21st Century OdalisqueWhen I first saw the still image from Anita's film,
the word ODALISQUE appeared to me in the room.
I looked at my memory of the idea.
First and foremost, the BACK, those WHITE BACKS.
They were always reclining, the back the first body part available , a flat and
frontal elevation of the back.
Always reclining figures, making the back the only apparent face, a twisting
head peeking from above the back. The back offered as a blank landscape, blank
in contrast to amplify the emotions of the face on the always rotated and perched
head . Blank white back , which reveals and accentuates the profiled hint of
the character of the breasts. which although are unseen are understood to be
frontal bare. The bare back exudes the character of the frontal bare.
But this new odalisque image was erect.
The back is bare, always white, always bare.
But the unseen frontality is dressed and the beauty of the face is only implied.
In the 20th century the beauty and specificity of structure contains the implications
of beauty beyond the world of appearances.The structure of the posture expressed
in the back carries the hint of emotions , contribution of the character of both
gesture and emotion to a portrait of an of unseen face.
Another erect odalisque. Oh yes, the Blue Lady standing in the Frick, the Countess
d'Haussenville of Ingres.
Earlier than Manets Olympia, a reclining odalisque.
The reclining lady seems to await erotic encounter, consciously awaiting a visitor
while undressed? When little I was embarrassed by these paintings of reclining
Mayas who were looking so directly at an implied visitor always clearly male;
A 19th century reclining ,bejewelled nude on a couch ,implies waiting for a man.
Surprise, both feigned and erotic is the subject of the horizontal backs of the
Olympias and Mayas.
But the Blue Lady is erect.. She is not waiting. She is dressed.
The white back and exposed nape appear as a reflection in the mirror.
Her face is occupied, with reflections and thoughts.
And the chairs in Ingres portraits of ladies always stand witness draped with
waistcoats reminding of absent males or appearing as beheaded presences.
After seeing the Judith and Holofernes of Caravaggio in Rome,
I observe that Ingres always gave evidence of the two sides of the game in the
autonomous modern female of his time.
Sieff has made the mirror of the back of the Countess d'Haussenville
the entire frame of the portrait of the female of our time.
The odalisque is always the subject of the imaginary visitor.
But these end of 20TH century odalisques, Sieffs photographic odalisques ,
are not looking for, or at us. They are turned toward an inner world ,
toward the photographic white or black aperture of the field.
The head is often tilted down toward the torso, appraising.
With the positioning of the head and the back as cameo,
the imagined visitor informs me of my own erotic and reflexive capability.
Unlike Olympia who sees the observer witness her most vulnerable part, the exposed
nape of the neck ,the contemporary odalisque of Sieff delicately exhibits this
nape without fear. This is a desire for a new definition of freedom.
If the subject of the imaginary visitor is initiated with the archetypal image
of the exposed back, the first important odalisque to this project is the Roman
The exposed back with the profiled hint of the breast, only hints of two opposing
sides, two contradictory defining sides, the front male, and back and profile
female. Nested in the front is a secret space that the dreaming recliner does
not seem to be conscious of. A most prized ancient figure, the semblance of the
hermaphrodite took appraisal of origins. In the Roman mosaic of the hermaphrodite
the she -he is the source of the water cycle , pictured as incentive to universal
In this way the Odalisque landscape of the back is used by Sieff to pose a new
threshold of the erotic. The erotic as the unknown, the unseen, the imagined
the figures although alone, sustain their fragility without regard of another,
without ruse, without dependence on the erotic encounter of the visitor.
These erect standing odalisque views embody a new posture for the feminine
in the field of the white and black .
Is the white day and the black night?
Certainly the figures are often clothed in a corresponding manner. Day and night.
And these exquisite clothes; photographed in crystallized silhouettes of the
black and white of the fashion page. This ability to reduce the desired sensuality,
demure or seductive, into the line of the silhouette is an innately feminine
instrument of the couture.
The cut, the line the posture, the silhouette, a secret and underlying message,
a structural imprint of desired character. Yet these images could never be fashion
because the proof of a physical perfection of face or body is never offered.
The perfection offered here is proof of beauty as a definition of intense femininity
as the titles declare values of beauty;
Fragility, Innocence, Overtakings....
This definition of beauty here exists in a moment. Beauty exists in time not
physicality. It rests in a state of being, a sensuality and receptivity, reflexiveness,
self possession and self examination as proven in the flexure of the bones and
skin, the tilt of the head, the gathering of the hairs behind the head , the
state of the nape of the neck and the shoulder bone carrying memory and emotional
Like the ancient Greek representation of the particular goddesses in sculpting
just the intonation of the chin or neck, Anita depends on the reading of the
white marble of the back as the mythic identity.
I read this delicate femininity, put forth militantly as a necessary value,
but not exclusively to the female. That is why the memory of the hermaphrodite
is essential to the unseen, self reflexive conscious fronts that these back shots
The ancient hermaphrodite carried its qualities while horizontal into a dream
garden of eroticism as unconscious. There is no flat on frontal or elevational
view which reveals all; the problem of reading all through the flat frontal view,
projection beyond the opaque, beyond the physical, evidences of things behind
and beyond. The recurring images frontal rear elevations of the standing odalisques
of Anita's film embody an isolation and observation of femininity.
The female figure attempting to take a frontal view of itself. The address of
dualities nested in this view of the self, conveys a portrait of a contemporary
state of the feminine Eros, an image that includes the conscious but always unexpected
visitor, while encountering the unknown.
It is an autonomous self examination to sustain the erotic, without anticipation
of the visitor; Eros without romance, the pursuit of love without expectation
of the partner.
Diane Lewis December 24, 1998.