Artist Statement – Joan of Arc

Fine Art Print GalleryShort History of JoanPersonal Reflections of Joan Book

The myths surrounding the military rivals, Henry V of England and Joan of Arc of France, have little relationship to the people they actually were. Shakespeare notwithstanding, Henry V was a brutal warlord. Joan of Arc was an uneducated peasant girl whose courage and convictions inspired the French to reverse the course of the Hundred Years War. Joan was not a great military strategist, Henry V was. Both were religious fanatics and exceptionally inspirational leaders.

A story as old and powerful as Joan’s has inspired many creative works, and I in turn was inspired by many of them. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song, Joan of Arc, with its haunting melody and lyrics loaded with metaphors and archetypes, was an early catalyst. George Bernard Shaw’s play, Saint Joan and Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc are important literary interpretations of Joan. I wanted to add a visual component to the body of work about Joan. I knew that I needed to discover her for myself on her turf, so to speak.

When I first went to France in search of Joan, my intention was to deconstruct the myth surrounding her in order to discover who she was. I sought to explore and question those human characteristics that seemed missing. I soon discovered that the myth was too powerful to challenge so directly. Traveling in France, I noticed statues of Joan in nearly every city and village. The sculptors and artists who created these statues chose events or attributed characteristics to depict her, thereby enhancing her myth.

In her collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag says that photographs are “stencils of the real.” To me the power of photography is its connection to the real. Although my photographs are non-manipulated “stencils” they are about questions and sometimes statements of what was revealed to me along my journey to discover Joan.

“A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.” Deuteronomy 22:5

I appropriated the “reality” of the sculptors in the same way as they appropriated facets of her life to create their statues. Roland Barthes in his book, Camera Lucida, claims that photographs are always two things at once: what they are of and what they are about. My photographs are of the statues, but they are about the myth. The statues of Joan were created by artisans to reflect mythical and stereotypical interpretations of Joan. In much the same way, I use photographs of their art to ask questions and challenge those assumptions. Words and pictures are symbols for things that we don’t possess. The ancient Greek word for symbol, xapaktnp, also meant to sharpen, to whet. For me this is what happens with my photographs and the quotes I have chosen. The words and pictures become one symbol that conveys an enhanced meaning that neither could carry on its own. My hope is that my “photo-words” will raise awareness of Joan of Arc and reveal aspects of her life that correlate to modern-day issues.

For centuries Joan has been the model for women who dream of great accomplishments in the face of religious oppression and the constraints of a patriarchal, male-dominated society. In this way, Joan follows in the footsteps of the mythical goddesses of the past such as Isis, Inanna, Artemis, and Astarte, with the exception that we have contemporary documentation that Joan of Arc actually lived and did astonishing things.

The title of my book is a tribute to Mark Twain, who so loved “The Maid” that he wrote a book he never expected to sell, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, published in 1896. Twain said, “ I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.”

This is my humble visual contribution to the great literature, art, film, drama and musical creations about this amazing young woman.

Alex Labry

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