Curator Roderick Mengham
Jesus College in Cambridge has replaced three male portraits with the work of French artist Agnès Thurnauer, portraying defiant images of women as part of a ground-breaking exhibition.The portraits, which appropriate Manet’s striking images of female characters, will hang in the College’s dining hall where its formal dinners are held. For a month they will replace notable past Jesuans Matthew Hutton, Denys Page and Eustace Tillyard.
Dr Rod Mengham, curator of the College’s Works of Arts Committee, said: “Placing the three female portraits in Hall is making quite a big statement about female self-definition in an institution which encourages women to realise their true potential but which - like other colleges - surrounds them with images of male pre-eminence. It's time our representations of ourselves and what we do were put in perspective. “One really interesting thing about Agnès’ work is the way it magnifies a crucial characteristic of those paintings by Manet it is referencing. Manet's representations of women refuse to make them the objects of a male gaze caught in the act of consumption or control. These women stare back at the viewer in a way that is difficult to read - they hold their ground and refuse to comply with what is expected of them. Agnès puts this self-possession and readiness for self-definition right at the centre of her practice as a painter. The exhibition will be the first time any of Thurnauer’s work has been shown in the UK. Mengham added: “The College has a tradition of pushing for gender equality but Jesus, like many educational institutions across the world, cannot avoid its history, some of which has reflected a less than gender-equal society. Art can help us examine our assumptions and confront aspects of our culture we might not otherwise be comfortable with.”
The works by Thurnauer, a distinguished artist whose paintings and sculptures have been shown at several venues in Paris including the Pompidou Centre, are being displayed around the College with the three head-and-shoulder portraits, done in pencil, being displayed on the South Wall of the College’s Hall.The Tryptic, called You, reflects three sides to the women - emotion, seductiveness and intellectualism. Thurnauer hopes the images will connect with viewers personally. “When you stop in front of the painting it is for you only,” she explained. “When you see their faces appearing so large in the Hall it is striking, especially next to the male portraits. This space is a wonderful location. I don’t know how people will react to all three of them hanging here, but I think it will be astonishing,” said Thurnauer. “I was working on the idea that, for Manet, these women were not only models but colleagues and working women. Victorine Meurent, who is featured in two of the three, was a model but also an artist - Manet was a pioneer working closely with his models. He was not using them, but having a conversation with them. They were working women and I think that is important.” “Manet changed art history. You used to have the models ‘looking around’ or at something in the painting, but not directly at you. I think he insisted that the painting and model are not just here for you to consider, but for you to engage with and for them to engage with you. Now that I see them in place here myself, I can see how strong these women’s appearance is – you can feel their gaze.”
The College has shown a support for the visual arts in recent years and its collection includes works by Antony Gormley, Eduardo Paolozzi and Barry Flanagan.