Tag Archives: women

Wonder Woman’s God Complex

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Recently, I went to go and see the new Wonder Woman film in one of the better cinemas I’ve visited in Beijing. In comparison to most the other superhero films I’ve seen in the last few years Wonder Woman is pretty darn good, but I couldn’t help but feel as though there was a particularly large issue with the themes of the film and the fact that Hollywood doesn’t seem capable of dealing with those themes.

Full spoilers below…

Diana is the only child on a magic island hidden from the rest of the world and populated by Amazonian women. When wondering where such a child came from we’re told that her mother Hypolita wished for her so much that she moulded her from clay and asked the god Zues to give her life. This is something that Diana never questions despite the fact that she does admit the knowledge that men are ‘essential for procreation’.

We also learn that for some reason the God of War, Ares, chose to defy the rest of the gods, fighting and killing them. To combat Ares, Zues bestowed upon the Amazons the ‘God Killer’ which they used to vanquish (but not kill) Ares. The God Killer, Hypolita tells her daughter, is a grand sword which Diana, as a child, looks at with an almost forlorn gaze and asks her mother who would ever be able to wield such a weapon. Her disappointment when Hypolita tells her that it wont be her is palpable and the scene ends in such a way that I was left wondering whether or not it was the film-maker’s intentions that the young Diana display an almost psychopathic urge to kill a god one day.

As the film progresses we watch Diana grow up, conditioned by her mother’s obvious lies and her warrior aunt’s tutelage, becoming stronger, more badass but certainly not any wiser. Although Diana is brought up to be naive and unaware the audience hasn’t been, and anyone with a healthy upbringing on superhero movies will have already guessed that Diana is likely to be the daughter of Zues and that the God Killer is in fact her and not the sword at all. To the film’s credit these two revelations are never really treated as any great twist and so their obviousness doesn’t really hurt the story. They do however set the tone for what is to come during the rest of the run time and these two plot points feed into what seems to be the film’s main themes:

Firstly that Diana is a God. Invincible and supreme in her abilities. Secondly, she’s naive. Unaware of the nature of man and the nature of violence. It’s when addressing these ideas that Wonder Woman shows the most potential but also uncovers some of the downsides of the superhero genre as a whole.

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There’s a good action scene about halfway through the film where Diana has had enough of watching the horrors of WWI unfold around her and decides to take matters into her own hands. Despite the German machine guns pointing at her she runs across no-man’s land to liberate a small French village. It’s in this scene we have the first full reveal of her iconic uniform, we hear the pulse pounding drums that have become her theme for these DC movies and we witness the extent of her badassery as she flips armoured vehicles with her bare hands, kicks people through walls and literally punches the catholic church so hard it collapses. It’s all good stuff but it’s also where my skepticism of the film’s intentions began. It’s very handy having a bullet-proof supergod on your side, I thought, as her actions inspired her companions to join the fight.

Their victory over the village is short lived however and the Germans soon drop a chemical weapon on it, killing everyone. Diana runs into the orange cloud, not even wrinkling her nose against the gas, to see first hand the nature of man’s hate. It’s the first time that we see Diana completely as ‘other’ to us. Where any man, woman or child faces certain death in the cloud, Diana isn’t affected in the least. The film states, in no uncertain terms, that Diana is not human and she is not in any danger from us or our weapons. She is, however, applaud by our actions.

Instead of readdressing her preconceived notions about men and war though, she carries on with greater resolve to end the war in her own way. Diana, brought up on stories of gods, thinks that the only way to end the war is to defeat Ares, the god of war, who she assumes is causing the fighting in the first place. For some reason she has decided that Ares is actually personified by Ludendorf, the German general who along with the fabulously named ‘Doctor Poison’ is manufacturing the terrible chemical weapons that mark the film’s biggest threat. She confronts Ludendorf who, for no other reason than ‘it’s a movie’ has some kind of magic drug that gives him super strength. Still, Diana kicks him through a wall (watching Wonder Woman kick people through walls never gets old) and impales him to the floor with her God Killer sword. Ares is dead, she thinks, and yet the war continues.

wonderwomantrailer213-470x310@2xAgain we wonder if she’ll finally have to confront her misguided views of the war, but no. Right on cue, the real Ares turns up; a Brit nonetheless. He reveals the minor twists that everyone already knew and sums up the films ideology very clearly. War is a man-made invention. Although he admits to whispering inspirations to the likes of Doctor Poison he tells us that men are the real threat to the world and that no interference from gods can change that. He’s echoing something Chris Pine said earlier when he admits ‘maybe it’s us’; maybe man is to blame for all the horror.

This is the moment the whole film has led up to, where Wonder Woman has seen first hand that war is not a fantasy or a fiction, men’s minds are not twisted by any supernatural being and that war can not be ended by just fly kicking one man in the face. It’s also the moment the film betrays itself.

Wonder Woman decides to kick the crap out of Ares anyway, it is her nature as a weapon, after all. While she’s fighting him her comrades are fighting against the German chemical weapon and loosing. In a moment of weakness she watches Chris Pine commit suicide, taking the weapon with him and this gives her the strength to fight back again. There’s lots of fire, punching each other through buildings, lighting shot from fingertips; it’s everything we’ve come to expect from a DC movie’s final act, and just as empty.

The problem is that we’ve already learnt that Ares has no hold over this war. Killing him will not save the world and yet Wonder Woman fights anyway, ignoring the suffering of her comrades and with such drive that brings back the image of a child coveting a sword she prays to one day use. It’s her singular vision that means Chris Pine has no help from her when he flies off to his death, a gesture that could have easily been prevented by the supergod. It’s all something that could have meaning if it wasn’t for the film’s climax.

Wonder Woman harnesses her power as a god-made weapon, kills Ares and the war ends.

The take away from this final conflict is that actually Wonder Woman was right all along. Killing one supreme bad guy did end the war which must also mean that the war was the fault of this one god and not man at all. None of the men’s struggles or sacrifices mean anything in the face of this revelation and we are all absolved of any responsibility we might have otherwise had to have claimed for the cruelties of war. The film has betrayed its own convictions and through doing so has undermined itself.

Right from the first line of dialogue Diana is being lied to. Her world view is twisted and distorted to the extent that when she enters our world she can’t distinguish reality from fiction. Likewise however, her presence and her actions show her comrades that there is more to the world than they knew. In the end it’s Diana’s world view that wins out. A world of gods and monsters and where the evil of man is actually the fault of someone else. If this was actually the intention of the film then I would argue that WWI was perhaps not the right backdrop for the story. War, chemical weapons, hate and violence are, without a doubt, not god-created issues. They are caused by man, inflicted upon man and no amount of supergod stories can change this sad fact. By sticking to her original intent Diana shows no growth as a character. She’s as confused and misguided as she was as a child and still views the world in black and white terms, what’s worse is that the film makers seem to share this world view.

As much as I love superhero films I can’t help but think they are loosing their relevance in our society. The story of one man or woman saving humanity by punching a single baddie in the face is an outdated concept. It’s an issue that Wonder Woman almost addresses but gives into at the end, more than likely just because this is an American film and needs to end in a predetermined way. It’s a shame that the trapping of the genre force Wonder Woman to betray and undermine itself in the last moments because there is a more interesting story than Diana vs Ares fighting to be told. I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if in those last moments Diana decided to cease her meaningless battle with Ares and go instead to help her new found friends in their struggle against their own kind. What if it was shown that Ares actually didn’t have much power over man and wasn’t causing the war? What if, because of this revelation, Diana showed us that the true power of a god is to inspire mankind to better itself rather than give into its basest instincts?

At the end of the film Diana, in the present day US, sums up her journey for us by saying that ‘only love can save the world’. However this is not what we’ve seen just moments before. Diana did not save the day by putting aside her outdated and ill-informed ideology and helping the war resolve in a peaceful way, she won through violence, just as the men of the film sought to do and in so doing proved that she really is, much like the German’s terrible gas, nothing more than the weapon she was designed to be. Unfortunately the film never addresses this parallel itself.

There’s a moment towards the end of Diana’s fight with Ares where the camera focuses on her, silhouetted in the air behind a red and gold sky. Her arms are outstretched and one leg slightly raised. It’s an image of Christ on the cross. Except here, Diana does not die to save mankind, she kills to save mankind. If love is the only thing that can save the world then perhaps superhero films need to find a gesture other than violence to bring their final acts to a close.

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Edward Degas and his Ballerinas

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Edward Degas story starts out as one of those lovely “Dad wanted me to go to law school but I said ‘Nay Father. Art is my life!'” type affairs.

Son of Banker Augustin De Gas, Degas first act of defiance was to change his last name to something slightly less pretentious sounding. After this, it was to pursue art. This was all very early in his life, and by the time he was 18 he’d turned his bedroom into a studio for his paintings. It was after this, that Dad told him to go to law school, which like a dutiful son, he did. He enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in 1853, but didn’t really put much effort into his studies. Two years later, in 1855 Degas met fellow French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Now, who of my few loyal followers recognises that name? We spoke a little bit about Ingres a few weeks ago in the post about Odalisque art. Degas was very taken with Ingres, who had told him to “Draw lines, young man, many lines”. Inspired, Degas went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts later that year (Ecole des Beaux-Arts is still a very influential art school in Paris). Here, Degas studied with Louis Lamothe (1822 – 1869). After this, in 1856, he moved to Italy and started copying some of the great works by people such as Michelangelo and Raphael, etc.

Degas continued to copy pictures and began to make a healthy living as a copyist whilst working on original works. He began working on studies of horses. His painting Scene from the Steeplechase: the Fallen Jockey marked a departure from the more traditional history paintings, to more contemporary subject matters. This change was partly inspired by another  French buddy of Degas called Édouard Manet (1832 – 1883). This was a very important moment in Degas artistic career when he began to draw scenes from real life. These included many scenes of horse tracks and, of course, of ballerinas. This may seem pretty standard now, but depicting scenes from everyday life was quite rare at the time.

Degas is sometimes called the ‘Painter of dancing girls’. There are a few reasons for his obsession. Some, believe it to be voyeuristic, but others have disputed this claim. It’s a fact that dancers and models at the time often worked as prostitutes on the side, due to poor wages. It is almost certain that Degas did not partake of any of this, but there are plenty of nude pictures that would have been modeled by these girls. There are also stories of him making his models stand in painful positions for hours on end. Perhaps there was some sort of cruel satisfaction to be had this way. There’s also the possibility that this was purposeful, and Degas was making a point about the physical harm that ballerinas do themselves in the pursuit to master their discipline. All Degas wrote himself on the subject was;

It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.

Two Dancers in the Studio 1

Degas was a huge fan of the opera and ballet and Paul Trachtman writes; ‘At the ballet Degas found a world that excited both his taste for classical beauty and his eye for modern realism.’ He used the ballet as a way to create new forms of painting that could describe fluidity and movement. The ballerinas are probably Degas most famous and well received works.

In 1870 Degas joined the National Guard with the start of the Franco-Prussian War. For obvious reasons, Degas didn’t do too much painting during this time, and what’s worse, he developed a defect in his eyesight, which continued to bug him for the rest of his life.

The war ended in 1872 and Degas stayed in Louisiana with some family members for a year. During this time he painted a number of works depicting family members. This painting below (painted during this time) was the only one of his works to be bought by a museum during his life.

In 1874 (by which time Degas was back in Paris) his father died. Then it came to light that Degas brother had been a bit careless with his monies. To keep the family afloat (and respectable) financially, Degas sold his house and art collection. For the first time in his life, Degas was actually dependant on his art sales to live. He stopped doing profitless exhibitions, and joined a group of artists who were intent on making a society for independent exhibitions. The exhibitions these guys were putting on quickly became known as ‘Impressionist Exhibitions’. Even though Degas hated the title he took a lead role in the Imperialists exhibitions.

As I said, Degas hated the title, and the reputation the Imperialists had. He was pretty public about this opinion which didn’t really do him any favours in the group. Some people say that he was actually as anti-Impressionist as some of the critics were. His style and method of work were also not very Impressionist. He kept to his darker paint pallet rather than adopting the bright colours of the Impressionists and he always worked indoors. In fact, he often made fun of the Impressionists for their tendency to paint outdoors.

He also insisted on including some more traditional painters in the exhibitions. All of this helped to pull the group apart and they disbanded in 1886. By this time though, Degas was making a reasonable living from his art.

Unfortunately Degas eyesight remained problematic and got much worse as he grew old. As a way to combat this, Degas started to sculpt. He started making wax figures, possibly as a way to work on something that he could mould and feel now that his vision was failing. The most famous sculpture of Degas isThe Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer. It’s a wax sculpture that stands at 39 inches and is adorned in real clothes – a tutu and ribbon for the hair (which is a wig). The figure is based on a real dancer called Marie van Goethem, who was sometimes referred to as ‘little rat’. The reception of her sculpture isn’t much better and it was often referred to as being ugly. This ugliness at the time was also linked to the idea of loose morels, and questions of Degas sexuality and voyeuristic leanings are again brought into question.

One thing I’d like to point out which I think is wonderful, is that when Degas made the original, he created a skeleton out of paintbrushes! Isn’t that great? I love the idea that she was completely made up of his own art tools. You can still see this sculpture nowadays, but mostly only in brass reproductions.

Self Portrait

And here’s where it all gets a little depressing…

As he grew older, Degas secluded himself from many people because apparently he believed that artists can’t have personal lives. After this, in the early 1890’s it became apparent that Degas had certain antisemitic qualities. This obviously caused all his Jewish friends to break contact with him, and Degas became very lonely. He stopped painting in 1912 and was thereafter forced to leave his long term home due to demolition. He moved to quarters on the boulevard de Clichy. He didn’t marry, his eyesight got worse and he died, half blind, wandering the streets of Paris in 1917.

All of these artists have such morbid ends…I’m hoping to find some artists who didn’t die alone or disease ridden soon, or else I might start to question my own life decisions.

To check out Degas’ complete works check out this great site.
Next up: Poker playing Dogs.

Women with Mirrors

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So the other day I was talking about Odalisque paintings. Something thing I have noticed about these paintings is the reoccurring image of the girls studying themselves in the mirror. So I wanted to think about this a little bit, and some of the possible ideas behind it.

I think we probably need to look at this from a couple of different points of view: What it may mean to a male audience – What it may mean to a female audience – Some wider ideas regarding the reflected image.

I suppose one level of interpretation could be that these women, who are usually high-born and glamorous, are working to perfect their image for the head of the household. It makes sense as the woman portrayed are often concubines or odalisques who’s job would involve seduction and pleasure giving. Which means the women depicted lounging about and looking in mirrors, are in fact working to perfect their craft.

On this theme, there could also be a point where this image is a reference to the painter and the audience themselves. In drawing these women, some painters were trying to study and reproduce the female figure. Like Ingres, some may have been searching for the ‘ideal female form’. The woman in the picture is studying her own figure, searching for imperfections – the same way as the painter is. This also reflects the spectators intention study the figure, albeit for different reasons. So, if the mirror reflects us then it becomes a gendered object of sorts. In the example above, the mirror becomes male.If this is the case, then the female figure is posing for the male mirror, and seeing herself reflected in him. This also get interesting if we look a little bit at what Jacques Lacan has to say about mirrors and the reflected image. Lacan (1901- 1981) was a French psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and philosopher. One of his most famous ideas is called ‘The Mirror Stage’. From what I understand, the Mirror Stage refers to a moment in life when a person looks in the mirror and identifies themselves with the image reflected. But the image reflected is in truth not an accurate portrayal, instead it’s a sort of perfect version of the self. A version that we aspire to be, because it is free of all the chaotic, emotional complications that the real person is full of.

There’s a lot of ‘reflected woman’ images in film noir – and a lot of links between film noir and the concept of the male gaze.

So maybe – if the mirror represents the male gaze, and the reflection represents the ideal image that the woman should aspire to – then the work itself becomes about striving to achieve perfection, as set out by the artist. Which I suppose makes them a little bit like this:

Lavin advertising campaign ‘Mirror Mirror on the wall’
Model – Iselin Steiro
Photographer – Steven Meisel

Now lets try to look at this from another point of view.

Many of the images portraying women with mirrors are a bit like this one, and the one at the top of this post. Do you notice anything? Or more to the point, what don’t you notice? Well, what I noticed is that we don’t actually see the reflection.

This means that the ‘ideal image’ we’ve been talking about is a mystery to us, and can only be seen by the woman in the picture. She can see what we cannot. Like the way that what actually goes on in a Harem or our friends sleep-over parties is a mystery to us (a secret even), so is the woman’s reflection. This reflection could now symbolise the ideal image of her or a ‘truthful’ image – Her real self, along with her thoughts, opinions, etc. So in many ways it could be seen as being rather empowering in this way. The fact that no matter how much we study the surface, much remains hidden from us. What exactly is she looking at and why? I don’t know.

Just as a quick sideline – In Orientalism the East is often portrayed as either Female or Feminine (there is a difference). The feminine is seen as being mysterious, exotic and lovely which is why the male is attracted to her. All of these Odalisque images really seem to carry this idea within them. The very idea of the Harem seems to go towards explaining where some of these ideas came from.

I did an acting course in Italy about this time last year, and the teacher told us that looking in the mirror is important. As an actor it’s important to know your body. How it looks, how it moves, how it feels. Sounds obvious right? But I think sometimes we can get embarrassed about looking in the mirror. I think this comes from the fact that we are very used to caring about the way we are seen by others and the image we project. I often look at myself and think about what I could change or what should be better. But I think this isn’t really looking at yourself, this is sort of like looking through someone else’s eyes. It’s not easy to really just look in the mirror and it’s easy to forget that no-one will ever see what we do when we look at ourselves like this. Does this make any sense? I guess what I’m trying to say is that mirrors are good. But they are personal – when we look in a mirror we open a dialogue with ourself or our ‘other’ as Lacan might have put it. So don’t think for other people when you’re looking in a mirror, just enjoy your conversation with the ‘other you’.

Odalisque

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This weeks post is about a topic of painting rather than a specific painter.

During the 19th century a certain number of Western countries packed their travel bags and journeyed East into countries like Turkey, Egypt and Iran (which was still known as the mythical Persia back then). While they were there, Western artists found a lot of things to inspire them in their paintings; the beautiful landscape, the exotic wildlife and of course, beautiful women. Lots of beautiful women.

Odalisque (pronounced Oh-Da-Lisk) is a word that refers to women slaves of a Harem. ‘What is a Harem?’ I hear you cry. A Harem is section of a Muslim household which is specifically meant for woman. Men are usually forbidden to enter the Harem. The word itself can translate more or less as ‘Forbidden place’ – Very romantic, no? The Odalisque is the lowest member of the household chain, serving the others. Also, despite the way they are portrayed in most paintings, their sexuality isn’t actually part of their job description – although if they were really good, they could aspire to become concubines. But I think most of the painters ignored this fact and most the women in Odalisque paintings are the women of leisure themselves.

So, you know when you’re young and thinking about your girl friends having sleep overs. Usually we imagine them having pillow fights, modelling their underwear and comparing boob sizes. I think this is probably what the Western artists of the 19th century thought when they were told abut the Harem. And so, we are left with hundreds if not thousands of paintings that fall under the Odalisque name, which feature beautiful, exotic women of leisure in various states of undress.

Les Odalisques – Jacqueline Marval – 1903
Just moments away from a pillow fight!

Out of the hundreds of Odalisque paintings and artists I’m just going to select a few to speak about.

La Grande Odalisque – Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres – 1814

First; The Grand Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867) was a French Neoclassical painter. The Grand Odalisque was commissioned by the Queen of Napels, Caroline Murat (who also happened to be Napoleon’s sister). It is often cited as the work that broke Ingres away from the Neoclassical into Romanticism.

The Turkish Bath – 1863

Now there’s a few fun facts about this painting. Most of which revolve around the fact that this poor girl is all out of proportion. This is actually a running theme in Ingres’ paintings, especially when portraying his female models. It has been noted that her spine is 3-5 vertebrae too long and that her limbs are all different lengths. Many critics pointed this out, saying they were mistakes or the result of poor figure studies. However this is most likely not the case. Ingres, in his paintings was searching for the perfect female form, and that meant the perfect form relating to him, and the subject of his work. This girl here is a lady of pleasure and seduction. As such, Ingres distorted the length of her back and pelvis area to highlight this.

Another thing to consider – Does she look Middle-Eastern to you? She doesn’t to me. Actually she looks rather French indeed, and it is most likely that she was painted as a tribute to the French beauties of the day, but put into an Orientalist context.

Ingres continued with this theme of Orientalism. One of his most famous paintings in this theme is The Turkish Bath. If you look closely you’ll see more examples of Ingres deforming the woman as a way to reach his ideal form.

Another artist I like is Georges Antoine Rochegrosse. Simply because his paintings are B-E-A-Utiful. Rochegrosse (1859 – 1938) was French and dealt with historical and decorative paintings. His paintings are usually epic on scale and can be quite gruesome at times. I will follow up with a post dedicated to Rochegrosse at some point. But for now I’m just looking at his Odalisque paintings. Look at these:

Aren’t they beautiful? Note the similarities between the two. The posture, the window in the back, the placement of the  curtains. Maybe they’re sisters?

And finally, Mariano Fortuny. Fortuny (1838 – 1874) was Spanish this time. Or actually, I should specify; he was Catalan. He was also a historical painter and did a wide verity of scenes depicting Spanish political and social issues. A lot of military paintings. For me though, it’s just the way he paints people. I think they’re beautiful and so expressive. So here are two of his Odalisque paintings. It’s the same woman; notice her ankle and arm bands. I think she’s great. So elegant and lovely – and she knows it. That’s what I like about her, she’s kind of cheeky. These were the first two Odalisque paintings I ever saw actually, whilst I was in Barcelona last year.

Right, I know I didn’t go into that much detail about Rochegrosse or Fortuny, but that’s because I want to give each of them a post of their own soon. But before I do this I want to address a certain subject related to this one. Women with Mirrors – A lot of these pictures (like the one above) feature these women looking at themselves in mirrors and I’d like to talk a little bit about what this might mean. A bit of feminist theory maybe? We’ll see.

Jack.