Tuesday Painting – The Surprising Truth About Who You Are (n’t).

Tuesday painting

Hi Friends,

I normally do a Tuesday poem, but today I was inspired to write about art instead, which kind of makes sense…I have a (unused!) PhD in art history, so my thoughts do tend to drift that way much of the time!

I’m reading a book right now called “Generation Me” by Jean M. Twenge which argues that children born in the 70s-00’s are raised to believe in the power of the individual and that the self (like love) conquers all. It’s an interesting read, but the book never raises the intriguing question of what constitutes self-hood for this generation, and I would assume that this is because we just don’t know. After all, our experience of ‘selfness’ is totally subjective. But you wouldn’t think so from the well-worn platitudes lobbed at us every day: ‘know yourself,’ ‘be true to yourself,’ and ‘love yourself for who you are,’ spring instantly to mind. Such Generation Me aligned philosophies imply that we should know who we are, and that if we don’t we’re just not trying hard enough. The result? Stacks of self-help books all over the place and a burgeoning sense of insecurity.

The truth is it’s nigh-on impossible to ever really ‘know yourself’ because who ‘you’ are is so incredibly defined and shaped by context. I have heard myself described as friendly, kind and generous and cold and aloof! I have been described as both tolerant and self-righteous- by the same person! Bosses have alternately seen me as capable and scattered. How is this possible? We forget sometimes that there are gazillions of variables that influence how we are seen, and how we behave. The one that jumps instantly to mind is status, either real or perceived. If you’ve ever seen Undercover Boss you’ll have enjoyed watching the respected and loved CEO who, in ‘normal person’ guise comes across as a nerd, bully, or just plain average. Women are treated very differently to men; one culture has different expectations to another. One person loves our kooky nature and so labels us ‘quirky;’ another person is irritated by it and so labels us ‘weird.’ And then guess what? If we’re around a lot of those sorts of people we’re going to tone things down – another side of ourselves will emerge from its cocoon because, ultimately, we adapt to survive. We like to think that despite different situations and contexts we have a stable core ‘self,’ but I’m not so sure. Rather, I think our sense of self is shaped largely by what is reflected back at us -more nurture than nature. If this reflection is constantly shifting, which it is, then how on earth are we supposed to ‘be true to ourselves?’ It’s a therapist’s nightmare.

Long before Generation Me existed, Picasso puzzled over this problem in “Girl Before A Mirror” (1932). At once a hauntingly beautiful portrait of his mistress, Marie Therese Walter, as well as a meditation on vanity and mortality, there is perhaps more to this work than meets the eye.

Image

Marie is shown contemplating her fate. Her youthful body and made-up face seem to sag and melt, dripping like candle-wax, in the mirror before her. It is a spin on the seventeenth-century Dutch still-life, in which evanescent objects such as flowers and fruit are studded with tiny maggot holes, rotting around the edges. “Ah, you are young and careless now,” these paintings murmur, “but, like this fruit, look at what will happen to you!” Dutch artists weren’t totally callous, however. A reminder of life’s true meaning – religion or knowledge – is depicted in the form of a bible, astrolabe, or other tool of man’s potential. Grasp these, the painter suggests, and all will be well.

Of course, Picasso’s work differs significantly in many ways. It is a painting about a woman’s fate, not a man’s. Moreover, no alternative vision of existence – through study or prayer- is presented. This in itself could be a comment on women’s limited options in the 1930s. Marie is trapped, Narcissus-like, by the limited role she has come to occupy. If a religious object exists in the painting, it is her own body. Her image folds out, like a church diptych. An object of male worship, she is at once prostitute and divine being: a duality that reflects Picasso’s dark prediction of the hellish slide into old age.

If we look at Marie’s face in the mirror, however, she seems to smile warmly. There is a peacefulness about the eyes, her face looks relaxed. A single red tear resembles rather a blur of tribal paint, recollecting a more primal self. Sagging breasts and belly also evoke relaxation: a visual gauntlet thrown down to the “other” Marie, who is expected to be sexual and eventually child-bearing – two states in which both breasts and belly are distended, even “perky.”

For me, this painting is not really about vanity or the horrors of old age. It is about the ‘other’ versions of ourselves that lurk when we look in the mirror. Is this cause for anxiety though? Marie’s arm is gently outstretched to her reflection, literally embracing a darker, sadder, but somehow more liberated self. It’s a striking emblem of acceptance, not just of how others see her, but of how she sees herself. May we all be so bold…

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Every Woman Should Learn to Love Art…

First off, I was nominated for a Liebster Award! Woot! However, I need time to construct a half-decent, non-garbled response, so I’m going to save that for another day.

Today I am in a garbling mood, so I’m going to have a little blather…about natural beauty, and how art can inspire us on this front.

Some of you may know that I have another blog. It’s called Dial the Lobster, and it’s about art, life, and philosophical musings. Before I became a teacher I was an art historian, with a PhD and everything (!). I didn’t love it too much, but I do love art, and I still love to write about it.

For women, art can be especially useful. It’s a wonderful antidote to all of those awful air-brushed images of perfect beauty that appear in magazines, not to mention the gorgeously made-up ladies that grace our TV screens. Great artists have a way of capturing a woman’s inner beauty that photography (IMHO) struggles to do – even really good photography. And whilst it’s true that the history of art is generally also a history of the male gaze, I feel that the selection I’m presenting today depicts women in a truthful, sensitive light, compared to many contemporary, ‘promotional’ images (and isn’t that half the problem? That so many images of women today are promotional, be they on instagram feeds, or billboards?) So I’m taking a break from product reviews (because I also want this blog to be a support system for women in a more general way) to present to you a few paintings of women who are beautiful in ways which have nothing to do with their ‘outer’ beauty and everything to do with character, strength, grace, vulnerability…in essence, their humanity. If you like this post, let me know…I’m happy to do more like it!

self portrait with monkey

Frida Kahlo “Self-Portrait with Monkey.” I love the bold, almost arrogant gaze Frida projects in the painting. And the monkey suggests a touch of mischief as well.

seated woman with bent knee

Egon Schiele “Seated Woman With Bent Knee.” The title says it all: this isn’t a woman to be ‘adored’ or objectified; this is simply a ‘seated woman’ in control of her own image. I love the contrast of the boldness of her opened legs with her slightly protective, hunched over posture. It captures so well the confusion all women have regarding how we wish to be viewed.

sargent

John Singer Sargent “Ena and Betty: Daughters of Asher and Mrs. Wertheimer.” I love the way Sargent captures the haughty elegance of these sisters, and the differences in their personalities. The lady in white seems more extroverted and self-assured than her sister in red, but they both exude quiet confidence and elegance.

young woman with a water pitcher

Johannes Vermeer ‘Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.” Vermeer was a master of light and interior space, but here the young woman is clearly the focus of the scene. Vermeer sought to elevate the humble to a spiritual level, and I think he captures perfectly the grace and beauty of this servant’s devotion to duty, offset by her very natural desire to gaze out the window at the world beyond.

pieta

Michelangelo. “Pieta.” Now in the Vatican, this incredible sculpture perfectly captures the sense of loss and grief Mary feels, holding her dead son. Her body verges on the brink of collapse, the body seemingly about to slide from her lap, yet she has the strength to cradle him in her arms for a moment.

picasso

Pablo Picasso I love this portrait of Picasso’s model (and lover), Marie, which is sensual in its curviness, yet also portrays Marie as distant and far away from the artist himself; head tilted to one side, eyes closed, as if locked in a private reverie.

woman in a chemise

Pablo Picasso, “Woman In a Chemise.” A very different image here, yet this ghostly woman’s determined face and the stark lines of her body afford her a kind of ‘strength under fire’ beauty which could be consoling in difficult times.