ARTIST ROOMS: Diane Arbus
South Bank, London
until 31 March 2012
Camera obscura. Despite its conversion into the hippest museum in London, the Tate Modern’s massive ugly building, unmistakably an old power station, could otherwise be one of Blake’s dark Satanic mills. In that guise it’s the perfect setting for three rooms lined with photographs by Diane Arbus. There would seem to be nothing new to say, or think, about Arbus’s scalding vision. She roamed the ordinary New York of commuters and shoppers, and yet somehow simply to have her eye settle on strangers transformed them.
Here are faces of woe, often large-eyed and pale (made even paler when she mastered the tricky technique of using flash in daylight). A picture of an angry little boy holding a plastic hand grenade would be ironic if shot by anyone, but in Arbus’s image his skin is cadaverous, his hands withered, his expression straight out of Boschian hell. So indelible are these grotesques that you have only to think certain tag words — twins, giant, carnival, tattoo — and Arbus’s images imprint their pain on your mind.
What new could there be to say? In a nearby gallery the Tate is showing a single large oil by Francis Bacon, the century’s greatest painter of pain, a study of a blobby figure on a folding bed. It is vaguely male, menacing, and sexual. In a fit of politeness the wall description points out drips of “bodily fluids” under the figure, which is surrounded, as often in Bacon, by a circular ring. His version of damnation was properly fenced in with divine geometry. (Another wall card tells an irresistible anecdote. Bacon wanted to retouch this painting after the Tate bought it, to add a green carpet beneath the folding bed, which he claimed was part of the original intention. But the board refused his request, on the grounds that he might mutilate or destroy the image instead. Smart decision.)
How does the eye become as baleful as it did with Arbus and Bacon? There’s a seemingly innocent self-portrait of her from 1958 when Arbus was in her early twenties and pregnant. It shows a skinny girl in skivvies and bare breasts, her stomach attractively swelling, as she leans with a pleasant expression against her tripod-mounted camera. She is seeing herself in a floor mirror, and it’s hard to imagine her seeing what we know to be there, an artist of blackness and future suicide. Bacon was more dapper, a would-be gigolo, a gadabout at gay haunts, gambler and wastrel — a kind of deviant Sky Masterson from Guys and Dolls, although the course of his life would make that Guys and Guys.
Bacon was capable of the occasional image without rancor and lust, and Arbus could undistort her lens, to banal effect, it seems. I’m reacting to two normal portraits, taken outdoors as was her habit. One is of the Argentine writer Jose Luis Borges, at the height of his celebrity in the Sixties, dressed like a banker and looking as dour as one. The other is of Susan Sontag with her teenage son David, both looking ordinary and close. With a subtle flick such images went through the transformer. Two Friends photographed in Central Park, a man and a boy, both dressed in white shirt and black pants, doing their utmost to look just as ordinary, screams pedophilia. Out of gender fairness, there’s a second Two Friends, this time a middle-aged hausfrau and a boy shown in a cheap apartment, that isn’t so much sexual or predatory as unnamable in its unsettling creepiness.
Creepy is the last quality that great art is allowed to exhibit, since it cheapens the more prestigious feelings of terror and awe enshrined since Aristotle’s treatment of tragedy. Arbus and Bacon rise to high creepiness — advocates frequently point to Arbus’s considerable skill in print-making and her technical interest in lighting, for example. It also helps that she can do a star turn or two, as in her image of a dingy movie house in Times Square, dominated by a blinding shaft of white light from the projector, the down-and-out patrons revealed as grainy shadow figures crouched in poses of ennui and despair. She could just as easily have titled this “Christ Harrowing Hell.” Plainer but just as striking is a silhouetted house captured alone on a hill against an evening sky streaked with clouds. It’s as evocative as one of Edward Hopper’s houses haunted by emptiness, and it doesn’t matter that the setting, surprisingly, is Hollywood.
When it’s been stared at long enough, a monster becomes a piece of furniture, and Arbus’s sad shockeroo would be as dated as Weegee’s snaopshots of murdered corpses on the streets of New York if she didn’t have an X factor. It isn’t just the ability to fascinate us with our own disgust and attraction to the freakish. It isn’t just her eye for the human condition reduced to rock bottom, although that was certainly a specialty. In 1971, the last year of her life, Arbus got permission to go into state institutions for the mentally feeble. She focused on those times when these Hogathian unfortunates went out in the park, leading one another by the hand with bewildered looks, or to sharpen the pain, when the inmates celebrated Halloween in pathetically frightening masks.
Arbus has been praised for the courage she displayed when gazing at her subjects and not often disparaged for exploiting them, although I think that’s the other side of the equation. Aside from a few people who glare defensively into her lens, as if to defy their grotesqueness, the subjects she photographed seem as unself-conscious as half sides of beef hanging on a hook. Compassion is in the eye of the beholder, and I’m willing to give Arbus the benefit of the doubt. She died, at 48, becoming a martyr to her own pain — and her art — unlike Bacon, who merrily persisted as a much-ballyhooed swell, of a sort. More power to him, I say. Arbus would be undiminished without slashing her wrists and swallowing an overdose of barbiturates (like her mother, she struggled with bouts of depression). Our view of suicide as a medical issue rather than a romantic gesture is closer to the truth.
But back to the X factor. I returned several times to two trick photos titled Headless Man and Headless Woman, which consisted of two fully dressed models sitting in chairs, their heads hidden behind a curtain or covering that seems to be in back of them but actually tilts (my own guess) so that their heads can be concealed. Depriving a person of a head is upsetting on the face of it — maybe there’s a primal brain mechanism at work, like seeing somebody with no hands — and knowing that the images are by Arbus adds its own predictable shock. Yet for me the X factor here is at once spiritual and archaic. It was thought in the ancient world that sight is a power that goes out of the eye toward the object being seen, not the reverse, which brings light into the eye.
Although physically mistaken, this explanation seems valid artistically. In the way that Arbus and Bacon saw, they sent themselves out into the world, transmitting not just their perception but, quite strongly, their spirit. If that is credible, then when we look at these images, the artists are sending themselves into us, too. The dark communion in Arbus is real enough to feel visceral, and I’ve never met a person who could resist it or simply turn away, although of course some don’t like her. Beyond the grotesque, Arbus aims an accusation at us: Where is your humanity? How can you not reach out? This combination of pity and blame (which isn’t the Bacon cocktail) makes me want to weep before her photographs, and there’s no demarcation between which tears are for her, her forlorn subjects, and myself.