Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Differing visions of Heroism

The portrayal of female heroism in Western art has, until recently, despite the occasional intervention of female artists like Artemisia, been largely dominated by males. Despite the examples of women in action illustrated  , the main part of the tradition often gives these supposedly heroic figures a curiously passive role. A good example is in the portrayal by Jan van Eyck (c.1390 - 1441) of St.Barbara, who sits passively besides the tower in which she was supposedly imprisoned by her tyrannical father. Nothing indicates her position as the patron of artillerymen and protector against thunderstorms. But then she only acquired these attributes because her father was struck by lightning and reduced to ashes after personally executing her following her conversion to Christianity. St. Barbara's story sounds highly unlikely, and it is not surprising to learn that she was recently struck from the official calendar of saints, on the grounds that her very existence cannot be clearly established. 

The contemporary artist Paula Rego (b. 1935) takes a very different approach in her portrayal of a clearly female angel. Waving a sword with a briskly confident air, this personage has all the boldness we attribute to Joan of Arc. Rego is famous for her sardonic sense of humor, and it is not surprising to find that this personage is presented  in a slightly deflationary way. The artist seems to admire the militant stance of her creation, while finding her also very slightly ridiculous. Yet it is worth noting that Rego's angel has an ambiguous side. In her other hand she carries a sponge, one of the instruments of the Passion-the sponge was used by an attendant soldier to offer vinegar to Christ when he was hanging on the cross. 

No comments: