Monthly Archives: December 2011

Gender Portrayals in Classical Greek Statuary

I’m writing a series of papers for my Western Survey of Art and Architecture course focusing on representations of gender in different eras of art (Doing it for the honors credits; damn you RIT for trying to make me a more educated person!). For my first quarter paper I decided to focus on Classical Greek gender ideals as seen in Praxiteles’s Knidian Aphrodite and Polykleitos’s Doryphoros (Coming at the end of this quarter: Portrayals of Adam, Eve, and the often feminized serpent in Renaissance artwork). I don’t want to explain it when I can just let you read the paper, so here it is. It was actually pretty fun to learn more about this subject, I hope you guys enjoy!

Classical Greek artwork is generally recognized as a depiction of the real and the ideal; an attempt at mimesis that also reflects the qualities found most desirable during the time period. While one might imagine that this would lead to work focused entirely on aesthetic appeal, the artwork is also heavily conceptual. Classical Greek statuary not only reflected the rigid gender roles seen in Ancient Greek culture, it contributed to the culture’s development and enforcement. By viewing works embodying the perceived otherness and shy sensuality of women, such as Praxiteles’s Knidian Aphrodite, and the presented powerful norm of men, as seen in Polykleitos’s Doryphoros, Greek audiences internalized and then performed kyriarchal gender roles. Analysis of the subject and style of these two statues will enable understanding of the gender divide in Greek culture and how that divide manifests itself in Classical artwork.

Left: Praxiteles's Knidian Aphrodite Right: Polykleitos's Doryphoros

While the subject of Doryphoros followed the traditional Classical model, the Knidian Aphrodite revolutionized Greek statuary. Previous sculptures showed women clothed without exception, and while a number of artists used wet drapery to display women’s bodies in an acceptable manner none had made the leap to establishing a female nude the equivalent of the common Greek male nude. Praxiteles’s method of bridging the gap and depicting an unclothed woman—without causing too much of an outrage—is considered inspired. By choosing Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexuality, as his subject, he had found a way to justify female nudity. By toeing the line between sensual and modest, dignified yet welcoming, Praxiteles depicted the nude in a way considered inoffensive to his audience.

The need to justify female nudity while male nudity was considered commonplace already reflects Greek ideas about gender. For a man to appear naked conferred his power, his strong body and equally strong mind, while for a woman to appear naked would be indecent and confer immodesty. It is important to remember that the ancient Greeks viewed man and woman as dichotomies. One was defined as being the opposite of the other. As men were considered the dominant members of society women were the ones being defined as opposite; yet, interestingly enough, still defined as the “other”. In the words of Nanette Salomon, “the culturally constructed terms of femininity and masculinity in the ancient world were mutually dependent and reflexive fabrications whose definition depended upon their socially assigned differences, one from the other”.[1] Salomon’s statement offers an explanation for why activities deemed as masculine were off limits for women. As the opposite of men, women were viewed as incapable of participating in the male sphere. Continue reading

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Women in Art: Audrey Flack

While most artists incorporate the use of photography in their work, many won’t admit it. There’s a widespread belief that working from a photograph is worse than working from real life or from your imagination. As far as I can gather, the idea for most photography shunning artists is that it’s too easy to translate a 2D image to a 2D work, while the idea for most non-artists is that the photographic image is already in existence, so what’s the point?

To any photorealism shunning audience members, I ask you to suspend your disbelief for a short while, and take a look at the work of Audrey Flack:

Chanel, Audrey Flack

"Chanel" by Audrey Flack (1974)

"Wheel of Fortune" by Audrey Flack (1977-1978)

Interesting, isn’t it? And a style that, while naturalistic, I don’t think that you can claim is derivative of a photograph. A photo of a similar still life would lack the vibrancy, the sense of movement, the certain je ne sais quoi that this work has.

Audrey Flack is a photorealist (hyper realist, super realist…) printmaker, sculptor, and as we’ll be focusing on here, painter known primarily for her work throughout the 1970s and 80s. She is one of the founding mothers of the photorealist movement, and her work has helped to legitimize the idea of working from a photograph.

Even amongst the other pioneers of photorealism Flack encountered adversity. Her subject matter was considered too feminine, too emotional for the seemingly never-ending stream of masculine cars, empty and passionless streets, and coolly-toned portraits of her contemporaries. As Flack stated in regards to such criticism, “I painted what was around me and what I was interested in. This was then deemed “feminine” subject matter. I just happened to be a woman”.  To an extent, I agree with critics on this. Flack’s work is arguably very feminine. The subject matter are objects generally owned by women and many of her paintings have feminist undertones. However, this became one of the main insults directed towards her work as critics and contemporaries insinuated that her paintings were somehow “too feminine” to be photorealist, too tied to her emotions to be compared to the work of Estes and Close. Which I personally find ridiculous. Many of Close’s paintings, in particular, are fairly emotional. Take a look at this portrait created around the same time as Flack’s “too feminine” paintings.

"Big Self Portrait" by Chuck Close (1967-1968)

I would hardly call this unemotional. I would also say that the portrait is highly masculine. The subject is looking down at us, placing himself in a position of power. His gaze could be read as one of contempt, as a cigarette (Masculine!) droops from his lips. Yet, are there complaints that this is too masculine? And for that matter, if artwork can become too feminine or too masculine then are we striving for androgyny? It seems as though only one end of our gender spectrum is considered unsuitable as a subject of art. In fact, I would claim that in the photorealist time period anything not decisively male would not be considered high art.

Of course, I can see how you could argue that this piece is not masculine in the way that Flack’s piece is feminine. And thus we get to the work of Tom Blackwell.

"Bond's Corner" by Tom Blackwell (1975)

"'34 Ford Tudor Sedan" by Tom Blackwell (1971)

It’s like we’re bathing in testosterone! Cars and bikes! Fuck yeah! Continue reading

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