Exhibition on Screen – Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writers: Phil Grabsky and Ali Ray

Director: Ali Ray

Impressionist and innovator, Mary Cassatt is the subject of Exhibition On Screen’s latest documentary. Born in 1840’s Pittsburgh, the American painter found her home and career in Paris. Cassatt was from a wealthy family, but her privilege didn’t buy her success. It wasn’t until she met Edgar Degas, and was introduced to the group of artists known as the Impressionists, that her work could finally be exhibited. She also began to experiment.

What is noticeable about this documentary is how much the content centres around close readings of Cassatt’s work. We are effectively ‘learning’ Cassatt – the woman, her art – from scratch. Curators and academics discuss not just the artist’s development but how her art has been misinterpreted over the years. In the latter half of the film, the documentary takes to task the accusation of sentimentality. Scan a selection of Mother’s Day cards and you will undoubtedly find a reproduction of Cassatt’s mother and child paintings. But what the film argues, and very successfully, is that we have seen these images so often we have stopped looking at them. Not only is Cassatt referencing moments in art history (the Madonna and child), but these paintings are a tour de force in terms of technique.

One of Cassatt’s most recognisable works, The Child’s Bath (1890), shows Cassatt moving away from the principles of Impressionism and into an exploratory phase, after seeing an exhibition of Japanese prints at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Flat planes of colour, emphatically-drawn lines, went beyond expectations of what a woman artist could achieve. Even Degas remarked that “no woman has a right to draw like that.” Questioning Cassatt’s “sentimentality”, the film’s contributors re-assess Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878). A girl is slumped in a chair, bored and sulky. The painting is informal and unguarded, not the typical depiction of a Victorian child.

The documentary also looks at the artist’s love of internalised drama. In The Tea (1880) the classic, domesticated scene of afternoon tea is transformed into a study of narrative ambiguity. The sitter nearest us looks off into the distance; her friend is not engaged either; halfway through sipping her tea, the cup obscures her face. Observed casually, this picture appears to be cosy, quaint and unchallenging. But the tension within the composition, fixing both sitters at odds with the audience and the artist, is psychologically astute. Cassatt’s work portrays women, not in idealised terms, but as they really are, and it puts her in a different league altogether.

Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman is a superb addition to the Exhibition on Screen series. The emphasis on close reading packs in the content, and the editorial decision to redress how Cassatt’s work is interpreted, gives this documentary an intensity and real sense of purpose. The film not only introduces us to the full range of this artist, but her complexity and sophistication. Painting the Modern Woman encourages us to take a closer look at Cassatt, and to reassess her place in art history.

Coming to cinemas on International Women’s Day, Wednesday 8 March.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Excellent addition to the series

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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