Exhibitions often bring fortuitous collisions. I visited Ella Dreyfus’ exhibition Age of Consent a few days after re-reading Walt Whitman’s poem “Faces”. Sauntering through America, the poet describes and celebrates the myriad faces along the way, concluding with a grandmother who looks out from her quaker cap, her face clearer and more beautiful than the sky. He contemplates the linen of her gown, sensing:
The melodious character of the earth,
The finish beyond which philosophy cannot go and does not wish to go,
The justified mother of men.
Whitman captures the tranquillity of an aged person who has lived well. Yet, for all the solemnity of this almost universal encounter, I wonder how often these days a poet would discern such grace in the face of an elderly woman? In an epoch where youth and beauty are seen as inseparable, the idea borders on the uncanny. How strange that our preoccupation with longevity, the indicator by which the West measures its superiority over other cultures is smitten with nostalgia for an unattainable youth. Age really is the problem of our age. Dreyfus addresses this in her exhibition, a project emerging from residencies at aged-care units around Sydney, and also from her extensive network of older friends.
That the human body, especially the female body, is the subject of a pernicious form of colonisation is axiomatic to Dreyfus. Yet far from despairing at the beauty ethos, with its lamentable effect upon women’s self-image, she uses her art to radically expand channels of vision. The female nude might seem the most hackneyed of artistic subjects. Hence the achievement of images that bring new light to what ostensibly is familiar ground.
The background to this project is revealing. Her previous intervention on imagery of the body occurred in the early 1990s with an exhibition and subsequently a book about the pregnant nude. The bellies swollen to the point of bursting, the superb and exaggerated curvature of womanly form, suggested an elemental timelessness. I was powerfully reminded of Henry Moore.
The photographs were popular and mesmerising. They championed the generosity, the fecundity, the aesthetic worth of the pregnant body, inviting the viewer to contemplate a place of origin. In contrast, the temporal gaze in Age and Consent is directed forwards, not backwards. The show is all the more confronting because it points not to where I came from but to what I will become.
Photographs can have their own fecundity. The gallery not only houses images but facilitates their generation as memories and sensations come floating through. The photos are large, their format square (suggesting an evenness in proportion). With the power of magnification, the changes time has wrought upon the body, the fineness of wrinkled flesh, the tissue texture I know so well from holding my grandmother's arms, are simply stated.
A veil has been dropped and shielded from the returning gaze, it is kind of safe to play voyeur. Depiction of the nude is typically inextricable from issues of sexuality and desire. Hence the revelation of seeing nudes where these factors are not at the forefront; which state with a certain brutality the warts and all reality of a time in our lives. No part of the body is hidden from the all-seeing lens. Scars, stretch marks, pubic hair coarse or absent, the patches discreetly worn for hormone replacement purposes, are there in all their nakedness.
These images are not really about making beautiful what is usually maligned as some have suggested. That is only part of the story. Beauty is hardly ubiquitous among the young, and among the aged it tends to leap out only here and there. I find it in a torso stretched and stretched again by its erstwhile inhabitants who have left a vessel, perfectly tempered, that has done everything it was designed to do.
But there is much about old age that is cruel, painful and debilitating, that rots the body or maybe worse, decays the mind. One part of the exhibition shows women in geriatric care. Some suffer dementia. There is a frightening portrait of an old, old woman. Her hands block her eyes to speak all too plainly in their silence of unresolved grief. As rich in narrative as the bodies themselves are the signatures of the models; they all gave written consent which the artist has reproduced, enlarged and displayed alongside the photo of its maker. Some commence with a certain assurance then drift off into doodleland. Others have a tight, studied control.
Ultimately, I felt a deep sense of gratitude from this experience: not just to the artist but to the many women photographed who were brave enough to show their bodies as they are. Amidst the mixed bag of feelings, it generated fear, admiration, mirth, the oddity of being a man and encountering these secrets of womanhood, were moments of such richness and resonance.
My favourite is a diagonal stretch of torso where breasts are flattened and belly is rounded, the skin folded in corrugations so fine they might have been carved with the etcher's tool. The navel, oval and cradled by surrounding flesh, is the eye of the picture, steadfast as a star. She was connected once, as others were connected to her. Nakedness can bring a truthfulness and here indeed I sensed the melodious character of the earth.
Martin Thomas works as a historian for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Sydney. He is editor of Uncertain Ground: Between Art & Nature, in association with the Australian Perspecta, 1999. (Publisher, Art Gallery of New South Wales).