Monday, June 20, 2011


Women With Books They're Not Reading in Art

Click on a woman with a book she isn't reading to see the context.

Previously: Surprising Jewelry in Art.

Lili Loofbourow is a writer living in Oakland. She writes about 17th-century ideas of reading and digestion, cognitive science, Chile, and femscularity. She blogs for Ms. Magazine and as Millicent over at Millicent and Carla Fran.

38 Comments / Post A Comment


I love the Leger thrown in the middle!

As an artist, I commend you. Well done!



Lili L.

@cherrispryte A little girl whose face was covered with "thick, soft hair." http://tinyurl.com/3z7peed


@cherrispryte Hirsutism? I saw a documentary about a village in Mexico, a very large number are born with some gene that covers them in hair.


@shenannies is this the whole painting? there's no link on it.

Lili L.

@sox Yeah, that's most of the painting. These didn't require the same amount of zooming as other ones, so a lot of them don't need links.


@cherrispryte Ambras syndrome (aka werewolf syndrome)!


@cherrispryte: Yes, cherri, it's just the last one that's strange :) (oh shit, I used a smiley face, but it's only because I'm scared of cherrisprite; fuck, did i say that out loud?!?! :) :) :) etc


Chinchilla girl?


So, what exactly is femscularity? When I google it all I get are the places where Lili Loofbourow's byline appears. Is it the study of female musculature? A conflation of the words femininity and masculinity? A rare and expensive type of ice cream served in a bowl with a pink sugar rim?

Lili L.

@RK You know the Old Spice guy's "mascularity"? It's the lady-version of that. (I'm working on a better definition, I promise.)


@millicent That's what you're studying?! So many ways my life has gone down the wrong path.

Lili L.

@shenannies No, it's more of a lifelong side-project, trying to figure out what the extreme super-exaggerated version of femininity is, and how that got represented and eventually mainstreamed in pop culture? So that the Old Spice guy is a hilarious ironic joke, but the equivalent lady is pretty much the Heidi Montag-y norm? And then there's the opposite, like on Pulling, and Nighty Night, and Ab Fab, where women are either normal and imperfect and unlikeable in the ways dudes always are, or--alternatively--total femscular monsters.

I'm actually studying, um, poop. Or how reading and eating were similar in the seventeenth century. Which involves poop and vomit. I'm not sure if that's better or worse.


@millicent A better definition? Nonsense! If it's good enough for the Old Spice guy it's good enough for me. :)


@millicent Well that's very interesting. What is the poop part exactly? Reading and eating being similar? I don't understand.

Lili L.

@shenannies Ha! Um. Well, one of the big debates during the Reformation revolved around the problem of Holy Communion. The Catholic theory was that transubstantiation happens in church: the wafer becomes the Word Made Flesh. Problem was, if you eat the Word made Flesh (lots of people ate pages of Bibles medicinally, btw), what happened to it in your gut? WERE YOU POOPING GOD? So that's one part of the debate. Lots of people were tortured over the question of what happened if a mouse ate the wafers in church, which was sort of a euphemism for other things that might happen, like what if you barfed God after getting drunk?

Also, bowels, back then, were used sort of how we use "heart" now. Christ called "my bowels, my bowels!" People swore by "Christ's bowels." Bowels were where you loved and felt and digested. To digest meant (and still means) to process, to filter out the bad from the good, to turn the good parts into your body (or your legal system) and eliminate the bad. That was especially important for reading, because people saw the imagination as really dangerous---pregnant women were so susceptible to what they read that they often imprinted their fetus with it. So what they put in their heads was as important as what they put in their bodies. The categories weren't really distinct.


Tragically Ludicrous

@millicent Woah! That's awesome. Both of your topics.


@millicent That was not in any way more than I wanted, thank you so much. I had no idea about any of that, very fascinating. It must have driven them crazy, thinking they were 'pooping God'. Thank you!

Lili L.

@shenannies It drove them so crazy that they became Protestants! Thus and thence are revolutions born...


@millicent Really?! I'm a recovering Catholic, but in all my Eucharist-consuming years I never thought about 'pooping' Christ.


'I must have put my red book somewhere...'
-Honey, it's on your-
'SSHHT I'm thinking!'

Lili L.

@Maud So, I didn't link to the whole version of this one, but she's watching some guy with a funnel on his head drive a nail into a man's skull to remove the "stone" of madness. Real ladies do that while balancing a book on their heads.


Maria Anna by Velazquez reminds me of Lady Tottington from 'The Curse of the Were-Rabbit'!

Lili L.

@shenannies What. a. call.


"Oh, what's that? Sorry, I didn't see you there - I've just been carefully arranging myself into an artful pose around this strategically placed book designed to get you to ask me what I'm reading."


Aaaaaaah! that first woman has my exact face (including the sparse brows)! I don't have teeny tiny hands though.


@iceberg I believe you just contractually obligated yourself to change your avatar picture...


These are fantastic, especially the second Diego Vzqz and the Bosch.

But, not really fair to all the Mariae Annunciatae (and their analogues)! Because technically they might not be reading the book at that instant? But that's just because they are contemplating what they just read, and looking away to signify contemplation, and their contemplation turns into a big fat lily-bearing Archangel Gabriel, whether you can see him or not.

elysian fields

This series is so good! As a student of modern art history, I was going to ask if we could get some more 20th-century art up in this bitch ... but then I realized that 20th-century art is so anti-figurative and anti-narrative that it wouldn't work for this feature. So never mind and carry on.


This is very intriguing observation. Who knew there were so many women portrayed in paintings with books they are not reading. I love the one with the book on her head. The nun looks like she's ready to bonk someone on the head with her cross, and she probably was!


I've seen that book. It says, "Mary Magdalene is a grotsky beeotch."


Ha! "Annunciation" has such a great "bitch, please!" face. Love it.


I love the facial expression on the "Crowned Virgin." It's as though she's thinking "virgin, ha! how little you know...."


Your research sounds super nerdy and awesome! I APPROVE WHOLEHEARTEDLY AND WANT TO KNOW MOAR.

Lili L.

@whimseywisp Aw, shucks! *snort* Thanks!

Molly D.@twitter

I'm confused, though. These women very clearly *are* reading. At least half of the books are open, with a finger or something else marking their place, and most of the body positions are of someone who has just looked up for a moment from something they were very engrossed in. And in a couple of other cases, the books are clearly well-read (bent pages, etc.) So I'm not sure I quite agree with the title of the post.


by "books" they mean "the bible" in most cases.

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