Ask Morgana 011: Poise

ed09bLook at the woman on the left of this picture. Her dress epitomises what I said earlier about the appearance of the fin de siècle lady: “… tight at the neck, wrist, waist, and ankle, exaggerated elsewhere, pearled…” Yet there is something else about her. She has an elegance, a definite bearing, and a flair. Her step is confident, her carriage erect, she keeps easy pace with her slightly more conservative companion – there is no doubt that they are colleagues, equals – and is engaged in conversation with her. In her left hand she carries what appears to be a portfolio, looking rather like a modern A4 ring-binder, and in her gloved left something that might be a letter; her companion carries a couple of books. These are women to whom literacy and communication matter. Perhaps they attend one of the colleges of the day that admitted more and more women as students. What I notice most about this photograph is that it is not posed; its subjects are, however, poised.

The woman below needs both pose and poise to participate in this photographer’s masterpiece of portraiture. The camera was supposed to be the technology that would replace the painted picture, the photographer would supplant the portrait-painter. That was the claim, but did this actually occur? It seems to me that artists, from the mid-19c onwards, sought to show and express things that the camera could not, sought to redefine the priorities of art, sought to push its boundaries and re-map its territory, sought to move it from the humanistic conceit of the Renaissance into the realms of expression and into an exploration of the subconscious. Meanwhile women like the model below hang upon the night like a jewel in an Ethiop’s ear. So maybe the claim was indeed realised.

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