La Femme au Miroir (“Métisse se Regardant dans un Miroir”; “Femme à la “Toilette”
Femme au Miroir, signed by Canto da Maya, was shown in the Portuguese Pavilion at the Paris Colonial Exhibition (1931), together with two colourful bas-reliefs of African and Asian couples amongst plants and tropical birds. The traditional theme of the woman looking at herself in the mirror references the Classics and Hindu statuary (which da Maya was fascinated by), and presents an eroticised image with intimations of mortality and moralist ideas about female vanity. In the language peculiar to his later work, the modern renewal of this historical theme by the Azorean sculptor – like that of Brancusi (1909) and Picasso (1931) before him – reinvented the figuration of ancient Greek sculpture, but added a rare exotic-erotic quality. In the linearity of the clothing, the handling of the hair, the expressive silhouette and sober pose, the decorative formal approach curbs any explicit sexuality. The woman looks at herself in front of the mirror, while another figure hidden behind watches on, and despite her fallen clothes, the elegant deco stylisation and late symbolist approach makes it less carnal and more abstract due to the virtuosity and idealism that harmoniously envelop the volume, consuming the tensions within this dramatic composition.
However, by showing the private ritual of the toilette as a public exaltation of female nudity, the central voyeuristic gaze in this composition is not only the sculptor's exotic expression – considered a Lusitanian quality by the French. Rather, it is found in the convergence of the tropicalist nature of the exhibition itself, through the construction of the libertine ’mixed race‘* figure, whose physical emanation is unrivalled amongst Canto da Maya's female figures. This bronze sculpture Femme au miroir, Métisse se regardant dans un miroir, or Femme a la toilette is one of his most acclaimed works, and was the inspiration for the terracotta version in the Musée des années 30, Boulogne-Billancourt, in Paris, and the stone version for the Jardim do Campo Grande [Campo Grande Gardens] in Lisbon (1938).
* In addition to an artistic theme and a racial category debated by science, the exotic figure of the métisse was also a serious political issue and a theme of the Paris Colonial Exhibition (1931), in which the French Feminist Congress showed up the social stigma of its association with illegitimate relationships and cases of prostitution in the Colonies, and which prevented many from obtaining French citizenship. Cf. Amy Bingaman, Lise Sanders, Rebecca Zorach, Embodied Utopias: Gender, Social Change, and the Modern Metropolis, London: Routledge, 2002.
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