Deborah Bell has depicted the human body, particularly women’s bodies, in
all sorts of ways. Through them, she expresses women’s states of mind – their sense of who they are in the world (often in relation to men).
Bell describes her working process: “I used to stand in the pose of the woman I was painting, and consciously feel what it was like to be that leg, that arm, the particular expression of the face. She was I and not I… It was as if in painting her, I was saying ‘Here I am’; and yet once I became the observer of the final painting, she stood there quite separate and self-contained and we looked at each other.”
Here she focuses on three women taken from a series of paintings by the Italian artist Titian. In his paintings, Titian (1488-1576) depicted three stories of three specific women and their reactions to male characters. Bell chose to depict the three women in a way that removes their specificity: does this make them seem to represent women more generally?
Read what Deborah Bell herself said about them:
“Diana inspired men but resisted their advances. Diana symbolises freedom, her open stance and hopeful spiritual blue indicate her being on a quest, moving forward.”
“Lucretia is presented falling, desperately, in dark browns and looming shadows, into a dark helpless state.”
“The earthy yellow Venus is forever spiralling inwards into a vortex of her neediness, from Adonis’s embrace.”
Diana and Actaeon
In ancient Greek mythology, Diana was the goddess of hunting, the moon, and of virginity. One day, while Diana was bathing in a forest stream, the young Prince Actaeon accidentally came upon her while hunting with his dogs. Diana immediately punished him for seeing her nude, by changing him into a deer. Thinking he was their prey, his own hunting dogs turned on him, chased him, and tore him to pieces.
Titian (1485-1576), Tarquin and Lucretia, 1568-71. Deborah Bell, Lucretia, 1995, oil on paper, 160 x 120 cm.
Tarquin and Lucretia:
Lucretia was the faithful wife of a Roman nobleman. Tarquin, the son of the tyrant who ruled over Rome, passionately desired her. When she refused him, Tarquin swore he would kill Lucretia and her manservant, and threatened to deceive her husband into believing that she had committed adultery with the servant. To avoid such a terrible fate, she gave in to Tarquin’s demands. After writing a letter to her husband, explaining what had happened, she killed herself.
Titian (1485-1576) Venus and Adonis, 1554. Deborah Bell, Venus, 1995, oil on paper, 160 x 120 cm.
Venus and Adonis:
Venus, the Greek goddess of beauty, fell hopelessly in love with handsome Adonis. She feared that something terrible would happen to him. One day Adonis, while hunting, was killed by a wild boar – just as Venus had dreaded. In his painting, Titian chose to show the moment when Adonis is setting out on the hunt, while Venus imploringly tries to hold him back. But she does so in vain, because Adonis does not love her in return. Titian’s audience would have understood this from the symbolic figure of the sleeping Cupid, Greek god of love.
Talk About This
Now that you know a little about their stories, discuss with your group:
Why do you think Bell chose to re-paint these figures more than 400 years later? Do certain feelings stay the same?
How do you think some people might identify with these women’s experiences? Deborah Bell described in words the states of mind which are expressed through these women’s bodies – as you have just read. Do you think the artist manages to convey these feelings or sensations in her images themselves?
How does she do this? (Talk about whether the colours, the light and especially the shadows, the lines, and even the brush-strokes, might express these states of mind).