Woman As the Unconscious Signifier of Our Physical and Emotional Environment (Generalized by Our Intuitive Perception As Our Earthly Womb) In a State of Apocalyptic Burst

Judith Zilczer in her book “A Way of Living (the Art of Willem de Kooning)”, Phaidon, was struck by the tension in his “Woman 1” between expression and “grace”. Who is the woman in this controversial painting? Is it his wife? His mother? Eleanor Roosevelt? Gertrude Stein? How meaning is created in this painting… in circulation and over time, as the artist work is absorbed into history?
Martha Schwendener, Sunday Book review, New York Times, Dec. 5, 2014

“Working at ‘Woman 1’, as was his habit, with numerous drawings and collage fragments, de Kooning filled his canvass with image upon image, only to scrap away the figure and repeatedly begin painting anew,“ Zilczer writes. Elaine de Kooning estimates that some two hundreds images preceded what is now the final stage of the painting. This constant reworking prove taxing. “Perhaps, it is no wonder that the painter, dissatisfied with his progress, chose to abandon ‘Woman 1’ in 1952”, Zilczer writes. Indeed, “de Kooning only resumed work in the painting after art historian Meyer Schapiro offered words of encouragement about the abandoned canvas during a visit with the artist…”

Many critics condemned the canvas as being violent and degrading towards women.

De Kooning’s Woman 1 is, it seems, a representation of our infantile irrational fears focused on the primordial mother framed and articulated by our fears of natural disasters, planetary nuclear catastrophe or destruction of life due to toxic pollution, climate crisis, global meltdown, etc. Woman’s body in “Woman 1” signifies the external environment (to a substantial degree we identify with it, it’s part of our internal world) in the process of blowing up, while her face symbolizes the meaning of this catastrophe: the very menace of blast communicated by her ogre-like fury“cannibalistic” facial expression, and the consequences of this destruction for the destiny of human kind, which we viscerally, immediately sense and cathect. In another word “woman 1’s” face signifies the prophesy of what is to come, but her body is, as if, a visual “illustration” of the end of life – the radical withdrawal of woman’s fertile body from life.

Willem de Kooning, “Woman 1”, 1950 - 1952
Willem de Kooning, “Woman 1”, 1950 – 1952

Is it really possible for a human being to be in such a strong position in relation to another human beings to be as horrifying as de Kooning’s Woman1? By the terror she creates in us who are almost unable to look at her eyes and her grinning grimace that it reminds us of the faces of the mad kings, emperors or monstrous torturer-inquisitors of our historical past. But for a woman to be so magnificently mighty as to to be able to incite, first of all, in the male viewers, such an intense irrational anxiety? She is horrifying because she is mighty, and she is mighty because we need her so much – her presence, warmth, her touch and her condescending compassion. We needed her as a protectress and a source of love and generosity, as a savior, before de Kooning showed her to us through his painting. Without her we wouldn’t, couldn’t have peace at heart. Now we cannot have it as long as she exists.

Female monster will always be more awe-inspiring than male monsters, because little children need the immediacy of mother’s love much more than the “abstraction” of paternal protection. The child inside us is so horrified by Woman 1 because we feel her betraying right in front of our eyes – knowing that w’re nothing without her maternal power. And de Kooning shows us the goddess in the very moment of her betrayal, even when we only imagine it, even when its unconsciously imagined. It is the maternal indifference which is perceived as her monstrosity. It is her withdrawal from us that we see as her primal animosity. We perceive her distancing from us as her attack and abandonment – as being persecuted by her.

Her eyes which we as children saw so many times as currents and waves of tenderness – now irradiate apocalyptic hate just because it’s not love anymore. Her motherly quiet smile is transformed into a sarcastic smirk, no, worse – into her desire to bite, to crush, to chew and to spit us away. Her breasts are still giant as was her fertile generosity, but now they are like metal armor against our gently greedy love. De Kooning’s painting puts us in an unbearable situation of seeing Woman abandoning us forever. In this very moment of total universal betrayal of us she stopped to be the human organism, the center of the world. She and space around her (which was extension and continuation of her in her ability to comfort us) started to fall apart into fragments of flesh and stone. The world in which we existed together – has already began to crumble.

It is only the one whom we love and on whom we depend on for love can be so terrifying – the only one who was desired and needed as having been more than life can transform into a giantess with such a monstrous power. It is only the object of love and hope that can be so frightening in the moment of betraying us. Only destroyed love can put us in a primordial chaos which de Kooning forces us to look at in his “Woman 1”. Four innocent and so natural man’s wishes – to have a motherly mother, to have a wifely wife, to meet and keep a beloved woman and to live in a peace are all destroyed in de Kooning’s canvass before our very eyes.

The style of de Kooning’s painting mythologizes, but this is an alive mythologization of reality, not thumbing the old myths. The artist shows us how myths continue to be born. It’s the essence of reality to renew mythological sense of life, life as an essential, as its own mythological substrate, as its own mythological code. The mystery of experiencing primordial chaos when universal woman abandons us – it is the psychodrama that the artist creates in front of the viewers in his “Woman 1”. This mythological mystery doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of our everyday life – but it reflects the eternity of our unconscious irrational fears. We were moved by these fears when we were infants and children. We continue to be motivated by them from our unconscious as adults. We are always worried when we love. Macho men, for example, are shamefully often afraid of strong, emancipated women, and scandalously retreat into militarism and money power because they are not able to confront the emanations of a strong woman’s soul. But in reality it is exactly this soul, inside which we all were conceived and born from.

De Kooning in “Woman 1” shows us the truth of our own perception of a developed/ripe femininity – as a cannibalistic woman, as a storm, earthquake, eruption of volcano. But behind our panic we still feel Woman 1’s magnificence, her irresistible beauty. We have to learn to rely more on the feminine intellect and let women create new reality of planetary life. We have to put our obsessive reliance on military force and manipulative politics into platinum suitcases and send them off to the Jupiter. Where we can see apocalyptic eyes can be patience, moderation and tolerance, there is also the sunrise of inexhaustible hopes and sunset of deserved rest. Where we see a predatory mouth, can be love and care. We have to turn our perception of the reality upside down. We have to overcome reality of our imagination paralyzed by fears. We have to work for women – democratic ones, not those who pretend to be macho men, like many neo-conservative women and some officially democratic ones.

It seems, it is possible to understand why de Kooning makes and erases so many versions of his vision in this work before reaching a satisfactory result – it is very difficult to dig deeply into our unconscious perception – here: of babies, children and macho adolescents and young or eternally childish men (like war-mongering military leaders and super-profit-mongering billionaires) in order to grasp more exactly how they perceive women’s mystique, that the artist so incredibly successfully achieved in his “Woman 1”.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)
Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)