NWSA Journal 15.1 (2003) 158-159
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Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture, Britain 1850-1900 by Deborah Cherry. London: Routledge, 2000, 268 pp., $75.00 hardcover, $22.99 paper.
Deborah Cherry's excellent new book, Beyond the Frame, may be seen as a measure of the distance "feminist art history" has traveled over the past twenty years. As someone who was first inspired by Cherry's work in the late 1980s, I am fascinated—and sincerely impressed—by the way in which the daring, polemical textual analyses that then characterized her work are now but one strand in what is a wonderfully rich tapestry of discursive analysis, social and cultural history, attention to matters of textual production and reception, and an astute engagement of the latest postcolonial theorizing. Thus, although Beyond the Frame is still animated by the bursts of contentious and provocative "readings-against-the-grain" which were the hallmark of Cherry's early work, they are now firmly embedded in a painstakingly researched social and cultural history that considers both artists and artworks in the multifaceted contexts of their production and consumption.
This last point bears directly on the rationale for the book as a whole, which is clearly committed to a dis-articulation of lives and/or works of women artists from an unreconstructed history of art still fixated by representational meaning and aesthetic value. What each of the impeccably researched essays reveals is that Cherry now prefers to work at the conceptual interface between women artists as producers, feminism (both as an emergent discourse and a social movement), and a broadly conceived late nineteenth-century visual culture. In the same way, then, that the 1990s saw feminist theorists turn from an analysis "of" women/gender to their use as categories to "trouble" and/or deconstruct a wide range of discourses, so does Cherry convert the visual from an object of study into an agent of interrogation. Thus, the case studies that comprise Cherry's book still focus, in part, on texts and producers that will be familiar to nineteenth-century art historians, feminists, and otherwise (e.g., Emily Mary Osborn, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Harriet Hosmer, Joanna Mary Boyce Wells). However, these are read through, and alongside, quite different texts/events (e.g., photographs, magazines, and the "pageantry of demonstrations" ) as well as through contemporary discourses of the visual itself (e.g., framing and allegorizing).
The book's investigation of allegory as an important key to understanding the complex relationship between feminism and visual culture in the [End Page 158] late nineteenth century is, indeed, one of its major achievements. Starting from the suggestive theoretical definitions of the term provided by Craig Owens, Marina Warner, and Paul de Man, the originality of Cherry's own work nevertheless lies in her extensive research on how allegories were understood, and circulated, during the period of her study: a point made, and illustrated, with consummate skill in the final section of the last chapter. This chapter considers the way in which suffrage banners enacted/demanded allegorical readings as complex (and, indeed, as elusive to the twentieth-century reader) as those circulating in the world of "high art."
Apart from this final chapter, which considers the relationship between feminism, the suffrage movement, and nineteenth-century visual culture through a wide variety of texts, events, and biographies, Beyond the Frame will surely become celebrated for its two outstanding case studies of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and Harriet Hosmer. Whilst the latter could, I would suggest, be presented to our present graduate students as an instance of how to discover, in a single visual representation (Hosmer's Zenobia), a truly awesome array of informing cultural/political discourses and conditions of reception, Cherry's work on Bodichon's life and work in Algeria is newly open and speculative in the manner of the best [Walter] "Benjamin" criticism.
In retrospect, what impressed me most about these chapters was the fact that they make no attempt to artificially reconcile the complex and contradictory sites of Bodichon's feminism and her orientalism...