A Portrait of My Wife as Medusa
When I suggested to my wife that I paint her portrait as Medusa, her response was immediately positive, as we work well on collaborative projects. I wanted to paint Medusa because I have often revisited the classics through my career, while my wife had her own reason to pose for such a subject. The first time I painted Medusa was perhaps fifteen years ago, a painting of Perseus holding Medusa’s head, with her Gorgon sisters in the background. I have often made use of snakes in combination with alluring females. I use the Serpent with Eve every time I do a Garden of Eden or a Fall of Man, which I have done in both painting and etching. I did a series of portraits of a woman who did exotic dances with pythons; and when my children were young, there was always a collection of rodents and snakes in the kitchen closet, where it was warm – so snakes have always been a part of my life.
Biblical writers used the snake as a symbol of Satan, the dark angel, but most other cultures understand snakes differently, as a symbol of generation, death, and resurrection. In certain cultures, the snake is a female symbol of sexuality, healing, and wisdom. Places where snakes abound – like caves with natural water sources, and therefore snakes – are experienced as holy, and countless sacred sites have been established around these dark, damp places.
Medusa’s head in classical times was used as a warning to stay away, much as the skull and crossbones is used today. It stood for both danger and as a caution to be wary because you were on hallowed ground. Women’s mystery cults used such masks to frighten off male intruders. Medusa is the prototypical gargoyle. But prior to Greece’s adoption of Medusa, she was the serpent goddess of wisdom.
Just this past year I revisited the theme of Perseus and Andromeda, in which Medusa is basically a prop, and this suggested a close-up portrait of Medusa as an independent work.
When the opportunity came up to do a portrait for the national competition, I thought perhaps something a little more challenging and unconventional might be fun – thus the idea of my wife as Medusa – a woman with snakes in her head.
The convention usage of the term suggests neurotic behavior of an inconvenient or even dangerous nature. But it also refers to the unleashing of the sacred – which of course is also frightening. When I suggested that I wanted her to play the role of Medusa, I saw the symbolism in regards to the sacred nature of every person, and most especially of those we love.
When I met my wife seven years ago, she had already been through two surgeries for breast cancer, and in our first year together she had two more, resulting in a mastectomy. This was an issue of some impact to me, because I had lost my first wife to cancer about a year before. It only occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that the four skulls depicted in the first image symbolize the four surgeries.
When I first knew her, my wife wore only black, shapeless clothing, and she suffered from extreme self consciousness after her mastectomy. But these past few years she’s worked to overcome her body issues through her art and her interest in unstitched clothing. She insisted that we use the older, less western styles of wrapping that do not cover the chest but – in her case – expose the scars from the surgeries she has survived. While it is clearly not socially correct to expose yourself in most pubic situations, artists and models get by with a lot that other people would not choose to do – refusing to hide. In this way, my wife embodies Medusa’s willingness to make the best of her disfigurement.
I wanted to feature Medusa’s double-sided nature in this painting, so I opted for a lenticular painting, which shifts the image as the viewer passes back and forth in front of the painting. We selected costuming and poses for a series of photographic studies. During this time, I refined my drawings for the final paintings, while cutting and grounding the two panels I wanted to use. I had my son Michael, a woodworker, cut both panels into 4” wide vertical strips, which then I clamped back together on separate supporting panels.
Based on my numerous photo studies, I made five preliminary paintings of the full length figure in pastel. At this point I decided upon and added the secondary elements around the figure – polychrome relief carvings based on a Babylonian angel of death, and an early Greek Gorgon. To these I added a few human skulls, a shrunken head and the smashed head of a Mayan sacrificial urn, all from my collection.
For the first painting, I used egg tempera to paint Medusa in her role as a member of divine royalty and snake goddess. I painted the figure from life, and took the drapery, serpent headdress, and secondary elements from the pastel studies.
The second image was more problematic, as I wanted a look somewhat wilder and more hysterical than would be possible to hold for the length of a sitting. So my wife photoshopped some of the more animated head shots into various alarming combinations, and from a selection of these I painted four head studies, then used two of those for the second image’s head, using a pose I’d developed in the earlier pastels.
For this second painting, I decided to use encaustic, as it has a rough, spontaneous texture that is quite distinct from the elegance of egg tempera.
When the paintings were finished, I delivered the panels to Michael so he could fabricate a special frame that would hold the strips at 90 degrees to one another, making a three-dimensional painting that looks different depending on the viewing position – in this case revealing Medusa’s internal and external selves interlocked. My wife points out that her portrait only seems to have a normal chest when the images are at their most confused.
Friends and family are concerned that perhaps this painting illustrates some negativity in our relationship. We both are amused by their attitudes, as we have made a study of the dark side of human nature, and contentedly explore topics that make others uneasy.