Charles Hood: Art and Fame in London

The following is written by my colleague Charles Hood from London, where he is teaching for the fall semester. He sent the piece to me this morning. It may prove to be one in a series—he’s quite the art museum freak—and so we might say that Prometheus Unbound, a California-based blog, has hereby obtained a foreign correspondent.

As this blog site’s foreign correspondent for the day, I attended two unrelated but cross-pollinating events in London, which helped me to think about the role of celebrity.

Just off of Trafalgar Square and to the side of the National Gallery of Art, London has a charming (and at times under-appreciated) portrait collection, called the National Portrait Gallery.  They own paintings and photographs of Britons small and large—from the first Queen Elizabeth through to Elton John and J.K. Rowling.  This is where one comes to discover portrayals of Lord Byron and T.S. Eliot, Princess Di and Dame Helen Mirren.

In my third visit in two weeks to this fascinating site, I came back today for the opening of the exhibition for the Taylor Wessing 2010 Photographic Portrait Prize.  From 6,000 entries, sixty finalists are on display, including all the top winners.  One image though in particular was so controversial it threatened to have the show closed on pornography charges.

Why the fuss?  Well, it turns out that second prize went to Mr. Panayiotis Lamprou, for a color image, almost a holiday snapshot, titled Portrait of My British Wife.  It is a summer scene, and on the small porch of an Aegean cottage, breakfast apparently has ended.  An omelet pan waits to be washed, the blue tablecloth contrasts with the teal doorframe, and a piece of plywood could be a cutting board or a leftover thwart from a dingy.  Young and atttractive, Mr. Lamprou’s wife regards the camera cooly, her blond hair uncombed and her body relaxed on a bench or camp chair.  She wears a floral print t-shirt or night shirt which has ridden up onto her hips.  The camera can see under the hem of her shirt in complete, detailed, Hasselbad detail.  His British wife wears no panties.

The photograph is loving, not pornographic, and one believes the artist when he says that he only submitted it to this contest with her full approval.

Before I had seen the image I had wondered what the noise was all about.  For those who have not been to London, in popular tourist areas, including right in front of this same museum, the red phone booths are filled up with postcards advertising sexual services.  (My understanding is that prostitution is illegal but advertising it isn’t.)  These cards are in color and often quite explicit.  Further, daily newspapers, most notoriously The Sun, feature “Page Three” girls, topless lovelies there to provide prurient interest in the tabloids.  Why would a married woman with her knickers off so upset the established order?  After all, by my highly unscientific count, the National Gallery itself must have 300 naked women in it.

The problem is the sitter’s confidence.  She is not posing coquettishly (a maiden at her toilette), she is not coming on to us (the hustler’s spread display)—she is, quite simply, refusing to be ashamed.  She is not for sale, she is not being spied on, she is just a woman at home who happens to have a woman’s bare parts, and won’t apologize for it.  This is defiant enough, but I think though the most upsetting aspect is her actual body.  If we can acknowledge that God made all of us as variations on a template, and hence, as luck or genetics have it, some of us have “innies” and “outies” for belly buttons or some of us have larger ears or smaller ears, so too, then, with a woman’s lower parts.  A woman’s arrangements (the actual physical lobes) can be said to be more demure or petal-like or more external and masculine.  In this sitter’s case, she is an attractive young woman sitting with her shirt up and her legs slightly spread, and her actual nether parts are a bit dangly, which is to say, they are a bit like a man’s.

This is where the affront seems most direct, I think.  If nobody’s looking, most heterosexual men like to stare at a naked chick, but from grade school onwards, we’re trained to do so only within certain genre boundaries.  Porn is usually mind-numbingly the same in terms of body types and acceptable poses.  This particular sitter in the London show unsettles because she seems to be appropriating the male role.  She gazes back at us as if we ourselves were the naked ones, and she does so with the confidence of a young stud proud of his package.  Her confidence is all the more challenging since it’s not planned or striven for; this is not the same mannered stridency as one associates with Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party.  Instead it is a husband taking an honest picture of his wife, a woman who fully inhabits her body and the planet her body finds itself on.  As a photo, it is thrilling and political and sexy and disconcerting all at once—which is to say, it is art, and good art at that.  Congratulations to the judges for being brave enough to give it a prize.

The National Portrait Gallery makes good use of its odd spaces, and in a sub-basement foyer there’s a photo display on now by Mary McCartney, daughter of Sir Paul and the late photographer Linda, and sister to fashion designer Stella.   She does fashion work, commissioned celebrity portraiture, and her own private investigations of the body in time and space.  The same day as the opening of the main portrait show, at an off-museum site Ms. McCartney was giving a lecture on her work in dialogue with an editor of Vogue.  The ticket fee went to support charity, so off into the rain I went.

Her talk was given in Bloomsbury, home to Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell, and indeed, the talk’s site was in the South Place Ethics Society Building where Russell used to hold debates.  (Next door was the house where painter and poet Dante Rossetti lived.  On the way to the talk I passed where T.S. Eliot used to work, at Faber and Faber.  My own rental flat is half way between Evelyn Waugh’s house and one of the houses that D.H. Lawrence rented, a short walk from the Keats House.  Constable used to come to Sunday dinner at the pub next door, as did, later, Charles Dickens.  London is like that.)

McCartney’s work is accomplished and moving, if you allow that photography can be more than just a useful medium for documenting wars and poverty.  (Can fashion photography be art?  Of course, just as can be quilts or paintings of clouds or sonnet sequences about same-sex love.  Anything can be art, though most things aren’t.)  Some of her best work was done during a three-month backstage survey of members of the Royal Ballet.  She had all-access passes but also stayed with some of them in their shared flat, so we see them oversleeping their alarms or getting made up or having a smoke before going on.  Turns out not only do they smoke, but they eat junk food and headbang to metal.  Who knew?  As for Kate Moss, she is a kind of actress, able to come alive and inhabit space in front of the camera, while Joni Mitchell chainsmokes more than Ms. McCartney ever would have guessed.

Does her fame get in the way?  It opens some doors, closes others.  With some celebrities she says, there’s a kind of relaxation, since they can trust her not to want to exploit them or to be going for the embarrassing moment.  Other times, such as if she is trying to work back stage, unseen, to have people be whispering, oh, there goes Paul McCartney’s daughter, that just creates extra static, like the nagging toddler in the store who won’t give you a moment’s peace.

What was striking though about the price of fame—and she never alluded to it—was a sad fact.  She came with a man who may have been her husband or her studio assistant (I could not tell), then there was the arts group chairperson who introduced her, and there was another woman, definitely a studio assistant, who started the interview until the Vogue editor arrived (his flight from Milan had been delayed).  Ms. McCartney wore simple dark jeans, black boots, and a striped French sailor shirt that I noticed on a few people in the audience as well; first made famous by Coco Chanel and Picasso, perhaps the sailor top is coming back into style?  McCartney was shy and anxious to please, minding the time and doing her best to answer every question at the end.  In talking about work she admires (Diane Arbus, Walker Evans) she struggled to remember the name of Gary Winogrand, whose 1975 book Women Are Beautiful she thought perfectly titled and perfectly arranged.  Her success as an artist still clearly is a bit of a shock; she was genuine and thoughtful and committed to her art.  Pretentious she was not.

But there was one more member of her staff I have not yet mentioned.  A young man with a middleweight’s build, he wore what he thought of as a smart suit, grey with a black tie and black shirt and heavy gold rings.  He had cufflinks and a cell phone.  His short hair had been lightly gelled.  Standing, his weight was balanced squarely on both legs, and his boxer’s hands were held casually folded at his waist.  I tried to place his role.  It came down to one choice: he must have been the heavy, the bodyguard, the sluggo who would take out hecklers and autograph hounds.  Poor fellow, he was bored by art (even the smiling, topless ballerinas getting dressed for work didn’t catch his fancy—perhaps he’s more a phone booth sort of chap) and he also had to be two places at once, since he wanted to stand between the audience and the stage, creating a force field of protection, yet he also needed to check the unguarded back entrances, since the rear doors, back stage, were apparently unlocked.  He kept going back and forth between the dark lecture hall and the brightly lit back hall until finally a blue-haired lady, confident in her years and her patronage of art, went up to him and made him bend down to her mouth, and she whispered for him to pick one place and stick to it.  He did as he was told.  I think he knew that she would whack the hell out of him if he did not settle down.

The evening ended with signed copies of her book being sold at a discount to raise money for the charity, PhotoVoice.  A good, productive evening, with no terrorists, no kidnappers, no hecklers.  The bodyguard’s evening had been a routine one.  I had to wonder though why he was there at all, and what it would be like to live a life where as one steps out the door one pats one’s pockets the same as everybody else, and yet differently.  Let’s see, do I have the car keys?  My wallet?  Phone number of the babysitter?  Have I forgotten anything?  Oh shit, where’s the bodyguard, I almost forgot him.

This may be a normal precaution, to bring a bouncer to an art show.  I rarely see the ultra rich off site, so to speak.  Maybe they all do this.  Or it may have been a one-off, since the day before there had been a minor disturbance, in that during a rally to protest to protest government cuts, some rowdy students had smashed a few windows and thrown a few fire extinguishers from roofs down onto the bobbies.  (Shame on the protestors who did so, by the way.  By and large, the other 45,000 students acted appropriately and with persuasion and grace.)  The television news reports made the unrest look much larger and meaner than it really was.  If you lived outside of town, it could have been unsettling.  Even the parents of the American students I teach here had been ringing up the office to check.

Other possibilities rise up as well.  Maybe he’s just the chauffeur, and if so, I don’t blame her, because who wants to drive in London traffic, which is even scarier than driving in Cornwall.  I have rented cars in Kenya, Ecuador, New Guinea, and nothing was as bad as Cornwall, and London is only just a scoosh better.  After all, the Vogue editor didn’t drive; he came by taxi, working on his iPad on the ride into town.  So maybe my thuggy young lad was just Ms. McCartney’s driver.

Either way, I just kept thinking of the juxtaposition of that scene versus the picture back in the exhibit, the one of the wife of Mr. Lamprou, after her omelet and before her swim, relaxing in their house on Schinousa Island.  She has never been backstage at a U2 concert I assume (and McCartney has, and has a photo to prove it); Mr. Lamprou’s un-named British Wife does not know directors and movie stars, and she has never met Kate Moss.  But she does own her body, in all of its imperfect and soul-stirring splendor, and that makes her rich indeed.  If the critics of that photograph want her to put on some pajamas for gosh sake, I have the opposite request.  Let’s take this the rest of the way.  If sexual confidence is one taboo, age is another.  Young nude bodies are one thing, but older people, quite another.  For that reason I want her husband to promise to be so true to her, so loving and worthy of her trust, that he can continue to take intimate shots like this for the next fifty years.  Let’s have the same shot later on, but one that will be titled Portrait of My English Wife, Age 85—and still not wearing her knickers.

It will be then, my friends, we can be sure that the revolution is complete.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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