My first solo show at neugerriemschneider, Berlin, consisted of only two rather large oil paintings facing each other. One of them shows myself, taking a photo of my boyfriend in the mirror, one very warm afternoon in a small town in southern Thailand. In the other we see a part of the famous Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) in London’s National Gallery, with some female museum visitors in front of it. One of them is wearing a sumptuous fur coat. The Venus in my picture is cut in half. Her face is only visible in the mirror.
At that time I had been reading quite a lot of feminist art history and done some research on female realist painters[i]. I wanted the paintings to be as realistic as possible, to be able to depict the world the way I see it. I wanted to create illusionistic spaces, with bodies that seemed to have three dimensions and soft skin; so the exhibition was also an attempt to think about how exactly I could still create master paintings, if all the feminists told me that this was the worst legacy of all.
Diego Vélazquez, Rokeby Venus (The Toilet of Venus), 1648 – 1651
Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London
The Rokeby Venus after the attack
The Rokeby Venus, definitely a master painting by a master painter, had a feminist history of it’s own. In 1914, it was slashed by the suffragette Mary Richardson, who was desperate about the arrest of the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst.[ii] The Rokeby Venus was one of the first paintings to be bought by public subscription for the National Gallery, for the sum of 45.000 pounds. At the time the public outcry was considerable. Mary Richardson had managed to slash the Venus seven times on the left side of the painting. All slashes went through the back of the reclining woman, as if her fury wasn’t directed against the painting itself but against the woman in it, who, had she been real, would have died from the attack.[iii]
The arrest of Mary Richardson
In my painting of the Venus in the National Gallery, the image is cut off right after her butt; I took away everything Mary Richardson had slashed, leaving only the lower part of her body and her face, hardly distinguishable in the mirror. Her eyes, seen through the mirror, the lens of my camera and turned into pigments on canvas again, are so blurred that her gaze has to be imagined by the viewer rather than actually seen on the canvas.