The Wonderful Women of Sofia Mitsola

A nostalgic yearning for the past is what drew Sofia Mitsola to London’s British Museum when she attended the Slade School of Fine Art from which she graduated in 2018. Arriving in London from her home city, Thessaloniki, Greece, the artist understood the significance of her home city and its layers of history. Gazing upon the myriad of artefacts within the museum’s walls was a way for Mitsola to process how much she missed ‘the old’ and reconnect with the products of history.

This sense of historical rootedness, tradition, myth and culture are fundamental in Mitsola’s work. Yet, mirroring what she loves about her home city, she imbues this with a distinctly contemporary examination of female sexuality and empowerment. The past and the present come together compositionally - her canvases are a wonderful marriage between classical goddesses, the female nude and a modern flatness and minimalist use of bright block colours.

In Sirens (2019) we see a space flooded with sunshine yellow, interrupted by two overlapping female forms. Their lilac toned flesh contrasts against the black colour of the canvas, making them the stand out element of the composition despite the brightness of the background. As the name of the piece suggests, these women lookout, directly at us, evoking the mysterious yet enthralling lure of the classical siren. Their nudity also suggests the way that these classical figures are connected to sexual deviance. Overtly seductive, the largest figure wears one heeled shoe, the way that she flicks it off of her heel highlights her nudity and emphasises that to appear so is a choice that she has made. These women are designed to be a subject of the gaze and yet they are not crushed beneath the weight of it, instead, they challenge its dominance with a power fuelled, controlled counter-gaze.

Left: Toy Sphynx, 2019. Right: Sphynx, 2018, Sofia Mitsola

The idea of the Egyptian sphinx embodies the aims of Mitsola’s earlier works. An ancient mythical creature that when seen from behind are goddesses of protection and yet when faced head-on become a beast that will devour anyone who dares cross them. This hybrid form of protector and destroyer encapsulates the type of woman that the artist captures in her canvas. Strong, unafraid, but also soft and tender. This specific ancient creature is seen in Toy Sphynx (2019) and Sphynx (2018) where the bizarre form of the creature appears twice - once in a murky mottled brown against a bright blue background and then again against a yellow background. The form in the former is clearly a straight reference to the original sphinx, the earth tones and loose brush strokes implying the ‘primitive’ style associated with the art of the ancient worlds. The female face looks out at us, stable yet passive. The latter work exchanges the browns and ochres for a peach skin tone, a blue dress, shiny dark hair. A modern-day woman ‘kneels’ on the ground imitating the form of the sphinx (although she has the paws of the creature). The woman is purposefully recreating the ancient statue’s position, her evident wink implying a playful, all-knowing act.

It is in these works that Mitsola’s artistic aims are most clearly laid out. The visual hybrid composition, the contrast between the past and the present that also highlights the differences between the two, also exposes the sense of continuity that has persisted in the female experience over time.

Mitsola’s 2019 work The Evil Eye again makes reference to the culture of ancient Egypt, particularly in compositional details rather than through iconography and symbol. The bright pink canvas initially suggests the pop art movement of the 1960s, encouraged also through the blocking of colour and also the coloured legs of the three overlapping female forms that are reminiscent of the bright tights made popular by designer Mary Quant. However, on further inspection, the ancient inspiration is clear. These three dark-haired beauties are shown in unusual and unnatural perspectives. The central figure faces straight out at us, her legs spread into a triangular formation and her feet awkwardly appearing sideways. The other two women are shown from a side profile, the one on the left turns slightly away from us, the one to the right slightly towards us. The combination of these viewpoints recalls the early Egyptian tendency to show a figure’s body from simultaneous multiple perspectives as these representations of the human form predated the development of modern linear perspective.

Like Mitsola’s other heroines, these three women are boldly looking out at us, unwaveringly confident with absolutely no shadow of expectation in terms of our reaction. They are not performing for us and thus they appear to have little concern as to what we think of them. They challenge traditional notions of the female character in art through their simple existence, rejecting the baggage of historical expectation.

In her more recent works Cactilus (2020) and Darladiladada (2020) we see the artist progressive away from the clear links to mythology and art’s history, resting more fully on her own aesthetic that although continues to draw from this, also is founded more fully in the modern-day. Mitsola establishes her own types of figures and atmospheres in these works, beginning to reference Japanese graphic art and pornography in style and the notion of the powerful, unashamed, healthy, and self-pleasuring women in attitude. The ancient motifs that take centre stage in works such as Toy Sphynx are now subtle details that take that form of snakelike tendrils of hair intertwined with that of another or a feline-esque tail.

Recognising that although a female body in relation to an onlooking stare is a topic that still reigns relevant in our society, it is one that requires reexamining. The specifics of this dynamic, its form and meaning, have undergone significant shifts over recent decades and therefore demands a new artistic interpretation. Mitsola does just this - repositioning the nude female form and readjusting the implication and wider significance.

These two paintings celebrate the woman as an individual entity. The act of self-pleasure appears here without any suggestion of shame or taboo. The figures simply enjoy themselves, for themselves, expressed through bold and exciting use of colour and shape. The red heart-shaped eyes in Cactilus truly express that this is not a work supposed to make any groundbreaking statements about the place of women in society but show that these works are intended to be fun and not take themselves too seriously.

Sofia Mitsola’s works are monumental in both sizes, colour, reference and meaning. Imbuing her paintings with such dense historical and mythical iconography makes it both familiar and entirely unexplored territory as she reconfigures what we recognise into something new. These works are bubbly yet intelligent, bursting with meaning whilst remaining visually playful and fresh, timeless and of the moment simultaneously. Sofia Mitsola is certainly an artist right at the start of the formation of a wonderful body of work that many will be clawing for.

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