Thursday, 9 December 2010

Un conte d'un con et aussi de M Lacan, part one

First to the National Portrait Gallery*. A couple of months ago, I was writing a piece on 'sexy vs sexist' for Professional Photographer. (I write a monthly column for the magazine, on a legendary photographer. Here's one on Robert Frank. I'll put a fuller list in a future posting. I also write longer pieces.

As part of that sexy vs sexist piece, I sent out an email to all of you on my blogmail list. (If you want to be added, post a comment or email me.) It contained links to various photographs and asked you to rate them as sexy or sexist. As I hoped and expected, the responses were thoughtful and widely varied. One man's urge to goose is rarely another woman's desire for a gander. And, most strikingly, vice versa.

Among the images - and, in a way, the thing that made me think of doing the email - was a photograph that had been shortlisted for the National Portrait Gallery's Taylor Wessing portraiture prize. Titled My British Wife, it is . . . well, I'll quote from the piece I wrote . . .

'a portrait by Greek photographer Panayiotis Lamprou, of his real wife. Unnamed, she is sitting in the sun, at an outdoor table. Behind her is a half-open Mediterranean blue door. Beside her is a cooking pan, with a little food still clinging to its edges - an omelette, we are told. She has finely shaped eyebrows, an aquiline nose, grey-blue eyes and a wide, pale pink-lipped mouth. Her hair is tousled and falls messily over the top of her halter-topped sundress. You can see a light touch of hair in her left armpit. She sits, looking directly at the camera/viewer, her legs apart, on a chair cushion almost the same colour as the door. She has no knickers on.

She also has no pubic hair - shaved, I guess - and a notably expressive vulva. Context and intent aside, it is the stuff - the raw material, anyway - of pornography. Or, at least, what is usually meant when people use the word, pornography. Certainly, the NPG was worried enough about it to crop the picture in half for its website, turning it into a plain and almost unexplicable image of the top half of an attractive young woman.'

So, when invited to the press show, I made sure I went. The picture didn't win. It was a runner-up**. The photographer was there - though not his British wife. I talked to him briefly but his English (not fluent) and my Greek (non-existent) weren't really up to a meaningful conversation, particularly in a room where everyone was acting as if there wasn't something notably notable about the convergence of the image of his wife, him and a shuttle of artsy journalists.

I did think of asking him: how's the wife? But I wasn't sure the humour would translate. He did, though, hand me a leaflet, the press release for his picture, written by the art critic of the Greek broadsheet Kathimerini. It's a not unthoughtful piece, if marked by the rhetoric of art-speak and Mediterranean journalism - 'condensation of beatitude and lightweight materialism'. It describes the picture as 'a rather delicate, unpretentious requiem for femininity, a reminder of the self-esteem of the naked body before the fall and sin . . .' Myself, I think that's a naïve, unhistorical approach - once the fall has happened, it can't be unfalled, so to speak, its tragic irrevocability is the trade-off we made for self-knowledge. But still . . .

Its writer continues: 'but also a reminder of the admiration of a man towards a woman, a prompt to the classical work of art of . . .' I should have seen this coming but didn't . . . 'Gustav Courbet, The Origin of the World.' And then, of course, he references this painting's last private owner, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. He poses a question: can we accuse 'Lacan for voyeurism, the man who changed the course of psychoanalysis and modern thinking'? He clearly thinks not. I'm not so sure.

I've been thinking about Lacan's ownership of that painting for some time now but had somehow never quite got round to posting the blog about it that I intended to write. Ever since I'd learned that he'd owned the picture, I'd been intrigued by that fact. I already knew the painting but . . . well, there was something odd about his ownership. It was, apart from anything else, such a, well, French thing to do.

I wondered how that had come about and looked it up. It's a story. I'll tell it in the next blog or two.

* Site of one of the world's great escalator journeys. (For some years, I have been making a small collection of them.) It begins in the modern day and takes you back to the 16th century.

** Nothing was said but there had been a similar picture in the show a few years ago. The differences are notable, though.

Meanwhile, a little French? (I knew the song already but found this video because it’s in the new Martin Scorsese film, a documentary about Fran Lebowitz.)

Next up Some music writing of mine, occasioned by the arrival of Theme Time Radio Hour Three

Soon Part deux of this conte (in which a Turk tempts a desperate man)


Lo Jardinier said...

I like the way you bring a lot of threads together - and leave us waiting to see how you'll tie them. The Gainsbourg film is endearingly naif - but on the subject of cons, how about:
(been waiting for a chance to suggest it)

Unknown said...

faux-naif? or even po-naif . . .

the brassens is wonderful . . . i would have included it in the book . . next edition perhaps . . . and next cd

quand/con . . .

it also put me in mind of gene lees' essay on the differences between english and french songwriting, William and Harold and How to Write Lyrics . . . in particular how much easier it is to rhyme in french . . . for example, in french there are a couple of dozen rhymes for amour (including crossroads/supermarket) while in english there are just four for love (five if you're american english — as shown by mann/weill, i think, in the crystals he's sure the boy i love) . . . also, in french, you can use that schwa-link sound at the end of lines to force a rhyme . . . lees isn't saying it makes for better or worse lyrics just different one