The full title of this post could be Face/Paint Kitsch/Art Look/See Now/Then Pleasure/Pain Again. If that isn’t perfectly clear, I’m not surprised. The story starts here:
The photograph is of a soccer fan from Ghana painted for a World Cup qualifying match. We see the bright colors and his intense expression simultaneously. The image is vivid, striking, both festive and elemental, and it reverberates with shock, surprise, and dismay without registering any one of those reactions with any certainty. Whatever he actually was feeling, there is no doubt that this was a moment of intensity. You can see why it would jump out of the thousands of thunbnail images on a photo-editor’s desktop.
For all that, the photo also is thoroughly conventional. The slide shows at the major papers are full of such images throughout the various carnival seasons–and if the news is slow otherwise, there always seems to be a carnival somewhere. Hindu holy men, Russian street performers, Brazilian revelers, American kids at a state fair–wherever vernacular life meets art, someone’s face is going to be painted.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and journalism and art and all of culture are at bottom repetitive. This photograph is good of kind, and I would have left it there but for one problem: Not long after I saw it, I came across this photograph:
This self-portrait of Andy Warhol in drag presents another painted face, and the difference between kitsch and art. I generally avoid that distinction, which I see as one of modernism’s least impressive and most overused ideas, and I don’t want to demean the first photograph, which suffers by being put into this unusual comparison. But, my God, what a difference between the two images.
As before, we see the expressive face and the artificial colors simultaneously. Instead of the momentary frenzy of a sporting event, however, we see a lifetime of pain. Instead of intensity (alone), here the paint (and wig) ironically evoke the powerful imprint of duration. As in, I’ve always been this way, always had to carry this inside, always. Although still a striking incongruity, the juxtaposition of male face and female makeup fuses into something that is at once the facial mask of a social type and the naked revelation of an individual soul.
But who’s soul? The power of Warhol’s photograph comes in part from the realization that you could be seeing one of the many gay men who have been crushed in the closet, or one of the many transgender individuals who feel trapped in their body, or one of the many women who also have become fused to a mask of silver hair and red lips that promised happiness but is good only to put a face on their suffering. Because the photo was taken with a Polaroid, there is a hint of pleasure betrayed (just as in the first image above), and a blurring of the line between high and low media (and so of art and kitsch) in order to evoke a common experience. Although a remarkable work of art, the image is still a photograph, and so it reminds us that what it shows does not happen only once. Whether the image portrays the individual artist or a social type, we are seeing pain that has occurred again and again.
Photographs by Julian Finney/FIFA-Getty and Andy Warhol/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. The photograph is on display as part of the exhibition Polaroid: Exp. 09.10.09 at the Atlas Gallery, London.