Sunday, March 30, 2008

Portrait of Seider & Sargent 2

I think the portrait of Madame X may well be one of John Singer Sargent's most well known paintings and thus, it is appropriate that Seider chose another famous female for his retrospective of and homage to Singer's work.

Helena Bonham Carter is the typical, determinedly bad girl who threw over the yoke of genteel restraint and aristocracy for a life on the edge.  Her quirky, non-conformist and edgy dark side stems from the age-old rebellion against a heritage of conservatism.  

So, it is perhaps ironic yet strangely fitting that her homage to Madame X has become one of the iconic British masterpieces of contemporary photography to form part of the millennial exhibition at the National Portraits Gallery in London, as one of the 100 great photographs of the century.

The line back to Sargent lies with Bonham Carter's great-great-grandmother who was painted by the master in 1912.  

I'll put it out there.  I love this photo.  Bonham Carter is downright luminescent.  Talk about blue-blood!  Her skin is truly a study of fine alabaster that glows like mother of pearl against the dark backdrop.  Dark features, pale, pale skin, delicate bone structure and such a commanding air of nonchalant nobility. 

I've never thought her a beauty but she is certainly arresting and charismatic and she knows how to work it.  I love how Seider used one of his favourite tricks here - reflection.  In many of his other works, the man loved placing mirrors, bodies of water and glass to duplicate the model in surreal, cut-out dreamy images.  Here, it is dark, dreamy yet strong with a clear image traced in velvet lines.

Bonham Carter's clavicles are sharply lithographed on polished mahogany yet her face fades into the foreground, creating an imagery of ancient statues that have lost their heads but not their perfect symmetry.  Her hands are diabolically interesting here.  The right is raised and half curled inwards as it to make a point or hold a thought.  Yet the left hand in placed almost impatiently on the table with the allusion of finger tapping to hurry the session on.  Such dichotomy!  Such an intelligent and well-thought out pose.  Amazing.  I am in awe.  It tells such a powerful story and invites so much study that it goes galaxies beyond a lovely photo to true art.

The styling is also so well-thought out.  The line of her strapless bustier is mimicked in her hairline and the slight scallop curves of the bust line by the two tendrils of curls flanking her temples.  Knowing Seider, all these were carefully orchestrated and directed and not the results of a happy coincidence.

Bonham Carter's expression is direct yet the slight hoodedness of her gaze gives her a hint of soulfulness and softness.  It is a commanding and striking countenance and her chiseled cheekbones and slightly pursed lips suggest that she is about to make an importance address and is contemplating the possible reactions and consequences.

It is a superb photograph and will deserving the accolade of being one of the 100 most memorable photographs of the century.

We now compare it to the original Madame X, painted in 1888, a study of contrast and deliberation as well.  Considered as one of Sargent's most definitive pieces because it was such an unconventional pose for its time.  In fact, that pose led to such a volley of controversy and criticism that it forced Sargent to leave Paris and move to Britain.

Why?  Because the pose was considered suggestive with her exposed neck seemingly arching back, inviting a heated kiss or bite to that pale column.  It was deemed sexually suggestive and salacious and much disapproval was heaped onto Sargent's head for it.  It is quite ironic as the model was Madame Gautreau, the American wife of a French banker in Paris and some demi monde as many insinuated at the time.   Perhaps naming it Madame X was not a terribly bright idea.

The painting not only destroyed Sargent's position as the darling of Paris but also caused much grief for the Gautreaus.  The lady was always in the forefront of fashion as evinced by the clean lines, sharp shape and bold statement of her gown.  It is surprisingly contemporary even by today's standards and demonstrates a daring, adventurousness and flamboyance of a confident social figure.  Madame Gautreau's striking beauty and √©lan paved her way into society.  She was kirsch flavoured chocolate ganache when vanilla ice cream was rampant.  Her fiery red hair, pale skin and lean, slightly muscular stature made her stand out enough to catch Sargent's eye as a model.

Standing by the table, she is a vivid flame that enflames the imagination.  And boy, did the Parisiennes' imaginations flare.  

Her turn of head to avoid the gaze of her voyeurs only enraged her naysayers more.  The unattainable yet with all her assets in blatant, full frontal glory.  Although the nose was down-turned, they imagined that she look down upon it at social conventions. Her clinging gown exaggerated her waist, suggestive of a corset and thus, in those days, of her displaying herself in her under-garments.

It is necessary to note that this painting was re-done by Sargent after all the trauma so we do not see the full affront it posed to Parisian society in the late 19th century.  In the original painting, apparently our Madame had the strap artfully fallen off the right shoulder.   

Even without meeting her eyes, you could sense the challenge, calculation and teasing cold-shouldering of this exotic creature.  

Her one hand is grasping the front of her silken gown perilously close to her woman's bits, setting the teeth of the overly-conservative on edge.  The suggestion of heated emotions gripping Madame X in its thrall lies in the clench fingers digging into her upper thigh.  Yet the right hand lingers teasingly on the wooden table.  She seems to be caressingly it languidly, trailing her hand seductively against the polished wood.

Her ears are flushed pink and the puerile imagination fancies that someone had just recently been nuzzling and sucking incessantly on them as she exposed her neck to them.

It was all horrible lascivious to the Parisiennes and all I can say is that they all have a dirty mind.

In comparison, Seider's Madame X is tame.  Yet if you look closely, you may get the whiff of dominatrix in the whole arrangement and in the unyielding stare-down.  The greatest difference is in the colours.  Sargent's has a warm, umber glow while Seider's blue wash places it on the opposite end of the tonal spectrum.

What an artful juxtaposition these two pieces make.  Clever similarities yet defined contrast.