The Archivist’s Nook: Resurgence

Lindsey Whalen at her Catholic U. Class of 2018 commencement celebration.

The University Archives recently acquired four photographic works by Lindsey Whalen, B.A. 2018, who presented her undergraduate thesis show Resurgence in the Salve Regina gallery during the fall of 2017.  

Lindsey’s work is a topically layered translation of her turbulent emotional state while healing from a dislocated ankle, a broken tibia, and a broken fibula that she sustained from a fall. Her medical treatment included fourteen screws, a metal plate, fifty-six stitches, and over two months of recovery.

Injury often causes dramatic physical and emotional transfiguration and these changes can intersect in unexpected ways; for Lindsey, her injuries affected her creative drive and threw her into a season of restlessness: “All summer, I didn’t touch my camera, my paint brushes, anything art related.”  

As the mental fog began to clear, Lindsey felt empowered to begin creating art again, but this time her work would bear the existential weight of her recent traumatic injuries—she alludes to this uncertainty by enshrouding her subjects in an atmospheric liquid that alternates between opacity and translucency; this mysterious liquid seems biomimetic and conjures a uterine environment, where new life is being created; but what lies beneath the liquid is inchoate, unreconciled, and not ready to be shared with the world.

Her work is an act of disruption because it precludes the audience’s inclination to arresting the feminine image and subjecting it to somatic critique as a function of addiction to harshly cross-examining images of women based on patriarchal heuristics that almost always impart a dimension of sensuality. By showcasing her own body as a palimpsest that is simultaneously in various states of erasure and composition she does not allow space for the audience to attempt to author meaning in her narration universe.

Lindsey’s work has now become part of the university archives and will be housed among materials from over 100 years ago; from an archival perspective, Lindsey’s work traverses the scale of time because it is intimate look into how a young woman at Catholic University defined herself through artistic acuity, it is a look into how this young woman related to the social reality of women and their visual representation in the late 2010s, and it is a look into how she visually harmonized injury; physical and emotional transmutation; beauty; and rebirth through practicing the craft of art as a biopsychosocial-spiritual mechanism. 

Headline piece from Lindsey Whalen’s Resurgence, featuring Lindsey

In 3018 (1,000 years from now) her work will form part of a network of materials contained in archives all over the world that have crystallized this very point in time—a significant generational zeitgeist that has been signified by the vast amounts of people who are using social media to hold traditional media accountable for poor visual representations of their communities and signified by the vast amounts of people who have eliminated traditional media as a factor in how they construct their social representations and relay their unique stories to the world. We are in an age where we can subvert the power that traditional media and print culture has had to dissolve our personal agency by taking our own photographs; through scripting and shooting our own films, through creating our own print publications, through writing our own books, and through using social media to discuss and distribute our stories in an environment that is not controlled by traditional media outlets.

For general interest in the museum art collection, please send inquiries to lib-archives@cua.eduPlease note the Archives does not do appraisals of non CUA Museum materials.

 

Resurgence – 2017 Undergraduate Thesis Show by Lindsey Whalen
(Speakers on medium volume!)

The Archivist’s Nook: Embodiment – Becoming the Spectacle of the Opera

Sample of Novak’s North African/Moorish/Al-Andalus image study for Lakmé

Joseph Novak was The Chief Scenic Artist of The Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City, from 1910 to 1952—an approximately 40-year tenure. His archival papers consist of a collection of artistic works and associated documents that were originally donated to The Catholic University of America’s School of Music to become a part of the Luce Library in 1976; however, the collection was housed, processed, and exhibited at the Mullen Library. The collection consists of approximately 500 sets of opera models, 100 photographs, 600 drawings, uncounted numbers of clippings, and associated documents produced by Novak. Among the many intriguing projects undertaken by Novak was his set and costume design for the 1932 revival of Lakmé —a tale of the Orient…

Embodiment: Becoming the Spectacle of the Opera.

In 2013, Gerard-Georges Lemaire wrote a compendium titled Orientalism: The Orient in Western Art. He opens the monograph with a meditative preface by Genevieve Lacambre who ponders: “Where exactly was the Orient that was so vividly depicted by the Orientalists?…we ought more accurately speak of the Orients”—a place of multiple iterations. The Orient is difficult to define because of the supernumerary of cultures that were swept up by Europe’s non-stop quest to capture the ontological essence of The East and to become the author of its authenticity. The Orient was an imaginative state, channeled by nearly the whole of Western society, across an astonishing temporal reach, in which “For over two thousand years the Orient has exercised an irresistible fascination over Western minds…” The Orient meant different things to different Western cultures and within each respective culture there was a great deal of intra-cultural variegation as to who and what were referred to as Oriental.

Orientalist art was the materialization of the push and pull between a Europe that was arrested by its profound fascination with the other and a Europe whose cultural mythos had set it diametric to the vast array of cultures that comprised world around it. These opposing energies engendered the desire to recreate other cultures through the visual arts and imposed a layer of cultural semantics through the establishment of a visual vernacular that was steeped in decadence and violence.

Orientalism penetrated the visual realm from fine art to advertising. This advertisement blends the emerging trendiness of art deco with the continuing rage for all things Oriental.

The orient was conjured by those who had visited the regions that unwillingly carried the pseudonymous “Orient” moniker and was remixed by those who had never visited beyond the borders of Europe. By the 19th century, Orientalist art entered a grotesque stage—a semiotic shift that arose in response to new geopolitical occurrences. European’s Colonial expansion had created a new impetus through which “Some of the first nineteenth-century Orientalist paintings were intended as propaganda in support of French imperialism, depicting the East as a place of backwardness, lawlessness, or barbarism enlightened and tamed by French rule.” The striking paradox of the French artist’s use of the Orientalist genre to create sociological delimitation, was that Europe’s obsession with the Orient had driven its artists into a memetic state, wherein Europe began to see itself as the embodiment of The East: the owner of its peoples, its lands, and its luxuries.  

The Metropolitan Museum of Art notes that “Male artists relied largely on hearsay and imagination, populating opulently decorated interiors with luxuriant odalisques, or female slaves or concubines (many with Western features)…” It was quite a twist, as Europeanized women began to appear as subjects in Orientalist works that were less about the patriarchal exercise of choreographing women’s sexuality and more about the prismatic renderings of whiteness and the subjugation of dark skinned persons. Whiteness had become an actor on the Orientalist stage, signifying a shift in the political attitude towards The East—from one of fascination, to one of possession and control. Darker skinned women began to be depicted as naturally born to please the European subjects in such works as the blandly titled Works Odalisque and Slave.

The desire to subvert other cultures while simultaneously consuming their artistic, intellectual, and cultural capital, in what The Metropolitan Art Museum notes as “…architectural motifs, furniture, decorative arts, and textiles, which were increasingly sought after by a European elite”, is the precarious intersection at which Joseph Novak undertook the task of creating the world of Lakmé —an operatic revival of the story of an Indian woman who viciously gives her life—and by extension her nation—in the name of Britain, embodied as a solider. According to Lakmé ’s father, the British solder is an oppressor who must be expelled from the native lands; however, the fantasy transfigures British oppression by dressing it in drag and having it masquerade as a mechanism that can grant Lakmé  love, freedom, and power.  

How did Novak imagine an Orient that would match the gravity of the vocal, symphonic, and narrative spectacles of the operatic stage? Not only would Novak need to imagine an already imaginary world, he would have to play upon these contortions to manufacture the woman who would inhabit it—the singer Lilly Pons, a European woman, would have to become the fantasy, of the fantasy, of the fantasy– a perpetual, indefatigable figure who was without a past and without a future. A mythical other—embedded in a tortuous hierarchy of somatic servitude but blissfully trapped in her prison of sensuality, luxury, and the desires of Western men for her.

Enter the World of Lakmé…

One of hundreds of photos used by Novak to develop costuming for Lilly Pons (right) as Lakmé circa 1932..

The final 1931 Lakmé set featuring the cast with Pons seated center. Bottom from the left to right: Shwe Dagon in Burma; Ruins of the Al-Hakeem Masque in Egypt; The Moorish Architecture of the Great Mosque in Cordoba; Unlabeled. The final set for Lakmé is a fusion of Moorish and South East Asian architectures.

Click here to see a Pons performing The Bell Song from Lakmé, as was featured in the 1935 movie “I dream too much.” Apart from Pon’s brilliant Coloratura performance, in which she gave the audience everlasting life, the finalized Lakmé set can be seen, as well as, extras donning clothing that appears to be a fusion of Moorish and South Asian, as is consistent with Novak’s visual studies of North Africa, Moorish, South Asian, and South East Asian peoples’ textiles.