After months of Covid Gloom, we are finally out of Rome and on our special island. Today we went to a beach I know well as it’s less than 100 meters from our front door. Although not the most exotic of Parian beaches, it’s popular with people living in the neighbourhood. The children dominate the area where it’s easy to get in and the water is shallow. And where the water is not quite so shallow, a group of middle aged women meet for their daily swim. Well, more than swim, they tread the water as they animatedly talk to one another. All wear hats for protection so, from a distance, they look like a bunch of heads bobbing in the sea.
Lying in the shade of a tamarisk tree, I look up at the sky and sigh. Finally, after so many months of tension, my body is learning to relax again. The vastness of the cerulean blue above me is hypnotic and leads me to places I’d temporarily left behind.
In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin published an essay entitled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and answers the question herself by saying that there have been few “great” women artists simply because the patriarchal system has left little room for them to evolve as artists and become “great”. Women have been deprived those “conditions of possibility” that would permit them to be on the same level as men in terms of cultural success. In the past, for example, men were permitted to attend art academies whereas women were not. Thus it’s obvious that the condition of possibility, in this context, favors the male and not female artist.
But just because women have not been treated equally doesn’t mean they haven’t tried. Let’s take, for instance, a look at the historical role of women in the visual arts. Women have made significant contributions as interpreters of the visual arts but, despite the quality and quantity of their writings, they’ve been ignored or minimized compared to their male colleagues.
Alice Meynell (1847-1922) was a British poet, essayist, and suffragist. Although born in London, she grew up in Italy where she acquired her aesthetic imprinting.
Alice suffered from bad health and, during one illness, a Jesuit priest offer her solace. He gave her so much comfort that she decided to convert to Catholicism and give her writing a new direction. One common theme was the idea of equality.
A passionate suffragist, Alice believed that “We dare to say that if the balance of power between men and women had been more equal the world over, we should not still be settling international disputes by swamping a continent in blood and turning Europe into a shambles.”
Essays provide the perfect format for observations on specific themes and it was a format that Alice frequently used. One such essay was “The Spirit of Place.” More than the essay itself, it’s the title that intrigues me. For, sitting under the shade of a tamarisk looking towards the sea, I can feel that just by being here, my spirit is transformed.
“Spirit of place! It is for this we travel, to surprise its subtlety; and where it is a strong and dominant angel, that place, seen once, abides entire in the memory with all its own accidents, its habits, its breath, its name.” Alice Meynell
Meynell, Alice. The Spirit of Place, and Other Essays. John Lane the Bodley Head. London and New York. 1890. Read on archive.org HERE
Sherman, Claire Richter, Holcomb, Adele M. Women as Interpreters of the Visual Arts, 1820-1979. Greewood Press. Wesport, Conn. 1981. Read on archive.org HERE