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!

Reader Requests and Upcoming V-Day Events

This Must be the Place, Roy Lichtenstein, 1965(This Must be the Place, Roy Lichtenstein, 1965. Source)

— First, the next 2 weekends are just jam-packed with V-day related events, culminating in the Vagina Monologues performances. See Busan Haps for those happening in Busan, and KoreaMaria for Gwangju.And if anyone knows of any more events being held in different cities, please let me know!

— Next, a request from Arianna Casarini (almostelse@gmail.com), who is looking for Korean or East Asian artists that reflect on cosmetic surgery and/or body-image. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any myself, so (with permission) I’m reprinting her email here:

I’m an Italian student of the University of Bologna, close to get my first degree.

Very little after I started getting deeper in the study of Korean culture, I discovered your blog and your illuminating articles, and thanks to it I became especially interested in the problem of the pervasiveness of cosmetic surgery in the South Korean reality.

Since I found the subject really deep and stimulating, I decided to make it the subject of my graduation thesis.

In my thesis, I want to focus on the connection between Art (especially Contemporary Art) and cosmetic surgery, both in Eastern and Western countries. I wish to focus on inspecting the interpretations and criticisms that Contemporary Art gives on the problem of cosmetic surgery, and on the mutual influence that Art and aesthetic plastic surgery have on each other, paying attention to all the psychological and sociological matters implied.

Even though I’m quite well informed on the side of contemporary Western artists whose artworks dwell on cosmetic surgery, I lack a deep knowledge of East Asian artists and I wondered if you could help me on this matter.

Could you indicate me Korean/East Asian artists that reflect on cosmetic surgery/body problems or some essay that treats this subjects?

Sadly I can’t read Korean, so I must specifically look for English sources.

I’m really glad I found your blog and that, thanks to it, I have been able to get to know your interesting work.

I thank you in advance for your attention,

— Finally, Ashley Turner is looking looking for people with experience in web design, visual/graphic arts and audio/video editing who may interested in assisting with a Hallyu project:

Our vision is to help bridge the cultural gap between America (and other Western countries) and Korea by bringing all enthusiasts of Korean culture in a social project that encourages cultural exchange between all fans; as well as making conversation about it accessible to everyone by integrating and welcoming international fans. It is about proving the power of cultural exchange to balance the connection between Korean and international fans and bringing culture outside the context of K-pop, as well as using K-pop as gateway to the rest of culture. The project will serve as a casual learning entry point that makes the Hallyu wave accessible, and allows people reflect on their own culture in relation to Korea’s….

….This project is a social media website being funded by the Korean Cultural Center Washington D.C. and KOFICE (Korea Foundation for International Culture Exchange).

The corresponding proposal [ask Ashley for a copy] has further information concerning the individual aspects of the project. Those with experience in web design, graphic arts, and audio/video editing are being actively scouted. This is primarily a volunteer opportunity with potential for compensation later in development. If you are interested in participating, please contact Ashley at ashley.trnr@gmail.com.

Any readers who also have requests and/or would like events publicized, please just email me and I’d be happy to post them on the blog (and apologies for the slight delays with these ones). To make it easier for me though, when you do please just send something I can quickly copy and paste. Thanks!

Handmade Korea Fair 2012


Apologies for the off-topic post, but I thought my more artistic readers would appreciate a heads-up about this. Unfortunately, there’s no English information available on either its homepage, blog, or Facebook page, but I’m sure everyone can find COEX for themselves, and I can at least tell you that tickets are 10,000 won each. Also, see The Constant Crafter and Alien’s Day Out for write-ups about last year’s fair, here for an extensive Flickr gallery of it, and finally below for a quick video:

If anyone does go, please let me know what you thought!^^

Update: Note that the 2nd Seoul Slutwalk is also next week, on Saturday the 28th. I’ll put up a separate post about that tomorrow.

Update 2: See here for Foreigner Joy’s report on the fair.

Update 3: And here for Cute in Korea’s.

“Humanist (Hongikingan/홍익인간)” by Lee Boo-rok (이부록), 2007


Just something that really got me thinking about fertility, body-labelling, and hourglass figures (or indeed, cola bottle ones). Normally I’d simply post it to the blog’s Facebook page, but unfortunately artist Lee Boo-rok doesn’t appear to have been very active in the past few years, and I could only find a handful of small, poor-quality pictures of this and his other works. Here’s another good copy of this one then, just in case the original link at the Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art is ever taken down! :)

(p.s. For anyone that doesn’t know, that’s the Venus of Willendorf on the left)

Update: By coincidence, just after writing this post I discovered the pop-artist Mel Ramos, who’s done a lot of paintings of voluptuous female nudes alongside commercial products. Two — Lola Cola (1972) and Lola Cola #2 (2004) — feature cola bottles, and I also like Photoshop CS (2008).

All, of course, are NSFW.

Quick Hit: Korean Retro in Paju!


…in the worldwide retro trend, where is the Korean culture located? Most of the cases, instead of original Korean culture, foreign vintage culture and goods are imported. It is because of the ’70s and ’80s fever for the Westernization then it is hard to find original Korean retro. So you find that only unidentified mixture of retro cultures have mushroomed in Korea without its own color.

So lamented the Design Journal (디자인저널) back in November 2008. But as it turns out, a veritable treasure-trove of Korean retro has long been available in the Museum of Modern History of Korea (한국 근현대사 박물관) in Paju, just 30km north of Seoul. See here, here, here, and here for some high-definition photos of the exhibits, and here (a PDF) and here for information about the museum in English.

Combined with the Heyri Artist’s Village, and/or the Paju Book City, then you have the makings of a perfect day trip from Seoul, and a very educational and cultured one at that. Any takers?^^

Liberating Herstories: Art Exhibition in Seoul Starting Tomorrow

But please note that it’s much more than just an exhibition(!):

From December 10 through December 16, 2011, the House of Sharing’s International Outreach Team will host a week-long art exhibition called Liberating Herstories: Art Celebration of Survivors on the issues of sexual slavery, trafficking and violence against women at Cafe Anthracite, Hapjeong-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul (near Sangsu Station). Over the course of the week we will be displaying art submitted from around the world and hosting educational workshops, film screenings and musical performances on these topics. While entry to the exhibition and all events is free, we will accept donations throughout the week as will be auctioning off donated art works. All proceeds will be evenly divided and donated to the House of Sharing, The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and Durebang.

See here for a press release, schedule, and map (all as one MS Word file), and here for the Facebook event page. Or just click on the image above!