Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

On the Female Form in Art

Posted in art by Jason Gray on December 15, 2009

edvardmunchmadonna“Madonna” by Edvard Munch

The female form is synonymous with art, especially, modern art. Seeing how each artist treats the image of woman is sincere to how each of them approach their own work, or styles of working, respectively. Of the five artists that I selected for this examination (Picasso, De Lempicka, Modigliani, de Kooning, and Munch), the fact that De Lempicka is a woman is irrelevant, as is the fact that her painting is the only one to focus on the face, she also painted nudes. In fact, the sexuality of the painter is likewise irrelevant; this despite Picasso’s fervent misogyny and Modigliani’s affair with his model, Jeanne Hebuterne (if this discussion’s intent was to analyze the reason for this subject in each painting, then of course this last statement would be more than obsolete). For instance, who can doubt the similarity in context between Picasso’s “Two Friends” and De Lempicka’s “The Green Turban”?

1164586557_small-image_pptwofriendssm“Two Friends” by Pablo Picasso

00000886_716682“The Green Turban” by Tamara De Lempicka

However, what is truly fascinating, is how each artist works the form and the story into stylistic components. It may be redundant to observe, but the fact that each of these paintings renders a common form (that of woman; treated in each case like something of geometry, to be intersected by approach and composition) is something unique to art. The basis that we can analyze style in this way is unique, whereas, in other forms of art, like literature or music, style is obscured by subject; in other words, in writing, a woman subject is only different from any other woman subject by establishing differences of context, never by the style of the writing. Likewise, Lord Henry Wotton (from Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) and Romeo Montague (from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”) are obviously very different characters, although both men. However, their differences are established not by the writer’s style, even though both wrote in different styles, but by differences of character, written through descriptive phrases. One can look at the style of each writer, and analyze that, but it does not change the character of the subject, at least not so much as in painting. Consider Modigliani’s “Gypsy Woman” with that of Munch’s “Madonna”.

baby“Gypsy Woman with Baby, 1919” by Amadeo Modigliani

Instantly, each woman is recognizably different from the other. One is clothed, one is not, one has a child, one does not; those are the characterizations, like in literature. But, how each artist renders these women in their own way tells even more.

Considering parts of the female form as compositional elements, like an angle, or a curve, etc., allows each of these artists to also interpret these women without regard to their personalities. On the surface, without regard to stylistic allusions, or rather without referring to them specifically, each image of woman is fully realized and emotionally intelligent, in a way that suits the subject matter, yet also plays with the natural softness and curvilinear qualities of the female body. Picasso’s “Two Friends” seem like logical fauna, fit to populate the picture’s cooley desolate environs, as do the women in each of these paintings to their own environments. This is, after all, brought about only when the from and the composition are in harmony.

What do these lessons express to us for DeKooning’s “Woman I”?

dekooning-woman-i-1950-2“Woman I” by Willem de Kooning

As a stranger in a strange land, de Kooning must have viewed the “modern American woman” with a sense of fascination typically reserved for observing a new animal in it’s natural setting. Certainly, he chose to depict his subject apart from its usual disguises in the printed media of the time (bright smile, friendly, subservient). Instead, he rendered this new discovery with its fangs and claws showing, which to him was more like the real women he saw “rummaging ferociously through the sale bin at Macy’s”.* Also, de Kooning’s women were women like those already in his life, his mother and his wife; women who could balance public persona with cooth independence, and sometimes, icy reserve.

In any case, the female form shares a long, symbiotic relationship to art, and by analyzing its presence and its style of depiction, sound insight can be offered into the artist who rendered it.

*quoted from “de Kooning”, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.


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  1. […] to take a bit of a break from the more rigid structure of my art-making, and focus for a while on a classic motif, the human figure. Among subjects for artists, there is almost nothing more answerable to the […]

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