The Rokeby Venus is surely one of the most beautiful paintings in London’s National Gallery. Few people see it without stopping awhile to gaze in awe and wonder. Painted by the Spanish artist Diego Velasquez between 1647 and 1651, it shows the nude figure of Venus – probably Velasquez’ mistress – reclining on a couch with her back to the viewer, while her son, Cupid –the Roman god of physical love - holds up a mirror before her.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Venus and the Vote
It is a very sensual painting - an exquisite evocation of female sexual beauty. Many people – especially men – admire it for that reason alone. But there is more to this painting than sex; it has a political history too. Why? Well, if you look at it closely enough, questions begin to arise.
Why has she got her back to us? A masterly touch surely; a tease, tempting us to imagine more. But it was also, probably, a way for Velasquez to placate the Inquisition in 1650. ‘I only painted her back,’ you can imagine him innocently protesting to the morals police. ‘So what’s your problem? Nothing pornographic about that.’ Hm.
Another question: what is going on with that mirror? Perhaps she’s admiring herself – after all, the painting was originally called The Toilette of Venus – but actually, that can’t be true. Why not? Because, reflected in the mirror, we can see her face; and the laws of physics – which Velasquez knew very well - are quite clear about that: if I can see you in the mirror, you can see me. And if she can see us, she can’t see herself.
Oh ho. The plot deepens. So it’s not just you and me, standing in the gallery, staring at a naked lady; she is watching us too. That changes things quite a lot, doesn’t it? What is she thinking, about those teenage boys drooling behind her? Is she amused, flattered, angry, contemptuous? We don’t really know, because unfortunately, the artist has made the face of the lady in the mirror rather blurry, hard to make out. No enigmatic Mona Lisa smile here. That’s a pity, I think – it might have made the painting even more intriguing.
This is of course a painting about sexual politics. Whatever the lady herself thinks about it – and it’s hard to be sure about that – she is most definitely portrayed as a sexual object. And not all ladies throughout history have been entirely happy with being portrayed like that.
Take Mary Richardson, for example. Mary was a suffragette, a member of Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union, campaigning for the women’s right to vote. She was a very active member: in her time she set fire to several buildings, smashed windows at the Home Office, and put a bomb in a railway station. She’d been arrested and sent to prison several times. And in 1913 she’d seen her colleague, Mary Davison, killed when she stepped in front of the King’s racehorse in the Epsom Derby.
Most importantly, Mary had seen her leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, arrested again and again. Each time she was sent to prison, Mrs Pankhurst went on hunger strike until she was so weak she was released. Then, under the notorious Cat and Mouse Act, she was sent back to prison, where she went on hunger strike again. It was like torture; Emmeline was only a small woman in the first place, and each time she was released she was a little smaller, a little weaker.
But Mrs Pankhurst refused to give up. She just kept on giving speeches and thinking of new ways to protest. And so did Mary.
On March 10th 1914, Mary Richardson entered the National Gallery and walked up to the Rokeby Venus. But she didn’t just stand there reverently admiring it, as most people do. Oh no, not Mary. Instead, she took out a meat cleaver which she had hidden under her coat, stepped over the little rope that keeps visitors back from the painting, and attacked it. Violently. Very violently; it was like murder, some newspapers said. By the time someone stopped her, she had inflicted seven heavy slashes on the naked woman’s back.
What one earth did she do this for? Well, Mary was a woman, of course – a real live woman, not a painting – and so was Mrs Pankhurst, who’d just been arrested again the day before. And Mary Richardson didn’t think of herself or Mrs Pankurst as women in quite the way that Diego Velasquez had thought about his mistress. Mary didn’t see herself as a sex object, she was a human being; and to her, people were more important than paintings. Here’s some of what she said:
‘I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history … If there is an outcry against my deed (there was!) let everyone remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women.’
Much later, in 1952, she added: ‘I didn’t like the way men visitors stood in front of it and gaped all day long.’
Well, quite. Luckily for art, the painting has been restored; and luckily for democracy, real women are now allowed to vote.
But it seemed to me, reading about all this, that there was something more going on beneath the surface at this time; something quite powerful and exciting and strange. Why were men so very cruel to the suffragettes, repeatedly arresting little old ladies like Mrs Pankhurst and quite literally force feeding them with rubber tubes down their throats? Why did the suffragettes make men so angry? And what else was going in the mind of Mary Richardson, to commit an act of such shocking violent vandalism?
Why did men and women hate each other so much?
Questions like these led me to write my book, Catand Mouse, which begins with my heroine Sarah Becket committing the same act that Mary Richardson did. Sarah Becket is not meant to be Mary Richardson; I’ve just borrowed the action, nothing else. In every other way Sarah Becket and her sister are fictitious characters, but they are living in the same time, through the same sort of political and sexual conflicts as real suffragettes did, which makes the story interesting, I hope. And for the new cover of the book, I’ve borrowed the picture of the Rokeby Venus, with one crucial difference, as you see.
When Venus looks in the mirror, what does she see?
Cat and Mouse was first published by Simon & Shuster UK in 1993. You can find it on kindle at Amazon UK and Amazon US, or visit Tim's website or blog