PHOTOGRAPHY - INTERVIEW - Carol Armstrong - Eye of the Hand, Lens of the Mind:
Up Close and Personal: Part I
Copyright Dr. Carol Armstrong
Was that rib-bone Adam’s, the one he gave Eve, after they were born together, as one, and then divided into two? Was it hers, before Adam gave her anything? Was it Aphrodite’s, who rose from the sea? Was it Euronyme’s, after she rose naked from Chaos, and divided the sea from the sky? Did it belong to Uranus, after he fertilized his Mother Earth, and his son Cronus threw his testicles into the sea? Was it Ondine’s, after the mermaid climbed from the sea to become a land-animal and mate with man, and then died, because it was an impossible dream? Was it male or female, or both or neither? - Carol Armstrong, excerpted from: Meditations on a rib-bone, 2006
I am face up, immersed in the cool, cool waters of the Atlantic. If the water weren’t so shallow, I’d be floating, much like Ophelia did all those years ago. Down, down, and away, long hair streaming hopelessly behind in tangled, undulating masses of flaxen gold; a poor, mad girl carried off by an unforgiving, suicidal river. But it is not 1599 or 1601, and I am certainly not Ophelia…at least not Shakespeare’s Ophelia, as I am firmly anchored in this spot by choice and am in complete control for the moment.
I consciously slow my breathing while waves roll in and out, caressing my narrow calloused feet, skimming across pale, shriveling toes resembling small firm prunes on a vine. Coarse sand pushes up and under bare, untended nails, minor irritations which I will casually flick out later while perched upon my favorite resting spot…an old craggy rock, warmed by the heat of the sun opportunely situated high above the vast expanse of the churning roil below. With each wave’s burst across the shore of me, a fresh salty spray of white sea-froth lays an exquisite, glistening gown of iridescent bubbles, each connected to the next by thin, translucent strings. Thousands of orbs vibrate and dance, leaving faint, delicate lace-like patterns across bare skin when they suddenly burst.
As I glance down, the gown quietly evaporates before my eyes descending into a mysterious place that is neither here nor there and I am left blissfully exposed again. Like a cat, I stretch out fully and wait for the next wave to start the whole process over again.
I am caught thinking of boundaries and borders and that which is and that which is not. Who can own the sea, I wonder? Who painstakingly measures and documents each fjord so that an international boundary may be delineated somewhere, out there, in the vague middle? Why must we live with borders and boundaries and measure and calculate and create reams upon reams of material supporting our claims of ownership, anyway?
Does the migrating goose care that it flies over numerous international borders before reaching its final destination? Can you know the difference when you cross the border from one place into another if it is not clearly marked? Can you imagine a world as one seamless unit where there is neither a here nor a there? Would it kill us to try? And why do humans feel the need to mark everything as a dog might a tree? Don’t we know that come the first hard rain of a thousand years, all is washed away?
This is how I am caught yearning to know a world where its seasons and their inevitable cycles of birth and death are the only ones marking change…and I have found solace in the work of artist, scholar, poet, mother and a modern day impressionist, Carol Armstrong.
Currently Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, Armstrong accepted the position after leaving Princeton University where she was a Professor of Art and Archaeology, a Doris Stevens Professor of Women’s Studies (1999 to 2007) and Director of the Program in the Study of Women and Gender (2004 to 2007).
She has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was a tenured professor and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. I was first introduced to her through her photographic works, which pull the viewer into the essence of the object, much like a great poem or a wonderful piece of literature will do. Who could capture sand bursting through a shell I wondered? Or the graceful twisted body of seaweed left by the receding sea? Who thinks of trees and leaves and old forgotten tombstones covered in moss, a magical carpet of green finding new life amongst crumbling decay? And water, who captures water on film so that the viewer is left reaching out to touch the very paper, which holds the optical illusion? I soon learned that Armstrong does, and that not only is she a master photographer, she is also, a highly respected scholar and poet, having written some of today’s more thought-provoking essays and books covering important areas within 19th century French painting, history of photography, the history and practice of art criticism, feminist theory along with the representation of women and gender in art and visual culture.
In this rare interview, she discusses her upcoming exhibit Where Water Meets Land, which opens August 2009 in The Museum of Art, Sao Paolo, Brazil, but also takes the reader on a private journey into her fascinating world, which is rooted foremost in the elusive soul of a poet.
WRR: Where Water Meets Land is the title of your book and upcoming show at the MASP (Museum of Art Sao Paolo, Brazil). Why did you choose to focus on water and land and who are the other two artists featured in both the book and the show?
Carol Armstrong: The idea of Where Water Meets Land came from the intersection of several factors. Most directly, that title comes from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, (a top candidate for my favorite poet in the world) which talks about maps and the edges of continents. At the same time, I found that I kept photographing riverbanks (in particular the canal outside of Princeton, New Jersey) and oceansides (in particular, in Southern California, near where my parents used to live). Then I realized that that attraction resonated with an exhibition that I helped to curate and write about, Oceanflowers, on the beautiful deep-blue cyanotype (blue-print) cameos made by Anna Atkins, the daughter of a prominent Victorian scientist, of seaweeds.
Finally, I was intrigued by an essay written by a French feminist thinker, Luce Irigaray, in which she developed the concept of a “mechanics of fluids” as a “feminine” principle and as a way to represent both the female form and the female psyche. Irigaray goes on to say that the “mechanics of fluids” also breaks down categories and boundaries, because liquids flow into each other rather than remaining separate and fixed like solid objects.
These things all came together in the third of three exhibitions I put on in the lobby space of the Program for the Study for Women in Gender at Princeton University, when I was the Director of that program, which I titled, Where the Water Meets the Land. Then that, in turn, came together with the idea for a group exhibition in Brazil, which arose out of a three-way friendship and collaboration between myself, the Brazilian photographer Leonardo Kossoy, and a close friend and old student of mine (at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where I taught between 1992 and 1999), also Brazilian, Fernando Azevedo, who had been producing and curating the work of Kossoy in New York.
Through Fernando, the three of us got together to cook up an idea of an exhibition. Several years ago, we decided to use the concept of Where the Water Meets the Land to unite our work, and to explore both the connections and the boundaries between each of our three bodies of work—as well as between categories like North and South American, male and female, painting and photography, and so on—while at the same time actually representing different kinds of meeting between liquid and solid, whether between canal and bank, beach and ocean, rain and street, sink and faucet, body and water, or what have you. That gelled into an exhibition at the Banco do Brazil in Rio de Janeiro last summer, curated by the internationally known Brazilian curator Paulo Herkenhoff (who used to work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). That exhibition will have a second, larger incarnation at the Museum of Art in Sao Paulo (M.A.S.P.), at a date not yet specified.
WRR: Can you discuss the idea of shifting borders and boundaries…the mechanics of fluids vs. the mechanics of solids, right down to the spraying of ink on paper used for the images in this series and what it all means to you?
Carol Armstrong: Well, maybe I can add to what I’ve already said about this by saying more about the surface of the photograph, and the difference between “wet” and “dry” prints. Also, I’d like to say that I don’t want my photographs to “illustrate” a concept: if anything, I’d like the idea to be derivable from the images. In fact, one source of the idea of shifting boundaries was a photograph that I made as part of an earlier series called Bodies of Water that I exhibited in the women’s studies program at Princeton: a picture of the nude body of a female artist friend of mine (this series was a collaboration between us) floating in the green, duckweed-filled water of a pond, in which the contour-line made by the meeting of the water with her body actually altered the shape made by the edges of her body—quite literally shifted her boundaries.
There, and elsewhere, I have been increasingly interested in the interaction between the literal surface of the photograph, and the surfaces of the world represented in the photograph—in this case, between water, body and ink-colored paper surfaces. Most people don’t think about the surface of a photograph at all—as if it were transparent—and I’m interested in making them actually see that surface, and see it as beautiful. For that reason I use textured paper—a photographic version of etching paper—which the liquid dyes or pigments sink into when they dry, and which makes for richer, deeper, more opaque and vibrant colors and a more painterly effect, in place of the idea of photographic “information.”
And so, in the end, I actually think that the “dry” print can and often does look “wetter” than the “wet” print (so-called because it’s produced in the chemical liquids of the darkroom, which is a wet space, where the office in which a printer is set up is a dry space). And I think the so-called “dry” print also allows you to explore the boundary between something that looks like a painting and something that looks like a photograph, in a way that might be kind of false to the emulsion photograph.
WRR: I have come to know you firstly through your extraordinary work as a photographer, but you have an impressive career in academia and have managed to successfully straddle the scholarly worlds of art history, women and gender, the history of photography and the history of science…what initially drew you into these fields… and perhaps, more importantly, what has kept you there?
Carol Armstrong: I was first drawn to art history as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, back in the 1970s, partly because of the way it combined things I was interested in—writing, literature, history, the visual world, even science (as a kid, I thought I wanted to be a biologist! and then I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist, because of the romance of the archaeological dig)—partly because of the influence of a dynamic woman professor at Berkeley, Svetlana Alpers, who since then became a mentor, colleague and friend.
At that time I was interested in Dutch 17th century art, which is what she taught, but I was particularly drawn to 19th century French painting too, which is what I did my graduate work and dissertation on here at Princeton. I chose to write on Edgar Degas because I loved the strange, proto-photographic quality of his compositions. And then I learned darkroom photography, and at the same time became interested in the history of photography—and taught both as a young professor. As a woman and a feminist—though an unorthodox one—I was first interested in how women had been represented by men in history—my very first published article was on the subject of Degas’s female nudes—and then in the work of female photographers—because I was one too, I guess, but also because, unlike painting, there have always been a fair number of women in photography.
Finally, the history of science runs all through both the history of art and the history of photography—and I was and continue to be very interested in the intersections between art and science. (In addition, what used to be called “natural philosophy” or “natural history” is full of beautiful descriptive writing, which I take as a model for my own writing, of various kinds.) I just happen to be interested in a lot of things—and have managed to find a way to make those interests nourish each other. Academia is by no means a perfect world, but at its best it offers people with open and inquiring minds the chance to spend their lives learning (teaching is learning too), questioning, conversing with others about things that they find passionately engaging, being with young people (which keeps a person young), and for me, writing, writing, writing: I am happiest when I am writing every day. In the end, I suppose, writing about the visual world brought me into, and keeps me in the academic world of art history. But I also try to branch out beyond the walls of academe as well—I have always found its ivory-tower-ness limiting, and from the beginning felt myself to have the soul of a poet more than of a scholar—in both my writing and my other pursuits, including my photography.
WRR: You have written numerous books on important 19th century artists, always forging a far greater understanding of the subject at hand in a highly novel and compelling format. I can easily see a connection between your artistry as a photographer and that of a scholar as you are able to illuminate unseen aspects in both worlds, while capturing the very essence of what is and was. Hence, there is an innate fluidity of mind, a ceaseless quest for understanding and truth and a seamless merging of the subject with the object. What is the metaphorical lens from which you view this world?
Carol Armstrong: I don’t know if they are metaphors or not, but three words apply particularly well to my view of the world, as an artist, a writer and a scholar: vividness, love, fecundity. The world—nature and culture, people, visual experience as well as that of the other senses—has always been very vivid to me: in all my work what I want to do is to pass that vividness on to others: to make the world vivid to them too, which is to say, make it feel living, not inert or dead, which is what it is when you don’t notice it, take it for granted, conquer it or use it up. (I even feel there’s a kind of ethics to this outlook; it’s not only an aesthetic ideal: it’s a question of making the natural world, the cultural world, as well as the world of other people, something that matters to you and me, intimately, something that you want to insure goes on living and flourishing.) That’s where the “love” part comes in, though it sounds corny. To me, art-making is a way of singing love-songs to the world—there’s a metaphor for you! Finally: fecundity, which is a sort of “feminine” principle. What I mean by that is what we call the “world”—both the natural and the cultural world—an amazingly rich and various place, constantly generative, constantly generating new forms, new ideas, new beings, new relations. It is fecund, in other words.
So these three concepts go together: you could say, under the sign of Aphrodite, though I’m no New-Age worshipper of the Great Goddess! (Nonetheless I do like to joke, sometimes, that I’m a polytheist, and that the ancients had it right: the gods and goddesses are not rational, there are many of them, and having more than one of them insures that both sexes, both genders, both yin and yang energies, will be represented!) But if you’re looking for one guiding metaphor in relation to my photography, maybe it should be water: a fluid, reflecting and refracting surface of many colors. (That Aphrodite is said to have risen from the sea, as the daughter of the waves, is relevant here, of course!)
WRR: You’ve published a groundbreaking book on Manet (Manet/Manette, 2002, Yale University Press), a colossal figure in nineteenth-century art with an expansive oeuvre of paintings and etchings… would you like to expand on the very feminine “Manette” in “Manet theme here?”
Carol Armstrong: Sure. On one level, “Manette” was the nickname that a cartoonist gave to Manet’s notorious nude, Olympia, when she was exhibited to the public in what they called the “Salon” in 1865: as if Olympia was the feminine face of Manet.
“Manette” was also the first name of a female character, an artist’s model, in a novel by two contemporaries of Edouard Manet’s, the Goncourt brothers, which was published two years later (Manette Salomon, 1867), at the time of the second World’s Fair in Paris, when Manet held a retrospective of his own work outside the walls of the official art display that went along with that World’s Fair. But on another level, the “Manette” in Manet Manette represents the principle of changeability, fluidity, costume- and role-changing, that was identified by the great poet, critic and friend of Manet’s, Charles Baudelaire, as essential to his concept of “femininity.” It also beautifully describes the mercurial quality of Manet’s art, particularly in his paintings of women like Victorine Meurent, who was the model for Olympia as well as for a whole host of other pictures in the same period, all of which were exhibited together in his retrospective.
WRR: A Degas Sketchbook (2000, J. Paul Getty Museum, postscript by David Hockney), is a compilation of some of the artist’s sketches over time and Odd Man Out (1991, University of Chicago Press), is a work which focuses on the many paradoxes within the elusive, ethereal works of Degas. What revelations or insights did you gain about the artist while writing Odd Man Out that perhaps didn’t occur to you prior?
Carol Armstrong: Odd Man Out was my dissertation, and then my first published book: I then picked up the threads of it in A Degas Sketchbook, which I was asked to write for the Getty by the curator of its drawings department, an old friend of mine from graduate school at Princeton, Lee Hendrix. I think I would have to say that the three main insights I derived from writing those two books on Degas were as follows: first, that Degas was an eccentric and a maverick, and didn’t fit the bill of any of the existing art categories of his time—particularly that of Impressionism, even though he was a founding member of the group that got that name attached to it—and that I am drawn over and over again to such “odd man out” figures—or maybe it’s that all interesting artists are like that, not reducible to this “ism” or that; second, that all human beings, and perhaps especially artistically-gifted human beings, are paradoxical mixtures of apparently opposite qualities; and third, how interested—and interesting—Degas was in experimenting with, and mixing up a whole variety of materials and mediums: oil painting, pastel, ink monotype, drawing, etching, wax sculpture, etc. etc.
Maybe I should add a fourth: that Degas was both a grumpy old misogynist and a kind of feminist! Something which you find in both his art—his depictions of female bodies, simultaneously ungainly and vulnerable, voyeuristic and empathetic—and in his friendships with and respect for women, such as Mary Cassatt, whom he introduced to the Impressionist group. Likewise, he was an avowed anti-Semite and yet for most of his life his best friends were Jewish. Things are never as simple as we might like them to be.
WRR: You are currently working on a research project involving schizophrenia and modern day physics…can you comment on this project?
Carol Armstrong: Yes, though I’m very much still muddling through the main outlines, which keep changing shape: I tend to work that way, groping my way through the process of research and writing until I find out what it is I want to say—by finding out how to say it! It’s about the art of Paul Cézanne, another “odd man out” (Manet was too, by the way). I first wrote about Cézanne for the Getty again, when I wrote about (and helped to curate an exhibition around) a gorgeous late watercolor still-life of his in their drawings collection. I had always been puzzled by Cézanne, another one of these major figures who doesn’t quite fit anywhere. The more I got into his work—and his biography—the more I became convinced that he was crazier—and more interestingly crazy—than our favorite artist-madman, Vincent Van Gogh. (Cezanne didn’t cut off an ear or kill himself, that’s all, perhaps because he had a wife and kid and was well off enough that he didn’t have to live in lonely destitution.) His friend Renoir is said to have remarked that if it was true that all artists were crazy, then Cézanne was so nuts that he should have been hauled off in a straight-jacket!
But seriously, a well-known French philosopher who was very interested in the case of Cézanne, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, diagnosed him with something approaching schizophrenia—with a “schizoid” condition. I got interested in that idea for several reasons, one of which had to do with the same philosopher’s description of an actual schizophrenic patient, sitting outside and listening to a bird sing: the patient hears the bird with one part of his mind, and identifies it as a “bird” with the other part of his mind, but doesn’t put the sensory perception and the concept “bird” together. So, this is a kind of cognitive split, that I think might work well as a way to look at the strangeness of Cézanne’s art, and at that old idea of the “innocent eye”: the eye that sees, but brings no preconceptions to what it sees—much of Cézanne’s art has the quality of some alien being having come to Earth and seen everything for the very first time.
As for the modern physics part of it, well, that has to do with another old idea that I’m thinking of dredging up: the artist ahead of his time. It’s often said that Picasso and Braque and the cubists were doing a kind of Einstein-number on painting: the space-time continuum, the fourth-dimension, etc. But Picasso and Braque got their ideas about representing space from Cézanne, and it strikes me that maybe it was actually Cézanne who had the pictorial version of some of Einstein’s and others’ ideas before the fact.
More than that, people now speak of space-time as a “fabric”—think of Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos—that folds and warps, and has as much presence as the objects within it. That’s a physics metaphor that only goes back to the 1970s, as I understand it, but a lot of Cézanne’s pictures from the 1880s on, with and without fabric actually represented within them, already represented pictorial space that way. That’s the hunch I’m following, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten with it. The “schizophrenia” and the modern-physics-before-the-fact have something to do with each other, but I’m not yet prepared to say what. This’ll be a book some day—either about Cézanne alone, or about Cézanne and other 19th century artists—but it has a long way to go before it gets there.
WRR: Can we discuss the legend of “Ophelia” as according to Armstrong?
Carol Armstrong: Basically, I wanted to change Shakespeare’s emphasis on Ophelia as a kind of lost woman, a sort of hysterical victim of Hamlet, of her rejection by him, who was painted by artists like the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais as a beautiful, but sad, drowned woman. I wanted her to dive exuberantly into the water, as if it was her natural element, and make her sexuality positive, active, and lusty, as well as beautiful. I first got interested in this, in changing the character of Ophelia, in an album I made together with the same artist, Sarah Stengle, who worked with me on “Bodies of Water.” I called that album, which was hand-made, and which consisted of photographs and poems by me, “Ophelia Suite,” even though it included no pictures of women floating in water. That title came from a little riff on Shakespeare’s Ophelia that I wrote to go with a photograph of branches and rocks sticking out of a still water surface, which went this way:
Dive in, Ophelia,
I meant it as a kind of song, a delighted paean to Nature. Anyway, when I made Bodies of Water—a sequence of pictures in which a woman floats in and then apparently out of the frame, I returned to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, and my riff, as part of a sequence of quotes from poems and essays that included Shakespeare’s lines on her drowning, but also a variety of other texts, such as Shakespeare’s Queen Titania from Midsummer Night’s Dream, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and the poem by Elizabeth Bishop that I mentioned before, Greek and other myths and religious stories concerning the origin of the world—the original division of land from water—and some lines from Luce Irigaray’s Mechanics of Fluids. I wanted there to be some ambiguity, and just to have different interpretations of the female relation to water and the metaphor of water sort of float around the photographs as a set of possible associations that you might have when looking at them. But I didn’t want to enforce any one reading of them.
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