Frances Myers (American, 1936–2014), The Martyrdom, 1984. Relief print, 20 x 15 inches. Gift of Marshall Erdman and Associates, Inc. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
After studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, Ms. Myers transferred to the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she was a student of the well-known printmaker, Alfred Sessler. After earning Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees, she lectured in printmaking at the College of Art and Design in Birmingham and St. Martin’s School of Art in London, England. She taught printmaking at the University of California-Berkeley, Mills College in California and, beginning in 1975, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she became Professor of Art and Chair of the Graphics Department. She became widely known for her subtly toned aquatints, but she engaged in a variety of forms of printmaking techniques, including relief, photo-etching, and mixed media processes, creating much of her work in her home studio shared with her husband, printmaker Warrington Colescott. She also created works using computer, digital photography and video.
While she was growing up in Racine, Wisconsin, Myers admired the innovative Johnson Wax building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright located in Racine. Years later she was commissioned to create a series of etchings of a number of Wright's most famous buildings.
Myers said, “My work is influenced by my surroundings, the objects and consumables I use and see, by what’s happening in the larger world, and by the events I read about in the daily New York Times newspaper. I had a wonderful high school art teacher, Sister Monica, whose dedication to art was like nothing I had ever witnessed. As an impressionable teenager, I wanted the same thing, the same aura (and I thought I drew well and liked doing it).”
- Art that reflects the time period and culture in which it was created
- Art that employs heroes from popular culture to explore contemporary social issues of gender and power
- Portraiture using easily recognizable color and shapes to convey emotional meaning
- Art historical, architectural, and religious symbolism as clues to meaning
- What might be some reasons the artist chose to combine the image of Wonder Woman with references to the story of the martyrdom of Christ? Notice the bonds around the body and the suggestion of fire in the background, as well as drops of blood from the necklace of thorns. To what other persons or images might they refer, in addition to Christ? What examples do you know of women who have been martyrs to a cause?
- What do you think Myers is communicating about the limits and boundaries women have experienced within art history and in their own surrounding cultures?
- Look for repetition of shapes in the pillars and the body. Notice how the lines of the pillars draw your gaze upwards, while the lines of the head draw your gaze down. What different feelings are conveyed by this construction of shapes and lines?
- The artist has purposely chosen colors for their distinct references. Red, white, and blue of classic American comics alert us to national traditions and culture, but here they are muted and shaded; the pillars are red and green, which are complementary colors that oppose each other and vibrate powerfully if viewed side by side. In what ways do all these colors convey meaning and imply a narrative?
- The form of the eagle on Wonder Woman’s shirt emphasizes its wings, with their capacity for flight and freedom, rather than its beak and eyes, good for attacking and fighting. How does this contribute to the meaning contained in the image?
- Compare the curving lines of the body—and the bonds that surround it—with the stiff, sharp lines and blocky mask-like shapes of the face. How do these differences affect the composition? What might be some reasons the artist portrayed the figure in this way?
- Why might the artist have chosen a comic book hero as a vehicle for expressing her ideas?
constraint control that limits or restricts someone's actions or behavior
contemplative expressing prolonged thought
demeanor a person's appearance and behavior; the way someone seems to be to other people
dichotomy a difference between or division into two opposite things
heroic having or showing great courage or daring
martyrdom suffering and oftendeath on account of adherence to a cause or a belief
symbolic expressing or representing an idea or quality without using words
What Do I See? Exploring Contemporary Art
Style of dress and physical demeanor are social cues that send messages about who “I am” and who “you are.” In this portrait, the clothing and physical stance of the subject are devices the artist employed for their symbolic powers. The woman wears a bright red shirt, adorned with an eagle, and blue shorts decorated with white stars—clues that the figure is the comic book super hero, Wonder Woman. She is erect, but she appears to be suffering. Typically, Wonder Woman carries a Lasso of Truth; here she is ensnared in a rope that might be her own lasso. Her trademark tiara with its capacity to become a projectile and communicate telepathically is absent, and even though she wears one of her indestructible metal cuff bracelets, it’s not possible to see whether she still has the other bracelet on her other wrist. A ring of thorns encircles her neck, her head falls forward, and her open eyes seem contemplative. Behind her rise what seem like jagged fingers of fire.
Wonder Woman’s pose is familiar from depictions of the crucified Christ. This relief print is called The Martyrdom. Along with The Crucifixion, The Resurrection, and The Ascension, it is part of a series of prints in which Frances Myers portrayed Wonder Woman as a character in the life events of Christ. During the 1980s the artist explored issues of gender and power in her art and said she was interested in creating prints “portraying the heroic aspect of woman—heroic both in scale and deed. For this I have often used the image of Wonder Woman as I remember her from childhood comics. Instant recognition of the Wonder Woman character and the qualities associated with her allows me to lead my audience quickly and surely to the emotional response I hope for—to the realization of the human dichotomies which this feminist, but universal, icon represents: strength/fragility, action/reflection, certainty/doubt, courage/fear.” By titling the print The Martyrdom, Myers signaled that she was using the story of Christ’s martyrdom by forces in power for symbolizing women’s experiences when they try to express their talents and individuality.
The artist has constructed Wonder Woman’s face to resemble Cubist portraits by Pablo Picasso, such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, where the faces interpret shapes of African masks with which Picasso was familiar. Wonder Woman’s attention seems focused, as if she is gathering inner power to fight against the forces that bind her. Her erect stance indicates her strength, like the columns on either side that echo classical Greek architecture. The glow behind her shoulders and head implies internal intensity and determination and even evokes the blaze that martyred another female avenger, Joan of Arc. By using such strong artistic and religious references, the artist has positioned this image of a comic book hero within traditions of art history. Myers thus visually invites reflection about constraints on and consequences for the expression of women’s powers in art and in the world at large.