Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The original convulsive beauty

Published: October 13, 2000, Photography Review

We are all narcissists now. These days it is not considered pathological for people to acquire hundreds of photographs of themselves in a lifetime. But in the middle of the 19th century you really, really had to try.

The Countess de Castiglione was a rare creature indeed: a full-blown 19th-century narcissist with unlimited access to a camera. From 1856 to 1895, she had more than 400 photographs of herself taken by Mayer & Pierson, a fancy studio in Paris that specialized in hand-colored photography. And she did not sit quietly and leave it up to the photographer, Pierre-Louis Pierson, to decide the pose. She called the shots.

The countess had herself photographed as a frowning nun, as Medea with a knife, as the tragic heroine Beatrix, as Judith entering the tent of Holofernes, as a drowned virgin, as Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, as a courtesan flaunting her legs, as Anne Boleyn, as Goya's ''Maja,'' as a nurse to her dying dog and as a corpse in a coffin. And she was no actress.

A century before Cindy Sherman made her well-known ''film stills'' starring herself in nonexistent movies, and a half-century before Claude Cahun, the Surrealist, photographed herself as a bald man and a big doll, the Countess de Castiglione made photographic fiction of her own image. At first it seems to have been simple self-love, but by the time she died in 1899, it had gone far beyond obsession.

The countess was a Surrealist, or, to adapt Andre Breton's phrase, the original convulsive beauty. Long before Surrealism existed, she discovered its tricks one by one. She created alternative identities for herself. She used mirrors to fragment and multiply images. And she had an obsession with eyes and detached body parts.

The 50 photographs that make up ''La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione,'' an exhibition in the Howard Gilman Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized by Pierre Apraxine, are not lovely. They are bizarre. Many have been hand-colored to look like paintings. But to watch the countess evolve from self-conscious doll to morbid mourner, to follow her restless preening from youth to the brink of the grave, is mesmerizing.

Virginia Oldoini was born to a noble Florentine family in 1837. At 17 she married the Count di Castiglione. It was a bad match; she cheated on him shamelessly and bankrupted him. The two separated in 1857, and the countess spent most of the rest of her life living with her son, Giorgio, and seducing important men in Paris.

''She would appear at gatherings like a goddess descended from the clouds,'' a contemporary noted, and she would ''allow people to admire her as if she were a shrine.'' The Princess Metternich oohed about her: ''Wonderful hair, the waist of a nymph, and a complexion the color of pink marble! In a word, Venus descended from Olympus!'' But, the princess added, ''after a few moments she began to get on your nerves.''

Her vanity was as famous as her beauty. She sent albums of her portraits to friends and admirers. She would not speak to women. She was endlessly enraptured with herself and assumed that others were as well.

The earliest portraits, taken in 1856, when she was 19, are more or less straight. But then she began to fiddle. She created scenarios for herself. She had a few accomplices to help her with her fantasies: Pierson, her friend and photographer, and Aquilin Schad, who colored the pictures according to her instructions. But the countess's favorite accomplices were mirrors.

In ''The Eyes,'' she holds a pocket mirror away from her face so that her eye is the only thing showing in it. Then she fixes this eye on the photographer. In ''The Opera Ball,'' all you can see is her back. She appears to be diving headfirst into a full-length mirror while a tiny pocket mirror watches from a chair.

There are other oddities in the photographs. In one of the pictures designed to show off her ''Elvira'' dress, the countess reclines in a huge billowing skirt, like Manet's portrait of Berthe Morisot come to life. The effect is comical and surreal. She looks as if she has tipped over and is being carried upward by the ballooning dress. In other shots, the countess tries to make herself more imposing by standing on a stool hidden under her gown. The effect is just a tad strong. She is Alice in Wonderland, too tall to see her own feet.

It's hard to pinpoint when the countess's sense of narcissistic mischief gave way to madness. But at a certain point it seems pretty clear that she was using her photographs as a kind of voodoo.

When the countess's husband tried to take their son away from her, she responded by sending him a Medea-like portrait of herself titled ''Vengeance.'' She has a murderous look. She has a knife dripping with blood painted into her hand. Apparently, she made her point; she kept Giorgio. (He became the most photographed child of the 19th century and even served as a photographic stand-in for her, with his hair pinned up in flowers and his shoulders draped in velvet.) Her conquests continued. And so did her life in pictures.

Years after she pleaded the cause of Italian reunification to Napoleon III, she had herself photographed as the Queen of Etruria to take credit for it. She also had a portrait made of herself dressed as the Queen of Hearts. That was to commemorate her illicit affair with Napoleon III and her shameless appearance in 1857 at a ball with him, dressed as the Queen of Hearts. The empress summed up both the countess's dress and her liaison with the emperor in a stinging remark: ''The heart is a bit low, Madame.''

With those words, intended as an insult, the empress cut right to the core of the countess and her aesthetic. In the photographs the countess treated her body as a kind of foreign material whose parts she would move around at will.

As the countess grew older and less beautiful, she began showing body parts disconnected from the body. For ''Scherzo di Follia'' (''Game of Madness''), she used a small oval picture frame to isolate one of her eyes, letting the stand of the frame form an alien ear. She had her legs photographed, swinging free. She had her feet photographed and then she had them cast in terra cotta, creating a fetish. Prettiness was not the point. By this time, she knew she was falling apart. She subtitled one indelicate photograph of her foot ''Amputation of the Gruyere.''

She was dealing with the way of all flesh. There are a few faded portraits of her dead terrier. One grim photo shows the countess in a policeman's cap pulling up her sleeve to show her ugly arm, as if she has uncovered a crime. But the strangest view of all is a portrait of the countess playing dead in a coffin, a picture that appears to have been taken from somewhere close to her head. To look at this photograph is to see the countess's photographic project as a lifelong out-of-body experience. She was desperate to know what it must be like for others to behold her.

This strange show raises more questions than it answers. Was the countess making fun of herself, or was she making a dead serious point about the role of women? Did she know how strange her project was? What is the connection between narcissism and Surrealism? Between Surrealism and feminism? One thing is clear: the countess was her own best audience, and she would have loved this show.

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