Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Of Mothers, Moths & Idealized Women

Wanted to risk pretentious pontificatation on a couple of things, then I'll go back to my dopey semi-unpretentious self, next blog. One of the few things that keep me from being depressed by all the work piled up, is other projects I create, like the 'MOTHer' musical I'm working on between comic gigs. It's about Mommies, Moths, Fashion and Enmeshment.  (Musical-wise, I'm a HUGE Sondheim freak, and also love perverse little musicals like Urinetown & Hedwig.)

So, in the process of drawing sketches for my Fashion-Moth musical, I was researching 1900 costumes for it, and re-discovered this stunning model from 'way back named Evelyn Nesbit.  I love how soft her face seems, cute little baby fat on her cheeks. Lazy half closed, almost sensual eyes. Pretty in a vintage way that's now considered slightly 'chubby' by today's standards. 

So, back in the day... an artist named Charles Dana Gibson, who specialized in glamorous illustrations, used Nesbit, among others, to create an iconic Gibson Girl which was all the rage ... and here's one of the more famous versions of her profile by Charles Gibson: 

It's so iconic by now—the Gibson Girl 'question mark' hair shape even appeared in a poster for the movie Ragtime: 

Anyway... I came across this web page by some guy I don't know, nicknamed "King Pigeon", who 
compared a Nesbit photo to the famous Gibson girl picture.  I never put this profile of Evelyn Nesbit together with Gibson's profile drawing for some reason, but it does seem pretty clear Gibson was inspired but it—I'll leave the whole issues of tracing/grid drawing and if this is 'cheating' for another post—but my point here is: with a few tweaks, note how Gibson glamorized Nesbit's features even more— weaker chin, softer lips—in his version of her face. Omitting subtle features to idealize her. Here's a link  to it comparing the two: 

So why am I'm talking about all this?  Every male artist who draws a woman faces what every woman faces who paints her OWN face with make-up does—Addition vs. subtraction. What's 'pretty'? To cover or downplay perceived flaws?  Or emphasize what's currently considered attractive, possibly at the expense of what may be what are her best natural assets? What SOME may adore, she considers a  boney nose or baggy eyes? I often love qualities in a woman's face and body that many consider ugly or unappealing: flabby tummies, skin under the arm, body hair, etc. But I can't stand these in myself!  I admit I also admire what falls under the category of 'idealized' feminine beauty. Like everyone else, my taste darts effortlessly in and out of the quilted patchwork of feminism vs. sexism, objectification vs. empathy. 

Every superhero artist does this with men, too; in every heroic panel he draws, he's distorting reality. Hides mens' flaws. It's easy to cast Gibson as a sexist cad, but scores of woman back then embraced this idealized image, the S-shaped corset, hobble skirt, and tons of other confining, let alone downright painful, trappings of 1800-1900s fashion fads. 

In my musical, I face the same problem every time my pencil hugs across a woman's face. To glamorize? Or to embrace her so-called flaws? Reveal how her eyes DON'T match? Nostrils flair?  Eyelids droop? Double chins? Dave Stevens once told me you make or break a woman's face by what you leave out. Less is more. So the opposite of Glamour is what you leave IN. Or decide not to Edit out. Leaving in what's human. Lines I use when I draw my wife's portrait only make her wince. But I view these same lines I see with affection. Maybe neither of us see her clearly. 

So idiots who draw always risk failing to capture the real spirit of the model. One artist I deeply respect, Mike Dringenberg, once told me he gets bored drawing from a photo, said he gets something unpredictable from drawing from a flesh-and-blood model in the room. How many portrait painters are told by their subjects to 'just make me look nice'?  It's the same quandary in my goofy-assed musical or doodles I make.

Celebrating how fashion changed through out history, while avoiding real moral problems about how fashion treats bodies who don't fit the narrow confines of the catwalk. What they call fat (aka: anyone bigger than a friggin' size 4 or 5) is a profound, ugly denial of what MOST of us really look like. 

While it's easy to say 'celebrating the the beauty of flaws and flab is what art's all about', and we all like the idea of that, we still all want to look different, prettier, thinner, sexier, whatever  the current defenition of that means. Or the cost.