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Portraiture

29 September 2010

(NOTE: A version of this essay was first published in Signs of Life 2009, a publication of Facere Jewelry Art Gallery in Seattle, Washington. For more about Facere, visit their website at www.facerejewelryart.com. To learn more about the work of jewelry artist Diane Falkenhagen, visit her website at www.dianefalkenhagen.com.)

Brooch: Double Hidden Portrait, 2007, by Diane Falkenhagen. Sterling silver, 24K gold plate, mixed media image on silver. 2.75 x 2.75 x 0.625 inches. Photo by Bill Pogue.

Contained within the brooch are images from this painting, Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni, by Agnolio Bronzino (1503-1572).

 

1544. A woman and her child are sitting for their portrait. It is important that they look their best (there is so much at stake, nothing less than a kingdom, an empire, manifest destiny, world peace) and they do. Mother’s dress dominates the portrait: she is renowned for her fashion sense. The baby is compliant; but then, of all her children (so many!) this one has the sweetest disposition. Mother and child look out of the portrait with heavy lidded eyes, irises the color of mahogany. The baby likes Mother’s dress; its pattern – a filigree of curving lines and seed-bursting pomegranates – delights him, and he keeps busy fingering the folds at Mama’s hip, breathing in her scent, while she anchors him with a hand on his shoulder, the flesh of her wrist brushing against his cheek, a whisper touch they will both remember as the best part of this tedious experience.

Years from now they will sicken and die together, of malaria. The portrait will live on, although the identity of the child will be endlessly debated; which one was he, exactly? The portraitist will become famous for his abilities. Everyone will know his name.

 Centuries later, a famous art historian will remark (quite rightly Mother feels in retrospect) that she seems “congealed into immobility behind the barrier of her lavishly ornate costume.*” Oh, well. What can she do about it now?

1848. A woman and her child are sitting for their portrait. An ornate tapestry curtain hangs behind them. Mother reclines on a chaise, daughter stands. Their eyes are averted, downcast; they stare at something off to their left and low to the ground. Nothing alarming – their faces register a cool and collected detachment, even distaste – but what could it be? A dead rodent?  A dust bunny? A person of low degree? No: this odd angling of their gaze has been directed by the portraitist; he wishes perhaps to suggest a contemplative aspect. Mother and child would have preferred to look elsewhere - at each other? - but they acquiesce; surely the portraitist knows best. Their noses are long and prominent; their lips and thin, their chins protruding.  Mother wears voluminous black silk shirtwaist offset by a white, lace-edged capelet. Child wears vertical stripes, a shawl, fine kid gloves; she balances a dark-colored parasol on her left shoulder that frames her head: a negative halo, the partially seen shadow of some lurking, malevolent doppelganger.

1911. A woman and her child are sitting for their portrait. It is dark, where they live, a dank hellhole where no stranger has ever come before, and yet this stranger has come with strange equipment and flashes of light. They will never see this portrait, but after they are dead it will outrage the reformers of New York City and spur them to action.

1936. A woman and her children are sitting for their portrait. She is very old; her children are young; one is a babe in arms. The two older children hide their faces, nestle against her shoulders. the baby sleeps in filthy swaddling clothes. A pall of dust covers them all. There is a delicacy in the woman's gesture - one hand cupped against the side of her face, hre brow furrowed, her eyes squinting into the distance. Not even a button remains to adorn her dress; it is tied together at her sternum with a bit of string culled from the butcher's that one time when they had money for meat.

1960. A woman and her child are walking along 13th Street toward "O" when their portrait is captured by an employee of The Journal-Star. They are dressed for spring and wear identical yellow and white dresses made of crisp dotted Swiss. Gloves, too - the clearest badge that they are bound for someplace fancy: the Miller & Paine Tea Room in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, where there are starched linen tablecloths and napkins, the pot pies on the children's menu are served in special dishes, porcelain ramekins, and the old ladies wear too much lipstick and rouge and stare and grimace if you speak too loudly or use the wrong fork or make a spill. This portrait will appear on the front page, but only in the daughter's memory; she has never been able to find it.

Pentecost Sunday, 1972. A woman and her child have been sitting for centuries. The child is dead, his head lolls back, his wounds are visible, his long adult limbs drape across the astoundingly powerful-looking thighs of this giantess, his mother. She does not cry. She seems to both offer him up and gather him in. A deranged geologist wielding a hammer begins to shout, “I am Jesus Christ!”; he strikes at them, amputating Mother’s marble nose. She will be restored, but from now on, she and her child will be protected by walls of Plexiglass and a more vigilant security force.

Forty-six years after their appearance in the Journal-Star, a woman and her child are sitting for their portrait. Mother, in bed, wears a cardinal-red beret to cover her bald head - My hair is my pride and joy she always said. - and Daughter hovers bedside. Later, the portraitist will remark that they have the same smile.

2008. A woman and her child are sitting for their portrait. They are in their farmhouse kitchen; outside, the sun shines on acres of milo and sweet corn. Mother smiles broadly, proudly. Son is in uniform. This portrait will motivate mothers and children all over the country to contact their local recruitment center.

Sometime before or after that. A woman and her child are sitting for their portrait. The mother wears her skin too loosely, although she looks very happy, very serene. The child – wearing a christening bonnet and dress and swaddled in a fleece blanket - is a baby monkey.

A woman and her child are sitting for their portrait. They are refugees from this war or that one, from this time or another.

A woman and her child are sitting for their portrait. The child is simple-minded. No, retarded. No, he has Downs Syndrome, leukemia, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy. He suffers from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, the aftereffects of a TBI; he has never been the same since he came home.

A woman and her child are sitting for their portrait. They are victims of mercury poisoning, napalm, asthma, peanut allergies, sexual abuse, domestic violence. They are the poster mother/children for dust bowls, ethnic cleansing, you made them strong we’ll make them Army strong, famine, psychosis, slavery, failed health care, pharmaceutical disasters.

Enough! They have all had enough. 

Locating the energetic epicenter of their portraits (the nipple of that red beret; the black hole formed by the parasol; a single kernel of genetically-modified corn; the one, shining, pomegranate seed overlying Mother’s bellybutton) they manage an imploded escape, a maneuver that sucks them into and through this umbilicus portal to the other side.

There, they expand, turning inside-out, reforming as four sides of a perfect square.

Now, they frame an open space, where life – real, unfrozen life – can unfold. They will protect this open country, guard it forever, fiercely, so that another life can unfold there.

That life is yours.

 

* From History of Art by H. W. Janson