Sylvia Sleigh (1916-2010) is a recent artistic discovery of mine, one whom I rapidly have become a little obsessed with. Sleigh, British-born and Brighton School of Art educated is known for naturalists’ portraits which undermine the canon of nude painting, giving women visual authorship. Her most notable works were produced in the 1970s, influenced by feminist agendas, directly challenge a preconceived gender binary within the art-sphere. She produces male nude paintings referential to that of canonical works by artists such as Titian, Ingres and Velasquez. I write fondly of the artist and hope to expose you to a bad bitch, feminist artist. 

Sylvia Sleigh, A.I.R Group Portrait (1977-78), oil on canvas, 75 x 82 in, Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 2007 Sleigh stated ‚Äėto me, women were often portrayed as sex objects in humiliating poses. I wanted to give my perspective. I liked to portray both man and woman as intelligent and thoughtful people with dignity and humanism that emphasized love and joy'.

Sleigh does just that in her 1971 painting Philip Golub Reclining, a self-portrait which appropriate Velazquez’s 1647 Rokeby Venus. Velazquez’s artwork itself is shrouded in a diverse historic discussion, notably its link with suffragette militancy and the 1914 attack by Mary Richardson in London’s National Gallery. This story is 100% worth researching further if not for your own benefit, but also to whip out anecdotally at a dinner parties to sound gloriously cultured. Quick summary! Richardson slashed one of the nations most treasured works of art in solidarity of Mrs Pankhurst in the peak of the second wave feminist movement. I mean… Legend!

Diego Vel√°zquez, Rokeby Venus (1647), oil on canvas, 122 x 177 cm, The National Gallery, London.

In Philip Golub Reclining, however, Sleigh challenges portraiture more broadly as a genre, rejecting the typical masculine clichés of suit, shirt and tie- the type you would historically see for the likes of prime ministers, kings, lords and other poncey white men. Gross. This allows for her subject, to exist in a realm of being naked and sensual without commanding ownership of the space. Sleighs presence within the piece is crucial and contrasts  Laura Mulvey's coined notion of the Male Gaze. Sleigh’s stern, emotionless and intentional stare broadcasts a message into the art world and gallery space of male as subject, female as creator- a narrative which is unfortunately contradictory to much of art history.

The representation of Philip Golub is frank and honest, as championed by Art Historian Linda Nochlin who stated that Sleigh has ‚Äėsought to capture dignity, humanity and beauty of the subject, regardless of gender and to undermine the male of the art historical canon‚Äô. This quote epitomises the artistic standpoint, her subject has not been dehumanised in an outrageous portrayal- which may have made critics easily dismiss the work. Rather she is challenging the institutional norm of depicted masculinities as well as nude illustrations within a beautiful piece.

Sylvia Sleigh, Philip Golub Reclining (1971), oil on canvas, 107 x 158 cm, Private Collection, Dallas, Texas.

The work carries a level of simplicity, making Sleigh’s criticism of the discipline speak louder. Think to the Guerrilla Girls, by contrast, in their overt exposure of disciplinary biases, shown in the famous 1989 Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? posters. Whilst these prints have a certain level of potency, especially due to their sprawling coverage across 80s New York City, in their confrontational nature, Sleigh’s work however shows the force and gravitas of the implicit.

Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? (1989), colour offset lithograph on illustration board, 27.9 x 71.1 cm.

I continue to have a certain affinity towards the artist, an appreciation of her tremendous skill and masterful referential bending of acclaimed historic paintings. Sleigh’s work deliciously challenges the patriarchal lineage of the discipline in hope for a progression towards a feminist reform. For that we cheers to you Slyvie!

I hope through this babble of an article you have learnt something new about an excellent artists and picked up on some points of interest. Whether that be referencing Nochlin off the cuff in a coffee shop or slapping Sleigh into Sunday lunch chit-chat. Further conversation around feminist artists and their work will always be positive and necessary in the hope for more women Warhols and penis-less Picassos!

Sylvia Sleigh, Elaine Dufor (1979), oil on canvas, I-20 Gallery.


Oct 5, 2020

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