Eye to Eye

The artist/photographer Friderike Heuer poses for the painter Henk Pander. What transpires is a double portrait, a gift of being seen.

Photo essay by FRIDERIKE HEUER

It is an act of sheer defiance. It just is.

The plan to shed half of your clothes, allowing someone not your lover to peruse your scarred, dilapidated body, simply has no other explanation.

Defiance, then, of what? Rules of decorum that forbid old women from sitting naked for a painter? The public’s needs to keep substantive evidence of harsh disease forever out of sight, or else? Some urging of your timid soul that vanity and privacy should be protected? Demands of feminism not to yield to the male gaze, whatever that might be?

Artist and subject, subject and artist: the mutual gaze.

An educated guess: it is defying all of the above.

I like experiments; I always did. Not just as a psychologist researching memory, or as an artist translating my thoughts to visual image. Since early days I have perceived the world as something meant to be explored. That probing, experimental, sometimes even reckless interaction tells me who I am. The gifts of education, intellect, curiosity and extroversion made risking possible. The challenges of life in post-war Germany as well as lifelong bouts of illness made it a must.

Henk Pander in the studio: setting the stage.

This is the third time I am being painted. The first was at age 8 or thereabouts, the standard portrait of a bourgeois daughter, efficiently if blandly executed, blond braids and all. The second as a 16-year-old, madly infatuated with an older painter of the Dresden school, classmate of Richter’s as a matter of fact. The artist’s highly pregnant wife soon put an end to sittings, spotting a young vixen when she saw one, even if the tight, pink blouse did not get lifted once. And now the third: a portrait asked for by a friend, the most successful, visionary painter of them all, the Dutch-born Portland artist Henk Pander.

I do not smile in any of the three.

The subject/protagonist: observing, preserving.

“Will you pose naked?” asks the painter. He’s definitely brave. Rejection is not only hard to take, but could throw awkward sands into the gears of friendship, a friendship which he values, as do I. “What do you think about me posing?” I wonder, back at home. “Not thrilled, but won’t stand in your way,” says my Beloved, his answer fruit of decades of shared life, where we are true. “I will,” I tell the painter, “as long as I can photograph the process.” He agrees.

I’m used to being looked at, a body watched by doctors, surgeons, nurses. It’s nothing when compared to being probed, palpated, cut. I’m used to looking at the world as well. The focus on external information has me distracted from the pain or fear du jour.

The artist’s gaze absorbs, analyzes, re-creates.

The issue of mortality, in my case cancer, puts woes of body shape and femininity in some back corner. You might as well be painted without breasts. It’s easier, of course, if you are partnered, older, not in a sexual marketplace governed by norms of beauty. It’s easier, too, if beauty did not matter much from the beginning. If you are situated somewhere in the middle of society’s norms of beauty, away from the extremes of ugliness, cause for eternal longing, or brilliant beauty soon absorbed by nothing but itself and its resulting power. There is no need for reconstruction, no clothing choices that would hide the change. No need, as well, to proudly put the scars on show, embellish them with yet more needle markings, elegant tattoos. Perhaps you miss the pleasure breasts provided, but focus on the fact that you’re alive and mostly healthy, the dreadful chemo just a memory.

Intimate objectivity: two artists, each a subject as well.

That kind of fragile peace – I admit it – is now disturbed when flatness of your body emerges on the canvas. I’ve donned a skirt, feeble reminder of my gender, which promptly leads to being irritated with myself. You know me, I wear jeans. And really want to think through more important issues.

We are surrounded by a wave of protestation, of publicly announced #me too’s. I do not know one woman (and quite a few gay men) exempt from that chorus when it comes to unwanted advances. We’re living in a world where boundaries are shifting, where change occurs at speed of light. No wonder, then, that rules are questioned, voices heard that were condemned to silence by the ones who ruled. There is welcome momentum for pushback and for change of our culture dominated by misogyny. I wonder, though, if there is also danger that we see every gendered interaction as something prone to make us victims.

It is of course an act of courage to announce that you have been abused and hurt and horribly exploited by those whose power gave them cover. In fact, when still a lawyer, I did not take on the defense of rapists, knowing it required a second attack against the victim as a successful strategy in court. Rape is pure trauma and sex slavery a crime in the extreme. But for the rest of us who have been pinched, or ogled, touched or denigrated, should we insist we have suffered the same fate as, say, those who #can’t breathe? Who lose their lives to racist fury and/or religion-fueled terror? I do not want to buy into a hierarchy of victims but also want to warn about a kind of thinking that shrinks complexity into simplistic schemas.

Concentration is crucial to creation.

Which brings me to the reason for these thoughts, posing for a half-act for the painter. Is it the case that every act of being slowly looked at as a female body is apt to be described as being object of male gaze? Should I be wary that this concept is immediately triggered in my thinking when weighing the relationship between artist and model? Could it be simplifying something more complex, a catch-phrase that obscures a range of other possibilities? Am I sucked into potential victim schemas too?

The term male gaze was coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in a 1975 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, anchored in psychoanalytic theory. It laid out brilliantly the objectification of women in both film and advertisement, linked to its roots in patriarchal needs.

The path towards that idea had been paved earlier by art critic John Berger, who died this January, nonagenarian. In his seminal 1972 exploration of Ways of Seeing, he had discussed the lack of agency, empowerment, and choice for women portrayed in the nude. They were displayed to sate male sexual appetites, with bodies posed to please the gaze. Woman exists to be looked at and in Berger’s own words she does internalize what is demanded: “A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she cannot avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others – and particularly how she appears to men – is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this is quite familiar to many female readers of these words.

Portrait painting is an art of skill and creativity: with these tools, this vision.

Tools and technique: a lifetime of skill in the hands …

Preparing the paint on the palette …

Mixing the colors of light and shape …

You need to know your tools …

The craft requires meticulous calculation …

… and attention to detail.

Inherent objectification need not, of course, be reserved for males. We do it to our sisters, the minute we engage in comparison and competition centered on looks and/or seduction. We do it, if in position of some power, when choosing the portrayal of rented bodies or those observed in situ. There has been much debate about women photographers, for example, who are giants in their fields. The photographic morality of Diane Arbus, for one, was often questioned, when she chose to portray those living at the margins. She was accused of catering to our baser, voyeuristic instincts, to exploit our appetite for freaks. Sally Mann comes to my mind as well. There was much outcry over her photographic treatment of her own nude children, a debate that was only muted by the tragedy of Mann’s son’s suicide not 18 months ago. Wherever you come down on this debate, the possibility exists that gazing is not just a man’s domain.

How do we find a way, then, man or woman or those still differently assigned, to morally peruse the world?

There’re ways of looking at each other that are not objectifying.

Looking at a body scarred by cancer or following someone’s path through dying with the camera is an act of bravery, not objectification. This seems particularly true in our modern times, which makes it easy to avert your eyes from death. If we are facing now a rash of photographic documentation, from art forums to The New Yorker, it’s in long overdue reaction to that void.

If you watch someone, irrespective of their gender, to memorize the liveliness, the smile, the form, it is an act of wish or need to keep what mattered. If you look closely, with the goal to learn how someone moves, or what’s their mood in order to react accordingly, that’s not objectifying. And if you crave to let your eyes peruse all that the world provides because you do not know how long you can, that is an act of longing, not insulting.

A life of looking closely at the world.

I’m used to looking closely at the world. These days it’s with the help of a third eye, my camera, which has become attached to me to document the world in which I live. I bring it to the sessions, at the beginning as insurance that potential gazes flow in both directions. Should I be object, I’ll be subject, too. As it so happens, that was never needed. The longish bouts in which the painter and this model lock their eyes are interrupted by the shutter click ensnaring bits and pieces of the process. My pictures represent the colors, the stance, the aging, lived-in face, while he’s at work. They tell of heightened concentration, a form of still abandon. They capture laughter, when we joke around the session, or frowns when we decry the fate of artists.

The artist is the subject is the artist.

The camera is her tool.

What they can’t show, these photographs, is how an act of unrestricted, mutual looking can bring about something essential. Each one of us documenting the other creates connectedness that voids any potential gaze. Not fraught with all the issues of the more familiar intimacy between lovers. No questions of the right or need to please, balance of power, possibility of loss.

This looking moves beyond the terms of object/subject and settles on the gift of being seen.

For the artist, every painting leaves its mark.

 

The completed portrait, in the studio. Henk Pander photo

 

Friderike Heuer

Portland, OR

November 2017

 

www.friderikeheuer.com

www.henkpander.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Mike says:

    Thank you, Friderike and Henk–beautiful.

  2. Lee Musgrave says:

    Thoughtful text, photos and painting.

  3. Paul Meyer says:

    Brave, honest, remarkable! All the things you are.😇

    • Buck Braden says:

      I always look for beauty in all around me. Beauty in the sense of things, but also in the furnishings of the life within. As an artist I do understand though rarely elucidate what has taken place here and has been spoken too so very adroitly and beautifully. Thank you both so very much.

  4. Hester Coucke says:

    Tjis is wonderful thoughtful post. Thanks you. In both text and images

  5. Tim says:

    this toady heart is full to the brim. I am so proud to share a world with you both.

  6. Thoughtful and well-written. And I love your photography and Henk Pander’s paintings. Thank you.

  7. Ingrid Mann-Willlis says:

    Toos send me the article. A beautiful fragile strong and honest painting. thank you for letting me read the article and for showing the painting.

  8. Beautiful essay, addressing a few difficult topics with thoughtfulness and grace. The process was as compelling as the resulting images! Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the painting and photographs are successful because of the sensitivity brought to the process.

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