Artists are People Too: Polixeni Papapetrou

(Last Updated On May 1, 2018)

[May 1, 2018] Polixeni Papapetrou passed away on April 11, 2018. She will be dearly missed. I have written a personal note about my experiences with her here. -Ron

This is a personal story, because it is about my evolving friendship with a remarkable artist and so you will forgive a lack of personal detachment when discussing her. Over the years, I have always been impressed how people with some notoriety will nonetheless be quite approachable and personable. This is certainly the case with Polixeni Papapetrou, and through her I discovered that true artists have the intellectual and spiritual depth I really respect and savor—but she was the first and so there is a special place in my heart for this particular artist.

By August 2008 I had just discovered the exquisite work of Sally Mann and some of the ridicule she received “exploiting” her own children. In researching Mann I heard a lot of stories of mothers being arrested for taking innocent pictures of their naked children and I decided that it was time for me to assess the veracity of these stories myself. It was slow going at first, but one item caught my attention early on about a scandal caused when a Melbourne-based artist allowed an image of her naked daughter to appear on the cover of a major art magazine. When I looked into the issue further I learned that it was a cropped image of 5-year-old Olympia Nelson (Papapetrou’s daughter) on the July 2008 issue of Art Monthly Australia (#211):

Polixeni Papapetrou – Olympia as Lewis Carroll’s Beatrice Hatch Before White Cliffs (2003)

This was from her “Dreamchild” series which was produced in 2002, but the cover had reignited the controversy. As you can see, it is a beautiful and tasteful image and I was proud of myself in recognizing that the composition resembled that of one of Charles Dodgson’s nudes—to appear in an upcoming post. Since I knew the artist was under siege, I wanted to lend my support and let her know that the whole world was not against her. I was amazed by her prompt and reasoned reply, and she confirmed that it was indeed an homage. I only later discovered that her doctoral dissertation was on Dodgson’s photography and that she is probably one of the leading experts of her generation.

I was startled that she had such a considered response ready, but as she had received her Ph.D. only a year before, she had the citations readily at hand. In the beginning it was an information overload. I essentially got a reading list which I did my best to follow up on, and she mentioned the issues of other artists who used their children in their work: Edward Weston, Emmett Gowin, Sally Mann, Tierney Gearon, etc. I also learned that Olympia, even at that tender age, was quite strong-willed and was the one who insisted on doing it in the first place. It was especially ironic that the choice to put this image on the cover was carefully thought out as it had been exhibited many times without a peep, so everyone involved thought it safe! After the release of this publication Prime Minister Rudd said some hateful things about the work and the artist’s motivations. The media were camped outside their home for two days until the now 11-year-old Olympia decided she wanted to speak out publicly. Poli did not want her to at first but there was no stopping her, and so she and her father went out and she made her statement (which can be seen here.)

I did my best to read all the research she gave me, and sometimes I would follow up with more questions. I soon felt the need to reciprocate as she was giving me so much, so I tried to understand in more detail what things interested her and slowly I would give her leads of things I myself had discovered. I live in a rather intellectually bereft town, and so I treasured the mental stimulation and eventually the conversation turned to other things like politics, health, family, the rigors of travel and family photos and anecdotes. Before she dedicated herself more exclusively to art, Poli studied law and met and married Robert Nelson, a professor of art history and art critic. Besides Olympia, they have a son, Solomon, who is two years her junior. As a consequence the children are blessed with a strong scholastic legacy. Both children learned piano and violin beginning at age 5 and the violin became one of Olympia’s passions; she even spent six weeks in Italy to master the instrument and learn the language. Poli herself has an almost selfless compassion and recently helped a friend get her health back after the particularly stressful passing of her husband. Lately she has taken an interest in greyhounds and has a male named Lexi.

After much consideration, it occurs to me that there are two running themes in Papapetrou’s work: 1) An emphasis on body image, which is rather ubiquitous in our modern culture yet rarely deeply examined, and 2) a dark and eerie quality to her imagery, which she says she is not shy in exploring. Poli likes the idea of how her artistic vision has evolved organically, and like a true artist, her ideas strain at first for meaning and only later begin to crystallize.

When Olympia was born it seemed inevitable that such an event would affect the artist. Even though it might be said that Papapetrou garnered some notoriety because of the controversial nudes, what really fascinates her most is the cultural developments of the costumes of children over the years. It is fitting that the earliest substantive incorporation of Olympia in her art would focus almost fetishistically on her wardrobe—the eerie element being the toddler’s conspicuous absence. “Olympia’s Clothes” is a series of photographic collages of the 2-year-old’s outfits. Olympia being too young to have a well-developed scheme of self-expression, this collection is really about the projections of her parents and well-intentioned friends and family. As such, the child is endowed somewhat with a cloak of classlessness, sometimes even genderlessness, and families of limited means even manage to spoil their babies and toddlers in this way. Our post-industrial consumer culture has made possible a wardrobe once reserved for princes only a couple of centuries ago.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Olympia’s Clothes (installation detail) (1999)

In the series “Play” we see Olympia in a charming stage of early childhood. Any child development expert will tell you that, as children master the manipulation of their bodies, they begin to experiment with the particulars of their culture. The seeming incongruity of trying on adult clothes—or in this case jewelry—against the wholesome naked frame is irresistibly charming. The peculiar twist social reactionaries have put on this play has made us all hypersensitive, forcing us to be needlessly self-conscious about our enjoyment of this spectacle. It is the artist’s hope that we may review these images again someday and have a more constructive discourse untainted by artificial controversy. Papapetrou is in good company in this respect, and to my eye these images slightly suggest the work of Sally Mann—minus the candid domestic backgrounds. Robert Nelson’s essay about this series quite intelligently uses the word sensuality, which can help us adults divorce the concepts of a child’s natural inclination for self-display from the grown-up connotations of mature sexuality. Children have certain instincts which promote their development, but the viewer should refrain from making patent projections about the child’s future.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Olympia Wearing Grandmother’s Jewelry #2 (2001)

“Phantomwise” is a title drawn from a Lewis Carroll acrostic poem. This fortuitous series was the result of the 5-year-old Olympia being stranded inside the house due to rain. Instead of having an adventure through the looking-glass, she insisted on being photographed—already a long-established pattern. She happened to have finished watching Walt Disney’s Pocahontas and had cobbled together an Indian brave costume to start with. Despite all protestations of inner inspiration, Poli would have to admit that the spontaneous wishes of her children were a strong contributing factor in her choices. Not being formally educated in art history myself, I am slowly learning the jargon. One of the first terms I remember distinctly was tableau vivant which Poli uses extensively. I did not know at the time that this was an almost inevitable form coming from the Victorian psyche during the advent of photography. We are accustomed to photographs serving a documentary function, but in the early days when composing and processing images was an arduous task, skilled artists had to choose their subjects carefully, and the natural first instincts were to compose scenes theatrically and—especially with children—fantastically. Children’s bodies and personalities lent themselves well to this kind of portrayal while adults tended to participate in portraiture—no less carefully manipulated. This series really demonstrates a more sophisticated form of play as Olympia and her mother experiment with more exotic compositions than before.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Indian Brave (2002)

In “Dreamchild” Papapetrou is playing exclusively with the photographic work of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. She made some reference to his work in earlier series, but her efforts here are more specific. As much flak as Poli and her family received regarding her nude studies and tableaux, I actually found her work quite conservative, which is a testament to how hysterical the debate has become. She is generous and open-minded and respects the efforts of others who experiment with different portrayals of children. A curious issue about child actors comes into play here as they act out or model behaviors they would not do at that age. Here Olympia has not yet learned to hold, let alone play, a violin.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Olympia as Lewis Carroll’s Xie Kitchin (Tuning) (2003)

After a short series called “Fairy Tales” Papapetrou focused even more tightly on the Alice books written by Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. She says it was Olympia’s attitude and excitement about this project that helped her recognize the playful aspects of Dodgson’s original work. “Wonderland” evokes a long legacy of children’s illustrators, and as always, Olympia and her friends make excellent subjects. Papapetrou made use of her formidable education again by staying true to the work of Sir John Tenniel—an important early illustrator of the Alice books—with the help of her painted backdrops.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Pepper Soup (2004)

“Haunted Country” introduces a couple of new elements. One is the expanded awareness of the landscape of Papapetrou’s native Australia, which we see more and more from this point. The other is the introduction of her son Solomon as another subject in her work. It is remarkable as I study the careers of women artists that there is often a consistent progression. Early on—with or without formal education—there is a child or children who are the focus of the artist. As the children grow up, it seems more attention is paid to the environment which is often regarded with a respectful awe. Poli’s explanation for this development in her work is worth reading here.

Polixeni Papapetrou – By the Yarra 1857 #2 (2006)

“Games of Consequence” adds a new dimension of play—both for the actors and for the artist herself. Although there is still a childhood charm to the play, there is an earnestness to assimilate the demands of the adult world; these games have rules and those rules come from a culture we are now a part of and will pass on to our children. The more integral use of the artist’s native Australian landscapes contributes a heightened mood to each scene. In this case the material is drawn from Poli’s own childhood memories of outings with her sister and younger brother. Although the title implies that the girl in the foreground has just had a fall, the really sinister and consequential component is the secret being shared by the other two girls—presumably about the fallen girl. Boys and men who do not give much thought to female psychology should realize that secrets and ridicule are some of the most potent causes of stress among girls.

Polixeni Papapetrou – The Fall (2008)

“Between Worlds” has a special place for me because this was when Poli began to share some details of her thought processes with me. Her idea was that, even though children of this age have assimilated much of their culture, there are still wholesome and spontaneous animal impulses, and these striking juxtapositions speak to the idea of having one foot in each world. In addition, the effect of alienness is a statement about how children have become regarded as the “other” in adult society, as though they were not fully human. At first I had expected the usual stereotypical animal roles, but the somewhat regal sounding titles added a depth to the images that defy convention and open the mind to new possibilities. I believe this sophistication marks a new spiritual depth in Papapetrou’s work. My favorite is the one with horses among the hay bales; by now Olympia has become a skilled violinist and Solomon indulges his mother by toying with gender roles and is the other figure lying against the bale. The obligation of holiday gift giving means that we don’t always give or get the most thoughtful gifts, but Poli chose the perfect image here to be made into a Christmas card.

Polixeni Papapetrou – The Violinist (2012)

“Dreamkeepers” appears to be cut from the same cloth as “Between Worlds” from a production standpoint, but there is a tempest of emotions beneath the surface for both the children and their mother. On the one hand, there is this exuberance for the potentialities of the future with the concomitant insecurities of a child entering adolescence. By this time, Poli has become quite used to working with her children, and as they become more aloof and independent there is a melancholia and an uncertainty about the future. Papapetrou, like many artists who work with children, cannot help comparing the bodily perfection of youth to the progressive signs of aging. Poli sent me an artist book of work from this series and the response was intense; they say no news is bad news and though my guests thought it was weird, it was worthy of comment—many taking snapshots on their mobile phones. The idea was to have some visual cues of youth from the body beneath with masked cues of age on the surface. The stark artificiality of the masks and costumes against a youthful natural frame and skin, and the almost surreal Australian backgrounds, creates an impressionistic effect, and so many viewers at first believed them to be paintings. I asked her about the introduction of clown costumes in the work and she said she began to be intrigued by them and wanted to play with that image in later work. Here is an interview with Robert Nelson which includes some charming excerpts of her work in the field and her family life.

Polixeni Papapetrou – The Wanderer No. 3 (2012)

Papapetrou’s latest series “The Ghillies” is inspired once again by the whims of the children—this time Solomon. He is an avid player of combat video games; he saw and wanted a Ghillie suit he saw in a store, which is a kind of tactical camouflage. Naturally, he asked his mother to take a picture of him in it. Papapetrou continued to make use of Australian backgrounds and the results can be seen on her website and will be exhibited in April 2013 at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York City.

My involvement with Pigtails was a sudden development, and so I had not told Poli about it at first. I was pleased to learn that she thought it “a very thoughtful and considered site,” and I can only hope this post also meets with her approval. Pip had already posted a couple of her images, but I felt Poli deserved a proper post all to herself as she contributed greatly to my personal development in art history, appreciation and criticism.

Her children’s passage from childhood into adolescence is cause for bittersweet reflection, but she informs me that she has purchased a new state-of-the-art camera and has found some young girls willing to model should Olympia be unavailable . I have no idea if her clown imagery is going to dovetail with this new development, but in true artistic form, these thoughts will have to incubate in her mind for a while before they are made manifest.

As Olympia turns 16 (and Solomon 14) they may begin to contemplate their childhood experiences, and I hope they will take the time someday to share them with us from an even more mature and self-possessed perspective.  You can hear some recent comments from the children in a downloadable video by Roy Chu here.

* I did not know if Poli wanted me to talk about her illness and prognosis to the public.  I wanted to publish this post in a timely manner so she could see what regard I have for her and her work.  The Age published an article that discusses some of the personal issues  and the latest artistic developments.

Polixeni Papapetrou (official site)

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