Thursday, June 16, 2016

Veiled Threat

So to cheer myself up, I've been reading about Diane Arbus.

Yeah, not the most successful strategy, I know. Looking ahead on my reading list, coming up is William Shirer's diary of life in Berlin in the '30s and then the new survey of the Cultural Revolution. It's going to be a long summer. I may have to flee to Riseholme for a little light relief...

Diane Arbus is the first photographer I remember thinking about as an artist, mostly because My Dear Sister had the Arbus book (there was pretty much only one all that tine ago) and I was fascinated with her. Then I saw, in person, as it were, the couple of images that were on view at MoMA as part of their permanent collection in those days. I was drawn, as I think so many outsider kids have been, initially to her pictures of transvestites and freaks - is that me? Is that not me? If I'm not that barren suburban living room with the tinsel tree, do I have to be the hollow-eyed loony in the park?

I missed the Arbus renaissance of a few years ago - the big traveling show, the glossy new book, even the Nicole Kidman semi-biopic* (for a while there, if it was culturally important, it had a Nicole Kidman picture attached; it seemed to be some kind of rule, for a moment or two). When I heard there was a new biography out, I was interested, but then it was pretty much savaged (as a reading experience, if not so much for its research) in the New York Times, so instead I picked up the earlier bio, by Patricia Bosworth (whom I knew principally as the author of a brisk, once-over-lightly of the life of Montgomery Clift). It's a good read about a very uncomfortable person.

Arbus was a child of privilege who spent her life alternately running away from and strangely nostalgic for the existence she'd known as the pampered daughter of a department-store magnate (she was both ferociously independent and at times times helpless to the point of infantilization) . She sought out experiences ever more extreme, which she tirelessly documented with an increasingly laser-like vision of what she was after: an instant moment that revealed equal amounts about the artist and the subject.  Her most outré works retain the power to shock long after they've become seemingly familiar, a gallery of neurotic children, dissipated celebrities, and bizarre yet ordinary faces caught, somehow, a millisecond before a reflexive flinch from the pitiless lens.

It's a rare subject who gets the better of Arbus, who is able - despite the photographer's best efforts - to deflect her usually unerring skill for finding the cracks and weaknesses, for emphasizing the unsettling weariness of simply living. In her hands, Mae West is a crone weighed down with the exhaustion of six decades of feigned glamor; a pair of identical twins seem like omens of an otherwise unheralded apocalypse.

But every once in a while she met her match, and I think she did here. "Woman with Veil on Fifth Avenue," from 1968, is absurd and triumphant. She is absolute in her self-confidence, a vision of a very specific kind of femininity, frilly and ridiculous and yet internally powerful. She's a force, and on top of that - unlike a very great many of Arbus's skewered subjects - I bet she'd be good fun over a Gimlet or three.

And really, in the end, what more can one ask?

* Has anybody seen it? Is it worth seeking out?


  1. Why is it I hear Stritchy's dulcets right now?

    "So here's to the girls on the go -
    Everybody tries.
    Look into their eyes,
    And you'll see what they know:
    Everybody dies.
    A toast to that invincible bunch,
    The dinosaurs surviving the crunch.
    Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch -
    Everybody rise!
    Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!


  2. Somehow I don't think Sondheim's Upper East Side social x-rays enjoyed their lunches (I'm thinking she hit's the delis pretty regularly) as much as this dear lady, though!

  3. I can smell the Evening in Paris from here.

    1. And you just know that, as the kids say, her foundation-garment game was on point.