The Allegory of Freedom

The personification of Woman began when we looked to the sky and named a planet, Venus.

Woman as allegory can stand for a variety of conceptualizations.  The Ideal of Woman as quintessential Other has been appropriated endlessly to personify conceptions: Nature, Nations, Ships…, as well as the promise of Democracy and Freedom.

Today, “Goddess” does not stand for antiquated notions of beauty as perpetuated by the glamor fashion industry.  “Goddess” embraces contemporary linguistic constellations orbiting around “authoritative, capable, equal, leading, unconventional, creative, intelligent, balanced, visionary.”

The social construction of Woman in the East was, naturally enough, the Goddess.  Perhaps the quintessential Buddhist representation of a goddess is Avalokitesvara of India.

Northern Song Dynasty, or Jin Dynasty, Guanyin, Water-Moon Bodhisattva, 12th century, wood, paint, 39” height, Saint Louis Art Museum, Public Domain, Courtesy of St Louis Art Museum

In India, Avalokitesvara was portrayed in art as male, his qualities feminine.  Avalokitesvara became in China, Kwan-yin, and in Japan, Kwannon, and both became portrayed as female.  Avalokitesvara was the most popular of the bodhisattvas, a kind of “wandering saint teaching the doctrine of enlightenment.”  Bodhisattvas are those who forgo Nirvana and remain on Earth to teach enlightenment and show compassion and infinite patience (indifference to time itself).  Living among the people, bodhisattvas assume “at will the appearance of the beings to whom they are appearing.”   

This disguise of the bodhisattva using human appearance will be an aspect, I believe, Victor Wang will appropriate for his depictions of goddesses as an everyday, ordinary existence woman.

The everyday, ordinary women is an aesthetic defamiliarization by Wang of the over-worn icon of Woman as Goddess.

Victor Wang, The Journey, 2019, oil on canvas, 62”x96”

The woman in The Journey, 2019, Wang has said in conversation is “the goddess of freedom.” 

The Journey signifies the promise of liberty through the allegory of the everyday woman as bodhisattva of enlightenment.  Wang recontextualized the French horn as her attribute of progress, modernization, and democracy.

Kwan-yin may be one historical Eastern reference for Wang’s goddess interpretation.  A potential second historical source for the goddess is the long history of the American allegory of Freedom.

Since the Renaissance, the New World was personified in Europe as a woman.  As America progressed, it developed its own artists, who, following custom, portrayed the new country, at first, as a Native American woman, and later, as a neoclassical princess icon.

American symbol of “Freedom,” based on “goddess” icon.  Thomas Crawford, Freedom1855, bronze, 19.5 feet height. US Capitol Dome.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

In 1855, sculptor Thomas Crawford was commissioned to design a sculpture for the top of the Dome of US Capitol.  Named “Freedom,” the female figure features the attributes of sword, shield, and olive branch.  The headdress combines eagle’s head, feathers, encircled with stars. Wang’s goddesses often wear elaborate headdresses.

The paintings of Wang reinvent the American allegory of Freedom as the everyday woman sharing once again with the world the promise of the democratic republic experiment.  Wang’s paintings are never intended to be merely realistic.

Such is the power of Victor Wang’s vision to see, to reframe yet again, the ancient celestial goddess into the everyday woman.