Engraving depicting Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, circa 1650. Photograph: Kean Collection/Getty Images. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was an English aristocrat, poet, essayist, playwright and scientist. At a time when most women writers were publishing anonymously, Cavendish published under her own name. She wrote about gender, power, manners, scientific method, and philosophy. Her book, “The Blazing World,” is an utopian romance and one of the earliest examples of science fiction.
It’s a topic that has been discussed endlessly: The historical absence of women artists (as well as writers, musicians, philosophers and playwrights). In 1971 Linda Nochlin published her seminal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The conversation continues.
Siri Hustvedt‘s recent novel, The Blazing World, steps into that space with a fresh take on a theme that just doesn’t go away, and should not. The novel tells the story of Harriet Burden, an embittered middle-aged female artist whose experience of being dismissed and unseen becomes so unbearable that she stages three exhibits where she does the work and a man takes the credit.
Burden has the financial resources and art world connections to pull off a ruse of this scope since her recently deceased husband was a wealthy gallerist and collector. While Burden’s plan is to expose the hypocrisy and bias of the art world—Hustvedt has some exceptionally bitter passages to describe the banality of evil in that world that will make anyone familiar with that demi-monde smile in recognition—her plan backfires badly (as such schemes are inclined to do.)
The novel is constructed as a postmortem scholarly artefact consisting of various texts including Burden’s diaries, critical assessments of her work, interviews with friends and eyewitnesses. Assembled several years after Burden’s death, her work is finally being seen and applauded by the very world that dismissed her during her life. What emerges in the course of the novel is the portrait of a brilliant and creative powerhouse whose career and reputation were thwarted by the art world’s sexism and prejudices.
From Fernanda Eberstadt‘s review in the New York Times:
Whereas the homely, middle-aged Harriet had been dropped by galleries because her work was deemed “high-flown, sentimental and embarrassing,” not to mention painfully earnest, no sooner is her art signed by a 24-year-old “hunk” than it wins sold-out solo shows and critical raves. More damning still, even once Burden is outed as the true author, reviewers and gallery owners refuse to admit they’ve been had. As one journalist puts it, “A 50-ish woman who’s been hanging around the art world all her life can’t really be called a prodigy, can she?” Like so many inconvenient women before her, Burden is labeled a hysterical fantasist…
Despite her XXL personality and her formidable intellect, Burden, like many of the heroines in Hustvedt’s fiction, has spent her life fighting to win the approval of cool, remote men, subordinating her own ambitions to play perfect daughter, “wife and helpmeet.” Burden’s “burden,” we come to realize, is not simply that she is a woman but that she has chosen to marry a rich, much older art dealer. It’s no surprise if the artists she entertains in a Park Avenue apartment boasting a Paul Klee are more interested in whether her husband is going to buy their work than in asking after hers. Only when her husband, the aptly named Felix Lord, dies and the 60-something Burden has fled the “incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule composed of persons who buy and sell aesthetic objets” in Manhattan in favor of a grittier life in Brooklyn’s Red Hook does she feel emboldened to restart her own career, this time under assorted male personas.
Harriet Burden has her self destructive tendencies, so this is not a simple case of discrimination. Too tall and physically imposing, she does not possess the marketable physical presence and image that gallerists are looking to promote. She is also too smart for most of them, a quality that goes down differently from a woman than it does from a man. In Hustvedt’s hands, Burden’s brilliance is a way to play out many of the intellectual themes that Hustvedt touches on in her other books—the philosophical writings of Edmund Husserl, perception science, psychoanalysis, gender studies, the work of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (whose work is referenced in the book’s title.) Hustvedt’s writings tend to include a heady component, which I find enriching.
Hustvedt’s descriptions of Burden’s work and process are highly conceptual. She does not have an ear (or eye?) for the aesthetic concerns that most artists struggle through. As as result, that one aspect of the book feels slightly flat and vaguely inauthentic. But Hustvedt speaks masterfully to the peculiarities of the art world and its point of view. Here are a few passages that were particularly salient.
From Burden’s diary:
I suspected that if I had come in another package my work might have been embraced or, at least, approached with greater seriousness. I didn’t believe that there had been a plot against me. Much of prejudice is unconscious. What appears on the surface is an unidentified aversion, which is then justified in some rational way. Perhaps being ignored is worse—that look of boredom in the yes of the other person, that assurance that nothing from me could be of any possible interest.
From art world denizen Oswald Case:
She quoted Freud, big mistake—the colossal charlatan—and novelists and artist and scientists no one’s ever heard of. She dripped with earnestness. If there’s one thing that doesn’t fly in the art world, it’s an excess of sincerity. They like their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.
From Burden’s daughter, discussing her gallerist father:
In order to sell art, you had to “create desire,” and “desire,” he said, “cannot be satisfied because then it’s no longer desire.” The thing that is truly wanted must always be missing. “Art dealers have to be magicians of hunger.”
From Burden’s childhood friend, psychiatrist Rachel Briefman:
Without the aura of greatness, without the imprimatur of high culture, hipness, or celebrity, what remained? What was taste? Had there ever been a work of art that wasn’t laden with the expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener, however learned and refined?
From Burden’s lover, Bruno Keinfeld:
After a while, the injustice of it all, the sick, sad misery of being ignored, cracked her heart in two and demented her with anger. I wanted her to fight on, but she decided to walk through the back door and send someone else around the front.
From Rachel Breifman:
How do preposterous, even impossible ideas take hold of whole populations? The art world was Harry’s laboratory—her microcosm of human interaction—in which buzz and rumor literally alter the appearances of paintings and sculptures. But no one can prove that one work of art is truly superior to another or that the art market runs mostly on such blinkered notions. As Harry pointed out to me repeatedly, there is not even agreement on a definition of art.
From Burden’s diary, on the 17th century intellectual (and of course misunderstood) Margaret Cavendish:
How to live? A life in the world or a world in the head? To be seen and recognized outside, or to hide and think inside? Actor or hermit? Which is it? She wanted both—to be inside and outside, to ponder and to leap.
That last question is one that every person as well as every artist must ask. This book is an extraordinary exploration into the complexities of that choice.