Four Ways to Be a Woman Artist… According to the Movies

Creator's Statement

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. 


Works Cited

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. 

‘Four Ways to be a Woman Artist…According to the Movies’ presents a playful look at a number of tendencies in the representation of women artists, and in doing so draws together Western culture’s scepticism about such a figure, of which films are one expression. The video essay hits on something that we might have already recognised in individual films but solidifies the observation through multiple examples. What is at stake here then? An illustration of some of the ways in which women artists (and the art they make) are qualified as not as important / great / worthy as men? Certainly; as the video essay tells us, their other qualities get in the way. They are all sorts of things – obsessive, preternatural, abject, wanton, ridiculous, enigmatic, dangerous – but never straightforwardly an artist, ‘great’ or otherwise. The video essay also suggests that this representation indicates societal doubts about women more broadly, though it doesn’t delve into what this entails precisely, leaving the argument implicit. A question that this raised for me as a reviewer then was whether the video essay would have felt more didactic if it had insisted on giving answers, or if an explanation of how the qualities identified connect to such doubts would have strengthened it. At one point I suggested the latter as a possible option in order to pin this central issue down, but now I’m not entirely convinced that was helpful. The accompanying statement addresses one link between their representations and societal doubts through its final thoughts on the threat of emasculation posed by the woman artist. This argumentative mode comes across quite naturally in writing, but would perhaps be too blunt or closed off in videographic form, where showing is more effective than telling.

Reflecting on this potential reservation has made me come to realise that the more captivating aspect of this video essay is its engagement with tone, and the makers’ efforts to think through and reflect on the complications of their feelings about the films and the questions they are posing about women and art. In the accompanying statement, Susan Felleman highlights the importance of humour and timing to the video, drawing attention to the ambivalence she and her collaborator, Hannah Shikle, feel towards the films they explore. Through its varied methods of shaping tone, the videographic essay as a form provides opportunities to express a complexity of feeling towards one’s subject, and in more subtle ways than writing possibly could. Felleman and Shikle most prominently use text to ironise and punctuate their examples, much of which is well-placed and well-timed. The initial voice-over is also crucial to setting up how we read that text, the choice to start with voice and then shift to text means that we can carry the tone of voice with us while the text opens out a variability of response. Playing with tone draws attention to their interest in conflict (again, this is something that comes up in the statement, but I think really informs the piece as a whole), which is developed through their choice of examples that occupy varied tonal registers (from earnest to parodic) as well as through juxtapositions enabled by videographic form, as in the final compilation of reactions to the artistic expressions of women. I have to admit that in previous iterations I found myself not ‘getting’ the humour and pushing for shorter sharper edits, but I have come to appreciate more fully the ambivalence towards its subject expressed through the videographic choices made. I might still want shorter edits, but the longer takes express their enjoyment of these moments even within the frame of their critique.

Four Ways to Be a Woman Artist According to the Movies frames the woman artist on film as a problematic trope of representation: either centre stage in biographical fictions that stereotype her creativity as a manifestation of her sexuality or lurking in the margins of other genres as an eccentric, sometimes excessive personality, side-lined as comic relief or as a vague threat to the central (male) character. Drawing on the films Artemisia and Camille Claudel, the first part of the piece compiles scenes of creation, in which the expression of the woman artist’s subjectivity (directed at a male object as source of inspiration) is counterbalanced by her visual objectification into erotic spectacle; it is little wonder that several of these international quality films have been perceived, by feminist art historians from Mary D. Garrard to Griselda Pollock, as complicit with the sort of patriarchal myth-making that has long kept women artists out of the canon.  

The use of captions in the vocative form ('if historical … be obsessive/if fictional… be absurd/dangerous') playfully highlights mainstream’s cinema tendency to sketch the woman artist as a compendium of mythemes. However, these traits are not necessarily stable or unequivocal. The video essay produces a different perspective by putting the historical biopic (where the stress on tragedy and loss leaves little margin for humour or irony) within a longer line of fictional female characters. Usually found in supporting roles, painted in broad strokes often to memorable effect, the woman artist adopts the mask of either asexual or hyper-sexual, off-the-rails femininity; her potential as a castrating force is eloquently captured by the second selected scene from After Hours, in which hapless Paul (Griffin Dune) is absorbed and ‘silenced’ into becoming part of an avant-garde artwork. What gradually emerges from the video essay’s look at the circulation of images of female artists in popular film culture (as per the pointed references to Niki de Saint Phalle and Carolee Schneemann in What a Way to Goand The Big Lebowski respectively) is a certain skepticism (to put it mildly) towards the unholy alliance of women and art, literalised through the presence in the frame of the (male) beholder who makes us look not so much at the work, but at the woman artist at work. Their expressive reactions (whether impatient, uneasy or simply dumbfounded) is meant to enhance the incongruity of the spectacle of feminine artistic creativity.  

The authors suggest that when she’s not fixated on a male object or a male subject of inspiration, the woman artist is overtly exhibitionistic, narcissistic and vaguely threatening to this (by-default) male spectator. Yet Four Ways to Be a Woman Artist… could also have been called ‘Four (or more) Ways to Perform the Woman Artist’. The ways the actor approximates the physical task of creative work – the detailed hand gestures of Valentina Cervi (as Artemisia Gentileschi) or Linda Fiorentino (as Kiki in After Hours) send haptic ripples through the image; the bodily exertion of Isabelle Adjani amorously wrestling the block of clay in Camille Claudel, or Daryl Hannah’s elegant dance of timed destruction in Legal Eagles come into relief next to the more overly arch personifications of Elsa Lanchester or Julianne Moore. In particular, Moore’s airborne entrance and pointed phrasing of the word vagina in the face of the inarticulate, unreconstructed masculinity of the Dude (in the cult classic The Big Lebowski) evokes a different kind of performance of the woman artist; both ironic and totally in control – her Maude Lebowski belongs to a specific time and place and yet would be entirely at home in, for example, in the camp femicentric worlds of Pedro Almodóvar. 

Whilst the authors’ critical ambivalence towards these representations is made clear, their video essay also makes room to ask whether the films themselves can potentially dismantle (through repetition, distortion, irony and humour) myths about the woman artist through the very reenactment of such myths in new contexts. A further question hovering over the structure and rhetorical strategies of this video essay is to what extent both melodramatic and comedic excess may render the woman artist’s agency as a destabilising force, if only on the evidence of her impact on the male spectator.