In this post I’m going to explain to you my inspiration and thought process behind my new painting Circe & Medusa.
I don’t think art necessarily needs to be explained, I personally quite like a little mystery when I look at a painting and try to make my own mind up about what it means. Sometimes though I am dying with curiosity as to what lead the artist down this particular path. You might like to first read my previous blog post about how my painting of Circe came about which I painted earlier this year and was the catalyst to a change of approach in my art.
When I visited the Royal Academy Summer exhibition this year I discovered the artist Melissa Kime. You can see her work on Instagram here. I was so inspired by her representation of women, they were so raw and womanly and so different to how women have been historically represented in art as idealised, innocent beauties, and having just finished my painting of Circe I decided I wanted to continue to represent women from a feminist perspective. I was also inspired to tackle a more ambitious multi figure composition.
I wasn’t quite ready to leave Circe as my muse yet as she is a good vehicle for representing women’s strength. I began to research other female characters from Greek mythology I could introduce. The more I read about Medusa the more intrigued I was. In a late version of the Medusa myth, by the Roman poet Ovid Medusa was originally a ravishingly beautiful maiden, “the jealous aspiration of many suitors,” but because Poseidon had raped her in Athena‘s temple, the enraged Athena transformed Medusa’s beautiful hair to serpents and made her face so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it would turn onlookers to stone. In Ovid’s telling, Perseus describes Medusa’s punishment by Minerva (Athena) as just and well earned.
So here was a woman who was punished by another woman for being raped! With this violation of her body she became a monster. I felt quite annoyed by how unjust this story was and got me thinking about how it represents some very misogynistic themes which are still widespread today.
- The blaming of women for men’s lust and consequent actions. Recently I listened to a report that the jury system is failing to convict rapists because of commonly held rape myths. For example that if a woman dresses provocatively or has been flirtatious or has been drinking alcohol the jury is less likely to see the offence as rape. You can find out more about this on the Rape crisis website.
- The hostility towards female sexuality. Athena (Greek name) also known as Minerva (Roman name) was a “virginal” goddess. By cursing Medusa she was casting judgement that she was no longer pure, and so therefore a monster. Historically in art and literature women have been categorised as innocent virginal maidens, sensible chaste women, loving mothers or wicked harlots. I believe that society is still more comfortable with these stereotypes but women are far more complex than that and capable of being a combination of these things or indeed all of them at once.
All this got me thinking about how different the story would be if it was written by a woman. I discovered an essay by by French philosopher and feminist critic Hélène Cixous called The Laugh of the Medusa, you can read the essay here
It is not an easy read, to summerise, she encourages women to write because Men have dominated religion, science, logic, reason, and writing, directly or indirectly, for hundreds of years. When I read the essay, in my mind I extended her ‘call to arms’ to painting as well because what she says applies to art too and I think she would approve. By writing, Cixous believes, women can reclaim themselves. Instead of being painted as weak and lacking, or as frightful monsters like Medusa, they can share the full wealth of their experience and redefine what it means to be feminine.
“And we believed. They riveted us between two horrifying myths: between the Medusa and the abyss. That would be enough to set half the world laughing, except that it’s still going on. For the phallologocentric sublation is with us, and it’s militant, regenerating the old patterns, anchored in the dogma of castration. They haven’t changed a thing: they’ve theorized their desire for reality! Let the priests tremble, we’re going to show them our sexts! Too bad for them if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren’t men, or that the mother doesn’t have one. But isn’t this fear convenient for them? Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”
I decided I would re-tell the story of Medusa in my painting and in my female version Medusa is still beautiful, the snakes are subtle and instead of being a curse they are her protection, the sexual violence she suffered will never happen again. In my story, these two mythological feme fatales live happily and free on Circe’s island Aeaea using their knowledge and skills to protect themselves against attack and making up Circe’s potions to turn men into pigs. In my painting the two women are dancing and holding hands in sisterhood. Athena can be seen represented by an owl. She is watching the two women and I like to believe she is being shown another example of how women should treat each other and she changes her ways. I have put the snake in the painting just as a reminder of Medusa’s ill fated alternative ending and because Athena is often associated with serpants. I put the lioness in the painting as it features in Homer’s “Odyssey” when he is describing the sailor’s encouter with Circe and because the Lioness also re-enforces the notion of feminine strength.
“After some time, the men reach Circe’s house and are surprised to find many fearsome beasts – mostly lions and wolves – slouching around and acting as domesticated as the tamest pets imaginable.”
My re-telling of Medusa’s story is not too concerned with the original mythology. I don’t want to offend anyone with my huge digresses, as far as I know Medusa and Circe did not feature together but I liked the idea of these two women being united and working together, so please forgive me. My version pleases me because I have seen how women can pull other women out of difficulty and despair. I have experienced this myself, six years ago I was living my life trapped in alcohol dependency, and all the mental and physical torment that that entails. It was the very patient, loving help of a female mentor that freed me and taught me how to live by her example. I have in turn done this for another female sufferer and so the chain continues.
Stylistically I pushed further on the journey I had taken with the Circe painting away from realism to a more styalised and imaginative approach. I didn’t want my representation of the women to be sexy or focused on the male gaze. The breasts are not shown and I gave them hips. I have distorted the proportions a great deal inspired by the artist Modigliani (read my article about the Modigliani retrospective at the tate). I have made hands very large to play with and exaggerate the perspective, also because hands are so expressive and in this painting are the main focal point. The heads are small to draw away from a traditional figurative painting where the face and eyes are the most important focal point. In this painting the faces don’t dominate the picture so you are able to take in the painting as a whole.