Monday, 5 September 2011


Signs of a Struggle: Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism,
Victoria and Albert Museum

The star work of this show is this image. That's the view of Louisa Lee, writing in Artists Insight. She sees Simpson's ‘understated diptych of a black woman with her back to the camera’ as something which is 'neither easily defined nor clearly labelled' but worth staying with.

When I walked into the gallery and first saw this picture, I was struck by the beauty of the image: a mysterious anonymous woman confined in murky space, whose face is hidden from us, but emanating strength and stillness - and vulnerability. 

There's a history of woman being depicted with their backs to us. It's a sort of  anti-portrait, denying us the normal clues that help us to recognise and have empathy with another human being. Some artists have treated their subjects romantically, others paint a cosy picture, yet others aim for poetry.

 The work on the left -  Woman at the Window - was painted by Caspar David Friedrich in 1822.  She’s mysterious too, slightly unreal, her feet hovering over the floorboards - but at least she has a window to look out of. 
So too does Dali’s young woman (his younger sister Ana Maria) in the picture on the right - Jeune fille Ă  la fenĂȘtre  - painted almost exactly a century later. Dali was influenced at that time by the Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin who joined ‘naturalism to fantasy’.  

 All three images are intriguing. But Simpson's picture is the only one with words. There is a column of text and figures running down each side. On the left is a jumbled list of percentages and estimated numbers:
20% - 1 out of 10 - 1 in 10 - 3 out of 4- one fifth - 10% - 75% - 100% - 50%.
What you read on the right is :
intermittent - daily - slow - for the time being - nightly up to now - against - in the meantime - weekly - fast - throughout - spend - constant
We are less trusting of statistics than once we were. Cheek by jowl and randomly scattered, do these ones look sloppy, approximate, untrustworthy, the sort of words we'd call up to support an argument or confound an opponant?The museum label explains that the image and text refer to a quota system in USA relating to minorities categorised according to race. 
Then there's the format: it reminds us of the millions of photographs which continue to be taken to record physical characteristics for purposes of ethnographic and medical research, police records and  identity. Many of the subjects must have had little choice about when and where, how or by whom they were photographed.I recall the first time I was issued with an identity badge when I applied for a job with Texas Instruments, an American company. It seemed very un-British and I doubted whether it would catch one....

This woman’s dignity seems to interrogate the statistics, despite the rough and ready generalisations which stand like pillars each side of her. Although she doesn't disclose her face to us, we understand that she is unique – and uniquely precious - like every other human being on this planet.

Nina Caplan, Features Editor in Time Out asks 'If artists can no longer promise us reality, then what are they showing us, and where has reality sidled off to while we're trying to figure that out? It would all be even more nerve-racking if the images weren't so beautiful'. I like her questions but for me the shock or frisson in this photo is exactly because something so beautiful is linked with and contaminated by powerlessness.

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