Aug 182016
 



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Fei Mo Di

This picture by Fei Mo Di is so beautiful. It dates back to my first week in Shanghai. How did I manage, back at the beginning, to write him off as a repulsive misogynistic public-school arsehole who hated me?

Two days before Bel’s flight.
    Ougth she to be grief-stricken? And ought I to be empathetically distressed, reminded of my own tragic loss of a child? Why aren’t we clinging to each other and wailing?
    I’m scared.
    She has taken to wearing her anti-pollution mask even indoors. I think it’s partly about privacy. Like doing a long pose. A retreat inside yourself. Or behind – literally – a mask.

It’s not just the air that’s poisoning Bel. Something in the atmosphere of this alien land is polluting her mind with dark thoughts, nightmare scenarios, apocalyptic visions. She’s made me feel afraid too. A sense of foreboding. A creeping anxiety. Are her fears irrational?
    ‘Bel, I think it’s good your contract finishes at the end of this semester. It forces a decision about moving on. For both of us.’
    No comment.
    I turn to finishing off a thank-you email to Fei Mo Di for the photos he sent from our “skills exchange” session.

… my amateurish, unskilled, gauche behaviour when being photographed. Having read about and watched the actual process of Helmut Newton‘s shoots with his models, and seen his contact sheets and the amount of trial and error, i.e. how long it took to get the one shot where the model was – at last – doing the ‘right’ thing that ‘made’ the photo, I feel a bit better about my own shortcomings as a photographic model. But I have come to realise and appreciate how patient you have been.
Best wishes
Suki

Bel’s laptop is emitting a gentle Chopin nocturne. Above her mask her eyes are on the colour-adjustment tool in Photoshop, very slowly sliding the cursor along the spectrum. The mask puffs in and out when she speaks. Like a surgical mask. A brain surgeon asking to be handed the next sterile tool.
    ‘What?’
    Again she wuffles the words. ‘Do you love me?‘
    Aagh – panic!
    Bel pulls off her mask but remains studiously focused on her monitor.
    Have I made Bel love me? Have I misled her by coming to Shanghai? And does that make me – oh god – responsible for her? For her unhappiness?
    Do I love Bel? What does that mean? How do I feel?
    I don’t need to conscientiously examine my feelings because instinct is instantaneous and honest.
    I care about you. But I don’t fancy you.
    I say, ‘You know what Prince Charles said when Lady Di assured reporters upon their engagement that they were “in love”? He goes “Whatever that means…”
    Bel‘s dead stare remains focused on her monitor.
    I reach and give her shoulder a swift squeeze. ‘I mean, what does “I love you” mean?’ I do a sunny grin. ‘You’re amazing. I’ll make us a cup of tea.’

The Delightful Peony beckons. The incessant mournful whine of the erhu in the upstairs flat is the joking reason I give for going out for the rest of the afternoon. But I am running away. I feel like running for my life.
    Can Bel reasonably expect my love?
    Ought I reasonably to love her? As in, for once be a kind, generous-spirited person first and foremost, rather than a career-focused writer?
    It’s just, depression is so unsexy.


 

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May 262016
 



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Bel

Bel’s picture of my back reminds me of photographer Helmut Newton’s many beautiful backs. He ‘adores hard light’ because it ‘brings out those muscles… The back of a woman shows a tremendous amount of sculpting and modelling’. Although Bel’s ‘back’ photos are not in Newton’s brilliantly light-drenched Californian settings, they do make me look sculpted. Newton states that ‘naturalness’ is not necessarily what he wants. This provokes the ire of some feminists – or purists, perhaps – who hold ‘naturalness’ to be kind of morally favourable. Newton claims models themselves often choose to put their bodies into positions that are not ‘natural’, and that anyway, manipulation just gets more interesting results.

And another week passes – with the Lantern Festival in it. Another phenomenon we watch from the sidelines – from our balcony – with disengagement; incomprehension. I’ve looked it up in Wikipedia but… how does it feel to those people? Does anyone care? Is it sentimental? Party time? Is it meaningful, or just kitsch for kids? Is it like Hallowe-en? Is it Easter-ish?
    And the students are back. And Bel’s teaching re-starts. We are back to normal. But what is this ‘normal’?

    ‘What I like about you is,’ I call out, ‘comparing you to Helmut Newton doesn’t make you go ballistic.’
    Bel is in the kitchen tending to a sizzling wok. ‘Why should I object?’
    I wander into the kitchen. ‘My ex Ilka, as a hard-line feminist, was venomous about him coz he says that ideally a nude should give you an erotic feeling.’ The latest of Cyril’s loaned books is open in my hand. ‘Like, he criticizes Bill Brandt‘s nudes for not being erotic. What’s good about you is, although you think all men are bastards you’re still relatively tolerant.’
    Bel pushes the tofu around with a spatula. ‘To be honest I do find Newton a bit self-contradictory and a bit full of himself.’
    ‘But at least he genuinely likes women! Listen: “I want a woman who has personality, who is the real thing. She may have a less than perfect body because a perfect form is not interesting by itself. In fact, it is a turn-off. To me, imperfections are much more attractive.” See – he’s definitely not one of those passionless measuring men. He relates intimately with his models.’
    Bel uses her fore-arm to wipe hair tendrils from her forehead. ‘”Intimately” – like Picasso, then?’
    ‘I’m fine with Newton being sexual with his models. At least he wants to know them. And I like him for being especially interested in the female body and finding it so much more aesthetic than the male body…’ I skim on through the chapter – ‘and that he likes immediacy… abrasiveness… spontanaeity… and – get this – unashamed voyeurism! “The trouble with a very controlled nude is that it is not voyeuristic any more”.’
    Bel turns off the cooker. ‘It’s about ready to eat.’ I leave the kitchen to go put cutlery on the table while Bel drains and divides the noodles.
    At last she emerges, two steaming plates in her hands. ‘So what else do you like about me?’
    Gulp. I go on fussing with the condiments, straighten the forks… ‘What was that?’
    Bel’s eyes, when I look up, are levelled at me, chin jutted, as if standing up to a potential blow – ‘What else you like about me.’ Her tone is flat.
    ‘You are absolutely the most brilliant thrower-together of strange Chinese ingredients. This looks fantastic.’ I ceremoniously take the plates from her hands and lay them on their place-mats. ‘Voila! Dinner is served!’

Later, the Delightful Peony provides refuge. And I finally make myself formulate an overdue email to Aussie Cyril, spelling out, at last and in no uncertain terms, the nature and limits of my relationship with him – as I would wish to have it.

Cyril,
I want to make a clear point about our collaboration. As photographer and model we bring together entirely separate skills. Some might believe that the product – the photograph – ought to be entirely the creative domain of the photographer; that the model’s part ends with the end of the shoot. Not in my case. Like Lee Miller, I have engaged myself fully with ‘post-production’ decision-making – as in, making modifications to your original images. While I find certain of your images lovely and perfect, I very often crop the pictures you send me. Radically and with huge enthusiasm. Regardless of whether you might find this an unacceptable adulteration.
I’m being straight with you and I’m sorry if this upsets you. Suki

Oh Suki – absolutely, absolutely not. You are a very strong person… Presence… I love our collaboration. I feel so proud of giving you something to get enthusiastic about. It’s a joy and a privilege to be shown it all as you see it. I think you are a wonderful person and I feel so very, very lucky to have met you and to be involved in this kind of creativity with you. Crop away, dearest Suki. I am always so intrigued to see what you come up with.
Warmest affection
Cyril
PS I am now able to announce – in explanation of my recent disappearance to Australia – that my
decree nisi has, at last, come through. Please could you meet with me to celebrate this?


 

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May 052016
 



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Aussie Cyril

What’s so refreshing about working with photographers is their appreciation of my gestures and movement and personality, in contrast to plodding sketchers whose only mundane goal is “accuracy” – a snobbish aspiration to demonstrate Leonardo-esque drawing skills. Give me any day the photographer-model relationship: an intuitive combining of the flair and spirit of two people.
    To be fair, there are artists who do capture the moment; artists who stand at arm’s length from their easels applying swift, urgent strokes that start from the shoulder rather than the finger-tips; breathless artists with shifting feet who race to produce drawings of a creature on the verge of moving: a model who has flung herself into a wild shape that can only be held for a few moments, her tremulous muscles at snapping-point. Their quick, raw sketches are not about technical accuracy.
    But isn’t there still an essential difference between artist-model and photographer-model dynamics? I mean, what artist would ever say, à la Helmut Newton, “yeh, give it to me baby”? Note: I’d be okay with Newton saying that to me because he’s the genius-level of brilliant, but if Aussie Cyril took that tone I’d be grossed out. Also note: on a bipolar scale, Bel is way at the opposite end from Newton, ghostly in her lack of assertiveness in the model’s domain; silently, unobtrusively documenting the model’s chosen way of presenting herself rather than endeavouring to shape the final image. Bel comes at it with no agenda.

Is that strange?

Over my shoulder Bel is looking at my iPad. ‘One of Cyril’s?’ She sounds unimpressed.
    ‘Yes – it’s from our last shoot. Last week. He was aiming for something like Alfred Stieglitz’s 1921 portrait of Georgia O-Keefe’s neck. I hate my old woman’s face, but the composition and contrasts are interesting. Though I think I’ve over-photoshopped it…’
    ‘You mean you’ve gone a whole week without seeing Cyril?’
    Was that sarcasm? I don’t react to it. ‘Yep! Think he’s losing his romantic aspirations at last, thank goodness.’ (Though I am missing the money).
    Ping! A text.
    ‘Ah. Talk of the devil…’ I grin (why do I feel sheepish?).

My dearest Suki –
sorry for silence! That fantastic session at 50 Moganshan last week exhausted me. By the end, sheer concentration was wearing me out. Have needed a period of repose. But we must definitely book that room again. Just been perusing online more of Schiele’s work – graphic, sexual. Not surprising that he got arrested for allowing children to see “indecent pictures” in his studio. Have you read anything about his muse Wally Neuzil? Other than Wally his models were always prostitutes. How does one model come to be considered a muse when all others are simply prostitutes? Your Cyril x

Cyril
Yes please – do book that same M50 space again. Due to that big whitewashed wall at one end, it’s perfect for reproducing the Schiele-esque look: sharp, spiky sketches that float without context in empty white space. Re Schiele’s “indecent pictures”: the lines between fine art, erotica and pornography are completely arbitrary: culture-bound, generation-bound – don’t you agree?
    Schiele only drew what he was interested in, especially (it has to be said) genitalia: he would literally just leave some other parts of the anatomy blank, like, he couldn’t be bothered to draw the boring bits. But then he was barely out of adolescence when he reached the prime of his career. Don’t you find Lucian Freud to be similar? I mean eye-wateringly explicit – serving up his models’ genitals bang in the centre of his paintings like hot dinners on plates. Female models. Male models. His own daughter. I wonder whether Courbet’s face-slappingly graphic ‘Origin of the World’ painting set a precedent, without which Schiele and Freud would never have got away with their stuff?
    Btw, I totally agree with art critic William Boyd re Schiele’s “superabundant gift” in drawing the human form:
“You can’t be a truly great painter if you’re not an excellent draughtsman”. True, yes? Suki

Dearest Suki,
so much discussion-fodder! May we meet? Dinner at the Radisson tomorrow? A further interesting point in that Boyd article:
“Hugely famous and successful artists who draw as well, or as badly, as a 10-year-old are everywhere acclaimed…” Jackson Pollock being one example. What’s your opinion on Pollock, Suki – could he draw? And does that matter, especially in regard to the current top popular UK artists? How do you rate Tracey Emin’s figure-drawing skills? And David Hockney’s drawing skills – is Hockney only good at colour?’
Cyril xx

He’s asking me out on a date. O bugger.
    But can I resist the Shanghai Radisson?
    After all, I do need to set him straight – of course Hockney can draw!!!!!


 

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Apr 142016
 



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Jacques-from-Brussels

I’ve photoshopped more of Jacques-from-Brussels’ shots from that first group session. Though Jacques is a keen life-long photo-journalist with excellent kit, we just didn’t have a rapport. Now that I have cropped this one to emphasise my hideous belly and taken out some colour, intentionally “making an ugly thing happen” (to quote Helmut Newton, preceding his emphatic declaration that he “would never do that to a woman”), I do like this pic. I want Schiele-esque grotesqueness, not Jacques’ prettiness.

New year, new effort to get to know Bel. Coz we’ve lived together for more than three months and it’s getting stupid.
    ‘Why I really came here?’ Bel pauses from doing the dishes. ‘Okay. I think I came here because if I stay well away from my daughter, no-one can tell me I’m the root cause of her schizophrenia.’
    ‘Flipping heck Bel’ – I, too, pause from drying up – ‘who’s been telling you that?’
    ‘It’s an established theory. They trot it out.’
    ‘Bastards.’
    ‘Or they don’t speak it, you can just feel it in the way they deal with you. As the mother.’
    ‘Who? The doctors? Sure you’re not being paranoid? Oh god’ – I wince – ‘’scuse that accidental… Sorry…’

My rapid escape to the Delightful Peony is only for an hour. But by my return, Bel seems deeply under a cloud.
    She hands me a substantial tome, Nude: Theory. ‘Your fan just stopped by.’
    ‘What – Aussie Cyril?’ (Has Bel’s distress been caused by the unexpected visitor? Or something else?) ‘Why didn’t he wait?’
    ‘He wouldn’t let me text you. Just wanted to drop it off.’ She is back at her desk, fumbling agitatedly for a cigarette.
    ‘Are you okay?’
    Bel turns to me – ‘How can any of us be “okay”?’ She smacks at a print-out of an article. ‘Seen this? Climate change is threatening global food supply. Demand for food is fast outstripping supply. Vast tracts of Africa and China are turning into dustbowls on a scale that dwarfs the one that devastated the US in the 1930s…’

I escape to the bedroom, close the door, sit at my makeshift desk. Bel’s world scares me beyond words. I need to bury my head in Art, creativity, Adobe Photoshop… Anything to distract myself from the imminent apocalypse.

Dear Cyril,
sorry to have missed you dropping by the flat, thanks for this fab book! Are you up for doing a proper studio shoot? Maybe at 50 Moganshan?? I want to try more Schiele poses. I have props. How about Monday or Tuesday? Suki x

My dear Suki!
I arrived here at the Delightful Peony a few moments ago, but have obviously just missed you. If you would permit me to buy you a rather disgusting sweetened latte I would love to converse with you face to face? Am sitting here reading about that old goat Picasso. Actually it’s a book primarily about Lee Miller’s relationship with Roland Penrose, but there’s an interesting quote by New York artist Lee Krasner (Jackson Pollock‘s wife), that the Parisian Surrealists “treated their women like French poodles”. You must know that Picasso famously said, women “make good models and poor artists”? Hope to see you shortly! Cyril xx

Cyril
re Picasso: so what. Don’t forget that Lee Miller – prototypically a liberated, autonomous woman – managed to be friends with Picasso on equal terms for thirty-six years! He painted six portraits of her and she took over a thousand photos of him. There are plenty of old goats coming out with sexist nonsense all over the place. They can at the same time be charming and fun and therefore forgivable. S
PS Soz, can’t come to café, Bel unwell.

Dearest Suki,
defend Picasso if you will. This book I’m reading says that women in his circle were “constrained to the traditional art-historic role of a passive object to be admired, mythologised, dressed and undressed as the perfect accessory to the male artists’ statement of who they were and how they interpreted their world”. Picasso’s late works depict an ever-lovely young model juxtaposed with himself looking increasingly decrepit and grotesque. These images make us “voyeurs of voyeurism”, witnessing the artist’s desire to possess. Thus we, too, enjoy the fantasy of possession of the “object”: the woman.
    What is the matter with Bel? Cx

Why is Cyril copying out all this? Does he think the way to my heart is to be feminist and right-on?
    Is that truly, as Bel would have it, his aim? My heart?

Dear Cyril,
Picasso’s portrayal of an imbalance of power in favour of the male is a reflection of the world he was living in, not his personal misogyny. Somewhere I have read – and I agree – that Picasso’s nudes continue, to the end of his life, to represent the epitome of beauty, fertility, and nature itself. Sexist pig maybe, but he LOVED WOMEN.
    All relationships are in reality power-games. I think you know what I mean. True freedom is when we can choose our roles, and play them out – which we in liberal societies have the privilege to do (unlike in some corners of this world).
Suki
PS Bel is depressed. I’d feel bad leaving her alone, soz.

That’s my excuse, anyway.


 

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