International Day of the Girl

Hey, folks!  How’s it going?  Just a little reminder that today is the International Day of the Girl-Child, so designated by the United Nations, so it’s a great day to celebrate girls, including girls in art (and girls in the arts!) This is the fifth anniversary of the UN-created observance, founded in 2011 and initiated by the charitable organization Plan International.

Further Reading:

Day of the Girl (Official)

Day of the Girl Summit 2016

Wikipedia: International Day of the Girl Child

International Business Times: International Day Of The Girl 2016: Quotes And Facts To Celebrate, Empower Young Women

The White House: Presidential Proclamation — International Day of the Girl, 2016

The Guardian: How are you marking International Day of the Girl? Share your stories

Six Weeks of Boyhood

“Six weeks of boyhood, six weeks of bliss,” is the parting sentiment in the short film No Bikini directed by Claudia Morgado Escanilla and based on a short story of the same name by Ivan Coyote. A reader made a comment about this film in a recent post so I decided it was time to do a quick review of this piece. The premise of the story is that a 7-year-old tomboy named Robin (Matreya Fedor), finding her bikini top too constricting, decides to pretend to be a boy and go topless in swim class.

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote - No Bikini (2007) (1)

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote – No Bikini (2007) (1)

We are introduced to the instructor, who has a driving personality and is prominently displaying a swim medal throughout the film. As she inspects her new students, there is some tension as we wonder if Robin will pull off this ruse. Instead of being outed, she is sharply advised to “straighten up”.

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote - No Bikini (2007) (2)

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote – No Bikini (2007) (2)

Apart from the usual trials and tribulations of swim class, Robin has a male rival, also hoping to win top honors in the class.

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote - No Bikini (2007) (3)

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote – No Bikini (2007) (3)

The conclusion is amusing as the mother reads the report stating how Robin—now proudly wearing the medal—should enroll in the advanced class with superlatives loaded with the conspicuous pronoun “he”.

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote - No Bikini (2007) (4)

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote – No Bikini (2007) (4)

To further accentuate the innocence of the girl, we are reminded that she did not actually lie to anyone. Everyone just made an assumption and she allowed them to believe it—also having the good fortune of an ambiguous name. The choice of casting Fedor is interesting. She is 7 years old instead of six as in Coyote’s story. I imagine the director had to find someone who would not be self-conscious about acting without a top and could not find a suitable six-year-old. As a result, the illusion of a gender neutral character is not particularly convincing.

Ivan E. Coyote was born and raised in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. He is an award-winning author of eight collections of short stories, a novel, three CDs, four short films and is a renowned performer. Coyote’s first love is live storytelling and he is an audience favorite at music, poetry, spoken word and writer’s festivals around the world. Coyote began performing in 1992 and in 1996 co-founded Taste This, a four person performance troupe that combined live music, storytelling and performance poetry to create a genre-busting collaboration. Taste This toured North America extensively and in 1998 published Boys Like Her, considered a substantive contribution in the dialogue about gender identity and sexuality. Coyote is fascinated by the intersection of storytelling and music and works with a number of well-established Canadian musicians. He is interested in collaborations where the text and the score are equal players, not just storytelling with musical accompaniment. In 2001, he landed a gig teaching short fiction at Capilano University in North Vancouver and discovered that he loves teaching creative writing. It was while teaching seniors that Coyote recognized their true calling; he strongly believes in listening to the stories of our elders and encouraging them to write about their lives. He continues to tour extensively throughout North America and Europe, telling stories not only to festival audiences, but to high school students, social justice activists, adult literacy students and senior citizens. Coyote believes in the transformative power of storytelling, and that collecting and remembering oral history not only preserves a vital part of our humanity, but that a good story can help inspire us to invent a better future.

To Become Somebody: Paula Modersohn-Becker

There is so much more that I have to learn, and then maybe I’ll become someone… –Paula Modershon-Becker in a letter to her husband, Otto Modersohn, 1906

I am becoming somebody—I’m living the most intensely happy period of my life. –Paula Modersohn-Becker in a letter to her sister, Milly Rohland-Becker, 1906

I am beginning a new life now. Don’t interfere with me; just let me be. It is so wonderfully beautiful. I lived the past week in such a state of excitement. I believe I have accomplished something good. –Paula Modersohn-Becker in a letter to her mother, Mathilde Becker, 1906

If a man had written these words, we would get the impression of blind ambition—someone simply wanting to make a name for himself for its own sake. But a closer look at this artist’s life and the emphasis in the letter to her mother, it becomes clear this is about freedom—freedom at a time when women had little leeway to really be themselves and accomplish outside the domain of traditional gender roles.

Born Minna Hermine Paula Becker in Dresden, 1876, she was the third of seven children. She grew up in Bremen and her father insisted she study a profession so she could stand on her own two feet. While training as a teacher there, she took some classes in painting. She loved it and pursued her interest enthusiastically. In 1896, she enrolled in a school of drawing and painting sponsored by Verein der Künstlerinnen und Kunstfreundinnen in Berlin (Union of Women Artists and Friends of Art). It was one of the few options for aspiring women artists because they were not allowed in most art schools. The official justification was that women would be shocked or corrupted by the presence of nude models. She also had a wonderful experience taking classes for 7 months in London in 1892 but became disillusioned by their emphasis on effect rather than form. She was an eager student and diligently honed her skills, carefully assimilating any critique of her drawings. Over 1200 sheets are known to exist, some two-sided.

I live entirely with my eyes now and look at everything with the mind of an artist. –Paula Becker in her diary, 1896

Paula Becker - Standing Child Nude with the Skeleton Drawn In, 1899 (cat. 108)

Paula Becker – Standing Child Nude with the Skeleton Drawn In, 1899 (cat. 108)

Paula Becker - Standing Girl Nude with Her Hands Behind Her Head, c. 1899 (cat. 107)

Paula Becker – Standing Girl Nude with Her Hands Behind Her Head, c. 1899 (cat. 107)

In her eager researches, she saw an exhibition of works from the Worpswede Secessionist colony in 1895. As a result of that exposure, she included Worpswede in her vacation plans in 1897. There she befriended many people including Otto Modersohn, who would become her husband in 1901, and Heinrich Vogeler, who became one of her closest friends.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Standing Girl in Front of a Goat Shed, 1902 (cat. 27)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Standing Girl in Front of a Goat Shed, 1902 (cat. 27)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Head of a Blond Girl in Front of a Landscape, 1901 (cat. 14)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Head of a Blond Girl in Front of a Landscape, 1901 (cat. 14)

Although Becker made extensive use of the local landscape and people in her work, many of her ideas about form, composition and texture were not embraced by the group and she had to experiment in seclusion. Becoming acutely aware of the importance of Paris to the art world, she made her first of four visits there in 1900. Initially, she was a sponge, trying to learn all she could from the old masters. But in subsequent visits, she trained a more critical eye on those anointed artists who came before. She was particularly taken by a series of mummy portraits recently excavated in Egypt; they are a kind of life-cast made in one’s youth to preserve that image for eternity after death. In viewing these, she had a breakthrough and this mask-like quality is evident in her work.

I see such a lot and believe that I am getting closer to beauty in my mind. In the last few days I have discovered form and have been thinking much about it. Until now I’ve had no real feeling for the antique…I could never find any thread leading from it to modern art. Now I’ve found it, and that is what I believe is called progress…A great simplicity of form is something marvellous. –Paula Modersohn-Becker in a journal entry, 1903

One of the Worpswede children she painted was her own stepdaughter, Elsbeth.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Bust of Elsbeth with a Flower in Her Hands in Front of a Landscape, c. 1901 (cat. 15)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Bust of Elsbeth with a Flower in Her Hands in Front of a Landscape, c. 1901 (cat. 15)

In 1905, she was accompanied by her sister, Herma Weinberg, who was a frequent and patient model. She took every opportunity to see the works of masters, such as Gaugin, found in private collections. She had high regard for two living artists, Charles Cottet and Maurice Denis, and made a point of visiting them as well. She alternated between Worpswede and Paris in her short career, gleaning the best of both worlds. In Worpswede, there was seclusion and beauty and a strong Germanic accent while in Paris there was freedom, vitality, the spirit of internationalism and access to the work of great masters. This alternation was reflected in the juxtaposition of Northern elements—an amber necklace, for instance—and those of the South—exotic fruits and flowers.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Seated Mother with a Child in Her Lap, May/June 1906 (cat. 76)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Seated Mother with a Child in Her Lap, May/June 1906 (cat. 76)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Zwei kniende Mädchenakte, 1906/07

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Zwei kniende Mädchenakte, 1906/07

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Seated Girl with a Black Hat and a Flower in Her Right Hand, c. 1903 (cat. 32)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Seated Girl with a Black Hat and a Flower in Her Right Hand, c. 1903 (cat. 32)

Modersohn-Becker defies classification in many ways and yet we learn much in the attempt. Living between the formal periods of Impressionism and Expressionism, some say she presages those later developments, boldly forging ahead with no role models. But I believe she expresses a raw feminism that has eluded classification simply because art movements have been interpreted in terms of patriarchal scholarship. An honest analysis of her work reveals that her subject matter is a sincere and passionate expression of the female psyche.

I don’t think a man could have made these paintings. I mean she’s already gone further than so many other artists at that time. She was the first woman to paint herself nude—and on her sixth wedding anniversary, too! –Chantal Joffe in an interview with Greta Kühnast, 2014

…when I was a child, it spooked me. The smile is strange and somewhat insane and then there is this weird intimacy, like the woman is luring you into her secret room…She holds a secret and it is intriguing, but at the same time you don’t really want to know about it because you sense that it could be something horrible. –Daniel Richter in an interview with Tine Colstrup, 2014

There are many parallels to artists who followed and Francesca Woodman comes quickly to my mind when reading accounts of her life. Both women, separated by almost a century and using different means, engaged in obsessive self-exploration and created images of themselves nude. In this respect, Modersohn-Becker is a pioneer, being credited with being the first woman to paint a full-length nude of herself. Some male artists have done this before, but never before a woman. And because her images did not express the kind of idyllic sentimentality of the female body—objects of male artistic and romantic inspiration—she once again shattered conventions, ruffling the feathers of many in the artistic community.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Self-Portrait as a Standing Nude, Summer 1906 (cat. 68)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Self-Portrait as a Standing Nude, Summer 1906 (cat. 68)

Art historians often lose sight of how acculturated we can be. Many have observed the strange posture of the self-portrait and the unconventional use of fruit. The simple explanation is that Modesohn-Becker was not constrained by the established modes of symbolism. She often used fruits (particularly citrus) and flowers (like poppy and foxglove) and was able to intuit a sensible symbolic meaning. Citrus was relatively exotic at the time and thus gave extra punch to the symbolism that a more mundane fruit would not have. Also, the strange pose was not used tactically to observe some convention of modesty; breasts and pubic area were in plain view. But the positioning was meant to emphasize the mystery of the female body, one hand at the breasts and the other on the belly.

Modersohn-Becker would never be accused of painting pretty pictures—portraying local peasants, including children, in a frank introspective way. This contradicted the propaganda of the National Socialist Party (The Nazis) portraying peasants as beautiful and valued subjects of the state. Thus her work was included in two exhibitions of so-called degenerate (entartet) art in 1933 and 1937.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Girl in a Red Dress at a Tree Trunk in Front of a Background of a Clouded Sky, c. 1905 (cat. 57)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Girl in a Red Dress at a Tree Trunk in Front of a Background of a Clouded Sky, c. 1905 (cat. 57)

Even the least sentimental paintings of children have their charm and they were subjects in over 300 of the artist’s 734 cataloged paintings. But even here, she manages to avoid the traditional portrayals and brings us the child as a personality with a vivid inner world. “Creating free children will be the most distinguished task of this century,” (Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902) expressed the dominant sentiment of the time. Yet there is an undeniable sweetness when the children are paired with other children, mothers or an animal. The reality of a peasant’s life is hardship and work, little time for the niceties of raising and enjoying one’s children. It was quite usual, especially in large families, for the older siblings to raise the younger. This fact means that in studying children as they really were, which the artist did fastidiously, one comes away understanding that there would be a strong bond and solidarity between siblings and between children and animals in the absence of adult affection. Modersohn-Becker effectively illustrates this phenomenon in her paintings.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Kneeling and Standing Girls Nude, Poppies in the Background II,  1906 (cat. 73)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Kneeling and Standing Girls Nude, Poppies in the Background II, 1906 (cat. 73)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Girl in a Birch Forest with a Cat, 1904 (cat. 48)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Girl in a Birch Forest with a Cat, 1904 (cat. 48)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Girl with Rabbit in Her Arms, 1905 (cat. 58)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Girl with Rabbit in Her Arms, 1905 (cat. 58)

During this period, the “cult of the child” was in its heyday and images were usually idyllic and bereft of character. The portrayal of nude children were either produced as a matter of course or to exemplify ideals of purity or innocence. An examination of Modersohn-Becker’s paintings of children show them naked or wearing the most plain and indistinct clothing. This was her way of washing out any distracting cultural accoutrements and allowing the child to express the artist’s symbolic intent more clearly. Stripped of class and nationality, these images express universal ideas that can have an enduring impact on the art world, despite the artist’s short career.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Kneeling Girl Nude with a Stork, 1906/07 (cat. 87)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Kneeling Girl Nude with a Stork, 1906/07 (cat. 87)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Two Girls in White and Blue Dresses, May/June 1906 (cat. 72)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Two Girls in White and Blue Dresses, May/June 1906 (cat. 72)

There was plenty of tension in her marriage with Otto Modersohn. Ironically, with her focus on the mystery of the female body, she failed to satisfy her own desire for children. In addition, Otto himself was just as baffled as his colleagues by Paula’s artistic ideas and was openly critical of her work. During a trial separation, Modersohn-Becker visited Paris for the fourth and final time in1906. This was a time when she really came into her own and expressed some of her most ecstatic feelings about what she was accomplishing. She returned to Worpswede one last time to try once more to have a child. This time she was successful and Mathilde was born in late 1907. Shortly thereafter Paula complained about pain in her legs which was misdiagnosed and she died from an embolism. Most of the work she did in seclusion only became known to her closest friends upon inspection of her estate. Heinrich Vogeler was one of the first and made an effort to document the artist’s output and Rainer Maria Rilke, one of her closest confidants, wrote a requiem for his cherished friend.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Elsbeth among Fire Lilies, 1907 (cat. 91)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Elsbeth among Fire Lilies, 1907 (cat. 91)

Many women artists have found kinship in this pioneer of feminine artistic expression. Interviews with Rineke Dijkstra and Chantal Joffe bring out many of the parallels and I believe history will bear out the long-term significance of the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Paula Becker - Standing Girl Nude,Turned Left, c. 1898 (cat. 109)

Paula Becker – Standing Girl Nude,Turned Left, c. 1898 (cat. 109)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Seated Girl Nude, Turned to the Right, 1903 (cat. 35)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Seated Girl Nude, Turned to the Right, 1903 (cat. 35)

This artist came to my attention from an associate who visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark during their exhibit of the artist (December 2104–April 2015). Another major exhibition is scheduled for the Spring of 2016 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The information for this post is gleaned almost exclusively from the museum’s excellent catalog which can be ordered through Unfortunately, I am told that the museum itself is currently out of stock. Hopefully, there will be a resurgence in interest in this artist and they will see fit to commission a reprint.

Below is a list of the excellent essays and interviews (in English) contained in the catalog:

  • Venus of Worpswede, Tine Colstrup, Curator
  • The great simplicity of form: Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Art in Modernism, Uwe M. Schneede
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker—Pioneer of Modernism: Her life and work as reflected in her self-portraits, Rainer Stamm
  • “It’s good because it’s serious. And peculiar”: An interview with the German painter Daniel Richter, Tine Colstrup
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker: Meaning of Flowers and Fruits, Gisela Götte
  • The cradled cat: Children and Animals in Works by Paula Modersohn-Becker, Verena Borgmann
  • Body of Evidence: Modersohn-Becker’s Reclining Mother-and-Child Nude, Diane Radycki
  • Paula-Modersohn-Beckers Still Lifes: Construction and Poetry, Anne Buschoff
  • “The complexity of every single human being”: Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra on Paula Modersohn-Becker, Hans den Hartog Jager
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Drawings: Absolutely Modern in the Tradition, Anne Röver-Kann
  • “A radical way of seeing”: An interview with the British painter Chantal Joffe, Greta Kühnast
  • Biography, Wolfgang Werner

Potent Personalities: Sally Mann

Mann’s challenging images of childhood and, by extension, motherhood have become ubiquitous. This post has been long in coming because of the nagging question: How will I ever do justice to this artist’s work? Finally, the release of Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, published by Little, Brown and Co., this May forced my hand and convinced me that I could procrastinate no further. The book is the kind of self-examination that would have made Socrates proud and an enviable genealogical legacy to her entire family.

Sally Mann (neé Munger) was born in 1951 in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Her father, a family physician from an established Texan family, was educated in the North where he met Sally’s mother. This kind of heritage would almost inevitably make Sally a fish out of water in social circles but impress upon her an appreciation for the land itself. She took a serious interest in photography when at The Putney School in Vermont which her two brothers had attended before her. Her father introduced her to the arts and she has fond memories of several books he shared with her. One was The Family of Man (1955) and on only her second roll of film, she shot her first nudes in 1969, inspired by Wynn Bullock’s Child in Forest. For the most part, Sally bares all in her book, but out of respect for one of her subjects who now has a prominent position in a major corporation, she did not reproduce it.

Wynn Bullock - Child in Forest (1951)

Wynn Bullock – Child in Forest (1951)

Two films were produced about Sally, both directed by Steven Cantor. The first, Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (1994), was shot and produced during the furor over the exhibitions of her child nudes and the second, What Remains (2005), gives a much more comprehensive picture of her inspirations and body of work. When I personally learned of the artist’s work, I was naturally impressed by the raw and pristine imagery, but after seeing these films, I admit to falling in love with the humanity of this imaginative and tortured soul. We begin to get an insight into Sally’s attitude about nudity by the fact that in her first two years of life, she obstinately refused to wear clothes. In fact, the assumption that nudity was an integral part of everyday childhood caused her to overstate in interviews the number of photos that existed of her in a state of undress. After a careful review, she was compelled to amend the record. Some of the photographs of young Sally reveal some of the striking characteristics to be seen later in her own children.

Steven Cantor - What Remains (2005) (1)

Steven Cantor – What Remains (2005) (1)

After high school, she opted to attend Bennington College, deciding that she was not cut out for one of the more urban schools. She met Larry Mann during a Christmas visit home in 1969 and they were married six months later. During their early years together, they traveled throughout Europe on a thin shoestring budget, much to the consternation of Larry’s socially ambitious parents. And even after visiting some of the most beautiful places in Europe, the couple felt nothing held a candle to Rockbridge County so they moved there for good in 1973. Sally shares a rich tapestry of family history including how her father first bought the land and how she later bought out her brothers’ shares so that it could become the Mann estate.

It seems remarkable in retrospect, but at first, Sally did not consider her children suitable subjects for art photography. She did the usual photos that parents are expected to make, but they were snapshots and not done with an artist’s eye. Sally has always respected the presence of serendipity in the creative process and in 1985, one of her biggest took place. Emmett, Sally’s eldest child, was born in 1980 and then Jessie came in 1981. With the birth of Virginia, she fancied that she should capture the event on film. Unfortunately, the exposure time needed to compensate for the poor lighting meant that Virginia’s entry into the world was a blur—”a dud”. A few months later, Sally took what she considered her first good family picture, Damaged Child, of Jessie’s swollen face from insect bites. She got the idea from the title of a Dorothea Lange photo Damaged Child, Shacktown,Elm Grove, Oklahoma (1936). As she continued her efforts in this vein, she began to realize that she was blessed with children of potent character. Even so, none of this would have materialized without an attitude shift. It is perhaps within the most mundane material that we find the sublime.

Sally Mann - Damaged Child (1984)

Sally Mann – Damaged Child (1984)

Sally’s family photographs are a mixture of spontaneity and deliberate composition. For example, here we can see her directing Virginia to get one of her shots.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (1)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (1)

Sally Mann - At Warm Springs (1991)

Sally Mann – At Warm Springs (1991)

On the other hand, when she sees something she just has to capture she asks the child to hold still until she can get her camera set up. These are precarious times because as time passes, some of the spontaneity is lost and the strain of holding the pose adds to the intensity of the posture and facial expression. In one of Sally’s favorite images, she had the camera nearby and was able to shoot The Perfect Tomato. The strange title was the product of haste; the tomatoes were the only thing in focus in the shot. The lens flare was a happy accident that gave the subject an angelic quality. In Blood Ties, Jessie described her memory of how it happened.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (2)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (2)

Sally Mann - The Perfect Tomato (1990)

Sally Mann – The Perfect Tomato (1990)

In 2000, Melissa Harris interviewed Jessie Mann who was preparing for her freshman year in college. Among other things, she spoke about the nature of her relationship with her mother.

When we were taking pictures, it created a relationship with Mom that’s very different from other people’s relationships—much more powerful…Because there already is a very powerful bond, then add to that the bond between artist and subject…On top of being our mother, she became a whole lot more. So that made our relationship stronger, but of course more complicated. -Jessie Mann, 2000 (Aperture No. 162, Winter 2001)

The combination of an artist’s eye and a desire to get the image just right created a kind of ambivalence within the family. On the one hand, it is flattering to get so much attention, but getting the image right sometimes meant a seemingly interminable effort. In the case of the image The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, when she first saw Emmett in the water, she did the usual and asked him to hold still. Shot after shot did not come out to Sally’s satisfaction and over the next 7 or 8 days, Emmett patiently followed his mother’s instructions until everything was right: the light, the reflection in the water, the eye level, Emmett’s position in the water, Emmett’s position in the frame and the right pose and facial expression. The title, which later came to have a double meaning, was meant to express the exasperation after such an ordeal. Several versions were reprinted in Hold Still to illustrate this process.

For the most part, Larry and the kids were good sports and for that reason, Sally has to give equal credit to her subjects for the successful collaboration. But sometimes, as Emmett remarked, whenever one of them noticed that look in their mother’s eyes—when she suddenly “saw” a picture—if one was not in the mood for another photo session, one had better make himself scarce. Or if there was no way out of it, the kids could torment their mother in more subtle ways. The top shot of all three kids appeared on the cover of Immediate Family, but the bottom illustrates one of the variations where the girls have softer facial expressions. Emmett confessed later that during this shoot, he was moving his body ever so slightly forward and back to keep his mother from getting the perfect focus.

Sally Mann - Emmett, Jessie and Virginia (1989) (and variant)

Sally Mann – Emmett, Jessie and Virginia (1989) (and variant)

Despite these battles of will, the family members recognize that Sally brings out something special in the seemingly ordinary.

…She sees the world in images. -Larry Mann (What Remains, 2005)

It’s almost like she sees something happening and she just thinks to herself, “I know that this is special—what I’m seeing right here.” -Emmett Mann (What Remains, 2005)

When you’re around an artist all the time, you’re always reminded of what’s beautiful and what’s special, and you can’t forget it. -Jessie Mann (Aperture, No. 162, Winter 2001)

I think what makes Mom different is that she can look at the same object that I would consider pretty commonplace and ordinary, but she’ll make a print of it and suddenly I’ll see the beauty of it. -Virginia Mann (What Remains, 2005)

When Immediate Family was published in 1992, Sally assumed it would be greeted with moderate acclaim just like her previous work, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988).

Sally Mann - At Twelve (c1984)

Sally Mann – At Twelve (c1984)

The family was not prepared for the explosive sales and the notoriety that came. Listening to the detractors, one might come away with the impression that Sally published the work without regard to the feelings and reputations of her family, but this was far from the truth. The children were consulted about their favorites and which images they objected to. Never was nudity at issue and Larry mediated to make sure the children were not just trying to please their mother. For example, Emmett vetoed an image (Emmett Asleep, 1985) because, at the time, he was pretending to be Bugs Bunny and was wearing white stockings on his arms. Given his age, he was concerned about looking like a dork. Another candid image was of Virginia entitled Pissing in the Wind. Now that they are grown up, they can appreciate these images for what they are, candid moments of family life and these two examples were reprinted in Hold Still. Sometimes Sally censored herself as in The Bent Ear. With Jessie’s thin figure and the strain of waiting for the camera to be set up, Sally thought the picture made her look like a torture victim and was simply too painful to look at.

Sally Mann - The Bent Ear (1989)

Sally Mann – The Bent Ear (1989)

When the letters came in, Sally was surprised at the range of comments. In her characteristic fastidiousness, she sorted them into For, Against and What the Fuck? Although a sense of humor was undoubtedly helpful, the one ray of light was that more than half the letters were positive. It is tempting for visually literate people to write off any negative comments as narrow-minded and not worthy of acknowledgment. Whatever the interpretation, what was happening was a kind of culture clash. Nudity seems to be a natural mode of expression for the liberal-minded proponents of counterculture; and just as there are clothing-optional parks and beaches, there are bound to be many households that observe this custom as well.

The real breakthrough in Hold Still is that Sally makes the context of the land paramount in the interpretation of the pictures. Within this context, these images make perfect sense and without it, they seem bizarre at first glance. The land that the Manns owned was a secluded plot surrounded, unusually, on three sides by the Maury River. Even in the most difficult of times, the family felt safe there away from the madness and ridicule of society—without radios, without television and without computers.

How natural was it in that situation, to allow our children to run naked? Or, put another way, how bizarre would it have been to insist on bathing suits for their river play, which began after breakfast and often continued long after dark, when all three would would dive like sleek otters for glow sticks thrown in the pool under the still-warm cliffs? -Sally Mann (Hold Still, 2015)

For the most part, Sally would avoid looking at the almost endless barrage of reviews. She was an artist, after all, and would not want her art to be tainted by the influx of public opinion. But occasionally, something would come across her radar and one review in particular was devastating in its thoughtlessness and self-righteousness. It was an editorial by Raymond Sokolov, a food critic of all things, published in the Wall Street Journal in February 1991. Ostensibly about government funding of the arts, it took the opportunity to ridicule and mutilate an image published on the cover of the Fall 1990 issue (No. 121) of Aperture. Virginia happened to see it and was very upset about being “crossed out”. For a time, she became extremely self-conscious about her body and even wanted to wear shorts and a shirt in the bathtub the following night. In an attempt at a kind of psychotherapy, a photo shoot was conducted to make a light-hearted mockery of the censorship.

Virginia at 4 (1989) ; Sokolov Article, Wall Street Journal (1991); Virginia's Letter to the Editor (1991)

Virginia at 4 (1989) ; Sokolov Article, Wall Street Journal (1991); Virginia’s Letter to the Editor (1991)

Sally Mann - (Untitled) (1991)

Sally Mann – (Untitled) (1991)

To Sally, her family photographs were partly therapeutic. She would take every mishap and exaggerate it into a worst-case scenario to help alleviate her own anxieties about motherhood and as a kind of sympathetic magic to prevent the worst from actually happening. Whether this actually worked is a matter of perspective. Both Jessie and Emmett are only alive today because of stokes of good fortune, Jessie having been born premature and in guarded condition for an extended period and Emmett surviving a car impact that ought to have killed him.

Sally Mann - Jessie's Cut (1985)

Sally Mann – Jessie’s Cut (1985)

As statistics will bear out, whenever there is a large group of people, a tiny percent are bound to be weirdos. Two particular individuals stand out in Sally’s memory and their tales are told in the book. A few years into their marriage, Larry’s mother, who lived in Connecticut, murdered her husband and then killed herself. Because the couple was respected in the community, the police did not really conduct a full investigation and quickly closed the case. Sally fancied she’d investigate further on her own and called the police to request a copy of the case file. Strangely, the police had the file readily at hand. The reason was that they were receiving strange letters from someone in Richmond with fanciful suggestions of foul play. It turned out to be the mother of a disgruntled artist, envious of Sally’s fame. The other was a man who became love-sick for the Mann children. He would track down family members, neighbors and institutions for any scrap of information about them such as birth certificates, school events and grades. The FBI became involved but informed the family that since this man did not make any threats and had not trespassed onto the property, nothing could be done. The family decided not to go public with this information until now based on the notion that they should not dignify the efforts of this man. Ironically, in their diligence to keep a wary eye out, this man came up in family conversations more often than blood kin. In a sense, he got his most fervent wish as his specter was a constant presence in the house.

Perhaps the most hurtful type of negative criticism was that Sally was a bad mother. This put her in an intractable position as no mother is perfect, but with the public scrutiny, every little thing would be interpreted as some shortcoming. As mentioned before, mother and children are all strong-willed people and there were the usual conflicts as is bound to happen in any family. Sally was apparently not physically affectionate with her children and so there are signs that they sought other forms of comfort. Jessie, for example, developed a drinking problem which she has been managing. After reflection, the children now recognize that their mother expressed her love through her art and gifted them with a sense of their beauty. For this reason, each of the children are consistently very protective of their mother and defend her as necessary. And Sally has her regrets as well, like the time Jessie refused to eat her flounder and was made to sit there all night until she finished it.

Sally Mann - (Untitled) (c1986)

Sally Mann – (Untitled) (c1986)

Fame is a two-edged sword, but it would be unfair to blame its negative effect on an artist who could never have anticipated it. She reasonably assumed that quality work would eventually get recognized by cultured people—but slowly. Sally’s notoriety sometimes interfered with schoolyard relationships because other kids would tease them or other parents objected to their mother’s work. With this kind of fame, what room is there for the children to find their own place in the world? Once Emmett and Jessie were in college, they started talking to each other about their childhood in a kind of exclusive support group; who else would understand their experiences? And should they parlay their mother’s fame to their own benefit? Another effect of all this attention is that one can get used to it. In the film What Remains, Jessie talks about being a kind of modeling junkie. Whenever someone wanted to do a photo shoot of her, she just couldn’t say no. On the other hand, Virginia, being much younger, had a slightly different perspective, hoping simply to fit in and get on with her life.

All the while, in the background of all this drama, was the land. One can see Sally’s interest in the family photographs wane as the children became smaller and smaller in the background of these timeless landscapes.

Sally Mann - Sempervirens "Stricta" (1995)

Sally Mann – Sempervirens “Stricta” (1995)

A theme that permeates Sally’s retrospective is death. She learned that her father collected art that featured portrayals of death and analyzing Southern culture, Sally feels there is always an undercurrent of death, as though it were a familiar companion. This is an understandable reflection of all the blood shed on battlefields and the brutal use of Africans and their descendants in the building of the South.

There were two events in Sally’s life that precipitated two of her projects. The first was the death of one of her beloved greyhounds, Eva. She could not bear to bury her and so, over time, she studied her pet’s decomposing remains. Even the smallest fragment of bone seemed to evoke memories of Eva. She became fascinated about what happens to bodies when they decay and was given permission to photograph bodies at a facility where they study decaying bodies in the open. The results of her work appeared in the book, What Remains (2003). The other event was the killing of an escaped convict on the family compound. When the authorities finally cleared out, she stared at that place contemplating the dichotomy of death and renewal. While the land indiscriminately recycles, the memories of death linger in the writings and minds of human beings. This prompted a visit to the great battlefields of the South to capture this sentiment on film, culminating in the book Deep South (2005). And as if there were not already enough presence of decay in Sally’s life, Larry was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy in which the muscles waste away. Fortunately, Larry had a well-developed physique to start with so it would take longer for the condition to be debilitating. For most men, this kind of indignity would cause him to hide his disease, but instead Larry has generously allowed Sally to photograph him and his condition as time passes in a project calls ‘Proud Flesh’.

Another expression of Sally’s fascination with the past is that she processes her own negatives and has practiced a number of antiquarian techniques. She likes the feel of handling the materials, much as Julia Margaret Cameron did. Also like Cameron, she welcomes the serendipitous flaws that are rejected in a professional process: dust getting on the plate or laminate peeling on the negative in just the right place. Using older techniques also means longer exposure times and in her series, ‘Faces’, she asked her grown up children to hold still for various 3-minute exposures. The flaw in this image gives the impression of soapy tears.

Sally Mann - Faces No. 10 (2004)

Sally Mann – Faces No. 10 (2004)

A manifestation of the superficiality of society is that if a gallery can’t make money on art, they aren’t interested. Sally was disheartened that no New York gallery would exhibit ‘Faces’ and she later found an excellent venue in Washington DC which made it possible for friends and neighbors to view it. This project also became a kind of personal discipline. Sally admits to being a nervous and frenetic person by nature and so has challenged herself to produce self-portraits that require her to hold still for 6 minutes while she exposes the plate.  This development is also a result of the fact that her children are no longer on hand to model

Steven Cantor - What Remains (2005) (2)

Steven Cantor – What Remains (2005) (2)

Having both Southern and Yankee blood, Sally was exposed to the best and worst of both cultures. She embraced the philosophy behind the Civil Rights movement, but she herself was raised by a black woman she knew as Gee-Gee. The day-to-day management of the household was done by this woman and she made sure Sally was fed, dressed and ready for school. Sally’s contemplation of the role of black people in the South made her wonder about this alien lifestyle and upbringing—so utterly different from her own. In an effort to explore this “otherness”, she recently embarked on a project to photograph the bodies of black men. To bring out the truth in her subjects, she keeps things as anonymous as possible. She does not ask them about their lives and she does not share any particulars about herself except what she requires of them. After about an hour, they part company.

From time to time, Sally—sometimes with the kids—would review the family photographs. She shares an interesting theory about the interplay of memory and photography. Not really remembering her own childhood, she has relied on photographs and other artifacts to reveal her own past. It is as though the ability to record things photographically diminishes our capacity to remember. Historians have noted something similar after the invention of mechanical printing and the development of popular literacy centuries ago. In her Aperture interview, Jessie expressed a sense of disembodiment about her old pictures, a feeling that they are not really of her. This makes some sense since we are not the same people we were as children and here the images are not just family snapshots, but partly constructions from their mother’s imagination. An anecdote about Jessie takes place when she was dressing for an exhibition of the the family pictures. She realized that a sleeveless top she was considering would expose her chest if she raised her arms and so she rejected the garment. A friend remarked how odd it was that she should be concerned since there would be numerous photos showing her chest at the show. Then Jessie responded, “Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are photographs.” Children can indeed distinguish between the production of an image and the real thing.

Sally Mann - White Skates (1990)

Sally Mann – White Skates (1990)

Sally Mann - Holding the Weasel (1989)

Sally Mann – Holding the Weasel (1989)

Many today might feel that Sally Mann and her family have been vindicated. They rode the rough waters of celebrity and controversy, the adult children continue to make their way in life and Sally is still pursuing her art. But one unrecognized effect of the thoughtless rhetoric has been that many good family photos have still not reached the public. This subject was discussed in What Remains, but whenever the family mulled over the possibility of another book or exhibition, there was the inevitability of answering the same tiresome questions and they became discouraged. Perhaps someday we will see them when our society respects real artists and galleries regard them as more than just an opportunity to make money.

A favorite image of mine is Steven Cantor’s parting shot in Blood Ties. In it, Virginia is saying that she wishes her mother would take a picture of her right now.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (3)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (3)

Thank you Virginia, Jessie, Emmett, Larry and Sally for your courage, generosity and irrepressible human spirit.  -Ron

Sally Mann photography (official site): some of the unseen family photographs may be coming to light here.

Jessie Mann (official site)

Pigtails posted a this delightfully irreverent image a while back.

An excellent collection of reproductions of Sally Mann’s work were published in a Christie’s catalog for an auction held on October 7, 2009 and copies have been sold on the secondary market.

I have done my best to give a good overview of this artist, with an emphasis on the children, but Mann’s work is such a linchpin to many issues regarding art, child rearing, nudity, psychology, social justice, commerce and privacy that these will have to be discussed in a supplement post later.

[160108] A colleague has informed me of a scholarly article about the Mann photographs entitled “Public/Private Tensions in the Photography of Sally Mann” by Sarah Parsons.  It is worth a look for anyone interested in the work of this artist and how it has affected the family dynamic. -Ron

The Girl as Unrequited Lover: Ana Torrent, Pt. 3 (El Nido)

This post comprises the third and final entry in our Ana Torrent film series.  Before we begin, I would like to point out that, because the quality of film available to me was relatively poor—bleary, washed out and dim—the stills taken from it are not as good as I would’ve liked.  Nevertheless, I took over 120 stills in all and sifted through them to get what I believe were the finest examples from the bunch.  Anyway . . .

Although El Nido (The Nest) was a contender for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1981 Academy Awards, the Oscar instead went to Moscow Does Not Believe in TearsEl Nido is an odd little film directed by Jaime de Armiñán and is widely considered his best film.  It stars Victor Alterio as an aging but spry widower and the then 13-year-old Ana Torrent as the young girl he becomes infatuated with.  Torrent won Best Actress for her performance at the 1980 Montreal Film Festival, as well she should have.  Though Armiñán lacks the artful flair of Erice or Saura, this was a solidly directed film, and I find it strange that I had never heard of it before, only discovering it when I began to look deeper into the early career of Ana Torrent.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered she had starred in Spain’s answer to Lolita!

The film opens with Alejandro (Alterio), a wealthy and reclusive widower, listening to classical music in his living room and pretending to conduct the orchestra.  We see him first in silhouette; when we first see him in the flesh, he’s riding a horse through the forest.
Again, he seems to be conducting an orchestra, though this time the music is in his head.  Alejandro is something of a dreamer and a rebel, a man who walks to the beat of his own drum, and the drum he hears is distinct in his head.  It isn’t a drum, actually; it is Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, a piece based on the Book of Genesis and inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem that is, in part, about the Fall of Man.  Foreshadowing perhaps?

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (1)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (1)

Alejandro’s cerebral concert is interrupted by an egg striking his head.  Befuddled as to its origin, he rides away, only to find a red scarf monogrammed with a ‘G’ attached to a tree limb.  Back at home, Al amuses himself by listening to his music and playing chess against a computerized board.  He tells the game, “I see you coming.  But I will not fall into your trap.”  Definitely foreshadowing.  Meanwhile, the scarf still intrigues him.  To whom does it belong?  Amparo, Al’s housekeeper, comes in, interrupting his reverie.  Al has an antagonistic relationship with the woman, who puts up with his moodiness and eccentricities with great forbearance.  The two exchange shouts and insults more often than not.  Al really doesn’t want her there, and only tolerates her presence because she manages the household affairs, leaving him to his daydreams, the only thing that makes him happy since his wife’s demise.  Amparo berates him for letting basic household upkeep slip, using his dead wife’s memory to guilt trip him, but Al is not interested in such things.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (2)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (2)

Again Al wanders into the woods, this time finding a note with a feather attached that says, “The goldfinch feather will take you to the great tree. G.”  He can’t help but follow the clue.  His curiosity stoked, he climbs up the remains of the ancient dead tree he frequently visits, only to find another note pinned to the top, again with a feather.  “The jay feather will lead you down the stream. G.”  At the stream, Al finds yet another note and feather, this one stuck to a limb out in the midst of the stream.  Having to traverse the swift waters to get to it, Al is both amused and a little exasperated.  The note reads: “The feather of the hawk will take you to the tower. G.”  Who would go to such trouble to torment the old man so?

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (3)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (3)

Back at home, Alejandro tries to figure out where the clues came from.  After a lead he’s given by Amparo turns out to be a dead end, he decides to visit his only real friend in town, the local parish priest, Eladio.  Although Al is an atheist with a dim view of religion, and he and the priest often exchange insults, it is clear that the two men are quite fond of each other.  Al brings Eladio a box of chocolates and asks for his help in identifying the handwriting from the notes.  The priest is a scholar and has some knowledge of graphology, among other things.  The priest identifies the writing as that of a young girl, and suggests she is stubborn and uneducated but has some native intelligence, sensitivity, passion and a sense of humor.  These qualities suggest someone who is a good match for Alejandro, if not as a lover then at least as a companion.

The priest also identifies the tower referred to in the final note as the bell tower of his own church.  He and Al decide to climb the tower to look for the next clue.  Here Al wonders why the girl has chosen him.  What exactly does she see in him?  The priest says it’s because he’s a fool and that she’s toying with him for her own amusement.  They find the clue, which says, “Falcon feathers will take you to the performance. G.”  Eladio warns Al that this game could lead to trouble, and informs him that the local school children are putting on a performance of Macbeth.  It seems that Al’s mystery girl may be even younger than he anticipated.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (4)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (4)

And here we get our first glimpse of the girl, Goyita, (Ana Torrent), who is portraying Lady Macbeth in the play, a difficult and nuanced part that requires great acting skills.  Al is immediately taken with the girl’s performance even in the rehearsal.  It is evident now that this is no ordinary young girl.  She is precocious, spirited and beautiful.  I must say: how differently Ms. Torrent looks here than she did in her earlier films!  She reminds me a bit of the young Natalie Portman.  As Lady Macbeth, some of her lines are provocative.  “Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,” she says.  These are not words one would ordinarily hear coming from the lips of a middle school-aged child.  Al is a captive audience, and Goyita is, in turn, distracted by Al’s presence to the point where it begins to affect her performance.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (5)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (5)

Having been ejected from the rehearsal by the teacher, Al waits for Goyita outside until the rehearsal is over. Their first meeting is in the town square, in the street.  Alejandro walks Goyita home, quoting lines from Macbeth himself.  Meanwhile, Goyita’s teacher spots them walking together and is obviously concerned.  Al—and the audience—finds out here that Goyita is only 13 years old.  No wonder her teacher is worried.  We also learn that Goyita has been aware of Al for years, and it is only recently that she has decided to get his attention, although she did so coyly, through her little game with the notes and feathers.  Isn’t that exactly like something a 13-year-old girl would do?  Usually their affections are reserved for boys much closer to their own age though.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (6)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (6)

They soon arrive at Goyita’s home.  It turns out that her father is a policeman.  This certainly complicates things.  Before they part ways, Goyita mentions that she also knew Alejandro’s wife, yet another element that will cement their bond.  And as she is ascending the stairs to her family’s apartment, she whistles.  What do you think the tune is?  None other than Hadyn’s The Creation, of course.  Is it deliberate?  Well, Goyita has said that she knows where Al lives.  It’s possible—even likely—that she’s heard him listening to this same oratorio.  So, it seems she knows very well what she’s doing.  The last thing she does before entering her home is stomp several times on the floor, an act which indicates that, although preternaturally bright and mature, she is still a kid after all.  Kids tend be noisy when they’re happy.  What is the source of Goyita’s joy?

Immediately she is confronted by the police sergeant, who criticizes her for being too loud.  Goyita’s relationship with the stern and unpleasant sergeant is one of mutual dislike and mistrust, as we will see.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (7)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (7)

Back at home in his study, Al asks Amparo if anyone has come to visit.  He is eagerly awaiting a visit from his new little friend.  He dials the number of the police station, but when someone answers, Al doesn’t speak, afraid to reveal his identity and why he’s calling.  The officer on the other end hangs up on him.

We cut to Goyita’s home, where her family is eating dinner.  She is in fact the oldest of four children.  Psychologists interested in birth order would suggest this accounts for at least some of Goyita’s high intelligence and maturity.  This theory is, of course, only moderately accepted in the larger mental health community.  Nevertheless, Goyita is a good model for the theory.  During dinner, Goyita’s mother criticizes her for climbing trees, calling her a naughty tomboy.  It seems poor Goyita is constantly being attacked from all sides.  One might say she is the typical misunderstood teen, only she is anything but typical.  Goyita’s mom also uses this opportunity to criticize her husband, Goyita’s father, whom she considers a lazy and ineffectual disciplinarian.

Soon the sergeant appears, inviting himself into the house.  Goyita’s dad rises when the sarge—his boss—enters.  Since the family lives over the police station, the sarge is apt to appear at any time.  The sergeant insinuates that Goyita has been climbing to the building’s roof, and the girl curtly answers, “That’s a lie,” earning her a smack to the back of the head from her mom.  We find out that Goyita’s given name is actually Gregoria; Goyita, or sometimes Goya, is a diminutive nickname.  The sarge accuses Goyita of leaving the attic door open and of breaking out a window.  She denies it, but her mother takes the sergeant’s side.  She ends Goyita’s meal and sends her to her bedroom as punishment for these offenses.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (8)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (8)

Alejandro prowls around Goyita’s school, waiting for her to get out of class.  Goyita’s teacher, Marisa, spots him and addresses him.  Their conversation is warm and friendly.  I can’t help but think that, if such a thing occurred in this day and age, the teacher would likely call the authorities immediately, and she certainly wouldn’t be friendly towards the man.  In fact, she apologizes for being rude to him the other day when she chased him
away from the rehearsal.  Meanwhile, Goyita watches the conversation from a nearby window.  She seems worried.  What are her teacher and her new friend discussing?

Well, Marisa is inviting him to the performance of Macbeth!  The old man isn’t sure he’ll be able to make it, though of course there is a powerful drawing card in the form of Goyita.  He wonders if Goyita was assigned this difficult role as some kind of punishment.  This isn’t a bad assumption.  Goyita certainly has a tendency to be mischievous.  But no, she is studying acting and volunteered for the part.  She’s the real deal, Al realizes, a girl truly interested in the arts.  His fascination for her only deepens.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (9)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (9)

Later, Alejandro enters an artist’s studio that’s full of old paintings and objets d’art.  It should come as no surprise that Alejandro is an aesthete, an admirer of beautiful things.  The artist turns out to be a young woman he is well acquainted with by the name of Mercedes.  Indeed, the two are lovers and their relationship is something of an open secret.  Yet, their relationship is well organized, with Al showing up at certain times each month.  This time, however, he has shown up early.  Something—or someone—has stirred up his passion, causing him to break out of his usual routines.  I wonder who that someone could be?

When a young couple shows up at the studio to invite Mercedes to some film event, she casually informs them that she and Alejandro are lovers.  Al feels like she is mocking him because she doesn’t really want to be seen with the old man.  She promptly informs him that he doesn’t understand her at all.  She’s right, for, although the two are lovers, they aren’t really compatible, though not because of their age difference.  They simply have different temperaments.  Anyway, to prove her sincerity, Mercedes drags him into the street and kisses him passionately before all and sundry.  There can be no doubt now that she cares about him, but what are his feelings toward her?  Note that she’s wearing red, the same color we usually see Goyita in.  Red has long been associated with passion and sexuality; so it is here.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (10)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (10)

Later, Goyita shows up at Al’s home on her bicycle.  The gardener nearly sends her away, but Al happens to see her ride up and alerts her to his presence and meets her on the lawn. His joy at her presence is obvious.  This is a man in love, no doubt.  Though Al is pleased to see her, he also takes time to lecture her about leaving home without her parents’ sanction.

Today this same story would be spun another way: Al would be a selfish sexual predator, a one-note villain who doesn’t really care about Goyita and manipulates her to get into her pants, and Goyita would be a lonely innocent who doesn’t understand what she’s getting into.  It would be a cautionary tale about the dangers of underage girls meeting up with strange older men.  But this film is far too classy and nuanced for that.  Alejandro does care about the girl, and while his emotions are running high, sex is the farthest thing from his mind at this moment.

Unfortunately, Al’s scolding, though gentle, upsets Goyita and she storms off.  But Al intercepts her; he doesn’t want her to leave, of course.  She says she came by yesterday and he was gone; she asks where he was.  He was in Madrid, he tells her, a bald-faced lie.  He was actually in Salamanca (which, incidentally, suggests their town is somewhere in the vicinity of Avila), meeting his lover.  Perhaps, then, Goyita has another reason to be upset.  Does she intuitively understand that he has been with a lover?  Maybe she is jealous after all.  Yet, she decides to stay.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (11)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (11)

As the two walk through the woods, Goyita insists that Alejandro not visit her at the school, or talk to her teacher for that matter.  More jealousy?  It must be said, the young teacher is quite beautiful.  Or is Goyita simply worried that word of their meetings will get back to her parents?  Whatever the case, Al promises to do neither of those things in the future.  Next she wants to know why he wears a beard, telling him that it makes him look old.  This is our first real hint that Goyita’s feelings about Al are more than emotional.  She desires for him to look younger, more pleasing to her eye, which means she has been assessing his appearance as someone of the opposite sex.  And yet, when he asks her if she’d like him to get rid of it, she emphatically replies, “No.”  She is confused by her own feelings, perhaps even fighting them.  They hear a bird chirping in the vicinity.  Is it a goldfinch, Al wonders?  Goyita identifies it as a coal tit.  She is forever correcting him on his bird identifications thereafter.  The girl definitely knows her birds!  Is she equally adept at identifying the bees?  Well . . .

Goyita asks about his necklace, which he tells her is a talisman meant to remind him of the concentration camp he was put into by the Francoists during the Spanish civil war.  It’s interesting that all three of the Ana Torrent films we have examined are connected to the Spanish Civil War in some way; few outside Spain can imagine the impact of that event on the lives of those who lived through it and through the Franco regime.  Al in turn asks Goyita how she knew his wife.  As it so happens, she was, like Goyita, a bird nest enthusiast.

In one of the most poignant scenes in the film (which kicks off an extended montage sequence set to music of The Creation), Alejandro and Goyita stand near what appears to be a broken monument in the countryside, both pretending to be conductors.  This is a metaphorical manifestation of their love for each other and their perfect compatibility, as they work together to conduct their imaginary orchestra.  In their minds they are perfectly in sync; but, of course, the realm of the imagination is not reality.   Previously Al had occupied the raised spot in their relative positions, but in an act that conveys multiple layers of meaning, Al steps down and leads Goyita to the higher position.  He is not only demonstrating his true love for the girl by literally placing her on a pedestal, he is also stepping down from his post as representative of his generation and allowing the next generation to replace him.  He’s old and he knows it, soon to die.  More foreshadowing.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (12)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (12)

As the montage continues, they dance.  Couples dancing has a semiotic relationship to sex.  This doesn’t mean that Alejandro and Goyita have had sex (or will), only that if they did, it might look something like this—honest, attentive, joyful and elegant.  We will see the dancing again, and each time it happens, the camera moves in a little closer as their relationship becomes more intimate.  In another kind of dance, the two circle and weave around each other on their bicycles.  Their relationship is being forged and strengthened with these actions.

The montage continues with skeet shooting, Al shooting the skeet while Goyita works the skeet thrower.  He’s a crack shot.  Remember that, because it will be relevant later.  This is also another sexual metaphor.  Al then teaches Goyita to fire the shotgun.  Again, these activities do not imply actual sex; they merely indicate what a sexual relationship would be like between them, a perfect give and take.  Despite their huge age difference, they are perfectly compatible in their shared world.  Would that this was all there was.  But it isn’t.  The reality is, they must contend with the rest of the world, and there is where their
compatibility breaks down, for their huge age disparity will inevitably mean heartbreak for Goyita.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (13)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (13)

The montage continues to unfold, and we see our pair riding horses together, a bit more dancing, and then they play Leapfrog.  It is interesting to note that, among the activities supposedly enjoyed by Edgar Allen Poe and his own 13-year-old bride was this game.  The couple lived in New York City (specifically, Fordham) for a brief time, and there are accounts of Poe and Virginia playing Leapfrog in Central Park with friends of theirs.  Finally, Alejandro and Goyita climb a tree to examine a bird’s nest before the montage ends.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (14)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (14)

Later, as they prepare for bed, Goyita’s two younger sisters, as small children are wont to do, tease their elder sibling about having a boyfriend.  Goyita denies that Alejandro is her boyfriend, and the sisters call him a holy fool.  They have no idea what that means; they’ve only heard the sergeant refer to Al by this term.  It starts an argument between Goyita and her sisters.

Back at Alejandro’s place, Al proclaims to Father Eladio that he’s a normal man, and yet he’s obsessed with this young girl.  The implication here is that Al is no pedophile or sex deviant; he has never been interested in young girls before, but now he finds himself in love with one.  To be fair, Goyita is hardly an average girl.  But what a quandary to be in!  Eladio tells him that if he didn’t know Al, he would’ve reported him to the authorities, yet he knows his friend would never hurt the girl.  Eladio suggests that Al should marry his lover Mercedes to get his mind off the girl and put an end to his loneliness.  Eladio asks how old the girl is, to which Al replies “110 years,” a joke referring to Goya’s precocious nature.

When they meet again, Goyita asks Alejandro what a holy fool is, to which he describes himself to a T, right down to the clothes he wears.  Goyita has the gardener call the police station to inform them that “Goya Menendez is eating dinner with her school friend.”  Again, Al lectures her about lying, especially to her parents.  Goyita dons Al’s headphones, a gesture meant to convey that she isn’t listening to Al’s lecturing.  When he removes the headphones and repeats his point, she again threatens to leave.  She has no patience for Al treating her as an elder treats a willful child; she sees him as an equal and wants him to treat her the same way.  Again he stops her from leaving and agrees with her point that they must lie about their relationship.  Perhaps he is finally seeing it for what it is, whereas Goyita, with youth’s ability to pierce instantly through facades, had seen it that way all along.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (15)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (15)

Alejandro tells Goyita that he dislikes the civil guard (police).  This seems to make her happy; she dislikes them too.  She asks to see his deceased wife’s bedroom, a request that makes Al uncomfortable for a couple of reasons, but he agrees to do so nonetheless.  At this point Goyita attempts to properly seduce Alejandro.  She picks up his wife’s brush and begins brushing her own hair with it.  She tells Al that his wife was unattractive in comparison to her, describing the woman as short, stocky and small-breasted!

She then goes through his wife’s old things, finding a beautiful blue dress that she holds up to herself.  She clearly has plans to replace Al’s absent spouse.  She says that it’s rumored that Al married for money rather than love.  This accusation finally pushes Al past his breaking point, and he becomes angry, but Goyita quells his anger by pointing out that she never actually believed the rumors.  She asks why they never had children.  Al says it was because his wife was barren, an answer that satisfies Goyita, who may be thinking about having kids with Al herself.  Finally, Goyita wonders if his wife suffered as she
was dying.  Al says that he suffered more than she did.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (16)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (16)

Then they have dinner.  The meal is elaborate, but only because Goyita is there.  She is flattered that Al would go to such trouble for her.  Later, while the two are looking at bird nests, Al asks why Goyita chose him.  “For everything,” she tells him.  Giving up the pretense of cautiousness, Al decides to drive Goyita home.  On the way, her teacher spots her in Al’s car and is obviously worried about her student.  Before she leaves his car, Goyita asks him if he likes her.  He tells her that she’s a child, albeit a bright and sensitive one. But that’s not what Goyita wants to hear; she wants to know if he likes her as a woman, and says that if he doesn’t, she will leave and never speak to him again.  She’s giving him an ultimatum: either love me on my terms or don’t love me at all.  Al tells her that he does indeed like her as a woman, but that it isn’t normal for someone his age to be attracted to a 13-year-old girl.  She asks for and receives a kiss from him (a chaste
one on the cheek).  He says to her that if people tell her bad things about him, she shouldn’t believe them. She agrees wholeheartedly.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (17)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (17)

While speaking to Goyita’s teacher, who has ostensibly come to ask him about music for the play, Al asks her why she agreed to let the girl play Lady Macbeth.  “Because she is evil enough to understand the role,” the teacher insists.  The teacher then asks him why he chose Goyita.  He never really answers her, but he points out that Goyita forbade him to talk to her, so he is violating his promise by even speaking to her.

He and Goyita meet again in the woods.  They swear a blood oath, mingling their blood in an act that mimics consummation.  They each carve their own first initial into the palm of the other and rub the wounds together.  Goyita then gives Al her red scarf, and Al gives Goyita his talisman.  Goyita then asks him to burn all of the pictures of his wife as well as her clothes and other belongings.  This he refuses to do, and she leaves.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (18)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (18)

Later, at school, the teacher asks to see Goyita’s hand.  When she asks what the A means, Goyita says, “Nothing.”  Because it is a letter A, the teacher asks all the boys whose names begin with A to stand.  But none of them have an initial on their hands.  She then asks all the children with an initial to raise their hands.  Every child laughingly raises their hand.  The kids are making a joke of Goyita’s love, but the teacher still believes it is another child who shared the blood oath with Goyita.  She tells her students that childhood romances are normal, though she does have some concerns about the cutting because of the risk of infection.

Later, as Marisa is painting props for the play, Goyita pays her a visit.  While getting her to help with the painting, the teacher also devises a plan to get Goyita to reveal what’s going
on with her: she will ask Goyita a personal question, and for every question she asks her, Goyita will get to ask Marisa a personal question in turn.  Goyita agrees to these terms.

After a few throwaway questions, Marisa gets down to the nitty-gritty.  “What does ‘A’ mean?” inquires Marisa.  Goyita replies, “You already know,” but she admits it stands for Alejandro.  Goyita asks what will be on the next test, which, by the established rules, the teacher must answer and does, but she isn’t happy about it.  How clever our girl is!  The teacher then asks if Goyita has the ‘G’ on his hand, which of course he does.  Goyita then wants to know why her teacher went to visit her friend.  She responds that she wanted to know if he was a trustworthy person.   The teacher then asks what it is Goyita and Alejandro do together.  Goyita lists the things they do, which does not include anything sexual.  The teacher advises Goyita to end the relationship, but Goyita claims it has already ended because he refused to do everything she commanded him to do.  (Despite the stereotype, it is clearly Goyita who is in charge of the relationship and doing all the manipulating.)  Even so, this is a lie on Goyita’s part—her relationship with Al may have undergone a temporary setback, but it is hardly over.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (19)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (19)

The film cuts back to Alejandro’s place.  Although he had refused to destroy his wife’s belongings, in the end he does as Goyita asked, burning her clothes and the photos of her in his yard.  It seems that no matter how much he resists, he cannot refuse Goyita in the end.  This is what true love has done to him.

The next morning, Goyita discovers that the sergeant has released her pet falcon, which rightly enrages Goyita.  She then happens upon the sergeant screaming at her father, presumably about his daughter’s shenanigans.  Goyita confronts the sergeant about her bird, but he simply shouts at her and calls her an idiot, then chases her out of his office.  Goyita, visibly upset, vows to kill the sergeant.  It’s an empty threat, of course; she is no murderer.  But she despises him that much.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (20)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (20)

Al visits his wife’s grave, and the priest finds him there.  Eladio tells Al that the townsfolk,
including the girl’s family, all know about their little romance.  Most people think Al is a bit koo-koo but basically a decent guy.  A small minority think he’s a sex maniac, however, and that he should be taught a lesson.  Eladio says he should beware of the latter group.  Alejandro tells Eladio that for the first time in his life he is really living.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (21)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (21)

When Goyita returns home for supper that night, her mother informs her that she is being shipped off to her aunt’s, and sends her to bed without her supper.  Her father too has had enough, it seems.  He removes his belt, preparing to give her a lashing.  Goyita wants to know why she’s being punished.  After all, it’s not like she and Alejandro are hurting anyone or doing anything wrong.  All they do is ride horses, listen to music and so on.  As it so happens, the anger from her father is all a front to fool his wife.  He doesn’t actually whip Goyita but repeatedly strikes the bed beside her instead.  This makes her mother happy, as she thinks her daughter is finally getting her long-deserved punishment, but her dad seems to understand his daughter better than her mother does.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (22)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (22)

Later, Alejandro tells Goyita that he bought a bird guide.  It seems Goyita has instilled in him her love of birds.  But now she is upset, for she is being sent away on Friday to live with her aunt.  This will be the last time they will get to be together.  She tells him too that the sergeant released her bird and took away the talisman Al gave her.  She asks him to kill the sergeant for her.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (23)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (23)

Back at home, Alejandro’s reminiscences of his times with Goyita are interrupted by Amparo.  In the past this would’ve made him angry, but it’s clear from their exchange that he is a changed man thanks to Goyita.  He treats his servant much better now.  Moreover, he is a broken man.  The loss of the love of his life has ripped the heart out of him.

In their final meeting, Al reveals to his priest friend that he spent five years in the seminary. They share a laugh over that.  Al decides to track down Goyita to her aunt’s place.  Of course, she can only watch him through the window, but she is very happy to see him.  It will be his final view of her, and he will take it to his grave.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (24)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (24)

Alejandro next goes to the police station, where he challenges the sergeant to a duel.  The sergeant thinks he’s joking, but he is quite serious.  He assures the sergeant that he is a terrible shot, but of course we know better.  Later, Al waits on the cliff to ambush the sergeant, who brings Goyita’s father with him.  They both carry machine guns, hardly a fair gunfight.  But Al doesn’t care about this anyway.  He fires on the sergeant and apparently misses.  He then stands in the open, waiting, and the sarge easily mows him down.  After killing Alejandro, the officers discover that Al was using blanks.  The thing is, Al had had the advantage because he was on higher ground, and he saw the sergeant well before the sergeant saw him.  Plus, he was a great shot.  He could easily have killed the sergeant if he’d wanted to, but he’d never intended to do so; his plan had been suicide by cop all along.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (25)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (25)

Many of the townsfolk show up for his funeral, including the policemen, the teacher and the priest.  Goyita later visits his grave, which has been erected on the same site where the old monument once stood and where he and Goyita first danced.  She vows to never give herself to another as long as she lives.  She says that he taught her a new word beginning with A: Amor. She carves another A into her palm and places it against his grave.  The final shot is of Goyita conducting The Creation from Alejandro’s gravesite.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (26)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (26)


Cave Girl: Jean M. Auel’s ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’

With my first post I’m going to discuss the book The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, as well as the movie directed by Michael Chapman. As is usually the case, the book was far more engaging and meaningful than the movie, so I will take the plot points from the book and use various screenshots from the movie. The latter uses three actresses to represent the various stages of Ayla’s life; Emma Floria is 5-year-old Ayla, Nicole Eggert plays Ayla at about 11 or 12, and Daryl Hannah is adolescent/adult Ayla. Unfortunately, the movie didn’t accurately depict Ayla’s timeline. She is under eighteen for the whole of the book, and is 14 at its conclusion. Within that span of time she experiences incredible hardship, but what she learns in those 9 years will change everything forever. 

Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (1)

Ayla is a Cro-Magnon girl (early Homo sapiens sapiens), distant ancestors to our forbears and us. Mog-ur—known to her affectionately by his true name, Creb—is a Neanderthal Man (H. neanderthalensis) and the most powerful magician known to his Clan. They share the same ancestor but are fated to much different paths. Creb and all his people are about to die in one of the most questionable extinctions known to modern science, while Ayla’s kind are on their way to becoming the most populous and (relatively) successful  mammals to have ever existed. Nobody seems to know just what happened there, and Jean M. Auel, while aiming to write fiction based on facts, did not specify how her Neanderthal clan were to become extinct either.

Ayla is taken in by the medicine woman of the Neanderthal clan after an earthquake kills Ayla’s family and forces the Clan out of their cave, their only home. The girl is just five years old, but nevertheless survives the attack of a cave lion (the grass lion’s huge, hungry ancestor) and passes out presumably from shock and pain. She is found by the Clan’s medicine woman, Iza on their search for a new cave home.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (2)

Iza is sibling to the Clan leader, Brun, so he is given to allow Iza to keep and care for the girl. The young girl eventually trains with Iza to become a medicine woman and is quite proficient with flowers and herbs. She also gets in the habit of using the excuse that she is looking for plants for Iza so that she can wander around by herself in the wilderness, thinking and playing in solitude.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (3)


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (4)


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (5)

Ayla’s presence disturbs the others, and their treatment towards her differences profoundly impacts her development. She is especially terrible with following their strict social customs, which include the docility and submission of women as virtues—instead of the low, shuffling walk of Clan women, Ayla is gifted with long, thin legs and is taller than most of the men by age 12. The discomfort she causes is very much about the way that she looks in comparison to the rest of the clan as well. Throughout the book she is repeatedly referred to as ugly by the other members, even by her sweet Mog-ur, and it is assumed she will never acquire a partner. They have no qualms about speaking these things in front of her either.

“He visualized the tall, skinny child, straight arms and legs, flat face with a large, bulging forehead, pale and washed out; even her eyes were too light. She will be an ugly woman, Mog-ur thought honestly. What man is likely to want her anyway?”  Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear


“… The skull of Cro-Magnon 1 does show traits that are unique to modern humans, including the tall, rounded skull with a near vertical forehead. A large brow ridge no longer tops the eye sockets and there is no prominent prognathism of the face and jaw [as compared to H. neanderthalensis].”  Smithsonian Natural Museum of History

Part of the reason why she is regarded with this repulsion is because her childhood seems to last much longer than what is regular for the Clan. Their lifespans average 30 years and the children are usually ready for their mating ceremonies at age 7 or 8. They start to wonder when she doesn’t seem to be developing the regular features of a woman, but it is precisely her childish figure which enables her to gain the skills that will eventually allow her to become independent. In this way and many others, Ayla becomes a symbol of fate for Creb, but to the others she is profoundly mysterious, profoundly wrong.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (6)

Built mainly for storing large quantities of data as memories, the Neanderthal Clan have minds that can peer thousands of years into the past with a process as simple as contemplating the natural life that surrounds them. (This is, of course, speculation by the author. You can do the research for yourself but there is some level of validity to her fictional fantasies.) The Clan can see eons behind them, all the way back to the dawn of life, with the help of a divine flower employed by Mog-ur; Datura stramonium or Angel’s Trumpet—Devil’s trumpet, if you’d like to play your hand on the other side of the paradox. But they can’t think in numerical terms past 3, and Mog-ur, whose mind is significantly more attuned to the abstract, the extra-sensory, can’t pass 20.  Ayla, however, is on her way to multiplying single-digit numbers at the age of five. She so astounds Creb with her mind that he becomes enthralled with her instantly, falling in love with her confidence and intelligence the first year of her stay.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (7)

Despite the rigidity of the Clan’s ways, especially in their expectation of docile behavior from the women, Creb gives Ayla some slack, often only scolding her for behavior that other men would have punished with physical violence. Physical affection is kept at a minimum between the two, but Ayla trusts in the old man’s love.

Her first year with the clan is arduous, as she is forced by her adoptive family and the pressures of the group to conform to their patriarchal expectations. However unexpectedly, she does seem to grow with a strength and confidence that is rare even for males in the Clan, and this brings about the unlucky attention of the leader’s son, Broud, who is to become her unfailing tormentor.

The boy is arrogant and narcissistic, unable to let go of Ayla’s unwomanly confidence and skill set. As Broud becomes a man and more assured in his dominance, his torments too become progressively more vicious and physically violent. But she has a secret. Ayla has learned to hunt, eventually becoming more proficient with a sling than the Clan’s own sling master. Broud’s attacks no longer bother her—in fact, she eggs him on, carrying her secret skill as a totem of confidence. Soon after her first menses at age 10, however, her secret is discovered when she kills a hyena to save a Clan child from death. She is given a comparatively mild punishment, considering it is strictly forbidden for a woman to even touch a weapon—a transgression which is punishable by death—and afterwards is startlingly anointed with the title of Woman Who Hunts by Mog-ur and the leader. From then on she is given the freedom to hunt in the open, using only her sling, but that’s good enough for her. Ayla’s confidence soars, and eventually the Clan begins to accept her, even respect her. Everyone except for Broud, that is.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (8)

Because of his unceasing abuse, Ayla has learned to dissociate from Broud, obeying him but no longer with any hint of emotional investment. But her pain is what makes Broud happy and he is frustrated with her lack of distress. Again shortly after her first menses, Broud comes across Ayla gathering herbs for Iza away from the cave and rapes her. Because of Clan customs, any male is allowed to have intercourse with any female he wishes, even if she belongs to another man, even if she isn’t yet a woman—but most Clan men feel it beneath their dignity to have intercourse with a child.  All a man has to do is give a signal, and the female will “assume the position”. Because of this, the Clan doesn’t protest when Broud takes up the habit of raping her daily, sometimes multiple times a day. The women are confused as to why she is screaming out as if in pain, but the ordeal is seen as some kind of odd phase for Broud, considering Ayla is so unattractive and Broud has a beautiful woman of his own. Iza and Creb notice her crippling depression, but they don’t know what to attribute it to and so have no way of helping her.

A redeeming feature of the Clan is that they don’t stigmatize sexuality in childhood.

“In the Clan, the mating of two people was entirely a spiritual affair, begun with a declaration to the whole clan but consummated by a secret rite that included only the men. In this primitive society, sex was as natural and unrestrained as sleeping or eating. Children learned, as they learned other skills and customs, by observing adults, and they played at intercourse as they mimicked other activities from a young age. Often a boy who reached puberty, but had not yet made his first kill and existed in limbo between child and adult, penetrated a girl child even before she reached her menarche.”  Jean M. Auel, The Clan of the Cave Bear

However, they don’t necessarily know how sex works either. They believe in animal spirits called Totems; assigned to every member of the clan, they protect each person and bring luck or misfortune depending on how the clan behaves. They believe these spirits are rooted themselves in tradition as well, fearing anger from their otherworldly protectors if they stray from long-practiced rites and customs. Male totems are usually “stronger” than female totems (for example, a female totem might be a beaver where a male totem may be a wild boar), and it is believed that pregnancy is caused by the male totem “defeating” the female totem by some undefined spiritual means. A woman’s menses is similarly caused by the woman’s totem defeating a man’s totem. Ayla herself has the strongest totem in the tribe, the massive Cave Lion, assigned by Mog-ur when he contemplates the parallel scars on her legs caused by the cave lion attack when she was just five years old. Throughout her years, Ayla receives assistance and protection from the Cave Lion, noticed only by Mog-ur (as such a strong totem for a little girl confuses the rest of the Clan).


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (9)

Shockingly enough (or maybe not), Ayla soon discovers she is pregnant—and is ecstatic. She had been told all throughout her childhood that she would never bear children, would never mate or find a partner due to her incredibly powerful totem and her ugliness. She forms no connection at first between Broud’s sexual abuse and the pregnancy, but it isn’t long before she pieces it together—becoming the first of the tribe to ever do so. She loves her baby all the same, and I believe the child represents for her a reclamation of her femininity, stripped from her at a young age simply because she didn’t fit the Clan’s idea of what it meant to be female. Her first child, born to her at age 11, is therefore a symbol of her unfailing femininity in spite of her masculine strength. The child is born as a hybrid between the two human species and is seen by the Clan as being deformed, but to Ayla she sees only unity—the mergence of her spirit with that of the Clan in a way she could never accomplish herself. In the end, Broud gives her the one thing she thought she would never get.

An interesting aspect of the plot involves the Clan Gathering, which I will not go into too much detail about. A ritual is held at the gathering in which Ayla must act as medicine woman and distribute the Datura decoction to the females of hers and other Clans. She takes some as well, perhaps too much, but when the women begin their erotic dance, Ayla is pulled by some force to Creb’s ceremony involving the Mog-urs and acolytes of other clans. This is a ceremony not only restricted from female participation, but male participation as well. It is only for the shamans. She learns some interesting things from Creb here and I will not say anything else about it because it’s honestly an astounding scene that should be read in its original form to be appreciated.

download (1)

Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (10)

I find the contrasts between her masculine and feminine aspects quite interesting. Rather, I find it interesting in that she’s not really masculine or feminine. The definitions attached to this duality are entirely subjective, seemingly dependent on the social context in which they are used. It is true that most societies throughout human history seem to have considered hunting an entirely masculine activity, but there are definitely exceptions as with all things. From the Clan’s perspective, she is almost wholly masculine; but then, she bears life, she experiences the cycles of her menses, and she develops a close relationship with plants—all are traits considered feminine by the Clan and many real-life human societies. If you read up on mythology you’ll have heard of Artemis, goddess of hunting, virginity, and protector of nature.

Considering Ayla is a child for most of the book (in the sense that she is under 18), it’s interesting to think of what femininity means in the context of little girls and in the context of Ayla’s role in the Clan. Children are unaware of themselves in a very genuine way, resulting in a sort of freedom that most adults can’t seem to experience. Little girls are themselves a kind of nymph or faerie—feminine, yes, but also masculine in the most surprising and mischievous of ways. They are dynamic, dual. I can say from experience that emerging as a woman from a state of girlhood is entirely frightening. All of a sudden it’s not cute to climb trees in a dress, or acceptable to sit with your legs very obviously open, or to do all sorts of things I was able to do without inhibition as a young girl, without even a thought as to how it was perceived by others. Eventually it became time to grow up, time to accept only one half of the duality while ignoring the other as if it didn’t exist. Ayla is so fascinating because she never seems to experience this horrible shift. Her unheard-of status as Woman Who Hunts combined with her other differences mean that the Clan is constantly in a state of awe or confusion about her, allowing Ayla to dissociate from Clan customs and to walk into herself as she wholly is. She grows up without the notion that she is a child turning into an adult. I’m not sure about the other books, but by the end of The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla is a woman and child all in one, and she is also neither—she’s Ayla.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (11)

By the way, I still climb trees in dresses, ha!


Margaret O’Brien

Geisha Girl

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) is primarily a movie about a girl.  The film can still be subjected to feminist critique because the patriarchy functions on two axes:  the sexist man-woman and the ageist adult-child.

While Chiyo was not sold for a bride price and younger than she might have anticipated— only nine—she nonetheless leaves her father’s house in the manner of any female, Japanese or otherwise, as part of a financial transaction.  As Gayle Rubin tells us,

“If it is women who are being transacted, then it is the men who give and take them… the woman being a conduit of relationship rather than a partner to it… it is men who are the beneficiaries of the product of such exchanges” (The Traffic in Women).

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Rob Marshall – Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) (1)

The heavy rain shower when Chiyo and her sister Satsu are sold and leave home may represent water breaking as she is ejected from the womb of the patriarchal household.  Or, it could symbolize a kind of Zen Buddhist ritual purification, as when a renunciate bhikkhuni washes to signify disavowal of family.  Chiyo has “deFOOed” as Stefan Molyneux might put it.  She should be utterly free.  But then, why all the prison bars imagery as Chiyo alights from the petty-cab in front of the okiya? Because the patriarchal family and the capitalist economy form one integrated system.  Liberated from the father, she now reckons with the Man.

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Rob Marshall – Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) (2)

Despite what conservatives fear, prostitution (hanamachi) does not challenge the integrity of the family—it supports the family wherever the family structure fails, by providing security and support to females left out in the cold and intimacy and sex to men of frigid families.

“There are 80,000 prostitutes in London alone and what are they, if not bloody sacrifices on the altar of monogamy?”  (Schopenhauer, On Women)

Heavy rain falls again while Chiyo searches for Satsu.  Chiyo’s running through the drenched streets will shortly precipitate the permanent loss of her sister.   At this point Mother gives Chiyo a package which turns out to contain a letter informing her that her mother and her father have died. Now utterly without family ties, Chiyo might have moved seamlessly from the microcosmic familial unit onto the macrocosmic space of the patriarchal capitalist order.  Instead, however, Mother has had enough of Chiyo’s trouble-making and rather than training her as a geisha, she reduces the girl to slavery to recover financial losses.

Ironically, only as a slave is Chiyo free, both from the family unit and from personal investment in the statist market economy.  She is liberated totally; and so, in the next scene Chiyo sits symbolically on a bridge, as if between these two worlds.

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Rob Marshall – Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) (3)

But who could betray the patriarchy?  Within seconds she is approached across the river by a charming older gentleman, and instantly she is emotionally enmeshed in capitalism and the patriarchy through its most sacred and unquestioned institution—the romantic couple.

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Rob Marshall – Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) (4)

Like any man seducing a little girl, the Chairman first grooms her by buying her ice cream and then slips her some money.  “In that moment I changed from a girl, facing nothing but emptiness, into someone with purpose.”  From Zen-like emptiness and with “nothing to attain” (Heart Sutra), Chiyo is once again made a tool of a man’s world; specifically, she says she desires “a place in his world.”

Six years pass.  Chiyo still pines for and desires the Chairman as strongly at fifteen as she had at nine, but unexpectedly, fortune and the politics of the Pleasure District supply her another chance to train as a maiko—and perhaps an opportunity to become intimate with the Chairman.

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Rob Marshall – Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) (5)

Chiyo must study hard.  Her peer, Pumpkin, and the other aspiring geishas are years ahead of her in the art of sexual seduction, grace and conversation.  “You will not be a true geisha until you can stop a man in his tracks with a single look,” chides Chiyo’s new mother, Mameha.  Chiyo is a natural and is soon declared ready.

“’Today you leave your childhood and cast away your name, from this day forward you will be known as Sayuri.’  I felt little Chiyo disappear behind a white mask with red lips.   I was a maiko now, an apprentice geisha. From that moment I told myself when I make tea, when I pour sake, when I dance, when I tie my kimono… it will be for the chairman, until he finds me… until I am his.”

Geisha, meaning “artist,” are different from the prostitutes called yujo or tayuu from whom they evolved.  Geisha, while seductive, do not sell sex, and so Chiyo—even as she becomes the geisha Sayuri—remains a girl.

“The girl and the child do not become; it is becoming itself that is a child or a girl. The child does not become an adult any more than the girl becomes a woman.” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus)

Sayuri however will have her virginity auctioned off.  Once again, the symbol of the rain-shower repeats when at the performance preceding the bidding war to ensue, she dances under staged falling rain.  Chiyo/Sayuri’s aqueous blue eyes are another allusion to this water.

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Rob Marshall – Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) (6)

“Girls… elud[e] the theological order of rationality that fixes identities into being not becoming” (McAvan, The Becoming Girl of the Virgin Mary, Rhizomes, Issues 22,  2011).

The theme repeats in the film: “she told me I was like water,” “I see water in you,” and so on.  Like the Deleuzian-Guattarian “becoming-girl,” water is always flowing and not easily blocked.  Sayuri rides a “plane of consistency” through every crooked alley of the Pleasure District and dramatic complication.  “[T]he becoming-girl ‘slips through’ orders” (McAvan), and so at last, in the final scene of the film, Chiyo and the Chairman embrace, seeming to reaffirm patriarchy, capitalism, familism and the romantic couple.

“To a man, Geisha can only be half a wife.  We are the wives of nightfall. And yet… a little girl with more courage than she knew, would find that her prayers were answered. Can that not be called happiness?”

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.

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 Ron, Editor-in-Chief 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.

Youth and Decay: Aurelija Čepulinskaitė

I agree with Joseph Campbell’s contention that proper art is grounded in dream imagery. It does not pander to society’s conventions and challenges the viewer by reminding him of the vital power of the unconscious mind. Therefore, I was pleased to discover that the inspiration for this artist’s work was literally a dream.

As a young woman, Aurelija Čepulinskaitė (born 1974 in Trakai, Lithuania) had a dream of girls running down corridors in white clothes with the sunlight glinting off them. When she awoke, she persuaded her younger sister and one of her friends to go to an abandoned Soviet-era school and model for the shoot. Not satisfied with some of the preliminary results, she decided that bare skin much more effectively produced the effect of light she wanted and the “Summer School” series was created.

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Summer School (1994) (1)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Summer School (1994) (1)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Summer School (1994) (2)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Summer School (1994) (2)

The artist had no idea at the time how innovative her work was or the broader historical context of nude and erotic art. After the fall of the Soviet regime, restrictions regarding nudity in a public forum were somewhat relaxed. A whole spate of Lithuanian photographers began to take the spotlight. Despite their wide range of portrayals of the human body, nothing could quite compare to Čepulinskaitė’s work. First of all, she was the only one to shoot such young models and was only 19 or 20 herself when she began this project. When Mathias Reuss visited Lithuania looking for photo erotica to publish, Čepulinskaitė’s name came up and her work was included in Body Vision: Lithuanian Nudes (1996) by Edition Reuss.

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Summer School (c1995) (1)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Summer School (c1995) (3)

Perhaps the overriding point to this artist’s work is the honesty of the human body. By using young models in the throes of the awkward transition into womanhood, she captured the human body at its most vulnerable yet most truthful. But it is not an idyllic image. For the most part, it is fair to say that male and female photographers have different sensibilities when covering this subject and it seems what Čepulinskaitė accomplished could only have come from a woman.

It was in the middle of the 1990s that artists suddenly started photographing nudes and erotica in Lithuania. It was as though the body had been expelled from official public view for fifty years in Soviet society. Scenes depicting sexuality had been cut out of foreign movies, books with descriptions of sexual intercourse were banned and any existing exhibitions of erotic art were dismantled. The frank expressions of body imagery produced in the West were only available through underground sources. It seemed the problems of the human body were safely hidden under the clothes of Soviet culture. Perhaps some untamable quality of the human body posed a threat and could not be squeezed into the ideology of the class struggle and society’s march to its “bright future”. When Lithuania and other Soviet states gained their autonomy, there was a strong motivation to embrace the nude as a symbol of freedom and nationalism. Discussions were launched in the press asking whether the image of the naked body was worthy of something. And the supporters of erotic photography—citing the academic painting tradition—stated that the body was beautiful, especially representations of the naked body.

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Summer School (c1995) (2)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Summer School (c1995) (4)

Although erotic subjects were displayed in photography elsewhere in the 19th century, Lithuania only began its era of erotic photography in the 20th century. At the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, erotic topics were still quite a strong taboo in art and practically nonexistent in photography. Recently, erotic work from famous Lithuanian photographers of that period have been discovered including Balys Buračas and Povilas Karpavičius. These works were then enriched by a newly published work of auto-erotica by the painter Domicelė Tarabildienė. The argument for the naked body as artistry was strengthened by the work of Rimantas Dichavičius, one of the few to produce erotica during Soviet times.  But even his great work Blossom among Blossoms (Žiedai tarp žiedų) was not published until the years of perestroika. He drew parallels between the forces of nature and a woman’s body: movement of water with hair and the metaphor of woman as blossom. This poeticized the female body while simultaneously consigning her to the world of lower creatures. The symbolism of the blossom clearly regarded women as mere sex objects and left no room for the real problems of bodily sensuality. A woman’s personality could not hope to break though this pretty facade of the erotic. This attitude was uncritically continued by the majority of photographers, most notably Romualdas Rakauskas and Romualdas Požerskis in the 1990s. In one of Raskauskas’ works, The Girls of Spring (Pavasario Mergaitės), he did make use of teenage models, but they were portrayed in such a constrained context that society regarded it as acceptable and they in no way challenged the assumptions of the viewer. The work of artists covering more explicit sex acts were simply regarded as handbooks on sexology and photos by Rolas Šimulis were actually used as illustrations in one foreign text on intercourse.

Violeta Bubelytė was the first to deny the stereotype of the woman as just a beautiful sex object and started photographing auto-erotica in the mid-1980s. The fact that the artist decided to record her own nudity was a bold step in Soviet society, which was bound to elicit accusations of immodesty. Initially, she hid her body under various layers or was crouched in the corner. Only later did the artist’s eyes start to look back at the camera—as if to openly subject herself to scrutiny and ask, “Who am I?” Her work denies the whole arsenal of poses of the sensual woman explored in the fine arts and throws off the mist laid by the male gaze, unequivocally stating the particulars of female existence. Naturally, these photos received angry comments as did those of Snieguolė Michelkevičiūtė, who started photographing aging, tired male bodies—a slap in the face of traditional art. With the increase of erotic photographic exhibitions, the days of hot discussion waned and an era of indifference began. In response, body imagery needed to be more extreme to be noticed. Asocial depictions of neglect and an absence of mental discipline began to appear (eg. Aleksandras Macijauskas, Rimaldas Vikšraitis). Photography, seeking to enter the field as the dominant art form, had to boldly explore the gross body as “flesh”—as a conglomeration of fluids, mucus, chemical reactions, exposing its traumas and death (eg. Svajonė and Paulius Stanikai). It seems the beautiful body had been relegated to the field of advertising (particularly that of Saulius Paukštys).

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - From Summer School (c1995) (3)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – From Summer School (c1995) (5)

At the time, Čepulinskaitė was not aware that others abroad were shooting teenagers nude. She discovered similar work only when visiting Germany in 1995, especially that of Jock Sturges but, “he is too soft, delicate, looks at the girls as a man; he does not know them at all and always keeps a secret.” Perhaps it is impossible to reveal all the secrets of the body and human existence with photographs, but Čepulinskaitė gave it a concerted effort. Though photographs can capture the physical body, it was her hope that she could capture something of the psychological and spiritual as well. By observing the details of the developing body, she records the hints of its burgeoning sexuality and anxieties, its eagerness for freedom and its fear of it. Using her sister as one of the models, she could look through the lens at her alter-ego and explore her own true sexuality buried under years of habit and acculturation. It is as though she was rereading a long-forgotten diary.

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Summer School (c1995) (4)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Summer School (c1995) (6)

Another remarkable thing in her erotic photography is that because of her intimate relationship with the models, she could help them anticipate any concerns arising from posing naked in front the objective lens and thus channel her own anxieties from childhood. That rapport gives her images more intensity and—not being mere aesthetic productions—says something truthful and “real”. With one girl somewhat plump and the other skinny, her work did not conform to any feminine archetype. She does not conceal—under the guise of naturalism—that these girls are posing: performing strange, non-functional, reasonless actions and doing so with their young, developing, imperfect bodies.

Aurelija Cepulinskaite - from Summer School (c1995) (5)

Aurelija Cepulinskaite – from Summer School (c1995) (7)

There is a shocking dissonance in the images as the precious young body is juxtaposed against the background of a decaying building, eliminating the fantasy of a paradise of desire commonly seen in the polished medium of advertising. Three backgrounds were ultimately set against these bodies: an empty school (“Summer School”), abandoned houses (“Lost Houses”) and an abstract cellophane space (“Childhood”). All of these existed in concrete reality in the small town of Dubičiai in southern Lithuania. The school was the former kindergarten of the artist’s sister and was closed after the demise of the Soviet establishment. The ghosts of these backgrounds serve as a reminder of the old confining attitudes about the body with the young girls posing boldly in defiance. The signs of neglect are evident: the dingy wall, breakages and litter, old documents lying around and tattered tapestries. After completing her projects, Čepulinskaitė liked staying alone in these places, and by studying the scattered things, she created a series of color photos that became part of the “Lost Houses”. The cellophane staging of “Childhood” had special significance for her as it was on a hill where, according to legend, Bona Sforzra (1494–1557), the mother of Žygimantas Augustas—a 16th century king of Poland and Lithuania—had built a glass bridge.

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Lost Houses (1994) (2)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Lost Houses (1994) (2)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Abandoned House (1996)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Lost Houses (1996)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Childhood (1998)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Childhood (1998)

On top of these intriguing thematic counterpoints, there is the shock of light which gives the scenes their dynamism and makes the emotional expressions even more convincing, while the contrasting darkness is symbolic of the oppression a child might feel in such a stark institution. It was not just a matter of finding an empty place to shoot the girls, it was a way for Čepulinskaitė to “take her revenge on the school” and do something completely contradictory to its rules—to destroy its image. The order and the structure of the school denies the spontaneous dynamism of the body and everything related to it. The light also creates a feeling of danger and of dreamscape. The sharp cuts of the light transform and deform the body and attacks these naked bodies, accentuating their vulnerability. Another layer of danger is suggested by the very process of photographing. The artist photographed the forbidden images in public (albeit abandoned) places in the very center of the town. She often had to photograph furtively and very quickly, because anybody could have entered through the broken window at any time to see what was going on. In fact, the photo sessions were interrupted on numerous occasions giving the emotional expressions on the girls faces an added feeling of tension.

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Summer School (1994) (6)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Summer School (1994) (8)

In the beginning, attempts to exhibit the photos were “dangerous” as well. Čepulinskaitė avoided showing them in Lithuania, because it would have caused problems for her models—being ridiculed because of the social stigma of posing nude. Photographing the teenage body does tend to trigger a knee-jerk suspicion of voyeurism and pedophilia as well. Here, being a woman and having a close relationship with the models was a great advantage. Her explorations can therefore be appreciated as legitimate examinations of the problems of sexuality, highlighting the unique female experience, exploring taboo sexual feelings and exposing the lie of male visual obsessions. This artist succeeds because she openly talks about her experience and bravely expresses the feelings evoked by her photographic diary under the scrutiny of the spectator. Čepulinskaitė was awarded the FIAP Gold Medal and other prizes for her series “Summer School” in 1998.

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Lost Houses (1994) (3)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Lost Houses (1994) (3)

After producing these erotic series, Čepulinskaitė moved on to photo journalism, eventually becoming a photo correspondent for Lietuvos Rytas (Lithuanian Morning) in Klaipėda, Lithuania’s biggest daily paper. Lithuanian critics acknowledged her work only after her photos had received praise abroad. She studied photography and chemistry in Lithuania before marrying an American and moving to the U.S. She owned an art gallery, “Something Unexpected”, in New York for a short time and just completed a degree in architecture at the New York Institute of Technology. She has been working for an architectural firm in Manhattan for the past two years.  Her exhibitions included: “UFO” 1993, “Reflections” 1994, “Summer School” 1995-1998, “Lost Houses” 1998, “Britain through Young Lithuanian Eyes” 2001, “Meet Marina” 2002, “Cold.Hot.Iceland” 2003, “Green Mirage” 2007 and “After Death” 2007.

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė - from Hot.Cold.Iceland (2001)

Aurelija Čepulinskaitė – from Cold.Hot.Iceland (2001)

I would like to thank art critics Agnė Narušytė and Skirmantas Valiulis whose in-depth reviews—translated into English—were the basis for most of the information presented here. It was startling to discover how rich a culture had developed in such a specific arena in this relatively small country. For those considering owning a copy of Body Vision, the other featured artists are: Rimantas Dichavičius, Gintaras Balionis, Vitaly Butyrinas, Pranas Gudaitis, Alexsandras Macijauskas, Virgilis Šonta, Romualdas Požerskis, Violeta Bubelytė and Rolas Šimulis.

See also Aurelija Čepulinskaitė gallery on ARTslanT

Due to some ambiguity in translation, there was some confusion regarding the names of the series.  The “Lost Houses” series could just as easily be translated into “Abandoned Houses” or “Abandoned Homes” which is the sense of the original Lithuanian name.  They are the same series with some images in black and white of the girls and some in color displaying a collage of abandoned objects.