Amazons in all Shapes, Sizes, and Colors: What the Wonder Woman Movie Got Right

by Adrienne Mayor

Were Amazons—and their real-life counterparts in antiquity—really as diverse as they appear in Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman opens with a breathtaking  panorama of Themiscyra, the fantasy island populated by powerful women, a paradise magically isolated in time and space from the modern world of men and their ruthless wars. This is where the little wonder girl Diana raised by a triumvirate of formidable females: Queen Hippolyta, General Antiope, and her aunt Melanippe.

In the film, Themiscyra is a self-contained, women-only society of indomitable warriors, devoted to using their deadly expertise to fight on the side of all that is fair and good. We see how idealistic young Diana is rigorously trained for hand-to-hand combat, learning rugged martial arts alongside the toughest, most courageous warrior women the world has ever known: Amazons of ancient Greek myth.

The beginning scenes show us daily life in Themiscyra, with the entire citizenry of warlike women engaged in military exercises. As far as the eye can see, vast fields are filled with female soldiers displaying their prowess in an amazing array of skills. Frame after frame, there are women wrestling, boxing, sword fighting; women performing gymnastic feats on galloping horses; women thrusting daggers and twirling battle-axes; keen-eyed archers on foot and on horseback; acrobatic ninjas and javelin throwers with deadly aim. And in the following scenes of the battle on the beach—pitting the Amazons against boatloads of nasty German soldiers—the dizzying kaleidoscope intensifies, drawing us into a maelstrom of whirling, grappling, leaping, kicking, punching, stabbing, spearing, soaring, kickass female fighters. A crucial element in the  scene’s powerful impact is the perfectly natural diversity of super-fit body types and skin colors.

The magnificence of the Amazons of Themiscyra would have been impossible to pull off with typical Hollywood actresses pretending to be fierce warrior women. It was the brilliant decision of director Patty Jenkins to cast real-life athletes and sports champions as Wonder Woman’s companions.

And that choice ensured that women of Themiscyra display a variety of skills, body sizes, shapes, ages, and skin colors. The diversity is stunning: the Amazons are tall and short, robust and lithe, young and mature, lean and muscle-bound, stolid and mercurial; pale and dark—and everything in between.

In ancient Greek myth, Amazons were warrior women who gloried in battle who dwelled in exotic lands around the Black Sea. Now, thanks to evidence from history, art, and archaeology, we now know that the Amazons were modeled on real nomadic peoples of ancient Scythia, a vast territory that stretched from the real Themiscyran plain on the Black Sea to Mongolia. These myriad tribes had their own languages and were ethnically diverse, but they shared a lifestyle centered on fast horses, bows and arrows, and constant warfare. Their egalitarian lifestyle meant that girls and boys learned to ride, shoot arrows, and fight and the women rode to war with the men.

The Scythians left no writings, but modern archaeology, ancient art, and historical descriptions by their neighbors, the Greeks and Chinese, tell us what they were like. Human remains from Scythian graves show both European and Asian traits, characteristics evident in steppe nomads’ descendants today. Females buried with weapons ranged in age from 10 to 45. Some 2,000 years ago, Greek and Roman historians reported that some Scythians had dark eyes and hair, while others were blond or red-headed with blue eyes. Notably, ancient Chinese chronicles confirm this ethnic diversity, describing some Scythians of Inner Asia as red-haired with green eyes.

Beginning in the sixth century BC, Greek artists painted thousands of images of Amazons on vases. The pictures took on more and more realistic details of actual Scythian nomads as they became more familiar with steppe peoples. Vase paintings show tall and petite Amazons, husky and slender Amazons, often together in the same scene. Most have dark hair but there are some blonde and red-haired Amazons. There were ancient Greek tales of Amazons of Africa and Ethiopians were allies of the Amazons in the legendary Trojan War. Vase paintings show African archers dressed like Amazons.

Wonder Woman‘s vision of all kinds of Amazon warriors making themselves physically strong—and then proving their valor in violent combat and emerging victorious—is unprecedented in cinematic history. The grandeur of the fighting scenes—the sheer physicality and diversity of the Amazons—arouses surging emotions of exhilaration in viewers, empowering for women and girls, a revelation for men and boys.

The fact that the multidimensional aspect of Wonder Woman‘s Amazon paradise is grounded in historical reality adds to the glorious authenticity of the film.

So breathtaking is the tribute to strong, real women in the first third of Wonder Woman that I’m joining the chorus of viewers requesting a prequel—we want more Amazons!

MayorAdrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, and the author of The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.

 

 

 

 

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Happy birthday to Anni Albers

Today is Anni Albers’s birthday! Born in Berlin in 1899, she began her studies at the Bauhaus in Weimar when she was 22 years old. Here in the weaving workshop she first began working on the loom and learning her way with threads. Over the course of her 60-year career she would become one of the most innovative and influential textile artists of the 20th century, creating subtle abstract works of art, bold wall hangings, and sophisticated architectural fabrics, in addition to experimental jewelry and prints all tied together in her highly original voice. Albers became an expert on the history of weaving as well as an influential advocate for its future and the potential of new materials. She gathered her findings in her pivotal 1965 book On Weaving. On the occasion of her 118th birthday we’re thrilled to announce a new, expanded, full-color edition of On Weaving, out this September from Princeton University Press and available now by pre-order. Happiest birthday Anni!
 
 

Images: (1) Anni Albers, Europe, 1930-33, photograph by Josef Albers. (2) Cover of the new edition of Anni Albers’s “On Weaving” (3) Anni Albers, Display material sample, 1949, cotton, silk, lurex, and metallic foil. Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ARS, NY

A peek inside Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask by Sarah Howgate draws together for the first time the work of French artist Claude Cahun (1894–1954) and British contemporary artist Gillian Wearing (b. 1963). Although they were born almost a century apart, their work shares similar themes—gender, identity, masquerade, and performance. Take a look inside this stunningly illustrated book containing reproductions of more than ninety key works.

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask by Sarah Howgate from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Sarah Howgate is senior curator of contemporary portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London. She is the coauthor of Lucian Freund Portraits, 21st-Century Portraits and The Portrait Now. Dawn Ades is professor emerita of art history at the University of Essex and the author of Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820–1980, among many other books.

Wright on Exhibit: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architectural Exhibitions

More than one hundred exhibitions of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work were mounted between 1894 and his death in 1959. Wright organized the majority of these exhibitions himself and viewed them as important to his self-presentation as his extensive writings. He used them to introduce his new work, appeal to a wide audience, and persuade his detractors. Wright on Exhibit presents the first history of this neglected aspect of the architect’s influential career.

Drawing extensively from Wright’s unpublished correspondence, Kathryn Smith challenges the preconceived notion of Wright as a self-promoter who displayed his work in search of money, clients, and fame. She shows how he was an artist-architect projecting an avant-garde program, an innovator who expanded the palette of installation design as technology evolved, and a social activist driven to revolutionize society through design. While Wright’s earliest exhibitions were largely for other architects, by the 1930s he was creating public installations intended to inspire debate and change public perceptions about architecture. The nature of his exhibitions expanded with the times beyond models, drawings, and photographs to include more immersive tools such as slides, film, and even a full-scale structure built especially for his 1953 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. Placing Wright’s exhibitions side by side with his writings, Smith shows how integral these exhibitions were to his vision.

Photograph by Pedro E. Guerrero

Q: What is different about Wright on Exhibit than other books you have written about Wright?

Kathryn Smith: I chose his architectural exhibitions during his lifetime because it was a finite subject that had real clarity and purpose. It provided a great framework to view how Wright favored his own work, how he prepared it in drawings and models, and how he dealt with the press, museums, the public, and contemporary architects. I live in Los Angeles, the location of the Getty Research Library, where Wright’s correspondence of 103,000 letters and documents are on deposit on microfiche. By 2016, I would say that I had read about 15,000 pieces of this correspondence. I knew his voice and his moods. I wanted that to come through to the reader by quoting the correspondence. It was one of my main purposes: to put the reader as much as possible into the moment.

Q: How many exhibitions are in your final count?

KS: My total is 124 exhibitions. There is a gap between 1915 and 1929. But from 1930 forward, there were at least one or more exhibitions–one man shows or surveys–every year until his death where my book stops.
I created two appendices: the list of all of the exhibitions and an illustrated catalogue raisonné of all known models, extant or lost. Even the list of models is staggering. There are 57.

Q: The excerpts from letters are vivid, but how did you illustrate the book?

KS: I was lucky because Wright clearly wanted to document his career. Beginning in 1907, he hired professionals to photograph his installations. I accumulated a good representation of black and white images of all the major exhibitions. But I learned that the shows themselves were rich in color. It was imperative to communicate this richness to the reader. The book has 57 color illustrations, primarily of drawings, and 188 half tones.

Q: Did you make any discoveries that surprised you?

KS: Yes, quite a few. I would say that there is a very vague outline in the mind of many people who have heard of the major exhibitions. They conjure up basically either positive or negative impressions. But that changes dramatically when the factual history is traced. For instance, “Sixty Years of Living Architecture” was conceived in Florence, Italy in 1948 and went through the most torturous three-year period of failed international diplomatic planning. Wright was completely ignorant of this activity. Yet, it finally opened due to the determination, the effort, and the financial support of a few individuals, American and Italian. It is a very compelling story, complete with cliffhangers. Almost all the major exhibitions I wrote about were dramatic with Wright threatening to pull out at the last minute.

 

Sixty Years of Living Architecture, poster, 1952 (Private collection)

Broadacre City exhibition, New York, 1935 (Scott Architectural Archive)

Q: What was the most memorable thing you learned about Wright?

KS: After the openings came the reviews. In some years, especially, before 1948, when there were a number of mixed or negative assessments, he felt downhearted and baffled. In truth, he had a rather thin skin. His most characteristic response was to turn to writing: he lashed out in anger at the critics. What I was struck by was Wright’s vulnerability. There were quite a few instances of negative criticism when he seemed to stand aside, like an outsider, not comprehending why the American people did not embrace him as their champion as he intended. It is true, he became a “starchitect,” in the parlance of our day; but he was looking for recognition of greater depth.

 

A peek inside The Art of Philosophy by Susanna Berger

Delving into the intersections between artistic images and philosophical knowledge in Europe from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, The Art of Philosophy shows that the making and study of visual art functioned as important methods of philosophical thinking and instruction. Featuring previously unpublished prints and drawings from the early modern period and lavish gatefolds, The Art of Philosophy reveals the essential connections between visual commentary and philosophical thought. Watch the trailer to learn more:

The Art of Philosophy: Visual Thinking in Europe from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment by Susanna Berger from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Susanna Berger is assistant professor of art history at the University of Southern California.

A peek inside The Art of Philosophy

Delving into the intersections between artistic images and philosophical knowledge in Europe from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, The Art of Philosophy shows that the making and study of visual art functioned as important methods of philosophical thinking and instruction. From frontispieces of books to monumental prints created by philosophers in collaboration with renowned artists, Susanna Berger examines visual representations of philosophy and overturns prevailing assumptions about the limited function of the visual in European intellectual history. Take a peek inside:

Craig Clunas on Chinese Painting and its Audiences

ClunasWhat is Chinese painting? When did it begin? And what are the different associations of this term in China and the West? In Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, which is based on the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts given at the National Gallery of Art, leading art historian Craig Clunas draws from a wealth of artistic masterpieces and lesser-known pictures to show how Chinese painting has been understood by a range of audiences over five centuries, from the Ming Dynasty to today. Recently, Clunas took the time to answer some questions about the book.

There are lots of books about Chinese art, what’s the particular scope of this one?

CC: This book isn’t about the whole of Chinese art, but it looks at the important art of painting in China over the last five hundred years or so, from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the very recent past. It does it not from the point of view of the creation of Chinese painting but through a history of looking at it, and a history of the types of viewers who have formed the very diverse audiences for it over those centuries.

If I don’t know much about Chinese culture, will I be able to understand this book?

CC: I hope anybody interested in art can get something from this book. It has its origins in a lecture series, the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, held regularly at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, since 1953. In 2012 I gave these lectures (with the same title as the book); that’s only the second time in over sixty years that art from China has been the focus of a Mellon Lecture series. So I was very conscious of addressing a non-specialist audience, of people with an interest in the visual arts generally but without any specific expertise, and I’ve tried to keep the technicalities to a minimum in the main text, while still providing the evidence for other scholars to judge the strength of my arguments. When people say, ‘I don’t know anything about Chinese art,’ they often in fact already have a strong set of preconceptions, and I want to dispel some of these by showing the actual variety of painting being produced over a long time span, including work made in China in the past which tends to get left out of the category called ‘Chinese painting’ today.

How would you break down the main argument? 

CC: Obviously, back in the sixteenth century people in China who viewed a work by a famous painter of the day, or an old master from the past, didn’t think of what they were looking at as ‘Chinese painting.’ To them, it was just ‘painting.’ Today, whether in the Chinese-speaking world or outside it, the category ‘Chinese painting’ is the meaningful one we use to describe both historic painting and contemporary work of certain kinds. The book looks at how this came about, and shows how it was through the actions of viewers that this cultural category was formed, concentrating on certain kinds of pictures and marginalizing others. I’m claiming that the understanding of Chinese painting in some ways ran before it could walk, making big generalizations about the subject before much of the detailed work was done. These generalizations then fed into art history as a whole, where ‘Chinese painting’ stands as probably the major counter-example to the western tradition of art. I’m arguing here that the category ‘Chinese painting’ isn’t a timeless essence of Chinese culture, or an imposition on China from outside, but the result of a complex set of historical processes involving different types of audiences.

How does the book do this? 

CC: Firstly, by showing a fresh and broad set of images, you can’t write about pictures without showing them! The book is very heavily illustrated; it includes some familiar paintings which everybody already interested in the topic might recognize (though I hope they are talked about in a new way), but it also has lots of unfamiliar images, pictures which haven’t been widely reproduced before. I hope every reader will see something surprising and something beautiful. At the book’s heart are a sequence of what to me are really interesting paintings of different types of people – men and women, emperors and merchants, scholars and gallery-goers – looking at paintings. These pictures which take viewing as their subject can tell us a lot. They are at the core of a sequence of chapters which roughly speaking takes the topic from the fifteenth century to our own time, looking at a number of ideal audiences for Chinese painting; I’ve called these: the gentleman, the emperor, the merchant, the nation, the people. I’ve tried to balance analysis of the images themselves with the context in which they were produced, and to look at audiences both inside and outside China, which go back a lot longer than people might imagine. I’m obviously dependent on the specialist scholarship of other writers, and I’ve tried to pull together some of this work to give readers who might be interested in knowing more about a particular topic a sense of some of the great work being done now on Chinese painting. You can now read extensively in English about Chinese painting theory and criticism, and the lives of individual artists, over a broad time span. I’d be pleased if this book made people just a bit more aware of that great body of knowledge, and of the sheer scale of China’s artistic production.

How do you think this book might be received in China? 

CC: I’ve written other books on Chinese art, mostly of the Ming period, which have been translated into Chinese, and what I find interesting (and a bit surprising) is how some Chinese readers find contemporary resonances in books which I thought of when I wrote them as being ‘just’ about history. So I’ve come to accept that the history we write is never ‘just’ about the past. I’ve also learned (and this would be one of the main arguments of the book) that it’s wrong to imagine some homogeneous ‘Chinese view’ of painting or anything else, as if everybody in that huge country thought the same way. I hope some readers there might find it intriguing, and that even if they don’t like its way of arguing they would recognise the respect I feel for one of the world’s great bodies of art and human creativity.

How do you see the story of Chinese painting and its audiences developing in the future? 

CC: Painting, whether in brush and ink or oil on canvas, is only one of the practices of the visual arts in China today, but it remains an extremely important one. This is not least because the boom in the art market in China makes works of both past and present hugely valuable commodities. It seems pretty unlikely to me that the significant collections of Chinese painting outside China (whether in museums or in private hands) will grow very much in the future, the gravitational pull of the Chinese market is now just too strong. But the digital reproduction of artworks, which is proceeding now at a terrific pace, may mean that the physical location of paintings will matter less and less, their audiences will become more global and the composition of these audiences will get more and more diverse. That’s perhaps going to make it harder and harder for a restrictive definition of ‘Chinese painting’ to sustain itself, and maybe in time it will just be part of something called ‘painting’ again, or – who knows – even the dominant strand within it.

Craig Clunas is the Professor of History of Art of Oxford University in England. His books include Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, and Art in China.

Asia Week New York: March 9–18

Asia Week New York is an annual event in which top-tier Asian art specialists, major auction houses, museums, and Asian cultural institutions collaborate to honor and promote Asian art in New York City. Since 2009, the Asia Week New York Association has focused its efforts on putting together an event-filled week that draws collectors and curators from across the globe. If you’re going to be in the area, be sure to make time for some of the exciting special sales, lectures, receptions, and tours taking place in NYC. Here at PUP, we’re thrilled to be publishing two books that celebrate Asian art this season—Chinese Painting and Its Audiences by Craig Clunas and Kanban by Alan Scott Pate—and to revisit a favorite backlist title—Preserving the Dharma by John M. Rosenfield. If you can’t attend the events, you can always join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #AsiaWeekNY.

Exploring the complex relationships between works of art and those who look at them, Chinese Painting and Its Audiences sheds new light on how the concept of Chinese painting has been formed and reformed over hundreds of years.

Clunas

Providing a look into a unique, handmade world, Alan Scott Pate offers new insights into Japan’s commercial and artistic roots, the evolution of trade, the links between commerce and entertainment, and the emergence of mass consumer culture in Kanban: Traditional Shop Signs of Japan.

Kanban

In Preserving the Dharma: Hōzan Tankai and Japanese Buddhist Art of the Early Modern Era, eminent art historian John Rosenfield explores the life and art of the Japanese Buddhist monk Hozan Tankai (1629–1716).

Dharma

Featured image: The Art of Japan (Medina, WA) Torii Kotondo Beauty Combing her Hair 1933

12 Facts from Red: The History of a Color

RedOver the years, the color red has represented many things, from the life force and the divine to love, lust, and anger. Throughout the Middle Ages, this vibrant color held a place of privilege in the Western world. For many cultures, red was not just one color, but rather the only color worthy enough to be used for social purposes. In this beautifully illustrated book, Michel Pastoureau, the acclaimed author of Blue, Black, and Green, illuminates red’s evolution through a diverse selection of images that include the cave paintings of Lascaux, Renaissance masters, and the modern paintings and stained glass of Mark Rothko and Josef Albers. How much do you know about the history and symbolism of red?

In many languages, the same word can mean “red,” “beautiful,” and “colorful” all at once. Coloratus in classical Latin and colorado in modern Castilian can both mean “red,” or simply “colored.”

In Russian, the word for “red” shares a common root with the word for “beautiful.” Krasnyy and krasivy respectively.

The image of a white, somber Greece, inherited from historians and theoreticians of neoclassicism, is false. The Greeks made use of vivid, contrasting colors.

Vases with red figures appeared in Athens abut 530-520 BCE, presenting a background painted uniformly black with figures worked in relief that took the red color of the clay upon firing. The drawings were more precise than what had come before, the realism greater, and the subjects more varied.

In ancient Rome, cinnabar was a popular medium for making red despite its high price and dangerous nature—it is a powerful poison. For example, it was present throughout Pompeii in wall painting.

Dyeing, like painting, was first achieved in ranges of red.

Henna is a bush that grows in warm regions whose leaves when dried and reduced to a powder provide a colorant for dyeing in red or in reddish brown.

Throughout their history, Roman dyers seem to have been most skilled in the range of reds, purples, oranges, and yellows. Celtic and German dyers were most successful with greens and blues.

The flag of the Crusades was white with a red cross, symbolically representing the blood of Christ and representing the blood that the soldiers were willing to spill to free the Holy Lands.

In the Middle Ages, judges were most often dressed in red, the color of their delegated power and their function: to state the law and render judgments in the place king, prince, city or state. The angel who expelled Adam and Even from Paradise was depicted in red clothing: an angelic dispenser of justice.

In the medieval period, red was both feminine and masculine—virile and full of grace. On the feminine side, it represented love, radiance, and beauty. For men, it was the color of courage and power.

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For more on the history and symbolism of this vibrant color, read Red: The History of a Color. You can also enter our giveaway for a chance to win a copy, and be sure to share your red photos with us on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #PUPRed.

Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études de la Sorbonne in Paris. A specialist in the history of colors, symbols, and heraldry, he is the author of many books, including Red: The History of a Color.

Happy Valentine’s Day from PUP

Valentine’s Day is the day we all show the people we care about how special they are to us. This year, we’re celebrating with the publication of Michel Pastoureau’s Red: The History of a Color, because red is the color of love! Enter for a chance to win a copy of your own on Goodreads or by submitting your own red pictures using the hashtag #PUPRed on Twitter and Instagram.

Red: The History of a Color Valentine’s Giveaways

Got red? We’re excited to announce two
new giveaways!

Throughout the centuries, the color red has symbolized many different things, from masculine power, strength, and courage to the immorality of the Catholic Church. On Valentine’s Day, red is a universal symbol of romantic love. During the month of February we’re hosting a Goodreads giveaway of Red: The History of a Color, Michel Pastoureau’s beautifully illustrated tour of centuries of red symbolism. Enter for a chance to win yours on Goodreads. We’ll select three random winners on March 1.

And for another chance to win, show us your red! Just share your red photos with us on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #PUPRed, and we’ll be randomly selecting a winner among those participants on Valentine’s Day.

Red

Announcing Red: The History of a Color

In Red: The History of a Color, Michel Pastoureau writes that to speak of the “color red” is almost a redundancy. The “archetypal color”—and the first that humans mastered and reproduced for painting and dyeing—red has conjured courtly love, danger, beauty, power, politics, and hell. From the paleolithic age through Greco-Roman antiquity to the present, red has represented many things, so many, in fact, that in several languages, the word means “beautiful” and “colorful” at once.

In this gorgeously illustrated book, Pastoureau, the acclaimed author of Blue, Black, and Green, now masterfully navigates centuries of symbolism and complex meanings to present the fascinating and sometimes controversial history of the color red. Take a tour of Red: The History of a Color, and read on about two upcoming giveaways.

For a chance to win one of three copies up for grabs, enter our Goodreads Valentine’s giveaway, which will be running from February 1 to February 28. And for a second chance to win, share your own creative red photos with us on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #PUPRed—we’ll be giving another book away to a random participant on Valentine’s day.