The vision of others : feminist thought in the drawings and paintings of Rebecca Fortnum

Fortnum, Rebecca (2018) The vision of others : feminist thought in the drawings and paintings of Rebecca Fortnum. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This PhD by portfolio comprises of a critical commentary reflecting on a visual art practice form 1988 to 2013 with a particular focus on four series of recent work: 'Dream' (2011-13) [Appendix B], 'Wide Shut' (2013) [Appendix D], 'Self contain' (2012-13) [Appendix C] and 'L'Inconnue de la Seine' (2010-) [Appendix A] and two exhibitions, Absurd Impositions (2011, V&A's Museum of Childhood) and Self Contained (2013, Freud Museum London). In exploring how the work suggests 'the vision of others' (Hilty, 1996) might be accommodated I exploit the meanings of the word vision. Initially concerned with how the work represents sight and looking, that is both how people become objects of sight as well as how thye see, I explore vision as the formation and communication of an individual outlook or view of the world, that is as dreams, deisres and sense of identity. To map this complexity, I suggest looking, materiality, and narrativity as the core concerns of my painting. The critical commentary is in three parts. The first, Vision, explores the ways in which portraiture opens up an awareness of the ethics of looking and depiction. Framed by notions of a gendered, embodied gaze explored in my earlier painting, I discuss the dynamics of sight within the painted portrait, in particular the reciprocity of look between the artist who originates the depiction, the subject depicted and the viewer for whom the work is made. This includes a discussion of Michael Fried's notion of 'absorption' and in particular what this might mean for depictions of children. The second part, 'Re-Vision', critically assesses how the 'touch' of drawing relates to sight and sightlessness in portraiture. This examination of the materiality of the work articulated how the processes of making inflect the work's meaning. It reflects on the use of the photograph and doubled imagery and on the different forms of mark making and geture employed in the drawings that I propose are able to bring a particular quality of ambivalence to a meditation on maternal gaze. 'Imaging Narrative', the last section, examines strategies for facilitating the reading of text as image and image as text. It explores my material choices, use of juxtaposition, the work's site and a notion of return and how these are deployed to encourage certain interpretations. Here I make a claim for a method of material juxtapositions that allows for a literary overshadowing of the visual, allowing the viewer as an active, imaginative part in the construction of meaning. The idea of autobiography as a fiction is utilised (via Anne Wagner and Paul de Man) in relation to self-portraiture and art-work by women, who are positioned by their gender outside their medium's history and heritage. Through the work I argue there is a direct feminist perspective on the depiction of the gendered and maternal gaze. I draw on art historical and literary criticism to elucidate the work's potential for feminist enquiry. Ultimately these reflections tentatively propose that the work, via a feminist reading, might point the way to a recalibration of certain values within contemporary art practice in relation to genre, site and subject, and through the work's relation to portraiture, drawing, museums and children. My conclusion reflects on the difficulty of an ethical representation of others and its consequential dispersed notion of portraiture. However, I also claim that alongside what Maria Walsh has called within these works 'maternalised optics', 'a shared space of intimacy without judgement' [Walsh 2013: 69-76] there is a perverse and violent aspect to the version of the maternal gaze they propose, creating an undercurrent in the work which leads to a productive ambivalence.

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