Artists are People Too: Polixeni Papapetrou

This is a personal story, because it is about my evolving friendship with a remarkable artist and so you will forgive a lack of personal detachment when discussing her. Over the years, I have always been impressed how people with some notoriety will nonetheless be quite approachable and personable. This is certainly the case with Polixeni Papapetrou, and through her I discovered that true artists have the intellectual and spiritual depth I really respect and savor—but she was the first and so there is a special place in my heart for this particular artist.

By August 2008 I had just discovered the exquisite work of Sally Mann and some of the ridicule she received “exploiting” her own children. In researching Mann I heard a lot of stories of mothers being arrested for taking innocent pictures of their naked children and I decided that it was time for me to assess the veracity of these stories myself. It was slow going at first, but one item caught my attention early on about a scandal caused when a Melbourne-based artist allowed an image of her naked daughter to appear on the cover of a major art magazine. When I looked into the issue further I learned that it was a cropped image of 5-year-old Olympia Nelson (Papapetrou’s daughter) on the July 2008 issue of Art Monthly Australia (#211):

Polixeni Papapetrou – Olympia as Lewis Carroll’s Beatrice Hatch Before White Cliffs (2003)

This was from her “Dreamchild” series which was produced in 2002, but the cover had reignited the controversy. As you can see, it is a beautiful and tasteful image and I was proud of myself in recognizing that the composition resembled that of one of Charles Dodgson’s nudes—to appear in an upcoming post. Since I knew the artist was under siege, I wanted to lend my support and let her know that the whole world was not against her. I was amazed by her prompt and reasoned reply, and she confirmed that it was indeed an homage. I only later discovered that her doctoral dissertation was on Dodgson’s photography and that she is probably one of the leading experts of her generation.

I was startled that she had such a considered response ready, but as she had received her Ph.D. only a year before, she had the citations readily at hand. In the beginning it was an information overload. I essentially got a reading list which I did my best to follow up on, and she mentioned the issues of other artists who used their children in their work: Edward Weston, Emmett Gowin, Sally Mann, Tierney Gearon, etc. I also learned that Olympia, even at that tender age, was quite strong-willed and was the one who insisted on doing it in the first place. It was especially ironic that the choice to put this image on the cover was carefully thought out as it had been exhibited many times without a peep, so everyone involved thought it safe! After the release of this publication Prime Minister Rudd said some hateful things about the work and the artist’s motivations. The media were camped outside their home for two days until the now 11-year-old Olympia decided she wanted to speak out publicly. Poli did not want her to at first but there was no stopping her, and so she and her father went out and she made her statement (which can be seen here.)

I did my best to read all the research she gave me, and sometimes I would follow up with more questions. I soon felt the need to reciprocate as she was giving me so much, so I tried to understand in more detail what things interested her and slowly I would give her leads of things I myself had discovered. I live in a rather intellectually bereft town, and so I treasured the mental stimulation and eventually the conversation turned to other things like politics, health, family, the rigors of travel and family photos and anecdotes. Before she dedicated herself more exclusively to art, Poli studied law and met and married Robert Nelson, a professor of art history and art critic. Besides Olympia, they have a son, Solomon, who is two years her junior. As a consequence the children are blessed with a strong scholastic legacy. Both children learned piano and violin beginning at age 5 and the violin became one of Olympia’s passions; she even spent six weeks in Italy to master the instrument and learn the language. Poli herself has an almost selfless compassion and recently helped a friend get her health back after the particularly stressful passing of her husband. Lately she has taken an interest in greyhounds and has a male named Lexi.

After much consideration, it occurs to me that there are two running themes in Papapetrou’s work: 1) An emphasis on body image, which is rather ubiquitous in our modern culture yet rarely deeply examined, and 2) a dark and eerie quality to her imagery, which she says she is not shy in exploring. Poli likes the idea of how her artistic vision has evolved organically, and like a true artist, her ideas strain at first for meaning and only later begin to crystallize.

When Olympia was born it seemed inevitable that such an event would affect the artist. Even though it might be said that Papapetrou garnered some notoriety because of the controversial nudes, what really fascinates her most is the cultural developments of the costumes of children over the years. It is fitting that the earliest substantive incorporation of Olympia in her art would focus almost fetishistically on her wardrobe—the eerie element being the toddler’s conspicuous absence. “Olympia’s Clothes” is a series of photographic collages of the 2-year-old’s outfits. Olympia being too young to have a well-developed scheme of self-expression, this collection is really about the projections of her parents and well-intentioned friends and family. As such, the child is endowed somewhat with a cloak of classlessness, sometimes even genderlessness, and families of limited means even manage to spoil their babies and toddlers in this way. Our post-industrial consumer culture has made possible a wardrobe once reserved for princes only a couple of centuries ago.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Olympia’s Clothes (installation detail) (1999)

In the series “Play” we see Olympia in a charming stage of early childhood. Any child development expert will tell you that, as children master the manipulation of their bodies, they begin to experiment with the particulars of their culture. The seeming incongruity of trying on adult clothes—or in this case jewelry—against the wholesome naked frame is irresistibly charming. The peculiar twist social reactionaries have put on this play has made us all hypersensitive, forcing us to be needlessly self-conscious about our enjoyment of this spectacle. It is the artist’s hope that we may review these images again someday and have a more constructive discourse untainted by artificial controversy. Papapetrou is in good company in this respect, and to my eye these images slightly suggest the work of Sally Mann—minus the candid domestic backgrounds. Robert Nelson’s essay about this series quite intelligently uses the word sensuality, which can help us adults divorce the concepts of a child’s natural inclination for self-display from the grown-up connotations of mature sexuality. Children have certain instincts which promote their development, but the viewer should refrain from making patent projections about the child’s future.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Olympia Wearing Grandmother’s Jewelry #2 (2001)

“Phantomwise” is a title drawn from a Lewis Carroll acrostic poem. This fortuitous series was the result of the 5-year-old Olympia being stranded inside the house due to rain. Instead of having an adventure through the looking-glass, she insisted on being photographed—already a long-established pattern. She happened to have finished watching Walt Disney’s Pocahontas and had cobbled together an Indian brave costume to start with. Despite all protestations of inner inspiration, Poli would have to admit that the spontaneous wishes of her children were a strong contributing factor in her choices. Not being formally educated in art history myself, I am slowly learning the jargon. One of the first terms I remember distinctly was tableau vivant which Poli uses extensively. I did not know at the time that this was an almost inevitable form coming from the Victorian psyche during the advent of photography. We are accustomed to photographs serving
a documentary function, but in the early days when composing and processing images was an arduous task, skilled artists had to choose their subjects carefully, and the natural first instincts were to compose scenes theatrically and—especially with children—fantastically. Children’s bodies and personalities lent themselves well to this kind of portrayal while adults tended to participate in portraiture—no less carefully manipulated. This series really demonstrates a more sophisticated form of play as Olympia and her mother experiment with more exotic compositions than before.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Indian Brave (2002)

In “Dreamchild” Papapetrou is playing exclusively with the photographic work of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. She made some reference to his work in earlier series, but her efforts here are more specific. As much flak as Poli and her family received regarding her nude studies and tableaux, I actually found her work quite conservative, which is a testament to how hysterical the debate has become. She is generous and open-minded and respects the efforts of others who experiment with different portrayals of children. A curious issue about child actors comes into play here as they act out or model behaviors they would not do at that age. Here Olympia has not yet learned to hold, let alone play, a violin.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Olympia as Lewis Carroll’s Xie Kitchin (Tuning) (2003)

After a short series called “Fairy Tales” Papapetrou focused even more tightly on the Alice books written by Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. She says it was Olympia’s attitude and excitement about this project that helped her recognize the playful aspects of Dodgson’s original work. “Wonderland” evokes a long legacy of children’s illustrators, and as always, Olympia and her friends make excellent subjects. Papapetrou made use of her formidable education again by staying true to the work of Sir John Tenniel—an important early illustrator of the Alice books—with the help of her painted backdrops.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Pepper Soup (2004)

“Haunted Country” introduces a couple of new elements. One is the expanded awareness of the landscape of Papapetrou’s native Australia, which we see more and more from this point. The other is the introduction of her son Solomon as another subject in her work. It is remarkable as I study the careers of women artists that there is often a consistent progression. Early on—with or without formal education—there is a child or children who are the focus of the artist. As the children grow up, it seems more attention is paid to the environment which is often regarded with a respectful awe. Poli’s explanation for this development in her work is worth reading here.

Polixeni Papapetrou – By the Yarra 1857 #2 (2006)

“Games of Consequence” adds a new dimension of play—both for the actors and for the artist herself. Although there is still a childhood charm to the play, there is an earnestness to assimilate the demands of the adult world; these games have rules and those rules come from a culture we are now a part of and will pass on to our children. The more integral use of the artist’s native Australian landscapes contributes a heightened mood to each scene. In this case the material is drawn from Poli’s own childhood memories of outings with her sister and younger brother. Although the title implies that the girl in the foreground has just had a fall, the really sinister and consequential component is the secret being shared by the other two girls—presumably about the fallen girl. Boys and men who do not give much thought to female psychology should realize that secrets and ridicule are some of the most potent causes of stress among girls.

Polixeni Papapetrou – The Fall (2008)

“Between Worlds” has a special place for me because this was when Poli began to share some details of her thought processes with me. Her idea was that, even though children of this age have assimilated much of their culture, there are still wholesome and spontaneous animal impulses, and these striking juxtapositions speak to the idea of having one foot in each world. In addition, the effect of alienness is a statement about how children have become regarded as the “other” in adult society, as though they were not fully human. At first I had expected the usual stereotypical animal roles, but the somewhat regal sounding titles added a depth to the images that defy convention and open the mind to new possibilities. I believe this sophistication marks a new spiritual depth in Papapetrou’s work. My favorite is the one with horses among the hay bales; by now Olympia has become a skilled violinist and Solomon indulges his mother by toying with gender roles and is the other figure lying against the bale. The obligation of holiday gift giving means that we don’t always give or get the most thoughtful gifts, but Poli chose the perfect image here to be made into a Christmas card.

Polixeni Papapetrou – The Violinist (2012)

“Dreamkeepers” appears to be cut from the same cloth as “Between Worlds” from a production standpoint, but there is a tempest of emotions beneath the surface for both the children and their mother. On the one hand, there is this exuberance for the potentialities of the future with the concomitant insecurities of a child entering adolescence. By this time, Poli has become quite used to working with her children, and as they become more aloof and independent there is a melancholia and an uncertainty about the future. Papapetrou, like many artists who work with children, cannot help comparing the bodily perfection of youth to the progressive signs of aging. Poli sent me an artist book of work from this series and the response was intense; they say no news is bad news and though my guests thought it was weird, it was worthy of comment—many taking snapshots on their mobile phones. The idea was to have some visual cues of youth from the body beneath with masked cues of age on the surface. The stark artificiality of the masks and costumes against a youthful natural frame and skin, and the almost surreal Australian backgrounds, creates an impressionistic effect, and so many viewers at first believed them to be paintings. I asked her about the introduction of clown costumes in the work and she said she began to be intrigued by them and wanted to play with that image in later work. Here is an interview with Robert Nelson which includes some charming excerpts of her work in the field and her family life.

Polixeni Papapetrou – The Wanderer No. 3 (2012)

Papapetrou’s latest series “The Ghillies” is inspired once again by the whims of the children—this time Solomon. He is an avid player of combat video games; he saw and wanted a Ghillie suit he saw in a store, which is a kind of tactical camouflage. Naturally, he asked his mother to take a picture of him in it. Papapetrou continued to make use of Australian backgrounds and the results can be seen on her website and will be exhibited in April 2013 at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York City.

My involvement with Pigtails was a sudden development, and so I had not told Poli about it at first. I was pleased to learn that she thought it “a very thoughtful and considered site,” and I can only hope this post also meets with her approval. Pip had already posted a couple of her images, but I felt Poli deserved a proper post all to herself as she contributed greatly to my personal development in art history, appreciation and criticism.

Her children’s passage from childhood into adolescence is cause for bittersweet reflection, but she informs me that she has purchased a new state-of-the-art camera and has found some young girls willing to model should Olympia be unavailable . I have no idea if her clown imagery is going to dovetail with this new development, but in true artistic form, these thoughts will have to incubate in her mind for a while before they are made manifest.

As Olympia turns 16 (and Solomon 14) they may begin to contemplate their childhood experiences, and I hope they will take the time someday to share them with us from an even more mature and self-possessed perspective.  You can hear some recent comments from the children in a downloadable video by Roy Chu here.

* I did not know if Poli wanted me to talk about her illness and prognosis to the public.  I wanted to publish this post in a timely manner so she could see what regard I have for her and her work.  The Age published an article that discusses some of the personal issues  and the latest artistic developments.

Polixeni Papapetrou (official site)

Cherry Ripe!

There is a garden in her face
Where roses and white lilies grow;
A heav’nly paradise is that place
Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.
There cherries grow which none may buy,
Till “Cherry-ripe” themselves do cry.

The above is the first stanza of Thomas Campion’s poem “There is a Garden in Her Face,” a paean to a beautiful virginal girl. How do we know this? We must first put it into historical context. Cherry vendors in England traditionally used the call “Cherry ripe!” to let people know that cherries were ready to buy. If we apply this fact to the poem, we see that the man is describing a girl that, while beautiful, is not yet ready to be “bought”—that is, she hasn’t quite reached sexual maturity. Campion admires this girl for her sexual purity, which he acquaints with spiritual purity. Here we have a basic explanation for the Victorian cult of the girl (which followed Campion by a couple hundred years): girls, because of their perceived innocence and sweetness, were considered above all other natural human groups to be the closest to God, so long as they maintained their virginity, hence British society’s horror of the underground culture of girls being kidnapped and deflowered—brought to light by W. T. Stead’s series The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon, and likely highly exaggerated therein—which compelled Britain’s Parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16.

In terms of cherries being associated with young girls and virginity, many people seem to be under the impression that slang terms like cherry, in reference to the hymen, was invented by their generation, or at least the generation before theirs. In fact, this is not so:

cherry […] Meaning “maidenhead, virginity” is from 1889, U.S. slang, from supposed resemblance to the hymen, but perhaps also from the long-time use of cherries as a symbol of the fleeting quality of life’s pleasures.”

There we have it. The slang term dates at least to 1889, but I suspect the association of this particular fruit with virginity dates further back than even Campion’s poem, which was first published in 1617. And we are also given another, older, symbolism for cherries in the above etymology: they stand for the fleeting quality of physical pleasure. This too can be tied into sex, but also to childhood, which is itself fleeting. This symbolism is the Western tradition, but even in the East the cherry (and more specifically the cherry blossom) are also associated with maidenhood/virginity. We are more concerned with the Western mode here, but I do find it interesting that such disparate cultures can arrive at a similar symbolic representation, don’t you?

Back to the poem. We get the impression from the final stanza not of a full-grown woman—worldly and self-assured—but of a nervous girl being approached by potential mates, as if she is a wary doe being stalked by wolves on the hunt.

Why am I bringing all of this up? It is to lay the foundation of context for one very interesting painting, that painting being Sir John Everett Millais’s “Cherry Ripe”, a deceptively simple portrait of a little girl in a white dress with pink highlights sitting on a log in the forest . . .

John Everett Millais – Cherry Ripe (1879)

Wikipedia: John Everett Millais

Millais was a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and like most of the Pre-Raphaelites, he loaded his art with symbolism. First, the semiotics of color. White was of course the color of purity. Children, particularly little girls, were often dressed in white for formal portraits. Moreover, the child is placed against a dark and shadowy forest from which any wild beast could emerge and snatch her from her perch; unlike most portraits, which are set safely indoors or illuminated spaces, this one is actually a bit edgy. More likely than not this was intentional on Millais’s part. I have mentioned before that semiotically a white figure against black backdrop stresses the figure’s vulnerability or purity—or, in this case, both—in a morally nebulous world. Pale pink, which is traditionally associated with young girls, is also the color of cherry blossoms, and the child’s flesh is also pinkish. Here we have a figure composed almost entirely of white and pink. The lone exceptions are her eyes and hair and the black gloves, but as they were a conscious choice, it is the gloves that draw our attention.

The gloves are black. The color black has many symbolic interpretations, but here it screams sexuality. Look closely at the girl’s hands: they are placed in her lap and closed together prayer-style, only inverted. The gloves are fingerless, V-shaped and adjacent to her hands, inevitably funneling one’s attention right to the girl’s fleshy, exposed fingers, and (as more than one art critic has pointed out) those fingers happen to resemble a vulva.

Now some questions arise. Was this accidental or deliberate on the part of Millais? I suspect the answer is somewhere in between. And what exactly is Millais saying with this painting? Perhaps he is wrestling with the Victorian notion of the asexual girl-child, and suggesting that it may be a tad more complicated than that. Maybe he’s being ironic. After all, despite the title of the piece, the little girl is clearly nowhere near being “ripe”, and indeed some of the cherries lying at her side belie the title as well. Then again, maybe it is entirely coincidental, but I doubt it.

There is one other possibility I can think of. Millais was a friend of culture/art critic John Ruskin, who was married to Effie Gray at the time they met and became friends. But Ruskin had been married to Effie for several years and had yet to consummate the marriage, owing to, it was rumored, his mortal dread of pubic hair. Ruskin, like Lewis Carroll, had written a book for his beloved when she was still a child. The book was The King of the Golden River. Unlike Carroll, however, Ruskin was eventually able to marry the girl he had eyes for, although Ruskin and Effie were only nine years apart in age whereas Carroll and Alice Liddell were twenty years apart and of different social classes from one another. Anyway, Millais and Effie eventually fell in love, the marriage between Ruskin and Effie was annulled, and Effie remarried Millais, with whom she had eight children. (Side note: The oldest Millais daughter—also called Effie—was even one of Lewis Carroll’s photographic subjects.) Now, Ruskin was a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, but given the embarrassing situation between Ruskin, Millais and Effie, it is little wonder that Ruskin began to condemn Millais’s post-marriage work, ostensibly because it was of lower quality according to Ruskin, but in reality it is more likely that Ruskin felt slighted and used his power as a critic to avenge the loss of his mate to Millais the best way he knew how. Is it possible, then, that Millais, with the painting “Cherry Ripe,” was publicly mocking Ruskin and his supposed pubic hair phobia? Probably not, but it is worth considering.

And speaking of Lewis Carroll, perhaps the next most famous artwork featuring little girls and cherries after the Millais piece is Carroll’s photo of the Liddell sisters (Edith, Lorina and Alice) in which the oldest girl, Lorina, is feeding Alice a cherry. Alice stands with her head cocked and mouth slightly agape, like a baby bird waiting to be fed by its mother. And, of course, Alice would be the one to be fed, given Carroll’s ongoing fascination with her.

Lewis Carroll – The Three Liddell Sisters (“Open Your Mouth”) (1860)

Wikipedia: Lewis Carroll

The above was one of several Carroll works that Polixeni Papapetrou created a tribute to.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Cherry Group

Polixeni Papapetrou (Official Site)

One step removed from this, cherries—really any fruit, but apples and cherries in particular—can represent transgression, as in the story of Adam and Eve, in which children stand in for the first humans and the crime that brings on their downfall is theft.

Fritz Zuber-Bühler – The Cherry Thieves

Wikipedia: Fritz Zuber-Bühler

Carl Larsson – Forbidden Fruit

Wikipedia: Carl Larsson

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Pickers

Wikipedia: Frederick Morgan (painter)

Note the coy and mischievous expression on this girl’s face:

Charles Amable Lenoir – The Cherrypicker (1900)

Wikipedia: Charles Amable Lenoir

Cherries can also represent intimacy, both romantic and familial.

Paul Hermann Wagner – Idylle mit Atelier (1889)

Lord Frederick Leighton – Mother and Child (1865)

Lord Frederic Leighton: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton

Franz von Defregger – Kinder beim Kirschenessen (1869)

Wikipedia: Franz Defregger

Cherries can become an amusement for little girls playing at being women.

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Earrings (1)

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Earrings (2)

Frederick Morgan – The Cherry Gatherers

Georg Rössler – Mädchen mit Kirschen (1901)

But mostly cherries were just colorful eye-catchers that helped to emphasize the vibrancy and ruddy healthiness of youth . . .

Emile Vernon – The Cherry Bonnet (1919)

John Russell – Little Girl with Cherries (1780)

Wikipedia: John Russell (painter)

Friedrich von Kaulbach – Kirschen (Cherries)

Wikipedia: Friedrich Kaulbach

Fritz Zuber-Bühler – The First Cherries

Finally, a couple of curious contemporary artworks in which girl meets fruit; to be honest, I’m not sure exactly what to make of these.

Rene Lynch – Wonderland: Cherry Picking (2005)

Rene Lynch (Official Site)

I will say one thing about this final piece: Pay attention to how the little nude girl unwittingly mimics the lithe erotically posed woman in the magazine her mother is holding.

Tatiana Deriy – Little Cherry

(Editor’s update, 2015/11/06: There is a larger image of Little Cherry on Tatiana Deriy’s website.)

To Be Fair (Mirror, Mirror) – Pt. 1

Lord George Lyttlelton wrote, in Advice to a Lady: “What is your sex’s earliest, latest care, Your heart’s supreme ambition? To be fair.”

Feminists complain that the culture we live in is, in the words of Dr. Mary Pipher, “girl poisoning”–in essence, that our cultural preoccupation with rigid standards of beauty teaches girls from a young age to fret obsessively about their appearance to the point that their self-esteem is damaged. I agree to an extent. The media certainly tends to emphasize sexuality in teens above other qualities. However, at the same time the current cultural zeitgeist in fact denies the holistic beauty of youth, claiming that young people are asexual or even in fact poisoned by sexuality itself, and the strongest advocates of that position are the selfsame feminists who lament our narrow definitions of beauty. Girls themselves are at the center of a cultural tug-of-war over youth, beauty, and sexuality.

How is a young girl meant to take these conflicting messages, then? It appears to me self-evident that Lyttleton was correct, and not only that–throughout history beauty has always been a concern for girls, and that a rather slim definition of feminine beauty, while changing over time and from culture to culture, has been around as long as girls themselves. Thus, one cannot fully blame modern Western culture for this obsession; it is in our genes. Even the lowliest animals driven by instinct seek healthy mates–the problem, it seems, is in how we define healthy. Is Kate Moss a healthy human female specimen? Some people think so; others find her woefully thin.

In a society where young girls are simultaneously expected to be themselves and to maintain a healthy body, where they are both expected to be attractive and denied their attractiveness because of the overriding panic of sexual exploitation and abuse, where eating disorders and body dysmorphia are striking younger and younger girls, what is it that a young girl sees when she looks into the mirror? Is it a beautiful face and form that beams back at her, or a hideously ugly thing which forever haunts her thoughts?


Eugène Durenne – La toilette


Unknown – Mirror, Mirror (1920s)


Pierre Breyne-Marcel – La toilette enfantine


Jean-Baptiste Poultier – Fillette se regardant dans un miroir (1685) (1)


Jean-Baptiste Poultier – Fillette se regardant dans un miroir (1685) (2)


Jean-Baptiste Poultier – Fillette se regardant dans un miroir (1685) (3)


Agathe Röstel – Young Girl Combing Her Hair


Jacques Emile Blanche – Reflections


Paul Peel – A Venetian Bather (1889)


Titti Garelli – Mirror, Mirror


Jules Marie Auguste Leroux – The Mirror (1871)


Norman Rockwell – Girl at the Mirror


Polixeni Papapetrou – Little Vanity


Guy Bourdin – Girl in Mirror


Ruth Gikow – The Kitchen (1960)

Fr. Wikipedia: Jean-Baptiste-Jacques Poultier (Site is in French.)

Wikipedia: Jacques Emile Blanche

Wikipedia: Paul Peel

Titti Garelli Official Site

Wikipedia: Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell museum

Polixeni Papapetrou

Wikipedia: Guy Bourdin

Jewish Women’s Archive: Ruth Gikow

The Body: Report Examines Girls’ Struggles With Sexuality, Peer Pressure, and Body Image

Amazon: Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality (Sounds like an interesting book, though I confess I haven’t read it.)