Editor's Letter

She was a Great Painter

Amy Gahyun Lee | February 28, 2019

In March 1960, a young French woman named Elena Palumbo-Mosca participated in a performance with two other female performers at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain, a fine art gallery in Paris. At a black tie event surrounded by nearly a hundred guests dressed in their best, Palumbo-Mosca was asked to paint her naked body with blue paint, making imprints of her nude frame on large pieces of paper placed on one side of the gallery’s wall and the whole of the floor. Palumbo-Mosca, now in her 80s, remembers that the performance was extraordinary, definitely “strenuous,” and that she took it very seriously as “a person who co-operated” with the artist that invited her to join the night’s performance.

The history now remembers her as one of the “living paintbrushes” of Anthropometries of the Blue Period (1960), the most celebrated work of the artist, Yves Klein. We have undoubtedly already encountered her in our art history class; however, we may not have known her name—one who left such a legendary imprint on body performance in the history of art. There has been criticism that Klein used these young women, more precisely their bodies by subjecting them to male gaze for his artistic achievement. However, Palumbo-Mosca, who was at the scene rejects this notion, as her decision to participate in the performance was made of her own free will and she wanted to experience the energy of the performance that passed through her body. “My body impregnated with blue then became a clear symbol of vital energy,” she said. She was more than a passive paintbrush—rather a subject who completed the performance jointly with the artist.

Yves Klein's performance, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, 1960 © Photo: Charles Wilp / BPK, Berlin

When Carolee Schneemann received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement of the 57th Venice Biennale, Christine Macel, who curated the Biennale stated that Schneemann “…situates women as both the creator and an active part of the creation itself. In opposition to traditional representation of women merely as nude object, she uses the naked body as a primal, archaic force that can unify energies.” Nobody would doubt Macel’s statement about Schneemann, as the artist is a genuine, pivotal figure who has developed the realm of female body performance, emphasizing the importance of a woman’s self-definition in relation to the liberation of her body.

Schneemann’s 1975 performance, Interior Scroll, is an excellent example of the “Schneemann Manifesto,” centering on her primary idea about women’s self-determination Having taken off her clothes in front of the audience, Schneemann, only wearing an apron, started to read her book titled Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter (1974 – 1976), which compiled her writings from the 1960s and 70s. She then removed the apron and pulled a scroll from her vagina, which she believed to be “the source of sacred knowledge” while reading aloud the text written on it. The text was a specific segment from the artist’s Super-8 film Kitch’s Last Meal (1976), which held great import, as it criticized the traditional male dominant thoughts on order and rationality. In response to the outdated pedants who still believed that woman is the symptom of man, Schneemann defined herself not only by literally reciting her story written in her own language, but also by emphasizing her body as the core of her narrative.

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975, Gelatin silver prints, Courtesy Carolina Nitsch and Elisabeth Wingate, New York. Photo by Anthony McCall.

There is still strong feminist criticism of Klein’s performance despite Palumbo-Mosca’s Klein-friendly confession and their different opinions of the term “living paintbrush” of which Klein and Palumbo-Mosca both support. While Palumbo-Mosca mentioned in her interview with BBC that “the expression ‘living brushes’ wasn’t too kind to the person who was doing the work with Yves,” Klein described his female nude performers as “living brushes” in his writings by stating, “At that moment, my models felt that they had to do something for me. They rolled themselves in color, and with their bodies painted my monochromes. They had become living brushes!” (excerpt from Yves the Monochrome 1960: Truth Becomes Reality (1960))

How should we interpret Elena Palumbo-Mosca’s participation in the performance of Yves Klein? Do you believe that she, her body, was abused for being a “living paintbrush” for this male artist’s artistic achievement? Or was this a young woman’s quest for self-definition and her desire to experience the world, regardless of social criticism? We tend to be swayed by external standards and values, which forcibly define us against our will. So in such a case, we may even judge her choice with overly constricting social criteria. However, in subjecting ourselves to binding perspectives, we are blind to Palumbo-Mosca's interpretation of her self-determined decision. She, through her own will and on her own terms, was a brilliant painter who colored not only a sheet of paper but also the night.

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