Face Making

Le blog de l’artiste peintre franco-américaine Gwenn Seemel. Les articles sont en anglais et en français, et souvent ils sont bilingues.

“There are however little snakes among the beams.”

2010 . 03 . 10 - Comments / Commentaires (0)

One day somebody said to me, “when I look at you and think of your fame, I seem to see your head encircled by radiating beams of light.”
“Ah,” I added, sighing, “there are however little snakes among the beams.”

              - from Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s Souvenirs

From the beginning, I knew I wanted my self-portrait for Subjective to be about what it’s like to be a female artist and, more specifically, a female portraitist.  And when I read Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s reference to Medusa in her Souvenirs, I knew there would have to be snakes in my hair too.  Vigée-Lebrun was one of the more successful female artists in history and certainly one of the most successful portrait artists of all time—female or male.  Her Gorgon analogy expresses perfectly the difficulties inherent in being a woman and a portraitist.

Portraiture is a strange genre, full of unexpected duties and privileges, and it’s the distinct power dynamic between portraitist and sitter that has made the genre troublesome for women.  No matter the status of the subject of a portrait, she-he is ultimately at the mercy of the artist.  And because female artists should by all accounts be the bottom of the hierarchy—both the hierarchy of genres and, even now, the hierarchy of people—women portraitists have long been considered threatening.  As such, Medusa, the tried and true symbol of dangerous female power, is a good fit for women portraitists.  What’s more, because the Gorgon’s power lies in creating effigies of her victims, the metaphor is complete.  Sure, Medusa may be killing them by turning them to stone, but she’s also making some lovely three-dimensional portraits while she does it.



looking at herself in the mirror

photo by David

An added attraction to making myself into the Gorgon was the mirror I knew I would include in the composition.  Perseus killed Medusa by watching her in the mirrored surface of his shield, and a reflection is important to a self-portrait.  Before photography, artists had to rely on a mirror to capture their own likenesses.  I included this idea of reflection in my portrait of Becca for Subjective, and this doubling is important to the series as a whole.  For example, both my portraits of my father and of Becca’s father make reference to kings.  I did that because it fit for both of the subjects individually but also because a father is the king of a family.  Similarly, the mirror reference makes sense for Becca personally but also for Becca as a portrait artist.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

As I began to lay out my self-portrait for the series, I was nervous.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

As a rule, I tend towards simpler and more focused compositions.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

The thought of painting two versions of me that were supposed to match up was a bit intimidating. 



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

But more than the composition, I was nervous about the snakes I would be painting in my hair.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

Even at this early stage, I was having problems with them.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

I was trying to wing it.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

I’d looked at plenty of images of the Gorgon, but I didn’t want to be locked into a traditional portrait of Medusa so I didn’t want to work from one in particular.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

But, as is painfully obvious in this process shot…



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

...and even this one where I was starting over with the snakes, making it up as I went along wasn’t really working.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

I continued to make attempts at the snake hair…



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

...but I also turned my attention to the remainder of the composition.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

I was hoping that if I could bring the rest of the painting together the snakes would work themselves out.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

They didn’t.  In the end, I spent a lot of time looking at images of snakes—instead of Gorgon portraits—and found my own brand of snake hair.



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

With that problem mostly resolved, I took a closer look at the mirror shape. 



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

I wanted it to be an octagon, a shape that has appeared in my oeuvre before and in this series too



step by step process of painting a portrait in acrylic

It’s a reference to the most striking feature of my parents’ house: an eight-sided picture window. 



Gwenn Seemel's self-portrait as Medusa

Gwenn Seemel
Artist
2009
acrylic on canvas
36 x 36 inches

This painting is full of twists and turns for me. 



detail image of Gwenn Seemel's self-portrait, snake hair

detail image of Artist

Much like this portrait also from the show, there is a lot of time between the layers of paint, and many things happened to me on the way to it being finished.



detail image of Gwenn Seemel's self-portrait

detail image of Artist

When I started it, I thought that the reference to Medusa was an interesting commentary on being a female portraitist, but as I worked I came to identify more with the Gorgon for various reasons.



detail image of Gwenn Seemel's self-portrait, Pegasus

detail image of Artist

Most especially, I liked that, as scary as she was, Medusa was the mother of Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek myth who was associated with the muses and who created a spring wherever he stamped his hoof on the earth.

To catch Subjective, visit the Arts Center by 31 March.  It’s open Tuesday through Saturday between 12:00 and 5:00 PM.

Artist talk: Thursday 11 March 12:00 PM

The Arts Center
700 SW Madison
Corvallis, OR 97333
541.754.1551


RELATED ARTICLES:
- The Seemel twins
- Partner
- The look that looks at itself


CATÉGORIES: - Feminism - Philosophy - Portraiture - Process images - Subjective -



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