Gazing at “Claques”: A Feminist Reading of Sickert’s Ada Lundberg

Something I particularly love about literary criticism is the ability to close read texts through  different critical theories and unearth distinct meanings with each lens. While the nebulousness of meaning can be frustrating for many theory students, I enjoy seeing what unlikely relationships may emerge through critical reading.

In class today, we briefly touched on Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze and did a short reading of Walter Sickert’s illustrations of Ada Lundberg. When we view these images through a feminist critical lens we can see how they turn the unidirectional and hegemonic gaze of the audience on itself and into an uncomfortable critique of the role of the audience.

However, these men may not be audience at all – instead, they may be “claques”, a group of men hired to applaud performers, particularly in Paris.

The uncomfortable proximity this image takes in connection with the claques’ focus on the female performer in the foreground can be read as a redistribution of power: the female figure isn’t a passive recipient of the male gaze, but rather she powerfully and consciously constructs her world by acknowledging the male gaze and then using it to further her career.

Sickert’s art admires this power, but questions the loyalty and grotesque single-mindedness of the male audience in their subjugation to a woman.

While feminist criticism came to prominence long after the creation of these images (and so I can’t say that this is truly the artist’s intention), I appreciate the opportunity that critical theory provides in unearthing unique relationships inside and among texts.

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Sickert, Walter.Bonnet et Claque: It all comes from sticking to a soldier” 1887. Oil on canvas, 41.9 x 59.7. Private Collection.
Sickert, Walter. “Ada Lundberg.” The Yellow Book 2 (July 1894): 225. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2010. Web. 19 October 2020.