Posts tagged art history
Posts tagged art history
Today´s breast-gift from my friend Adriana Cerne.
Just for you Birgitta … Catherine of Siena drinking pus from a ill woman’s breast, her reward (centre) is the breast of Christ. You may already be aware of the hagiography of this particular saint but I’ve always thought it fascinating and saw it again and thought of you ;) x
Caroline Walker Bynum has written about the religious symbolism surrounding the breast - and milk as an almost ungendered substance in medieval times in Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (1987).
In the Middle-Ages, people sensed a connection between blood and milk, based on the cessation of menstrual periods during pregnancy and lactation etc.. Stories were abound about Christ appearing almost like a “breastfeeding mother” to his most faithful servants.
Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a scholastic philosopher and theologian. Apparently she was born as one of a pair of twins - her sister was sent out to a wet-nurse and died soon after. Catherine remained with and was breastfed by her mother, thus strengthening her odds for survival. Her mother, Lapa, had 25 children - half of whom did not make it. I am assuming some of these infants must have been wet-nursed, in order to enable her to have so many pregnancies, as lactation would have spaced the pregnancies because of its contraceptive effect (lactational amenorrhea). This practice of breeding large numbers of offspring was widespread amongst the Italian upper classes in medieval times. The “breeding economy” was based on wet-nursing, which enabled noble women to become pregnant with short intervals between births.
As an adult Catherine gradually stopped eating. Her only means of sustenance was part-taking in the Eucharist. Bizarrely, sucking puss from patients´wounds (including the depicted woman´s breast, whose affliction is uknown) made an exception to this anorexic regime. Significantly, she died age 33.
There is a most unusual mixture of issues represented in the figure, Catherine of Siena, and I´ve only touched on a few topics here: birth, life, illness, death, milk, blood, starvation, dedication, love, spiritual extacy, union and eroticism, gender and religion. This particular saint´s story makes for a bundle of interconnected and transmuting symbolic elements.
@ Natashja Blomberg
La Liberté Guidant le Peuple. 1830. Eugène Delacroix.
Henricus Engelbertus Reijntjens (1817-1900)
I´m reblogging this interesting image of a cheeky Victorian enjoying his art. It tells a story of the artistic orchestration of male looking and and displays contrasting femininities. The reclining nude (in the painting in the painting) gazes into the distance, opening up the field for what feminist art historian, Griselda Pollock, would call undisturbed “visual incorporation”. The breasts are presented as the main attraction, whereas the genitals are concealed behind the model´s thigh, and also covered by a light fabric.
The male figure is literally leaning into the painting-in-the-painting, having removed his hat and made himself comfortable. It looks as if he is holding a piece of cloth (handkerchief?) in his right hand, his glasses pinched in his left hand, while looking intently at the breast directly facing him. There is a heavy velvety green material draped at the bottom right hand of the painting, with a poster suggesting a reserve auction price, perhaps. So the man in the painting may be looking beacuse he is considering whether to put in an offer.
And the woman next to him on the left? Is she his wife or daughter? Is she a random stranger, too demure to confront the nude painting? Her buttoned-up black costume and prudish pose presents the opposite feminine ideal to the relaxed figure in the other painting. What is she thinking? Is that contempt in her eyes? She contains herself, while he does not.
Although this painting is by a Dutch artist, it made me think of a book by Alison Smith on art in Victorian Britain, entitled The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art (1996). In the introduction, she writes of the Victorian nude as “a subject fraught with contradictions”:
Revered as the most ideal form and subject in art, the appearance of the nude in public coincided with a widespread concern over sexual morality which meant that the genre could not be granted autonomy within the perimeters of high art. On the one hand, the nude embodied the ideal, the highest point of the pictorial artist´s practice; on the other, it was viewed as an active incitement to unregulated sexual activity.
(Smith, 1996: 1-2)
This particular painting, comes across as a particularly effective staging of this cultural ambivalence around the nude and the effects of looking at the nude. It shows the contrast between the Victorian woman and the Victorian nude - and the gendering of the gaze, which in this particular case of “art appreciation” is orchestrated as a male prerogative. She must turn her back to his enjoyment of the nude.
Surprise Facebook-gift! The photo on the left hand was taken by Suzanne McArdle, and kindly sent to me through a mutual friend, Tina Richardson. The photos on the right (profile) and at the centre are from The British Museum. The object in the photo is a mummy mask/cartonnage in painted plaster. 2nd century AD. The breasts of this female figure are accentuated by the jewellery around her neck and her costume.
“The anonymous woman wears a yellow tunic, leaving her breasts exposed. A band of cloth runs from the tunic between the breasts onto a colourful collar, at the bottom of which is a winged scarab beetle. In her hair is a garland of rosebuds. Her sleeves bear the protective wings of Isis and Nephthys, and images of other deities appear on the area of the mask behind her hair. These include Anubis and Re-Horakhty. The woman wears earrings, gold bracelets on both wrists, and two rings on the fingers of her left hand. She holds a sprig of leaves, perhaps myrtle.
The style of the earrings, bracelets, and rings suggests a date in the early second century AD; around that time this hairstyle, based on a traditional Egyptian one, became popular in funerary portraits. The style of the facial representation, the hair, and elements of the dress show strong classical influence, but the religious iconographical elements show that the fundamental concepts of the Egyptian way of death were still to be found well into the Roman era, with the scarab symbolizing both the solar cycle and the regeneration of life, and Isis, Nephthys, and the other deities protecting the owner.
Little is known about the specific findspots of such masks, although they seem to have been particularly popular in Middle Egypt. This object is unprovenanced, but it has been argued that it may be associated with the types of mask that covered a considerable part of the upper body, and which have been found from the Roman Period, in particular the later second and third centuries AD, at Deir el-Medina and Deir el-Bahari in the Theban region.”
Information from the British Museum website: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=170748&partid=1&searchText=breasts&fromDate=3000&fromADBC=bc&toDate=500&toADBC=ad&physicalAttribute=on&numpages=10&images=on&orig=%2fresearch%2fsearch_the_collection_database.aspx¤tPage=2
Diana Kirke Duchess of Oxford, third wife of Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford.
I´m reblogging this image, because it has an interesting historical context with regards to the rather obvious emphasis on the bosom.
The Stuart dynasty ruled England and Scotland from 1603-1714. This painting is probably from around 1665. Diana, initially Aubrey de Vere´s mistress, is depicted with a low décolletage, exposing one breast. This is an excellent example of renaissance fashion, which underlined the material classing of women´s bodies. To put it crudely: the wet nurse´s breasts were working (lactating) breasts, whereas the noble woman´s breasts were to be gazed at and desired.
According the Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Breast (1998) - from the middle of the 15th century into the 1600s there was an unprecedented eroticisation of breasts in cultures across Europe. Yalom interprets this as part of a kind of sexual (secular) liberation, linked to the Enlightenment.
Evidence of how the breast came to feature at a symbol of new freedoms can be seen in both art and literature at the time:
[…] breasts were celebrated as a part of the new sexual freedom that marked the Renaissance. Women of all classes became bolder in revealing their bodies [.] (p. 55)
Visual representations from the time, such as paintings and printed media, play with breast size and shape in order to make clear the ideal distinction between lower class women (wet-nurses and peasants with full, heavy, lactating breasts) and upper class women (aristocrats and royal mistresses with high and weightless breasts, almost like cotton wool balls):
The meaning of the breast in Renaissance high culture was unequivocally erotic. While 90 percent of European women functioned as milk bearers, the other 10 percent pampered their breasts and reserved them for their mates. (pp. 74-75)
Today, the symbolic function of the breast straddles both the maternal, nourishing dimension and the erotic aspect. For women who are mothers, this double bind can be seen to complicate the way in which they perceive their own breasts. It also complicates a society´s acceptance for public breastfeeding, in that an exposed maternal breast can be seen to represent something more than a medium for distributing infant nutrition.
What´s with Diana´s singular exposed breast? Why didn’t she go the whole nine yards and bare it all? Well…although it is hard to say what motivated artists and royals nearly four hundred years ago, I reckon it they did it just to emphasise the breast as erotic spectacle - the combination of concealment and exposure sort of accentuates the object in a titillating manner.
It comes down to several factors, most of which tend to overlap each other. It means that “the breast” is both an overdetermined organ and a social construct. On the one hand, breasts are part of the human anatomy, usually associated with women´s bodies (though not exclusive to women - more on this later). On the other hand, they are also simultaneously a culturally (linguistically) produced concept, carrying centuries´ worth of discourses, ideas and ideals, values and associations.
Breasts as sustenance - mammae and Mamma
Throughout history women´s breasts have primarily carried meaning because of their reproductive function: they sustain life in infants. Suckling the breast is a fundamental aspect of our evolution as a mammalian species. We wouldn’t be here today if it had not been for breasts. Until the end of the 19th century, when pasteurization was discovered, there were no safe alternatives to breast-milk. Other means of infant feeding were of course practiced, but the results were devastating, reflected in high infant mortality rates.
Headless goddess figurine nursing two infants. Sicily. 600 BCE.
The historical baggage that breasts carry through to our own time is therefore of a considerable weight. A milk-giving breast becomes a powerful symbol, representing the victory of life over death. In accordance with this life-sustaining function, breasts are prominent in sacred artifacts from regions across the globe: from the Venus of Willendorf (see below) to the nursing Madonnas in medieval and renaissance Italian religious art. Perhaps the ballooning breasts of post-modern culture are just re-worked versions of an ancient theme?
The goddess/Venus of Willendorf. cirka 20-18 000 BCE
Breasts and sexuality
Sigmund Freud, for one, was clearly aware of this historical and mythological aspect, as he based his entire theory of sexuality on the importance of the breast for the suckling infant. And the breast wouldn’t be what it is today, if it weren’t for Freud (more of this later).
Which brings us neatly to the other dominant idea about breasts: their erotic and sexual allure. Archaeologists and historians argue about early representations of the feminine, unable to decide whether these figures functioned as sacred or erotic objects. Although it is impossible to know today why a sculpture was made thousands of years ago and how it was put to use, we can speculate. The life-giving maternal properties of the female body are clearly present in representations of nursing. But there are a number of breast-baring figurines that do not reveal a clear reproductive symbolism, rather they appear to connote several things at the same time: power, danger, force and might, as well as overt fecundity and sexuality. You wouldn´t mess with a Minoan Snake Goddess!
Minoan snake goddess/priestess. Crete. Cirka 1500 BCE
Breasts in ancient and historical art
In terms of representations, breasts (and feminine bodies) have been depicted in art for a very long time indeed. Some of these ancient representations are clearly depictions of divine creatures, like the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar (see below).
Ishtar or Lilitu (Lilith). “Queen of the Night” relief. Babylonian (Iraq). 1800-1750 BCE.
The Sumerian goddess Inanna is the goddess for sexuality and fertility but she is not a mother goddess: she is a divine, powerful, childless creature. Ishtar and Inanna also bear relations to the Hebrew mythological character - the demonic Lilitu or Lilith. It is sometimes unclear which of these divinities is represented in art works from the period - in other words, they might be seen to represent cultural variations on a similar theme.
The Lady of Galera (or Astarte). Spain. 7th century BCE.
This sculpture is special: the breasts are have holes which allow milk to pour out of Astarte´s body and into the bowl she is holding out. There would have been wax plugs inserted into these channels, and warm milk poured into her head. The hot milk would then melt the wax plugs and pour out of her nipples in an astonishing display.