Monday, January 2, 2012
They had two completely different special exhibits up; a one-painting show of Titian's La Bella and an almost-overwhelmingly big installation of Japanese prints. Perhaps because I saw the Titian first, I was paying special attention to portraiture in the second show. I was particularly taken by prints like this one - that are actually of male kabuki actors in women's dress, since they played female roles. You can just tell it's a man; it's the little bit of bare scalp that you can see just above the forehead that gives it away. Men were required to shave above their foreheads and leave just a forelock.
This print, which is from the 18thC, would make an interesting purely visual comparison for the Titian painting: in both the big blue dresses and the elaborate hairstyles, as conventional markers for femininity, have attracted the artists' attention. But conceptually they are so different. The text in the La Bella show was largely about the question of who this woman was: was she a wealthy woman patron or a courtesan? Or is that painting not really a portrait at all but an idealized image of beauty and so should our attention really be directed to Titian as her author rather than to her identity? For the print, we know exactly who this is - if I looked it up (which I don't feel like doing right now) I could tell you the name of the actor, what role he is playing, and in what play. But then we have an image here of an actor, of a person who temporarily becomes other people rather than remaining himself; we have an image of him in a role and so in one of these temporary identities rather than as himself; and we have the difference between the actor and the role that is marked by the change in gender and that is made visible by that little hint of white skull. It raises questions about portraiture and so about identity: can an image ever represent a person as him or herself? Are we single unitary selves? Or are we always playing roles? And roles that are never quite right, that are always in some tension with who we understand ourselves to be?
Its easy for those issues to come up for me when I'm home for Christmas, which is typically the one time a year I go home, because I get cast into some unaccustomed and somewhat uncomfortable roles. From being a (very) independent autonomous adult person, I'm suddenly a daughter again, which is ok for the most part. I've spent enough time with my parents as an adult that we have a fairly comfortable relationship. More problematically, I'm suddenly a little sister again. And maybe because my brother and I spend very little time together - we typically only see or even speak to each other at Christmas time - we have not developed an adult relationship but still seem to relate in much the same way we did as children and teenagers. I spent a lot of time as a young person feeling bad about myself in relationship to my brother: he was cool and popular, I was a nerd. I'm mostly over this now, most of the time. Living away from my brother helps. So did therapy. Now it seems to me that he feels bad about himself in relationship to me (he and his wife have struggled financially in recent years) and he seems almost desperate to re-establish the old relationship, to assert his dominance and put me in my place. And I do end up feeling bad about myself again: I know he can be polite to people, so why is he such a jerk with me? Is it something about me??
I don't know what to do about this. I know better than to try and talk to him about it, because he won't listen to me in general and certainly won't listen about this. I know Mom is hoping that he and I will finally have to develop a relationship as we care for our parents in their old age. But I don't see that happening. Most of the time I imagine wrapping up in my blue kimono, slipping on my silly wooden platform shoes, putting up my umbrella (this is Portland after all), and just walking away from him.