Inspired by the Old Master paintings of the 1500s, modern artist, Elise Ansel, found a vision for “Distant Mirrors.” The collection of abstract paintings and drawings is exhibited at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. In collaboration with Hanetha Vete-Congolo, associate professor of romance languages and literatures, the exhibit is the final installment in the Studies in Beauty Initiative, a humanities cluster aimed to address questions of beauty and ethics. 

Ansel, a resident of Portland, Maine, joined Vete-Congolo on Thursday to discuss the feminist and humanistic themes of her exhibit, which will run through April 17.
“I’m trying to take these paintings that were initially created from a male point of view and filter them through this idea of a more feminine perspective,” Ansel said. “There’s a subtext that the initial work bears issues having to do with racism, sexism and classism. The contemporary artist trying to rework it is trying to address those issues. In my case, I might be reacting against sexism, but at the same time acknowledging the beauty of the original painting.”

Ansel’s work is a recreation of Denis Calvaert’s “Annunciation,” a late Renaissance rendering of the biblical angel, Gabriel, telling the Virgin Mary she would carry Jesus. Drawing from this image, Ansel questions gender roles, privilege and the politics of race in her abstract recreations—while still recognizing the merit in the original piece.

“What [Ansel] brings to the fore is our relation with these former centuries in the way they passed on to us these values that govern us today,” Vete-Congolo said. “It’s this dialogue between things that initially appear to be dichotomic, or even opposed, but in the end find common ground and come up with something completely new.”

Initially inspired by James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”—a modern interpretation of Homer’s “Odyssey”—Ansel reworks Calvaert’s piece to depict what she calls “the female experience.”
“I feel that sometimes for women to succeed, they have to act like men,” Ansel said. “That’s a route that women can choose and that can give them some degree of the success that’s been available for men. But if you choose not to go that path, if you choose to really celebrate those things about yourself that are distinctly female and distinctly feminine, not least of which is the ability to bear children, it’s a very poignant thing to celebrate how wonderful it is—this whole range of experience you can have.”

In choosing to reimagine a work that, by way of its incorporation of biblical themes, also makes a comment on the role of women in 16th century European society, “Distant Mirrors” does exactly what its name would imply. It provides a parallel to the original work that is still independent in its message.

“This painting that I’m working from really is about spiritual experience. I’m interested in what the female experience is in that and celebrating it—and in a way that’s not just accommodating the male point of view of it,” Ansel said. “For me, it’s a more dynamic explosion than a quietly submissive acceptance. What you feel, what you think, what you say and what you write—that’s more important than how somebody else pictures you. And I think that’s what my work is about, while at the same time celebrating some of these pictures because they’re amazing.”

It’s at the intersection of what Ansel describes as the inwardly felt and outwardly constructed female experience that “Distant Mirrors” incorporates the notion of beauty, a facet integral to not only the Studies in Beauty Initiative but also, Vete-Congolo said, the female identity. 

“We’re dealing with ethics and we’re dealing with beauty. Beauty is so critical in our everyday life,” Vete-Congolo said. “We do everything on the basis of beauty, whether we determine an action or thought beautiful. Whatever it is, you’re going to be guided by your outlook on beauty and that outlook on beauty gets you automatically to questions of ethics.”

For Ansel, much of her work is in the questioning of these ideals—of beauty and womanhood, among others—while simultaneously constructing a female narrative that is altogether her own.

“We can’t uncritically accept these definitions of beauty and ethics. They need to be thought about. They need to deconstructed,” Ansel said. “Is it ethical to put forth an image of beauty that...discounts 90 percent of what [women] are about? Is there a way to find a definition of beauty that is celebratory of the whole person and also of many cultures?”

Joachim Homann, curator of the exhibit, notes that although the collection is modern in style and theme, it still bears reverence to traditional and classical works. He said that he hopes this aspect will draw students to the show.

“It’s not enough to just continue traditions of the past and take pride in the long legacy of the Museum, which has been collecting art for 200 years,” Homann said. “Throughout the decades, perspectives and priorities have always changed and we need to identify what our collection means to contemporary audiences, how it relates to the experience of our students and what questions we have to ask.”

“Everybody finds their own way, but the point is that you want everyone to have the option to do it the way that’s specific to whoever they are...that’s the heart of this whole thing: ascribing new meanings and new ways of defining people and defining experience in a way that, hopefully, is more inclusive.”