Sebastiao Salgado (Brazilian, b. 1944), Women of the Zo’é village of Towari Ypy, Brazil (2009). black and white photograph.
This exhibition is inspired by Sebastiao Salgado’s black and white photograph of nude women of the Zo’é village of Towari Ypy, Brazil (2009). The focus is on the seven women on the left who are engaged in body painting using urucum—seeds from a Bixa orellana tree—in a sheltered hut made of tree leaves. Applying urucum seeds to the body repels insects and protects the body from the harmful effects of the sun. The seeds may also serve as a beauty potion as women in Salgado’s photograph leisurely apply it to their bodies. The group of women, portrayed in different gestures, adds a rhythmic movement to the photograph. The left to right configuration creates a circular composition.
Self-indulgence of the body evokes vanity, which can be a natural inclination or socially developed rite. Whether it is to please oneself or others, vanity is a narcissistic ritual and a voyeuristic pleasure exists when exposing one’s body.
This exhibition examines the depiction of the female body and vanity over the last few centuries—both Eastern and Western—in an attempt to analyze how the female body and vanity are portrayed in different times and places. It is to question how a woman sees herself, how a woman is seen, and what it means to be a woman. The exhibition showcases a wide variety of mediums, including paintings, photographs, woodblock print, video, and performance art. Half of the selection comes from the 17th century to the end of the 19th century and the other half comes from the 20th century and 21st century. The last image is my own interpretation of the theme.
1. Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669), The Toilet of Bathsheba (1643). Oil on wood, 22 1/2 x 30 inch (57.2 x 76.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.
After seeing her bathing, King David longed for Bathsheba who was married to Uriah. To take Bathsheba as a wife, King David sent Uriah to the frontline of a battlefield to get killed. In the painting, Bathsheba sits in the center surrounded by luxurious jewelries and fabrics while getting nourished by two people. Rembrandt’s use of light highlights Bathsheba’s flesh as if she is on the center stage of a theater. Her eyes slant towards the painter, her translucent cloth covering genitals, her left hand covering of right breast with a gentle touch, the scene provokes sensuality. Bathsheba sits passively as she is being prepared for King David. She is vulnerable to the male gaze and the temptation of a woman’s body and ensuing lust.
2. Yoonbok Shin (Korean, 1758-?), Dan-o-poong-jung (late 18th century). Color on paper, 28.2 x 35.6 cm. Kansong Museum, Seoul, South Korea.
Yoonbok Shin’s painting depicts women’s typical activities on Dan-o Day—May 5th by the lunar calendar (about one month later than the Western calendar). After seed planting is done, on Dan-o Day, Koreans engage in ceremonies to pay respect to ancestors, offering well prepared foods. In return, they ask for a good harvest. There are activities throughout the day, such as swinging and wrestling. Other important activities include women washing their hair with boiled iris leaves and men carrying iris root in their clothes to get rid of bad spirits. Most of this tradition has been lost since the industrialization of the country.
Shin’s painting has a triangular composition. There is a diagonal line for the slope that divides the painting in half. Circular placement of women in the painting is similar to Salgado’s grouping of women in his photograph. On the right, there are eight women engaging in various activities and on the left, there are two young monks hiding behind rocks and watching them. On the bottom left are four women half naked. Three are washing their body and hair in a crouching position while one is standing up, holding her skirt. Perhaps she is looking at the approaching woman carrying a bag of merchandises on top of her head, wondering if there is anything good to buy. The monk on the right is looking at her revealing body.
At the middle of the hill is a woman who is about to swing. She wears the most colorful clothes in the painting and is watched by the monk on the left. The artist captures her in mid-motion and creates a sense of momentum within the painting. Behind her there is a woman with extremely long hair. The gentle brush strokes of streams and short grass on the hill together with a crowned hole in the curved tree symbolize vagina and connote sexuality. Women’s private moment of nourishing their bodies is interrupted by male gaze expressed by the two monks. The painting captures the male audience’s fantasies to watch women’s bathing.
3. Kubo Shunman (Japanese, 1757–1820), Two Women Looking in Mirrors (19th century). Part of an album of woodblock prints (surimono);
ink and color on paper, 8 1/8 x 6 5/8 in. (20.6 x 16.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The mirror and vanity are inseparable. In this painting, there are two Japanese women with three mirrors. The shape of the mirror mimics their faces. A diagonal separation is created by the mirror in the middle that is between the woman that is seated and the woman that is standing. While woman who is standing is checking both the front and back side of herself, the sitting woman is looking up to see either her reflection on the back of the mirror or the reflection of the other woman. The ambiguous use of mirror makes this painting more interesting. These two women probably spent some time grooming themselves and they are in the final stage of checking on their appearance.
The poem written in the painting is translated as; “If you use a mirror which reflects ancient time, that will bring you the flawless virtue of the present emperor.” (Source: The Metropolitan Museum of the Art website) Here the mirror is used as a metaphor for time.
4. Francis William Edmonds (American, 1806–1863), The New Bonnet (1858). Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 1/8 in. (63.5 x 76.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In this painting, a young woman is holding a newly purchased bonnet. She admires it by holding it high, while her parents make distasteful facial expressions from looking at a receipt. The little girl behind her is holding a bonnet case. Everyone is wearing plain clothes except the young woman who is wearing more refined and fashionable clothes. The small room with plain furniture and vegetables on the floor give hint that this is a modest income household. The young woman’s excessive desire for a commodity adds irony to the scene.
5. Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 – 1906), Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (ca. 1894-1905). Oil on canvas, 127.2 x 196.1 cm. The National Gallery, London.
Cézanne painted bathers from the1870s until his death in 1906. Although a long tradition of painting bathers pre-existed Cézanne’s works, his paintings of bathers strongly influenced Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), a breaking point for Picasso’s delving into cubism. Among many of Cézanne’s works on bathers, I chose this painting for the exhibition. Here, women are grouped into a circular shape and the lines connecting them create a visual rhythm. The bodies are submerged into the landscape of trees and sky, similar to Salgado’s women submerged into the background of tree leaves. Here, female bodies and sexuality are less attenuated and instead, the harmony of women’s bodies in nature is accentuated. The body becomes a formal element of the painting, rather than an object desired by men.
6. Hillary G. Bailey (American, 1894 – 1988), Vanity (c. 1932). Gelatin silver print, 13 x 10 1/16 in. (33.02 x 25.56 cm) (image)20 3/16 x 16 3/16 in. (51.28 x 41.12 cm) (mount). The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
In this dreamy photograph, a young woman with a long necklace joyfully gazes at her own image in the water, which serves as a mirror. Still developing the body of a woman, she is pleased with what she sees in herself. In Staging this moment of self-love, the photographer took an inspiration from Greek mythology’s Narcissus, who drowned himself, enamored with the beauty of his own reflection.
7. Richard Avedon (American, 1923-2004), Dorian Leigh, mode. Hat by Paulette. Paris, August, 1949. Image source: Richard Avedon Foundation.
Richard Avedon had the ability to transcend fashion photographs, turning them into personal portraits. In this picture, model Dorian Leigh is applying eyeliner as she sticks her tongue out to the same side of where she is putting her eyeliner, a natural body reflex when concentrating on an activity. The shape of her tongue mimics the hat that looks like rabbit ears. Dressed and accessorized with jewelries, Leigh is putting final touch to her face.
Putting makeup to beautify oneself has been a long tradition for women across different cultures. Some women never go out without applying it. Applying makeup is an act of vanity and way to control one’s self-image to the public. With this close up image of a woman putting on makeup, Avedon succeeded in portraying a woman’s most private of moments with a tongue-in-cheek playfulness. He was very close to the model but the presence of photographer is not felt as seen in Salgado’s photograph.
8. Carolee Schneeman (American, b. 1939), Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (1963). Paint, glue, fur, feathers, garden snakes, glass, plastic with the studio installation “Big Boards”. Photographs by Icelandic artist Erró, on 35 mm black and white film.
In this performance piece, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions, Carolee Schneeman transformed her loft and body into a medium for an expressive “happening”; her body became a canvas and/or a studio space. Schneeman materialized her body and let it become an artwork in and of itself. She covered her body with paint, chalk, grease, rope, and plastic and later let live snakes crawl on her body. Schneeman’s materialization of the female body is different from objectifying a female body, something she did one year later with Meat Joy (1964). The body functioning as a material or canvas for artwork is a protest against the notion of the female body as sumptuous flesh seen from the male gaze. Here we see a woman exercising her free will to dictate her body to make a bold statement.
(Note: Photos of Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera can be seen HERE. It is the third work from the top.)
Barbara Kruger’s Your Body is a Battleground converts the female body into a political debate; do women have rights to decide whether to carry pregnancy to a full term or not? Rather than showing the whole body, Kruger only shows part of the head, focusing on the cerebral side of decision-making. The conflict between the right to give birth and the right to have an abortion is portrayed in a half positive and a half negative image of a woman’s face, as if it is between good and evil. In the second poster, there is additional verbiage about a rally in Washington. It asks for support for “a woman’s right to choose.” The flip side of the coin is an unwilling pregnancy—in the case of rape. In such cases, the female body becomes a battlefield: women resisting unwanted sex and unwanted pregnancy. Ignorance of the issues or apathy towards the issues can no longer be tolerated, at least with an artist such as Barbara Kruger who believes in the power of speaking up rather than keeping silent. Kruger represents an artist as activist.
10. Joonsung Bae (South Korean, b. 1967), The Costume of Painter – W. House 060201 (2006). Oil on vinyl, vinyl on photograph (later made into lenticular). 243 x 154 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Using photographs and paintings, Joonsung Bae plays with reality and imagination. In The Costume of Painter – W. House 060201, Bae combined three layers: a photograph of Sagrada Família in Barcelona as the background, a photograph of a nude woman sitting on a bench, and a painting on vinyl that is placed over the photograph. Using painting, Bae covered the nude woman with a shoulder bearing dress. Near by her, he painted a little girl holding a mirror, both sitting on the carpet and surrounded by flowers. Behind the woman are fully grown flowers and in front of the little girl is a single flower in a vase. Bae brought a domestic setting into an outdoor scene, evoking what was seen in the first painting by Rembrandt. The seated woman revealing part of her shoulder is seductively touching her hair while the young girl is smiling looking at her own reflection. Bae’s work depicts vanity in two stages: a mature woman’s self-confidence versus a little girl’s innocent interest in herself.
11. Minny Lee, Self-indulgence, 2014. Video, 1:10 min.
In thinking of vanity, I looked into self-indulging moment—applying oil to my body after taking a shower. It is a rare moment that I pay attention to myself, which makes me realize that indulging one’s body can nurture the soul as well.