By Noelia Romero
A Room of One’s Own invites visitors to explore the galleries housing the museum’s collections and take a closer look at selected works that elicit thoughtful reflection on the role of domesticity in art and the ways of inhabiting a house as a subjectification process from a gender perspective. First of all, we must mention the events to which this tour owes its title: the lectures that Virginia Woolf delivered at Newnham College and Girton College in 1928. Those two lectures grew into the book A Room of One’s Own, the banner of the 20th century women’s rights movement as well as a seminal analysis of the lack of spaces for female cultural production and creation throughout history. Virginia Woolf concluded that the lack of a private life—a room of one’s own, in both the literal and the allegorical sense—is the primary reason why there is barely any hard evidence of intellectual production by women:
At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo? There were some photographs on the mantelpiece. Mary’s mother—if that was her picture—may have been a wastrel in her spare time (she had thirteen children by a minister of the church), but if so her gay and dissipated life had left too few traces of its pleasures on her face. She was a homely body; an old lady in a plaid shawl which was fastened by a large cameo [...] Now if she had gone into business; had become a manufacturer of artificial silk or a magnate on the Stock Exchange; if she had left two or three hundred thousand pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease tonight and the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, botany, anthropology, physics, the nature of the atom, mathematics, astronomy, relativity, geography.
An emancipating, inclusive framing of the question, “What conditions are necessary for the creation of a work of art?”, this not only underscores the loss and lack associated with the world of women, where tangible works are in such short supply, but also points directly to the need to revise the zones, rooms and spaces conquered or appropriated by man for creative habitation. Workshops, studios, offices, cabins and nature have been, and still are, the containers and content of male artistic creation and merit an exhaustive investigation in their own right. At the same time, they provide a clear benchmark for reflecting their absence in the female universe, so often relegated to the domestic sphere, common areas and family duties. The relevance of those private rooms as paint-worthy motifs often surpasses their testimonial value as spaces of work, artistic and intellectual production, becoming a reflection of the artist’s mindset, a kind of self-portrait.
In one sense, we are what we do, and we leave our mark where we do it. The represented space houses an action or attests to a profession, but it also provides conditions conducive to expressing that subjectivity and places it within a specific framework. However, while male subjectivity is developed, as mentioned, in the workshop, the office, nature or a private interior, female subjectivity transpires in common areas, through the performance of domestic duties and the management of household assets, or in more private, intimate apartments where women are portrayed as muses, embodying male desire. Yet none of these themes display the desires or knowledge of women, nor are they the expression of a productive self. The vast majority of women are therefore depicted as decorative objects serving erotic or family needs. But we do find a few exceptions when they are portrayed by a female artist.
To reflect further on this subject, we will rely on selected works from the museum’s collections of 16th-century Flemish, 17th century Dutch and 18th-century French paintings—with their predilection for interior scenes—as well as works from the dawn of modern art—Romanticism, Impressionism and Symbolism—and the early 20th century, specifically Fauvism and the American realism of the interwar years. All these art movements, and Western art history as a whole, established, recorded and promoted the separation of gender roles, detailing and outlining the possible spheres of action and subjectification assigned to each sex.
We will see all of this illustrated by concrete examples in the galleries.