Erastus Dow Palmer’s ‘The White Captive’

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Sep 272011
 

Erastus Dow Palmer's 'The White Captive', statue of nude woman standing

I’m still working up to reviewing Donna Dennis’ Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York (Harvard University Press, 2009), but I want to post something on a sculpture mentioned in the book called The White Captive by Erastus Dow Palmer.

It portrays a youthful female figure who has been abducted from her sleep and held captive by savage Indians. Hands bound, and stripped of a nightgown hanging from a tree trunk, she turns her head away from the terror, and clenches her left fist, in defiance of imminent harm. Palmer avoided the often cold appearance of Italianate Neoclassical sculpture, in part by using for his model a local girl. He was particularly commended for his use of a “thoroughly American” subject that makes a conscious allusion to the endless skirmishes between Native Americans and white pioneers. It is these naturalistic and individualizing qualities that have, down through the years, earned such praise for Palmer’s sculpture.

According to this article, it was based on Hiram Power’s Greek Slave (previously discussed). True or not, there are definitely similarities in composition and posture. The main difference is that in The White Captive, the woman has her left arm behind her body, fist clenched in defiance. Like Power’s work, this was publicly exhibited to men, women and children.

What’s interesting here is that two different artists used a very similar image, a nude woman in distress, to address two different conflicts, i.e. Greece’s rebellion against Turkey and the various battles between Americans and First Nations peoples in the West. The latter conflict was also reflected in the captivity narrative genre. These, in turn, are related to the “held captive by Catholics” stories: virtue in distress from a threatening Other population.

As discussed previously, this kind of imagery is used in a wide variety of contexts and to refer to a wide variety of real-world conflicts. It is thus hardly surprising that these images percolated through the collective subconscious, via the Anna Freud process described earlier.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin mantelpiece screen

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Sep 062011
 

Here’s an image cribbed from Reynold’s Mightier than the Sword (previously discussed), which shows a mantelpiece screen depicting a black man, brandishing a whip, standing over a black woman, who is half-naked. Another man observes from the background.

A lot of elements in this issue undercut its value as shock propaganda and add the erotic value. The woman is young and shapely, and positioned and dressed so that her breast just peeps from under her arm, and her upper body and arms are nearly uncovered. Her facial expression is hardly fearful or agonized, and seems to be one of ambivalent anticipation. Her dark skin depicted with subtle shading, giving a sense of the shape and texture of her body.

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Aug 172011
 

Cinema Sewer 34, Danny Hellman, Cmm3C

Well, sooner or later, somebody had to make an image like the one above.

Danny Hellman created this for cover of the 24th issue of the Cinema Sewer zine, published out of Vancouver, BC by Robin Bougie.

It’s not the only Hellman that satirizes the Iraq and Afghanistan war, viewing those conflicts through the lenses of comic books and exploitation magazines (e.g. 1). This is an obvious take on the previously discussed Israeli stalag novels and the later men’s adventure magazines, referencing the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures. The brunette woman in the background represents Lynndie England, for instance.

The Abu Ghraib pictures put Americans in a quandary. The scenario was familiar, but the ones inflicting the suffering were “us”, not “them”. How could this be? This is what Other people do. It’s telling that England, a female soldier, became the most recognizable name and face associated with this scandal, linking political deviance with female sexual deviance.

I feel somewhat disappointed that this image is too knowing, too ironic to be a genuine expression of fantasy. Maybe we need to wait a few years before the psychosocial impact of the War on Terrorism percolates up from the collective subconscious. Or perhaps the torture porn film genre previously discussed is part of that response. Maybe in North America the feared Other is not the Muslim terrorist, but the out-of-control, paranoid police state. That at any second, for no apparent reason, we can find ourselves strapped to something in a windowless room where we are utterly helpless before an unknown person. Network television is already crawling with surveillance and confinement and competition. Somewhere out there, Room 101 is ready for you.

Aug 032011
 

Filament magazine has an article on representations of humans and especially human sexuality in prehistoric art. While humans were making art fairly early on, they didn’t depict themselves until much later, and representation of human sexuality was even later after that, on the cusp of the transition between hunter-gatherer and agriculture.

The first definite image of a couple having sex appears as late as 10,000 years ago. Now in the British Museum, the Ain Sakhri figurine was found in 1933 in the Ain Sakhri cave in the Judea desert, not far from Jerusalem. At first glance, it resembles nothing more than a small white pebble. On closer inspection, two figures are clearly carved into it. The slightly smaller figure wraps its legs around its partner’s waist. The slightly larger figure holds the smaller partner’s shoulders, in what appears to be a tender embrace. They are clearly sitting upright, having sex.

To its credit, the article includes the disclaimer that we are making assumptions on a small amount of evidence, and that calling these images “porn” is likely a gross misnomer.

Even more interesting, one of the comments says:

sex shares many of the chemical and mechanical aspects of violence-that-leads-to-killing-and-eating but the result is the opposite of killing-and-eating. those aspects make sex disquieting because in theory at any moment it could go the other way & blood would flow instead of other fluids. then there arose that issue of “dom” and “sub” – i am in the midst of exploring “victimhood” at the moment. this one pretends its going to kill the other one, that one pretends to give up, joy for both results instead of the far more basic singular pleasure of killing-and-eating.

For the purposes of the study of BDSM, when did symbolic or play activities first occur in humanity? When was an actual act of violence replaced by a symbolic act? Is this uniquely human, or do highly social animals like primates and dolphins do it as well?

Jul 212011
 

Here’s an interesting paper on the results of a survey of people’s subjective experience to pornography. The researcher assembled about 70 porn images and asked people to comment on how they responded to the images and what they fantasized about in response to the images. (I participated.)

In an argument loosely based on Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze, it has long been assumed that the subjective experience of pornography involved either the viewer’s sexual domination of the subject, or else the viewer adopting a like surrogate for the same end. In fact, these modes of encountering pornography appear to account for slightly less than one-third of responses to this survey. Even if we look only at responses in which the viewer is present in their narrative of the image, these simple modes account for only 63% of all responses. More surprisingly, from the traditional viewpoint, there is almost no difference in that rate by gender.

The takeaway is that, instead of a simple “male gaze”, people had a highly complicated and variable way of relating to images. Sometimes they are omniscient observers, sometimes they insert themselves into the image, sometimes they take the position of one of the people in the image. People spun elaborate scenarios about the action and experiences of the people in the image, based on the tiniest of cues in the image or the absence of details.

This suggests that people don’t take the pornographic image “straight”: they add a huge amount to the experience from their own imaginations and memories. When we read text, we complete the experience with our own minds, but it may be that we do when we see images, and that no two people see precisely the same image. People have active imaginations (not only sexual) and we cannot attribute the content of their fantasies solely to their media intake.

Anti-porn theorists generally posit that pornographic images encourage or foster imitative behaviour in the viewer, but this study suggests that it’s a lot more complicated. The viewer may select a woman who is injured or bound in order to fantasize about rescuing or healing her.

Another interesting point is the difference between putting a fantasy character in a “peril” situation, in which something bad is threatening but hasn’t happened yet and from which they could be saved, and outright violence or snuff scenarios.

This might have something to do with the hurt/comfort trope in slash fanfiction, in which one character in the story is physically or mentally injured and the other heals or tends to the first, creating an opportunity for physical/emotional intimacy. (Of course, this could also be read as an opportunity to indulge in latent sadism, displaced onto another character.) In the film of The Sheik, the Valentino character starts out masterfully masculine, but the emotional climax of the film comes when he is injured and prostrate before his female love interest.

This ties into Freud’s essay “A Child is Being Beaten”, which talks about the mobility of the fantasizer’s point of view in flagellation fantasy, and Anna Freud’s essay on fantasies in which they are constantly re-edited by the fantasizer. (More on this later.)

Mar 212011
 

The promotional website for the book Permanent Obscurity has a brief history of fetish and bondage artist Eric Stanton and his business relationship with Irvine Klaw.

Biographical facts about his life are often contradictory and murky; and sometimes he would contribute to this misinformation personally. There’s even some question of his real name: was he born “Ernest Stanzoni” as claimed in the huge Eric Kroll coffee table book? Or is his birth name “Ernest Stanten,” as claimed by Belier publisher and personal friend and associate, J.B. Rund?

Most of what I know about the sexploitation era and the subgenre of what was then labeled “bizarre,” which today would be assigned fetish culture or kink, I’ve learned through tracking Stanton. He remains, in some strange way, a central figure for me (my own personal Dante) whose life intersected with other curious characters of the day, artists and business people, gangsters and hacks … shadowy and mythologized figures I’ve come to admire and who I never grow tired of hearing about: Irving Klaw, Bettie Page, Gene Bilbrew, Lenny Burtman, Eddie Mishkin, Stanley Malkin…. And then, of course, there’s Steve Ditko, Spider-Man co-creator and Stanton’s friend-as well as his studio mate of 10 years.

(ellipsis in original)

According to this, Stanton would self-publish and self-print his own works with his own photocopier. I’ve always been interesting in the means of production and distribution for works that had such a huge influence on the history of kink, and it seems fitting that so much of it was produced on a shoestring, in a confluence between people who were seeking a market niche and people who were seeking their kink.

PS: I’d be interested to know what Ditko, known for espousing a harsh Objectivist philosophy in his work, would have made of Stanton’s fetish art. Then again, there’s something a bit kinky in Ditko’s Objectivist characters. The Question wore a rubber mask that made him look like he had no facial features at all, just smooth skin. Mr. A, an even harsher character, wore a steel helmet that gave him unmoving, impassive features, as well as steel gloves that locked on. It struck me as fitting that a character so committed to an ideology would go to such extremes in concealing his own humanity and in not having to touch the messy, complicated human world. (Both characters were the inspiration for Rorshach in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.)

Jan 192011
 

Strange Sisters has a gallery of vintage lesbian pulp novel covers with BDSM themes from decades past.

Most of them seem to depict lesbianism as a form of sadistic predation of the dominant, often masculinized woman upon the “confused” woman. Others create a triangular composition of helpless male observer, aggressive female and victim female. The male observer seems to vacillate between delighted voyeur and underdog hero. Some of the images also incorporate elements of the occult, too, with burning braziers or strange idols, and cover blurbs that mention “cults”.

Aug 212010
 

From A Sound Awareness, a 1965 album called Tortura: The Sounds of Pain and Pleasure, released by Bondage Records, nothing but people screaming, moaning, crying, groaning and laughing while being whipped. Note the sub-Willie/Stanton/Bilbrew art. (Mediafire download, streaming audio at WFMU.org)

This blog has some other images of historical kinky ephemera, including a collection of pro domme advertising cards, and some Atomage rubber fetish fashion images.

Jul 012010
 

Via BoingBoing, I found a gallery of North Korean propaganda art and photos. These include variations on the standard “woman threatened by male aggression” theme, with American soldiers as the aggressors and Koreans in traditional dress as the victims.

Some of them hint at a sexual content. One shows a bare-breasted Korean woman tied to the back of a cow, being dragged by US soldiers. Another shows American soldiers using pliers to extract teeth from a contemptuously defiant Korean woman in traditional dress.

Obviously, “virtue in distress” is a strategy that can be applied to just about any conflict, international or domestic.

Jun 272010
 

BoingBoing.net has a small collection of “monster carrying of woman” images.

It’s interesting to me that this image has proven highly applicable to a variety of different conflicts, both open warfare and internal cultural stress: the Franco-Prussian war, WWI, the American civil rights struggle, the Cold War. It was particularly prevalent in Hollywood films of the 1930s: Frankenstein, King Kong, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Murders on the Rue Morgue, etc. Any sense of cultural anxiety can be reflected in the image of an unconscious white woman swooning in the arms of a dark/unclean/hypermasculine figure, and in terms of rape. This ties into the failed seduction idea discussed in Sex Drives.

One of the commenters says:

I did a whole lecture on the “monsters carrying off our women” meme once. Its history in western art goes back at least as far as Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women from 1582.

It was a staple of 20th century sci-fi posters pretty much until the late 70s, when Ripley proved it was possible for a lady to defeat the big scary monster all by her lonesome.

Below is the sculpture mentioned:

If this is the ur-instance of the “monsters carry off our women” image, it’s interesting that unlike the other examples, there are three figures: the female victim, the male aggressor, and the usurped male. They are entangled together, a complicated triad. Perhaps this is the root of cuckold fantasy as well, with the third figure being the one who observes the first two coupling.