I just returned from a trip through Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. While in the Netherlands, we took a side trip to Muiderplot, a medieval castle about 20 minutes outside of Amsterdam. In the castle’s meeting hall (where trials were held as well as other more innocuous pursuits like dances and children’s games), I noticed an unusual painting on the wall. I took a picture of it because it was so unexpected.
The audio guide explained that this painting was “something special.” The artist was depicting a group of girls playing a kissing game in which the best kisser will be awarded a wreath of flowers. The girl in the yellow dress is really going to town on the reclined girl whose bodice is open and who appears to be panting with delight as she raises the floral wreath to crown the other girl’s head. But the audio guide noted that the girl in the yellow dress was actually not a girl at all. She’s wearing the boots of a shepherd. The scene is of a shepherd boy masquerading as a girl to steal a kiss and win the contest.
Which obviously brings up the question–who the hell came up with this idea that when girls are alone they play super sexy kissing games with each other? This sounds like some kind of porn script! And whoever came up with this absurd notion also makes sure that the boy ultimately wins.
Comedian Hannah Gadsby did a great show on Netflix called Nanette. I blogged about it here. One of the things that was unique about her comedy show is that she is an art history major who talks extensively about art and artists. She pulls no punches when it comes to Picasso, the famous artist who infamously began a sexual relationship with his 17 year old muse when he was in his 40s. His justification for this was simple:
“It was perfect—I was in my prime, she was in her prime.”
Ouch. So, for Picasso, being 42 and in his prime meant he was at the peak of his career, at his most creative. But for a woman, er, girl, one’s prime is being a teenager, attractive, untouched, biddable. That’s our prime. As Hannah puts it, that’s a grim thought.
I was in Austria last year at the Kuntshistoriches museum in Vienna, and there was a thought-provoking exhibit with a modern painting side-by-side with a historical one. Both were portraits of women. The painting on the left was a portrait from the 19th century of a young woman, maybe late teens, very pretty and slender, looking at the artist with a mixture of innocence and coquettish desire. She looks both unsure of herself and a little teasing. The color palette was all warm tones. The portrait to the right was a middle aged woman, nude, hands on hips, staring frankly at the artist as if to dare anyone to argue with her. Her expression was a mix of confidence and weariness. She’s not unattractive, but she’s not inviting either. She’s a little heavy set, and her boobs are not the same size. Physically, she’s not perfect at all, but she’s clearly much more in control of her situation and life.
The color palette was cool tones.
Which woman is in her prime?
The explanation said that painting on the left was by a male artist. I don’t remember who the girl was in the painting. The painting to the right was by a female artist, and the subject was her neighbor, a divorced waitress in her forties.
This comparison was an interesting study in both male/female perspectives and in modern vs. classical artistic sensibilities. In a way, artists get to have the last word because their work endures longer than they do. They define a thing. We discuss their work, their vision. We don’t know the people they portray as people–we only know what they, the artist, saw and wanted to show us. And what most artists have shown us is women they found desirable, not necessarily honesty. Picasso also had this to say about his muses:
“Each time I leave a woman, I should burn her. Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents.”
When I returned from Europe, I was catching up on some movie watching on the long flight. I was noticing that there were several movies with non-white protagonists and supporting casts, homosexuals or women in the juicy lead roles and these movies are finally becoming mainstream. I also noticed that not every woman in these movies had a perfect body or was in her 20s. Maybe we are finally getting to the point where women who are actually in our prime can tell stories and be heroes.
Why did it take us this long to get here?