15. Lady and the Untouchable
Here’s a lady for you. I think she’s barefoot in a Jain temple in India circa 1960. I once owned a set of slides depicting this same woman traveling with her girlfriends, so I know a few more things about her, but not much. And the slides are gone, so we’re left with my painting.
This lady is significant because her photo was taken by a woman. Communication between two women is different than what happens between lady and husband. For one thing, girlfriends are funnier than most married couples, and this group of traveling women is hilarious. A number of slides depicted goofy shots, including this blond and her three roommates playing kitchen implements like musical instruments while wearing drapes as togas and veils. They are silly. I enjoyed hanging out with them.
So. Nearly everything about this woman says polite tourist. She squints pleasantly in the sun at the man nearing her on the steps. His “untouchable” status is noted in his striped scarf. She casually folds her sunglasses, her gigantic handbag safely tucked under her arm. Everything about her is benign and pleasant—except for her foot. That foot. It tells the TRUTH.
The foot says, Eww. The truth is squirmy and maybe a little smelly. The B.O. of truth! Truth is Untouchable! This one detail of the foot raised to ward off something unpleasant is surely subconscious and therefore doubly hilarious; how one little detail of body language can unravel the whole picture, it’s amazing to me. This lady wishes to appear a certain way but reveals herself as another, and I’ll bet the girlfriend taking the picture is giggling. Maybe she took this shot because she knows what her friend is thinking and finds it hilarious. After the friend snaps the shot, the blond will join her and they’ll laugh—maybe after the man is out of range… “Oh my god,” they’ll say, clutching each other. “Don’t touch him!”
As an image, the lady stands a few steps—tiers, solid lines—above the man and thus seems superior, the doorway behind her like a crown or tiara (or even fiery antlers!) while the sunlight paints a halo about her head. The truth and beauty of the place are many steps above her—and besides, she’s not interested in them. Instead, her reaction to the man sneaks out of her foot, her toes raised in a kind of aversion, a warding off, or revealing her desire to protect herself. Do her raised toes mean she’s afraid? Or is she trying not to laugh because her friend is taunting her? Has her friend said, “Go stand over there by that untouchable”? It’s true. Girlfriends are twisted like that. They have good fun at the expense of untouchables everywhere.
One painty detail I would redo is that patchy black in the doorways behind the lady. That should be deep dark flat black—especially to denote the mystery that lies within—impenetrable for this woman just now at this time in her life. Her agenda is not about embracing a new culture, but to be a tourist and have fun with her friends.
The man, the untouchable, emerges from the side of the painting like he’s part of the building or the landscape itself. I further tied him to the landscape by painting his “white” robes with the same cobalt, purple and rose madder that make up the “white” stone steps upon which the lady stands. Although she appears to be the focus of the photo, she is the uncomfortable one, the foreigner and a tourist; she is temporary.
Still, she’s brave enough to be standing barefoot on those steps far from the comforts of home, from her mum and dad and her sweetheart and cats and real cream for porridge and something to eat without curry in it. I’ll bet she cries for homesickness at night after going to bed when she has a moment away from her friends.
Overall, these women had a great trip—according to their photos, which somehow got lost, misplaced maybe—lost in an untimely death, her estate liquidated, no one caring about the box of images—except at auction, where I bought them. I’m sure the slides’ journey is not at an end. Wherever they are now, wherever they may go, these slides and all other vacation slides from the second half of the 20th Century Americana, they are all national treasures.
The slides may belong to families or individual collectors, but the images contain our nation’s history—especially that of American women—our aunts and grandmothers in their youth at play. Sooner or later, these will become people no one remembers, maybe sold at auction, maybe hauled out again on the internet for everyone to see. The images are our heritage. It would be great if everyone could see them.