Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tell Tale Venus: Finding the balance between beauty and meaning

Tell me about the theme…  I’ve looked for aspects of my life and work where I strive for balance - usually between beauty and meaning, which reminds me of a corny Kris de Burgh song ‘the head and the heart’.  It’s as I don’t trust Keats’ lines that 'beauty is truth, truth beauty/that is all. Ye know on earth and all ye need to know’ (Ode on a Grecian Urn).  I feel I sometimes sacrifice beauty for meaning.  There has always been this struggle between my head and my heart…a thing of beauty can make me weep but my head wants to know what it is about it that makes me weep.  I can’t accept the raw experience at face value.  

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus

1486 (Uffizi, Florence)

Ruskin rings more true, when he writes that ‘the twin purposes of art are to make sense of pain and to fathom the sources of beauty’ ("On Possessing Beauty" Alain de Botton).  I would tweak it slightly to include, as well as make meaning. Art has tended to define my criteria of beauty.  Nothing is more beautiful and enigmatic in terms of woman, or the aesthetics of painting, than Botticelli’s Venus.

About a decade ago writing my MA thesis on how art can become the container as you explore feelings, thoughts and your experience, I created a series of montages using a reproduction of the image (in reverse) and a photocopier to depth my own experience of woman/Venus, where in one state of the montages, I clothed her in a pinkish garment with a flower motif. 

image montage by Joni Cornell

As a ‘Venus’, a ‘heavy woman’ on the threshold of old and new experience, I felt too naked and so I clothed the Venus/me. This ‘clothing’ is not just physical but goes to the core of my psychological experience (with needing to hide sometimes). What I’ve made for the Balance exhibition is another representation of Venus’s garment.  I’m well aware that the garment is limited by my skills, vision and the functionality of my ‘wearable’ art pieces.  The tunic is earthy, and bound by notions of nakedness and modesty ('would/could I wear it' is something I ask myself as a maker), as well as my ability as a felt maker.  The mantle attracted because it's circular in shape and twin in function but whether you wear it as a collar or peplum, it is another layer with which to protect.

Working with the colour pink too – has meaning – pink for flesh (but it’s not just pink but ‘rose quartz’ with grey/black worked into the colour-way and I like this aspect of ‘dirt’ or soiling in the pink like myself as a Creole - not quite white but 'coloured'); and red (for passion and blood). When I was young, I couldn’t abide wearing pink and red together, until an artist suggested they were analogous and naturally went together.  My partner’s reaction upon seeing the finished ensemble was ‘it’s so pink…and frou-frou...’ 
‘But pink is Venus’ colour,’ I retorted. 
'Venus wouldn’t wear pink.' 
'Pink is the colour of the heart chakra and love…but in any case it’s not entirely pink!!!' 
I suppose it is ‘frou-frou’ compared to what I usually make. I like the idea that Venus’ garment (if she wore one as usually she is scantily clad) would ‘rustle’ (it's hard to make felt rustle) and be feminine and showy.

It is not irrelevant that I am reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time which has reminded me of my own bond with a Botticelli painting, as well as the way art functions in my life. Monsieur Swann, you see, falls in love with Odette de Crecy because she reminds him of the Botticelli ‘type’. He puts a reproduction of the painting (which incidentally is not The Birth of Venus), on his bureau rather than a photograph of Odette, which is really quite an odd thing to do but doesn’t seem at all odd to me.  As a Creole woman, I can never be the Botticelli type but that has not extinguished my fascination and love for the painting. Venus was born of the foam as a grown woman – the painting by Botticelli is steeped in symbolism and redolent with meaning.  There is the neo-platonic reading of the painting which Botticelli’s contemporaries would have held looking at the painting - Venus’ physical beauty leads to thoughts of the Creator and divine love. It also tells us about the powerful Medici family who commissioned the painting and whose patronage was the source of the flourishing of the arts and sciences during the Renaissance.  If not for Lorenzo, Botticelli wouldn’t have had the freedom to explore his ideal of beauty and his love of the sensual. Most of the painting’s meaning is lost to us now, unless we seek it out.  It’s not just a beautiful image but you could if you wanted, ignore its meanings, see it as a beautiful painting about a beautiful woman, with her strange but beautiful attendants.  You could but I can’t...Aside from the art historical meanings the painting holds personal meanings for me, which have changed as I’ve grown into adulthood and changed. The thing about art is that not only can it inspire love (as with Monsieur Swann), but as I’ve found, it can companion you as you experience life, and it can console when no one else can.

mantle laid out ready for wetting

mantle at pre-felt with roses attached

Tell me about the making… in the garments (tunic and mantle) I’ve used vintage fabrics, including a 50 something year old dressing gown that my grandmother made for my mother, which she wore for her lay-in bed after she gave birth to me.  At one time I wore it too, as I tried to encourage a swelling in my womb.  For several years now I’ve been upcycling using this dressing gown, which I’ve always found quite an ordinary garment though it has enormous sentimental value as my only family ‘heirloom’.  I’ve included it in a story cloth, made a dress, and have cut up bits and felted them into scarves depicting ‘home’.  This ‘upcycling’ is my way of allowing the original garment to live on in different forms.  I have also included fragments from a 20 year old skirt (oh the stories this skirt could tell about a mid life crisis) and left over bits from a silk pair of pantaloons I made around the same time.  They are fabric fragments from life, fragments of a life of which I've spent time making.  I tried out the 3-dimensional roses on the mantle first to see whether I would like the effect when the fabric was fully felted. 

my grandmother's

tight stitches

running stitch

sewing running stitch

Tell me about  - the balance between beauty and meaning…  Reflecting on my grandmother making the dressing gown (and of course my mother as a young woman) as I unpicked the seams, and trying hard not to tear it in my frustration with the tight stitches.  ‘Oh Grand-mere, how could you stitch so tightly?’ I've asked under my breath.  Yet I've mirrored the small stitching in my running stitch in silk and cotton threads.

Then I’ve opened up where the seams have been and found the print still bright and new. Once I would have found this not beautiful, just as I found the Venus de Milo not beautiful because she was not ‘whole’.  As a young girl I couldn’t abide ruins or broken statuary.  I congratulate myself on my tastes having grown up. We are like this too – broken and not whole, not beautiful and beautiful and life is about coming to terms with these aspects of the human condition. Botticelli’s Venus is so perfect (yet, not quite – the painter has drawn her flat rather than naturalistic and the painting is like a frieze); and what I like is that she stands on the threshold as a new born (like any new born) with the world at her feet and all her attendants at her beck and call. Here is a place of ‘balance’ – this in-between, this liminal experience of threshold, this between breath experience that Buddhists love…the idea of balance is a paradox.  It’s a moment, and broken when the next step or breath is taken (an aha moment indeed - can you see how a painting if you allow it, can become personal and lead you towards making meaning?) … 

And my grandmother, who has been dead almost fifty years, well she makes her presence felt (no pun) not only in my heart, but in work that I make.  (I think I have enough of the dressing gown left for one more piece in the future). 

tunic at pre-felt

finished tunic

(back view)

finished tunic

(front view)

Venus with her attendant

finished tunic

(back detail)

finished tunic

(without mantle)

finished ensemble

mantle as peplum

finished ensemble

mantle as collar

Venus' ensemble modeled by Natalie Cooper, attendant tunic modeled by Kym Coates.

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