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War on women waged by women

When Sigmund Freud wrote that men project their feelings of hostility on whatever they dislike or are unfamiliar with - including women, who they see as a source of danger - he didn’t mention women’s projections of their feelings of hostility.

Eugène Grasset, La Morphinomane [The Morphine Addict], 1897, color lithograph.

And there is that.

Consider the write-up in the current issue of Art News magazine about "Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914" at UCLA’s Hammer Museum.

Under the headline “The Evil-Looking Women Drug Addicts of French Belle Epoque Art,” Robin Cembalest, executive editor of the magazine, began this way: “As the morphine craze gripped Paris, a new archetype of angry, scary women emerged in French prints.”

While interpretation of art is anybody’s business, using words like evil or angry or scary seem to illustrate Freud’s thinking about projecting hostilities. Cembalest’s take on the show makes a leap that the images don’t support.

Despite the fact that all but one of the exhibit examples are by men, to this critic’s eyes, none look evil, angry or scary.

In Eugène Grasset’s “The Morphine Addict,” the woman shooting up looks dazed and frightened. In Grasset’s “The Acid Thrower,” a woman looks only glassy-eyed. In Paul Albert Besnard’s “Morphine Addicts or The Plume,” two women look only life-weary.

Bad enough there are men in the art world who get women wrong, like Miro who painted “Head of a Woman” to look like some prehistoric reptile that eats man whole. There are many examples of male artists making women out to be lethal. You don’t expect women in the arts to get women wrong, too

One of the examples besides Cembalest is Tracy Chevalier, author of the historical novel “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” who described Johannes Vermeer’s wife Caterina as a loud shrew incompatible with her quiet sensitive husband and a superficial boor who cared little for his work. It’s hard to reconcile Chcvalier's presumption of Caterina's incompatibility with her husband given the 15 children she bore him at a time when the 17th century Dutch were family planners – Catholics, included.

Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque Painting of the National Gallery and author of several publications on Vermeer, said he had a hard time with Chevalier’s characterization of Mrs. Vermeer: “She was portrayed as a very unpleasant individual. And there's nothing at all remotely to suggest that in what we know about her. She was a model for a lot of his work. I don't think the (Chevalier’s) picture is fair to her memory."

To Caterina's credit, when her husband died, leaving a large brood and debts (he painted only two pictures a year), notary documents show that she fought hard to hold on to his largest work, “The Art of Painting” from creditors. Hardly the act of a boor.

And “Tea and Morphine” is hardly a show of evil, angry or scary. Check out the slide show accompanying this column and see for yourself.

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