Several months ago, I read a striking sentence in a Chinese magazine ¡§A lot of female in Taiwan, girls or women, are under the nightmare of losing weight and being thin¡¨. I was overwhelmed and astonished at that moment because I found that I was also one of them! Even though I knew exactly that the standard of being thin, which is equal to beautiful, is totally unfair and twisted, I couldn¡¦t resist this kind of trend and myth existed in our society and also in people¡¦s mind about body and beauty. It seems that those who are fit and slim are more superior and draw much more attention in our society, whereas those who are plump often feel shame about their bodies through people¡¦s constant remind. The idea of not being able to control our bodies as our free wills but has to follow certain standardization makes our bodies become another form of ¡§signifier¡¨, in which people can decode. Pre-Raphaelite paintings, though belong to 19th century¡¦s concept about female bodies, say the same situation and argument of how people, including women themselves, look at female bodies. Can women, who are the ones that own their bodies, have the right and power to claim or convey something, like attention, freedom, confidence or power etc through their bodies? Or are women, as the ones who are looked at, only objects and are passively manipulated or decoded by others(either men or women)? This paper, therefore, will try to come up with possible interpretations for the above questions, mainly from the paintings and evidences of "Jane Morris" to see the relationship between female body and power.
Firstly, I¡¦ll use three paintings of Jane Morris to analyze
the common characteristics and spirit of PR women. The three paintings
"La Pia de' Tolomei," "Pandora" and "Proserpine" accidentally use Jane
Morris to illustrate other women¡¦s stories.
|The first painting "La Pia de' Tolomei" portrays a poor woman Pia being imprisoned by her husband and dies of disease and desire. Here, the huge shape of Jane Morris is the main focus of this painting. Her body occupies the main space and gives people a sense of breathlessness as if she is caught without way out. The woman seems to sit there, musing something that is unpredictable without too much facial expression and gives people feelings of mystery and loss. Yet, with so many symbolic decorations within the painting, they seem to echo with the character¡¦s mind and help us to decipher the picture more clearly.||
|We see Jane Morris sits under the green ivy with her head poses aside. The green ivy above, which may symbolize as life, seems to be ironic as she is caught within the picture and her own situation. The gray flying birds at the upper left side, which the model averts from, gives people a connection that she is afraid of seeing those flying birds, which she is longing to but can¡¦t reach. As the red thread tangles on her upper body suggests the same feeling of burden and frame. Finally, we see a book(might be Bible) and a necklace(with the icon of crucifix) aside, yet, it¡¦s obvious that even the holy spirit can¡¦t bring her salvation since now she is casting them aside and looks wondering. Back to the main figure herself with her fingers crossed, she seems to convey the message that she¡¦s fidgety inside. The whole picture, even with a huge female body, says little of her power and confidence but loss and passivity.|
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Pandora, 1869
|The second painting "Pandora"
is even striking with the huge figure being framed in the painting. Now
the sensuous woman, with equal plump body and flowing hair, is carrying
the box containing ¡§hope¡¨. What strikes us more,
however, is not the huge body but her facial expressions with wondering,
melancholy eyes and the sad shape of her mouth, as if she is begging something(maybe
hope or forgiveness) from the specters. Again, the crossed fingers, which
hold the box in front of her bosom reveal that she¡¦s not
at ease or confident. The painting, therefore, gives people a sense of
sympathy and loss but not hope or power.
But why do women are shaped this way? And as patrons, either men or women, how do we decipher the paintings? Before answering the questions, we shall look firstly the different ways of reading and positions suggested by Berger, that is, a painting full of sighs and words, symptomatic reading and pleasurable reading (Berger). The first way of reading is to decode the painting through the icons and signs within the picture. Here, it seems that the readers become the objects of the painting since we can meaningfully interpret a painting through our observation and the message of the painting. However, by doing this, we¡¦re also easily subjected to certain concept and rules. For example, we think a seductive woman must be sexy or plump. A pomegranate must refer to sex. Or when a woman is melancholy or framed, she is bound to wait for certain liberation or salvation. While applying for the first way of reading does make senses of a painting, patrons are easily caught within certain danger to say that PR women are physically attractive but passively doomed according to the frame, their countenance and the symbolic icons.
Secondly, people might read a painting through certain ¡§gaps¡¨ or ¡§absences¡¨(Berger). For example, there are people that might find clues to surmise the love affairs and ambiguity between the model and the painter. And that Jane Morris, in reality, is caught by her husband¡¦s control, while Gabriel plays the role of savior. With this way, patrons are like snoopers, having their own interpretation and guess.
Finally, a patron can always read a painting according to his/her own situation, background or taste etc, like ¡§Transvestitism¡¨ or ¡§Narcissism¡¨ (Berger 16). And with the basic information of the three different readings, I would like to analyze how men and women see PR women, respectively.
When men gazes on a PR painting, in what angles and what exactly do they see within the painting? These women are said to be attractive, but in what way do men think they¡¦re attractive? Is it the pleasurable reading of female beauty? Are they seduced by the visual gaze on these women? Do men sense a feeling of dominance and savior when they see these women are caught without any smile? If all the questions deserve positive answers, then men don¡¦t see power but rather submissiveness and passivity from these women. On the contrary, if men can look beyond these and see feminine qualities, women¡¦s unequal situations of being caught or any appreciation from the human beauty or painting technique, then PR women do claim certain power and message through their bodies and faces though they¡¦re silent and still.
What about female patrons? Do female patrons see similar things or interpretation from PR woman? Or as female, they can see things more far beyond men? There are women that might look at other women in a way that other people look at them. An interesting modern phenomenon that might associated with this is that when we look at so many ¡§famous Girls¡¨ or supermodels with perfect proportion, we are judged with this standard and also use this kind of standard to judge other women, since almost every woman is under certain regulation and concept from others. That¡¦s why some women might only see those plump, sexy PR women, with either appreciation, imitation(since men gaze and like them) or criticism, which can be possibly explained as female psychological reflection or projection of their own condition or notion toward other women. On the contrary, there are also other female that might see the melancholy expressions, and the huge body being caught etc, and then get feelings of sympathy or even self-recognition through icons or details of a painting. With these two extreme insight and viewing, we seem to get the consumption that whether women could use their bodies to claim power have a lot to do with how people think it is. Just like when we see the PR women, we can positively think that these women do convey certain message and draw our attention with their bodies and wondering countenance. Or we can also passively say that they are doomed with no way out (Of course these two statements are over-simplified about PR women , but here, I only use them as examples to show the relationship about body and power).
Whether women could freely use bodies to claim certain power(and not to be mis-interpreted, like ³\¾å¤¦¡¦s nudity for art)? Or we are always under certain myth and regulation, and therefore can only show little of power through our bodies(like there are people who feel superior of being thin, on the other hand, there is also criticism of their being used as tools or spectacles, like models etc)? There seems to be no definite or correct answers just as PR paintings have presented and argued constantly. However, one thing which is for sure is that female bodies do have certain ¡§power¡¨, either the power is active or passive, subjective or objective, depends more on how women see themselves or other forms of regulation(like men, society¡Xsad but inevitable) look at them. Being manipulated or to manipulate something are both possible ways of seeing the relationship between female bodies and power.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: The Viking Press, Inc. 1973.
Nancy Crubb. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Cross River Press, Ltd. 1989.