Book Review: Art, Nation and Gender: Ethnic Landscapes, Myths and Mother-Figures


Cusack, Tricia and Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch. Art, Nation and Gender: Ethnic Landscapes, Myths and Mother-Figures. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 2003.

Art, Nation and Gender: Ethnic Landscapes, Myths and Mother-Figures, edited by Tricia Cusack and Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch is an interesting exploration of the connections between nationalism, gender and the visual arts. Originally presented at a conference of the same name at the University of Edinburgh in April 2000, the eight essays in the book revolve around the relationships between women, national identity and imagery. What emerges is the complicated process of representations of women creating and being created by notions of the nation in modern Europe and Canada.

Tricia Cusack contributes a well-written introduction, deftly weaving together academic work on visual culture, gender and nationalism in her literature review. Bringing together this diverse body of scholarship reveals how much art historians stand to contribute to our understanding of nationalism in the modern world. In an increasingly visual culture, such academic explorations of how images are created as well as what they are saying are a critical addition. The introduction is solid, though a more extended treatise might allow her to explore the themes she identifies in more detail, as well as elucidate the directions she believes further study should follow. For example, Cusack shows how mutable, or, in her words, unstable, feminine images of nationality have been. Women, she argues, “have often been given a special symbolic status in relation to the nation, while being distanced from active membership of the polity.” (7) Indeed, it is one of history's cruelest ironies that the Britannia and Marianne symbolized modern democratic nationalism while citizenship remained a male monopoly. The introduction stands as a solid entrée into this multidisciplinary approach to nationalism.

In “Domesticating Britannia: Representations of the Nation in Punch: 1870-1880,” Anne Helmreich provides a sustained and penetrating analysis of the negotiated imagery of the nation in nineteenth-century Britain. Throughout the centuries, Britannia has been used an allegory for myriad different messages and values. Under James I, for example, Britannia represented both martial and pacifistic values (17). Then in the eighteenth century, she became the personification of the British constitution, one that the burgeoning political press saw in trouble and depicted her either as an “abused maiden” or a “less than virtuous woman.” (17) At the height of British power in the nineteenth century, Punch provided a visual catalogue of national values and concerns. Most cartoons in the magazine during the 1870s, the author contends, featured a traditional image of Britannia: the classical Pallas Athena figure, with a helmet, shield, and spear, often in draping clothes, in short, she stood as “a noble guardian figure on the imperial and international stage.” (23) Helmreich, however, is interested in the deviations from this normative image.

In these cartoons, a domesticated, middle-class Britannia replaced her solitary and commanding counterpart and she exchanged her classical garb for contemporary clothing. Mirroring the bourgeois public image Queen Victoria cultivated, Britannia became mistress of the house and often scolded Gladstone for parliamentary ineffectiveness. When she assumed the gender roles concomitant with new clothing, the nature of Britannia's authority changed as well, and while she commanded “respect in these scenarios, it is within a circumscribed domestic realm.” (24) Moreover, Britannia also lost her solitary status and she relied on male politicians and servants to carry out her will, a subject of patriarchal authority rather than existing apart from or above it.

Helmreich provides a compelling and complicated argument about this transformation. The most obvious inspiration for this change was the change in the other feminine embodiment of the nation at the time, Queen Victoria, who exemplified middle-class domestic values. The author also contends that Britannia as servant reflected the increasing authority of the Prime Minister and the party coalitions and the realization that the state was less an abstract notion than a balancing of different needs. While this does sound good, seems to ignore the rich history of party politics in Britain. The creation of a more popular electorate certainly changed the political landscape, but Helmreich needs more explanation and evidence to demonstrate that people were seeing the nation as a “factious family bound together by only the loosest ties and full of conflict and rivalry.” (26) On more sure ground, she also suggests that a domesticated Britannia reflected a more tenuous British identity. The family offered a better metaphor for understanding the relationship between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, particularly as the last two increasingly asserted their own national identities in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Finally, Britannia as domesticated image also represents the tensions over women's challenge to the male political monopoly. It was an effort to delimit women's power to their separate sphere, while also an acknowledgment of their political power and talent in the 1870s. Certainly the explanations for the new Britannia exist in some form of tension, but, the author adds, “this multiplicity of meaning is inherent to allegory: the description of one thing through the image of another.” (27).

John Turpin's “Visual Marianism and National Identity in Ireland: 1920-1960,” is a study of the importance of the Madonna to Irish Catholicism, and, ostensibly, to national identity. The author provides a quick and cogent explanation of the development of the Mary in the modern world and how it entered Irish spirituality through the apparition at Knock and the international church's sponsorship of the Holy Mother. He also underscores the role of convent schools in inculcating the idea of Mary and sponsoring specifically feminine rituals that women used to express their faith and signal devotion to the church. He contrasts this with Corpus Christi processions, which took place in full view of the public and while the author is certainly correct that this was a more masculine ritual, as a celebration of Christ and Christ's body, I do disagree that is was “more mundane.” (70) It was less feminine, to be sure, but no less spiritual as a rededication of the community to Christ.

Turpin does chooses well when he begins a discussion of Marian symbolism in the Legion of Mary. As “the most powerful institutional expression of Marian devotion in Ireland,” (70) the visual culture of the Legion provides a fine entrée for investigating what kind of Mary many Catholics imagined. Frank Duff, founder of the Legion, designed the small standard for the organization, incorporating Roman militarism, though replacing the imperial eagle with a dove. Then a rose and lily circled a Miraculous Medal set above a globe, which, as Turpin points out, “symbolised the Holy Ghost ruling the world through the Virgin Mary.” (71) Along with a statue of the Madonna, this standard was required for every meeting. Unfortunately, he only mentions in passing this “appropriation and re-application of Roman military imagery,” but does explain how the tension between pacifist and martial imagery spoke to Irish notions of the nation.

Turpin's essay is too broad and unfocused and he only informs the readers of his intentions at the very end. Consequently, the studies of Marian imagery are too cursory to offer any insight into how they related to Irish nationalism. For example, in analyzing the Marian sculptures by Seamus Murphy and Melanie le Brocquy, he notes that “These more artistically challenging Marian images by Murphy and le Brocquy were the exceptions to the overwhelming tide of mass-produced figures of the Virgin.” (75) This may be true, but the mass-produced images resonated throughout Irish society and the author must provide more detail of how these works differed, as well as why. Too often, the essay provides a catalogue of different Marian representations, rather than exegesis on what the images meant and how they contributed to constructing a national Marian identity. Certainly, Turpin is correct that most representations of Mary were meant “to be purely instrumental towards piety” and may not qualify as “art” (77) but there are codes in this canon of Mariology that need to be explained. The visual images remain as attempts to bring into corporeal form some essence of the sacred. But with little explanation of how and why they were created, the reader is left wondering how they fit into Irish national identity.

Unfortunately, this book suffers from a critical flaw. For a book treating the visual imagery of the nation, there is an alarming paucity of illustrations. A mere twenty figures, inserted separately from the essays, simply do not provide enough evidence for the authors' contentions. Descriptions are valuable, but the reader needs some sense of the entirety of the image to appreciate the exegesis. Without an image, the reader is at a loss to appreciate fully what the authors are trying to explain. While the costs of academic publishing limit the number of illustrations any book can include, they are crucial for a study of the power of visual culture. Perhaps smaller figures could address this, as well as placing them within the essays, rather than in a separate series of plates.