THE PAINTED WITCH; How Western Artists Have Viewed The Sexuality of Women. By Edwin Mullins. Carroll & Graf. 230 pp. $25.
MARK TWAIN somewhere recollects a sermon that caused him in five minutes to resolve on a $20 donation, upped in 15 to $50, in another 15 cut back to $20, then to $10 and by the time the plate came around he stole $5 from it.
The Painted Witch has something of the same effect.
Anyone who knows his way around the principal museums of Europe and America will readily agree that "most of the pictures . . . have been painted by men . . . a high proportion of them about women." The next link in the syllogistic chain is a little more tenuous: "paintings represent an appreciation of one half of the human race by the other half." Obviously, paintings represent a good deal more than tht, as the author periodically acknowledges, and the good deal more cannot but modify the "appreciation," as he never quite does.
It is the next leap that is the body of the book and that drives the reader ultimately to grabbing a few off the collection plate by the time it comes around in the last chapter or so. Germaine Greer's famous dictum, "Women have very little idea of how much men hate them," is quoted early as the inspiration for the entire essay. By the end, we are invited to assent to an embellishment: If women have very little idea of how much men hate them, they have never visited the National Gallery (the one on Trafalgar Square, not the one on the Mall).
In between comes the evidence, adduced from paintings from, roughly, Giotto to David Hockney, found in public collections in Europe and North America. Unquestionably there are paintings, many, which bear out the general thesis, but there are an awful lot of which Mullins seems to be skewing what he sees to support what he thinks.
In Ingres, for example, is a painter most of us would find guilty almost out of hand of the kind of anti-woman, or pro-woman-as-sex- slave, sentiment Mullins finds in the entire history of Western art. All those odalisques! Yet, the author chooses the Jupiter and Thetis and misuses it. This picture of the toy-like nymph imploring the gigantic god is, feminism aside, one of the most ridiculous works ever made by a great artist, but Mullins goes a fatal step farther: Jupiter, he says, "smirks straight at us with his vast chest puffed like a boxer between rounds." Jupiter does not, in fact smirk at all; for that matter, he doesn't really look straight at us. He stares solemnly, fixedly, at a point above our heads: the future, fateful enough in the midst of the Trojan War, or even eternity.
The most scandalous tampering with the evidence, I suppose, occurs with Titian's youthful and "perfect" painting, Sacred and Profane Love, in which th traditional values of the two figures are willfully reversed, making the richly clothed figure "sacred" simply because she is clothed, the nude one "profane" simply because she is nude. This imputes to the painter and his audience precisely the values the book as a whole attempts to adduce from the paintings, despite a centuries-old tradition exactly the other way around.
The principal victim of the Mullins muddiness, however, is Rubens, a painter who, if anyone ever did, celebrates, rejoices in, and simply adores women. The misinterpretation begins in a big way with the Rape of the Sabine Women, a big picture, which Mullins calls a "gang-bang," which, as any reader of James T. Farrell well knows, it is not. It is at worst an orgy, but it is also and more importantly, a crucial event in Roman mythological-history and Roman mythological-history was basic to the mind of Rubens' times: in that myth, the Rape is what kept Rome going.
ODDS AND ENDS like these keep turning up on the cutting room floor of this book and distract the even mildly informed reader. Mullins either doesn't know or deliberately disregards vast amounts of fundamental information, assumptions and mental frames of times other than his own. Pictures 200-, 300-and 500- years old are treated as if they were painted last week as a deliberate assault on Germaine Greer.
That's not all he disregards. The single woman painter who gets a slight mention is Vig,ee-Lebrun, as, correctly, one who "never looked at a woman as a thing." True enough, but a couple of pages later we rehearse the list of Impressionists who saw women only as things (which, incidentally, was how they also saw men) with no mention at all of Mary Cassatt, whose great distinction was precisely treating women as persons not things.
Under the chapter heading "Clothes- Pegs," appears the Velasquez Mariana of Austria, with the great hooped skirts and hair to match "Male hostility . . . clothing a kind of control . . . fashion . . . a cage" and so on in the manner done much funnier and more incisively by Thorstein Veblen in 1899. Yet, almost every royal male Spaniard Velasquez painted is turning into his armor with no notice from Mullins.
He ends, finally, with four male artists who managed somehow to save themselves from the general male chauvinism of the profession: Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Goya and Watteau. He's right, but the reason given is slightly disconcerting and more than slightly at variance with the burden of the book. "The lives of all four artists were overcast by the same shadow -- affliction . . . a bankrupt . . . dying of a wasting disease . . . stone-deaf . . . semi-dwarf." The only male artist who can give woman her due is one hopelessly deformed or deprived. We are back with Dostoevski's Christ as epileptic.