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Susan Valadon was the mother of a minor Impressionist, more famous than she. Or, he was her son. Susan was both artist and artist's model: before we have even laid eyes on her work, Rosemary Valadon's choice of name situates her, the female artist, as both subject and object, in a position of control but also, perhaps, surrender. It’s a risky business, especially as her own object is that most traditional support of the male gaze, the female body (where the male body is represented here, it takes its place in strict relation to the female, itself no minor achievement). The female body is subjected to degrees of representation, from the apparent realism of the Golden Bath series through its breakdown in the Dream and Antiphon, to the funky poster-style of the Charades. The risk that Valadon runs is precisely the loss of control: it's "her" body to represent as she sees fit, but the male viewer remains a problem.
It seems to this male viewer that Valadon opens the risk out and runs it, for all it's worth, successfully. The question, "what will he make of this body?", is always countered: what will it make out of him?
Of the works in pastels, the Golden Bath series offers the most apparently straightforward representations of the female torso. But even here a satisfied or proprietary (male) gaze is diverted: on the second look which the images insist upon, the outlines of the body, although they never disappear, shift in a play of colour and shadow, contrasted against strongly-drawn hands. Hands are perhaps more usually the instruments of a masculine, self-distancing pleasure: the minimal, yet clearly self-pleasuring gesture of these hands seems an ironic invitation, to a narrative which excludes the male viewer.
In the Antiphon series, colour and a different order of eroticised, postural and self-pleasuring gesture return. The surface of the body itself is less heavily marked, at the same time as its outline makes less certain claims. The figure's mass is so deeply embedded in grids of colour, at times its edges become virtually indistinguishable. Here the female body, telling the story of its own desire, again moves beyond any satisfied male gaze.
The series of paintings, The Bride and the Bachelor, in which (and, perhaps, of course) the bachelor never appears, also refuses to privilege his interest. Here we again find full body postures and for the first time, faces, or rather heads, as they are allowed no more expression than the body, and props, profuse red gladioli.
At the risk of taking too heavily-handed a male response, the question of the bride's relation to the bachelor appears to be mediated through pain. The gladioli's red can't help but connote blood, and there are inescapable traces of Christian imagery: one crucifixion, one Saint Sebastian. If it's not too much of a digression from the more personal circuits of this exhibition, at a time when the relation between women and Christianity is particularly fraught, it is appropriate that Valadon should turn that dominant discourse on (virtuous, male) sacrifice to her own ends.
Her Christ-like figure is floating, location and value uncertain: more potently, her Sebastian-figure, in the culminative painting, appears at first to have been pierced by blood-flowered arrows, but as the shadows behind the figure reveal themselves as spaces it turns out she has simply walked into the painting away from them. The sacrificial (dying, probably masochistic) Christian male is pretty much the bachelor par excellence. Valadon has not simply disregarded him, hasn't attempted a naive escape, and neither has she simply inverted him: her bride, exploring her own pain, stripping herself bare, merely finds no time for bachelors. To attempt to close off an exhibition which consistently and in various ways reveals and challenges habitual male strategies for viewing the female body would be to fall back on those habits. It seems open-ended enough just to suggest that Valadon's work limns for the male viewer a very particular and inaccessible sexiness which refuses banal voyeurism, and rigid mastery, in favour of a rigorous relationality.