It’s been a while since I became fascinated with the history of the so-called “Slashed Venus”, but it’s been this week when I realized that this story illustrates how our relation to photographs and paintings shapes our emotional reactions.
The Toilet of Venus, or Rokeby Venus as it was lately known, was made by Diego Velázquez in 1651. This is one of the rare paintings of naked women made in Spain in this period due to the censorship of the Church, and therefore it was probably displayed in a private room. The painting was first brought to Great Britain in 1806 by the Duke of Wellington and was purchased for £45.000 by the National Gallery in London in 1905. It soon became a national symbol, a “national Venus”. In March of 1914, the suffragist militant Mary Richardson came to the National Gallery and after observing the painting for a while, she attacked it. She first broke the glass that protected the toile and then slashed the painting several times. Immediately after the incident, Richardson was arrested, and the story appeared in most of the English newspapers. As a result, Richardson was sentenced to six months of jail (although it’s not clear that she finally served this time).
This story illustrates at several levels the idea that visual devices can incite our emotions, and more interestingly, that it is through the actions we perform that these emotions are manifested. It is clear that the painting was not interpreted in the same terms when it was first made and secretly displayed than when it was purchased and exhibited by a national museum. While in the first case it could refer to the ideal woman of some particular, the display of the painting by the National Gallery introduced the patriarchal canon of beauty into the cultural heritage, turning the image of a beautiful, naked body of a woman into a national symbol. It was precisely against this nationalization of the ideal female beauty that Richardson was rebelling. She explained in fact that
“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history”
Mrs. Pankhurst was a suffragist leader that was in hunger strike in jail but was being forced to eat by the prison guards. Richardson had been also forced to eat during her previous imprisonment. Forced feeding has been described as a cruel practice, as a torture intended not only to keep the strikers alive but also to punish them by hurting their bodies. Then, we could interpret this attack as a revenge for the cruel and unjust treatment of both Pankhurst and Richardson in jail. It is interesting to introduce the emotions in the analysis of this iconoclastic act. Although it was the political situation what had provoked the emotions that had led Richardson to slash the painting, these emotions were performed through the interaction with the painting. Without the performance of slashing the Venus, these emotions would not have taken place.
But there is a second layer in this story. The attack itself became an iconic image. The damages were photographed and published in newspapers that qualified it as an “outrage”. The news reported the attack as if Richardson had stabbed an actual woman, not the painting of a woman. The cuts were described as “cruel wounds” and Richardson as the paradigm of a deviant femininity, violent and antisocial. The incident was also represented in a painting that tried to reproduce the chaos and agitation that had supposedly followed the cutting of the painting, and it was even the topic of one of the famous Punch cartoons.
I love this story for many reasons. Besides its feminist overtones (I’ve always been a huge fan of the suffragists), the case of the Venus shows the importance of analysing visual culture in terms of objects that have been made and remade in different contexts with different purposes. Is it the same Venus the one that Velázquez painted than the slashed version published in newspapers? obviously not, and not only because of the damages. They were completely different objects in spite of displaying the same image. And the fascinating thing is that these changes had been operated through emotional performances, that is, through enacting emotions which, at the same time, had their origin in these visual devices. Yes, it seems circular, but it’s not: it’s just the complex way in which emotions, objects and images interact.