The Macdonald Sisters: How They Visually Created Equality Between Men and Women
When directly comparing the two sisters, it is required to examine the work they completed together while attending the Glasgow School of the Arts. One such work is a GSA Poster from 1895 (Fig.8). It is easy to see that both of their styles originated from the same place. What is interesting is how each sister evolved artistically. The two female figures depicted are angular and linear, geometrically symmetrical with the rest of the composition. Frances retains this androgynous form for a significantly longer period of time than Margaret. This linear androgyny may be perceived as the first assertion of their female figure embodying the phallus, thus possessing its power. Stylized labial folds are seen along with the rose motif to characterize the feminine, but in moderation.
The Macdonalds also completed a four seasons series, starting with Spring (Fig.9) by Frances in 1897. This series was originally exhibited in metal frames also created by the sisters. To really look at these works, it is essential to consider the frames for they exemplify a marked contrast between the soft watercolors and the hard metal. Again, the dichotomy between feminine and masculine aspects of the artwork is seen. Spring, especially, is seen as a fertile, maternal figure with her sex organs clearly delineated. There is also the faint outline of a child figure at her feet. The frame contains bulbous forms that provide the gendered opposite in the form of testicles or sperm.
While Frances made Spring and Fall, Margaret created Summer and Winter 1898 (Fig.10). The various seasons markedly signify fundamental differences in the sisters‘ styles. Spring and Fall, as seasons, are very similar in temperature and epitomize change. Thus they are seen as liminal seasons. Summer and Winter, on the other hand, are opposites in terms of temperature and represent the two extremes. Thus they are seen as dichotomous seasons. Frances, as an individual and as an artist, floats in this realm of liminality. She struggles throughout her life with not fitting in, caught between the world of motherhood and the world of public power. On the other hand, Margaret exists in a truly dichotomous realm. She is accepted publicly as an artist, albeit through her husband, yet does not conform to reproductive expectations. Frances spends her life looking for a niche, arguably creating the most dynamic artwork of the pair, while Margaret easily fits into society as a woman, albeit a phallic woman.
The foremost difference between Margaret and Frances is visualized in their respective representations of the famous literary figure, Ophelia. She is well known in western culture as the epitome of the victimized female. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, she is caught in the archetypical dichotomy between the virgin and the whore. She eventually goes mad and commits suicide, unable to endure unjust expectations. Frances was the first to visualize this subject in 1898 (Fig.12), while Margaret created her Ophelia in 1908 (Fig.11). Many visual differences surface in this decade. Frances thoroughly rejects androgyny in her depiction of the literary heroine. This woman has curves and can almost be considered an ideal beauty. Her brunette hair demurely frames her face as her hands delicately reach up to cup a fish. It is hard to tell whether Ophelia is actually dead in this image, for she still possesses a life force. Her dress floats around her and butterflies hover on the surface of the water. Margaret, on the other hand, depicts her Ophelia as excessively elongated and definitively dead. Her eyes are closed and her skin has lost all color of life. There are roses present, but this figure is clearly androgynous and phallic.
It would almost seem that these two images are mixed up. Margaret’s is more like Frances’ style, and vice versa. Yet it is the content that makes each Ophelia characteristic of each sister. Margaret shows Ophelia as fin-de-siècle culture viewed her; as a subversive female figure. The public approved of Ophelia as dead, because then she lost all of her phallic power and was thus a victim of castration. If Ophelia was alive, as Frances has depicted her, she still threatened the established social and gender roles. She served as a constant reminder that the expectations derived from the virgin/whore dichotomy are thoroughly and utterly unreasonable. And that maybe the gender roles, so heavily enforced into the twentieth century, were unwarranted and unfair. Frances infuses her Ophelia with a life force that has the possibility to obliterate the survival of traditional gender roles.
Margaret and Frances Macdonald embodied the “new woman” of fin-de-siècle France because, through their art, they attempted to become phallic women. The power of the phallus provided them with an autonomous existence. Not only were they educated and raised to be independent, professional artists, they continued this power through their art. Their respective artworks challenged the status quo in an effort to provide femininity and motherhood with the respect of the phallus. Their androgynous figures, and eventual phallic maternal figures, were the perfect balance between the feminine and the masculine. Thus the women they depicted possessed an equality, if not superiority, to men.
Fig. 1 La Mort Parfumee Margaret Macdonald, 1921
Fig. 2 The May Queen Margaret Macdonald, 1900
Fig. 3 Panel on desk Margaret Macdonald, 1902
Fig. 4 Pond Frances Macdonald, 1894
Fig. 5 Girl and Butterflies Frances Macdonald, 1907
Fig.6 Ill Omen Frances Macdonald, 1893
Fig.7 Prudence and Desire Frances Macdonald, 1912-15
Fig.8 GSA Poster Margaret & Frances Macdonald, 1900
Fig.9 Spring Frances Macdonald, 1897
Fig.10 Winter Margaret Macdonald, 1898
Fig.11 Ophelia Margaret Macdonald, 1908
Fig.12 Ophelia Frances Macdonald, 1898
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