Reworking Feminine Mythology Through Art

Two women artists capture Jane and Kimberly’s attention, one radical for her times, one arguably ahead of hers, each different in style and medium but with a sameness of intent. Feeling feminine comes from an identification with the rhythms and cycles of nature. 

JAS: I recently stumbled upon two female artists, Anne Brigman and Yoko Kubrick, one deceased and one contemporary, one a photographer and one a sculptor who, despite their differences in history and medium, both bring greater meaning to the mythology of feminine archetypes.

KC:  Interesting.  I like the idea of coming from such different places and yet being held together by a common thread.  Let’s give a little introduction to each of these artists and then get into talking about them. 

Anne Wardrope Brigman was an American photographer and one of the original members of the Photo-Secession movement in America. Her most famous images were taken between 1900 and 1920, and depict nude women in primordial, naturalistic contexts.

Anne, who was part of the Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz triangle at one point but broke away due to her opinion that they were too stylized, went back – literally – to nature. She was a hiker and an outdoorsy woman who began to photograph herself and other nude women entwined with trees in near-desolate terrains. But her photographs aren’t outdoorsy women attempting wild feats of survival. Instead, they’re dreamlike images imagining women as spirits or ancient muses, perhaps inspirations of poetry, song, and dance or smiles beneath starry skies. 

Yoko Kubrick, an American sculptor, explores aesthetic perceptions of forms found in nature for what she calls “the emotive language of form.”  Plant life, water movement, and land formations inform her outer visual vocabulary while line, light and shadow breathe life into the marble she works with. Embedded in her sculptures are allegories informed by classical mythology.  This descriptive phrase says it nicely. “An abstraction of a river as a metaphor for its life-giving waters takes on the curve of Aphrodite’s hips.”  Photos of her work under exhibitions on her website – https://www.yokokubrick.com – capture some of the magic. 

KC: Seems like Anne’s photographs cross the line from being fantasies of the forest to representing women and nature as being involved in an inherent and inseparable relationship. Even the color palettes are monotone across the subject matter to imply this marriage of the two and their underlying spirits.

JAS: The thing that is especially interesting to me is how her photographs show this felt connection as inherent but not fluffy, nor idealized or, as she might have said, stylized. As ephemeral as the photographic presentation is, her images carry a tension, even roughness, to give an internal sense of women perpetually tied to the rhythms of nature in all of its harmony and discord.

KC: Seeing women in nature experience an organic sense of tension rings true to me because nature is equally a place of sanctuary and challenge. It is more home than the masculine world of patriarchy. One of Anne’s photographs illustrates that for me, in which a woman is standing and bending into a man between two trees. She is, for the moment, giving in to the man’s embrace but she has the trees beside her for protection. Knowing that nature has her back, she can momentarily succumb to the great mysteries of love with a man. It’s as if she’s saying women draw upon a connection to nature to shore us up for the “real” world. I often feel more comfortable on a hike than a city street.

JAS: Which brings to mind the myth of Daphne and Apollo and the sculpture that Rodin created of Apollo pursuing Daphne relentlessly as she desperately attempts to escape his grasp by turning into a tree. This sculpture represents a woman’s inner drive to be her true self, natural and of her own making, rather than capitulate to definition by a man. We often see this desire to feel natural, not shaped, in a woman’s emotional retreat in relationship. In the film, The Hours, Julianne Moore played a woman so desperate to escape the constrictive role of wife and mother that she came close to committing suicide.

KC: I would even call the look of Anne’s photos Diaphanous—light, transparent, and delicate. 

JAS: Nice, a lightness of being, no less real and substantial for its ephemeral appearance.  The juxtaposition of light and transparency against a primal rough environment offers a very strong metaphor for the feminine spirit in today’s society. Anne was a real pioneer (doing much of her work before the feminist movement) and I don’t get a sense that she was mirroring herself in the photos as much as she was mirroring her vision of the female spirit.  

KC: And, with the diaphanousness representing the veil between the two. Anne was also a poet. She wrote:

Beloved Earth…I am weary of your mighty clasp.

Life Crowds…I am exhausted with the stern decree

Of your relentless, aging binding, bending grasp…

Beloved Earth.

She is speaking to the earth as a metaphor for life. And she still loves it in the end, despite its trials.

JAS:  It’s almost as if she’s celebrating ‘struggle’ as a formative female force.  We – as in you and me here in Double-Mirror – keep running into this as we look closer at stories told by women.  The reality of how women respond to challenge often runs contrary to society’s characterization.  In the movie, Tracks, hardship crossing the Australian outback, alone with camels, led to a transformation of a highly desirable personhood for Robyn Davidson.   

KC: Yoko takes an entirely different approach that fascinates me. She uses marble, a very cold, hard, and smooth stone to explore the same concepts of women and nature as Anne.  Yet her sculptures are extremely fluid and languid and soft in appearance.

JAS: I think she’s going further than identification and connection. Inspired by Greek mythology, she’s actively working with archetypes such as Aphrodite. The very use of marble is a co-opting a classical, masculine medium and reinterpreting it for feminine effect.  She’s sending a message of transformation, showing the capability of hard to be soft and contributing to the meaning of archetypes as fluid, responsive to influence and immutable.  Carved in stone gets a new meaning in Yoko’s hands. 

  

KC: Which really says something for me about the affect of the feminine spirit on the masculine spirit. The female touch is alchemical in that it allows us to see something literally set in stone as something that can also be flexible and evolutionary. A woman’s touch allows for the burgeoning of new perspectives.

JAS: We talked a lot about the emergence of written stories that rework the masculine dominated world of Greek mythology when we discussed the book, Circe by Madeline Miller.  She – along with some other women authors – is changing traditional narratives that have come pre-packaged as if to be universally accepted. We’re beginning to see modern bestsellers like Circe turn those old stories around and tell them from a female point of view. I feel like these visual artists are doing the same. They’re lending their expressions of the feminine to old archetypes and giving society fresh input. In these women’s hands, notions of feminine traditionally viewed as fleeting and ephemeral (think Marilyn Monroe), are bringing forward the permanence of impermanent qualities. Pretty exciting. 

KC: Yes, I read that the anthropomorphism of Yoko’s pieces articulate the drama of human existence in a search for a new meaning of feminine in everyday life.  I like that. Her marble renditions of water as energy speak to me even from the photographs of her stone sculptures. They DO remind me that life is fluid, that life is a constantly changing position warped by its environment.

JAS:  Before we leave our talk about these two artists, I want to add something. There’s another important idea floating around in our thinking.  A tree’s branches and leaves above are known to mirror the roots that lie beneath the ground.  Brigman’s photos of women merging with trees suggest a longing for an authentic connection between what lies below and what appears above. Yoko Kubrick’s reference to ancient Greek mythology reflects a similar longing, one for an infusion of deep strength from an ancient source of wisdom and experience by modern women who are learning to be safe as they face uncertainty in new ways of being.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *