Image: Installation view (with Michael Mahalchick, Brook Hsu, Sarah Kurten, Sofi Brazzeal, Michel Auder, Nicolas Guagnini, and Dawn Kasper) of The Split, GRIN, Providence, RI, 2017
an ego of her own
kaufmann repetto Milan & kaufmann repetto New York
Toyin Ojih Odutola
La femme est le contraire du Dandy. Donc elle doit faire horreur. La femme a faim, et elle veut manger ; soif, et elle veut boire. Elle est en rut, et elle veut être foutue... Le beau merite ! La femme est naturelle, c'est-a-dire abominable.
“An Ego of Her Own” is a group exhibition that explores the concept of the female dandy as depicted within contemporary figurative painting. The artists featured in this exhibition share a stylistic approach in positioning the female figure in the 21st Century, that of a dandy who is anything but the opposite of what Baudelaire had described: vulgar, abominable, insatiable, and horrific.
The occasion and title of this exhibition derives from a recently translated version of Viennese theoretician Oswald Weiner’s 1982 text, Eine Art Einzige,” which was elected for re-publication in the Fall 2019 issue of the October journal. Though literally meaning (in tranlsation) “A sort of unique one” or “A sort of singular being”, the translation here has surmised the meaning to be “An Ego of Her Own,” attributing a female clause to a genderless preposition. While the task here isn’t necessarily to analyze the translator’s decision to insert the “ego” into the title, nor Weiner’s absence in discussing gender in relation to the dandy, the re- publishing of this essay in English provides the opportunity to investigate the existence of the female dandy, as well as her emerging presence in an accelerated 21st century society, where (although there are great strides to make) women are realizing more human and civil rights than ever before.
The French writer and critic Charles Baudelaire is perhaps the most recognized to have written frequently and prolifically on the concept of the dandy, a (mostly) male figure who occupied certain social and cultural milieus at turn of the 18th and 19th Centuries in Northern Europe, notably in cosmopolitan cities like London or Paris. Among many characteristics that define a dandy, be it in terms of class, behavior, aesthetics, and lifestyle —or a melange of these— Baudelaire claims that a dandy must “live and sleep in front of a mirror”. This here highlights the cybernetic tools necessary for a dandy to thrive: a dandy must receive constant feedback, for a dandy’s subjectivity is defined by what they observe and what is reflected back to them. It is here that Weiner elaborates upon the dandy as a cybernetic organism; if the dandy doesn’t like what they see around them, or it doesn’t befit their perceived reflection, they escape a situation by manipulating one’s own perception of it. The dandy is highly in touch with their ego, which is responsible for reality-testing.
In Jakob Schillinger’s introduction to the Weiner text, he remarks that in “observing how the other observes, the dandy renders observation reflexive”. In other words, the act of gaining information about the other is what in fact defines the observer. This cybernetic cycle is the core behavioristic tool of the dandy, and what ties the painters of this show together: featured in the exhibition are a number of painters making figurative portraiture, thus based on observation.
The point here however is not to define the dandy as a male phenom of the 18th and 19th centuries, but to attempt to shape a new definition of la dandie and the space she occupies in the 21st century (and in this exhibition, the emerging depictions of this female figure as depicted by women artists). The female dandy co-opts the strategy of the male dandy who in turn co-opts the female strategy of being observed, being seen. This is a double reversal, and essentially, a parasitic strategy. It is a double-mirror situation. A dandy defines themselves based on the reflection of those around them, whereas the female dandy themselves not solely via the gaze of others, but from within. Baudelaire was then right in saying “woman is the opposite of the dandy” (if only that).
The women portrayed in the paintings of this exhibition together depict the image of the female dandy: a 21st century woman who --unlike a “traditional” male dandy (who is made in the image of those whom he observes)-- is made in their own image, resistant to the cybernetic feedback of the others’ gaze be it male, media, or societal.