By Kimberly Cabrera

Both women and men were honored publicly with portrait statues in ancient Roman society. Many of the bodies of these portraits were ‘borrowed’ or replicated from earlier Greek sculpture. These are referred to as body types--– the term ‘type’ referring to the specific postures and gestures shown. Female portrait statues also betray one important difference from their male counterparts: they are given the drapery (clothing) of Greek goddesses, and are not shown, as the men were, in their everyday attire.

I am interested in comparing the way Roman female portraits statues were constructed to the way Chuck Close plays with the female form in his photographs. In each case, how does the artist handle or manipulate the woman’s body? What draws Close to the nude female form, and why does he sometimes truncate it as a torso, or frames in vertical diptych or triptychs?

For the Roman examples, is the assigning of divine clothing that we see only for women a sign of additional respect? Or does it betray what one scholar has termed ‘male unease about the presence of women in public’, even in statue form?1 Are these statues gender- neutral, signs of civic generosity, wealth and status like their male counterparts, with little hint at what the Romans saw as specifically female virtues like fertility and motherhood?2 Or can we detect signs that suggest their sexuality is in fact very much on display?

In both the case of Close's photographs and the Roman sculpture, we do not find the same formal techniques at work, but can we find similar themes? The idea of disembodiment is a thread that can be traced throughout the comparisons: does Close disembody his subjects through his use of framing and the fragmentation of his diptychs and triptychs? Do these techniques change how we understand the female bodies we are seeing, and how we view to the subjects?

As for the Roman examples – their bodies are modeled after goddess bodies and so are ‘unreal’ – in comparison to men who would be depicted wearing the costume of their office or profession, undermining the presence of a woman in a public space. The 'unreal' body then replaces the 'real' – taking away the individuality of the woman depicted, and diminishing the importance of an honorific statue of a woman.

1 Fejfer, Jane. “Roman Women in Public,” Roman Portraits in Context. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. 345.
2 As argued by J. Trimble, in her book Women and Visual Replication in Roman Imperial Art and Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 190.

Chuck Close Bintou I 2013 Chuck Close, Bintou I, 2013
black and white Polaroid diptych mounted on aluminum
56 x 45-1/2" (142.2 x 115.6 cm), overall installed
56 x 21-7/8" (142.2 x 55.6 cm), left panelbr>55-1/4 x 22-1/8" (140.3 x 56.2 cm), right panelbr>Photograph courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery
© Chuck Close, courtesy Pace Gallery

About the Curator

Kim portrait

Kim Cabrera is a University of Massachusetts, Amherst graduate with a degree in both Art History and English. She is fascinated by the intersection of feminism and art and the exploration of the human body. She currently resides in Northampton, MA, where she interns at a non-profit gallery.