I first came across Dragana Jurišić’s work in the National Gallery of Ireland, when her Tarantula was displayed at the After Vermeer exhibition. It is a photographic self-portrait which overlaps a number of her own dancing figures.
Tarantula is a contemporary response to the Vermeer exhibition. Dragana Jurišić says she was ‘immediately struck by the two main subjects of his paintings: women in domestic settings and the light’.
Depiction of women in Vermeer’s portraits led Dragana to consider the female condition and ‘pre-conditioning’ more generally in terms of the rules women must follow in life; their pensiveness and meditative status before a mesmerised storm.
Dragana recalls the main character of Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora leaves her designate role in life, daring to take part in the dancing ‘struggle for life’. Similarly the mythical Tarantati women of Italy once bitten by the spider, succumb to ‘trance-like dancing’, as the only way to experience the euphoria of freedom and self-expression.
Dragana’s dance, without resorting to provocative suggestions or techniques, traces a visual experiment that almost fulfills the lines of a classical figure, a preparatory drawing disclosing the artist’s creative process. As in Michelangelo’s Slave, these are unfinished sculptures, undressing themselves from the social marble, liberating their real shape from a carcass, not fully, though unashamedly showing the melancholy and conflict of the process of self-cognition.
Vermeer’s women are stuck in a composed, but not acquiescent pose, which recalls contemporary anxieties. Dragana untangles Vermeer’s forms and empowers the female, and herself as a woman, unmasking the muses, symbols that still overlay contemporary culture.
Some months later I walked through Dragana’s latest exhibition, My Own Unknown, at the Gallery of Photography, which tells a story of women who wanted to be free.
Into Dragana’s personal story is sewn the mysterious life of her aunt Gordana Čavić. Gordana, like Ibsen’s Nora, disappeared from her assigned role, and her native Yugoslavia, in the 1950s and died in exile in Paris in the 1980s: ‘A life shrouded in mystery, it involves tales of multiple identities, illicit sex and espionage’.
Out of Gordana’s archival photographs, the artist recreates a diary of a personal rebirth from a cryptic loss which has defined her life as woman and artist: ‘My initial questioning of this statement took me to Paris to commence an exploration on L’Inconnue de la Seine, the name given to a young woman whose body was allegedly recovered from the River Seine, and whose death mask was cast in a bid to identify her. Her serene and quiet beauty became a muse for artists’.
The mask and idealistic form is the object of devotion, the fake perfection of a muse, veiled by cultural layers, and detached from the real process of accomplishment. Dragana’s own undressing displaying her genuine ‘body’, leads to an unflinching interpretation of her own form.
What Dragana knew for sure was that Gordana Čavić was made of much harder stuff than l’Inconnue de la Seine:
Suddenly I was back at 11 years old, looking at a funeral procession that was beyond extravagant. … Who was she? I asked my grandmother, She just shuffled uncomfortably in response. Behind me I could hear whispers of two men from down the road.
L’Inconnue de la Seine represents the inspiring perfection ‘protecting’ the experience of the real body; the ‘other woman’, which could alter the common sense experience, and reinforce devotion to old beliefs.
Who is she? Who is Gordana, Nora, or the artist Dragana Jurišić?
In Ibsen’s Women Joan Templeton observes the muse’s path through the centuries. It is a powerful analysis of femininity that recalls Dragana’s artistic ambitions: ‘For Gilbert and Gubar … the lady is our creation or Pygmalion’s statue. The lady is the poem’. The lady is the sculpture, the statue Pygmalion carved and fell in love with, like L’inconnue de la Seine. This is a cast and frozen idealization of femininity. Templeton quotes Simone de Beauvoir:
But women exist without men’s intervention and thus while ‘woman’ incarnates men’s fantasies, women proves the falsity of the fantasies … Man’s need for woman to remain always the Other. … Woman is necessary to the extent that she remains an idea into which the man can project his own transcendence; but she is danger as an objective reality existing for herself and limited to herself.
A more urgent consciousness is emerging in our daily experience, starting with many women’s confessions and willingness to change a passive condition. Our contemporary Western female experience is fighting the old disadvantage still unresolved. Muses.
Why is ‘the woman’ still an ideal, mythical presence; her real body still censored by intangible projections? Why do males feel an inadequacy in front of real presences? And display hostility or aggression – real or unconscious – towards the existent? Why are artists still facing limits to representing the truth, from simply the rule against showing women’s nipples on social networks to censoring nudes in exhibition advertisements, while at the same time, our visual environment is permeated by sexualised content? Are our taboos the veils hiding the truth? Is it the ideal of the muses we are still battling against?
Not only is the idea of woman in need of revolution. Our concept of maleness needs to be reconfigured. According to Dr Arne Rubinstein in The Making of Men: ‘in the healthy man’s psychology, a man sees himself as part of the universe, not the centre of it; he takes full responsibility for his actions, he deals with his emotions and he looks for a healthy relationship with the feminine.’ But ‘the role-modelling and mentoring for boys and teenagers is very poor, and the messaging is terrible’. His organization attempts to reconcile the masculine and feminine in men.
In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf endeavored to awaken awareness of gender inadequacy. She suggested we should reconsider and re-educate our basic perception of sexuality, and the condition of women in the world, through artistic and creative processes in the first place:
For certainly when I saw the couple get into the taxi-cab the mind felt as if, after being divided, it had come together again in a natural fusion. The obvious reason would be that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate. … But the sight of the two people getting into the taxi and the satisfaction it gave me made me also ask whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness?
In the last part of her exhibition My own Unknown Dragana explores her self-portraits and diaries, concluding the exhibition with a previous work made in Dublin in 2015, using the same technique as Tarantula, but overlapping photographs of 100 women posing as nude muses in front of her.
They direct their own pose using a chair and a veil and identify themselves with one of the nine muses from Greek mythology: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania.
One of the final portraits is The Mother, an overlap of all the muses. The Mother is Mnemosyne, mother of all the Muses, Goddess of memory. On top of one another the bodies look like layers of negatives, memories, overlapping in a majestic image of the mother of memory. A scribble, an incomplete creative process, an operation of cognition in the ‘struggle for life’. Dragana writes:
The idea of the muse often evokes images of a male artist and a passive female muse. The female muse is often depicted as nude in visual art. And in turn “the nude” – one of the biggest clichés of Western art tradition, is a genre predominantly inhabited by male artists. At the beginning of April 2015, I began the task of photographing 100 female nudes over a period of five weeks.
A powerful expression of ourselves is still needed, not only a female view on female gaze, but an entire recreation of feminine and masculine interpretation. An ‘Ownership over their body’.
Gordana knew that she came to Paris to survive. Survive at any cost. Shed her skin. Shed her past. Forget about the people she left behind. Or not. But she is not going back. She will never go back.
The Goddess Mother of all Muses is the Goddess mother of a faded Memory: like Dragana’s aunt Gordana who ‘was so beautiful like she was her own creator’.