Clark tour discusses rape culture in permanent collection

Last Thursday morning, gallery guides Molly Burroughs ’17 and Alex Mendez ’17 led a discussion at the Clark Art Institute dubbed “Romance and Rape Culture in the Clark Collection” as part of Claiming Williams Day. The discussion examined various depictions of romance and relationships in Western art within the contemporary context of rape culture.

Burroughs and Mendez led two groups through the Clark’s permanent collection. I followed Burroughs, who first introduced us to Undertow, an oil painting by Winslow Homer. Depicting two men and two women amid the ocean’s waves, Undertow presents an unclear, complex message on gender and power. The two female subjects, who appear to have been caught by the undertow, occupy the center of the painting. One of them has her head tilted upwards; facing the viewer, and the other woman is clinging onto her, face obscured. Both rescuers are situated on either side of the women, dynamically posed and muscles glowing, as they try to carry the women ashore. Neither of their expressions are discernible. In spite of the apparently patronizing depiction, Homer may have had more complex statements to make about gender, Burroughs explained.

Next Burroughs used a sculpture of Bacchus and Ariadne to engage in a conversation on consent. The scene depicted in the sculpture is one that has been highly romanticized in additional mediums. In our contemporary understanding, however, the sculpture reflects the issues of consent within rape culture, a setting or society which normalizes rape and sexual abuse. The mythological sculpture portrays Bacchus holding a sleeping Ariadne, and he is about to wake her up with a kiss. However, because Ariadne is unconscious and unable to consent, Bacchus commits a non-consensual act. The romanticization of such a scene has multiple implications, most importantly the prioritization of male desire over female autonomy and the use of fairy tale tropes to normalize sexual assault. Burroughs then directed our attention to the relationship between the work and its contemporary viewer by asking whether this type of conversation around rape culture should always take place when looking at artworks portraying interactions of dubious consent. Most students agreed that it was crucial to broach the topic.

Moving on, Burroughs directed our attention to Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Snake Charmer. Like the previous works, Snake Charmer is painted by a European artist. However, the subject matter is distinctly the result of a fictional, voyeuristic and orientalist construction of the East. Gérôme has imagined a young snake charmer, naked and facing away from the viewer, a position that reduces his agency. He stands before an audience of fully clothed men, who face the viewer. Their gaze is intently set on the boy before them. Snake Charmer is considered problematic for many reasons, one of which being the sexualization of a child. Another issue is the deferral of artist responsibility — Burroughs informed us that such a scene could never had occurred; the boy would have definitely been clothed. Snake Charmer is thus the fetishistic construction of the western imagination, and it is passed off not as fantasy but as an authentic examination of eastern culture and practices, as re-emphasized by Gérôme’s point of view. In comparison to the other works discussed, Snake Charmer presented the most unique situation, and Burroughs used this opportunity to talk about how survivors of sexual assault and trauma may not fall within the narrow idea of what the media paints them to look like.

The last work that Burroughs left us with was Mary Cassatt’s Offering the Panal to the Bullfighter. The painting shows the conversation between a woman and a bullfighter, a dynamic that brings to mind an unsuccessful Tinder date. One student used the term “mansplaining” to characterize the nature of their conversation; the bullfighter faces toward the viewer wearing his confident and slightly disillusioned expression, but the woman’s disposition is less decipherable – her face is obscured in a shadow. Her hand is on her waist, and her posture is slumped, suggesting disinterest. In an interesting reversal, however, Cassatt preserves the woman’s agency by barring the viewer from accessing her thoughts through her facial cues, saving her from scrutiny in a way that Cassatt does not afford the bullfighter. It is a painting that seems to defy the male gaze, where both the bullfighter’s conversational passes as well as the viewers’ attempts to read the woman’s response are both thwarted.

“Romance and Rape Culture in the Clark Collection” was an event organized as part of Claiming Williams Day. Occurring the first Thursday of spring semester, Claiming Williams Day engages the campus community in various events, discussions and presentations to promote greater equality and inclusivity on campus. Ultimately, the event took an active role in promoting “moral courage.” By examining various works from the permanent collection for their relevance to gender and rape culture, the gallery talk encouraged students to challenge the history of inequality surrounding the College community, whether in handling interpersonal relationships or opening dialogues on the more subtle manifestations of rape culture and sexism, like those hiding in museums under layers of oil and varnish.

Cassatt’s Offering the Panel to the Bullfighter depicts the gender dynamics in a conversation between a woman and a bullfighter. Photo courtesy of the Clark.