Formed from the fantasies of men

BEIRUT: Women have inspired artists for as long as there’s been art, acting as muses and models for artists’ visions of the feminine.

As an exhibition now up at the British Museum confirms, Ice Age sculptors were fond of depicting the form of bountiful femininity.

Painters have not been immune to the appearance of the feminine, either. “L’Origine du Monde” (“The Origin of the Worl”’), French Realist Gustave Courbet’s depiction of an anonymous woman’s nether regions, was wildly controversial in the 19th century and remains newsworthy to this day – as demonstrated by a French collector’s recent announcement that he’s located the excised head of the nude, thereby sealing the model’s identity.

Picasso portrayed nude prostitutes from Barcelona. Degas worked to convey the appearance of female dancers in movement.

Femininity is also the subject of the exhibition “Women in Canvas,” showcasing 34 acrylic-on-canvas works by Syrian painter Tarek Butayhi, now up at Art on 56th.

Born in 1982 in Damascus, Butayhi’s works are known for his spontaneous representations of the feminine. His work has been shown at the 2008 exhibition at Damascus’ Arab Cultural Center to mark the international day for the elimination of violence against women and more recently in Espace Kettaneh Kunigk’s 2012 show “Artists from Syria Today.” They have also been shown in Kuwait and Egypt.

Butayhi’s vision of women appears completely unlike that of the old European masters. He represents his figures neither as idols nor embodiments of motherhood.

“She is a woman of another kind,” Youssef Abdelleki, a colleague and countryman of Butayhi, wrote in the brief essay that introduces the exhibition, “sexy, glamorous and playful ... A woman formed from the fantasies of men.”

That’s exactly what the work in “Women in Canvas” is, a bold representation some viewers may find disturbing. Teasing, scantily clad, these figures embody “lust” in the same way that 20th-century circus clowns were meant to be exaggerated personifications of “funny.”

In "On a Sofa,” Butayhi portrayed a woman sitting on a sofa, obviously. She is wearing tight red pants and a white tube top, revealing some parts of her feminine bust. Her face is not as detailed as the other parts of her body, as to emphasize the fact that her identity is not important. What matters for the artist is the general representation of women rendered in his paintings, as to guide his feminine viewers to identify themselves to his objects of inspiration.

The technique used by Butayhi is quite interesting. The more we focus on the work, the more we notice that he didn’t sketch this woman and then added some paint. Thick brushstrokes, stripes and hues were juxtaposed in order to reveal – step by step – the human figure.

In “On a Coffee Table” (150x145cm), the woman is represented leaning backward in a semi-prone position. Though her facial features are not quite distinct, her smile is alluring. Pink is used to highlight the figure’s one exposed arm and thighs. Juxtaposed with the translucent white and yellow used to represent her negligee and mouth only draws attention to the roughly rendered hair, eyes, hands and breasts – those body parts which, in our mediatized visual culture, have come to embody “femininity.”

“Timid Gathering” (150x150 cm) also portrays a woman (one whose attributes and depiction are approximately those of the figure in “On a Coffee Table”) this time sitting on a sofa. Again, we find the motifs breasts cosseted to beat advantage while the bottom of the skull is comprised of a clownishly generous pink mouth. Skin tones clash and mingle with bright pinks, yellows, white and oranges, conspiring to suggest a fantastical representation of the feminine.

The title suggests a group encounter, yet only one figure is depicted. Does the title indicate that the figure has been abstracted from a social gathering or an invitation for viewers to imagine a group encounter with her?

“What is essential,” Abdelleki writes of Butayhi’s work, is “the conflict of color and its hues.”

Butayhi’s paintings engage pop culture’s clichés of feminine sexuality without shrinking back from desire and boldness. No doubt some of Butayhi’s viewers may be intrigued by this work.

Tarek Butayhi’s “Women in Canvas” is up at Gemmayzeh’s Art on 56th until Feb. 23. For more information, call 01-570-331.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2013, on page 16.




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