Beauty breakdown

Artist Therese Pfeifer discusses her latest exhibition, “Beauty,
the Monstrous and Waiting”
Sunday, October 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:25 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008


What is the meaning of your latest exhibition entitled, “Beauty, the Monstrous and Waiting?”


I think that beauty, the monstrous and waiting are important aspects of human life in general, but particularly for women. Beauty is associated with the feminine but is at the same time something unattainable; an idealized fantasy of a perfect, young goddess. The monstrous in my work is expressed in the form of the limbless mannequin, rendered helpless and grotesque by her deformities. Waiting is one of the underlying components of human life. Despite frenzied activity that keeps us perpetually busy, we live off expectation, anticipation, hope and illusion. Mannequins in general represent perfect form and the dreams of society. Thus, my mannequin unites these three concepts: She is beautiful to behold, and yet she is restricted by her amputations, rendered useless and helpless, reduced to passive waiting and inactivity.


the term “femininity,” how fine is the line between beauty and monstrousness, power and powerlessness?


The lines are invisible to most women, and this is just one reason I ended up painting this series.


What is the modernist conception of beauty?


Both modernists and postmodernists had an antagonistic relationship to beauty. Beauty was linked to aristocracy and therefore not worthy of the avant-garde. The deconstruction of beauty also had deep roots in historical events, particularly the two world wars. For me, however, beauty doesn’t have much to do with mimesis or rendering beautiful pictures, but about the dialogue the viewer has with the art. If the art touches him, speaks to him, then it is beautiful. Beauty can be destructive or sad.


In Sam Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot,” the two protagonists are constantly struggling to prove their existence. Could you address any similarities or contrasts this play shares with your painting of the same name?


As mentioned above, waiting is an important nonactivity in life. The similarity between my mannequin and the two characters in the play, Estragon and Vladimir, is that they are all waiting for something that may change their lives (to the better) if it happened, but that may never happen. But the implication in my painting, perhaps different from the play, is also that if a woman just waits long enough, anything may happen to her: The endless flow of time portrays the potential for change.


What comes to mind when you hear the recitation of Poe’s infamous line, “the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetic topic in the world”?


I shudder by this line. I am talking about this in the painting “Poen Beauty,” the simultaneous deification of the beautiful woman but the titillating aspect of her helplessness. I believe that similar aspects are also found in the Cremaster series, where beautiful, scantily clad women are bound and immobile.


As an artist, what can you do to change the fact that a woman is raped every 90 seconds in the United States?


I think that art, the image and many of my paintings have the power to heighten awareness. I have had many women but also men who responded very emotionally to my paintings, in particular to “The Point of No Return,” where I depict the mannequin in a very vulnerable position.

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