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.
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 74, Episode 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.
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.
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.