Photographic Examinations of Femininity: Neeta Madahar & Madame Yevonde, PM Gallery & House, London.

Review by Sarah Richter, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.

The Role Play exhibit is situated in a section of the 19th century manor home and grand gardens of the Pitzhanger Manor-House located at Ealing Broadway in West London. The show features the work of both Neeta Madahar and Madame Yevonde. The show combines Madahar’s contemporary work with that of Madame Yevonde’s from the 1930s. Both explore the construction of female roles in photography and thus contemporary society, with Madhar’s contemporary series Flora drawing inspiration from the work of Madame Yevonde’s from the 1930s entitled Goddesses, their relationship is easily identifiable and the works have been interspersed, with a Madame Yevonda next to a Madahar and they blend seamlessly together as they depict photographic explorations of femininity in similar ways. Without reading the captions under the images, it’s hard to discern which work belongs to which artist. The influence and legacy that influenced Madahar’s current work is palpable when examining Madame Yevonde’s visually stunning and emotionally gripping portraits of society women.

Madame Yevonde’s portraits of 1930s society women cast socialites in the role of goddesses from antiquity such as Europa, Diana, Medusa, Dido and Venus. Although the portraits were made in the thirties, they employ cutting edge techniques in the realm of photography and look as if they came from the same camera as that of Madahar’s portraits. Madame Yevonde pioneered the colour photographic portrait when people thought of it as just as a fad, and her photos emerge as contemporary examinations of the construction of feminine roles and stereotypes. Most of the women in the Goddesses series were well known women in society and are thus identified by the names of their husbands and not their own. Cast as goddesses, this omission of their names situates them as the ideal vision of feminine perfection. Although upon first examination the portraits seem to be keeping women in their stereotypical roles, there is something powerful and and assertive in these photographs. Seeming to emerge straight from the pages of contemporary Vogue the poses of the models, the solidity and authority that the women possess, seems to come from within and challenges the stereotypes placed upon them. Cast as contemporary versions of the ideal classical views of women, the goddesses, they are put on a pedestal and they conform while also challenging the idea of who women are supposed to be. Madame Yevonde’s Goddesses series covers well known goddesses to more obscure ones, speaking to an educated elite who would have been familiar with the mythology of antiquity, casting one of her subjects as Penthelisa. Lady Milbanke as Penthelisa from 1935 positions the women in a pose not commonly associated with portraits of women. Lady Milbanke has her head back, wearing animal furs and has a sharp spear seemingly piercing her neck. Cast as the Amazonian goddess who wanted only to die, but could only do so in battle, perhaps this role speaks to the difficulties that can come with being a women. The portrait, like all of the others doesn’t seem out of date in the 21st century, but seems to seamlessly fit right in, addressing contemporary issues and transcending the boundaries of time and space.

Drawing inspiration from the Goddesses series, Neeta Madahar is a contemporary photographer employing the same idea of using the female sitter as a character, not as herself. Madahar’s Flora series was created by her employment of seventeen female friends who posed for the portraits by choosing a flower that has been used as a woman’s name to thematize their portrait. By using floral names that double as female names, there are some preconceived notions going in as the viewer may know someone named Rose, Daisy or Lilly, but these issues of identity are challenged. When thinking of a flower, it is perceived as delicate, temporal and something to be admired, a mere object of decoration, but the women in Madahar’s portraits, like those in Madame Yevonde’s, challenge these notions of who and what women are supposed to be. The portrait of Sharon with Peonies from 2009 depicts a women with peonies in her hair against a white background that appears to crumpled paper. She wears a dress made of a metallic material that alludes to armor, she stands strong with one hand on her hip and one on her heart looking to the side, to the future perhaps. Despite how anyone feels about peonies, they are a delicate flower, but here they take on a new life of strength and determination.

This show is empowering and simply beautiful. It is wonderful to see a series alongside it’s inspiration and the seamless way that the two fit together and speak to the audience on a much deeper level than the magazine advertisements they reference.

For a further exploration of Madahar’s work see Aesthetica’s article Real Nature, Artificial Worlds from Issue 37 here.

Role Play: Neeta Madahar & Madame Yevonde continues at PM Gallery & House until 3 July.

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Anna with Magnolias (2010)
Laura with Irises (2010)
Courtesy the Artist and Purdy Hicks Gallery, London