“It is no accident that the most beautiful photograph so far achieved is possibly the first image Nicéphore Niepce fixed in 1822, on the glass of the camera obscura -- a fragile, threatened image ” (Hubert Damisch)
“At first, it stands there like a pure, chaste maiden, with clear gaze and heavenly joy -- this pure canvas that is itself as beautiful as a picture. And then comes the imperious brush, conquering gradually, first here, then there, employing all its native energy, like a European colonist who with ax, spade, hammer, saw penetrates the virgin jungle where no human foot has trod, bending it to conform to his will.”(Wassily Kandinsky)
“I must therefore submit to this law: I cannot penetrate, cannot reach into the Photograph. I can only sweep it with my glance, like a smooth surface. The Photograph is flat, platitudinous in the true sense of the word, that is what I must acknowledge. It is a mistake to associate Photography … with the notion of a dark passage (camera obscura). It is a camera lucida that we should say, … for the essence of the image is to be altogether outside, without intimacy.” (Roland Barthes)
“By making us aware of signifying complexities that can sometimes be operative in the visual arts, iconology has, so to speak, deflowered the image. How could anyone complain about that?” (Georges Didi-Huberman)
* * * * *
The wish to be seduced by the fragility of a picture, the longing to find intimacy beneath its surface, a fantasy of defloration, never-ending defloration -- where do these responses to the flatness of the image come from? And what if someone were to complain about them?
No defloration without a virgin. “I pray you, be you mother, or sister, or virgin-daughter … veil your head,” writes Tertullian (“the father of Latin Christianity”) in his 2nd century treatise On the Veiling of Virgins. “Wear the full garb of woman, to preserve the standing of virgin. … For wedded you are to Christ: to Him you have surrendered your flesh; to Him you have espoused your maturity.” For Tertullian and his contemporaries virginity is less a physical condition (the “maidenhead” had yet to be ‘discovered) than a choice. The veil is the visible sign of the virgin’s chastity, her repudiation of sexuality. In a letter to the Corinthians Paul, the apostle explains why men may go uncovered:
“A man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man.“ (1 Corinthians, 11:7)
To anyone with eyes to see Paul’s words don’t make sense. Not then. Man is of woman born. The pronouncement that woman comes from man denies the obvious in favor of an understanding of procreation that is at odds with experience. Christianity’s new veiled vision idealizes female chastity, and circulates ideas of virgin birth, of mothers without desire, of the Madonna and her baby boy. The Christian veil transforms the female body into an innocent screen, a fragile surface — destined to be pierced.
Where do fantasies come true?
Let’s assume I see more than I know.
Here's a stunning photograph of Veruschka included in Helmut Newton's Private Property portfolio, a sequence of 45 b&w fashion shots.
The date: 1975; the place: the French Riviera; the name: Veruschka; the subject matter: a revelation.
Veruschka at the window. Underneath a black leather coat, loosely girded above the navel, her pale, silky skin is glowing from within, a luminous female body emerging from the dark. I look at her face, into her eyes. She’s unreadable. Does she see me? It doesn’t matter, all Veruschka cares about is to be looked at. Why else would she put herself on display? Pulling back a white curtain, she offers her body as spectacle. There is something almost brutal about this act of unveiling. The dark fingernails piercing the elegant folds of the white curtain draw blood.
Veruschka’s left hand covers her private parts, but a small triangle of pubic hair is left unprotected. Am I witness to a defloration, this most private act of taking possession of a woman, of turning her into property, private property? But if indeed a defloration has occurred, the image seems to want to mend what has been ruptured. The photograph is flat, without depth. It denies penetration and offers something far more delightful: surface pleasures. My eyes caress, brush by the photograph’s seductive surfaces: skin as smooth as silk, window panes seamlessly blending into curtains whose folds echo the gentle waves of the Mediterranean. La mer/la mère, the sea/the mother — flat. Veruschka herself is no exception: her body a surface among surfaces, a variation of the exquisite folds that surround her; folds that conceal as much as they reveal. A truly irresistible photograph whose intimate secrets give rise to the wishful fantasy that a photographic image possesses an imaginary hymen: enticing, delicate, unbreakable.
Photography, primal screen.
Where does Veruschka come from?
Let's assume the things I see are for real.
From the French Riviera to a small village in Tuscany.
In the tiny museum of Monterchi there is a fresco of the Madonna del Parto (the Virgin of Childbirth) which bears a striking resemblance to Veruschka. The fresco was created by Piero della Francesca in the second half of the fifteenth century for the medieval chapel opposite the museum. A revelation yet again. Two angels holding up a curtain, as if on a stage, presenting the miracle of the pregnant Virgin.She stands proud in her pleated, many layered garment. Look at me, she says. Like Veruschka the Madonna, despite her pregnancy, is defined by surfaces: a figure made of gentle veils and folds, situated in a space created by artfully draped curtains. The folds promise depth, feminine depth; a depth that can be straightened. One fold seems particularly precious, in need of both protection and attention. The fingers of the Madonna’s left hand hover over a conspicuous slit in her pleated garment, exposing a layer of fine fabric, exquisite in its whiteness. Her unspoiled maidenhead!
Where Veruschka comments on the art of photography, the Madonna is a comment on the art of painting. Piero succeeded in depicting the impossible: a voluminous body that denies depth, a pregnant Virgin whose swelling belly evokes the hymen. Put in ‘realistic,’ space the Madonna del Parto stands out among the numerous medieval Madonnas typically situated in a symbolic space purposefully removed from the physical reality of the spectator. Piero’s Madonna is of my world. Her space could be my space.
Only at first glance does the fresco illustrate the miracle of the pregnant virgin. What it really celebrates is the art (and technology) of representing virginity as receptive, ‘pregnant’ surface, ready to conceive a new world view.
In the early 1990s the Madonna was detached from her original ground and moved to the museum where she was put behind glass in a specially designed, climate-controlled exhibition case, like a photograph. Since then flatness has become the Madonna’s defining and most anxiously guarded quality.
The Madonna del Parto, guardian of the primal screen.
How to fabricate a primal screen?
Let’s assume I was an apprentice.
Florence. While Piero della Francesca was working at the Madonna, Leon Battista Alberti introduced a new technology for viewing and representing the visible world, known as linear perspective. To achieve the projection of three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional plane Alberti devised a viewing grid (“a thin veil, finely woven”) he called “Velum.”
“This veil I place between the eye and the thing seen, so [the gaze] penetrates through the thinness of the veil. This veil can be of great use to you.”
It’s Dürer who teaches me how great exactly.
Nuremberg. A woodcut in Albrecht Dürer’s manual Underweysung der Messung (The Four Books on Measurement) leaves no doubt that images such as Veruschka and the Madonna del Parto spring from the mind.
The study of an artist, a man of science: clean, measured, earnest. A woman poses for him, naked. He is as alert and vertical as she is unconscious and horizontal. She’s a reclining nude, he an upright observer. She is as vulnerable to his gaze as he is secure in the knowledge that she won’t dare to return the gaze.
In his world to be looked at means to be feminized, to be put in what was thought of as a woman’s position. He looks, she appears; his look makes her appear. Rarely the other way round. There is a sexual element too. Within this segregated world view, in which desire and creativity are imagined to flow in one direction only, sexuality is visualized and vision is sexualized.
Everything on her side of the Velum bespeaks indulgence. The softness of the cushions on which she rests her head, the lasciviousness of her pose, the firmness of her naked breasts, the pleasant curves of the landscape echoing the curves of her body. Like Veruschka and the Madonna her left hand draws me to her pudendum.
There’s indulgence on his side too, but of a different kind. What excites him is stillness. He does realize that for living beings stillness means death. He also knows that seeing isn’t still. That’s why he doesn’t see. He looks. Looks with just one eye. If only he could muster enough will power to avoid blinking. Besides opening and shutting his eyes, the only other motion he allows himself is his right hand tracing on a sheet of paper placed in front of him the contours of the female body on the other side of the Velum. Don’t move, he admonishes his model.
With the help of the Velum he achieves the stillness he so desires. The Velum enables him to stay put, focused. In his imagination he is separated from the world surrounding him, from the female body he could have been born of. The Velum renders him invisible. He is a voyeur. His stare is a weapon. It can kill.
The Latin word velum corresponds to the Greek hymen (‘curtain,’ ‘veil,’ ‘piece of skin’), which in the 12th-century was adopted to refer to the Christian idea of the maidenhead. Making a perspectival image consist of a particular mental operation: using the Velum/hymen as imaginary primer. If he succeeds, the image will appeal to the spectator as does the idea of a hymen which remains inviolate to touch. Such is the excitement of the painter.
What was new and exciting for Dürer has become second nature to us. Alberti was right to assume that, as the number of images increases, we will internalize the gaze of the image maker. To me the perspectival world view looks perfectly natural.
Perspective transformed the visual image into a screen of possibilities on which “the reality of what we are disappears into the possibility of what we could be.” Primal screen.
How did the primal screen enter art history?
Let’s assume I was an expert.
Among Baroque painters Johannes Vermeer is the undisputed master of the primal screen. His paintings are famous for their seamlessness evoking an atmosphere of inviolable privacy. Edges and borders, which would indicate rupture, are rare. “Vermeer’s painting is blurred,” explains Daniel Arasse, “He does not literally define the object he depicts.”8 According to the OED blurred means ‘stained,’ ‘sullied,’ ‘befouled.’ Something tells me Vermeer disagrees.
Consider for example A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, painted around 1657.
The elegant folds of a yellowish curtain, drawn back on a rail, bathed in light the texture of milk; draped on a table just behind the curtain a rich oriental rug; its thick folds breaking on the wall like waves on a cliff. A young woman, some say she’s a girl, dressed in fine garment is standing in front of an open window, absorbed in a white sheet of paper she is holding gently between the fingers of her hands. A letter? The title of the painting wants me to believe precisely this. But there’s nothing written on the glowing piece of paper that captures her attention.
The young woman is presented to me in profile. Her face — attentive, composed, even-minded — is as unreadable as the letter. What is she thinking? What are her feelings? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. What draws me to this painting is its texture of intimacy: the rich weave of the oriental carpet, the silky smoothness of the wall, the creamy brightness of the light from the window that doesn’t offer a view, the almost weightless density of the blank sheet of paper between the woman’s fingers. I will not enter into her solitude; I cannot disturb her privacy, unless I destroy the painting.
If it is indeed a letter the woman is reading, it announces nothing less than the advent of the primal screen. The paper, floating like fine cloth over the woman’s loins, recalls the Madonna del Parto’s unblemished hymen.
Where Piero foregrounds religious orthodoxy (the Madonna’s pregnancy is divine), Vermeer shows the primal screen as fabricated. Where Piero evokes a moment (of revelation), Vermeer preserves traces of the past. The Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window is not alone. There’s a ghost in the room. On the other side of the leaded window reminiscent of Alberti’s Velum I detect the fleeting, almost transparent reflection of the woman’s face and chest. But is it a reflection? Strangely the ghostly figure appears behind the glass, distorted and at a slightly different angle; a corpus delicti, sign of a repressed crime. The red curtain behind the window intimates blood, a bleeding wound. Something has happened. What? The doppelgänger on the other side of the looking glass reminds me: before the fabrication of the primal screen to see the hymen was to look at blood.
Sometimes works of art watch out for one another. In my mind Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, his smallest work painted between 1669 and 1671, makes sure the privacy of the Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window will always be protected.
A lacemaker at her desk, bending over her needlework with the greatest concentration. Her face is relaxed, her eye lids drooping. Is she sleeping? Dreaming, perhaps?
Like the girl reading a letter by an open window the lacemaker remains unawares of my gaze. But I’m not intruding upon her. Vermeer does not allow me to see what she is making. She sees more than I do. From my perspective most of the painting is blurred. The lacemaker’s fingers — gentle, tender, precise — are holding two bobbins each furnishing a thread of exquisite thinness. These two threads, white and crisp, are the painting’s sole sharp focus.
Enter Freud. “It seems that women have made few contributions to the discoveries and inventions in the history of civilization; there is, however, one technique which they may have invented — that of plaiting and weaving. Nature herself would seem to have given the model which this achievement imitates by causing the growth at maturity of the pubic hair that conceals the genitals. The step that remained to be taken lay in making the threads adhere to one another, while on the body they stick into the skin and are only matted together.”
Making lace, this “fine web which feeds the pride of the whole globe” — a symptom of penis envy? I’m not convinced Vermeer shares Freud’s view. Let’s take a look at the prominent blue naaikussen (sewing cushion) in the foreground from which are gushing streams of red and white thread. Blood and milk? Sperm? Menstruation, defloration, birth? It doesn’t happen often that a painting invites the spectator’s associations to return to the bleeding womb. Under normal circumstances a lacemaker would place the naaikussen — her work box — on her lap so that she could easily reach for needles and thread. But in Vermeer’s painting the cushion is put on display, begging for my attention.
Re-enter Freud. “We should be tempted to guess the unconscious motive … all the threads of the analysis have led up to it, castration might be more than an empty threat.”
Castration anxiety? I don’t agree. Vermeer’s art is neither cruel nor threatening. Even though he imagines a memory of our origin, Vermeer doesn’t mean to frighten. For this is The Lacemaker’s promise: there will be veils and screens, there will be imaginary hymens, always. The woman's concentration and skilled fingers, “making the threads adhere to one another,” are a metaphor for the painter’s craft to put the shield from view what is regarded as stained, sullied, befouled.
Vermeer certainly knew of the pleasures of blurredness. The Oxford English Dictionary has yet to catch up with the master of the primal screen.
The Lacemaker, measuring only 24 x 21 cm, is smaller than Newton's Veruschka.
Vermeer was a perfectionist.
Can you feel the aggression?
I don’t feel aggression. I feel envy.
When I shoot a photograph, I interrupt the continuity of visual experience. When I shoot at a photograph (or a mirror), I interrupt the illusion of depth. If you don’t believe me, take a look at André Kertész’s Broken Plate.
“In this picture of Montmartre, I was just testing a new lens for a special effect. When I went to America, I left most of my material in Paris, and when I returned, I found sixty percent of the glass-plate negatives were broken. This one I saved, but it had a hole in it. I printed it anyway. An accident helped me produce a beautiful effect.” (André Kertész)
If I were to describe the meaning of this beautiful effect, I’d say it contains a truth about the nature of photography. Contrary to a widespread wishful fantasy, shared by both image makers & spectators, a visual image cannot be deflowered. Piercing a picture’s surface does not allow me to enter into virgin territory; detecting a wound -- a punctum -- in an image (as Roland Barthes did) may destroy its coherence, but it doesn’t mean there will be blood. In a visual image penetration produces a blind spot. Nothing more and nothing less. Such is the curse of the primal screen. And such is the art of André Kertesz’s photography.
Defloration envy: The wish to possess, to have at my disposal, a safe and secret interior protected by a fragile and yet renewable membrane. The desire for never-ending defloration. If woman can be deflowered, why doesn’t the visual image allow defloration?
There’s veiling and there's envy. And then there’s fatiguing, the passion of John Sparagana.
From magazines known for the superb quality of paper and fashion photography (such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan) Sparagana tears out fashion advertisements. He then carefully rubs the pages between his fingers -- an activity he calls “fatiguing” -- until the pages lose their sheen and most of their substance. What remains resembles a translucent and elastic spider web behind which the image seems to have receded. Fatiguing separates what is normally thought to be inseparable in a visual image: the composition and the material support (panel, canvas, glass, paper) on which it is realized.
The effect this surface treatment produces is uncanny: as the paper disintegrates, it is transformed into a thin veil that hides the image in its interstices. Thus distressed the photograph’s surface exhibits what normally remains invisible to the eye: the primal screen. By rubbing away the sheen Sparagana not only adds a sense of mystery to the superficiality of fashion photography and its obsession with appearance, he also creates marvelous ruins that evoke the beginnings of photography, an era when the perfection of the primal screen left much to be desired.
THE 'OTHER' WOMAN
The primal screen is a Christian fantasma, but we rarely talk about this part of our history when we revile the Muslim veil. What is it we fear?
The hijab is not a symbol of virginity. The veiled Muslim woman does not pretend she’s flat. There is, she insists, a female body underneath her veil. A sexual body. A fertile body. It is this body we are obsessed with, want to drag into the open, expose, defile. This is our wish: to reduce her to an image, a nude, a screen. Why? Because her presence forces us to acknowledge that not only are we less secular than we pretend to be, we are also not as free and liberated as we want to be.
1. Helmut Newton, Veruschka (Nice 1975), gelatin silver print, Private Property Suite 2, 24,1x36,2 cm.
2. Piero della Francesca, La Madonna del Parto, fresco 1467, Monterchi, Museo Monterchi, Tuscany.
3. Albrecht Dürer, woodcut from Underweysung der Messung, 2nd edition, Nürnberg 1538.
4. Johannes Vermeer, A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, c. 1657, oil on canvas, 83 x 64.5 cm., Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.
5. Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, c.1669-1671, oil on canvas, 24.5 x 21 cm, Louvre, Paris.
6. André Kertesz, Broken Plate, 1929, Paris, from a portfolio "Photographs Andre Kertesz vol. I, 1929, gelatin silver photograph, printed image 19.3 x 24.4 cm.
7. John Sparagana, Sleeping Beauty, paper, sampled and fatigued, 2004.