Saturday, July 18, 2009

Body language: the muse of reading


Down the wall from me at the Detroit Institute of Art that day in the mid-1970s, a commotion was going on. The gallery was glowing with the small, intense lights of a traveling exhibit of Edward Weston prints, and a group of young black men was noisily reacting. A moment later, one of them walked up to one of the images that Weston saw of his future wife Charis in 1936 --

and took critical action.

"White bitch!" he shouted. "Ungh!"

And, inches from the contact print that had once been brought to life under Weston's hands, he delivered a karate kick.

In the Detroit of the 1970s, rapidly emptying of its population in the years after it hosted the most destructive race riot in American history, that kick was a reading of the picture's body language. A translation in Looking-Glass language was prepared a few years later by the photographer Robert Adams, who wrote about the same air view of a woman's body:

With the exception of two full-length nudes of Tina Modotti in Mexico, and five of Charis Wilson on the Oceano dunes (not many, considering the number of nudes Weston took), the pictures that supposedly resulted from Weston's love for his subjects are, relative to the rest of his life's work, unsuccessful; they are cold to the point of being dead . . . and thus unattractive on any but the most icily aesthetic terms. . . . [W]hat seems clear on the basis of the pictures is that Weston was inclined to treat the bodies of his lovers as things free of individual personality -- an inclination not too different from that of the pornographers, though the results are in some ways dissimilar -- and imperfectly related to Weston's statements of affection for his models. . . . The nudes record not desire, but a sad sort of invention and staring.

(Robert Adams, "The Achievement of Edward Weston: The Biography I'd Like to Read." EW 100: Centennial Essays in Honor of Edward Weston, ed. Peter C. Bunnell and David Featherstone [Carmel, CA: The Friends of Photography, 1986] 28-29)

Adams is right about the bodies free of individual personality, of course. My June 4 post to this blog gets its title from Weston's own reading of one of his abstract nudes: "Entirely impersonal, lacking in any human interest." Adams made an exception of the photograph of Charis for the same reason that the young black man did: because it can stimulate a body function and then instantly moralize it. Unmediated by what Adams calls the icily aesthetic, the reflex arc brings the male body into contact with the female body and leaves the female body tagged with a label.

'Next,' said M'sieur Pierre, 'we pass on to pleasures of a spiritual order. Remember the times when, in a fabulous picture gallery, or museum, you would suddenly stop and be unable to take your eyes off some piquant torso -- made, alas, of bronze or marble. This we can call pleasure of art; it occupies an important place in life.' -- Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading, trans. Dmitri Nabokov and Vladimir Nabokov, ch. 14
M'sieur Pierre, the man who delivers this lecture, is an employee of a totalitarian state with ideas about how its citizens' bodies should be trained to experience. The audience for his discourse about desire in art consists of two of his fellow educators and the pupil whose head, on the last page of the book, he will chop off. In 1959, Nabokov listened in once more on M'sieur Pierre's words and wrote, in his foreword to their English translation:
I composed the Russian original exactly a quarter of a century ago in Berlin, some fifteen years after escaping from the Bolshevist regime, and just before the Nazi regime reached its full volume of welcome. The question whether or not my seeing both in terms of one dull beastly farce had any effect on this book, should concern the good reader as little as it does me.
By "good reader," Nabokov seems to mean here a Weston rather than an Adams; that is, a reader for the icily aesthetic rather than a reader with a taste for the composite author-function that Nabokov calls, one paragraph later, "G. H. Orwell or other popular purveyors of illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction." Those illustrated ideas, after all, can be individualized to show as much piquant detail as their pragmatic function requires, right down to impish grin and frizzy hair.

( TLS 8 May 2009: 30)

But the whole point of the piquant details is that they are nothing but details. In the language of a book or an image, their function is rhetorical, not grammatical. Anecdotal images like this one out of Nazi Germany are designed with an inherently contradictory purpose: to serve as auxiliaries to words aimed at stirring us to wordless action. In Adams's view and the view of the young black man in the museum, Weston's image of Charis has a similar purposive function, even though it is too visually complex in itself to be reduced to a slogan (Auch du . . .). To viewers in search of a verbal paraphrase, a complexity of vision like Weston's doesn't matter; if the words of a slogan aren't printed on the image, they'll be imagined and then believed to have been seen. Seen in that pragmatic way, a woman's body will become an allegory: the vehicle of a tenor simple ("Let's go to bed") or complex ("White woman on expensive real estate . . . kill!")

But if allegory's emblematic tags (face, facial expression or bodily posture) aren't present to help the reading along, the readers who read for action will be lost. They'll have been stranded on the icily aesthetic.


Adams, who has a Ph.D. in English, seems dismayed that Weston, who never went to college, was better at taking pictures than at following their traces back to a source in himself or forward to a source in Robert Adams. "What I would really like to know from a biography about Edward Weston," he complains, ". . . is where the greatest pictures came from. I think they did not necessarily come from the sometimes foolish man who was a vegetarian but enjoyed bullfights, the one who believed in astrology and wore a velvet cape. They must have come from a more thoughtful person, one who suffered enough to learn" (26). Twenty-three years after writing those words, Adams still isn't as good a photographer as Weston, so the magical Erziehungsbiographie of Weston would appear not to have been written yet. Before a Weston image, we're still left in dumb contemplation. We can't explain it any better than Weston could. And that Weston lived with contradiction is, I should think, the least surprising, least original, least interesting thing there possibly can be to learn about him. In that one respect, reader, Edward Weston was just like you and me. It's only in the respect that he was a great artist that he differed -- and because you and I aren't great artists, we lack the art to understand his art.

What we can try to do, though, is carry out our dumb contemplation on Weston's terms. Twenty-three years after Adams's attempt at a demolition job, Weston's abstract nudes are still standing, and our culture is still responding to them in its own dumb ways. Weston may help us understand those ways, but of course those ways can't help us understand Weston. As Shelley said about Keats, he has outsoared the shadow of our night. "Sold for $1.6 Million Record," trumpets Sotheby's about the 1925 abstract nude print bearing Weston's talismanic signature. "The Packard exchange will mean a fifty dollar first payment of which I have but twenty-five," Weston confided to his Daybook on January 25, 1928, about a used car. "So far I cannot foresee from where the other half will come. And then how will I eat afterwards?!"

(The Daybooks of Edward Weston. Volume II: California, ed. Nancy Newhall [Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973] 46)

And no, we sub-Chelsea types aren't any better at understanding our way across the chasm than the art world is. After all, Sotheby's caption hasn't only changed the way we read Weston's signature; it has changed the way we see through Weston's picture to the idea of body. A million and a half bucks' worth of bankable prestige will go a long way toward warming up the icily aesthetic. On this image, too, there might as well be a slogan.

But cover the words and look at the shape: unreadable because unsayable, unsayable because not reducible to a simple, allegorized desire. It will never be enough for us, but that is its great promise: because you can never know me, you will never cease desiring.