'Machines of Suffering': The Weeping Women of Art
By Kristy MacFarlane
Human suffering and tragedy has always been a popular subject for artists. At the heart of this we have women. Even when looking as far back as Michelangelo’s Pieta (1499), women have been connected with grief, portrayed as bystanders to the violent horror that all too often unfolds around them. Images of weeping women are prevalent throughout the history of art; one of the most famous examples of this being Pablo Picasso’s The Weeping Woman (1937).
Considered widely to be a continuation of his magnum opus Guernica, (1937), The Weeping Woman’s dark subject matter is juxtaposed by an atypically bright colour scheme. In the centre of the painting we are confronted with much more fitting blues and greys as they spread outwards, threatening the surrounding happier hues. They act as a symbol of emerging grief; the brightness and light of the woman in Picasso’s work is being slowly taken away from her as the cold reality of whatever horror she has learned of finally becomes comprehensible. Considering this painting in light of 1937 Europe, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War and the lead up to the Second World War, it becomes hard to ignore the anti-war message behind the simple motif of a crying woman. Upon looking at this painting we are invited to make a story. Is she being told about the loss of her son, her brother, her father? Or, like Picasso’s mother states in a letter to him, did the smoke and soot of a bomb cause her eyes to weep? The question is poignantly left unanswered.
Picasso was noted, by one of his numerous mistresses, to have said that ‘Women, women are machines of suffering.’ In this sense the weeping Dora Maar, of whom the portrait was made, comes to be, not a solitary figure struggling in the face of her own irrepressible grief, but of womankind in general. In 1930s Europe, civil war and bloodshed had already taken and would continue to take so many more of her brothers, fathers, husbands and sons. She would be left alone in her grief, holding a frontline that was not borne of trenches but of homes made empty. The vertically lined wallpaper in the background becomes bars of a prison cell. She is trapped, unable to influence the world around her, her only power is the power she has to weep, like the mother we see in Guernica cradling her dead child. She is helpless
Nearly thirty years on from Picasso’s work, Roy Liechtenstein paints a series of women, many of whom are crying. Having become obsessed with this notion of women being domineered by men, he paints very troubling images of women caught in a moment of inner turmoil and grief. One of his most popular artworks and arguably one of the most concisely impactful images of pop art is his Drowning Girl, (1963). We see this woman drowning in a sea of her own tears, which is indicative of Liechtenstein’s fondness for what we often perceive as clichéd drama. Inherent in this work is a notion of the ludicrous – this woman who is clearly in anguish would rather drown than call for the help of her partner, Brad. In a way, her choice to die becomes a heroic act, separating herself from what we perceive to be a domineering, masculine partner. Framing it in this light, we come to understand that there is strength in the woman’s demise, a power that comes from her inherent lack of it. Her teary eyes are closed; she does not challenge us by looking at us. Her only power is the power she finds within herself. Lichtenstein both empowers and de-powers the woman; she is reliant on the man to live, but has the free will to choose an alternative fate.
Liechtenstein’s women are often described as “heroines” who exist almost as the antithesis of the male heroes in the comic books from which he drew so much inspiration. Central to his depictions of crying and distressed woman is the question of gender relations. At the time these paintings were done, Liechtenstein’s marriage was dissolving. Like Picasso, Liechtenstein’s love life could be defined by a series of passions and a pattern of tempestuous ends. One of his former flames, the artist Letty Eisenhauer, stated that:
If this is true, these paintings of crying women are self-aware depictions of gender politics that he himself was unable to detach himself from. Liechtenstein’s passing in 1997 made him unable to defend himself against this claim and no definitive answer can be given to Eisenhauer.
In 1998, Chris Ofili won the Turner prize for his work, No Woman No Cry, (1998) named after the Bob Marley song of the same name. Dubbed the ‘modern pieta,’ depicted here is a crying woman whose tears fall freely from her face. She does not have a handkerchief like Picasso’s woman, her tears are not a weakness she has to hide; they are the origin of her strength. Widely considered to be a portrait of Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, a teen who was murdered in a racially motivated attack. The investigation was seen to not have been conducted properly, which sparked great criticism and deep inward analysis of racism in the police force. As a result, this work becomes a critique of society. Lawrence’s murder exposed, not only that racism was still a very pressing concern in Britain, but also that it was deeply entrenched in our justice system. Following the murder and the racist treatment of the case by authorities, Doreen Lawrence remained strong, driven by a need, not only to bring justice to her son’s killers, but also to fix the flaws in society that had led to the murder and scandal.
Ofili portrays her strength here. She is weeping for her son, demonstrated through the intricate detail of his face in her tears; but the tears are not the first thing we see. The surrounding bright colours of the canvas are striking and culminate in a painting brimming with optimism. She cries, but there is hope. She is neither ashamed nor defined by her grief. The painting stands upon elephant dung, evoking her African heritage. Demonstrated in this is Lawrence and Ofili's desire to turn something profoundly awful (her son's violent murder) into something that can be used to empower. Following the murder, Lawrence set up a charity in her son’s name to cement his legacy and help others like him. She chose not to drown in her grief, but to use it to affect change in a flawed society. In this sense, her tears, while by their very nature a burden, do not exist to be pitied. Rather, they are a symbol of her power and quiet strength in the face of tragedy.
Painting weeping women becomes, for all of these artists, a way to expose society’s flaws, whether it be war, sexism, or racism; these women exist to challenge. In Picasso’s work, there is no strength in the woman’s tears, for in war there is only loss. In Liechtenstein and Ofili’s depiction of women, however, we see an underlying strength, making tears a symbol of defiance and empowerment.
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Sooke, Alistair. "Roy Lichtenstein’s Lover: “He wanted to make women cry”." The Telegraph, 18th Feb. 2013. Accessed on 17th Oct. 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/9857640/Roy-Lichtensteins-lover-He-wanted-to-make-women-cry.html
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