Saturday 13th April, 2013
Session 15: Shut Your Eyes! Iconophobia in the Modern Era
Edward Burne-Jones’ Mysterious Dormancy
Liana De Girolami Cheney
Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Rose Bower’, 1880
Oil on Canvas
The Farringdon Collection Trust, Oxfordshire
At the AAH Conference 2012 there was a session I attended which addressed the relationship between fear and art, and I sat in on many of the presentations, which I found to be utterly fascinating. As a result I began to explore the idea of art as a dangerous vehicle, which led me to read Plato’s Republic and ultimately become interested in the myth of Medusa, and the dangers of looking. This is a topic I covered in my MA dissertation and one which – while I’m not carrying it through to PhD level – I remain very interested in and plan to expand upon one day.
As you may be able to imagine, the title of this session greatly interested me, and being a Pre-Raphaelite enthusiast I looked forward to Cheney’s paper very much. I have to be honest in saying that while it was enjoyable and addressed a series of paintings I had not yet given much attention to, it did not live up to my expectations. Rather than delving into the idea of Iconophobia, Cheney took the phrase ‘Shut Your Eyes’ literally, and delivered an examination of Burne-Jones’ Sleeping Beauty cycles. Her interest lies in the actual depiction of sleep, and the lack of knowledge on the viewer’s part as to what is happening in the mind of the depicted sleeper.
Cheney’s insights into Burne-Jones’ series were interesting and enjoyable to listen to, and she clearly has a passion for the artist. I feel that her paper had the potential to really probe into the anxieties we feel when faced with images of death and reminders of our own mortality. The question was raised by a fellow member of the audience:
“Do you think that these images of sleeping groups could also be likened to the Victorian practice of photographing the dead?”
I thought this was an excellent question, and certainly one I’d considered myself. While we can view Burne-Jones’ paintings as depictions of the tale of Sleeping Beauty, and while we can appreciate their aesthetic appeal, it felt as though Cheney was restricting herself in her own reading of the series. She very much wanted to focus on the depiction of sleep, however the discussion didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. As Colin Cruise so justly observed:
“Cheney introduced the tools for interpretation but failed to interpret the work.”
Cruise makes an appropriate point; Cheney’s paper was more of a history of the series of paintings and its influences, rather than a theoretical discussion of how these images may instil a sense of fear or Iconophobia within the viewer. For Cheney there was no interaction between these paintings and their viewers. I feel that she slightly touched upon the link between sleep and death, magic, and the metaphysical, but didn’t quite explore it to its full potential.
Incarnations of Medusa in the 19th Century
Aubrey Beardsley, ‘J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan’, 1893
Design for The Climax from Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’
Line block print
I don’t want to give the impression that I was disappointed throughout this session, but perhaps it is a valuable lesson to learn: do not go to a conference paper with preconceptions as to what material it may cover, as you may be very wrong.
The title of Lippert’s paper – quite literally – promised an examination of the materialisation of Medusa in nineteenth-century art. As you read above, this is a topic which is of huge interest to me, and I went along feeling extremely saddened that I hadn’t submitted a paper which, I felt, would have greatly complimented Lippert’s.
However, upon beginning her presentation, Lippert announced that in preparation for the day, she had altered the content of her paper so as to not actually discuss the depiction of Medusa herself, but to explore the ideology of Medusa in relation to the art work.
I can’t deny that as an ideology in itself it was fascinating, and I still feel that my paper could have complimented it extremely well. But from my personal point of view I was somewhat disappointed that the content had changed. That, I guess, does come with the territory. As academics we have a great attention to detail, we are perfectionists and we are researchers, and we cannot help but continuously discover new material we wish to explore in our own work. It should be expected that many papers fluctuate between the submission deadline and delivery on the day.
As it turned out, Lippert offered me an entirely new way of thinking about Mesusa as a concept. While my own work focused on the dangers of looking – whether our gaze upon Medusa, or her gaze upon us – Lippert delivered a Darwinian view of the ‘Medusa effect’ of Aestheticism and Decadence upon the nineteenth-century British public.
Beginning with the rise of Darwinian science and its shifting of the operation of images in society, Lippert discussed the way in which it validated beauty’s role in natural selection. From this she leapt to its purveying of false values: that the judgement of beauty can be learned. As Cesare Lombroso argued, the human imagination – while being one thing separating us from the apes – also signalled a lack of reason. An unhealthy beauty was seen to disguise the unknown.
Lippert posed the question of what constitutes beauty in relation to evolutionary theory and natural selection, and arrived at the conclusion that visual appearance is deceptive, and not an accurate conveyance of one’s morality (we need only think of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to confirm this).
So from here, Lippert delivered an absorbing discussion of the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Eventually my disappointment at the lack of attention to Medusa depictions was lifted, as Lippert’s exploration of the Medusan features of Beardsley’s work, and the Medusan effects on the nation in an age of decadence was utterly new to me.
The influence of Modern Icono(homo)phobia in Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art
Nazif Topçuoğlu, ‘Triptych’, 2009
C Print, 180 x 120 cm each
Green Art Gallery, Dubai
Aldabbagh’s paper focused on the prohibition of homoerotic depictions in the contemporary art and film of the Arab world and Turkey. She considered two case studies: Nadine Labaki’s feature film, Caramel, and Nazif Topçuoğlu’s photographic series, Triptych (pictured above).
Caramel: this film follows the love lives of a group of Lebanese women who are all facing trying times, whether it’s an affair with a married man, sex before marriage, or, for one character, being a lesbian in a society of prohibition. Aldabbagh delicately examined the way in which Labaki hinted at the character Rima’s sexuality without overtly alluding to it. Instead it is introduced through subtle changes in music when she comes into contact with a particular patron of the salon in which she works, the slight alterations in their breathing while she gently washes the woman’s hair. She is not identified by who she is attracted to, but rather who she isn’t (e.g. Aldabbagh shared with us a scene in which the group of women were commenting on a cute police officer, and when Rima expressed a disinterest in him, she was met with a unsurprised ‘of course you’re not, you don’t think anyone is cute’ response). In other words, she is identified by her lack of sexuality, as opposed to her homosexuality.
I felt Aldabbagh’s reading of the film was insightful but also that perhaps she had overlooked several aspects which were glaringly obvious, whilst aggrandising less obvious and less workable theories. For example, when discussing the salon hair-washing scene, Aldabbagh spent a considerable amount of time discussing Freud’s psychoanalytical interpretation of water as a sensual motif, which was interesting in itself but difficult to reconcile with a twenty-first century moving picture. At the same time, despite examining the film within an overtly ‘Arab’ context, Aldabbagh completely overlooked the religious prohibitions placed upon a woman’s hair (i.e. its need to be covered) and the age-old association between a woman’s hair and her sensuality. For an unconventionally un-feminine character to be touching another woman’s hair in such a delicate, subtly erotic manner, surely warrants examination.
Triptych: This photographic series provoked much discussion on the panopticon. Aldabbagh’s reading held that the women on the outside of the circle were playing the part of the guards, voyeuristically watching the indecipherable-yet-erotically-charged movements of the group of women in the centre. This reading is understandable but perhaps too easy. A comment was raised from the audience, suggesting a reverse-reading: the women on the outside of the circle could be the prisoners themselves, as in the panopticon, looking at the central tower whilst not being able to see the guards within it. The whole premise of the panopticon was that prisoners knew they were being watched but could not physically see their surveyors; technically at any time the tower could be empty, but the uncertainty ensured that prisoners governed themselves. If we apply this reading to Topçuoğlu’s photographs, we might see a group of prisoners glaring inward toward the central tower, inside which dangerously physical activities are taking place between a group of women (the guards) which they are in fact unaware of. This idea of blindness would provide a fitting comment upon the society in which these works are contextualised: a society which does not recognise same-sex relationships.
Reverse Archaeology and Underwater Sculpture
Ellen Gallagher, ‘Watery Ecstatic’, 2006
Gesso, ink, watercolour and cut paper on paper
75.5 x 100 cm
Hauser & Wirth
Endt-Jones’ paper addressed the issues faced with categorising organically shaped objects within the art institution. Specifically, she referred to a shipwreck in which numerous items of Chinese crockery were lost to the sea, only to be later recovered, having obtained coral encrustations.
Endt-Jones raised important issues of classification: how can one categorise an object which to our eyes is sculptural and beautiful, but a combination of man-made (for commercial purposes) and organically formed? To what extent can we call a naturally altered manufactured product “art”? Where do these types of objects fall within the art historical canon? How do you place them within a particular institution? Do they belong in the art gallery or the marine biology centre?
Certainly displaying these objects within an art institution would propose a great challenge to the traditional display of objects. We are so used to browsing artworks and their accompanying wall labels: Artist, Title, Medium, etc. Where do these objects fall within that framework? Could this be classed as a form of institutional critique?
As a naturally formed shape, the object is very much open to interpretation. What Endt-Jones referred to as a ‘Coral Hand’ to me was an anthropomorphism of a naturally formed object. At once we are faced with the natural specimen vs. the Relic.
What was of extreme interest to me personally was Endt-Jones’ comments on the notion of coral as an example (and indeed, icon) of petrification. According to Greek myth, when Perseus laid down Medusa’s severed head by the shore of the sea, her fading powers cast their final spell, causing the surrounding seaweed to turn to stone, forming the coral we know today.
This discussion served as an introduction to Endt-Jones’ current research and upcoming book on the cultural history of coral. For example the association with petrification, violence and death has been known to inspire the wearing of coral as a talisman to ward off the Evil Eye.
Endt-Jones ended her discussion with a glimpse into the works of Ellen Gallagher, whose drawings explore this cultural history, and which adopts the aesthetic qualities of coral. Much in the way that coral itself is formed, Endt-Jones’ paper introduced us to an art form which could itself present history as a crystallisation or sediment.
Gunpowder under the Skin: Tattooing in the Context of Maritime Visual Cultures
Otto Griebel, ‘Ship Boilerman’, 1920
Lodder as a presenter bursts with energy and enthusiasm for his subject, a passion which could be described as contagious. It perfectly complimented the previous paper, not only their shared interest of a maritime context, but also of a form of art which is almost impossible to classify within an art historical framework. Just as coral encrustations are difficult to insert into the conventions of art history, the adornment of one’s own flesh well and truly defies cataloguing.
I would be interested to know if, for Lodder, tattooing is:
- An extension of the body (i.e. part of the self)
- An adornment of the body (i.e. solely aesthetic)
- An intrusion of the body (i.e. a foreign object beneath the skin)
Naturally, placing the art of tattoos within an art historical framework requires aesthetic and iconographic examination, but as a physical form I would have very much liked to hear Lodder’s elaboration on this particular point. His comment that “the medium of the tattoo is less important than the message of the image” was something I found difficult to digest. I cannot separate the two, just as I cannot separate a painting from its mount. For me the artwork is an autonomous object, and its materials form its very foundations. The same goes for tattoo art: the message or image, for me, must be considered in relation to the bearer of it. If it is crucial enough to be permanently displayed upon one’s flesh, surely that body which bears it also carries the depth of this message?
I would like to add here, that I do not mean that the person with the tattoo carries any significance to the image – I do not think biography has any place here – I simply mean a tattoo consists of more than just ink.
Lodder was clear from the outset that he opposes the notion that tattoos ‘are no longer just for sailors’, and asserts that they never were restricted to an isolated group. Certainly the notion of the seafarer who tattoos his body as a demarcation of geographical conquests is interesting, and serves as a predecessor to stamps in a passport. Indeed, it certainly carries notable implications for the self-fashioned myth or identity. However on a much higher plane, Lodder presents tattooing as a contextual, cyclical mode of art making which reproduces images rather than creating unique images of its own. By examining recurring symbols throughout its history, tattoos are presented not only as adornments of the body, but a formation of a language carved into flesh.
Lodder is clearly striving to instil a framework within which tattooing may be considered art historically, and while he admits that these are “difficult histories to recover”, his research is built upon solid foundations and he is sure to enjoy success in this enterprise.