Friday, May 16, 2008

Through Female Eyes

“I have had to go to men as sources in my painting because the past has left us so small an inheritance of woman's painting that had widened life.... Before I put a brush to canvas I question, "Is this mine? Is it all intrinsically of myself? Is it influenced by some idea or some photograph of an idea which I have acquired from some man?"-Georgia O’Keefe

Sometimes when I am especially bogged down by homework and studying, like I am now during exam week, I reminisce about my days in kindergarten. Those were the days when life was divided into naptime, story time, snack time, and play time. Never did I have to worry about writing ten page papers and frantically cramming for finals.

One interesting thing I remember about kindergarten that is slightly more significant than the luxury of naptime is the kinds of activities available to us during our indoor play time. My best friend and I, along with a couple other girls, would always choose arts and crafts. We would engage in simple projects like coloring pages our teacher had printed for us or pasting white circles on construction paper to make snowmen, but almost never were we joined by a boy from the class. Looking back, this makes sense, as young boys are generally trained to think that some activities are more feminine and others, like sports, are more suited for them. Why then are women so underrepresented in the arts? I think almost anybody would be hard pressed to think of a female contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci or Raphael. Even modern art is dominated by men including Picasso and Duchamp. For this reason, I find exhibits such as that by Paula Rego at the National Museum of Women in the Arts to be especially interesting.

Paula Rego is not only a leading contemporary female artist, but also a wonderful story teller. All of her paintings are narratives, based on literature, observation, experience, or imagination. Looking Out is the story of a woman who wastes her entire days looking out her window hoping to catch a glimpse of the priest with whom she had an affair. The Jane Eyre lithographs were inspired by the novel The Wild Sargasso Sea, which is about Bertha, a character in Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece Jane Eyre. In addition, The Maids is an account based on Jean Genet’s play in which two sisters kill the woman they work for and try on her clothes.

While Rego’s primary goal may be to entertain viewers through the art of storytelling, as a woman painting women it is impossible for her messages to be completely separated from gender. As I see it, most of her works including the ones mentioned above serve as a commentary on the position of women in society. The woman in Looking Out has been condemned to a life of isolation and imprisonment because she got pregnant by a priest. Meanwhile, the man walks free without sharing the blame and continues his life like nothing ever happened. The Jane Eyre lithographs, on the other hand, portray a strong, brave, admirable character to which the entire female gender can look for inspiration. Meanwhile The maids is a psychologically intriguing depiction of women which gives some insight into the complexity of the female mind and emotions.

In a way, art by women such as Rego falls into a completely different realm than that of their male counterparts. Although artists, such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Picasso often painted women they, as men, were unable to capture female emotions and the truth of a woman’s experiences in a male dominated world. Therefore, Rego and other female artists have the potential to make monumental steps in the art world, while simultaneously depicting and criticizing the role of women in society and encouraging critical thought on the part of the viewer.

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