Sunday, September 12, 2010

My Portrait, Revealed

A few weeks ago, I began writing about portraits in response to the wonderful show that recently closed at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and I intimated that I would follow up by telling you something of the two portraits of myself made at very different stages of my life. Once I took out the first one, though, I realized this might take longer than I'd thought, and I paused for a while to reflect on some aspects of my younger self. Finally, I began posting on the nude as genre, and it finally seemed I might get to the end of this long sidling-up to my own nude portrait, but I found myself wanting to theorize first about the patriarchal/male gaze under which we construct and represent ourselves. Instead of talking about the portrait I'd sat for, I ended by admitting my complicity in that male gaze and pointing to the screen it placed between myself and my very good friend, the artist who painted me.

Before I continue, one more bit of stalling -- an attempt to understand and explain my delaying tactics. As far as I am aware, three elements especially make me feel hugely vulnerable and uncomfortable in writing about this portrait. As Sidonie Smith has pointed out in her defining work on female life-writing, women writing their lives are already defying cultural traditions and expectations. Remember that old dictum that there are only three occasions in a woman's life when her name should properly appear in the paper, birth, marriage, and death. Of course we've moved beyond that, but not so very long ago that our unconscious is immune. And, um, writing about one's nude portrait? Doesn't quite meet the propriety standards. It's bad enough to have one painted, by why on earth would I talk about and draw attention to the fact?! So Discomfort Number One.


Then my ambivalent feelings about my very good friend, the artist, feelings I can't not discuss if I'm going to speak honestly about the portrait, feelings which were part of my commitment to the process. My concern here is less with how Alison will respond to what I write here as it is with exposing my own insecurity or pettiness or whatever this comparison might be on any given day. Discomfort Number Two.


And, finally, the portrait itself, the finger it points my way. (Indexical, say the semioticians.) Owning one's own nudity is difficult and feels at least unseemly, if not all out transgressive, at least for most women of my generation. Wanting such a portrait, sitting for it, deciding where to hang it, and being in its presence either alone or with others, all these are socially awkward, at least they have been for me. Outside of my family, I have only ever told two people besides yourselves that I've sat for, and own, such a portrait. And now here I am. Discomfort Number Three.


So, let's get on with it, shall we?


I met Alison over twenty years ago, in an aerobics class we attended three times a week, parking our pre-schoolers in an adjoining program for some respite from the stay-at-home gig. When we were still just nodding acquaintances, Pater and I attended a Fundraising and Information evening for an environmental cause -- saving an Old Growth Rainforest from logging -- to which Alison had contributed a painting. A slim, beautiful woman (a mutual friend once likened her to Andie MacDowell), subtly hip elegance in a fitted black dress embellished only by her thick, dark, shoulder-length hair, she spoke passionately and convincingly. Shortly afterward, we began exchanging those coffee mornings that get stay-at-home moms through the long days entertaining little ones, and eventually began managing regular runs together as well.


Through the years, Alison has commiserated with me over travails of child-rearing and we’ve regaled each other with its delights; she cheered me on as I went back to school for, first, my undergrad degree and then grad school, and was hugely supportive as I struggled through the slough of despond that is dissertation-writing. I, meanwhile, was lucky enough to read drafts of her first book, a memoir of a long-ago summer she spent working as a naturalist, and was thrilled to attend the launch of that book and see it go on to pick up nominations and prizes and a continuing place on its publisher's backlist. Since then, she's added a book of poetry to her achievements, and has a novel well underway as part of an MFA she's currently working on. Exhibitions of her painting are always well-attended (a number of them hang on our walls), and her travel CV includes regular work in the Galapagos as a naturalist, a sailing trip across the Pacific with her husband, birding in South America, camping in China with her then teenage son. . . the list goes on.


Oh, and I already mentioned that she's beautiful, right?


So judge me for this, or admit you sometimes do the same thing, I have, through the years of a very close friendship with this woman I love dearly, felt envious, felt something akin to, but not exactly, resentment, and, above all, felt myself obviously lesser on an invisible scale I could always see. Having internalized that male gaze from earliest consciousness, I believed -- no, knew -- that gaze would always favour her, and sometimes, along with warm friendship was a niggling degree of envy, even resentment.


To my credit, I was feminist enough and good friend enough and self-reflexive enough, that I worked to get past this occasional response -- and troubled by its signalling of my own, hmmmm, insecurity for want of a more nuanced term. Because meanwhile, I had my own successes to celebrate and I was also, in the eyes of my husband, a beautiful and desirable woman (I absolutely cringe at writing these words -- so much, culturally, tells me to delete them immediately in all their immodesty). In fact, this guy wanted a nude portrait of his beautiful wife and would playfully (hopefully) suggest from time to time that we find an artist who could paint one.


For several years I dismissed his idea as preposterous, but then about five or six years ago, The Globe and Mail featured a photographic exhibition comprising an artist's nude portraits of his mother, an admittedly overweight woman in her 60s. Some of these photographs were reproduced for millions to see in their weekend paper and they were beautiful and moving and powerful and vulnerable and difficult. They really challenged me, these portraits, as did my admiration for this woman's courageous allegiance to a personal politics. And I began thinking that it might be time to take some small steps toward a richer view of female beauty, to take some responsibility for closing the gap between my inside and my outside.


Around the same time, coincidentally, on one of our walks Alison mentioned that she had been working that winter on a series of nude drawings of the women in her poetry group, most of them in their sixties, some in their seventies. She was exhilirated by the experience, moved by how beautiful this older flesh was, she told me, with its wrinkles and folds and humanity. So I tentatively asked her if she could be comfortable, should I work up the courage, to do a nude portrait of me as a gift for Pater's next birthday.


And yes, the rest is now history, as in a historical visual record of one woman's mid-life nudity in the early 21st century. What you can't see in this record is the sitting, the two of us in my living-room, working together to find a place and a position, a pose I could feel comfortable in. Aware of my extra pounds in contrast to Alison's own slimness, I nonetheless knew that hers was a kind and appreciative eye, a friend's and an artist's. In response, I drew on my own contentment with the aspects of this body that serve me well, its sturdiness, its ability to nurture, its wholeness and healthiness, and, yes, its sensuousness and sensuality.


Despite working to affirm my self-image as the portrait was in progress, I will admit to some dismay when confronted with the finished piece. While Pater was immediately thrilled with it, intrigued and touched by the idea of Alison and I working on it together as a gift for him, my first response was to see my middle as thick. But I was also fascinated by the likeness of the hair and the face, and I was delighted with the gaze that meets the viewer so directly. Not even enigmatic, the gaze keeps the subject -- me -- screened from the viewer even as she sits naked before him or her. As viewer, you may see my naked body -- at least as much as I choose to reveal, in a pose that is deliberately careful, but you cannot even begin to imagine my thoughts. Meanwhile, I am clearly looking back at you, and my gaze is so penetrating that you must accept a reciprocality of relationship that is rarely indicated through the history of the female nude.


But perhaps the most interesting aspect, the most rewarding, of my response to this portrait is how it continues to evolve. I have begun to see, in the lines of my torso, the same lines that used to dismay me with their reflection of too much padding, simply the lines of my body, this body, the one I'm living in, have always lived in. Lines that move me and that move with me, lines that mark the borders where I meet the world. Lines that my friend drew, observing what she claimed was their beauty, and which I now, slowly, belatedly, begin to recognize for myself. For which I thank her and her female gaze -- which has educated my own.


And to close on a lighter note, an anecdote.


Placement of this portrait was a concern at one point. Our children are all adults, used to our oddities, and their partners are becoming accustomed to us as well. So we hemmed and we hawed, we debated where it was less likely to be seen and to embarrass, and finally, we simply hung it in the bedroom of the condo and let folks deal with it. The first few viewings may have been awkward (for my son, perhaps, more than others), but it's become such a non-issue that I'd completely forgotten it until changing Nola's diaper on our bed a few weeks ago. My son-in-law was setting up her Bjorn porta-crib in the room, and we both cracked up at the delightful absurdity of the potentially awkward situation when Nola pointed from the bed to my portrait on the wall, and called out "Nana, Nana."


Why, yes it is, sweetie, yes she is indeed.



What? You're still waiting? Oh, surely you never thought I'd put the full portrait online?! Sorry, but this is as revealing as it gets. . .

24 comments:

  1. Honey, this is very revealing! In all the best ways. What a beautiful portrait - every piece you show is just gorgeously constructed. Your friend is very talented and you were obvs an excellent model. The way your face unflinchingly looks at the viewer as if to say, "I have nothing to hide". It's a brave gaze.

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  2. You are brave!

    Friends of mine have done suggestive photos for their spouses...by a local male photographer of note, fabrics conceal and lighting flatters their 50+ bodies...
    I have toyed with the idea but never really mustered the courage.

    Well done mater...

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  3. It's a beautiful painting! In years to come, you will be so happy you had it done and done by a good friend. And your grandchild loves it already.

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  4. Wow, that's wonderful. I can see why you love how you are meeting the viewer's eye - it's very different from the 'traditional' nude where the invitation is to look without being challenged. I'm glad to hear you have become more comfortable with it too. And I so hear you on the girlfriend front - I have always, ever since I was pre-pubescent, been 'the clever one', and many of my girlfriends have been/are very attractive. I get more accustomed to it as I get older, but there are times when it still niggles ...

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  5. As someone who struggles to even accept that her reflection belongs to her I truly am in awe of this painting.
    What makes the painting doubly amazing is that you had a pre-existing relationship with the artist, when painting a nude I am conscious that my relationship is divorced from any knowledge about the model and we as painters tend to see flesh in the guise of shape, colour and tone. The process is thus quite clinical with little weight on us to please the model, just ourselves.
    That a good friend was able to paint you was brave because she is choosing what to put in and that may not have been what you see reflected in the mirror. If the selected highlights are anything to go by she has painted a great likeness and I hope you feel she has captured something of your spirit too, this is something that I guess she can bring to the table as a friend.
    I, like you am constantly amazed that the man I live with exhibits unconditional desire for my body despite my thickening waist and less toned than I would like skin. It would take great courage to have this rendered so beautifully and I am pleased Pater appreciated the painting.
    What makes your post so beautifully complex is the friendship strand woven through it. I have often thought female friendships are so fraught with a competitive spirit that I have shunned female friendship in any great depth since having children. Alison sounds like a very tough act to live in the shadow of and yet I am sure she (if I am guessing correctly) may envy your amazing relationship with Pater as much as you might desire her free spirited approach to living her life. I have learnt that not all is at it seems with anyone and whilst I still get lifestyle envy, I am at least able to appreciate far more what I have achieved and I hope you can too.

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  6. What a wonderful portrait! I went through a phase in college when I was doing a lot of nude photography...I've always wanted to sit for a nude portrait I have to admit. So I am jealous/envious of you!

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  7. I think this is fantastic! And inspiring. It looks like a beautiful work as well, such subtle use of color and shading.

    As I was reading, I was reminded of a small epiphany I had recently about weight. Over the course of this year, I've dropped over 15 pounds (not on purpose), most of which I couldn't truly afford to lose. And I realized, trying to get that weight back, that the extra bit around the middle that sometimes made me pick a different top that didn't cling just so, the extra bit around the upper arms and legs that was just getting a jiggle, that I didn't mind it so much now. Now it represented health to me, not something negative.

    All this isn't to say that anyone should have a certain thought about their weight or subjective size. Only that, as you discuss, it is an incredibly complex psycho-social phenomena, and this reaction of mine was so unexpected, illuminating, and ultimately positive, I just wanted to share.

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  8. Much as I enjoyed your exploration, I was ultimately frustrated at not seeing the portrait as a whole work- to admire the artist's creation. Certainly not saying you "should" post it- that's very personal. Isn't it strange how we can admire a nude artwork but if we know the model personally everything changes, from both sides? That you and Pater are delighted by the painting, that it gives you enduring pleasure, is lovely.

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  9. K: Thank you! It was uncomfortably revealing to write, so thank you for giving such quick and encouraging feedback.
    Hostess: I don't think I could do the boudoir photography, although never say never. . . but it's such a different genre from what I was interested in here, and very much about the male gaze, of course.
    LizHK: Thanks, Liz -- seems to me I remember you've travelled some of this territory yourself with your fine photographer of a husband. . .
    Tiffany: Glad you appreciate and understand -- expressing those feelings seemed as revealing to me as the nude itself, so petty, so unworthy . . . but perhaps all too human?
    Alison: Thanks so much for this comment offering another artist's perspective (and I've often thought what a coincidence it is that I now have two artist friends named Alison!) and the way that changes for a friend.
    I have to comment that I notice many more positive references to E. slipping into your posts and your comments these days -- seems like a good thing, no?
    Laura: Well, there's still time. . .
    Jillian: I've learned now, when I see someone I haven't for a while, and begin to comment on how fabulous they look having dropped 15 pounds or more, to stop myself and check what's been going on in their life. Several times, the weight loss is due to a divorce or an illness, the death of a loved one. So I hear you. I also appreciate your careful tone so much, not chiding me for not appreciating my own body weight, but sharing your own recent illumination. It's something I work toward feeling as much as thinking -- so far, it's in my head, and it may never be in my "gut" . . . but I'm working on it.

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  10. I am a new reader and have enjoyed this thread about portraits, the male gaze, the nude as genre.

    You are very courageous to share this story of your friend painting you nude. I too love the gaze and as a sturdy one myself, love the opportunity to observe your beauty.

    What is the title of Sidonie Smith's book you mentioned?

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  11. Duchesse: I, too, in some ways wish that I could share this portrait with some of you, for precisely the reason you suggest -- your view of me as you've come to know me separate from the portrait, will affect how you see the portrait itself.
    Sadly, I'm not comfortable with that kind of sharing, in large part because of my worklife. University prof in a small community, I know the anonymity I've tried for here is hardly a solid firewall . . .
    Susan T: I think the Smith book I got this from would have been her Poetics of Women's Autobiography, but it may have been in a shorter article elsewhere, and she's surely revisited some of that territory in her later works. Sorry I can't be more specific -- but all of her stuff is interesting, at least to a literary critic and/or feminist.

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  12. So much to respond to here! I just want you to know I've read the post and am ruminating on it. Promise a more lengthy response soon, but in the meantime I applaud your courage, not only for sitting for a portrait like this, but for openly exploring the difficult feelings surrounding it.

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  13. Back again, and hoping to be coherent. There's so much here that I relate to, so my response is coming from under my own veil of perception.

    Women's friendships can be so fraught! There's always that underlying layer of competition, with regard to where we land in the beauty hierarchy, but also surrounding accomplishments, families, etc. Sometimes I think men are taught to navigate these waters better than we are, and their friendships can comfortably co-exist with competitive feelings and shifting roles. I need to do some re-reading of feminist writings on this stuff.

    I was thinking about seeing our bodies as a collection of parts. Artists do this more of less objectively; they often see shapes and proportions, textures and colors without the judgements that we heap on ourselves. We dissect our physical selves, and then view the parts with a very different lens, one that's often distorted by expectations and comparisons with cultural ideals. Being able to look at ourselves without that lens is truly an accomplishment (an accomplishment I'm still far from realizing). I often wonder if the the impetus for self-portraiture is being able to see one's own image more objectively.

    I remember from "The Judgement of Paris," how shocking it was that Manet's "Olympe" was gazing directly back at the viewer, refusing to be an object. I love the agency that your direct gaze conveys.

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  14. Pseu: I so appreciate your thoughtful and considered response. I think you're right about men's competitiveness with each other -- for our generation, at least, they were given more outlets (team sports, particularly) where competition was lauded. Meanwhile, we were supposed to be "nice," and the competition was often over something we had limited control over -- our looks.

    And your comment about the self-portrait is intriguing -- what a fascinating genre, what it must be like to have the talent to express what the eye sees of oneself. And then to analyze that expression. . . .

    You're making we want to go back and reread Judgment.T.J. Clark's Painting of Modern Life spends some time with Manet's Olympia as well -- that almost uncanny gaze. . .

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  15. Hello Mater, like Une Femme, I felt I couldn't respond straight away as it's such a complex series of posts and obviously took you much time and energy/courage to put together. The painting is beautiful - Alison is indeed so talented. I feel that you are lucky to know her - would you truly have done this if you hadn't known she was such a good artist and friend? Or would that perhaps have made it easier? In either case I don't think I would have the courage, so kudos to you! Pater must have been overwhelmed to receive this as a gift - yes, he had spoken about it, but he probably never expected it to come to pass. And the bit at the end - "Our children are all adults, used to our oddities..." - priceless! That speaks volumes to me about your family and your life as a couple - there is so much affection there and acknowledgement that you have raised your family yet still kept your identities as a couple who do crazy things!! Patricia

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  16. Patricia: Thanks for taking the time to respond. You're right, of course, that the only way this portrait was done was because I trusted my friend to depict me honestly, but through fond eyes. As for maintaining our identities through child-rearing, I like to think that's a gift to our kids as well, letting them know there's life after 40 (well, and after 50 as well)! And you know, as far as crazy things go, having a friend paint one's nude portrait as a gift to one's husband is relatively tame . . . although it'll do me!

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  17. Count in me into the crowd who read this and had to go away and come back when I could devote my attention to it.

    If I distill down everything you've said, this is what I hear. You never felt beautiful and desirable. This feeling entered into your friendship with the beautiful woman, but being the good soul that you are, you kept it on the back burner.

    Your husband, however, persisted in finding you all that. And then somehow life gave you the gift of being able to give a portrait painted, by the beautiful woman, of you, beautiful, to your husband.

    Now, years later, you are maybe beginning to feel some fondness for the way your body looks. The portrait is a milestone, an icon in the process.

    To adequately respond, I need to say something here which I will hate to hear myself say too. I have been a pretty girl and woman since I was 15. Pretty enough to be talked about. With a figure that inspired flights of fancy among young men.

    In my youth, at its height, this brought me nothing of use. Anything of use in building a strong self, that is. Anything where the value of my prettiness accrued to me. And as you know, I'm no longer married.

    I'm not going to complain. That would be ridiculous. God how I hated those Vogue articles where the woman would say, don't hate me because I'm beautiful. Because, of course, I would hate her immediately.

    What I want to tell you is that now, at 53 almost 54, heavier, saggier, jowlier, veinier, wrinklier, now, finally it's for me. I reap any benefits from my way less desireable body. Whatever I look like, it belongs to me. It's my choice, my doing. Finally it makes me smile. Ironic, no? But think about it. I was bulemic for a couple of years. Other times I was besieged by men who wanted absolutely nothing good for me. I derived no power from how I looked and knew no way to find any.

    So I have a favor to ask you. Please find yourself beautiful. Please go and tell your husband he's lucky to have such a beautiful wife, with a smile, and then tell that lucky man that today is his lucky day:). You know, from where I sit, your life seems just about perfect. Again, I'm not complaining, I'm pretty happy. But what goes around comes around.

    And let's just hope Nola can grow up in a world whether neither side of the pretty coin leaves any woman feeling poor.

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  18. Oh god. I just reread my comment and despite my best intentions I still think I sound like an a**hole. This stuff is so difficult. Nowadays I am essentially invisible unless I put on nice clothes, makeup, do my hair. What goes around comes around. To give you an honest response I had to write what I did, above, but it still makes me sound like a jerk. In short, I hope what matters is that now we are all coming to a similar place, and some of us have to catch up in terms of establishing the life we wanted all along. That someone being me.

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  19. Lisa, you are so very far from being an asshole or a jerk. In fact, it's really hard to imagine you occupying either of those roles given the thoughtfulness and generosity I've seen from you via your blog over the past year or so.
    In these comments, your bravery at least matches any that I mustered to post on my portrait. And I wish the conversation hadn't moved along, as they tend to do in the blogworld -- which is good for raising issues but not so great for sustained examination of them. I truly believe that painfully honest, risk-taking comments like yours move us forward(and wow! I can really feel the social-cultural territory a beautiful woman must navigate, aware of her good looks but careful not to flaunt them inappropriately, the discomfort over claiming them even as they're undeniably hers).

    And I can happily state that I am beginning to accept my own strengths, my good fortune, the richness of my life. If I don't always feel myself to be desirable, I know that I am desired, and that counts for a great deal. And as you say, gathering up what knowledges and experiences at this middle stage of life, we have arrived, perhaps, in a similar place. Onwards, then, onwards to the life we create as we go . . . honestly, bravely, with friends . . .

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  20. Well thank you. You made me cry a little bit:). I am glad the discussion has moved on, I almost thought of emailing my response to you instead. I am not needing to say this to lots of people. But it seemed you deserved a record of this all in one place and I ought to muster. Onward, with friends. You seem like a truly good person. Thank you.

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  21. Your nakedness about how you feel in relation to your friend and the complicated feelings that female friendships can trigger as well as your own self-assessment is a kind of nakedness that I find incredibly beautiful.
    When I look at your face I see a boldness that is paired with a softness. You look relaxed and yet poised. Your eyes seem to be smiling and yet it seems like a smile for yourself. Everywhere I look I see paradox and that kind of complexity is not often associated with the genre of nude.
    Really beautiful, Matter. I so very much admire your willingness to sit for Alison. And I admire even more your willingness to share your very naked feelings. You are beautiful and I, as your bloggy friend, will admit to feeling a little envy with how comfortable you seem with yourself. That envy inspires me to work towards a little more self-acceptance. Thank you for the inspiration and for this post.

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  22. LPC: I'm so glad, honoured really, that you shared this. Thank you.
    Belette: Thanks so much -- I have to say that I felt almost as naked speaking about these feelings as I did sitting for the portrait. But as when I sat with Alison, I did feel that I could trust my "bloggy friends" to accept me. Your vision of me is a very flattering one and I thank you for taking the time to articulate it so thoughtfully. Hope you're settling back into LA alright and finding a few more things about it to add to your list of reasons not to hate it!

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  23. I have been working my way backward to this post, aware that it was here, but delaying the reading. Of course then I found that I had to come back and think about it again and again and I don't think I have anything thoughtful to say following all the marvelously touching and warm comments you have received.

    I like the way you have discussed this portrait in terms of art and culture and your own perception and place in this culture. Also your relationship with the very talented artist who worked with you to create this portrait really seems to enrich the portrait; in some ways your writing is more "naked" and exposed than the pieces of the portrait itself. Oh how nice it would be to see the whole, but I can understand completely the many reasons for not posting it.

    What really fascinates me is the glimpse of body and the fascinating combination of boldness and warmth, self awareness and humor in your face as portrayed by Alison. Reading your words about your friendship, and your complicated sets of feelings about her, your friendship, and your envy of her beauty, and sitting for this portrait while periodically looking at your face at it looks out from your portrait, I wonder how the friendship between you also affected how your friend tied her roles as artist and friend into the painting. I see a beautiful woman who has a a warm and intelligent face and a direct gaze that challenges and also accepts herself and the world with a bit of humor.

    Truly this is a profound piece which is still causing me to think and question and wonder. And you have elicited such warm, honest and interesting responses that one feels connected in new ways in this little bloggy world.

    You know, many many years ago, my G took a nude photo of me; not suggestive and not completely revealing. And he insisted in putting it one of the albums. I used to blush when the children would look through the albums, but it bothered me more than them. What this is leading up to is that at the time he took the photo he had no darkroom and when we did set up a darkroom for him he always meant to go back and work with that negative to enlarge it and do something special with the way it was developed, to finish it in a way so we could hang it. He never got to it and now it is too late. At one point I was happy he never managed to finish that project, but now I regret it because it can never happen. Although I am uncomfortable withe idea of it, I know that he managed to capture and see something in myself that I myself could not see at that point in my life.

    I hope Nola is able to enjoy a different view of herself in the world but I know she has a fabulous role model in her Nana.

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  24. Mardel: Thank you for your thoughtful comments -- as difficult as writing the post was, as vulnerable as it makes me feel, the ensuing discussion is well worth the discomfort.
    I, too, wish that G had developed that photo, but I sense that in some ways that photo developed in you -- you have, to some degree, incorporated his eye, his vision of you, in your own self-image. So that while he never got around to giving you the photo, he's given you something very rich, if less tangible.
    And thank you for recognizing that part of my gesture is towards the future, towards different possibilities for Nola and her generation. . .

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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