By Kaitlynn Buchbaum
A wooden bust of Mary, her eyes carved murky. Visible pearls of transparent gel slide down her face, leaving trails of the story that drove her to mourning. This image, of a vulnerable Christian woman, turned out to be emblematic of so many of the other images, sculptures and paintings that I encountered during Berlin’s annual Lange Nacht der Museen (Long Night of Museums) this year. For those who haven’t heard of it, the Lange Nacht der Museen is an evening every August during which museums across Berlin open their doors from 6pm to 2am, offering different points of access to countless exhibitions. This year, 80 museums participated, offering 800 exhibitions within the city from speed tours to interactive art-making sessions and screenings of silent films with musical accompaniment. Through all these activities, it’s imperative to set out an itinerary, as the hours go more quickly than you’d expect. Travel time and unexpected lines slowed the navigation process, but the evening was a valuable use of the time and 18 euros it cost to participate in this celebration of culture.
Yet in spite of the excitement of the night, there was still some nagging part of me that was left dissatisfied. On reflection, I believe this had much to do with the roles women were made to play in the works I encountered. As someone who was raised female, it’s difficult not to be sensitive to the way women are portrayed in media, and throughout the evening I couldn’t help but concentrate on the women I saw on display.
Some artworks, like Eugene Delacroix’s “Victory Leading the People”, of course portray a positive image of the power women hold in historical events.
Yet more often than not, the way women are portrayed in artwork is demeaning and subservient to the viewer. Take, for example, Pedro Roldán’s “Mater Dolorosa”. The sculptor’s depiction of the Virgin Mary during a sorrowful time of her life is bold, heartbreaking, and, plainly, traumatic. The eyes, carefully carved to display the lines of the cornea, have a haunting effect. Compared to “Old Man in Sorrow”, a painting of a man by Vincent van Gogh, the figure has a semblance of privacy in his feelings. He is given permission to experience his sorrow within the safety of his curled hands. Although the historical context is quite different, the contrast is striking.
Indeed, as I walked through various exhibitions, it struck me that the most intimate, painful emotions of women seem to have been fetishised at the hands of the artist throughout art history. Laid bare, the sorrow of the Virgin Mary, in her visible state of distress, arrests the emotions of the viewer, too. Viewer and sculpture interact in the shared recollection of sadness.
Encountering this same kind of image over and over throughout the evening, I began to feel a sense of voyeurism in the way I, as a spectator, was made to view these women and their associated possessions. In the Film and Television Museum, for example, one can find the costumes and props of film history on display. Perhaps the most glamorous example of this is the collection of Marlene Dietrich’s costumes and accessories. One can even find one of her golden hairs, trapped in a bobby pin in her make-up chest. Locked away from her care, there was something disconcerting about Marlene’s most intimate possessions being available for all to see, to compare, to desire.
Having said that, intimacy, even nakedness, was not always voyeuristic. The Dali museum presented an exhibition of lovely prints, paintings, and sketches from a part of Dali’s career not often represented in the media. Among the most salient examples of this trend, I discovered a collection of paintings taken from the stories of Rabelais, Casanova, and Dante, as well as many biblical and mythological scenes. While the representations of women varied from erotic to chaste, the paintings spoke to me in a way that felt different from the other exhibits I viewed that night. Whilst a central theme in these images was the nakedness of the female form, the way this nudity was presented felt more egalitarian than I’d seen elsewhere. The images showed female nudity as often as male nudity, indicating for me Dalí’s curiosity of the human form as a general entity. His sketches suggested a playful attraction to the capabilities of the human body, its strengths and weaknesses, its sheer beauty in all the forms it took.
All this is not to say that the experience of visiting museums is always necessarily a lesson in historical misogyny. But what the Long Night exposed to me was both the long historical tradition of exploiting women’s pain and personal lives for art, whilst also reminding me how far we’ve come. We’re not all the way there yet; one only needs to look at the recent report on the sexism rife in Berlin’s art world to know that. But what is for sure is that the most powerful route to equality may very well be through art making itself.