‘Gilda, are you decent?’ A woman’s head is thrown back, her hair flies through the frame, revealing Rita Hayworth’s smiling face: ‘Me?’ This scene, from Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946), is not only an iconic moment in cinema history but also a case study of the technical expertise of the era, one in which actors were lit from both the front, to render their faces luminous, and the back, to accentuate their silhouettes.
Dream-factory classics like Gilda – featuring the archetypal women of Hollywood’s golden age – are the underlying pretext for ‘She’, John Stezaker’s latest show at Galerie Gisela Capitain. Thirty colour collages depict a range of Hollywood beauties – or, rather, reveal them through their absence. The women, identifiable as film stars from their settings and poses, have been excised from their portraits to leave only their outlines, which are then mounted onto larger film stills. Rotated from horizontal to vertical, the stills are visible through the cut-out spaces the women once occupied. In Goddess (all works 2018), for instance, the actor’s vacant form is filled by a plume of white smoke rising from the cannon of a pirate ship.
The works clearly allude to dada and surrealism: René Magritte’s use of silhouettes as windows in Decalcomania (1966), for example, or the merging of sky and female body in Black Magic (1945). And, with its aura of vibrant unrest, Kiss – a twin outline of an embracing couple superimposed onto a North African battle scene – recalls Francis Picabia’s painting Mardi Gras (The Kiss) (1924–26). But Stezaker’s work is not merely citational: he is interested in exploring the space of desire opened up by cinema as a waking dream. By removing the women from their portraits, he exposes the contrivance of staging and pose. Most of the actors are presented as celestial beings, but their stances are never self-assured: instead, they lean against columns or balustrades. The image they present is one of fragile women in need of male protection. Their hands – always touching or stroking the objects against which they lean – are generally gloved: under the restrictive Motion Picture Production (Hays) Code of 1930, a woman peeling off her gloves was equated with her getting undressed. Are you decent, Gilda?
The exhibition includes several small series in which the same cut-out is superimposed onto different background images, highlighting Hollywood’s construction of an idealized, easily replicable female figure. In Glove I, the outline of a half-length portrait of a woman in a white glove caressing a Doric column is underset with warm, carnal tones. In Glove VI, on the other hand, the void is filled with a railway scene, calling to mind the icy eroticism of Fritz Lang’s mechanical female creation, Maria, in Metropolis (1927). From sci-fi and drama to westerns and period pieces, filmic representations of women during Hollywood’s golden era were incredibly diverse. Yet, as the show points out, they invariably acted as vessels for the projection of the sexual desires of cinemagoers, with the exotic settings further fuelling this tendency to eroticize. The yellowed paper on which Stezaker has printed these works gives them a period look, creating a deceptively reassuring distance between us and the way women were perceived at the time. Nonetheless, his ostensibly simple collages elaborate a complex psychoanalysis of the cinematic tropes Hollywood employed to create heroines that were a heady amalgam of the antagonistic conception of saint and whore. Or, as Hayworth once put it: ‘Every man I knew fell in love with Gilda but woke up with me.’
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
John Stezaker, 'She' was on view at Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, from 22 February until 30 March 2019.
Main image: John Stezaker, Kiss (detail), 2018, collage, 21 ×27 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
First published in Issue 203