Our Bodies. In Pieces.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

In my daily blog browsing, I came upon this post on O Filthy Grandeur, to which I was compelled to respond. However, I have more to say about it than would comfortably fit in the comments, so I thought I would slightly steal her post in the hopes of expanding on it a bit.

In her post, the author writes about fragmentation of the female form on the above novel cover by James Patterson. I think she's right to assume that Patterson probably had nothing to do with the cover itself, and FilthyGrandeur does an excellent job relating the cover to the synopsis of the book. Her main point, well taken, is that "Fragmenting the female form creates an object out of what should be a person -- her facelessness creates anonymity of the object which is her body." And later: "Images where the body of a woman is fragmented are problematic because they're suggestive of objectivity, as well as violence." Yes. This. Exactly.

However, I'd like to take her interpretation one step further, as (and I'm not sure she even realizes this, although I have a feeling she does) she's hit on a troupe that runs throughout art history, and therefore all visual production, since at least the French Revolution.

For one thing, let's talk about the fact that the female form, when displayed in this manner, is so often splayed out along the horizontal axis of the picture plane. In the context of her 1993
monograph on Cindy Sherman, Rosalind Krauss suggests that the horizontal plane signals "base materialism" as opposed to the vertical orientation, which suggests "the hanging together of coherence of form...further, this vertical dimension, in being the axis of form, is also the axis of beauty." In other words, a body depicted vertically is a body with agency, a body capable of action, as the silhouette on another Patterson Cover, Roses are Red. When a body is splayed horizontally, as in The Bathing Suit, agency, and therefore personhood, is removed, and the body is consigned to the realm of the object.

Portraits, after all, tend to be vertical,

while still lifes and landscapes are horizontal.

FilthyGrandeur is right when she says, as I've quoted above, that this fragmentation is suggestive of violence. It is also suggestive of will. As Linda Nochlin has written, in her book The Body in Pieces, cropping of the pictorial space suggests the artist's agency, the artist's decision of where to draw the boarders of the image. She writes: "The image is understood to be cropped, cut off, deliberately, as a function of the artist's will and aesthetic decision." What she doesn't mention, is the power dynamic this decision implicitly sets up between the artist and the subject. And if the artist is traditionally assumed to be male, then the dynamic set up between the designer of the cover and his near-naked model is one of violence and subjugation.

But The Bathing Suit isn't the only Patterson (might as well stick with the same author) novel to feature a fragmented female body. One cover for his novel Run For Your Life features a pair of cut-off woman's legs, their bareness highlighted by the hem of the coat which flutters around them. She runs awkwardly on high heels, through a street seemingly newly wetted by rain. This, too, is a visual trope, which Nochlin also analyzes in the same book with reference to works by Manet, Degas, Daumier and others. For her, the cut-off female legs function several ways:

1) As fetish. These are women's legs, their shape emphasized and elongated by the fact that she's wearing heels, a fashion choice clearly incompatible with any real effort at running for one's life. These legs are eroticised and sexualized.

2) As metonymy. These legs suggest a complete body. In fact, they stand in for one, as synecdoches for the whole. They suggest the physical attractiveness of the body which is not present.

In the comments section on her post, one commentor brought up the presence of the fragmented male body on the cover of romance novels as a counterpoint. True, in those cases, the male body is equally objectified. But just because visual tropes which originated with the female form can be transposed onto the male, doesn't undercut the power of what they suggest and how they read. Further, these books are not romance novels. They're thrillers. Two completely different genres. And I have a feeling you'd be much harder pressed to find male counterparts to these female images from within the same genre.

I especially appreciate FilthyGrandeur's post because she asks us to be vigilant in critically reading the visual images with which we're inundated in modern society. There is no such thing, and there never has been such a thing, as an innocent image. Just think of the ways in which major religions like Islam and even Protestantism have grappled with the power of images if you need further proof. In this day and age, when our visual culture has been taken to such an extreme, it's refreshing when someone refuses to be a passive receiver of our visual language.


FilthyGrandeur said...

wow. thank you for fleshing this out more. i was really thinking of modern art when i wrote about patterson's book cover, and even thought of Nochlin's book, but since I didn't still have a copy of the essays of hers i read i didn't want to reference them. i especially like that you included another Patterson book cover, and would like to point out that given the placement of the legs, it's almost like the viewer can see up her dress, reminiscent of a modern art painting (for the life of me i cannot think of the artist--it's going to drive me nuts) depicting a party, and in the top part you see a pair of women's legs, suggesting you could see up the trapeze artist's skirt.

oh, i updated my post to include the link to this post.

Anonymous said...

I think you're talking about Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergere

CC said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
FilthyGrandeur said...

thank you. you've relieved me of my headache.

PhDork said...

Jean Kilbourne, who analyzes advertising imagery, talks a lot about the dismembered female body in this way, and if you want to read more on images of women in the fine arts, Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity and Evil Sisters is a good place to start. And by good I mean horrifying.

Andrea said...

PhDork, I'll definitely look into Jean Kilbourne. Would you believe that I own Idols of Perversity already, but haven't yet read it? I do, because it's on my list for orals. So I'll let you know in a few months when I get there.

Andrea said...

Also, Kirchner did a few ballerina pictures where you can see up the dancer's dress, or at least, her partner can. And Tolouse-Lautrec did a similar thing in some of his posters

Anonymous said...

I have and love both those Dijkstra books! You'll never look at a dreamy Pre-Raphaelite the same way again!


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