„Female landscape” in the paintings by Tanja Ritterbex
What is the color of femininity? Pink, of course! What are women thinking about if not about nail polishes, having big breasts, a lot of chocolate or a new bag? About having sex, of course! This and much more stereotypes about white, western femininity are depicted in Dutch artist’s, Tanja Ritterbex’s paintings. She seems to repeat all nonsense about women both in her art and in creating her personal image. What is her artistic aim within it?
In the following essay I would like to answer to questions: what is the “female landscape” in Ritterbex’s works? With what kind of stereotypes about femininity the artists plays? What is the aim of repeating the stereotypes about herself? What means of expression does she use to portrays her life?
In my analysis I would focus on the iconographic aspect of her paintings – identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images. I will look at different kind of given visual signs and how they represent the reality. I will pay attention to the representation of females and their surroundings and how it is coherent with some stereotypes about women. Then I would move to the analyiss of stylistics and aesthetics what might also give us some clues about the meaning of her oeuvre.
My methodology is based on the iconography and semiotics – this two disciplines will help me in reading the meaning included in the iconic representation of reality in the paintings. Semiotics is a science of sings and how they work and what is they role in the culture (Hall, 2013). Visual signs are called iconic signs because they resemblance real world. They could be more or less realistic, but as far as its recipients belong to the same culture they must share similar conceptual map, so they can interpret the sings of the language in the similar way (Hall, 2013: 5). On the other hand, there is the iconography – the most common methodology in the art history. While the visual semiotics focuses mostly on the image itself, iconography pays attention to the context in which the artworks was produced and circulated, and to how and why cultural meanings and their visual expressions come about historically(van Leeuwen, 2000: 92). That is why I will enclose also the analysis of the stylistics and artistic context.
Tanja Ritterbex is a young Dutch artist (born in 1985), whose exhibition I have encountered during Amsterdam Art Weekend in 2015 at the Ornis A. Gallery (ornisgallery.com). As my material to analyze I will use the following paintings: Ladies Night Out (2013), Me Great (2013), Me and My Room in My Bad Hair Day (2012) – these are in technique acryl on canvas; and drawing on paper It’s me, eating naked sushi (2012). I will also write about two installations, which were a part of the exhibition I thought I could be an artist.
At this moment painting is the key focus of Ritterbex’s practice, but she also creates installations, sculptures and videos. No matter the medium, self-reflection and social critique are constant in her work. Images of women are the most common in the paintings by Tanja Ritterbex, most of them are self-portraits. She as an artist constructs a specific image of woman playing with the stereotypes about femininity. Ritterbex represents new, contemporary, 21st century’s image of women in a very ironic way.
The paintings by Tajna Ritterbex have very interesting “wild”( tanjaritterbex.com) stylistics. This is how her work is described on her website:
Driven by the dynamics of paint her practice is both spontaneous and systematic; each work is consciously planned, but when it comes to putting brush to canvas her application is “based in immediacy”. Tanja’s paintings start with small test canvases, which she calls her sketchbook which lead to a traditional cartoon on canvas, color blocking and finally layers of acrylic paint applied quickly – “wet on wet”.
Her paintings are all big seize ll oil or acryl on canvas. very interesing ries, where she can depict the scenes from her life and her memoirs. oil or acryl on big seize canvas. Her works are multicolored, contrasting, bright and garish. The technique is based on thickly and quickly laid impasto. The surface of the painting seem to be shacking . The paintings are not abstract, they refer to the reality, but characters and objects are simplified and deformed. The artist often uses caricatures and aesthetics of ugliness. She treats the canvas in a decorative way.
The Ritterbex’s stylistic resembles the paintings by pre-war German expressions or the movement so-called “Neue Wilde” from 1980s. Ritterbex paints in the similar techniques and her pieces rise similar issues: critique of society, sexual liberation, prostitutes, views of streets and vanity of women(Gordon, 1987: 26-68). The topics are congenial with woks by George Grosz or Otto Dix while the color is more like in pieces by Emil Nolde or Franz Marc.
Representation of herself in the paintings
If I could use only two words to describe my work I would say it is a “female landscape” (tanjaritterbex.com) – this is how Ritterbex describes the subject of her paintings. Indeed, they are full of: colorful, girlish clothes, high-heels, nail polishes, cosmetics. Women are depicted in their domestic realm, among wardrobes, in the bathroom, in the private bedroom or doing their everyday activities – watching TV on a couch, spending time with friends. The female landscape surrounds all the characters. It is apparent in the painting Me and My Room in My Bad Hair Day, where in the center of the composition there is a portrait of a girl (presumably of herself), showing her blond hair. She is in her cluttered room: there is a hanger full of colorful, kitschy clothes, a shelf with nail polishes, boxes, a candlestick and other decorative objects. She is wearing also a colorful, old-fashioned dress, while her face is ruddy and goofy. This type of representation recalls images of “stupid girls” making “selfies” in their room with their clothes and cosmetics or a photo from women’s magazines. Whereas the sketchy drawing It’s me, eating naked sushi is a self-portrait as well. She is lying on the bed naked, showing her vagina. There are lots of pillows and some sets of sushi around her. She represents herself in a private situation, in her room again, she is having relaxing time.
Another painting where we can find the “female landscape” is Ladies Night Out, which is based on a real picture I found on her Facebook profile. In the painting there are two girls dressed up in extravagant clothes: patterned leggings, leopard-print blouses with shiny handbags, sunglasses, fanciful hairstyles. They are showing their breasts. The background of the painting is pink and there is written “Ladies Night Out”. The photo, on which the painting was based was probably shot in a changing room in a shopping center. It could be also read as satiric imitation of common Facebook’s photos of “crazy shopping girls”.
Moreover, in many painting as (for instance in Me Great) there are the sex scenes. Erotic female landscape consists of vibrators, naked bodies, tits, penises and vaginas. Me Great is a representation of four friends having sex on a bed. There are two boys and two girls, one of them is probably Tanja shown with her breast and vagina naked, next to a boy. It seems that they have just had oral sex. The painting is colorful and all characters seem to have fun. This piece shows the lifestyle of a group of friends, their leisure time and sexual liberation.
What is more, the two installation displayed in the Ornis A. Gallery at the exhibition I thought I could be an artist were also funny commentaries about the women’s sexual liberation and the “female landscape”. One of the installations consisted of a shelf with many nail polishes and tubes of cream on it, wholly painted gold. The material resembles a very precious sculpture, making a funny contrast with the topic of the piece. The other was a coat hanger with seven hooks, each signed with a pink paint with a day of the week. On the hooks there were hanging different types of vibrators, each type for one day. It is a commentary to the lifestyle of liberated women who do not need a man to please them anymore. I find also very interesting the fact that Ritterbex decided to exhibit very personal things like vibrators, which are often hidden by women. The installations play in a humorous way with the stereotypes about contemporary women, who allegedly think only about taking care of their bodies and about having sex. e stereotypes about contemporary women, who ith many nail polishes on it wholy painted beration.
Now I will move the representation of private life in the art by Tanja Ritterbex. On her website the following quotation can be found: My work is very close to myself. I paint on a canvas like it’s a diary for me. (tanjaritterbex.com) Hence Ritterbex treats paintings like a kind of personal journals, where she can depict the scenes from her life and her memoirs. She represents mostly domestic scenes or meeting with a group of friends. She is depicted in almost all of the paintings. Often she paints from photographs and represents similar topic which are present on Facebook to make fun of them. Having said that, Facebook and other social media are the source of inspiration for her. Similarly last year she painted and posted one self-portrait (“selfie”) a day, to repeat in a satiric way a daily action of many users of Facebook or Instagram.
To put it in other words, Tanja is fascinated with the “spectacle of everyday life” and she treats her life and the lives of her friends enough interesting topic for the art. She exhibits her life through art in similar way as people do it on their Facebook’s profiles. She is very open in showing her sexual relationship, private life, domestic surrounding. What is more, she makes a “spectacle” out of her life – in the way she looks like, the clothes she wears she also plays the stereotypical women’s image. As an artists she makes lots of pictures of herself in front of her paintings. Her life is a kind of artistic performance in which her every step can be seen as a part of her art. The boundary between life and art is blurred, what is one of the characteristics of contemporary art.
Playing with gender stereotypes
Now I will move to the definition what are the stereotypes and how is Ritterbex using them in her art. In fact stereotypes about gender are not “mimetic”, they are not appealing directly to the “reality”, because there are so many women in the world having different identities and occupations that they are not a homogenous social group. The stereotypes about gender and sex are rather “constructionist” – they are cultural signifiers which construct rather than reflect gender definitions, meanings and identities(Ball, Gledhill,. In: Hall’s, 2013: 342-343). Also the femininity is not a fixed gender identity, they are rather plural forms of femininity which are processual and changing within time (Nixon In: Hall’s, 2013: 294-295). For a long time femininity was rather constructed by men in the books, paintings and other means of representations due to patriarchal, male-dominated Western ideology. The situation has been changing from the 19th century and time of first feminist emancipation until now when women have more or less equal rights in both production of knowledge and production of meaning in the culture. Now the women discourse is less biased but the stereotypes about gender remained and are still repeated in mass media, color magazines and pop culture.
Why do we use the stereotypes so willingly? Stereotyping is very useful practice because it is a basic classificatory scheme we are using every day. Stereotyping according to Stuart Hall is a signifying practice that helps us “making sense” of things in terms of some wider categories. Stereotypes are simplified ideas about people, social groups or anything else. Stereotypes get hold of the few “simple, vivid, memorable, easily grasped and widely recognize” characteristics about a person (Hall, 2013: 247). This practice of signifying is a part of maintenance of social and symbolic order (Hall, 2013: 248). Hence it helps us to define other people and our place in the world.
The basic and repeated stereotypes about white femininity are based on the assumption that women are more connected with nature than men – on the binary nature/culture in which men are thought to be closer to culture. Gender roles of women are to be a daughter, a wife, a mother. They are more connected with domestic or shopping surrounding. Another binary on which are based the stereotypes about gender is active/passive binary. Women are rather seen as passive, waiting for a man. Stereotypical occupation of a woman is taking care of her body, spending leisure time at home or thinking about clothes. Women are willingly sexualized – they are often shown as objects of men’s sexual desire. Female nudes are more often encountered in the European culture than images of naked men.
Ritterbex depicts rather stereotypes about “new” femininity. Women in her paintings are sexually liberated, independent and in most cases single girls. They are all white and heterosexual. But they also have the characteristics attributablehey also have the eterosexuals. ly liberated, independent and in most cases singels. to the gender, such like passivity, taking care about appearance and clothes, domesticity. It is believed that women from the young generation uses social media all of the time to make a spectacle out of their lives: posting “selfies”, photos from shopping or cooking.
On the first sight art pieces by Tanja Ritterbex might seem affirmative towards image of women from the young generation she is creating. But does she really appreciate this kind of lifestyle? I would rather say that the artist plays with the stereotypes about femininity. She shows herself and her friends in the distorting mirror. These funny representations have a deeper meaning, they are harsh criticism of young society and especially young women, who really sometimes are focused on superficial aspects of life.
Her art is very humorous, she can laugh at herself and everyday situations. She is making fun of some stereotypes about femininity but in the same time she repeats and reinforces them both in her real life and art pieces. Why is she doing that? Ritterbex willingly uses the device of irony – the statement she is giving in her paintings has the contrary meaning. The stylistic she is using helps her to achieve her goal – she represents the reality in the expressionist way hence the reality in her pictures is deformed and becomes self-caricature. Similar tactics was used by the German expressionists to make their satiric paintings.
Mariene Mackie in her article Who Is Laughing Now? The Role of Humour in the Social Construction Of Gender (Mackie, 1990: 21) writes about similar strategy which is used by contemporary feminists. She calls it “subversive gender humour” and provides many examples how activist was using it to fight gender inequality. Feminists played with stereotypical portraits of women to challenge the gender status quo through devices of irony, of exaggeration, of sarcasm, and of wit. Identical strategy is used by Tanja Ritterbex in her pieces, she plays with some stereotypes to make fun of them.
All things considered, Tanja Ritterbex depicts women in their “female landscape”. What is more, she treats her art as a personal diary and she makes a kind of performance out of her private life blurring the boundary between art and real life. Her art is very expressionist in the form, she willingly uses variegated colors and deformation of objects. Ritterbex plays with the stereotypes about contemporary femininity. Her art is ironic, satiric and homorous. Self-reflection and social critique are constants in her work. Through laugh Ritterbex makes the viewer think about the fact that gender patterns are socially constructed.
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- Gordon D. E, Expressionism: Art and Idea, Yale 1987.
- Hall S., The Spectacle of the Other, In: S. Hall, Representation, London 2013.
- Hall S., The Work of Representation. In: S. Hall, Representation, London 2013.
- http://ornisagallery.com/exhibitions-images/?time=1&id=1059[access: 20.01.2016]
- http://www.tanjaritterbex.com/ [access: 20.01.2016]
- Mackie M., Who is Laughing Now?: The Role of Humour in the Social Construction of Gender, “Atlantis”, Vol 15, No 2 (1990).
- Nixon S., Exhibiting Masculinity, In: S. Hall, Representation, London 2013.
- van Leeuwen T., Semiotics and Iconography In: The Handbook of Visual Analysis, London 2000, pp. 92-118.
Tanja Ritterbex, Me Great, acryl on canvas, 2013
Tanja Ritterbex in front of her Me and My Room in My Bad Hair Day, acryl on canvas, 2012
Tanja Ritterbex in front of her Ladies Night Out, acryl on canvas, 2013.
Tanja Ritterbex, installation from the exhibition I thought I could be an artist, 2015
Tanja Ritterbex, installation from the exhibition I thought I could be an artist, 2015