A Photographer’s Investigation Into the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy

Jul 24 · 8 min read

Elizabeth Heyert’s The Idol is a provocative commentary on the female experience.

The cold light of a rainy afternoon illuminates a large, dual-image artwork propped up against the wall in photographer Elizabeth Heyert’s Chelsea studio. In the left-hand panel, a monochromatic Virgin Mary cries six divine tears; three delicate trails from each downcast eye, culminating in glassy beads on her alabaster cheeks. Her hushed expression suppresses her infamous, obliterative sorrow.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Heyert

Comparatively awash in a sweep of fiery scarlet, American actress Rita Hayworth glances over her bare shoulder from the artwork’s right half. A cinephile might recognize this altered poster from the 1948 film The Lady from Shanghai, but the picture has been edited to omit the movie’s title and credits. What lingers is the tagline: “I told you…you know nothing about wickedness.”

Heyert identifies this piece as her favorite from The Idol, a long-term photography project which marks her first foray into the digital realm. (Heyert was an architectural and commercial film photographer before turning to fine art photography in the early 2000s). Seven artworks from The Idol are on view through November 2019 at the Palazzo Mora in Venice, Italy as part of a collateral group exhibition of the 58th Venice Biennale, but a select few — studies for large-scale pieces and works that were not yet complete by the exhibition’s opening — remain with Heyert in Manhattan.

“There’s a lot of story here. Rita Hayworth was married for about 15 minutes to Orson Welles, who immediately insisted she cut off her famous auburn hair — and it virtually ruined her career,” Heyert explains.

Hayworth is still a vision of sex appeal despite her cropped curls. She stuns in a figure-hugging bustier dress and long, lacy gloves that reveal a red manicure. The text, “You know nothing about wickedness,” implies that she’ll be the one to teach you. “She’s bad, but she’s taunting about it,” Heyert says. “And the irony is that Mary knows everything about wickedness.”

The Idol is a compelling, provocative, discomforting body of work. It’s a multi-pronged examination of our propensity to glorify women, and an inquiry into why we consecrate our heroines only to crush them under the weight of our demands for perfection. At its core, The Idol is a thorny interrogation of the enduring Madonna-whore dichotomy, a damaging mode of thought by which women are pigeonholed into two polarized categories: the good, virtuous virgin, or the fun but expendable femme fatale. The phenomenon was first identified by Sigmund Freud, who wrote of the complex in 1912: “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.”

Courtesy of Elizabeth Heyert

By Heyert’s calculations, the Madonna-whore dichotomy activated with the ubiquitous worship of Mary’s supernatural perfection. As such, The Idol is guided by Heyert’s long withstanding preoccupation with Mary, the impossible woman — at once irresistible and unsullied, omnipotent and victimized. To idolize Mary has always required the suspension of disbelief, but to Heyert, Mary’s role as a prodigal woman rivals the immaculate conception in perplexity.

“I was always intrigued by Mary. She’s so worshipped, she’s the subject of so much art, and so much is placed on her,” Heyert muses. “The reason I called this series The Idol is because that’s what we do with our idols. We create them in an image that we want to see materialized. Mary is the distillation of that as the combination of a maternal figure, a victim, and a powerful healer. She could never really exist, and yet people believe so deeply in her. I find it fascinating, a little frightening, and very beautiful.”

For years, Heyert traversed the European continent in search of the right effigies for a photo series that would map depictions of Mary as a woman, rather than a religious icon. Heyert scoured churches and cathedrals across Italy, France, Slovenia, and Poland; yet the sculptures she encountered were too artificial, too sentimental, too stylized. It was in southern Spain — at cathedrals in Malaga and Marbella and in churches across Seville and Granada — that Heyert found exactly what she was looking for.

“I eventually discovered the work of Pedro de Mena, a brilliant 17th century Spanish sculptor who was famous for his realistic, emotional portraits of Mary,” Heyert says. “Many of them were truly religious figures, but in the south of Spain, I discovered that realistic portrayals of Mary were everywhere. The ones that I ultimately photographed are from the 17th century, and they’re so much like a male fantasy. They have real hair, real eyelashes, extraordinary clothes and jewelry. They’re strangely sexy.”

Courtesy of Elizabeth Heyert

The apparent sensuality of the statues augmented once Heyert removed each of Mary’s “religious trappings” via Photoshop. Without rosary or halo, Mary is characterized by her bedroom eyes, her lush, slightly parted lips, and her voluminous hair. She possesses a mortal allure that to Heyert, felt timeless — and familiar.

“The sculptures looked just like the actresses in old Hollywood posters,” Heyert recalls. They’re there to seduce you.” And so she began pairing each photograph of Mary with corresponding images of classic Hollywood temptresses, all of whom are now deceased, and archival documents reporting the deaths of idealized pop culture icons: Selena, Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe.

Leaning against the far wall in Heyert’s studio is another large-scale artwork belonging to the series. On the left, actress Joan Bennett crawls toward the viewer in a promotional poster for The Woman on the Beach (1947). Her button-down blouse allows for the faintest hint of cleavage. “Go ahead and say it…I’m no good!” Bennett pleads. In the right-hand panel, an exquisite and pious Mary mirrors Bennet’s full lips, porcelain complexion, and sharply-groomed eyebrows.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Heyert

In part, The Idol endeavors to expose the absurdity of siloing women into binaries; Heyert’s blunt visual comparison of the venerated virgin with the unholy whore is intended to pit qualities of morality and dignity against sexual prowess without room for crossover, let alone love, ambition, intellect, or anything else that constitutes a woman. At the same time, the physical similarities between Mary and Heyert’s chosen seductresses present a conundrum: the ‘Madonnas’ and the ‘whores’ are not dissimilar, having been similarly styled for worship in the image of their male creator’s fantasy.

“It’s fascinating that so little has changed — this whole idea of worshipping women, making them larger-than-life,” Heyert says. “And then, in many cases, we destroy them [with our lofty expectations]. Marilyn Monroe is the perfect example. Princess Diana, too. Everybody projected their dreams onto her. They cared about what her sons wore, what she wore, whether she looked happy, what her marriage was like. Why would we care? I’m interested in the way that idols are sold after they die. They’re somehow more desirable once they’re not there.”

Courtesy of Elizabeth Heyert

Heyert chose not to represent modern-day idols in the series, because she has no way of knowing “how their stories will end.” But we do know the tragic fate that came for Diana, the so-called “People’s Princess,” whose death by car accident became the subject of innumerable conspiracy theories while the public obsessed over the intimate details of her personal life. Likewise, when Marilyn Monroe died by presumed suicide from a drug overdose, news broke far and wide that her body was “Found Nude.” How, Heyert asks, can these women be so exalted and so degraded at the same time?

Courtesy of Elizabeth Heyert

The Idol’s anomaly is a two-part image that juxtaposes a portrait of a Mary statue, forged by de Mena, with a collection of abusive words in multiple languages that serve as the linguistic amalgamation of the ‘whore.’ “Some of [the terms] are obviously denigrating,” Heyert says, “but others are a part of the life that I’ve lived. ‘Ditsy,’ ‘Wears the pants,’ these are things that I grew up with. They didn’t seem so bad back then, but of course they were.”

Courtesy of Elizabeth Heyert

The Idol is what Heyert considers to be the culmination of her acquired knowledge. Rather than the project enlightening her understanding of what it means to be a woman, it’s her experience as a woman that informed The Idol.

“It’s about the reality of being a woman. You know the pain, you know how you have to be, what the world expects, what the future will bring if you don’t act accordingly,” she explains.

In the project’s ruminating stages, Heyert armed herself with questions, like Why do women knowingly strive for unattainable perfection? What are the repercussions of idolizing, and being idolized? Why do we elevate our heroines only to push them off their pedestals once they inevitably err? These are, Heyert mourns, seemingly unsolvable mysteries.

“I think it’s just an aspect of human nature to worship,” she concludes. “When it’s not someone who is actually a religious figure, you really have to deceive yourself — especially in the modern world, where we can know anything and everything about our idols. In a way, all of these women are created in someone else’s image, which leaves us worshipping false idols. And yet, we still want to. We want to believe. It’s so complicated. God knows, I don’t have any answers.”

The Idol is currently on view within the 16th century Palazzo Mora as part of Personal Structures, a group exhibition in which over 150 contemporary artists from around the world respond to the theme of ‘Time, Space, and Existence.’ The Idol will remain on view for the duration of the Venice Biennale, which runs until November 24, 2019.

Rachel Gould

Written by

Art Writer & Editor

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