The women in Angela Fraleigh’s paintings are facsimiles of the painted muses rendered by the so-called “old masters,” specifically those who created Baroque and Rococo paintings in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Most often, these painted women are culled from the depths of Greek mythology, from tales including “Diana After the Hunt,” “The Rape of Europa,” and “The Allegory of Fertility,” where they appeared not as heroes or even protagonists but objects of desire or targets of violence. The dearth of stories revolving around women, both in ancient tales and the annals of art history, was both troubling and intriguing to Fraleigh.
“Since my earliest adult paintings, I’ve been interested in how meaning is made, how we construct the stories we come to believe over time, and how this affects power dynamics in terms of race, gender and class,” the artist told The Huffington Post.
In 2013, while on sabbatical, Fraleigh delved deeper into the relationship between gender and myth, hungry for a space when women drove narratives, made choices and became heroes.
She was dismayed to learn about an incident in which author Maureen Murdock asked her professor Joseph Campbell, a mythologist and author of the influential book The Hero’s Journey, why women were never the ones to embark on the literary voyage. “Women don’t need to make the journey,” he told her. “All she has to do is realize that she’s the place people are trying to get to.”
Fraleigh did notice, however, one domain in which women appeared as primary characters with diverse and complex attributes: fairy tales. Not the sanitized Disney versions, but the tales passed between generations of otherwise voiceless women ― stories full of sex, violence and feminine power.
For example, the earliest iterations of Little Red Riding Hood vary greatly from the version we know today. Circulated orally by French peasants in the 10th century, the story features gory details that were later omitted, such as when Little Red unwittingly eats her grandmother after the Wolf prepares her body as meat. In the end, Little Red escapes due to her own instinct and cunning; no male figure saves the day. It wasn’t until the Grimm Brothers printed the story in the 19th century that the character of the Huntsman ― the male father figure ― intervenes to save her.
“You see a lot of fairy tales being addressed in cinema now,” Fraleigh said. “And there are all these alternative narratives popping up.” She cited “Frozen” and “Maleficent,” both of which feature strong, self-determining female characters. “I started thinking, what if I were to turn the same alternative narrative lens to art history?”
Fraleigh is knowingly following in the footsteps of feminist artists who have exposed the dominion of the male gaze over the history of Western art, devoting their life’s work to subverting it. “Looking at art history, we see a bunch of naked, passive female characters,” she said. “But what if we go back and look at those passive figures as subversive female characters?”
Another major influence on Fraleigh’s practice has been writer and mythographer Marina Warner, who deconstructed early fairy tales in relation to the historical silencing of women. In medieval times, when fairy tales were orally exchanged, Warner wrote, there was a preponderance of propaganda broadcasting the danger of women congregating in large groups, sharing information and gaining power.
Through her artistic practice, Fraleigh wanted to uncover such instances ― when women’s voices become dangerous.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such moments are rare in classical paintings due to the lack of women-driven narratives. The few instances Fraleigh could find ― depicting myths like “Diana at the Bath” and “The Rape of Europa” ― featured women as eye candy, or what the artist called “a pervy version of a locker room.”
Fraleigh’s mission was to keep the content but flip the tone. “What if these characters were up to something?” she said. “What if these were intelligent, able-bodied women? Not giggling little nymphs that are vapid visual feasts but thinking, breathing characters that are at work plotting?”
While the characters in Fraleigh’s painted interpretations remain for the most part faithful to their Rococo origins, they are subsumed in a backdrop of ornate abstraction, allowing the viewer to focus her attention on the figures in play. “I want to expose the body language ― the intimacy among women that isn’t necessarily sexual,” she said. “It’s just tender sharing amongst female characters in a utopian feminine space.”
Along with the backdrops, Fraleigh also modified the paintings’ sizes, augmenting them to a heroic scale. Many of the original works served as boudoir paintings, meant to stimulate in the bedroom. Through adjusting the size, Fraleigh gives intimate moments political import while also giving the viewer ample chance to study every detail of the female characters’ expressions and body language.
In one image, based on François Boucher’s “The Rape of Europa,” Fraleigh zooms in on the chorus of women in the background, removing them from their previous context and plopping them into an enchanted forest. “They are colluding in the darkness, like witches in the woods,” she said. “Before, they were just on the sidelines of another rape story.”
Fraleigh’s interest in re-contextualizing the corners of art regarded as feminine and discriminated against accordingly extends to her interest in the Rococo period as well. Notorious for its hyperrealistic sensuality, unbridled opulence and privileging of the canvas’ surface, the movement is often shoved to the sidelines of art history and regarded as being frivolous, superficial and ― yes ― feminine.
Through reframing the love interests, nymphs, chamber maids and chorus girls, Fraleigh conjures art historical moments that never were, where women once relegated to supporting roles are endowed with agency, freedom and momentum.
“I am really fascinated by how editing literally changes the course of history,” Fraleigh said, referencing the sanitized fairy tales that continue to inform children on how the world works. Perhaps her edited takes on art history will have a similarly powerful effect.