< SWITCH ME >

"Don’t get upset by my inspiration," the young artist warns me.

Virago1
Image: Vendula Virago (w. author permission)
"The Teacup"

It is indeed a delicate topic, considered taboo even today. It's menstruation. For some it's shocking, embarrassing, upsetting, or simply unusual. Others find it thought-provoking. Menstruation and its related themes of blood, suffering, and the female body have been tackled by many artists. Frida Kahlo, Tracey Emin and Sarah Maple are names which immediately spring to mind.

Frida's famous paintings "Henry Ford Hospital" and "Without Hope" are tragic and passionate representations of female vulnerability. With a bleeding dissected female body at the centre, Frida Kahlo's self-portraits direct the viewer's attention to the female self and its relation with blood and suffering.

Tracey Emin's work is as intimate as Kahlo's, yet her mixed media installations, prints and photographs contain a social message about female vulnerability, more emotional rather than physical.

Sarah Maple is another artist who successfully challenges social conventions about womanhood. Her striking and memorable works address the relation between women and problems as wide as nationality, religion, sex, freedom, women's rights, and the objectification of women.

All three artists deliberately use menstrual blood to represent pain and shame. Whether as an honest expression of the most intimate pain, or as a contemporary feminist protest against social and religion beliefs, blood cannot escape the burden of suffering, embarrassment and even disgust. With such a wide range of creative uses for blood and its significance, is there anything left to be said about menstruation?

The young Czech artist Vendula Virago adopts menstruation as her inspiration. To be more precise, she explores the creative potential of conflicting ideas about menstruation. For her, menstrual blood is not only a symbol of suffering and weakness, or a source of shame and pain for the woman. It also represents a purification of negative emotions, a will to live, and a selfish enjoyment of one's own regeneration. Virago confesses her leading principle, "I see the blood and I say to myself, 'I am still alive!'" It is an overwhelming expression of contentment and triumph.

"I see the blood, and I say to myself, 'I am still alive!'"

Surprising as it may sound, the artist attempts to combine the two conflicting ideas in her work. Both interpretations of menstrual blood develop side by side in Virago's paintings, creating a rich explorative medium for the modern concept of the female. Sharing Kahlo's idea, Virago employs the symbolic meaning of blood as a sign, a piece of evidence for suffering and pain. Yet unlike Emin and Maple's use of female blood as a social protest and scandalous breaking of rules and conventions, Virago's works take blood as an affirmative source of creative energy. How exactly are the two opposing views of menstrual blood combined in Vendula Virago's paintings?

Virago_2
Image: Vendula Virago (w. author permission)
"The Dying Mermaid"

The artist explains, "Take, for example, my work 'The Dying Mermaid.' It symbolises the drama of life." The mermaid as the female body surrounded by water is a very powerful image. Blood inside the body, blood that needs to leave the body, and water that crushes the body. Fluids everywhere, compression, destruction, yet the dying mermaid is full of life. As in Andersen's fairytale she doesn't disappear completely, but she, her blood, merges with the water. Too weak to swim, the mermaid feels the weakness of menstruation in her last moments. But then again, menstruation is a shout that she's still alive, a celebration of her vitality. The drama of the mermaid lies in the conflict of ideas about menstruation.

"The Teacup" is another take on menstruation and its propensity to foster creativity. Even at first glance the work attracts attention with its bold contrast of red, white, and blue at the forefront. The vermillion red of the tea and the teardrop on the paper label direct the thought to the common symbols of menstruation, the red colour and the red teardrop. The idea of menstruation is further enhanced by the female figure at the back, the focus falling on her white pants and the pelvis. Soft curves dominate the painting and create an atmosphere of peace and calm. In "The Teacup" tea, or menstruation, brings harmony.

Virago's central idea of celebrating menstruation is quite simple. Her paintings usually focus on one single figure, that of a young woman. Rather than aiming at the public and its reaction to menstruation, the artist centres on the individual. How does bleeding make me feel? "It's only for me, for my body, for my mind," the artist admits.

In Virago's work menstruation doesn't suggest a protest against old-fashioned narrow-minded social ideas of decency and purity, nor is it only a tragic intimate revelation of pain and suffering. Rather, it is a source of inspiration, an overflow of emotions which reconcile the artist with the work. Menstrual blood appears as such a powerful symbol that it manages to combine ideas of both physical pain, and mental triumph and contentment. In the end it also comes to symbolise the effort of the female artist striving to get her message across.

NEXT ISSUE
IN -933 DAYS