by Janusz Noniewicz
Vulva is a word that has been recorded in French, Czech, Galician, Spanish, Latin, Malay, Slovak and Italian dictionaries. It is also present in the, as it’s known, interlingua de IALA dictionary – an artificial, international auxiliary language. The word is, however, absent in the Polish Language Dictionary. Does this mean anything to us?
Each of these dictionaries classifies the word vulva as anatomical, which determines the stylistic range of the word. Thus, the use of this word should be free of any emotional burden. It is an expression close to a neutral term. The word serves to name without judging.
“Srom” (pudendum) is the anatomical name for the female external genitals found in the Polish Language Dictionary. This means that the Polish language has used other than Latin source in this case. Unlike the languages listed before and unlike Beata Konarska.Is there a difference between the Polish language and the painting language of Konarska? Between the language and her, Konarska’s, signature? Can one paint in Polish?The Polish language reaches out here to the pre-Slavic sources, and the word “srom”, meaning the external genitals of the female reproductive system is almost entirely derived from the pre-Slavic word *sormъ, meaning shame, stigma, disgrace. Yes, it does. The word “shame” was chosen to anatomically define female genitals.And this isn’t everything. The same meaning is still found in other Slavic languages (e.g. Russian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian), and it has been preserved in the Polish language in the meanings of the words belonging to the same family of words, such as: sromota, sromotny, sromotnie – shame, shameful, wickedly and even “sromotnik”. In the past this word referred to somebody who was lewd, and, these days, it is used in botany for mushrooms to be warned against, such as inedible, penis-shaped sromotnik smrodliwy (stinkhorn), or against deadly poisonous (and this time having nothing to do with the penis) muchomor sromotnikowy (toadstool). Both mushrooms were named in the 19th century. Phallus Impudicus was named sromotnik smrodliwy in 1830 by Józef Jundziłł, and toadstool was christened muchomor sromotnikowy in 1889 by Franciszek Błoński. Let us see then, how recent are the years when ‘srom’ meant shame and disgrace in the Polish language. It has not even been 200 years. This is a relatively short time for a language.The entire family with the ‘srom’ core speaks of the shameful, disgraceful, shameless, and only ‘srom’ itself means ‘vulva’ in a seemingly emotionless language of medicine, devoid of judgment. We can then say that the female genitals are stigmatized in the Polish language even when they are not stigmatized. And even at the doctor’s office they are burdened with shame. Does this mean that women in Poland carry shame between their legs? And that medicine confirms it?(And men carry their pride? Incidentally it is interesting that the neutral Polish language does not treat the male genitals in the same manner, using, the Latin derived, international penis or the vernacular term ‘prącie’ , which does derive from the pre-Slavic ‘twig, a small and thin branch”, but also from the verb ‘to well up’, ‘to raise’ which gave origin to the word ‘prąd’ (current) in the Polish language).Let us remember that language is not innocent. There are standards recorded within it. It language that often sets boundaries. It expresses the law, both, the one codified in the laws as well as the one we use every day in the form of common sense principles.However, we must be fair, we cannot create an impression that the world is divided into the insular Polish ‘srom’ and the progressive European vulva. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Latin name “pudendra membra,” meaning “parts of the body that one should be ashamed of”, was clearly referring to genitals. It became popular in Western European languages. It could have referred to both, the male and female genitals, but the use of the language somehow made it refer primarily to female organs. And, as the character of language goes beyond the descriptive and it also establishes certain principles in the world, the spread of this expression impacted the attitude towards the female vulva. It wrapped it in shame and condemned it to invisibility. This also was the case in places where we should simply perceive the vulva and not some “pudendum”. Like the gynecologist’s office.
The exhibition by Beata Konarska among others was concieved with a question about the necessity to cover and uncover the female body. The first and the second activity most frequently bear a character of command within culture. They are the tools of power. The aftermath of accusation.
One of the main questions asked by the artistic world and language of Konarska is the question of the meaning of covering and uncovering. Revealing and hiding. Looking and not seeing. The human body, and more.
After having been inspired by the drawings of gynecological practices from the beginning of the nineteenth century (made by the same man, who called the mushrooms: sromotniki), the artist decided to address this issue. At that time, the medical examination of women followed a principle, which would be astonishing for us today: women were not allowed to uncover the shameful body parts, even for their doctor. The doctor then performed the examination with the “seeing finger” that is the index finger, burying it deeply under the masses of dresses and skirts that the patient had to wear during the examination. This methodology called “toucher” from French is described by Jürgen Thorwald in his accusative essay titled: “Gynecologists”. This ‘toucher’ method required the woman to be examined while standing in her dresses, her buttocks leaning against the table, her arms crossed in front of her and her legs a bit apart under the dresses. The doctor was allowed to slightly lift the dress with his left hand and place a greased finger of the right hand in the vagina, from the hind side, avoiding unpleasant sensations to the clitoris. (…) Sometime later placing a left hand on the dressed abdomen of the women was allowed and more detailed examination of the uterus by touching the dressed belly was implemented. The finger was then inserted into the anus to touch the uterus from that side. And these beautiful prints show fashionably dressed doctors groping around in the dark to examine women wrapped in several layers of dresses and skirts (in line with contemporary fashion).
Vulva, changed into pudendra membra, or ‘srom’ in Polish, which meant shame and disgrace, and had to remain hidden. This was not only the case during medical examinations, but also during childbirth. In line with this principle delivering children was also performed in the dark, operating under the layers of skirts and dresses and more layers of covers to protect… well, whom and against what? Women against being naked? Man against being tempted?
The world we are describing here is a masculinized world. The world that has been perceived by and surrendered to men in power. In it, they are the scientists, who understand this world, they are the engineers improving this world, they are the doctors curing this world, they are the artists making this world more beautiful and they are the judges judging this world. Finally, they are the priests opening (or just on the contrary shutting it on us) the gates to the better world.
The order to cover (or uncover) the female body, that is if it is an order, law, or a rule originating outside and acting on behalf of any higher abstract values, if it is justified by any religion or whatever morality, is nothing but a means of oppression with which the power is exercised.
The name of the exhibition “mea vulva” rhymes in a way with the Latin “mea culpa” (my fault, guilt) – the public confession of sins in the, as it’s known, Confiteor prayer during the holy mass. Obviously, one does not detail their sins during this type of confession. It is rather a general acknowledgment of humans being sinful as such: “I have sinned with thought, speech, deed and neglect.” I am sinful, because I am human, the faithful seem to be saying. Every manifestation of human activity may involve sinful actions. Thinking, speaking, acting and abstaining from it – all this can be contaminated with sin. I am sinful from the top of my head to my toe tips. As is my vulva.
So, when Konarska uses the Latin title “Mea vulva” and instills this possible rhyme with “mea culpa” into our conscience, she juxtaposes this guilt with the vagina. She identifies and contrasts one with the other. As if to say: find similarities and differences.
Paintings by Beata Konarska serve the purpose of helping us explore. Reveal the vulva and the problem. Truly, to shed ‘srom’, or shame by revealing the problem.
Let us apply here the rhetorical principle of pars pro toto – a part insted of the whole – and let us use the word vagina, a Latin derived word for (attention!: labial) lips.
Vagina is revealed to the public in Konarska’s paintings. It is being watched, without having to be voyered. Most often it is presented as an object. As a work of art, placed in an open space such as an object in a museum or gallery. And it has an audience that is looking and is not ashamed.
Because painting (paining in general and Konarska’s painting) is about looking. Exposition is the opposite of hiding. In Konarska’s paintings the vagina is exposed as something that is separate from man. It does not appear as a female organ. It becomes an autonomous object.
But it is not a prop. Not a phantom of a vagina. It is its revealing and even epiphany. It appears as an object, which is to be looked at. It proudly presents itself before the audience. On the wall of the gallery, in a dream, and in a natural landscape.
Who was it created by and why? What is its function? What are the tasks to be performed by it?
Paralleled to a work of art, in a sense it becomes one itself. However, it also represents some mystical epiphany, conveying mystical initiation.
Perhaps it is an artistic object and perhaps a miracle? A miraculous painting? Sanctified through art, it becomes a sanctity itself? Perhaps the fact of revealing it itself makes it somehow miraculous, extraordinary?
In the 2017 painting called “Vulva” it becomes a work of art hung on a wall, and an object proud to be displayed. Or is it a miraculous emanation of metaphysical force? A gate leading to a different world? A spectator, who has his back turned to us (the community of spectators characteristic for Konarska’s paintings: us and the characters of her painting) is a part of a group of three, together with a woman covered by burka and a man dressed in a European fashion, leaning against the wall. They, however, are the ones who do not look and do not see. As opposed to us. Because we see, we watch and we see look closely. Devoid of shame, embarrassment, breaking taboos. Because the vagina we see in Konarska’s painting did not originate as a forbidden fruit.
Seeing is understanding. Seeing is being interested. Seeing is overcoming alienation. It is the opposite of groping in the dark. The opposite to the violent acts performed on women by nineteenth century gynaecology practises to protect them against voyeurism.
The problem of voyerism does not exist in Konarska’s art, because the vagina is an autonomous object, freed from any particular human being. It is a painting sign, and not an intimate part of a human body. It does not, however, mean that Konarska dehumans vulva. The Vagina is not an organ, it is a form of existence. It always has a human dimension in the painting itself. It is on par with other characters. On par with us.
In Konarska’s paintings, the sign of the vagina is not only seen on the walls of galleries, but also in landscapes. With the assistance of a metaphor, I would say that it manifests itself not only to humans, but also to the elements. In the picture, “When spring comes, nature awakens” from 2017, vagina manifests itself on the snow as a prelude to a natural transition from one state to another. It becomes the proclamation of rebirth and even of-birth, the endless and unceasing act of coming to the world. Here, as in the painting of Courbet, the vulva becomes the origin of the universe, and not some shameful genital. Ostentatiously shameless, it belongs to the cosmic orderliness of nature. The order that precedes the emergence of shame. Indeed, the origin of shame is found in breaking the ban and emerges with what the Bible calls the fall of the first people in the Book of Genesis. However, before the description of the fall is detailed we can read the following in verse 25: “Now the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame”. Shame is born with the awareness of being naked, or rather with a sense of inappropriateness of being naked. And this feeling emerges after breaking the ban on eating the fruit from a tree in the middle of the garden. Fortunately, the painting of Konarska does not show any tree and there are no people. There are no circumstances for any authority to use to mark the world with the stigma of sin. But the vagina is there – a sign of cosmic forces, a symbol of superhuman and non-human order. And it cannot have anything to do with shame.
Turning things into shapes-symbols, Konarska asks about the nature of the forbiddance, the ontology of sin. The painting called “Portrait” represents the heroine’s mouth dripping with thick white liquid, a drop of which has stopped at the tip of the tongue. Is there something shameless about this image? Who is the first to be ashamed by looking at this painting? And why?
A 2015 painting called “Coexistance” presents three children looking at three sitting women dressed in burqas covering their entire bodies with a special rectangular veil over the eye area. The empty space within which these two groups are placed again reminds of a gallery space. The children are turned away from us. They seem to attentively watch the women sitting opposite to them. They come really close to them. Can we say that they are staring at them? This type of shortened distance that we see in Konarska paintings is rarely seen between strangers. Why is no one interrupting or stoppingthese kids? Getting them to act in orderly manner? Telling them they should not be doing it, that it is rude? And what are the women hidden in burqas doing? Are they staring at the children too? With the same intensity? Who is whose subject of interest? Who is watching whom?
The exotic nature of the burqa and most of all the covered eyes makes us see them as a shape only. Perhaps it is an object, a shape, a form, a work of art? Perhaps just a sculpture? Perhaps there are no women there?
If we take into account another group of people, invisible in the picture, the group of spectators looking at Konarska’s painting, if we take a look at the painting from our perspective, beyond the picture, we will see that the children and the Muslims are – despite their differences – very similar to one another. Standing with their backs turned to us, dressed in a similar fashion, with similar hairstyles, they become identical in shape for us, in their abstract nature, similar to the shape formed by the group of Muslim women. They become equally hidden to us. Covered.
The painting “Graces” (2017) presents a young woman (obviously turned away from us) looking at a monumental sculpture embodying the motif of three graces, classical bodies without heads, with cut off hands. The spectator and the object seem to create their own reflection in the paintings of Konarska. Somehow they become a mirror to one another.
Does Konarska, an artist falling far from realism, understand painting in this manner? As a mirror being carried around along the road? Is the gallery – a road, and painting – a laboratory to test our perception of reality for the artist?
The concept of looking, watching, staring, and observing seems one of the most important elements in the painting of Konarska. And one of the faces of this obsession is the fact that when Konarska turns her character towards our (and her as well) spectator (and the painter standing by the easel) – she erases their eyes. She covers them from her and us. It does not mean she blinds her characters. The desire for eyes is not an anatomical feature of the character. It is the painter’s decision. She covers their eyes with a gesture of a painter. With a burqua made of paint.
Konarska builds worlds without the eyes with an obsession to observe, look and watch.
Konarska often paints children as characters in her paintings. They are the ones who are looking at the reality, (however we define it in the case of Konarska). They are looking at the world, things, people, art, fantasies… Girls are looking at vaginas, boys at penises. In fact we cannot be entirely sure, as the children standing with their backs turned to us, wearing similar fashionable clothes making them alike do not attach special importance to the binary division of sex.
Konarska applies here a methodology of teaching through observing. By observing the world, looking at it and watching it – we learn how to understand it. We make it ours. We become a part of it.
However, Konarska does not let the observers remain only observers. By painting them in the foreground she makes them the object of observation, a subject that is looked at. They are being looked at, and, more specifically, their bodies. In her breakthrough work, “Body and power”, Izabela Kowalczyk reminds us: “A gaze has an important meaning within our culture – it is the tool of objectification, or exercising power”. This way Konarska confronts us with the need to control children, as a guide, which is the role we often want to take up with children. But she places us behind their backs. The child always has his back turned on us. We know what they are looking at, but we don’t know what they see. We cannot control their perceptions, reactions, or items of interests. And what if children do not see the same things we see? They do not see our standards, bans, fears, representations and fascinations?
“Look at me”, “look at my face”, “look me in the eyes” – we say when we want to check someone’s honesty. When we want someone to confess, to admit: yes, my pussy, my pussy, my most grievous pussy.
In Konarska’s art, looking is blindfolded. In fact, none of her characters has the eyes we can see. What, in a sense, devoids the act of looking of sensual perception. And this, in turn, sets us free of temptation. The temptation of overinterpretation as well. As the eyes, sight are burdened with an excess of banal associations. A surplus of superficial symbolism. Eyes in art encourage us to produce unnecessary meanings and they deflect our attention from the meaningful, eidetic meanings. Seeing in Konarska’s art does not bear a sensible character, it is rational. Curiosity is used to know, not to see. Therefore, neither she, nor her characters seek to lose themselves in detail or for sensual satisfaction. Konarska searches for laws and truths. What we see is not so much important, but what we manage to understand and comprehend.
The reality found in the paintings of Beata Konarska is not a representations of facts, it is not an illusion of reality. It’s a projection. In an almost literal meaning found in a dictionary: it is an image cast on a screen. As if it came from slides. The world seen, recorded, displayed and composed again.
What has been seen and what has been transformed into Konarska’s painting consist not only of memorized images of reality or fancied images of dreams, but also of photographs or works by other artists. Konarska repaints them in her own way. With her own gestures.
She says what others had said before. She repeats. This terrible word, which we often use to discredit an artist or a work, in Konarska’s art becomes a description of the author’s individual view of art, of the artist and the contemporary world.
Art is not a search for new inspirations, the thoughts that have so far been untold. It does not need to be a domain of discovery, novelty and invention. It does not need to compete with technology. In art, mutual repetition does not need to be either copying or teasing. The artist places another author’s work of art on her own canvas. But she does not press copy and paste, she does not quote. She paints it anew, in her own manner. She expresses it in her own idiom. She looks for reaction after expressing what has been expressed before. How would that sound? What would be the meaning she can draw from what has been said before? With art, who is talking is equally important to what is being said. Just like in a conversation.