Maiden Voyages: July 2018

After my return from visiting an artist friend in the UK, I had intended to share a number of interesting and relevant details, but alas, my hours are limited and I have not gotten to it yet. I want to do it properly as there is a lot to cover so you can expect to hear the details in the next couple of weeks—after completing the Brian Partridge post.

The first item here is a last minute addition. Robert Nelson, husband of Poli Papapetrou, suddenly replied to an inquiry I made in April.

Legacy of a Deserving Artist: As mentioned before, my first artist friend, Polixeni Papapetrou passed away this April leaving a number of bereaved family, friends and fans leaving a few questions up in the air. Her husband Robert has just graciously replied to some specific questions I had of particular interest to her adoring friends and fans. First of all, Poli’s website will be maintained indefinitely. At first glance, I had thought there was no accompanying text to her latest installation ‘My heart’ which is to be found here. During the memorial service held on April 17th, Robert read this poem at Poli’s graveside.  He also wrote three dedications to Poli which can be  found here. A book dedicated to the artist is indeed being produced by Thames & Hudson but there is no news on a release date as yet. A while back, Poli was kind enough to share a copy of her doctoral dissertation, A studio investigation into the theatricality and performative aspects of the child subject in photography. I had thought to have it published here but I am told it is already available online from the Monash University Library. Thank you again Robert for updating us on the latest developments.

The Problems of a Federal System: Coincidences are a remarkable thing. Upon returning to the US, I got a stark illustration of the differences between a monarchy and a federated republic. The Alabama authorities conducted a raid of Chris Madaio’s apartment. If this were an FBI raid, there would be nothing to be concerned about: a couple of computers and a portable drive containing his own legitimate work. The problem in this case is that Alabama law has a stricter interpretation of child pornography which includes non-suggestive photos to topless children (some of which have been published on Pigtails). With luck, this will simply be seen as a misunderstanding; but if not, this demonstrates a vindictive desire to continually punish people despite good faith efforts at rehabilitation. This kind of variation is not seen in the UK where Her Majesty’s law is the law of the land and cannot be made looser or more strict by the individual counties.

Part of a Proper Education? Here’s something you don’t see anymore. Apart from the general neglect of education in the West, people’s priorities have really changed. We no longer concern ourselves with children’s posture. This is a mixed blessing because it is now generally believed that the mental functions are most important; but if correcting our posture helps prevent bona fide health problems in the future, why not do it? Whatever your views on the subject, take a look at this charming 1920s video where children demonstrate many of the proposed corrective exercises.

More Modeling News: This month’s installment is a blog featuring articles about the issue of children photographed in the nude. Many of these topics have been discussed here before and the blog’s emphasis seems to be on anecdotes about law enforcement and the current debate on legality in the US.

Maiden Voyages: May 2018

My First Artist Friend: I must regrettably inform everyone that Polixeni Papapetrou passed away on April 11th at the age of 57. She is survived be her immediate family: husband Robert Nelson and two college-aged children, Olympia and Solomon who posed for the artist frequently. She is also survived by what must be a multitude of friends and fans.

One of the things about the internet is that it is so anonymous and impersonal. Even legitimate email comments or inquiries go unanswered. I wrote her a short note of support in 2008 at a time when the media were staked outside her home during a resurgence of controversy about an image of Olympia in the nude. She actually took the time to reply thanking me and responded to some comments I made about other artists like Sally Mann, whom she admired. At the time, I did not realize she was an expert on Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and gave me a reading list. Years later, she even sent me a copy of her dissertation on Carroll.

The ironic part about the controversy was that she was being ridiculed for child nudes which were actually quite conservative and were only a momentary diversion by an adoring mother. In our missives to one another, the subject of nudity often came up and Poli always felt it necessary to remind me that she was not really interested in nudes per se. In fact, her motifs in her later work clearly centered around the idea of our persona, attire, masks and the outer surface of things. Admittedly, many people did not understand the images of children in animal masks, masks of old people, clowns, etc. But Poli was making a sincere exploration into the mystery behind the appearances of things.

Many artists inspired her: Diego Velázquez, Julia Margaret Cameron, Sally Mann, etc. Like any skilled composer, she would experiment with variations on the work of other artists and then use what she learned to effectively convey her own vision. But all the while, there was the gratitude she had for her models who helped make it all possible. Her last installation, ‘My heart—still full of her’, was a dedication to her models, especially Olympia. A lot of fuss was made about the images of Olympia in the series ‘Play’ and the images were removed from her website to wait out the hysteria. It always saddens me when media hype obscures whatever discussion might have organically emerged.

Poli was always quite generous and frank in her letters and notes to me. Communicating back and forth made me realize how shallow and dimensionless most people are and that is the first time I got the feeling that “artists are my people”. She was also surprisingly frank about her illness and would offer updates about the latest tests or when the cancer had progressed. The ironic thing was that she took such good care of herself and observed a vegetarian diet; she was simply dealt a bad hand and did her best to get the most out of what time she had left. She was always mentioning books—both fiction and non-fiction—and films she would watch with her kids. And although she hated the bother of traveling around for exhibitions, she did love visiting Europe with her family.

In 2012, when Poli’s disease took a turn for the worse, I wanted to make sure she knew what regard I had for her and that is when I made the post ‘Artists are People Too’ so she would be able to see it in her lifetime. Her husband Robert was instrumental in answering questions whenever Poli was incommunicado. I had asked her if she would prefer I make no reference to the cancer, but she said people would learn of it anyway and she did not want to appear to be hiding anything. Nonetheless, in public exhibitions she did not want viewers focusing on her condition. When she became too weak to walk and stand, she had to be wheeled around. She would always make sure she was seated in a regular chair when the public came to see her; she looked perfectly healthy otherwise and so no one really suspected. When she first told me about her latest exhibition, she sent a photo of herself in a wheelchair next to one of her “notorious” images. I commented how strange it was to see her like that and it was heartwarming to realize that she was able to let he hair down with me. But I did still get the feeling that she was keeping me at arm’s length: never wanting to speak on the phone or inviting me to visit. In retrospect, maybe the slight detachment allowed her to he get things off her chest that she would not want to burden close friends with.

To my own surprise, Poli made sure I was sent media kits of most of her exhibits and I even got a couple of interesting Christmas cards. They were photographic, of course and Olympia and Solomon got to design the composition for two of them. I felt really honored to be included like that and I have a special shelf where I display all my Poli materials.

It was a real privilege to be in on the artistic process. I would often be treated to test images for a series that had not yet taken shape and a little explanation of her thought process. One image that finally appeared in ‘My heart’ I had seen several times. The photograph was produced in the style of Julia Margaret Cameron, but when Poli first took it several years ago, she was not sure how she would use it. Later, she sent another version.

Polixeni Papapetrou – My Ghost from ‘My heart—still full of her’, 2018

I’m making some new pictures from the archive including self portraits, silk screened on linen using gold foil. It’s very difficult to capture the look in a pic as it has to be seen physically. Polixeni Papapetrou in a personal note, 2016.

The final title, My Ghost, is quite apropos as I suspect this one has been haunting her for a while.

There are still a few loose ends and so I can assure readers that the Poli story is not over. Toward the end, although I wanted to stay in touch about her latest exploits, I did not want to put any further demands on her already waning strength. But in her last couple of messages I was told that a publisher was interested in making a book dedicated exclusively to Poli’s work and life. I will be following up on that and informing readers when I learn more.

Things really should have stopped after our first initial pleasantries but whenever one of us saw something interesting and relevant, we would pass it on followed with some discussion. Now when I see something and think, “Oh, I should share this with Poli”, I will be struck by the cruel reality that there will be no more sharing. Good Bye, Poli! -Ron

Maiden Voyages: July 2017

Mission Statement: As this site developed, it has become more and more apparent that it serves a greater purpose than one would assume at first glance.  As if living in a nightmarish world of doublespeak, it seems as if the mainstream culture would portray us as misanthropes.  We have, in fact, pursued the exploration of the subject of little girls with a sincere desire for self-knowledge.  Every investigation and every decision has two sides and thus we are not only examining the character and nature of little girls themselves, but why they have such a psychological effect on us.  A few serious people out there understand this and realize that this site must survive and persistently make its presence known to the mainstream community.  It was thought that to help bridge the gap, there should be an explicit mission statement so that those unfamiliar with this site and who might get the wrong first impression can see that this is a serious endeavor with a challenging mission.  The first four, and most essential, clauses in this statement have now been published—each introduced through the Facebook page and then added to the ‘Mission Statement’ page here.  More clauses will be added, but the key points are now in place and other pages will be added in time to make Pigtails in Paint a more effective resource and launching point for relevant and constructive social change.

An Image is Worth a Thousand Words: In the June ‘Maiden Voyages’ I reported how Google+ censored a photograph by Ilona Szwarc, hinting that it “depicts the exploitation or abuse of children” or “presents children in a sexual manner”. Now Christian informs me that his profile was temporarily suspended under a similar pretext after having participated to a Google+ discussion group opposing the stigmatization of minorities and, by extension, pedophiles; which was eventually banned. On the other hand, groups or individual profiles propagating hate, in particular glorifying Nazism or promoting anti-Semitism have not been removed, despite being reported; some of this content happens to be illegal in certain European countries, according to anti-racist watchdog organizations. So efforts are underway to put pressure on Google if it wishes to continue operating in those countries.  For any Google+ users who want to protest this hypocrisy, they can write on the profile of the Google+ owner or on the Google+ Help community.

Rescuing the Girl Next Door: There is a new film called The Book of Henry (2017) about a boy who uses his genius to help others.  His next door neighbor, played by Maddie Ziegler, is being abused by her stepfather while Henry helps strategize what to do about it.  You can watch the trailer here.

Archetypes of Femininity: A colleague recommended an interesting book published in 1988 called Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Sìecle Culture by Bram Dijkstra.  It is an intelligent overview of the perceptions of women in Victorian times and how that shaped their portrayal in imagery.  Dijkstra’s research is excellent, but he condemns artists too much for being the products of their own age.  It also points out how artists, including women, could only gain success if their work presented acceptable subjects and interpretations.  The eventual fascination with the girl child came about in an age that was infantilizing women and artists were escaping to so-called purer forms supposedly devoid of the evils of sexuality undeniable in the adult female form.  Because of this, it became possible for artists, like Charles Dodgson, to explore—however subconsciously—the eroticism of children with impunity.  This offers some real insight into the cultural environment these artists worked in.  The book is more valuable for its observations of cultural movements and how they shape today’s attitudes rather than Dijkstra’s opinion on the merit of particular artists.  The book is discussed on Celestial Venus and a book review can be found here.

Putting the Nature Back in Naturism: An associate mentioned a couple of images he found featuring naturists in the San Francisco area.  The TreeSpirit Project  founded and photographed by Jack Gescheidt was already reviewed by Pip but continues to add new images of which prints can be ordered.  It is important to realize that nudity can be used as an important political tactic that is both consistent with the group’s agenda while challenging people’s perceptions and complacency.

Child Models and Actors: Often lost in the sensationalist debate is the reality of child modeling and the children’s perception of their experience.  One of our readers has been feeding me interesting articles and tidbits on this subject and I keep meaning to pass them on.  So for the next few months, I will be publishing the links here until I have gotten through all of them.  Most of these items have to do with the stigmatization of children being nude, but I know that these issues overlap with many other ethical and legal subjects as well.  The first submission is anecdotal; it appears that there is actually a Facebook fashion blog that features a nude girl as its avatar.  I have also been informed that a nude image was successfully uploaded on IMDb from The Spy Who Caught a Cold recently reviewed on this site.

A Skin Thing: The producers of a recent exhibition called Skin Thing in Australia made a very apt choice for introductory speaker, Olympia Nelson.  Those familiar with Nelson will remember that her family became the subject of controversy and she courageously defended her mother’s (Polixeni Papapetrou) work publicly at the tender age of ten. Interestingly, there are reports that the artist will soon be releasing certain images that were held back at that time because of the thoughtless and hurtful comments received.

Artists are People Too: Polixeni Papapetrou

[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)

Cherry Ripe!

There is a garden in her face
Where roses and white lilies grow;
A heav’nly paradise is that place
Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.
There cherries grow which none may buy,
Till “Cherry-ripe” themselves do cry.

The above is the first stanza of Thomas Campion’s poem “There is a Garden in Her Face,” a paean to a beautiful virginal girl. How do we know this? We must first put it into historical context. Cherry vendors in England traditionally used the call “Cherry ripe!” to let people know that cherries were ready to buy. If we apply this fact to the poem, we see that the man is describing a girl that, while beautiful, is not yet ready to be “bought”—that is, she hasn’t quite reached sexual maturity. Campion admires this girl for her sexual purity, which he acquaints with spiritual purity. Here we have a basic explanation for the Victorian cult of the girl (which followed Campion by a couple hundred years): girls, because of their perceived innocence and sweetness, were considered above all other natural human groups to be the closest to God, so long as they maintained their virginity, hence British society’s horror of the underground culture of girls being kidnapped and deflowered—brought to light by W. T. Stead’s series The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon, and likely highly exaggerated therein—which compelled Britain’s Parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16.

In terms of cherries being associated with young girls and virginity, many people seem to be under the impression that slang terms like cherry, in reference to the hymen, was invented by their generation, or at least the generation before theirs. In fact, this is not so:

cherry […] Meaning “maidenhead, virginity” is from 1889, U.S. slang, from supposed resemblance to the hymen, but perhaps also from the long-time use of cherries as a symbol of the fleeting quality of life’s pleasures.”

There we have it. The slang term dates at least to 1889, but I suspect the association of this particular fruit with virginity dates further back than even Campion’s poem, which was first published in 1617. And we are also given another, older, symbolism for cherries in the above etymology: they stand for the fleeting quality of physical pleasure. This too can be tied into sex, but also to childhood, which is itself fleeting. This symbolism is the Western tradition, but even in the East the cherry (and more specifically the cherry blossom) are also associated with maidenhood/virginity. We are more concerned with the Western mode here, but I do find it interesting that such disparate cultures can arrive at a similar symbolic representation, don’t you?

Back to the poem. We get the impression from the final stanza not of a full-grown woman—worldly and self-assured—but of a nervous girl being approached by potential mates, as if she is a wary doe being stalked by wolves on the hunt.

Why am I bringing all of this up? It is to lay the foundation of context for one very interesting painting, that painting being Sir John Everett Millais’s “Cherry Ripe”, a deceptively simple portrait of a little girl in a white dress with pink highlights sitting on a log in the forest . . .

John Everett Millais – Cherry Ripe (1879)

Wikipedia: John Everett Millais

Millais was a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and like most of the Pre-Raphaelites, he loaded his art with symbolism. First, the semiotics of color. White was of course the color of purity. Children, particularly little girls, were often dressed in white for formal portraits. Moreover, the child is placed against a dark and shadowy forest from which any wild beast could emerge and snatch her from her perch; unlike most portraits, which are set safely indoors or illuminated spaces, this one is actually a bit edgy. More likely than not this was intentional on Millais’s part. I have mentioned before that semiotically a white figure against black backdrop stresses the figure’s vulnerability or purity—or, in this case, both—in a morally nebulous world. Pale pink, which is traditionally associated with young girls, is also the color of cherry blossoms, and the child’s flesh is also pinkish. Here we have a figure composed almost entirely of white and pink. The lone exceptions are her eyes and hair and the black gloves, but as they were a conscious choice, it is the gloves that draw our attention.

The gloves are black. The color black has many symbolic interpretations, but here it screams sexuality. Look closely at the girl’s hands: they are placed in her lap and closed together prayer-style, only inverted. The gloves are fingerless, V-shaped and adjacent to her hands, inevitably funneling one’s attention right to the girl’s fleshy, exposed fingers, and (as more than one art critic has pointed out) those fingers happen to resemble a vulva.

Now some questions arise. Was this accidental or deliberate on the part of Millais? I suspect the answer is somewhere in between. And what exactly is Millais saying with this painting? Perhaps he is wrestling with the Victorian notion of the asexual girl-child, and suggesting that it may be a tad more complicated than that. Maybe he’s being ironic. After all, despite the title of the piece, the little girl is clearly nowhere near being “ripe”, and indeed some of the cherries lying at her side belie the title as well. Then again, maybe it is entirely coincidental, but I doubt it.

There is one other possibility I can think of. Millais was a friend of culture/art critic John Ruskin, who was married to Effie Gray at the time they met and became friends. But Ruskin had been married to Effie for several years and had yet to consummate the marriage, owing to, it was rumored, his mortal dread of pubic hair. Ruskin, like Lewis Carroll, had written a book for his beloved when she was still a child. The book was The King of the Golden River. Unlike Carroll, however, Ruskin was eventually able to marry the girl he had eyes for, although Ruskin and Effie were only nine years apart in age whereas Carroll and Alice Liddell were twenty years apart and of different social classes from one another. Anyway, Millais and Effie eventually fell in love, the marriage between Ruskin and Effie was annulled, and Effie remarried Millais, with whom she had eight children. (Side note: The oldest Millais daughter—also called Effie—was even one of Lewis Carroll’s photographic subjects.) Now, Ruskin was a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, but given the embarrassing situation between Ruskin, Millais and Effie, it is little wonder that Ruskin began to condemn Millais’s post-marriage work, ostensibly because it was of lower quality according to Ruskin, but in reality it is more likely that Ruskin felt slighted and used his power as a critic to avenge the loss of his mate to Millais the best way he knew how. Is it possible, then, that Millais, with the painting “Cherry Ripe,” was publicly mocking Ruskin and his supposed pubic hair phobia? Probably not, but it is worth considering.

And speaking of Lewis Carroll, perhaps the next most famous artwork featuring little girls and cherries after the Millais piece is Carroll’s photo of the Liddell sisters (Edith, Lorina and Alice) in which the oldest girl, Lorina, is feeding Alice a cherry. Alice stands with her head cocked and mouth slightly agape, like a baby bird waiting to be fed by its mother. And, of course, Alice would be the one to be fed, given Carroll’s ongoing fascination with her.

Lewis Carroll – The Three Liddell Sisters (“Open Your Mouth”) (1860)

Wikipedia: Lewis Carroll

The above was one of several Carroll works that Polixeni Papapetrou created a tribute to.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Cherry Group

Polixeni Papapetrou (Official Site)

One step removed from this, cherries—really any fruit, but apples and cherries in particular—can represent transgression, as in the story of Adam and Eve, in which children stand in for the first humans and the crime that brings on their downfall is theft.

Fritz Zuber-Bühler – The Cherry Thieves

Wikipedia: Fritz Zuber-Bühler

Carl Larsson – Forbidden Fruit

Wikipedia: Carl Larsson

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Pickers

Wikipedia: Frederick Morgan (painter)

Note the coy and mischievous expression on this girl’s face:

Charles Amable Lenoir – The Cherrypicker (1900)

Wikipedia: Charles Amable Lenoir

Cherries can also represent intimacy, both romantic and familial.

Paul Hermann Wagner – Idylle mit Atelier (1889)

Lord Frederick Leighton – Mother and Child (1865)

Lord Frederic Leighton: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton

Franz von Defregger – Kinder beim Kirschenessen (1869)

Wikipedia: Franz Defregger

Cherries can become an amusement for little girls playing at being women.

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Earrings (1)

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Earrings (2)

Frederick Morgan – The Cherry Gatherers

Georg Rössler – Mädchen mit Kirschen (1901)

But mostly cherries were just colorful eye-catchers that helped to emphasize the vibrancy and ruddy healthiness of youth . . .

Emile Vernon – The Cherry Bonnet (1919)

John Russell – Little Girl with Cherries (1780)

Wikipedia: John Russell (painter)

Friedrich von Kaulbach – Kirschen (Cherries)

Wikipedia: Friedrich Kaulbach

Fritz Zuber-Bühler – The First Cherries

Finally, a couple of curious contemporary artworks in which girl meets fruit; to be honest, I’m not sure exactly what to make of these.

Rene Lynch – Wonderland: Cherry Picking (2005)

Rene Lynch (Official Site)

I will say one thing about this final piece: Pay attention to how the little nude girl unwittingly mimics the lithe erotically posed woman in the magazine her mother is holding.

Tatiana Deriy – Little Cherry

(Editor’s update, 2015/11/06: There is a larger image of Little Cherry on Tatiana Deriy’s website.)

To Be Fair (Mirror, Mirror) – Pt. 1

Lord George Lyttlelton wrote, in Advice to a Lady: “What is your sex’s earliest, latest care, Your heart’s supreme ambition? To be fair.”

Feminists complain that the culture we live in is, in the words of Dr. Mary Pipher, “girl poisoning”–in essence, that our cultural preoccupation with rigid standards of beauty teaches girls from a young age to fret obsessively about their appearance to the point that their self-esteem is damaged. I agree to an extent. The media certainly tends to emphasize sexuality in teens above other qualities. However, at the same time the current cultural zeitgeist in fact denies the holistic beauty of youth, claiming that young people are asexual or even in fact poisoned by sexuality itself, and the strongest advocates of that position are the selfsame feminists who lament our narrow definitions of beauty. Girls themselves are at the center of a cultural tug-of-war over youth, beauty, and sexuality.

How is a young girl meant to take these conflicting messages, then? It appears to me self-evident that Lyttleton was correct, and not only that–throughout history beauty has always been a concern for girls, and that a rather slim definition of feminine beauty, while changing over time and from culture to culture, has been around as long as girls themselves. Thus, one cannot fully blame modern Western culture for this obsession; it is in our genes. Even the lowliest animals driven by instinct seek healthy mates–the problem, it seems, is in how we define healthy. Is Kate Moss a healthy human female specimen? Some people think so; others find her woefully thin.

In a society where young girls are simultaneously expected to be themselves and to maintain a healthy body, where they are both expected to be attractive and denied their attractiveness because of the overriding panic of sexual exploitation and abuse, where eating disorders and body dysmorphia are striking younger and younger girls, what is it that a young girl sees when she looks into the mirror? Is it a beautiful face and form that beams back at her, or a hideously ugly thing which forever haunts her thoughts?


Eugène Durenne – La toilette


Unknown – Mirror, Mirror (1920s)


Pierre Breyne-Marcel – La toilette enfantine


Jean-Baptiste Poultier – Fillette se regardant dans un miroir (1685) (1)


Jean-Baptiste Poultier – Fillette se regardant dans un miroir (1685) (2)


Jean-Baptiste Poultier – Fillette se regardant dans un miroir (1685) (3)


Agathe Röstel – Young Girl Combing Her Hair


Jacques-Émile Blanche – Reflections


Paul Peel – A Venetian Bather (1889)


Titti Garelli – Mirror, Mirror


Jules Marie Auguste Leroux – The Mirror (1871)


Norman Rockwell – Girl at the Mirror


Polixeni Papapetrou – Little Vanity


Guy Bourdin – Girl in Mirror


Ruth Gikow – The Kitchen (1960)

Fr. Wikipedia: Jean-Baptiste-Jacques Poultier (Site is in French.)

Wikipedia: Jacques-Émile Blanche

Wikipedia: Paul Peel

Wikipedia: Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell museum

Polixeni Papapetrou

Wikipedia: Guy Bourdin

Louise Alexander Gallery: Guy Bourdin

Jewish Women’s Archive: Ruth Gikow

The Body: Report Examines Girls’ Struggles With Sexuality, Peer Pressure, and Body Image

Amazon: Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality (Sounds like an interesting book, though I confess I haven’t read it.)