Essays  Donald Kuspit  

Donald Kuspit

A Bewitching Self in Enchanted Space: Norma Bessouet's Dream World

Norma Bessouet's figures are "monk-like" Whitney Chadwick writes. The artist herself seems to have the aura of a monk, the devotee of a sacred discipline, in two self-portraits, made early in her career (1981), as though to introduce herself and her vision, her vision of the self, as it were. But is she one and the same self in both pictures?

In both portraits, Bessouet sits alone in what can be read as a kind of cell, for the room is stripped bare and even the chair on which she sits is invisible, so that she seems to float in space. From this, "other space", an inner sanctum, as it were, or more broadly what depth psychology calls inner space, she stares at the spectator who belongs to the world outside it, no doubt with as much curiosity as he or she has about her. This "dialectical contemplation", the ironic interplay of gazes, is a Renaissance device, a way of making the spectator a participant observer, so that he or she is as much inside as outside the picture, in effect marking the boundary between inner and outer worlds. (Perhaps it is a standoff rather than interplay, for in both self-portraits Bessouet's gaze is impenetrable. Her eyes, and eyes are a strong presence, almost independent of that of the figure, in all her works, seem to instantly fathom what they see without taking it in to herself, indeed, refusing to. She remains pristine, for all the depth of her insight.)

But beyond the similarity of space, and it is not complete, for in one self-portrait the rooms limits are marked, while in the other they are missing, so that the space seems infinite and indeterminate the figures are completely, one is tempted to say radically different. Both are centered, but one is far from the picture plane, the other close. But their difference is more than a matter of their placement in space. The remote figure is a beautiful young girl, tender-faced and solemn-eyed, with her long hair spread behind her, it ends hanging from a line stretched across the room. In abrupt contrast, the near figure seems much older, indeed, timelessly mature, and certainly more severe, for she has no hair at all. The difference suggests a split self, a self in conflict with itself. It also announces that Bessouet is an authentic artist, for the real artist, someone who is an artist on the inside, possesses a self with a decidedly double nature. She or he is a "homo duplex" as Charles Baudelaire said.

Can one say that the two, somewhat plush cats who sit on the woman's lap play the same role as the girls hair, to signal the feminine, even more, the ripe sensuality of the female body hidden beneath the clothing? It is a cliché that when a woman undoes her hair, loosening it so that it falls in a voluptuous cascade down her shoulders, and becomes a kind of veil, she is signaling her sexual availability, or at least in interest. She is declaring that she is desirable, even if she is not ready to act. But this gesture of seductiveness is contradicted by the fact that Bessouet's hair falls upward, as it were. It hangs suspended above her head, like a kind of sacred aura, or what in medieval art was called a cloth of honor, distinguishing a sacred figure from its surroundings, indeed, signifying its distinction. Moreover, the sensuality of the cats is at odds with the sobriety of the drapery that covers the adult Bessouet. She seems to be a kind of priestess, dedicated to some sacred cause, art, especially in comparison to the adolescent Bessouet, who seems to have no cause but her own presence and beauty. Bessouet may be monk-like, sometimes demurely innocent, sometimes wise beyond her years, but her presence is a provocative mixture of the solitary and the sensual. However reserved, she remains subliminally, and not so subliminally, erotic. In these two portraits of her solitude, she is clearly at a crossroads, and a crossroads herself.

It is the subtle incongruities within each work, and the difference in their execution, the Bessouet without hair wears a dark robe, impenetrably dense and heavy, a study in volume (as though to make up for the absence of hair), while the Bessouet with hair wears a dress that seems to have lost its substance, for it is little more than a meticulous study of folds. Indeed, a tour de force of detail (Bessouet's naked leg is visible behind one, reinforcing the bodily suggestiveness of the hair), that suggest the surreal character of Bessouet's images. Hers is an art that renders and unconscious vision with skilful consciousness. Indeed she is a master draughts person, with a linear style that harks back to Renaissance descriptiveness even as it looks forward to Symbolic suggestiveness. Bessouet's line has precision and clarity, but also an energy and mood, another unity of opposites that signals her complexity. Hers is an inward-looking art that uses the most sophisticated techniques of externalization to create its visionary aesthetics.

Again and again we see the same kind of scene, whatever its symbolic content. In the Selvagio and Uccello series, 1983-87 Bessouet depicts a nude female and blackbird, a lover of sorts, however perverse and melancholy. Anna's World, 1989-94 shows a young virginal girl in a world haunted by her own fantasies. (She has a piercing gaze that seems to see through them in the acting of seeing them.) In Memories and Dreams, 1994-99 children live in their own lyric, mysterious yet very real worlds. But the point is not only the hallucinatory symbolism, but the picture's structure. Bessouet invariably contrasts a singular, somewhat insular figure and its magical surroundings. However deep the inner connection between them, they remain at odds-subtly estranged. The magic of the picture ultimately derives from this contradiction, however magical the figures and objects may be in themselves.
Magic is always in the telling detail that stands out from its surroundings, creating a kind of unresolved tension in the picture, for example, the colorful bow-tie in the otherwise somber Carlos's Portrait, 1979 and the bizarre, enormous, luminous collar, quaintly surreal or is it surreally quaint? (It seems to be another sanctifying halo), in Anna Then 1989. The animals and objects that populate Bessouet's pictures look magical, strange, but it is their ambiguous relationship with the figure that makes them deeply magical. They are its attributes and familiars, that is, spirits who attend it and signs of its inner life, its allegorical projections as it were. Two titles convey the mood in all Bessouet's images: We Are Enchanted, Bewitched 1987 and Magical Glow 1996. But to call Bessouet a magical realist, as has been done, is to miss the inner ironies of her art, and, more fundamentally, its rebellious commitment to enigma.

"Concretizing the enigmatic" is the most enduring task of art, T. W. Adorno asserts, a task that is all the more important in our scientifically enlightened yet emotionally stupid world. Bessouet's dream world, her poetic images of children's dreams and memories, embodying their deepest feelings and self-awareness, including feelings about their bodies, is the instrument of her hermetic art. It is an ageless kind of art, aiming to capture the enigmatic quality of existence. One must recognize and respect its mystery to emotionally survive in an alien world, the profanely objective world outside the sacred subjective picture. Bessouet's art evokes the feeling of being inwardly alive and full of wonder at life, the wonder a child has, in a world that threatens one with living death or self-loss. Baudelaire thought that the deepest art expressed a child's sense of wonder, more particularly, the child's conviction that life would remain fresh forever. With exquisite mastery, Bessouet conveys the pleasurable innocence of childhood perception, the child's delight in things and its own sensations, however haunted by the adult's morbid awareness of the terrible ordinariness of reality.

"In dreams begin responsibilities," W. B. Yeats wrote, most of all responsibility to oneself. Bessouet shows the self using its imagination to support itself in an indifferent world. Indifference haunts Bessouet's space, but her children and women realize and convey in their own person, a feeling for the mystery of life, thus becoming enigmatic themselves. Yeas also said one must shore up one's existence with the fragmentary memories and dreams that imaginatively embody ones deepest feelings about oneself. Bessouet's three Fragments to Dominate Silence 1985 epitomize the imaginative force of her work, especially because of the ecstatic eroticism of the female nude, which announces her capacity for feeling, indeed, the depth of Bessouet's feeling for life.