The female form has been immortalised in Renaissance-style oil paintings time and time again, but Juliette Mahieux Bartoli has modernised this trope in Pax Romana, encoding her “all-female universe” with political messages of strength and hybridity.

The artist’s 13-piece exhibition at the Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery may be small, but it certainly packs a punch. Colours are what hits you first: sea-foam green, bright coral, lilac, gold and silver. The striking flat colour of the backgrounds on the oil painted canvasses do not distract from the softer tones of the figures and fabrics, it only illuminates their infallibility.

Mahieux Bartoli welcomes you into a woman’s world where statuesque figures in graceful but functioning poses line the walls. These fabulous females share the same glow of the first supermodels of the 1990s, like Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen, with feminine curves, muscle tone, supple skin and a glorious glow. The paintings are named after Greek goddesses or Gods, their qualities defining each woman’s character. These sisters are doing it for themselves, adopting masculine names to make up for the years devoid of specifically spunky personality traits.

Each figure is draped, Grecian style, in a luxurious and lustrous fabric, softly shaded to look like silk satin or even taffeta. Koios Gold (named after the Titan of resolve and intelligence) is swaddled in a nude fabric, effortlessly tucked at the breast, giving the sweetheart strapless look of an Ellie Saab gown. Erato Silver (desired or lovely) is elevated in spirals of pink pigments, bearing a resemblance to Nick Knight’s 2008 photograph of Lily Donaldson.

But Mahieux Bartoli has shattered more conventional ideas of beauty. Each woman is fragmented to reflect the complexity of 21st-century existence and the realities of cultural diversity. Pieces are missing but also added, completing the women in a different way, showing strength in hybridity. The trilingual artist would know, with French and Italian parents she has lived all over the world, settling in London because, she claims, “I don’t feel like a fish out of water because everyone has more than one cultural influence.”

Pax Romana refers to a period of peace in Europe during the Roman Empire which encouraged cross-cultural interaction, and is why so much of our language is derived from Latin. Mahiuex Bartoli stresses that culture in itself, is a construction, and that we are made up of so many different influences. The exhibition evokes a poignant feeling as we end what has been a tumultuous year in terms of multiculturalism and plurality.

“I am so keen to emphasise that I see this cultural hybrid identity as a positive thing. This year seems to have been a year for nationalism and trying to close yourself into one culture or one idea of a culture. It feels like trying to close down a world that is so beautifully open.”

Juliette Mahieux Bartoli: Pax Romana is on display until 23 December 2016 at the Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery Ltd. 533 Old York Road, London SW18 1TG.

Text by Abigail Southan.

 

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