Yesterday was Throwback Thursday and World Cancer Day. So I decided to post my post-cancer paintings on my socials. I had 2 cancer trajectories, 6 months apart, thyroid and breast. When I kind of recovered, I geared my art practice towards working through the pains, both physical and mental, at first heavily inspired by Frida Kahlo (who else?). In 2011 I even curated a group show in St.Petersburg Florida with 2 other women artists who'd gone through cancer for which I got local TV coverage. The blog is still up painting2cancers.blogspot.com Here are some highlights.
For my Belgian Lockdown 2.0 Diary -all pages are documented in a reel on instagram- I used the title page of anatomist Vesalius 1543 textbook De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the book that inspired my latest body of work The Anatomy Lesson which I finished last month in 2020 ..... at least, that's what I thought, because the diary page I made gives me another idea for a large painting that I might include in it. Here's the image. Imagine it, 5 panels making up the total image? Yes, I think I can! I think even have a soundtrack for the project now, 'Anatomy Lesson', from the 1995 William Parker album 'The Listeners.' Funnily enough, even the album cover quite fits my project visuals, don't you think?
I finished my body of work The Anatomy Lesson and I am developing new ideas to work on next year. In the meantime I'm doing finger exercises, making small sized landscapes, memories from my travels, in the real world and in my inner world. They help me to loosen my brush stroke, to smear my oils across the canvas as I explore new ways to paint. Here's the first small piece, with Pre Existing Condition to show the scale, they'll all be 18 by 24cm. It's a transitional project, until I'm ready to start painting on a new body of social commentary artwork in 2021.
Last time I wrote about how in the Pre Existing Condition Diptych 'figures' my focus is on the woman's womb, emphasising the swirly, flowery - ha! O'Keeffe - look of the grey shapes against the background.
Meanwhile I took an online course 'HERstory of Art,' in which we learned more about the many palaeolithic Venus figurines that were found all across Europe and beyond. I already posted about the figurines when I talked about the clay figures I made as part of The Anatomy Lesson body of work. Mostly, they are described as depictions of women, displaying the same body shape with the widest point at the abdomen and the female reproductive organs exaggerated. Oftentimes other details, such as the head and limbs, are neglected or absent which leads the figure to be abstracted to the point of simplicity. The heads are often of relatively small size and devoid of detail. Some may represent pregnant women, while others show no indication of pregnancy. There is also an more analytic study of the figurines as diamondlike structures, showing how much these figurines are in fact almost 'one and the same', considered mostly as a symbol of the cycles of nature, fertility, birth, and women as the bearers of life therein.
That schematic study totally resonates with the construction of my diptych, emphasis on womb, full belly, women as bearers of life, the diamond structure translates in flower structure in my paintings. I suddenly felt totally immersed in and connected to my primal roots in that ancient palaeolithic European, matriarchal (aka egalitarian) culture. And I felt completely comforted.
Apparently Gustave Courbet's well known 1866 painting was meant to be viewed in a private setting of cigar smoking friends (my fantasy), considering the highly erotic subject matter. Only later, in 1995 it found its way into the Musée d' Orsay on view for the public. Theorists use it as an example to discern between 'nude' and 'naked' in art and the painting has also been the object of feminist interpretation, response, critique. There's the Deborah de Robertis 'Mirroir de l'Origine' series and 'L'Origine de la Guerre,' by Orlan. There's the activist-artist group Guerrilla Girls' poster campaign in 1984 aimed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum - 'Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?' - denouncing the amount of male-produced female nudes that were in the museum, as well as the museum’s role in continuing art’s gender disparity. In The Anatomy Lesson, I also play with the title of Courbet's painting. I use it to title my clay stamps, as they turned out to resemble the world map, and in the monochromatic 'Pre Existing Condition' diptych. I'm looking forward to how the two panels will look together once finished as mirrored companions. By its design I'm addressing the multiformity of the/a? female naked body, deconstructing it as shapes and shadows, making abstraction from the color of flesh, kaleidoscopically, a challenge of 'the (male) gaze'. My focus is on the woman's womb, I emphasise the swirly, flowery - ha! O'Keeffe - look of the grey shapes against the background. It's from that depth that the spiral shoots out, not from the vagina, with that stance challenging Courbet's 'L'Origine du Monde.' After all, all of us as fertilized eggs must attach to the lining of the uterus and not all fertilized eggs successfully implant. And even if they succesfully attach, they can be lost. With my diptych I'll complete the large sized paintings in my body of work 'The Anatomy Lesson' and finish the project this year. It's a feminist art project (as long as male artists are referred to as 'artists' and female artists as 'women artists,' I'll be making feminist art, just saying). The project is based on the 16th century textbook by Andreas Vesalius and focusses on the way women's bodies were and are still seen in art and science. I hope to release the works next year or mount an exhibit with them.
In Belgium, we went back in lockdown on November 2nd. This time I decided to make a visual diary, documenting my mood, the news, happenings in and around the house. 'Every day I write the book,' to quote Elvis Costello--every day I make a page, a painterly print, a drawing, a collage, a pastel painting with whatever I have at hand. So far I have 15 pages, I'm still working on today's. The progress is documented in a daily reel on instagram, feel free to follow my book making there. When the lockdown will be over and my book is finished I will release it, hopefully I can sell it. It's my intention to donate the proceeds to a local organisation that fights poverty helping families that are all the more impacted by this crisis. It's a plan.
Last week I attended an online webinar, organised by fiveleavesbooks and moderated by Jenny Swann. Griselda Pollock talked about 'Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology,' in which she and her co-author Rozsika Parker question whether feminist critique of Art History effected any change in the way artistwomen's works are viewed, written about in the academic sphere and distributed into the world in art publications, exhibits etc. Her answers include words like 'appaling, pathetic' about the economics of publication that exclude artists women from being seen in books, catalogs and museums. Feminist art history doesn't share an equal place in the curriculum, because of the stereotypes associated with feminist art historians/artists/writers/critics. The circuit interlacing financial value, symbolic value and public cultural understanding of why it is important for the diversity of our world to be seen in our art world isn't fully cracked yet. (An impressive numerical study of the undervaluing of artistwomen has been done by Helen Gørrill in her 2020 book 'Women can't paint, Gender, the Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art.') This eschew situation deforms our imagination generation after generation and disinforms the public. Paraphrasing Griselda Pollock: "think of those little children who go to the museums with schools and do not see themselves there, think of those young women who don't see themselves 'represented,' who don't have the experience oh look this is someone like me hanging in a gallery and the painter as well, I could do that."
The webinar took place at about the time Kamala Harris made her VP acceptance speech in a white suit, honouring the suffrage movement. Her message to young girls:
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before. And we will applaud you every step of the way,”
This is not just an art world issue. All layers of public life matter and play a role in this social movement. A publication by a Belgian author Karen Celis 'Feminist Democratic Representation,' makes the argument for an intersectional update of women's group representation in electoral politics, incentivising elected political representatives to know more and care more about women, move beyond tokenism, to talk with them and not about them.
Vigilance, perseverance and keeping faith ('spreading it' as Biden says), insisting on inclusion, calling out misrepresentation is what will bring about change in how women shape their lives, their opportunities and help us all move towards a truly egalitarian society. All of us deserve to be seen, represented and taken into account. There's still lots of work to be done.
This is the diptych titled 'Empty Chair,' a work I made after I was quarantined for radioactive iodine treatment to nuke remnants of my thyroid cancer now 15 years ago. I wanted to portray my bed and the empty chair. Nobody could come into that room with me, not even nurses, let alone touch me. Yesterday caregivers posted a picture of a hospital bed for a Corona patient surrounded with gear and technology on social media to alert people of the gravity of the Belgian situation and their exhaustion. On Sunday, like every first Sunday of the month in some cities around the country, there were shopping events and people went shopping en masse. Shops were offering discounts because of the lockdown going in the day after. The media named it a 'spread event'.
I'm making a Lockdown Book this time around, a diary of sorts with Empty Chair on page 1. I'll add a work expressing my mood each day. Today on page 2, I added a painterly print. Let's crush the curve.
In 2005 I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Six months later with breast cancer. Both breasts were affected, I had two mastectomies. One in February 2006, one in May the same year, this one combined with a double reconstruction. In 2008 I started a visual diary on blogger about my cancer trajectories, titled painting2cancers. Going through the process I created a series of 'modified' paintings most of them based on existing artworks by male artists who painted women as subject. One of the paintings I modified was 'The Indian Dance,' a painting by Kees van Dongen. For an assignment I had copied van Dongen's work in art school years earlier. In 2009 I painterly amputated her left breast, wanting to convey that losing a breast didn't mean losing my vitality, or my womanhood as I internally experienced it. This month, I got the painting out of storage to restore damage and clean off dust and dirt. I recognised its energy but not the image. So I decided to do a painterly update and reconstruct her breast. It's a bit of a dilemma as it served as a visual record of a certain time in my life and of what happened to my body and it also served as an image to relate to for other women going through breast cancer. Emotionally though, it still feels like a self portrait to me and I want to let it progress with me as my life and my body changed. That's not to say that I will blur the scars, but even those are not that visible anymore on the outside, however much they define who I have become. It's on the easel now and I already 'see' how I'm fleshing out the figure more, the way I myself have fleshed out more into a mature woman's form with curves and more flesh in arms and legs. It's as if in 2009 I painted a young woman, too slender here and there ... And it's probably no coincidence that in The Anatomy Lesson, I again reflect on the way women's bodies are approached in art and science, by artists and researchers and doctors, men and women. I don't know about you, but I even see a visual formal resemblance in one of the paintings I made for that body of work, if only for the colour palette and its compacted energy.
Last week I finally finished the first panel of The Anatomy Lesson Triptych. The Anatomy Lesson is a feminist art project, sourced from the 16th century anatomist Andreas Vesalius illustrated textbook 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem' and in it I am reflecting on the way women's bodies were/are approached in art and science, specifically addressing the male-centric bias therein.
I started working on the first painting in December last year and am ready to call it done. The work is based on a painting I made for the #OBJECT! series. That series portrays real women and girls as they are experiencing everyday sexism, inequality, gender based violence. The piece I'm talking about refers to the 2017 Trump care bill as it was being written in the Senate by 13 men, not one woman. The bill would deny women access to the full range of reproductive health care options. Protests noted that being woman was viewed in that bill as a pre-existing condition and that the bill inferred a return to a kind of regressive gender politics in which men make the decisions about what happens to women’s bodies. A recent newspaper article discusses what the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg might entail for Roe versus Wade, the historic 1973 judgment that legalised abortion in the US, if Trump manages to get a third Supreme Court judge, resulting in a conservative six-to-three majority. Coincidentally, or not, in my country Belgium, the amended abortion legislation, initiated in 2016 (!), relaxing the legal period given to pregnant women before proceeding to abortion will be sent to the House Justice Committee. This as a condition for the participation of the Flemish Christian Democrats in the federal government that was being set up earlier this month. The party fervently opposes the revision. The legislation is thereby put on hold, to ensure that parliament cannot vote on and ratify it just yet. I guess 'the personal is very much political' in terms of women's bodies.
The composition of the subject matter of this first panel leans on the cover illustration of the 16th century textbook by Andreas Vesalius 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica,' in which he teaches anatomical structure of men and women. The illustration depicts Vesalius demonstrating the dissection of a woman's body, in an aula, attended by students and dignitaries of the city Padua, church and university. In the syllabus, Vesalius keeps referring back and forth between illustration and text, a first in anatomy, with which the theory became clearer and many ambiguities about the human body were cleared up. Vesalius spent time at my Alma Mater, the KULeuven. I've always been intrigued by anatomy and the anatomical theatre of the university, though not from his time, imagining the anatomical studies of bodies that went on there. The story goes that the woman whose body Vesalius dissected was a prostitute who had been condemned to death for murdering a boy she wanted to use the heart and small toe of to which, she believed, magical powers were attributed. She had tried to escape hanging by faking pregnancy, but a midwife had exposed her. On the original illustration, the rope marks are still visible. What a story!
This painting has been a trip. I learned a lot from working on it on and off. For starters I stressed the canvas with some unusual household tools as you can see in the progress video below. Then, only a couple of weeks ago, well into the project, I decided to get into the background and audience of this panel more. I put it back up on the wall, to do the auditorium architecture details I, thus far, was too 'resistant' to attend to, too fidgety I felt. Yet, I also remember feeling impatient first time around, which makes me unthorough, sloppy, too hasty in painting. Considering each fragment a partial painting on its own is a trick to help me focus my attention and patience for the details with respect to perspective, composition, foreground/background. The only thing left to do now, before releasing it, is straightening the painting's top edge and add eyelets to hang it on the wall, as it is, a bit like Flemish tapestry -I am after all, Flemish. Or in a box behind glass, but always unstretched.
Here's the Process Video: