Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Still-Life, the Nude, and the Vanitas (Originally published in ACRES Magazine Issue 2)

Part of an ongoing dialogue on art theory, Lexie Mountain and Pete Cullen examine the still-life, the nude, and the vanitas.

When you showed the lobster images in the Dutch still-lifes during your Wham City lecture, it reminded me of a diagram of the history of capitalism from Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century that I first saw in Spectres of the Atlantic by Ian Baucom. Arrighi identifies four “systemic cycles of capital accumulation,” which correspond to the Spanish, Dutch, British, and American empires. The periods when these cycles overlap he calls MM’ phases. Baucom identifies these as the "highest moments of finance capital, moments in which capital seems to turn its back entirely on the thingly world, sets itself free from the material constraints of production and distribution, and revels in its pure capacity to breed money from money--as if by a sublime trick of the imagination..." It seems to me that proliferations of lobster images in Western art are connected with these MM’ phases, Koons’ Lobster being emblematic of the most recent one.

Baucom temporally links the Zong massacre of 1781 (an incident off the coast of Jamaica in which 132 enslaved Africans were drowned to recoup their insurance value, and ten more jumped overboard on their own.) with the second MM’ phase. He also links this incident to what he calls “the emergence, internal to the speculative counter discourse on and of modernity: a recognizably romantic counter discourse; a melancholy but cosmopolitan romanticism that sets itself, in Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre’s evocative phrase, ‘against the tide of modernity.’”

I think of your work as being representative of this melancholy counter discourse and related to the vanitas theme that is running underneath the commodity fetishism in still-life painting… part of still-life painting that is outside of its acquisitive encoding of the world into commodities...Is that the case?

LM: I’m essentially smashing the lobster of my New England childhood into the lobster of the still-life and using the creature as a stand-in for myself, as a way to discuss the use of the female form in works made by male artists in addition to drawing attention to the agency of women artists. While the French Realists of the 19th century were crawling all over each other to make the most outrageous and controversial nude they possibly could, their female counterparts were making still lifes and animal paintings in order to be taken seriously at all, and often at great expense to their personal lives. In this way, the still-life is a sort of revolutionary act. Lobsters are unique in that they signify consumption and eternity simultaneously, and are quite an effective marker of vanitas, I think, if accidentally. We’ve constructed a mythology of luxury around the only animal we eat which is capable of outliving us. Commodity fetishization is certainly an apt term to use in this case. I’m not interested in rejecting modernity or lamenting a past in which women and people of color were considered property, but I am interested in the ways in which modernity fabricates itself in the images we process on a daily basis.

I'm also trying to imagine that on some level, permanence is a type of death, or perhaps it is better put that permanence becomes a symbol of mortality. The defining conceit of a monument is that it will outlive its double subjecthood, both the human inspiration (i.e. George Washington) for the sculpture and the audience which views it at any given time (i.e. us, now in 2014). When I see a monument, I see fear of death.

Furthermore, I see the formal whiteness of the odalisque in general as a sort of corpse-paint and something deeply problematic. The odalisque’s shape is crystallized by her lounging, be it languid or proud or confrontational, and made especially so by the presence of the one-armed fainting couch itself, dictating the way the female body should lie so that it echoes the classical curves of a marble Venus. Sometimes, the woman’s body is laid on fabric - the white sheet upon which the odalisque reclines is her shroud, not yet wrapped around her. It is important to note that in these images it is generally the entire body, from head to toe, that is depicted, so the viewer can consume the image at a glance. Now remove the couch from the equation and it is easy to imagine the odalisque trapped there in that pose, half awake/ half asleep, half in this world and half out of it. The odalisque, the totality of her shape, permeates representation of women in art. It could be said that while Christina Olson is not even remotely naked in Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, the pale pinkish neutrals of her outfit allude in a rather grotesque fashion to a formal type of nudity that her posture echoes. A nude outfit. Nude mask.

Christina Olson, Victorine Meurent (of Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe) and Jo Hiffernan (Courbet’s Woman With A Parrot) are all dead, and the monuments to them reside in museums, which are also a type of graveyard. Men used images of these women to further their own careers. Meurent and Hiffernan were painters - where are their paintings now? These women who we see, they were seers too, and we have to go backwards in time to rebuild their lives for their own sake. Are these women looking back at us without fear of death? They gave their images freely, knowing they would be enshrined.

PC: Berger would say that those images are about possession and ownership, are those concepts connected to death as well?

LM: I would say yes. Something that owns has the power to begin and end that which it owns, whether or not it is ethical to do so. That’s the thing about power: it confers the freedom to generate a code of ethics that can enable its continued existence. Possession is also about controlling the terms of the debate, and setting the parameters by which something or someone is allowed to exist.

Ultimately, Manet does not own Meurent, Wyeth does not own Olson, and Courbet does not own Hiffernan. All they can offer is a version of these women. But the implication of ownership is there: it is likely that Christina Olson’s house would have crumbled to the ground if it had not been for Wyeth’s legacy supporting the rehabilitation of the structures in his picture. In the past few decades, the lives of both Meurent and Olson have been researched by art historians and (albeit slim) volumes dedicated to these women have appeared. We might not know about them, nor would we be as interested in them, if they were not represented as they are.

PC: That idea that ownership is linked to “the power to begin and end” certainly is reflected in the facts of the Zong. What you said about Meurent and Hiffernan “looking back at us without fear of death” seems to me to be related to Lacan’s interpretation of the vanitas as the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s Ambassadors. Lacan says, “Holbein makes visible for us here something that is simply the subject as annihilated---” All of those still-lifes that Berger identifies as celebrations of ownership and luxury contain within themselves the scene of their own wreckage, the vanitas. As Žižek writes in his Hitchcockian reading of Lacan, “This ‘pure’ signifier without signified stirs the germination of a supplementary, metaphorical meaning for all other elements: the same situations, the same events that, till then, have been perceived as perfectly ordinary acquire an air of strangeness. Suddenly we enter the realm of double meaning…”

Do you feel that your work with the lobster also contains this kind of point of reversal or double meaning?

LM: I hope so! Specifically the point of reversal. If I project the image of a lobster’s face and eyes upon a wall, and do it so hugely that there is no question it is looking upon you, down at you, as if you are prey, then you (the subject, audience etc) may also begin to have a private dialogue with the completely batshit monster movie that is the world in which we live. The double meaning is in the return of the gaze, and to allow something the opportunity to gaze back into the lens. The double meaning is in the abyss that the gaze suggests, the realm of unknowing and futility. The ocean is the abyss, the lobster its messenger. Bill Viola looked into an owl’s eye and found only his own shape. I think we are truly active when we look into the world without expecting confirmation of ourselves, because the world will not look back and nod in assent.


Willem Claesz Heda. Still-life with Lobster, 1650-1659.

Jeff Koons. Quad Elvis, 2008.

Diego Velázquez. “The Rokeby Venus”, 1647-1651.

Andrew Wyeth. Christina’s World, 1948

James Whistler. detail, The White Girl, 1861-1862.

Édouard Manet. detail, Young Lady in 1866. 1866.

Works cited:

Baucom, Ian. Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. Durham: Duke UP, 2005

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting, 1973

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1977.

Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1991

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