what is a question?

The new title of this blog, “what is a question?” embodies the attitude I intend to display through my writing. Playful and quizzical, the phrase elicits an ironic kind of self-awareness. When I ask, “what is a question?” I am engaging in the act of questioning itself, thus providing the prime example of a question. In asking my question, then, I am in fact yielding the very answer.


The “what is a question” phenomenon highlights the importance of questioning, which exists in nearly every discipline I can think of. Through academic pursuits and intellectual ruts, I have found that there really is substance to a question, all on its own. I do not believe that obtaining a precise answer is the sole purpose of asking a question. One inquiry might serve as a gateway to alternative, and oftentimes more curious, strains of thought. For instance, say my original question is, “Why did Titian use a rich blue color to paint the Virgin Mary’s robe in Ascension (1516-18)?” After tunneling down a few rabbit holes, I might end up with the more fundamental, “What is the relationship between economy and religion?” (see question map below).



I have also found that reflecting on my own patterns and propensities during questioning yields serious insights. For instance, why might I ask, “What does philosophy owe the work of art,” as opposed to, “How does art contribute to philosophy?” Both questions engage with identical subjects, yet they target different agendas—which are usually informed by personal or academic motives. Debriefing how my own assumptions sneak into turns of phrase or lines of questioning hold me accountable and self-aware of biases.

Long story short, confusion and curiosity lead to discoveries. Although questions don’t always lead to the exact answer you may have been hunting for, they hold value in their own right. And so that’s what I will be doing a lot of on this blog: asking questions. I will stretch, deconstruct, and combine questions concerning art history and philosophy in order to better understand their complex relationships with technology and scientific fields.

With that said, stay tuned for updates in blog vibes and content!


To Confront the World at Large

Warm snot oozes from my right nostril and pools in my grooved philtrum before I rub it out with my sleeve. I look at the wet stain it leaves on the fabric. I turn my attention back to the yellow fruits before me, inhale the sharp, fresh scent of citrus. I kneel to pick lemons in our front yard. Overwhelmed, I cried as I processed, for the first time, not only the vastness of the external world and of my internal consciousness, but the astonishing depth of my father’s insights and wisdoms.

Together we walked along tame cement blocks of a quaint neighborhood in December. Outside it was crisp but unharsh. The clouds, thin and whispy, wafted overhead.


Frederic walks beside me. He is tall with a wide chest and shoulders, walking with his big hands tucked into the pockets of dark blue jeans. He occupies his space, swaying slightly with each deeply rooted step forward. When he speaks he looks ahead pensively. At other times he glances up to acknowledge a tree’s branches set against bare sky; thick black eyebrows raise, pushing the skin on his forehead into folds that have been long etched by past concerns, emotions and expressions. Brittle leaves ricochet on the sidewalks around us, making skidding noises that carry with the wind.

We walk this way for some time.

Frederic speaks of art, because he knows I like to talk about these things. He sways gently in the pendulum tempo I have always known. He sways as he says art is itself an act or process of transcending the soul, or the self.

In this case ‘art’ is to be understood in broad, inclusive terms. Art is fundamentally lodged in moments, experiences. Moments that you notice beauty in your surroundings, others, yourself, or that you feel an acute awareness of a holy moment. Or else, it can be an experience that pierces through fortified layers of denial or reasoning and touches in you something you didn’t know was there, or knew had been there for a long time. When we transcend like this, in the moment, the feelings such experiences elicit produce the kind of effect that artists wish to capture, and sometimes reinterpret. Taken in this sense, Frederic says we are all artists in the moments that we notice this effect on us.

As I listen to the leaves, my breath, and his voice, I think about my father’s masterful explanations of things, about how he is an artist to me in this moment.

IMG_0048I had followed a philosophy course on radical skepticism that left me with more questions than answers, the doubt chipped away at my clarity of mind. I began to question everything. Like a child, I learned anew, deconstructed entities to look inside, just to feel the security of the certainty in a truth. I second-guessed the origins of my knowledge, all the while scrambling like eggs to situate my position in relation to the external world (what am I doing here? what do I have to offer?), and, in relation to the seemingly infinite abundance of life on earth, of all objects within it. The universe in its vastness dwarfs me, a small phenomenon in the scope of time-space continuum.

Churning, stuck, distressed, I let my father’s words pour over me, where they lodge in the crevices of a heart pulled taut. I ease a little, let my heart become flexible.

Art is a holy thing. Expression is old as time. Why do choirs sing at church services? Or rather, why do any religious actions place such emphasis on chants, song and music? It is a strife for connection to something heavenly, beyond. It is a human utterance of divine expression, in the best way we know how. Some continuous shared sensibility among the human race has produced similar tendencies to create. Create pleasing sounds, images, stories, objects. Creation, all senses of the form, itself has been continuous from the conception of human life.

IMG_0660Near the end of our walk, I notice the lemon tree in our front yard imploding with fruit. At home, I take off my shoes and walk to the kitchen for a large white bowl. Cool tiles press up through the soles of my feet. Before I go outside, my father warns me the bush has thorns. He indicates the thorns’ size by an open pinch of empty space between his thumb and forefinger. That big. I register and nod.

Here we were, having just emerged from a conversation about the possible meaninglessness of life, and how humans cope with the question. Meanwhile Frederic insists, with genuine force, on the treachery of thorns no larger than thumbtacks. I head for our front yard, choking on my confused emotion.

The absurd sweetness of his concern mingles with the sting of the conceptual immensities I grapple with. Hot salt droplets leap from my eyes and roll down to the corners of my mouth, I taste them. Sour. By the time I reach the tree, I am consuming my own tears, suddenly very conscious of my body, of its outward physical response to an emotion fabricated entirely by an internal phenomenon. Connection between body and mind, I reflect, is almost other-worldly.


I step outside of myself, see the girl’s cropped brown hair and sharp eyes, and beside her, the tree’s gnarled brown stump and sharp thorns. Ochre orbs bulge from thick beds of luscious foliage. Some, having grown large, bent branches under their weight so that graceful stems suspended small suns in space just millimeters above the emerald lawn.

She racks her brain to recall the knowledge she possesses, and clutches to the gravity of those truths. She blinks to think of the knowledge she does not possess, may never possess. Staccato spurts of wind rustle the lemon leaves, they twist and flicker. She shakily musters to fathom the planet’s sheer immensity, what to make of it. She looks at the lemon tree in the front yard and she looks back at her childhood home where her height is etched on an upstairs doorway, alongside her sisters’. It is an early December afternoon; the soil is lukewarm and spongy under her knees as she picks lemons.

Warm snot oozes from her right nostril. Amid the silence of the world and the sound of her breaths, she confronts the world at large.

The Beauty Behind Madame Bovary

MB2My aged professor’s hunched figure hobbles through the door each morning, usually muttering a hello to the class or launching directly into a ramble about our novel. He positions himself behind the dark wooden podium, which obscures most of his body. We only see the brown leather shoulder pads on his green canvas coat and the snow-white tufts of hair on his head, and everything in between. As he talks he alternates between English and French.

“I don’t know why, I just feel like speaking English more today,” he muddle-stutters. “I don’t know… I just feel like it.”

He tends to repeat things twice, sometimes, too.

He glances occasionally at a loose stack of yellow lined notepad paper with sharp crisp lettering in blue ink adorning its surface. In between long winds of explanations, he coughs, clears his throat abruptly, and with vigor (a jarring phenomenon to witness at first, but I have, oddly enough, grown rather used to it at this point). Besides my professor’s idiosyncrasies, the insights I’ve unearthed from the novel we are tackling, Madame Bovary, have made a lasting impression in my mind.

Up to three times per class, my professor interrupts his thoughts mid-sentence to digress that Madame Bovary is the best novel ever written in the history of French culture, that it is a phenomenal effort by the author, Gustave Flaubert, to engage in modern methods of expression in literature.

“This book is about the sadness of life, really.” he sighs, he blinks, and continues, “I don’t think young people should be allowed to read this book. It’s too harsh, too cynical.”

Under the guidance of my peculiar professor, I learned some fascinating information I will now relay back to the universe via cyberspace. Here goes :

Madame Bovary was published in 1857 by Gustave Flaubert, when Paris looked like this:

A brief summary: Emma Bovary marries a gentle and well-meaning, but rather dull and boring bafoon of a husband, Charles Bovary. By way of rather shallow ‘love’ affairs and spending more money than she has, Emma lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of her provincial life.

MB3Flaubert went on trial for the promiscuity of his writing the year the novel was published. Remember that film did not exist quite yet; it wasn’t invented until nearly four decades after Madame Bovary’s publication. Naturally, novels had greater impact on the literate populations of the time. Literature was one of the most primary and vivid methods of story-telling for the public. Emma’s intense problem of desire to escape the boredom and insufficiency of life, and Flaubert’s expression of her dissatisfaction and frustration with her life, was thought to arouse the passions of the middle-class society of women. The novel was charged as “an outrage to public and religious morals.” 

As a brief side note I want to acknowledge that this work was indeed written from the perspective of a woman by an upper-class 36-year-old French white man, and so it goes without saying that it cannot contain the subtle, unspoken and inexplicable, nuances that form the complete whole of a womanhood. Accepting these facts and moving on, I chose, for this reason, to focus on reading the novel not so much as an authentic account of gendered experience but more so as an intimate look into life for a woman in the time period, and the nature of the patriarchal system she finds herself as victim of.

In class we only briefly touched on the feminist tones of the novel. My professor has not explored the concept in further detail on the grounds that there is deeper meaning behind the novel as an aesthetic document. He says that all great works transcend sex and gender. Which I have decided that I do agree with, however, I think that for certain works, a specific sex may resonate on a different level with the truths of that story because of particular sensibilities. He claims that women probably get more out of Madame Bovary that men do, which I have also decided that I would like to believe.


Honoré de Blazac

Flaubert’s literary predecessors were Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo, whom wrote in a styles referred to as “realism” and “romanticism,” respectively. They entail long winding descriptions and the monumentalizing of objects and people, as well as emotionally charged, dramatic exchanges and experiences.

To be modern is to make a clean break with the past. If the past of literature consisted of didactic realism and inflated romanticism, then Madame Bovary is a satire of not only contemporary systems and society, but of past literary styles themselves. Madame Bovary cuts directly to the bare, stark core of the bleak reality of things. Furthermore, this means that Flaubert’s novel is not so much called “modern” for the content of the story, but the way in which the story is told. The surface plot of Madame Bovary is banal as can be, considering that stories about adultery are as old as books themselves.  


Victor Hugo

There are a number of ways in which Flaubert’s style exudes these bold jabs at the ridiculousness and dated-ness of the past while establishing some new experimental

1). He writes in imperfect tense, discards the safety net narrator.

This tense combines past tense and imperfective aspect (reference to a continuing or repeated action). It has meanings similar in English like “was walking” or “used to walk.” The ambiguity and vagueness of this tense leaves readers unsure of the exact order and timing in which certain actions of the characters are performed. This imprecision stems from a larger effort on Flaubert’s part to do away completely with the concept of the narrator. In past novels, the narrator was always established as an all-knowing figure who provided masses of information and insights about characters and the storyline. In this novel, the voice of the narrator is absent; Flaubert asserts that the narrator is no longer our friend here.

2). Ironic tone and distancing of past conventions

As is so concisely put by Dangerous Pages Redux, Madame Bovary is “a biting satire of the French bourgeoisie, the petty, social climbing snobs of the middle road…The novel comments on the trends of the time, using Emma as a mouthpiece to show France’s upwardly mobile middle class as unsophisticated, gaudy and materialistic.” One way Flaubert subverts the norm is through his extensive and obviously sarcastic use of clichés. During one of the exchanges between Emma and her lovers, for example, the couple discuss the colors of the setting sun and of music. The conversation continues to drone on this note of mockingly sappy dialogue. Flaubert presents clichés as a reflection of people’s suffering from a lack of originality and freshness in ideas. Flaubert italicizes terms in order to deliberately set them apart as words that he, for lack of better words, finds dumb. To distance his writing style from the romantics’, he purposefully dedicates an absurdly long chunk of text to the meticulous description of a ridiculous looking hat. This is his jab at past writers and their encyclopedic portrayal of objects and people. Talk about being shady.


Portrait of Gustave Flaubert by Eugène Giraud

3). ‘Flaubertian’ Lyricism

While some passages in the novel are bitingly satiric and ironic, Flaubert’s writing occasionally undulates into zones of poetic descriptions that have a melodic rhythm and project harmonious images. In other words, his writing goes beyond prose and towards the sensuous oscillation of a rising and falling pitch. For example, take the sentence:

“La pluie ne tombait plus; le jour commençait à venir, et, sur les branches des pommiers sans feuilles, des oiseaux se tenaient immboiles, hérissant leurs petites plumes au vent froid du matin.” (Partie Une, Chapitre II).

Here, we see that the “et” (“and”) acts as a break, in the sense that the portion of the sentence preceding the word is pronounced in a rising tone, and, the second portion of the sentence after the “et” is read to end in a falling, lower toned pitch. Each comma acts as a marker to change an octave. Hence with his ample use of semicolons and “et” to direct the melody of his words, Flaubert achieves a poetic form of writing.

“La phrase prend de l’ampleur,” says my professor.

It is for this reason that I must also be the barer of bad news for all non-French readers out there; to really get the full effect of the sing-song poetic quality ingrained in Flaubertian diction and syntax structure, one must read en Francais. Flaubert deliberately chose certain words in this language for not only their pointed meanings but the sound they make when they are uttered in the mind or aloud while reading.

4). Big themes

Emma suffers from a fundamental unhappiness deeply rooted in boredom, the banality and insufficiency of her life. To escape her suffering and attempt to transcend the limits of her desires, Emma falls hard for the fairytale ending she has read about in books, and becomes fully invested in insisting that these illusions appear in her reality. She is driven forth by the hope for Prince Charming to show up, for a life of adventure, for anywhere but here. Tangled in this net of solitary suffering and longing, Emma rejects both her husband and child, and centers her energy on herself. At the same time that Emma is portrayed as a bitter, unkind and cold person, the hopelessness of her dealing with her situation demands sympathy from the reader which Flaubert has managed to masterfully extract. Madame Bovary is captivating because of the complexities of both themes and character that is presents.


Madame Bovary (2014)

5). My favorite concept:

The passage from the novel that has occupied my thoughts the most as of late lies in Flaubert’s commentary about the limitations of spoken word. Interrupting a sparse dialogue between the characters, Flaubert injects a paragraph about the failure of words to capture and express, at times, the core of an emotion or thought. This got me thinking that all linguistic endeavors are man-made. They are not innate, they were not born with the Earth but with humans. Language and words are just a tool that humans made up in the hopes that the pronunciation of certain sounds in determined orders, combinations and tonal inflections would approximate, closely enough, the essence of a mood or idea that stirs inside of a person. But words can fail us sometimes, and that’s okay. It’s okay because this leaves some truths impossible to express. And that leaves some truths holy.

6). What to make of it

My professor triumphantly announced on the first day of class, “Ce livre n’est pas à props de Madame Bovary, mais de nous.” (“This book is not about Madame Bovary, but about us.”)

Flaubert has famously said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” (“Madame Bovary is me.”)

How do I reconcile these claims? Well, they are not mutually exclusive. Flaubert wrote this book partly in self-reflection and deep analysis of self, which he infused into Emma’s character and mentality. Yet this same mentality is what extends and connects to us all as breathing, thinking beings. In reading the novel, a certain familiarity of emotions will seep into your periphery and you will confront yourself. 

It is about Flaubert, and me, and you.

Header image: Photograph of 19th century Paris

Is it ever JUST a kiss?

It was just a regular day of museum visiting at the Beyeler Fondation in Basel, Switzerland. That is, until it wasn’t.

Danielle and I had just finished discussing some works in an exhibition featuring Wolfgang Tillmans’s photography, emerging from the show feeling very serious, very intellectual.

We trotted into the next room on our artsy fartsy high horses. In the following moments, we were knocked clean off our noble steeds. THUD THUD. Dumbfounded.

birdyThe space is large, white, mostly empty. There is a big square mirror propped against the right wall. It doesn’t hang but simply rests on the floor. On the left side of the room I recognize the polished gold surface that belongs to my favorite sculpture, Bird in Space by Brancusi. Right smack dab in the center of the room on the floor, sandwiched between the mirror and sculpture, lay a man and a woman kissing.

We don’t really know what to think.

The kiss is long and slow. I don’t embarrassedly look away like I normally do when I see these sorts of kisses between couples in public.

The man and woman appear to be in their late twenties or thirties. Both have tied back their brown hair in loose buns, some flyaway wisps of hair escape the elastic constraints. They both wear plain pants and shirts.

They move in a perfectly controlled slow motion, methodically shifting between positions of spooning, cradling, hugging, different forms of embrace. All the while they maintain an unbroken eye contact.

I, not usually a great admirer of excessive PDA (public display of affection), was completely mesmerized.

What made this so special? After all, we see people kiss and embrace all the time. Heck, and you sure see a lot more if you’ve been watching Game of Thrones. But these two fully clothed, regular people seared an image in my head, probably forever.

It was done tenderly and with such sincerity. Didn’t feel phony, didn’t present as a set-up. Those two could have been visitors just like everyone else and suddenly plopped down in the center of the gallery and there they were.

tinoWhat we were seeing was a presentation, Kiss (2002), created by Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal on display at the Fondation Beyeler during a limited time. Sehgal does not call his works “performance” or the participants “performers” because that might suggest viewers don’t play a role in his works, which they defintively do. Instead he calls them “constructed situations” and “interpreters.” His oral instructions and rules are interpreted by male and female artists who can usually sing, dance, and choreograph. The situations he creates are “immaterial and fleeting, the thing that truly matters being the viewer’s experiencing of the situation.” Sehgal gives an insightful talk on his inspiration, thoughts and motivations for creating Kiss which I link here.

Once Danielle and I were finished dusting ourselves off from our metaphorical fall and processed the situation as an art piece, we calmed down. We wearily re-mounted our high horses and started to analyze and discuss.

This act breached the boundary between performance and “real life.” Where does one make an exact distinction between the two anyway? The blurred line freaked me out a bit.

What a funky paradox. It feels private and intimate, yet other visitors and I were watching them do their thing safely from within the sanctions of a museum. Besides, this was not real…. right? It was a feeling of internal conflict I had never experienced before.

Danielle and I began to observe the other visitors filing cautiously into the room.

kiss3A teenage brother and sister blundered in. His gaze fell upon the interpreters, the color rushed to the tips of his ears and he twitched a sheepish smile. The siblings retreated to a corner of the room and with body language oozing of insecurity continued to watch in spurts of furtive side-glances. 

A young woman and her hunky beau strode in holding hands. As they registered the situation, they broke apart and perhaps unknowingly distanced themselves. She was very intent on watching the piece while he stood behind her and stole a glance at his watch. Heaved a sigh. 

Another couple -much older this time- hobbled in. They watched the embrace side by side for some time before pulling each other in close. A secret smile spread across her face and her eyes flickered in a way that gave away her nostalgia.

A father and his pre-teen daughter shuffled through the doorway, talking. She was facing him and saying something when he first discreetly spied the interpreters and made the decision to keep a fluid walking pace. She didn’t look around the room as they crossed, her eyes fixated on him the whole time. They disappeared in the other doorway.

Funny how a performance can unveil so much about its audience. Some were embarrassed, some drew together while others spread apart. Everyone kept an invisible radius of distance from the couple, and no one stayed long. I didn’t meet the interpreters, but I did meet the visitors in a sense.

It can be refreshing to not know what to make of an artwork at times, to be humbled by it, to have to work to comprehend.

Thank you, Sehgal, for the challenge. I hope I stumble on another equally as curious “situation” again one day.

Félix Vallotton vaut le coup

Enter Kunstmuseum, Bern. Ascend ancient spiral staircase. Arrive exhibition entrance. Traverse three doorways. Enter Room 4. Pause. Gasp. Gawk.

The current exhibition on display is “Van Gogh to Cezanne, Bonnard to Matisse: The Hahnloser Collection.” As we wind through the rooms at the beginning of the exhibition, we are greeted by the oeuvres of all these big-name artists.

But nothing compared to the experience of emerging into Room 4. Nothing. I’m not even being dramatic.

Sometimes when I walk into a gallery space, I scan the room first and make a beeline for the piece that compels me most. Why not? There’s no shame in seeing what you damn well please, and isn’t that the whole point? Yet this tactic failed tragically in Room 4.

Every single piece was equally as compelling, and like some form of medieval torture I could feel my conflicted body torn in all directions. Where should I go first?

Shimmering landscapes and radiant portraits galore. All by Franco-Swiss artist Felix Vallotton. Although all are dazzling, I will contain my discussion to my favorite piece which I chose according to purely personal preference.

Detail 1The star of the show, the cover of the exhibition catalogue. The 1913 painting La Blanche et la Noire is as beautiful as it is mysterious. A harmonious symphony of color graces the canvas and instilled in me a sense of awe. The space is divided horizontally into two color blocks: a bright teal blue and a stark white. The brilliant hues complement the women’s yellowish-peach and walnut brown skin tones. The black woman’s fire orange head wrap against the teal background enhance their vibrancies, while the white woman’s flushed red cheeks and auburn hair mimic the black woman’s beaded jewelry.  

Even on a purely visual basis, the painting pulsates with an almost inexplicable radiance.

Now, it may seem odd to call such a well-lit, realistically rendered piece mysterious, but I mean this in the sense of the content. What in the heck is going on in this image exactly? The black woman sits casually with her arms folded over her knees, torso leaning forward, head turned and shown in profile to look in the white woman’s direction. The burnt end of the cigarette that is nestled between her lips suggests she has been sitting and smoking for a few minutes. Is she going to ash that soon? What’s the next move?

The white woman casually reclines, head propped on a pillow. Her torso is a creamy yellow while her extremities flush pink. But it’s her intense sanguine facial complexion that made me question: is this a healthy glow or is she actually sick? Her stance can now be read as casual rest or exhaustion. She gazes out in the direction of the black woman from underneath her droopy eyelids. Her face, like the black woman’s, appears pensive or altogether void of any expression.

Notice that for both women, I do not claim that they are looking directly into each other’s eyes or faces. I feel that it is too ambiguous to decidedly tell, since Vallotton does not provide a fully frontal view of either woman. The white woman’s eyes even appear totally closed at first, and only upon further inspection does one realize a small sliver of eyeball. I think that Vallotton instilled this ambiguity on purpose.

Despite this obscurity, we can still identify that this painting is all about contradiction, oppositions. How very modernist.

One woman is white, the other is black. One woman reclines, the other is seated upright. One woman is clothed, the other is nude. One woman exudes strength and vitality, the other is languid, suggesting possible illness. The only point of intersection between the two occurs at 1) (possible) exchange of gazes and 2) physical overlap of the white woman’s feet with the black woman’s backside.

Yet despite the clashing of the content, this painting is still harmonious. Perhaps there is a certain balance in chaos, no?

Bear with me for the final thought on this piece. According to my interpretation, I can identify some form of racial power play in this painting.

Screenshot 2017-09-18 11.51.17After I was done oogling over the pretty colors, I found that I was somewhat surprised at the set-up of the figures. The black woman, physically elevated and gazing downwards at the white woman. The black woman’s skin pulsing with vitality while the sickly white woman meekly returns her gaze. This strikes odd for an early 20th century painting.

Let’s get situated here: It’s 1913 in France. France still has control of a majority of its African colonies. North, West, Equatorial, East African regions- you name it! To depict a woman of African descent not just equal but suggest a superior stance and aura to a white woman was out of the ordinary for a 48-year-old European white male, to say the least.

Let’s also keep in mind that only 50 years prior to this, Manet painted Olympia. Here, the power play is far more reflective of what the actual racial relationships between white and black women resembled at the time. Like in Vallotton’s work, the white woman is nude while the black woman is fully clothed. The black woman also stands up and is ultimately taller than the reclining white woman on the canvas.


Olympia, Manet, 1863

It’s the same, but drastically different.

Here, the black woman is in a subservient position; she is the white woman’s maid or personal servant. Although fully dressed, the black woman’s body is obscured by frothy cloth and a sprawling floral bouquet. Her body is shrouded and does not attract admiration for its beauty or strength like Vallotton’s. She is merely a background actor, existing only to fulfill the white woman’s desires. Furthermore, the directions of gazes are telling of the relationship between the women. Olympia stares directly out of the canvas to engage with the viewer, while the black woman looks attentively at Olympia, perhaps offering the bouquet or waiting on further orders.

I much prefer Vallotton’s depiction of racial relations to Manet’s, but what bothers me is not knowing why. Why would Vallotton depict a relationship which, historically and sociologically speaking, was extremely uncommon to experience in the early 20th century? What is he trying to say?

Some claim that he was depicting a lesbian relation between the two. Although this may be true, it did not strike me as such when I looked it over. In any case, I would like to believe that the message goes deeper than the lesbian affair, and does indeed aim to comment on racial relations.

What do you think?

De toute manière, Vallotton vaut le coup. 

Header Image: Félix Vallotton, La Blanche et la Noire, 1913

Woman on the Vertical

Elegantines dans un pre

Eglantines dans un pré, Ferdinand Hodler, 1884

Danielle and I spent a great deal of time standing in front of Eglantines dans un pré (Rosebush in a  Meadow) (1884) by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler. As we squinted at the Hodler, she introduced to me the idea of associating verticality with masculinity. That had never occurred to me before.

This verticality is manifested not only in the shape of the canvas as a whole but in the vertical nature of the subjects depicted in the painting as well. Here we see thin green reeds sprouting from their patch of pasture ground, elongated towards the sky. Dainty swabs of white and pink tones pepper the grass blades and grace the canvas with flower buds. On the upper left-hand corner emerges a noticeability phallic shape, further solidifying the connection between vertical direction, erection, and the masculine.

Man is upright, man is a straight hard edge, man is erected. But enough about men and their penises, it’s time to bring light to another narrative.

Using Danielle’s claim as a jumpstart, I suggested its sister idea. That is, the link between horizontality and femininity. Again and again throughout art history, we see women compared to landscapes. Their sensuous curves parallel distant soft, rolling hills and undulating earthy surfaces. Think Mother Earth. Woman and nature, woman and sweeping landscape. Even if we distance ourselves from speaking directly on Hodler’s piece by taking away the element of landscapes and focus instead on pure vertical and horizontal form in general, my contention still holds. The woman AND the horizontal, the woman ON the horizontal, the woman AS the horizontal itself. Clothed or nude, in ecstasy or slumber, she lays down.

She is plastered against the ground, pushed against the earth, flattened down down down. Think Ingre’s Odalisque, Cabanel’s Venus. Stretching from the 16th to 20th centuries, this has continuously been the case. 

Not convinced? I challenge you to find at least 10 oevres relevant to the art historical cannon from before the 1960s that depict men on a horizontal.

Tricky, isn’t it? That’s because you just don’t see men depicted laying down very often (unless it’s a wounded soldier or Christ’s descent from the cross or something). Much less nude or in ecstasy! It is far more common to see them triumphantly erect, proud, chest puffed out. If you were to conduct the same search for women, however, countless results arise.

All you have to do is Google search “reclining nude” to see what I’m talking about. Although the search does not specify gender, most of the images that pop up will be of women’s mostly naked bodies.

Screenshot 2017-09-17 22.06.13

This whole vertical/horizontal man/woman ordeal connects to a wider dialogue concerning the gender binary and gender roles. To me, it is evident. Men stand tall. Women lay down. The social, political, and economic hierarchy among the sexes is manifested in the depiction of their body language in the paintings I reference. The evidence is scrawled all over the history of artworks.

The woman is physically suppressed, her realm is one which you can look down on, stare at without consequence of confrontation, she is in a submissive pose, at your disposal, at the mercy of the gaze. The male gaze. The world is her oyster, and the oyster is a spoiled marine mass shoved into a miniscule, gnarled shell.

To add a contemporary peg to this train of thought, I found a work by the Guerrilla Girls to be relevant to what I am expressing. The Guerrilla Girls formed in 1985 as an anonymous activist group that aimed to expose gender discrimination in the art world. Their 1989 work Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? is pretty self explanatory once you read the message.

g girls

So, not only is the depiction of the woman in this perpetual suppressed position sexist, but the practices of some of the very institutions that display the art are also sexist. 

SEXCEPTION! Oh wait. Well that didn’t quite translate the way I’d hoped.

Well sheesh, who knew that discussing a Hodler would lead to such an intense art historical analysis of sexism? Certainly not me! But honestly, I’m here for it. What about you?

Words of parting: The woman deserves a place on the vertical, so let’s place her there already.

Header image: Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?, 1989