“Desire and Voluptuousness: The Representation of Women in the Victorian Era”

By Béa Aaronson

I had the privilege to be in Paris, my native city, when the Jacquemart André Museum, on Boulevard Haussmann, was offering a different kind of art exhibition. In a world harassed by noise, violence, angular visions, suicidal installations, and stress —  here was a collection of Victorian paintings depicting amorously languishing women, dressed in Greek, Roman, medieval, and other exotic apparel. The title of the exhibition was “Désir et Volupté à l’époque victorienne,” which I almost kept intact for this lecture. How refreshingly ravishing, I thought, all these hairless, slick, whitish-pink skins, in flowing pastel silks, flirting with the surface of life. How resting for the gaze, these bouquets and skies, unfolding a dreamy landscape of escapism.

“Desire and Voluptuousness: The Representation of Women in the Victorian Era”
By Béa Aaronson
Mon, Feb 13, 4pm
The Jewish Cultural Center of San Miguel
Calle De Las Moras 47 (corner of Cinco de Mayo)
150 pesos per person

I truly enjoyed the exquisite Alma-Tademas, Leightons, Goddards, Millais, and Rossettis, to name a few. But, for whom was this desire and voluptuousness intended? After savoring this self-indulging, superficial tour of delicate Victorian erotica, I looked more closely at all these women, and noticed an insidious melancholic, depressive mood, which made me feel ill at ease and startled my curiosity. I could not stop but thinking of their state of mind, in an era during which women were objectified, used, and abused for the pleasure, comfort, and security of a deeply anchored patriarchal society.

How deceiving were these paintings of saccharine, coy, femininity! The exhibition seemed, to me, to be poorly researched, or worse, willfully ignorant of its social and political contexts. So, I have decided to give you the “true story” behind these portraits of longing, despondent, estranged, and love-stricken women. I re-acquainted myself with the history of the Victorian Era, and, lo and behold, here was the double standard of Victorian ideology, a raving hypocrisy, a cruel society, which chose to depict the pleasures of an elitist upper class hedonism, far removed from the gruesome reality of life that the rest of the population endured.

I divide this presentation in two parts. In the first part, I disclose to you the inner workings of Victorian ideology and social infrastructure, the “upstairs-downstairs” syndrome, through visits to aristocratic estates and their “slaves,” the staff. I also guide you through the stifling world of the rising “bourgeoisie,” high- and middle-, the plutocratic, often uneducated, emulators of the aristocracy. I also take you to the “other side,” the demi-monde: the lower middle class and working class, whose women had the choice between entering domestic service, becoming nurses or governesses, selling food at the market, or enduring slave labor in factories and sweat shops. There was no time for melancholic moods here; it was sheer survival. And let us not forget the poorest of the poor and the homeless, for whom there was only one way out: the “Work House,” a facet of Victorian society which will sting you with horror. I also take you to the infamous “asylum,” where women of all classes were locked up for reasons ranging from postnatal depression and melancholy, a simple flirtatious personality, to hysteria and insanity, or for more sordid reasons involving inheritance money and property.

In the second part, I contrast the representation of women in Victorian paintings against this ominous, historical, backdrop, focusing on Victorian sexuality, the “Madonna-Whore Complex,” the Virgin Mother, and the femme fatale, to show you how art, by choosing what to represent, not only allows for monumental misunderstandings, but also creates a collective amnesia. Victorian artists may delight you with their delicious palette of colors, with their exquisite draftsmanship, and their iconic portrayal of submissive, feminine beauty.


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