Rhianna Walcott, Anne MacDonald: Pink & Blue
Anne MacDonald’s latest solo exhibition Pink & Blue presents a series of seemingly innocent and innocuous photographic portraits of stuffed rabbits. Although they may initially appear to be nothing but cute, sweet little toys, each of these objects has been carefully selected by the artist for their symbolic references to infancy and the way in which gender is constructed and encoded during early childhood:
The artefacts of material culture are symbolic of our time. Attributing gender specific colours to baby products is not only driven by a desire to increase consumption, but also reflects a conservative pink-blue world view of femininity and masculinity. Gender colour coding in the nursery and the toy store may seem cute and innocent, but by establishing gender binary stereotypes, we are drawing clearly defined parameters for girls and boys. Dividing children into pink and blue limits possibilities, undermines freedom of individual expression, and creates conflict for those who do not easily conform to these simplistic and arbitrary codes. While collecting and photographing toys for the Pink & Blue project I started to think about how to express the disturbing and negative aspects of gender coding through my photographs. This led to the idea of creating an installation reminiscent of a nursery at night; where darkness creates a sense of isolation and vulnerability; and even the cutest and cuddliest toys seem sad and lonely.
Anne MacDonald, 2018
Printed on a scale that renders them larger than life, each pair of stuffed toys, one blue and one pink, have been captured by MacDonald in what has become her signature style of almost hyperrealist photography. The soft plush texture of the stuffed rabbits can almost be felt. Each and every detail is pristinely captured. The casual way in which some of the toys slouch against or turn away from each other, lends these lifeless toys just the faintest air of life-like animation…
The artworks themselves evoke the stylised professional studio portraits taken of newborn babies, whilst simultaneously eluding to the uniformly stark visual language of the commercial ‘product shot’, a universal vernacular now familiar to all consumers via our daily immersion in the world of advertising, store catalogues and online shopping.
In researching and creating this series, MacDonald was influenced by the writing of Jo B. Paoletti – an American scholar who has written extensively on the way in which consumer culture shapes identity - particularly gender. Expanding upon the questions raised and explored by Paoletti, MacDonald’s photographs prompt viewers to consider the phenomenon and effects of labelling and categorisation on the way in which we understand, construct and define gender. In a polarised world of pink and blue there is little room for gender fluidity or individuality…
In a clever and slightly subversive nod to the booming consumer trends that surround the cult of the nursery, MacDonald has also created her own wallpaper. The repeated pattern of pink and blue stars (pieced together from photographic images of cute little night lights), subtly references the booming commercialisation which has sprung up around all aspects of early childhood in recent decades.
Pink and Blue is the third photographic series by Anne MacDonald which explores themes around childhood. It follows on from Party (2013), a series of poignant images of the aftermath of a child’s birthday party; depicting childhood as a state of transience and enchantment. Prior to this MacDonald presented Pink (2010-11) a series of photographs presenting objects, all pink in colour, chosen for their symbolic references to femininity, cuteness, sweetness and childhood as a state of transience and enchantment.
Since the 1980s Anne MacDonald has worked with photo media, producing large-scale photographs and installations exploring and pushing the boundaries of the photographic still life genre. Working exclusively in the studio with a large format camera, MacDonald’s photographs explore the emotional anxieties created in the counterpoise between birth, life, beauty and the transience of time on the one hand, and fragility, death, decay and dissolution on the other. Her subjects are fixed – virtually embalmed – through the photographic process, and thus raise the inevitable connection between photography and life and death. Her works are a continued investigation into the potential for objects to act as powerful metaphors for thoughts and emotional states.
Anne MacDonald, Pink
How does this latest body of work for Pink relate to subjects you have addressed in your photography to date?
My photography to date has been an ongoing investigation into the potential for objects to act as powerful metaphors for thoughts and emotional states in still life imagery. Loss, ephemerality and mortality have been recurring themes in a series of large-scale photo media installations in which the photographic still life acts as an elegiac symbol for the transience of existence. There is a fundamental connection between still photography and death. The camera preserves as still, what was once animated. Photography's close links to death, and the sense of melancholia this creates, is one source of its potency.
Installations such as Above & Below the Grave (1990) and Ornament (2008) focus on the ornamental cemetery tokens and tributes used to memorialise death. Inspired by Victorian funeral statuary, Vanitas (1996) presents a monumental photograph of a decaying wedding cake draped in cobwebs and surrounded by rosebuds made out of icing sugar confectionary, while Memory (2007) records time passing in the gradual erasure of headstone inscriptions. Ophelia (1993) and Petal (2000) build on the established repertoire of floral iconography found in Vanitas symbolism of the 17th Century European still life genre, where withering flowers were used as allegories of time, loss and absence. Annunciation (1994-5), Cloth (2004) and Silk (2005-6) explore the potential for draped, torn and stained baroque silk fabrics to represent the body and mortality.
My current project Pink (2011), like many earlier projects, began with collecting objects that resonate meaning beyond their own everyday existence. The objects in Pink are simple decorative consumer objects created as accessories to children’s fantasies and imaginative play, dress-ups and parties. They extend beyond pure ornament and artifice to become accoutrements to the enchanting, ephemeral, and evanescent nature of childhood. They are all pink in colour and chosen for their symbolic references to youth, femininity, cuteness and sweetness. Removed from the usual context of the crowded toy store or child’s bedroom; isolated and frozen in a pristine white void; the objects in Pink have a palpable vulnerability. They are pervaded with the same poignant melancholic sensibility as the earlier work.
You have recently switched from production of C-type photographs to using a digital camera for shooting and printing works as fine art digital prints. Can you talk about the reason for this switch and the equipment and processes you use?
Digital photography allows for far more sophisticated technical control of the image, especially in terms of colour balance, tonality and resolution. Also, when working in the studio, you can see the recorded image on screen at the time of the shoot. That instant feedback means you can make a lot of key decisions during the shoot. It’s a very exciting and rewarding way to work.
Despite the high level of technical manipulation and control possible with digital photography, I think we still inherently believe in the photographic image as evidential and documentary, and therefore it carries with it the power of the real.
I wanted the objects in Pink to be photographed with the technical perfection found in the very best advertising product photographs, even when enlarged to life size; so tangible you think you could reach out and pick them up. In the world of fantasy and imaginative play, toys and accessories take on a monumental and magical presence for the children engaging with them. I also wanted the objects in Pink to have some of that presence for the viewer. To achieve this, I hired a commercial photographic studio, large format digital camera and professional studio lighting set up. I then worked with two really outstanding photographic technicians on the digital finishing and printing. I chose an ink-jet printing process and a Canson cotton rag paper for the beautiful quality of the prints as well as their excellent archival properties.
How have your recent travels to Japan influenced this new series of work? Were there any other significant influences which lead to the conceptual development of this body of work?
When I travelled to Japan last January, I had been researching ideas and collecting objects for Pink for about twelve months. I decided to go to Japan after reading Barbara Nemitz’s fabulous book Pink: The Exposed Color in Contemporary Art and Culture, as it draws a number of important connections between the colour pink and Japanese culture.
Japan was an important influence on the Pink project in two key ways. Firstly, it was an overwhelming affirmation of the value of the colour pink. Pink is the favoured colour for Japanese girls, and the main shopping districts in Tokyo such as Shibuya and Ginza have department stores filled with clothes and accessories, aimed at a young female market, and predominantly pink in colour. Pink heaven!
The annual “Hanami” (cherry blossom festival) underlines the importance of pink as a cultural symbol of beauty and transience. Japanese paintings are filled with pink cherry blossoms. Japan literally overflows with pink, yet with this excess, there is an exquisite restraint. Visiting traditional Zen gardens in Kyoto and seeing a perfectly formed stone or tree carefully placed in a wide expanse of white gravel raked into delicate linear designs, was influential in my decision to present the objects for Pink floating on a pure white ground.
While researching Pink led me to visit Japan, the original inspiration for this project was my son’s childhood phase of loving pink. This started at around four years of age and continued until his eighth birthday. In a department store he would immediately gravitate to the shelves displaying pink clothes, toys and accessories. Now that he is nine years old, he has succumbed to peer pressure, and decided that pink is only for girls.
As my son grew out of his love for pink, I noted with a considerable sense of loss that he was also rapidly shifting out of childhood and the world of imaginative play he had inhabited for many years. I started to collect his pink cast offs as mementos. These formed the beginning of my pink collection for Pink.
Barbara Dowse, Anne MacDonald: Party
Photo artist Anne MacDonald does not depict the grossly rampant, tangled and trampled mess, the tumultuous chaos, confusion and clutter that we associate with boisterous children’s parties and the debris that is left behind after the last mother has collected her over-excited child. Instead, a sense of emptiness, of stillness, of silence and fragility and loss pervades Anne MacDonald’s poignant images of the aftermath of a children’s birthday party. The clamour and noise is no longer. A spilt drink, cake crumbs, a spent party popper, a spatter of glitter, a few nonpareils, a discarded party hat, limp ribbons and a deflated balloon are all that remain; sad and solitary remnants that symbolise another passing birthday and yet another year of childhood gone. Her still life photographs are a paean, a touching homage. They are stylised tableaus; understated quasi memorials to the transience of childhood and a mother’s sense of the inevitability and loss experienced with each outwardly celebratory rite of passage associated with the annual birthday party:
As a parent, observing my child growing up fills me with wonder, but also a sense of loss. Children’s birthday parties are important social rituals, and on the surface of things, joyous and festive celebrations of life. However, on another level, they are compelling indicators of time’s inexorable passing. Children’s party decorations, food, gifts, games, toys and costumes alter each year with the age of the child. Their role extends beyond pure ornament and artifice to become symbolic of a transitory childhood world. Looking at children’s birthday parties as symbols of loss and impermanence, ‘Party’ continues my exploration into the relationship between the photographic still life, transience and mortality. In this series I have recreated ephemeral banquet scenes of party cakes and decorations. The images record the aftermath of the party, when all the fun is over, the presents have been opened, the cake eaten and the guests have left.
Anne MacDonald, 2013
Briony Downes, Anne MacDonald: Ornament
Funeral flowers have always disturbed me. While they are usually offered with notes of regret and sympathy, their bountiful plumes and floral sprays echo the cold reality of death. More than likely, a few hours after delivery they will join the deceased in their descent six feet under or be plunged into the blazing furnace of cremation. I can’t help lingering on their inevitable decay, slowly fading out of this world; a mournful reminder of the loss of life and the firm finality of death.
For 17th century vanitas painters, the withering flower was a fitting symbol of time, loss and transience. Purposefully designed to remind us of our mortality, earlier versions of vanitas paintings featured skulls, books, jewellery and musical instruments, objects considered to be vain symbols of earthly accomplishments and pleasures. Using contemporary funeral flower arrangements in a similar way are the photographic works of Ornament, an exhibition by Hobart based artist Anne MacDonald.
Presented as a large-scale installation of round black and white ink-jet prints, Ornament fills the gallery with a strange sense of uneasy splendour. The air is heavy and the lights are dim. Spread over the walls in neat succession, the clusters of photographs remind me of how collectible plates might be arranged in a lounge-room. Nesting in the centre of each image is a carefully arranged wreath of flowers. Initially, I assumed the flowers are real yet on closer inspection I started to see small flecks of decay. Not a withering decay, more like the disintegration of weathered stone or mouldy cheese. The perky buds and matte leaves celebrate the cloudy shine of plastic and the curl of every petal has the lop-eared look of fabric.
In each work MacDonald has manipulated a subtle use of muted colour to great effect, making it difficult to decipher what could be real and what is artifice. The dark spaces seem velvety, almost soft to the touch while pale greys shimmer effortlessly into white. This gives the images a surface ‘warmth’ that momentarily masks their disconcerting purpose. The configuration of flowers, leaves and ferns are sumptuous. Some include ceramic doves, clasping hands, cherubs and the consoling phrases ‘At Rest’ and ‘In Loving Memory’.
Presented by the living as tokens of remembrance, graveside ornaments reassure those left behind that the deceased is in a safe place, peacefully sleeping rather than lost forever. They serve as comforting beacons in the face of darkness, even if their petals are ragged and sun-bleached. Taken out of their context, these ornaments become objects of detached beauty. Their circular design echoes the cyclical nature of birth and death while the lush artificial blooms suggest a state of eternal life; a life not ended but momentarily ‘stilled’.
While MacDonald’s flowers might offer solace in their beauty, they also maintain the fiction of death. They mask the reality of our demise. They hint at an attractive decay yet hide the rot and the fluids. Gone are the days of post-mortem daguerreotypes, where the dead body was something to photograph and view repeatedly as a keepsake. Now death is a relatively private affair, reserved for family and with most of the gruesome details evaded. Flowers, angels and doves have become the modern, more palatable face of death.
Marking MacDonald’s latest investigation into a subject she has been exploring since the 1980’s, Ornament is a delicate yet complex interpretation of the aesthetic and philosophical significance of funeral flowers and graveside mementoes.
Victoria Hammond, Anne MacDonald: Silk
Each of these immaculate photographs seems like a revelation of the expressive power of fabrics in art. On first seeing them, two things immediately sprang to mind: their clear associations with Renaissance painting, and their correspondence with an ancient Greek myth. This last is one of few narratives to pivot on the symbolic power and age-old allure of luxurious fabrics, and it is the intensity of Anne MacDonald’s photographs - the quality of the fabrics as emanations of light – together with the dark presence of vanitas, that reminded me of the myth. The story goes like this. Glauce, a princess of Corinth betrothed to the hero Jason, received a wedding gift in an envelope of silk. When the parcel was unwrapped and its contents revealed, the young princess and her ladies stood back murmuring in amazement, for inside was a garment of marvellous beauty. The figured cloth from which it was made gleamed as if woven by a magic hand; and when lifted from its envelope the tunic floated into graceful folds as if it had a life of its own. Impatient to see its effect, Glauce had her ladies drape it about her while another of them fetched a large mirror.
Enjoying the gown’s silken caress, Glauce stood before the mirror, captivated by her own reflection. The garment bestowed upon her an aura of unimaginable splendour. It had re-created her as a work of art. She spun around, delighting in the swinging movements of the swishing fabric. So dazzling and alluring was she that Jason would doubtless fall upon his knees in adoration of her.
The princess ran outside to greet Jason on his return, hardly aware of a prickling sensation in her skin. In the sunlight the gown took on a celestial radiance and she stood entranced by the shimmering of its golden edging. The prickling became a burning itch. Her face grew pale, then livid, as the magnificent garment clung to her in a deadly embrace, squeezing the very breath out of her so that she could barely scream, “Take it off! Take it off!” as she clawed frenziedly at the fleshy fabric. But even as her ladies attempted to remove it, the enchanted cloth stuck faster as it interacted with the light, growing darkly stained in the places where its vibrant colours released their poisons and dissolved into the princess’s flesh.
The exquisite material of the gown had indeed been woven by a magic hand: that of the gift-giver, the divine witch Medea. She had fashioned the bewitching garment with its cunningly concealed gift of death as retribution, because the princess - so much younger than she - had stolen from her the love of Jason. And just as Medea had schemed, Jason on his arrival at the scene found not a vision of living perfection, but a spectacle of disintegration and death. Not even strong Jason could remove the magic garment - now stained, creased, ripped and tear-marked - for in places it had become inseparable from the princess’s flesh, and so, its rents carefully stitched by the ladies, it served as Glauce’s shroud and, on what was to have been their wedding day, she was buried in it.
It is hardly necessary to identify which of the individual photographs in Silk appear to have absorbed key moments of this ancient vanitas tale, but I do wish to point out that part of the appeal of this story with regard to MacDonald is the way the interaction of the light on the magic fabric mimics the function of her camera and photography’s chemical processes – not to mention the lurking presence of death in both instances. Even the mirror in the story is echoed by the oval dressing-mirror format of the photographs. Though a drama about powerful emotions - love, passion, jealousy and revenge - the fate of Glauce is in essence a symbolic story of beauty’s fatal attraction: the more perfectly beautiful the object, the more elusive, and the more subject to dissolution and catastrophe – which is exactly what Anne MacDonald’s photographs, whether of flowers, wedding cakes or fabrics, have always been about.
Fabrics were similarly associated with intense emotions – often involving death or its insidious presence - in Renaissance paintings. Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition (c.1435) is the chief inspiration for this current series of Anne MacDonald’s photographs. As is the case with many such paintings, our eyes are so fixed on the faces and human gestures in the drama, we barely notice that two-thirds of the composition is given over to draperies and embossed materials. And it is the way light falls on these fabrics, together with their colours, folds and movement, that emphasise the grief of the mourners as Christ’s limp body is taken down from the cross, and give the painting its dynamism and aesthetic cohesion. MacDonald has picked up on details in the painting – a gold-edged red tunic, the sensuality of the Magdalene’s gown, Nicodemus’s richly embossed cloak; the blue folds of Mary’s mantle and the rich vermillion of John’s - and found costly fabrics in Madrid and Florence with colours, patterns and textures that have this kind of suggestive richness and intensity. The rip and fine stitching in No 4 may be a reference to the five gashes running with blood on Christ’s otherwise immaculate body, for MacDonald often equates fabric with flesh.
In these and other vanitas details there is a feminine aspect to the making of the photographs in Silk: cutting, sewing and staining, as well as folding and arranging in order to control the fall of light to create contrasts of intense luminosity and shadowy folds. Sometimes the effect is painterly: the creeping stain in No 14; the way the frayed edge of No 5 bleeds into the black; the decorative golden border of No 1, which recalls Rembrandt’s illusionistic brushwork or Titian’s portraits of popes and cardinals in their regal reds. The intense vermillion of this photograph – a blood red - all but pulsates with life and the word that best describes the image is ‘majestic’ – strange, given that there is no figure in it.
The absence of figures in MacDonald’s photographs, where it is fabrics that elicit qualities associated with a human presence, is a culmination of developments in draped art that go back to classical times. By the High Renaissance the movement, majesty and suggestive poetry of fabrics took on a purely artistic life, and with the advent of the Baroque period, silken cascades and voluptuous billowings, by virtue of being pure artifice, came to stand for art itself. It was no mere case of art for art’s sake: fabrics were there to invoke the power of art, just as they do in Anne MacDonald’s photographs. Beauty, said the American painter Agnes Martin, is the mystery of life, and art has a tremendous power in serving to reawaken our awareness of it.
Victoria Hammond, Anne MacDonald: Petal
If the essences of things were in their mass and bulk we would not need the clairvoyance of photography to arrest them for examination and appreciation. But they are suspended on the invisible dimension whose vibrance has been denied the human eye . . .
Hart Crane (1923)
THE SEMBLANCE OF LIFE – In a crypt in Palermo is a section devoted to infants who after death had been mummified, a popular way of clinging to the departed in 19th century Sicily, a place more than half in love with easeful death. In the midst of these tiny, shrunken, blackened corpses, still ghoulishly clothed in their lacy white bonnets and death-gowns, is a perfect, exquisitely beautiful two-year-old child. Her mouth a red rose-bud, her long lashes forming shadows on her healthily flushed cheeks, a bright gold bow adorning her luxuriant curls, she has evidently only just fallen asleep in her glass-domed crib. The master-work of a mysterious Sicilian doctor whose secrets of perfecting the mummification process died with him, this century old child is, unlike her shrivelled companions, truly harrowing. This is because she looks alive. Like a photographer, her mummifier has frozen her in time. In fact, sealed in time past and so still, she resembles nothing so much as a three-dimensional photograph in living colour. (Needless to say she is wonderfully photogenic. Postcards of her are the crypt’s best-sellers.) As with this child, in visual imagery death is often most hauntingly evoked as an unseen presence in the midst of life. The more vital and intact that life is – like the poignantly youthful, tightly-wrapped Gladiolus bud bursting with life in Petal – the darker and more insidious death’s presence seems to be. Thinking of the child later it was her beauty that lingered, endowing her with a vestige of immortality, and so it is with the silken beauty of the flowers in Petal, their high detail, suggestiveness, textures, colours and incandescence.
Anne MacDonald’s photographs are haunting reminders of death because they so perfectly simulate life. Her camera homes in on single buds and petals as if it is seeking the essence of the flower. What this close scrutiny offers for our eyes to linger on is attributes of flowers that, in our haste, we don’t engage with or don’t even notice: the perfect rouleau of a rose petal’s edge; the waxen texture of a lily; a silken poppy unfurling into full-skirted bloom. Flowers take on a metaphorical suggestiveness, resembling flesh or fabrics. But beyond these luminous images floating in their impenetrable black is the silent presence of something unseen, something transforming life itself.
The 14 flower portraits in Petal are the denouement of MacDonald’s long romance with flowers as vanitas symbols. Each stage of the vegetative cycle – perfect petal or moist bud, decaying or withered bloom – exists both in isolation and as a component of a grand vanitas sequence. I’ve been familiar with Anne MacDonald’s work for some years and what was of interest to me, given that Petal may be her last flower series, was how did it summarise or distil meanings in earlier works like Flowers of Evil (1990), Ophelia (1993) and Pure (1995) and in what ways did it extend beyond these meanings? In other words, how was the past recapitulated and what was new?
LIVING AND DYING COLOUR – The first thing that struck me was the colours: blue-cast paleness, autumnal gold and vivid red. MacDonald’s technique of casting her images with blue – the seal of decay and incipient death – was familiar to me, but that brittle gold and the vitality of that red were new and shocking. Initially I recoiled from those three gold lilies, parched and withered like the skin of the aged. They were so dead. (‘Death,’ says MacDonald, ‘is a forbidden subject. Paramount to Petal is death’s double position as anomalous, marginal and repressed, and at the same time masterful, central, everywhere manifest.’) All the more so as the Florentine lily has traditionally symbolised conception; it is the flower the angel Gabriel holds in paintings of the Annunciation and is now called the Christmas lily because of its association with Christ’s birth. Perhaps we shun death because it is largely hidden from us, for as I grew more accustomed to the lilies I began to be taken with their curious forms – one is shaped like a sea-horse, the tip of another has furled into a wonderful curl – so that even their colour now seemed like the gold of alchemy or resurrection, rather than something on the point of crumbling into dust; it was as if the invisible process of death was a force with its own peculiar vitality, paradoxically not all that dissimilar to life.
By contrast, the shock of the red was immediately pleasurable, for it spoke life and vibrancy. Motion even is suggested in the blur of the chiffon-transparent edge of the unfurling red Poppy 1, exuberant as the twirl of a tango dancer’s skirt. Whether you read the form of the gerbera petal in Daisy as a drop of blood or as the slit of a knife wound, its red is the red of blood. And the bud tight Rose 3 is shaped not like the heart of romance, but a real heart, redly visceral, meaty and veined as a heart in a butcher’s shop. Or it might be what a human heart looks like if we could see through the skin into the body’s dark interior. (Less widely known 17th century vanitas paintings allegorised the frailty of human flesh by taking as their subject the meat markets.)
The expressive significance of colour in these photographs is illustrated by comparing the red rose with Iris, which is next in the sequence and similar in form. This newly emerged bud is the most youthful of the images, its green stalk forming a spine brimming with sap, its texture slightly sticky like something newly born. Yet, like its pale companions, it has a deathly blue pallor. if the red images signify pulsating life, and the gold ones are already dead, the pale ones - which move prgressivley through the growth cycle - signify death's omnipresence, Shakespear's 'To die, even as they to perfection grow'. The silken blue Poppy 2, emerging like a butterfly from a chrysalis, will always be dancing into life in this photograph. (In Dutch still life butterflies symbolised the carefree nature of the soul after it is freed from all terrestrial desires).
From these various stages of birth, life and death, we move to the ultimate flower in the Petal sequence – ultimate too as a vanitas image – the baroque Azalea. This gorgeous bloom, extravagant as a ball gown, has begun to rot, its rich magentas turning to brown. The suggestiveness of this image extends beyond the transitory nature of life to the history of photography itself and its association with still life and death. Not only were flowers among the first subjects to be photographed, but floral still lifes were the only subjects used for early experiments with chemical pigments in colour processing. The blues, mauves and magentas of Azalea have an artificial, almost painterly quality reminiscent of early coloured photographs. Azalea’s colour tones are like a modernisation of these artificial pigments, which were cold tones that ranged from bluish-red to blue-green. In an age where photography was admired above all for its mirroring of the world, the artificiality of these colours was considered repellent, leading an anonymous commentator to describe early colour photographs as ‘the cemetery of aniline colours’. Azalea can thus be read as a graveside memento to early colour floral photography.
INCANDESCENCE AND THE VOID - The photographic equivalent of life is light. In MacDonald’s Petal this light is a softly glowing luminescence that appears to emanate from the flowers themselves. Like vanitas paintings, the formal elements of these photographs can be reduced to light, dark, and a mysterious shadow presence. And as with great vanitas paintings, Petal is suggestive of the hidden interaction between these elements. The lustrous gleams on the highly polished pewter ware in still lifes by Dutch masters like Willem Kalf act symbolically as metaphysical points of light in an eerily pervasive gloom. This polished perfection makes the brown spot on a nearby pale peach seem like a contagion from the shadow world, just as the blue cast overshadowing the most luminous of MacDonald’s petals is like some pale emanation from the void.
It is revealing to consider Petal in the context of the allegorical meanings of early vanitas paintings. Drawing on the spiritual symbolism of light and colour in religious paintings of the Renaissance, the floral paintings of Roelant Savery (1576-1639) carried a moral message wherein flowers, being beautiful, symbolised the good. Savery’s masterly Bouquet of flowers (1612) has features in common with MacDonald’s photographs: flowers of blue, red, gold and white, ranging from buds to blooms to overblown roses, are carefully arranged against a dense black ground. The radiance of the flowers against this deep blackness emphasises their spiritual significance. Evil, however, is at work, symbolised by insects buzzing near a white bloom, and, creeping about the vase, a mouse, a lizard, a grasshopper and a hideously hairy fly scavenging amidst fallen blooms. While the allegory is clearly a Christian one – impurity ever-lurking to defile purity – these agents of defilement also symbolise the passage of time.
MacDonald’s photographs abstract and distil the meanings contained in paintings like this one, purifying the allegorical relationship to one between beauty, time and the abyss. Time itself, not evil or the vanity of human wishes, is the agent of destruction. While the effects of time are visible, time itself is evoked not by extraneous symbols of corruption like vermin or insects, but as an unseen, insinuating presence. When we read Petal as a kind of narrative, the intact roundness of Rose 1’s edge, for example, heightens our awareness that time has violated the perfect edge of Rose 2, and imperceptibly dulled its luminescence by casting a shadow across its surface. The inexorable process that has withered the three dead lilies is, in the preceding image of the luminous white lily, already visibly at work in the transparency of one of its petals. In each photograph time is present as an invisible carrier between darkness and light, indistinguishable from yet present in both the blackness and the flowers’ incandescence, as if the process of decay is inseparable from life itself.
Whether in making the connections between images, or in contemplating an isolated petal, the viewer uncannily senses this presence in the photographs. The writer Hart Crane described this apparently metaphysical facility of photography as getting at ‘the motion and emotion of so-called inanimate life’, attributing this ‘baffling capture’ to ‘the eerie speed of the shutter’.
ESSENCE – Flowers are so infinitely suggestive that their symbolic function is often ambiguous. As vanitas painters were well aware, their combination of beauty, fragility and short life span made them ideal emblems of mortality. Traditionally they have signified both life and death, and states of being ranging from youth, virginity, innocence and purity, through rites of passage, love, femininity and fecundity, to wilting and decay. Flowers are the most poetic of symbols, not because of some clichéd idea of beauty, but because, like good poetry, they always suggest far more than their surface meanings disclose. Flowers are secretive. They seem to hold the key to some mystery, which is why they have fascinated scientists. In visual documentation of natural history specimens, and in images which referred to their medicinal properties, flowers often bridged the gap between art and science.
In the 20th century, the camera moved ever closer to flowers, probing this mysterious essence. The traditional associations of flowers, by now sentimentalised via popular imagery, gave way to newer, tougher meanings. Karl Blossfeldt peered so closely at his exotic specimens as to render them strange, bristling with surreal life; Imogen Cunningham revealed the architectural magnificence of their structures as well as their hothouse sensuality; the initially charged eroticism of Robert Mapplethorpe’s tulips and calla lilies became, with time, morbid, deathly. If I were asked to describe in this brief way what Anne MacDonald’s photographs reveal about the essence of flowers, I would say, ‘Floating in death, dying, dead, they mysteriously symbolise life.’ For what MacDonald’ camera elicits is the secretiveness of flowers. Science has demonstrated that flowers do indeed hold secrets, ones that may over time be revealed. Here is one.
At the end of the 19th century the Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries conducted experiments on the character of flowers.Working with such plants as asters, chrysanthemums and violas, de Vries concluded that certain characteristics - the colour of a petal, the length of a stamen - were generationally 'transmitted'. This inheritance he described as being 'built up out of definite units'. At the time de Vries was unaware of the enormity of his discovery: he had in fact identified one of the great mysteries of life - what we now know as genes. This scientific association of flowers with the essence of life, while providing a counterpoint to their vanitas associations, connects with significant attributes of flowers in Petal: the sticky new-born texture of buds, bursting with life, the veins, the unfurling, the blurs of movement, the blood redness, and, above all, the incandescence from which all life seems to draw its energy. Yet the drama here is not one of further growth but the status of these flowers as effigies.
This life/death duality is emphasised in the tension between the life-like ‘naturalism’ of the flowers and the under-stated theatricality of their presentation. MacDonald has positioned the flowers pointing downwards – an allusion perhaps to the famous drooping of blooms in vanitas paintings – as if they are falling into, as well as floating on, their sea of black. Sealed off in the seamless technical perfection of the photographs, the flowers are removed from us, already inhabiting another dimension. The various shapes of the photographs echo the forms of individual flowers, emphasising their isolation; there is nothing more solitary than death. Subtly alluding to mourning, these individual shapes have all the finality of a door banging shut.
Over the years MacDonald’s photographs of flowers, drapery and despoiled wedding cakes have proven photography to be the ultimate vanitas medium. After all 17th century vanitas painters strived for an illusionistic mirroring of the world that is in essence photographic. Yet early vanitas photographers mimicked the conventions of vanitas paintings: Charles Aubrey, for instance, placed a skull near a vase of flowers; Eugene Chauvigne often selected flowers visibly injured by time or blight. By the last decades of the 20th century, it was understood that vanitas elements resided in the pure forms of the flowers and the nature of photography itself. MacDonald reduces and refines even further so that her metaphors for life and death reside in the purely photographic aspects of the image: life in the essence of the flower as light, entombed within the deathly flatness, the sealed surface and the black velvet darkness.
Victoria Hammond, Anne MacDonald: Vanitas
Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal death. Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click.
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
In Anne MacDonald's Ophelia, flowers, emblems of the tragic heroine's beauty and fragility float in a symbolic black void. 'As isolated as suicide noted the critic Elwyn Lynn of the cortege of fifty-two images, each individually framed in funereal black, strewn across the gallery space like the scattered coronet in Shakespeare's weeping brook. In 1994, Ophelia was distinguished as the first photographic work to be selected for the prestigious Moet & Chandon touring exhibition of contemporary Australian art. (MacDonald's work was also selected for the two subsequent Moets.) MacDonald has a knack for distilling a complex interplay of meanings in her allegories of the transience of life. Her referents are literary, social and art historical.
Last year, she was one of seven artists invited to participate in Death: Insights on Life, an exhibition instigated by the Trustees of the Rookwood Necropolis in Sydney. Rookwood is the largest Victorian cemetery in the southern hemisphere; it contains a special burial ground where members of ethnic communities bury and mourn their dead in accordance with their religious customs. Many of these rituals involve the symbolic placement of food on grave sites. The food is left to stink and rot. Here then, the timeless association of food with celebration fuses with the taboos of death. Macdonald produced Vanitas for the Death: Insights on Life exhibition. While this spectral image of a decomposing wedding cake draws on the symbolic life/death ambivalence of food at Rookwood, other, submerged, meanings surface via the photograph's association with peak moments in Western art's long romance with death.
VANITAS AND ITS MEANINGS - To the literary minded, Vanitas is a clear allusion to Miss Havisham's ghastly wedding banquet in Great Expectations. MacDonald's ravaged wedding cake is in an advanced stage of decay, draped with sticky cobwebs, its virginal whiteness sullied by the dark spots and running spores of cancerous mould. In the novel, the celebratory status of food is also a symbolic link between beauty and loss, life and death: that living corpse, Miss Havisham, proposes to be laid out amid the grotesque festive remains at her death. However, time has not yet reduced MacDonald's cake to the gothic ruin of that memorable banquet. Vanitas is a deeper meditation on decay and death than the blighted nuptials and dashed hopes personified by the yellowed Miss Havisham.
To the art-historically minded, the work refers to Dutch vanitas paintings of the seventeenth century, allegorical still lifes which symbolised the vanity of human desires, the futility of luxury and wealth, and the evanescence of life. In these meticulously painted, splendidly illusionistic renderings of the good things of life, subtle hints of incipient decay trouble luscious surfaces: a faint bruise on a peach, the transparency of a petal, the droop of a stem. Vanitas paintings cross over with other still life categories of the period: flower, fruit, dessert and confectionery, Ontbijtjes (Laid Tables) and depictions of the five senses. (Miss Havisham's banquet is narrated as a Laid Table still life inextremis.) MacDonald's Vanitas fuses these various categories and refers to many of the traditional meanings associated with them. The more elaborate vanitas paintings show a disturbance in a perfect arrangement of food and the evil agent of that disturbance, usually a mouse or an insect - often a spider. In Vanitas these agents of defilement reside in the viscous depths of the rotting cake; the gloomy tatters of their handiwork contrast ominously with the bouncy coils of festive ribbons in the crowning bouquet.
Sugar was introduced to Europe in the early 1600s, replacing honey as a sweetener. Confectionery still lifes reflected the interest in desserts which came to a climax at this time when numerous delicacies had been introduced as new luxuries. The seemingly innocuous and often curious arrangements of crystalised sugar, candied fruits and biscuits dusted with icing sugar carried a powerful moral message. Initially, sugar was a metaphor for spiritual sweetness; confections formed part of religious table scenery, along with bread and wine. When it was discovered to be addictive, sugar became the symbol of lust. A lover's aria of the time begins, ‘The memory of sugary lust inspires me with fear. Damned food, it will harm me in a worldly way. If one has tasted something and is not supposed to taste it again, then it becomes empty and pathetic.’ Sugar in a still life, by its very presence, indicated corruption. These two meanings became fused as they are in the more modern symbolism of the iced wedding cake, whose coating of virginal white encases that other morally ambiguous confection - candied fruit. Just as fish or bread in vanitas paintings were symbols of Christ, so MacDonald's wedding cake may be read as a metaphor for the body.
For followers of recent photography, the aesthetic of Vanitas can be compared with, say, The Morgue series by the American photographer Andres Serrano. These photographs of corpses strangely and, to some, disturbingly, transform harrowing images of violent death - suicides and victims of murder, burning or drowning - into art objects of seamless beauty. As in a Serrano, MacDonald's Vanitas is sealed off - embalmed - in its own technical perfection. A discomforting tension is established between its aesthetic beauty and the presence of death at the heart of its subject/ manifested as the camera's intimate scrutiny of corporeal decay.
For students of photographic discourse, Vanitas establishes an elaborate dialogue with photography's paradoxical status as both 'flat death' and that which captures and preserves life's fleeting moments. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes writes of the shift in the practice of commemoration since the advent of photography. Earlier societies erected monuments to immortalise Death (and the memory of the living). A photograph - the fugitive testimony by which we now preserve memory - is itself ephemeral: ' By making the (mortal) photograph into the general and somehow natural witness of "what has been" modern society has renounced the Monument.' Vanitas resonates with these ideas about the nature and role of photography. The rotting cake is like a ruined funerary monument, with its architectural structure, fluted columns, stuccoed surface, even its marbled bouquet of fading roses. Its mural size is in itself monumental, suggesting, as MacDonald writes in her notes to the work, 'the elemental density of a sepulchral monument constructed out of stone or marble'. Photography's symbolic association with death is predicated on its being a framed cut in real time; this is further alluded to in the image's evocation of time: Vanitas has recorded a late moment in a process of decay rather than a 'fleeting moment of life': we have the sense that the process of decomposition is taking place before our eyes.
How does a work of art convey death? A recent publication which explores the subject claims it is impossible. For many years a famous painting exerted a fascination over me. Until recently its power was largely a mystery. Strangely, for it has been neither a source nor a referent of her work, nor have I ever discussed it with her, it was Anne MacDonald who led me to see why. As I became more familiar with her work over a period of three years, the secrets of this masterpiece began to unravel like the unfolding plot of a detective novel.
ART AND DEATH - In Art and its Objects Jeanette Winterson writes of being profoundly moved to an appreciation - and ensuing investigation - of the power of superior works of art by her chance sighting of a painting in an Amsterdam gallery window. Her awakening occurred when she was in her mid-thirties. These moments of epiphany, even for one who spends one's life looking at art, are rare. No work of art is truly universal in the sense that anything approaching a majority of people are swept away by their response to it. Simone de Beauvoir makes this perfectly clear when she writes of her disappointment and boredom with the Parthenon.
My moment of epiphany occurred twenty years ago in Brussels on sighting Marat assassine (The Assassination of Marat, 1793) by Jacques-Louis David. I glimpsed it on the far wall of a gallery in the Musees Royaux and had to look away. (Our first instinct is to avert the gaze from death. Moreover, this is a work of breathtaking beauty.) As I stared sightlessly at other works in the museum I regained my equilibrium by rationalising my response before I returned to it. As a student of art history I simply couldn't get over the fact that a neoclassical work - that coldest and most rational of figurative styles, with its supreme control, its restraint, its grandeur of design and heroic calm – could convey such tragic vulnerability, such terrible poignancy. (This emotive stuff was the business of romantic painters like Delacroix and Gericault.) And to be, at the same time, formally, so austere, so perfectly simple, so consummately graceful, so exquisitely beautiful. Eventually I realised that what had moved me was largely inexplicable. It was the power of the painting's presence. When I returned to it I recognised that I was in the presence of the supreme portrayal of death. The Marat is heroic in scale; the hero’s death.
Given its effect on me, I was not surprised to learn of its role in shifting the Revolution back in upon itself. I also learned that the supreme painter Jacques-Louis David was one of the six leading political figures of the Terror, along with Robespierre, Danton and Marat. David had signed countless death warrants and watched as hundreds confronted the horror of the guillotine. He was genuinely grieved by the murder of the loathed and dangerous Jean-Paul Marat, so was emotionally equipped to depict him as a kind of Everyman whose death represented martyrdom for the Revolutionary cause. David's biographer, Anita Brookner, describes him as being in a hypermanic state - en delire - during this period when he produced his greatest works: 'It is as if David is animated at a subliminal level by a sense of the historically apposite... murder and treason are in the air he breathes.' This explains the power of Marat assassine. Here is an artist who understands death. More to the point/ he presides in its company, colludes with its terror. In 'the divine Marat', as Baudelaire called it/ the presence of death is/ through some process of osmosis, subsumed into the very fabric of the work.
Metaphysics accounted for the uncanny power of the painting but not for how the presence of death is achieved formally. Outside of the quest for formal perfection and the centrality of death, what can an eighteenth-century painting of a dying martyr have in common with contemporary photographs of flowers, luxuriant draperies and a time-ravaged wedding cake? Whenever I looked at Anne MacDonald's works I thought of the Marat and I couldn't say why.
As I became more familiar with her techniques and innate sense of theatre, I saw that my literal reading of the painting was blinding me to its formal devices. (Brookner states how the Marat established an art-historical precedent: for the first time art and life were fused.) I discovered that its formal simplicity - its seemingly accurate reportage of the circumstances of Marat's death - masked a highly complex and brilliantly stage-managed piece of theatre. Jacques-Louis David was not the Revolution's Director of Public Festivals for nothing. For a start he had transformed the physically repugnant Marat, with his ugly face and a body encrusted with the disgusting sores of his leprous skin disease, into a quasi-religious image of Christlike beauty, his form arranged with all the balletic grace of a performance by Nijinsky.
Beauty in art is commonly thought of as existing 'for its own sake'. This is not so; beauty is always inextricably bound up with the meaning of a work. Through MacDonald's Ophelia, where barely perceptible hints of decay despoil the flowers' succulent surfaces/ I learned that in art death must be conveyed through beauty. David's beautification of Marat went beyond serving the cause of the Revolution, though an attractive martyr is more likely to inflame the passions of the populace than an ugly one. Beauty was a necessity. This is because its formal perfection represents intactness, and it is thereby an analogy for that which is alive. And this is why Marat is shown at the point of death rather than actually dead. Death cannot be revealed; rather it must be sensed as a silent, insidious presence. (This is why personifications of death in art, skeletons for instance, seem melodramatic or border on the comic: to reveal death just doesn't work.) A work of art hints at death through defiling beauty's intactness. The more exquisite an image of transience, the more we are affected by its death. (Andres Serrano knows this: his most shocking images are also the most beautiful ones.) It is the same in Vanitas. Anne MacDonald's task has, in one sense, been more difficult - to make us see that a cake was once an object of great decorative beauty, of architectural magnificence even.
At some point another connection between MacDonald and the Marat dawned on me. I had always, unconsciously, thought of the Marat not as a figurative painting at all, but as a still life, as, in fact, a vanitas painting. David had had the audacity, the genius, to transpose the devices of the still life painter onto the representation of a dying human body. The whole mise-en-scene of the Marat is reminiscent of the Laid Table still lifes, which often contain finely painted table-cloths and draperies. Anne MacDonald's Annunciation diptych showed me that draperies can have connotations of a shroud. I now saw that the draped sheets, the turban, the green cloth in the Marat are in effect his shroud, imparting to the whole the sense that Marat's bathroom is also a morgue. MacDonald's habit of casting her images with blue to seal them in the cold light of death corresponds to the eerie green light suffusing the Marat, which culminates in the deathly silence of the stark greenish wall behind him that occupies nearly half the picture. The same blank silence hangs in MacDonald's black voids. The faint bruise on the petal, the brown spot on the apple, has been translated into the small searing red cut in Marat's healthy flesh, and its faint dribble of blood, just below the collar bone. This modest though deep wound sets the teeth on edge, just as we are unnerved by the absence of the piece of icing in the top tier of Vanitas. We don't care to think about what dark state of mush the interior body of that cake might be in beneath its decent envelope of icing, what cloying odour of putrescence it might give off. And above it, ossifying, sits the antithesis of the putrid - flowers.
Marat wore a vinegar-soaked turban on his head (he wears it in the painting) to ward off infection which, at the time, was believed to be carried by foul-smelling miasmas emanating from decomposing flesh and fissures in the earth's crust. The rent in his flesh would have been keenly felt by a contemporary audience. Clefts, cuts, fissures, were causes of deep anxiety. While this is obviously bound up with the psychology of the Terror, our own horror of the body's internal organs is no less neurotic. As Wendy Steiner has written of Serrano's The Morgue series:
The form of the body - the skin, the comely exterior - hides contents that are as shapeless and nightmarish as Freud's id. One of our primal terrors is that this form will spring a leak, letting the insides - fluids, organs, life - spill out, to become visible and, in the process, deathly... The flawlessness of bodily form is a reassurance of mortal safety and a denial of death.
This terror of the internal erupting through the skin leads to the final lesson about the Marat, which I came to understand through MacDonald's Vanitas. It is to do with prescience and a stillness which suggests imminent movement. The most hidden of the secrets of David's evocation of Death's presence is the trace of tension in Marat's slumped form/ which suggests this latent movement. (In the countless copies that have been obsessively painted of the masterpiece in the past 200 years, not one/ to my knowledge, has managed to capture this: in them Marat looks doped or merely asleep.) Marat's body is at that critical point of passivity where soon/ when he exhales his last breath, it will sag completely and his head will loll right over the side of the bath. The painting's pathos is in its moment.
In the bottom tier of the wedding cake the icing has parted, leaving a gap which suggests something more final than cadaverous insides. The base of the cake is beginning to sag; soon the whole structure will collapse into the penultimate stage of decomposition - formlessness. It will become an obscene heap of liquefying matter. The shuddering thud of that sudden collapse, the ensuing formlessness, these are the ultimate horrors. Vanitas and Marat assassine both prefigure this moment.
Rex Butler and Keith Broadfoot, A Fold in Time: Anne MacDonald and the Origin of Photography
Who invented photography? Roland Barthes goes against convention and declares that it was not painters but chemists. What is decisive in photography is not Albertian perspective but the capacity to register light: Camera Lucida Barthes calls his book on the subject, not Camera Obscura. What Barthes designates as photography’s “noeme”, its “that-has-been”, was possible, he explains:
Only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmissions is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.
Look at the photograph Annunciation I from Anne MacDonald’s Annunciation series. On two tall panels hang a pair of curtains, one red, the other blue. Between them is a lily and another smaller gilded panel. The curtains and the lily appear to emerge directly from out of the blackness of the surrounding space. It is almost as though — to begin to think how the theme of the Annunciation is played out here — MacDonald is deliberately recalling the relationship between objects and their enveloping gloom we see at the very origins of photography. One of Walter Benjamin’s comments regarding the aura in early photographs, the way the “light struggles out of the darkness” in the portraits of David O. Hill, seems appropriate. Indeed, the impression that this “aura” creates in MacDonald’s work is that we are somehow witnessing the actual moment of the appearance of the various forms we see there, as if they did not exist before being photographed like this.
It is very important, however, to try to specify the exact nature of this relationship between light and darkness, as this is undoubtedly a key aspect of MacDonald’s practice. It would be imprecise to suggest that it is merely a matter of taking an object and then experimenting with various illuminations of it. In MacDonald’s photographs the object is not simply lit from the outside. There is no sense of a light source coming from some space beyond the photograph or even from somewhere within it. Rather, it is more the case that this light appears to originate from within the object itself. What this means is that there is not first a solid object and then the lighting of this object, but that, enigmatically — miraculously even — this object exists as the materialising of a certain void. This is one sense, then, in which this work could be understood as a kind of annunciation. What we see there, to follow Barthes’ argument, is something like the birth of photography as the very embodiment of light.
What Barthes privileges in photography is touch. Photography is a medium of contact: I am touched by a photograph because the photograph itself was in contact with the thing photographed. Yet, this is only part of the story, for does it not seem strange to emphasise this sense of touch when common sense would tell us that photography is a visual medium? But simply to look at a photograph and to do no more, as indeed we do every day, is to tame photography’s potential “madness (CL, 119), as Barthes calls it. The photograph is ubiquitous today. There is nothing more banal than the photograph. The photograph seems to define the boundaries of our lived experience and to turn it into a simulacrum of it (CL, 118). What Barthes wants to testify to, however, is something else in the photograph. What is it that constitutes the poignancy of the photograph of his mother that Barthes discovers after her death, for instance? From where comes that profound sadness that lies at the heart of his book? Of the many layers to Barthes’ analysis of photography in Camera Lucida, we will focus on just one: the decisive split photography institutes between touch and sight.
If Barthes seeks the origin of photography in chemistry rather than painting, this is because its true vocation, as opposed to that tradition of painting that follows on from the institution of Albertian perspective, is not that of resemblance. Photography’s peculiar power of presence, its effect of immediacy of contact, needs to be understood as a quality that defies — and, in fact, exists outside of — the figurative. Barthes writes:
Nothing can prevent the Photograph from being analogical; but at the same time, Photography’s noeme has nothing to do with analogy (a feature it shares with all kinds of representations... To ask whether a photograph is analogical or coded is not a good means of analysis. The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time. From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation (CL, 88).
Barthes’ observation here needs to be carefully considered. What this excess of authentication over representation means is that in its essence the photograph is abstract. A photograph’s power of authentication is an effect of its contact. The photograph is in touch with what is photographed. It is this element of contact that destroys the distance from the object that a schema of representation or resemblance would require. It is the always implicit touch — and photography, let us remember, is etymologically defined as a writing with light — that brings about that excess which causes the photograph to disfigure and distort.
Let us look, for example, at what is called in Barthes’ book The First Photograph. What do we see there? Should the indeterminate and vague nature of the image simply be overlooked as belonging to photography in its infancy, as a kind of technical immaturity that will soon be overcome? Barthes’ answer is no, for what is to be found in the blurs and blotches of the image is the very excess of authentication over representation. The ultimate illegibility of the image contains a truth that photography will never pass beyond. In the darkness of the gaping hole towards the centre of the picture, sight no longer sees. What exactly it is that we are looking at there thus passes into strange and unfamiliar territory. But then, strangely, what this means is that the authenticity of the image is something of which sight is not the ultimate guarantor. A disquieting paradox emerges here, one to which Barthes returns to meditate upon many times throughout the course of his book: if contact brings about authenticity, it also creates anguish, because, after all, how can we ever be certain about something that remains no more than an abstract smear? Would it not be that our faith and belief in what we saw could all too readily take on a form of madness — the very madness that every photograph, Barthes argues, potentially releases? Let us read Barthes’ own thoughts on this first photograph:
The first photographs a man contemplated (Niepce in front of the dinner table, for instance) must have seemed to resemble exactly certain paintings (still the camera obscura); he knew, however, that he was nose-to-nose with a mutant (a Martian can resemble a man); his consciousness posited the object encountered outside of any analogy, like the ectoplasm of ‘what-had-been’: neither image nor reality, a new being, really: a reality one can no longer touch (CL, 87).
We could suggest that what MacDonald is photographing in her Annunciation series — and this is implicit in the notion that she is photographing, as it were, the birth of photography — is the first photograph. What is to be discerned in her images is the “ectoplasm” of the “what-had-been”; or, if we read the dictionary definition of ectoplasm — a “supposedly viscous substance exuding from the body of a spiritualistic medium during a trance” — we could be more precise and say that it is this “viscous substance” that is captured in them. Indeed, it is this “viscous substance”, the “ectoplasm” of the “what-had-been”, that has been the theme of MacDonald’s photography for some time.
To go back, for example, to her 1986 installation The Romance, we notice there how the centrepiece to that work, the fragmented photograph of a satin sheet, displays the same property as the curtains in the Annunciation series. In the arrangement of the various parts of The Romance, the significance to be drawn from this ruffled sheet is to be found in its positioning between the naked bodes of the male and female who form the supposed romantic couple to which the title refers. What perhaps saves this installation from descending into cliché — we would say into the banality of photographic repetition, into something like the gloss of an advertising spread — is this viscous and mysterious substance of the sheet. Edward Colless, writing on this installation, suggests:
What grips the equivocating metaphorical formulations of this work, glaciating the tepid, if stable, allegories of love is the repetition of the grey satin sheets throughout the installation: cold, metallic, as if they were furled lead or lead both liquefying and eternally holding its shape. The sinuous curl of the sheets mimes the languid pose of the nudes, as if to disclose something suspended in those bodies: their fluid, an ancient liquor, like the dark gloss or the empty skins of primeval human bodies dug up from peat bogs.
The idea of a precious essence extracted from the body also suggests how the process in operation in MacDonald’s work, the shifting equivalences that can be made between the bodies in contact with the sheet and the skin in contact with the photograph, endeavours to present an origin for photography that is now lost in mythology. Barthes proposes that in Latin “photograph” would once have been said “imago lucis opera expressa”, which he translates now as:
Image revealed, ‘extracted’, ‘mounted’, ‘expressed’ (like the juice of a lemon) by the action of light. And if Photography belonged to a world with some residual sensitivity to myth, we should exult over the richness of the symbol: the loved body is immortalised by the mediation of a precious metal, silver (monument and luxury); to which we might add the notion that this metal, like all the metals of Alchemy, is alive (CL, 81).
In MacDonald’s The Romance, it is indeed this metal that is alive — the satin sheets, “as if they were furled lead or lead both liquefying and eternally holding its shape” — that immortalises the loved body. In this manner, however, the sheets in this work also come to represent, or better present, the sign of photography’s own passion, which is also its madness, a love gone mad, as Barthes will discover: that what was once in contact with the body can now bring the body back to life. In MacDonald’s work, then, there is always an ambiguity with regards to that drapery which has been its persistent motif: does it capture the fold that closes over a burial casket or is it an unfurling that welcomes and proclaims the descent of an angel from on high?
There is an obvious debt towards various Annunciation paintings in MacDonald’s Annunciation series. It would be a mistake, however, simply to regard these works as photographic imitations of another medium. Looking at MacDonald’s photographs, is it not perhaps a matter of what Barthes says occurs with the first photograph: that they would seem to “resemble exactly certain paintings” and yet what is seen in them must be posited as being “outside of any analogy”? But in saying this, is this not truly extraordinary? As Barthes relates it, the first encounter with a photograph was a miraculous experience. How, we need to stop and ask ourselves, can something be an exact resemblance and yet at the same time outside of any known comparison? How can something be at once figurative and abstract? To begin to answer these questions, or at least to pursue some of their implications, we might want to consider photography in relation to the one tradition Barthes does in fact place it within.
The encounter with the first photograph creates such wonder for Barthes that he proposes it be categorised as an “anthropologically new object” that “escapes the usual discussions of the image” (CL, 88). It is not, however, a totally new object, for, going against his own claim, Barthes does suggest a precedent. On how the effect of the photograph is not to restore what has been abolished, but rather to attest that what we have seen there has indeed existed, Barthes writes:
Always the Photograph astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly. Perhaps this astonishment, this persistence reaches down into the religious substance out of which I am molded; nothing for it: Photography has something to do with resurrection: might we not say of it what the Byzantines said of the image of Christ which impregnated Veronica’s napkin: that it was not made by hand of man, acheiropoietos? (CL, 82)
Barthes is not alone here in seeing a connection between the birth of photography and the Christian tradition of the acheiropoietos. Intriguingly, Fox Talbot, one of the self-proclaimed inventors of photography, also implicitly constructs a connection between photography and the acheiropoietos when he writes in his significantly entitled work, The Pencil of Nature, that the photographs in this volume were made “without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil”. Furthermore, if we consider the autonomy given to photography by this statement, it is not so surprising to see how the birth of photography did in fact lead to a renewed interest in the enigma of the acheiropoietos through the specific case of the Shroud of Turin, the supposed burial cloth of Christ. Seemingly against Benjamin’s idea that in the age of mechanical reproduction there is a decline in the aura of the artwork through the replacement of its cult value by its exhibition value, here this cult value returns through the medium of photography — returns, that is, through photography’s exposure.
The Shroud of Turin is interesting to consider in relation to Barthes’ ideas because it exists as a kind of bridge between the first photograph and the tradition of the acheiropoietos. When the Shroud of Turin was photographed it was as though the cult object came to double the photographic process, with the one serving as commentary upon the other. What happened was that, through the medium of photography, the indexical stains of Christ’s blood could form an iconic — that is to say, figurative — image. It is this paradoxical relationship between the stain and the figure — the fact that it is the very stain that serves as evidence of the figure — that re-enacts the encounter with the first photograph.
With the tradition of the true portrait — the vera icon — with which we are here concerned, because everything revolves around a stain produced by physical contact, we are not within a standard schema of resemblance. As we have said before, the representative distance from a model or original which opens up the possibility of an exact resemblance is missing. Yet, with the example of the Shroud of Turin, despite the formation of a stain by contact, there is still a figurative element to be considered. The faithful do see a figure of Christ in the stain. To do so there must be something other than the usual process of mimetic resemblance at work. For, if indeed a figure does come from a stain here, it must be asked how it can emerge from something that, in being no more than an abstract mark, resembles nothing.
The French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman examines the paradoxical nature of this process in an article entitled ‘The Index of an Absent Wound (Monograph on a Stain)’. In this article, he undertakes an analysis of what he speaks of as the various “modalities of the desire to see” which are implied by the attempt to decipher from the stains on the Shroud of Turin proof of the existence of Christ, that is, the attempt to proceed from the inconclusiveness of the stain to the figurative certainty of an image of Christ. How does one go from a stain that is abstract, which as an accidental smear seems outside of meaning and lacks any recognisable form, to seeing an image of Christ? To account for this, Didi-Huberman suggests:
What we need is a concept of Figurative Aufhebung. We would have to consider the dichotomy of the field and its means, and how they deploy a dialectical mimesis as initiation of absolute knowledge; how it attempts to transform sensible space and to begin a movement (Hegel would have said automovement) in the direction of certitude. An absolute seeing that would transcend the scansion of seeing and of knowing; an absolutely reflexive representation (‘MS’, 67).
It is this process which is accomplished by those who see the figure of Christ in those abstract stains. In the case of the Shroud of Turin, it was a process that was actually accomplished by photography itself when, one day, Secondo Pia saw the face of Christ look out — gaze — at him from the depths of the chemical bath in which his photograph of the Shroud was developing.
There are certain enigmas behind this appearance of Christ that need to be considered. For instance, what status can be given to, or what could it mean to speak of, an “absolutely reflexive representation”? It should be asked here: does not the condition of the absolute negate the possibility of any self-reflection? Would not the absolute cause the appearance of a double that would pass beyond any mimetic relationship? To grasp the effects of this appearance of the double, however, it is necessary to examine in finer detail Didi-Huberman’s appeal to a concept of “figurative Aufhebung” and his reference to a process of “dialectical mimesis”.
Initially, the passage from the stain to the figure is positioned within a concept of figurative Aufhebung because the proof of Christ’s physical contact with the Shroud must be maintained. This is an essential requirement because certainty cannot be said to lie exclusively with either the figure or the stain. There cannot be a proof on the side of the figure and doubt on the side of the stain. Doubt and certainty must be said to co-exist at all stages of this process of “figurative Aufhebung”. That a figure could arise from the stain would only be on the condition that it is able to detach itself from the stain’s impregnation into the weave and texture of the cloth. The figure, when it establishes itself as a recognisable form, could do so only by differentiating itself from the opacity of the surface, so that, in a sense, it could no longer be said to be in contact with it. Yet, surely, this should not occur, for if it were to do so there would be merely an image lacking all physical evidence. All its powers of verification would be lost. This is to say again that the authenticity of the “true” portrait depends on the canvas, cloth or shroud being in contact with the body of Christ. Without the indexical effects of contact, there would be nothing. Separated from their support, the stain and the figure become questionable. As a result a dilemma is posed: for there to be evidence, any authenticity can only be given in the non-figurative and non-mimetic nature of the stain — contact necessitating, to repeat, a certain disfiguration. Or, to paraphrase Barthes, the possibility of authentication would exceed the power of representation. Didi-Huberman astutely realises this in noting that the “absence of figuration therefore serves as proof of existence. Contact having occurred, figuration would appear false” (‘MS’, 68). From this observation, he then extends his reasoning to include this crucial and profound insight: “Every figure has its origin where it is effaced, if that place of origin is a place of contact” (‘MS’, 68). It is around this seemingly contradictory condition that Didi-Huberman’s analysis revolves.
How can a figure have its origin where it is effaced? How can a figure come to be at a place where it is negated, where it is not? Would not the mark of disfiguration only indicate that any original figure, or any origin to this figure, is absent? Implicit in Didi-Huberman’s hypothesis is the idea that the place of contact is the site for both the effacement and production of the figurative. How can this be? It is a sublime and baffling paradox that returns us to Barthes’ encounter with the first photograph as that which exactly resembles something else and yet is outside of any analogy. What form of relationship between the stain and the figure can account for this?
The desire of the interpreters of the Shroud who see a figure appear from the stain is strange and potentially disturbing insofar as this desire can only be fully realised and find its end in the actual, that is to say real, restaging of the crucifixion. With this movement towards the real, there is at work what Didi-Huberman refers to, after Freud, as a phantasm, or “fantasy”, of referentiality (‘MS’, 78). Why a phantasm? This becomes clearer if we follow the line of reasoning of one pseudo-scientific analysis of the Shroud.
To bring about the possibility of seeing more than just a stain, it is necessary for the interpreters of the Shroud to begin with what Didi-Huberman calls a “dramaturgical deduction” (‘MS’, 78). The stain is a trace of Christ’s Passion; it is the indexical record of the dramatic event of Christ’s crucifixion. Therefore, if we begin with this deduction, by paying close attention to all the details of the stain, we might be able to determine what actually occurred during the crucifixion. One interpreter of the stain who believed this, Pierre Barbet, a surgeon at the Hôpital Saint Joseph in Paris, embarked on a project to attempt to establish definitively where the nails with which Christ was crucified entered his body.
After the seemingly endless number of diagrams and X-rays he amassed to support his claims, his entire study found its conclusion in one extraordinary experiment. To establish his theory of crucifixion beyond all doubt, Barbet offers a final proof. “One more for good measure”, he says; but it is perhaps one more too much. Retreating even as he presents his crowning piece of evidence, he admits that it is necessary to “apologise for including these last two photographs, which even I think are hideous and blasphemous”. What the photographs show is how he, in his own words, “found some human tatter in the Anatomy cloak-room, perfectly fresh and supple, and proceeded to crucify it” (‘MS’, 77-8).
The photographs that Barbet produced are horrific in their extreme realism. Indeed, the strictly speaking perverse nature of Barbet’s undertaking needs to be acknowledged here, inasmuch as we have moved from a mark on a piece of fabric to a “real” thing, a “real” person crucified. This hideous and blasphemous reality, however, is nothing but a phantasm. With the tendering of this ultimate token of proof, Didi-Huberman realises that what he initially described as the “dramaturgical deduction” — the stain as the mark of a dramatic event — is not really a deduction but actually more like what Aristotle, in outlining the different forms of logic, called an abduction. For Aristotle, an abduction is:
A syllogism whose major premise is evident (it is evident that if there are stains on the Shroud of Turin they are the index of something), but whose minor premise is only likely (probable); the probability of the conclusion, therefore, is only as great as that of the minor premise (‘MS’, 78).
With regard to the Shroud of Turin and the nature of the proof generated, which is equally the generation of the figure, Didi-Huberman proposes that:
The minor premise would consist of the stage of simulation, of the probability of the reconstruction of the drama of the Passion. The probability of the minor premise is that abduction would therefore be pure scenic verisimilitude: a pure resemblance. And we see what an abject effect it has, this ‘too highly detailed’ — that is, perverse — restaging of an event (‘MS’, 78-9).
Through the stain on the Shroud of Turin, that is, it must be possible for there to be a literal reconstruction of the drama of the Passion and the actual presentation — rather than representation — of the body of Christ. At this point, the extremely odd nature of this form of proof becomes evident. If the minor premise consists of a stage of simulation in which the probability of the outcome depends on a “pure scenic verisimilitude” — a pure resemblance — what can be said to have been actually proved? Is not a pure scenic resemblance the very absence of any resemblance? A pure scenic verisimilitude and the movement towards a perfect imitation in the excessiveness of the highly detailed would be a movement not towards some proof equating the copy with the original, but towards the constitution of a double, which, as a result of the uncanny and horrific nature of its resemblance, would destroy any relationship to this original. What this double constitutes — or rather, consecrates — therefore, is the loss of the original. In place of an original is an “originary” double. Thus the proof of a pure resemblance destroys what proof resemblance would offer because a pure resemblance would be the very presentation of the figure itself.
With reference to Didi-Huberman’s initial hypothesis — that “in the very place where figuration abolishes itself — as in this stain — it also generates itself” (‘MS’, 67) — we have tried to follow how the figure generates itself in the Shroud of Turin. In the process, we have seen how this figuration, insofar as it is understood to be a doubling or presentation of the figure itself, must be grasped outside of the usual process of figuration that conceptualises the figure as the imitation of a pre-existing model. What such a movement beyond the standard notion of imitation produces, however, is an unexpected insight. Strange as it may seem, what is to be noted is that the absence of imitation actually returns the figure to the place where figuration abolishes itself. That is, because the figure in its process of doubling goes beyond resemblance, it, like the stain, is non-mimetic — both imitate nothing. Thus each can return to the other and generate itself from the other. What there is, finally, is the mutual mimesis of nothing — creation ex nihilo.
What, then, if we pass from the tradition of the acheiropoietos to photography itself? Something similar to what we have outlined — the enigmatic passage from the abstract to the figurative, the indexical to the iconic — occurs in Barthes’ viewing of the so-called Winter Garden photograph of his mother. It is worthwhile here perhaps to sketch the rudiments of this connection.
After the death of his mother, Barthes journeys back in time by means of the different photographs of her. Mournfully passing from one photo to the next, he searches for her, for the “truth of the face I loved” (CL, 67). Against his expectations, Barthes happens upon this in a photograph of his mother as a child. All of a sudden, he exclaims: “There she is!” What, though, does he see? “Lost in the depths of the Winter Garden”, he tells us, “my mother’s face is vague, faded” (CL, 99). Without the image being clearly defined, it is more abstract than figurative. But, even so, there his mother is. Over this photograph Barthes lingers; and, like the faithful in front of the precious Shroud, he lovingly scrutinises it, wanting to “know more about the thing or the person it represents” (CL, 99). What this entails, again like the stain on the Shroud, is a retracing of the image:
I want to outline the loved face by thought, to make it into the unique field of an intense observation; I want to enlarge this face in order to see it better, to understand it better, to know its truth (and sometimes, naïvely, I confide this task to the laboratory). I believe that by enlarging the detail ‘in series’ (each shot engendering smaller details than at the preceding stage), I will finally reach my mother’s very being (CL, 99).
This procedure, however, ends only in disappointment; no knowledge is attained:
Alas, no matter how hard I look, I discover nothing: if I enlarge, I see nothing but the grain of the paper: I undo the image for the sake of its substance; and if I do not enlarge, if I content myself with scrutinising, I obtain this sole knowledge, long since possessed at first glance: that this indeed has been: the turn of the screw had produced nothing (CL, 100).
In a sense, then, to recall our previous analysis, there is something of the same dilemma here as with the Shroud of Turin. Contact is proof, but what proof lies in the abstract? Not coincidentally, therefore, Barthes soon realises the necessity of moving from the logic of deduction to that of abduction. Insofar as photography authenticates the existence of a certain being, Barthes wants to discover that being in photography entirely. This is the point at which difficulties arise, when the viewing of a photograph becomes for Barthes all the more painful, insofar as it “corresponds to my fond desire only by something inexpressible: evident (this is the law of the Photograph) yet improbable (I cannot prove it)” (CL, 107). We cannot subject the indexical stains, that is, the abstraction — the vague and faded face — caused by the photograph’s contact with the body to analysis, for the attempt to separate the figurative from the abstract results only in failure. At the very moment he decomposes the image, Barthes acknowledges: “I prove or I reject, in short I doubt, I deviate from the photograph, which is by nature totally evidence: evidence is what does not want to be decomposed” (CL, 107-9). Total evidence: for the improbable to be evident — as in our description of the deciphering of the Shroud of Turin, for the major premise to be in accord with the minor premise — something miraculous needs to occur. What could this be? Is it, as in the case of the Shroud, the appearance of the phantasm of the referent?
What there “is” is immediately given in a photograph. This is a truth that passes beyond resemblance. What is painful and causes anguish for Barthes in his efforts at analysing a photograph is that sometimes, moving through a number of them: “I get closer, I am burning: in a certain photograph I believe I perceive the lineaments of truth. This is what happens when I judge a certain photograph ‘a likeness’” (CL, 100). But what is a likeness? Likeness is not simply the “total evidence” of the photograph. There is not a truth of being in likeness. Likeness only offers the endless playing out of what is already photographed. Of the fact that this is so, Barthes offers a proof a contrario: “Finding myself an uncertain, amythic subject, how could I find myself ‘like’? All I look like is other photographs of myself, and this to infinity: no one is ever anything but the copy of a copy, real or mental...” (CL, 102) What, then, does Barthes see in that vague and faded face in the photograph, the one that offers him the splendour of the truth precisely because it is, as he specifies, a “lost, remote photograph, one which does not look ‘like’ her, a photograph of a child I never knew”? (CL, 103)
What “likeness” provides is an identity “as itself”, whereas what Barthes finds in the Winter Garden photograph is a subject, as he says quoting Mallarmé, “as into itself eternity transforms it” (CL, 102). The distinction Barthes draws here between “as itself” and “as into itself” could be explained by suggesting that the identity of “as into itself” corresponds to what Kant would designate the sublime. For something to be sublime, it must have the inexpressible quality of possessing an absolute singularity; it must be beyond comparison. That is, as Kant writes: “We soon perceive that for this it is not permissible to seek an appropriate standard outside itself, but merely in itself. It is a greatness comparable to itself alone”. The inevitable supplement to this, however, is that the absolutely singular, in its comparison, which is to say resemblance, to nothing other than itself, is a resemblance that immediately doubles itself to consecrate the loss of any original and unique being. It is this “beyond resemblance”, as Barthes calls what he is looking for in a photograph of his mother, that is found in the Winter Garden photograph — a sublime presence that is at one with its absence. At this point, we touch the photograph and the photograph touches us; we enter the mystery of photographic contact, closing our eyes to receive the longed for embrace. Barthes recounts:
I entered crazily into the spectacle, into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die, as Nietzsche did when, as Podach tells us, on January 3 1889, he threw himself in tears on the neck of a beaten horse: gone mad for Pity’s sake (CL, 117).
Does this aspect of touch — “taking into my arms what is dead” — return us to the phantasm of referentiality? No, not quite. In this case, it is something different. If there is a phantasmatic element here, it relates to what Barthes refers to as the “temporal hallucination” that a photograph can induce. Journeying back to find his Winter Garden photograph, Barthes find not only the essence of his mother’s identity but also, he believes, the very essence of photography itself. It is this photograph in Camera Lucida that causes him to re-assess his thoughts on the punctum.
What is striking about Barthes’ reappraisal of the punctum is how it adds another layer of complexity to photography’s relation to the tradition of the acheiropoietos. What is to the fore now, if it was present only as an undercurrent before, is that the punctum is in fact a version of the stigmata. For Barthes, the punctum is an indexical mark, that is to say, the outpouring, of a wound. As such, therefore, to reiterate, the punctum is something essentially abstract. Initially, Barthes theorised the punctum in terms of certain obtrusive “details” within a photograph, but after the Winter Garden photograph he knows that “there exists another punctum (another ‘stigmata’)... This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (‘that-has-been’), its pure representation” (CL, 96). The example Barthes chooses to illustrate this is Alexander Gardner’s portrait of a young man about to be hanged. Barthes describes the punctum there as follows: “He is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been: I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake” (CL, 96).
This equivalence that constitutes the punctum — an “absolute past” in the photograph that “tells me death in the future” (CL, 96) — is indeed perplexing. It should be understood, first of all, that the punctum is not a copy of the real, is not merely an equivalent to something outside of the photograph. The punctum, in fact, does not precede, but only exists within, the photograph. This is paradoxical, however, for how then is the punctum to relate to that defining noeme of photography, the “that-has-been”? If we were there when the photograph was taken, the punctum would not even be present; it could not be seen somewhere in the reality that was there before the camera. What is disturbing, then, is that the “that-has-been” is not a reference simply to the past, for the loss that the “that-has-been” registers arrives only in the particular presence that the photograph realises. What can make a photograph unbearable is that the loss is there, present, in the piece of paper we touch. What is strange, incomprehensible even, is that what is present in a photograph, what comes-to-be in it, only does so insofar as it is already dead, absent, lost. One is left with an unfathomable equivalence: presence is absence.
All of this returns us, via a circuitous route, to MacDonald. Is it this equivalence between absence and presence that is to be seen in her work? Certainly, what cannot pass unnoticed there is the strangeness of an Annunciation completed without the representation of human figures. Yet, it is precisely because of this lack of a direct depiction of a human figure that these photographs are filled with a certain presence. What is striking about MacDonald’s work is that presence is achieved not out of formal completion, but rather out of emptiness. There is an absent presence that overwhelms her photographs, that penetrates every grain out of which the image is created. What we could say this is, to paraphrase Barthes, the miracle of the photographic annunciation: light, which is impalpable, is given a carnal form. But then, once again, at the same time it is the flesh as already departed.
Why MacDonald should choose not to include the human figure reminds us of how Walter Benjamin was particularly struck by the decision Atget took to photograph the city as deserted. Meditating upon this, Benjamin commented that “to do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciations”. Perhaps, then, it is impossible, and what MacDonald photographs, like Atget before her but from a totally different perspective, is the very impossibility of this renunciation. That is, in MacDonald’s case, the more human presence is denied, the more insistently it returns; or, rephrasing this to reflect the true significance of her method, it is by photographing a human presence that is absent that her photographs attempt to figure the very absence of the human, that is to say, death itself, that which constitutes photography’s essential revelation.
To remark once more on the subtlety of MacDonald’s approach, is it not this impossible conjunction that in fact produces the strange temporality we see in her work? Look again at Annunciaton I. As we said previously, if we can discern a connection with MacDonald’s earlier work, it is precisely in terms of the ruffled curtains, so reminiscent of the sheet in The Romance that was described by Colless as “both liquefying and eternally holding its shape”. With the curtains in Annunciation I, if we consider first their theatrical association as curtains framing a stage, what is presented is a kind of halted or stilled action, as though — this would be undecidable — something were either about to commence or to conclude. Or, alternatively, to be more exact about this ambiguity, look at the cut lily there. Like Barthes’ example of the young man about to be hanged, this lily is fresh, alive, and yet, at the same time, already dead. This contradiction is a constant theme throughout all of MacDonald’s work; there is the same double-edged equivocality in all the various, though highly restricted, subject matter she has photographed. Objects are given a form of eternal life, but only of the cost of a certain petrification or entombment (gravestones, angels in heavy Rococo gilt, wedding cakes covered with thick icing). It is in the Annunciation series, however, that we suggest this theme is given its most exquisite rendering.
MacDonald’s work is undoubtedly self-reflexive, photography about photography. But what is photography? In focussing upon photography itself, MacDonald encounters something similar to what Barthes faced in setting out to write upon photography. Barthes begins his book on photography precisely with the realisation of the impossibility of commenting upon such a thing as photography in general. Photography itself, he asserts, is unclassifiable. Intriguingly, bearing in mind MacDonald’s taking up of the photographic subject of the Annunciation, Barthes even begins by doubting photography’s actual coming-into-being, its conception: “Beyond the evidence provided by technology and usage, and despite its tremendous contemporary expansion, I wasn’t sure that photography existed, that it had a ‘genius’ of its own” (CL, 3). Would the inevitable correlative of this thought not be that photography, without any “spirit” of its own, would be like a kind of vampire, living off the body of whatever it could image, taking away the soul of the person who had been photographed, as the so-called “primitive” response to photography would have it? This would be a reasoning that could be developed with reference to Benjamin’s thesis that photography is the cause of a certain “decline in aura”. It would also lead us in the direction of exploring further the whole atmosphere of the Gothic that pervades MacDonald’s photographs.
However, to return for the moment to the thematic of the Annunciation, what Barthes’ uncertainty as to the actual experience of photography leads us to is the realisation that the photograph is essentially invisible. This is a conclusion Barthes arrives at by first being unable to distinguish any particular photograph from the thing it photographs. The photograph is indissociable from its referent. Without this possibility of disjunction, Barthes suggests that the “photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object: dualities that we can conceive but not perceive...” (CL, 6) And to add to Barthes’ “why not” here, why not the divine and the human, or, as in the Annunciation, the divine in the human? For is the Annunciation not, after all, the paradigmatic example of those dualities we can conceive but not perceive? Moreover, would not the very power and beauty of Annunciation paintings lie in their attempt to perceive what cannot be perceived? The problem posed for the painter of an Annunciation has always been to represent what is essentially invisible. To achieve this miraculous task, to construct a bridge between the divine and the human, the painter has to do something other than merely imitate an object, than place an object in the scene of representation.
Does not this then establish a correspondence with photography? Is what is being described here not the fundamental dilemma of photography? From what Barthes specifies as photography’s “fatality”, that is, how the referent adheres to the photograph, how there is “no photograph without something or someone”, he arrives at the conclusion that whatever a photograph “grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not what we see” (CL, 6). How, then, to see the invisible? What MacDonald finds in her taking up of the Annunciation as the “content” for a photographic series is a subject that could “figure” the true impossibility of photography, the impossibility, that is, of seeing a photograph. To see how this impossibility is figured, it is the significance of the drapery in MacDonald’s work that must once again be considered.
What connection can be made between the curtains in Annunciation I and the sheet of the earlier The Romance, which, as Colless, observed, “mimes the languid pose of the nudes” on either side of it? From The Romance to Annunciation I, what is missing, as we have already noted, is a body, that is, in order to make the comparison with the earlier work, the pose of a body that the drapery could be said to be imitating. We could say then that the enigma behind Annunciation I is the unseen pose that the form of the drapery in some way supplies the contours of. On the one hand, MacDonald’s use of the curtains references the traditional iconography of the Annunciation, with the outward twist of the curtain on the left evoking the flashing cloak of the Angel Gabriel and the reverse twist on the right reminding us of the contorted drapery of Mary at the moment of his greeting. Yet what alters the simple act of quotation or imitation of these symbolic props that we usually find in Annunciaton paintings is the very absence of any body. Moreover, by not actually representing the “figures” of Gabriel and Mary, MacDonald’s work enters here into the original challenge posed to the process of imitation by the Annunciation — a challenge that had already been met by painters in attempting to render the theme.
There is perhaps no better expression of the mystery of the Annunciation than these words of St Bernard of Sienna: “Eternity comes in time, immensity in measure, the creator in his creature, the unfigurable in figure, the untellable in the tale, the ineffable in words, the uncircumscribable in place, the invisible in vision, the inaudible in sound...” “Eternity comes in time”: here we find the contestation of imitation and the figurative, for what pose could Mary adopt to figure this coming of eternity in time? What pose would be both in and outside of time? What pose would be for all time and subject to the infinite divisibility of time? What pose would figure that moment when Mary, to repeat Barthes’ citation of Mallarmé, “as into herself” is transformed by eternity? These are crucial questions to ask because, as Barthes claims, “what founds the nature of photography is the pose... I project the present photograph’s immobility upon the past shot, and it is this arrest which constitutes the pose... In the Photograph, something has posed in front of the tiny hole and has remained there forever” (CL, 78). That is, the question that arises there is: would not the Annunciation, as the subject of a photograph, be exactly that which defies the photographic? Would the “eternity comes in time” not defy the very temporality of something that has posed? But, inversely, insofar as Barthes also maintains that the essence of photography is what escapes photography — “a photograph is always invisible” — does not this challenge to photography also return photography to the impossibility of its identity, the mystery of its conception? Or perhaps we could suggest this in another way. Undoubtedly, as Barthes said of his mother, Mary did not struggle with her image; she did not suppose herself. Yet again, strangely, to extend the analogy, from the absence of this pose in the Winter Garden photograph, Barthes seeks nonetheless to derive the essence of all photography. In words that evoke the suspended curtains and objects in MacDonald’s photographs, Barthes says that something “like the essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture” (CL, 73). Unable to be properly placed or located, a veritable “circumscription of the uncircumscribable”, there is something here that at once posits but also unsettles the pose.
At this point, in order to reach a conclusion to our analysis, it is necessary to realise how that opposition with which the question of the origin of photography was initially framed by Barthes, and with which we began — a distinction between the tradition of painting and the innovations of chemistry — has folded in upon itself. At one level, it is a certain limited understanding of photography, of what constitutes a pose in a photograph, that has prevented us from seeing how photography is already inscribed in the paintings of the Annunciation. It could indeed be argued that many of the 19th and 20th century readings of Annunciation paintings have implicitly been framed by a belief in the certainty and stability of the pose mistakenly derived from photography. Consider, for example, how Michael Baxandall uses the sermon of a 15th century preacher, Fra Roberto, to divide up the narrative of the Annunciation into various stages, arguing that it is possible to establish the meaning of a particular Annunciation painting by matching the pose of Mary with the corresponding moment in the story. Under the heading of the so-called Angelic Colloquy, Fra Roberto sets out a series of five successive spiritual and mental conditions attributable to Mary: Conturbatio (Disquiet), Cogitatio (Reflection), Interrogatio (Inquiry), Humiliatio (Submission) and Meritatio (Merit). What we find, however, in the practice of applying these successive states to any particular pose of Mary, is that these divisions cannot be maintained. Any actual pose of Mary escapes a singular determination; there is always the nuance of one condition in another: a Conturbatio that has at the same time the quality of a Humiliatio, a Conturbatio that seems equally an Interrogatio... The difficulty encountered here is that not only is there an attempt to impose a sequential order upon an event that defies such a narrative progression, but that the Annunciation embodies a temporal paradox like that which Barthes recognises in the photograph: the Annunciation is at one and the same time an announcement of a future to come and a “prophecy in reverse”, a “this will be” and a “this has been”. What Baxandall overlooks, as Didi-Huberman has argued in his remarkable study of Fra Angelico, is what could be called a “logic of the generalised fold: a logic where every element is folded into another, even as the other is already folded within it”. The supreme instance of this paradoxical logic is, of course, those folds of cloth which “cover” Mary. What Didi- Huberman goes on to suggest, in outlining this logic, is that, for the Virgin:
The act of being inhabited does not proceed without a kind of immediate jigsaw movement that the act of clothing (induerre) imposes: a fantastic — phantasmatic — topology of an envelope that is incorporated, comes above, and comes within, thus defying any notion of a body’s limit in the visible order. That is why we must speak here of the fold, because fold as a term relates to clothing (something that takes place on the outside) but also to viscera (the formless form of the inside) and finally to limits — since to make a fold, in sewing, is to fold over an edge, once or several times, hence to displace the edge, make its location vary.
It is with this fold that relates both to clothing and to viscera that we return to the “ectoplasm” of the first photograph, the “viscous substance” that we earlier identified as one of the constant themes of MacDonald’s photography. In The Romance it is present in the surface ambiguity of the sheet that nevertheless, as Colless specifies, discloses an interior essence of the body. It is the logic of the fold, we would say, that produces this undecidable distinction between the interior and the exterior. Upon reaching the Annunciation series, however, it is as though there is a realisation by MacDonald that nothing other than this generalised logic of the fold itself should be the subject matter of a photograph. In the inimitable twists and contortions of the curtains in these photographs, that is, in what would be their essential disfiguration, there is the paradox of the photograph that turns upon itself in the attempt to realise and figure its own conception.
It is in this general context of a return to the origin of photography that MacDonald’s photographs can also be understood as re-animating the aura of early photography. What Benjamin specifies as the aura of early photography is not only “the way that light struggles out of darkness”, but also what, following Didi-Huberman, is nothing other than this paradoxical logic of the fold. What we see in an old photographic portrait, Benjamin argues, is how an aura has seeped “into the very folds of the man’s frock coat or floppy cravat”. It is this quality of the fold that Benjamin associates with the essence of photography, for as he immediately adds:
In that early period [of photography] subject and technique were as exactly congruent as they become incongruent in the period of decline that immediately followed. For soon advances in optics made instruments available that put darkness entirely to flight and recorded appearances as faithfully as any mirror.
Going against what we might initially expect, what is remarkable here is that Benjamin associates the decline of photography with a move towards mimetic perfection. When a photograph records as faithfully as a mirror, the photograph is lost. As Barthes would do after him, Benjamin implicitly relates the origin of photography to an essential abstraction, that is, as we are suggesting here, to the fold. That aura which appears at the beginning of photography’s history only to disappear — like the “sign” (CL, 7) of photography itself — is the fold. The fold is that which hides; it at one and the same time folds the invisible within the visible and the visible within the invisible. The light or lighting which comes to eradicate the darkness of the beginnings of photography does not, then, unambiguously illuminate the nature of the medium. To the contrary, the photograph, we might say, hides in the light; the fold becomes even more obscure.
This is the enigma into which Anne MacDonald’s photographs enter. If we ask if the folds in the curtains in her Annunciation series imitate the pose that would found photography, it must be understood, to relate these folds to the folds within the very first photographic portraits, that they do so only insofar as they resemble nothing, insofar as those folds would be what displaces and dislocates the pose, at once placing it both inside and outside of time. But what, then, to extend this line of argument, constitutes photography if its foundation disappears as it enters a generalised logic of the fold? To think again at the end of this essay who invented photography, this time the distinctions between photography and painting are less precise. Indeed, the fall and twist of MacDonald’s curtains, the gesture of their simultaneous opening and closing, unfolding and enfolding, is like the very abstract gesture, the imitation in act, in process, with which the painter has always attempted to imitate the mystery of the Annunciation. It is no coincidence, therefore, that in Didi-Huberman’s study of the Annunciation paintings of Fra-Angelico we will find that his entire analysis circulates around the punctum of the indexical mark. In what Didi-Huberman claims is Fra Angelico’s “most admirable, his most radical and troubling, Annunciation”, there is something peculiar that:
Irresistibly holds the gaze: this oddity is not a detail but a patch. It is the hem of Mary’s garment, the local, coloured play of this garment, utterly without verisimilitude. As a representation of a cloth enveloping a body, it is a precisely executed drapery at the feet of the Madonna and on the right side. But, in the centre — that is, facing the gaze of whoever places himself before the Virgin — everything goes mad. Here the artist has allowed his strokes, his brush, to wander, and has produced only a pure agitation of the coloured material, diffused in incomprehensible lines, in ramblings, in deliquescences where the paint not only seems to go astray, but even to bleach out, dissolve.
Here, does this chemical disturbance of the agitation of the coloured material not in some way echo what is sought in the origin of photography? Moreover, at this moment when all goes “mad”, when the painter’s hand is taken beyond his own control — the moment, that is, when the painting seems to be painting itself, producing itself in the manner of the acheiropoietos — do we not find the ever present desire for the mystery of the conception of photography?
What, then, is a photograph? The answer can only be that it is lost in a fold in time, or lost, as Benjamin suggests in his article devoted to its history, in a “fog”. It is a fog, for Benjamin, which even though it is slightly less opaque than that which “surrounds the early days of prints”, nevertheless still veils the origins of photography. What we see in the photographs of Anne MacDonald is this veil itself, in the folds of which photography both reveals and conceals itself through — in imitation we might say of this fog itself — the mark of an inimitable abstraction.
Victoria Hammond, Anne MacDonald: Brushing the Dark (Lily & Wedding Cake)
Anne MacDonald develops her lucid, seductive images over a long period of time, taking innumerable shots, refining her means, until she arrives at symbolic distillations of the interplay of narratives, dramas and historical images which are her sources. Lily (1995) is a postscript to her virtuoso photographic installation, Ophelia, which drew on a variety of sources, among them Sir John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia (1851), with its scattered cortege of floating flowers, and the life/death floral tributes of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine. In Lily, Ophelia’s 51 individually framed images of fresh flowers, yielding only the merest traces of incipient decay, is condensed into a solemn vanitas triptych, MacDonald’s camera recording the transience of life through the single lily’s inexorable progress toward decay: the youthful bud, the luxuriant beauty of full flowering, and shrivelled death.
Wedding Cake (1995) again draws on several sources, which include seventeenth century Dutch Vanitas paintings – reminders of the evanescence of life – in which faint hints of decay can be detected in food as well as flowers. A literary source is Miss Havisham’s ghastly wedding banquet in Great Expectations, where the passage of time and the work of spiders have reduced the celebratory cake to a gothic ruin. MacDonald has a facility for extracting the essence of meaning from her sources by the compositional device of relocation. The absent slice in the magnificent be-columned and stucco-ed architecture of her Wedding Cake is arranged next to it, having been ‘consumed’ by time, draped in webs and cast with the blue of decomposition. This small but chilling companion-piece appears illusionistically to command the frontal plane, its wedge pointing authoritatively to the grand cake’s inherent decay. MacDonald has juxtaposed these two images to echo the allusion of vanitas paintings: the presentation of a sumptuous, seductive image which carries its own reminder of corruption, like the faint bruise on a peach.
MacDonald has also drawn on a number of aesthetic sources, most notably the mortuary stillness of Andres Serrano’s exquisite, harrowing photographs of the dead. With Serrano, the camera’s intimate scrutiny of the corporeal alerts us to both the poignancy and the obscenity of death: what we are now seeing is only matter. MacDonald’s Wedding Cake has undergone similar photographic scrutiny: the supra-real exaggeration of scale and texture present the cake’s powerful physical presence in the world, while its vainglorious beauty and its precise perfection carry the sense of its inherent fragility; the crumbs, vanitas reminders of its status and matter. MacDonald has commented:
A wedding cake can be a symbol of life in flower. Years later, the same wedding cake can be a symbol of life in death. Preserved sugar perfection turns towards decomposition. The greater the decoration, the greater the sense of transience.
Victoria Hammond, Anne MacDonald: Ophelia
Anne MacDonald’s Ophelia has the distinction of being the first photographic work to be selected for the prestigious Moet and Chandon exhibition. This technically accomplished, solemn yet lyrical work has provoked one critic to describe Anne MacDonald as Australia’s “definitive flower photographer”. While this was no doubt intended as a compliment, Ophelia is far more than a series of silky, exquisitely arranged and presented photographs of flowers. Elwyn Lynn came closer to the mark when he perceived that each of the 51 delicate blooms emerging from their dense black backgrounds, contained within heavy funereal frames, were “as isolated as suicide”.
Ophelia is MacDonald’s virtuoso piece, the culmination of a series of works which elicit the presence of beauty in objects and narratives associated with death and mourning. The flowers act as a potent symbol in the counterpoise MacDonald establishes between beauty, freshness, femininity and the erotic on the one hand, and fragility, decay and death on the other. Most of all perhaps, flowers symbolise the transience of life, the union of these opposites. Ophelia herself represents all these things. The play, Hamlet, is strewn with flower imagery, much of it delivered by or associated with Ophelia, who is likened to a ‘rose of May’. Hamlet, the dark to Ophelia’s light, compares life itself to ‘an unweeded garden/ rank stale and unprofitable’.
Shakespeare’s Ophelia is a tragic figure, an innocent with no control over her destiny, which is shaped by the crimes, intrigues and moral turpitude of those around her. At each discovery of a sequence of ugly deeds, she slips deeper into madness, largely defined by her inane sing-song cataloguing of the meanings of various flowers. Yet she is the one character in the play whose essential purity remains untarnished by the ‘rot’ in Denmark. Even her madness has an ethereal quality. Confronted with the collapse of her world’s moral and social structure, madness is her only recourse. Her value is recognised only after her death, when she is grievously mourned. The loss of Ophelia is in fact the turning point of the play. What has been up to that moment merely falling apart at the seams fast degenerates into devastation.
Shakespeare concentrates his language at the point of Ophelia’s journey toward death, swiftly oscillating back and forth between fragmented images of life and death, establishing stark contrasts, as in the two names for the one flower: the breezy ‘long purples’ and the harrowing ‘dead men’s fingers’.
The poetic lamentation of Ophelia’s death, delivered by Hamlet’s mother, who later grieves that she had anticipated a bridal bouquet for Ophelia, not a funeral wreath, is the textual complement to Anne MacDonald’s Ophelia.
The impressive, introductory bouquet corresponds to the ‘fantastic garlands’ which the piteous Ophelia has unwittingly woven as a wreath for her own death. It also represents Ophelia herself. MacDonald responds to the life/death juxtapositions in Shakespeare’s text by establishing one powerful contrast only: that between the luminosity of the flowers and the black velvet abyss over which they are arranged as if floating, the whole overlaid with a blue cast, the pall of death. On close inspection a few of these vibrantly fresh flowers are already showing signs of decay.
In allegorical still life of the 17th century, particularly vanitas paintings, reminders of the emptiness of earthly pleasures and possessions, flowers were symbols of the evanescence of life. The painter would indicate corruption, in exquisitely painted and otherwise perfect flowers, by the introduction of a bruise, a spot, the unnatural transparency of a petal or a drooping stem. Here, Anne MacDonald writes of how her work process, and the modern process of photography itself, echoes again and again, the death-in-life preoccupation of the traditional vanitas painter:
When making a photograph the object before my lens is fixed, frozen forever in the moment taken to release the shutter. The object becomes an image and enters what Roland Barthes describes as “flat death” . . . Cut flowers already show the faintest hint of corruption and decay . . . faint bruises already visible. Petals are beginning to droop, their edges about to curl and discolour. As well as entering death when submitting to the act of being photographed, these flowers are in the process of undergoing actual death. Like many of the objects I choose to photograph, flowers are memento mori (literally, ‘remember you must die).
I place the flowers in an unnatural darkness. They are isolated against a black backdrop. They appear to fall or float in blackness. It is the black of velvet (seduction): the black of damp earth in a freshly dug grave (suffocation and decay); the black of a deep dank pool (coldness and isolation). They are further dislocated from the realm of the living. I print the photographs with a blue colour cast. It is the cold blue light of moonlight, of the mortuary, of bruised skin and the first tinge of colour on a decomposing corpse. The image is separated from life by a veil of corruption.
I use heavy wooden frames to isolate my photographs from the real world. My images of flowers become untouchable, immaterial, ideal. This glorification is another kind of death.
The fine craftsmanship and poetic conception of Ophelia is a result of its being conceived and executed over a relatively long period of time. The original source of inspiration for the work were two mid-nineteenth century paintings: La jeune martyre (1855) by Paul Delaroche and Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851). Interestingly, it was Delaroche who, on being shown an early dagguerotype, exclaimed “From now on painting is dead”. Little could he have known that for decades to come much photography would contrive to mimic the aesthetic effects of painting, and that his superb painting of a drowning woman would, a century and a half later, inspire a photographic work. Anne MacDonald visited the Louvre and became fascinated with La jeune martyre in 1990:
The corpse of a beautiful young woman – according to Edgar Allan Poe, “the most poetic topic” – floats on the surface of a lake or sea. Her pale hair and pale ice blue gown form gently undulating folds as they sink into the dark rippling water.
At the time MacDonald was utilizing both flowers and drapery in her symbolic vocabulary. (After Ophelia, drapery has re-emerged in her work.) What was to become Ophelia was thus initially conceived as sumptuous materials arranged to simulate drapery floating in water. Then, after seeing Millais’ Ophelia, drapery and flowers were brought together. Millais depicts Ophelia serenely embracing the release of death. Encircled by a flowery arbour, she floats downstream amidst a scatter of flowers towards death, giving herself up in passive rapture to the swirling current, hands cupped open in supplication. Her rapturous expression is both beautific and sexual. (The white lilies in MacDonald’s Ophelia signify purity and are at the same time distinctly erotic.)
Anne MacDonald has drawn on the formal devices of this painting (and to a lesser extent, the Delaroche) – the sense of pull of the current’s movement reinforced by the horizontal floating of the figure and the dispersed flowers are echoed in the imaginative construction of her work, a seemingly random horizontal scatter of 51 individually framed flowers. Over a period of months spent shooting individual images of flowers and drapery, MacDonald gradually refined her means and eliminated the drapery, using only flowers as the lucid symbol of Ophelia and her death.
Ophelia was a subject much beloved by nineteenth century painters. Her attributes – pale beauty, youth, lost innocence, and her fate – madness and suicide by drowning, were the stuff of which Victorian male fears and fantasies about women were made. Her madness had a strong appeal. In the latter half of the nineteenth century a legion of flower be-decked, alarmingly seductive, dishevelled, tubercular Ophelias, shown glowering or wild-eyed in the grips of dementia, graced Salon and Academy walls. Millais’ gentler, more sympathetic Ophelia is far closer to Shakespeare’s rendering of her. Macdonald, however, has travelled far beyond these literal transcriptions. In her work, the absence of Ophelia, the density of blacks and the funeral progression of images approximates Shakespeare’s evocation of irredeemable loss.
In recent years, much feminist and deconstructivist criticism has centred around Victorian pictures like La jeune martyre and the host of Ophelias. While it is undoubtedly true that the consistent equation of feminine beauty and desirability with enervation, illness and death indicates dangerously perverse attitudes to women and sexuality, it is equally true, and less readily discussed, that Victorian attitudes to illness and death were vastly different to our own. The achievements of modern medicine have schooled us to distance ourselves from human mortality, and even to regard it with a kind of horror. For the Victorians, illness and death occurred with far more frequency, and so were intimately bound up with their life’s experience. They were close to death, fetishizing it with elaborate rituals and the accoutrements of mourning. Inevitably, it permeated their art.
When I first began to know Anne MacDonald and her work, I wrongly assumed that she possessed a rare and interesting Victorian sensibility. Later I learnt that her art was deeply personal. I was struck by the direct uninhibited manner in which she spoke of love, loss and death, and by the simple lucid way in which she wrote of these things. Without drama. Without fuss or self-pity. What others may repress, deny, or seek to deaden, she acknowledges and transforms into beauty. This clarity of mind is present in her work which, ultimately, operates in a similar manner to the symbols it contains, as a tribute, a remembrance.
Anne Macdonald discussing her photographic installation Ophelia with Anna Voigt for New Visions, New Perspectives: Voices of Contemporary Australian Women Artists
AV: Your photographic images and installations have a lot to do with ideas of mourning, the memento mori and symbolic depictions of the ‘beautiful captured frozen flower’. Are you able to talk about the significant developmental experiences and influences behind these ideas with respect to the formation of your creative life as an artist?
AM: On the day of my mother’s funeral, flowers were transformed for me into potent symbols of love and loss. I retain a vivid memory of being led by my aunt into a room that housed my mother’s coffin. Wreaths, bouquets, floral tributes of all kinds filled the room. The superabundance of hothouse blooms was at once exquisite and sickening in intensity. They were also a sign that my mother had many friends and relationships, a whole history, of which I had no part. This was a double loss. My grandmother, insisting that such expense should not go to waste, had the floral tributes transported to our home. For weeks I lived amongst thousands of decaying blooms while grieving for my mother and her unadorned grave. The memory of this experience has been particularly influential in my creative development. Much of my imagery comes from the graveside. For many years I have photographed memorial sculpture at the cemetery. I am particularly drawn to small funerary ornaments, emblems and ceramic wreaths. I think of these brittle fossilised flowers as symbols of passion turned toward the cold and rigid form of dead but unforgotten love. Recently I have photographed freshly cut flowers from the florist. My house is filled once again with the unmistakeable smell of fresh and rotting bouquets.
I read a great deal. I find I am continually drawn to writers who concentrate on the subjects of unrequited love and mourning. The tragic figure of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations presents images of time passing and decay that are a constant reference in my own work. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and short stories such as The Other Side of Death, The Third Resignation, Eyes of a Blue Dog and Artificial Roses are similarly obsessed with loss and mourning. The opening sentences of The Other side of Death link the aroma of fresh flowers with that of the mortuary:
Without knowing why, he awoke with a start. A sharp smell of violets and formaldehyde, robust and broad, was coming from the other room, mingling with the aroma of the newly opened flowers sent out by the dawning garden.
I am also drawn to the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Margaret Atwood while Roland Barthes’ seminal texts Camera Lucida and A Lovers Discourse and the classic work by Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex are key sources for my research. Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex uses a metaphor of the flower as feminine, and the photographic process as love, to describe a sense of loss, waste and disillusion:
There is nothing more bitter than to feel oneself but the flower, the perfume, the treasure, which is the subject of no desire: what kind of wealth is it that does not enrich myself and the gift of which no-one wants? Love is that developer that brings out in clear, positive detail the dim negative, otherwise as useless as a blank exposure.
I travel quite often and spend much of my time away visiting museums, to view a wide range of historical and contemporary work. Museums such as the Louvre, Paris; Uffizi, Florence; Alte Pinakothek, Munich, the Tate, London; Prado, Spain, the Guggenheim and Metropolitan, New York; have provided great inspiration. I am particularly moved by the work of early Renaissance painters such as Giotto, Simone Martini, Fra Angelico, Hugo van der Goes and Sandro Botticelli. The work of these artists has been influential in much the same way as certain books and memories of personal experiences. Elements of these paintings such as the skilled craftsmanship, a heavy reliance on symbolism, use of colour, decoration and composition have been reinterpreted and utilized in my photo media installations.
AV: Could you give a general description of your creative processes: what moves you; how you feed into and structure your work, ideas, time and space.
AM: My first thoughts of producing a work on the theme of Ophelia, for example, occurred while standing in front of a painting at the Louvre Museum, Paris, on a hot summer day in July 1990. The painting titled La jeune martyre was painted by Paul Delaroche in 1855. In La jeune martyre the corpse of a beautiful young woman; ‘the most poetic topic’ according to Edgar Allan Poe; floats on the surface of a lake or sea. Her pale hair and pale ice-blue gown form gentle undulating folds as they sink into the dark, rippling water. Amidst the heat, noise and traffic of the Louvre, La jeune martyre seemed intensely cold, silent and still: a memento mori.
Sometime later, the fascination this work held for me, led to a search for other images of drowning women. I found John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia, 1851. In Millais’ Ophelia a beautiful young woman drowns while clasping a few stems from a bouquet of flowers; the rest scattered across her gown or floating downstream. Here the narrative of death by drowning is fused with a symbolic representation of evanescence using flowers. These works formed the basis for my idea to create an installation which I later titled Ophelia in recognition of Millais’ painting along with the original representation of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The following passage from Hamlet describing the moment of Ophelia’s death was central to the installation; an instance where death and flowers are bound together:
There is a willow grows aslant the brook
That shows its hoary leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell into the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
In 1992 I visited the Uffizi in Florence. I returned to the Botticelli room several times to study the artist’s rendering of flowers. I was particularly moved by the tightly bunched red bouquets in Madonna of the pomegranate, in contrast to the pale delicate, isolated flowers floating across the surface of the Birth of Venus. The sense of compression and confinement in the image of a bouquet; rich red in colour and expressive of intense moments of passion; contrasted against a scattering of faded blooms reminiscent of loneliness, loss and vulnerability; became the template for the arrangement of images in my installation. To create the Ophelia installation, I arranged the flowers before the lens of my camera. They lay silently on the black velvet backdrop of my studio; beautiful, fragile offerings, wilting and dying in the heat of the tungsten lamps, captured forever as latent images on film. I placed the flowers in an unnatural darkness, isolated against a black backdrop. They appear to fall or float in blackness. It is the black of velvet (seduction): the black of damp earth in a freshly dug grave (suffocation and decay); the black of a deep dank pool (coldness and isolation). To further dislocate them from the realm of the living, I print the flowers with a blue colour cast. It is the cold blue light of moonlight, of the mortuary, of bruised skin and the first tinge of colour on a decomposing corpse. The image is separated from life by a veil of corruption.
AV: Your work is often symbolic and archetypal. Could you further elaborate on these elements in your work?
AM: In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes:
In the photograph, Time’s immobilization assumes only an excessive, monstrous mode: time is engorged (whence the relation with the Tableau Vivant, whose mythic prototype is the princess falling asleep in Sleeping Beauty). That the photograph is modern, mingled with our noisiest everyday life does not keep in from having an enigmatic point of inactuality, a strange stasis, the stasis of an arrest.
When making a photograph, the object is fixed, frozen forever in the moment taken to release the shutter. The object becomes an image and enters what Barthes describes as ‘flat death’. This is just the first of a number of symbolic acts I undertake in order to separate my work from everyday life. Flowers are a recurrent theme in my work. Their close association with romantic and funerary rites provides their most obvious symbolism of the sentiments of loves and loss. Flowers are beautiful fragile vessels symbolic of femininity; however, above all else, I find flowers to be symbolic of death. Cut flowers already show the faintest hint of corruption and decay. Ina an otherwise perfect bloom, embalmed by the florist, faint bruises are already visible. Petals are beginning to droop, their edges about to curl and discolour. As well as entering death when submitted to the act of being photographed, these flowers are in the process of undergoing actual death. Like many of the objects I choose to photograph, flowers are memento mori (literally, ‘remember you must die). I place my photographs in heavy wooden academy style frames to isolate them from the real world. My images of flowers become untouchable, immaterial, ideal. This glorification is another kind of death.
In Framed: Innocence or Guilt, Germano Celant writes:
Initially the frame was a simple ornament appended to the work of art. Then it began to play a role in one’s perception of the art, finally becoming itself an autonomous sign. The frame is an enclosure which isolates and identifies its ‘separate’ reality. Its introduction in the representation of images is tied to a process of solemnisation of the subject. As the frame takes on this decorative disguise, the area it defines is glorified.
AV: There is a distinctly feminine sensibility to your work. Could you discuss this and in what other ways being a woman has influenced your work, positively or negatively?
AM: My work is imbued with the traditionally feminine qualities of Beauty, fragility, suffering and sentimentality. I choose to make highly personal statements. I believe the content of my work is more meaningful, and the resulting imagery more powerful, when drawn directly from my own experience. It is inevitable therefore inevitable that my work expresses ideas pertaining to the feminine. My experience of life as a girl, growing up in an atmosphere of the sick room as one after another of my family suffered illness and death, has been highly influential on my development as an artist. It has insinuated a dark, melancholic quality into my artistic expression. In Over Her Dead Body: death, femininity and the aesthetic, Elizabeth Bronfen writes:
. . . melancholia is, according to Freud, failed mourning, an inability to accept the death of a desired object. Melancholia involves a denial of loss, which emerges from initial acknowledgement of this loss and provokes its perpetual articulation.
In our culture, it seems to be acceptable for women to openly display their emotions, to be sentimental and to mourn, rather more than men. Sylvia Plath in her poem about dying writes:
Is an art, like everything else
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
As a woman I feel I have a certain freedom to articulate feelings of loss as highly personal statements within my work. This could be seen as a negative act of denial (as in the case of the melancholic) or as a positive attempt to make statements about important aspects of life.
AV: Could you discuss your current thoughts on the function and purpose of your art?
AM: We fear our own death. With equal intensity, we fear the loss of those we love. The result is a denial of loss. I hope that by creating beautiful images; memento mori; my work functions to illuminate our denial of death and analyse the role of sentiments such as love and loss in our own lives.
Rachel Donnan, Anne MacDonald: Exquisite Corpses (Inconsolable & Petal)
Anne MacDonald’s oeuvre attests to a longstanding interest in death, mourning and alienation expressed through images of loss and absence. Her work explores the emotional anxieties between the opposing states of purity and atrophy. It is an evolution that began in 1995 when the artist observed the profound tensions between her images of perfection in relation to images of decomposition and is realised through a deeply personal and acutely expressive symbolic language.
MacDonald’s world is one of exquisite beauty and feminine fragility, a highly detailed and intricate one that draws in the viewer through its erotic and sensual associations and revels in its ultimate demise. The ambiguity of her images lies in their ability to beguile in their exquisiteness, only to expose the withering of time towards an inevitable cold dark grave. Her work has a sensual immediacy and is delicately wrought through a deliberate and controlled process that achieves remarkably sharp fine-grained images. MacDonald has worked exclusively in the studio since 1993 with a large format camera that allows her to exert an added technical control. Her photographic compositions are further intensified through the use of highly saturated films and filters. Using blank walls like a canvas, she creates images intended to surround and engage the viewer in a dialogue.
MacDonald endeavours to represent the unrepresentable – death itself. Through funerary imagery, richly saturated fabrics, and flowers in varying stages of bloom and decay, she creates symbolically surreal representations of death. A Pre-Raphaelite sensibility pervades her singular language, which is conceived through intensive literary and visual research. Her photographs are elegiac metaphors for the transience and precariousness of life. Paradoxically, her organic subjects are fixed – virtually embalmed – through the photographic process, and thus raise the inevitable connection between photography and death. They embody at once the moment of loss and the future of memory, forever suspending it. Announcing the loss with which we must live through the emergence and survival of the image alone, MacDonald’s compositions are in every sense ruins. A memory, exposed to time and loss, forever enacts its loss and displacement, to which it stands testimony. MacDonald’s images endure as relics in their declaration of loss and simultaneous presence as ruins.
Coming of age in an atmosphere of illness bore a direct impact on MacDonald’s artistic development. It is the memory of grief that enveloped her childhood:
My experience of life, growing up in and atmosphere of the sick room - as one after another of my family suffered terminal illness, has been extremely influential on my development as an artist. It has insinuated a dark morbid quality into my artistic expression.
MacDonald represents death with a quiet reverence, through beauty and opulence, decay and dissolution. Although personal memories play a fundamental role in MacDonald’s artistic preoccupation, they are not directly manifest within her work. Rather, her imagery is memorial in nature and her intentions lie in the elicitation of sorrow and absence rather than the specific recollection. Her freedom to intimately articulate through her artistic pursuits sentiments of loss may be read two ways:
As a woman I feel free to articulate feelings of loss as highly personal statements within my work. This could be seen as a negative act of denial (as in the case of the melancholic) or as a positive attempt to make powerful statements about important aspects of life.
The flowers and graveside accoutrements that MacDonald documents act as “memento mori” literally meaning “remember you must die”. They summon sorrow through their presence on the paper, thus exhibiting the tension between photography’s own paradoxical condition of being, as the artist herself points out, what Roland Barthes defines as ‘flat death’ vis a vis the preservation of life. What is imagined in the photograph is already gone, despite the perpetual existence given by the photograph’s ever-present status. For Barthes, every photograph, in its evidential force, contains the catastrophe of death. Time will always defeat the subject in the end, and even the photograph itself is mortal, the paper and emulsion bound to eventual decay. MacDonald’s work reproduces this catastrophe of death:
In much the same way as the photograph, according to Roland Barthes, can only show ‘what has been’; the memorial can only symbolise what is past and gone.
Yet, by isolating her subjects within the frame, they seemingly emerge from an isolated darkness into light. They declare their survival.
MacDonald’s influences are broad. Her work Ophelia draws obvious literal associations with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and was originally inspired by Pre-Raphaelite paintings of drowned women. Her compositions such as Vanitas and Petal raise connections to the 17th century still life genre. But her photographic installations inevitably summon collective memories. A.S. Byatt claims that:
It is at the point when one begins to feel one’s own mortality – that one becomes able to see, not only one’s finite life in the world, but one’s own peculiar body of connected knowledge (knowledge is memory and mnemonics) as part of the order (provisional) of a work of art . . . and at this point the connection to the great works of the past becomes urgent and personal, a bright discovery, a remembering of countless other dead or dying memories.
MacDonald’s visual interpretations of literal and historical references comprise a unique and fertile contribution to the larger canons of knowledge and memory. Her imagery may at times be inspired by an historical past, yet at the same time exist in a floating world suspended between any precisely defined past and future. Inconsolable (1992), an intimate series of nine colour photographs, depicts tombs and graveside relics found in family crypts in the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. MacDonald appropriates the memory of anonymous others through her lens; these are stolen glimpses that peer inside private crypts in a voyeuristic gaze. The memorials are suffused by a cold greenish-blue hue reminiscent of a winter’s day, evoking the smell of damp earth and moss.
One sparse memorial features a cracked, water-stained tomb upon which a headless saintly figure stands, its body draped in flowing robes. Two red roses lie at the statue’s feet. Other tombs bear more lavish offerings and accoutrements: a stained-glass window, a crucifix or a bright yellow urn of flowers that stands tall in the centre of one marble lair. Flowers are a continuous theme: lilies, daisies, and assortment of floral reds, whites and violets stand tall in some crypts and lie limp in others. In some, blossoms sombrely wilt, as though life has only just departed. One image reveals a carved wooden cross at the rear of the tomb, while in the foreground rests a small bouquet of violet, white and pink blooms and a small marble flowered plaque with “Regrets” etched on the surface. Regrets for what? The death of the beloved person buried within the crypt or regrets for the inevitable cycle of life? The crypts quietly come alive in the photographs, which capture their frozen beauty and possess an essence of presence. As do many of MacDonald’s works, these funerary relics compound the dead’s spiritual aura. Inconsolable extends the boundaries of existence, creating new worlds from old.
Partially revealed names engraved in the tombstones remind the viewer of their personal nature and their corresponding significance to the living. This aspect lends a sinister note to the portrayals by bringing attention to the intrusiveness of their realisation. The solemn images in Inconsolable are persistent icons to absent presences. For MacDonald and the viewer, these icons can only exist as lamentations of loss, an impersonalised sentimental residue of memory reflecting individual projections. MacDonald acknowledges this theft:
Much of my imagery comes from the graveside, from derelict memories of the anonymous dead. At Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, I stole like a thief into private familial crypts in order to photograph the floral tokens of remembrance placed within these eternally dark and oppressive enclosures. Bathed in a dim yet lurid light filtering through the stained-glass windows, only the artificial flowers remained deceptively bright and fresh, despite the dust. I like to think of these flowers as poignant symbols of passion, which have been turned to the cold and rigid form of dead but unforgotten love and inconsolable loss. There is a weird kind of trespass involved in appropriating sentiments of love and loss. That is an important element in my artistic expression; it insinuates a dark morbid quality to my images of gifts to the dead.
While the theft of anonymous memories poses morbid repercussions, it also intimates an ethereal and poignant anguish that may be perceived collectively. It is the continuous journey of grief where sorrow does not allow forgetting. The crypts of Inconsolable are melancholy mise-en-scenes, each a sombre memento mori. They adhere to the cardinal principle of both photography and memory: things must die in order to live on forever. Memory, like the photograph, grants an eternal if supple existence to an object or experience only once it is gone. MacDonald purposefully separates her images from everyday life to emphasise their evanescent nature. She uses ornate frames to further isolate, virtually glorifying and entombing her subjects; relegating them to another realm. The gilded, elaborate, literal frames contain the image and create a boundary that severs it from reality. Death cannot be understood, it declares (nor memory and time for that matter), for its representation always falls back on itself.
MacDonald’s chosen subjects of infinite beauty and fragility ultimately serve to intensify their loss. She aestheticises objects into death. (Her flowers, for instance, literally wilt under the intensity of her studio lights). MacDonald sees this presence of death in the photographic image as a significant feature of her work. She observes:
Cut flowers already show the faintest hint of corruption and decay. In an otherwise perfect bloom, embalmed by the florist, faint bruises are already visible. Petals are beginning to droop, their edges about to curl and discolour. As well as entering into a symbolic death when submitted to the act of being photographed, these flowers are in the process of entering biological death.
MacDonald’s most recent project, Petal, is an installation of eleven photographs in lacquered wood frames of various shapes, including upside-down teardrops and circles. These compositions painstakingly reveal an organic process through quixotic and highly detailed depictions of individual blooms: roses, gladioli, lilies, poppies, azaleas and daisies. Each work is infused with an erotic passion that coalesces with decay and derives directly from the 17th century European vanitas floral still life tradition. The flowers are represented in various stages of blossoming: as fragile new self-embracing buds, as unfolding petals and finally with a hint of wilt and withering as the delicate edges languish. These ‘exquisite corpses’ fuse in a palette of soft velvety colours – pale pinks, deep violets, cerulean blues, spicy reds and golden ochres – and emerge from a pure black isolating void. The blooms are illuminated in a manner that disconnects them from a stem, from their bed of soil and thus their life source. Instead, they float in this void and become a permeable substance infused with metaphoric power. In their fragility and delicacy, these flowers at times resemble the pellucid skin of an aging hand whose blue veins thread just below the surface. Their velvety soft surfaces reveal miniature landscapes within the creases of the flowers, at other times transforming into folds of a luxuriant fabric. The soft creases and folds allude to a veiled sexual symbolism, infusing these blossoms with an urgent passion.
For MacDonald, Petal is the culmination of her exploration of her exploration of purity and atrophy through a latent floral symbolism. In her work, she describes how eroticism, beauty and death intertwine:
Petal explores the symbolic potential of floral imagery as fabric and flesh. Rose and iris petals display creases and folds, gladioli and lilies drape and unfurl, and poppies are reminiscent of crushed silk. At the same time these flowers refer to the body, to veins and pores, a fold of young skin, or the wrinkling of aging, evoking a surreal fusion between the funerary bouquet, the funeral shroud, and the corpse.
Barthes wrote in Camera Lucia that horror resides in some photographs of living objects because it confirms that ‘the corpse is alive, as corpse: it is the living image of a dead thing.’ These petals are already cadavers, empty vessels no longer invigorated with life. They seduce the viewer in their exquisite beauty, life and debility. He or she is initially unaware of the impending brown edges, the barely visible onset of decomposition. Its sensual immediacy hides its imminent decay. Each exquisite corpse reveals an unfolding splendour, yet perhaps the ultimate wound of the flowers lies in the knowledge that what is living before our eyes is already gone. Again, it is the flat death that Barthes attributes to the photograph. This temporal imbalance or pause is the wounding element that one adds to the images but is nevertheless already there. It imbues MacDonald’s surreal spaces with a spiritual essence that emanate from these transformed emblems of loss.
MacDonald’s memory of her mother’s funeral occupies a significant moment in her artistic development:
I retain a vivid memory of being led by my aunt into a room that housed my mother’s coffin. Wreaths, bouquets, floral tributes of all kinds filled the room. The superabundance of hothouse blooms was at once exquisite and sickening in intensity. . . My grandmother had the floral tributes transported to our home. For weeks I lived amongst thousands of decaying blooms while grieving for my mother and her unadorned grave.
The ethereal evidence of deterioration that tinges the edges of these blooms only compounds their reality and ephemerality. The glossy and seductive surfaces of MacDonald’s images are forever underpinned by a sense of anxiety and apprehension: what lies hidden below the beauty and opulence? One can only imagine the disintegration in waiting, despite all lush appearances. Perhaps this uneasiness may be attributed to the organic and temporal nature ever present in MacDonald’s symbolic expressions. “Opulence enhances the sanctity of the object,” she says. “The more perfectly beautiful something is, the greater the sense of loss at its passing.” The pathos and despondency that reside in her work prompt a powerful and wounding impression that reinforces life’s evanescence. No matter how long one contemplates the composition, it is already a ruin, already vanished. The photograph holds time fugitive.
Having ‘touched’ its subject, the photograph resembles a footprint or death mask. It is a primitive image, Susan Sontag claims, in that it contains the same magical qualities found in the origins of image making. Historically the distinction between what was real and what was imaged was more fluid. Each was a physically distinct manifestation of the same energy or spirit. MacDonald’s bereft images contain a trace of this primitive quality, whereby her subjects become a manifestation of an unknown sphere. Her funerary emblems and lyrical flowers ooze spirituality, and tenderly exist in a floating world. They float between being and non-being, desire and gratification, presence and absence. The deconstructive power of photography blurs boundaries between worlds; it becomes impossible to distinguish truth from fiction. MacDonald’s work honours the acute loss manifest in life and its metaphysical realms. Her compositions become relics, traces of life and anonymous memories, ruins of time. A deeply personal expression of death, love and loss, her work also embodies ubiquitous aspects of life and memory. But by virtue of speaking the unspeakable, it resonates positively for it opens a dialogue on what is often taboo. “In attempting to evoke visual images of death, I have become increasingly aware that, in our culture, death is a forbidden subject,” she says. “Paramount to my work is death’s double position as anomalous, marginal and repressed, and at the same time masterful, central, everywhere manifest.”
Anne MacDonald’s visual expressions, like all photographs, are ruins made more potent by an engagement with the defeat of time and the catastrophe of death. Yet her ruins ultimately testify to the emergence and survival of the image, of memory and to life’s enduring power. Through her artistic pursuits, MacDonald hopes to further develop “an expressive symbolic language, which has the potential to enrich our sense of the precariousness, and therefore the preciousness of life.”