What Does a Goddess Look Like Now? Artnet Auctions Specialist Anabel Wold on How Three Women Photographers Answer the Question

Artnet and Cadillac present three new commissions on the theme of the contemporary goddess, by Dannielle Bowman, Petra Collins, and Ming Smith.

Ming Smith on her Harlem rooftop, 2023. Courtesy of Cadillac.
Ming Smith on her Harlem rooftop, 2023. Courtesy of Cadillac.

Debuting in the 1930s, Cadillac’s Flying Goddess hood ornament was designed by sculptor William Schnell to signify “the very spirit of unsurpassed swiftness and power, coupled with grace and perfect balance.” While the figure’s fluid lines represented the modernity and speed of the Cadillac brand, it is also a sterling example of Art Deco design, which was then flourishing in the United States. The original Flying Goddess was retired in 1956, however, she has remained a potent symbol. A new iteration of the Flying Goddess will be unveiled on CELESTIQ, Cadillac’s ultra-luxury electric vehicle. To mark the occasion, Cadillac invited three artists—Dannielle Bowman (b. 1989), Petra Collins (b. 1992), and Ming Smith (b. 1963)—to create artistic interpretations of the goddess motif and what it represents today. These new, exclusive works will be offered for auction in The Goddess Commissioned by Artnet x Cadillac, which opens for live for bidding today. The proceeds from the sale will benefit Free Arts NYC, a nonprofit organization that empowers youth from underserved communities through art and mentoring programs to develop their creativity, confidence, and skills to succeed.

Artnet Auctions Photographs Specialist Anabel Wold.

Artnet Auctions Photographs Specialist Anabel Wold.

We spoke to Artnet Auctions Photographs Specialist Anabel Wold to learn more about the art historical role of the goddess, the works featured in the auction, and about the artists who made them.

Ming Smith, Classic II (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

Ming Smith, Classic II (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

How does the “goddess” relate to the history of art?

The goddess is an incredibly prevalent motif throughout art history, which we can trace to ancient times—think of the Minoan Snake Goddess figurines and Venus de Milo. The Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre in Paris is a particularly good example, it has an incredibly powerful presence—and shares many of the same compositional traits as the Cadillac goddess. Some of the most iconic Renaissance art, too, centers on the portrayal of the goddess, from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1485–86) to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534). The motif has been used as a symbol for myriad themes in art, from justice and virtue to fertility and the divine.

What is significant about the specific portrayals of the goddess theme by these three artists?

Foremost, these images are important in that they are all made by women and from the female perspective. Art historically, representations of goddesses were made by men, and the objectified female body was the visual and conceptual center. Bowman, Collins, and Smith instead focus on storytelling, flexing their medium to suggest a larger narrative. There is an emotional and spiritual complexity in these works that is historically rare in male depictions of the feminine, which makes them powerful. Alongside recent forebears, such as Cindy Sherman and Lorna Simpson, their work deploys a female gaze through the photographic medium.

Danielle Bowman, Goddess III (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

Dannielle Bowman, Goddess III (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

Can you tell us a bit about Bowman’s image?

In many ways, Bowman’s piece recalls Elliott Erwitt’s famous California Kiss (1956), but rather than using the car to highlight an idealized scene of Americana—a beautiful couple in a flashy convertible enjoying life—it is instead used as a conduit for the woman’s empowerment. We don’t actually see the subject, just the suggestion of a feminine figure, one that is in control of their own image and how much they reveal. There is a sense that they are withholding part of their story, and in doing so garnering a sense of agency, which is a powerful theme.

How does this work relate to Bowman’s practice?

Bowman primarily works in black and white and is known for this “California noir” atmosphere in her images, as is shown in the present piece. The ambiguity of the subject and the feeling that there is more to the story than what is being presented are also common in her work. In a way, this is an act of rebellion when considered within the context of today’s society, where women are often pressured to explain themselves.

Petra Collins, <em>Goddess (Reflections)</em> (2023). Courtesy of the artist.

Petra Collins, Goddess (Reflections) (2023). Courtesy of the artist.

Collins’s approach is quite different, even though it too focuses on the feminine form. Can you talk about her “goddess” interpretation?

Collins’s piece evokes the depictions of women that populate glossy magazine spreads or movie classics like Barbarella (1968)—as well as Thierry Mugler’s so-called “glamazons,” or Helmut Newton‘s towering figures in Sie Kommen from his series “Big Nudes,” another photographer at the intersection of fashion and art. But unlike these fictionalized and often hypersexualized stereotypes, the chrome-covered figures in Collins’s images have an air of the uncanny, almost alien or inhuman. She taps into the contemporary image culture of the online generation. The agency and power that Collins engages in here is deeply nuanced; with a near-constant barrage of images of women being thrown at us, rather than contradict these representations, she co-opts them. She appropriates the cliché and through careful image-crafting—the work could almost be mistaken for a film still. The models have an air of the investigative, exploring their milieu with curiosity but without fear or reservation; the image operates as an exploration of the representation of women without conceding to those representations.

How is this type of image reflective of Collins’s oeuvre?

Collins has spent so much of her career working in fashion, music, and film. These industries, much like the history of art, have a complicated history with the representation of women, and she engages with them head-on. There is a balance between high production value and rawness in her work, and it brings to mind other artists like Marilyn Minter and Vanessa Beecroft, who use film in their work too, but also take a less strict approach to the medium.

Ming Smith, Feather (2023). Courtesy of the artist.

Ming Smith, Dance of Ma’at (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

Smith’s work seems much more abstract and symbolic, but still engages with the project theme. How should we look at this image?

Smith’s piece takes a decidedly different approach than the other two artists, namely in that she doesn’t actually feature a woman’s body in the image. Instead, a single ostrich feather is the central focus. Despite being a photograph, there is a sense of material ambiguity and abstraction; the reflective background appears blurred in some portions of the image and in sharp focus in others, and it is the same with the feather. The informally Surrealist style—which she is known for—elicits the spiritualist and occultist art from the turn of the 20th century by artists like Hilma af Klint and Georgiana Houghton. The feminine element here is instilled subliminally through the subtlety of the composition and softness of the exposure, conjuring ideas of the divine feminine as strongly as the female form.

Having Smith contribute to the project is quite the achievement, can you tell us a bit about her career?

The significance of Smith’s work cannot be understated. In 1972, she became the first woman to join the Kamoinge Workshop photography collective, and alongside Beuford Smith was the only member to be featured in all four volumes of the group’s Black Photographers Annual. She was also the first Black woman to have their work purchased for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. She’s actually got a show on there right now, “Projects,” on view through May 29, 2023. Having a legend like her create and contribute new work is really exciting, for both the project and the auction.

Browse these lots in the The Goddess Commissioned by Artnet x Cadillac, which will be live for bidding February 15–March 1.

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