Book and Article Reviews: Frontisi-Ducroux

Françoise Frontisi-DucrouxOuvrages de dames: Ariane, Hélène, Pénélope….  La Librairie du XXe siècle.  Paris: Seuil, 2009.



The yarn Hélène Frontisi-Ducroux has decided to spin is that of a fundamental motif of collective imagination, that of legendary weavers, their art and their tales of love, violence and gendered subjectivity. Weaving different disciplinary threads, she establishes parallels between textual studies and the analysis of self-reflexive artistic pictorial representations of weaving and painting when envisaged in a feminine context. The main question she is raising in this book, and which constitutes the central debate of the introductory chapters (p.9-36), is that of feminine creation and the role of women in artistic productions as inspirers or creators in classical culture.

Instead of starting straight away with the analysis of the major mythological characters associated with weaving or with Athena, the goddess of weavers, as one might have expected, Frontisi-Ducroux goes back to the origins of the relationship of women with artistic creation through a forgotten character, the daughter of Butades of Sicyon the potter. Butades’ daughter, who remained anonymous until Italian Renaissance treatises named her Dibutades (di Butades), was so distressed by her lover’s looming departure that she drew his shape by outlining his shadow upon the wall while he was asleep. Although the inventor of shadow painting, she is supplanted in classical accounts of her tale by her father modelling the youth’s figure in clay. The deliberate accessorizing of Dibutades by various authors such as Pliny and Athenagoras in what is deemed to be the invention of sculpture is the first thread Frontisi-Ducroux follows in her study, which is presented as a comprehensive synthesis of the frequently contradictory ideas associated with female creators and their work: temperance, constancy, love of hard labour, political intelligence, domestic hierarchy and humility.

Thus she starts with Aristotle’s definition of feminine virtues in the Rhetorics, one of which is: philergia aneu aneleutherias (translated as a “non-servile taste for labour”). The female creator is not a slave but one who knows her place and thus contributes to the preservation of the stability of the domestic and, by extension, political worlds. Frontisi-Ducroux expands on this initial limiting definition and points at the contradictions of such a circumscription of feminine artistic activity. She redefines what makes the value of a creative woman: her hardworking spirit, her needlework encouraging sophrosune (temperance) and preventing lechery. However she also considers the value of the final product of female creativity, and asks if it can be read on an equal level with that of male craftsmanship. In this feminist reading of the Aristotelian and the Platonician conceptions of female creativity, she seems to ask ultimately whether fine arts (erga kala) could represent a link between women and creation in the Greek collective consciousness. She also examines the impact it had on the reading of the mythological interpretation of female artists then and now.

Frontisi-Ducroux identifies female eros as the origin of creation, but also points at the fact that the engendering creative process is hijacked by men: “C’est pourquoi toute production feminine est ramenée à une simple reproduction. L’essentiel est l’oeuvre de l’homme” (p.35: “That is why any female artistic creation is reduced to a simple process of imitation. The essence of creation is masculine”; reviewer’s translation). Creative women are seen as captae amore (love prisoners), a status denying them any artistic initiative. Hence, dwelling on the tale of Dibutades and the analytical frame of Françoise Héritier’s differential sexual valence (p. 34), she moves on to analyse through the motifs on ceramics the liminal position of women in creative contexts and identify their paradoxical status.

Frontisi-Ducroux illustrates her approach of female creators, of female weavers, by a cross-analysis of the scene painted on an Attic hydria (p.35): the potter and his assistants, two male apprentices and a woman, polishing and decorating the vases. Goddess Athena gives the potter a crown while two winged Victories are about to honour the male apprentices in the same way. Frontisi-Ducroux notices the marginal position of the woman, whose body and material language indicates she is not a slave. Defined and determined by her gender, she is not even recognized as part of the artistic process by the very goddess protecting women and weavers. The author then ventures the remark that Athena’s cold-shouldering of the female apprentice could be due to the fact that the goddess considers this woman to be out of place (36). Her occupation should be that of weaving – a recurring motif in ceramics – not that of painting, a male occupation. The female artist is thus characterized by this essential marginality as in need of taming rather than praising.

After defining the role of women in artistic creation, Frontisi-Ducroux goes on to analyse each of the main female mythological characters associated with the appropriate form of female creative activity: weaving. Ariadne, Helen of Troy, Penelope, Philomel and Procne and Arachne are all weavers whose talent and craft are debated in the dual perspective of confronting the gendered subject with the collective vision of the individual. What is the weaver’s role in antique societies? How is it perceived and used by storytellers and philosophers? What are the multiple impacting possibilities of each myth when taken in a synchronic context? These are some of the questions Frontisi-Ducroux answers, before synthesizing the filiations and the infiltrations of the myths of weavers in antique and contemporary culture.

Choosing a counter-chronological approach to the figures of weavers, she starts with the most famous, Ariadne, to reach the least remembered, Arachne. From Ariadne’s inheriting the yarn from Daedalus and offering Theseus the gift of love and life, she moves to an interesting redefinition of the character of Helen of Troy, the lascivious source of conflict, who proves to be a more irenic and textually-structuring character than expected by selective collective memory and artistic reinterpretations. Chapter 3 deals with the multi-faceted Penelope, the patient wife, the dangerous creator in control of the timeliness of her work. Penelope’s tapestry being in fact Laertes’ shroud means that it is easy to address the dark side of the woven work. The myth of the muted Philomel turning her tapestry into a tale of endangered femininity and an instrument of deadly retributive justice fully reveals the chaotic nature of weaving. Finally chapter 5 returns to this origin of the dual art of weaving with the proud Arachne, the genesic weaver with her hubristic craft. Frontisi-Ducroux shows how Arachne is the climax of mythological reappropriation as she is paradoxically the most enduring emblem of feminine artistic creation and yet the least remembered character.

In her last chapter, Frontisi-Ducroux recalls Richard Buxton’s reading of the edifying ways and means of myth (Imaginary Greece: The Contexts of Mythology, Cambridge, 1994, p.18sq): “The home was where children began to incorporate into their developing construction of the world of perceptions, symbols and values embedded in myths. Who were the tellers? Our most extensive evidence comes from Plato. Once he refers to the narrators as ‘old men and old women’, but usually he presents the transmission of stories as a female preserve”. Through Buxton’s reading of the roles of both women and myths in education, the violent nature of the tales told to children and embedded in the fictive tapestries of the myths (Arachne tells edifying tales on her tapestry and Philomel reveals her ordeal on a woven cloth…), Frontisi-Ducroux emphasizes the fundamental paradox at the heart of woven works: the coincidence of female irenicism and feminine unruliness.

Whether spinning actual or fictional yarns, women in classical culture are seen in terms of the to-and-fro movement of the shuttle: they are transitional subjects enabling, through the feminine muthos (p.181), the conversion of the symbolic into actual knowledge and political wisdom. This liminal role of both the female yarn-spinner and of her muthos is that of mid-wife to male intellect. In contemporary societies, the feminine paradox merging the irenic and the unruly still characterises woven works, or any artistic creation soliciting spinning. Frontisi-Ducroux quotes the examples of Louise Bourgeois’s giant arachnids, of Annette Messager’s composite works or Mona Hatoum’s revisiting of Ulysses’ bed and stresses the filiations in the paradox. The shuttle, the yarn, the tapestries are symbols of the feminine, instruments of gender constriction and liberation, the loci of a perpetual irenic conflict, as the Egyptian artist Ghada Amar puts it: “Je participe de la double soumission de la femme: la femme qui coud et la femme qui coud son image déformée” (p.185: “I participate in the double female submission: the woman who sews and the woman sewing her own deformed image”; reviewer’s translation).

Frontisi-Ducroux’s opus hovers dexterously between high-brow references and analyses and pedagogic parallels that enable readers to deepen their thoughts on the use of mythology in the debate on creation and on the gender divide in both classical and contemporary culture. Researchers can find invaluable contextualization on the impact of mythology on aesthetic and political debates through the prism of feminist reading and of textual analyses on the classical sources of the feminine muthos. This book is not only a pleasant read, it will be helpful for any reader in search of an accessible view of these founding myths. The concise bibliography, mixing recent and fundamental texts on mythology, provides a helpful comprehensive guide to envisage mythology in various disciplinary perspectives (art history, classics, theoretical approaches of the myth, materialistic approaches, literature and stylistic studies).

How to cite

Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux.  Ouvrages de dames: Ariane, Hélène, Pénélope….  La Librairie du XXe siècle.  Paris: Seuil, 2009.  Reviewed by Nathalie Rivère de Carles. 2009.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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