Stories that Matter
The book that I’d like to introduce to you is “Escaping the Frame. Women in Famous Pictures tell their Stories” by Mary Bevan. It was published in 2021. It’s the perfect book for today’s readers always in a hurry, nevertheless looking for something thought provoking, engaging, visual, educational but also grounded in today’s realities which are often so challenging. Especially for women. No, this is not the standard feminist, activist book that you are already fed up with. Instead, the book I want to introduce to you is a collection of brief thoughts belonging to women who have become celebrated in the art of men, or women who were themselves artists, but whom we have not been used to listen to or to imagine that they have thoughts that might be worthy of our interest.
Who is the author? Mary lives in the south of England and writes flash and micro fiction and prose poetry. Her competition successes include Tethered by Letters, Winchester Writers’ Festival, Writers’ Bureau, Flash 500 and Henshaw Press. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Flash Fiction prize and the Bath Flash Fiction Prize. Her work has been published widely online and in print anthologies including Best of Café Lit, South Poetry Magazine, the 2017 Bath Flash Festival anthology and Momaya. “Escaping the Frame” is her first published book of monologues and was shortlisted for the Dorchester Prize in 2022.
For those of you who are more interested in the labels of literary acts, than in the writing itself, this book is what literary scholars call ekphrastic writing. What is it? Briefly, it is writing about art in the western world, in other words it used to be the vivid description of works of art, real or imaginary, in the age when there was no technology to take pictures with your smart phone, upload them on your favourite platform and just say “an image is worth a thousand words”. The old Greeks, who invented the term, were skilled in the art of rhetoric and the use of words to make the listener or the reader not only imagine, but “see” the object described. I just can’t help myself mentioning Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad which we had to study so thoroughly in the first year of college that we knew it by heart. This very description by Homer is considered to be what started the ekphrastic tradition which continued and flourished in the Renaissance and later on .
And today ekphrastic writing is revived in certain cultures and used not to vividly picture works of art, we now have the technology to do that, but in order to raise questions, to give voice to people who never had them before and to refresh literary genres.
Some of the questions that Mary Bevan’s book raises are: How do we look at women? And what do we see? In paintings or even in real life? Or do we really see them? And the answers are often challenging and therefore thought-provoking.
Our answers obviously depend on the historical context, on the fate of the painters and, yes, on the eyes of the beholder. Remember?! Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder or the context from which we look.
In “Escaping the Frame. Women in Famous Pictures tell their Stories”, Mary Bevan tells us the stories of the women in the paintings she chose to discuss.
It is a small, beautifully crafted book to carry with you around, maybe when you walk in a park and sit down for a rest, maybe in your own house to read in its various corners. For me it’s a book to come back to. It’s not a thriller you cannot put down. It’s a book that makes you reflect, that engages you, that makes you want to come back to it, to draw up the paintings on Google, to decide whether Mary Bevan’s interpretation is in agreement with what you yourself think or not.
I love the cover (see Figure 1): a pink background, what else when you choose women for your reflections, with an ornate gilded frame, which shows us a black void from which the title emerges trying to escape the frame indeed and reach out to us. On the front cover, the frame encloses the blackness of women’s still little-known history and on the back cover the same frame shows us the rationale behind the book.
Figure 1. “Escaping the Frame. Women in Famous Pictures tell their Stories”
The text is minimalist though it sends the reader on her or his own journey of rich discoveries on Google and helps us escape the frames of our own prejudices. The book is written under the form of monologues of the women painted by famous male painters or by women artists who have been disadvantaged in the world of men. Mary Bevan wants to give them the voice they have been denied as objectified characters in a men’s world. And she does so with great empathy and cultural sensitivity as well as with a skilful selection of the women trying to break out of the frame of silence and their painters’ gaze across six centuries. Only two of the twenty-two monologues of the book are spoken by men. Both men are either imaginary or unknown, which is in some way ironical and in another some sort of late justice for the many women muted by society.
Sylvia Pankhurst, Hanna Pauli, Martha Rosler and Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale are the women artists that Mary Bevan has chosen to stand out and show us women painted by women.
It’s through true literary craftsmanship that such a miniature book offers such a wealth of information and discussion points. Its multiple layers send the readers to explore not only the actual paintings, but also the whole world of commentaries, lectures and videos that are connected to them.
To give you an example of Mary Bevan’s writing you can find below “Office at night” (Figure 2) by the American painter Edward Hopper. The text of Mary Bevan comes after Figure 2 and consists of a brief note on Hopper and his painting, followed by the inciting story told by the woman in the painting.
Figure 2. “Office at night”
This 1940 oil painting, “Office at Night”, is by the American artist Edward Hopper. It hangs in the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, USA. Hopper is widely acknowledged as the most important American painter in the realist style, though his type of realism is not so much photographic as an interpretive rendering of reality. His major, underlying themes are the emptiness of contemporary life and the solitude of the self. There has been much speculation about the ‘story’ behind this evocative picture of a boss and his secretary working together late into the night. The speaker here is the secretary.
Office at Night
Of course, all human beings are natural voyeurs; our imaginations feed greedily on glimpses of other worlds, other people’s lives, and we entertain ourselves by weaving stories around them. There always has to be a story. At this moment, you are most likely already building your own story around what you see here. I admit that the angle of view of this piece – placing you somewhere above the action looking in through our lighted office window as at a peepshow – encourages it. Perhaps you imagine yourselves passengers on the elevated ‘L’ train as it rattles through the New York night past dozens of lighted tower-block windows like ours, each presenting its own enticing tableau.
So tell me, what stereotypic story are you now weaving around us, the boss and his voluptuous secretary in her figure-hugging, short-skirted dress, closeted together alone in a small office after dark? Perhaps you are hoping that I am about to fill in the details for you, explain why I am dressed as I am, perhaps let you into the naughty secrets of a forbidden relationship. In that case you will be disappointed. A picture is not an anecdote: if you could write it, why paint? There is significance here if you are prepared to put aside what you think you know and look with an open mind, but that is up to you.
I will tell you that the year is 1940. We are children of the Great Depression and that has altered all our lives, especially the lives of us women. We have lost our importance as members of the workforce, hard-won through the war years, for when there is not enough work for our men to do we find ourselves relegated to sextyped, often unskilled jobs. Some of us have continued to fight our way through it, but the dreams we dreamed of equal opportunity have faded. And now it seems war has begun again in Europe though that is not, as yet, America’s business. So here you find us – the man and I – confined together in this small, characterless office space, under a cold, unforgiving white light that casts no shadows and with nowhere to look but inwards, self-absorbed, close together yet miles apart. The window is half-open against the heat but beyond it is nothing, only darkness.
As you see for yourselves, my ‘boss’ is in his early forties; I, his secretary, am a few years his junior but certainly no girl. Notice how, despite the heat he is too preoccupied even to stop and take off his jacket, hunched at his desk, working into the night, scanning the papers I select for him. I simply stand by, watching his reactions, waiting – for what? A breeze from the open window has blown a sheet of paper on to the floor. It is disorderly but I do not choose to bend and pick it up. I am a cat; I study my mouse. When the time is right I may pounce – or not.
That is all there is to say. Draw your own conclusions, interpret the scene as you please. Truth is in any case always inaccessible. Perhaps there is no story here at all. Perhaps this is simply a picture of our world, his and mine; a world in which it is almost too late for both of us in more senses than one. Perhaps we are simply trapped in this claustrophobic, isolated intimacy. After all, life is full of such contradictions, is it not?
 Munsterberg, M., 2009, Writing About Art, https://writingaboutart.org/pages/ekphrasis.html