hollywood: The Films of Albert Lewin (Twayne 1997), numerous journal articles and book chapters, and co-author, with Steven Jacobs, Vito Adriaensens, and Lisa Colpaert, of Screening Statues: Sculpture and Cinema (Edinburgh 2017).
Hannah Shikle (editor) received her M.A. in Media Arts from the University of South Carolina in May 2022. As a senior there, she was recipient of a Magellan Scholar Award to collaborate on video essays with Susan Felleman. She presented her video essay, A Desert Journey in Nine Parts, at the Theory & Practice of the Video Essay conference, UMass Amherst, September 22-33, 2022. Her thesis project, Voyageur du temps: Gérard Depardieu & French Identity, is an Official Selection at the Orlando Film Festival 2022 and a Semi-Finalist at the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival 2022.