12 December 2008

Bettie Page

The death of the pin-up model Bettie Page is not, at first blush, the sort of topic with which I might be expected to concern myself in this space. Upon further reflection, however, one immediately sees important similarities between Bettie Page and Joyce DiDonato, for example, starting with their great hair and their maintenance in curious surroundings of a disarming Mid-American wholesomeness. Susan Graham was costumed like Bettie Page in a recent production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride here in Paris. (No one knows why this is so, but it’s a fact.) The subject is entirely within my customary purview.

Moreover, Page’s work can tell us something of the nature of modeling — and thereby something of the nature of art itself. Not since it was revealed that one of Henri Matisse’s nude models went on to become a Catholic nun have we had a better opportunity to reflect on the question of what the subject brings to the representation in any work of art. Indeed, because Page was photographed more often than she was painted, it is easier to see her contribution to the art made in her image: Matisse could with a brushstroke manipulate our perceptions of Sister Jacques-Marie, and he wasn’t interested in naturalism (or obtaining a recognizable likeness) anyway; whereas a photographer can only frame, light, and airbrush so much. Some part of the expression comes from Bettie Page, not the camera.

The situation can be understood perhaps better by considering the art of film acting. Among my classmates at Brown, and everywhere in France, there has been a tendency to fetishize “auteur directors,” and to dismiss actors as trained animals or objects. A bad performance can be made good, or a good made bad, through staging, upstaging, editing, and other fundamental tools of a director’s art. Yet consider the case of Katharine Hepburn, or Madeline Kahn. Even when the movies are substandard, these ladies project a persona, a carefully crafted artistic statement; in some cases, it’s not even clear the directors are aware of what the actors are doing. The actor, too, is an auteur. (So is the singer, like DiDonato or Graham, no matter what loony “concepts” a Eurotrash stage director may impose on her.) A certain expression asserts itself despite the control that another artist wields.

To be an artist’s model, to be a photographer’s model especially, is to be an actor in the blink of an eye. Yes, Bettie Page’s performance is framed, defined, limited, set up by someone else. But she is acting. Within a specific context, she provides a considered response — an interpretation — a performance. If she were merely lovely, we might not look at her anymore, a half-century after the pose; if she were merely a manipulated image, we surely would not hail her as a pre-feminist icon and sexual revolutionary. “There’s nothing dirty or shameful about this,” she tells us, again and again, in image after image, no matter what she’s doing or which photographer took the picture. With the benefit of hindsight, and the knowledge that there are plenty of worse and exploitative photographs to be taken, we agree with Bettie Page, and we take her message to heart.

I began to question the dynamic between artist and model several years ago, when Jean Rather painted Her Conversations with Gauguin. It’s a remarkable piece, perhaps not an outright rebuttal but a principled objection to the serenely objectified Tahitian women who decorate Gauguin’s best-known works. Far from serene, far from still, Rather’s brush races furiously across the canvas, in jagged tangles. The image is agitated, even angry — at sexism, racism, colonialism, at all those things that lie so far beneath the surface of Gauguin’s paintings. “There is more going on here than met your eye, Monsieur Paul,” Rather’s painting seems to say, and the result is a more honest and complex portrait — and a disturbing one.

In old age and as a Born-Again Christian, Bettie Page embraced her pin-up work — but she also depended upon its continued marketing for her livelihood, and without it, she might have died in poverty. Though many of her best-known images were taken by women, and though she insisted that she worked by choice, not by force of others, some of those images are frankly disturbing and recall ugly scenes, photography as a kind of abuse. Because of the blithe freshness of her appearance, we find it easy to believe Bettie Page’s account, and to ignore the possibility that the reality may have been less wholesome. Most of the images are more whimsical than pornographic; we’re not ashamed of them, and we find different ways to co-opt Page’s image in other contexts: as any number of comic-book heroines, beginning with Veronica, in Archie & Jughead; as innumerable rock singers; or as the young woman who sells tickets in a certain Left Bank cinema. The image of Bettie Page becomes a display of woman’s self-determining power.

Yet — I underscore — it’s Bettie Page’s artistic representation of herself that permits us to interpret and reinterpret her message so benignly. As with any photographic images, we see only what the camera frames, and everything else around it remains unseen and unknown to us. Those images were directed and controlled, both artistically and financially, by people other than Bettie Page. She acted, yet she was also acted upon — and acted upon yet again, when those images were put to their intended use, which is not art criticism. She could guide the viewer’s interpretation only so far, yet the degree to which she succeeded, first in her poses and later in her public statements, is remarkable. She commands our respect.

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