I am looking at two images, each of a young girl staring out at the viewer, one a photograph from 1864 by Julia Margaret Cameron, the other a painting by Paula Modersohn-Becker from 1905. They are separated by forty years, media and the English Channel, yet their shared visual phrasing is remarkable.
I love these images. They have, over the years, rotated from my office wall to a “writing projects” file, back to the wall. As an artist and a feminist, I am always interested in possible connections between women artists (which I claim as my own artistic lineage), so I was tempted to look for possible opportunity (although Cameron died in 1879, her work was known and appreciated in Europe; additionally, Paula Modersohn-Becker studied art in London in 1882) or common source (Pre-Raphaelites and Fra Angelico). In the end, I released the fantasy of myself as super-sleuth art historian; it was so satisfying just to look at these images (perhaps a bit disingenuous to say here, since I am writing/speaking about them).
The subjects are girls of a similar age; they are still young but no longer [more gender- neutral] children. The intriguingly echoed/rephrased/shared/equivalent gesture is that of the right hand: palm inward, fingers softly splayed, thumb crooked, index finger catching the edge of the garment neckline. In each, this gesture serves to circulate the energy of the sitter within herself two-dimensionally (as a figure 8) and back into herself three-dimensionally (as a helix). The outward gaze penetrates the picture plane, connecting directly with the viewer, yet the hand seals the intervening space.
However, the consequences of the subtle differences in these paired images are significant. In Cameron’s photograph, the girl’s gaze is more intense emotionally; it penetrates more acutely. The hand adjusts by expanding slightly, breathing an invisible space between palm and chest. The gently cupped hand attempts to balance the outward moving and inward moving energies, but the narrowed gaze and the “real” girl confronts us dramatically and weights the energy outward. The reaction happens behind the picture plane, but expresses beyond it, in effect dissolving it. The rich contrast of value in the photograph not only defines volumes and connects hand with face. By dividing the surface into extreme areas of light and dark, it sets up a condition of duality, which is the equivalent of the dramatic action/reaction interchange that pulls the viewer in. The fuller body gesture—right shoulder protectively shifted forward, head countering—rotates around this central head-hand axis in space. [In another photograph from 1864, Cameron’s husband, Charles, holds his hand similarly, just below his abundant white beard and hair. In that image, the gesture feels artificial and disconnected from the sitter; it is posed, not composed. It contributes to the horizontal reading of the image but not to the vertical layering of meaning. (Perhaps Daisy Bradley is a better subject and/or Julia Margaret Cameron is a better photographer in her image.)
In a two-dimensional image (as opposed to film, for instance), we read visually across surface and into depth; there is no choice but to excavate. In that act, we penetrate ourselves and momentarily arrest the linear flow of time. The psychological drama depicted by Cameron is reactive and accusatory. Although imaging an instant, it evokes a sense of narrative and a sense of the past (which now, of course, is augmented by the vintage appearance of the photograph itself, sepia-tone, slightly out of focus). In contrast, the Modersohn-Becker offers Pharonic time and a metaphysical blankness–no story, just the present. The painting has been constructed one stroke at a time, filling the picture plane to brimming, creating a surface tension like an overfilled cup—one more mark and it spills over. The emotion is from that quivering sense of surface tension, it quiets my body; I become aware of my breathing and the beating of my heart.
There is an actual (well, at least a metaphorical) physics to all this. The surface tension of liquids causes them to behave elastically. Liquid molecules at the surface are drawn inward by their attraction to like molecules below them and the absence of an equivalent pull above them. This super-connected/attracted surface has a potential energy and any interaction at surface (bugs alighting, for instance) rearranges the balance of combined energies, keeping their sum intact. I infer that composition and the physical structure (the “attractive” qualities) of the picture plane create just such a feeling and responsive membrane. My anecdotal experience is that the stronger the cohesion of the picture plane, the slimmer the distance between viewer and subject (potential energy increases as distance decreases). When we look at a painting, really look, we adjust, shift our bodies, inching them into the most receptive relationship. We stand evenly squared to the picture plane, in essence maximizing our sentient surface (like the bug on water), then hold very still as the energies of object and viewer interconnect.
There is just such an interlocking surface of Modersohn-Becker’s painting. Composition provides structural integrity to the image, establishing its potential energy; the interaction with the viewer negotiates that balance. The portrait is absolutely flat and perfectly frontal, with none of the rotation (subtle as it is) seen in the Cameron. Contrasting value is distributed through line, rather than collected as modeled chiaroscuro, prioritizing shape (2-d) over volume (3-d). This nuanced line moves around the hand, widening and narrowing, darkening and lightening; this evidence of the lifting and pressing of the artist’s hand haptically (re)produces the sense of touch, imaged by the girl’s hand. Where space might open (shoulder in front of chair finial), line connects, collapsing volume/mass to surface. The sitter’s eyes are wide open, yet softly focused; the hand fits snuggly on the upper chest, the fingers gently pushed almost straight by the inward action of the palm. Compared to the Cameron, the reciprocating outward gaze and inward (hand) gesture have less velocity and the space is compressed. This action happens at the picture plane, not illusionistically behind it.
The shape of the hand itself is so specifically articulated/articulate that it reads as cipher rather than part of the dramatic ensemble (as in the Cameron). The girl’s hand rests like a small bird (with head tucked under wing) over a beating heart, sealing the chest and stilling the heart, and by extension, the viewer’s. The actual painting (approximately 16” x 12”) is slightly smaller than life-size, so this visual rhyming of hand/heart/bird would be more apparent. (Viewing artwork through slides has completely atrophied most of our ability to read the dynamic relationship of size and scale.) I am reminded of De modo orandi, the thirteenth century Dominican treatise on prayerful states modeled by specific physical postures; Fra Angelico’s meditative frescos in San Marco, Florence, were informed by that practice. Gesture is at once a representation, symbol and prescription; the painting is at once SKIN flat (two-dimensional), GUTS visceral/material and SOUL meaning/content.
These are at the very heart of what it is to compress experience into a two-dimensional plane. A painting or a photograph may seem inert in a world of multi-media, time-based media, installation, performance and digital technology, but a flat space is anything but a flat experience. These are the fossil fuels of the human experience: experience compressed made dense, rich, filled with potential. They are stored with history, accessible in the present and, in this case, sustainable for the future.
A snapshot of my daughter at our annual Easter Egg Hunt (2004) reminds me of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation (1440) from the corridor of the convent of San Marco in Florence. At age 14, Georgia and her friends, always excited participants in the spring scramble, found themselves ambivalent and decided to organize the event for the younger guests. They dressed up (Halloween in April!): there was a derbied Easter bunny/Mad Hatter and, vaguely in keeping with a religious theme (?), Georgia appears as an angel. My sister-in-law took this photo, only recently discovering it in her iPhoto file and emailing it to me; her authorship makes the image both unknown and intimate to me. There was no pre-meditated composing by a mother’s nostalgia or self-conscious composing to an art historical purpose.
An adolescent girl sitting alone, hands mute in her lap, waits. She’s beyond the magic of childhood fantasy; the wings (more Tinkerbell from the Party Store than ecclesiastical from heaven) don’t penetrate to transform her. Indeed she’s not the angel, but rather Mary; she’s the one waiting. In the Fra Angelico, Mary leans forward into her destiny, her crossed arms answering Gabriel’s gesture of greeting. But like Georgia, she is blank, waiting, just moments before emptied of her past/her self, and now stranded from childhood.
In the photo, the parched and overexposed space isolates Georgia who occupies the otherwise vacant spatial core defined by a few figures placed at the circumference of the image. In the fresco, Mary is contained on the two-dimensional surface by a shaded columned loggia, which also protects and shelters. Both sit on “primitive” furniture: Georgia’s Mexican mesquite bench is almost interchangeable with Mary’s primitive stool. The shadowed geometry of Georgia’s gold skirt creates a Giotto-esque abstracted volume. A long horizontal enclosure runs behind each (aligned forehead to lap), locating and securing their torsos. Behind the wall/fence, the lacy foliage in each suggests a garden, although our New Mexico one is much less lush. Almost cinematically, the angel arrives from left (the progressive curves of the arch shadows creates the sequence of Gabriel alighting), bringing news. My brother-in-law exits the photo right; the cropping of horizontal garment shadows paces him outward. A guest, cut out by the left cropping, coincidentally rephrases the angel’s pose, arms crossed, genuflected (although seated), with shadow-patterned fabric folds.
This photo breaks my heart. It invites a more intimate discovery of the fresco. I peer into the Annunciation with more connection, more experience. That’s not excitement or joy or exhilaration or even shock, awe, or fear on Mary’s face. It’s submission–a delicate balance at a threshold, where only complete attention combined with muscular and psychological stillness will prevent tipping. Both young women wait.
A split-second divides Georgia and Mary, not the intervening half-millennium between the making of the images. In the photo, the yard space has just been emptied, as has Georgia, who is “left”—left alone, left out. With the arrival of the angel, the garden space has just been filled, as Mary is about to be—both figuratively and literally; Mary is right—right there, on the right hand of God. She’s being brought “in”—in line, in-to. Before and after, and there is barely a difference. It’s a fine line between sad and solemn.
This significant shift is imaged in the specificity of the placement of hands. My daughter’s hands, loosed in her lap, are connected with care. [Incidentally, I have seen those hands before—in Modersohn-Becker’s Peasant Girl Seated on a Chair (seemingly the same model as in the previously discussed painting). In that painting, the gesture is also one of waiting—waiting for the painting to be painted, yet the artist has taken great care to express the relationship of hands exactly—how the contours fit into each other, making two hands one, volume flat.] The leafing trees locate Georgia in early spring and her hands are gently “planted” on her lap. Mary’s gesture expresses upward from her abdomen, fingers release and expand; trees are nearly filled out; spring flowers dot the lawn.
The stories are separate: secular and sacred, personal and universal. But the narrative forgets who is my child and who is Jesus’ mother. The narrative only knows how to move from the angle of a shoulder to a window behind, from the slant of light across a chest to the shape of a torso outlined by blue robe. A tilted arc of space, entrances and exits pivot around a still, waiting girl.
Event (spectacle)/belief (persuasion)
It feels like this; it works like this. The third pair of images I have on my wall are photos of observers looking through the “telectrosope” in London and New York, respectively.
In May-June 2008, artist Paul St. George is exhibiting outdoor interactive video installations linking London and New York City in a fanciful simulated “telectroscope.” According to the installation’s inverted back story, the device works using a transatlantic tunnel started by the artist’s fictional great-grandfather, Alexander Stanhope St. George. The producer of this spectacle was the Artichoke company who previously staged The Sultan’s Elephant in London. (Wikipedia)
The London photo is sharp, with the observers’ backs to the picture plane as they lean forward to see into/through the large circular aperture. The second photo is muted and grainy, more matrixial (like a painting), the crowd more aggregate. It is an image of the reciprocally peering New Yorkers as seen by the Londoners. They face the picture plane, framed circularly (a large tondo). With the exception of a small delighted child to the left and an eager sunglassed woman near center, these people exhibit curious hesitancy and/or reserve. Clasped hands, a turned shoulder, a camera held to face, all distance them from direct contact; but yet, here/there they are voluntarily, having worked themselves to the front of the queue/line. It feels like contact between alien worlds. And it feels like encounters in art museums and galleries everyday.
Like our encounters at the picture plane, this encounter is both penetrating and reflective, alien and deeply personal; it is an act of faith. Here one peers into the space, imagining that the seen image has been rushed to the surface via an under-ocean network of mirrors that refract the image transcontinentally. The physical framework of the pseudo “telectroscope” provides the cultural clues that let us buy into the event and suspend disbelief. Which is also how the picture plane works.
What is happening here? The curious arrive to see something. Expectantly, almost ritualistically, they place their bodies before the spectacle. Some don’t question what they are seeing; they fully anticipate they will be charmed and amazed. Others discern that this experience is a mere illusion of what it purports to be, but through the imagination, and in the presence of image, that skepticism dissolves, and they too are charmed and amazed.
On one side, the physical experience is palpable—large metal cylinder with looking glass grindingly erupting from the earth in a plaza. The implication is that this cylinder is continuous for thousands of miles plunging deep under the oceans. And yet, that muscular frame recedes as spectators encounter the more tenuous two-dimensional image, flickering a few feet behind the looking glass aperture. The viewer peers in and the image peers back; the meeting is magical; two-dimensionality is a membrane. The dynamic (even with all the bells and whistles of the “telectroscope,” which is after all, just a frame) is essentially that of a two-dimensional encounter with a painting, drawing or photograph.
Today one can make many choices in how to virtually manifest ideas, but none remain more truly profound and magical than the picture plane. At its simplest, a plane divides; at the same time it marks the point of connection. Almost ritually, one fronts the planar object (drawing, painting, photograph), looks and waits—curiously, hesitantly, eagerly, with anticipation, belief or with cynicism. And the image, which is the residue of a corresponding looking out, looks back. (Nietzsche wrote: “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back.”) We slide into the space, dividing ourselves between the two sides of the membrane of the picture plane. I feel the weight of the hand on my chest, the slackness of my arms released to my lap. We come to be in two places at once, to experience two states at once. Through this manifested/constructed state of duality, the picture plane offers us no less than the space of reconciliation; with it we practice empathy and imagination. It is perhaps the simplest artificial device of consciousness in that squeezed between the reciprocal is the space of reconciliation.