Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys

 

Paris is often romanticized as a dream-like vision; the bustling banks overflow with cafés as sophisticated Parisian dwellers enchant our imagination. Chaïm Soutine addresses this imagined ideal of the Parisian streets with his vivid portraiture in Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys, which depicts the quotidian worker in Paris thus highlighting the mundane and unglamorous. Soutine personally related to these workers he depicted; after emerging as an acclaimed artist in 1922 after years of humble work, Soutine felt out of place in this new bourgeois realm. Through acute attention to his subjects’ uniforms, Soutine reveals a complex narrative of both the discomfort of the service men and women he depicts in their high-class workplace, and his own apprehension about his newfound fame. Both uncomfortable in their given uniforms, Soutine and his subjects feel like outsiders in a bourgeois society.

The pair of galleries on the top floor of the Courtauld Gallery guide the viewer on a rich visual journey through twenty-one of Soutine’s portraits organized primarily by his sitter’s occupation. Soutine’s thick application of velvety reds and dark blues dominate the majority of the portraits’ backgrounds and bring a richness and warmth to the space that feel secure and familiar. This visual ease juxtaposes with the discomfort of the subjects in the portraits.

Soutine’s sitters, primarily valets, bellboys, pastry cooks, waiters, or chambermaids, appear deeply uncomfortable. Their bodily proportions are distorted in an unsettling manner, their facial expressions are scornful, and their brows are furrowed—all projecting to the viewer the discomfort in their uniform both physically and emotionally. The subjects look tense in their dress, and their uniforms appear stiff and ill-fitting. This is particularly poignant in The Chambermaid and Valet.

The Chambermaid (La Femme de chambre) c. 1930

The Chambermaid’s hands are clasped tightly in front of her apron, her elbows stiffly pinned to her side. Her rigid stance draws attention to her pink dress and white apron, which, as a chambermaid, needed to be pristine at all times to tend to hotel duties. The woman’s face is tired, and her tense body language suggests a discomfort in her role.

Valet (Le Valet de chambre), also known as Hotel Boy c. 1927

The Valet’s white apron, blue coat, and red vest envelop his figure. The red fabric surrounding his torso bunches to his right side, and his blue coat sleeves billow around his elbows and upper arms. Soutine’s wide brush strokes convey the folds in the valet’s white apron and mirror the wide fit of his uniform as a whole. The Valet’s ill-fitting uniform and disdainful expression suggest a similar discomfort and unhappiness in his role.

While coexisting in the realm of the Parisian bourgeois, Soutine and his sitters were uncomfortable in their uniforms. This tension suggests Soutine felt awkward and tense stepping into a position of great wealth and privilege, and related to the unpresuming service workers, who also felt a sense of discomfort. Through focusing on the dress of Parisian service workers, Soutine was able to channel some of his anxieties about his new uniform just as his subjects’ were confronted with their own.

The Courtauld Gallery’s Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys on view until 21 January 2018.

By Arielle Murphy

Faces, Phases and Dress: Zanele Muholi at the Brooklyn Museum

“Faces and Phases” at Isibonelo/Evidence, Brooklyn Museum, May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

“Faces and Phases” at Isibonelo/Evidence, Brooklyn Museum, May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

Slide of Marcel Kutumela, Alexandra, Johannesburg, 2008 by Zanele Muholi (photo Alexis Romano)

Slide of Marcel Kutumela, Alexandra, Johannesburg, 2008 by Zanele Muholi (photo Alexis Romano)

In a portrait of Marcel Kutumela, beneath the brim of a fedora hat, her cool gaze extends toward and beyond the viewer. It at once implores attention and inserts distance between subject and spectator. Her hat and layered garment cover her body and impart an old world masculinity. Dramatic lighting heightens the theatricality of the picture, which resembles a film noir set, and engages viewers. Yet as soon as they begin to penetrate the surface, the image disappears. It is one slide among many, projected without contextualisation onto a bare wall. Viewers are confronted with other faces, other looks, and the individuals they observed become a community. In this set of photographic portraits, clothing functions as a conspicuous tool in interpreting identity and relationships, between person and group, and spectator and subject.

another image from "Faces and Phases," May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

another image from “Faces and Phases,” May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

The images are part of Zanele Muholi’s (b. 1972) Faces and Phases portrait series, and the above installation is from Isibonelo/Evidence, the current exhibition of her work at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Viewers are able to view the actual silver gelatin prints in a large room behind the wall of slides, where Muholi’s concern with the materiality of identity is unmistakable. She has written, “In Faces and Phases I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond. I show our aesthetics through portraiture. […] Faces express the person, and Phases signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another.” Clothing thus serves to articulate and document the process of identity fabrication, as well as incite viewers to question their own thought process. According to Muholi,

The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more ‘authentic’ than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the other does not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?

another photo from "Faces and Phases," May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

another photo from “Faces and Phases,” May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

The cultural context of violence and inequality that envelops these portraits–reinforced by personal testimonies scrawled on an adjacent wall–sets the exhibition’s grave tone. It is the first installation viewers see in Isibonelo/Evidence, and is perhaps the most meaningful counterpart to The Dinner Party (1974-79) by Judy Chicago, which permanently resides in an adjoining room. Like its predecessor, Faces and Phases was created during a moment of upheaval in terms of sexual identity and rights. It also concerns the individual identities of a marginalised group, an how they are classified through their own production. Production in the earlier instance was expressed through the iconography of women in history, and, in Muholi’s work, by the ways everyday people style themselves. This helps visitors relate to the dynamics of being and seeing, and urges them to reflect on their own participation in the politics of appearance today.

Readdressing Black Photographic History in Victorian Britain

Last week I accompanied my ‘Fashion and Photography: viewing and reviewing global images of dress over the last one hundred years’ undergraduate class to see the recent exhibition, co-curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy MBE, at Autograph ABP, who are based at Rivington Place in Shoreditch. Black Chronicles II displays over two hundred never previously exhibited or published studio portraits of black subjects, including visiting performers, missionaries, students, dignitaries, servicemen or as of yet unidentified Britons, throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The exhibition thus resurrects an unacknowledged archive of black photographic history in glass plate negatives and carte-de- visites held by the London Stereoscopic Company that have been buried in the Hulton Archive. Victorian Britain is re-presented in hauntingly beautiful and visually rich blown-up photographs, produced in a monochromatic palette and through a critical lens inspired by the influential writings of Jamaican born academic Professor Stuart Hall (1932-2014).

Highlights include portraits of Kalulu, the young companion to British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and over thirty group and individual images of members of The African Choir (South African performers who travelled around the UK between 1891-3). Whilst these photographs reference Britain’s imperial and colonial past, and it would be easy to interpret them in terms of exotic ethnographic ‘types’, they unequivocally demonstrate black subjectivity through the self-assured styling of the sitters. Identities are fashioned through the use of props, accessories and fabrics, and the crispness and clarity of the reportage highlights these various textures. Gestures and poses are also employed to enable the sitters to consciously and thoughtfully engage with the photographer’s gaze. So, whilst it is important to understand the social, cultural and political conditions within which the photographs were produced, it is also vital that we readdress the images in terms of the subjects’ self-fashioning and self-presentation in order to fully understand the shifting asymmetries of power at play in black portraiture, then and now.

Observations from Several Sides of the Lens: on Women, Fabric and Space in Maria Kapajeva’s Photographs

Maria Kapajeva, from the 'Interiors' series

Maria Kapajeva, from the ‘Interiors’ series

Women and space are frequent points of inquiry for London-based artist Maria Kapajeva. In her series entitled Interiors from 2012, she manipulates amateur photographs of Russian women in sexualised poses, and replaces their skin and bodily features with the bold pattern of surrounding wallpaper. Viewers’ sense of haptic visuality is roused by the tactility of the pictured textiles of home furnishings and clothing, including crushed velvets and synthetic satins. Pattern and texture intertwine so that space engulfs and integrates women subjects, while bodily absence paradoxically serves to remove their subjectivities from the image.

'Interiors' series

‘Interiors’ series

When I met Maria on 23rd May 2014 to discuss her work, she admitted that she chose the photographs for their post-Soviet interiors—easily recognisable through the wallpaper and bed covers’ prominent patterns—that she knew in her native Estonia. Yet the dated styles of the photographs’ interior decoration belie their more recent time of photography. This stylistic retrogression mirrors that in women’s lives. Wallpaper in lieu of skin serves to show the extent to which women in certain Eastern Bloc countries must still conform to a “domestic ideal.” Even as they attempt to stand out and become visible through poses in states of undress, they fail to escape the domination of their environment. In these absurd, integral images, objectified women are equated with domestic settings.

'Interiors' series

‘Interiors’ series

Maria explores women’s roles and the notion of integrality in different ways in her ongoing series A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, in which she photographs women in their work environments. She explains that “[m]ost of these women have moved to a new country, as I have, not to get married, but to realize their own potential in whatever they do: write, draw, paint, photograph or invent. Working in collaboration with them, I try to find the ways to photograph each of them as a unique and strong personality in her own working environment.” The subject of one photograph, Elena, is thus defined as an artist by her studio space yet she stands out as an individual against its blurred details. Maria draws on such details—stacks of papers, folds of clothing, bric-a-brac—to shape the composition of these images. These minutiae also inform and complicate the construction of the sitter’s identity, but do not dominate as in Interiors.

Helena, from the 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman'

Elena, from the ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’ series

Eugenia, from the 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman' series

Eugenia, from the ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’ series

Maria prefers that the sitters dress as they would normally in their ‘natural’ environments, and clothing varies as widely as their diverse personalities. As opposed to the original viewers or photographers of the Interiors series, she withdraws herself from the equation. The image is untouched and raw, in the sense that she does not use supplemental lighting, filtering or cropping techniques. And the subject is meant to dress for no one but herself. Eugenia, for example, who wears a garment of her own design, stands in the open space of a London rooftop. As the wind blows her voluminous collar it comes into contact with her face. Her body is the site of narrative and identity, informed by the interaction between dress and exterior.

During our conversation I sensed that Maria, who believes that too much importance is placed on specific dress codes, did not want to broach the subject of clothing. She likes that, as a photography lecturer at the University for the Creative Arts (Farnham), she can dress as she wishes. But this freedom poses its own problems.

My experience as Maria’s most recent sitter for the Portrait of the Artist series in October replicated my own research into the use of dress and its representation in the construction of identity, and the relationship between dress, ideas of appropriateness and how this relates to specific space.

Alexis, from the 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman' series

Alexis, from the ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’ series

Like Maria’s raw photos, clothes on the body leave bare a host of personal paradoxes, details and foibles. My relationship with the black linen shirt I wore during my portrait, paired with black trousers, is complex. As is my connection to the space in which I was photographed—my bedroom—where personal and professional lines are blurred. The shirt’s long, well-worn life is evidenced by its loose weave in some places. Yet its history is concealed by its simplicity. Knowing that I loved to write about its designer, a dear friend found it for me at a Paris flea market. It is thus a piece of evidence and resource, and a link to people and places, yet its early life is a mystery. These elements, contained within the coarse fabric, are my secret, and constant reminders at each touch against my skin. As captured in Maria’s image of me, my clothing and surroundings combine to inform my ideas of self. Her photograph exposes these connections and foregrounds the emotional links we have to our dress, and the ways we use them to negotiate our presence.

Source:

Kapajeva, M. ‘About A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’, http://www.mariakapajeva.com/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-woman/