Oct 202016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Cyril says this informal snap after one of our sessions is akin to fashion photographer Jeanloup Sieff’s personality-portraying nudes, contrasting to the sterile poses in which fashion models are typically placed. Like Duane Michals, Sieff also worked in fashion photography, which was very much about stylized, uniform ‘ideal types’. Sieff’s nudes, however, are exceptional because his photographs retain the models’ particular identities even when their faces are not shown – achieving ‘a perceptive feeling of intimacy’ (to quote, as always, the expert Peter Lacey).

It’s three weeks since you died. I am in the French Concession without you and am lost. In the sense of, unanchored. I could end up anywhere.
    I forgot to charge my phone overnight so I find it dead in the bottom of my bag, but even if it were not dead, I cannot check in with you like I normally would do; let you know my whereabouts. My touchstone, my protector, here in Shanghai.
    So here I am in a poky vintage tea-room, Edwardian-style: mirrors, chandeliers, oak panelling, deep plummy draperies and half-darkness. Once I’d stepped in to find out where the quaint entrance led to, I got ushered – so was too embarrassed to leave. So here I am, drinking lemon tea in place of lunch. A strange, absolute solitude in seething Shanghai.

Back in the flat I pick up Cyril’s latest email offering. Once sober, he is his usual docile, pedagogic, avuncular self.

Darling Suki, I do hope you love this snap of you as much as I do. It is après Jeanloup Sieff. Sieff and others started to look for and celebrate the model’s personality, giving a final ‘up yours!’ to the academic art world wherein the nude had always been elevated to the realm of the exotic, classical or sentimental; a realm in which the nude must never come across as “herself” – a real, individual personality.
    Your Great British Institution, Sir Kenneth Clark, once made the bald claim that the erotic is, and must always be, present in the nude. In the ‘sixties there were these two strands of debate going on: whether or not the erotic is pornographic, but also, more significantly, the contention of the establishment that photography did not and could not quite attain the level of fine art.
    But anyway these guys Michals and especially Sieff were at last, from the 1960s, showing the nude model “as she is”. Your thoughts?
    And can we please meet to talk about our future, since you imminently have to change abodes? Much, much love, Cyril xxx

Dear Cyril,
why did you take the colour out? Bel was really against turning photos into black and white. She said it was fake nostalgia. Have you seen the most expensive photograph ever to be sold? A dramatic landscape, reproduced in black and white, bought in 2010. As Bel said, in the end it’s just an arty special effect in Photoshop. Anyone can do it. Suki

His response, as always, is immediate. He spends his life waiting on me.

My dearest Suki. You had something special with Bel, didn’t you. You never explained… I am sorry for my lack of understanding. I am truly sorry for your loss.
If there is anything I can do… Well, you know.
All my love,
Cyril
Please let us meet

Ping! A reply from Ilka!

Dear Suki – “need my independence”? Don’t you really mean, “incapable of committing”? Your problem is, you are incapable of submitting and letting the journey of a fellow-traveller alter the path of your own life. Oblivious to the needs of anyone you are with, you gallop on relentlessly (randomly, chaotically) on your so-called “quest”. You are all about your own survival. You are not able to support anyone else, because you just move on and on.
    Accept the marriage proposal! That’s my advice. Ilka

She’s right, isn’t she, Bel.

Dear Ilka, I cant look afta anyone. Emotionally. Or cooking. Am insensitive. Hav no intuition. Cn barely look after myself. All my life hav failed badly. Deep regret. Suki




 

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Jul 282016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril says the work of Ruth Bernhard inspired this photo. He pointed me to Bernhard’s ‘mission statement’, as summarised in the Peter Lacey book:
    ‘Every artist is a missionary trying to convey a message of truth and beauty; further, the immortalization of the human body’s beauty – both male and female – has always been an obsession for poets, sculptors, painters and now photographers. However, in her twentieth century context, the image of woman is being cheapened and exploited – especially by photography. Thus Bernhard saw it as her life’s task “to raise, to elevate, to endorse with timeless reverence the image of woman”’.
    Aussie Cyril seems entirely at ease with Bernhard’s quasi-religious attitudes. Cyril, too, has a similar reverence for women. Tuh. His photos from the latest shoot still aim to beautify me.

The BBC is blocked today. They must have done something to wazz off the Chinese government. My VPN isn’t working either. Routed out and blocked.
    I hate it. I hate not having free internet access. I hate living in a totalitarian state.
    So when am I going to leave?
    What if – terrifying thought – Bel didn’t come back from Antwerp?
    She’s spent the whole weekend til now beavering on the ‘Qi Qi’s life-room’ movie. Silent. Shutting me out. But it’s better than obsessing over the world’s bad news, I suppose. She’s still got to put the subtitles on, but I’m sure she’ll get it done. There’s another weekend before she flies.
    ‘Just off to my shoot with Cyril!’ I want as many fistfuls of yuan as I can get out of Cyril. I’m jittery about my cash-flow during the time Bel will be away.

    ‘Good morning, darling Suki-muse.’ Cyril hands me my usual ginger latte from the downstairs wannabe-Starbucks.
    But I am cross. ‘Don’t, Cyril. Muse is not the word. It’s as bad as saying Lee Miller was Man Ray’s “muse”: it positions her behind him, like, in a purely supportive role, when actually it was Lee who invented that famous ‘solarisation’ technique.’
    ‘Alright. I’ll call you my darling directrice.’
    ‘Tsk. Stop it. Look, the facts are, (a) Lee spent at the very most three years with Man Ray, and (b) she used that relatively brief relationship as an apprenticeship to further her own, not his, photographic career.’
    ‘All I mean is, you inspire me. Give me something to do. Without you, I don’t really have… here in Shanghai…’
    God I don’t want to hear this – ‘Cyril! Listen – a proper muse is someone like Charis Wilson; it was her raison d’etre to further the work of her photographer husband. Like, it was her sacred obligation. Whereas I do not further your work, Cyril. I chop it up and make it mine. Muse is not the word for me. It’s your silly fantasy.’
    He pats my bottom. ‘Deary me – which side of the bed did you get out of this morning?’
    Why am I risking upsetting him with honesty? He’s paying me more than the going rate. Pretence works for both of us.
    ‘Cyril. Sorry. Let’s just get on with the shoot.’
    Allowing the bottom-pat is just necessity. But I decline his lunch invitation.

So I‘m back in the flat in time to have lunch with Bel, which for once I myself cook. Maybe we’ll talk! Though I’ve given up prompting her on the subjects of her daughter, her past, herself…
    I prepare instant noodles with flair, serve Bel at the table with a flourish, and embark on an interesting topic.
    ‘Bel. I have a question. Art Nude photographers, even female photographers, mainly photograph women. Whether exploitatively or reverentially, it’s always women. Why?’
    Carefully, as though teaching a little child: ‘Because women are more beautiful.’ Then, with chopsticks halfway to her mouth – ‘Well, except for Mapplethorpe and his gay stuff, obviously.’
    ‘Okay, so I have another question: why don’t men – straight men – make themselves beautiful? It’s not as though they don’t get looked at, in this day and age. Why don’t they feel themselves being looked at, and get self-conscious and worried like we do? I mean – Aussie Cyril’s obese. Mike Little wears a zip-up fleece and socks and sandals, need I say more. Jacques-from-Brussels clearly never bathes. Hong Kong Ron, that friend of my friend Tamara, is a buttockless little shrimp in unflattering spectacles.’ I scoop at the noodles’ grey soup. ‘There’s only Fei Mo Di who looks good.’
    ‘Obviously. He’s a French horn.’
    ‘But the rest of them – they make me want to holler Hey – you men – it’s the 21st century and people are looking at you…!’
    ‘I’m not.’
    ‘…They should get their peacock tails out! They should make themselves more attractive! Just make a bloody effort, guys.’


 

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Jul 072016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril’s photo is in the style of Emmanuel Sougez’s 1930-40s nudes, which “are meant to be sexually admired, but… represent the old-fashioned discreet view of women; an ideal of femininity reminiscent of 18th century artists Fragonard and Boucher,… purely and simply feminine, …seeming to shrink before our admiring gaze”. Yeuch.


My ‘alarm clock’ ( Bel’s hacking cough) goes off early today, but she manages to settle back into dozing.
    So I have got up well before her; left her rattling under her duvet. As I’m putting on my coat I call, ‘Make sure you get a chest x-ray in Antwerp.’ I pop back into to the bedroom, looking for my hat.
     Bel rouses her head. ‘More creativity with Cyril, this morning?’ Did that wheeze have a cynical tone?
    Look, I don’t want his pictures any more. I’m doing this purely for the money.’ I stare at her. ‘You look grey, Bel. I’m phoning the office for you. Don’t go to work. You can’t breathe.’

On the Metro to Moganshan Lu I become terrified I’ll arrive home to find Bel dead in her bed. An asthma attack. Heart failure. A strain of pneumonia that brings instant death.

Alone in Shanghai… God. I would die too.

    But she answers my text.

Am ok tanx. Hav good morning.

At the studio Aussie Cyril’s ten-day-old marriage proposal hangs in the air; brings an intimacy (uncomfortable, unwanted), like ten days into an engagement.
    I don’t refer to it. Maybe it will sink away, be forgotten…
    ‘Over to you, Cyril. You choose the poses.’
    Or should I do something about it? At least they would understand my poetry in Melbourne…
    ‘Thank you, Suki. Today I’m aiming to reproduce the classical nude portraiture styles of Harry Callahan, or Ruth Bernhard; also a fashion photographer who turned to Art Nude called Jean-Loup Sieff, who took “lively portraits of interesting girls”, to quote Peter Lacey.’
     ‘Girl? I’m not exactly a spring chicken.’

In the evening I receive an email with his “classical nude portraits” attached.

My dearest Suki-muse, permit me to regale you with information about the gentlemen who have been my influences. Here is a link to a fine example of Emmanuel Sougez’s figurative female nudes. Though his technique attends to composition, line and form, the individual femininity of his models is not subordinate to these concerns. Then there is Harry Callahan who creates images that are representational of the model’s nature or character (yes, a stark contrast to Edward Weston). Callahan brings out femininity and modesty, coupled with a psychological remoteness and elusiveness. He has chosen women: feminine, demure women; “like mythical beings” they are revered and turned into fantasy (quoting Peter Lacey). While Callahan’s pictures are not remotely pornographic – he maintains a distance and respect – his way of relating to the image of woman is nothing if not sexual.
     By the way, did I ever say, I love those images in which your eyes twinkle? Cyril x

I rattle off –

As so often, you are again trying to make something pretty of me. I don’t mind not being pretty. I’d rather not be. ‘Callahan-esque’ is a style I really don’t like. I’m not a mythical being. I am not remote.

But I must not sound so churlish. Cyril is still paying me. So I delete this, and write –

Thank you Cyril.
These are beautiful. I love looking at beautiful women. I am not one. But they are lovely. Thank you. Look forward to more sessions. Do suggest a date. Suki

Clearly Cyril is hovering somewhere, awaiting my responses. I immediately receive his reply:

Dear Suki, my darling muse, how about another shoot on Monday morning, first thing? Then lunch at the Peace Hotel? Let me know.



 

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Mar 312016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril has lent me another book. I’m being educated. So this latest crop of one of his photos is informed by the hard-edged geometries of Edward Weston who belongs to an important group known as the Photo-Secessionists. In 1902 this group split from the Camera Club of New York to pursue Pictorialism: techniques of manipulating negatives and prints to make them look like drawings, etchings, and oil paintings (and this group did include some women! Clarence White worked with Stieglitz. Also Annie Brigman). They drew inspiration from European art movements with similar goals such as the Linked Ring. The later works of group member Alfred Stieglitz and those of Weston (who was also influenced by modernists Sheeler and Strand) mark the decisive start of contemporary Art Nude photography. But I’m deffo not aiming, like Weston does, to ‘purposely neutralise the uniqueness of the human form by equating it with inanimate objects’. Weston got perverse satisfaction from achieving images of the nude that were ‘entirely impersonal, lacking in any human interest which might call attention to a living, palpitating body’. Is Weston the same type as Uglow? Two haters of humanity?


    ‘A baby froze to death on the Gaza Strip because it was living under a tarpaulin.’
    ‘Oh dear.’ I set down at Bel’s bedside her morning cup of green tea.
    Her not-long-awake face is already set in a frown. ‘This is why Muslim gunmen shoot randomly into coffee bars. It’s simple cause and effect. It’s people with no legitimate forum to protest all the historic injustices committed against them.’
    ‘Well, Merry Christmas, anyway’.
    She snaps shut her iPad. ‘I hate the world, Suki. Where is safe?’ –
    ‘Well, let’s see…’ Oh no – Bel is clearly about to cry!
    ‘We’re all just animals.’
    ‘Look Bel, I think that too. But come on…’ I pass her a Chinese rice-bowl overflowing with peanut M&Ms – ‘it’s Christmas Day.’ No response. ‘Sorry they’re not Quality Streets.’
    Bel throws off her quilt and heads for the bathroom. ‘“Empathy” isn’t innate in human nature; that’s just a self-righteous myth of Western culture because actually anyone who’s non-white and/or non-Christian-heritage is viewed as alien.’ I hear her landing on the loo. ‘Altruism’s a myth too. We only do stuff for others in order to get something.’
    ‘That’s fair enough, isn’t it, though?’ I hover outside the bathroom. ‘Like for example, if it’s to get love? Hey – are you off out or something?’
    ‘Told you: I’m teaching. It’s a normal day. Communist State, remember?’ The shower starts but she rants on. ‘So-called “values” are purely social constructs created for pragmatic reasons. For particular purposes. Everything’s fake. Love is fake. Huh. Lerv. I lerv ya, babe.’
    She is being scarily weird. ‘Okay – we’ll do gifts later, yeah? And I’ll cook!’
    Will my cooking lift Bel’s mood – or at least distract her? Or be the final straw? I don’t know how to help her. After she’s gone to work I prepare her an extra gift. A poem I wrote years ago called Bethlehem, after the 2002 Siege of Bethlehem that reduced to ruins the nativity scenes I had learned in childhood. I print it out and decorate its edges.
    How to spend the rest of Christmas Day?
    I go to the Delightful Peony with my iPad, and email Aussie Cyril.

Happy Christmas Day, Cyril! Am half-way through the book about muses. Edward Weston’s photos of Charis are totally about sex. Never mind what the book says. With muses there’s always something sexual going on. In Weston’s case he has sex with his model at the same time as objectifying the female body to the extreme. The model is no more than a tool. A lifeless plastic sex toy.

As ever, his answer is instantaneous.

Jingle Bells! Hope you’re enjoying today as much as our afternoon together yesterday, which has been the highlight of my Christmas. Aha – you think Weston’s work is about sex? He always insisted his intentions were purely formal and not in the least erotic. You must have read in the ‘muses’ book by now that his nude portraits of the back of Anita Brenner suggest faintly distasteful similarities with his toilet bowl! Yet these are in his own view his ‘finest set of nudes… in their approach to aesthetically stimulating form’. For him they are an ‘absolute aesthetic response… Every sensuous curve of the “human form divine” but minus imperfections’. Stieglitz himself did actually express dislike of Weston’s art nude images, calling them ‘sterilised’; that they lacked fire and life and were ‘more or less dead things not part of today’. No sex!

At teatime Bel returns from class with a polite greetings card from the university’s hierarchy and a very pretty box of dried fruits from Lily Hong. Nothing from any students.
    ‘Here’ – I hand her a Tsingtao beer and clink it with mine. ‘Cheers! Let’s do gifts!’
    Bel opens a small package from Belgium: a book on China sent by her brother. Then my poem, and a grey sweater. ‘It says cashmere but it might be fake.’
    ‘It’s great. Fake’s great – it means “authentically Chinese”.’ She hands me two packages wrapped in red paper. ‘For you.’
    In a pretence of gayness I rip at them. ‘Omigod, where the heck did you find a percolator? You’ve been trawling those fancy malls!’ My second parcel is – ‘Oh joy! Thank you so much!’ – ground Columbian coffee.
    Then she is sidling off onto the balcony. ‘Just making a call.’
    ‘Bel – why do you never say “I’m just calling my Mum”, or whatever?’
    ‘My brother. I normally call my brother on Christmas Day. Sorry. Excuse me.’
    ‘Got any sisters? Are your parents alive?’
    ‘My brother’s it. Childless bachelor, lives in Antwerp because of his solar panels business, very kindly acts as the contact person for Élise. With the unit. He lets me know if he’s been informed of anything by the staff. If there’s anything to tell.’
    ‘Staff? Unit?’
    ‘Sorry. Élise lives in a psychiatric hospital.’ Bel steps outside, tapping at her mobile.
    ‘Oh. Thank you. Sorry.’
    Élise. Like Für Élise. I guess she might be – what – thirty-ish?

Christmas night. Early to bed. Not a candle lit, not a carol played. Apart from yesterday afternoon (Cyril – overjoyed – treating me to a festive tea at the Peace Hotel), a truly crap Christmas.

Bel is a silent lump in her bed, her lamp already out.
    I’ll just do a last check for any emailed greetings.

One more gift: click on this link.
I’m sorry.
Thanks for being here.



 

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