Monday, October 16, 2006

Anomalies in portraits

Freaks are born with their trauma. They already passed their test, in the life. They are aristocrats”.
Diane Arbus

Last Friday the first edition of Film Festival in Rome was opened by actress Nicole Kidman, introducing the world premiere of Fur, the film in wich she stars with Robert Downey jr. (director is Steven Shainberg).

Fur is an imaginary period in the life of photographer Diane Arbus (Kidman), daughter of a fur shop owner. This movie tells about her encounter in the 50s with a fictionary neighbor, Lionel Sweeney, whose body is covered of fur.

Arbus (1927-71), one of the master of American photography, was fascinated by human marginality and deformity: siamese twins, giants, albino fakirs, hermaphrodites, prostitutes, dwarves, amateur contorsionists in their backyards, burlesque dancers, mediocres masked balls of old peoples, small cafès aficionados or poor black families. Suburban slums, modest dressing rooms and cheap rural carnivals were the main subject of her art between 50s and 60s.
Her portraits of the “lady sword swallower” and the “giant jewish at home” (here shown) rests among the masterpieces of the photographic art. There are many lavish catalogues published, but try to get to see a live exhibition to really appreciate these pictures.
Now, the film producers didn’t got the permission to use the real pictures in the movie (so we are happily transgressing the law reproducing one here). For this reason, they probably invented the story of the furry friend. I suspect that his name, Lionel, can be inspired by the omonymous legendary “dog man” of museums and sideshows in the 20s.

This pushes me to an erudite reference, Arbus not being the first woman in art to feed her inspiration with bodily anomalies as hipotrycosis (the excess of hair growht on the body).
In fact, italian court Renassaince painter Lavinia Fontana, left us this portrait of Antonietta Gonzales (circa 1594-5), establishing herself as a legitimateancestor of Arbus.
Antonietta, the dog-faced girl, was the daughter of a hairy man brought from Tenerife Island as a child to the court of France. Here he prospered, he went in Italy to the court of Mantua and agave birth to four children, one of them being Antonietta.
You can admire her portrait in France, in the castle museum of Blois (town that is also the hometown of Robert-Houdin). I appreciated the painting on exhibition in Italy few years ago, getting this souvenir postcard.

The movie, by the way, according to the critics doesn’t seems to make history. I will try to see it next week.

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