The idea for 'Who She Was' actually came to me back in 2012, when I was visiting Leeds for a gig. As I left the station I stopped by the city square and noticed the Victorian sculptures arranged around the square in a circle, mostly naked, holding up lamps, named only as personifications of Morning and Evening. In the background however, stood a pair of statues of fully-clothed gentlemen, their names, engraved on their plinth. Nearby stood the Black Prince in full armour, riding on a horse (Thomas Brook’s The Black Prince, H. C. Fehr’s portraits of James Watt and John Harrison, F. W. Pomeroy’s Dr Walter Hook, and Alfred Drury’s Joseph Priestley). The contrast struck me.
'Who She Was' is a call to acknowledge the feminine figures that we often see in classical architecture and paintings, and rarely know who they were. They are nameless figures, usually depicting some personification, written off a 'muse', and almost always, semi-naked, which in the case of some of these depictions -for example the personification of Liberty, leading the fully clothed French Revolutionaries into battle wearing just a flowing toga wrap with her breasts out, is far from wise (seriously, that's one of the most important places that need covering up in the midst of battle when charging towards a heavily armed enemy force).
Nudity isn't the issue whatsoever. A lot of these statues we see are naked in some way, as they are, to be fair, mostly derived from the Greek tradition. In Greek arts, nudity was always used to depict heroic or important and admired figures as nudity was a sign of strength and basically showing it off. This imagery contrasts sharply with the imagery you find from the same era in Eastern dominions where nudity was a sign of low status and nude figures are usually associated with slavery.
Now I love the Alfred Drury sculptures lining Leeds City square in themselves. They are very beautifully detailed, really realistic and not smooth and idealised, the bodies are not the usual perfect nymph-like characters you usually see in these classical depictions. In fact I learnt recently that the statues caused a great furore when they were first unveiled, causing the modest Victorian society to gasp with horror, tug their children away and monocles to drop all over the place and there was much work to be done to calm the people's fears by championing the 'moral purity' of the figures, and their innocent representations of Morning and Evening- to this end, I wonder if the nude figures HAD been created as named portraiture like the male counterparts also depicted in the square, would they have been seen as so 'innocent' and granted such protection?
So much for all that bother, now people rarely seem to notice them at all...
The contrast however, between the female figures, who have an actual function- they are holding lamps, are mere personifications and are pretty much naked next to the male statues, who's names we can see plainly, and are... over dressed if anything, particularly next to the female statues, I thought needed to be addressed.
'Who She Was' is by no means saying that all these female models we see should be 'properly' dressed. It simply seems to me sometimes, that if these sculptors and artists were using women models, it was just a given that they'd be partially naked. Let's face it, although inspired by the Greek tradition, in Western society, nudity is NOT a sign of power. Not next to fully dressed men. And women are only granted a deal of visibility based on their looks, which are scrutinised before anything they say or do.
The work is essentially asking us to remember women's contributions to the arts, and to not be objectified and known only for what we look like. We know how women have long been brushed completely to the edge of history and never got their fair share of recognition in any sector, not merely the arts.
To take 'Who She Was' further, I'll be looking for the identities of some of these models. I remember during my visit to Warsaw back in 2014, when I visited the Warsaw Rising museum and saw a display on Krystyna Krahelska, who was the model for the Warsaw Mermaid. If she had not died a hero defending the ghetto from Nazis, I might not have known that she was the mighty, sword-weilding Warsaw Mermaid I'd seen in all those images. I want to know about the lives of these models we see everywhere.
Krystyna Krahelska was a poet, ethnographer and one of the Polish Home Army, fighting to liberate Poland from the Nazi invasion.