Rachel Maclean: Cutting Up the Canon of Art History

Rachel Maclean

A common feminist critique of the history of art is that it’s a male dominated canon; the timeline of art history studded with ‘old masters’, rather than noted mistresses. As multimedia artist Rachel Maclean contends, throughout art history ‘artists are represented as men and very often the images they make are of women, or of women’s bodies’, these pictures produced through the lens of – and for the delectation of – the male gaze.

In this talk, Maclean describes the ways in which her film Make Me Up (2018) responds to and unsettles this traditional story of art.

Sign up or Login to comment and join the discussion.

I would like people to be unsettled by my work.

The work I make is, kind of broadly speaking, about identity. Up until recently I’ve been the only character in my work. So, I dress up in elaborate costume and make-up and I transform myself into different often kind of grotesque, surreal characters.



I feel, therefore I am.


I largely work in green screen creating worlds that seem kind of synthetic and otherworldly, seductive but hopefully a little bit unsettling too.

I studied painting but, probably about a couple of years in, started making videos, but I’m still really inspired by painting. And because I work with green screen, it’s almost like the way that you can bring moving image into more like a painting practice, in that you shoot characters but then you make the backgrounds afterwards. And you have this control over light, and this control over an environment, which can make it feel painterly in that sense that paintings are not real often, scales and the kind of situations that people are placed within a painting are invented or constructed and I think that’s the nice thing for me – what attracted me to green screen – was the ability to take a painting practice and almost apply it to the moving image,.

There’s very obvious references to paintings in all of my work.

Make Me Up is my longest film yet and I guess responds in lots of ways to art history. The work follows a character Siri who you see kind of birthed almost Pygmalion-like into this world – it seems partly like a nunnery but also partly like a kind of reality TV show. She’s brought into a congregation of women who are being put through these tasks, where if you fail a task you just kind of drop through the floor. And gradually, along with her, you understand the darker underpinnings of the world.



One can see she must once have been a beauty.


Leading the congregation is this character, played by me, who speaks entirely with the voice of Kenneth Clarke from the 1960s BBC series Civilsation.



Looking at those great works of Western

[Kenneth Clark from Episode 1 of Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark]

man, and remembering all that he’s


achieved in philosophy,

[Kenneth Clark from Episode 1 of Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark]

poetry, science, law-



[Kenneth Clark from Episode 1 of Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark]
it does seem hard to believe that euro-


pean civilisation could ever vanish. And yet, you know, it has happened once.


And I was interested, I guess through Kenneth Clark, in looking at the canon of art history



The great religious art of the world, in every country, is deeply involved with the female principle.


And the extent of which, definitely in Civilisation, artists are represented as men and very often the images they make are of women, or of women’s bodies.

The image of the Rokeby Venus, of Velasquez, in The National Gallery, is really kind of a powerful image.And I think it still resonates today, that sense of a painting which it is in effect pornographic, or it’s an objectified image of a woman for the male gaze.

And it’s powerful because of the incident of Mary Richardson, the suffragette, slashing it.

The idea of kind of slashing, or destroying, that as an act of terrorism to me is quite exciting. And I think that, especially given that we live in such a visual culture, and so much of the way that we receive information is through images, I that I think that that sense of a history communicated through a visual act to me is powerful.

I wanted Make Me Up to explicitly look at the gaze, and the male gaze, and I think you’ve got this problem I guess as a female filmmaker or artist, where you’re dealing with a history of cinema that has been defined by the male gaze. And it’s how you escape that in the way that you make work, or how you can make work that seems kind of liberated from that. In the work, there’s these little cameras that follow the women that look like kind of cute eyes, that just seem to be a system of control that’s watching and monitoring their behavior. And I like that idea of having this slightly cutesy representation of the male gaze on the screen as well as dealing with it as a female filmmaker.

I think selfie culture and social media culture comes up quite a lot in my work.


[Siri pre-transformation]

Hi guys! Welcome back to my channel. So, I’ve got a surprise! I’m getting plastic surgery! *squeal*


It’s quite a complex thing because selfies are self-representation and very often internet stars are women, are young women, and there’s something empowering about I guess representing yourself, not being represented by somebody else, which is so much of what art history is, is men representing women. Nonetheless, a lot of selfies and a lot of social media stars conform quite anxiously to a homogenised idea of beauty. I spent quite a long time watching all these videos of YouTube stars going to get identical looking nose jobs. There’s something exciting about the selfie but there’s also something kind of sad about seeing the extent of which I think women, and I’m sure myself included, internalise misogyny and you don’t need somebody else to represent you for you to be able to represent something which essentially is designed for the male gaze.

I’m interested in the infantilization of the adult world…



Look at me!


… the culture around cute, and I think that in some ways contemporary life is obsessed with cuteness and cuteness has invaded the adult world. Consumerism, consumer capitalism, sort of depends upon cuteness. I was looking quite a lot at adult onesies, google image search always has a cute little animation. We’re all sending each other like emojis, and there’s the snapchat kind of filters, this sense of, I don’t know, an escapism through cute imageries, or a sense of nostalgia to childhood. I think that’s a childhood that’s not the reality of childhood, it’s a childhood in the adult imagination. Like Teletubby land, it’s this kind of Day-Glo utopia that seems completely sealed off from the adult world. I’m think this idea of us protecting children is often not really protecting children, it’s protecting our idea of what childhood is and an idea of what a child should be.

All my work is interested in power.



Feed my sheep!


And there’s an obvious connection between voice and power where if you have a voice then you have power and if your voiceless, you’re powerless. I take on the voices often of powerful people and mime their voice – often shifting the context or shifting the meaning through how I present them and how I present the world that they’re in. To me there’s something quite cheeky about taking the voice of a powerful figure and using that to talk about their power or to explore the problems of the way that kind of power is manifest.



What is civilisation? I don’t know…


A voice like Kenneth Clark’s, he’s a very powerful figure and I think his legacy is still very powerful. I wanted that to be quite, I guess, an obvious fact of the film that the women, for the most part, the congregation of women can’t speak. And as part of their kind of liberation they get their voices back.


[Alexa sings Ethel Smyth’s The March of the Women, 1910]

Comrades — ye who have dared

First in the battle to strive and sorrow!

Scorned, spurned — nought have ye cared,

Raising your eyes to a wider morrow…


And there’s a sort of cacophony of voices at the end that’s taken from all sorts of different sources but all female voices talking about…


[Woman’s voice]

You know what it is right?

[Young girl’s voice]



… different angles on feminism.


[Young girl’s voice]

Our feminist women did not do that for us girls and us boys, we would not be like we are right now.

[Woman’s voice]

And that being translated means that men do not like women, unless they are childish, deferring and submissive.


Hopefully for an audience it’s quite an exciting thing to see, that kind of restraint and to see this almost release of voices, and the power that comes with that.


[Congregation sings Ethel Smyth’s The March of the Women, 1910]

Life, strife—those two are one,

Naught can ye win but by faith and daring!


I like in my work using comedy, I think particularly as a woman.


[Women’s voice]

What about these women and girls that go around burning their bras, what do you think of that?

[Women’s voice]

I mean those girls are beautiful, any girl that wants to be naked, guys get to show their titties on the beach, why can’t we?


I think women have kind of been denied funniness for so long…


[Women’s voice]

What do you think of that?

[Women’s voice]

Ooh, I think that’s awful!


… because there’s a power in comedy, and so much of the history of comedy has been men making jokes often at the expense of women and I think the fear of female comedy is that women are going to make jokes at the expense of men.


[Women’s voice]

Boring woman!

[Women’s voice]

Is he pestering you?


I think there’s something for me that’s subversive, and we’re still not quite used to as a culture, the idea of women being funny.

I hope that my films unsettle perspectives maybe on art history, ways that we look at gender, ways that we approach popular culture.


[Woman’s voice]

You want me to play? You want me to go down your red carpet and be your fucking barbie doll? I’ll be your fucking barbie doll. You wanna play? Let’s go.

With thanks to

Rachel Maclean Studio

The National Gallery, London

Zabludowicz Collection




Illustrated London News

The National Gallery, London



Audio Network




Make Me Up
Written, Designed, Edited and Directed by Rachel Maclean, 2018
84 mins, film
Produced by Hopscotch Films with NVA, Make Me Up is a major commission for the BBC, Creative Scotland and 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation, the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, and by the Department of Digital, Culture Media and Sport. Make Me Up is part of Represent, a series of works inspired by the Representation of the Peoples Act 1918.


Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark
Episode 1: The Skin of Our Teeth
First broadcast 23 February 1969


The Toilet of Venus
(‘The Rokeby Venus’)
Diego Velázquez, 1647-1651
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


The Actual Damage Done to The Rokeby “Venus”
by the Suffragette with a Chopper
Illustrated London News, 14 March 1914

Rachel Maclean, Official Website

The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’)’, The National Gallery

Rokeby Venus: The painting that shocked a suffragette’, Magazine Monitor, BBC News, 10 March 2014

Suffragette Slashes the Rokeby Venus (Mary Richardson’s speech)’, The British Newspaper Archive, 10 March 2014

Victoria Ibbett, ‘Fighting for Representation’, ART UK, 8 March 2016

Alastair Sooke, ‘Was Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation really all that good?’, The Telegraph, 25 February 2018

Janice Loreck, ‘Explainer: what does the ‘male gaze’ mean and what about a female gaze?’, The Conversation, 5 January 2017

Recently Watched

Watch Next Video

Isabel Rawsthorne Rediscovered: The Poetry in Things

Isabel Rawsthorne Rediscovered: The Poetry in Things 17:36 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Curator Carol Jacobi shines a light on the career of artist Isabel Rawsthorne (1912 – 1992), “a missing link of 20th century art”.

Surrealism: Imagining A New World

Surrealism: Imagining A New World 8:17 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Why did Surrealism appeal to artists across the world?

Ben Street: How to Enjoy Art

Ben Street: How to Enjoy Art 15:32 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Is specialist knowledge needed to enjoy and understand art?