— Beauty is immanent  —

That fleeting moment of promise

Brona Balfe reviews Eva: Eloge De Ma Fille

So the first question must be - who is this woman writing a review of a book of photographs of a young woman in the nude or partially clothed? Well, I’m little more than that just that description, a mother with one adult daughter and three sons, also a grandmother of a little girl through my daughter. I may have two other qualifications for the review. I have loved the dreamy eroticism of the work of such photographers as David Hamilton since my early teens, and recently I attempted to co-author a book about the object which is central to the work of such a photographer – the eroticism of certain nude or partly clothed teenaged or pre-teen girls.

So, that is the shocking bit out. Having said it, I can add that I’ve found several other women prepared to admit an interest in the same genre, not many mind you, and the few that did admit it, did so very reluctantly. Women as well as men can celebrate virginal beauty. But it goes much deeper than this, as most of the writers on this web site have realized. We need to restore to eroticism its rightful sacredness.

I believe that our society’s attempts to suppress and criminalize virginal beauty and eroticism are doomed to failure and worse. One cannot block the primal source, or check the flow, of human sexuality, as these will not yield to such control, no matter how much we try. We may re-direct the flow or drive it underground, we may distort or transform it from a force for good to one for evil, but we will not stop it. And its denial simply leads to self-deception, and so to mass deception, moral panic and inquisition. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that the primal flow of sexuality is part of a deeper dynamics of creation itself, so is it any wonder that our sexual desires appear so unfathomable?

I am also going to suggest that much of so-called child pornography consists in fact of images of beautiful naked young people and what should be called ‘child eroticism’, and by child here I mean in the legal sense, because most of the disputed images are of ‘children’ between ten and seventeen. I also suggest that the interest in child nudity and ‘erotic innocence’ is in fact growing, fanned perhaps by prohibition and the phenomenon of the Internet, and that it is a natural strand of the greater primal flow.

If I had to pick a starting point for the study of the genre of ‘erotic innocence’, I would opt for the French académie or étude photographique,produced as daguerreotype, and early prints, and the first home movies of ‘little nudities’, as Lewis Carroll called his own little naked girl friends. I would proceed from there through the photo magazines of the 1960s and 1970s and then to the work of David Hamilton, Jock Sturges, and Jacques Bourboulon.

So, prepared by my love of what I had seen in these sources, I took into my hands the beautifully produced copy of Irina Ionesco’s completely new edition of Eva: Eloge De Ma Fille, and I turned the pages.

The Forward is by Graham Ovenden, who was himself harassed because of his work by UK police in the mid-1990s. He describes the pictures as ‘images fraught with promise’, saying “this is a dark love.” He quotes Chesterton that ‘one must look evil unflinchingly straight in the eye’ and that this ‘must apply to the realm of the sensual’. He says that ‘truth for the artist must encompass all aspects of human mores. - - - (and with a camera) when the manipulator is also a seer, art is synonymous with revelation’. He also quotes Henry James that ‘art is the only truth’ and that there can be no emotional or even moral negatives to ‘imagery held in grace. - - - the immorality of prudery which so often acts as a stultifying barrier to expression. - - - truth is at its most potent when it is on the knife-edge between dark and light’.

What thrilled me about the first pages of Eva: Eloge De Ma Fille began with a theatrical opening sequence, written by Valerie Martinenq, known as ‘Valer’, a young French-born artist, and an admirer of Ionesco’s photographs since a child. She ends her introduction with the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, light your candles and prepare to enter in the magic, as we present to you ‘Eva’ and the world of Irina Ionesco!”

And there, startlingly, on an otherwise darkened stage, and lit in bright artificial candlelight stands Eva, bizarrely presented, naked except for long white gloves and black lace showgirl stockings, a white ribbon tied in a huge garter’s bow at the top of her right leg, a gypsy scarf under her tumbling golden tresses, a pearled hat on her head, a long candle stick with an electric light on top held up under her chin. And, setting the style for much more of the same to come, her dark eye makeup and the dark cupid’s bow of her painted lips, complimenting a black stone ring on one white-gloved finger, the black of the stockings, the shadow of her virginal cleft, and the dark areolas of her budding breasts.

When I was involved in my research for a possible book on the genre, I came upon a statement by Sally Mann, another well-known woman artist who photographed her children in the nude. In response to criticism that she was exploiting the sexuality of her children’s bodies, she replied that the concept of children and sexuality was an oxymoron – in other words, a contradiction. One could laugh at Mann’s disingenuousness as one looks at the Ionesco images, expressing the intense, evolving, sexuality and potential for eroticism of a beautiful girl’s body from childhood to womanhood. In several tableaux she goes so far as to place Eva, from a fully dressed princess (or bride) to nude, in whorehouse scenes in the company of naked and partially undressed older women.

Graham Ovenden said that art is synonymous with revelation. Many photographs expose rather than reveal, but Ionesco knows that the secret of eroticism lies in its revelation. Eroticism does not just undress. It unveils and re-veils – covers up again. It gives us a glimpse of the Promised Land, and in that fleeting moment of promise lies the art of seduction. How often that Promised Land is veiled and unveiled in the images of Eva by her loving mother! In a peek-a-boo game we humans play with the divine.

And what for me also marks out the work of Ionesco as different from most of the other artists whose work I am familiar with is not just her honest acceptance and celebration of child eroticism, but something much deeper which Graham Ovenden also touched on in his Forward. It is her exploration of a dark love, evil looked unflinchingly in the eye, and, above all for me, that ‘truth is at its most potent when it is on the knife-edge between dark and light’.

This was in fact at the heart of the book that I tried to work on, and it brought me to my moment of decision or ‘great indecision’ – to continue with the subject and explore that truth, or drop it at that point. Already burdened with the awareness that even the most carefully trod exploration of child sexuality could bring down upon me disapprobation and even prosecution, how much worse might my situation be were I to venture down this dark path, even in the search for truth. I shelved the project: indeed, I fled from it.

Now, as I turn the pages of Eva: Eloge De Ma Fille, I see that Irina Ionesco has gone even farther than I had dared to go in my own imagination. Some girls harbour a dark secret of fantasizing about being captured and put on display as objects for sale, a fantasy perhaps brought into being by being excessively warned at home about the dangers lurking abroad. Looking at the pictures of Eva, I saw a beautiful daughter dressed up, half-dressed, naked, unveiled and re-veiled. I saw her as a coquette, sometimes an angel, and sometimes a divine whore – a delightful plaything. Playing within a world created by a caring, loving woman, in Eva’s case her mother, but it could equally be any woman, were it not for the society that has now criminalized such a game.

I loved her. If only we could live in such a world of play!

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Modified: 11:15 9 Aug 2006
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