History of Art is unlike any other subject I have studied before. Just as language is a verbal form of communication, art is its visual counterpart. We do not just look at and learn about the aesthetics of painting, sculpture and architecture, but we look at the evolution of life and society and how it is conveyed visually.

The passion of the History of Art Department at Bradfield can so clearly be seen to filter down to their pupils, reflected in our intense engagement and discussion both inside and out of the classroom. Through History of Art, we do not just look at art, but we explore theology, politics, history, maths and many other fields. Although Mrs Bond has only been teaching me for a year and is so sadly leaving Bradfield this year, it is clear her absolute dedication to both us and the subject are second to none. The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus stated that “The only constant in life is change” and nothing embodies this phrase more than History of Art. The History of Art Department will experience a momentous change next year and we wish Mrs Bond well.

One way in which I shall demonstrate the positive nature of change through the lens of History of Art is by revealing how paintings can convey the transformation of views surrounding gender, not just artistically but societally through Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States. These paintings act as juxtapositions of each other and their portrayal of women in society, 600 years apart.

Having studied Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, painted in 1434, we explored how the artist conveys the outward identity of the couple as well as their roles and positions in society. Already from the title we are shown that ‘his wife’ is his accessory and a commodity for him to show off. Women in the 15th century in both Lucca, where Giovanni is from, and Bruges, where he later moved to in order to become a luxury textile merchant, would have been valued with their dowry and marriages arranged at very young ages when they reached puberty. To us today this appears to objectify the woman by placing a monetary value on her as well as suggesting her role in society as being limited. However, the title alludes to the ambiguity of her identity is she his first wife, Constanza Trenta or more likely his second wife, Giovanna Cenami?

Cenami’s generalised and uncharacterised face stands in contrast to her husband’s own distinctive features. She is not an individual like him but instead, ‘a type’. This is a reflection of society at the time, as her physical identity is much less important than his. Arnolfini is there to be recognised and praised, Cenami is a decoration. As Richard Stemp states, “it is a portrait of him, not her.” Cenami is presented as the ideal Northern European, 15th century beauty. Van Eyck is using his artistic imagination to present her as it was not appropriate for a woman to model for a man and therefore is not painting her from life, but as a generalised beautiful woman. As well as her pale and unblemished skin, high forehead and elaborate auburn hairstyle, Cenami shows off her elegant pear-shaped body. This recognisable feature combined with the domestic background of a bedroom leads us to believe that in fact this portrait could be a celebration of her fertility and a commemoration of two proud soon-to-be parents with Cenami just as significant as her husband. However, this is not the case as she is not pictured pregnant. Having a full stomach alludes to her fertility, a considerably desirable trait in a woman at the time. Her husband is showing her off in the portrait as a human whose function was to have a child and play her only substantial role in society. Cenami’s lowered head denotes her submission to her husband as a way of conveying her virtue, also regarded as positive.

Cenami’s oppression comes from beyond her physical depiction and moves into the symbolic display of her role in a 15thcentury, European society. Her virtuosity is further conveyed in the representation of the dog in the foreground, an icon of faithfulness and loyalty to remind Cenami of how she should act towards her husband. Their roles in the bigger picture of life are shown through their positions within the small room. Giovanni next to the window, a symbol of the outside world where he lives and works as a merchant but Giovanna instead, rooted next to the ornate bed in the room, a symbol of reproduction and childbirth. She is expected to work in the house and maintain the domestic infrastructure to allow for her husband’s success. This is reinforced by the brush in the background, on the side of Giovanna showing her domesticity as well as the small statue of Saint Margaret, the patron Saint of childbirth and fertility. Stemp reiterates that she “has a role, not an identity.”

Arnolfini’s domination over his wife Giovanna is both physical and intangible. Societal gender constructs were inescapable for both male and female. The world of business was vastly limited to men whilst the women were preoccupied with their domestic roles. Art shows us how our society used to function and allows us to look to the future and change what we think must be changed. This is what helps us progress; to take advantage of constructive development in order to reap its benefits.

We looked at Kahlo’s ‘Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States’ made in 1932, under the theme of ethnic identity this year. I had been inspired to write my EPQ on Frida Kahlo having known I wanted it to be related to art, something I might not have considered if it weren’t for such an amazing department with Mrs Bond, in particular, teaching us this work. Despite our focus on ethnicity in class, this image is also tied into Kahlo’s own gender identity in the way she views herself within the portrait. Amongst the plethora of symbols of Mexican culture and of American industrialisation, caught in a cultural vice between the two, Kahlo stands like a monument in the foreground, not as an accessory to her husband.

Frida Kahlo was in America when she painted this work. Her husband, Diego Rivera, had received a commission at the Henry Ford factory in Detroit for a mural and so she went with him. They were there between 1929-1932. During this time, she felt alienated. The death of her mother back in Mexico, a devastating miscarriage and the lack of appreciation of her art in America at this time in comparison to Rivera’s, whose art was much celebrated, led to those feelings of isolation. However, she does not display herself as abandoned but embraces her solitude and enforces a separation between herself and Rivera.

Kahlo is dressed in a typical Tehuana Mexican dress. The light pink highlights her against the grim background to accentuate her hips and emphasise her femininity as does her tight bodice and low neck of her dress, showing her breasts. Kahlo has pulled her hair up to show her face and wears lipstick to bring attention to her mouth. Kahlo is self-fashioning as a beautiful young woman. It may seem peculiar that such a progressive feminist is opening up herself, as Januszczak would say, as a “female victim of the male gaze.” However, I would say that Kahlo stations herself in the form of a sculpture and by emphasising her femininity, wants herself to be objectified and removed from her own humanity, as this stresses the isolation she feels from the rest of the world whilst being in America and so uses her objectification by the viewer to her advantage.

Frida Kahlo is standing on a concrete plinth, further affirming her role as a statue in the painting. By doing this, Kahlo empowers herself as the focus of the painting. She does not need to be accompanied by her husband Diego with the ideology that, like in the Arnolfini portrait, the man is the title of wealth and status but here we see Frida act as this. Kahlo is going against all norms by representing herself alone as a statue of feminine beauty, almost ironically. On the plinth is inscribed ‘Carmen’ as this was Frida’s baptismal name, her name before meeting Diego Rivera. She chooses to write this instead of Frida to display how anonymous she feels in America compared to her more famous status in Mexico. Using ‘Carmen’ instead of ‘Frida’ as her name is a reaction to her husband’s disconnect from her due to his engagement in his work in America. Frida empowers herself and women by using this as leverage to dissociate as ‘her husband’s wife’ to become ‘Frida Kahlo, the artist.’

Frida Kahlo as the revolutionary feminist is a juxtaposition of the subjugation that Giovanna Cenami endured 600 years previously. Kahlo is creating her own change in the world by deconstructing societal norms that previously had dictated a woman as a possession of a man, as the Arnolfini portrait demonstrates. Frida represents early feminism, a period we are still living through and fighting for today, so that in the future, humankind can benefit from the equality that we deserve. We must embrace change and all the positive impacts that it brings.