Going solo

Friday 29 June 2018

Hi again, it’s Zoe – I wanted to talk today about an aspect of my research project, which is at the same time the most exciting and the most daunting. First a little bit about my research.

My project is titled ‘Reclaiming space: how Scandinavian female artists remodelled the domestic sphere in the nineteenth century’ (try and say that three times fast). The domestic sphere is usually seen as feminised, and has been for centuries. Men embodied the outdoors, the hunters; women the indoors, the nurturers. These are typical associations that have been played out in wider society, and thus of course reflected in visual culture too. Take Pieter De Hooch’s work ‘the messenger’ c.1670, quite a typical Dutch genre scene, a woman is to the left of the composition, further into the interior and just out of the light which floods in from the door’s touch. The male strides directly from the outside, most importantly bringing information from the outside world in to the scene. Even unintentionally perhaps, but the division is visible just as it was in society. Most importantly than this, it is a male painter depicting the interior, describing a setting which is not his ‘sphere’.

Pieter De Hooch, The Messenger, 1670

Cut to 200 years later, more and more women were becoming professional painters, and we begin to see the domestic sphere described through female eyes. The woman is now publicly conveying her perceptions of what this assigned place is, and what her experiences of it are. So, I am exploring how some woefully under-studied female artists from Finland, Sweden and Norway reveal a through-the-keyhole glance into the most private physical spaces. Scandinavia particularly, because during the turn of the century these painters were contemporaries of home-economics theorists, who were publishing their thoughts on how a home should be, how a child should be raised, the ideal environment. So, simply, I just want to see how these painters respond to this literature, and if we can learn their perceptions of what a home is, and most importantly, if they’re happy with the sphere they’ve been assigned. That took longer than I thought!

Elin Danielson-Gambogi, After Breakfast, 1890

The wonderful thing about the Laidlaw Scholarship means that I have been allowed to go and see these gorgeous works in the flesh. That’s right folks: three countries, thirteen days, and a whole load of galleries. Could you find a better way to spend a fortnight? I am desperate to get started, but as I said before, it’s also pretty daunting. I’m not starting my research until August and that’s something I’m quite relieved about because I have a LOT to work out. I have never even travelled anywhere by myself before, so I thought I’d share a couple of things I’ve learnt so far in planning and researching for my big adventure:

  1. Air BnB is a god-send: The thing is about Scandinavia is that it is pretty expensive. I worked out pretty quickly that it’s the same price to stay in a 12-bed mixed dorm in a hostel (maybe great for big groups but I don’t think my mum would be too pleased if I went alone) as it is to rent a room in someone’s house on this glorious website. In all of my cases, I’ve got full use of the kitchen, homely double rooms and very friendly hosts that you can message to ask any questions before you go. Also, I can’t guarantee this for every home but my flat in Stockholm has a Cockapoo puppy. 100% win.
  2. Don’t overload your days: especially with something like a gallery, you have no idea how much time it’ll take you to go around. There’s nothing worse than rushing through each room, feet aching and paintings blurring because you need to fit in two more before they close. In Art History we’re told that spending around an hour on the painting of your focus is about right – it sounds excessive but you’ll be amazed. With more compositionally elaborate pieces, you can see a tiny spaniel hiding under a chair in the background you were sure wasn’t there a second ago. Don’t cram your brain – you’re meant to be enjoying yourself.
  3. Have copies of everything: A picture of your passport, copy down your flight info, have the booking confirmations for everything, know where the embassy is, and it’s probably a good idea to send all of it to a trusty friend at home too. There’s no such thing as playing it too safe when you’re by yourself (and as paranoid as me!)

So, wish me luck! I know it’s going to be incredible. I’d like to thank Lord Laidlaw and the CAPOD team for allowing all of this to be possible. I’ll be sure to keep you all updated with how I get on, including pictures of the cockapoo.

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