The idea for Madame Yevonde’s 1935 photographic portraits of society women dressed as Roman and Greek goddesses sprang from a theme party, and it is tempting to think of the sitters’ vampish or romanticised images as projections of the self in an age of emancipation. Yevonde had indeed dabbled in the suffragette movement, but rather than declaring power or independence, these portraits are a-murmur with atavistic images of beauty as nature: hair wound with flora, washes of preternatural light and vulnerable throats wrapped in snakeskin, fur or gauze.
The bull’s head that Baroness Gagern cradles as Europa introduces a somewhat pantomime implausibility, where elsewhere it is the delicate balance between self-possession and fantastical departure that fascinates. The perceived anachronism of the frail colour of the early Vivex process, too, makes for a breathless sensation of history being pleated along some strange fault line between now and never.
Interspersed with these delicacies, Neeta Madahar’s recent photographic series, ‘Flora’, while a direct homage to ‘The Goddesses’, is like a cheery trumpet blare at a solemn moment. Her sitters are styled in a theatrical scenario that features a particular flower, and perhaps inevitably results in pastiche, where the power of attraction appears to be the supreme weapon. There is a fine line between myth and stereotype, but where Madame Yevonde’s undercooked narratives tread it with care, Madahar’s super-saturated colours, stuffed animals and swathes of kitsch fabric, from Astroturf to silver foil, tip markedly towards the latter. Sassy wigged women wielding tinted lips and deep cleavages speak a certain dialect of the language of liberation, but some might take issue with desire wrapped up in such gaudy packaging.