In the eyes of the beholder

How do we look at women? And what do we see? In paintings or even in real life? Or do we really see them? Our invisibility is still incredibly strong in spite of some progress made in certain parts of the world.

These are some of the questions that Mary Bevan’s book raises and the answers are often challenging and therefore thought-provoking. Our answers obviously depend on the historical context, on the fate of the painters and, yes, on the eyes of the beholder. Remember?! Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.  

Mary Bevan tells us the stories of women in some of the paintings she chose – for various reasons. The book she wrote is “Escaping the Frame. Women in Famous Pictures tell their Stories”. It was published in 2021.

It is a small, beautifully crafted book to carry with you around, maybe when you walk in a park and sit down for a rest, maybe in your own house to read in its various corners. For me it’s a book to come back to. It’s not a thriller you cannot put down. It’s a book that makes you reflect, that engages you, that makes you want to come back to it, to draw up the paintings on Google, to decide whether Mary Bevan’s interpretation is in agreement with what you yourself think or not.

I love the cover: a pink background, what else when you choose women for your reflections, with an ornate gilded frame which shows us a black void from which the title emerges trying to escape the frame indeed and reach out to us. On the front cover, the frame encloses the blackness of women’s still little-known history and on the back cover the same frame shows us the rationale behind the book.

The text is minimalist though it sends the reader on her or his own journey of rich discoveries and helps us escape the frames of our own prejudices. The book is written under the form of monologues of the women painted by famous male painters or by women artists who have been disadvantaged in the world of men. Mary Bevan wants to give them the voice they have been denied as objectified characters in a men’s world.  And she does so with great empathy and cultural sensitivity as well as with a skilful selection of the women trying to break out of the frame of silence and their painters’ gaze across six centuries. Only two of the twenty-two monologues of the book are spoken by men. Both men are either imaginary or unknown which is in some way ironical and in another some sort of late justice for the many women muted by society.

Sylvia Pankhurst, Hanna Pauli, Martha Rosler and Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale are the women artists that Mary Bevan has chosen to stand out and show us women painted by women.

It’s through true literary craftsmanship that such a miniature book offers such a wealth of information and discussion points. Its multiple layers send the readers to explore not only the actual paintings, but also the whole world of commentaries, lectures and videos that are connected to them.

Mary Bevan’s book is a book to keep and a book to give – as a gift.