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Women and Art

The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women’s Lives, 1890-1940 by Beverly Gordon (University Tennessee Press) Excerpt: This is a book about the way American women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s enriched and added meaning to their lives through their "domestic amusements"—leisure pursuits that took place in and were largely focused on the home. They cultivated what I call a "saturated" quality, a kind of heightened experience (state, reality) that was aesthetically and sensually charged and full. These women created self-contained, enchanted "worlds" that helped feed or sustain them, usually by elaborating on their everyday tasks and responsibilities, "making them special" and transforming them into something playful and socially and emotionally satisfying. The story of their activities is in itself quite compelling, abounding with evocative images that push the imagination into high gear. The story is also a largely forgotten part of women's history, worth reclaiming because it helps us understand our foremothers' lives and teaches us to appreciate their intelligence, creativity, and agency. It is my intention to bring these ideas to the fore.

The book is an articulation of my ideas about this purposefully cultivated state or experience that I call "the saturated world." I believe such cultivation is a profoundly important part of the way we create meaning and personal suste­nance, and the more we understand both the need for and the components of the experience, the better we are able to effect it. In some cultures, such as in Bali, everyone lives in a relatively saturated environment. In Western culture the satu­rated state has been disproportionately gender-linked; now, as a hundred years ago, it is predominantly associated with and cultivated by women. It has been largely devalued because it is seen as "feminine" and "childish" and is aligned with the domestic. By making the elements of saturation more transparent, we can illuminate and thus disempower the stereotypes that make it seem unimportant or irrelevant and help bring its rich qualities to everyone. While most of the book consists of stories of the past, I use these as a way in, a means of understanding a universal human need or propensity. Looking through this lens at what happened a century ago, I believe, gives us a viewfinder or window into a part of ourselves.

I use this first chapter to explore the interrelated qualities of the saturated world in depth and thus frame or set the stage for the individual case studies that follow. The time is ripe for this discussion. We seem to be at a cultural turning point, when voices from many quarters are insisting on the importance of satu­rated qualities such as embodiment, aesthetic meaning, and a greater apprecia­tion for the senses. While no one else has used my organizing image of saturation, I find support in diverse scholarly disciplines and a surprisingly wide range of popular sources. I draw on and synthesize these writings into what I hope is a thoughtful examination of a complex topic. The subject under examination in­volves passion, pleasure, and even spiritual meaning. It is my goal to insert these qualities into the theoretical discussion, thus enlivening and enriching it and keep­ing it tied to real people's lives. Again, I am concerned with all of us being able to learn about making life meaningful, and finding joy and satisfaction in our every­day activities.

I realize The Saturated World title might at first seem odd or even confusing; without explanation it might in fact lead one to imagine this to be a book about a soggy or waterlogged planet. I choose to keep the phrase despite its potential to mislead, however, because it so perfectly expresses what I am talking about. My choice of the saturation metaphor stems from my visual arts training: I first think of saturation in relation to color, where its synonym is "intensity." A saturated hue is at its brightest, most intense level and is in its purest form. Something that is saturated, be it color, water, or anything else, is in its most fully loaded or charged state; it has absorbed the ultimate amount of its medium. A "saturated world" is thus a full, rich one—sensually charged, bright, and intense. Everything in it seems extra alive.

At those times when I am able to step into this heightened state, I feel charged and happy. Things around me seem changed. Both the natural world and human-made objects may look especially bright, with intense color and sharpened edges—forms literally stand out more, with a greater contrast between foreground and background. Smells are stronger as well, taking on an extra poignancy and evocativeness. Textures are more distinct and rich. I feel as if I have stepped into a poem, or somehow even become a poem; I am experiencing things with the senses and extra awareness of a poet. Others before me have struggled to find words to describe this same feeling or state of consciousness. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke talked about "living in the poetic image." The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote about "being touched by the grace of super-imagination .. . through which the exterior world`deposits virtual elements of highly coloured space in the heart of our being." The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan described the feeling of magic, when something seems "more real than real:' The psychologist/theolo­gian Thomas Moore wrote about a more imaginative, "soulful," "hyper-aware" way of knowing and experiencing in his bestseller, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life.'

I have identified a number of interrelated qualities of the saturated world, and, while they will be explored in greater depth below, I summarize them here in order to help the reader understand what follows. As indicated, aesthetic intensity is a primary characteristic. This usually involves stimulation of multiple senses; sound, smell, touch, and taste are at least as important as sight. Related to this is a quality of embodiment, where the consciousness is grounded in the body, rather than the mind, and where abstract ideas may be given corporeal, animated form. A quality of childlike openness or wonder is also part of it, as is an attitude of playfulness, expressiveness, and creativity. In the domestic amuse­ments I focus on here and in other saturated women's activities I have observed, there is also a valuing of interconnectedness and community—connectedness with other people, certainly, but also connectedness and even intimacy with things. Objects are in a sense brought into the body boundary and used as an extension of self. Everyday, useful things are embraced and valued and further used to fos­ter connection with others. "Gift relations" prevail; objects are linked to human interactions and do not function as "property" or commodities.2 Process, in effect, is more important than product: even when something concrete is constructed, it is the creative experience that matters more than what has been created.

In the period I focus on in this book, women's culture was characterized by a particularly high degree of aesthetic saturation. To some extent this was true of American culture as a whole. The wealth of newly available consumer goods had stimulated a kind of sensual excitement that filtered through to people on all levels of society. The novelist Theodore Dreiser expressed this quality when writ­ing in his 1902 diary about the impact of the display windows of the new depart­ment stores. "What a stinging quivering zest they display," he exulted; "[they] taste of a vibrating presence." William Leach wrote of newly arrived immigrant women going to stand before such windows, taking in the heady mix of color, glass, and light that seemed to infuse the highlighted products. No longer limited by their Old World identities, the women were able to "re-imagine" themselves as people who could use such goods. Stuart Culin specifically labeled stores full of tantalizing merchandise the "aesthetic centers" of urban communities,' and Jean­Christophe Agnew coined the term "commodity aesthetic" to describe the way Americans channeled their aesthetic desires into goods. Their appetites were whetted—for more and more goods, but also for new levels of entertainment and other forms of sensual satisfaction.'

At the same time, new printing technologies had made it possible to repro­duce images with intense color, and sensually rich pictorial imagery became ubiq­uitous. Consumer products came in packaging with bright labels, for example, and advertisements with saturated hues (the kind seen in Maxfield Parrish paint­ings) flooded the market in magazines, broadsides, and posters. Such pictures often portrayed a dreamy, fairylike scene that approximated the hyper-real poetic image I earlier equated with the saturated world. Similar images were depicted in the immensely popular storybooks of the English artists Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, who drew innocent, picturesque children dressed in old-fashioned garments or rendered as sensually redolent flowers. The sweet child motif was reproduced ad infinitum on manufactured goods and women's handwork, and it was even acted out or embodied in stage tableaux, masquerade parties, and other entertainments. The turn-of-the-century period was also characterized by a series of overlapping "movements" (Aesthetic, Decorative Arts, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau), which resulted in a great outpouring of saturated products such as Tiffany Studios' stained glass. Aesthetic issues were part of popular discourse, so much so that when aesthete par excellence Oscar Wilde toured North America in 1882, he was met by exuberant crowds at every one of his lectures.'

While aesthetic awareness may have permeated the culture as a whole, it was a particular concern of women. They were disproportionately involved with the aesthetic movements and were generally identified with a kind of inherent artis­tic sensibility. Contemporary rhetoric maintained that the "fair sex" was innately attuned to the aesthetic realm (they were the "sensitive" ones) and bore the re­sponsibility for creating the environments that would uplift their own and future generations.6 A well-educated woman was expected to be familiar with the prin­ciples of art and design. Some took formal classes, especially in the decorative and "household" arts, but aesthetic training was also spread through informal channels including the women's press and women's club programs.

It is not surprising, then, that women cultivated the saturated quality in their leisure activities that primarily took place in the home and involved a commu­nity of other women. In creating a theme luncheon, for example, they would carefully plan and coordinate every element so as to provide maximum sensual stimulation for all participants. The individual who organized an 1897 "Pink Tea" in Milwaukee for a small group of friends, as a case in point, covered her table, mirrors, and windowsills with fragrant, thematically colored blossoms, and soft­ened the atmosphere by fitting handmade pink shades over her candelabra. She glided through the scented space in a matching gown. She served refreshments including rose-flavored ice cream and tinted bonbons, presenting them in hand­made satin boxes that guests were to take home as souvenir favors. She also "served up" lighthearted and amusing guessing games about the color pink!

This event had all the qualities I have included in my profile of the saturated world. It was a treat for the senses. The air was fragrant, and the ice cream both smelled and tasted like roses, creating a kind of synesthesia. Eating the dessert involved a cool, creamy sensation on the tongue and the feeling of satin on one's fingertips. It was an embodied event, not only because of this insistence on sen­sual experience, but also because the participants were themselves a piece of the whole, dressed as part of the environment, and interacting with it physically. It was a playful and amusing event as well, designed to create good feeling and a sense of happy surprise. Making all the elements pink helped transform them, making them "special"; even something as ordinary as a source of light could be seen through new eyes. The entertainment was based on—indeed elaborated on—everyday household tasks such as cooking, decorating, and making clothes,but those tasks were transformed into something more significant. Each of their elements was experienced intensely and became the source of pleasure. Finally, the specialness and good feeling of the event was inclusive; everyone who was present was equally a part of the experience, even to the point of being given something to remember it by. Participants were meant to enjoy the experience as part of a community.

Pink teas and similar entertainments were predominantly women-only events. Most women still saw their primary arena of activity and strength as the home and were unashamed of its domestic values. In this more private realm, the women felt free to engage in aesthetic elaboration, to embrace the sensual,`and to be playful; as I see it, they had the gift of time and space in which to engage in the saturated world. Such parties helped conflate the realms of work and play; the activities involved work but were simultaneously amusements. Sometimes domestic tasks were even made the focus of play. Figure 1.2 illustrates a recom­mended "home sociable" where housewifely tasks were dramatized in a light­heartedly mocking manner; individuals literally played on or played with their usual roles. At some coeducational parties, women devised games where gender roles were humorously reversed, and men had to do woman-identified tasks. For example, at a "gingham party" described in Ladies' Home Journal in March 1908, men were asked to find a female partner in a matching apron. They then had to demonstrate their sewing skills by hemming the apron while the woman was wearing it.'

I discuss women's entertainments like this in chapter 3, treating them as one type of domestic amusement in which saturated experience was purposely culti­vated. Each of the other chapters explores a different type of amusement, treating it as another case study. Each is self-contained and may stand alone. However, the chapters also fit together, like separate beads on a multifaceted necklace. Taken as a whole, the interconnected stories provide a holistic overview of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century women's saturated world. Chapter 2 focuses on "scrap­book houses," collage albums ostensibly made as homes for paper dolls. Women and girls spent countless hours finding, cutting, and pasting pictures into scrap­books, creating detailed imaginary living environments from readily available materials such as advertising images and wallpaper samples. Each album repre­sented a complete house, with successive double-page spreads serving as particu­lar rooms. These were a feast for the senses and imagination; they were typically made with a riot of color, texture, and pattern with joyous attention to tiny detail. They illustrated domestic activities and reinforced girls' housewifely training, but their primary function was as an amusement, and their primary appeal was the opportunity they afforded for aesthetic expression and elaboration. They were embodied spaces: they included literal representations of women's bodies in the form of paper "people," and more abstractly they served as embodied realiza­tions of an imagined environment and self. They were intimate miniature worlds that helped reinforce female bonding and sense of connection. Some were made by girls—often one or two friends would work on them together—but others were made by grown women and given to girls as tokens of love and affection.

Chapter 4 looks closely at women's dress-up activities, sometimes undertaken in the context of the entertainments explored earlier. Dressed-up women were literal embodiments—they appeared as imagined "fairyland" characters such as "Lady Spring," or the kind of personified flowers represented in Walter Crane illus­trations. Sometimes they dressed as colonial "foremothers" engaged in domestic activities such as spinning or quilting. Effectively they were domesti­cating history, understanding it through everyday objects and rendering it in their own image. Alternatively they dressed as European peasants or Japanese maid­ens, thus literally "incorporating" the wider world by identifying with it bodily. Dress-up too was a multisensory experience, as it involved elements such as color­ful crepe paper or silk streamers that not only looked sumptuous, but tickled the body and rustled with every step. Sensual elaboration was perhaps the main appeal of this kind of activity, and the source of its greatest pleasure.

Chapter 5 focuses on "intimate companions"—iconic dolls that women made as miniaturized, costumed representations of themselves. Most of these conflated the realms of work and play. The earliest examples typically functioned as aesthetically elaborated domestic tools such as pincushions and penwipers. Their bodies might thus be stuffed so as to hold needles and pins, or they might wear voluminous skirts that could be used to wipe off excess fountain pen ink. In the twentieth century, iconic dolls were more often made as party decorations or favors or as "helper" dolls that helped make light of housework. Women made wedding shower gift dolls, for example, from housekeeping tools or packaged laundry necessities as female forms with names such as "Bridget." Also popular were anthropomorphized fruits and vegetable dolls that sometimes func­tioned as potholders. Others served as imaginary companions. Ethel von Bachellé made "Vegetable Folk" dolls, for example, to bring to life her storybook about agarden-party wedding. Von Bachellé's saturated world involved a domestic scene in which a community was brought together to celebrate in a sensual setting. Her dolls, like the household helpers, represented an aestheticized idealized self.

The last chapter explores women's collecting activities in this period. I demon­strate how women were disproportionately drawn to objects that had to do with the everyday and domestic—they typically collected useful items such as china or costume and accessories; ephemeral or miniature items (including dolls); or items characterized by intricacy of detail and texture, such as textiles. Interest in these objects certainly emanated from women's childhood training and social roles, but even more salient to our understanding of the saturated world, these were intimate and personal items. Women sought out sensory engagement with their collections, and their approach was especially embodied. Not only did many of their items relate to the body, but women generally cared about the very bodies (individuals) connected with those items. In contrast to male collectors, they typically took a personal interest in the people who made or formerly owned them. Their approach also differed from men's in that they were generally less concerned with "trophies" and objects' inherent value. Rather, they cared about context and connection—they wanted to know where an object fit (its setting was what gave it meaning), and were drawn to items that brought them closer to other people. Many even col­lected with others, forming deep bonds through their mutual passion.


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