Several years ago at an art festival held annually in Alexandria, my wife found a piece of photography that captivated her enough to purchase it. I can’t say I disagreed. The black and white photograph has hung in our house since, along with two other pieces by the same artist that are utterly different–but not the subject of this blog.
The framed photo hung toward the rear of the artists’ booth. At first glance it seemed a recognizable trope, being a smallish photo of a languid nude draped over a primitive chair. The model is sheltered (guarded?) by a close surround of Victorian greenery and a palisade of bamboo stalks. The chair she’s embellishing appears as a rudimentary assemblage of random, slender branches, tacked together in a poor imitation of bentwood, like a chair you might find on a country porch in the Blue Ridge. Set in contrast to the nude are several fern fronds scattered about her which the artist has hand painted in pale green tints, providing the piece’s only quiet color.
She is a bold sort of being, indifferent to her vulnerability or to who might cast eyes on her. Indeed, with her careless pose she invites their gazes. While the composition is reminiscent of the past and her pose as much, she is also beautifully present and thoroughly modern in her lean body’s musculature. Though the photo suggests it, the model surely couldn’t have held that pose indefinitely, and I suppose that’s the exaggeration of a trope.
We spoke to the artist a fair while and watched the steady flow of people pass her booth or wander in. It was interesting to observe the audience her photographs attracted. Her works were largely taken of found objects, old doors, an abandoned trolley car, what painters would call still life, with only a scattering of figure pieces such as the one we were considering. The artist managed her small booth dressed for the sultry heat in a light summer dress. She wore artisan jewelry, earring loops with small feathers, and bangles on her wrists in the style of an Indian or reminiscent of one. One got the impression the decorative arts were a part of her personality. As slender as her model, she might have been her sister. Prior to our conversation, it crossed my mind the artist was her own model. But she explained her model was an athlete she knew, and someone she enjoyed working with. That they knew each other outside of their modeling sessions made the work comfortable for them both. We agreed her unnamed athlete deserved being celebrated.
In Victorian times, artists’ models were ‘of the lower class,’ poor or as likely ladies of the evening, the distinction between being none at all. Although one of the later Bloomsbury Group might have risked the opprobrium, men of the Victorian era would only gaze on such a photograph in private, something that the bamboo screen suggests. Or perhaps the image would have printed on a card for discrete reference, such is the overall suggestion of shrouded privacy. It is the kind of privacy assured by wealth in Victorian times, standing in contrast to the life of a model of that day. Perhaps that’s part of the allure, that we can freely admire her nudity and suffer no shame.
In her portraits of celebrities, Annie Leibovitz insists such intimate photos are free of any association with previous societal prohibitions–perhaps her celebrities are flaunting their freedom. This particular photograph seems to take up the same argument, only with hints that it was not always so and may not yet be.
However this photograph has an additional twist: the nude model is modestly missing her head.
Shoulders flung back, away from the viewer, breasts flattened against the arch of her torso, the underside of her jaw jutting at an angle, the rest of her head gone missing. Is she ashamed to be seen this exposed? Her body’s position suggests not; she is so provocatively stretched sideways over the chair’s cane arms, her hands expressly relaxed.
In speaking to the artist, she was candid; she thought her subject was beautiful and set about capturing that. Which indeed she had done; the woman is beautiful, what parts of her that can be seen.
But how did the model lose her head?
Perhaps we viewers can dismiss her head as unnecessary to the art, the lines of her body being so sensuously fluid. Why clutter the picture? Or was it the model’s own disassociation with herself? Or perhaps a sly reference to the headless Greek and Roman statuary celebrated in museums? Is the artist dismissing her model’s mind as irrelevant? This later seems improbable; the artist we met in Alexandria wasn’t the sort to be so arrogant toward her subject.
It’s too deliberate to be an oversight by the artist, but it’s possible the photo, taken in an instance, was happenstance in her momentary pose that was only later discovered in the printing. To suggest an artist working in the medium of photography discovers accidents after the fact makes the whole effort serendipitous, but an artist’s greatest skill is being able to see the art others walk past. Another kind of still life?
Perhaps that’s a clue. She, the artist isn’t trying for irony, nor to mock her model, declaring she’s no better than her Victorian predecessors, but something else. The disassociation is quite deliberate, a declaration as bold as her model’s nakedness. Seeing her expression, her eyes, might they be too distracting from the sine curve created by her body? Perhaps it says we (at least we males) aren’t comfortable looking into the eyes of our own lusts? Or that we shouldn’t expect more of an explanation, such as this being who’s so revealed, who she is?
It’s a beautiful piece which the artist finished in her studio by cutting and hammering recovered metal ceiling tiles into a wide frame then painting the stitched tile frame again by hand. The work of the portrait took the time to conceive and set the scene, briefly exposing a possible dozen shots, hours to select and develop the best from the session, then the patience to frame it in lacquered metal. The mystery at the heart of the picture is what captured me and still does.