Mary Cassatt: Excellence on its own terms

A detail of Mary Cassatt’s 1886 painting Girl dressing her Hair features on Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman, which screens at Cinema Nouveaux countrywide until 4 April.

SHE WAS A feminist before it was fashionable, a French Impressionist born in Pennsylvania, a woman painter in a man’s world. She took intaglio printmaking by the horns and created arguably one of the world’s most valuable collections of images. This was Mary Cassatt. Her story Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman is told on the documentary series Exhibition on Film, at Cinema Nouveaux countrywide in three more screenings, on 1, 2 and 4 April.

It’s a story that could embody the heart and soul of any well-crafted biography, made sexily relevant to a contemporary world. But the restraint of it as an Exhibition on Film production is all-encompassing. This has both pros and cons. On the one hand, it holds to the formulaic principles of artists’ bios that have kept the discipline of art history staid and tight for hundreds of years. In doing so, the material, replete with its talking heads from serious art historians, could be a tad on the dry, long and repetitive side for a young audience, unfamiliar with the art historical genre. On the other, it offers a portrait of an artist that ticks every box and shows you work and ideas at such close proximity, you can feel the texture of the work in your mind’s fingers.

There are uncomfortably strange moments in this film when a moody actress veers in and out of the idea of a 19th century woman, discordantly attempting to balance the values of Cassatt’s thoughtful and developing brushwork with how she brushes her hair. Is she meant to be Cassatt? And, for heaven’s sake, why? These digressions are, however, almost forgivable in the light of the focus cast on Cassatt’s extraordinary paintings. Because this film is not premised on a curated exhibition as such, its ambit can be wide and the trajectory of the artist’s whole life can be allowed to dance with the works she made in a way that is engaging and humanising.

Cassatt, who was born to privilege in 1844 and died 87 years later, celebrated as an international artist, was a painter who brought her wisdoms about being a woman into her work. Not on a crude fluffy level, which many of her mother-and-child works have fallen victim to, by way of mothers’ day cards and sentimental platitudes, but much deeper. Hers is an approach to art work which is about a glance that doesn’t confront, a seriousness in the sitter which is about doing, rather than being. Hers is an approach which looks at the power of the mirror and the majestic complexity of hands. It’s about finding beauty in places which trends of her time wouldn’t consider, and about imbibing the poetry of influences in remarkable ways.

Oddly, the word ‘ugly’ in relation to Cassatt’s works is used in the first sentence or two of this documentary. It’s not really explored further in this form, as the thread of the film takes you from Cassatt’s approach to making her work, from a traditional Salon-friendly hard-boiled set of ideas to a gloriously impressionistic one, imbibing the influence of Edgar Degas and Japonisme on the way.

And then, there’s the printmaking. Handled in Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman with the kind of muscularity that, if you have ever experienced the hard manual work and sheer magic of making an etching, truly sings with authenticity. The film’s handling of the influence of Japanese woodcuts on Cassatt’s way of being is developed and magnificent, and, if nothing else in this film tickles your aesthetic bones, this is the rich kernel of the whole production. And the reason you need to see it.

The feminist vibe in a film of this nature, screened to 2023 audiences, is of particular value. The work highlights how Cassatt carved out her own space for herself with her tools, her use of line and colour and her perspicacity; she veered fiercely away from women’s projects for women only. She needed to be considered a someone in her own right regardless of her gender. And she did.

  • Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman is directed by Ali Ray. It screens at Cinema Nouveaux in Rosebank, Johannesburg; Brooklyn, Pretoria; Gateway, Durban and V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, on 1, 2 and 4 April 2023.

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