Detail from Julie Wosk's photograph Lady Fortune (digital print, © Julie Wosk, 2015)​

Paintings and Photographs:  Masks, Mannequins, and More

Julie Wosk

See Photography for the latest photo by Julie Wosk for the COVID age, Corona Bird Mask, 2020.

I have long been fascinated by artificial women that seem  alive.   One summer many years ago I was wandering through a  Manhattan  flea market on Sixth Avenue  and  I spied two startling female mannequin heads.  One looked like the vintage film star Marlene Dietrich and the other was peering out of a paper bag, her blue eyes gazing out provocatively with her half-hidden smile.   In her bag she seemed like a packaged  social commodity, ready to go.  I named my photograph of her Bag Lady.

I loved how these simulated females seemed both eerie and magical, how they blurred the line between the artificial and the real.

I realized that my fascination these facsimile females actually began years earlier when I had graduated from Harvard and landed my first job as an advertising and public relations writer  for Playboy Magazine. (I have described life at Playboy in my newest book  Playboy,  Mad Men, and Me--And Other Stories, https://www.playboymadmenandme.com.) 

 

I was a native of Chicago suburb Evanston, Illinois, and it was an easy bus ride to go to the magazine’s Chicago offices on Michigan Avenue.  America at the time was erupting with the tumult of anti-war protests, civil rights marches, and  the excitement of the women’s movement, but at  Playboy’s offices,  we worked in a world of manufactured glamor, artifice and allure.  I  put on false eyelashes,  smile brightly among all the Mad Men advertising writers, and dutifully wrote glowing promotion stories about the wonders of the Playboy world.

I left the magazine for graduate school, and then as a college professor at State University of New York, Maritime College, I taught art history,  English, and studio painting for many years. At first, I created oil paintings like Artemis and Apollo that were based on ancient Greek sculptures but updated for the modern world.

But soon, as a painter, photographer, and author,  I began exploring the subject of simulated women--how artifice and masking have shaped women's cultural identities.

I have written about these artificial women and masks in my illustrated book My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves. The title comes from  the Lerner and Lowe Broadway musical  My Fair Lady,  which itself drew on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.  In the classical myth of Pygmalion,  a sculptor who is unhappy with real women instead creates a sculpture of a beautiful female—his ideal.  He falls in love with her, prays to Venus to give him a woman just like his sculpture, and Venus instead amazes him by having his sculpture come alive. 

In my photographs and paintings,  I have tried to  become my own Pygmalion as I bring inanimate figures to life.   Like the Mardi Gras  doll I photographed for the cover of  My Fair Ladies, calling the photo Lady Fortune,  these  masked  faces  keep us at a distance yet are also alluring as they draw us closer into their hidden world.   See www.myfairladiesbook.com

 

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