What? She’s NOT Pregnant??!

Seeing Through Clothes and Arnolfini Portrait(Sources: left, personal scan; right)

Sorry for the slow posting everyone, admittedly somewhat ironic during the semester break. I’ve just been busy with a lot of offline work recently, and unfortunately for you readers it’s still ongoing.

Also, I’ve been fulfilling a New Years’ resolution to spend much more time in the bedroom with my wife. As in, I’ll turn off my computer at 10pm and lie in bed reading books, while she calls English teachers from her desk alongside me (she’s a recruiter). Now four weeks into 2014, she only occasionally tells me to fuck off back to my study and make more money from writing, so all is good.

One of those books is Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander (1980 ed.), picked up in Nampo Book Alley. Bursting with revelations for — ahem — complete beginners to art-history, I was especially surprised to learn that the woman in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait above-right isn’t pregnant, despite the strong impression of that I’ve had for a good quarter-century or so. So, with apologies for not reading something more Korea-related on this occasion, please allow me to pass on what I’ve learned, starting with pages 109-110 (my emphasis):

Because of the desirable quality of a big female stomach for so many centuries [James -- The shift in emphasis to the bosom would come in the late-seventeenth century], pregnancy was not represented in art by showing a distended belly, even in genre scenes. If an unmistakable indication of pregnancy were intended, it seems to have been customary to show an otherwise unwarranted disarrangement of clothing: stays unlaced a little from the bottom for example, or corsets left off entirely and extra loose folds of smock noticeable in front….The swelling abdomen was too conventional a female attribute to be useful for specific references to pregnancy. Giovanna Arnolfini, in Van Eyck’s famous double portrait, often thought to be pregnant, is in fact demonstrating how a young bride’s fashionable slim soldiers and chest might be set off by an equally chic abdominal swell, exaggerated on purpose to display the fur-lined green excesses of her gown. Her own desirability and her husband’s riches both show; a well-known mode of bourgeois female self-presentation.

In this particular style of dress, a woman’s belly provided the central accent point of her costume. It was the place where the balance was struck between elaborate headdresses and dragging skirt — or, for virgins, DresdenTriptych rightbetween a dragging skirt and a long mane of hair [James -- Compare the right panel of the Dresden Triptych, by the same painter; source]. The domelike belly was not only erotically pleasing but elegant; it connoted elegance rather than fruitfulness. In the nude art that corresponds to this kind of fashion, it would also have done so.

More on those last points in a moment. First, given the common false conception (no pun intended) of a pregnant wife, again I was surprised that greater attention wasn’t given to that in the voluminous Wikipedia entry on the painting:

Although many viewers assume the wife to be pregnant, this is not believed to be so. Art historians point to numerous paintings of female virgin saints similarly dressed, and believe that this look was fashionable for women’s dresses at the time.[32] Fashion would have been important to Arnolfini, especially since he was a cloth merchant. The more cloth a person wore, the more wealthy he or she was assumed to be. Another indication that the woman is not pregnant is that Giovanna Cenami (the identification of the woman according to most earlier scholars) died childless,[33] as did Costanza Trenta (a possible identification according to recent archival evidence);[16] whether a hypothetical unsuccessful pregnancy would have been left recorded in a portrait is questionable. As mentioned above, some viewers have argued that the woman in the portrait is already pregnant, thus the protruding belly. Harbison, however, maintains her gesture is merely an indication of the extreme desire of the couple shown for fertility and progeny.[34]

Note 32 leads to Chapter 4, pp.105-6 of The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval marriage and the enigma of Van Eyck’s double portrait, by Edwin Hall (1994):

The comparative approach I advocate for elucidating the meaning of the London panel is readily exemplified with reference to the female figure’s supposedly pregnant state. Documented as early as the Spanish royal inventory of 1700, this mistaken inference continues to be drawn by modern viewers seeing the picture for the first time. But among those familiar with Franco-Flemish works of the fifteenth century a consensus has developed that this is not the case, for virgin saints, who obviously cannot be pregnant, also appear gravid in many contemporary representations. The woman in the London panel has thus often been compared with the Saint Catherine in the right wing of Van Eyck’s Dresden Triptych, who is similarly portrayed (Fig. 48), as is the bride in the marriage vignette of Rogier’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (see Fig. 21) as well as the Virgin and one of her attendants in Israhel van Meckenem’s Marriage of the Virgin (see Fig. 50). And a protruding belly is seen in many female nudes, including again virgin saints, as in a depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Catherine in the Belles Heures (Fig. 49).[25] Whether or not this feature is explained by fifteenth-century perceptions of idealized feminine beauty, these images clearly reflect some contemporary Flemish convention whose precise meaning is no longer readily apparent.

Dressed Maja vs. Nude Maja(Source)

Another revelation from Hollander is that nudes tend to be posed and/or presented as if they were still wearing the fashions of their era, which incorporated sexual standards and symbolism which may no longer apply today (e.g., those “erotically pleasing domelike bellies”). One consequence is that we “may even mistake an erotically intended image [of the past] for an idealized one — if it lacks the shapes, proportions, and details we are accustomed to responding to in contemporary life” (p. 88; this is given as an example). Another is the gravity-defying breasts of the Nude Maja on the cover I scanned; ironically, again something I’m only noticing for the first time (my emphasis; p. 91):

One of the most telling features on the nude maja’s body is that it seems to show the effect of corseting without the corset — which, on the other hand, is very definitely present in the dressed version. The high, widely separated breasts and rigid spine of the recumbent nude lady are as erotic as her pubic hair fuzz or sexy smile. Her breasts indeed defy the law of gravity; and her legs, accustomed to appearing through the lightweight and rather narrow skirts of the day Visualizing Beauty Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia[James -- It was painted circa 1797-1800], are self-consciously disposed for effect, like those of a twentieth-century woman. It is the emphatic effect of her absent modish costume that makes her a deliberately sexual image.

And on that note, thank you for the indulgence of any art-history majors still reading, and I’d really appreciate any suggestions for further, much more recent reading on the links between historical and contemporary ideals of body image — or rather, the representations in popular-culture thereof (Ways of Seeing by John Berger {1972} is good of course, but frankly I found the final chapter on that to be its weakest, and of course it’s also old). Naturally, anything on Korea in particular, and for one I’d be interested in hearing if Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia edited by Aida Yuen Wong (2012; source) is worth buying for instance, which I’ve been wavering about because it only has two chapters on Korea. Or are there any other possibilities, in Korean (but not this one!) or in English? Thanks!

4 thoughts on “What? She’s NOT Pregnant??!

  1. Interesting. I have been curious about the discussion around bare breast images, particularly in the Choson Dynasty, and what I’ve heard about women walking the streets and baring their breasts to indicate the birth of a son. I haven’t been able to find out much about the latter, and am interested in how people today view the former.

    • On that, I’m sure you’ve seen this photo and the comments to it (which is where I first heard of the practice; possibly you also?), but I’ll pass the link on anyway for any readers for any other readers that haven’t yet!

      By coincidence A History of the Breast by Marilyn Yalom (1998) is on my wishlist at What The Book, but unfortunately I doubt there’s anything Korea or even Asia-related in it, so it’s stayed there for a good year or so now. Also, because I read A History of the Wife (2002) by the same author, which was enjoyable but a little lightweight because it covered too much territory, and seemed especially brisk on the WW2 era (so I much preferred The Home Front & Beyond: American Women in the 1940s by Susan M. Hartmann {1983}). And of course, it’s not like I’m stuck for choices when it comes to English-language books on breasts in Western art and popular culture and so on!

      BTW I planned this month to write a post about all the books I read in 2013, but gave up because it would be too much work. Can you tell I still think about it sometimes though? :)

      • moreska on Flick has a vintage postcard of a bare-breasted Korean wet-nurse feeding a baby. It reminded me of that photo, so I wrote a comment and he replied:

        Photographic evidence points to this being a tradition. National Geographic photographers also took quite a few candid shots like this in the early 1900s, i.e., before the official annexation to Japan. Another theory is that peasant women dressed in that way simply for comfort; after all, they spent most of their days working outdoors in the searing heat.

        • Sorry for the late reply, and thanks for passing that on. One of the first things that came to mind was the possibility that it was staged, in a look-at-those-backward-Koreans-who-need-our-benevolent-colonization way, but I see Moreska already addressed that in the remainder of his reply (I’ll pass it on here for the benefit of other readers):

          (Back then, men tended to just hang out and putter around the house – not unlike in today’s DPRK.) But the opposing view, esposed by a lot of the ROK’s social/business elite (including the president of a huge language school chain that shall remain nameless – smirk smirk), indeed claims that the Japanese imperalists stage-managed all their “exposed” photos of peasant women in a show of imperial domination. The logic here is a bit skewed, though. According to all the published historical record, the Japanese themselves actually demanded that the Korean people cast aside their traditional white garb (which symbolizes purity) and wear something more practical. The Koreans refused. ;-)

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