There are no fathers in art. In general there are very few images of fatherhoods. There are none in advertisements, magazines or movie posters. They are not seen with the presence, commitment and spontaneity that motherhoods are.
This became evident to me when I started thinking about motherhood. Where are the fathers?
So I began to look for them and decided to start with famous paintings, those that appear in the history of art. I started from this point for three reasons. First of all, I did not want any unknown or exceptional images. On the contrary, I was looking for those that are established in the collective imaginary. At the same time, I wanted them to be "official images", legitimized by cultural institutions. And finally, for a personal reason: they are the paintings that educated me, the ones I always admired and loved.
I took my art history books, among which are the "Pinacoteca de los Genios" booklets, which left a mark on me in my childhood and were my first approach to the subject.
...Well, just a couple: Saturn devouring his son and Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac.
I couldn't understand why there were no fathers in the history of visual representation who didn't want to murder their children.
Of course, mothers and more mothers are reproduced prolifically.
I had the urge to draw those same pictures of Madonnas and invert them, transforming them all into dads with babies.
I liked this, it felt good, so I continued.
She-genius & He-muse
Other issues began to come up.
White men doing service and cleaning tasks showed-up. Meanwhile, women read the newspaper, smoked and drank.
Warrior and aggressive women. Hundreds of steamy, subtle, modest men.
And, of course, a lot of male nudity.
Sometimes it's just the little gestures and postures of the characters which are completely marked by gender.
Creative and professional women began to come out, the drawings were filled with women writers, philosophers, painters, doctors. It is beautiful to see how all of this showed-up.
Another fundamental theme is the representation of romantic love, their counter-images show us positions that we never see represented, they question us about our learned behaviors.
The visual trench
These counter-images are a sort of a visual version of "the inversion rule". One of the easiest ways to test whether a sentence is sexist is to replace words with their corresponding words of the opposite gender and see what happens.
The goal is to even out what is unbalanced, to counterbalance. The definition of counter is "To oppose a force or dominance / To diminish an influence." That is why I consider them counter-images: because they offer a resistance and diminish the effect of the representations that operate in the collective imagination.
My wish is that we draw one father for every Madonna that exists.
It's like undoing a spell: by transforming the painting, you transform reality a little bit. Images have always had some magical power. The Egyptians drew their goods and crops to possess them for eternity. In some cultures people do not allow themselves to be photographed, because they say that the image steals their soul. Without going any further, many people carry saint cards, because they believe they protect them. I guess it isn't so strange to feel that a spell is undone.
An undone binarism
The point is not to perpetuate the system by inverting the places of power, which would be impossible and counterfactual anyway.
What actually happens with this simple inversion is that binarism cannot be sustained, and that is because gender roles are fixed and not interchangeable.
By changing genders, different scenes are given back to us; scenes that transform the meanings of the paintings: women kissing their husbands look like their mothers, subtle and modest men are associated with other gender identities, male nudes remain for the eyes of other males.
It reconfigures the meanings of the images and forces us to look again at what we took for granted. As in the example of "the rule of inversion”, this exercise provokes a dislocation of traditional places that have been rigid for centuries.
Many questions arise during the drawing experience: what makes a character of one gender and how can I transform it into another? Does long hair make it a woman? A thinner neck? What is feminine and masculine in a visual representation?
Women always appear younger, with small and thin noses (out of all logic, a big nose seems to be an attribute only for men), everything in general is more stylish, curved and perfect. The kind faces without a frown are abundant, they should never look like they think too much.
Experience makes it very clear that gender is not in the body.
The best option is to get into the logic of the artwork, of the artist and his time, and to invert the characteristics given to each character.
The Histories of Art
A great inspiration for me is the performative conference "Dear Old Ladies "¹ by the Spanish artist María Gimeno, which originates from the discovery that in E. Gombrich's "The History of Art", the most prestigious, best selling and reissued History of Art, no woman artist appears.
And even more unbelievable is the fact that many of us do not realize it.
Gimeno, following the chronological order of the book, incorporates chapters of women artists. Cutting the book with a knife, she puts them in the place they belong to within "The History of Art".
Gimeno's work is spectacular, but even so, many people are left out of this history, since the selection is still white and European. She is aware of this limitation and she explains: "the important thing is to emphasize that other "official" histories are possible "².
The problem with official histories is that they never include everyone, they are always biased. They are based on an evolutionary and hegemonic line (where selection and evaluation criteria operate) that is not always well explained, and the biggest problem is that they are presented as if they were exhaustive and absolute.
And, precisely, "why should we have to reinvent the canon or propose a new one? "³ is what Argentine art historian Andrea Giunta asks. In her book "Against the Canon" she suggests to see art history outside of the traditional evolutionary model focused on the centers of power. She proposes to unlearn the hegemonic perspective, contradicting the canon and, instead, to observe simultaneities, reciprocal influences and parallel developments, creating a more horizontal, plural and gender-equitable panorama: "It is not about completing, but suspending the evolutionary model to make historical simultaneity visible "⁴.
It is a marvelous approach because it implies a true social transformation. It provokes a disarrangement of things and makes us reconfigure the world, to look at what we already know with different set of eyes.
This action of repositioning ourselves is a really difficult task. Precisely because it is thought that the usual is the natural, and that brings a lot of problems.
Image and truth
Not long ago, in an illustration contest I was invited to be a judge in, a debate came up about an artwork that represented the kitchen of a home where there was a woman breastfeeding and a man returning from outside with grocery bags. When I voiced my opinion that it perpetuated gender stereotypes, I heard the repeated argument again: "but that's reality", "it's true, women are the ones who breastfeed".
At this moment Uncle Gombrich redeems himself and comes to our salvation. He reminds us of something fundamental that is forgotten quite often : "Logicians tell us (and they are not easy people to disprove) that the terms 'true’ and ‘false’ can only be applied to statements, propositions (...) A painting cannot be more true or false than a statement can be red or green. Much confusion has arisen in aesthetics by forgetting this simple fact "⁵.
Let us set this in stone: an image cannot be true or false.
It could be argued that the statement "women breastfeed" is at least confusing. All of them? Some of them? Only them? There are women with children who do not breastfeed, there are women who are not mothers or do not breastfeed, … It is yet another sentence that responds to the female stereotype that links women to motherhood, or, to put it in another way, that condemns women to the biological destiny of reproduction⁶. Returning to the sources: "One is not born a woman, but becomes one. "⁷
It is very important to overcome the issue of the degree of veracity in stereotypes (and in visual representations in general), since it is not only unprovable, but also problematic. Not only they are not a consequence of reality, but they are often its cause instead: "Educated according to the idea we have of femininity, girls will be led to acquire the necessary aptitudes to fulfill the functions destined to them "⁸.
The tricky thing is that as illustrators we need to make regular use of icons and stereotypes to communicate visually. It is easier to draw a woman with long hair, big breasts and a skirt than if we do it without these signs. The communication will be more efficient and immediate. I think we have to find the middle ground for each case, at least exercise reflection and not to act automatically. And above all knowing that it is not reality, it is representation, and there is no neutral and natural way to carry it out.
The Uncle remind us: "All art originates in the human mind, in our reactions to the world, more than in the visible world itself".⁹
I finish this text by inviting everyone to make their own counter-images, to draw and undraw everything that bothers, everything that generates a question.
The illustrations we produce create ways of inhabiting the world, they swell a body of visual representations that are builders of reality.
When I made counter-images of "La Pietà" and showed them to many different people, everyone without exception saw a man suffering for his young lover. It seems impossible for anyone to see in that image a father with his 30-year-old daughter; and, in reality, fathers with adult daughters do actually exist. This causes me much sadness and even more anger.
I think not only for those who make the illustrations, but also for those who read, interpret, and reproduce them, because we are all part of the visual culture. We don't have to be faithful to the reality we assume, we have to be faithful to the reality we wish for. Choosing what to represent and how to represent ourselves. Let us not forget the transformative force (and the magical power) of images in the search for a more egalitarian, plural and feminist society.