New York, November 2011 – Fedele Spadafora’s Wonder Women by Kathy Battista
The character Wonder Woman was created for Marvel Comics in 1941, during an era of American involvement in worldwide military conflict. A symbol of confidenc e and might, her red, white, and blue outfit echoed the stars and stripes of the United States fla g. Thirty years later, a hugely popular television series featured Lynda Carter as the eponymous superhero, who fought the dark forces of humanity through her strength, hand-to-hand combat skills, and an unusual capacity to control wild animals. Conceived during the apex of the feminist movement in America, Wonder Woman as television heroine was the textbook female role model–powerful, smart and beautiful, and most importantly, mythological. For how could society foster a mere mortal of such power? Carter became a household name and her face drew immediate recognition; what was less known was that she was a beauty pageant veteran and former Bob Hope girl. Within this contradiction is one of the key debates of that era, still waging today: does beauty detract or distract from female power? Are
beauty and intellect at odds with each other? Is it a contradiction to demand respect and simultaneously cultivate one’s feminine traits?
One of the biggest challenges of the feminist wave of the 1970s was the division among women. Unlike other political ideologies, the women’s liberation movement encompassed a variety of viewpoints, from grass-roots, radical agit-prop to elite, educated discourse, and the common
ground between factions was often scant. Today female leaders adopt a different mentality. In the twenty-first century women leaders acknowledge difference—of class, education, race, religion, or sexuality—as implicit elements of individual identity. New feminists concentrate on the shared
ground between women’s experience. Indeed, what is a woman, but a social construction rather than a biological determination?
The Wonder Women series was conceived as the fruit of the collaboration between New York based artist Fedele Spadafora and Aliya Hallim-Byne, the dynamic founder of an eponymous organization that celebrates and supports women’s achievements. This network is indicative of the
contemporary approach to women’s equality. Learning from the tribulations of earlier generations of women’s liberation, Hallim-Byne acknowledges the diversity of women and their various challenges, and unites them to share expertise and to cultivate networks of women who have fought, despite numerous obstacles, to become leaders in their professional fields.
Hallim-Byne’s portrait, which inaugurated the series, is a synecdoche for her cause and all that she represents. She was the ideal subject for Spadafora, whose previous work in photography and painting investigated the territory between hyperrealism and the reconstruction of imagery. The
artist became interested in painting a group of portraits of women that challenged the historical notion of “the weaker sex” and that highlighted the diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality and religion. The resulting series–seventeen portraits from Hallim-Byne’s impressive network of pioneering women–proved a serendipitous font of artistic inspiration.
The portraits are painted in what appears as a grey scale palette, reminiscent of the modern master of still lives, Giorgio Morandi; in reality they are comprised of only three colors of acrylic paint mixed
into several tonal hues. Spadafora applies the first layers of p aint with bold, confident strokes. In the final coat the artist adds oil paint in the same thr ee colors with one additional shade. As in previous layers the colors are mixed to create a spectrum, but these final touches are much thinner and finer. This process, called glazing, adds luminosity to the flesh and r esults in the figure emerging from the background.
The artist paints his female sitters on paper with a standard format: they are shown from the bust up, in the style of classical antiquity. Each wonder woman looks out at the viewer with a look of self-confidence and assuredness, which contrasts with the classical notion of women as subjugated model with downcast eyes. This direct gaze was inspired by a 2009 visit to Naples where the artist encountered a mosaic of a woman’s portrait that was preserved from the ruins of Pompeii. Spadafora was concurrently fascinated with the portraits painted on Greco-Egyptian coffins for their simple palette and expressions.
The concept of Wonder Woman has changed radically since the Marvel Comics character born sixty years ago. In the interceding decades wonder women have moved from the mythological world to the mortal world. They walk among us in the form of doctors, lawyers, activists, artists, television personalities, and mothers. Like the superhero, they are tirelessly fighting for women’s continued progress in society, one battle at a time.