Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A warning to wicked women

Live a virtuous life or weasels will rip your flesh!

That's the lesson in an extraordinary painting from an exhibit called "Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World" that just closed at LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

A double-sided oil painted in the 18th Century in Colonial Mexico, it shows on one side the bland and simpering Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, as a model of goodness for all womanhood to aspire to. On the reverse, it shows the Allegory of the Confession of the Soul - the sinful woman, attended by snaggle-toothed demons and vicious twining creatures who bite and tear at her flesh, being pressed to confess her sins, or spend eternity in torment.

These paintings, probably commissioned by Jesuits to serve as a cautionary lesson to parishoners, were likely painted by a mixed-race Mesoamerican artist, a descendant of indigenous tribes forcibly converted to Christianity by their conquerers; their culture, aesthetics and beliefs shaped and evolved into a uniquely Colonial Mexican artistic style.

"Confiesa!" demands the demon, as his fellow cups his ear the better to hear her entreaty. "Ay!" cries the hapless, doomed sinner.

Although the painting is three centuries old, it is still alive and vivid. Her bulging eyes, her lush flesh, her horror-struck expression all have the crass, immediate quality that reminds me of pulp fiction paperback cover art from the 1940s or 1950s - she could be Velma Valento of "Farewell, My Lovely," twisting from the embrace of Moose Malloy, gun blazing, or the earthy, smoldering femme fatale Cora of James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," suffering the brutal carnality of her murderous lover Frank.

"Flim-flammed! I'll say I was! You and that lawyer!" - James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
Like on the dime-store pulp covers, her semi-nudity is discreetly hidden, yet tantalizingly glimpsed, twined with the writhing snakes and lizards that torment her. Even her earrings and hair ornaments transform into vicious monsters and fanged insects, as she suffers the dark, inevitable fate that awaits all femmes fatales, whether they be hussies or gun-molls.
Brigid O'Shaughnessy: "I haven't led a good life, I've been bad, worse than you could know."

Sam Spade: "You know, that's good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere."  - "The Maltese Falcon" 1931

"Ay!" she cries, as she falters.

Watch it, ladies. Change your wicked ways!

1 comment:

Jocelyn said...

If it were "clamp my legs shut, or let weasels tear at my flesh," I'm feeling--at least this morning--like I could work on the leg clamp. No weasels. No.