Harcourt’s discussion of Iranian contemporary artists focuses on censorship tropes in portraiture, including works by Aydin Aghdashloo, Gohar Dashti, Katayoun Karami, Daryoush Qarezad, Manijeh Sehhi, Newsha Tavakolian, and others. Issues of privacy and security prevent some Iranian artist insiders from being named, but studio images as well as recipes for removal of the censored marks along with testimony from artists who are now living outside Iran provide reference for many English-speaking readers who don’t otherwise have knowledge of the country’s strict policies.
Image reproductions ranging from the pages of the censored books themselves, to Joseph’s paintings, to artwork by contemporary Iranian artists, make the book visually intriguing, timely, and visually fascinating reading.
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About the Author
Glenn Harcourt: Glenn Harcourt writes about the history of art and visual culture. He has advanced degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Yale. A contributor to various Los Angeles-based arts journals, as well as "Representations," the "Archive Journal," and other publications, Harcourt has also been shortlisted twice for the prestigious Andy Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant. He is currently working on several projects related to the status of the body as an object of medical inquiry, including a collaborative graphic novel on the sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius. His most recent study, "Pathological Anatomy and Self-Portraiture" appeared in the Spanish history of science journal Dynamis.
Francis M. Naumann: Francis M. Naumann is a scholar, curator, and art dealer, specializing in the art of the Dada movement and the Surrealist periods. Over his long career he has lectured at Parsons School of Design and contributed essays to dozens of art journals. Naumann, who is a scholar of Duchamp and the ready-made for over the last forty-years, is known for several books, including "Marcel Duchamp, Artist of the Century" (MIT Press, 1989), which he coedited with Rudolf E. Kuenzli; a book on Man Ray, and an edition of Duchamp's collected letters. His collection of essays about Duchamp "The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Essays on the Art, Life and Legacy of Marcel Duchamp" (2010) has been praised by, among others, Calvin Tomkins, art critic for The New Yorker: "Naumann's consistently fresh approaches to Duchamp’s work and Duchamp’s life, set down in agile and jargon-free prose, make these collected essays the single most informative book you will find on the endlessly fascinating artist."
Read an Excerpt
MATISSE AND THE CENSORED NUDE
Of all the topographies that exist in the world, that of the human body is perhaps the one that has been the most relentlessly contested – both the actual body comprising flesh and blood, and the virtual body as it is written and visualized in representation. This is true of the body both male and female, and of the body both clothed and unclothed. Issues of personal and cultural identity; of sexual and theological politics; of religious and political ideology are all articulated in terms of the body and its represented image. The body as it is lived and pictured serves both to instantiate and to adjudicate cultural norms as well as to facilitate their transgression. It motivates desire, fashion, and pornography. Its representation serves as a measure of artistic skill, of fealty to pictorial tradition, or of commitment to innovation and revolution.
A recent body of paintings by the artist Pamela Joseph engages the (represented) body on all these levels, and in a way that is both deadly serious and marked by a certain campy sense of humor. There are significant variations in her process, but what remains constant is that Joseph's finished works appear to be painted reproductions of defaced images from the western artistic canon. The subjects are all secular in nature, although several provide Renaissance or Baroque recapitulations of mythological subjects drawn from classical antiquity.
In a relatively straightforward example of Joseph's work, the Censored Large Reclining Nude by Matisse (2013; oil on linen, 26 x 36 ½ inches), the "model" is not an actual woman, or even an actual painting, but rather an illustration from Robert Cumming's Art (London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd, 2005), one of the DK series of Eyewitness Companions, which has been hand censored throughout in black marking pen, presumably (as will become evident) by an Iranian government worker.
The book itself was purchased in a Tehran shop, and now belongs to the Iranian-American multi-media artist Kurosh ValaNejad. It is, at least in my experience, a unique artifact, and part of ValaNejad's collection of resonant personal objects. However, in addition to whatever associations the book might carry for its owner, it can speak to a wider audience; indeed it already has done so through this series of Pamela Joseph's paintings.
It is not entirely clear who might have undertaken the original job of marking up the book. It has been suggested by the book's owner that this boring and repetitive piece-work job might have been farmed out to local "villagers" in return for a small salary. Whether or not this is actually the case, the job must presumably still have been supervised by some minor bureaucratic functionary – someone who possessed the authority to instruct the actual censor and eventually to judge the accuracy of the mark-up.
We do know, however, that this artifact is not unique in Iranian experience. As an artist, still living and working in Iran, notes:
Ah yes ... I grew up on these books. Even developed a style [sic: here = technique] for removing marker ink from printed pages (such a futile effort).
He also gives an account of the larger cultural context:
In the early eighties, our central post office had an incoming-content-checking-division. Almost every package mailed to Iran was opened and the content checked for drugs; an enemy state's political propaganda material; arms; indecent images (the definition still includes nudity, pornographic material, female hair and all other body parts except hands – but with no accessories or nail polish – and face, again with no make up or suggestive expression). The rumor was that to avoid getting Muslim men exposed to the material, the task of censoring was given to Armenian women. After a few years, with the introduction of satellite dishes, fax machines, the Internet and such, the traditional post lost its function, the Armenians lost their jobs, and people got their freak on through other channels.
In the censored Iranian version of the Matisse on which Joseph has based her own work, the nude remains easily identifiable as a nude although the breasts and pelvic area have been rather vigorously "edited" with bold strokes of the marker. Joseph has carefully copied Matisse's original at a scale of 1:1. It thus reappears as a life-size replica of the iconic Large Reclining Nude of 1935. But in the copied version, the marks of the censor have been significantly altered. They are now rather lightly sketched-in, so that areas of pink flesh appear through the black overlay, and intrusions of skin are also visible where the censoring marks fail to overlap completely. It is almost as if Joseph's painted "reproduction" hints at what we (or indeed anyone) know(s) to be there underneath the censor's marks. Coincidentally, but quite fortuitously, it seems that through these layers, Joseph has also made visible the experience of our anonymous Iranian artist and his contemporaries.
What can we learn by looking at Joseph's image side-by-side with Matisse's original and its defaced counterpart? In most American viewers, this picture by Matisse seems unlikely to provoke any kind of censorious response. Objections, if any, might more likely focus on the lack of "realism" than on the nudity; but I suspect that the vast majority of potential viewers would be willing to accept that it is merely a work of "modern" art, a more-or-less successful piece of pictorial decoration, or what we might simply call a "pretty picture."
Robert Cumming, in his Eyewitness text, does not discuss the Large Reclining Nude directly, except to say that Matisse reworked the picture many times. This despite the fact that the Large Reclining Nude or Pink Nude, as it is also called, actually marks a key moment in Matisse's career: his return to serious easel painting after an eight-year hiatus during which he worked in a number of alternative mediums and developed the cut-paper techniques that were so important to his later output. Instead, Cumming's overall evaluation of Matisse stresses what one would expect: the painter's interest in color and pattern, which (says Cumming) apparently develops independently of subject matter. Thus, per Cumming's discussion, Matisse's use of the nude here and in other work might be "naturalized" simply as the employment of a motif deeply embedded in the artistic tradition.
We do learn from Cumming, however, that Matisse's visit to Morocco in the early 1900's brought the painter "under the influence of Islamic and Persian art, both of which emphasize pattern and bold but subtle color." However, Matisse's particular interest in "the exotic" (and here the presence of the nude is key) clearly entangles the artist in the ongoing critical discussion around Orientalism and the western "male gaze," and suggests that his employment of a nude model might be rather less innocent than Cumming seems to suppose. Indeed, the model for the Large Reclining Nude, the Russian exile and orphan Lydia Delectorskaya, and her relationship to the painter as both lifelong muse and domestic employee, provides a key to both his personal life and his professional process from 1935 until his death in 1954.
Matisse's Iranian censor must certainly be completely out of this ideological and critical loop and equally unaware of the model's biography. He (or she) seems most concerned to rectify the image in a way that simply keeps it recognizable while, at least to a certain extent, addressing its obvious violation of deeply held cultural and religious norms related, in this case, to the display of the unclothed female body. The Eyewitness text (which in the case of the Matisse entry is rather anodyne) is left intact throughout the book. There are a number of reasons why this might have been the case; the most straightforward is to assume that the book was seen simply as an archive of purely pictorial material, with a (presumably) unintelligible foreign-language text.
Two points need to be made here. First: even as Pamela Joseph slyly pokes fun at the pretensions of the censorship with the delicate incompleteness of her own masking, she at least implicitly invites us to consider how such an image might be seen and understood in Iran. While the censor's view of Matisse's nude might be "normative," it need not therefore be exhaustive or definitive of all possible reactions, as we will soon see in considering recent contemporary artworks from the perspective of "the Iranian eye." Second: Joseph quite explicitly uses her "copy" of Matisse to encourage us to reflect back on our own biases and preconceptions with respect to the depiction of the nude female body.
Taking the second of these points first: in producing an image that amounts essentially to an exemplification of a kind of "domesticated" and modernist Orientalism, Matisse has given us an abstracted female form, no longer really representative even of a type (in this case, the Odalisque) but rather a figure drained both of particular signification and even of individual presence, a condition indexed, for example, by the flat, affectless nature of the model's gaze. On this reading, any censorious defacement of the figure is doubly unnecessary; first, because the nude image violates no obvious societal (read: patriarchal) or artistic norms (indeed, at least in this Modernist incarnation, the nude has become an essentially empty sign) and second, because the artist himself has already "defaced" the figure through the depersonalization of his depiction. (Matisse claimed to have become as familiar with the contours of Lydia's body as he was with the letters of the alphabet; but it is virtually impossible to sense this intimate familiarity in the picture of her with which he has presented us.) However, the fact that Matisse's work might nevertheless motivate a feminist critique should still go without saying. Indeed, the outline of such a critique is already inherent in our own comments.
Teasing out a potential Iranian response is obviously more difficult; but it should be possible to make a few tentative and preliminary observations. Almost certainly, the view of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which I take as the ultimate "author" of the program of censorship resulting in the defacement of the illustrations to Cumming's text, would be much more straightforward than that outlined above. Any image like Matisse's would be prima facie "un-Islamic" and hence subject to "correction."
There is perhaps a question here regarding what it might mean to characterize an image as being "like" Matisse's. However, a simple tabulation of the defaced images in Cumming demonstrates that neither the gender of the subject nor the style of the painter seems relevant, only the exposure of the naked human body.
This suggests that the entire western tradition, at least insofar as it is keyed to the human form, is riddled throughout with a kind of inherent vice, at least when seen from the Ministry of Culture's perspective. However, the mere existence of the censored book, even in its expurgated form, also suggests that, from the very same point of view, that tradition is still in some sense worthy of study. In any case, it cannot simply be discarded. This slightly schizoid orientation is characteristic of much post-colonial culture, and, when creatively rather than bureaucratically exploited, can be a powerful driver of critical and self-reflective cultural production.
Furthermore, we should call attention to the fact that the picture actually being defaced is itself only a reproduction; the mechanism of censorship operative here is quite incapable of threatening Matisse's actual masterpiece. It can (only) attempt to control the proliferation of Matisse's Nude by disrupting its printed circulation. (This is quite different from what we have seen in the cases, for example, of the Taliban at Bamyan or ISIS at Palmyra where actual artistic and archaeological monuments were destroyed under color of the suppression of idolatry.) It also seems a bit pro forma: perfunctory in a way that suggests it isn't really "fooling anyone." Indeed, it is quite possible that unexpurgated copies of the same text might have been available, as it were, under the counter to those who knew where to look and whom to ask. (And in any case, the prevalence of the Internet makes this kind of manual censorship virtually moot.)
Finally, much as it might aspire to do so, the Ministry of Culture can hardly define or circumscribe the world of contemporary Iranian culture. It simply cannot control a system of cultural production in which questions of ethnic and cultural identity, modernity and tradition, individual freedom and Islamic norms, as well as Enlightenment liberty and authoritarian government (whether secular or clerical in nature), are all entangled with critical examinations of political and cultural imperialism, the legacy of Orientalism, the complexity of gender roles, and the complicated exigencies of living and creating in contemporary Iran.
We can thus see how Joseph's Large Reclining Nude by Matisse sets up a complex dialog between western and Iranian culture on the one hand, and between western culture and its own self-reflexive feminist dopplegänger on the other. Joseph's pictorial machinations might initially seem superficially clever, even snarky; nonetheless they still have power enough to stimulate serious thought relevant to the problem of viewing cultural production within a non-judgmental global context.
"BREASTINESS" AND "WESTOXICATION"
Although in a number of instances within the present body of work, Joseph is content to quote the defacement of the nameless Iranian censor more-or-less "verbatim," as is the case with Matisse, she also inflects this basic strategy in interesting and potentially significant ways. And it is not only censorship from the Islamic Republic that she takes to task, as we can see in the case of a work quite clearly related to the Censored Reclining Nude.
On May 11, 2015, Pablo Picasso's Women of Algiers (Version O), one of a series of fifteen paintings and drawings executed in the winter of 1954/1955, was auctioned by Christie's, New York for somewhat over $179 million, setting a new record for the price of a work of art sold at auction. Like Matisse's Large Reclining Nude, Picasso's Women of Algiers is a monumental modernist reworking of a classic Orientalist subject, in this case a specific picture: Eugene Delacroix's 1834 Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, although (not surprisingly) Picasso has taken extensive formal and structural liberties with his putative source. And, like Matisse's "Odalisque manqué." discussed in the last chapter, Picasso's Women of Algiers has as its overarching theme what we might refer to as "venereal love," although that reference is now embedded in the work as a kind of deep meaning – based on cultural references from the nineteenth century that are no longer immediately legible, nor were likely to have been when the painting was produced in the mid-1950s.
Furthermore, as both the original Matisse and the original Picasso are canonical paintings in their own right, the extent that they have become fetishized as "a Matisse" and (especially) as "a Picasso," effectively effaces their deeper histories, in this case their connections to the work of the original Orientalist painters, where the specific sexual politics of the subjects are often quite explicit. For example, Delacroix's Women of Algiers in Their Apartment was originally legible as a harem scene, the women meant to be objects of voyeuristic pleasure. This picture would eventually fuel the developing discourse of Orientalism, but none of this is immediately evident in Picasso's variant. It requires a certain specialized knowledge to disentangle Delacroix's sexually charged imagery from Picasso's radical transformation, since Picasso's "game" here is to prove that he's a better painter than Delacroix, not to comment on Delacroix's colonialist ideology.
Excerpted from "The Artist, The Censor, and The Nude"
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Table of ContentsForeword by Francis M. Naumann
Pamela Joseph’s “CENSORED” Series: Appropriation and Cultural Politics
1. Matisse and the Censored Nude
2. “Breastiness” and “Westoxication”
3. Picasso: Three Women and the Demoiselles
4. The Desecration of Manet's Olympia
5. Heroic Nudity and Male Sexuality
6. Consenting Adults
7. Censorship and Appropriation
Post-modernism and the Construction of Culture:
Considering art, photography and films by Aydin Aghdashloo (Iran), Boushra Almutawakel (Yemen), Ana Lily Amirpour (Great Britain/USA), Gohar Dashti (Iran), Daryoush Gharahzad (Iran), Shadi Ghadirian (Iran), Bahman Ghobadi (Iranian Kurdistan), Tanya Habjouqa (Jordan), Katayoun Karami (Iran), Hoda Katebi (USA), Simin Keramati (Iran/Canada), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Iran/Great Britain), Shohreh Mehran (Iran), Houman Mortazavi (Iran), Manijeh Sehhi (Iran), and Newsha Tavakolian (Iran/USA)
PART THREE: Censored Books: An Exercise in Looking
Afterword by Pamela Joseph
What People are Saying About This
I applaud the originality and complexity Harcourt has brought to the topic. Given Joseph’s long artistic history of a humorous and feminist point of view in her work, the technique involved in her dedicated recreations of Iranian censorship of Western art insists on the artificial and paradoxical significance of the experience between the live viewer and the two-dimensional artistic plane. Where in that engagement is the temptation, where the agency, and what, ultimately, is the censor able to censor? Is it rather the case that the power of art to arouse and provoke is being highlighted and enhanced? Additionally, as a historian of women and gender studies, I find that the book provocatively opens the question of the relationship between a Western artistic canon and Iranian Muslim viewers, how it is mediated by censors as representatives of the state and official culture, and to what extent any of these subject positions (artist, viewer, state, censor, critic) is assumed to be gendered masculine. The mere critique of the concept of Orientalism is not sufficient here. Joseph’s art and Harcourt’s analysis of her work and of (predominantly) Iranian artists remind the reader that there is no such thing as either a monolithic Western or Islamic viewpoint or identity. Rather, these are contingent, multiple and shifting, on both sides of any attempted binary divide between Western and Islamic or masculine and feminine. I quite revel in the evidence provided that a feminineor feministpoint of view can so thoroughly disrupt our expectations and experience of art and culture that we thought we knew.
A provocative and engaging discussion of the alteration, erasure and suppression of art.
It’s no secret that Glenn Harcourt is a triple threat: he’s first rate as a graceful (and rigorous) writer; an art historian, and a cosmopolitan intellectual. All his talents are on display in The Artist, The Censor, and The Nude . “Erasure” is a common enough theme in both art history and critical studies, but it becomes a particularly potent subject when discussing Iranian art and culture, and by extension, contemporary art in the so distant Islamic world. The fun of Harcourt’s piece is his coupling of Islamic pudeur and post-modernity’s blank ironies. Pamela Joseph’s work provides an excellent jumping off place for juxtaposing Islamic modesty and post-modernity, without getting into tedious neo-Marxist mea culpas on the guilt of western orientalisms, or for that matter, of middle eastern occidentalisms. Harcourt has a keen eye (and a light sense of irony) for appreciating those conjunctions, but the real depth of Harcourt’s work is his brilliant juxtaposing of the two. And to do this all, while providing an excellent survey and analysis of the human body as a universal subject for art-making, makes this book a real tour de force.
Censorship in the arts differs from culture to culture and, in most cases, only causes the audience these censors are attempting to protect to wonder exactly what is being kept from them and why, resulting in a thought process that can often be more stimulating than a view of the unaltered work. Pamela Joseph provides a biting and severely critical, while at the same time uniquely humorous commentary on the futility of censorship in the arts, no matter in what form it is practiced.
Of all the many books that have been published about Iran, none so viscerally conveys the absurdity of the censorship that bears on the nation, or the spirit of rebellion against it as The Artist, the Censor, and The Nude . Only an artist of the keenest sensibilities, like Pamela Joseph, can make such a distant experience so present.