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.
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.
I’m a weird person. People have been describing me as weird since I can remember, though I’ve always wondered if it was just because our elementary school vocabularies were so limited that no one could ever think of another word for the “W” in my last name when making those anagram projects. Even still, I’ve always been described as “weird,” though often followed up by a “but in a good way.” One of my weirder qualities is that I don’t really like television and movies. I rarely ever want to go to the movies, and I honestly cannot recall when I actually got excited about a movie that was coming out. I’d often get dragged to midnight showings, but I could have cared less whether or not I was actually there. I also feel asleep in the theater during the most recent Die Hard movie, and no, I wasn’t even tired before I got there. I just don’t care.
I grew up with a father who was on the cutting edge of all technology. I was also an only child. We always had at least 300 more channels that the three of us could possibly watch, but they were there just in case we needed them. In middle school, my parents let me have a TV in my bedroom. What did I chose to watch? The Home Shopping Network and Nick at Nite. No joke. I was obsessed with I Love Lucy, Green Acres, and Mary Tyler Moore, which in my opinion didn’t hold a candle to Rugrats, Hey Dude, and Salute Your Shorts, which I watched with my friends during the day. I never watched a show regularly, except for maybe TGIF, which was a family affair. I couldn’t be bothered to have to sit in front of the TV at a certain time – and I definitely still can’t!
In high school we got satellite TV, and my obsessions became the Game Show Network and the Food Network. Once again, not joking. To this day, I have never seen an episode of Dawson’s Creek, The OC, One Tree Hill, Laguna Beach, or The Hills. I didn’t care. At all. Despite the fact that I didn’t particularly enjoy TV, I still felt like I had to have it on. I think it was for the background noise, or just due to the fact that that seemed like the normal thing to do. Throughout my entire life it has been incredibly hard for me to JUST watch TV. I always have to be doing something else: surfing the internet, making dinner, knitting, eating… anything other than just sitting there. As a result, I barely even pay attention to the TV. It’s become rarely anything more than a box of colors and sounds that I instinctively tune out and don’t pay attention to.
Now that I am living away from my family and with my pretty frugal boyfriend, we decided not to get cable. I think this was one of the best decisions ever, because I am not paying for lights and sounds that I don’t pay attention to anyway. I get the local channels if I want to catch up on the news or, on occasion, watch the few shows I really do enjoy: How I Met Your Mother, Jeopardy, and The Ellen Show. The shows that I enjoy that are not on antenna TV are easily accessed on the internet, and we decided to get Verizon Fios for just that reason. Quality high speed internet > cable TV. Now I just waste my time on the computer instead of as a zombie in front of the TV, but I’d like to think that my time spent on the computer is exponentially more productive. Whatever helps me sleep at night, right?
9. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
10. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.
Italy has been too long the great second-hand market. We want to get rid of the innumerable museums which cover it with innumerable cemeteries.
Museums, cemeteries! Truly identical in their sinister juxtaposition of bodies that do not know each other. Public dormitories where you sleep side by side for ever with beings you hate or do not know.
The above passages are taken directly from F.T. Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto.
Marinetti was an Italian poet and philosopher who attacked Renaissance perspective and bourgeoisie values. Obsessed with war, speed, and machines, Marinetti wanted artists to break free from the canon and create violent, radical works that represented modern life. Marinetti’s ideas were impressive, avant garde, and highly political. Like many radical ideas, Futurist works ended up being total failures, as they have been taken out of context and no longer successfully represent the ideological ideals they were created to convey.
Case in point: not many people really understand the (not particularly pleasant) ideologies of the futurist movement, as they are not necessarily visually apparent in Futurist works. For example:
Boccioni States of Mind: The Farewells, 1911
From this Boccioni piece entitled States of Mind: The Farewells, created in 1911, the bright, abstracted shapes are actually sort of fantastic and cheerful. Though the concepts of speed, machine, and modernity are conveyed by the paintings formal characteristics, the angular shapes and the dream-like composition do not convey the the concepts of violence and destruction that are so central to the Futurist’s Manifesto.
Balla: Girl Running on a Balcony, 1912
Giacomo Balla’s Girl Running on a Balcony, painted in 1912 is even less successful at illustrating the Futurists most important ideologies. This painting looks much like Georges Seurat’s canonical pointillist work, La Grande Jatte created circa 1884-1886. Balla’s use of light, bright colors makes this painting anything but ominous and his reference to the art historical canon does not suggest the obliteration of culture. Though it too conveys an infatuation with movement, as all futurist works do successfully, but there are once again no illusions to destruction – especially not the destruction of art or art history.
Boccioni Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913
Lastly, Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a sculpture created in 1913, is the icing on the top of the not so successful cake. This sculpture of is the centerpiece of the brightly lit, ENTIRE ROOM of exhibit space at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Yes, the artistic and social movement that wanted to destroy museums and libraries and equated museums to cemeteries has its OWN ROOM at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s own really beautiful, really impressive, incredibly misleading room…that also does not hint at destruction, war, or radical politics. The Futurists failure by ending up with their own room in one of the most prominent museums, museums being the foremost institutions that they wanted to destroy, is the perfect example of why form needs to meet function, or in this case – ideology. Oh, irony. You’re great.
In both undergraduate and graduate school I was pretty fascinated by the Situationists International. Unfortunately, I never found a practical way to incorporate them into a large project or assignment. Even still, I find them aspects of both the Situationists International and the Letterists International interesting, and as a result, their ideologies have snuck into several smaller projects – i.e., these blog posts.
The reason that I became so enthralled with the SI is because of this one particular image that I saw in my Contemporary Art class with Professor Mario Ontiveros at UMass Amherst in the Spring of 2007. The image was Guy Debord’s The Naked City, and it looked like this:
I’m not entirely sure why I was so sucked into this image, but it was probably because of the system or organized chaos. The network of arrows and buildings that do not make sense at first but slowly appear to be suggesting the free movement of an object or a person through space. Simply put, I appreciate the effort of trying to illustrate how a person interacts with the space around him or her, which is exactly what this image does.
My fascination with The Naked City and the SI led me to explore more about the politics, beliefs, and practices of the SI. I was first led to Guy Debord’s most famous publication, The Society of the Spectacle:
I have to admit that I am pretty much in love with the cover of this publication. The Society of the Spectacle could be considered the manifesto of the Situationists International, who were a group of artists, philosophers, poets, and intellectuals. This publication contains the ideologies of the SI as number bullet points, each one expanding off the last. From here I was led to another of Debord’s publications regarding Psychogeograpy: Theory of the Dérive, which explains the Situationists concept of “public drifting.”
“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science, despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself, provides psychogeography with abundant data.” – Guy DeBord, 1958
The dérive and psychogeography are, as made apparent by the above passage, closely linked, though not mutually exclusive. I found myself interested in the dérive and psychogeography because I often times find myself gravitating towards certain landmarks or walking on an unmarked path. For example, when walking around a college campus, it is bizarre to see just how much power the sidewalks and marked walkways have over the campus’s inhabitants. I’d say that well over half, probably closer to 75% of the campus community does not veer off the designated path. I find myself to be part of the minority who all of a sudden realizes that they are walking through the middle of a field because, well, “I felt like it.” Going with your instinct and reacting to your surroundings, whether you are conscious of it or not, is an incredibly intriguing concept to me.
Because of my interest in these concepts, I find myself sometimes hyper-aware of the space that I am occupying and how I am interacting with it. One space which, to me, felt like a consciously constructed, sort of forced psychogeographically is the interior of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, aka MoMa. Specifically, MoMa’s 2002 – 2004 renovations by Yoshio Taniguchi. It is four stories high, with a pair of escalators on each floor, one going up and the other going down. Each escalator, however, only goes to one floor above or below, i.e. – you couldn’t go directly from the fourth floor to the second floor without stopping and walking through lobby of the third floor, unless you took the elevator. This forces visitors of the museum to sort of be herded along from floor to floor, and also makes it impossible to miss a floor. The artificially constructed psychogeographic landscape made me feel uncomfortable, as I was limited in the ways I was able to interact with the space.
So, the next time that you are walking through a park, around a university campus, to the bus stop, or around a large building, make a conscious effort to think about the way that you are interacting with the space you are occupying. Is the space constructed for you to interact in a certain way? How does the space make you feel as an inhabitant? These are all questions that will make even the most boring trip to the supermarket a thought provoking and possibly enlightening experience.
I’ve noticed that art that makes commentary on the body/involves the body leaves the most lasting impression on me. I guess this post is about unpacking these images, films, occurrences, etc. and figuring out exactly why and how I have such a visceral response to them.
From previous blog posts, I’ve made it largely apparent that I am fascinated with the idea of the spectacle. In this instance, I will also be using the word “spectacle” as defined by the Situations and Letterists International, both examples here taken from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle:
“Though separated from what they produce, people nevertheless produce every detail of their world with ever-increasing power. They thus also find themselves increasingly separated from that world. The closer their life comes to being their own creation, the more they are excluded from that life.”
“The fetishism of the commodity — the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things” — attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality.”
I will also be expanding on the notion of spectacle with what it particularly means to me, which is a hybrid between the ideologies of the SI/LI and the dictionary definition of: “something exhibited to view as unusual, notable, or entertaining; especially : an eye-catching or dramatic public display.” For me, the spectacle, in relation to the body, involves using the body (with or without consent of the person) as something to be viewed or provide pleasure and/or entertainment. The two examples of the body as spectacle that come to my mind are “ethnographic” presentations of people and pornography. Yes, they seem pretty unrelated right now, but bear with me.
The practice of displaying people is centuries old. Particularly after the colonization of Oceania, the Americas, and Africa “indigenous” people were sent back to Europe for display at fairs as “ethnographic displays.” The most well known example of this is the Hottentot Venus, an African woman who was sent to Europe as a “specimen” due to her engorged secondary sexual characteristics and “odd” (not European) aesthetics. A brilliant commentary on this practice is Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez –Peña’s performance piece circa 1997, The Couple in the Cage. This piece, which is one of my favorite performance pieces, shows the injustice and continuance of these practices. We’d like to believe that these practices no longer exist, that humans are not turned into spectacles, but think back to the last time you visited your favorite art or natural history museum. Remember that Ancient Egyptian mummy? Yeah, that is a human body. I know; it’s easy to forget.
Now what do “ethnographic displays” and mummies in museums have to do with pornography? Well, in these adult videos bodies are on display – in this case, not really as specimens, but as objects of pleasure and enjoyment. I guess in some ways it is not THAT much different than the theater or cinema, in which actors and actresses use their bodies and talents to entertain. I think what, in my mind, connects pornography with the display of bodies is the degrading and careless way in which many of its subjects are treated. Discussing pornography also provides an excellent transition to my next topic: the body as commodity.
When discussing the body as commodity, all that I can think of is prostitution and sex slavery. Once again, two very different things, though they are really only differentiated by one, rather important aspect: consent. My first experience unpacking the body as commodity and commentary on prostitution was exploring Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon. In Picasso’s fragmented cubist painting, he is making a harsh commentary on the barbarous nature of selling one’s body for money. Particularly commenting on the crude behavior of seemingly sophisticated Parisian life in the early 20th century, which was rampant with prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases, Picasso uses the notion of primitivism to criticize the Western world, rather than the common practice of using primitivism to denigrate non-European (and therefore inferior) cultures. Though the female subjects of Picasso’s painting, as prostitutes, are choosing to be commodities, their bodies are shattered, their faces are ugly; they are far from beautiful or inviting, which was (and still is) the common glamorization of sex for sale.
I’ve had many debates over whether or not prostitution is a symbol of barbarism for a culture, of whether or not prostitution as an economic function of society, as an unsightly byproduct of capitalism somehow justifies its existence. To me, the body used as spectacle, but particularly turned into commodity can only be explained by this quote by Walter Benjamin: “there is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism.” In my mind, prostitution is as disturbing as sex trafficking and it is the physical manifestation of a culture’s barbarity. It is the underbelly of a culture that is in denial of its own primitivism.