Beauty and Vulnerability: The Pshycology of the Female Body
During the art show held at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in the form of “a Canadian month of May in Venice”, I had the opportunity to appreciate the works of Claire Weissman Wilks. Not being familiar with Weissman Wilks’ biography, I thought that the monotypes presented in her series “Out of the Cave”, were the labours of an artist born in the 50s. Many of the female artists, who were born in the 50s and became famous in the 80s and 90s, have been able to translate, through images of the female body, the perception that women have of their own physical forms in a world dominated by the male figure. As examples, I think of Malen Dumas and Kiki Smith, whose work has interesting tangents with Weissman Wilks’ works (born in Toronto, in 1933). It is having anticipated by 20 or more years the sensibilities of the artists above mentioned, that has resulted in the difficulty that Weissman Wilks encounters in having her works exhibited and known.
The monotypes exhibited for the venetian show, actually represent the more recent and direct expression of a search, which through the years has had as its theme the “psychology of the female body”, at that moment when it expresses itself in a most eloquent way: through nudity, sexuality, maternity. For example, maternity is the theme of the series of designs that CWW has used to accompany Jeni Couzyn’s poetry book, A Time to Be Born. However, if those works, which unreservedly depict the female body, translate the heart-melting (or tormenting, yearning) sentiment that binds mother to child in those delicate features that seem to echo, and amplify the joy of being close, or of physical contact, then, in the case of the venetian works, the opposite is true. The marks are definite (resolved), the contrasts are vivid, the tones, which are often dark, underline the restless nature of the depicted figures.
In the series of works presented in Venice, CWW presents the female figure in the nude, and in poses that simultaneously accentuate sensuality and fragility. On the one hand, the Canadian artist seems to emphasize a woman’s desire to display her own beauty (and her own sex appeal), on the other hand, she points out the vulnerability that is associated with a woman’s nudity. The combination of beauty and vulnerability – together with another element, that of being confined in a protected place, often present in paintings of the 1800s (think of Ingres’ Turkish baths and of the pompier artists of the late 19th century) - does not include a voyeuristic flavour, which usually and inevitably accompanies these types of representations when made by male artists. The expressive and non-natural use of colour, the blue under linings, and the unexpected highlights (shading), are all aspects which liken CWW’s monotypes to Marlene Dumas’ works. Ms. Dumas has been included amongst the new representatives of the sensibility expressed by the Canadian artist. Furthermore, CWW’s figures show a physical appearance which seems to have been abraded, deprived of their epidermal layer. This is partly due to the actual technique used to make monotypes, which dries the brushstrokes and further highlights the obvious signs left behind by the hair of the brush. Rather than being a layer of protection and a filter for the soul’s emotion, their skin amplifies them. This also happens to a few of Kiki Smith’s figures. The female figures in her sculptures seem to have been stripped of their skin, our body’s first natural defense, and therefore appear mainly exposed and sensitive. It is interesting that CWW has titled this series of monotypes “Out of the cave”. While observing the succession of images, one has the impression that the depicted figures - almost all done in dark colours – find refuge far in a cave, in a protected space which coincides with the space of the page, in which they, often in huddled positions, do their best to be contained. The protagonists have no intention of leaving this protected space, as their restless glances will attest to. But if the women the artist has drawn, seem to manifest a fear of the imagined comfortable warmth of the private cave where they are guests, they also seem to express gestural freedom from conditioning, in which female sensuality has a way of manifesting itself with ease and without affectations.