The giving and taking away of voice: what art can do/ what it can’t
Heather Taylor Johnson
The body is a recurring theme of experimental metaphor. Look at Picasso’s Nude in a rocking chair: a woman’s breasts, neck and head are balls, shaft and tip of penis, her belly a sharp-toothed monster. Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series is both a photographic equivalent and counterpart to Picasso’s painting: there are gum-sculpted labia plastered to the artist’s bare skin. I’ve always seen such frailty in the elongation of Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures, and I love the juxtaposition it creates in Man Pointing, for instance: such a precise gesture; such strange uncertainty. In Francis Bacon’s Study for Crouching Nude, the body is cumulus and translucent. Even though it’s formed in wisps, there’s a strong presence.
Being a writer and story-seeker, I can’t help thinking about what each of these artists was going through when they made their works. Cultural feminism was eclipsing radical feminism in 1974 when Wilke exhibited S.O.S., so there’s something. To examine the body is to make better sense of the world we live in through a recognised ‘self’, but more than social and political, the body has to be personal. What had happened in Wilke’s life around the time she thought about vaginas flowering on her face and torso? What had tipped her over and made labia pour out? The year after Picasso’s first wife died, he painted Nude in a rocking chair. Olga Khokhlova bore him a child and then suffered his adultery for years. They remained married in law only until the day she died because he refused to divorce her if it meant she would get hold of his paintings. It is said she stalked and tormented him, and that she was the love of his life. For most of her time with Picasso, Khokhlova endured chronic, debilitating gynaecological problems, including pain and vaginal haemorrhage.¹ Does any of this matter when I look at the painting? It does, because I love a good narrative, and because I live with chronic illness. I seek exploration of the personal, social and political body and their intersections. I seek views of becoming and possibility, of loss and ellipses, and I follow narratives that might belong to the artist because they might be my own. I seek the Nude in a rocking chair that was painted by Olga Khokhlova.
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