Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Women & Men: A conference and on-line exhibit

I have very little background in art and while (as the expressions goes) I know what I like, I am not a print seller, print collector and print researcher because of my appreciation of art. I am more a social historian and am fascinated by prints because of what they tell us about the past. As I have mentioned a number of times in this blog, prints do not show us the past in a manner that is simply like opening a window and looking through the years to see earlier days. Prints do sometimes present accurate images of events, people and places in the past, and for that they are very valuable. But prints also tell us about how people in the past viewed their own times, for prints are not transparent or photographic images, but rather are pictures created in the context of both what the artists saw and knew about the subject, but also of the feelings and needs of the artists, publishers, and print buyers.

One of my favorite angles on looking at prints in this way is to think about what prints tell us about the attitudes of the print makers and buyers towards the different sexes. This is a fertile field for study and currently there are two terrific opportunities to explore this subject under the aegis of the American Antiquarian Society.

The AAS, which I have talked about in an earlier blog, has a very interesting on-line exhibit entitled "Beauty, Virtue & Vice: Images of Women in Nineteenth-Century American Prints." As explained in the introduction, to a great extent this exhibit focuses on what the prints tell us about the attitudes of the printmakers and print buyers. As stated "The images of women included in the present exhibit are especially useful for helping us understand the audiences for whom these prints were created. The repetition of certain kinds of representations of women reveals how mainstream society thought about women and suggests their place in the world. In some, for example, the presence of women is a code for hotly debated political issues—the abolition of slavery being perhaps the most notable. And like portraits and other images of great American men, images depicting accomplished women also evoked the changes that those women strove to enact."

The AAS is at the forefront of print scholarship and pedagogy and this, along with their other on-line exhibits, are terrific examples of how prints can give us texture and depth to our study of the past. In the same theme, the AAS will soon (Oct. 16-17) hold a conference in Worcester on "Destined for Men:Visual Materials for Male Audiences, 1750 - 1880."

This conference is somewhat a continuation of the subjects of the on-line exhibit, but here looking at how prints of women were aimed at a male audience. The conference will look at other print subject matter, but all with a focus on how the subject matter and style of many prints were affected by the intended male audience. I am particularly interested in the way in which nineteenth century American popular prints (by Currier & Ives and similar publishers) did and did not contain a "sexual" or "erotic" element, a topic which will be covered in at least a couple of the talks. I have planned to post a blog on that subject, but will now wait until after the conference, which is sure to give me new insight on this, and many other print topics. I will be attending and if any readers can, I certainly encourage them to sign up for what should prove to be a very interesting and enjoyable conference.

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