Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Alice Neel: Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978)

By Caroline Eves

This is a piece Alice Neel created in 1978 with oil on a canvas. It is a nude painting of a young pregnant woman. She appears to be far along in her pregnancy, causing her nipples and stomach to be enlarged. The woman has short dark hair that falls close to her head and is sitting in a yellow chair, focusing right at the viewer. There is a mirror in the background that reflects the back of the chair and the woman’s upper back and arm. Her shadow is also cast onto the wall behind her. There is not extensive detailing about the woman’s whereabouts, other than the fact that she is indoors. The woman, the chair, and the mirror behind her are the only things in the painting.

            This painting displays a true representation of a woman bearing a child. It displays the physical changes the human body undergoes in order to make room for a baby. Because the subject, who for the purposes of this blog I am going to assume is named Margaret Evans, is nude, the viewer is exposed to the reality of the physique of a pregnant female body. Judy Chicago used a similar tactic in her piece “The Dinner Party”, where she painted various representations of female genitalia onto 39 dinner plates, each for a specific woman from history. There was a lot of controversy concerning Chicago’s work. Some said that it was pornographic and inappropriate. However, there was nothing sexual about the plates at all. Society tends to associate the vagina and other female genitalia with sex, and both Neel and Chicago work to break that train of thinking with their artwork. Margaret’s pregnancy in the painting shows one of the many ways that a woman’s body and genitalia is used for other things besides sexual activity and sex appeal. It shows the natural process of pregnancy and the changes women go through during the process.

This piece also deals with issues concerning sexuality. Though it is a nude portrait,  the painting has no sexual undertones or characteristics to it. In a society that is continually sexualizing the women with scantily clad outfits and rap videos, Neel displayed a nude female body in a way that did not sexualize or objectify her. Joanna Frueh, author of “The Body Through the Women’s Eyes”, explains how viewing “…genitals as symbols of sexual essence delimit imagination and behavior,” (194).  Seeing women as only sexual objects is a very narrow path to look down. Neel’s work expands those limits and causes the viewer to see a woman for what she really is, rather than what society can create of her, because being sexy and being nude are not always synonymous. It is also significant that this is a depiction of a female’s body as told by a woman. Frueh goes on to describe how it is important to, “reclaim the female body for women, [by asserting] women’s own ability to create their own aesthetic pleasures by representing women’s bodies and women’s bodily experiences” (190). These bodily experiences include things like pregnancy, because it would not make much sense for a man to try and portray how he perceives pregnancy. Women representing women is a way to start a more positive, and less sexualized, outlook on the female body.

      Neel’s piece also speaks to issues concerning gender identity. In the painting, Margaret has very short hair. Hair that short is more often seen on men than women. Judith Lorber, author of “‘Night to His Day’, The Social Construction of Gender. Enterprise Learning Management System”,  voices that, “a sex category becomes a gender status through naming, dress, and the use of other gender markers,” (33). If Margaret were not pregnant or nude in the piece, there would be no explicit way for the viewer to be able to label her as male or female. Society creates strict binaries for people to categorize themselves and others into and sometimes not everything is black and white. I think it was very strategic of Neel to make Margaret’s hair so short and what society would label as more “masculine”, yet also make her in the later stages of pregnancy. Margaret breaks the boundaries society built concerning what is “feminine” and what is not.

      I would most definitely consider Alice Neel to be a feminist artist. Her work speaks to several issues like the ones I mentioned before, and many more. I appreciate the work she does because these issues don’t just affect women and there is no way that society is going to change and move forward unless people like Neel, Chicago, and other feminist artists push us. As I have heard many times throughout the semester, the personal is political, and gender issues and sexualization are only a couple of problems all of society is up against everyday. I am a young woman and I know how hard it is to be who you are while trying to also meet tons of other criteria society sets up for me. These artists give me the piece of mind that I am not the only person who sees woman being sexualized and being called butch because of how they look. Art propels society forward, to think outside of the box, and for that I think we are way overdue.

Works Cited

Frueh, Joanna. The Body Through Women's Eyes. Enterprise Learning Management System. University of Maryland, College Park, n.d. Web. 9 Feb.2012.<https://elms.umd.edu/courses/1/201201_WMST250_rjarmon_0301/content/_3653413_1/Frueh.Body.pdf?bsession=318161036&bsession_str=session_id=318161036,user_id_pk1=2651807,user_id_sos_id_pk2=1,one_time_token=>.

Lorber, Judith. "Night to His Day", The Social Construction of Gender. Enterprise Learning Management System. University of Maryland, College Park, n.d. Web. 9 Feb.2012.<https://elms.umd.edu/courses/1/201201_WMST250_rjarmon_0301/content/_3653412_1/LorberNight%20to%20his%20day1.pdf?bsession=318568299&bsession_str=session_id=318568299,user_id_pk1=2651807,user_id_sos_id_pk2=1,one_time_token=>.

Senna, Danzy. "To Be Real." To Be Real. By Rebecca Walker. New York: Doubleday, 1995. 5-20. Print.

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