In 2017, the centrality of social media in our lives and the accompanying pressure to present a digestible image of ourselves means that theorising identity politics has never been more pertinent. Thanks to social media, celebrities now have multiple channels through which to communicate with the wider world, granting them more autonomy from press scrutiny and allowing them control over the values they wish to project. However, this is not solely a phenomenon of the digital age; prominent figures have been manipulating the ways in which they are perceived for centuries. Indeed, Jill Burke asserts that art was used by patrons to shape their relationships with the rest of the world by projecting certain ideas about their status and character.1 It is worth comparing how social media and commissioned paintings have been successfully used to mediate public image, bearing in mind different intended audiences and functions. Two figures who stand out for astute image control mediated by self-produced images are the 21st century icon Beyoncé and the Renaissance patron Isabella d’Este.
While the Beyoncé has an official Facebook page as well as a Twitter page, it is through her Instagram page where her brand’s values are best communicated and, as the fifth most followed account on the social media site, her posts reach over 98 million followers. There is a general consensus that pop music is about more than the music itself but rather about the spectacle — a spectacle within which the performer can transgress social norms, for example through exaggerated dress or outspoken sexuality, onstage or in music videos. 2 However, Beyoncé’s Instagram posts are designed to grant her fans a glimpse into her extraordinary life via pictures of her family, of red carpet events, of hours spent in the studio and therefore allow fans to feel that they are experiencing a vision of Beyoncé the woman (albeit in a highly performative way), rather than Beyoncé the stage persona or icon. 3 Indeed, there are overarching trends in what Beyoncé posts, for example, images which underscore her role as a wife and mother, highlighting the more ‘respectable’ facets of her feminine identity. However, the majority of images are far from candid, and tend to display the singer in glamorous clothing which emphasise her beauty and wealth – two of the ultimate ideals of 21st century society. If her onstage personas of Yoncé and Sasha Fierce, as well as her alignment with Feminism, are set to attract controversy, her Instagram account appears to adhere to normative ideals of femininity in order to mitigate this.
We can see something similar at play in a Titian portrait commissioned by Isabella d’Este (fig 1) where, despite being in her sixties at the time it was painted, she appears youthful and in adherence with the contemporary standards of beauty. 4 The artist depicts her in a sumptuous gown embroidered with fur, silk and velvet which emphasise her wealth. Her direct stare suggests a forceful personality, an impression which is mediated by the suggestion of a slightly upturned mouth. We might want to consider why a woman like Isabella d’Este, a gifted stateswoman, would request that she be portrayed in a light which stresses her former beauty, ignoring her other numerous achievements. 5 However, it is precisely because she had attained other achievements that she should wish to embrace visual imagery that projected an idea of her as a beautiful and passive ideal. By depicting herself as a girlish and beautiful she not only creates an image of a ‘weaker’, less experienced self for circulation but displays to the court a willingness to conform to such ideals, rather than seek the powerful role or have herself depicted in the bold fashion displayed in, for example, images of her brother, Alfonso d’Este.
Portrait of Isabella d’Este, Titian, 1534-6
However, such an idealised portrait could also pose a threat to her carefully constructed image. Elizabeth Cropper compares fig. 1 to a portrait by Parmigianino of an unnamed sitter whose depiction echoes that of Isabella in dress, beauty and facial expression. She goes on to suggest that the latter painting is one in which the sitter has been chosen exclusively for her beauty and that, accordingly, her identity is of little consequence. Such a painting is not a portrait at all but rather an object for the visual enjoyment of men, especially when one considers the sexual availability which came to be associated with artist models. 6 Cropper’s alignment of the anonymous Parmigianino model and the illustrious Isabella d’Este, suggests how depictions of idealised beauty eroded the individuality of the sitter and dissolved distinctions of rank between women. While women felt under pressure to adhere to the standards of beauty of the day, especially given that external beauty was seen as a sign of internal morality and piety, it was precisely the beautification of their image in portraiture which endangered them of being associated with a looser morality and lower social classes.
Indeed, there exists a similar tension in Beyoncé’s self-representation. While a career within the public eye is, at least for women, partly dependent upon adhering to contemporary standards of beauty and perceived ‘sex appeal’, she has been fiercely criticised for being overly provocative. 7 While similar criticism of female celebrities is commonplace, in Beyoncé case it is often used as an excuse to invalidate her cultural importance as a public feminist figure — most notably by bell hooks who criticised Beyoncé as being complicit in the imperialist, capitalist system of patriarchy and of continuing myths about the heightened sexual availability of women of colour. 8 However, such policing of Beyoncé’s image and sexuality is nothing but a replication of patriarchal limitations upon female sexuality and, in the case of many media outlets, putting pressure on Beyoncé to conceal her body stems from a desire for her to conceal her difference. The fact that she does not bow to such pressure is integral to the images of power and strength which the Beyoncé brand projects. Take a concert picture from the Formation Tour, similar to one posted on her Instagram in July 2016 (fig.2). She stands, clothed in a red, form-fitting leather leotard, one hand grasping a microphone. Red is a colour traditionally associated with excessive female sexuality and this, coupled with the garment’s cut, make her wardrobe choice provocative by traditional standards. However, this sexuality is not passive or weak but is, rather, coded as active and strong — her solid grip on the microphone shows that she is in control, and primed for action, the exaggerated shoulder details of her outfit mimics the broad shoulders which in men (and in the fashion of the 1980s) are often taken to suggest power. Her self-possessed gaze suggests composure and was often projected in large format on a screen onstage during the tour. With the projection of her face surveying the crowds, Beyoncé subverts the all-consuming male gaze: even while she is on display, the spectator feels uncomfortable, under inspection by her gaze. Beyoncé is not a passive body to be consumed and her concert outfits typically hyper-emphasise areas of her body (her legs or hair for example) so as to take control of the process of sexualisation, in a form of resistance against objectification. 9
Beyonce during her Formation Tour, 2017, photos: Beyonce.com
While Beyoncé navigates the misogyny attracted by female beauty and sexuality by coding the feminine as strong and advocating the worth and value of her body, Isabella d’Este seeks at all costs to appear to reconcile with pre-established conceptions of ideal femininity. For example, in The Triumph of the Virtues (fig 3), we can see how Isabella justifies and promotes beliefs which deviated from her feminine role by tying them into established ideas about her gender. It depicts a marsh, enclosed by a tall fence, governed by the Vices who are portrayed as monstrous beings. Idleness is chased away by Minerva who also intervenes to prevent Diana, the goddess of chastity from being pursued by a centaur symbolising tawdry sexual desire. The marchesa adopts a didactic, illustrative treatment of the theme, showing the possible outcomes of when vigilance is relaxed and the mind becomes victim to laziness, jealousy and sensuality. 10 There is writing in Latin, Greek and Hebrew (all scholarly languages) which advise on how to behave virtuously. As women were taught to aspire to virtuous conduct, Isabella d’Este is linking learning (here, the ability to read the advice in the three scholarly languages) with the feminine ideals of piety and morality.11 Therefore, her more ‘masculine’ interest in learning and classical knowledge which establishes her as being distinguished for her sex is coded as non-threatening to the social order because it shown to be an aid to attaining certain ideals of femininity.
The Triumph of the Virtues, Andrea Mantegna, 1502
Somewhat like Isabella invoking the Ancient World in The Triumph of the Virtues, Beyoncé invokes Renaissance painting and classical mythology in the recent pregnancy photos released on her website and Instagram. One such image (fig 4), posted on her Instagram on the 1st of February 2017, is worth particular mention. The singer kneels, with her hands on her pregnant stomach, upon an alter of colourful flowers, her face covered by a sheer veil. The saturated colours of the image, coupled with the unusual content and Beyoncé’s intense beauty, gives the photo a dreamlike atmosphere. The central position of Beyoncé in the composition, along with her long ringlets of hair and the soft sensuality, appears to be a reference to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (fig 5). By referencing this image, Beyoncé aligns herself with Venus as an embodiment of female virtue, beauty and love, and in doing so is making a powerful statement about the traditional undervaluation of black femininity and beauty. Furthermore, Beyoncé shows that motherhood can be a facet of female sexuality, that female beauty and sexual expression should continue after becoming a mother — despite what sexist, and in some cases, ageist cultural norms may suggest. Furthermore, this image serves as a visual representation of the achievements of Beyoncé’s career. As a black woman and feminist, Beyoncé was positioned by a racist, patriarchal society as an outsider but, through her fame and wealth, has come to be at the very centre and the very peak of this culture. Not only does Beyoncé have mass appeal, but she has the power and relevancy to influence public opinion and change cultural norms.
Top: Beyoncé Pregnancy Announcement, photographed by Awol Erizku, February 1st 2017.
Bottom: The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1484-6
To conclude, it is clear that Isabella d’Este was highly aware of how she could use images to manipulate the manner in which people perceived her. Considering that women in this period were excluded from being able to participate in the public sphere, and therefore from forging an identity other than that ascribed to them by their fathers or husbands, Isabella d’Este commissioned works in which she could show herself to be embodying certain female virtues or in which she could neutralise any possible suspicions about her conduct or character. The quantity and quality of the patronage of Isabella helped her to establish herself as an ‘exceptional’ and ‘unique’ woman who rose above the constraints of her sex. At least, this is an image that art historical discourse has traditionally promulgated and which Isabella herself appears to have been invested in.12 Beyoncé contrastingly, serves as an example to other women and often actively helps other women. While her role in contemporary feminism is hotly contested amongst academics, Beyoncé serves as an example of how to live as an emancipated woman and self-defining feminist and how to navigate the contradictions and tensions which arise from working towards personal success and gender inequality within a capitalist sphere. The everyday feminism of Beyoncé celebrates black femininity, motherhood and sisterhood in ways which contemporary culture often does not provide a space for and, in this way, is unequivocally empowering. Through images which code her body as powerful, beautiful and divine, Beyoncé retaliates against discriminatory representations of black women and establishes herself as the Venus at the peak of western culture.
drawing by Chloe Esslemont
WORDS BY MEGAN WALLACE
Featured image: Portrait of Isabella d’Este, Titian, 1534-6, Beyonce in “Daddy Lessons”, Lemonade, 2016, Beyoncé Knowles/ Parkwood Entertainment) dir. Kahlil Joseph
1. Burke, Jill, Changing Patrons: Social Identity and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Florence (Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 2004)
2. Trier-Bieniek, Adrienne (ed), The Beyonce Effect (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016) p111
3. Trier-Bieniek, Adrienne (ed), The Beyonce Effect (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016) p113
4. Johnson, Geraldine, Renaissance Art: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) p84
5. Cockram, Sarah D P, Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga: Power Sharing at the Italian Renaissance Court (London: Routledge, 2013) p196
6. Cropper, Elizabeth ‘The Beauty of Women: Problems in the Rhetoric of Renaissance Portraiture’ in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, Margaret W Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy Vickers (eds) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)
7. Trier-Bieniek, Adrienne (ed), The Beyonce Effect (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016) p59
8. hooks, bell, Black Looks: Race and Representation (New York: Routledge, 2015) (preface)
9. Trier-Bieniek, Adrienne (ed), The Beyonce Effect (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016) p56
10. Boorsch, Suzanna and Martineau, Jane, Andrea Mantegna (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992)
11. King, Catherine ‘Did Women Patrons have a Renaissance?’ Art and Visual Culture 1100-1600: Medieval to Renaissance ed Kim Woods (London: Tate, 2013)
12. Cockram, Sarah D P, Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga: Power Sharing at the Italian Renaissance Court p 195
Boorsch, Suzanna and Martineau, Jane, Andrea Mantegna (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992).
Burke, Jill, Changing Patrons: Social Identity and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Florence (Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 2004).
Cockram, Sarah D P, Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga: Power Sharing at the Italian Re-
naissance Court (London: Routledge, 2013).
Cropper, Elizabeth ‘The Beauty of Women: Problems in the Rhetoric of Renaissance Portraiture’ in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, Margaret W Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy Vickers (eds) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
hooks, bell, Black Looks: Race and Representation (New York: Routledge, 2015).
Johnson, Geraldine, Renaissance Art: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
King, Catherine ‘Did Women Patrons have a Renaissance?’ Art and Visual Culture 1100-1600: Medieval to Renaissance ed Kim Woods (London: Tate, 2013).
Trier-Bieniek, Adrienne (ed), The Beyonce Effect (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016).