Torture of Women
by Nancy Spero

Reviewed by Angela Moran


Published by Siglio, 2010   |   155 pages

‘Explicit Explanation’; the two words, written in orange, straddling the spine on a double-page spread, and visible above all else, mark the commencement of the initial scene of Nancy Spero’s Torture of Women.  ‘Explicit Explanation’ is quoted from the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana’s eighth-century Commentary on the Apocalypse, an illustrated compilation of texts from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, that depicts the Last Judgement with each painted scene accompanied by an ‘Explanatio’.  In Torture of Women, a profound amalgamation of classical, medieval and contemporary imagery and text, bound together by their common subject of institutional and individual violence, Spero formulates an alternative, feminist, account of a mythic ‘end of time’, giving voice to the apocalyptic terror of victimized womankind and drawing us via her astonishing chronicle into this history of everlasting brutality.  As the artist states in her foreword, this violence ‘still goes on, and I wonder how this can possibly be’.

Torture of Women is not originally a book, but rather a 20 ½ x 125 foot-long, fourteen-panel exhibition from 1976, spanning two walls in the National Gallery of Canada.  Having studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Spero lived for a while in the 50s in Italy, where she became interested in Egyptian, Grecian, Etruscan, Roman and medieval imagery.  Her artwork developed in these years around narrative and representational lines, in contrast to the then dominant Abstract Expressionism in her native United States.  In the 1960s came the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movements, and Spero’s subsequent radicalization manifested in a series of works on paper concerned with violence and war, including Torture of Women.  Siglio’s publication is a replica of Spero’s original collage, reduced, ordered, printed and bound.  Selected quotes from the artist, with supplementary articles by Diana Nemiroff, Elaine Scarry and Luisa Valenzuela, on the piece, on pain, and on persecution, respectively, are also included.

On the most superficial level, this, Spero’s ‘first explicitly feminist work’, is allegorical of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War (though it also touches upon dictatorships in Latin America, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere).  Spero researched and retyped blunt, dispassionate narratives from the 1970s, printed by Amnesty International or appearing in national newspapers.  She writes ‘the body is a symbol or a hieroglyph, in a sense, extension of language’, and accordingly these written reports are arranged on the page amidst imagery of snakes, winged creatures, phallic shapes, open-mouthed faces, and Beatus’ ‘multi-headed beasts, decapitated sinners and trumpet-blowing angels’.  In Panels IV and V, for example, we read of Tiamat, the idealised goddess from 5000BC, whose murder by the Sun God Marduk commenced the epoch of patriarchal ascendency.

Certainly, much is lost with any transposition of a work of art onto the printed page.  With the ‘detail’ – the presentation of a crop of a particular panel or canvas – discrete sections of a whole are imposed upon the viewer, at the expense of the visceral, epic proportion of the original.  But much is gained as well.  Done well, the ‘detail’ permits one to view the work through the curatorial eye.  Structural, emotional and narrative cruxes that may otherwise have escaped notice are brought to the fore.  Siglio’s edition of Torture of Women is a textbook case of the power and potential of curatorial presentation.

Particulars of place and date, where printed, are, of course, crucial to Torture of Women, but it is not merely a piece to be historicised.  This is to say, more than a product of its time; a work just about certain historical situations, Torture of Women is also very much a political work about the astonishing fact that this torture endures.  Only twice (in Panels I and XII), where reports are written in the first person, do we know the subjects must have survived their experience.  On the whole, there is no conclusion; no what happened next.  The victims quoted and primitivist human forms portrayed vanish abruptly, without due closure, unresolved, their ghosts left to haunt the larger scroll.  Even in the work’s title do we find this suspension: just Torture of Women, no ‘The’ to imply a closed, one-off, finished subject, analysed in retrospect.

In her written addendum, Spero quotes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s claim that while it is easy enough to ‘stand and fight’, it another thing entirely to ‘climb the wind at night’.  With Torture of Women, Spero goes someway to making the intangible (Gilman’s ‘wind’) tangible. Inspired by H.D.’s Helen of Egypt, Spero writes here that the enemy of women is ‘both protean and intimate’.  Galleries and museums are, arguably, remnants of an age when Kantian aesthetics were the reigning paradigm: which is to say, they are designed so as to encourage a detached, dispassionate, apolitical and ahistorical engagement with their works (possessions).  In book form, Torture of Women resists this pretence to objectivity, one manifestation perhaps of the enemy of which Spero refers.  We cannot keep its significance at arms’ length, or leave its declaration behind.  Torture is incoherent. Torture of Women seeks to articulate this incoherence.

Angela Moran has recently completed a PhD in Music at the University of Cambridge. Her thesis is an urban ethnomusicological study concerned with the development of Irish music by diasporic communities. Angela’s other research interests include popular music studies, film-music theory and gendered musicology. She is also a competent performer on piano, viola and fiddle.

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