Old photos and paintings fascinate and disturb me. They fascinate me because they are often the only visual recored that remains of historical, literary, and other notable figures. They disturb me because they reveal the face of the person at a certain point in his or her story, when I, the viewer, know the ending.
Based on my recent reading, I’ve been looking up biographies of Colette and Katherine Mansfield. I don’t know much about Mansfield, but I do know that both she and Colette were sensualists who devoted themselves to living life to the fullest. They each had a wealth of experiences, not to mention lovers. Yet, invariably, all of each writer’s photos show an unsmiling woman with expressions ranging from serious to glum. There is no joie de vivre in the countenances of either Colette or Mansfield. Even the 10-year-old bespectacled Mansfield looks grim, with lips tightened and teeth clenched, as though she were acting out a scene from a particularly dreary Dickensian childhood. Even the young Colette, wearing breastplates in a theatrical production, looks as though she has had enough of this earthly life. It’s not just Colette and Mansfield. Especially at the turn of the century, women seemed unable to smile, at least for the camera, even on their wedding day. What message are they trying to send us across time?
Looking at the young Colette, whether in a portrait pose or in theatrical costume, it’s difficult to reconcile the pagan country girl so clearly defined in the Claudine novels with the urbanite haunter of opium dens and the demimonde of Paris. The older Colette looks more like the worn woman of the world that she was, although her expressions are even harsher and more forbidding. While the author Colette is judgmental, she is also approachable in her knowledge and understanding of human weaknesses, especially those of the flesh and heart, including her own. The pictured Colette does not invite the viewer to come closer; her eyes suggest that distance is preferable to intimacy. Yet this may reflect Colette as she was; for all her understanding of the heart, her public face is dispassionate, even when troubled.
In Mansfield’s photos, limited by the brevity of her life, you can see the evolution in style from old-fashioned to modern. In her childhood photos, she could be Laura from The Little House on the Prairie books. Her hair is long and soft, her dress conservative and feminine. Only the look of determination hints at her future as a thoroughly modern woman, and nothing reveals a predilection for a life of sensuality. By the time she is an adult, however, her hair is shorn and her clothes naturally reflect more modern, more urban — and less charming — fashions. Like Thea Kronborg from Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, she appears to have been transformed by her new world, status, companions, and opportunities into a weary artist. In some ways, the adult Thea seems different from the child Thea; I wonder how much Katherine Mansfield changed over the 24 years between her serious childhood portrait and her death.
By the time she was in her mid- to late twenties, Mansfield looked much older. Her face, still grim in expression, seems worn and shadowed, and she looks like a woman to whom life has been difficult. She does not look like life, warm, inviting, enticing, but like death, cold, forbidding, and distant. She suffered from tuberculosis and, according to some biographies, gonorrhea — similar to the ailments that plagued a bon vivant like Errol Flynn.
While I read the words of Colette and Mansfield, sometimes I gaze into the eyes of their images and wonder what they knew — about themselves, about their world, about their futures. I wonder what they told and what they kept secret. There seems to be more in the eyes than can be told in words. What more could they have said?