Saturday, February 13, 2010

Paintings of women from Rubens til today

1879,Bouguereau,The Birth of Venus1435, Botticelli, The Birth of Venus

I find the contrast between Bouguereau's Birth of Venus and Boticelli's fascinating.  In Boticelli's from 1435, the accompanying people/spirits are concerned for her welfare.  The one is bringing her a blanket.  The two on the left appear to be blowing the breath of life into her, or perhaps drying her off.  They are dressed.  In Bouguereau's from 1879, it looks more like some other beauty has come to join the orgy.  The other figures are paired male/female, even the little girl angel is draped over the boy angel's lap.  And she is standing there full exposed, not like Botticelli's Venus who covers her breasts and pubic area demurely.  Botticelli's Venus looks a bit awkward.  Bouguereau's is flaunting her stuff!  I wonder what that says about women in the different eras?
1880, Eugene Emmanuel Amaury Duval, 1880, The Birth of Venus

This Venus's pose is very similar to Bouguereau's, and it's done 1 year later.  Neither of these beauties has much extra flesh the way Botticelli's does.  Their bellies are flat.

Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) is one of the most famous pieces of French art and arguably one of the most influential... Nearly a century and a half after it was made, the painting remains enigmatic: we feel as if we are intruding on a scene in which we have absolutely no idea what is going on. Two men, dressed in fashionable Parisian clothing, sit with a stark naked woman, their picnic tossed aside. The man on right appears to be communicating with the others, but they seem to be ignoring him. The woman looks directly out at us, the viewer; the other man gazes off into space; the woman bathing in the background is all but forgotten. 

What was so shocking about Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe? It was not the first time a female nude had been depicted with clothed men, although the woman’s pose, which reveals little to the viewer except that she is naked, and direct gaze, which confirms her lack of shame, subverted the Salon’s traditional image of the female nude.  link to this quote

1894, Eduard Munch, Puberty

An interesting depiction of a young woman on the verge of becoming a woman. Much has been written about this piece - that for example the girl was about to be raped, or that the shadow represents the male genitalia. Interesting what people read into things... It's a very different image of a woman than any others we've looked at so far.

1901, Renoir, Reclining Nude
Renoir is extremely famous as one of the Impressionists, but what I didn't know until I read a recent Smithsonian article, is that his later work were almost reviled:
As long ago as 1913, the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt wrote a friend that Renoir was painting abominable pictures “of enormously fat red women with very small heads.” As recently as 2007, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith bemoaned “the acres of late nudes” with their “ponderous staginess,” adding “the aspersion ‘kitsch’ has been cast their way.”  link to quote
Apparently Mary Cassatt didn't like how he portrayed women in his later years!  Perhaps they don't fit her vision of the ideal female form...

Gustav Klimt, Adam and Eve, 1917-18, Medicine, 1900, The Three Stages of Women, 1905
In the early 1900's, painters began to depict the world much differently than they had previously.  No longer did they feel compelled to be as naturalistic and accurate as possible.  The Impressionists had arguably begun that trend.  Gustav Klimt, an Austrian who was part of the Art Nouveau movement, painted many, many women.  Above are three examples.  Eve is a pretty thing, sweet, loved by Adam.  Her shape is not "perfect" by today's standards - her hips are larger than our models are allowed to have.  The woman in Medicine is quite empowered looking.  The women in The Three Stages of Women have pretty realistic-looking bodies - not idealized, especially not the Crone (the old woman).  I find this a moving picture of women throughout life.

The next four images are by Picasso.  I am continuously fascinated by how Picasso painted women.  In one book I read, the author posited that when he first became involved with a woman, he would paint her realistically and quite beautifully.  Later, her form would begin to disintegrate, until finally, after he was done with her, she would be completely broken into pieces, fragmented. 

The first time I went to a Picasso exhibit was in 1982 in Basel, Switzerland.  I had heard that there was an exhibition of Picasso's women so I took the train down there specifically to see it.  I took my journal as was my wont so I could write down my impressions.  I knew very little about Picasso - only that he was the most famous painter ever.  After the first 10-15 paintings, I found myself becoming intensely uncomfortable.  I was starting to notice that the women were depicted horribly.  That wasn't particularly a reaction to cubism - I knew enough to understand that a little bit - more I just had the gut sense that these paintings had been done by a man who hated women at some level.  I was not able to finish looking at the exhibit.   

These images below give a sense of the transition women go through in his paintings at times (though the paintings are not in chronological order - he flip-flopped back and forth depending on what stage he was at with a woman):
1925, Picasso, The Three Graces
1922, Picasso, Two Women Running on the Beach

1907, Picasso, Demoiselles d'Avignon
“In the Demoiselles d’Avignon I painted a profile nose into a frontal view of a face. I had to depict it sideways so that I could give it a name, so that I could call it ‘nose’. And so they started talking about Negro art. Have you ever seen a single African sculpture -- just one -- where a face mask has a profile nose in it?”  Picasso wrote.  1937, Picasso, Weeping Woman
1917, Modigliani, Reclining-Nude-With-Loose-Hair

I found a fascinating quote online about Modigliani's nudes:  
Modigliani's female flesh-coloured tubes with pubic hair caused great scandal at the time when they were first well hung. The public looking through the window of Bertha Weill's gallery, where Modigliani had his first solo exhibition, could see them hanging on the walls. The police were called and - at a time when you'd think they would be far too busy rounding up German spies, French army deserters and groups of carousing British officers from Armentières singing "parlez-vous" and smashing estaminet windows - they actually came. Perhaps as today in Britain they got extra points for giving priority to the indignation-arousing over the dangerous. According to Bertha Weill:

Sunday we hung and Monday 3rd October was the opening. Sumptuous nudes, angular faces. Tasty portraits….A passer-by, curious at how many people were in the gallery, stopped in his tracks. Two passers-by….three passers-by….a crowd together. My neighbour, the police chief, exclaimed "What's this? A nude!...I order you to take all this filth down!"
"What's wrong with these nudes?", I asked
"These nudes….these nudes have p-p-p – pubic hair!....And if my orders are not followed immediately I will have them all seized by my agents".
I cleared the gallery soon after and the guests who were thus imprisoned helped me in taking down the paintings.
[Translated by Kenneth E. Silver, Catalogue]
And now we come to the more modern era...

These are swimsuit ads from the 40's.  What do you think was expected of women at this time?  Very small waists, wide hips, no belly, pointed breasts with no sag, and they should go along with being dragged across the sand - smiling broadly.  These look so uncomfortable, my stomach hurts just looking at them and knowing how tight it would be squeezed if I were wearing it...

More another day...

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