“The Crafted Female Body”
Each stanza of the poem is dedicated to a work of art that was covered in my Masterpieces of Western Art course; each work also focuses on the female body. From first to last, this is the order for the corresponding pieces discussed in each stanza: Michelangelo’s Pietà, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, Édouard Manet’s Olympia, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych. I chose these pieces because it struck me that for such a long time famous portrayals of women were created by men -- the most famous of all being Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. This part of the human population that was being painted, sculpted, and photographed had no say about how they were to be seen in these works of art. Furthermore, I wanted to bring to the surface some of the tensions that arose and questions I had in class regarding these representations. Therefore, as a member of the female population, but not speaking on behalf of the population, I decided to give the women voices through poetry by imparting thoughts on the works that some may be too reserved to speak out or ask.
Each stanza, like each work, explores a different idea. For the Pietà, I wanted to inquire into Michelangelo’s artistic ideals of creating the most perfect sculptures and his choice to depict the Virgin Mary as peaceful and youthful, contrasting with her deceased son draped in her lap. The Virgin Mary is often used as a symbol of the perfect woman, and Michelangelo gave her the face of a innocent, young woman because he believed her virgin body was not tainted. This depiction really emphasizes some ideas our society has today that tie ideal, pure women to their virginity.
As for the other sculpture, my focus on the Apollo and Daphne is all about the animalistic pursuit of love -- here, it is specifically focused on the lovestruck Apollo attempting to make Daphne his own. Daphne does not truly escape his pursuits until she is turned into a tree, so her transformation conveys that the only way a woman can flee a man’s chase is by literally not being a woman any more. She cannot comfortably live in her own skin.
Manet’s Olympia is known to have shaken the art world through his rough painting technique and also his subversion of tradition. Olympia was not a mythological creature or deity but a woman of modern times, so I wanted to explore whether Manet portrays her as owning or not owning her sexuality. Furthermore, I touch on the tension between the ownership of one’s sexuality and the idea that the viewer of the painting is someone who has just paid for her sexual favors. A fact not often confronted in society is that women throughout history and even in modern times use their bodies to make money, but on the other hand, men continue to pay money to use a woman’s body.
Along the same lines, I move on to Picasso’s piece, where he has depicted women almost in their most basic geometric forms. In this stanza, I explore Picasso’s fear of women with, once again, the practice of a woman selling her body. Each woman’s body brings discomfort to the viewer, whether it is through bodily disproportions or the nod to the use of Iumba and Mbuya African masks, which represented sickness.
I wrote my University Writing research paper on the representation of Marilyn Monroe in mass media, so I was very excited to dedicate a stanza to Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych. In this stanza, I included elements from my essay about how the image of a famous actress can be given meaning by others due to the image’s great proliferation in different media and advertisements. Whether Monroe has been seen as a sex symbol or as a feminist figure, all those ideas were imposed upon her image by popular opinion rather than her having agency over how she should be seen.
Art and poetry are all about confrontations, so it was important for me to bring some of these ideas out of the pieces we discussed in lecture. This class has influenced my decision to change my major all the way from neuroscience to art history in order to continue exploring through art the representation of ideals that society holds. Moreover, I want to use those skills to better understand how art drives change, such as with the current Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. We look back on history to appreciate and also to see what we can do better. It is important to remember that these pieces were all from different points in time where women held different positions and powers in society. However, it should also inspire us to keep pushing for further change and greater equality.