…continued from Structural Analysis (1)

Gainsborough’s portraits of society ladies often show them in the guise of mythological characters. Photographic family portraits from Victorian times to the high streets of today usually have the father as protector, the pater familias, and the mother as his support and the nurturer:

Find two examples of portrait photography, one formal and one informal, and annotate them to see what connections from the formal are observed in the informal and give your thoughts on why this might be so

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I have chosen this portrait because I do love how a great male artist is naked, doing something relatively benign albeit fairly intimate, usually private, and yet he communicates a sense of ease, even though his laughter and expression suggest he wasn’t entirely in on the decision to have his photograph taken while in the bath. (I feel it only fair to say that Picasso allowed himself to be photographed in all sorts of unusual ways and an image by Robert Capa shows him holding an umbrella for his lover on the beach in a photo where the woman is very clearly shown as the dominant force – who knows how much of that is reality as there are also plenty of stories about Picasso being exactly like so many of his fellow males from the age in terms of dominance). The photographer who took the bath photo was David Douglas Duncan, someone who reportedly took over 10 000 photographs of Picasso during their 17 year friendship. (Life, 2009) I also chose it because I have taken several photographs of my children in the bath over the years, which continues a family tradition since my mother took several of my bother and me too.  I suspect many parents photograph their children in the bath, or did, before chemists and other developers started reporting pictures of naked children in case of potential harm. Now that people tend not to have snaps developed I suspect pictures of children in the bath continue but snaps of adults in the bath are relatively rarer.  We usually shut the bathroom door, don’t we?

This photograph is not like the Hunter one where an ‘informal’ but constructed image is made formal.  This is a snap – but a great one due to subject and place, and entirely informal in every way. Even so it still references paintings and more formal spacial structures.  The subject is to the left of the picture, he is framed by the pipes leading up to the ceiling behind him and the taps/shower pipe and edge of the bath.  He is well lit and the shadow of his form can be seen behind him on the wall of the bath.  There is space around and above him, without which he might seem cramped and perhaps even too close to us, or maybe even imprisoned by his framing.  Instead there is an airiness, room to breath which together with the expression on his face gives the image a sense of easiness, joviality and deep friendship.

I am reminded of a friend of Picasso’s in Lee Miller’s famous portrait taken by David E. Schema in Hilter’s bath. Although Schema took it, the suggestion in various articles is that the idea to photograph this scene was hers. I find it a very disturbing image.  Although she may have been wanting to display a defiant attitude towards Hitler by getting in his bath, the mingling of personal space and intimate activity is distressing.  Her boots, which according to the Telegraph article (Parker 2014) (linked above), were covered in mud from Dachau where she had just been and photographed evidence of the atrocities that took place there. What interests me is that there is such a difference between the two images in their intention, even though the ‘forms’ are so very similar – resulting in totally opposite messages being communicated. Are these good examples of how content can be quite different within the same form, and how we are guided by a collection or chain of signifiers when receiving information?  And comparing these images is part of my ongoing determination to comprehend zero, empty or free floating signifiers which were alluded to in the conversation I had with my tutor and Peter H following feedback from A2. Here are two images, each of which tell a very different story, and it makes me wonder how one can empty a signifier of meaning, as, I believe, it is thought many of the artists working with appropriation are attempting to do.

 

As I have stated several times in the past I am not a fan of traditional nudes, however, I don’t mind nakedness in the least. What I find offensive is, as Berger describes it, the uniform of nudity that women have been obliged to don in their appointed representations over the centuries, and still do. Men on the other hand have tended to be represented with medals, property, land, and other signs indicative of power, strength, dominance.  Picasso above has been stripped of all of that. In the Lee Miller image there is a prime example of that kind of male power based imagery in a portrait of Hitler resting on the side of the bath; an example of the male-owned, nude representation of women in the form of a small statue, and an alternative to that in the form of Miller, who nevertheless looks away from the viewer; but mid wash just like Picasso. It’s an enormously difficult and complicated photograph.  In the Duncan picture there is an intimacy, joy, relaxation, slight embarrassment, but a direct and relatively confident gaze back at the viewer. Although mid action, i.e. washing, he is engaged, he is part of a scene which breaks the fourth wall.

Compare this too to one of the first images I spoke about for this course, In the Bathroom by Pierre Bonnard, a painting that was made using photo-referencing. The influence of photography can be seen in the way in which the photograph captures a moment in time, just as Picasso and Miller have been captured, mid ablutions.  The painting somehow seems prurient though.  We the viewer are being invited to spy on this woman whose face is passive, meek, almost insipid, and with an indirect gaze.

In the Bathroom 1907 by Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947
In the Bathroom 1907 Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947 Lent by a private collector 2005 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L02553

The informal portrait of Picasso can be compared to the informal but constructed painting by Bonnard – but there is so much more life rather than the pretence of it.  Not just because it is a photograph instead of a painting, but rather because Picasso is treated like an equal, a fellow human being whom one can have a joke with, as opposed to the women drying herself who is being observed, owned and spied on.  Her pert breasts painted to look utterly ludicrous, not least because of the spacial dimensions which don’t remotely tally with her actual physical position, and this was done decades before plastic breasts appeared.

Finally – here is a photograph of my brother and me in the bath in the early 70s.  It’s one of my favourite childhood photographs and reminds me of running around all day on the beach in Cape-town and not caring about all the things that infect our lives with so much worry today. I will need to think about the various signifiers in this image and compare them to the others I’ve mentioned, and perhaps other images of people in the bath, young and old.  It might be a useful exercise in terms of semiotics to do a table. In the meantime, I am minded to think about the differences between how we respect certain boundaries in terms of children compared to adults, about the changing nature of those boundaries, about how those changes impact on us.  I suspect the answers t the questions such an excercise might raise are many and complex. I like the picture of Picasso in his bath very much.  He is made human and warm in it and it manages to convery something genuine about the relationship between Picasso and Duncan in the split second that it was taken.

Scan 1
Taken by my mother circa 1975 of my brother and me in Cape-Town

References

Parker 2014, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/10621799/Lee-Miller-the-woman-in-Hitlers-bathtub.html (accessed 12 July 2016)

Picture credits 

  1. Picasso by David Douglas Duncan from Life, 2009, The Great Life Photographers, Thames and Hudson, London (obtained online from https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/178947785163968505/ accessed 12 July 2016)
  2. In the Bathroom 1907 Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947 Lent by a private collector 2005 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L02553 (accessed 12th July 2016)
  3. From personal archives taken by my mother, Evelyn Dean, c 1975

 

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8 thoughts on “Project 3.2: Structural analysis (3)

  1. I’m sure you are aware of the link you’ve made between the bath users – Picasso and Miller. The Bonnard seems awful to me – ‘she’ seems to be adolescent and yet is wearing shoes fit for a woman full sexual maturity and in a pose solely for the viewer’s pleasure. Turgid onanistic drivel. The Miller image comes laden with context, not least of which is Hitler inasmuch as the relationship she had with her father/uncle/Man Ray/Picasso and then Penrose.

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    1. John, I have ro take back what I said. I see they were likely lovers amongst lots of other people, including her future husband, but that they were both horrible to each other and then life long friends. Were you referring to something else?

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      1. In respect of Picasson and Penrose I can’t get away from Penrose’s subordinate position to Picasso. Penrose was the first to bring Picasso to the UK and their relationship (the two P’s) was added to by Miller, she brought something into that relationship that benefitted the men. Beyond that Miller’s childhood was extraordinary, her father used her as a photographic model from when she was an infant to beyond her university days. She was raped at a very young age by someone who was either a real uncle or a close family friend who donated gonnerhea and her treatment was pre-penicillin! It goes on! There is a lot of narrative to the Hitler bath shot, but in many ways her period with Vogue was where she was at her ‘free’ist’, it was where she made some of her strongest work. I’ll leave it there.

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      2. Yes, I’d read all that. No wonder she was troubled. I think the Hilter photo is deeply shocking and upsetting and will think about it further. Picasso was troubled too and unable to hold down a relationship, heh? Sparks flew when they met but they did become life long friends. Just read Lynda Kuit’s post on him which was timely. I love Picasso’s work, always have done. For me, one of the most compelling things about the story is how her son has forgiven her after learning about her life and is now so proud of her and the work she did despite her erratic and at times cruel mothering. I’d love to read a good book about her. She’s so interesting but I can’t find one. Do you have any recommendations?

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  2. Yes, he was a **** to her by all accounts but I have to avoid such language and you don’t see that in the portrait. I read she was tormented throughout her life by various childhood disturbances. It’s amazing how charming he looks in the picture. And I’m sure he was too – when he needed to be. God those shoes! They’re horrendous. Everything about her stance is awful. I think we carry the centuries of watching, the sexual objectification extremely deeply.

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  3. I actually don’t find Bonnard’s painting intrusive. His subject, Marthe was his mistress, companion, later wife and mother of his children. The book I’ve referred to before on early photography and painters has several photographs by Bonnard.

    Lee Miller’s photograph in Hitler’s bath bothers me much more.

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    1. I don’t think we can blame people for doing what was the norm at the time. But I do find the shoes and facial expression very difficult. Yes, you’re right, the Miller image is very, very difficult to look at. I am going to think about it a lot more and try to understand it better. I have read she was a very troubled person.

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