When John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” Scandalized the Art World in 1884

Anyone who’s ever walked the red carpet or posed for a high fashion shoot would count themselves lucky to create the sort of impression made by John Singer Sargent’s iconic portrait of Madame X.

Though not if we’re talking about the sort of impression the painting made in 1884, when the model’s haughty demeanor, plunging bodice, and unapologetic use of skin-lightening, possibly arsenic-based cosmetics got the Paris Salon all riled up.

Most scandalously, one of her gown’s jeweled straps had slipped from her shoulder, a costume malfunction this cool beauty apparently couldn’t be bothered to fix, or even turn her head to acknowledge.

Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the New Orleans-born Paris socialite (social climber, some would have sniffed) so strikingly depicted by Sargent, was horrified by her likeness’ reception at the Salon. Although Sargent had coyly replaced her name with an ellipses in the painting’s title, there was no doubt in viewers’ minds as to her identity.

John Sargent, Evan Charteris’ 1927 biography, shows Madame Gautreau very little mercy when recounting her attempts at damage control:

A demand was made that the picture should be withdrawn. It is not among the least of the curiosities of human nature, that while an individual will confess and even draw attention to his own failings, he will deeply resent the same office being undertaken by someone else. So it was with the dress of Madame Gautreau. Here a distinguished artist was proclaiming to the public in paint a fact about herself she had hitherto never made any attempt to conceal, one which had, indeed, formed one of her many social assets. Her resentment was profound.

Sargent, distraught that his portrait of the celebrated scenemaker had yielded the opposite of the hoped-for positive splash, refused to indulge her request to remove the painting from exhibition.

His friend, painter Ralph Wormeley Curtis, wrote to his parents of the scene he witnessed in Sargent’s studio when Madame Gautreau’s mother rolled up, “bathed in tears”, primed to defend her daughter:

(She) made a fearful scene saying “Ma fille est perdu – tout Paris se moque d’elle. Mon genre sera forcé de se battre. Elle mourira de chagrin” etc. 

(My daughter is lost – all of Paris mocks her. My kind will be forced to fight. She will die of sorrow.) 

John replied it was against all laws to retire a picture. He painted her exactly as she was dressed, that nothing could be said of the canvas than had been said of her appearance dans le monde etc. etc.

Defending his cause made him feel much better. Still we talked it all over till 1 o’clock here last night and I fear he has never had such a blow. He says he wants to get out of Paris for a time. He goes to Eng. in 3 weeks. I fear là bas he will fall into Pre-R. Influence wh. has got a strange hold of him, he says since Siena.

As Charlotte, creator of the Art Deco YouTube channel, points out in a frenetic overview of the scandal, below, Sargent came out of this fiasco a bit better than Madame Gautreau, whose damaged reputation cost her friends as well as her queen bee status.

(In her essay, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau: Living Statue, art historian Elizabeth L. Block corrects Charlotte’s assertion that the painting “destroyed Madame Gautreau’ life”. Contrary to popular opinion, within three years, she was making her theatrical debut, hosting parties, and was hailed by the New York Times as a “piece of plastic perfection.”‍)

Sargent did indeed decamp for England, where he found both creative and critical success. By century’s end, he was widely recognized as the most successful portrait painter of his day.

The portrait of Madame Gautreau remained enough of a sore spot that he kept it out of the public eye for more than twenty years, though shortly after its disastrous debut at the Salon, he did take another swipe at it, repositioning the suggestive shoulder strap to a more conventionally acceptable location, as the below photo, taken in his studio in 1885 confirms.

In 1905, he finally allowed it to see the light of day in a London exhibition, with subsequent engagements in Berlin, Rome and San Francisco.

In 1916, when the portrait was still on display in San Francisco, he wrote his friend Edward “Ned” Robinson, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, offering to sell it for £1,000, saying, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”

“By the way,” he added, “I should prefer, on account of the row I had with the lady years ago, that the picture should not be called by her name.”

Even though Madame Gautreau had died the previous year, Robinson obliged, retitling the painting Portrait of Madame X, the name by which it and its glamorous model are famously known today.

Read Elizabeth L. Block’s fascinating essay, “Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau: Living Statue” here.

Read about the discoveries Metropolitan Museum of Art conservationists made during X-radiography and infrared reflectography of the portrait here.

Completionists might even want to have a gander at Nicole Kidman done up to resemble Madame X for a 1998 Vogue spread shot by Steven Meisel.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Three Female Artists Who Helped Create Abstract Expressionism: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning & Helen Frankenthaler.

The three artists that gallerists James Payne and Joanne Shurvell have chosen to represent New York City in their series Great Art Cities Explained are as refreshing as they are surprising.

Andy Warhol?


Keith Haring?


Jean-Michel Basquiat?


These gents would be the obvious choice, though only one of the three – Basquiat was a native New Yorker.

Instead, Payne and Shurvell aim their spotlight at three NYC-born Abstract Expressionists.

Three female NYC-born Abstract Expressionists – Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, and Helen Frankenthaler.

These women’s contributions to the movement were considerable, but Krasner and deKooning spent much of their careers overshadowed by celebrated husbands – fellow Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

The New York-based Abstract Expressionism deposed Paris as the center of the art world, and was the most macho of movements. Krasner, Frankenthaler, and Elaine de Kooning often heard their work described as “feminine”, “lyrical”, or “delicate”, the implication being that it was somehow less than.

Hans Hofmann, an Abstract Expressionist who ran the 8th Street atelier where Krasner studied after training at Cooper Union, the Art Students League, and the National Academy of Design, and working for the WPA’s Federal Art Project, once praised one of her canvases by saying, “This is so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.”

Payne and Shurvell detail how the sociable Krasner, already established in the NYC art scene, shared important contacts with Pollock, with whom she became romantically entangled shortly after their work was shown alongside Picasso’s, Matisse’s , and Georges Braque’s in the pivotal 1942 French and American Painting exhibition at the McMillen Gallery.

She was an energetic promoter of his work, and a cheerleader when he flagged.

They married and moved to Long Island in an unsuccessful bid to put the kibosh on his drinking and extracurricular affairs. He commandeered a barn on the property for his studio, while she made do with a bedroom.

While Pollock ranged around large canvases laid on the barn floor, famously splattering, Krasner produced a Little Image series on a table, sometimes applying paint straight from the tube.

MoMA’s description of an untitled Little Image in their collection states:

Krasner likened these symbols to Hebrew letters, which she had studied as a child but could no longer read or write. In any case, she said, she was interested in creating a language of private symbols that did not communicate any one specific meaning.”

After Pollock died in a car crash while driving under the influence – his mistress survived – Krasner claimed the barn studio for her own practice.

It was a transformative move. Her work not only grew larger, it was informed by the full-body gestures that went into its creation.

Ten years later, she got her first solo show in New York, and MoMA gave her a retrospective in 1984, six months before her death.

In a wildly entertaining 1978 interview on Inside New York’s Art World, below, Krasner recalls how early on, her gender didn’t factor into how her work was received.

I start in high school, and it’s only women artists, all women. Then I’m at Cooper Union, woman’s art school, all women artists and even when I’m on WPA later on, there’s no – you know, there’s nothing unusual about being a woman and being an artist. It’s considerably later that all this begins to happen, specifically when the seat moves from Paris, which was the center, and shifts into New York, and I think that period is known as Abstract Expressionism, where we now have galleries, price, money, attention. Up ’til then it’s a pretty quiet scene. That’s when I’m first aware of being a woman and “a situation” is there.

Elaine de Kooning was an abstract portraitist, an art critic, a political activist, a teacher, and “the fastest brush in town”, but these accomplishments were all too often viewed as less of an achievement than being Mrs. Willem de Kooning, the female half of an Abstract Expressionist “it couple.”

Great Art Cities Explained suggests that the twenty year period in which she and Willem were estranged – they reconciled when she was in her late 50s – was one of personal and artistic growth. She took inspiration from the bullfights she witnessed on her travels, turned a lusty female gaze on male subjects, and was commissioned to paint President Kennedy’s official portrait:

All my sketches from life as he talked on the phone, jotted down notes, read papers, held conferences, had to be made very quickly, catching features and gestures, half for memory, even as I looked, because he never sat still. It was not so much that he seemed restless, rather, he sat like an athlete or college boy, constantly shifting in his chair. At first this impression of youthfulness was a hurdle, as was the fact that he never sat still.

Like Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler was also part of an Abstract Expressionist golden couple, but fortune decreed she would not play a distant second fiddle to husband Robert Motherwell .

This surely owes something to her pioneering development of the “soak-stain” technique, wherein she poured turpentine-thinned oil paint directly onto unprimed canvas, laid flat.

Soak-stain pre-dated her marriage.

After a visit to Frankenthaler’s studio, where they viewed her landmark Mountains and Sea, above, abstract painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis also adopted the technique, as well as her penchant for broad, flat expanses of color – what became known as Color Field Painting.

Like Pollock, Frankenthaler scored a LIFE Magazine spread, though as Art She Says observes, not all LIFE artist profiles were created equal:

The dialogue between these two spreads appears to be a tale of socially-determined masculine energy and feminine composure. Though Pollock’s dominant stance is a key part of his artistic praxis, the issue is not that he is standing while she is sitting. Rather, it is that, with Pollock, we are allowed to glimpse into the intimate sides of his tortured and groundbreaking practice. In stark opposition, Parks’ images of Frankenthaler reinforce our need to see women artists as highly curated, polished figures who are as complete as the masterpieces that they produce. Even if those works appear highly abstracted and visceral, each stroke is perceived, at some level, to represent a calculated, perfected moment of visual enlightenment.

We’re intrigued by Frankenthaler’s 1989 remark to the New York Times:

There are three subjects I don’t like discussing: my former marriage, women artists, and what I think of my contemporaries.

For those who’d like to learn more about these three abstract painters, Payne and Shurvell offer the following book recommendations:

Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel  

Women of Abstract Expressionism by Irving Sandler 

Abstract Expressionism by David Anfam 

Three Women Artists: Expanding Abstract Expressionism in the American West by Amy Von Lintel, Bonnie Roos, et al.

Lee Krasner: A Biography by Gail Levin 

Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by Alexander Nemerov

A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning by Cathy Curtis

Elaine de Kooning: Portraits by Brandon Brame Fortune

Watch a playlist of other Great Art Cities Explained here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Grandma Moses Started Painting Seriously at Age 77, and Soon Became a Famous American Artist

As an artistic child growing up on a farm in the 1860s and early 1870s, Anna Mary Robertson (1860-1961) used ground ochre, grass, and berry juice in place of traditional art supplies. She was so little, she referred to her efforts as “lambscapes.” Her father, for whom painting was also a hobby, kept her and her brothers supplied with paper:

He liked to see us draw pictures, it was a penny a sheet and lasted longer than candy.

She left home and school at 12, serving as a full-time, live-in housekeeper for the next 15 years. She so admired the Currier & Ives prints hanging in one of the homes where she worked that her employers set her up with wax crayons and chalk, but her duties left little time for leisure activities.

Free time was in even shorter supply after she married and gave birth to ten children – five of whom survived past infancy. Her creative impulse was confined to decorating household items, quilting, and embroidering gifts for family and friends.

At the age of 77 (circa 1937), widowed, retired, and suffering from arthritis that kept her from her accustomed household tasks, she again turned to painting.

Setting up in her bedroom, she worked in oils on masonite prepped with three coats of white paint, drawing on such youthful memories as quilting bees, haying, and the annual maple sugar harvest for subject matter, again and again.

Thomas’ Pharmacy in Hoosick Falls, New York exhibited some of her output, alongside other local women’s handicrafts. It failed to attract much attention, until art collector Louis J. Caldor wandered in during a brief sojourn from Manhattan and acquired them all for an average price tag of $4.

The next year (1939), Mrs. Moses, as she was then known, was one of several “housewives” whose work was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit “Contemporary Unknown American Painters”.  The emphasis was definitely on the untaught outsider. In addition to occupation, the catalogue listed the non-Caucasian artists’ race…

In short order, Anna Mary Robertson Moses had a solo exhibition in the same gallery that would give Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele their first American one-person shows, Otto Kallir’s Galerie St. Etienne.

In reviewing the 1940 show, the New York Herald Tribune’s critic cited the folksy nickname (“Grandma Moses”) favored by some of the artist’s neighbors. Her wholesome rural bonafides created an unexpected sensation. The public flocked to see a table set with her homemade cakes, rolls, bread and prize-winning preserves as part of a Thanksgiving-themed meet-and-greet with the artist at Gimbels Department Store the following month.

As critic and independent curator Judith Stein observes in her essay “The White Haired Girl: A Feminist Reading”:

In general, the New York press distanced the artist from her creative identity. They commandeered her from the art world, fashioning a rich public image that brimmed with human interest…Although the artist’s family and friends addressed her as “Mother Moses” and “Grandma Moses” interchangeably, the press preferred the more familiar and endearing form of address. And “Grandma” she became, in nearly all subsequent published references. Only a few publications by-passed the new locution: a New York Times Magazine feature of April 6, 1941; a Harper’s Bazaar article; and the land­mark They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century, by the respected dealer and curator Sidney Janis, referred to the artist as “Mother Moses,” a title that conveyed more dignity than the colloquial diminutive “Grandma.”

But “Grandma Moses” had taken hold. The avalanche of press coverage that followed had little to do with the probity of art commentary. Journalists found that the artist’s life made better copy than her art. For example, in a discussion of her debut, an Art Digest reporter gave a charming, if simplified, account of the genesis of Moses’ turn to paint­ing, recounting her desire to give the postman “a nice little Christmas gift.” Not only would the dear fellow appreciate a painting, concluded Grandma, but “it was easier to make than to bake a cake over a hot stove.” After quoting from Genauer and other favorable reviews in the New York papers, the report concluded with a folksy supposition: “To all of which Grandma Moses perhaps shakes a bewildered head and repeats, ‘Land’s Sakes’.” Flippantly deeming the artist’s achievements a marker of social change, he noted: “When Grandma takes it up then we can be sure that art, like the bobbed head, is here to stay.”

Urban sophisticates were besotted with the plainspoken, octogenarian farm widow who was scandalized by the “extortion prices” they paid for her work in the Galerie St. Etienne. As Tom Arthur writes in a blog devoted to New York State historical markers:

New Yorkers found that, once wartime gasoline rationing ended, Eagle Bridge made a nice excursion destination for a weekend trip. Local residents were usually willing to talk to outsiders about their local celebrity and give directions to her farm. There they would meet the artist, who was a delight to talk to, and either buy or order paintings from her. Songwriter/impresario Cole Porter became a regular customer, ordering several paintings every year to give to friends around Christmas. 

In the two-and-a half decades between picking her paintbrush back up and her death at the age of 101, she produced over 1600 images, always starting with the sky and moving downward to depict tidy fields, well kept houses, and tiny, hard working figures coming together as a community. In the above documentary she alludes to other artists known to depicting “trouble”… such as livestock busting out of their enclosures.

She preferred to document scenes in which everyone was seen to be behaving.

Remarkably, MoMA exhibited Grandma Moses’ work at the same time as Picasso’s Guernica.

In a land and in a life where a woman can grow old with fearlessness and beauty, it is not strange that she should become an artist at the end. – poet Archibald MacLeish


Read Judith Stein’s fascinating essay in its entirety here.

See more of Grandma Moses’ work here, and her portrait on TIME magazine in 1953.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The History of Birth Control: From Alligator Dung to The Pill

The history of birth control is almost as old as the history of the wheel.

Pessaries dating to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt provide the launching pad for documentarian Lindsay Holiday‘s overview of birth control throughout the ages and around the world.

Holiday’s History Tea Time series frequently delves into women’s history, and her pledge to donate a portion of the above video’s ad revenue to Pathfinder International serves as reminder that there are parts of the world where women still lack access to affordable, effective, and safe means of contraception.

One goal of the World Health Organization’s Ending Preventable Maternal Mortality initiative is for 65% of women to be able to make informed and empowered decisions regarding sexual relations, contraceptive use, and their reproductive health by 2025.

As Holiday points out, expense, social stigma, and religious edicts have impacted ease of access to birth control for centuries.

The further back you go, you can be certain that some methods advocated by midwives and medicine women have been lost to history, owing to unrecorded oral tradition and the sensitive nature of the information.

Holiday still manages to truffle up a fascinating array of practices and products that were thought – often erroneously – to ward off unwanted pregnancy.

Some that worked and continue to work to varying degrees, include barrier methods, condoms, and more recently the IUD and The Pill.

Definitely NOT recommended: withdrawal, holding your breath during intercourse, a post-coital sneezing regimen, douching with Lysol or Coca-Cola, toxic cocktails of lead, mercury or copper salt, anything involving alligator dung, and slugging back water that’s been used to wash a corpse.

As for silphium, an herb that likely did have some sort of spermicidal properties, we’ll never know for sure. By 1 CE, demand outstripped supply of this remedy, eventually wiping it off the face of the earth despite increasingly astronomical prices. Fun fact: silphium was also used to treat sore throat, snakebite, scorpion stings, mange, gout, quinsy, epilepsy, and anal warts

The history of birth control can be considered a semi-secret part of the history of prostitution, feminism, the military, obscenity laws, sex education and attitudes toward public health.

From Margaret Sanger and the 60,000 women executed as witches in the 16th and 17th centuries, to economist Thomas Malthus‘ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population and legendary adventurer Giacomo Casanova’s satin ribbon-trimmed jimmy hat, this episode of History Tea Time with Lindsay Holiday touches on it all.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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Meet Anita Berber, the Cabaret Star Who Scandalized Weimar-Era Berlin

Anita Berber, the taboo-busting, sexually omnivorous, fashion forward, frequently naked star of the Weimar Republic cabaret scene, tops our list of performers we really wish we’d been able to see live.

While Berber acted in 27 films, including Prostitution, director Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, and Different from the Others, which film critic Dennis Harvey describes as “the first movie to portray homosexual characters beyond the usual innuendo and ridicule,” we have a strong hunch that none of these appearances can compete with the sheer audacity of her stage work.

Audiences at Berlin’s White Mouse cabaret (some wearing black or white masks to conceal their identities) were titillated by her Expressionistic nude solo choreography, as well as the troupe of six teenaged dancers under her command.

As biographer Mel Gordon writes in The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity, Berber, often described as a “stripper”, displayed the passion of a serious artist, “respond(ing) to the audience’s heckling with show-stopping obscenities and indecent provocations:”

Berber had been known to spit brandy on them or stand naked on their tables, dousing herself in wine whilst simultaneously urinating… It was not long before the entire cabaret one night sank into a groundswell of shouting, screams and laughter.  Anita jumped off the stage in fuming rage, grabbed the nearest champagne bottle and smashed it over a businessman’s head.

Her collaborations with her second husband, dancer Sebastian Droste, carried Berber into increasingly transgressive territory, both onstage and off.

According to translator Merrill Cole, in the introduction to the 2012 reissue of Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy, a book of Expressionist poems, essays, photographs, and stage designs which Droste and Berber co-authored, “even the biographical details seduce:”

…a bisexual sometimes-prostitute and a shady figure from the male homosexual underworld, united in addiction to cocaine and disdain for bourgeois respectability, both highly talented, Expressionist-trained dancers, both beautiful exhibitionists, set out to provide the Babylon on the Spree with the ultimate experience of depravity, using an art form they had helped to invent for this purpose. Their brief marriage and artistic interaction ended when Droste became desperate for drugs and absconded with Berber’s jewel collection.

This, and the description of Berber’s penchant for “haunt(ing) Weimar Berlin’s hotel lobbies, nightclubs and casinos, radiantly naked except for an elegant sable wrap, a pet monkey hanging from her neck, and a silver brooch packed with cocaine,” do a far more evocative job of resurrecting Berber, the Weimar sensation, than any wordy, blow-by-blow attempt to recreate her shocking performances, though we can’t fault author Karl Toepfer, Professor Emeritus of Theater Arts at San Jose State University, for trying.

In Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910–1935, Toepfer draws heavily on Czech choreographer Joe Jenčík’s eyewitness observations, to reconstruct Berber’s most notorious dance, Cocaine, beginning with the “ominous scenery by Harry Täuber featuring a tall lamp on a low, cloth-covered table:”

This lamp was an expressionist sculpture with an ambiguous form that one could read as a sign of the phallus, an abstraction of the female dancer’s body, or a monumental image of a syringe, for a long, shiny needle protruded from the top of it…It is not clear how nude Berber was when she performed the dance. Jenčík, writing in 1929, flatly stated that she was nude, but the famous Viennese photographer Madame D’Ora (Dora Kalmus) took a picture entitled “Kokain” in which Berber appears in a long black dress that exposes her breasts and whose lacing, up the front, reveals her flesh to below her navel.

In any case, according to Jenčík, she displayed “a simple technique of natural steps and unforced poses.” But though the technique was simple, the dance itself, one of Berber’s most successful creations, was apparently quite complex. Rising from an initial condition of paralysis on the floor (or possibly from the table, as indicated by Täuber’s scenographic notes), she adopted a primal movement involving a slow, sculptured turning of her body, a kind of slow-motion effect. The turning represented the unraveling of a “knot of flesh.” But as the body uncoiled, it convulsed into “separate parts,” producing a variety of rhythms within itself. Berber used all parts of her body to construct a “tragic” conflict between the healthy body and the poisoned body: she made distinct rhythms out of the movement of her muscles; she used “unexpected counter-movements” of her head to create an anguished sense of balance; her “porcelain-colored arms” made hypnotic, pendulumlike movements, like a marionette’s; within the primal turning of her body, there appeared contradictory turns of her wrists, torso, ankles; the rhythm of her breathing fluctuated with dramatic effect; her intense dark eyes followed yet another, slower rhythm; and she introduced the “most refined nuances of agility” in making spasms of sensation ripple through her fingers, nostrils, and lips. Yet, despite all this complexity, she was not afraid of seeming “ridiculous” or “painfully swollen.” The dance concluded when the convulsed dancer attempted to cry out (with the “blood-red opening of the mouth”) and could not. The dancer then hurled herself to the floor and assumed a pose of motionless, drugged sleep. Berber’s dance dramatized the intense ambiguity involved in linking the ecstatic liberation of the body to nudity and rhythmic consciousness. The dance tied ecstatic experience to an encounter with vice (addiction) and horror (acute awareness of death).

A noble attempt, but forgive us if we can’t quite picture it…

And what little evidence has been preserved of her screen appearances exists at a similar remove from  the dark subject matter she explicitly referenced in her choreographed work – Morphine, SuicideThe Corpse on the Dissecting Table…

Cole opines:

There are a number of narrative accounts of her dances, some pinned by professional critics, and almost all commending her talent, finesse, and mesmerizing stage presence. We also have film images from the various silent films in which she played bit parts. There exist, too, many still photographs of Berber and Droste, as well as renditions of Berber by other artists, most prominently the Dadaist Otto Dix’s famous scarlet-saturated portrait. In regard to the naked dances, unfortunately, we have no moving images, no way to watch directly how they were performed.

For a dishy overview of Anita Berber’s personal life, including her alleged dalliances with actress Marlene Dietrich, author Lawrence Durrell, and the King of Yugoslavia, her influential effect on director Leni Riefenstahl, and her sad demise at the age of 29, a “carrion soul that even the hyenas ignored,” take a peek at Victoria Linchong’s biographical essay for Messy Nessy Chic, or better yet, Iron Spike’s Twitter thread.

via Messy Nessy

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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How Italian Physicist Laura Bassi Became the First Woman to Have an Academic Career in the 18th Century

The practice and privilege of academic science has been slow in trickling down from its origins as a pursuit of leisured gentleman. While many a leisured lady may have taken an interest in science, math, or philosophy, most women were denied participation in academic institutions and scholarly societies during the scientific revolution of the 1700s. Only a handful of women — seven known in total — were granted doctoral degrees before the year 1800. It wasn’t until 1678 that a female scholar was given the distinction, some four centuries or so after the doctorate came into being. While several intellectuals and even clerics of the time held progressive attitudes about gender and education, they were a decided minority.

Curiously, four of the first seven women to earn doctoral degrees were from Italy, beginning with Elena Cornaro Piscopia at the University of Padua. Next came Laura Bassi, who earned her degree from the University of Bologna in 1732. There she distinguished herself in physics, mathematics, and natural philosophy and became the first salaried woman to teach at a university (she was at one time the university’s highest paid employee). Bassi was the chief popularizer of Newtonian physics in Italy in the 18th century and enjoyed significant support from the Archbishop of Bologna, Prospero Lambertini, who — when he became Pope Benedict XIV — elected her as the 24th member of an elite scientific society called the Benedettini.

“Bassi was widely admired as an excellent experimenter and one of the best teachers of Newtonian physics of her generation,” says Paula Findlen, Stanford professor of history. “She inspired some of the most important male scientists of the next generation while also serving as a public example of a woman shaping the nature of knowledge in an era in which few women could imagine playing such a role.” She also played the role available to most women of the time as a mother of eight and wife of Giuseppe Veratti, also a scientist.

Bassi was not allowed to teach classes of men at the university — only special lectures open to the public. But in 1740, she was granted permission to lecture at her home, and her fame spread, as Findlen writes at Physics World:

 Bassi was widely known throughout Europe, and as far away as America, as the woman who understood Newton. The institutional recognition that she received, however, made her the emblematic female scientist of her generation. A university graduate, salaried professor and academician (a member of a prestigious academy), Bassi may well have been the first woman to have embarked upon a full-fledged scientific career.

Poems were written about Bassi’s successes in demonstrating Newtonian optics; “news of her accomplishments traveled far and wide,” reaching the ear of Benjamin Franklin, whose work with electricity Bassi followed keenly. In Bologna, surprise at Bassi’s achievements was tempered by a culture known for “celebrating female success.” Indeed, the city was “jokingly known as a ‘paradise for women,’” writes Findlen. Bassi’s father was determined that she have an education equal to any of her class, and her family inherited money that had been equally divided between daughters and sons for generations; her sons “found themselves heirs to the property that came to the family through Laura’s maternal line,” notes the Stanford University collection of Bassi’s personal papers.

Bassi’s academic work is held at the Academy of Sciences in Bologna. Of the papers that survive, “thirteen are on physics, eleven are on hydraulics, two are on mathematics, one is on mechanics, one is on technology, and one is on chemistry,” writes a University of St. Andrew’s biography. In 1776, a year usually remembered for the formation of a government of leisured men across the Atlantic, Bassi was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at Bologna, an appointment that not only meant her husband became her assistant, but also that she became the “first woman appointed to a chair of physics at any university in the world.”

Bologna was proud of its distinguished daughter, but perhaps still thought of her as an oddity and a token. As Dr. Eleonora Adami notes in a charming biography at sci-fi illustrated stories, the city once struck a medal in her honor, “commemorating her first lecture series with the phrase ‘Soli cui fas vidisse Minervam,’” which translates roughly to “the only one allowed to see Minerva.” But her example inspired other women, like Cristina Roccati, who earned a doctorate from Bologna in 1750, and Dorothea Erxleben, who became the first woman to earn a Doctorate in Medicine four years later at the University of Halle. Such singular successes did not change the patriarchal culture of academia, but they started the trickle that would in time become several branching streams of women succeeding in the sciences.

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Women Scientists Launch a Database Featuring the Work of 9,000 Women Working in the Sciences

“The Matilda Effect”: How Pioneering Women Scientists Have Been Denied Recognition and Written Out of Science History

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Mattel’s Barbie Turns Women of Medicine, Including COVID Vaccine Developer, Into Dolls

The multinational toy manufacturer Mattel is encouraging youngsters to play doctor — not a euphemism — and honoring first responders with the recent release of three healthcare-themed “Career Barbies.”

The company is putting its money where its mouth is by donating $5 to the First Responders Children’s Foundation for every doctor, paramedic, or nurse Barbie purchased at Target through August 28.

Mattel has also identified six female healthcare pioneers whose efforts during the pandemic merit a one-of-a-kind Barbie who shares their likeness.

Vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert, who led the team that developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, describes this unexpected honor as “a very strange concept” (presumably as compared to being awarded a damehood or receiving a standing ovation at Wimbledon.)

The 59-year-old Oxford University professor added that she hoped the characteristically smooth plastic doll would be “part of making it more normal for girls to think about careers in science, although, to be honest, when I was a young girl I never believed that I wouldn’t have a career in science.”

If the doll falls short of inspiring girls to consider a career in STEM, Women in Science & Engineering (WISE), the nonprofit organization Professor Gilbert chose to receive a donation from Mattel on her behalf, can take up the slack.

One of the most compelling of the six custom-made Front Line Responder Barbies is based on veteran nurse Amy O’Sullivan, a heavily tattooed, queer mother of three, who cared for the first COVID-19 patient (soon to become New York City’s first official COVID death) in Brooklyn’s Wycoff Hospital.

Soon thereafter, she survived being put on a ventilator with COVID herself, eventually winding up on the cover of Time Magazine, in the same neckerchief, floral socks, eye catching surgical cap and woven bracelets her tiny scrub-suited doppelganger wears.

Surely Amy O’Sullivan is a better all around role model than the similarly inked Tokidoki Barbie or Totally Tattoo Barbie, or for that matter, the non-custom made First Responder Nurse, whose description on Target’s website seems a bit retrograde, given the events of the last year and a half:

Wearing cute scrubs featuring a medical-tool print top, pink pants and white shoes, Barbie nurse doll (12-in/30.40-cm) is ready make her rounds and check on patients!

The real life O’Sullivan, who was very involved in the creation of her custom doll, seems tickled by Mattel’s faithful recreation, telling The New York Post:

When I was younger I always felt like an outsider — nobody ever looked like me, talked like me, walked like me. I had no role model at all when I was growing up. So if I can be some little girl’s role model that feels like this, I would love that. 

Nurse O’Sullivan had stronger words for those who have aged out of the demographic, in a recent interview with Time:

I see these young people not wearing masks. And, you know, those are the people that COVID is affecting now, the younger generation. They’re becoming very sick. And it’s never going to go away until we get vaccinated and wear masks.

That might be a bit heavy for those on the younger end of Career Barbie’s recommended 3 and up age group (“especially those interested in caretaking and helping others!”), but hopefully her words will carry some weight with those responsible for protecting those children.

The other custom-made Barbies honor:

Dr. Audrey Cruz, who collaborated with other Asian-American physicians to battle anti-Asian-related bias springing from the pandemic

Canadian psychiatry resident at who battled systemic racism in healthcare a doctor in Las Vegas who is campaigning against racial bias against Asian-American physicians

University of Toronto psychiatry resident, Chika Stacy Oriuwa, whose activism includes creating initiatives to boost the number of Black students applying to medical school and create networks of support for scholarly and professional advancement within the Black community.

Biomedical researcher Dr Jaqueline Goes de Jesus whose team sequenced the SARS-CoV-2 genome within 48 hours of receiving samples from the first infected Brazilian patient, differentiating the variant from the one that caused infections earlier in the pandemic.

Dr Kirby White, founder of Gowns for Doctors,  an Australian initiative that addressed a nationwide shortage of personal PPE by delivering free, washable, volunteer-made reusable gowns to frontline staff.

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Women Scientists Launch a Database Featuring the Work of 9,000 Women Working in the Sciences

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.Follow her@AyunHalliday


Jocelyn Bell Burnell Changed Astronomy Forever; Her Ph.D. Advisor Won the Nobel Prize for It

A few years back, we highlighted a series of articles called The Matilda Effect — named for the feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, whose 1893 essay “Woman as an Inventor” inspired historians like Cornell University’s Margaret Rossiter to recover the lost histories of women in science. Those histories are important not only for our understanding of women’s contributions to scientific advancement, but also because they tell us something important about ourselves, whoever we are, as filmmaker Ben Proudfoot suggests in his “Almost Famous” series of short New York Times documentaries.

Proudfoot casts a wide net in the telling, gathering stories of an unknown woman N.B.A. draftee, a would-be first Black astronaut who never got to fly, a man who could have been the “next Colonel Sanders,” and a former member of the Black Eyed Peas who quit before the band hit it big. Not all stories of loss in “Almost Famous” are equally tragic. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s story, which she herself tells above, contains more than enough struggle, triumph, and crushing disappointment for a compelling tale.

An astronomer, Bell Burnell was instrumental in the discovery of pulsars — a discovery that changed the field forever. While her Ph.D. advisor Antony Hewish would be awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1974, Bell Burnell’s involvement was virtually ignored, or treated as a novelty. “When the press found out I was a woman,” she said in 2015, “we were bombarded with inquiries. My male supervisor was asked the astrophysical questions while I was the human interest. Photographers asked me to unbutton my blouse lower, whilst journalists wanted to know my vital statistics and whether I was taller than Princess Margaret.”

In the film, Burnell describes a lifelong struggle against a male-dominated establishment that marginalized her. She also tells a story of supportive Quaker parents who nurtured her will to follow her intellectual passions despite the obstacles. Growing up in Ireland, she says, “I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. But at that stage, there weren’t any women role models that I knew of.” She comments, with understandable anger, how many people congratulated her on her marriage and said “nothing about making a major astrophysical discovery.”

Many of us have stories to tell about being denied achievements or opportunities through circumstances not of our own making. We often hold those stories close, feeling a sense of failure and frustration, measuring ourselves against those who “made it” and believing we have come up short. We are not alone. There are many who made the effort, and a few who got there first but didn’t get the prize for one unjust reason or another. The lack of official recognition doesn’t invalidate their stories, or ours. Hearing those stories can inspire us to keep doing what we love and to keep pushing through the opposition. See more short “Almost Famous” documentaries in The New York Times series here.

Related Content: 

“The Matilda Effect”: How Pioneering Women Scientists Have Been Denied Recognition and Written Out of Science History

How the Female Scientist Who Discovered the Greenhouse Gas Effect Was Forgotten by History

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Person to Win Twice, and the Only Person in History to Win in Two Different Sciences

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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