On offer at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland Maine is an exhibit called “George Braque: Surface and Space.” Here’s how the museum’s curator describes it: “This installation features works by Georges Braque, offering a perspective into the artist’s exploration of the tension between painterly surfaces and illusion.” Surfaces and illusion raises a question not just about the nature of painting but about identity. How do surface appearances—a dress, a shoe, a beard—create illusions about who we are or who we want to be at any given moment?
The Pianist, one of the paintings in the exhibit, seems to ask this very question. The curator writes, “…the flatness of the piano, the woman’s multiple profiles, and three quarter position of her stool complicate our understanding of the illusion of spatial depth. The green patterned background which may represent wall paper or an actual garden seen through a window creates further uncertainty, destabilizing our understanding of the scene.”
In my mind’s eye, the woman’s multiple profiles destabilize our understanding of her. Does Braque suggest that he can neither capture nor rationalize the space of the pianist’s body with her piano, the room in which she sits, or, as I stare at her and wonder, with who she is underneath his paint and brush? Do her multiple profiles ask not simply a question about space, but also about the multiple parts of ourselves that rise to or fall away from our surfaces—our self presentations— at different times of our lives?
The multiple profiles of the The Pianist remind me of the multiple profiles of Iphigenia in the vase shown above. Here the painter shows Iphigenia at the exact moment that her father Agamemnon is about to sacrifice her to the goddess Artemis on the shores of Aulis to the goddess Artemis; the goddess will send winds for his fleet to sail to Troy only if he offers his daughter. In some versions of this myth, Iphigenia is killed; in others, Artemis replaces Iphigenia with a deer and thereby saves Iphigenia and makes her priestess in the faraway land of the Taurians on the Black Sea.
Looking at Iphigenia, we can say that the painter aims to capture the exact moment that Artemis makes the switch between girl and deer and thereby offers one particular, indeed less gruesome, version of the myth. In this view, Iphigenia, unlike Braque’s pianist, does not have multiple profiles. She is simply standing in front of a deer that will die in her place. And yet.
The vase painting suggests that girl and deer are interchangeable; that girl and deer are like one another in Artemis’s eyes, and in the larger social order of ancient Greece. Both are believed to be wild and untamed. Both wander with Artemis in the woods; both are her companions. In myths, Artemis repeatedly loves, and kills, both deer and girls. Does the painter’s superimposition of girl on deer suggest one version of a myth or the multiple aspects of a young girl, here named Iphigenia, whose identity is fleeting and subject to change in time and place?
A vase, both flat and rounded, plays with “painterly surfaces and illusion.” Deer, girl both, neither? Like Georges Braque and the ancient vase painter, we stare at pianist and Iphigenia and contemplate the intricacies of female identity refracted by the men who try to capture their surfaces. Or in the alternate version of this mythologem, we contemplate the multiple identities we each have, and the tension between those imposed from without and those sought from within, between appearances and interiority, surfaces and illusion.