By Corinna Lotz

Spirit of Contemplation (detail) by Albert Toft (1901) Laing Art Gallery
Spirit of Contemplation (detail) by Albert Toft (1901)
Laing Art Gallery

Spirit of Contemplation, a large sculpture by Albert Toft, confronts you right at the beginning of The Enchanted Interior. Toft’s slip-sliding nude usually adorns the entrance stairway at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery. But here she can be viewed in the round and is doubly disturbing. Is she a female version of Rodin’s Thinker or just a young, fed-up model?

Her confrontational and sullen presence haunts the succession of spaces in these stunning Edwardian galleries.

Spirit embodies “that strange collective impulse which led many sculptors to produce their most intensely symbolist works at the turn of the century”, as art historian Susan Beattie has noted. But what is the symbolism all about?

Curator Madeleine Kennedy has made it her mission to probe the complexities and contradictions of how women have been depicted in beautiful interiors. She unravels a host of hidden stories, drawing on Oscar Wilde’s notorious The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which beauty and youth disguise moral corruption and crime, as a metaphor.

This is a grand and complex sweep from the Victorian era up to the present.  The past and present are interpreted from a feminist point of view that sees beauty as an all too-often poisoned chalice. Along with the enchantment, inside these luxurious interiors lurks violence, sexual imprisonment and fear.

The Hhareem Cairo by J F Lewis, Victoria and Albert Museum
The Hhareem Cairo by J F Lewis, Victoria and Albert Museum

Iranian artist Afruz Amighi’s Hanging 1001 Pages is a vast exquisite wall hanging made in 2008 out of plexiglass and the woven polythene used in refugee-camp tents. It casts a complex “Arabic” shadow on the wall, its geometric patterning reminiscent of mosques. Parallels between Western women in gilded cages and those in hareems are drawn again and again in this show.

White on white, shadows and erased presences persist in Interior, Sunlight on the Floor by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1906). American photographer Francesca Woodman’s eerie gelatine silver prints from the 1970s, hung in a narrow passage, disturb even more with their sense of abandonment.

A terrifying photomontage by Shadi Ghadirian shows heavily veiled women before a painted backdrop holding a mirror reflecting a bookshelf. Equally frightening are three small cast iron grills by Shana Lutker, inspired by the vents she observed at Paris’ Salpêtrière hospital where in the 19th century young women were “treated” for hysteria.

Filmstill: The Crystal Gaze
Courtesy: Ursula Mayer, Photo: Tim Brotherton

A 2013 digital video by Fiona Tan evokes Rembrandt’s illegitimate and unacknowledged daughter Cornelia van Rijn restlessly pacing and trying to sleep in a wall-papered room, her elaborate dress made with the same blue Delft-like pattern as her surroundings.  Nellie married at 15 and emigrated to Dutch Batavia (today’s Jakarta) at 16, where she died.

A-chronologically, Toft’s languid but potent Spirit re-emerges in Laus Veneris, Edward Burne-Jones’ reknowned and quite weird painting, considered by some to be his masterpiece. It was painted in 1875-6, a quarter century before Toft’s Spirit.

A sense of suffocation prevails in Orientalising images of the hareem as well as in many pre-Raphaelite heroines, such as Holman Hunt’s bizarre and morbid Isabella with the Pot of Basil.

There is often a subversive subtext in these claustrophobic interiors. By showing women gazing longingly out of windows or at mirrors, their feelings start to prevail. They may indeed be victims but they may also be femme fatales, with the power to enchant and entrap.

Laus Veneris by Edward Burne Jones at Laing Art Gallerys
Laus Veneris by Edward Burne Jones at Laing Art Gallery

The story does not end with the Edwardian era. Mona Hatoum’s brilliant Home, for example, endows domestic kitchen appliances with sinister foreboding. And, in the outstanding exhibition book, Kennedy quotes from the Office of National Statistics that in “2018 alone, 1.3 million women in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse”.

The Enchanted Interior highlights the way that 20th and 21st century female artists have challenged how women were, and often still are, reduced to goods and chattels. And how beauty can be a double-edged sword. Essays by art and architectural historians and artists Zeynep Inankur, Emma Cheatle and Lalla Essaydi help deconstruct symbolic references and lost stories. As Julie Milne, Tyne and Wear’s chief curator of Art Galleries, has said, there is a burning contemporary message here.

 The Women (1910) by John Charlton, Laing Art Gallery
The Women (1910) by John Charlton, Laing Art Gallery

And, if you want to get liberated from the gilded cage, there is a splendid work downstairs at the Laing with a refreshingly powerful message.  Don’t miss The Women, painted by John Charlton in 1910.  No languid lilies here. These fishermen’s wives hauling a lifeboat down to the sea are not to be messed with!

The Enchanted Interior is at the Laing Art Gallery until 22 February. It travels to London’s Guildhall Art Gallery in March 2020. Northern Spirit is a permanent exhibition celebrating the art and craft of North East England.