Last Wednesday our attention turned from the current controversial political climate to focus on Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Her Instagram post announcing that she is pregnant with twins became the most liked instagram to ever be posted within just 5 hours.
In this now iconic image, Beyonce is in lingerie, holding her stomach. A green tinted veil drapes over her head, and behind her are bright flowers that create a frame around her figure. This image and many of the others later shown on her website make clear references to art history, which is crucial for our time in history.
In the original posted image, Beyonce is depicted as a Madonna. A similar flower arrangement is shown in Peter Paul Rubens’ Madonna and Child Surrounded by a Garland painted in 1621. In this painting bright foliage acts as a frame for the Madonna and her son. The flowers shown in Beyonce’s original post are similar colors and have the same effect of creating a frame around her. The vail connects her to Madonna's throughout art history, and remind us of her strong maternity and life as a mother.
Another striking image shown on Beyonce’s website is of her in the Venus pose. This image makes connections to Botticelli’s, Birth of Venus created in 1486. Botticelli's image tells the narrative of Venus emerging from the sea foam on a sea shell. Her right hand covers her chest, while her left hides her pubic area.
This pose which is seen throughout art history, originating with Aphrodite of Knidos, is used by Beyonce to make the statement that she too is a Venus. In Beyonce’s rendition, she is standing between foliage, and similar flowers that are shown drifting in the wind in The Birth of Venus are painted on Beyonce’s legs.
Her hair is in a similar fashion as the original Venus to ensure that there is no mistake as to which image she is making reference to. In the corner of Beyonce’s image is the Egyptian bust of Queen Nefertiti; connecting her with African history and one of the first African American women to be shown in art History.
Beyonce’s image of her reclining on a decorative couch connects to reclining female nudes throughout Art History. There is no mistaking that she is connecting to Manet’s Olympia. Unlike most reclining female nudes, the Olympia’s model looks directly at the viewer. Her direct eye contact, and the way she covers her privates makes it clear she is the one with the power over them. Beyonce follows suit, laying on similar flowers, shown in the previous images.
The flowers are a reminder of growth, fertility, and motherhood. She too, is looking directly at the viewer which gives her power. In most versions of reclining female nudes, they were commissioned by wealthy males of their wives and often used to educate the bride on the husband’s sexual expectations in the marriage. Titian’s Venus of Urbino is one such image.
The biggest difference between the paintings of the past and Beyonce’s are that she is the one in charge. As a platinum artist and one of the most famous women of our generation, she has the financial capital to commission, Awol Erizku, one of the most influential artists of our time. Not only is she the one commissioning them, but she is also distributing them. In all the historical images listed above, the paintings were distributed by males and created for male audiences. It is the first time in history that an iconic image making references to the Madonna, the female nude, and the reclining female nude were created for the use of the woman herself. She is the one with the power over her own body, and the power to decide who sees the images of it.
Although my initial reaction was to judge her for her blatant narcism in calling herself a modern Venus, but I have had to rethink this. In a time in history where African American men and women are banding together, and women as an entire gender are pushing for equality, it is incredible for an African American woman to have the power to create such iconic images and have an overwhelming positive response from the public.
Through these images, she is placing herself in the dialogue of art history in a way which makes her the first subject of such a painting to be the one in control of the images. This is groundbreaking, and powerful. So although we might judge her for “feelin’ herself” a bit much, that judgement is quickly overturned by the fact that her actions are groundbreaking for a move towards equality of race and gender. To that, my only response is “slay, queen.”
See www.beyonce.com for the “I HAVE THREE HEARTS” gallery.