Sian Norris reflects on the female gaze as captured in Zinaida Serebriakova’s At the Dressing Table, 1909, and when looking at Dorothea Tanning’s Self-Portrait, 1944, she considers the lack of freedom we have during lockdown.
Every morning in lockdown I wake up to two paintings of the recently-made impossible.
The first, Dorothea Tanning’s Self Portrait from 1944, goes outside.
The second, Zinaida Serebriakova’s At The Dressing Table (1909), goes out.
Zinaida stands there, her eyes glinting with the promise of the night ahead, her gaze wholly satisfied with the woman in front of her. Contrary to the many, many boudoir paintings by her male contemporaries, Zinaida’s straight-on gaze isn’t peeking, prurient and judgmental. She’s not watching a woman through the keyhole, desiring and despising all at once. She’s looking at herself, for herself, and she’s happy with what she sees.
Women are taught to look in the mirror only to find flaws. We are allowed to look in the mirror only if we don’t like what looks back at us. We’re allowed to look in the mirror for men to paint us, encouraging our reflections before judging us as vain. Our existence is confined to men’s gaze.
Not Zinaida. Her sideways smile is the smile we secretly share in those moments when we are alone and pleased with who we see in the mirror. Her smile gleams with the pleasure of going out, excitement about the night to come, and the thrill of looking good for no one’s gaze but her own.
The framed print hangs on my wall above my antique oak chest of drawers which, like Zinaida’s, is littered with hair grips and perfume bottles and brushes and jewellery boxes and barely used bottles of product that promised to add volume to my stubbornly flat hair. I liked to look at it when I was getting ready to go out. I liked to hold a length of hair in my hand, just as she does. I liked to share in her confidence. Maybe I could look, and be pleased, too.
First they make us bad for looking. Then they make us bad for tempting.
Getting ready to go out used to feel like a chore. A hastily applied blob of mascara and a few hair grips to disguise the fact I never know what to do with my hair. And yet the other day I spent 15 minutes with a hairdryer in hand and put on makeup with no where to go and no one to see.
It’s going to be fun to go out again. No more self-consciousness. Time to join Zinaida in the mirror and like what I see.
And then… there’s Dorothea Tanning.
I first saw this painting at the Tate Modern. That morning I’d flown into London from Bangladesh and was recovering from jet lag by drifting between a bed in a posh hotel and the South Bank.
Both activities seem unimaginable right now. Both happened little over a year ago. Still, it’s hard to believe. Was that really me? Flying on a double-decker plane, eating pancakes for breakfast, wandering around an art gallery?
I bought the print exiting through the gift shop, and now it hangs diagonally above At The Dressing Table, over my chest of drawers.
At first glance, the painting is simply everything I miss right now, sat alone in my one bedroomed flat, stuck in the middle of a city that’s closed down. The painting is outside.
I want to stand where Dorothea stands, poised to walk into the great uncanny canyon. I want to take that deep breath of open air into my lungs. I want to take one step forward and enter the forbidden wild.
If Zinaida taps into a history of boudoir paintings, subverting the male gaze with her own, then Dorothea takes her place in an art history that explores the sublime in nature. There is a freedom in nature, and when we stand in nature, we feel that freedom. We stand in awe at the sight in front of us, but we are also in awe that our own selves can be part of that landscape. Nature is sublime, and so are we when we take our place within it.
Only, Dorothea’s painting isn’t so simple. She stands on the edge and she cannot be part of the sublime. She cannot take her place in the scene in front of her. She teeters on the precipice, locked out of the freedom that nature is supposed to represent.
Shivering in her underwear, she knows where she’s not welcome. It’s as though a glass pane hangs between her and the world, and she cannot break through it, just as right now we watch the world go by through dusty windows.
Dorothea knows where women cannot go. It’s scary out there – an object in the landscape that we simultaneously objectify. As Berger says, men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at. Women cannot stand alone in nature and not be exposed to another’s looking. How many times, walking outdoors, do we furtively check behind us, just to be sure. How many times do we feel the prickle of fear on the neck, when no one is there?
The self-portrait feels like a warning from a crisis that existed before this crisis and will exist after it. It’s a warning to women that our world is still dangerously shaped by the male gaze.
It’s funny. When I set out to write this piece, I thought both paintings represented a freedom from the lockdown we’re all living in.
What I want to know now is: do I feel this way about the paintings because we are trapped inside? Or do they both offer a tempting taste of freedom, only to snatch it from our grasp? Are we always locked out of the sublime in nature? Or does it only feel that way, right now?
About Sian Norris
Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. Her work is regularly published in the Guardian, the i, Prospect UK, openDemocracy 50:50, politics.co.uk, the Tortoise and elsewhere. Her short fiction has appeared in 3am magazine, Halcyon, and Severine. She is currently working on a novel, on submission with her agent. Sian is the founder of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. For more of Sian’s work see her website www.sianthewriter.com and follow Sian on Twitter @sianushka
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts now wants to open the series up to other writers. Is there a postcard or a work of art that speaks to you at this time? If so, send your submissions to Rochelle via email@example.com and see here for more information.