Women reclaiming themselves: A review of the AGO’s “Her Flesh” Exhibit

"For far too many centuries women have been busy being muses to the artists. And I know you have followed me in the diary when I wanted to be a muse, and I wanted to be the wife of the artist, but I was really trying to avoid the final issue--that I had to do the job myself" - Anais Nin's In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays. 

A muse: an object, or more commonly, a person, who exists as a shrine of worship or inspiration for a genius. The very definition of the word implies the necessary existence of a rigidly organised two-person relationship. Theoretically, an artist and their lover. Historically, a man and a woman. But what happens when women, empowered by remarkable yet unrealised talent, decide to reroute these gender roles altogether by casting themselves not only as the artists, but as their own muses as well?

The most intriguing and intimate art imaginable happens, along with the most defiant, as proven by the “Her Flesh” exhibit currently being hosted by the Art Gallery of Ontario, located on 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto. The exhibit is curated by Renata Azevedo Moreira. Climb up the first flight of stairs from the lobby, make a sharp turn right, and there it is. Sixteen pieces by twentieth-century female artists, varied in medium and style, and each a resolute, assertive act of reclaiming womanly identities from the societal restrictions that hinder their growth. It is beautiful, creative self-centredness, with an underline of practicality. Choosing yourself, or occasionally a female acquaintance, as a model is the least expensive option for an artist. It can also produce the most decadent result.

Photographer Janieta Eyre arranges her subjects like dolls in diorama setups for a provocative, surrealist set of chromogenic prints. Her ongoing theme is a partnership of trauma and twin hood, and the museum label for “Two Fakirs Waiting for an Audience” (1996) explains why. Having lost her conjoined twin shortly after birth, Eyre sets out to depict the “phantom sensations” that have haunted her all her life.

The perpetual ghostly presence of her lost other half manifests as disturbingly vibrant, chaotic, and crayon-colourful scenes not unlike freak show circus acts starring, of course, campily costumed twins. However, Eyre’s work is not for cheap entertainment, but for invaluable sensation. She invites viewers to enter her bizarre alternative reality, in which her much-mourned sister survived and lived by her side. There is no shame about making a performance out of her childlike imagination and exaggerations, such as in “Family Portrait” (1994), a piece that hints at the more sinister side of transitioning from childhood to adolescence, which Eyre had to do alone.

More traditional forms of art play their role in balancing out the collection, albeit with feminist subversions, such as an adamant defense of a woman’s right to be anti-social, if she so chooses. Canadian artist Mary Pratt’s oil on untempered hardwood “Nude on a Kitchen Chair” (1979) features an unclothed woman turned sideways, shrouded in shadow and honey-gold beams of light, with her face concealed by a sweep of hair. She is aloof, withdrawn, contemplative, and uninterested in engaging directly with the viewer.

The only adornment on her body is a wristwatch. The message is clear: her time is her own. Leave her alone. Likewise, the solitary women who appear in Canadian painter Alma Duncan’s “Self-Portrait with Blue Handkerchief” (1941), “Young Black Girl” (1940) and “Rosie with Badminton Racquet” (1943)—all oil portraits with earthy colours, clean brushstrokes, and bare background spaces—exude an air of not wanting to be disturbed.

The nude in Canadian sculptor Frances Loring’s plaster mounted on wood “Dawn” (1948) is a serious thinker engaged only with her flock of birds in flight. It is worth noting that Loring was a queer artist known for her reclusive lifestyle with her partner Florence Wyle, and that the two cohabitated in an artist’s studio in the Moore Park neighbourhood of Toronto which they nicknamed “the Church.” This knowledge lends extra individuality and meaning to the plaster’s depiction of a woman interacting with something she considers sacred, alone.

But without a doubt the most daring and experimental of all the featured creators, and the one who most aggressively repossesses women’s exploited bodies for her art, is Canadian performance artist Jess Dopkin. Visitors are treated to a video in which she stars as the coordinator and bartender of “The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar,” (2006) in which she serves willing participants samples of pasteurised breast milk. Like a typical wine-tasting, the breast milk samples are sipped, discussed, and critiqued by all present. Operating as a fed-up lesbian and a mother who grew tired of breasts being sexualised, and public breastfeeding being shamed, in a patriarchal-heteronormative society, Dopkin campaigns (without sacrificing the humour of it) to remind the world what the true purpose of breasts are: to provide a universal source of food.

Exhibitions like “Her Flesh” are a crucial step in re-educating the world on the character of the muse, which has lost its reputation as a figure of female empowerment as history continues to romanticise instances where women took no active role in creating the great art that featured their likenesses. Think Dante Alighieri and his mythologized Beatrice Portinari, or Picasso and his grossly mistreated wives and mistresses. Women who have, tragically, been used and manipulated into a concept from a male point of view rather than a three-dimensional human being in her own right. The “Her Flesh” collection is one of what will hopefully be many platforms on which women will continuously reclaim muse-hood for themselves and infuse their own self-representations with personality, agency, and fortitude.

The exhibit’s runtime is from October 8th, 2022 to March 23rd, 2023, after which these sixteen crusading pieces will move on to their next conquests. If you’re in Toronto between those dates, make it a point to climb those stairs and dare to encounter the most real of women.