Fille De Joie
An abstract image was the basis of the fantastical or surreal forms that evolved in this painting, a swoop of charcoal becoming the line of an outstretched arm, an angled shoulder, an elongated neck, or a head tilted back in pleasure. The figures and other living organisms are fantastical in the sense that they meld together, become parts of each other, wings of a blue bee are also breasts, the body of the bee becomes a fish, arms turn into legs, space becomes a breast bone. A border of geometric shapes runs down the left edge providing a solidity to balance the light airiness of the bright, vibrant colors and flowing shapes.
The phrase fille de joie literally translated means “girl of joy’”. In common usage, the French phrase is an expression for ‘prostitute’. One can assume this is because a prostitute is a girl or woman that gives pleasure and joy to her clients. Nonetheless, I found it rather striking that something so innocent as a ‘girl of joy’ (one imagines a glowing child in a field of flowers), could signify a profession considered ‘sordid’ and ‘degrading’, an occupation of ‘fallen’ women, of persons disdained by society at large.
The imagery in the painting is rife with possible symbolism. A bee signifies perfect community, diligence and obedience, fertility, wisdom, the soul, eloquence, temptation, madness, and even the virginity of Mary or the zeal of the Christian in acquiring virtue. (In Egypt, a test of a girl’s virginity was to throw her to the bees, and see if they attacked her.) A fish can symbolize the phallus, freedom, purity, sexuality, the self -hidden in the unconscious, the soul, fertility, and female genitalia. Three fish represent the Trinity. The sunflower is emblematic of gratitude, affectionate remembrance, and worship, turning the soul to Christ.
In the border of the painting, the oval white shapes seem to indicate eggs, hence fertility. The triangles, with apex up symbolize the male principal, fire, sun, the active, the urge to escape from this world to the origin; with apex down symbolize the female principal, water, moon, the passive, underworld powers. Two triangles, one apex up, one apex down, one upon the other, represent the union of the male and female principals. We can also see the male and female signified by the sun and the moon. The heart, split down the center is an emblem of love and compassion, the locus of physical and spiritual existence.
The paradox between the joyful brightness of the painting and the title which means ‘prostitute’, and the paradox between the literal and vernacular translation of the title, also exist within some of the symbolic meanings. Eloquence and madness, virginity and fertility, temptation and virtue, purity and sexuality, are qualities that seem to be at odds with each other. But then, much depends on the interpretation of these qualities; perhaps they go together quite well. The virginity of Mary is probably more a symbol of her purity of spirit than an actual physical state, the mad are often eloquent, and without temptation there can be no virtue.
I have heard it told that there was a time when prostitutes were revered beings that lived in temples, dispensing their grace and pleasure, teaching love. My fille de joie is one such being, living in a state of pleasure and devotion at the same moment.