A Museum's Education: Madness, "Madame X," and My Body
My intention was to drop the kids off at The Erie Art Museum for a 3 hour Lego Build/Stop Action Film class and head directly to Starbucks for a mammoth Venti Chai Latte, followed by aimless (no discretionary funds) browsing at the mall. Generally, I avoid malls—something about the fluorescent lighting bearing down on me, coupled with Christmas Muzak and chirpy sales associates is debilitating. I usually leave with a headache and pair of unnecessarily expensive, new jeans (I already own 8 pairs, but Surely! Surely! A more perfect pair is out there?).
Instead of heading for the museum exit, I took a detour. Reflexive pleasure. When I was a teenager, I used to take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan and walk and walk and walk all the way up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then spend the day wandering the halls, stopping wherever I wanted for as long as I wanted—a beautiful marble kouros, his one leg thrust forward in brazen nudity, and his hair falling in rippled stone (I loved this brash boy); Modigliani’s “Reclining Nude,” her face turned toward the viewer, her body unabashedly stretched across the canvas, dark hair cast behind her shoulders (she looked like my possible future self!); a green silk and leather French corset from the 18th century, the baleen stays and tight lacing both seductive and horrific (my hands encircling my waist could in no way approximate 16 inches). What didn’t follow me from one hall to the next? IT’s incessant chatter sizing me up and finding me wanting in everything.
How could any of that overtake the breathtaking courage of Madame Pierre Gautreau, the poised model for John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X.” Madame Gautreau wears daring black eveningwear—a plunging sweetheart neckline, straps made of pearl and metal, creamy skin, reddish hair pinned up, neck turned away in a graceful curve (I wanted to run my finger down her neck!), and her profile succinct, controlled, and wonderfully sharp. She knows she is both arresting and desirable. Men will love her--easily, giddily, foolishly—but she will always own herself. Standing in front of her portrait, her imposing, self-assured silence filled up the wobbly, anxious silence within me and I knew I was (or would be, once the strictures of my life circumstances
were released) my own self—I could look at you or not; talk to you or not; kiss you or not; make love to you or not.
Of course, the moment I left the Museum to walk back to Penn Station, I was cinched back into my corset—eyes on the ground, speed walking, passively ignoring the remarks from men in suits brushing against me, men at construction sites collectively shouting at me, men in front of convenience stores clutching paper-bagged, beer bottles and leering at me. How to be Madame X?
So the detour to the Erie Art Museum’s Bacon Gallery and its new exhibit: “Full Exposure: The Uncompromising Life and Lens of Kathe Kowalski.” Silver gelatin photographs of people living inside their struggles. People in nursing homes, in abject poverty, in prison. The photos aren’t voyeuristic, but compassionate: studied glances of people trying to live in spite of their unjust due. Though in the photos, the subjects never looked posed, are not preening, have not composed their presentation in order to sway our opinion. They are as they are. Often frighteningly real. Just as I saw future possible selves in Modiglinani’s “Reclining Nude,” and Sargent’s “Madame X,” I also saw future selves in their photos and I was unsettled. No, more than that. I wanted to back pedal out of the gallery and go back to aristocratic composure. These series of photographs might not seem self-reflective—poverty, prison, nursing homes?—but I found versions of myself on all the gallery’s walls.
In the photographs of poverty, the subjects are often overwhelmed by their chaotic, messy surroundings. Everything haphazard. The people—adults and children—seem both hardened and fraught, possess a cool awareness that this is what their life, thus far, amounts to—buried under numbing poverty. I am not poor and I have never known poverty, but I know what that internal scrabbling against absolute destitution feels like, though mine has been against emotional and spiritual destitution. I know what that panic of nothing left-nothing left-nothing left feels like, though mine has been in regards to hitting the bottom of the empty well.
Prison? I have never been incarcerated so I cannot even begin to presume I know what it means to be confined behind bars, to have life and free will restricted to that extent. But certainly, I have been incarcerated inside the unforgiving system of Bipolar Disorder and an Eating Disorder, of perfectionism and despair, of Alcoholism and its four walls.
But the photographs that truly have stayed with me are the ones of women in nursing homes. Some of these women are young—perhaps illness (physical or developmental) has made them patients. But it is the hint of their mental illness—the spastic splaying across a wheelchair (not at all reclining), the head thrown back and mouth opened wide in an cackling, full-body laugh (indecorous, the French Salon might say)—that scares me so. That could be me. I am that close sometimes to the tipping point. To running into the street naked, arms slashed up, banging my head against the pavement. Losing explicit control. (This is why I am a writer—the orderly, precise progression of words into sentences into paragraphs helps keep the psychotic demons at bay.)
And then there are the photos of Kowlaski’s own mother who had Alzheimer’s. In almost every frame, the woman is half-dressed in a dingy slip or her underwear is half-tugged up her thighs, or she is naked and folded up on her bed, and often, sentences and phrases (“I wake to your screams”) are written around the photographs speaking to her imagined internal state. I didn’t know how to look at these photos; all I wanted to do was look away.
Yes, part of it was fear. The subject was elderly and vulnerable (though protected by her illness): wrinkles cross-hatching her entire body, flaccid breasts sagging down to her belly like socks filled with change, arms and legs flabby and slack. This is what I could look like in 40 years. Could? No, will likely look like. No, stop prevaricating. Will look like. 40 years already and what do I have to show for it? (Insert IT’s malevolent chatter: You fucked up. Lost your job. Where’s the 2nd book? How fat is your psychiatric record? Why do you put up with yourself and your failings? Just put an end to yourself already!) And what is more, because of the 30+ ECT treatments, my brain scan might suggest my (in the words of my neurologist) “resultant memory deficits and mild cognitive decline,” could be a precursor to Alzheimer’s. Hell, I see my neurologist next week and he’s going to decide if in fact I DO need to be on Alzheimer’s medication.
This is the image of myself that I find impossible to contemplate, let alone live with: language (i.e., being a “writer”) gone, self-awareness gone, me standing in a room, naked, not minding that I’m being looked at. Though one could argue that Modigliani’s nude and Madame Gautreau are the positive, other side of this—they don’t mind being looked at either. No one here has any shame. Why do I cling to shame? What protective costume does it offer me?
But to be honest, another part of why I wanted to look away was initial revulsion. The old, flabby, imperfect body. Here, Anorexia’s voice butted in. Starving myself was not just about starving myself to get to the lowest possible weight while subsisting on the least amount of calories. An Eating Disorder is often about taking complete control—at least on the surface—of one’s body. I could determine what I wanted my body to do; I could imagine my own corset and whittle myself down to what was only necessary; my body would never betray me with a flabby thigh, a stomach roll, an uncouth laugh. All baleen stays in place and everything cinched in tight, then tighter, then tighter. I remember reading an article about autopsies doctors would do on women who wore corsets. Their internal organs were rearranged to fit inside the stricture. Their lungs compressed so all they could manage were asthmatic breaths. Those fainting couches were there for more than languorous purposes. With Anorexia, I became an overly circumscribed inmate taking itty bitty steps, huffing infinitesimal breaths, refusing to rebel against the warden, IT, and I almost died.
But that elderly, infirm woman looking back at me? What would she see and say? Because, of course, Alzheimer’s pushes out the censors. Why are you being so stupid? The body is not some detached object to manipulate, to carve, to starve, to cut off, to disown. You can choose what to fill your emptiness with—shame and fear and loathing and despair; or the voice of your nude and Madame X, and even, yes, me. We are who WE are. Here, in front of your gaze, you can’t touch us, you can’t even know us because we are not owned or known by our bodies. We are what is contained beneath our majestic and fearsome hides, impervious to time and wasting. We are all long dead, but we are here. So stop fucking around and wasting your time dithering in your cell. Write and your insides will fill again.
Or something like that.