An Icon is (Re)born

20 Nov 2011

According to Kim Murphy of The Los Angeles Times,

The dramatic photo of a young woman getting a blast of pepper spray on her face during a mostly peaceful Occupy protest in Portland is destined to become an enduring image of the national movement.

I agree. Although the details surrounding the actual incident are in dispute, the photo, taken by Randy Rasmussen at OregonLive.com, depicts an iconic, almost mythic encounter between two forces, forever frozen in time.

It reminds me of a question Kenneth Clarke asked in his book, Looking at Pictures:

Can the instantaneous become permanent? Can a flash be prolonged without losing its intensity?

And his answer was: Sometimes.

Almost the only affirmative answer in painting is Goya’s picture of a firing squad, known as The Third of May.

Here are the two images:

Randy Rasmussen, “Occupy Portland N17 Pepper Spray,” 2011

Francisco Goya, “The Third of May,” 1814

The similarities are striking. In both pictures, there is an implicit sympathy for the figures on the left, making the viewer complicit in the artist’s political position. For one thing, according to Rudolf Arnheim, in Art and Visual Perception,

an observer is subjectively identified with the left, and whatever appears in that part of the picture assumes greatest importance…The left side of the stage is considered the strong one. In a group of two or three actors, the one to the left dominates the scene.

The eye reads from left to right. If the pictures were reversed, the image would become subsumed by the drama in time. As it is, however, this dramatic motion runs counter to the movement of the eye, so that the two forces meet just left of center. The result is a kind of stasis, a self-contained image that enshrines a moment of contact. There is no before and after—there is only now, endlessly revealed in a cycle of intensity.

Also, the figures on the left are brighter, and more colorful. Their poses are diverse, bordering on chaotic, and display a very human range of defiance, acceptance, and shock. Faces are exposed. Palms are turned outward. All are vulnerable.

On the right side of the images, however, individuality disappears into a dark mass of anonymity. We see only backs. Goya has the French soldiers bent over and taking aim beneath heavy caps. In Pepper Spray, the riot gear features something particularly modern—numbers—and faces are covered by visors. These can also be seen, oddly enough, in Picasso’s pastiche of Goya, Massacre in Korea:

Pablo Picasso, “Massacre in Korea,” 1951

There are some important differences between the images, though. In The Third of May, the victim’s arms are thrust upward into a V, which also becomes a reflection of the Crucifixion. In fact, a closeup of one of his hands reveals a distinct hole. In Pepper Spray, there’s also a V, but it has quite a different connotation:

Also, the face of the young woman getting sprayed (identified as Liz Nichols, a “soft-spoken 20-year-old who’s only about 5 feet tall”) has, in the photograph, a fierce look of archetypal female vengeance. If the blast of pepper spray was slightly lower, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine her breathing it onto her enemies, instead of the other way around. Ms. Smith may be a lovely person in real life, but when I look at this…

…I’m immediately reminded of this…

Caravaggion, “Medusa,” 1596

…a creature of outraged fury that, even after supposedly being slain, still has lethal power. Just when you think you’ve decapitated it by gazing into your riot shield, the head pops out of the bag, then flash!—stone where once was life. Or the semblance of life, anyway.

And this flash, as Kenneth Clarke said, can be prolonged, as long as there are the right images to keep it going:

Egypt, 2011

Where in time is this? Does it matter? It could be Troy, or Gaul, or perhaps a future Zuccotti Park. A dark, faceless mass…riot shields…a flash of color…a solitary, defiant figure…

No wonder they’re sending out the troops again.

***

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