We can’t help but have negative feelings about the man in the work discussed earlier – ‘Man Offering Money to a Woman’ by Judith Leyster (shown above).
We are ‘signalled’ to find him ominous. Firstly there is a vast shadow behind him, which we instinctively interpret as ‘dodgy’. Secondly he appears to have crept in from the outside making us feel he is an unwelcome guest. Thirdly, his hand on the woman’s shoulder and the attempted payment, suggest pressure upon her. Lastly he has animalistic features – a fur hat, rugged face and beard. If he was clean shaven and had silky blond hair, we might feel differently!
All these ‘signals’ though, are highly speculative. In fact, they are based on subtle cultural conditioning which may bear no relation to the truth. For all we know, the man could be her brother telling her he’s decided not to go to the pub and is giving her the money saved for housekeeping! Or he could be a fine upstanding customer who is insisting on paying the lady for mending his shirt! Let’s face it, we really can’t be certain what is going on, especially since we don’t have the artist’s title for the work . . . and that’s precisely why it’s so intriguing.
If a gallery decided to call it ‘The Love Token’ no doubt we would interpret it differently again.
The work is superb in its’ open-ended ambience. It reminds me of some of the work of Walter Sickert, who was a master at playing with meaning, often re-titling his works several times to confound the public. His belief that meaning should not be fixed and should challenge the viewer’s instinctive desire to pin down, makes him one of the most interesting artists of all time. Many of his pictures, like Leyster’s, show ambiguous relationships between a male and female with the male protagonist often appearing ‘dodgy’ (see ‘Ennui’ above) – but we can never be entirely sure . . .