Vivid goddesses


Madame Yevonde, Mrs Donald Ross as Europa, 1935

Something about the colour and the relationship between portrait and object in Urs Fischer’s Problem Paintings reminded me about Madame Yevonde’s Goddesses, a series of portraits of society women posing as figures from classical mythology made in the 1930s using the short-lived Vivex colour system. I’ll be honest, I have no clear idea what the Vivex system was but quick google suggests it involved separate plate negatives for cyan, yellow and magenta – which means it can’t have been easy to work with, especially given exposure times of a few seconds – and that Madame Yevonde used some sort of automated camera back to expose the three plates in succession. All the faff was clearly worth it though as the results are stunning.

Madame Yevonde, Lady Anne Rhys as Flora, 1935

While the use of colour is one of the things I like most about Madame Yevonde’s work it’s not all about that. Ultimately these pictures work because of the way they are staged and set-dressed and the way they tell their stories. That the women who modelled for them were wealthy and respectable is fascinating too. This is portraiture as a way of representing wealth and status in much the same as a commissioned painting might have been in previous centuries but looking at the pictures now they seem more like contemporary art images – think Cindy Sherman – or high-end fashion pictures.

 Lady Bridgett Elizabeth Felicia Henrietta Augusta Poulett as Arethusa, 1935

The pictures tell stories of goddesses from classical mythology, a subject I know woefully little about. As a result of researching this post I am now marginally less ignorant. I now know, for instance, that Arethusa means ‘the waterer’, that she was the daughter of Nereus and ended up as a fountain. Um, what? I’m pretty sure that at some stage someone just made that bit up. But then, stories are stories, I suppose.

Dorothy Evelyn (‘Dolly’) (néˆe Whittall), Lady Campbell as Niobe, 1935

I also know that Niobe cried a lot and was lonely, probably because Artemis and Apollo killed all her children. Which seems a little harsh, especially as she had fourteen of them. I love the way Madame Yevonde gets in close for the portrait of Niobe; there’s something about the tears that makes them almost look like scars, which seems appropriate given the story.

Mrs Richard Hart-Davis as Andromeda, 1935

One of the other things that fascinates me about this work is what the titles tell us about how much women’s status has changed since these were made. Unless titled, the women are referred to as Mrs Husband’s Name, a convention that has always seemed frankly bizarre to me.

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