Wednesday, April 7

Women as Subject of the Visual Arts

By Prof. Elvira Buencamino-Bautista (nanay ko), Department of Philosophy and Humanities, CAS Manila

The different presentations of women in the visual arts seem to ask the female role in the present society, according to what is human in the global culture.

Though we can count with our fingers the few women artists in the visual arts, we would not be able to keep track of the number of masterpieces inspired by women. Among these masterpieces include the Venus, Mona Lisa, Saskia, Bathsheba, UE's own Lualhati, Lolly, Marisa, Marlyn and many other anony­mous women.

Perhaps, the earliest of these works were the statues of women discovered in Willendorf, Austria around 25,000 to 20,000 B.C. Hundreds of these statues, measuring 4 3/8 inches and made of stone, mammoth ivory or terra cotta, were discovered. This image was popularly called Venus of Willen­dorf, but many believe that the appellation is improper because the icon is too small and ugly. It shows an obese woman with exaggerated breasts, abdomen, hips and thighs and a homely spherical head. This could be part of the abstract concept of the creative and imaginative, if primitive, artist who might have also been a woman. Early tradition reveals that these figures were fertility idols used during rituals of child birth, as a guardian or for the purpose of magic. As a collection, it encompasses the different stages of a female and her development to womanhood from birth, adolescence, pregnancy, childbirth to death. Simply called the Sculpture of a Woman, many of these sculptures are displayed at the national historical museum of Austria.

Aphrodite, in Greek mythology, goddess of  love and beautv. is the first lifelike statue that shows the female figure in three-dimensional form. Her nude figure stands by a huge vase; and with the towel in her left hand suggests that she could be on her way to a bath or was just out of the bath. Since temples in the past were open spaces, this free-standing mas­terpiece can then be viewed from a different perspective, a product of the genius of Praxiteles, who came up with this complex composition.

Sandro Boticelli's The Birth of Venus is a celebration of the birth of a fully developed woman. Venus is shown being brought by the wind in the sea coast and tossed in a storm of roses with the help of the two lovers, Zephyr and Chloris, while a courtmaid holding her clothes prepares to meet her. Her elegant pose in this painting is based on old statues. Her beauty is heightened by the fall and softness of her wind-blown hair-inspiring an unintended depth in meaning when the neo-Platonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino expressed, Venus is humanities, her soul and mind is love and giving, her eyes are dignity and humility. Most of all, Venus is the source of love whose statue is likened to the Blessed Virgin Mary or an altar saint.

Perhaps the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is the most popular portrait in the history of art. But according to those who have actually seen this masterpiece, it was not impressive because it has yellowed with age and there is a glass that covers and protects the painting. It has also lost what in the 15th century had inspired Vasari to write, The nose, beautiful and pinkish and lifelike. The mouth with its red lips was full of life.

Da Vinci's masterpiece has been a model of many portraits and, like his other paintings, it was based on the shape of a triangle. The Mona Lisa portrait is a triumph of the hands used serenely as an expression of a personality in the portrait tradition. Even during the Renaissance period, its enigmatic appeal tickled the imagination. Seemingly, it is not fully a woman or a man; its expression of contentment in one's self could possibly be due to a blurred effect on the sides of the lips and the eyes, which adds to its charm. We may not feel at ease with the absence of its eyebrows or the lady's very prominent forehead but those features were the beauty marks of the period. One would also feel the lack of alignment between the horizon line on the left side of the picture and the right side that shows nature in the distant trees, craggy hills and streams. But the most startling aspect would be the direct gaze of Mona Lisa to anyone who would look at her. To a woman in those times, this was uncommon because in the old book of etiquette, a woman should never stare directly at any man. These are among the mysteries behind the Mona Lisa painting that delights many viewers.

The way Rubens and Rembrandt interpreted women in their paintings shows that they were different from other artists. One would find that they preferred amply endowed females, moving a large woman, after seeing the works of these two artists, to say that it was the only time she felt happy with her own body. To Scott Russel Sanders, the pin-ups and mannequins of today are treated like sexual objects or playthings, while the way Rembrandt and Rubens' women were painted look as if the artists were gazing at women they love. Sanders concluded that this should teach men how they should look at women.

The newer ways of painting women had greatly changed from the past, with artists playing with obscurity and distortion as the figures of Marcel Duchamp in Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. The Nude shows "multiple exposures" in one frame,
presenting an image, that connotes fast motion, and it's difficult to tell if the subject is a woman. In the case of Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (Women of Avignon), the women are, in my view, like flat squares that were hammered and then straightened, with some looking like they put on African masks.

Some Filipino artists also reveal marked appreciation for beautiful women. Simon Flores y de la Rosa's young mothers possess delicate and virginal faces. Fernando Amor solo's young women are tall, slim and mestizas as shown in Cooking Under the Mango Tree, Pounding Rice, Labandera and Mag-anak. Victorio Edades' young maiden, whether the Poinsettia Girl or the Country Girl is exotic. The University of the East Alma Mater statue, Lualhati, is a heartwarming sight with her welcoming arms, as interpreted by sculptor Guillermo Tolentino. And who would not be delighted to be painted as lovely, confident and sophisticated as the pastel portraits of modern "Mona Lisas" like Lolly, Marisa or Marlyn by contemporary artist Gig Complete de Pio.

The different presentations of women in the visual arts seem to ask the female role in the present society, according to what is human in the global culture. Would it be the Willendorf statue of a woman as a giver of life? Or -would it be the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman/Italian Venuses as symbols of love and ideal beauty? Or would it be the Mona Lisa as a confident woman? How about Saskia, Bathsheba and other beloved women? Women who make the world go round? Or do women have to assume the local artists' definition of the female as paragon of beauty, industry and virtue? By synthesizing these different female attributes of different periods and traditions, perhaps we could come out with a model of a woman that would fit the new challenges that humanity needs to face today and in the days to come.

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