Narrating women

As I searched varying topics, I saved all images of interest and when I reviewed them I found one common theme: women and narratives. Four of the five images are that of fictional (or mythical) women, and the fifth is that of iconic artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Lately, I’ve felt inspired by powerful women, and while art can often portray women as not much more than objects of affection, I wanted to highlight the stories of women. I wanted to choose pieces that illustrated how women are used to tell stories through art and how they demonstrate the complexities and depth of human emotion and capabilities.         The first image I selected is entitled “The Fortune-telling” by Julio Romero de Torres (1922). This image features two young woman, one of which is attempting to attract her friend’s attention by fortune-telling. The other woman appears distraught and distant, the attached description indicates perhaps she’s troubled over love. The detachment from the woman on the left and the clear desperation to be noticed by the woman on the right illuminates the female desire for companionship as well as an analytical mindset. The female on the left is too caught up in her own thoughts to pay attention to the remainder of the scene, she is delving quite deeply into herself. In the background, a very different scene is evident, that of a man walking away from a woman on her knees, a religious cross indicative of that of Christ’s crucifixion, and on the right a woman shrouded in a dark doorway. These extra layers add to the narrative that’s on display, they help to illustrate the complexity of human relationships and help the viewer to “’[see] the unseen’” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 348) as more than one storyline is on display. The multiple scenes indicate a depth to life, that what is at first obvious has much more going on if one only takes the time to look. The sombre colours in this image help to further this idea, adding an emotional level as they indicate sadness and woe, which are the key emotions evidenced in the image.         The second image is an iconic one of “Venus and Adonis” by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1610. This image is of the two subjects, barely clothed, in an embrace. A small boy is watching them to their right, his youth and appearance imply that he is Cupid in this instance. Cupid is flanked on the right by a dog, and a pair of geese appear to be kissing to the left of Venus. The lack of clothing is indicative of a deeper sense of intimacy between the pair, illustrating love. Adonis trails his hand down Venus’ arm in what appears to be a gentle caress and Venus is gazing at him with a look that can only be described as pure adoration. This depth of love is both gentle and searing, which helps to permeate the idea that this embrace is one of good-bye. While Adonis appears to be very strong, the gentleness in which he regards Venus illustrates the gentility she evokes in his character. Venus is reaching out to him, and looks both incredibly confident and full of love. There’s no shred of insecurity or vulnerability on her face, this implies the firm trust she has in him. The level of emotion that leaps off this image demonstrates that “the body [is] not only… readable but also… malleable and transformable” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 373). The artist takes familiar anatomy and paints it in a way that illustrates a tenderness that is not always as evident in other images. He malleably takes a lover’s good-bye and injects the gazes and poses and injects realistic emotion into every feature. “…Throughout the history of art a convention of depicting women gazing at themselves in mirrors, with their bodies turned toward the spectator of the painting” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 124) and this convention is transformed in this painting. Not only is it Adonis who is facing the viewer the most, but Venus is not looking at herself, she is looking at the man she loves. To her, her appearance does not matter, she is too in love to worry about every hair being in place, she is dedicating herself to parting ways with Adonis as that is so much more important than looking at herself. While “the gaze… helps to establish relationships of power” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 111) the two subjects are gazing directly at each other indicating a type of respect, or equality, as neither has greater power over the other. This demonstrates that equal love is of a deeper level, which really helps this painting maintain its timeless attraction.        The third image is “Europa and the Winged Bird” by Faith47 (2014) it is essentially a painting on the side of a building. It is described as a reproduction of ‘Europa and the Bull’ but has replaced the bull with a winged bird. The pictured woman is painted in muted neutrals and she is gazing at the bird with both hesitation, a little envy, and fear. Not only is the bird flying freely, which may be creating the envy as the woman appears to be in action perhaps running from something, but it also appears to be in conversation with the woman. I use the term conversation loosely, I mean that it almost appears to be warning the woman about an impending danger. This variation on the original image, of which this reproduction is based, allows for the “reworking and combining [of] familiar images in new ways” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 199) which provides a fresh take on the original while maintaining the familiar narrative-like display. This use of appropriation by “’borrowing’ and changing the meaning of cultural… images” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 83) works to create a stunning and impactful piece here. The context this image is in, on the side of a row of houses, speaks to the freedom the pictured woman desires and prison of fear she appears trapped in. Townhouses can indicate a strong sense of conformity which is something many people try to run away from. While society members run away from conformity, this woman has other fears (which the bird warns here are inevitable). The metaphor is that danger or the confrontation of fear is something that will catch up to us, no matter how far we run. The narrative weaved here highlights that, and the apprehension yet determination on the woman’s face illustrate both an understanding and defiance that will carry her through. It is this subtle strength that appealed to me most in this image.         The fourth image is “Trip down Colorado River with Georgia O’Keeffe and Porter family” by Eliot Porter (1961). This photograph focuses on O’Keeffe’s face while the background (of Porter family members and the landscape) is softened. O’Keeffe is an iconic twentieth century artist best known for dramatic flowers, focus on nature, and contributions to the American Modernism movement. The intrigue of her art made her fascinating by association. She has been highly revered for many years and as such, has inspired admiration from many people. In this photograph, Porter has captured a slight smile on O’Keeffe’s face as she looks off into the distance. Her face is deeply grooved with the wrinkles that come from a life fully lived. All the colours in the image are muted, which creates a sense of nostalgia and the close proximity of the shot implies a familial intimacy. The image is calm and happy. It truly captures the serenity that accompanies paddling on the water. There are “two fundamental concepts of value – aesthetics and taste” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 56) and this photograph is without a doubt aesthetically pleasing through the tranquillity it portrays. As far as taste goes, it will definitely appeal to the tastes of O’Keeffe fans and to those who enjoy lakeside photographs. “People themselves can be image icons” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 41) and as O’Keeffe’s fame skyrocketed so did society’s interest with the artist behind the paintbrush which has made her face a recognizable one to most of the art world.         The fifth picture I have chosen to finish my gallery is “The Harp of Erin” by Thomas Buchanan Read (1867). This image is that of a young woman playing the harp along a rocky coast. She is clothed in a white dress that mimics the colours and movement of the head of the waves coming in behind her. She is seated on a rock so close to the edge that one can imagine her falling in. She has red hair that’s fanning into the wind and at the crown of her head, shamrocks are woven amongst her tresses. The shamrocks and the green shawl tucked behind her shoulders help to identify her with Ireland, in which this image becomes one of a political statement. When you look at her waist you realize that she is in fact chained to the rock on which she’s playing. The woman is supposed to represent Ireland and the rock she is chained to is symbolizing England. Upon researching Ireland in 1867, I discovered that there was a Fenian Rebellion in that year where troops had attempted to found an Irish “republic based on universal suffrage” (The Fenian Rebellion of 1867, 2010). This image utilizes this sense of political expression to “challenge the status quo of realist representation” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 146) as the woman is portrayed to represent a country that, while desperate for freedom, will not allow her spirit to be defeated. She continues playing her harp, a passive facial expression indicating her understanding of her predicament, yet maintaining a simple ferocity that is linked to the Irish people. Throughout history, “art’s function was to reflect truths about society… back to subjects in the world” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 149) and this image uses a beautiful visual to tell the world that it isn’t right to imprison other nations. However, it also illustrates that imprisonment does not mean the fight is over, which helps to instill faith in the Irish people demonstrating that there is always hope. This political statement that is symbolically represented in this image creates a deep narrative about the struggles of the Irish, a timeless moral that imprisonment should never maim your spirit, and the history that unites us all.    Overall, I believe that these five images come together to create a strong narrative about not just women, but about humans as whole. The intricacies of emotion, the complexities of relationships, and the parallels that help to connect the globe.

   References:  Images, Ideas and Culture. (n.d.). Retrieved June 3, 2015.

Sturken, M., & Cartwright, L. (2009). Practices of looking: an introduction to visual culture (2nd. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press

The Fenian Rebellion of 1867 | YourIrish.com. (2010, July 15). Retrieved June 4, 2015.

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