Monday, 11 June 2012

The Self and Its Other: A Victorian Erotics of Looking

"But all her life the woman is to find the magic of her mirror a tremendous help in her effort to project herself and then attain self-identification...Man, feeling and wishing himself active, subjective, does not see himself in his fixed image; it has little attraction for him, since man's body does not seem to be an object of desire, while women, knowing and making herself object, believes she really sees herself in the glass."
(Simone De Beauvoir)

The photographs I'll be looking at here use the structures of sexist representations of women with mirrors in order to subvert negative assumptions about female vanity and appearance as identity. They also reset the relationship of looking, of object and subject, to debunk the circuit of 'visual pleasure' theorised in Laura Mulvey's famous 1975 essay. This essay expressed the set-up of positioned looks in classical Hollywood cinema: the viewer, assumed to be a (heterosexual) male, possesses the active gaze and therefore has power over the passivity of the female image that is fetishistically framed by the film. Mulvey's concept works within the assumption of binary genders and sexualities: much discussion since has pointed out this conception does not take into account male viewers being gay, or that women also take pleasure in cinematic scopophilia whether gay or straight. It is an ungendered erotics of visual pleasure that I will use when discussing the work of Victorian photographer Lady Hawarden.

Laura Mulvey's film theory is very much in keeping with John Berger's attitudes on power,and the economy of looking in his book Ways of Seeing from 1972. Berger details the standardised presentation of women's appearance in art as the beautiful object devoid of agency while the male subject posses the "gaze of visual pleasure" and thus in a sense owns the feminine object. In expounding the specific function of mirrors in art,  Berger reveals the hidden agendas of artists: "you painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your pleasure...The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight".

The images of women dealt with here successfully subvert the woman-as-art-object to be enjoyed exclusively by the possessor of the artwork or "the gaze". Instead, these photographs feature self-contained systems of an auto-erotics of looking and self-delight by the photographer/subject. The Victorian photographer Lady Hawarden's undated and untitled photograph (above left) of her daughter Clementina exemplifies this kind of self reflexive narcissistic looking. It is a closed system of gazes: Clementina looks at her reflection in the mirror longingly, wistfully, and this look is reciprocated and reflected back at herself. We the viewers can also experience pleasure looking at this photograph, but it is not set up for our pleasure: it is a display of someone else's pleasure in regarding their own self.   

Photography and the mirror act as twins in replicating multiples of ones self, Hawarden who was experimenting with photography in its nascent development cannily used the mirror in a great many of her portraits, Carol Mavor in her perceptively argued and sensuously written book on Hawarden, points out the connectivity of mirrors and the medium of photography, "the mirror in Hawarden's pictures serves the double function of reflecting back to us visions of feminine narcissism and showing us photography's own narcissistic trick of doubling its subjects". Therefore it can be said that photography itself its just another mirror and is a tool of narcissism by nature and anything capture by its lens acts accordingly.

Amelia Jones describes the form of  interest and visible delight in and preoccupation with ones self as subject, as a "radical narcissism". Jones' concept of radical narcissism behaves like an enabler to self discovery and analysis, she states "narcissism – the exploration of and fixation on the self – inexorably leads to an exploration of and implication in the other: the self turns inside out, as if were, projecting its internal structures of identification and desire outwards. Thus, narcissism interconnects the internal and external self as well as the self and the other". The Other in Hawarden's photograph is the adult woman that the adolescent Clementina is edging  towards, and therefore is "the self and its other" of my title – Clementina is neither a child or a woman yet contained within herself are these two states. As Gen Doy points out, "The mirror is a metaphor for, as well as a physical testament to, the process of perceiving a split between self and self-image". the flesh Clementina looks longingly at the reflected mirror image of her self as a desiring subject.

This kind of radical desiring also subverts stereotypes of female passivity by expressing an active and auto-erotic self-delight, the pose in Hawarden's photograph is not physically available to the viewer but rather opened out towards the mirror (image). Jones elaborates, "The overt expression of women’s fully embodied, desiring experience and (narcissistic) self involvement was seen as the surest way to repudiate the objectification of women and to politicise personal experience". What is most radical about Hawarden's photograph is the presence of, as well as narcissistic desire, but also a homoerotic lesbian desire for the female object by the female subject. Mavor links the display of narcissism in Hawarden's photographs  with lesbianism, "Clementina's mirror images emphasis that sapphic love is never far from Narcissus, who, in psychoanalytic theory, is a privileged sign of homosexuality".

Many of Hawarden's portraits are of her daughters in seemingly erotic or romantic poses together, acting out parts of lovers with grasping hands and close bodies. This is not necessarily evidence of lesbianism as it is an adolescent role play between sisters imaging their futures selves in the realm of love and sex as adult women, these games are also safely situated in the the privacy of their London home. And yet, the overall effect of these pictures is undeniably erotic as they exclusively feature female pairings, the aspect of homoerotic fantasy hangs over the pictures. Part of the intriguing thrill of these picture is the feeling that we the viewer are being allowed access into a very private world of these young women and their desires. 

This is the power of photography, to allow one to enter and view a time, place or person that maybe we would not normally have access to. Mavor who is moved throughout her reading of Hawarden's photographs and filled with her own recollections of adolescences, nascent sexuality and dressing up, points out, "Hawarden's stereoscopic pictures of her daughters stealing looks in the mirror emphasis not only the homoerotics of doubling woman, the queerness of the medium of photography, but also the queerness of seeing". These photographs allow for one to project their own memories and desires onto the images of a different self to your own, one that is in the process of change or as Mavor puts it Becoming. Our pleasure then in these pictures, due to our identification and sympathetic understanding of the longings of these fantasising girls is also narcissistic - we look at Clementina and enjoy our own self.

Illustrations:

Lady Clementina Hawarden, Untitled, Clementina by the Mirror, 1863-64
Lady Clementina Hawarden, Study From Life,1863-64
Lady Clementina Hawarden, Study From Life, 1863-64

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