Larissa Pham’s monthly column, Devil in the Details, takes a tight lens on single elements of a work, tracing them throughout art history. In this installment, she focuses on bruises.
The bruise in Nan Goldin’s “Heart-Shaped Bruise” could be anyone’s. A woman reclines on floral sheets, her face out of frame. She lies on her side like an odalisque. Her black-and-white striped dress is pulled up above the knee, her sheer black tights are yanked down. Framed in the middle, as if between curtains parted to reveal a stage, is the titular bruise, high on the woman’s right thigh. It is defined by its outline, like the imprint left on a table by an overfull coffee cup. One edge is beginning—just barely—to purple; the bruise is at most a day old.
The photograph can’t show how the bruise will turn purple, as bruises do, then deepen into blacks and blues. We won’t see how the burst capillaries, like lace under the skin, will sour into greenish yellow and mauve. But we know. The bruise will move through a rainbow of colors, mottled like the translucent surface of a plum, until finally—weeks later, and no longer heart-shaped—it will fade back to the pink of healthy skin. We know that as we look, the bruise has already healed: Nan Goldin took the photograph in 1980. It is an old wound. It exists now only as a memory—a mark destined to fade, captured before it did.
Every time I have a nosebleed—which is often lately, in the bone-aching dryness of a New York winter—I absolutely must take a photograph. I wish I didn’t have this terrible, maudlin impulse, but as soon as I feel the jet of warm blood I’m in the bathroom with my iPhone, doing my best Francesca Woodman impersonation until the little runnel of red hits the bottom of my chin. Bruises, too, have found their way onto my camera roll, captured from the moment I first notice their purpling presence and tracked as they blossom into violet, ultramarine, and lemon-yellow hues.
In college, when I was a sophomore taking my first serious painting class, I printed out “Heart-Shaped Bruise” on a department inkjet printer and taped it to my studio wall. It hung over me for a semester, that bruise, watching me work, forever the color of strawberry jam. I was drawn to the mix of beauty and pain, like watching the way butterflies settle on a carcass to taste the blood. I loved the detail of the model’s fingernails, painted a matte silver; I loved the way her arm curved along the length of her thigh, the way her hand tenderly cradled the bunched-up stockings at her knee. I loved the mundane, pretty floral sheets, the way the patterned black-and-white pillow rhymed against the striped black and white of her dress; I loved how all these touches gave the photograph a lived-in domesticity, softening the harshness of the flash. The photo could have been taken at anyone’s apartment. And, of course, I loved the bruise, the way I loved my own bruises:
- Huge splotch of purple on right knee—slipping on ice
- Archipelago of—what else—love bites on my left thigh
- Another bruise—impossibly dark, like a bar of iron—tripping on a roof
- Hickey, like a teenager—I had felt nostalgic
- Knees again, with rust-colored scrapes—Santi dropping me trying to carry me across Bedford Avenue
I don’t know whether it was the memories that I loved or the fact that they had left a mark. The photos were important to me, the way photos are always important: as evidence. Here I was, a wild thing; I had experienced. Look at it! But this kind of documentation, too, falls victim to what Sontag calls “time’s relentless melt”: a photograph can only ever be proof that time is passing. By the moment the shutter clicks, it’s already over.
In her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison writes of having an ambivalent relationship to female pain—the twinned desires of wanting to dwell in the wound, to make art about it, from it, while also not wanting to be perceived as a woman who lingers in her own suffering. “The boons of a wound never get rid of it; they just bloom from it,” Jamison writes. “It’s perilous to think of them as chosen. Perhaps a better phrase to use is wound appeal, which is to say: the ways a wound can seduce, how it promises what it rarely gives.”
When I think about the promise of bruises, I think about Caravaggio’s painting Bacchus, from 1595. I’m less interested in the god’s flushed baby face; my favorite part of the painting is the succulent bowl of fruit, temptingly placed in the foreground. It has figs and quinces and pears and grapes painted that lush, mouthwateringly translucent way that grapes in still lifes are always painted. Every piece of fruit is rotten, spoiled, or bruised. A pomegranate, gashed open, garnet-red seeds spilling out, seems a likely target for Jamison’s idea of a metaphysical wound—“A wound marks the threshold between interior and exterior; it marks where a body has been penetrated,” she writes.
That’s one kind of wound I know. But I’m drawn to the rotted golden apple next to it, to the bruise that covers most of its surface in deep umber tones. It looks soft, heavy, like it would yield instantly at a touch—I could reach in with my finger, feel the inside, mealy and deliquescent. I remember from an undergraduate art history lecture that the bruised fruit is supposed to represent the sins of excess and the hastening toward death that decadence implies. We’re supposed to want the fruit, then, realizing its decay, be repelled by it. But I’m not repelled.
Jenny Saville’s monumentally scaled, impressionistic portraits are characterized by an awareness of the heft and fleshiness of the body—its damages, its weight. In Saville’s layered oils, each stroke seems to have a planar existence of its own. Though her work is firmly rooted in the history of figurative painting, Saville’s interest is not in beauty but in the burdens of the body: she investigates the problems and movements of flesh. In Stare (2005), one of the most famous explorations of a motif she’s returned to multiple times, Saville renders an androgynous young person’s bloodied face, the canvas tightly cropped around the head, painted in deep reds and blues, flecked with light. The subject’s bruised lips and bloody cheek—a fall? a fight? worse?—take on a flattened, luminous quality in the painting, making the portrait both visceral and strangely unreal. The painting is beautiful, majestically so; it is also unnervingly violent. We meet the subject’s gaze. We cannot look away.
We’ve been ascribing aesthetic significance to bruises—and suffering more generally—for millennia. As I did the research for this essay, I found a website dedicated to the Catholic saint Gemma Galgani. Galgani was canonized in 1940, just thirty-seven years after her death at age twenty-five—making her canonizations one of the church’s fastest. A saint of the Passionist order (she was referred to as the “Daughter of Passion”), Galgani was known for her deep mysticism. She experienced stigmata, was said to have levitated, and was often struck by states of ecstasy so intense that she was mocked for her mystical ardor. And she was unrelenting in her own practice of self-flagellation—in her imitation of the Passion of the Christ.
“Although the subject of self imposed penances and mortifications is quite controversial in our modern age … Gemma’s extraordinary penances should be included on this website, so as to portray an honest and full picture of this remarkable Saint,” writes the webmaster, in an article from 2011. Warding us away, I guess, from the temptation to imitate what follows, which is a list of the tools of Saint Gemma’s extraordinary punishments, including: a knotted rope she tied tightly around her waist, an iron scourge with which she struck herself, and a belt strung with nails. Included on the page is an image of a knotted rope—not a relic but a replica, realistically streaked with blood at the points where the knots would have dug deeply into her skin. Looking at it too long makes my stomach hurt.
Pain purifies. Pain cleanses. Pain is proof of god in the body—the stigmata written in blood. The bruises become holy; the artifacts live forever in a museum, online: the knotted rope, the iron scourge. Before there was Saint Gemma, there was Saint Lucy, who died in A.D. 304, often depicted in paintings as holding her eyes on a plate. She tore them out herself, the legend goes, in order to discourage a persistent suitor who admired them. The wound, it holds, is its own meaning: the manifestation of an inarticulable, beautiful truth.
Is this why I love my bruises? Jamison touches on a similar idea in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” writing about depictions of anorexia in literature. “Whenever I read accounts of the anorexic body as a semiotic system,” Jamison writes, “or an aesthetic creation, I feel an old wariness … They risk performing the same valorization they claim to refute: ascribing eloquence to the starving body, a kind of lyric grace. I feel like I’ve heard it before: The author is still nostalgic for the belief that starving could render angst articulate.” It’s tempting to dwell in this space, to crave being hurt, to glorify the wound, to want to stay interesting and close to the flesh, poking at the bruise.
“Heart-Shaped Bruise” isn’t the most famous photo of a bruise that Nan Goldin took. That would be “Nan One Month after Being Battered,” from 1984. There is no coy strawberry-jam pink in this image; it is not the kind of photograph that lends itself well to tiling as a Tumblr background, as I once saw “Bruise.” Instead, in this self-portrait, Goldin looks straight ahead, her curly hair gleaming, crimson lipstick impeccably applied. It looks fresh. Gooey—you can see its sticky shine on her lower lip. She wears a dark dress, its details lost in the high contrast of the flash. On her face, the focal point of the image, her expression is resolute. Eyebrows thinly plucked, two perfect arcs. Her right eye, its white the unblemished cream of milk, has a deep purple bruise beneath—healing still; the edges are yellowing out. Her right eye, in its wholeness, becomes ever more perfect compared to her left, the white of which is a terrifying shade of scarlet, suffused with blood. A nebula of bruised skin surrounds it, umber and ocher brown.
One cannot look away from this photograph. Her bloodied gaze demands ours. She looks directly at the viewer, her expression carefully composed, as though presenting evidence. Which the photo was: Goldin made it, a month after being beaten by a former lover, Brian, so badly she was nearly blinded, in order to remind herself of what had taken place. Of that particular relationship, Goldin said: “I craved the dependency, the adoration, the satisfaction, the security, but sometimes I felt claustrophobic. We were addicted to the amount of love the relationship supplied … Things between us started to break down, but neither of us could make the break.”
It’s hard to know what to do with such an image. For Goldin, it was a reminder to never go back. Now it’s her most well-known photograph. Am I in the wrong for making us all look at it again, for dwelling in someone else’s hurt places? Can’t I just get over it? Within The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the portrait asks of its audience an impossible calculus: to witness Goldin’s happier memories of her relationship with Brian as well as the darker ones, nearly side by side. One seems like it must cancel out the other—as viewers, we must either deny the relationship or deny the abuse. But a photograph isn’t an argument. It can simply be, the way a depiction of pain is just that: a depiction. It’s up to us, as viewers, to grapple with how we consume the pain of others, how we process our relationship to woundedness.
Here’s one promise of a bruise: it heals. A bruise is evidence: that one has endured a blow and survived. It disappears once it’s no longer necessary, the way the wail of a passing fire truck eventually trails off into the distance. In some ways, a bruise is the inverse of photography, or any kind of art making. Art preserves; bruises fade. “Suffering is interesting but so is getting better,” Jamison writes. “The aftermath of wounds—the strain and struggle of stitching the skin, the stride of silver bones—contours women alongside the wounds themselves.” In the same way, I realized that I had so much more to say once I could get past saying, I hurt. Goldin, I should add, is still making art.
I think about pain often. I have “sensitive” tattooed in script above my right elbow, an impulsive decision made over a year ago with a person whom I still love. Sometimes, I skim my fingertips across it, feeling where the skin is still raised. All the bruises I’ve gotten over the years have sunk back into my skin, the capillaries absorbed, the flesh healed. The photos remain, and I do love them, but their beauty isn’t solely in the suffering. What I needed most from my bruises, after all, was not to know that I had acquired them but to know that I had endured.
Larissa Pham is a writer in Brooklyn.