May 2, 2014 | by Alexandra Pechman
The noir and gothic films of the forties and fifties often feature beguiling portraits, paintings that possess a strange power; they inspire acts of fraud, forgery, theft, murder, and obsession. Think of The Woman in the Window, Laura, or Vertigo: in the first few scenes of each film, a kind of investigator becomes enraptured with a woman who also appears in a painted portrait—and, often, the twist reveals that she’s not who she seems to be. In Laura, the portrait itself stands in for the woman who’s supposedly disappeared, as Detective Mark McPherson investigates the crime—until, that is, Laura walks into her old apartment, where the detective is sleeping beneath the portrait that so intrigued him. The portrait serves as a kind of false look, or false double, that only can really be appreciated on film.
The artists who created these portraits—usually just large-scale photographs slapped with varnish—typically went uncredited; today most of the portraits themselves have gone missing. In The Dark Galleries: A Museum Guide to Painted Portraits in Film Noir Gothic Melodramas and Ghost Stories of the 1940s and 1950s, the art and film historians Steven Jacobs and Lisa Colpaert have created a guide to an imaginary gallery of these imaginary paintings, which often took imaginary people as their subjects.
What interested Jacobs most was not so much the portraits themselves, but the roles they played in their respective films: they reflected how people thought they should behave in front of pieces of art. The plots of these films often came from classic literature or standard noir fare, but it was film techniques that brought the paintings into more direct conversation with the narrative. Read More »
August 27, 2013 | by Alexandra Pechman
“The beauty of the heroine is evident to every one,” Julia Margaret Cameron wrote as the postscript of a letter accompanying the first copy of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which she illustrated with photographs. She was speaking specifically of her image Vivien and Merlin, but, as evidenced in a show of her photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of Cameron’s greatest talents lay in animating many heroines of poetry through her unconventionally dreamy photographs. Read More »
November 12, 2012 | by Alexandra Pechman
Liars and lovers often find themselves to be bedfellows. It seems to follow that government officials will forever have to publicly disentangle the lies they tell about their lovers. But a scandal, after all, means evidence or admission, the end of the lie. Only the person who kept it secret so long knows the real terror of the birth and life of the lie, and perhaps it is poetry, rather than the news cycle, that is sensitive enough to trace a portrait of such a slippery subject.
After hearing about the resignation of David Petraeus on Friday, I immediately turned to the Dylan Thomas poem “I Have Longed to Move Away.” I first read it, by chance, when I was harboring a huge lie myself, one that had seemed to follow me into the pages of an innocuous-looking poetry book on a friend’s shelf, opened at random. From the first line, the poem not only captures the feeling one gets from living the worst lies; it seduces liars themselves. Like the speaker, I longed in that moment to move away to some foreign place, at least on the page, but once I’d begun the journey, I was led back where I’d come from: there was my lie, staring me down again in the next line. The steady meter interrupts on the unexpected and sinister “hissing,” then come the strong two beats of that unavoidable “spent lie” which is equated to a “continual cry.” It is not just a lie; it has been assigned a heavy weight and value by meter, rhyme, and meaning.
June 7, 2012 | by Alexandra Pechman
My first “boyfriend” broke up with me at camp in a letter that read, “You look like the girl from Planet of the Apes—I mean the ape she played, not the girl who played her.” He meant Helena Bonham Carter in the Tim Burton version that had come out that summer. More specifically, he meant that for an eleven-year-old, I had very unruly and freakishly thick eyebrows.
Having kempt mine since that summer (on a necessarily frequent basis), I notice eyebrows more often than is normal; they bear special significance to me. Midway through Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie confronts her uncle about his awful secret life as a woman strangler. Sitting across from him at a seedy bar, she watches his hands painfully wringing a napkin, then she tells him all that she knows: wordlessly, she raises a single eyebrow. The plot hinges on that one thin line of hair. Read More »
September 26, 2011 | by Alexandra Pechman
It’s easy to overlook that Vogue, seemingly eponymous with the word fashion, debuted after Harper’s Bazaar, America’s first fashion magazine. Steeped longer in the Victorianism that defined the nineteenth century, Bazaar set about cataloguing the changes that an era of colonialism and industrialization brought to women’s dress. The original weekly (titled Harper’s Bazar) saw its first printing in November of 1867, as a slim, sixteen-page newsprint volume featuring drawings and articles on every aspect of fashion. The news item “Colors” reads more like an issue of political importance. (“Bismarck, or gold-brown, is the prevailing shade, and reappears in some guise almost every where. The new shades of green are its only formidable rivals. The deep green known as ‘Invisible,’ now called ‘Mermaid,’ is in great favor.”) An early cover from an 1868 issue shows hand-drawn hairstyles alongside paper-doll-like figures, nodding at French sophistication with hairdo trends like the “diadem of curls” and the “fleur de lis coiffure of braids.”
“Harper’s Bazaar: A Decade of Style” at the International Center of Photography catalogues the transformations that technology of a different sort wrought on women’s bodies. The collection of more than thirty images—vivid color photographs from the past decade under editor Glenda Bailey—features work by famed fashion photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier, Terry Richardson, and Peter Lindbergh, as well as art-world luminaries like Nan Goldin and Chuck Close. Read More »
August 4, 2011 | by Alexandra Pechman
It wasn’t my plan to get thrown up against a wall by Macduff on a Monday night. Only hours earlier, I’d found myself innocuously waiting in a long line, on an otherwise deserted Chelsea corner, in a crowd wearing a sheen of sweat under cocktail dresses and collared shirts.
“I can’t believe they’re making us wait,” a man in very short shorts in front of me said. It was seven-twenty outside the McKittrick Hotel, a hundred-plus-room Chelsea warehouse currently playing host to one of New York’s most immersive theater experiences, but no one had seen any of the gore, sex, or fun our tickets promised. “I hate lines,” a girl in a halter top moaned to her friend.
“What’s the name of this?” a woman passing by asked me.
“Sleep No More,” I said.
“That’s the name of the club?”
We were waiting, in fact, to see a free-form staging of Macbeth, in which the audience wanders through a maze of lush rooms decorated like Hitchcock’s version of a boutique hotel, including a gruesome taxidermist shop and a candy store. I’d heard that actors climbed up walls, had orgies, and went ballroom dancing, but I’d decided to ignore the freakish distractions in hopes of sifting out something less fleeting from the thousands of documents, photos, and files that decorate the convoluted set. If my wallet was going to be nearly a hundred dollars lighter by the end of the night, I wanted to leave with more than just the experience of a naked, wordless rendition of “Out damn spot!” I wanted to walk away with some small, new understanding of Shakespeare. Read More »