Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ancient Chinese Women - 618-907 A.D

During the Tang Dynasty, approximately 618-907 A.D., the feudal system flourished. Political power stabilized, as officials were elected through the Imperial Examination System, a system that provided everyone an equal opportunity to become a court officer. Many innovations were made, such as woodblock printing, and Buddhism was first introduced to the Chinese culture during the Tang Dynasty. As the economy prospered, Ancient Chinese depictions of beautiful women also developed, as people began to value larger women.

Contrary to the typical slender, pale, small-footed woman, the new image of a beautiful woman that emerged in China at this time was plump and voluptuous. Artworks began to glorify women who valued self-indulgence. More fat on a woman’s body symbolized her wealth, a quality that became increasingly attractive during the Tang dynasty. As the society reached a cultural peak, art began to reflect the carefree, luxurious life of aristocratic women (Chinese Folk Culture).

The painting of two Tang women and the sculpture, Tomb Figure of a Lady Holding a Pekinese, exemplify women’s beauty during the ninth century. In the sculpture, the woman’s stance causes her stomach to thrust forward, immediately bringing the viewer’s attention to her stomach. Her puffy cheeks and thick neck suggest that she is a healthy woman who can afford an excessive amount of food. In the painting, the women’s colorful, elegant clothing demonstrate the perks of being an aristocratic woman. The golden, vibrant background only further emphasizes how extravagant life was during the Tang dynasty. Rather than valuing ideal women, the Tang Dynasty valued healthy, upper class women.

Chinese Folk Culture. Tang Dynasty. <>

"The Birth of Venus" - Sandro Botticelli 1483

The Birth of Venus was painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1483, a time also known as the Renaissance. This European movement marked the end of medieval values, and it stressed the importance of individualism, humanism, and the natural world. Because Renaissance literally means “rebirth,” in this piece, Botticelli focuses on the birth of love in the world by depicting a beautiful nude woman coming to life in a tropical landscape (Britannica).

In the painting, a Greek-Roman goddess is emerging from the shore in a shell. This image is based on Poliziano’s poem, Giotra, in which the Heaven and Earth, on the left, and Hours, on the right, celebrate her entrance to the world (Britannica). Venus represents the ideal Renaissance woman: thin, pale, and curvy. Botticelli exaggerates the lengths of her neck and leg in order to bring the viewer’s attention to her beautiful features, which almost seem too perfect to exist. In fact, based on the woman’s stance and position at the very tip of the shell, it is actually impossible for her to be standing upright (Birth of Venus). Perhaps this is why the scene appears to be that of a fantasy, making the woman seem even more desirable.

Thematically, the woman in the center represents the beauty of life. Because women are the bearers of new life, Botecelli expresses Europe’s opinion of beautiful women as delicate, lovely givers of life. Venus herself is literally being “born” out of the shell. Because the woman’s hand and hair cover her, the woman is a virgin, a desirable trait in the fifteenth century. Men wanted their women to be untouched and pure; therefore, women could not have sex before marriage. The sea breeze highlights the looseness of her golden hair as she rides the wave into the shore, and the countless white and soft pink flowers that flutter with the ocean breeze add to the overall sense of beauty in this picture (Britannica). Venus is an ideal woman who captures Renaissance themes of birth and beauty.

Encyclopedia Britannica. Renaissance Art. <
Encyclopedia Britannica. Sandro Botecelli. <>
Birth of Venus (Bottecelli). <>

"The Kiss" - Gustav Klimt 1907

Art from the early 1900’s is classified as Art Nouveau, a movement that focused on new ideas and the true beauty of the world. During this time, technologies emerged, causing many artists to embrace these new ideas within their paintings. Art Nouveau was also an effect of the Industrial Revolution. Artists began using new materials in attempt to make each piece of art an embellished masterpiece. One famous painter from this time period, Gustav Klimt, succeeded in creating a painting that effectively captures the beauty of women and nature (Greenhalgh).

In The Kiss, Klimt paints a golden-toned, intricate scene that depicts a man and women engaged in a deep and passionate kiss. The man, composed of neutral-colored rectangles, appears as the dominant figure, as he is completely draped over the woman. Both of his hands are placed on her face, as he holds her head while he kisses her cheek. Based on the thickness of his neck, he appears to be strong and protective of the woman, uninterested in anything except for her. The woman, however, consists of various circles that construct the outline of her dress. The viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to her pale face, which compliments her rosy cheeks and tiny, delicate lips. The delicacy of her face and the way she seems to hang from the man’s neck makes her seem vulnerable, but it also highlights the fact that a woman has the capability to tempt a man with her sexuality. Her small hands gently rest on top of his, demonstrating that they are enjoying each other’s touch. Finally, the golden vines that hang from her legs and droop onto a patch of multifarious flowers add to the overall sense of beauty that dominates the painting.

The woman’s calm expression and slim stature exemplify people’s definition of beauty in the twentieth century. The two figures seem to blend together, as if they are literally lost within each other. The bright tone of the picture represents the magnificence of love, both physically and emotionally. Contrary to art prior to Art Nouveau, this work depicts beautiful women as thin, gentle, and inferior to men. Beautiful women were not powerful or intelligent, but they were romantic wives with desirable features.

Greenhalgh, Paul. A New Style for a New Age. <>

"I Am Its Secret" - Shirin Neshat 1993

Until the Revolution, women were gaining economic and political rights in Iran; however, after the formation of the Islamic Republic, many rights were revoked. For example, women were forced to wear a veil, bilingual schools were closed, and religion was valued more than individual life (Satrapi). The photograph I Am Its Secret emphasizes the lack of women’s rights in Iran to this day. This specific image focuses on the fact that women in Islamic societies do not have any power; they feel as if their only purpose is to be looked at.

The darkness and mystery of this photograph accurately portrays female beauty and desire, yet at the same time there is fear and hurt behind the woman’s eyes. The woman is hidden by a veil and a poem is inscribed in red and black ink across her face. The only thing that is individualistic about the woman is her eyes, which seem to yearn for a change, as they hint that she feels doubt in her religion. The woman is obviously beautiful, with clear skin and bold, piercing eyes, but her true beauty is masked by her religion. She is not allowed to wear certain clothing, she must always be reserved, and she is not permitted to express non-Islamic interests. The thick eyeliner suggests that she wants to feel beautiful, she wants to be loved for who she is, and she wants to be noticed, but in reality, she is afraid to be different. She is just another “violent” Islamic woman. The poem written across her face by Forugh Farrokhzad is translated as the following:

I will greet the sun again;
I will greet the streams which flowed in me;
I will greet the clouds which were
my lengthy thoughts;

I will greet the painful growth of poplars

Which pass through the dry seasons;

I will greet the flocks of crows

Which brought me, as presents,
The sweet smells of the fields at night;
I will greet my mother who lived in the mirror
And was the image of my old age;
And I will also greet the earth whose burning womb
Is filled with green seeds by the passion she has
For reproducing me.
I will come, I will come,

I will come with my hair,

As the continuation of the smells of the soil;
With my eyes, as the dense experiences of darkness,

Carrying the bushes I have picked in the woodlands

beyond the wall.
I will come, I will come,

I will come and the entrance will be filled with love;

And at the entrance I will greet again
those who are in love,
And also the girl who is still standing
At the entrance in diffusion of love (Coates).

This poem emphasizes the feelings and desires of many Iranian women, such as Shirin Neshat. The references to her mother, herself, and “the girl,” refer to the tradition of Islamic culture and its restriction on women’s rights. The repetition of “I will come” emphasizes that one day in the future, women will achieve freedom. They will feel beautiful and loved because they will know what it feels like to be noticed and appreciated. Contrary to works from Ancient China and Europe, women in Iran are not seen as beautiful; they are not even seen as individuals.

Coates, Steve. Shirin Neshat’s ‘I Am Its Secret.’ May 17, 2010. <>
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Panthenon. Paris, France: 2003.

"Eight Women in White" - Ghada Amer 2004

In modern society in the United States, many women feel pressured to look perfect. They feel as if they need to look like models, movie stars, or other flawless women that are featured in magazines. This false sense of beauty is even spreading to younger teenagers, who constantly feel that they are not beautiful unless they look “sexy.” Personality and intelligence has lost much value in relationships because the media portrays only the most immaculate women. For example, the amount of money saved for plastic surgery for cosmetic purposes increased 9% in just one year in the US (Hainer). This causes men to be more attracted to provocative women, which in turn, influences women to change their image according to the society’s standard.

In the image Eight Women in White, Ghanda Amer depicts a woman who is partially nude and engaged in sexual activity. The woman’s figure is unclear, as she is formed from numerous scratchy lines of black ink. This suggests that what she is doing is not completely pure; she appears to be too young to be married and she is unsure if she even wants to be with this man, who is forcefully grabbing her butt. The irony of the title alludes to the eight different faces that are portrayed. Farthest to the left, her expression is solemn. Her face is even covered by other lines. Her expression hints that inside, she does not feel loved. However, this image transforms, and on the right hand of the picture, she is excited and enjoying the man’s presence. The lines are more definite in this phase, indicating that she allowed the man to use her body. Furthermore, the title includes the adjective “white,” symbolizing innocence, as most wedding dresses are typically white. Because this woman does not appear to be conservative in any of the eight phases, the artist is suggesting that love is not as spiritual as it used to be. Abstinence is not as important as it once was, because many young woman feel pressured to act sexually because they do not earn attention otherwise. Although not all modern women fit this claim, it is a shame to see many women change themselves based on the society’s definition of beautiful. Even though women from Ancient China wanted smaller feet, women from the US want to lose weight, and women from Iran want to be noticed, all of these women have one thing in common: they want to feel beautiful.

Hainer, Richard. Plastic Surgery Procedures Maintain Steady Growth in 2007. <>