Gallery: Episode 1.10
Bronzino, The Deposition of Christ (aka: A Bit of Detective Work...)

  First, I must apologize for previous speculation about this reproduction, all of it completely wrong: turns out it is neither Salome nor Judith and Holofernes... fun though they were to think about. Nothing like either, in fact: the print is from The Deposition of Christ, c1540-1545, by Agnolo di Cosimo, a Florentine Mannerist known as Bronzino. [268cm x 173cm. Musee des Beaux Arts, Besançon.]

Backstory: A member of the Nikki & Helen message board, the ever-observant Lady McB, kindly sent along what turned out to be The Critical Clue: a screenshot from another ITV show with a larger and much clearer version of this same reproduction than the one we had at the time [below, left]. This new print made it possible for us to see that several more heads were visible in the reproduction. (Four, in total, rather than two and part of a third, as our first blurry attempts at a screenshot seemed to suggest.) Armed with this new information, the intrepid JAMBF observed that the eyelines were all directed at something outside the print—therefore the print had to be taken from a larger piece. Then she went Sleuthing. And totally nailed it. A huge thanks to both of these board members, without whose help and determination we'd certainly never have figured this one out!


 


This more than any other piece of background art we've found to date brings up questions of interpretation: how far should we take a reading? How much about these prints was ever even meant to be interpreted at all?—they're 'only' set dressing. How much about them is down to the set dresser's view of who this character is, as opposed to the director's view, or the writer's, and so on? Was a print chosen just because someone liked the color? Because it happened to be on hand in a box of props? Or was it chosen specifically for a set, or even a particular scene? The print being discussed here is part of a larger work; has sectioning off parts of a painting always been a practice of the businesses who sell art prints, or is it recent? Does that bear on the choices available to set dressers, etcetera?

The question extends itself to less external factors concerned with interpretation as well: for instance, how important is the religious significance of this painting, given the fact that Helen's father was supposedly a minister? Should we consider such peripheral factors at all, and if so, how?—this item was mentioned in the Bad Girls book—but never in the show proper.

Only after taking into account a wide range of factors which may have influenced the decision to use a certain reproduction in a given setting can we begin to approach the more purely fictional aspect of the questions such reproductions raise; that is, what the character herself might have 'thought' when 'choosing' the prints she chose.

If we assume these reproductions were chosen deliberately, we may then ask what a print like this tells us about Helen's character. Along with the Picasso, the Bronzino suggests that Helen is engaging in a very particular kind of selection process. Everyone, real or fictional, makes choices about how to decorate their living space, and those choices inform our view of that person or character. We select art we like, or that makes us think; art that reflects our interests, or art that reflects who we want to be; some people choose art to impress others. But Helen is making further refinements in those choices: she has chosen a print which trims parts from the whole. Further, those parts which have been kept suggest a preferred view.

There aren't a lot of obvious male figures in Helen's interior decoration. That's not unusual for a woman, when decorating a living space; more unusual might be to have a lot of male nudes around, even if she just adores men. Gay men may decorate that way; women generally don't. But for the purposes of this discussion, Helen's apartment does seem fairly nature- and girl-heavy. In the case of the Bronzino, this choice seems especially striking: the (neutral) male figure who has been edited out is Christ—what's more, he has been visually deleted from the print that bears his name.


As a further refinement in her selection process, whether conscious or not, then, Helen may be both interpreting and to some extent 'editing' the art she chooses to decorate her flat. Although lesbians don't necessarily 'edit' the art they view or read (it would be difficult to make a case for that with any sort of standard of scientific proof), there have been many arguments made around the fact that lesbians do indeed read literature and media with a view to alternative, lesbian interpretations of certain characters, scenes, or story-arcs—which may or may not have been written with such readings in mind. A lot of non-majority groups read against the grain in this fashion; not so much editing themselves in to narratives they've been excluded from, as focusing on whatever the narrative might have provided... but left unexplored. Lesbians do this with an eye to better understanding narratives which have been occluded for historic or commercial reasons. In short, they're reading subtext: what is present but not explicit.

Helen's choice of this version of the Bronzino painting may show a similar selection process. The Bronzino isn't a particularly moving or emotionally persuasive painting, despite the subject matter: it's mannered, precious, labored. Taking those four female heads and
reframing them both alters and refocuses the tone of the work, turns it into a more intimate grouping. Though this framing to some extent renders the new version incoherent (or at least difficult to interpret) because decontextualized, this grouping is arguably more enigmatic and engaging than the original painting.

Historically, this sort of practice—taking a part for the whole, or remaking the whole after the fashion of one of its parts—would have been inconceivable: as a modern act, however, it is so common as to be almost unremarkable. We read differently than our forebearers. We read pieces for the whole, and make free with our interpretations. It's difficult to imagine anyone other than a deeply religious person wanting to decorate a wall with a full-scale reproduction of this (rather enormous) painting; it's not at all hard to imagine someone wanting a smaller 'version', such as the one we are presented with in Bad Girls, decorating some nook or cranny. In that version, we can't see what the women are looking at, and we can't quite read how they are or aren't relating to each other. Whatever else it shows, however, the new reproduction is no longer about its ostensible subject. Changing the frame changes how we read it.

In Helen's case, whatever her level of awareness regarding her shifting orientation, the selection and 're-framing' suggested by some of her art reproductions indicates she is making space for this new view, one that may well prefer women as its subject matter. Helen is changing the frame for how she views her identity, and how she reads her life.



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