What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Janet Malcolm's "Forty-one False Starts" - Part I

The best pieces in Janet Malcolm’s recently published Forty-one False Starts are, for me, the four photography reviews – “The Genius of the Glass House,” “Good Pictures,” “Edward Weston’s Women,” and “Nudes Without Desire.” Interestingly, two of them, “Edward Weston’s Women” and “Nudes Without Desire,” begin with a discussion of pubic hair. In “Edward Weston’s Women,” Malcolm artfully links the visibility of “a few wisps of pubic hair” in a Weston nude with Weston’s audacious statement (in a letter to the Museum of Modern Art) that pubic hair “has been definitely a part of my development as an artist … that it has been the most important part, that I like it brown, black, red or golden, curly or straight, all sizes and shapes,” to launch one of her favorite subjects – Weston’s love affairs and their impact on his work. In “Edward Weston’s Women,” she writes,
Weston’s erotic and artistic activities are so tightly interwoven that it is impossible to write of one without the other. It is known (from Weston’s journals) that most of the women who posed for his nudes and portraits – arguably his best work – slept with him (usually after the sitting) and were sources for him of enormous creative energy.
Weston’s women fascinate Malcolm. In one of her first New Yorker photography pieces, “Two Photographers” (The New Yorker, November 18, 1974; re-titled “East and West,” and included in her superb 1980 collection, Diana & Nikon), she vividly describes Weston’s Charis (1925):
A photograph of Charis shows a girl in a black beret and a sweater straddling a ladder-back chair, her elbows outthrust and her chin resting on the junction between her wrists; her brow is furrowed, she is staring into the middle distance, and her slip is showing. The composition is striking in its symmetries of legs, arms, and chair posts and ladders, and in the deployment of blacks, grays, and whites. Equally striking is, “the thing itself,” as Weston called the object of his quest for realism – in this case, the relationship between the model and himself.
Edward Weston, "Charis" (1925)
Malcolm further says, in “Two Photographers,” that Weston’s portrait of Charis, “with its comical pose and the girl’s mock-serious gaze, expresses the playfulness and courtliness of the relationship between the young woman and the older man.”
But, interestingly, in another essay, written shortly after “Two Photographers,” Malcolm’s appreciation of Weston’s work appears to sour. The piece, called “Assorted Characters of Death and Blight” (included in Diana & Nikon), is a review of a Weston retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. She writes,
Weston’s major works (most done in the 1920’s and 1930’s) are the nudes, vegetables, shells, clouds, and landscapes that have been transformed – sometimes almost beyond recognition – into pure, cold, perverse, unmistakable Weston abstractions.
Note Charis’s absence from the list of “Weston’s major works.” Had she forgotten about it? She does refer to a nude portrait of Charis (Nude, Oceano, California, 1936):
A well-known photograph of Charis stretched out face-down on the sand – one of Weston’s most apparently straight-forward nudes – has an attenuation, a starfish-like quality of inanition that is evocative of death and sleep rather than of lovemaking.
Malcolm saw the MoMA retrospective as a “corrective” to the thinking that Weston’s art was sourced in his erotic interaction with his models. In “Assorted Characters of Death and Blight,” she says:
The picture of Weston that emerges from these sources [Weston’s Daybooks and Ben Maddow’s Edward Weston: Fifty Years] – of a vital and virile romantic who lived a life of physical simplicity and emotional richness in warm climates with one beautiful woman after another; who had the courage to leave his wife and children and go to Mexico with his mistress, Tina Modetti; who finally found the love of his life in his second wife, Charis; who enjoyed the friendship of such artists and intellectuals as Diego Rivera, José Orozco, Robinson Jeffers, and Ramiel McGehee – is at curious odds with the static, indrawn, remote, and sometimes even morbid character of the photographs.
Yes, but it’s not at odds with the portrait of Charis that Malcolm so glowingly described in “Two Photographs.” Curiously, she fails to point this out. Her view of his achievement has turned inexplicably icy. In one of the essay’s most pointed lines, she says, “Stieglitz’s blurry view of the Flatiron Building on a snowy day is surely a more literal rendering of ‘the thing itself’ than Weston’s razor-sharp close-up of a halved artichoke.”
Edward Weston, "Charis, Lake Ediza" (1937)
Malcolm must’ve been sitting on a sharp tack when she wrote that piece. Obviously, it isn’t her view today. In “Edward Weston’s Women,” she reverts to her initial position. She writes, “His nudes can indeed be characterized as ‘passionate collaborations,’ in which Weston’s passion for a certain kind of beauty and a woman embodying that beauty come together with an almost audible bang.” And she says, “Charis Wilson is the foremost of these collaborators.” She describes another “Charis” picture, Charis, Lake Ediza (1937):
This photograph, however Wilson remembers the circumstances of its making, is indeed sensual, probably the sexiest of all of Weston’s pictures of her. She sits with her legs spread and her hands crossed over the inner thighs. That she is wearing trousers and high lace-up boots only adds to the sexiness, you could even say dirtiness, of the picture. The face, wrapped in a scarf as a Bedouin might wrap it, stares at the viewer and beyond him. It is a very young face, perhaps a little sullen, certainly not unaware of the provocativeness of the pose, but refusing to register it. One’s eye goes back and forth between the hands and the face, alternating between the hands’ downward direction and the face’s straight-ahead one. I don’t know of another photograph that puts the eye through such paces.
Malcolm calls Charis, Lake Ediza “extraordinary.” In “Nudes Without Desire,” another of the excellent photography essays in Forty-one False Starts, Malcolm says, “Edward Weston pursued the nude genre more assiduously – and, I think, more brilliantly – than any other practitioner.” And with that, Malcolm’s revision of her acrid opinion in “Assorted Characters of Death and Blight” is complete.
(This is the first part of a four-part review of Janet Malcolm’s Forty-one False Starts.)

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