Monday, March 18, 2013

Vanity, continued

The Berger quotes from my last post refer, in part, to the below painting by Hans Memling:

Berger writes:

The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of women. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical.  
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure
The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.

This hypocritical moralizing in art forms a clear parallel with the conservative line on rape, where women are complicit in their own assault. The same culture that blasts us from all angles with the message BE SEXY, pushing us to spend time and money to appear young and beautiful for as long as possible, reminding us always that we are objects for visual consumption, condemns us for vanity and blames us for inviting male attention. A woman on the street will be told by strangers to smile; a rape victim will be accused of flirting.

I also have some notes on how to make this painting better:

  • The top and bottom halves of this woman's body look fairly unrelated. There seems to be some spinal misalignment.
  • Naked women rarely wear sandals.
  • Mirrors don't work that way. 
  • Dogs don't have mouse heads. (Alternatively, mice aren't dog-sized.)


  1. "Spinal misalignment"?! I'm sorry, are you body-snarking? Way to bat for the patriarchy. (Also, the sandals are only logical.)

    1. That's not a real woman, Christen! It's a painting. And old Hans seems to have painted the top half of a woman who was standing behind and off to the side of the woman whose bottom half he painted. (And nothing about this scene is logical.)

    2. (I look at myself naked in the privacy of my own home. Sans sandals.)

    3. Did they have backpacks back then? I was always told I'd get scoliosis from wearing my backpack only on one shoulder.

      Seems more like she warped her spine from looking in the mirror so much, the useless wench!

  2. The painting is very interesting, Elisa. Logical maybe only in its illogicalness, or vicey versey. I like your thoughts on how to make this painting better.

    I just read this after stopping at the Poetry Daily website to look at their poem of the day (3/19/13) which is a poem by Albert Goldbarth on beauty, or beauty from an angle, or ...

    Can't remember the title exactly (Ex-wife in window) but it seems/seemed, at this moment, kind of serendipitous. Best,


    1. I know I'm supposed to love art like this without question. Weird, also (isn't it?) that she appears to be shaved.

      I'll go check out the poem. To paraphrase an old friend of John's, Goldbarth can be fun sometimes. Thanks!

  3. In your honor Elisa I'll leak the minutes from the Order of Patriarchs January Cigar Night:

    * What's Up With Narcissus Being Male? Getting That Changed;
    * Good Work Guys! Cindy Sherman Is Still Photographing Herself. High Fives!;
    * Was Artemisia Gentileschi Pulling One Over On Us?;
    * John Berger - Traitor;
    * Aniconism = Higher Birth Rates?;
    * Getting Antigone To Cooperate

    1. You guys should really put a full conference together, sounds like you have the material.

  4. The thing that struck me about this painting was (as you more or less said in one of your comments here) that the woman is standing outside naked holding up a mirror. ???

    She doesn't seem actually to be looking in the mirror -- her more or less blank gaze seems to be off in the middle distance or further. She's holding the mirror off to one side.

    Also, the house and trees and landscape in the background are painted in a flat manner, almost as if they were wallpaper.

    I like your observation of the top and bottom halves of the woman being out of alignment, something I hadn't spotted. This is the kind of observation I've seen John Berger make about various paintings in many of his essays.

    Something else I noticed right away -- the focus of the painting (by placement, and by the brightness of light) is on the woman's vulva and the area just above it. (It hadn't struck me that she looked shaved till you mentioned it.) The image is painted to draw the viewer's eyes to the vulva area.

    Also her face is almost without any expression, without any suggestion of thought. At least as blank as a mannequin.

    And yes, "to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight." Yes, like, well, pretty much every rape case in history.

    I also commented on your previous post (March 17) with the Berger quotes.

    1. If the mirror was held at such an angle that she could see herself, you wouldn't be able to see her face; the math's not right. Also, the ground looks more like a tapestry. Pretty weird all around!

  5. The image is part of a triptych that's arguably even weirder with all three parts combined than just this one panel--have you seen it?

    1. Yeah, it's pretty hella bizarre. The two flanking paintings are so tonally out of step with the Vanity panel!

  6. The mirror doesn't look like a mirror. It looks like an elliptical-framed portrait of the woman. It shrinks her head--a voodoo mirror.

    The chimerical collage-ness of the painting--the mouse's head grafted onto the dog, the portmanteau nude, the woman bizarrely shod and admiring herself outdoors instead of in the appointed place--is what's interesting about it. It's a grotesquerie.

    1. Hmm, is carrying around a portrait of yourself more of less vain than carrying around a mirror? More I think, because it's not a multi-tool.

      Agreed that it's interesting, but interesting in an offensive way.

  7. Yeah, my first thought was, "Why is she wearing shoes?"