Art, the universal language, can transcend space and time to reach a diverse audience. We hear this all the time, but do we truly feel the weight of these words? A cloud of elitism envelops the “art world,” alienating the perspectives of some while glorifying those of others. In efforts to challenge ideas that reinforce the intrinsic validity of one individual’s take on art over another’s, columnist Lisa Aubry will explore different creative spaces and outlooks on art and reconcile the fields of arts and sciences through discussions.
I remember when I first saw her.
My orientation tour guide gestured towards Gaston Lachaise’s 1932 sculpture, Standing Woman (Heroic Woman), as the group inched forward on the shaded walkway that links Bunche Hall to the Broad Art Center. He introduced her as Big Bertha, his peppy voice announcing the student ritual of rubbing the sculpture’s stomach before tests for good luck. My sudden confrontation with a larger-than-life, nude, bronze woman – mediated through the tour guide’s quirky commentary – was unexpected but by no means unwelcome.
Standing Woman poses with her hands on her hips, casting a half-lidded gaze over the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden from the north side of the park. Her body’s sinuous curves, elongated fingers and sturdy limbs lend her a firm, but not callous, demeanor – at least not the way I see it. The sculpture’s aesthetics instilled a sense of calm in me – a frazzled first-year at the time – every time I scurried between art history classes. Now a graduating senior, I have grown bored of my own monologue with the sculpture, so I sought newer perspectives.
As I embarked on the endeavor, I began to view the statue as a microcosm of a phenomenon I have noticed increasingly in my studies: the prevailing, polarized attitudes towards art. A common attitude surrounding artwork is that it is cryptic, elite and exclusive. Anyone who is not an artist, a trained intellectual or someone involved in the labor force surrounding the “art world” may believe their ideas and interpretations are not as valid. Such beliefs tend to manifest as aversions due to fear of being “incorrect” about their readings of the works.
Many students I approached about the sculpture seemed shifty about sharing their thoughts for five minutes. Even those who did not reject the idea and hesitantly agreed to engage with the conversation peppered their insightful remarks on Standing Woman with disclaimers that they do not study art or “know” anything about the particular piece. By way of gauging and recognizing reactions toward Standing Woman, I hoped to show the others that interpretation is to be subjective, to be self-caused and self-owned.
Initially, Adela Ruiz, a fourth-year French student, thought the sculpture’s unapologetic nudity and powerful stance evoked feelings of shame and embarrassment. But returning to Standing Woman time and again, Ruiz said her feelings towards it evolved into an appreciation of her robust feminine qualities. Ruiz linked the sculpture’s emphasized breasts and protruding stomach to the concept of motherly nature and the strength in women’s capacity to represent themselves.
“The proportions of her body – her arms are really big and muscular – strong legs, big wide hips, and thick neck give a powerful image of a sculpture because she is not curled up or ashamed,” she said.
Jose Zeferino, a second-year design media arts student, was also receptive to a message concerning the strength of women. He combined the sculpture’s visual qualities with his knowledge from Chicana and Chicano Studies classes and his own Mexican cultural background.
In truth, the early 20th century French-American sculptor’s intentions probably did not consider Chicanx or feminist themes in the creative rendition of his muse. But the artist’s intentions take the back seat when it comes to what the artwork itself, severed from its original context, came to signify for Zeferino.
“Culturally, from my background, women are seen as being effeminate or docile household wives who are not strong,” he said. “And when I look at the sculpture, I am able to understand there is a new narrative here and that women have bigger roles than what my ancestors may have thought.”
Another way to acknowledge the theme of empowerment through depiction of the female form is to make comparisons between Standing Woman and the sculptures surrounding her in the park. Kaelyn Rodriguez, a doctoral candidate in Chicana and Chicano studies, compared the sculpture to Victory, a 1950 piece by William Zorach, a bronze sculpture of a woman’s torso, devoid of limbs or a head. Created by a Western male artist, the torso joins many female nude figures in the park – all of which downplay the humanity and experience of their own subjects, favoring a surface-level aestheticization of the body, she said. But Standing Woman stands apart from the rest in its empowering form.
“We finally get to see a woman with a big body,” Rodriguez said. “This woman stands in her power, with her authority, as opposed to being an object that is consumed by an audience member or viewer.”
Any individual looking at Big Bertha can form their own valid interpretations; interpretations which, in turn, stem from different backgrounds to elicit a variety of intellectual or emotional responses. Simple five minute discussions with complete strangers revealed that such responses are as diverse as they are worthy.
Standing Woman is nothing more than a piece of bronze shaped into the form of a human female. Is the art the piece of bronze? Perhaps. But we as viewers infuse the essence into the art. In this space of sincere observation and open interpretation, we all fall upon equal footing.