par James D. Campbell
Montreal-based fine-art photographer Marisa Portolese has garnered well-deserved acclaim for the clarity and lush chromatic and emotional dimensionality of her images. The third instalment of her long-running photographic series of portraits of women and girls titled Belle de jour – recently the subject of an exhibition at Concordia’s FOFA gallery1 – marks something of a departure in its conscious dialogue with the portrait photographs of William Notman (1826–1891). The famously lionized Victorian-era Notman was Canada’s first internationally recognized photographer, acclaimed for the high quality of his portraits, composites, landscapes, and cityscapes. His portraits of the families of the ruling elite – specifically, women and young girls – have always fascinated Portolese, and she saw the logic of counterpoint and chiasmic dialogue in juxtaposing their respective bodies of work.
Before beginning the production of this new phase in her series, she spent considerable time in the McCord Museum’s voluminous Notman Photographic Archives, sifting through tens of thousands of his portraits from over a century ago. She engages in a deep and vigorous critique of Notman’s work as a contemporary radical feminist coming to terms not only with his portraits of women but with their backstory.
Loren Ruth Lerner, writing insightfully on Notman’s practice (and specifically nine of his portrait photographs of wealthy English-speaking Montreal girls), argues that the work constitutes a unique pictorial record of upper-bourgeois educational ideals pertaining to the raising of girls in the Victorian epoch and exposes the worldview of that class’s ideas where they are concerned (as pre-given in literature and hugely redolent of the views of art and social critic John Ruskin).2
The arresting collision between Notman’s commissioned portraits and the women and girls photographed by Portolese is more seamless and serene than hectic and dislocatory, but it still throws off a lot of live sparks, even if no outright hostility on her part is implied or espoused. It is no exaggeration to state that these photographers share a formal clarity and attention to detail that are both salutary and thematic. However, a sort of reverse or inverse parallelism of images obtains. And if Portolese reprises and effortlessly transcends something of what has been called the unprecedented sensuous immediacy of Notman’s portraits of women, it comes as no surprise to her followers for she has been attentive to exploring female sexuality in images with rare acumen, and undermining idealized and patriarchal visions of femininity, for many years.
Whereas Notman’s portraits, which notably do not objectify his women subjects, are soaked in (if not embalmed by) the aesthetic ideals of Ruskin, Portolese takes a more telling cue from the work of Germaine Greer – and Diane Arbus. Her work has a rare dimensional gravitas. Consummately unafraid, she challenges conventions of female representation, empowering women and exposing deeply entrenched and “timeless” standards of beauty…
2 Loren Lerner, “William Notman’s Portrait Photographs of the Wealthy English-speaking Girls of Montreal: Representations of Informal Female Education in Relation to John Ruskin’s ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ and Writings by and for Canadians from the 1850s to 1890s,” Historical Studies in
Education 21, no. 2 (2009): 65–87.
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