Countess Le Castiglione: author, scribe, or trickster?

“Mirror of male desire, a role, an image, a value, the fetishized woman attempts to locate herself, to affirm her subjectivity within the rectangular space of another fetish – ironically enough, the ‘mirror of nature’.” Abigail Solomon-Godeau

Figure 1: Louis Pierson, The Eyes, c1864.

Figure 1: Louis Pierson, The Eyes, c1864.

A mysterious femme fatale of the nineteenth century Paris, Countess Le Castiglione immortalised herself through a fascinating series of more than four hundred photographs taken over a period of forty years, the majority between 1856 and 1865 “at the height of [her] fame and beauty.”[1] Rather than conventional portraits, these photographs record her elaborate performances in which she either restages scenes from her life or plays a variety of mythological and fictional characters.[2] The costumes, the set-designs, and the overall scenarios were all meticulously designed and directed by the Countess herself, the photographer being there as a mere technician.[3] More than a means of self-expression or signs of narcissism, these photographs could be understood as the Countess’ attempt to take control over her own representation and challenge the narrow, patriarchal view of previously assigned identity inscriptions, thus, asserting herself as an autonomous subject rather than a fetishized object of the gaze.

According to theorist of fetishism and photography, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, such a reading of Countess’ photographs is presumptuous because it is impossible for the Countess to occupy a critical position from which she would desire to overturn the patriarchal principles of fetishisation. As she watches herself, explains Solomon-Godeau, the Countess automatically assumes a position of a patriarchal surveyor and can only relate to herself through this patriarchal gaze.[4] From this position, which is tainted by an inherent patriarchal scopic regime, she is unable to radically reimagine herself as anything but an object of sight. Rather than disavowing patriarchal prerogative, she participates in it and even endorses it. Solomon-Godeau writes: “a living artifact, the countess has so fully assimilated the desire of others that there is no space, language, or means of representation for any desire that might be termed her own.”[5] Rather than an author, she is nothing more than “a scribe”.[6]

That the Countess has assumed a position of a patriarchal surveyor and sees herself as an object of sight is, according to Solomon-Godeau, evidenced by her use of the photographic medium which was in itself a medium of patriarchal fetishization. It was, in fact, photography that fertilized, as Solomon-Godeau explains, commodity and celebrity culture that began to flourish in this era.[7] Rather than offering a way out of the patriarchal boundaries, the photographic frame only reinforces the entrapment representing the Countess once again as an object of sight rather than an autonomous subject. “Like the conventionalized femininity she was believed to incarnate, the edges of the photographic frame are a Procrustean bed to which body and soul must accommodate themselves,”[8] writes Solomon-Godeau.

The entrapment within the patriarchal boundaries is also, as observed by Solomon-Godeau, signalled by the motif of mirror which appears in a number of the Countess’ photographs. Solomon-Godeau does not see this inclusion of mirrors as a potential strategy of détournement [9] but, rather, as a testament to the Countess’ capitulation to patriarchal terms. [10] I wish to challenge Solomon-Godeau’s argument and advocate that inclusion of mirrors in the Countess’s photographs attests to her attainment of the critical position of subjecthood, as well as the existence of the desire to assert herself as more than an object. In defending Countess’ subjecthood, I consider the use of a fetishistic medium (i.e. photography) as a deliberate strategy to expose and decode the mechanisms of fetishisation upon which patriarchy asserts itself.

Solomon-Godeau is right to argue that by turning herself into an image and representing herself as an object of sight, the Countess adopts a patriarchal convention. However, rather than a sign of obedient capitulation to patriarchal terms (or a sign of an inability to escape them), this adoption of patriarchal convention could be understood as a strategic endeavour – a deliberate and excessive employment of the patriarchal registrar in order to parody and denaturalise it. In other words, rather than rejecting objectification, the Countess chooses to mimic its discourse of domination; and this mimicry, which is according to Homi Bhabha “stricken by indeterminacy,”[11] has a capacity to disavow the authority of this discourse. By reproducing (or duplicating) the original, argues Bhabha, mimicry exposes its artificiality, demonstrating that the original is man-made rather than given.[12] Since it is through the visual field that the Countess is already absorbed and defined by the society (by how society sees her), it is through the visual medium (by reproducing herself as an object of sight) that she can best demonstrate this objectification. In other words, she is already perceived as a passive, voiceless image; the photograph is only a metonymic sign of this convention, a document of culture.

Solomon-Godeau acknowledges that the Countess’ photographs function as a metonymic sign of patriarchal conventions but she sees them as a “talisman of the culture that produced her [i.e. produced the Countess],”[13] rather than an intentional attempt of subversion. Once again, because she is a product of the patriarchal culture, and because she has so firmly assimilated its values, the Countess, according to Solomon-Godeau, has no desire to break these values and “speak herself.”[14] Therefore, rather than criticizing patriarchy and fetishisation, the Countess’ photographs only attest to “a total embrace and identification with the look of the other.“[15] This self-objectification, according to Godeau, is confirmed by the use of mirrors which the Countess repeatedly includes in her photographs and which are, according to Solomon-Godeau, noting but a sign of outright vanity and narcissism.

However, it is possible to argue that the particular way in which the Countess includes mirrors in her photographs attests to more than an obsession with the look. In figure 2, for example, we see her turned away from the camera and having her front reflected in a large mirror – this photograph literally presents her as an image, a mirror-image. At the same time, rather than looking at her own mirror-reflection (thus narcissistically marveling her sight), she directs her mirror-reflected gaze towards the viewer acknowledging that she is being looked at.

This direct addressing (and confronting) of the outside spectator is even more startling in The Eyes (figure 1) where we see her sitting in profile in the middle of the photograph, holding a small hand-held mirror in her left hand. The mirror reflects only a small part of her face, focusing tightly on her eyes which, rather than mesmerized by the Countess’ beauty, look outside of the frame (both the frame of the mirror and the frame of the photograph), directly towards the viewer. Again, she acknowledges the external gaze and confirms her awareness of objectification. While it is possible to read this look as seductive, it is also plausible to read it as confrontational and accusatory, or even witty. If reading it as witty we could give the Countess the benefit of humour and suggest that her photographs parody patriarchal convention of objectification, thus, turning the fetishisation into a farce.[16] “Mimicry,” writes Bhabha, “represents an ironic compromise;” it functions on the verge of mockery and this mockery “poses an immanent threat to ‘normalized’ knowledges and disciplinary powers.”[17] Whether ironic or accusatory, the direct gaze at the viewer is provocative and suggests the Countess’ assumption of a critical space of subjecthood – her awareness of being perceived as a sight and being constructed through the laws of perception.

Figure 4.

Figure 2. L. Pierson, Countess de Castiglione

That the Countess is an autonomous and critical subject is also suggested by the photographs where we see her holding an oval frame in front of her eye again gazing directly at the viewer (figure 3) or where she literally places herself inside the rectangular frame in a position of total boredom or exhaustion, perhaps bored or exhausted of being looked at (figure 4). These two images suggest that she is aware of the photographic principles of framing and constructing reality and that the inclusion of mirrors in her photographs might be more than just a sign of her outright vanity. Placing an image inside of the image, a frame inside of the frame, the Countess points to the idea of being defined as an image, as a voiceless commodity. What is more, the frame of the mirror mimics the frame of the photograph; by pointing to its edges the Countess exposes the limited field of perception that the photographic image offers, thus, threatening the authority of this fetishistic medium.

Just as the mirror, according to Lacan, mediates the sense of self,[18] “…the camera […] gets between the viewer and the world [and] shapes reality according to its terms,”[19] notes Rosalind Krauss. As a frame within the frame, the mirror, as suggested by Krauss, brings attention to the relationship between “container and contained.”[20] In this view, by placing a mirror inside of the photograph the Countess points to the “… photographic enterprise of framing and thereby capturing a subject”[21] – that is, she highlights the framing and capturing upon which the enterprise of patriarchal fetishisation is based.

Figure 2.

Figure 3. L. Pierson, Countess de Castiglione, ca.1856-60

Figure 3.

Figure 4. L. Pierson, Countess de Castiglione, ca.1856-60

Apart from exposing the entrapment of fetishisation, mirrors also problematize photography’s claim of veracity, threatening the knowledge based on the visual representation. Seeing the same image twice (or, as in figure 2, seeing the Countess’ body occupying the photographic image twice) we begin to question which of the two is the real Countess Le Castiglione and, in turn, whether any of the two given images (i.e. the photographic one or the mirror one) could be claimed as true imprints of reality.[22] As noted by Rosalind Krauss, “in being seen in conjunction with the original, the double destroys the pure singularity of the first.”[23] As such, the mirror reveals the photographic image as a deceit as it points out to the representational rather than authentic nature of the photographic image. We now come to realise that the photograph is “set at an unbridgeable distance from [reality], making reality present only in the form of substitutes.”[24] Duplication, in other words, disturbs Barthes’s claim that what we see in the photograph is the thing itself. As a result the authority of this fetishistic medium is destabilized and Homi Bhabha’s claim that mimicry exposes artificiality is verified.

The effect of duplicating and frustrating the concept of the ‘real Countess Le Castiglione’ is nowhere more evident then in the amount of the images that the Countess produced. No doubt, this excessive production and reproduction of ones own image could be seen as a sign of narcissistic obsession[25] but it could also be understood as a strategy of détournement or subversion. With every new photograph, the Countess invalidates the authority and the veracity of the previous one. With every new image she creates a new version of herself, playing an endless game of appearances. Endlessly replacing one image with the other, she becomes more rather than less enigmatic, complicating rather than determining who she really is.[26]

Paradoxically, then, it is precisely this excessive (re)production of her image that allows her to escape the frame. If the anxiety felt towards the unknown other (i.e. male anxiety towards female) initiated a patriarchal convention of turning the other into a defined and, hence, controlled image, then by frustrating this easy definition, the Countess manages to perpetuate the anxiety and remain an active threat rather than a passive, inanimate object. It was, indeed, the Countess’ ambiguity that both fascinated and terrified the members of the 19th century Parisian society to whom the Countess was ultimately unknown, a “mysterious stranger.”[27] Because the masquerade is so extravagant and exaggerated, the spectator, writes Solomon-Godeau, “abolish[ed] any impulse […] to imagine a character, a personality, a psychology behind the mask.”[28]

Solomon-Godeau, however, does not see this as an accomplishment of subjecthood but, rather, as its utter collapse. According to Solomon-Godeau, rather than hiding behind the appearance, the Countess is trapped by her own image, locked within it.[29] For Solomon-Godeau this mass-production of photographic self-portraits is not an attempt to obscure her image and become enigmatic but, rather, an indication of alienation, of loss rather than attainment of the self.[30] In this view, mirrors are also testaments to alienated personality – they symbolize the relationship with the self as with the ‘other’, a somewhat uncanny sense of estrangement. Michael Foucault notes: In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy.”[31]

Foucault’s theory, supports Solomon-Godeau’s reading of mirrors as signs of confused and alienated personality, a psychic condition that results in compulsive production and reproduction of images. What is more, this endless production of images proves, in Solomon-Godeau’s view, the Countess’ inability to represent herself – “what is repetitively played out in the countess’s choreography of the self,” writes Solomon-Godeau, “is the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of the attempt to represent herself.”[32] Here, however, Solomon-Godeau uses two key words that could take us to two significantly different conclusions – the word ‘difficulty’ and the word ‘impossibility’.

Rather than seeing the Countess’ attempt to represents herself as impossible, I would like to suggest that this attempt is better understood as difficult. This is a significant distinction because difficulty does not negate the Countess’ assumption of subjecthood because it does not imply that the Countess (as an autonomous subject) did not desire and attempt to overturn the patriarchal values. Difficulty only implies that such an attempt was ambitious, challenging, and perhaps unsuccessful. But the failure does not negate the effort, and the effort is enough to claim the existence of a critical subject who enacted the attempt. What is more, even if there is a truthfulness in Solomon-Godeau’s reading of mirrors as signs of frustration and confusion, this does not annihilate the possibility of subjecthood. As such, mirrors could be used as conscious metaphors, conscious expression of the Countess’ emotional condition rather than unconscious signs of alienation as suggested by Solomon-Godeau. In other words, the Countess might have chosen (as a critical subject) to use mirrors to ‘speak out’ about the way that a female feels in the entrapping and objectifying patriarchal society of the nineteenth century Paris. In conclusion, even if, as argued by Solomon-Godeau, the Countess’ photographs serve as “significant testimonials of the power of patriarchy,”[33] we cannot infer that the Countess had no interest in upsetting this power.

To summarize: In response to Solomon-Godeau’s claim that the Countess had no, and could not have had “any desire that might be termed her own”[34] (a desire to “speak her-self”[35]) and has simply “embrace[d] and identify[ed] with the look of the other,”[36] I defend the possibility of the Countess’ autonomous subjecthood and her deliberate use of mimicry as an attempt (futile or not) to confront and challenge the patriarchal gaze. I argue that, rather than using the fetishistic medium of photography as a sign of capitulation to the patriarchal terms, she has used it as the way to express and critique the condition of objectification. In this view, her gaze out of the frame signals disobedience and challenges Solomon-Godeau’s claim that the Countess remained “in a state akin to marble or painting, without animation and without life.”[37]

While it is true that by mimicking objectification the Countess did not manage to disavow it (for the patriarchy, as we know, reigned well beyond her time), by constant and excessive construction and reconstruction of her own image she did manage to exceed the constraints of a single frame, mystifying herself and frustrating patriarchal desire to reduce her into a single image. This could be seen as an autonomous subject’s strategy of both escaping the frame and questioning the authority of the photographic medium upon which fetishisation is fabricated. Rather than seeing her as a powerless and unconscious scribe, as suggested by Solomon-Godeau, I wish to present Countess Le Castiglione as a conscious trickster, a critically endowed mimic – a subject that fools us into thinking that she is an object.

[Text: Ira Ferris]

REFERENCES:

[1] Solomon-Godeau, p72.

[2] Daniel Malcolm, The Countess da Castiglione,” on The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History website, last viewed 2 June, 2015, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/coca/hd_coca.htm

[3] As noted on the Met Museum website: “Far from being merely a passive subject, it was she who decided the expressive content of the images and assumed the art director’s role, even to the point of choosing the camera angle. She also gave precise directions on the enlargement and repainting of her images in order to transform the simple photographic documents into imaginary visions—taking up the paintbrush herself at times.” Daniel Malcolm,The Countess da Castiglione,” on The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History website, last viewed 2 June, 2015, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/coca/hd_coca.htm
Solomon-Godeau also notes that “the countess’s photographs, though taken by a professional photographer, could with some justice be perceived as having been authored by her. Such an attribution would be predicated on the fact that the countess, far from passively following the directives of the photographer, substantially determined her own presentation to the camera, dictating the pose, costume, props, and accessories, and occasionally decided upon the coloring and/or retouching of the photographs.” Solomon-Godeau, p70.

[4] Solomon-Godeau notes that “the conditions that inform the subjectivity of women, including the internalization of the male gaze, are hardly the symmetrical complement of those informing the subjectivity of men.” Solomon-Godeau, p76. Furthermore, “[d]espite the countess’s authorship of her own presentation, then, we confront in these photographs a fundamental contradiction. In the very act of authoring her image – a position that implies individuality and a unique subjectivity – the countess can only reproduce herself as a work of elaborately coded femininity, a femininity which, as always, derives from elsewhere.” Solomon-Godeau, p77. The argument that the woman, when looking at herself, assumes a position of a masculine surveyor is noted in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing where he writes: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” John Berger, Ways of Seeing, London: British Broadcasting Corporation; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, p47.

[5] Solomon-Godeau, p108. Solomon-Godeau also notes: “The masks, the disguises, the postures, the poses, the ballgowns, the display of the body – what is the countess but a tabula rasa on whom is reflected a predetermined and delimited range of representations? And of what does her subjectivity consist if not her total absorption of them, her obedience to a scopic regime which inevitably undercuts her pretended authority as orchestrator of the look?” Solomon-Godeau, p105.

[6] Solomon-Godeau writes: “[T]his individual act of expression is underwritten by conventions that make her less an author than a scribe.” Solomon-Godeau, p67.

[7] As noted by Solomon-Godeau this was the time when “many of the female celebrities of the Second Empire and Third Republic were frequently photographed, their images reproduced, commercially sold, and widely circulated,” Solomon-Godeau, p70. “In producing and reproducing the image-world of capitalism, photography is simultaneously a commodity and an instrument of commodification. Such mid-nineteenth-century cultural developments as an expanded conception of celebrity, with its auxiliary discourses of fashion and publicity, are inseparable from the rise of camera culture. Furthermore, photography plays a critically important role in fostering that condition of modern life which the Situationists have dubbed spectacle.” Solomon-Godeau, p68-69.

[8] Solomon-Godeau, p105.

[9] For there is no critical agent, a feminine subject who would desire and attempt subversion of patriarchal conventions.

[10] Writing on the Countess’ use of mirrors and the gesture of framing of the look, Solomon-Godeau notes: “The profound ambiguity of this gesture, the confusion of subject- and object-positions it occasions, might be said to expose the very reification it enacts. The appeal of such an interpretation lies in its presumption of a critical space, however minimal or problematic, from which the woman can speak her-self. But the images of the countess in their entirety do not suggest her occupancy of such a space, nor anything but a total embrace and identification with the look of the other. Consequently, the look with which she fixes herself, and the fixing of herself for the reception of the look, cannot be understood as a disappropriation – a theft- of the masculine prerogative. Nor can it be under-stood as an act of intentional mimicry, an act which potentially subverts the authority it apes. Rather, a living artifact, the countess has so fully assimilated the desire of others that there is no space, language, or means of representation for any desire that might be termed her own.” Solomon-Godeau, p108.

[11] Homi Bhabha, “Of mimicry and man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse,” in The Location of Culture, pp.85-92, (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), online version, last viewed 1 June, 2015, https://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/bhabha/mimicry.html

[12] When talking of mimicry Bhabha discusses the representation of a colonial, rather than a female body, and notes: “The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.” Ibid.

[13] Solomon-Godeau, p67.

[14] Solomon-Godeau, p108.

[15] Solomon-Godeau, p108.

[16] That the countess was witty, daring, and provocative – ready to shock and challenge social conventions – attest images in which she allows for her legs to be photographed, which was seen as extremely vulgar and inappropriate at the time. What is more, the Countess referred to herself as “maravigliosa opera” [see Solomon-Godeau, p69], a work of art, but rather than taking this referral as a sign of self-objectification as does Solomon-Godeau, we could interpret it as a sign of the Countess’ sense of humor and an assumption of an ironic position of mimicry that Bhabha speaks about.

[17] Bhabha, https://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/bhabha/mimicry.html

[18] Paraphrasing Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Professor of Art and Media Practices at the University of Westminster, Paula Roush writes: “Lacan’s theory is not about the mirror as a reflection of self, but about the mirror as the constitutive element in the construction of the self.” Paula Roush, “The Mirror: Reflections,” on Thinking Practices blog, published 3 March 2011, last viewed 3 June 2015, http://thinkingpractices.wordpress.com/2011/03/30/essay/

[19] Rosalind Krauss, “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism,” in October, Vol. 19, pp3-34, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, Winter, 1981), p32-33.
 Krauss also notes: “The frame announces that between the part of reality that was cut away and this part there is a difference; and that this segment which the frame frames is an example of nature-as-representation, nature-as-sign. As it signals that experience of reality the camera frame also controls it, configures it.” Krauss, p31. In a similar vain, in the Body and the Archive, Allan Sekula writes that “photography came to establish and delimit the terrain of the Other, to define…” Quoted in George Baker, “Photography between Narrativity and Stasis: August Sander, Degeneration, and the Decay of the Portrait,” in October, Vol. 76, pp72-113, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, Spring 1996), p104.

[20] Krauss, p6. Krauss also notes that due to the mirrors in the frame “one’s attention is relocated on the container – on what could be called the character of the frame as sign or emblem. […] one is treated to the capture of the photographic subject by the frame…” Krauss, p5.

[21] Krauss, p7.

[22] Rosalind Krauss notes that the function of the mirror is to rob the image of “a sense of presence,” which is “one of the most powerful of photography’s many illusions.” Krauss, 23.

[23] Krauss, p25. Krauss also quotes Levi Strauss who talking of phonemic doubling in infancy notes: “the second /pa/ is not a repetition of the first, nor has it the same signification. It is a sign that, like itself, the first /pa/ too was a sign, and that as a pair they fall into the category of signifiers, not of things signified.” Krauss, p26.

[24] Krauss notes: “Perception is better, truer, because it is immediate to experience, while representation must always remain suspect because it is never anything but a copy, a re-creation in another form, a set of signs for experience. Perception gives directly onto the real, while representation is set at an unbridgeable distance from it, making reality present only in the form of substitutes, that is, through the proxies of signs. Because of its distance from the real, representation can thus be suspected of fraud.” Krauss, p10.

[25] Which undoubtedly existed as suggested by the fright of mirrors that the Countess had in the later age of her life when she, allegedly, covered all the mirrors in her house with cloths so she would not need to confront the sight of her decaying beauty. It is also important to note that “the bulk of the countess’s photographs appear to have been commissioned for herself,” [see Solomon-Godeau, p73] rather than for other viewers.

[26] In The Naked Gaze, art historian Carlos Rojas writes: “The enigma of ‘woman’ results not from her literal invisibility but from her exorbitant visibility – a visibility that, by virtue of its very excess, paradoxically makes ‘woman’ all the more impenetrable.” Carlos Rojas, The Naked Gaze: Reflections on Chinese Modernity, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Asia Centre, 2008, p116.

[27] Solomon-Godeau, p103.

[28] Solomon-Godeau, p77-78.

[29] The photographs, suggests Godeau, “were herself as much as she was herself, perhaps more so. Having lived her life effectively as a representation, it is not so surprising that identity came to be located in the image perhaps even more than in the flesh.” Solomon-Godeau, p82-83.

[30] Solomon-Godeau notes that “the countess’s obsessive self-representations are less an index of narcissism – although they are that too – than a demonstration of a radical alienation that collapses the distinction between subjecthood and objecthood.” Solomon-Godeau, p76. Also: “The extravagant narcissism of the countess’s self-appraisal is somewhat startling, but less so than the objectification to which it attests.” Solomon-Godeau, p69.

[31] Michael Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” in Architecture, Movement, Continuite, Vol. 5, 1984, pp46-49, translated from French by Jay Miskowiec, online version, last viewed 3 June, 2015, http://foucault.info/documents/heterotopia/foucault.heterotopia.en.html

[32] Solomon-Godeau, p70.

[33] Solomon-Godeau, p67.

[34] Solomon-Godeau, p108.

[35] ibid.

[36] ibid.

[37] Here Solomon-Godeau expressed her thought by quoting the Countess’ contemporary Marshal Canrobert. Solomon-Godeau, p77.

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