Saturday, 4 June 2011

Secret embroidery

It's been asserted recently - we needn't dwell on by whom - that women's writing can be distinguished from men's after reading a single paragraph. This certainly isn't the case for me, and, as the author of a novel whose first-person narrator is a woman, I hope other readers are equally gender-blind. But there is a case, I think, for suggesting that certain kinds of art are, if not the prerogative, at least the favoured preserve of women, and that seems to me to have to do with the choice of materials. Fabrics, quilts, clothes, media that aren't just humble but pliable, soft to the touch. Oldenburg did his soft sculptures, I know, but they strike me as detumescent rather than enveloping, irremediably male in their anguish about a lost rigidity. Women artists, on the other hand, use softness in a myriad of ways, often as disturbing as the stuff they use is domestic and reassuring. Bourgeois, Messager (pictured), in the UK Lucas and Emin: these woman and others have used the scraps of fabric that surround us, from nurseries and kitchens and wardrobes and turned them into the stuff of dream, and of nightmare. There's a character in Siri Hustvedt's new novel, The Summer without Men, who does something similar. You can read my review of it here.