I call it Cloche. That\'s what they called hats that sat like mushroom caps on ladies\' heads. In the twenties, nineteen-twenties. Well, they weren\'t really ladies any more. On some level they were still ladies, if you can call Bette Davis and Zelda Fitzgerald ladies. They were women, yes. They were only ladies in the sense that a gentleman would take them home to meet one\'s parents, when the time came. They were marriageable, the best of women of that generation.
The Victorian concept of minding one\'s manners, lifting one\'s skirts over a puddle and wrinkling noses at cigar smoke, that was not what these women did. It was more about cussing, bobbing the hair and telling the men where to get off, if need be.
So when I decided to take a piece of dark red velvet as the background of my painting of a woman wearing a cloche hat, I did not intend it to reflect Victorian parlors favoring deep toned velvets. I chose it because it resembled blood, blood that had dried or was in the process of drying. The face of the woman was to be large, larger than life, filling the entire surface of a three foot square surface. The cloche would cover all of her head and a large part of her face. It would be a symbol. It would cover the area housing the brain. It would imbue the brain waves as a surge of free and fanciful ideas seeped in, soon filling the whole body.
You could not see the body in this painting. You could only see the neck and a part of the shoulders. A tiny change in the curve of the shoulder could change this image to a submissive female. But this woman, this face, would, could not be submissive. Not at that inner level where the soul lives. She would certainly be diplomatic. She knew when to shut up and when to be demure. But she also knew when to boogie, when to Charleston, when to drop in at the Apollo Theatre.
I had to be very careful to make that curve of the neck and shoulders show strength, boldness and just a slight hint of dissipation. For the new female smoked and drank, keeping up with the men in drawing rooms and clubs. This female was known to crash male clubs when it suited her purpose.
It had to be done in pastel. This medium is often pooh-poohed by painters. Why, it\'s just some chalk, they would say. But I had felt its rich power in my fingers, my hands the first time I held a stick of very soft, very pale lemon yellow pigment, suspended in calcium carbonate, with just enough glue to hold it as a stick. Surely an old craftsman in Holland or Venice had carefully molded and formed this stick. When I first tied pastel, it spread like butter over a velour surface. It did not matter that the process boiled down to placing some dry, powdery stuff on a piece of cloth. Sounds fleeting, doesn\'t it? And it certainly is. No wonder painters prefer something more lasting, a medium of status, if you will.
Oils, of course, have been the great ones, with a reputation spanning centuries of western art. As women have changed, or at least changed what layers of their reality they were willing to show, so have, alas, the media of painting. Though some diehards still laud the glories of oil painting, most younger and swifter people prefer acrylics. Watercolor has had its day, but it is so fragile, museums and galleries show these paintings in rooms devoid of ultraviolet rays and moisture. Heaven forbid someone should spill coffee or just plain H20 on them. Silverfish seem to love the papers they are painted on. So it looks like in today\'s world, acrylic is king, not only in the art world, but the world of crafts, house painting and furniture refinishing.
So why chalk? Why pastel? To get back to the woman with the cloche, I wanted this oversized face and cap to be a map. A map with lines and tributaries showing transformation. How does a woman, probably born to a Victorian, pre-war family of crinolines and hair in tight buns, turn into a thoroughly modern creature? And this within a very short span of time. This kind of thing cannot be shown in a medium as rigid as watercolor or as heavy and serious as oil, or as quick drying and raw as acrylic paint.
How does the Gibson Girl turn into a flapper? Only pastel, that smooth, powdery pigment blending so subtly with layers upon layers of powdery pigments, gives that freedom to explore, let fingers mold, melding colors and areas. Many changes happen in the process. A small stroke of the chin can make the face look too weak, or too strong. Pastel is forgiving, so a new stroke makes it better.
This woman, above all, must show the beauty of womanhood. For that is what she is. The Victorian rosebud opens into a full-blown rose, filled with fragrance, a mysterious center, and above all, lots of thorns on its stem. For this woman, this flower, must be a fighter. She must fight her mother to cut the long, flowing hair into a boyish bob, to sneak cigarettes and finally come out in the open; fight to wear silk stockings and shave her underarms; fight to wear short camisoles and beaded shifts, sporting colors straight from King Tut\'s treasures, which she admires; to sing songs by Al Jolson and shimmy over thick, glass covered dancing floors till dawn; to drink absinthe in cellar speakeasies with tuxedoed companions.
Yes, it takes a lot of thorns. But that is just the beginning for this flower, this cloche-wearing vamp. Darkening the doors of hallowed halls, seats of learning founded around the time of Magna Carta, takes thorns. If you are a woman, that is. Starting women\'s organizations, sororities, literary clubs, takes more thorns. Then comes that final coup – the vote.
But Cloche is not about politics, or education, or anything that mundane and \"important.\" This painting (for pastel is, after all, dry painting) must represent not just a woman, but life itself. Is not man enhanced if his partner is free to show her beauty, her reality. Are we not all the richer, when we celebrate our truth?
Yet Cloche is not about philosophy or women\'s lib, or anything as \"important\" as that either. A painting should speak for itself. Cloche is to be the map an onlooker might open and let the eyes walk along its tributaries; the lines of the shoulder, the cut of the short bob, the eyes, looking straight and dark into the heart, if one allows it. Mostly, to me, painting is about beauty. I have yet to observe something in this world that has not an edge of beauty to it.
So here it is, Cloche. Painted by fingers, fingers that have also known blood, blood the color of this velvet. Keep this painting in your heart, if you will. You will never see this piece of cloth with smears of pastel on it. That is not the real painting. The real painting is the one you paint in your mind. The real painting is what you take with you in your heart.
Why do they pooh-pooh pastel? Because, if you shake the velvet cloth, the pigment falls away. Cloche is gone, except in the imagination, the soul. Now you know the real reason why I chose pastel. For this woman, this cloche clad woman, does not care if her party or the world ends tomorrow. She does not care if she loses her reputation, her comfort, or a treasured painting. She must live today. She must live 100%, whatever it takes. Tomorrow, to paraphrase Omar Khayyam, she may be herself with yesterday\'s ten thousand years.