The Age of Enlightenment by Heather Passmore

Heather Passmore
The Main Gallery . March 9 – April 7, 2017
Opening Reception: Thursday, March 9, from 7 pm – 10 pm
Harcourt House Artist Run Centre, 3rd floor, 10215 – 112 St, Edmonton

The Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason or as le Siècles des Lumières (literally, ‘the Century of the Enlighted’), was an intellectual movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. In general, the Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals of liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional governments, and separation of Church and state. The ideas of that progressive movement undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Church, and paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. The major figures of the Enlightenment, who helped spread the idea of the Age of Reason across Europe and beyond included the philosophers and thinkers: Cesare Beccaria, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant. Benjamin Franklin – a scientist, political theorist and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America – visited Europe frequently and contributed significantly to the scientific and political debates there and brought the newest ideas back to Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson – a politician, diplomat and, later the 3rd President of the Unites States of America – closely followed European ideas and later incorporated some of the ideals of the Enlightenment into the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Others, like James Madison – an American statesman, diplomat and one of the Founding Fathers – incorporated them into the Constitution of the United States in 1787 and into the Bill of Rights.

During the Age of Enlightenment, Rococo was a dominant style in visual arts, architecture, applied arts, and interior décor, turning the pompous Baroque into pleasantly light, lovely and domestic: the domain of female patrons and even female artists, like Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun and Angelica Kauffman. The Rococo style is dualistic with its split between masculine and feminine, frivolous and sober, immoral and moral, and in that it is both private and aristocratic, public and accessible. Rococo art was an anti-style with a palette and a type of brushwork all its own, rejecting the grandeur of the Baroque and aiming to simply please the wealthy spectators with its fleshy and witty eroticism, the art of sexual allure rather than solemn instruction as to duty and country. During the Enlightenment, many of the French free-thinkers began to exploit erotic art and mass-produced erotic illustrations as a medium of social criticism and satire. Libertine erotica with its explicit imagery was a subversive social commentary and often targeted the Catholic Church and general attitudes of sexual repression. A Rococo period existed in music history (composers: Jean Philippe Rameau, Louis-Claude Daquin and Francois Couperin in France, and C.P.E. Bach and Johann Christian Bach in Germany), though it is not as well-known as the earlier Baroque and later Classical forms, the latter dominated by principal composers of the Enlightenment: Franz Joseph Haydn (“Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet”), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven, the founders of “Viennese School” of Classical style in music.

In the Main Gallery of the Harcourt House Artist Run Centre, Heather Passmore’s exhibition “Enlightenment”, discusses various aspects of the Age of Enlightenment with its libertarian society, classical music, 18th century sexual liberalism (“First Sexual Revolution”) and explicit, erotic illustrations from that epoch – as a medium for social criticism and satire.

Heather Passmore: About “Enlightenment” – Exhibition Statement:

During a collaboration residency at Malaspina Printmakers in Vancouver, I created a series of ten prints that combine photo-lithography and acrylic paint on found, hand-notated sheet music manuscripts. The works re-present pornographic prints by anonymous illustrators of the Enlightenment era and are printed on hand-written music manuscripts of the same epoch. Most of these found manuscripts belong to various instrumental parts of “Serenade” Op. 3/5 for String Quartet in F major by Franz Joseph Haydn – a prominent 18th century Austrian composer (a friend to Mozart, teacher of Beethoven, and a “Father of Symphony and String Quartet”), and one of the founders of Classical style in music. I then created a series of six interactive wall-hung works, each featuring two hand-cranked music boxes.

Hand-cranked musical snuff boxes were especially popular during the Enlightenment era. The original snuff boxes were tiny containers that could fit into a gentleman’s waistcoat pocket. Although scaled in size so as to bring the viewer/player into intimate complicity with themselves and the pornographic prints, my interactive works are constructed using a special type of hardwood that resonates fully in the large space of the gallery. Each music box combines Haydn’s “Serenade” with another well-known piece of classical music. Music boxes function by means of a revolving metal drum with pins that are struck by a stationary metal comb. When a drum and comb from different tunes are combined, I discovered that it was still possible to distinguish both tunes at once. With each chance meeting between six songs, I found the resulting dissonance to be pleasingly humorous, contemporary, playful and irreverent.

Michel Foucault – a 20thcentury French philosopher, historian of ideas, and a social theorist – explains that all periods of history possess specific underlying conditions of truth that constitute what can be expressed as discourse. Although the age of the libertine is the only period in early modern history that shares the sexual liberalism of our own, my research of erotic prints circulated in that era reveals a number of fundamental differences to modern pornography – namely a great emphasis on humour and fertility. The French and British bourgeoisie of the era of Enlightenment constituted most of the market for these mass-produced, inexpensive works. Giacomo Casanova’s 4550 pages autobiography “Histoire de ma Vie” is one of the most authentic sources of customs and norms of European life in the 18th Century. Although I enjoyed reading all twelve of these volumes, it is the imagery of that period which I find more effective as a counterpoint to mainstream sexual imagery.

Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s book “The Origins of Sex – A History of the First Sexual Revolution” (2012) is a detailed historical analysis of sexuality in the era of Enlightenment in relation to the Medieval, Victorian, and contemporary periods. He explains that humour of an earthy ‘nature’ was a central aspect of sexuality during the Enlightenment era. Pornography of that era often depicts bawdiness and humour with opulence and grandeur (an unusual intersection between taste and class is also revealed by several prostitutes of that period who themselves became respected celebrities and sat for formal portraits in oils). In contrast to contemporary pornography – especially that depicting degrading situations – narrative sexual scenes of pornography in the era of Enlightenment are presented more for the purpose of making fun of human desires, foibles and weaknesses within the realm of sexuality rather than as sexual stimulation per se. Other prints simply celebrate sexuality with garlanded penises floating around a vagina that radiates beams of light outwards like the sun, with winged dildos dancing with women, whilst another woman uses a penis to play music on a lyre which is itself constructed of phalluses. The 18th century pornography incorporates many different elements of fanciful whimsy and self-reflexive ribaldry.

This naturalism within the realm of enlightenment libertinage also includes putti as a decorative element within the image. Both profane and sacred, their iconography is perhaps deliberately unfixed. The same image may contain secular cupids, sacred cherubs, or mortal babies. My series includes women having intercourse while breastfeeding or rocking a crib. That a woman nurturing new life might also be blatantly lustful is a powerful merger of two cultural disparates: Madonna and Whore. Other works depict children who mock adult sexuality. Games and music are often presented as adjuncts to pleasure, but it is fertility and humour that is prominently absent from contemporary sexual representation in mainstream pornography. I intend my project to question these absences from contemporary assumptions and expectations of erotic imagery. The ability to undertake this challenging subject matter is very important to me as a woman and, especially, relevant to me as a woman currently breastfeeding my first child. Although pornography is contentious, I believe that the representation of historical sexual imagery is critically important in a number of ways that are necessary and effective to a new critique of contemporary pornography and pan-historical epistemologies of sexuality.

Heather Passmore Biography:

Heather Passmore is a contemporary artist based in Vancouver, Canada. Her practice reconfigures painting, drawing, printmaking and photography with socio-historically laden materials. Heather’s artworks frequently intersect environmental and social justice issues. For the past twelve years she has exhibited extensively in major solo and group exhibitions across Canada and internationally. Heather has engaged in a number of international artist residencies and executed several public artworks in Europe. Her work is held in both private and official public collections.

Artist Statement:

My practice generally incorporates quotidian and discarded materials with painting, drawing, printmaking and photography. I work across a variety of media as needed. My projects frequently intersect social justice and environmental issues using materials which bear histories of taste and accumulations of labour. These include illegal milk from community supported agriculture, linoleum from demolished Vancouver real estate, used t-shirts, old mattresses, yarn, spray-paint, pornography, and form letters I have received from the art world. I seek to connect viewers to ascribed hierarchies of value through the use of various socio-historically laden materials.

My work often registers the potential for critical autonomy outside the realm of elite art. Here I investigate how leisurely modes of insight outside bourgeois categories of value may harbour disalienating potential through a general will to knowledge, self- representation, and creativity. I strive to nuance my considerations rather than reassert a dichotomy between high and the low taste. Many of my projects extend the notion of art as an everyday category of experience and popular practice in radical misalignment with consumer culture. I often re-valuate media in order to highlight certain quotidian experiences and practices as potential sites of consciousness-raising, if only as a reconfiguration of unwanted material bearing the broken utopian promise of the commodity.

Discomfort with the nexus of art, power, and knowledge leaves me keen to undermine art as a sphere remote from those without the requisite privileges for access. My artwork often displays concern with its own assumption of cultural value. As a prestigious realm of knowledge and culture, I see art functioning in part to legitimate and perpetuate uneven distributions of cultural power and authority. I am especially interested in the gender dimension to these politics.

Heather Passmore acknowledges the generous support of the British Columbia Arts Council for this project.