The Oltrarno Gaze inspires the female gaze: an artist’s experience

Elisabeth Chaplin’s Blue Background Self-portrait with a red shawl is the color of my first memories of Oltrarno: the blue sky of the Madonna above the Church of Santo Spirito as I returned home in the early evening after a day of classes at the British Institute.

Female Gaze by Rea Stavropoulos in progress with Vigée Le Brun

Chaplin is one of four historical women artists linked to Florence whom I was invited to engage as an artist and writer for a book art exhibition at Villa Il Palmerino in May. It is part of the Oltrarno Gaze Event Series organized by the British Institute and the cultural association Il Palmerino, bringing together local and international artists and artisans. My “female gazeis a response to the diversity of work and personalities of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-around 1656), Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) and Chaplin (1890-82): all artists whose work is in the Uffizi collection and who visited or lived in Florence.

As an advocate for female artists, I’d like to get to the point where we don’t need to use the epithet ‘women’, so I like that Chaplin’s self-portrait was used for the cover of the Everyman edition Stories of art and artists represent the creative spirit of all artists, in a book that includes Doris Lessing, Henry James, Albert Camus and Hermann Hesse. By getting under the skin of these women, I know that their lives and careers as artists can inspire and motivate us all, regardless of our gender.

My work takes the form of three-dimensional paper works that use text and image: scrolls cut from ten-meter Fabriano rolls that become freestanding open columns, one for each female artist, they will come together in an installation. The “inside” of each column contains a figure that refers to one of the artists in their private space, so the viewer can look inside to make their own discoveries. The exterior will combine handwritten text and image.

Rea Stavropoulos feminine gaze
Rea Stavropoulos in the studio with Female Gaze work in progress. Ph. Monica Francini

The self-portraits of Le Brun, Kollwitz and Chaplin are part of the famous collection of self-portraits of the Uffizi. Kollwitz’s dark woodcut from 1924, with the black gashes that make up his face, reflects the artist’s protest against violence and inhumanity, and the loss of his son during World War I. His 1924 poster has a universal resonance: three words “Nie Wieder Krieg” (Never Again War), which I adopted for one of my columns and transcribed into 12 languages, including Ukrainian, Russian, Japanese , Korean and Arabic. Kollwitz has an Oltrarno connection: in 1907 she received the Villa Romana prize, which gives the winner the opportunity to study in Florence for a year. Did she ever meet at the Uffizi the young 17-year-old Chaplin, who was then living in Fiesole, and saw the young painter copying the masters?

I’m fascinated by Le Brun’s carefree image of herself, smiling seductively, with her Pierrot collar and whimsical headgear perched on curly hair. She looks like a precocious child, but appearances are deceptive – this painting was commissioned by the Uffizi in 1790, when she was 36 and had fled the Revolution to Paris with her young daughter and few money. She depicts herself painting her patroness, Marie-Antoinette, then imprisoned and due to be executed. After being a popular society painter in his home country, Le Brun traveled the courts of Europe with nothing but his talent, ingenuity and charm. The Uffizi self-portrait was much admired and earned her the epithets of Madame Van Dyck and Madame Rubens. Writing about female creativity in The second sex, Simone de Beauvoir does not understand Le Brun as an artist and a woman of her time. She views self-portraits as “narcissistic” and disdains her “smiling motherhood,” while I see independence and courage.

She looks like a precocious child, but appearances are deceptive – this painting was commissioned by the Uffizi in 1790, when she was 36 and had fled the Revolution to Paris with her young daughter and few money.

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun Uffizi
Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun self-portrait at the Uffizi

Working in my studio with my model and collaborator, Frankie, we play with textiles and costumes – silks, velvets, satins, ribbons, sashes and scarves – concocting a “Le Brun” look, an Artemisia heroine, a red-shawled Chaplin . We imagine them going through the same process, holding the fabric close to the skin, seeing how it drapes, trying out colors, textures and different lighting while looking in the mirror in different poses to see what would work best.

Artemisia is known for her striking depictions of heroic women, often using herself as a model, but Mugwort is also the title of Anna Banti’s 1947 book on the artist, rewritten after the original manuscript was lost in the rubble of her house in Oltrarno in borgo San Jacopo, during the bombardment of Florence in 1944. The book begins with the words “Don’t Cry” as Banti stands in the Boboli Gardens, gazing at Florence, mourning the loss of the manuscript she had been working on for four years and thinking she would have to start all over again. The book she finally wrote was more innovative than the original, as Banti’s own thoughts and life intertwine in and out of the narrative, as well as Artemisia’s story. It is a message of resilience and perseverance that gives us all hope.

Bridges. A book art exhibition

Colonica del Palmerino, Via Il Palmerino 6

May 5 to June 5

Thursday to Sunday or by appointment from 3 p.m. to 6.30 p.m.

About Wesley Williamson

Check Also

Leicester’s greatest sportsman you’ve probably never heard of

Leicester is a city blessed with its fair share of sporting heroes, from Foxes and …