Warning: this post has pictures of bare-naked ladies.
My newest piece, Boudoir II, may be called something of a "boudoir painting"- a bit of campy fun for me. I find myself drawn to appropriating and playing with traditional forms of displaying the female form.
What is a boudoir painting?
It is a painting of an object of desire, for the purposes of private viewing, rather that public display. In other words, for the bedroom, not the drawing room.
However prurient the motivations creating and owning such art may have been, boudoir painting has an august history, and are often considered to be some of the worlds greatest works of art.
The examples of boudoir paintings shown below differ from Boudoir II in one important way: my lady has got clothes on. But what it does have in common with them are: a prominent female figure, who usually addresses the viewer directly, in an intimate setting, that includes props that infer meaning. The trappings and props create a narrative, and often, the artworks raison d'etre.
At any rate, the inclusion of "Venus" in the title provides the necessary bona fides that made this an acceptable work to own.
"Orientalism" is another way that western painters could legitimize depicting the female nude. Imperialism and colonialism created a blank canvas upon which a European artist could depict sensuality not permitted by polite society in Europe.
Grand Odalisque by Ingres is one of the most famous examples of this.
Interesting fact: the word "Odalisque" means an enslaved woman, or a concubine in a harem. It's French, derived from the Turkish word, odalık, which derived from the word oda, meaning "room". As in, you can't leave your room.
Then things started to get really interesting.
In 1865, Edward Manet painted "Olympia". It was transparently referring to The Venus of Urbino, shown above, but with oppositional elements. It was shocking to society at the time, not because she was naked, but because of her frank, direct gaze, and accoutrements that indicated she was a prostitute, not a goddess or an exotic "other". She is depicted as a woman in charge of her sexuality, not a receptive, docile plaything. (An interesting and related subject is the difference between "nude" and "naked" in traditional art- but that is for another blog post!)
Though the veil may have been ripped off the pretense of female nudity, the racist depiction of her black maid, who literally disappears into the background, was entirely conventional.
For some interesting background about both of the models in this painting, go to these articles: Victorine Meurent and Laure.
As time went on, the ability to mass produce imagery developed, so the boudoir picture moved from the salons of the privileged few to the Everyman. Depictions of nudity, and specifically female nudity, became more and more acceptable in fine art and in popular culture.
For a great example of this, check out Vixen Pin Up Photography, whose tag-line is "Be the Girl of Your Dreams"
In 1975, Laura Mulvey, feminist film and culture critic coined the phrase "The Male Gaze" to unpack the phenomena of the preponderance of female nudes in visual culture.
In 1985, an anonymous group of female artists called The Guerrilla Girls formed to fight sexism and racism within the art world.
So, what does this all mean? I don't pretend to be particularly enlightened when it comes to feminism and art. I am still very beholden to The Male Gaze myself. But part of being an artist is following where our inspiration leads us. My relationship to sexualized images of women is an inexorable part of who I am. The question is, what do I do with it? How does it reflect my individuality? Does it resonate with others, and if so, how?
Lately, I have found that the figures in my art are starting to speak to me and have a life of their own, just like might happen with an author. I had an interesting thing happen along these lines.
Usually, when I need to draw a male figure, I take pictures of myself in male drag. First I draw what I see in the photograph, then go on to “masculinize” myself. I flatten the chest, broaden the shoulders, narrow the hips, square the jaw, and so on. I was all set to go through this process to create a piece that eventually became The Knave of Swords seen here. I used some binding to flatten my chest under my shirt. Then I realized I needed a new reference photograph of myself without the shirt on in order to understand the position of the shoulders.
That’s when the character took on a life of its own. Then I realized I had a treasure.
To learn more, this is a totally fun video about the origin of the word "Butch" and what it means. https://www.them.us/story/inqueery-butch
From this experience, new pieces featuring butch women with binding have emerged. This one is currently called Circle Mirror, and I plan to develop this into a painting soon.
I am currently developing this one into a painting entitled The Hanged Man.
So far, I am not sure the folks who follow me on social media, where I have posted images of the drawings, have picked up on the gender of the character, or the presence of binding. I seem to be sneaking up on this new path slowly and quietly, perhaps attempting a bit of "passing" myself.
To be clear, I know that as a cisgender female in a heterosexual marriage, I will never fully understand the experiences of a non-binary, or otherwise queer person. But I also feel drawn to respect the identities of my characters, as well as celebrate the myriad orientations and identities of the people in my community and beyond.
Below, if you click on my youtube link, you can see a slideshow video of the progression of this saga, from the initial photographs to the point at which I traced the drawing to another paper.
Oh, and by the way, Happy Pride Month!
To learn a bit more about gender identity, click here.
I am fascinated by playing cards and their symbolism. I recently felt inspired to make a painting with a woman playing cards with us, the viewer, and at the same time doling out our fate. A real woman, and a quasi-super-natural element of fate at the same time.
I started to research the four card suits and any symbolic meanings that might be associated with them. I was especially enjoying The Queen of Spades. In cartomancy she is supposed to represent a woman who is intelligent and strategic. She is also featured in a book by Pushkin and an opera by Tchaikovsky. Sometimes she is called The Black Madonna, Black Maria, or The Black Lady, and is considered a powerful, “unlucky” card. In Hearts and Old Maid, she has the power to end the game. There is a variant of Seven Card Stud Poker where she is featured called “The Bitch”. In Pinochle she and The Jack of Diamonds make a significant hand, boding doom for one’s opponent. I thought she would be the perfect candidate for this femme fatale, this goddess of chaos I was dreaming up. I was even considering making a companion piece called The Jack of Diamonds.
Way back in 1998 I saw the movie Bulworth. In it there is a scene where the main character, played by Warren Beatty, says to an audience full of African Americans “Let’s call a spade a spade” and the crowd erupted with indignation. Ever since then I have passively wondered about that and I thought now was the time to look up the phrase.
It turns out it has evolved into a racial slur.
The evolution of the phrase is fascinating. It used to mean “call it like it is”. It comes from an ancient Greek saying "to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough." Which is in itself a sexual double entendre- get it? Figs? Troughs? (Never mind. It seems like everything back then was a sexual double entendre.)
So, it was a simple matter of rethinking my metaphors. Away from the stormy waters of the suit of spades and toward the equally intriguing subjects of Love and Money. Love with The Queen of Hearts, and money with the heartless Queen of Diamonds. In fact, I turned it to my advantage by creating an engaging online poll in my social media communities, asking my fans to vote on which suit, hearts or diamonds would best represent my newest femme fatale. The Queen of Hearts got a good showing, The Queen of Diamonds was the undisputed winner.
With narrative art such as mine, we are reminded that there is more than one way to tell a story. Some are told with words, others with sounds, body movement, or images.
My last show was entitled “Story Without a Plot”, which demonstrates how I am driven to tell stories with my art, even if it is implied and not explained with words.
I use the elements of design to support a narrative. Deep focus emphasizes the distance between people, even in a closed room. Dramatic value changes create mood and mystery. Silhouettes and profiles obscure the identity of the characters and create an even larger screen for us to project our stories on.
March is Women's History month. During this time I am contemplating my position as a female artist, creating narrative art.
Part of the enduring fascination we have with noir is the inclusion of powerful female characters. The zenith of film noir was from the 1930’s-1950’s a time of extraordinary change for women, particularly during WWII, when they took up jobs vacated by men who were off at war. The war, plus the changing role of women in society, created nationwide anxiety, much like the anxiety evidenced in our own times.
In my own work I am wrestling with the issues of stereotypes- am I perpetuating them? Does the work I produce actually uphold my values? My use of nostalgia and depictions of a by-gone era seems to give me license to stay in my comfort zones and repeatedly depict figures that are young, slender, and largely white.
During this time of celebrating love and romance, I remember that quote a friend of mine said many years ago: “Romance is about NOT being fulfilled, it’s about longing.”
So let us distinguish between the two: Love. Romance.
Love is wholesome and sees its object as a full person, whether that person is your date, your spouse, your child, friend, parent.
Romance is about the tension that is held between you and an object of your desire. That can include love- or not.
So this Valentines Day, let us raise a glass to the darker sides of our nature.
Film noir movies are modern day myths.
“Catharsis” is from the Greek word “kathairein”, meaning “to cleanse, purge.” Aristotle first used this as a metaphor to describe how watching tragic drama can inspire feelings that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension.
In much the same way someone may like a good war movie or punk rock, yet has no desire to engage in combat or live a chaotic, drug-addled life, many of us achieve a certain catharsis by watching the sufferings of the glamorous figures in a good film noir.
In my collage paintings, I use the drama of a noir-esque scene to draw in the viewer not only by depicting figures in evocative, cryptic situations, but by how I organize and compose the image.
In the book “Somewhere in the Night”, Nicholas Christopher describes the noir cityscape as a labyrinth, which reflects the complexity of the movie plot, the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind, and symbolizes the Hero’s Journey into the depths of the soul.
The space depicted in my collage paintings is congested and complicated, sometimes difficult for the viewer to navigate. It is evocative of complicated plot twists and reversals. Lately I have been playing with mirrors, doorways and windows, which I see as apertures into other worlds and realities. The claustrophobic, complex space illustrates the sometimes turgid complexity of our minds and relationships.
The dark, chiaroscuro lighting symbolizes secrets withheld, obscured meaning. Objects and figures that are normally easily identified are shattered and broken down into their essential shapes without superfluous detail. They are transformed, turned upside-down, into something new, special, rarefied.
Eddie Muller, film noir’s preeminent expert, describes it perfectly:
"SUFFERING WITH STYLE.”
“The men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by greed, lust, jealousy, and revenge—which leads inexorably to existential torment, soul-crushing despair, and a few last gasping breaths in a rain-soaked gutter. But I'll be damned if these lost souls don't look sensational riding the Hades Express. If you're going straight to hell, you might as well travel with some style to burn.
“Today, the cynicism and fatalism found in classic film noir seems almost comforting compared to the ugliness and pessimism we confront in the media, on movie screens, and in the streets. We watch film noir with an endless fascination, and an undeniable aspect of our fascination is the realization that, as a culture, we will never be that stylish again.”
As many of you know, I have been creating collage paintings based on film noir imagery. Film noir is one of the most enduring and beloved of film genres. The term "Film Noir" was coined after the fact, much the same way many art "movements" were coined by art historians after the so called "movement" was largely over. During WWII many American films were not available in France. In 1946 there was a retrospective in Paris of American Hollywood films and the Parisian critics called the style "film noir", or "black film", which may be more correctly interpreted as "dark film". But what exactly is film noir, and where did it come from?
German expressionism was an art movement in Germany starting at the turn of the 20th century, and encompassed painting, theater, music, literature, and the brand new medium of film. It sought to express emotion and subjective experience by the using symbolism, exaggeration, and distortion. The style reached it’s apex in Berlin during the 1920's. A few of the most famous expressionist films are "Metropolis", "M", and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (my personal favorite!).
Then those nasty kill-joys, the Nazi’s came into power. Expressionist artists of all types were proclaimed “degenerate” and their work was confiscated, destroyed, their careers were derailed and many times their very lives were in danger. On top of that, many were also Jewish, Catholic or queer. Unsurprisingly they made efforts to flee to safer locations as soon as they could. Along with this exodus, a number of film makers wound up in Hollywood.
The Hollywood Studio System was in force at the time, which had a tiered system of movie production costs and qualities. While epic movies got a lot of funding and top star billing, crime and detective movies where considered of a lower budgetary class, sometimes even B movies. They were pot-boilers, and often cranked out quickly.
A number of the new immigrant film makers were assigned to these films. Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger are the most famous. German expressionist film was film brought to a high art and were far more sophisticated and considered than anything that was typically produced in the United States at that time. These directors used their techniques and sensibilities developed in Germany in the new crime dramas. This was not fully appreciated at the time; crime and detective movies ran under the radar and attracted no critical praise. But the superior film making techniques made the movies more popular and is what has made so many of these films gain popularity over the decades.
The techniques used included deep focus cinematography, extreme camera angles, dramatic lighting shone from raked angles, and chiaroscuro (which is an painterly technique developed during the Renaissance where use of deep variations of light and dark is used to enhance mood and create dramatic effect).
The ultimate example of chiaroscuro; Caravaggio!
The fact that the movies were often low budget productions actually helped make the movies better. The famously dark lighting covered up cheap productions. Dramatic lighting made up for lack of funding for expensive special effects and uninteresting sets. There was more of a dependence on exciting scripts and clever dialogue. The rushed timetables forced productions to be fast, tight, and efficient. And because they weren’t considered important, they were often under the radar of producers and the Motion Picture Production Code!
The visual style of film noir is my primary concern when I create an artwork. I consider the masters of noir my teachers as well as my inspiration. Even when I am dealing with an image that hasn’t come directly from a film noir, I still infuse it with the elements of film noir. For example, the image below is based on a Torchy Blane movie "Chinatown" from 1939. While Torchy Blane movies may have involved detectives, reporters and solving crime, they are light comedy adventure films, and most definitely not "dark"!
Aside from the formal artistic elements of noir, I am also inspired by the stories and style. I will write about that in my next blog post, "A Brief Primer on Film Noir - Part Two: Oh, the Drama!"
Here are the hotsheets with the sordid details, the true confessions, and the inside info on my artistic process. Learn how it all happens right here!