Le Trajet and The Pre-Raphaelite obsession with dying ladies

Le Trajet | Romaine Brooks | C. 1900

Le Trajet | Romaine Brooks | C. 1900

As I’ve previously referred to my profound fascination of Pre-Raphaelite art, and its symbolically saturated way of replaying feminine tropes, I thought I’d share a bit of picture research and analysis with you. A chapter in Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity discusses how the ‘cult of invalidism’ encouraged Victorian women to both physically and mentally sacrifice themselves in order to arrive at the pinnacle of femininity as defined by men in power. Historically physical prowess has not been among the most sought for and admired feminine qualities but in the tour-de-siècle environment where frailty and submissiveness were regarded as particularly desirable, any demonstration of female empowerment received moral scorn. It is not a massive stretch to make a connection to the first-wave feminist movement that started fighting for women’s rights by campaigning for equal vote.  The ruling elite’s unease of the thought of sharing political and social power translated to visual art, among other things, in the form of strictly conservative stereotypes of women as fragile, controllable and unthreateningly simple.
The stirring term ‘Cult of Invalidism’ connotes an aura of mystery and underlying plot – and indeed, numerous depictions of thin, sickly, sleeping and dead women from the late 19th and early 20th centuries suggest an increasing popularity of fetishising physical and mental invalidity in women.

Carl Larsson C. 1899

Convalescence | Carl Larsson | C. 1899

Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais,

Ophelia | Sir John Everett Millais | 1851

Romaine Brooks’ painting from the early 1900’s, Le Trajet (The Crossing) portrays a pale, naked androgynously thin woman lying on her deathbed, detached from the reality surrounded by bluish darkness. There is nothing hinting at he surrounding environment or preceding events. Even in her deathlike sleep, the woman has been positioned generously on display, her hips turned towards the spectator to offer a direct view on her hairless pubis; her hair brushed back, pouring over the pillow like a black stream merging with the dark background, leaving every inch of her anorexic body bare. Bram Dijkstra sees this particular image as representative of the self-abusive fashion in which women of the time tried to be in control of their lives “through a supposedly self-elected ideal of physical invalidism and consumptive fragility” – that is, by carrying out the patriarchal ideal of femininity to the point of starvation and catching grave diseases in a desperate quest to become perfect, these women could experience the only form of control of themselves that was allowed by their restricted role in the society. Le Trajet fully conforms to the ideal of a porcelain woman whose starved, childlike body has no imprint of sexuality; whose bony limbs offer no resistance; and whose state of unconsciousness makes her utterly vulnerable to the gaze and actions of the spectator.
A detail that doesn’t quite match up is that the artist, Romaine Brooks, was a woman, and openly lesbian no less. The woman in the painting was her lover at the time, Ida Rubinstein, a Russian ballet dancer and a sort of a beauty icon of the time. It seems puzzling that an otherwise non-conforming artist who was known for cross-dressing would portray another woman in such a way. Why go along with the prevailing, destructive view of femininity? Perhaps there is an illusion of control there: that shrinking into skin and bones is really a way of taking back the ownership of one’s body.
This notion is nowadays supported by a number of  psychological studies into eating disorders – especially in instances where they coincide with sexual trauma. Some sexual abuse survivors cope with their trauma by attacking against their own body; through food restriction, purging and losing weight, the victims are able to feel like their bodies are again under their control. Another aspect is the desire to make oneself unattractive and small – in a way invisible to another attacker. But whether one is rebelling against society on the whole or a sole perpetrator, the war is really being fought within her body, and there is no winner in such a war.
For compelling and eye-opening survivor stories I would recommend a brilliant podcast called The Mental Illness Happy Hour. On the ripples of sexual trauma and eating disorders: Episode 74Episode 70 and Episode 14.

The thin figure of Ida Rubinstein seems lifeless apart from her elevated chin. She is limp but the strong profile of her face bears a shade of assertiveness. Furthermore, the eeriness of a pale figure on an equally white bed floating in nondescript darkness creates an emotional distance between the viewer and the painting. The lack of colour, objects and landscape renders the scene a very surreal one. There is nothing to reveal details of the woman’s life or personality; she is just a ghostly human figure between in a state of death or sleep. And perhaps there is the key to her existence in this scenario. Removed from a bourgeois family setting or a compelling story, she only exists in and for herself. The two most popular scenarios for these all but dead ladies were the domestic and the fantasy. Ophelia and Sleeping Beauty come up regularly alongside with bourgeois ladies tucked in their beds, immobilised by an illness.

Sleeping Beauty | Henry Meynell Rheam | C. 1899

Sleeping Beauty | Henry Meynell Rheam | C. 1899

Brooks’s woman wears no traces of physical, emotional or spiritual connection to anything outside of herself, and that makes her different from other women portrayed like her. The convention was to implant these sickly women in domestic settings with friends and family, where their weakness was juxtaposed with the vitality of their family members, expressing concern, sorrow, despair over her state. Brooks has not portrayed her muse fainting in a man’s arms, nor being surrounded by grieving friends and children.

The Convalescent | Gustave Léonard de Jonghe | 1893

The Convalescent | Gustave Léonard de Jonghe | 1893

Peaceful and alone, she simply is. Moreover, at the time Romaine Brooks was practicing art, the nude was a controversial topic for a woman to paint, and so already by definition Le Trajet – as well as many other artworks by the artist – is more than its surface at first suggests. What is most fascinating to me is the subtlety with which certain conventions of image making were rooted in the aesthetics that still prevail. The reclining female body continues to inhabit the space of admiration and visual pleasure in the contemporary mind in whatever setting it may be.


Tattoo musings


I thought I had sort of narrowed down the kind of content I was going to be posting here but as it turns out  random topics – or formats – outside my predetermined spectrum keep popping up. And who am I to resist the urge to write when the mood strikes?
With this briefer than brief prologue let’s jump into the world of tattoos, or rather one specific tattoo: my most recent one.

For some of us, tattoos are a way of self-expression, for others they represent significant things in their life. One gets a tattoo because they like the look of it, the other builds an image around a carefully thought out concept. Personally, my tattoos must have a meaning deeper than their aesthetic. I had my first one designed by a friend following my instructions, the second I borrowed from the cover art of an album, and the third was an idea, sparked by words. I simply told the tattoo artist this:
“I want a small green butterfly, on the right side of my neck. No outlines, just a splash of colour. About 5 centimetres across.”

Here, I have to cross over to a topic that I more than enjoy talking about, but that I usually refrain from writing about especially if I’m attempting to seem like I know what I’m saying. See, the source of the words that morphed into my latest tattoo, is one so emotionally laden for me that discussing it in a calm and collected manner feels like holding my breath while running up the stairs. This is a territory that my analytical grip cannot reach despite my best efforts. You are possibly wondering what sort of deity or magic I am referring to, but rest assured it’s nothing more mysterious than a rock band. How’s that for an anti-climax?
I do actually have some thoughts on the nature of music, and why I find it so difficult to describe with words but that shall be a discussion for another day.

There’s this band called Nightwish. And everyone who knows me well and is reading this, I’m imagining all of you sitting there with a smug grin upon your faces because you know how much I’m struggling to keep this together. The danger of soppiness is looming.
All you really need to know about Nightwish is that their music has been one of the nearest and dearest things to me for about a decade now, and that many of my most vivid and treasured memories are related to it. For the longest time I wanted to get a Nightwish themed tattoo, but one that wouldn’t be super obvious e.g. the band members’ faces as a sleeve (not judging anyone who likes that sort of thing though). Long story short, from amongst gazillions of lyrics there was one passage that, at a certain moment just lit up in my mind. I’m picturing this as one of those cartoon moments where a lightbulb appears above your head.
This is how it goes:

An obese girl enters an elevator with me, all dressed-up fancy,
a green butterfly on her neck.
Terribly sweet perfume deafens me.
She’s going to dinner, alone.
That makes her even more beautiful.”

The simultaneous strength and fragility and everydayness of this situation always resonated with me, but then again, there are countless other bits in Nightwish lyrics that do. This it the one that feels personal enough to be the story of my tattoo though.

Let’s start with the butterfly. I am very profound when it comes to research, even the research of a tattoo. As I was already very drawn to how a butterfly would look like as an image on my skin, I focused on getting familiar with its symbolism. Across cultures and religions butterflies tend to represent some aspect of rebirth and freedom from earthly burdens. I don’t practice any religion but the thought of escaping from the weight of life is a compelling one; not through death but rather through dreaming, forgetting and letting go for a moment. A more mundane rebirth of the tired mind.
Very much alike, the colour green is the colour of life and growth. It can also be the colour of envy or of sickness, but perhaps the weightless existence of a butterfly can counteract those aspects; and of course any symbol carries a multitude of meanings depending on the person reading it. Nevertheless, my green butterfly is first and foremost a vessel of life and energy.
It is also a reminder of the temporariness of all things. The lifespan of a butterfly is brief, and its flight past one’s eyes easily missed in the blink of an eye. Kind of like the many little details of our everyday existence that are left unnoticed as we rush past them.

 Where is that girl in the lift in all this then?
Although obesity is heavily frowned upon and considered anything but beautiful in today’s world, in this context it seems to bear no more a negative than a positive connotation. However, for me the notion of physical bigness relates to a challenge of my own. I admittedly view myself through somewhat dysmorphic lenses. Separating the distorted picture from actuality is a struggle that perseveres, and although I have never actually been of a size considered obese, something like that is how I tend to experience my bodily form. And of course the majority of women can relate to the sense of unhappiness regarding their appearance.

I find the thought that the aloneness of this girl makes her “even more beautiful” a particularly endearing one. Going out alone is another strange social taboo. As if we weren’t good enough just to be by ourselves. As if loneliness, or aloneness ought to be kept from sight.
That girl then, being obese – yet dressing up, and being alone – yet going out, directly opposes what is considered normal and acceptable, thus rising above criticism to live her life with a lighter mind. To resist condoning to norms and expectations asks for a little bit of bravery and faith in oneself and that in the long run many of the things we are easily judged by don’t really matter all that much. In the whole of the universe a human lifetime is only a blip in time, which might sound dramatic and deep but what it really gives me, is perspective and the license to stop and appreciate all of those other small, temporary things that will be gone in the next minute.

And there is the story of my butterfly, and how it represents things that I aspire to be and things that I find important to remember.