The Battle Over the Carnal Envelope
by Chris Brown
Throughout the volume Bachardy unnerves his subjects as "some truth [. . .] from [his] sitters passes through [him] on the way to [the] paper or canvas." Because Bachardy’s idea in each of these sittings is to get at the "truth" of each celebrity sitter, or the meaning behind the Image, there is a tension over who is in control of the picture. The confrontation between artist and sitter is a "threat" to the celebrities, in part, because of the length of time required for a sitting. It is easier to sustain an Image during the flash of a photograph than a two to six hour sitting, and the celebrity sitter, as opposed to an anonymous model, has just as much invested in the product as the portraitist. At the risk of digressing, think of an artist with an idea for a painting. He or she hires a model to embody the artist’s idea. The model, then, in a sense, becomes the blank canvas upon which the artist conveys meaning. The celebrity "model," however, is not simply a blank canvas for the artist to inscribe signs, but, rather, a carnal envelope conveying particular messages by which he or she makes a living. In other words, the "truth" inside the carnal envelope, or the Image, is the last thing a celebrity wants read. The drawings and accompanying prose reflect the skirmishes between an artist and his subjects over the control of the meaning of an image.
Approximately half of the pictures are portraits of celebrities Bachardy admired as a child in the forties, "such as Bette Davis, Alice Faye, Henry Fonda, Paulette Goddard, Laurence Olivier, Ginger Rogers, [and] Barbara Stanwyck." Bachardy’s "eye-to-eye physical confrontation with an actor whose image had permeated [his] childhood was profound," yet, perhaps, a little disconcerting for him, because of the effects of aging on his famous subjects. Bachardy acknowledges the problem of confronting a weathered icon,
As Bachardy alludes, the confrontation between artist and sitter over the image is also waged within the artist, as he tries to see beyond the Image that has infiltrated his perception through previous images on the Big Screen.
As I’ve stated already, there are thirty three celebrities represented in multiple sketches. I’m not going to discuss each sitting, but I am going to refer to a few which I think are representative of this really interesting confrontation of which Bachardy writes. For instance, the series of four drawings of Bette Davis presents Bachardy’s struggle to get past an Image of sadness Davis wants to portray. For example, in her first picture Davis refuses to look at the artist, which Bachardy interprets as "her intense shyness and uncertainty." The picture doesn’t succeed, because she manages "to be restless and rigid"! The second drawing of her is unsuccessful, because it is, in her words, "cruel." This time she looks at him, but the angle of her head emphasizes her aging, sagging jaw line. The third picture, which she likes best, is the most stilted and reflects the sad Image she wants to present of her self:
She likes the third picture so much that she refuses to sign the second!
The fourth and final (and best) picture of Davis takes place a couple of weeks after the first confrontation. For this sitting, Davis is less generous with her time, allowing Bachardy only an hour to draw her. Bachardy’s writes urgently,
Instead of a rebuke, however, Davis seems to recognize a "truth" in the picture, acknowledging, "Yup, that’s the old bag." Bachardy’s adjective "uncompromising" encapsulates the meaning of the picture. The efficient, business like ambience of the second sitting seems to bring Davis out more effectively than the nervous, slightly inebriated cordiality of the first. (Bette Davis cooked him dinner, for goodness sakes!)
Bachardy’s experience with Davis inaugurates the theme of confrontation, which dominates his written record. Bachardy’s confrontation with Ginger Rogers, for instance, takes the power struggle for the meaning of an Image/image to a higher level. Rogers’s rigorous awareness of herself as a "carnal envelope" matches Bachardy’s sense of her as a canvas of "truth and clarity." Bachardy observes,
Bachardy’s phrase, "the search for truth and clarity," has an interesting tension in the context of his confrontation with her. Although the pictures of Rogers are quite accomplished and very good, there is the sense underlying them that the viewer is seeing only the Image she wants presented, rather than a truth that he discovers or that she discloses. Bachardy’s prose conveys the difficulty of the confrontation with a sense of almost resigned irritation as he describes her inability to sit still. Rogers would leave the room, talk on the phone, or pay too close attention to the television, rather than sit still.
For example, after a wordless and abrupt departure during the middle of a drawing, Rogers appeared ten minutes later, "and, still without a word and with no apparent effort, resumed her pose and her smile as though she had never left" the room. As a professional actress, Rogers knows her craft and her tool, her carnal envelope, well enough to present the Image she wants to convey to her audience. Her craft involves a sensual approach to presenting her image. Bachardy observes,
Of all the older actresses portrayed in the book, age seems to have effected the 63 year old Rogers the least. Even when criticizing her, Bachardy uses language like "devour," "feast," and "voluptuous delight." At the risk of sounding corny, Rogers manages to exude an Image of youthfulness and beauty, which Bachardy responds to on page and canvas.
Her crafts(wo)manship equals Bachardy’s in her attempt to help him understand the "calibrations" of the proportions of her face. She holds her hand to her face and measures her features:
After "misdrawing" the proportions of her face a second time, Rogers exasperatedly grabs Bachardy’s hand and "calibrates" them on her face! Bachardy comments on the jarring carnality of her didactic gesture:
The feel of her soft, warm, folded flesh under my fingers was uncanny, the nearness of her face almost mesmerizing. There was, too, something perverse in the strength of her hand firmly controlling and guiding mine while her face passively yielded up its treasures. It was as if she were using my hand as an instrument for masturbation.
Meeting the challenge Rogers sets, Bachardy suggests measuring with a ruler his drawing against her finger calibrations. The two correspond almost exactly. Falling back and regrouping, Rogers, in her "lust for power," suggests that the upper lip is too light and needs shading to which responds coyly, "‘I’m afraid of giving you a moustache.’ At this she laughed, and I knew I’d won the game."
Davis and Rogers reflect amicable confrontations with Bachardy, but the actress, Joan Fontaine, illustrates a less metaphorical, more literal idea of confrontation between artist and sitter. Fontaine comes across as incredibly imperious and condescending. Bachardy notes the schism between her appearance and the Image she wants to convey of herself. The bad lighting of her apartment
The final product is, needless to say, unacceptable to her. Without asking if she could look at the picture, Fontaine breezes behind him as she grants a "few preliminary phrases about the drawing being ‘not right’" before ultimately damning the picture: "I loathe it [. . .] I wish you would destroy it." Then, similar to Rogers before her, Fontaine begins instructing Bachardy how to draw her:
Fontaine, then, makes a half-hearted attempt to sit again, but stops because, in her words, "it’s too difficult." She peremptorily ends the sitting to fetch a photograph, which Bachardy will not use: "For my instruction she held out a photograph of herself presenting her at exactly the angle I had just been trying to draw, with the same expression of cool appraisal on her face, the same hairdo, even the same earrings." Bachardy does not try to describe the meaning she was trying to convey with her carnal envelope. The meaning behind the Image has irretrievably changed under his pen and eye.
The drawing seems to capture Fontaine as Bachardy describes her in his diary. Rather than try to place some adjectives in front of the image, I’ll quote Bachardy’s last brush with her, which seems to capture the Image better than anything else. As Bachardy gathered his painting gear, Fontaine went to make sure the elevator was open on her floor to facilitate his immediate departure:
Bachardy’s description of his confrontation with Fontaine is rich and ironic. Repeatedly, he complains of "working with little sense of control" and that Fontaine "took control" of the sitting. At the same time, however, and as unpleasant as the experience is to him, there is the sense in the resulting image that he captures some "truth" about his experience and his sitter. He writes of Fontaine, "Her face deftly registers continual messages from the tangle of perversity and artificiality that rules her, but elusiveness, which she uses as a taunt, is her dominant mode of expression."
Bachardy’s skill as a narrator in Stars In My Eyes is as strong as his skill as a portraitist: each diary entry is as distinct as each sitter. The text accompanying the drawings is unique in that it fills the vacuum that is an Image with a distinct meaning, or, to put it another way, the letter inside the envelope. The text calls attention to the way we all respond to any image, celebrity or not, and make it somehow meaningful to ourselves.