Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Les Demoiselles d'Hollywood

Have a look at "The Vanity, the Vanity" from today's Guardian. It takes on the cover of the Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, a photograph by Annie Liebovitz, saying, "this image betrays a hierarchy of beauty and age that is as cruel as Hollywood itself."

You can probably tell this by comparing the dimensions of the photograph to those of the magazine:
Don't be fooled by the puff that this edition of the magazine has 10 cover girls: the photograph has been divided into three smaller tableaux and folded over twice. Only Uma Thurman, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet pout out from the cover proper; they won the Celebrity Death Match and are in poll position.

One passage:
VF considers its Hollywood issue an event - "This is a very big issue for us so close to the Oscars," a PR told me - but actually, it is a desperate sight to make all feminists tremble. This is Disempowerment as she is dressed by Versace. On the first rung of the paper podium Kate, 29, Cate, 35, and Uma, 35, mug ferociously for the camera lens, trying to ease each other out of the viewers' eye in a nightmare of expensively dressed passive aggression.

I'll let you read the article for a detailed analysis of the three sections of the photo, and how the actresses on each vie for attention.

Of course 2005 is not the first time Vanity Fair has published such an image on its Hollywood issue, but I suppose this one is especially stark. I am particularly intrigued by that boundary between the backdrop screen on the left and the barer, pipe-exposed walls on the right. (Forgive my tentative looking: I cannot seem to find a large copy of this image.) I could not help wondering, looking at this image and reading the analysis of it, to what extent Liebovitz was thinking of this:

The poses are even almost the same!

The Museum of Modern Art's website says this, about Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon:
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is one of the most important works in the genesis of modern art. The painting depicts five naked prostitutes in a brothel; two of them push aside curtains around the space where the other women strike seductive and erotic poses—but their figures are composed of flat, splintered planes rather than rounded volumes, their eyes are lopsided or staring or asymmetrical, and the two women at the right have threatening masks for heads. The space, too, which should recede, comes forward in jagged shards, like broken glass. In the still life at the bottom, a piece of melon slices the air like a scythe.

The Guardian writer concludes:
I feel soiled gazing at this photograph, and it's not just jealousy. It reminded me of Caravaggio's famous chicken in the National Gallery; it's just as pornographic. Leibovitz's cover is a simply a casting couch, a homage to the blowjob values of 1950s Hollywood. To watch 10 beautiful women (of which at least four are talented) bicker for the lens's attention like tarts in an upper class brothel is dispiriting. I'm off to buy the Socialist Worker. They don't do drama and the tits are smaller.

I can understand the writer's sense of dispiritment, but I wonder why we might be more struck by the predicament of those depicted on the VF cover, as opposed to that of the women in the Picasso, which we now happily accept as art. Is it the old difference between painting and photography, the latter of which we presume to be "real"? Is it that unknown models elicit less sympathy than do known stars? Is it a sense that this VF picture tells us something true about what we expect from stars? And does buying the Socialist Worker instead really change anything?

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