Seduced by Modernity

Seduced by Modernity: The Photography of Margaret Watkins

Mary O’Connor
Katherine Tweedie
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Seduced by Modernity
    Book Description:

    Mary O'Connor and Katherine Tweedie tell the story of a dedicated artist in difficult circumstances whose working life spanned a Victorian upbringing in Hamilton, Ontario, and the witnessing of the first Soviet Five-Year Plan. The authors use feminist and historical questions as well as close readings of the photographs to relate Watkins' work to questions of gender, modernity, and visual culture. Watkins' modernism, which involved experimentation and a radical focus on form, transgressed boundaries of conventional, high-art subject matter. Her focus was daily life and her photographs, whether an exploration of the objects in her New York kitchen or the public and industrial spaces of Glasgow, Paris, Cologne, Moscow, and Leningrad in the 1930s, strike a balance between abstraction and an evocation of the everyday, offering a unique gendered perspective on modernism and modernity.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7566-0
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Figures
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-2)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 3-19)

    This book began with a seduction: a set of still-life photographs that Margaret Watkins (1884–1969) took of her kitchen sink and bathroom shower hose in 1919. As images of fragmentary objects, they gesture towards the new abstraction of modernism, making things into more than mundane domestic objects–objects that take on a life of their own. Yet these were more than the usual geometric abstraction: the photographs still carry traces of the material world, of women’s washing or cleaning. So somewhere between what we have come to know as modern abstraction and an evocation of women’s everyday world stand...

  7. 1 “Domesticated to Death”: WATKINS IN HAMILTON
    (pp. 21-37)

    Margaret Watkins, christened Meta Gladys Watkins, was the child of Scottish and Canadian parents, Marie Anderson and Frederick Watkins. Their only child, she was born on 8 November 1884 at Clydevia, a large bourgeois house on the outskirts of the city of Hamilton, Ontario.² Hamilton lies at the west end of Lake Ontario, on a bay with a broad harbour. At its south side is the Niagara Escarpment, called “the mountain” by Hamiltonians. The city was known for its topographical beauty of hill and water and its “spacious tree-lined streets.”³ Its early immigrants were predominantly English and Scottish, and parts...

  8. 2 “Like a Butterfly Hitched to a Plow”: BECOMING AN ARTIST, 1909–1915
    (pp. 39-61)

    When Watkins left home three days after her twenty-fourth birthday, she went south across the border to seek work as an artist. Abandoning her family, she was looking for a community where she would not be confined by dogma, doctrine, and domesticity, one that would be compatible with her ideas of art as a democratic practice. She was looking for work that would pay for lodging and food, but also that would be a way of life. Meanwhile, she was questioning her medium of expression: “Oh damn you, Versatility!” she wrote in a poem, “There are so many hills to...

  9. 3 Circulating Bodies and Selves: WATKINS’S STUDIES, PORTRAITS, AND NUDES
    (pp. 63-97)

    Sometime before 1923, Watkins took a photograph of herself (fig. 3.1) which she used for exhibitions and publicity. Entering into a tradition that had been present in portrait photography since Julia Margaret Cameron, Watkins took the elongated neck of Pre-Raphaelite painters’ models and gave it central prominence. Yet unlike a Pre-Raphaelite image, her eyes look back at the viewer, down from her position above the vantage point. If we were expecting the “beautiful,” we would not accept this image, which peers up her nostrils. Shadows and shading outline the austere form of the head. Dark hair frames its top, some...

  10. 4 Making Home in the Metropolis: DOMESTIC STILL-LIFE PHOTOGRAPHY
    (pp. 99-127)

    The epigraphs that begin this chapter suggest different uses of the verb “to haunt” in relation to city dwelling. Michel de Certeau’s relates it to desire and memory. In his bookThe Practice of Everyday Life, he posits that we map out our lived spaces through our desires and the stories we create. We develop a “poetic geography” in which “places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories.”³ Although he does not deny that we function within economic and social systems, he argues against a totally deterministic world. Dominant forces may regulate our lives and identities, but we create meanings in relation...

    (pp. 129-163)

    The latter epigraph is taken from a pro-family article in the April 1900Ladies’ Home Journalentitled “The American Woman in the Market Place,” which reported on a survey of young working women. This saleswoman’s testimony of entering into the modernity of city spaces could be compared to Baudelaire’s dandy orflâneur, or even to Benjamin’s child who walks through the arcades. Our saleswoman sets up a binary opposition between the domestic and public spheres. Her role as a distributor of commodities is seen not as alienated labour but as a purveyor of a new world that fulfills desire – and...

  12. 6 Modernity and Magic: WATKINS IN EUROPE, 1928–1931
    (pp. 165-197)

    In August 1928, two years after the courtroom debacle, Watkins packed her bags and left her beloved New York. She was forty-two and had been working for eighteen years without reprieve. What she wanted was a two- or three-month European holiday. What she did not anticipate was that her temporary break would turn into forty years of exile. She arrived at 41 Westbourne Gardens, her maternal residence in Glasgow, which was still inhabited by four elderly aunts. Within less than a week at this “home-in-exile,” she faced the first of four deaths, that of Aunt Anna:

    Death + the Old...

  13. 7 “A Study in Brass Tacks”: PHOTOGRAPHING IN THE USSR, 1933
    (pp. 199-227)

    A young woman sits on a stool intent on mending a scarf (fig. 7.1). Next to her stands a large-format camera with its black cloth, and behind is a painting of a fanciful landscape complete with a turreted castle, small aircraft, and distant mountains. It is the backdrop against which the Russian woman will photograph her customers. Tourists and Soviets are transported to an imaginary sublime space with no remnants of urban everyday life, while the novel airplane is the promise of a utopian future. By photographing this camerawoman and her backdrop, Watkins makes a picture of how the medium...

    (pp. 229-255)

    On 8 November 1934 Watkins turned fifty. She floated between depression and vitality, loneliness and vivid curiosity, despair and pleasure. Working in Glasgow was replete with contradictions: she guarded the aunts, and she created another version of home as the co-owner of an antique business. She photographed shipbuilding and monumental dockside constructions, coded as male; she constructed images for carpets and textiles, coded as female. Her eccentricity was to flout categories. The home, the city, and its river commerce were her improvisational sites.

    The River Clyde carved its way – and was carved by man and machine – through Glasgow. Dredged, dragged,...

  15. 9 Later Life and Legacy
    (pp. 257-264)

    What does it mean to annotate one’s documents, to make traces on the traces of one’s life? If Watkins at seventy-eight was still questing “to build a life and make a living,” the multiple revisitings of her past – conducted in annotations on her parents’ letters, in the margins of the books and exhibition catalogues she had bought, and on scraps of newspapers she kept all indicate a project to make meaning and to leave an inheritance. At times, we have understood this to mean that she was waiting for biographers to do a further annotation to write her life and...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 265-298)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 299-310)
  18. Index
    (pp. 311-322)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 323-323)