Category Archives: art
My favorite aspect of writing, as discussed in my most recent blog post, is process. Sorting out my thoughts and ideas, writing them down in my notebook, crossing out the awkward parts, replacing words, and adding and subtracting punctuation until I am pleased with the finish product, is what makes writing so rewarding for me.
My favorite part about being an art historian is the ability to make and negotiate connections while looking at objects of visual culture. Studying art helps me make sense of the world, by realizing connections and bridges between things that may, at first, seem very different. If I can borrow the words of artist Alfredo Jaar for a moment, “that’s the magic of art—and i think it’s extraordinary—the power to create connections, make bridges. it fascinates me.” This is a case where someone else’s words describe my thoughts better than I possibly could myself.
My love for the process of writing is very similar to artist Charles LeDray’s love of process in the creation of art, specifically in relation to his recent exhibition at the ICA/Boston, entitled workworkworkworkwork. The exhibition just closed this past Sunday, and is currently being de-installed and packed up for safe travels to the Whitney Museum in New York.
To be honest, I love pretty much everything about LeDray’s work. Born in Seattle in 1960, LeDray’s mother, a seamstress, taught him how to sew when he was just four years old. With no academic artistic training other than working as a security guard at the Seattle Art Museum, LeDray’s work and career are even more impressive.
Fixated on commodity, repetition, and identity, and obsessed with process, LeDray’s works are systematic and powerful. Hand throwing thousands of tiny ceramic and porcelain pots (over 8,000 in this exhibition alone), hand sewn miniature clothing, delicately carved human bone – at the most superficial level LeDray’s pieces are impressive based on sheer skill alone.
LeDray’s work, however, is anything but superficial. His pieces raise questions about gender identity, work and process, and loss. Traditionally considered “women’s work,” sewing is usually considered more of a craft than an art. LeDray challenges this traditional notion, as he is a male artist who uses sewn textiles as his most prominent medium. Overcoat, a piece that consists of a and sewn, navy blue miniature men’s overcoat stuffed with even tinier male and female clothes makes a commentary on gender identity and the sometimes blurred line between male and female, a false binary.
LeDray’s obsession with process and work leads to the dismantling, re-appropriating, and re-creating of objects. A piece entitled Small Suit made from Larger Suit, LeDray created a hand-sewn miniature plaid suit, complete with jacket, dress shirt, tie, and slacks. He then cut out from this suit the pattern for a miniature suit, which he sewed hanging off the right arm of the larger suit. He went as far as to punch out tiny, pin head sized, pieces of the larger suit’s buttons for the smaller suit.
Several macabre pieces carved from human bone illuminate the permanence of some aspects of the physical human body versus the average human lifespan. One piece, a miniature orrery, a mechanism used by the ancient Greeks to track the alignment of the planets in the solar system, reiterates the discrepancy and relativity of time and space.
One of the most moving and beautiful pieces, in my opinion, is the muted gay pride flag, entitled Pride Flag. This piece makes a harsh but realistic commentary on the politics surrounding gay rights. Many times, just as changes are being made, something happens to set back the progress. This is illustrated by the muted colors of the traditionally bright and vibrant gay pride flag. With miniature gray, white, and black men and women’s clothing sewn to the sides of the flag, the lives lost during the AIDS crisis are remembered.
The human body is not present in the exhibit, not even in miniature form. On display are only the objects that people use and/or wear. The absence of people, of the physical body, creates an eerie lack, an absence that makes the viewer long for the things, the people that are no longer physically here. The piece that conveyed this feeling the most for me, and that I could relate to the easiest was the work called Hall Tree. This piece includes a miniature coat tree, fabricated by the artist, with miniature hand-sewn coats hanging on the hooks. This piece reminds me of the death of my mother, and how things just sort of sat in places, as she had left them, until we were finally forced to move them; something that we put off for as long as possible, as them staying where they were was a reminder of her and the way things were when she was alive.
The miniature objects remind the viewer of doll clothes, of childhood, of the past. Though they appear at first glance to be innocuous and perhaps even a bit cute, these pieces are the symbols of the untold, silenced stories of the past, of the people who are no longer able to tell them.
This is an abridged version of a paper that I wrote for a History of Photography course I took in Fall of 2008.
The mysterious Countess di Castiglione, who commissioned hundreds of photographic portraits of herself from prominent Parisian studios, left a very prolific record of her life. In this paper I will discuss the way in which the Countess’s peculiar life gave her the agency to commission these photographs and control her self image. Due to her eccentric and fetishistic behavior, her photographs are generally bizarre and provocative. Using the ideas of feminist theory and gaze theory, I will discuss the way in which the Countess was able to use her social status and agency to obsessively construct her self identity before any one else could construct it for her.
I argue that the motivation behind having so many photographic portraits taken was her narcissistic and seemingly neurotic desire to preserve and document her beauty. Her apparent narcissism certainly stemmed from the fact that she was constantly receiving positive attention about her looks from both men and women. She was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women of her time as Frederic Loliee says in his history Women of the Second Empire, “She was perfection. She enjoyed getting dressed up and making her presence known at exclusive functions such as royal balls.” She also took advantage of her sexual appeal by using her beauty to seduce some of the richest and most powerful men. Her frequent affairs with prominent men of the mid to late nineteenth century were clear indications of the power of her beauty and the way in which she affected men. Perhaps her obsession with documenting herself was a way of taking claim of her image and objectifying herself before any one else could. Being a prominent member of the court since the age of sixteen must have made her slightly jaded. Especially due to the fact that she was known more for being an object of desire than for playing the important political and social roles that she wished to play.
Though it was not uncommon for elite members of French society to have their portraits taken conveying different identities, the Countess’s photographs stand apart. They were not used for advertising or monetary gain and as Elisabeth Brofen says, “the photographs show with extraordinary clarity how self staging, apparently a safeguard and immortalization of the I, is accompanied by the destruction of the self” (156). La Castiglione’s obsession with her own self image led to a unique artist and model relationship that produced prolific amounts of fascinating photographs of a woman trying to define her self image using the medium of photography.
The advent of photography created an environment of quick and easy commodification. Instead of sitting for a painted portrait, patrons could go in and have their photograph snapped in a few minutes time. With the creation of the carte-de-visite, or calling card, people could disseminate images of themselves to whomever they chose. Though it appears as if the Countess never actually intended to circulate the unconventional portraits she deliberately pose for, she was undeniably concerned with making her own identity.
Photography also aided in the wide dissemination of pornography. Instead of taking photographs of the entire body, sometimes these illicit photographs would commodifying single body parts, like legs. In later photographs of the Countess’s legs as an old woman, the Countess overturns the notion of sexualized body parts by emphasizing her de-sexualized, aging body.
There is a tradition of women with some sort of agency, particularly political agency, commissioning their own portraits. As strong willed women with political agendas, these women used their agency to commission portraits of themselves in order to have control of the way they were depicted instead of letting other people have to opportunity of defining them. This, it seems, is very similar to what the Countess di Castiglione did with her series of self portraits. Instead of letting other people, particularly male artists or her male family members, decide how she would be presented to the public, she wanted to be in charge of her image. She, as a Countess, was also in a similar position of the possibility of accessing political power.
Though there is not a strong tradition of women with agency (the ability to act as she chooses) to commission unconventional or risqué portraits of themselves to create and solidify her own identity, there are some unique cases. This shows that, though the Countess is a particularly intriguing case, she was not the first woman to commission portraits to self-consciously create her identity.
Arguably the most intriguing photographs of the Countess are the photos in which she consciously makes the viewer aware of engaging in the act of looking. By countering the viewer’s gaze, the Countess questions exactly who is the subject and who is the object. Although she is the object of the photograph, in the photos where she is holding a half mask in front of her eye, titled Game of Madness, the Countess in turn makes the viewer both the looker and the looked at. The subject is almost always the person who has the power in the subject/object relationship. It is no surprise that the Countess would want to actively engage in the subject position, even in a situation where she is inherently objectified.
The radical and particularly intriguing aspect of the gaze photos of the Countess are dependent entirely on the time period in which they were created. During the Second Empire women in France did not have many freedoms and their agency in the arts depended entirely on their access to money. As a woman for whom money was not an issue, the Countess was able to commission portraits of herself that were not necessarily conventional or socially acceptable. Another reason why she could have these portraits taken of herself was due to her very intimate relationship with Pierre Louis Pierson. Perhaps if she had not developed such a strong friendship with Pierson she would not have been able to convince another photographer to take these risqué or scandalous photographs of her, regardless of how much money she offered.
In many ways it seems as if the Countess was ahead of her time. She was unknowingly, or perhaps very deliberately, engaging in a critical discourse that involved questioning the gaze and the position of women in 19th century French society. As a member of female aristocratic minority with agency in the arts, the Countess and her hundreds of photographs give scholars insight into the life of a woman who did not always play by the rules and was a product of almost every aspect and intersection of life in 19th century Paris, not just that of the upper class elite.
I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts which, though different in scope and concept, work off the ideas presented in the previous post(s). By doing so, I hope to emulate my thought process – to manifest the series of connections that are created in my brain while thinking about a certain topic. Specifically, this series of posts will discuss different facets of the concepts of agency and the power of the gaze.
I have already discussed the concept of agency, the ability to act/do, in previous posts. The gaze, however, is something that I have only mentioned briefly in my discussion of the spectacle. “The gaze” is an important concept in the art historical discipline. While teaching the introductory surveys, I would often ask the students where the figures (if there were figures in the painting) were looking. Though it may seem like a rather superficial, perhaps meaningless, question, the gaze of the figures is important in both formal and conceptual analysis. If the figures are looking directly at the viewer, they may be inviting of challenging the viewer’s gaze. If the figure(s) are not looking at the viewer(s), the viewer(s) can be spectators, voyeurs, or active participant(s) in the scene.
The gaze is inherently powerful. The act of looking is, in some ways, a privilege, and it can be a display of dominance or an attempt at intimidation. Though not particularly relevant to contemporary American society, there have been, and still are, places and time periods where only certain people could look at certain people/things. The privilege of looking was dependent on race, class, and/or gender. Generally, “the gaze” refers to the male gaze, particularly the heterosexual, privileged, white male’s gaze. This dates back to ancient art. Think ancient Greece – Aphrodite of Cnidos, in particular. Though the Roman copy is not as beautiful, the nude statue of the “goddess of love” (dubbing her a goddess made her nudity more acceptable), was adored by many men. There are ancient accounts that some men got so excited that they “left a stain on her.” As she coyly tries to cover her genitals in the Venus Pudica pose, she is actually drawing attention to her nudity and vulnerability. The fact that she does not look at the viewer head on puts the viewer in a position of acting as a voyeur, which adds an element of excitement and scandal to the viewing experience.
There were dozens, hundreds of male nude statues. The nude male body, however, was not an object of desire. Male nudity, instead, was a symbol of both athleticism and herocism. Even statues of nude men were created for the gaze of other men. To the heterosexual man they were a symbol of what the man should hope to be. To the homosexual male they were the same symbol, and, perhaps secondarily, objects of desire. The statues had commanding gazes which met the viewer’s eyes. They were confident, self aware, and proud. They were not created as objects for women to lust after, but as reminders of the Greek emphasis on and appreciation for athleticism, youth, and beauty.
The male gaze has always been the most powerful gaze, and it still remains the most powerful gaze… which will be the concepts expanded upon in the next blog post.
So, I just started watching Dexter with Alex. For those of you who don’t know what Dexter is, it is a show about a serial killer who kills by a code of ethics, mostly killing other serial killers, rapists, etc., that “deserve to be killed.” It is an intriguing and well written show, and I’ve definitely gotten sucked in. Don’t spoil any thing, though, because I am only at the beginning on Season Two!
Because the show is centered around serial killers, it often includes fragmented bodies, that are usually cut up into pieces for easy disposal. As a nerdy art historian who can’t get art history out of my brain, what was the first thing I thought of? Relics. Yup. Fragmented body parts of any variety, even the ones on a show about a serial killer, remind me of relics.
When I unintentionally set up the parallel between the fragmented murdered bodies in Dexter to the fragmented bodies of relics, I couldn’t help but notice one large difference: one concept is really, really creepy, and the other is actually rather normal, respectively. The murder bodies that have been cut up in the tv show are disturbing, creepy, and make the viewer feel unsettled and uncomfortable. The alleged body parts of saints, scattered around most of Western Europe and the America, however, is a commonplace, but now outdated, Catholic religious practice.
It fascinates me how a fragmented body can be thought of in such drastically different ways depending on the alleged holiness or power of the specific body. Reliquaries were incredibly popular during the early medieval period up to the Reformation. Lavish boxes made of precious stones and metals were cast to hold a piece of a body part that was thought to have belonged to a saint, which are called reliquaries. Some of the creepier reliquaries mimic the shape of the body part that is inside, and some are shaped like mini statues or Roman portrait busts. Relics gave the churches they belonged to bragging rights, and churches would boast of their relic’s power.
These relics lead to the creation of the pilgrimage church, which was a church or cathedral that contained an incredibly powerful relic that many practitioners of the Catholic faith wanted to visit; to pray to the fragment of the saint in person. A series of pilgrimage churches began to sprout up, all boasting their own powerful relic, which created a pilgrimage trail from Spain to France, beginning at Santiago de Compostela. Hardcore Catholics and art historians alike still walk this trail; I won’t lie, it’s on my bucket list.
I am still left to wonder why the fragmented body part, say, the arm of St. Andrew, is not disturbing and shocking, but is, instead something powerful and worthy of worship. For this is can only assume that the fact that the alleged Saint lived in a much earlier time period, so he is not remembered in his human form by any one who is still living, but instead, his body has become a symbol of what he stood for, and for his religious power.
Murder victims, however, whose bodies have been fragmented by their killer, are much more disturbing, as the bodies belong to sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, etc., of people who are still alive and well. The temporality of the situation is what makes it creepy or not creepy, then. Though I do have to point out that the grave diggers who stole the bones of saints to use as relics were not only doing some shady, creepy business, but also had some questionable motives. Stealing in the name of Catholicism for more PR/buzz around your cathedral? Put in modern terms, the concept of relics really doesn’t seem much better.
also, check out this website for all you could ever want to know about sacred destinations.
During my undergrad studies at UMass Amherst, there was a big media buzz about cultural ownership and cultural heritage, as many United States museums were being told they had to return some of their antiquities to their countries of origin. It also coincided with the publication of The Rape of Europa and the subsequent documentary of the same title. Needless to say, repatriation, restitution, and cultural ownership became hot topics of discussion in my art history courses.
One of the most prominent stories in the media was the so called, “hot pot,” the Exekias Vase that had been part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Collection since the late 1970s. When the provenance of the piece was questioned and the museum was unable to provide sufficient information to prove that the piece was not illegally excavated, the Met returned the piece to the Italian Ministry of Culture. The Met did not HAVE TO return the vase, but it would have been in very poor taste if they had not done so. Because of their eagerness to cooperate with the Italian Ministry of Culture, the two entities have a positive relationship and have agreed to give each other long-term loans.
Another hot story was the media buzz surrounding Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The art nouveau artist most famous for his iconic work, The Kiss, was a prominent artist who worked in around Vienna. This portrait of a family friend, Adele Bloch-Bauer, ended up in the Austrian State Gallery decades after WWII, when the portrait was originally stolen from the Jewish family by the Nazis. The surviving family members were shocked that the portrait of their deceased relative which was thought to be lost or destroyed was now on display in a museum. The family had to fight incredibly hard to get the piece back, hiring many lawyers and attending long, arduous trials. In the end, the family had to sell the painting as soon as they got it back, just to be able to pay for the legal fees. It is now in a small gallery in New York City.
What I find most fascinating about these scenarios, besides the obvious thievery and shady business dealings, is, especially in regard to the Exekias Vase, is that art as a sign of national identity. Though there are countless vases in hundreds of museums across Italy and Greece, this one particular vase was suddenly transformed into a symbol of cultural theft. I have very strong opinions about cultural ownership and retribution, which would be way too much to fully go into in this post, but I do understand why a country would want a piece back if it was, in fact, proven to be stolen from their soil. I do not think, however, that every piece created in Italy should stay in Italy. Art should educate and start a dialogue. If we, as citizens of the United States, were only exposed to art and artifacts created in our country’s very short history, we’d be missing out on a sophisticated world view.
The power of art, and the connection that people, countries, families feel towards these art works, is most apparent in regard to cases of ownership. If I’ve sparked your interest in the topic of cultural ownership, I recommend you watch/read Lynn H. Nicholas‘s The Rape of Europa and/or search ‘hot pot’ in Google to get countless articles about the return of the Exekias Vase.
In high school I was a self proclaimed anti-feminist. This was because the idea had been planted in my head that feminists were, by their very nature, man-hating women with radical politics who burned their bras. It wasn’t until college, graduate school really, that I finally realized that there is a reason why feminism has been branded this way towards the younger generation of young girls and women: it has the potential to be incredibly powerful.
By making feminism something that you shouldn’t be excited to align yourself with, and my making feminist politics seem removed from the life of the average woman, feminism is contained. Once I finally, reluctantly decided to embrace feminism, I realized that there are many girls and women who are in the same boat as I was. I now feel obligated to share how feminism has changed the way I think and to try to make more women aware of what feminism can do for them and how they think about the world around them.
My fundamental problem with feminism from the ages of 13 – 20 was that I incorrectly thought feminism was hypocritical. I wanted to know why, if women were calling for equality, they weren’t championing humanism. I thought it was ridiculous to even acknowledge that gender divide and instead call for equality for PEOPLE, not just women. This was because I was incredibly naïve and had not yet realized that it is impossible to disregard gender difference. Through feminist art historical practices I was able to finally understand the value of feminism: as a tool to illuminate the ways in which women are oppressed due to the constraints they are forced to work in, which are different from those of men. By acknowledging the ways in which women were/are oppressed by patriarchial power structures, it opened my eyes to the ways in which gender, race, and class play an important roles, not just in the case of women, but in all marginalized groups.
I’m not really a girl power, “I am woman hear me roar,” type of gal, but I definitely do identify myself as a feminist. I think that I should be in charge of my sexual health and reproduction rights, I want to get paid as much as a man does for doing the same job, and I don’t want to support or perpetuate the normalization of domestic violence towards women. Are you with me on one…two… all three of these issues? Guess what, you’re probably a feminist, too! Embrace it!
If I’ve sparked your interest at all, check out Jessica Valenti’s book: Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Women’s Guide to Feminism and Why it Matters (I have to thank Professor Kelly Dennis’s office door promoting for this book recommendation!)