The Female Form

Three works of art, created by three male artist give us three different views of the female form. All three artworks can be found in the southwest quadrant of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s new East Wing. Most of the art on display in this new wing is modern art, mainly highly abstract works. These three works differ from the rest, with their relatively high accuracy in rendering their subjects. The following three paragraphs are the museum’s description of each of these works.

Betty, oil on canvas – Gerhard Richter based this painting on a 1978 photograph  taken of his daughter Betty when she was eleven. The girl is seated, in the act of turning away, perhaps looking at something behind her. Richter combines the softness of her hair with the precise rendering of her flowered jacket in a work that blurs the distinctions between painting and photography. The formal elegance and psychological ambiguity evident here make Betty one of Richter’s most captivating works.

Playboy Bunny, polyester resin, fiberglass polychrome in oil, mixed media – Duane Hanson cast this sculpture from a live model to achieve an unsettling and realistic effect. Hanson often depicted working Americans and here chose the Playboy Bunny as his subject. The woman wears a name tag on her hip, but she is most identified by the well-known markers of the waitresses who serve at Playboy Clubs: the iconic silk bunny ears, dainty bow tie and bustier. This life-like depiction of a Playboy Bunny reveals how a woman’s body can be treated as an object and commodity in society.

The Fonda Image, acrylic on canvas – Feet planted wide apart and hands on her hips, Jane Fonda directly confronts the viewer. Images of her famous family float behind her: father Henry smiles as brother Peter straddles a motorcycle from his 1969 film Easy Rider. Mel Ramos depicted a range of female subjects in his work, from comic book heroines to models in magazine advertisements. His paintings echo the eroticized female body that often characterizes the depiction of women in mass media, but Fonda retains a sense of empowerment through her determined gaze.

This trio of artworks combine to form a volatile mix. I best step lightly about their combined subject, less I step in it and it blows-up in my face. Betty is one of my favorite pieces in the museum’s collection. Until the East Wing’s construction kicked-off, it had been on display in the also relatively modern West Wing of the museum. I don’t recall ever seeing before either Playboy Bunny or The Fonda Image, but that is sort of the whole idea of the gallery expansion, bring more art to light. Last Friday I attended a gallery lecture, whose academic acumen convinced me that this clustering of human female forms, among the rest of the relatively sterile abstract landscape was intentional. I take a modicum of pride for this art appreciation realization.

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