Jacqueline Morreau: Themes and Variations

This piece by artist and art historian Katie Deepwell appears in the catalogue "Themes and Variations", published to accompany Jacqueline Morreau's recent touring exhibition.

"The asymmetry of the categories - mate and female - is made manifest in the unilateral form of sexual myths. We sometimes say 'the sex' to designate woman; she is the flesh, its delights and dangers. The truth that for woman man is sex and carnality has never been proclaimed because there is no one to proclaim it. Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth."

(Simone de Beauvoir; 'The Second Sex' (1949) Picador, 1988 p.175)

De Beauvoir's description of a fundamental asymmetry between male and female in sexual myths and her pronouncement of an as-yet unarticulated role reversal in representation which might change the balance, has found increasing expression in the work of many different women artists since the 1960s. The last and most well-known sentence of this quote from Simone de Beauvoir's 'The Second Sex' has frequently been used to announce the foundation of feminism's critique of patriarchy: to pinpoint the exclusionary arrogance underlying dominant masculinist perspectives in representation when presented as singular and universal truths about the human condition. The question remains: what happens to the politics of representation when a different subject, a female subject, starts to articulate her own desires and perspectives based on her own experiences in the world? It is precisely this feminist project of a deliberate shift in perspective, a calculated disruption of accepted patriarchal norms which underlies Morreau's own work in the last twenty years. Jacqueline Morreau's paintings have involved the rewriting of some dominant narratives and myths central to the Western tradition from the perspective of a female subject. She uses figurative strategies in narrative painting to alter conventional meanings and associations. Her faith in the ways in which a different set of possibilities could be proclaimed has carried over into her involvement with the initiation of two important exhibitions of the 1980s, 'Women's Images of Men' and 'Pandora's Box' (curated by Mouse Katz). In 'Women's Images of Men' the way that women artists looked at men reversed the normative expectation that art consists only of men's images of women: a dominant paradigm even in twentieth century art. The power relations of the dominant male gaze on a female subject/object were reversed into that of the female gaze upon a male subject/object with surprising results, shifting norms and expectations with wit, humour and often irony. In 'Pandora's Box' the normative depiction of Pandora as the 'Woman' responsible for letting loose all the evils of the world was reread by women artists both positively and negatively, highlighting the relationship between self- knowledge, autonomy and creativity. These exhibitions also aimed to establish new methods of collective organization as well as challenging accepted frameworks for interpreting myths and stereotypes.

Rewriting and rereading myths becomes in Morreau's work a vehicle of revelation about women's desires, psychology and perspectives. Her paintings highlight conflicts engendered by both emotion and reason (mixing modes of thought which have conventionally been seen as mutually exclusive) in order to open up a space in which an active female subject's psychological dilemmas, the choices she makes and their resulting dramas can be seen. The repertoire of visual imagery she uses is drawn from an expressionist/realist canon of mainly twentieth century painting, frequently used as a vehicle for social protest and dissent: Kathe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, Rico Lebrun, Pablo Picasso, but does not exclude her passion for classical European masters like Rubens or Titian, Rembrandt or Goya. Morreau's early training in traditional methods of figurative drawing and oil painting has never been abandoned but has steadily developed to exploit a 'masterly' control of free-flowing line in drawing and a complex layering of colour in her oil paintings. Triptychs like 'Lessons of History' and 'Children's Crusade' demonstrate her long-standing commitment against the horrors of war and the massacre of innocents (Study for 'Massacre of Innocents' 1981, Arts Council Collection). In the 1960's, she made work about the horrors of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and took part in anti-Vietnam protests through Women for Peace. In 1992 her response to the Gulf War was a triptych 'Beyond Reason' which was also based upon her interpretation of Goya's late etching series.

Morreau has frequently described her position as anachronistically placed in relation to the agendas of the mainstream art world because of her continued use of both paint and figuration as a strategy, first in America in the 1950's when abstract expressionism was the vogue and subsequently in the women's art movement as it developed in Britain since the mid-1970s. Her work, however, was seen in an alliance with a broad spectrum of other feminist figurative arises working or showing in Britain from the late 1970s: Sue Coe, Eileen Cooper, Paula Rego, Flick Allen, Lubaina Himid, Leslie Sanderson or Alexis Hunter.

In the first pare of the 1980's in London, a wide variety of figurative painting styles enjoyed a considerable vogue in parallel with, but not identical to, the mainstream's discovery of 'new image' painting, alternatively known as 'the return to painting and sculpture' in postmodernism, 'bad painting' or 'neo-expressionism'. The prior ascendancy of abstraction (since 1945) and then minimalism and conceptualism (in the 1960s and 1970s) had produced what many perceived as a continuous tension in the history of the twentieth century between artists who continued to develop forms of realism/expressionism and twentieth century avant-garde modernist movements (the -isms). Traditional realism's humanist faith in describing a world-view and announcing a subject position was increasingly under attack by the proliferation of postmodern painterly strategies (in the 1980s) which set out to exploit/negate the status of painting as medium (a continuation of high modernist concerns); employed parody or pastiche to negate meaning itself; or questioned the authority invested in history painting to convey historical process or an adequate conception of 'the Real'. Increasingly, developments in post-structuralist theory have led to the questioning in art criticism of the gap between representation and 'the real', problematising methods of interpretation and how to theorise contemporary art practice. While conceptual artists drew on Brecht's legacy of 'distanciation' coupled with semiotic and psychoanalytic models in their development of scripto-visual, text-based practices, many painters looked to artists known as social critics or political activists for role models, models made increasingly accessible by writing from the new art history.

The women's art movements initial broad alliance since the mid-1970's under the auspices of exploring 'the personal as political' as central to feminist political struggle was frequently redefined through the 1980s to make ever- increasing critical distinctions between feminine and feminist work, retrogressive and avant-garde feminist strategies and subsequently to outline a feminist problematic in art which was neither medium-specific nor exclusively issue- based but through specific critical contexts (semiological, psychoanalytic and often deconstructionist) could be identified as offering an engaged political perspective in a critique of the feminine subject-position. Morreau's work can be situated in a critical relationship to the developments outlined above, participating in aspects of the continuing debate about feminist art practice in the women's art movement; continuing the critical traditions of realism and social protest but not aligning herself with postmodern strategies in painting practice.

The exploration of these conflicts within identity for the woman painter, conscious of working within a male dominated canon and mainstream art world, coupled with the desire to announce her position both as woman and artist emerges in the series of portraits on the 'Divided Self'. In one work in this series, inspired by a dream, the woman artist is depicted as two selves within one coat. On the opposite side of the river is a line of male artists (represented by images from their self-portraits), Beckmann, Delacroix, Rubens, Goya and Rembrandt. While the male artists hold in their hand at most only a paintbrush and have each other for company, the woman's divided self carries both a baby and her portfolio, literally her cultural baggage ('Divided Self III', 1979, Cleveland Art Gallery, Middlesbrough). The distance established by the river between these silent role models and the plight of the woman as both mother and artist is central to the organization of the picture and the dilemma posed for the contemporary figurative woman painter.

The theme of internal conflict and a struggle between superficial appearance and underlying realities also emerges in a series of self-portraits collectively entitled 'Mask'. Here the grimacing mask, the pleasing expression of woman (well known as the stereotype of femininity coping in a male-dominated world), is removed to reveal a more determined and confrontational gaze (an acknowledgment of fear, conflict and a response to the anger generated by the struggles of daily life). In this complex appropriation of traditional techniques and compositional devices filled with new content and a steady reworking of ideas, the subject is not presented as stable or fixed. Transformation in identity is a major theme in Morreau's work and her depictions centre frequently on moments of change.

Since 1972 Morreau has produced several large cycles of mythic figures, particularly 'Disclosing Eros', which have formed the subject of her major exhibitions, notably 'Myth and Metaphor' and 'Psyche and Eros'. In direct contrast to the general passivity and spectacle of 'Woman' in European classical allegories, Morreau's work foregrounds the desires, emotions and actions of her female figures. In each of the large mythic series, the gesture, actions or events depicted underline the transformation and metamorphosis in women's lives using repeated small scenes across the picture plane. Morreau opens up a feminist reading because she provides a new point of identification for a female spectator with the actions of her chosen female subjects, Eve, Pandora, Persephone and Pysche. These are all myths in which the woman has conventionally been blamed for creating new and more difficult states of being: specifically, banishment from the Garden of Eden (Eve), the creation of the seasons of winter and summer (Persephone), and where the blissful union between lovers is ended because the woman seeks greater knowledge about her lover (Psyche). In 'Pandora as Atlas' (1983), Pandora carries the burden of the world - its sagging weight echoing the form of a brain - as it drips blood. Pandora's burden, her responsibility in carrying the world and its evils, carries also the recognition of the fragile human-created state of the planet.

Morreau also replaces another feature of the high drama of classical painting namely, where 'Woman' is seen as an object of sexual exchange between men, i.e. in Eve's case between God and Adam or in Persephone's case between Zeus and Hades, shifting the focus onto the woman herself, her responsibilities and the consequences of her actions. Increasingly she has considered not only the relationship between male and female lovers, central to her Psyche and Eros cycle, but the relationship between mother and daughter as part of a cycle of continuity, change and reconciliation, evident in the triptych 'Persephone' (1983), 'Silence Gives Consent' (1981) which forms the third panel of 'The Children's Crusade' and her recent 'Coat' paintings. This focus on the contract between mother and daughter - a potential metaphor also for generational difference within feminism - initiates an elaborate potential for spinning new meanings in terms of the association and identification on the part of the (female) spectator with the female characters. The acknowledgement of one's relationships with older wiser women is made even more explicit in her images of the Fates as women who sew, stamp out, or model existence as in her large gestural drawings of dancing Nereids and other works of the early to mid-1980s. In 'She who Spins' a spiderlike figure spins itself into a multiplicity of poses and into a defensive, if creative, dynamic circle suspended in a inky sea/sky as if from an umbilical cord.

'The Swelling Sea' (1993), one of the last of the 'Psyche and Eros' cycle of paintings and etchings, in which Psyche and her daughter emerge into the sea from the underworld, is an important transitional work for Morreau. This work had been preceded by a number of figure studies of her family and friends swimming, which were transformed into a series of paintings, 'Swimmers', representing pairs of relationships: lovers, siblings, ego, and alter-egos, mothers and daughters. In the 'Fold Upon Fold' (sea/bed) series which followed, Morreau temporarily abandoned her direct representation of the figure and began to explore the traces of human activity left behind in twisted draperies of a recently abandoned bed, the site of both sexuality and sleep. The environment, literally sea, sky and landscape merge with the human trace of twisted sheets and bedding to figure both sensuality and mood through the combinations of colour, atmosphere and forms. Dreams, acts of passion, the disruption or securement of sleep, hope and terror are all figured in these suggestive and evocative oils. The methods of identification through the actions of a female character used in many earlier works are temporarily displaced in a space where viewers are offered an arena in which to project their own fantasies and imaginary scenarios while reflecting upon the causes of the traces left behind.

Katy Deepwell is an artist and art historian. She edited "New Feminist Art Criticism", Manchester University, 1995.