The human body is one of the single most universal topics around. Everyones gotta have one. Our physical forms have been an item of interest for all of time. Depictions of humans have been in art as long as there has been humans and art. Overtime the way we depict the form has changed with cultural standards and new waves of thought. The first depictions of humans were very abstracted and serve fairly specific ritual purposes. Over time themes arose. To the greeks art was focused on the ideal human. The Romans used representative are to display power and conquest. In the middle ages monks often depicted themselves writing in tomes. With the growth of society and social norms and rules started to dominate the art world. Women were often depicted as emotional and weak. If not the damsel women were displayed as erotic and sexual. With more modern thinking, how women were portrayed in art was questioned and more and more. Emotions, societal issues, and sexuality are all hot topic is more recent times. This exhibition explores a chronological view of works that show the worlds ever changing view of bodies and the way we as a society interact with them and what they mean to the individual.
8 Brazilian Paintings Albert Eckhout 1641 oil on canvas Even though theses paintings look like scientific illustrations they use a visual language similar to Northern Renaissance. This style is characterized by extreme detail and symbolism. Meaning is hidden throughout each one. Each of the paintings is carefully laid out to depict characteristics of each of the figures represented. For instance the painting of the mamelucca woman depicts her holding a basket of flowers, this is a reference to Flora a goddess of fertility and flowers and often a symbol of prostitutes. The guinea pigs to the right are also symbols of fertility. These combined with a seductive expression show how the Dutch viewed these women, as sexual objects. With a focus on skin tone and emphasizing specific racial features it is clear that these paintings are meant to mark the groups as lesser than the whites colonizing Brazil at the time. Categorizing people by skin color had just become popular this seems to correlate directly with the Western world's push to colonization. In a way these categorizations are to rationalize the enslavement and mistreatment of any peoples that aren't white. These paintings serve as grim reminders that skin tone could decide how "human" someone is, and the subjugation of peoples fueled only by greed.
The Greek Slave Hiram Powers 1843 carved serravezza marble A direct study of ancient Greek and Roman venuses, Powers's statue tells a story of a beautiful Greek woman enslaved by the Turks after the Greek revolution. Her servitude depict with the chains that bind her wrists, and her devotion to god shown by a small cross dangling just below her hand. Powers, being an American artist, tugs at Western heartstrings and values of freedom, by showing a devout young woman torn from her dignity without her consent. This seems contradictory considering the U.S. didn't abolish slavery for another 25 years. This directly implies the values of freedom were only for white christians. Due to the values at the time women's bodies were also seen as taboo. The only possible way for Powers to "get away" with such a racy depiction was to show the woman as unwilling. He even published a statement so his use of nudity wouldn't give the wrong impression. "The Slave has been taken from one of the Greek Islands by the Turks, in the time of the Greek revolution….Her father and mother, and perhaps all her kindred, have been destroyed by her foes, and she alone preserved as a treasure too valuable to be thrown away. She is now among barbarian strangers…and she stands exposed to the gaze of the people she abhors, and awaits her fate with intense anxiety, tempered indeed by the support of her reliance upon the goodness of God. Gather all these afflictions together, and add to them the fortitude and resignation of a Christian, and no room will be left for shame."
Olympia Edward Manat 1863 oil on canvas When Olympia was debuted there was much out cry and distain by the general public. Painted with flat colors and loose brush strokes many believed that she looked dirty and ugly. The west, prudish at the time, was horrified by her nakedness as well. In more traditional paintings women area represented in a similar way but there are subtle (to the modern eye) differences that caused such a stir. When depicted nude are supposed to be goddesses not simple prostitutes. To imply this artist would use symbols like flowers to represent Flora as well as beautiful modeling and idealization of the form to make the woman more goddess-like. In many of these painting the women have seductive expressions and are often touching themselves in sexual ways. This is something Olympia is very much lacking. With the startled cat at her feet and stern expression Olympia looks less than pleased to see the visiter who has entered. Her hand, while still touching her genitals, is pressed down in a way that seems more like she is covering herself rather than inviting the viewer to look there. With these details we see that this is Manet's rejection of traditional painting. Instead of using pleasant dramatic lighting and thinly veiled erotic messages, Manet opts for a momentary view into a prostitutes life. While maybe not Manet's intention this painting also can represent a rejection of the underlying sexualization of women in traditional painting disguised only to make the viewer feel less "icky" about themselves.
Cut Piece Yoko Ono 1964 Cut Piece is a performance piece where Ono sits on the floor expressionless. The attendees are provided with a script saying to cut her clothing anywhere they wished and for as long as they wished. There are points during the piece where you can tell Ono is very uncomfortable and nervous despite her neutral expression. Buy her own explanation Ono describes this performance as an act of giving and taking. It is the selfless type of giving practiced in Buddhism, giving even though you might not want to. What is most interesting is the progression of snipping throughout the piece. In the beginning, the cuts are hesitant and at the edges of her cloths. However, as time progresses the cuts get deeper and more and more is taken off. This continues until finally a man cuts her entire undershirt off as well as snipping her bra straps, concluding the piece. Over the duration of the piece the consideration for Ono's decency flys out the window and she is seen more as an object by the end. Her body ends up being at the mercy of the attendees.
The Broken Column Frida Khalo 1944 While Khalo's "The Broken Column" doesn't relate to the social view of the body it relates to one's own experience of their body and the pain it can cause. Khalo was in a very severe accident when she was young causing her a life of surgery and pain. This painting was done right after a spinal surgery. The landscape depicted is desolate with big scratches gouged out of the ground this speaks to her emotional state at the time, torn. Her spine has been replaced by a shattered column. Her body is encased by a cage of braces and pierce by nails all over. Despite a seemingly neutral expression tears are streaming down her face. The whole painting shows Khalo's mental and physical state during this period. Using the objects fused to her body Khalo expresses the physical pain she is in as well as the feeling of being trapped and limited by her own body.
Guerrilla Girls Billboard Guerrilla Girls 1989 The Guerrilla Girls are a group of anonymous feminist artist that use a bright pop style to bring attention to important issues. Using traditional painting called The Grand Odalisque . The Grand Odalisque depicts a nude woman in a harem looking cheekily behind her on her bed of fine silks. Besides being very erotic and sexual the image also makes this woman exotic by her surroundings and therefore more desirable. By using this painting as a parallel between the message physically on the board intensifies the meaning. The actual numbers presented are astounding as well and fully show the over sexualization of women's bodies and the general trend to see them as less than. The gorilla head on the woman from the Odalisque almost inducts her as one of their own. This humanizes the female nudes in the Met showing them to have the same values as the Guerrilla Girls. Overall the image is also very minimal and striking making the message very clear. This seems to be an intentional reversal of stereotypically female behavior which tends to be more subtle. The firm directness along with the feminine colors conjures a new image of women, strong, independent and humorous.
The Preying Mantra Wangechi Mutu 2006 Preying Mantra speaks to the over sexualization of specifically black woman. Using clippings from magazines in the collage to depict a woman like figure reclining under some trees. Her pose is reminiscent of pinup girls, a notoriously sexy group. The cloth beneath her is recognizable as a Kuba cloth speaking to her African connections. The use of collage and bright colors dehumanizes the figure and makes her seem other worldly this coordinates with the general view of black woman as exotic and something to be ogled. Mutu also creates a comparison to a preying mantis using the name of the piece. The figures crossed legs seems visually similar to the arms of a mantis. This implies a danger to the figure. The name could also flipped to mean someone preying on mantra. This implies a venerability to the figure. These seemingly contradictory meanings could also allude to the balance required to be a respected woman, act more dominantly and be seen as over domineering, act less forceful and be viewed as weak.
Behind the Myth of Benevolence Titus Kaphar 2014 In this painting Kaphar depicts a famous portrait of Thomas Jefferson wrinkled and draped like a curtain over another painting. The second painting shows a black woman as if she is bathing. Besides acting as a a physical barrier between the woman and the world the portrait of Jefferson is a metaphor for the the great deeds and and values most people believe of him shielding his lesser know actions. Jefferson was known to have had relationships and children with his slaves. Many will defend his actions saying it was common at the time and that he treated his slaves well. This however does not change the fact that these women were slaves, they were his property and had no choice in the matter. No matter how nicely he treated them this does not excuse the fact that he infringed on basic human rights. However, this doesn't mean that all well regarded figures should be perfect. Instead they should be represent as whole human beings warts and all. It would be more beneficial to show the growth of human kind by understand that we are a complex group and nothing is just as it appears.
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2. Folland, T. (2015, December 5). Édouard Manet, Olympia. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://smarthistory.org/edouard-manet-olympia/
3. Harris, S. (n.d.). Wangechi Mutu, Preying Mantra. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art- history/global-contemporary/a/wangechi-mutu-preying-mantra
4. Seiferle, R. (2017, March 2). The Guerrilla Girls Artworks & Famous Art. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://www.theartstory.org/artist-guerrilla-girls-artworks.htm
5. The Broken Column. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://www.learner.org/courses/globalart/work/57/index.html
6. Valentine, V. L. (2018, March 28). National Portrait Gallery: Titus Kaphar and Ken Gonzales-Day Explore 'UnSeen' Narratives in Historic Portraiture. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://www.culturetype.com/2018/03/28/titus-kaphar-and-ken-gonzales-day-explore-unseen-narratives-in-historic-portraiture-in-new-national-portrait-gallery-exhibition/
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8. Zygmont, B. (2018, January 24). Hiram Powers, The Greek Slave. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://smarthistory.org/hiram-power-greek-slave/