Femininity and The Art of Looking in Suite for Barbara Loden, The White Dress, and Exposition

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side by side series of the covers of Leger's triptych

In Exposition, the French writer Nathalie Léger consults a dictionary for the definition of her title: “That which is shown in an exhibition. The act of exposing a sensitive surface to rays of light. The act of arranging something in such a way as to place it in view. It is a group of objects presented for viewing. The place where objects are presented for viewing. It is the act of revealing something in speech . . . To run a risk, with a common noun as a subject. To place something on view.” Exposition, with the intent both to expose and to arrange, characterizes Léger’s method of composition. Exposition is the first in an extraordinary triptych of works that also includes Suite for Barbara Loden and The White Dress, all now available in English translation for the first time in the US from Dorothy Press; in each of these three short works, Léger examines the life of a woman artist while also interrogating her relationship to the artist, to her own mother, and to herself.

Léger has characterized these books as novels, but though they may have fictionalized elements, their relationship to the real creates the kind of encounters English readers are more used to in nonfiction. Semantics aside, these are hybrid texts whose form elegantly expresses their content. Each text is constructed as a series of short segments, single paragraphs that move back and forth between related topics. In Exposition, initially published in 2008 and released last month in translation by Amanda de Marco, Léger considers the case of the Countess of Castiglione, possibly the most photographed woman of the nineteenth century. In Suite for Barbara Loden, published first in 2012 and then in translation by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon in 2015, Léger delves into actress and filmmaker Barbara Loden through the lens of Loden’s only film, Wanda. In the final part of the triptych, The White Dress, published in 2018 and also released last month in translation, by Natasha Lehrer, she probes into the circumstances surrounding the death of Pippa Bacca, a performance artist who was murdered while hitchhiking to the Middle East wearing a wedding dress to promote world peace.

In The White Dress, Léger writes of one TV reporter who claimed of Pippa Bacca that, “the young artist had made the mistake of confusing art and life.” Léger herself is consistently captivated by the entanglements of art and life. In the triptych, she looks in a refracted manner at the life and art of other women; the more angles she adds, the greater the depth she achieves. Along the way, she poses fascinating questions about femininity and the art of looking, but it is her attempt to understand her own mother’s unhappy marriage and Léger’s attempt to transform her mother’s suffering into art that most mirrors the work of her subjects.

In Exposition, the narrator is tasked with choosing an object for a museum exhibition. She writes that “the cultural attaché had left the choice of the object up to me, by which I mean the choice of the subject.” She gets sidetracked when she comes across an album containing photographs of Virginie Oldoine, the Countess of Castiglione, most famous for having been a mistress of Napoleon III. Roughly every week for decades, the Countess had herself photographed by Pierre-Louis Pierson, often in elaborate costumes and poses of her own choosing. The single most famous of these portraits, Scherzo di follia, features the Countess holding up a picture frame, partially obscuring her face. A single eye peers out at the viewer through a hole in the frame. The image has become a symbol of the self-reflective nature of photography. In describing another of the Countess’s portraits, Léger writes that “everything is captured in its duration, in the persistence of the body in exhibiting itself, keeping its pose, frozen in its reflection, watching us watch it watching itself.”

Léger never defends Castiglione against the charge of narcissism, but she does recognize her as an active artistic presence, intent on curating her own image and recording it for posterity. The photograph that Léger eventually chooses for the exhibition features Castiglione in decrepit old age, surrounded by the rotting corpses of her beloved dogs. Léger writes of the picture: “I don’t know what of it is her and what is me. That is where all my fear of these photographs comes from, my fear of this woman, the horror of being hidden under so many masks and ruses, then greedily fused with death.” Not surprisingly perhaps, the museum refuses her choice and suggests that she choose a lamp or mirror instead.

As the book moves through snapshots from the life of Castiglione, it pauses to consider other famous photographic pairings, including Roni Horn’s portraits of Isabelle Huppert and Bert Stern’s of Marilyn Monroe. Léger also flips through her own family albums, where she finds herself contemplating photos of her mother. Léger recalls an earlier childhood memory of seeing her father with a woman whom her mother would refer to only as Lautre, the Other, and the reader comes to understand that Léger feels an affinity between the images of Castiglione, cast aside by Emperor Napoleon, and her mother, whose father left her for another woman.

Although the subject initially appears very different, Suite for Barbara Loden adopts a similar angle of approach. Léger has been tasked with writing a short encyclopedia entry on the 1970 film Wanda, but while doing her research, she becomes obsessed with the film’s creator, Barbara Loden. Loden was an actor who appeared in several films by her husband, the director Elia Kazan. She wrote, directed, and starred in a single film, Wanda, seven years before her death. Wanda traces the curious passivity of its title character as she moves wherever life takes her, from a small coal-mining town where her husband divorces her for her failure to take proper care of her house and children, to an affair with a man who convinces her to become an accomplice in a failed bank heist. Léger intersperses her own description of the film with sections about the life of Barbara Loden, as well as memories of her own mother from the period of time after her father left her.

The feminist critique of Wanda when it first appeared was that the character was too passive. Loden herself said that she identified strongly with the character of Wanda, that she made the film “as a way of confirming my own existence.” Léger recognizes Wanda as a portrait of the way the lives of many women are actually lived—not as they should be according to feminist ideals, but as they actually are. Léger’s mother, we understand, lived her life on similar terms to Wanda and Loden.

In The White Dress, in considering the life and death of Pippa Bacca, Léger also produces a meditation upon the broader symbolism of the white dress as it represents the institution of marriage and its implied violence against women. Léger recalls a large tapestry that hung in her dining room growing up, inspired by a Botticelli painting, that depicted a woman’s murder. Léger is skeptical of Bacca’s project for world peace, viewing the young woman’s idealism as hopeless naiveté, but she is horrified by her death. Bacca’s murderer also stole her camera, which he used only days later to film a family wedding. Léger makes rich use of this detail, noting that, “He raped her, he killed her, he stripped her naked, and finally he stole her gaze.”

In The White Dress, the mother finally enters as a full character, charging her daughter with a failure to write from her own experience. When the narrator arrives after a failed trip to Italy in which she could not bring herself to interview the mother of the murdered girl, her mother follows her around the house with a dossier containing documents from her divorce, exhorting her daughter to look at it. The narrator counters that the mother’s experience is nothing like what has happened to Pippa Bacca. Yet when she finally reads through the dossier, she finds a record of bureaucratized misogyny that harshly condemns her mother for her “capricious, mercurial, and demanding character,” supposedly justifying her husband’s desertion and infidelity. The language of the documents, quoted at length, is a striking example of mid-century French sexism that excoriates the mother for not being an “accomplished housewife” and for “hand[ing] over the care of her children to third parties,” mixed with dubious psychoanalysis, a language act that is its own form of violence. Her mother may not have been raped and murdered, but she still suffered a form of character assassination that has left her wounded and without resources; there are multiple ways to silence a woman.

Throughout her work, Léger writes against that silence, locating in each of the women she examines a flawed humanity that nevertheless found a way to express itself. In doing so, Léger has produced her own work of art, a testament to the achievements of women struggling against the forces that would silence them.

Correction – October, 2020: This piece previously incorrectly labeled Dorothy Press as the publisher of the first English translations of Léger’s works. Dorothy Press is the publisher of the first US English translations; Les Fugitives, based in London, is the publisher of the first English translations.