By Wendy Steiner
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Extra resources for Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art
True, some paintings had subjects that could be construed as female, but their femininity, beauty, and indeed “subjecthood” were swamped by other factors. The contrast with the morning was puzzling. What could it mean that through much of the nineteenth century, artists routinely depicted female beauty “offered in isolation, as an end in itself,”4 whereas during modernism and after, the female subject was either absent or incidental in art? A cover of The New Yorker by Russell Connor [figure 1] pokes fun at this discrepancy.
It might be seen as a friendly amendment to romanticism as well. ”10 The Psyche myth rewrites that maxim: We have no pleasure but what is propagated by sympathy. Sympathy is the product of the interaction that we call beauty, an interaction in which both parties become aligned in value and in the process, become in some sense equal. Given the differences among the gods and monsters and mere mortals who are parties to the experience of art, this equality is a signal achievement. Value is thus always central to the meaning of beauty.
Though she was only nineteen when she wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley had packed more experience of life and ideas into those years than most people do in a lifetime. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, died just days after her birth, leaving a daughter bereft of maternal love, like the monster the girl was to imagine. With only treatises on women’s rights to mother her, Mary Shelley grew amid the radical social reformism of her famous father, William Godwin, whose friends were the leading literary and political figures of the day.