Whenever I'm in an art gallery, I hunt around for images that resemble me. I'm not egocentric. I just like things that are familiar. And so, at a recent exhibition of 'the masters,' I strolled past the paintings of landscapes and bowls of fruit and found myself in a Botticelli. The round thighs, the ample breasts. The body was pink and fertile. The model was probably between the ages of 13 and 16. I'm only slightly older, if you're counting by millennia. But still. The shape was pleasingly familiar.
A Modigliani hung nearby. His women are as reedy as Popeye's girlfriend Olive Oyl and have dark features that exude mystery and yearning. I liked the look of them. Behind me, my husband scowled at the waif-like form.
"She looks like she needs a steak," he said, moving on.
I stared at the long neck and willowy limbs and fought off a pang of envy. I could never look like that, even if I sustained a very protracted hunger strike.
As a young teen, I bemoaned my endomorphic structure. I wanted to be taller. I wanted ballet arms and three more inches in the leg. When I saw Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, my frustration boiled over.
"I need a longer neck," I wailed.
My father, ever quick with a solution, answered. "We'll get you a neck ring, like the Burmese Padaungs wear," he said. "If we start now, your neck could stretch an inch by twelfth grade."
At age 13, I was unable to glean the nuance of his comment. He didn't mean to imply that this was a working possibility and yet I remember flipping through the pages of the Encyclopedia Americana, searching for those neck rings.
None of Picasso's women looked terribly happy, even the ones with features in the proper places. The faces are at times gorgeous, but there is always something tormented about them, as if they were sitting on thumb tacks. Of course, most of Picasso's women have eyes in odd proximity and a breast protruding from the bottom of a foot. Computer generated women conceived in labs staffed by pygmy chimps would be more alluring than Picasso's cubist females, even if the pygmy chimps went completely off the grid and created their own ideal mates.
I'm happy to report I have nothing in common with Whistler's women, mostly variations of his mother, a matron in black, sporting an Amish bonnet on her head and holding a bit of lace. Her hands look quiet... I suppose that's something to emulate.
Salvadore Dali liked his women slightly nauseated. A portrait of his wife's face was tinged in green haze, making her look like she'd eaten a bad walnut. There was something above or behind her head that protruded from her hair like triangular horns. He didn't like her, of that I'm sure. I would not like to sit in a room with him, just in case.
Vincent van Gogh's women pleased me. Their faces are wavy and insecure, soft in all the right places but maintain strong features. Are these old faces painted accurately, I wondered, or young women altered by the edge of his brush? I might like to be one of them, if only I could be sure of the answer first.
No matter what, I wouldn't want to look like a Henry Moore. His women are oversized in every way, and it would be uncomfortable to walk around naked with all that extra heft. Somehow, and I'm not sure how, he manages to make them look beautiful despite their exaggerated features. I suppose that's why he's so famous.
I didn't bother to mention the pop artists like Lichtenstein because those women are made up, not real at all. And, if I was going to look like a cartoon, I would for sure want to be Veronica from the Archie comic book series. I mean, really. Who wouldn't?
In the museum's ladies room, I saw myself in the full-length mirror. My reflection stopped me cold. I was myself, not painted or posed, just me. I squinted, refocused. I turned a little sideways and then faced myself. And I thought: I would like to know her.
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