Drawn and Quoted: Adrienne van Eekelen + Carol Shields

This is one of those lone images I collected years ago and wasn’t sure what to do with.  It seemed like a good choice for a Drawn and Quoted post, and so here it is.  The website Noorderlicht explains that this image was one of a series in which the photographer documented tens years in the life of a girl, Raphaëla.  Van Eekelen wanted to bear witness to the changes in the girl’s body, as she wished to reconnect with that part of her own life, a time period she had trouble recalling.  I’m pairing the image with a quote from Carol Shields’ novel The Stone Diaries:

“A childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves behind no fossils, except perhaps in fiction.” – Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries

Adrienne van Eekelen - Raphaëla

Adrienne van Eekelen – Raphaëla

Construction of Girl Identity

Diyan Achjadi spent her girlhood in Soeharto-era Indonesia before settling on the trendy Canadian West Coast as associate professor of visual arts at Emily Carr University.  Sometime in the early 2000s the idea for her Girl character came to her as an understated and ironic way of commenting on heavy issues.  Her first show set Girl in various hot-topic settings usually in play or where people were naive to the danger or seriousness of the subject.  Achjadi commented,

“I have been particularly interested in the potential of illustrated narratives, and in the ways the fictionalized environments have the potential to unpack real-world situations, and question and critique the world that we physically inhabit. I use a visual vocabulary borrowed from children’s media – toys, books, objects, and other forms of productions aimed at children – which often depicts the adult world in a miniaturized, simplified, and sanitized form, representing it under a guise of play, innocence, and harmlessness.”

Diyan Achjadi – See Girl, 2004

Diyan Achjadi – See Girl, 2004

Shortly thereafter, in the wake of the tsunami that wiped out coastal Aceh in northern Sumatra, Girl became a way for Achjadi to explore impressions of the way reports of disasters were covered far from her new locale.  Distanced from her homeland, Achjadi’s only connection with the enormous things happening in Indonesia was through the internet, television and telephone.  Her Girl works from 2007 through ’09 featured her signature character in the midst of invasions, bombings, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions.  Girl largely maintained her indifferent composure—maybe an allusion to the tidak apa apa resignation of Indonesians or the passive nature of the stereotypical little girl?

Diyan Achjadi – We Expected Hysteria (Hark! Listen), 2009

Diyan Achjadi – We Expected Hysteria (Hark! Listen), 2009

At the end of the decade, Achjadi’s use of Girl shifted again.  Now she began to play with the machinery informing identity.  Achjadi had grown up in a new nation, with shifting boundaries, and threatening to rip apart in violence.  The dictatorial government bombarded the people through every medium with nation-building propaganda.  Achjadi herself was made to participate in considerable flag raising, marching, “group calisthenics” and singing to the glory of her recently manufactured country during her school-girl years.  In retrospect she had a kind of fascination with the process.

Diyan Achjadi – Onward, fearlessly, 2007

Diyan Achjadi – Onward, fearlessly, 2007

As the series progressed, it became deeper, and took on a kind of eerie metaphysical character.  Achjadi writes,

“Girl is both singular and plural: she is a figure that exists in a world populated only by other Girls, seemingly identical in features and dress. Sometimes she is alone and isolated; other times she is multiplied into a perfectly uniform army, marching, saluting, and exercising in formation.”

Diyan Achjadi – Ceremony, 2007

Diyan Achjadi – Ceremony, 2007

Far from cute and innocent, the girl becomes something surreal as endless uniformed girls salute in allegiance to the image of themselves.  The following piece might remind one of the North Korean Mass Games.

Diyan Achjadi – Stadium, 2008

Diyan Achjadi – Stadium, 2008

This all culminates in her “The Further Adventures of Girl” show.  Critic, Malakoteron, wrote quite insightfully on this compilation of works,

“From wall to wall one encounters the face of the iconic ‘girl’ who is multiplied in each medium. She’s a flat and simplified medley of many of the cliches of girlhood rendered into an easy to swallow and mass produced form. Cartoons, posters, flags and little sculptures reminiscent of lawn ornaments all cross reference her figure in a series of reds and lush colours. Sometimes it feels like looking at Dora The Explorer filtered through a post-Superflat version of Maoist propaganda.

It starts out seemingly innocuous, like a little bit of children’s TV and, through its repetition and its re-articulation, gradually becomes obvious as a technique of aggression.

They’re attractive and decorative and this is self-consciously reflected in the work, with the girl waving flags of herself, perfectly enclosed in her own narcissistic paradise. As Momus once said in respect to certain trends in Japanese youth culture, it’s a celebration of ‘cute fascism’.”

Diyan Achjadi – Oboro gallery, 2010

Diyan Achjadi – Oboro gallery, 2010

By her later showings of Girl, it would be difficult for most to intuit a commentary on Indonesian national identity.  At face value, the show had evolved into an analysis of the coding of girl identity itself: the girlification of girls.  But Achjadi does not regard girls as made of “sugar and spice and all things nice”; instead, we are shown a process of violence, mass indoctrination, intimidation, superficial molds and robotic conformity.

And then like almost anything artificially impressed into the living body, it is rejected.  Girl finally screams, gesticulates, riots and rebels against herself; she fights herself, tears herself down and attempts to escape the Girl space.

Diyan Achjadi – Protest, 2011

Diyan Achjadi – Protest, 2011

Diyan Achjadi’s personal site is here,  while she delivers a thorough lecture on Girl at this link.  An animated assemblage of her Girl work is also available.

Ode to Aboriginal Girls

One of our readers reminded me that Pigtails in Paint used to do a lot of short pieces and it seems things have gotten a lot more in depth and longer. I apologize, but I simply offer those things that I find interesting. I believe there must be others who share my disdain for the plethora of uncredited photo albums that can be found online these days. However, I do miss the charm of Pigtails’ older style and I assure you all that it was not my intention to deviate from that. What has happened is that as we gained credibility, we gained access to interesting back stories that cannot be found in mainstream media—even the internet.

Believe me, there are plenty of short items that will be put out in due course; it is just that when I am inspired to work on something, I want to follow through and naturally there is a lot to say. Now I offer you one my shorter contributions.

Due to political and historical factors, I have to admit so-called minorities get short shrift. I was always impressed by Pip’s efforts to include other “races” on this site from time to time. I found this postcard on a sales site and had to have it.

(Artist Unknown) - (Untitled) Published by Temperley Industries

(Artist Unknown) – (Untitled) Published by Temperley Industries

To tie together information about Aboriginal girls, I direct readers to another interesting post that Pip made a while back. Australia being the smallest of the continents, I think people lose the sense of how immense it really is with its variety of climate zones. As a result, it is also too easy to lump these people together as though everyone practices the same customs as the natives popularized by the Crocodile Dundee films.

There are two excellent posts (here and here) discussing girlhood and attitudes toward the body in a Novel Activist post. Those not familiar with that blog owe it to themselves to look at Ray Harris’ images and narrative on the subject.

Novel Activist offers social commentary on the portrayal of children in general mostly in the course of pursuing research for his novels.

Elastic Art: Maddie Ziegler and the Sia Videos

Overview

The music video for Sia’s Chandelier dropped on May 6th, 2014, and it immediately invited controversy due to 11-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler’s flesh-tone leotard which, in a certain light, makes her appear to be nude.  Soon after, the video went viral, becoming the seventh most-watched video clip of 2014 on YouTube; it has since amassed over 450 million hits there.  The controversy mostly abated, however, when the video received widespread critical acclaim, with Time magazine’s Nolan Feenay praising Ziegler for the best dance performance of 2014.  It went on to be nominated for both Video of the Year and Best Choreography at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, winning the latter.  It was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Music Video.

Despite the controversy–or maybe because of it–the video, directed by Daniel Askill and Sia herself, made its mark, inspiring parodies by the likes of Jimmy Kimmel (he and fellow Jimmy Kimmel Live! cast member Guillermo Rodriquez were even assisted in learning the moves by Maddie herself) and Jim Carrey and Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live.  Maddie–wearing shorts beneath her famous skin-tone leotard–would recreate the video on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, but as is often the case when censorious tinkering of this type occurs, the addition of the shorts oddly seems to make the young dancer look more provocative rather than less.  The sleek, fully nude outfit gives Maddie an almost alien appearance, leaving no doubt as to the artistic intent of the video’s creators, whereas on Ellen’s show, particularly in the dim lighting, the girl looks to be wearing a pair of pale blue panties and nothing else, giving the performance a slightly tawdrier tone.  A note of interest here: when Sia stands offside in the shadows, with her back turned to the audience, she is effectively saying, “This is not about my surface, the side of me that is seen during a performance.”  We will better understand why that is relevant soon.

But the controversial nature of Chandelier pales in comparison to that generated by its follow-up, Elastic Heart, which was released on January 7th, 2015 and again features Miss Ziegler in the faux-nude getup, along with adult actor Shia LaBeouf (similarly attired), with the two stuck in a giant birdcage together and reacting to one another in a gritty and intense performance.  The negative reaction to the video has been so strong that Sia apologized to victims of sexual abuse over the potentially “triggering” imagery.  Of course, thus far no one has pointed out that one possible interpretation of the video is as a symbolic commentary on sexual abuse, though that is one of many.  Thus, we shall do a scene-by-scene dissection of both videos, with a particular focus on Elastic Heart, to better understand why these are indeed art, and why Sia should not have to apologize for them.

Chandelier

Initially the camera pans around what appears to be an empty, grungy apartment that has clearly seen better days.  As the camera offers us a quick look at the various rooms in the apartment, we get the sense that we are peering into a dormant place.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (1)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (1)

The first time we meet the sole human being who appears in the video (Maddie, of course), she is braced inside a doorway a couple of feet off the floor.  In terms of semiotics, doors and doorways are quite interesting.  As Claus Seligmann points out in this article on architectural semiotics, “For if architecture is at root a system of barriers that distinguish inside from out, this place from that, or place from nonplace, then the door is in our society […] the culturally mandated means of penetrating the barrier.”  That is to say, doors are transitional, a means of moving between two separate spaces, or two separate conditions, or even two separate realities.  That the dancer begins here is noteworthy, for we are being invited into an intimate space.  When she drops to the floor, we know we are thoroughly immersed in her reality.

But who is she, and why does she appear to be nude?  Well, the key to understanding who the child is lies in the wig she wears, which closely mimics the golden blond locks of Sia herself.  So this is Sia–not literally but metaphorically.  As for her implied nudity, we can view it is the ultimate form of vulnerability, a condition amplified by the infantine state of the figure.  But let’s not make the mistake of assuming our young Sia stand-in is perfectly innocent; after all, she is not meant to be an actual child but rather a metaphorical one.  This is an important point, because once we understand that child-Sia is symbolic, we must then try to determine what she is a symbol for.  Well, as this Sia stand-in is the only figure in the video, we could reasonably assume that we are seeing the inner life of Sia.  With that as our starting point, we now know that when the dancer drops onto the floor of this seedy apartment, we are effectively “dropping” into Sia’s mental/emotional world with her.  It’s a raw, murky, and somewhat bedraggled place, the place where Sia is most vulnerable because it is here that she is most herself.  This omni-personal identity, which is something like a kernel from which a great tree grows because it is our core identity, is sometimes aptly referred to as an inner child, hence our little dancer.

You’ll recall back when I pointed out how the apartment was a dormant place?  In that context, we can consider Maddie’s position bracketed in the doorway as something like suspended animation, or even a kind of sleep.  As the child hits the floor, she instantly comes alive, and we are mesmerized by her, this strange pseudo-nude little girl who dances her beautifully bizarre dance.  And as I said before, there is something almost alien about her, with her bright artificial hair and her teased nakedness, not only because she calls to mind iconic science fiction characters like Leeloo from The Fifth Element and (to a lesser extent) Pris from Blade Runner, but because she seems to be neutered, like a humanoid robot or some sexless being from another world.  Yes, our dancer’s world is at once familiar territory and exotic alternate reality.  Doesn’t that perfectly exemplify the realm of the subconscious?

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (2)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (2)

As if to reinforce this point, in the first of only two extreme closeups of Maddie, staring out placidly at the camera, she appears to wind something into the wall and then immediately falls forward like she has been depowered, a robot turning herself off with an invisible key.  But then she pulls herself aright again.  Her hands are dirty, stained with pink chalk (makeup?), and we get the impression that she is burned out.  This is Sia remarking on the nature of her stardom, the fact that sometimes she is like an automaton going through the motions.  Her art, endlessly repeated night after night, and more importantly the requisite partying that comes with the job, have become a chore to her.  It’s a feeling I’m sure many celebrities have experienced.  This robot needs to recharge her batteries, and she does.

Suddenly, it’s as if she has reawakened, becoming something like a human again.  It’s a new day, literally and metaphorically.  The lyrics reinforce this.  We see her yawn and stretch, walking around the room as she rubs her belly in hunger.  She does the splits, perhaps as part of her morning exercises.  She is pushing herself, stretching her limits.  She is coming to life again, nearly–but not quite–ready to swing from the titular chandelier.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (3)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (3)

And then she really lets loose, going through a series of particularly lively motions–flips, tumbles, running through the apartment–and we know our inner Sia is juiced now, running on full speed, re-embracing and reinvigorating her art, and through her art, her life.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (5)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (5)

In the second close-up of the video, Maddie stands behind curtains.  The suggestion is of a performer looking out on her audience with mixed emotions.  And, perhaps it is just me, but there is a point in this sequence at which, just before she leaves the curtains behind, Maddie almost seems to be channeling the spirit of Marilyn Monroe.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (6)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (6)

At last, as the video reaches it’s end, Maddie/Sia is again framed by a doorway, but this time she is on one side of it while the viewer is on the other.  Maddie affects a stage bow here, referencing Sia’s identity as a performer.  This is goodbye for us–we are leaving Sia’s unconscious now, for our visit is over, and the little nude dancer in her head is seeing us off at the door.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (7)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (7)

Elastic Heart

Based on the resounding success of the Chandelier video, it only makes sense that there would be a follow-up video featuring Miss Ziegler, though few could have foreseen the inclusion of actor Shia LaBeouf in the same.  And yet, strangely, it works.  But what’s it about, exactly?  We have only gotten a hint from Sia herself, who has suggested that these figures are two separate states of herself, sometimes simpatico and other times at complete odds.  This makes sense (and reinforces our interpretation of the first video as a representation of Sia’s inner life), and so we already have a pretty good idea about what part of Sia that Maddie represents: she is the vulnerable, emotional part.  LaBeouf, then, is something else entirely, perhaps a need to control the emotional aspects of herself to function normally in her career.  Or maybe he is a predatory instinct born of show business, a moral flaw that Sia must fight to remain human in an inherently humanity-destroying job.  Another possibility here is that he is the untamed (wild) part of Sia, the part that only her heart can quell.

Whatever the case, the beauty of good art is that it is often open to interpretation, its meaning elastic and malleable to whatever the experiencer of the art brings to the table.  And with all of the controversy that has arisen over this video, with accusations that the video somehow encourages or promotes “pedophilia”, I would like to offer another possible interpretation: the video may, in fact, be taken as a condemnation of sexual abuse, wherein the characters are symbolic of the mental interior of an abuse victim.  Let’s consider the semiotics here.

First off, we see that both the child and the adult are trapped in an immense birdcage, facing off against each other.  Through our established theme, this can be seen as symbolic in a couple of ways.  First, the victim may be literally trapped with her abuser–this is often the case with sexual abuse victims, given that most abuse is intrafamilial and occurs in the home.  Such a child is under the complete control of her abuser, since he has custody and legal power over her.  Immediately we can see that the two are out of breath and in a heightened emotional state–they have been at each other’s throats for awhile, it seems.  The girl appears to be fending off the advances of the male, almost like a feral cat fighting off a wolf.  When she attacks, the wound is struck where?  Square in LaBeouf’s heart.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (1)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (1)

But after Maddie’s verbal assault hits its mark and she unleashes on him again (having found a weapon that works), she soon loses her voice.  Consider how there is power in a child’s voice–her ability to speak of her abuse may be the only thing that can truly end it–and child abusers often silence their victims with threats.  But there’s also a musical analogy here, as singers sometimes quite literally lose their voice for a brief time.  There is one point where the sexual abuse metaphor becomes most apt: as the two crawl on the floor like animals, Maddie suddenly flips onto her back, knees up and slightly apart; it seems she is inviting her abuser to take her, but as we soon realize, this is only a ploy to get him close enough so that she might attack him again.  Having gotten the upper hand again in their face-off, she grabs LaBeouf and tosses him against the wall of their shared cage.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (2)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (2)

Not long after this, LaBeouf climbs up the side of the cage and is suspended directly above Maddie for a second.  Here the abuser again uses his power and privilege over the girl (as a parent or foster parent) to his advantage.  This type of shot is often called a bird’s-eye-view in photography and cinema.  Resoundingly appropriate for a video set in a giant birdcage, no?  Moreover, it is largely agreed upon by critics that such shots in visual semiotics establishes a sense of vulnerability for those who lie at the distal end of the shot.

While LaBeouf hangs above her, Maddie seems to sleep, perhaps resting after the long battle.  Or maybe she is pretending to sleep, something long-term abuse victims have been known to do, though her surprise when LaBeouf drops down and intimately touches her face seems genuine enough that I take the first point as more accurate.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (3)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (3)

Maddie is once more on the defensive, but LaBeouf tries another ploy: he seems to offer her something in his hand, and Maddie sniffs at it.  What is he offering her?  My hunch is food, not only because of the way she sniffs it but also because of what occurs directly after.  With Maddie’s back turned to him, her defenses down, LaBeouf moves in.  But the little girl snaps at his hand, and thus quite literally (within a metaphorical context) bites the hand that feeds her, and for good reason.  This scene, I think, is the crux of the entire video.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (5)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (5)

Their ongoing war resumes, going on for a bit; however, something is different this time.  Maddie manages to find her way out of the cage.  The fact that she can fit through the bars while her abuser cannot is significant.  Likely we are seeing the victim growing up and moving away from home, while the abuser is still there.  But more importantly, the victim is now educated and aware, and she knows she can destroy him with a word.  The abuser is still obsessed with the victim, reaching for her through the bars, but she is out of reach.  Ergo, he is trapped in another way: his obsession with the girl has become something like an addiction.  He goes through a series of emotions here–sorrow, fear, rage.  Maddie, meanwhile, also appears to be torn.  She flashes him a false smile, but she is a bit confused by her own feelings.  Perhaps she has not entirely escaped after all.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (6)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (6)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (7)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (7)

In the end, seeing the man saddened and cowed before her, she slips back into the cage willingly and returns to him in what becomes one of the most poignant scenes in the video.  Maddie flips her legs over LaBeouf’s shoulders, and he walks around with her on his back; she is now his burden.  She expresses genuine care and concern for him here, though she also manipulates him, pounding on his forehead to force him to go through a series of face changes (masks?) for her own entertainment, and then toying with his face directly.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (8)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (8)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (9)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (9)

It is the girl who is clearly in control now, or so it seems.  She has forgiven her abuser, or at least made peace with him.  She even leads him to the edge of the cage and attempts to pull him out with her, to rescue him from the very prison he created for them, but this is where things become most complicated.  The scene plays out for a while, even after the music dies away, and it soon becomes difficult to discern whether she is still trying to pull him out or he is trying to pull her in.  Most likely it is both.

That is the complex nature of abusive parent-child relationships.  The child may escape the situation physically, but that doesn’t mean she is entirely free of it psychologically.  And she may still love the parent, perhaps understanding him better than he understands himself, and the nature of his obsession with her.  In the end, both abuser and victim are likely irreparably scarred by their unhealthy relationship.  That pretty well sums up what occurs in a much of the long-term intrafamilial abuse I have read about, where severing emotional ties becomes a lot more difficult than if the abuser had simply been an acquaintance.  The camera fades away with the two still engaged in this strange tug-of-war, leaving the viewer uncertain about the fate of man and girl.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (10)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (10)

That’s it.  That is one of my interpretations of the video, and I think I make a pretty strong case for it.  This does not, of course, mean that this was what Sia or Askill intended the video to be about.  Nor does it mean that this is my only interpretation of the video (it isn’t).  The reason I spent a good deal of time examining the video from this perspective is that I wanted to demonstrate something about the nature of good art: it’s meaning is malleable and is often viewed through our own filters.  As has been mentioned here before, those who tend to see obscenity in nude artworks of children are often the ones with the dirty minds, not the artists themselves.  Likewise, I am inclined to believe that we should look askance upon those who offer only the tone-deaf interpretation of the Elastic Heart video as a casual promotion of adult-child sex.

As for me, I see precisely the opposite in it.  In fact, this need not even be a metaphor for sexual abuse–any sort of abuse will do.  As for the discomfort the video may cause, so what?  If the video is indeed a symbolic look at sexual abuse, then it should make us uncomfortable.  Would anyone dare suggest that a film like, say, Bastard out of Carolina shouldn’t have been made because the graphic rape scene at the end is utterly disturbing (which it is–it may be the most graphically depicted child rape scene ever filmed)?  I certainly wouldn’t.  If art is to have any impact on us, it must challenge us.  I am also more than a touch concerned about the current trend of putting up “trigger warnings” on everything that might be even remotely offensive to someone–personally, I find it insulting to myself and to humanity as a whole this notion that we must necessarily be shielded against our own feelings, as if we were all emotional infants who must always be cooed to and comforted by the world around us.

Nevertheless, I will accept it if I must.  If you require a warning label on your art, I can look past it.  After all, controversy has rarely ever hurt sales when it comes to art, and if anything tends to encourage them.  What I will not accept is external pressure to change, destroy or even apologize for art that challenges viewers because some people are bothered by it.  In my estimation, Sia has absolutely nothing to apologize for.  She clearly did not exploit Maddie Ziegler to make her art, which is the only real consideration that should be given when it comes to featuring children in provocative art.  These videos have beautiful purpose, and that is its own moral defense.

Note: In addition to the Sia videos, Maddie Ziegler has appeared in videos for Todrick Hall’s Freaks Like Me and Alexx Calise’s Cry.

Tumblr: Sia (official site)

Wikipedia: Sia (musician)

Daniel Askill (official site)

Wikipedia: Daniel Askill

Maddie & Mackenzie Ziegler (official site)

Wikipedia: Maddie Ziegler

Control Freak: François Gillet

I know this does not sound like a flattering title for an artist, but to tell you the truth, this is one of my favorite photographers of all time. I bought one of the artist’s early books—L’album de François Gillet published by Zoom-Paris/Landmark Book Co. (1981)—because I was told it contained some of the most charming images of children. Indeed it did, but the first half contained a number of his still-lifes and I was mesmerized. When I really looked at the images, I recognized the astonishing level of control he must have had over the scene. I just loved the simple sublimeness of a torn loaf of bread, a row of shiny fish or a carefully arranged cornucopia. Viewers should be aware that these effects come from his complete control of the frame and are never retouched. Many younger viewers today initially assume he accomplishes this with some clever use of Photoshop. The first image is a kind of ode to the mysteries of salt and the idea of salt as an artistic medium in its own right.

François Gillet - (Untitled) (1970s)

François Gillet – (Untitled) (1970s)

François Gillet was born in 1949 in France and is now based in Stockholm. His aspiration as a child was to paint, but by his twenties, the compelling way photographs serve as a mirror to nature drew him in. He studied photography at the Arts University College at Bournemouth and graduated in 1971. His work has been published in international magazines and companies from all over the world have commissioned his work for advertising campaigns: Fuji (Japan), Silk-cut (UK), Korean airlines, Brown Brothers Wineries (Australia), Bonne Maman (France) and Orrefors (Sweden). He received a number of awards for his distinctive work from 1979 to 1998 and has exhibited his work in numerous venues since 1984.

When it comes to control, conventional wisdom has it that the challenges to be avoided are children, animals and water. So it is even more remarkable when Gillet became a doting father—of a daughter, Melinda—he would be captivated by her charm and include her in his compositions. Naturally, there are family photos, but this photo is the first time she was a deliberate part of one of his artistic scenes. Instead of proper titles, most accompanying texts are more like descriptions.

François Gillet - Girl in Mummy's shoes (1974)

François Gillet – Girl in Mummy’s shoes (1974)

When she got older, he shot this more sophisticated version of dressup. This image appeared on the cover of ZOOM (Issue 87, March 1981).

François Gillet - Girl with black stocking (1981)

François Gillet – Girl with black stocking (1981)

Perhaps the most joyous images of his little girl are from this photo shoot. The more saturated image appears on the cover of ZOOM (Issue 97, April 1982). The only full image I had was this one which was lit differently and so is not nearly as color-saturated.

François Gillet - Girl hanging upside-down (1982)

François Gillet – Girl hanging upside-down (1982)

François Gillet - Girl hanging upside-down (1982) (detail)

François Gillet – Girl hanging upside-down (1982) (detail)

Gillet is clearly well-versed in formal art and mythic motifs like “The Four Seasons”.

François Gillet - The Four Seasons  (c1975) (1)

François Gillet – The Four Seasons (c1975) (1)

François Gillet - The Four Seasons  (c1975) (2)

François Gillet – The Four Seasons (c1975) (2)

And he is also knowledgeable about the history of more commercial imagery—whether it be an idyllic image of the joys of car ownership, shooting an ad in the style of Pear’s Soap or observing Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll) convention of dressing up children in an exotic tableau vivant. This image—part of an ad campaign for Barnängen, a Swedish cosmetics company—appeared on the cover of ZOOM (Issue 61, April 1979) along with an piece featuring the artist.

François Gillet - Oriental children (1977)

François Gillet – Oriental children (1977)

He also enlisted the participation of a number of neighborhood children for a series of images—with the assistance of Kristina Lannmark—which was published in Le Petit Théatre (1982). There was a European version published by Publicness and a Japanese version produced in a smaller format. The accompanying texts were in French and Japanese and the English translations are given here.

I’ve got an idea!
How about playing with her at the amusement park?
We can get her to go on the roller coaster!
Oh yes! The slide and the ferris wheel!
The remote-controlled cars and the funhouse!
Hey there, guess what I can see?
Shut-up,
don’t point!

François Gillet - (Untitled from Le Petit Théatre) (c1980) (1)

François Gillet – (Untitled from Le Petit Théatre) (c1980) (1)

There’s no way I’ll put on pants
when I’ve got such pretty petticoats.
The Lapplanders have longjohns.
The Indians have absolutely nothing.
But us, we show our petticoats,
made completely of lace,
like an Eiffel tour,
made of lace from Alençon.

François Gillet - (Untitled from Le Petit Théatre) (c1980) (2)

François Gillet – (Untitled from Le Petit Théatre) (c1980) (2)

It is natural to ask in what way Gillet’s vision may have been compromised by doing commercial work. In this sense, he is perhaps one of the most fortunate artists. His way of taking what most people would call mundane and helping the viewer see its unnoticed beauty and character is exactly how he approaches commercial projects. Indeed, his point seems to be that nothing in the world is truly banal to an alert eye. And as marketers have come to recognize, he was perhaps ahead of his time in using imagery, not to tell us about a product, but to tell us how to feel about it.

“…so successfully has he blurred any notional fine line between the two categories. For some decades now he has been surreptitiously insinuating the same sublime purity of vision that he brings to his personal work into the usually prosaic commercial world of advertising.” -Ian Talbot (2010)

His methodology is to build a set in three dimensions, careful to pay attention to every detail of the subjects, the background and the organization of empty space. Because of his obsession with rendering detail, he chose the 8×10 large-format camera. He himself has used the word “control” to describe the process, “in an attempt to be in control of every square inch in the frame”. Only when he believes he has reached the highest level of beauteous perfection does he shoot the scene.

“The definition of illusion as something untrue, as the opposite to reality has always repelled me for how can one live without illusions?…For the last few decades I have explored both the real and fantasy worlds; even with my commissioned work…”

“There is a beauty in making the picture exist in reality before recording it. Somehow it becomes the proof of one’s own existence.”

Despite his seemingly perfectionist style, Gillet continues to evolve—another sign of a great artist. Because of his habit of arranging objects in a frame, he already had a knack for noticing and collecting things. His latest project amps up this visual impact in two major ways. He traveled to Australia to take advantage of its other-worldly landscapes and he no longer offers the viewer just a single shot, but arranges them in a series to form a collage and introducing a higher order of composition. You can see some examples of this on a video produced by Henrik Thomé.

Francois Gillet official artsite
Gillet put together a flipbook of a grown-up Melinda which can be seen here.  I am told she is now an oriental dancer.

Ernest Dowson and the Cult of Minnie Terry

Ernest Christopher Dowson (1867-1900) ranks among the best English poets of the last decade of the 19th century, but he remains little known outside a small circle of amateurs. He belonged to a group of young authors who thought of themselves as “the movement” or “the fin de siècle.” They appreciated “art for art’s sake” and viewed literature as a purely aesthetic activity, devoid of any moral or political message, expressing the inner personality of the author and to be appreciated only for its style. In poetry, they were influenced by French Symbolists, in particular Paul Verlaine for whom verses had to be like an incantation, where the musicality of the words matters more than the ideas that they carry. This view was in opposition to the canons of Victorian literature, where any work had to contain a denunciation of sin or injustice and implicitly call for moral or social reform. Hence this group of young writers earned from their detractors the label of “Decadents”.

Dowson’s poetry has a sparkling character, using repetitions of sounds, as in nursery rhymes: “Violets and leaves of vine / We gather and entwine” (A Coronal), or repeated groups of words, as in songs: “But the spring of the soul, the spring of the soul, / Cometh no more for you or for me. / … / But the flowers of the soul, the flowers of the soul, / For you and for me bloom never again.”  (In Spring). It relies also on the contrast obtained by putting together unrelated words: “They are not long, the days of wine and roses” (Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam), “I cried for madder music and for stronger wine” (Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae, the so-called Cynara poem). It contains also many elegant evocations of love and sensuality: “Let’s kiss when kissing pleases / And part when kisses pall” (To His Mistress).

Ernest Dowson contributed to modern culture in quite unexpected ways. He is credited with inventing the word “soccer”, although he spelled it “socca” or “socker” (The Letters of Ernest Dowson, no. 13 and no. 91). Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind owes its title to a sentence in Dowson’s Cynara poem: “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind / Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng”. This novel was adapted into a famous 1939 Hollywood film directed by Victor Fleming, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

Ernest Dowson suffered from both bad health and shaky mood. As writes Desmond Flower in his Preface to New Letters from Ernest Dowson: “From his parents he inherited two destructive factors. From his mother a deep sense of depression … which caused her to commit suicide. From his father he inherited tuberculosis from which both of them died.” Indeed his father, whose health declined, died in 1894 of a drug overdose, but many suspected a suicide; then his mother took her own life in 1895. Years later his friend Conal O’Riordan wrote in a letter to Flower (see the Introduction to The Letters of Ernest Dowson): “I recall Ernest showing a photograph of his mother to me and I was moved to tears (being barely twenty-one at the time) by something extraordinarily pathetic in her charming face.” The following photograph taken in 1868 (scanned from The Letters of Ernest Dowson) shows the 9 month old Ernest on his mother’s lap, and one can see the deep sorrow in her eyes:

Artist Unknown - Ernest Dowson and mother (1868)

Artist Unknown – Ernest Dowson and mother (1868)

The legal proceedings for the inheritance of his parents took many years, so Ernest could not get his share of it. Although potentially a rich man, in reality he lived rather poorly and he died at age 32 from tuberculosis and neglect.

Now followers of Pigtails in Paint will be interested to learn that Dowson loved and worshipped little girls, and several of his poems center about girl love. He was, to repeat his own words about the lawyer William Clarke Hall (Letters, no. 115), “a charming person & properly a worshipper & devout follower of the most excellent cult of la Fillette.” (“la Fillette” means “the Little Girl” in French; Dowson spent a great deal of his childhood in France, thus he spoke French fluently.)

In 1889, Dowson worked in the family business, a dry dock on the river Thames located in a suburb of London. Once a little girl brought some joy in his tedious management work there (Letters, no. 5): “I have discovered an adorable child here, hailing from one of the three publics that surround us on either side—’which pleases me mightily’ as Pepys would say. It is astonishing how pretty & delicate the children of the proletariate are—when you consider their atrocious after-growth. Of course it is the same in all classes but the contrast is more glaring in Limehouse. This child hath 6 years & is my frequent visitor, especially since she has realised that my desk contains chocolates.”

After office hours he would work as sub-editor and dramatic critic for a moribund journal, The Critic; this position allowed him to get free tickets for any play showing and, as an avid theatre-goer, he took advantage of this opportunity. Thus he could admire child actresses on stage and he expressed his devotion for them in a peculiar way: by throwing chocolates at them. He seems to have corresponded with some of them, maybe with Mabel Vance (Letters, no. 16 and 153), but certainly with “Little Flossie”, a 9-year-old American actress billed as “the American marvel”, to whom he referred in his letters to Arthur Moore as “ma petite Californienne” (Letters, no. 1, 2, 5 and 17).

But his favourite child actress was Minnie Terry. Born in 1882, she belonged to the third generation of the famous Terry family of actors. As a devoted fan, Dowson watched all plays in which she acted, collected her photographs and various souvenirs about her. He nicknamed her “Mignon” (for her role in the play Bootle’s Baby), “la petite” or “la chère petite”. Below is a 1889 photograph of the 7-year-old Minnie, taken for The Theatre, available at the National Portrait Gallery.

Herbert Rose Barraud - Minnie Terry (1889)

Herbert Rose Barraud – Minnie Terry (1889)

The following two photographs, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, show Minnie Terry in the role of Mignon in Bootles’ Baby.

Artist Unknown - Minnie Terry as Mignon (1888) (1)

Artist Unknown – Minnie Terry as Mignon (1888) (1)

Artist Unknown - Minnie Terry as Mignon (1888) (2)

Artist Unknown – Minnie Terry as Mignon (1888) (2)

Another one shows Minnie Terry as Mignon, with actor C.W. Garthorne (Charles Warlhouse Grimston) as Captain Lucy, in Bootle’s Baby.

Elliott & Fry - Minnie Terry as Mignon and C.W. Garthorne as Captain Lucy in Bootle's Baby (1888)

Elliott & Fry – Minnie Terry as Mignon and C.W. Garthorne as Captain Lucy in Bootle’s Baby (1888)

This picture of the two, from the National Portrait Gallery, is probably also from the same play.

Elliott & Fry - C.W. Garthorne and Minnie Terry (undated)

Elliott & Fry – C.W. Garthorne and Minnie Terry (c1888)

Edit: There is an illustrated version of the book on which this play is based available on the Internet Archive site.  There was also a silent film released in 1914, in which the “Baby” was played by Margaret O’Meara. – Pip

Dowson wrote in The Critic dated 25 May 1889 a review of the play A White Lie (see Appendix A of Letters), in which he gave a dithyrambic eulogy of her role as Daisy Desmond, praising her perfection and spontaneity—even saying that at a critical moment she saved the play from the false note of some adult actor. Here is a photograph of Minnie Terry as Daisy Desmond, from the National Portrait Gallery.

Elliott & Fry - Minnie Terry as Daisy Desmond (1889)

Elliott & Fry – Minnie Terry as Daisy Desmond (1889)

Finally, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, a picture of Minnie Terry in the play On a Doorstep.

Alfred Ellis - Minnie Terry in On a Doorstep (undated)

Alfred Ellis – Minnie Terry in On a Doorstep (c1890)

A famous contemporary of Dowson, also an avid theatre-goer, did not share his enthusiasm for Minnie Terry. According to Hugues Lebailly’s article “Charles Dodgson and the Victorian Cult of the Child“, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) noted in his Diaries on Monday 2 July 1888 that he felt “a little disappointed” with Minnie Terry’s ‘Mignon’ in Bootle’s Baby, deploring that she “recite[d] her speeches, not very clearly, without looking at the person addressed”.

In the summer of 1889, an amendment was proposed to the Protection of Children bill that would have banned employing children under 10 years as actors on stage. Charles Dodgson wrote an article entitled “Stage Children” in The Theatre of 2 September 1889, explaining that playing on stage was a way for poor children to earn some money for their family while having fun at the same time. He “went on suggesting a long list of sensible measures that would secure their schooling, as well as their physical and moral health and safety, most of which were taken up in the final version of the amendment passed later that year” (Lebailly). On the other hand, Dowson wrote in The Critic of 17 August 1889 an article entitled “The Cult of the Child”, in which he stated that children under ten have by nature superior acting capacities, while among adult actors such talents are the exception. He cited Minnie Terry’s role in Bootle’s Baby as an example.

To Dowson, Minnie Terry represented the perfect model for the little girl, as he wrote (Letters, no. 68): “I’ve been kissing my hand aimlessly from the window to une petite demoiselle of my acquaintance—also par exemple a Minnie & presque aussi gentille as her prototype. This has temporarily revived me”.

His devotion to little girls was exclusive, it did not extend to teenagers or adult women. In his correspondence, he expressed his fear of girls growing up into adulthood (New Letters, no. D1, Letters, no. 53). In 1889, he tried “experiments” of platonic love with two teenage girls: first Linda, a barmaid, then Bertha van Raalte, the daughter of a tobacconist. But these relations did not last long; Dowson was not really motivated.

Dowson showed a rather cynical attitude towards adult women; he seemed to have a purely sexual interest in them, which he likened to debauchery and drinking alcohol (Letters, no. 4, 46, and 68). This shows also in his poetry. For instance, in the Cynara poem, one reads “Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine” and “Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet”. And in the later poem Rondeau, he rejects the “wine-stained lip” of a woman for the “white roses of virginity”. Indeed, it is probable that many of his sexual encounters happened with prostitutes or women he met in bars.

Being fed up with women, he finally confided to Arthur Moore his resolution (Letters, no. 78): “Methinks I will swear off wine & women & weeds & lates hours & confine myself to the writing of the r.o & the cult of Minnie Terry.” (Probably “the r.o” refers to the novel he was writing with Moore). Here are two pictures of Minnie Terry as a kind of romantic pin-up, typical of the Victorian child cult.

Elliott & Fry - Minnie Terry with a dog (undated)

Elliott & Fry – Minnie Terry with a dog (c1889)

Artist Unknown - Minnie Terry (undated)

Artist Unknown – Minnie Terry (c1888)

However, within a few months, fate would have Dowson giving up his cult of Minnie Terry. In November 1889, he entered a cheap Polish restaurant held by Joseph Foltinowicz, located at 19 Sherwood Street in Soho, at the back of the present Regent Palace Hotel. “I discovered it. It is cheap; the cuisine is fair; I am the whole clientele, and there is a little Polish demoiselle therein (Minnie at 5st 7—not quite that) whom it is a pleasure to sit & look at.” (Letters, no. 73) The “little Polish demoiselle” was Adelaide, the proprietor’s daughter, aged eleven and a half years, whom he nicknamed “Missie” or “Missy”. He would soon fall in love with her and, quite unexpectedly, he would continue to love her as she grew into her teens (cf. the poem Growth). Although she rejected his marriage proposal and eventually married another man in 1897, his feelings for her did not abate. That is how Ernest Dowson became the great poet of love that we now know. This is a very long story that will be told on another occasion.

References and further readings:

See also: What’s in a Name? Charles Dodgson

All Girls Go to Heaven: The Life and Death of Judith Barsi

According to Dr. Phillip Resnick, a psychiatric professor at Case Western University and co-author of a study called Parents Who Kill, filicide (the murder of a child by its parent) comprises one in every thirty-three homicides in America, about three hundred per year.  It is the third leading cause of death for American children between the ages of five and fourteen and is the second most common type of intrafamilial murder.  And yet, most of these cases barely make national news; high profile cases like Aaron Schaffhausen’s murder of his three daughters (discussed in the linked article) are the exception to the rule in the violence-numb United States.  Another such exception was the murder of child celebrity Judith Barsi.

Although she never attained the level of a Shirley Temple, a Drew Barrymore or a Dakota Fanning, she had been quietly building up a respectable acting and voice-over career since age five and was set to become a household name with the release of her last film All Dogs Go to Heaven when her father put a .25 caliber pistol behind her ear while she was sleeping one late summer night in 1988 and murdered her point blank in her bed.  He also murdered her mother Maria that evening, and a few days later shot himself–a triple murder-suicide.  The events leading up to Judith’s murder and the crime itself comprise a staggeringly horrific story.

Photographer Unknown - Judith Barsi (1)

Photographer Unknown – Judith Barsi (1)

Judith Eva Barsi was born on June 6th, 1978.  Her father, József Barsi, was a fugitive from Communist Hungary, as was her mother, Maria Virovacz.  Her parents had immigrated to America separately and met in New York City.  Owing to their shared heritage, the two were drawn to each other.  But they had something else in common: both had difficult childhoods, József because he was illegitimate and was constantly bullied because of it, and Maria because her own father was a physically and psychologically abusive alcoholic.  It’s a story as common as dirt: those who come from abusive families wind up falling into the same groove when they become parents.

Photographer Unknown - Judith Barsi (2)

Photographer Unknown – Judith Barsi (2)

The couple eventually married and migrated to Los Angeles, where Judith was born.  Discovered at a skating rink, she was initially cast in a series of commercials for Lays Potato Chips, Jif Peanut Butter, Rocky Road Cereal and many others before she appeared in her first narrative role (in the television miniseries Fatal Vision, ironically about a doctor convicted of murdering his own family).  Judith was petite and short for her age, and she was often cast as a child two to three years younger than her actual age, a boon for filmmakers who needed a very young child, who are notoriously difficult to work with.  The next year she was given a small part in another television movie, a drama about sexual abuse called Kids Don’t Tell.  She went on to do guest appearances in several notable TV series: The New Twilight Zone, Remington Steele, Punky Brewster, The Tracy Ullman Show, Cheers, Cagney & Lacey and several others, including Christmas-themed episodes of The Fall Guy, The Love Boat and Trapper John, M.D.  She also filmed a few more made-for-TV movies such as Destination America and an entry in the ABC After School Special series, A Family Again.

John Finger, et al - Stills from 'Cheers' episode "Relief Bartender"

John Finger, et al – Stills from ‘Cheers’ episode “Relief Bartender”

Art Dielhenn, et al - Still from 'Punky Brewster' episode "Changes Part 2"

Art Dielhenn, et al – Still from ‘Punky Brewster’ episode “Changes Part 2″

Her theatrical film debut was in the Gary Busey biker gang action flick Eye of the Tiger, where she played Busey’s daughter, and roles in Slam Dance and Jaws: The Revenge would soon follow.  But perhaps her biggest role was as the voice of the little Saurolophus named Ducky (“Yep yep yep!”) in Don Bluth’s animated baby dinosaur adventure The Land Before Time.  Bluth was so impressed with her abilities that he hired her again to voice the little orphan girl Anne-Marie in All Dogs Go to Heaven.  This would prove to be one of her final roles.  In fact, neither of the Bluth films were released until after Judith’s murder.

John McPherson, et al - Jaws 4; The Revenge (lobby card)

John McPherson, et al – Jaws 4; The Revenge (lobby card)

Don Bluth, et al - Still from 'The Land Before Time' (1)

Don Bluth, et al – Still from ‘The Land Before Time’ (1)

Don Bluth, et al - All Dogs Go to Heaven (poster)

Don Bluth, et al – All Dogs Go to Heaven (poster)

By all accounts Judith was a quiet, sweet-natured and obedient child, leaving many around her with a false sense of her security; meanwhile, as her career was taking off, behind the scenes things were going from bad to worse.  Her father was an unemployed, insecure drunk who became increasingly paranoid and jealous of his daughter’s breadwinner status and the fact that everyone who knew her adored her.  Judith was constantly stressed and terrified of her father, who had repeatedly threatened her life if she didn’t come back to him, essentially the same way he treated his wife.  He was also growing physically abusive toward her, to the point where he threw a pan at her face and bloodied her nose.  When she had an emotional breakdown at her agent’s office, the authorities were contacted and Judith was sent to a child psychologist, but because the police had little physical evidence to go on, the case was not pursued.  Moreover, Maria had promised that she would soon divorce Jozsef and asked the authorities not to prosecute the case.

Photographer Unknown - Still from Unidentified Film

Photographer Unknown – Still from Unidentified Film

John McPherson, et al - Stills from 'Jaws 4: The Revenge'

John McPherson, et al – Stills from ‘Jaws 4: The Revenge’

In her final days Judith had begun to show signs of the strain, gaining weight and pulling out her own eyelashes as well as the whiskers of her pet cats.  The nose-bloodying incident occurred just before Judith left to film Jaws 4 in Hawaii.  During this period Joszef also put a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her if she did not come home, much the way abusive spouses often treat the objects of their abuse.  When the authorities were finally alerted, it seemed that things were about to change for Judith, and Maria promised to divorce Jozsef.  She had an apartment set up for herself and Judith to go to whenever her husband became belligerent, but it was too little too late, demonstrating the urgency that such cases should be given.  It seemed Jozsef had some inkling that the gig was up for him.  On July 25th, Judith was last seen riding her bike around the neighborhood of Canoga Park where the family lived; that night would be her last.

John McPherson, et al - Still from 'Jaws 4: The Revenge' (detail)

John McPherson, et al – Still from ‘Jaws 4: The Revenge’ (detail)

Additional Facts:

  • By age 7 Judith was pulling in $100, 000 a year, money that allowed the family to move into the nice three-bedroom home in Canoga Park, the same home she would eventually be killed in.
  • At 10 Judith stood at only 3′ 8″ and was taking a regimen of growth hormones to compensate.
  • Judith was bilingual, speaking both English and Hungarian fluently.
  • One of her favorite activities was swimming, and she wore her own swimsuit while filming Jaws 4.
  • She thoroughly enjoyed doing voice-over work for animation and wanted to continue doing it after her experiences working with Don Bluth.  Just before her death she had signed on to work with Hanna-Barbera.
  • Her funeral was attended by many of the celebrities who knew her and had worked with her.  Lance Guest, who played her father in Jaws 4, was one of the pallbearers at her funeral, and the Gold sisters (Tracey, Missy and Brandy, best known for childhood roles in TV series such as Benson, Growing Pains and Baby Makes Five) read Edgar Guest poem A Child of Mine as part of her eulogy.
  • The cast and crew of All Dogs Go to Heaven dedicated the song Love Survives–heard playing over the end credits of the film–to Judith’s memory.
  • She was buried beside her mother in Forest Lawn Memorial Park–also known as the Hollywood Hills Cemetery–in Los Angeles.
Photographer Unknown - Judith Barsi's Headstone in Forest Lawn Memorial Park

Photographer Unknown – Judith Barsi’s Headstone in Forest Lawn Memorial Park

Don Bluth et al - Still from 'The Land Before Time' (2)

Don Bluth et al – Still from ‘The Land Before Time’ (2)

Wikipedia: Judith Barsi

IMDb: Judith Barsi

Random Reviews by Emily: Judith Barsi 1978-1988       

Maiden Voyages: January 2015

Happy New Year to all! I have been noticing during the last year that Pigtails in Paint has entered its “middle game”. For those who are unfamiliar with chess parlance, it is understood that the beginning and end of a game are relatively easy to analyze as opposed to the middle—with its myriad of possibilities. This site has begun to develop its character and be of particular service to its readers and yet its full purpose and destiny is not yet clear. For me personally, it is serving as a sounding board for me to address unresolved questions. In time, it is my hope that it will become a kind of definitive resource—although it cannot be said what form that will take.

New Addresses: By the time most of you read this, Pip Starr will have switched to a new email account. From now on, inquiries about his posts and other contributions to the site should be directed to pipstarr72@yahoo.com. General comments and criticism about the site should be directed to Ron, Editor-in-Chief at ron_at_pigtails@yahoo.com since he has final say on editorial decisions. In the next few days, Pigtails in Paint will be establishing a PayPal account to allow our supporters to financially contribute to our efforts. I will update this post with the details when everything is in place.

The Writing Team: In addition to the ongoing contributions of Pip, Ami and RJ, I am pleased that some new people with a wide range of backgrounds have added their voices as well. Thank you WCL, Christian and Susan Adler. I want to assure any prospective writers that I am a patient but frank writing coach and will edit all submissions for clarity and consistency with Pigtails’ philosophy, so please don’t feel intimidated about making a contribution.

Wish List: By now, I have accumulated a lot of promising leads with not enough information to proceed. I have now established a “Wish List” tab (under “Community”) with requests for more information on specific artists (or works of art) that need to be dug out before a proper post can be composed. Please check this periodically to see how you can help.

Lolicon and Japanese Law: I was pleased to break the ice, as it were, on the Lolicon phenomenon. So many readers have been helpful in filling in the gaps. In the course of acquiring some of these books, I noticed a heightened concern from Japanese sellers about a new law that took effect on July 15th. I had one of our legal researchers look into the matter so we would have a better idea what was going on.

Essentially, it is an amendment to the 1999 Act on Punishment of Activities Relating to Child Prostitution and Child Pornography,‭ ‬and the Protection of Children. The amendment prohibits possession of child pornography and the storage of electronic records of child pornography whereas the 1999 law focused only on production and distribution. The offense of possession is now punishable by imprisonment for up to one year or a fine of up to one million yen‭ (‬about US$10,000‭). Two other provisions extend the scope of the original act: 1) It is also now an offense to record a child secretly, not just forcing or instructing a child to pose. 2) Online service providers are given further incentive to cooperate with authorities in investigating and preventing the spread of such materials. No attempt has been made to clear up the ambiguity of how an intent to cause sexual arousal might be proved in a court of law. There is a one year grace period for potential offenders to get rid of anything that may now be in their possession; and some legitimate materials are bound to be destroyed in the course of Japanese citizens’ efforts to play it safe.

A Startling Discovery: The original intent of this site was to make a light-hearted exploration of the little girl mystique. In time, I began to realize that the items that stirred controversy were indicative of a deeper problem in our society; and whatever forces were involved needed to be brought to light and subjected to rigorous scrutiny. One of the things I began to notice is how much more adamantly men (as opposed to women) reacted to images of nude children and children in intimate contexts. When I finally worked my way to a closer examination of the history of gender issues, I realized that this site, quite inadvertently, has been taking a feminist stance. In the political sphere, the term “feminism” has taken a beating the past couple of decades, but its core meaning should resonate with any self-confident person of good heart. Because women are different from men and children are different from adults, the dominant political forces have managed to treat them like second-class citizens—in both sly and overt ways. Continued enforcement of that paradigm is intolerable and Pigtails will continue to serve to educate readers about the nobility of all human beings, no matter how different they may be from us.

Anima in Exile: Aron Wiesenfeld

Aron Wiesenfeld (born 1972) is a well-known artist and illustrator that has international recognition. His work has been featured in Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose magazines but he is also represented by the Arcadia Gallery in New York; that is what brought Wiesenfeld to my attention. He has been accepted by both the Classical Realists and the lowbrow artists that seem to be in ideological opposition to each other. I wondered how Wiesenfeld could prosper—able to find his anima in such an environment. Before I majored in Psychology, I studied art for two years, so my impressions come from experience.

I knew of Wiesenfeld’s work for some time but only recently began to appreciate his strength—lying in the fact that much of his work comes completely from his imagination; he is much closer to the old masters because his work is inventive. During the Renaissance, invention was highly valued—the ability to draw and paint an entire scene from imagination. For example, Caravaggio began the trend of working directly form nature; for this, Pietro Bellori scorned him for “neither invention nor decorum nor design nor knowledge of the science of painting” and that “once the model was removed from his eyes, his hand and his mind remained empty.” While I wouldn’t agree with this critique of Caravaggio, the new schools that claim to have revived traditional art only condition artists to be impassive technicians lacking inventiveness. Their standard for art appears to be paintings that are so realistic that they could be mistaken as a photograph. I suspect they would reject Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as amateurish. Because it is a greater challenge to paint a realistic scene in which many parts are invented, most artists are afraid to attempt it. In this context, the whimsical poetry of Wiesenfeld is refreshing.

It’s interesting that Wiesenfeld illustrated comics for a time and developed his skills from that experience; so perhaps it is better for an artist to study in an illustration department. The artist’s background in comics likely brought him in contact with Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose, which are known for showing pop surrealism. His work is actually closer to the magical realism of the 1950s, which is anchored in common reality, but has overtones of wonder and the supernatural. I guess the magazine editors thought Wiesenfeld’s work was weird enough, even though it wasn’t pop surrealism. Instead of drawing from the unconscious as the surrealists did, pop surrealism reflects a state of over-consciousness of media images. Sentiments for subjects are treated with an ironic detachment, as if art is a defense against being a “dupe of advertising” (Ron English). Our culture has reached a state of over-consciousness that is suspicious of the instincts; many artists have be conditioned to avoid pretty girls as a subject or if they do, the girls are painted with some kind of prop in a detached manner.

Aron Wiesenfeld - Runaway (c2009)

Aron Wiesenfeld – Runaway (2006)

What struck me, was how Wiesenfeld’s use of symbolism differs from that of his peers. In Runaway, a young girl is holding onto a cat and a goose making her way through a flood; the other artists who appear in Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose would most likely have rendered the cat and goose as stuffed toys, but the runaway is holding onto animals that have significance to her. That is what makes his work so profound; I think this painting is a reflection of the age—the girl has run away. Her portrayal is like the postmodernists in that they lost their foundations (their home), but she still has something meaningful to hold onto.

Aron Wiesenfeld - The Tree (2012)

Aron Wiesenfeld – The Tree (2012)

Aron Wiesenfeld - The Tree (2012) (detail)

Aron Wiesenfeld – The Tree (2012) (detail)

In The Tree, a young girl has climbed a tree surrounded by a flood; as she feeds a few birds from her hand, a distant ship appears over the horizon. The contrast of the desperate situation with the girl at ease evokes the mood of the great 19th century painting Hope by Puvis de Chavannes; without a doubt, the girls are anima figures.

The anima is an archetype that was described by the psychologist Carl Jung. Jung believed the anima was the expression of a man’s feminine inner personality and that it was a source of creative ability. At the beginning of World War I, Jung recorded his series of dreams of a wise old man and his companion, a little girl. Dr.C.George Boeree acknowledged that “the little girl became anima, the feminine soul, who served as his main medium of communication with the deeper aspects of his unconscious.” Amanda Erlanson recognized the influence of the subconscious in Wiesenfeld’s paintings.

“Unlocking the subconscious reservoirs of the spirit should be the highest goal of art, but few painters in the art world have the courage to attempt it.”

Our culture has really lost contact will the anima; although every female that appears in art isn’t necessarily an anima figure, we usually assume that a male only sees a female as an object and denies that a girl in a painting could be a reflection of an aspect of his own being. Some men seem to exist only to punch in and out for work; a young girl could symbolize the joy or freedom absent from everyday life. The denial of the anima is manifested in contemporary art with the trend in plastic dolls.

Aron Wiesenfeld - Scout  (2010)

Aron Wiesenfeld – Scout (2010)

I suppose some will consider my interpretation to be superfluous, but I think that view is mostly due to the state of over-consciousness that Jung discussed. Because Wiesenfeld’s enigmatic girls are from his imagination, I think it is reasonable to say that they represent anima projections; in other words, Scout isn’t just Jenny that lives across the street. That’s why I made the point about invention; the new Classical Realists have been trained to just copy Jenny in the studio staring at the wall. The artist should really be encouraged to paint from intuition. Another artist just posted on Pigtails, Scott Affleck, is one of the few other artists in the same terrain as Wiesenfeld—stepping even further into the unconscious by painting nudes.

Aron Wiesenfeld - Bloom (2014)

Aron Wiesenfeld – Bloom (2014)

My impressions came from an interest in pursuing a career in art; I found the environment of the Classical Realists to be stifling. I changed my major to Psychology. The lowbrows allow more freedom but, as their name implies, content is not taken very seriously. Ron suggested that I should avoid traditional art criticism; I believe serious artists are forced to live in a vacuum where commentary about how their work contributes is almost nonexistent. Weisenfeld’s enchanting Bloom is the kind of painting that would, for example, be criticized by the Classical Realists for lacking a select focus. They would be oblivious to the fact that all the details of the plants enhance the expression of the work. In the paintings Runaway and The Tree there is a threat in the form of water. In Jungian psychology, water often represents the depths of the unconscious. Due to the fact that a state of over-consciousness forfeits the resource of the unconscious, it remains untamed; there has to be a balance between the conscious and unconscious. Our culture lacks equilibrium—expressive art that reflects a worldview between neoconservatism and postmodern cynicism is not represented. From my research on Wiesenfeld, I realized that he didn’t have as many ties to Classical Realism as I at first thought. I came to the conclusion that a passionate traditional artist would likely need to exhibit with lowbrow art. Unfortunately, if Waterhouse were alive today, he would have to exhibit his Hylas and the Nymphs next to work like Ron English’s Precode Minnie.

Aron Wiesenfeld - The Crown (2011)

Aron Wiesenfeld – The Crown (2011)

This is Susan’s first submission to Pigtails in Paint, so thank you for your efforts. Wiesenfeld is a working artist and operates out of San Diego producing a lot of young girl/anima imagery in charcoal and paint and his Official Site and Facebook page are well worth a visit. -Ron

Late Bloomer: Robert Mileham

I find one the most lamentable things about the dominance of capitalism is that it demands, of our most talented artists and other modern day prophets, a pursuit of money to survive. So, in many cases, great artists can only take up their craft later in life—when they have attained a modicum of financial security.

Robert Mileham (born 1950) demonstrated skill at drawing in his youth but was not encouraged to pursue it as a career. Instead, he went into the army—like his father and brother before him—followed by some time in business. Only in the last ten years, 8 years in earnest, did he pursue his interest in sculpting.

“Why do I sculpt? I simply love it. I just have to ‘recreate’ life as I see it. I caught sculpture at a turning point in my life. It was infectious, demanding, selfish, totally compulsive…it is more than an image…It has the advantage of presence.”

He took up sculpture in the conventional way, through life classes, but is largely self-taught. Much of his work is commissioned in bronze, “a wonderfully versatile medium”. It’s advantage over marble is in the way it renders a greater spectrum of color and crispness of detail. He has recently taken an interest in Terra Cotta after a commissioned portrait bust gave him the opportunity to reinvent this medium. More than half his work takes human form and he credits his grandfather, Harry R. Mileham (1873-1957)—with his extensive use of the human form and classical training—as his earliest influence.

“…I have grown to love the human body as a subject. The hands, feet and especially the face, are the most exciting to sculpt. For me, feet depict tension and sensuality; hands reveal age and beauty but a face can conceal and reveal life, spirit and personality.”

Apart from his love of the human form, he is quite taken by Springer and Cocker Spaniels and sculpts them frequently. He grew up with them and admires their quick-wittedness and energy. He enjoys sculpting other animals as well but is always drawn back to Spaniels. The following piece illustrates both his love for these breeds and his commitment to involving and encouraging children. This was created specifically for the Countryside Exhibition in 2007.

Robert Mileham - A Team (2007)

Robert Mileham – A Team (2007)

Perhaps Mileham’s most compelling early piece was a commission for a young girl. It was to stand in a yard that was once a Hampshire workhouse between 1791 and 1834. The current property owner wanted a statue to commemorate this as a kind of daily reminder, but did not want it to be too depressing. Although the artist could perhaps be accused of sentimentality, he explains that he wanted to produce a sculpture depicting how these workers might have preferred to be remembered—not as they really were. The figure is lean and ragged, but expresses a wish to make the best of things with a smile. Records of the clothing worn in such places in this period are non-existent, so Mileham chose a Gainsborough’s painting of a little cottage girl with puppy as a model. A second version, Big Sister, of the same edition has clothing made of cloth with her foot on a ball. This piece has since inspired at least two new commissions.

Robert Mileham - Waif (2002)

Robert Mileham – Waif (2002)

Robert Mileham - Waif (Big Sister) (2002)

Robert Mileham – Waif (Big Sister) (2002)

The next work has a very personal meaning for the artist. It was made for a family who lost their ten-year-old daughter to leukemia. The family broke up in a divorce before it was completed so “she” was left in a corner for nearly two years. Mileham’s own son and aunt died in childhood so when The Nicholas Wylde competition “Heavenly Bodies” in The William Herschel Museum was announced, he finished the work and dedicated it to all children who died young. This intense piece was meant to express the exhilaration of life.

Robert Mileham - Ice Breaker (2005) (1)

Robert Mileham – Ice Breaker (2005) (1)

Robert Mileham - Ice Breaker (2005) (2)

Robert Mileham – Ice Breaker (2005) (2)

One of his most popular figures is a nude young girl entitled Anne of Buckinghamshire. This commission was for a specific place on the banks of a tributary of The Thames in a garden which has a connection to Anne Boleyn so hence the name. A retired couple had seen Waif in Hampshire and wanted a sculpture in their garden. These images are in the original clay.

Robert Mileham - Anne of Buckinghamshire (2013) (1)

Robert Mileham – Anne of Buckinghamshire (2013) (1)

Robert Mileham - Anne of Buckinghamshire (2013) (2)

Robert Mileham – Anne of Buckinghamshire (2013) (2)

An interesting trend that keeps cropping up in my work on this site is how so many women purchase artwork of children, even nude children. Mileham says that 75% of the buyers of his child and nude sculptures have been women. There is still something about our culture’s portrayal of masculinity that compels most men to react with anxiety and hostility to images of lovely girl children in a tender or intimate context.

Mileham’s work is in private collections around the world. He continues to work in the countryside, using an old tack room as a studio, surrounded by horses, dogs, cats and abundant wildlife. His blog, Dorset Sculpture, offers an excellent insight into the artistic process, the admirable work of other artists and very English poetic impressions of the countryside.

My research on this artist kept reminding me of another, Charles Summers. He does not paint figures and so could not be justifiably posted on this site. He admired the work of Taylor and Constable since he was young, ran a bookstore with his wife and only painted in earnest when he retired. His work has also received wide acclaim all over the world and is another fine example of a kind of revival of representative fine art.

Robert Mileham (official website where you can see more views of these and many other sculptures)