Miro Švolík: The Flowers of Delight
The Journey of a Hummingbird
‘When you look at them with their clothes on you imagine all sorts of things: you give them an individuality like, which they haven’t got, of course. There’s just a crack there between the legs and you get all steamed up about it – you don’t even look at it half the time. (...) It’s an illusion! You get all burned up about nothing... about a crack with hair on it, or without hair. It’s so absolutely meaningless that it fascinated me to look at it. I must have studied it for ten minutes or more. (...) All that mystery about sex and then you discover that it’s nothing – just a blank. Wouldn’t it be funny if you found a harmonica inside... or a calendar? But there’s nothing there... nothing at all.’
(Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 1934)
Despite the fact that the naked female body brimming with sensuality has always been one of the most popular topics of painting, sculpture, and photography, the view ‘inwards’ has, in the male history of the artistic nude, remained mostly a taboo of sorts. That should, actually, come as no surprise. After all, that view (usually related to questions of health) is generally reserved for the attentive eye of the gynaecologist, the midwife, or the mirror. In his essay on Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1968), Douglas Shields Dix discusses why the picture of a naked body without hair, which is lying partially exposed towards us, lacks any suggestion of eroticism. He uses the Freudian term ‘unheimlig’ (uncanny): ‘eroticism is based on covering up the truth, for which identification and fantasy are used. The uncanny nature of the picture (...) works therefore in the sense of exposing – de-eroticization.’1 Fear ‘of looking in’ seems, then, to be accompanied also by the horror vacui, in the sense of a fear of exposing, revealing, asexualization.
If in our considerations we move ahead to recent decades, and claim, with a certain generalization, that the characteristic feature of the post-Modern depiction of the body is precisely its de-eroticization, fragmentation, and politicization,2 we have to admit as well that exploration in relation to the female body, its construction, and its operation, remains ultimately woman’s artistic means of expression.3 It will therefore be all the more exciting to immerse ourselves in a set of photographs in which we can, as though with a microscope, observe the secret nooks and crannies of the vagina, regardless of the fact that the photographer lacks one.
Švolík, one of the most distinctive representatives of the ‘Slovak New Wave’, which, in the mid-1980s, breathed fresh life into Czechoslovak photography in the form of a staged play with the nude and still life, has always had a great affinity for depictions of the naked body, particularly the female one. The nude appears even in his works from the late Eighties and early Nineties, typical of which was his ‘pictures of people’ arranged on the ground. Sometimes these include nude women or human torsos and their sexual signs, using bodies to make compositions directly on the photographed surface. In subsequent works Švolík’s interest in the female body did not wane; quite the opposite, actually. After working with the whole, he began to focus on details, and moved from the construction of large pictorial wholes to the skilful manipulation of a finished photograph as though a surgical operation – whether reminiscent of the ‘Arcimboldo method’ of pasting parts of photographs of a naked female body onto the silhouette of a male face (for example, Another Way of Looking at It, 1999) or the creative commentary of the photographic reproductions of female nudes by the master painters, which he cleverly supplements with composed inserts from a ‘live’ body, which then appear through the perforated vistas into the ‘photograph under the photograph’ (for example, Art History, 2001). While working on his next set, Openings and HOLES (2000), in which, with the interest of the voyeur, he cut out lentil-shaped holes in order to ‘focus’ on body detail under the photograph, Švolík, with increasing candour, flirted with the idea of intense explorations into the depths of the female body. A new approach began to emerge in Eve’s Apple (2001), based on a visual comparison (and fusion) of female genitalia and circular motifs of flowers (or fruit), also demanding, now urgently, a direct look ‘into the matter under consideration’. It was on this well-turned soil that The Flowers of Delight blossomed in the course of 2004.
The visual linking of the flower and sublimated sexuality appears strikingly in Decadent symbolism and fin-de-siècle ornamentalism. It can be the amaranth, henbane, or belladonna in the hands of the sinful femme fatale, or the garland of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples around the neck of Ophelia, which was carried away by the current of the river. The flower that is an enticement, an ornament, and a ‘crowned head’ of a vegetal body, is also where the fertilization of the plant, the inevitable dying, and the gradual transformation into a fruit take place. It is most likely owing to these semantic parallels that the eroticization of the floral motif has such a deep tradition in art. Thanks to their characteristic, wide-open form, it is mainly the lily, anthurium, and the orchid which are depicted. Vertical male sensuality, on the other hand, is symbolized, for example, by the tulip, the iris, and the magnolia bud.4 Švolík’s approach is utterly different. As his basis he chooses photographs of real genitalia, which he transforms, in part literally (mechanically manipulating the photograph), in part metaphorically, into the appearance of a ‘flower’.
A fragment of a photograph of an inconspicuous, often unrecognizable, detail of the female sex, which forms the basic unit of this set of his work, is then multiplied and mounted according to a symmetrical centralizing model. The new holes surrounded by a ‘ring of flowers’, which are made with the montages of these photographic ‘fragments,’ are utterly unique. Unusually regular, dark and deep, or, by contrast, grown together, impenetrable, draw the viewer into their vivid mists. The removal of the original body colour by transforming it into a black-and-white code, and the use of a short depth of field, have considerably weakened any potentially naturalistic result, and have also brought about a certain alienation of the picture and intensification of aesthetic distance. With his profound Blossfeldt-like investigation of form, emphasizing the special quality of the surface and its ‘material’, Švolík has managed to achieve a surprising visual evocation of plant tissue. The interiors of the female flowers present their smooth curves, creases, and folds, velvet epithelia, at other times bedewed, sticky stamens, pistils, and stigmas. The Flowers of Delight – poisonous, carnivorous, protected by law.
The form of ‘flowers,’ indicated by the name of Švolík’s set, is, however, in no way the only form these photographs evoke. The montages are so different that each one of the nine evokes a different association. In one place the montage acquires the portentousness of the vagina dentata – the sharp-toothed rotor of a gluttonous pulper devouring everything that comes in range; elsewhere, it acquires the affability of a sliced apple with its seeds, or the fragility of the broken-off cap of a gilled mushroom. We can, however, go much deeper in interpretations of Švolík’s well-turned pictures. The central architectural motifs such as the circle, the octagon, the star, and the Greek cross are evidence of the primordial need for symmetry, the establishment of visual order, contemplation, and reposing ‘in the centre’. It could be the ground plan of an imaginary Buddhist temple or the picture of the universe (the mandala) or a single centralized element of a Gothic cathedral – the rose window, through which the view of the ‘eye of God’ penetrates inside with the last rays of the setting sun. For his Flowers of Delight, Švolík uses a visual formula highly similar to the rose window. The vistas into the darkened emptiness that woman carries with her everywhere are pictorially enclosed in themselves like patterns of coloured bits of glass in a child’s kaleidoscope.
The vegetal motif, architectural terminology, and the female body are, on a metaphorical level, often interlinked (the symbol of a closed or open gate, of a green wreath, a cave, a garden of delight, the window-flower-eye, a sanctuary like the ‘coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’, Rev 21:2).5 It is precisely this ornamental, decorative idiom of artistic language, rich in associations, which Švolík, fascinated by womanliness, or rather ‘womanhood’, chooses in order chastely to cover up the ‘shameless’ candour of his way of looking at things, and also to disperse our way of looking at things in the centrifuge of cultural history, and to increase the possible readings of his work. But not even the author of the Flowers of Delight has avoided the typically masculine aestheticization of the female body, which carries with it also the hint of a certain fear. In this set, however, this ‘celebration’ is evenly balanced out with a childishly sincere curiosity, which is perseverant, fearless, and goes right down to the bottom.
We could compare Švolík’s artistic descent from the heights of cranes and high-rises, through the subsequent circling and fluttering about the female body, his shy ‘probing’ with the lens, focusing on detail, right to his present diving down to the budding calices of female sexes, to the journey of a hummingbird. To find out whether his visual penetration has discovered anything, we must look into the views of these vaginas.
1 D.S. Dix, ‘Erotismus a děs’, Literární noviny 40/ 2002, p. 10.
2 A superb example is Parazity (2001) by the Slovak artist Dorota Sadovská (b. 1973). The strange vagina-like forms composed of photographic details of arms and legs pasted directly on the walls of the museum are ‘parasiting on’ the walls.
3 See, for example, Veronika Bromová (b. 1966) and her anatomical cut through the vagina (Pohľady, 1998) or the article by Cheng Lingyang (b. 1975), who in her records of the menstrual cycle naturalistically uses menstrual blood to express otherwise sentimental floral still lifes.
4 See, for example, the works of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989) or the painter Georgia O’Keefe (1887–1986).
5 One theory even considers the similarity of the ground plan of a Gothic cathedral and the female sexual organs (see Gloria Steinem, ‘Foreword’, in Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues, New York: Villard, 1998.)
(translation into English by Derek Paton