“See what the boys in the [dark]room will have”: No Highway, Angus McBean, and Dietrich’s Face

Marlene Dietrich (1951) by Angus McBean, SoAM&G, Aberystwyth University
Purchase: Adrian Woodhouse (2016)
Funding support: ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and The Art Fund

Of all the pictures currently on display in Make/Believe, the latest in a series of annual exhibition projects I create for staging by students of my curating class at Aberystwyth University, Angus McBean’s 1951 photograph of Marlene Dietrich is my favorite. 

What draws me in is the blankness of Dietrich’s face, her eyes looking not at us but beyond us, at nothing in particular, with a lack of any definable expression, emotion or urgency. The vacant gaze, bespeaking an unavailability and a refusal to engage, suggests the subject’s control over an image that is all surface: like theatrical curtains, the lids may come down on those eyes any moment now, shutting us out entirely.

It is a blankness that is not nothingness, invested as it becomes with the spectacle it makes of our longing.  It is a blankness that is not openness; it gives nothing away while it commands our attention and inspires our awe at its sublime perfection – a perfection that belies the sprezzatura, the rehearsed effortlessness and nonchalance of the performance.

Nothing here encourages us to imagine what those eyes are looking at; nothing that invites us to see anything through those eyes.  Those eyes are the event in a face – a site – that is all look.  I am glamor, this face says, and what else, what more could you – or anyone – possibly be looking for!

The photograph holds me because the look withholds so much. What we are not getting is a portrait of the sitter, then in her fiftieth year.  This photograph, clearly, is not of Dietrich, the person.  It is the image of a mask that is already a persona.  In this masquerade, as intriguing as anything conceived by Cindy Sherman in her film stills, the image is a simulacrum – the fiction of a fiction of a fiction.

Prosaically speaking, the photograph is a publicity shot.  It shows the fictional film actress Monica Teasdale, a part that Dietrich did not so much inhabit as drift in and out of in the 1951 film No Highway in the Sky.  A review in the trade paper Motion Picture Herald (21 July 1951) declared that 

[p]rior to discussing the actual merits of this Twentieth Century-Fox film, […], a word should be said about the reappearance of Marlene Dietrich.  She still retains that aura of glamour and beauty which drew patrons, and her presence in this picture should be capitalized by all exhibitors. They can’t go wrong.

Co-star James Stewart – with whom Dietrich had a far more physical connection in Destry Rides Again, and off-screen, more than a decade earlier – can be glimpsed at in the celluloid film strip that forms both the flagpole and the banner under which the face creates the illusion of being the main event.

Produced in England, No Highway in the Sky was based on the 1948 novel No Highway by Nevil Shute, a 1950 edition of which I happened upon in a second-hand bookstore in Machynlleth a few weeks after the McBean exhibition opened.  I was curious to learn just how much of Monica Teasdale was in Shute’s novel – or, perhaps, how much of Dietrich was in Shute’s Monica Teasdale – and whether Dietrich, in her features or as a mystique, resembles the character in Shute’s novel.

The dust wrapper image – yet another interpretation of Monica Teasdale – suggests little physical resemblance.  The character Shute imagined is a beautiful woman in her fifties with “deep auburn hair.”  Aside from that, though, what we get in the novel is the essence of star power and the enduring – imaginary and yet real – hold it can assert over us.

In Shute’s novel, we experience Ms. Teasdale through the eyes of an unworldly scientist, Theodore Honey, whose research is concerned with “fatigue in aircraft structures.”  While his work has concrete applications, preventing death, Honey has become detached from the everyday after the death of his wife.  A negligent single father and a scientist whose methods are being questioned as too abstract, he is recalled to real life by the mirage that is Monica Teasdale, whose familiar face he unexpectedly encounters on a plane that he is convinced will crash:

Mr. Honey’s eyes rested on a woman travelling alone; he paused, and stared at her in frank curiosity.  She was seated two rows behind him, on the other side of the aisle.  She was a very beautiful woman […], carefully made up, wearing a most magnificent mink fur.  In spite of all the trimmings her face remained keen and intelligent, giving added charm to her great beauty.  Mr. Honey knew her at first glance, and his heart rose in sudden emotion and he felt a tightening in his throat and tears welling up behind his eyes.  She was Monica Teasdale.

When Honey had […] had married a girl as unsophisticated as he was. They were a very simple couple […].  They went a good deal to the movies, but they were discriminating picturegoers; if they didn’t like the film they would walk out of it, preferring to lose their money than to sit through an unworthy show. They never walked out of anything with Monica Teasdale in it.

They loved Monica Teasdale with all the enthusiasm of very simple people; throughout their life together they did not miss one of her films. […] That went on from the day that they became engaged till Mary Honey was killed in the year 1944.  That finished it abruptly: since that time Mr. Honey had not been inside a picture-house.

Monica Teasdale was for Mr. Honey part of his lost life, a part of the simple pleasures and enthusiasms he had shared with his young wife.

The illusions of the screen are so much part of the reality of Honey’s life – of our lives – that their preservation itself becomes a matter of life and death.

Dietrich and Stewart in a scene from No Highway in the Sky

Meanwhile, photographing stars like Dietrich was McBean’s bread and butter.  Of his experience of meeting Marlene Dietrich in his studio, the queer Welsh photographer told biographer Adrian Woodhouse: “Everyone was in such a daze and she was so much the personification of glamour that she was in and out almost before we had realized it.”  

To Dietrich – who reprised her role alongside Stewart in a 1952 adaptation of No Highway in the Sky produced by Lux Radio Theatre – this photoshoot was little more than another cameo, a brief but memorable appearance to which her later parts in movies were increasingly and strategically limited.  To McBean, on the other hand, the publicity shoot became an opportunity further to promote his practice.  An advertisement for his studio made the cheeky claim – drawing attention to the sitter we are expected to think away –  that all of his photographs “would reproduce as well as this picture of Miss Dietrich.”  No way! But, at a mere £6 for a sitting in four poses yielding four mounted prints, no highway robbery, either.

Difference Reconciled: Ceri H. Pritchard’s Paradoxes

Ceri H. Pritchard at his solo exhibition Paradoxes, MOMA Machynlleth, 18 Sept. 2021

Some creative sparks managed to rekindle themselves during the pandemic; stoked up by a keenly felt sense of do-or-die urgency, they keep generating alternative realities – or alternatives to reality – out of the deepest blue of mind-numbing, soul-crumbling chaos.  While I do not quite succeed in numbering among those motivated mortals, visual artist Ceri H. Pritchard certainly does.  

In front of Metamorphosis I at MOMA Machynlleth, with a temporarily unmasked Ceri H. Pritchard

His prodigious output, mordant wit and renewed openness to experimentation are on full display in his latest of a slew of solo shows.  Ceri H. Pritchard’s Paradoxes opened on 18 September 2021 at MOMA Machynlleth, one of Wales’s most distinguished contemporary art galleries, and is on view there until 13 November 2021.  I have been keeping up with Ceri’s work and am excited to see it transmogrify.  I said as much, or as little, in the introductory text panel I was glad to contribute to his exhibition:

Ceri first invited me into his studio in 2015.  A few years earlier, I had co-authored monographs on his parents, figurative painter Claudia Williams and the late landscape artist Gwilym Prichard.  At the time, I was as yet unfamiliar with Ceri’s decades-spanning international career.  It was an unexpected, disorientating encounter – in his parents’ house, no less – with what Ceri here terms ‘Paradoxes.’  

I was perhaps too quick to label his paintings ‘neo-surrealist’ in an effort to get an art historical handle on the uncanny with which I was confronted: an otherworldly territory strewn with the detritus of modernity, with outcast and less-than-easy chairs, outmoded models of disconnected television sets, and displaced floor lamps shedding no light on matters.

Resisting further temptations to make sense of it all by trying to place the work, I did not initially consider – but subsequently discussed with Ceri – how his conspicuous enthusiasm for colour and his partiality for patterns is prominent as well in his mother’s work, although in subject and mood Ceri’s paintings could not be further removed from Claudia’s figure compositions expressive of the bond between mother and child.  

And yet, the patterns in Ceri’s paintings, too, suggest blood bonds – biological ties, be it the universality of our molecular make-up or the common experience of life and death in the strange new age of COVID-19.  Those repeated shapes bespeak at once commonality and change, circulation and evolution – and they remind us that what we share can also keep us apart.

Gwilym Prichard, Landscape (1960), detail

The mostly unpopulated landscapes painted by Ceri’s father, Gwilym, meanwhile, showed a preoccupation with home and belonging, with the uncovering of roots in ancient soil rather than the representation of the iconic sites of his native Wales.  Ceri’s work, too, is concerned with home – but his approach to the question of belonging to particular cultures and traditions – is entirely different.  It is the paradox of being at home with dislocation and familiar with estrangement.

Claudia Williams, The Toy Basket (1989) detail

The paradoxes that Ceri’s work communicate are not the consolidation of a calculated career move, an effort to set himself apart as much as possible from the tradition represented by his artist parents.  They are felt, not fabricated.  Ceri’s practice is informed by an international outlook, a transnational engagement with diverse cultures, high and low, in France, Mexico and the United States.  The unresolved tension of paradox at play in his compositions reflects and responds to decades of being abroad and of returning as an artist whose paintings redefine the tradition of what it means to be living and working here and now – in twenty-first century Wales.  

Upon first seeing Ceri’s work, I felt as if I were about to be let in on a secret: canvases that were still underway, waiting – ready or reluctant – to come out into the open.  Catching up with his evolving work in his studio years later, in the middle of the pandemic, I sensed a renewed purpose, a conviction of having arrived at something worth the departure and of forging ahead, destination unknowable.  

This is a body of work distinguished by something other than its now familiar set of iconography and ready tropes packaged for public exhibition.  There is continued experimentation both in subject and technique – not just a recycling of a haunting image repertoire but a repurposing of found materials as well and an increasing openness to change and chance.

Ceri H. Pritchard, The State of Things (2021)

That air of mystery has not dissipated since I opened Ceri’s solo exhibition The Strange Edge of Reality at Tenby Museum and Art Gallery in 2016.  And although encounters with art may become less personal in a museum setting, an institutional space can also contribute to our sense of discovery by making us become more aware of alternative approaches and canonical outliers we may not have expected to find there. Surprise, mystification, and a darkly humorous take on what it means to be alive at a time it seems impossible for future generations to get nostalgic about – all that may be experienced here, but also the realisation of being prompted to become part of a compelling narrative in the making.

Rather than look at Ceri’s paradoxes as puzzles to be solved it might be useful to regard them as open invitations to question our assumptions about culture, heritage, and about art produced in Wales today. 

‘Mysteries,’ are ‘like the sun,’ the metaphysical poet John Donne wrote, ‘dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.’  And not unlike the metaphysical poets, Ceri’s compositions yoke together opposites to achieve a kind of reconciliation, a discordia concors (harmonious discord), even though, in Ceri’s case, the aim is not harmony: it is to become reconciled to remaining unsettled.

“Quote” of No Confidence: “Inconvenient Objects” at Aberystwyth University

After
Before

Like most professionals – secret agents excepting – I talk about my work at the slightest provocation.  Besides, academics are expected to drop their names freely in the hope that it may take root in a crowded field scattered with formidable grey matter and fragile egos.  There is a reason I have not yet mentioned one of my latest projects – the exhibition “Inconvenient Objects.”  For a while, it was my blood pressure monitor that had to do most of the talking, delivering clinical statements geared toward a strictly limited audience listening out for official pronouncements that can be made to serve as quantifiable substitutes for my, to my mind, tell-tale cries of anger and frustration. 

The power of words is at once affirmed and eroded in the act of our being rendered speechless, be it by way of silencing or sheer incredulity.  There is no irony in the fact that, in this case of speech free and curtailed, seemingly innocuous curls of quotation marks are at the heart of the matter. 

And just what was – or is – that matter you may well ask after reading this abstract and oblique preamble?

Since 2012, I have been involved in staging exhibitions in the galleries of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, where I also teach art history and exhibition curating, as well as serving as Director of Research.  Most of those exhibitions – Queer TastesUgly, and Alternative Facts among them – are projects that I, with the assistance of the School’s senior curator, create for and realize with groups of undergraduate students each year.  All of those shows draw entirely from the School’s collections of some 25,000 objects of visual and material culture.

The School of Art at Aberystwyth has the distinction of being one of only two art schools in the United Kingdom that also operate as accredited museums.  I try to make use of that nearly unique status in all my teaching, and curating – in which many prospective students express an interest in their applications – provides me with an opportunity to link art history, theory and praxis in practical, public-oriented and creative ways.

I have long regarded the School of Art’s museum collections and public galleries as a mother lode for staff and students alike, as it enables them to generate and showcase their research.  The project for the current show, with which the galleries reopen to the public after over a year during which our collections lingered in the Pandora’s box that is the pandemic of which the previous project, Seeing Red, had been a casualty, was for students to investigate and interpret objects that might pose challenges to cultural institutions due to their subject matter or the politics and ideologies they bespeak.

The selected works range from Third Reich photography to a bust of a Congolese pygmy chief, but also feature groups of female nudes executed by male artists, graphic images of starvation in 1970s Ethiopia, unauthorised sketches of patients in a mental institution and scenes of bullfighting.  However rewarding the digging, the mother lode, in this instance, turned out to be a minefield.

The mining metaphor is borrowed from and alludes to one of the best-known examples of institutional critique, a practice of interrogating collections and museum spaces that artist-curators have employed since the 1970s.  Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum was one such landmark project in which the legacies of colonialism were made transparent through the juxtapositional display of objects as outwardly disparate but intimately related as silverware and slave shackles to remind us how and on whose backs the wealth of the United States was built.

“Inconvenient Objects” was conceived to create awareness about the responsibility of contemporary museums such as ours and the role that exhibition curators play in making artifacts and their at times problematic histories accessible to the public.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, an early twentieth-century bust ostensibly created in the service of science and not intended as a portrait of the subject, Chief Bokani, was previously shown as an ethnographic “specimen” in the University’s geography department.  In the context of the exhibition, the plaster bust – created by one of Wales’ foremost sculptors – encourages debates about ethics and ethnicity in art and science. 

Wilson, unearthing a similar bust at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire in 2005, had asked: ‘[Can we] extricate ourselves from the violence involved in acquiring these objects?’ The question remains whether “we” – as cultural institutions – can fulfil our civic mission by removing ourselves from the public discourse of reckoning? “We” have a lot to answer for if we don’t ask.

“Inconvenient Objects” so fully lived up to its title that it was ordered shut and hidden from view.  The word “inconvenient” was apparently central to the university management’s claim that the show posed a reputational risk.  I say “apparently” because what issues the university had with the show was never clearly – let alone directly – communicated to the curatorial team.*

Being that I also serve as the School’s “Equality Champion,” I had envisioned “Inconvenient Objects” as an opportunity to demonstrate that our University is committed to participating in the debate surrounding Black Lives Matter and the legacies of colonialism and empire in which sculptural objects such as our bust of Bokani are enmeshed.  Some three thousand words of gallery texts were in place to clarify those objectives.

After nearly two months behind closed doors – a hiding away that is now part of its story – the show was once again opened to the public, and it is scheduled to remain so until 1 October 2021.  With the addition of a single label, and a sign advising “viewer discretion” at the entrance, nothing has been altered.  And yet, everything has changed.

Our senior curator, who designed the poster, was obliged to place the title of the exhibition in quotation marks, indicating that we do not really mean what we say or else that that “we” does not refer to representatives of our institution.  In effect, the museum has been disabled from reflecting upon itself because such a critique – widely practiced elsewhere – might reflect poorly on the academic institution under which it is subsumed.

Minor adjustments though they may seem – a concession that allowed us to hold on to the title of the show – those quotation marks signal a disavowal, a lack of commitment and self-confidence.  They undermine the common endeavor to mine our public museums, instead of simply minding the store, an engagement with history and civics that should be all of our business.

*Curatorial team: Audrey Corbelli, Ciara Donnellan, Eve King, Orla Mai-Riley, Farrah Nicholson, Lucia Paone-Michael, Katie Rodge and Katarzyna Rynkowska, with contributions from Cara Cullen and Sarai David, and support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)

Tickets for this free exhibition can be booked via Eventbrite.