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Mirror, mirror once again

The twentieth century proved to be a good time for women. Many things in their collective lives improved, at least in the developed world.

Being a female artist became a possibility in the professional sense despite significant sexist attitudes remaining. Once we got to this point in time, it was as if we were suddenly free to look in the mirror again, and more to the point, paint ourselves doing so.

Motesiczky, Self-portrait with pears, 1965

Motesiczky, Self-portrait with pears, 1965

Look at this small work as example. Frances Borzello in the book Seeing ourselves: women’s self-portraits refers to it as a ‘search to find the truth behind appearance’ (p140). But I think it’s offering us more than that.

It’s by the Viennese artist Marie-Louise Motesiczky, long time friend of Max Beckmann and one of many artists who had to flee their homeland in the 1930s. Motesiczky was a prolific and energetic artist with a longstanding interest in self-portraiture. Click here to look at more of her work and here for something lively and uplifting, and here for something more risque (my favourite – I love the heart-shaped palette!).

In the work, Self-portrait with pears, Motesiczky paints herself as a reflection in a mirror. She looks at herself with resignation, her mouth slightly open in readiness at what she will see – an image of the reflected self. I feel she is completely aware of how she looks and of how she appears to others; it comes as no surprise to her and you can see it in the way she rests her head wearily on her fist. She is saying: this may be how I look but it is not all that I am.

It’s a quiet little painting, the kind you do late at night waiting for something in the studio to dry. The remnants of a still-life are apparent; the two pears coiling away from each other in the foreground, flagging a time when women were not free to study art as men did. When women were not free to look upon the male model, not free to paint street life or historical works, not free to be apprenticed nor learn from a master. Women by default, looked toward portraiture and still-life and interiors as their only available subject matter – and indeed were dependent on having the support of a family of means if they were to develop as an artist at all.

I wonder if she is referring to the past with this self-portrait ? Motesiczky has laid our past out in front of us, as an offering, as a declaration. She is reminding us that all is not as it seems – that women are more than the sum total of what they paint and what they look like.

The other thing that I really like about this work is that it is the mirror which has centre stage. An interesting turn of events from when the mirror signalled vanity and pride and all associations with mirrors were entirely negative, so much so that despite being an essential tool of trade in every self-portraiture before the camera, they are almost totally absent from women’s self-portraiture from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century.

Nice to be able to look in the mirror once again with impunity, huh?

One Response to “Mirror, mirror once again”

  1. Indeed facing ourselves is a necessary part of addressing the self portrait. We are fortunate in 2012 to have many accessible tools to aid in this process. We have mirrors, digital cameras, smart phones and home printers to facilitate image capture. That said the mirror still holds a unique power when doing a self portrait, its the interactiveness and refractiveness that deepens and adds dynamism given the inevitable movement and relining that is inherent in working on a self portrait with a mirror.

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