November 25, 2009

Charis Wilson, model and muse, 1914-2009.

You know her as:

The model and muse to Edward Weston:
"He had been the master of the close-up of body parts," Ollman said of Weston. In "Dunes, Oceano," however, "the model is moving in space, there is no horizon line. It was a breakthrough for him, largely because of Charis' spontaneity. Her uninhibited style gave Weston a freedom that was vitalizing to him," [said Arthur Ollman, director of the School of Art, Design and Art History at San Diego State.]

Weston was aware of a change in his style. "The first nudes of C. were easily amongst the finest I had done, perhaps the finest," he wrote in his daybook in April 1934....

The 28-year age difference between Wilson and Weston gave their romance "a Bohemian, May to December quality," photography dealer and historian Stephen White said in a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Charis brought an essence of youth, when Weston was starting to wear out."

Soon after they met in Carmel in 1934, she began to pour her writing talents into advancing his career. Along with editing his articles for Camera Craft magazine, she wrote some of them under his name, she recalled in her memoir. "My goal was to make the articles sound exactly like Edward Weston," Wilson wrote.

"She did write under his name," Ollman confirmed. "It was easy for her and slavishly hard for him."
Ah, so it's one of those stories about a husband and wife. And then it was one of these stories: "She fell from her place as 'exalted goddess to the more human, unenviable and inglorious role of helpmate and art wife." Oh? Is it so unenviable to be a "helpmate"? Would you want to be a helpmate to a great artist whom you dearly loved? And what exactly does an "art wife" do? Are we supposed to have a stereotype in our heads about that? I suppose — I would suppose if I were writing a roman à clef — that she thought of herself as a great artist and found the subordination irksome. Look at the photograph again and see the subordination.

Wilson left Weston in 1945. The following year she married a labor activist. First a photographer and then a labor activist. You're left to imagine the precise nature of Wilson's taste in men.


Rick Lee said...

FYI, Charis misspelled in post title.

EDH said...

That old woman pointing to a nude picture of herself reminds me of Titanic.

Old Rose: My heart was pounding the whole time. It was the most erotic moment of my life. Up until then, at least.

By contrast, at least it took Wilson several years to "let go" of Weston.

kimsch said...

That is a beautiful photo. Absolutely beautiful.

HKatz said...

Pierre Bonnard was a lifelong companion to his wife (who first started off as his model). He painted her again and again over decades, often nude. So maybe it is possible for an "art wife" to be both a muse on a pedestal and a regular human being.

Like other artists, he had affairs, but wouldn't leave Marthe, languorous in her bathtub.

pm317 said...

Several comments:

she wrote some of them under his name, she recalled in her memoir. "My goal was to make the articles sound exactly like Edward Weston," Wilson wrote.

First, serendipitously Ann you have put this post up on a question I have been mulling over which is that when we read someone's anonymous writing, could we tell if it is written by a woman or a man.

Second, I think the photograph is exquisite but for the shadow on the right shoulder which ruins the symmetry for me.

Third, about implied subordination, I am a little ambivalent. I think the picture had to be faceless to make it less personal and highlight the lines better and in how many ways could she turn away other than to bend down and hide. If bent head and curled up for the sake of art means subordination, so be it.

Fourth, I agree about the exaggerated implications of being a "helpmate and art wife." Let us reserve sexism to where it truly belongs.

peter hoh said...

I heartily recommend Eloquent Nude, a beuatiful documentary about Charis Wilson and her work with Edward Weston.

I was lucky enough to see the film in a theater. After the screening, the producers took questions from the audience. They were delightful, as was their film.

Bissage said...

The complicated relationship between older male artist and younger female muse/lover is all feminist and Freudian and a whole bunch of other heavy things I’ll never understand, even though I am now on the wrong side of 47.

I just try to be nice and even that doesn’t always work out so well. I’m probably batting about an .875, which would be truly outstanding for an artist, but I’m certainly no artist so it really should be much higher than that.

Anyway, I really hated Nick Nolte in “Life Lessons” by Martin Scorsese. This might be proof of some sort of deeper moral virtue on my part or it might simply reflect the fact that I formed an insta-crush on Rosanna Arquette; who could have been Scarlett Johansson, except more down-to-earth, and that’s much to be preferred, after all is said and done.

peter hoh said...

Althouse wrote: I would suppose if I were writing a roman à clef — that she thought of herself as a great artist and found the subordination irksome.

The film covers this ground, but did not leave me with the impression that Wilson thought she was a great artist, under the heel of her husband.

The movie creates the sense that something left their partnership during their second road trip, turning what had once been a joy into a chore. And once that happened, it was only a matter of time until it ended.

I suppose one could read that section of the film/story as Weston's trying to assert himself or Wilson's trying to assert herself, but the partnership broke.

ricpic said...

Charls was responsible for Weston's breakthrough? Yes, where would artists be without the input of their models, those deep thinkers?

traditionalguy said...

The Carmel Beach artist's colony must have been a wonder to experience in the 1930s. It is still my favorite place to spend a week.

bearbee said...

Timeless photo.


William said...

Yeah, OK, it's a beautiful photo. Even so it's a picture of a good looking, naked woman, and all eroticism is absent. Naked women should not look like sand dunes. Sublimation is a dangerous thing.

Penny said...

"The movie creates the sense that something left their partnership during their second road trip, turning what had once been a joy into a chore."

There was mention that there were conflicts with the publisher and tight deadlines for the special edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Real life never misses an opportunity to intrude on the artistic process.

Penny said...

They were only together for 11 years. For her, 20 to 31 and for him, 48 to 59. She was growing up as a woman, and he was opening up as an artist. To my mind, they were each other's muse.

peter hoh said...

Yes, ricpic, what was that empty-headed woman thinking? You certainly know best, and it matters not that the silly model helped write the grant application that resulted in the funds that allowed Weston to do some of his most important work. And Weston's own words about the impact of this model on his work don't matter either.

Penny, yes, what you said, too. Their first major collaboration happened without high expectations.

William: I think Weston's best work is profoundly erotic. What's absent is titillation.

Penny said...

The other thing I am curious about, Peter, is exactly what her role was on their second trip. Clearly she was the journalist of the first trip, but perhaps more the cataloger of photographs for the second trip?

One is infinitely more gratifying for a woman who saw herself as a writer.

peter hoh said...

I'll have to watch the movie again, but I seem to recall that she wanted to explore the locales in greater depth. Weston, and the deadline, were insisting on a faster pace.

Their first trip and book collaboration was very different than the second, which worked around an existing text and a publisher's demands.

But when Wilson left Weston, it wasn't to go and do her art. She put that part of her aside and got to work making babies, something Weston wanted no part of, according to the film.

Jeremy said...

ricpic said..."Charls (Charis) was responsible for Weston's breakthrough? Yes, where would artists be without the input of their models, those deep thinkers?"

And once again, this fountain of information posts an inane comment that is so far from the truth it's amazing this twit can even use a keyboard.

Why not read something about these people before making a fool of yourself?

For a change...

Freeman Hunt said...

I also do not understand the supposed negative connotation to "art wife." What is this writer getting at?

traditionalguy said...

As far as I understand the Art creation culture, the Artist is commited to his Muse over himself and everyone he is using to serve him/her as the artist serves his/her Muse. Of course that is talk of spiritual beings indwelling the artist and expressing itself thru the artist like the Oracle at Delphi. And we are too rational to accept that kind of answer. So who knows what it could possibly mean.

blake said...

art wife = crack whore?

peter hoh said...

From the end of the article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

"Every morning, she'd roll out in her wheelchair," said [her daughter] Rachel Harris, "look out the windows and just say, Oh God, how beautiful. Look at that sun!' It reminded me of that old New Yorker cartoon with the dog saying, Oh boy, the same old dog food again!' No one could experience the freshness of every single day like she could."

chuck b. said...

I grew up with a print of this photograph on my living room wall. If I could have one piece of art from this school of black and white photography, it would be Ruth Bernhard's Lifesavers from 1930.

Penny said...

Althouse "dangled" Wilson and Weston.

Yet not ONE word about either?

Penny said...

Hello! I am your hostess, Althouse.

Follow me to the NYT's!

Follow me to Sullivan!

Follow me to Chip!

Penny said...


bearbee said...

Naked women should not look like sand dunes. Sublimation is a dangerous thing.

Pity we all don't see things the same way. Life sure would be so less complicated.

Jeremy said...

blake said..."art wife = crack whore?"

blake = asshole?

RFH said...

This is all so odd I hardly know what to say. I happened upon this site by accident while gathering a few articles about Charis to send to friends. It's a strange sensation to "overhear" people talk about someone I know so well, and I need to resist the impulse to respond to each statement. I will say that the 1998 photograph of Charis is absolutely dreadful. She looks sedated and half-conscious, like an escapee from an old folks' home, and I can assure you that is decidedly unlike Charis, who stayed responsive to the world until the day she died. Nor would she ever have done such a dopey thing as point to a picture of herself (nude or otherwise) unless she was humoring someone's inane request.

Sorry to sound impatient, but my mother was an amazing person whose life was deepened and enriched by her years with Edward, but never defined by that association. I refer any of you who are interested to Wallace Baine's article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (our hometown journal) for, as he says, a more "three-dimensional" view of Charis.

(And, indeed, we all get things wrong: my apologies to Gary Larson for giving credit to the New Yorker for his "Oh boy, dog food again!" cartoon which graced our refrigerator for many months.)

My real regret is that people who would have enjoyed her didn't get a chance to meet Charis. I suppose seeing Eloquent Nude is the next best thing as it gives some sense of her humor, eloquence, and depth of thought and feeling, especially if you also watch the special features. But since the film focused on her years with Edward, it couldn’t convey her absolute every day engagement with the world around her.

Having just finished a year's worth of work with Mom and Wendy on a new edition of her memoir, Through Another Lens, I am steeped in those days of the 1930s and 40s, but Charis, at 95, was much more taken with Obama and Book TV on C-SPAN, String Theory, Harold Bloom on Shakespeare, her wonderful network of longtime and new found friends, Oliver the cat, Carson the dog, the goldfish in the fountain, and the six bantam chickens in the backyard.

Though she collaborated on the new version of her book from start to finish—by no means a linear or chronological project—and, due to macular degeneration, had to do it all by listening and responding, Charis was thrilled when anyone gave her a break in subject matter by reading a New Yorker article or just about anything else around. Her most recent "talking books" were Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer, Saturday by Ian McEwan (for the second time), The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Small Wonder and High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver, and The Complete Stories by Flannery O’ Conner, while two of her perennial bedtime favorites were Harold Bloom's Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds and Richard Fortey’s Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth. I include the titles because Mom loved book discussions, as well as giving and getting tips on good books to read.

Finally, the idea that anyone would prefer the role of “muse” to that of partner would have struck both Charis and Edward as absurd. As Edward wrote to her (recently married) brother Leon when he and Charis separated: “If two persons as different in ways and means and years (a 30 year span between us) can have at least 8 yrs together of love and teamwork, 8 years in which more was done than some accomplish in a lifetime,—why you two should be really inspired by our example.”

P.S. The "subordination" in the doorway nude was to old Sol rather than Edward. Charis wrote that the white plaster deck in full sunlight "dazzled the eyes" and that she ducked her head because the sun was blinding.

Bissage said...

As a courtesy to my fellow Althousians, I presumed to edit RFH’s 4:25 AM comment, as follows:

I am an expert on Charis Wilson in large part because she was my mother. I don’t like the 1998 photograph of her because it is unflattering. Mom was sharp as a tack up until the day she died. Don't read anything negative into that photo of her pointing at a photo of her younger self naked.

Mom was aces and so was Edward Weston. I commend to your attention Wallace Baine's article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel,

If you ever met my mom, she'd have made a favorable impression. “Eloquent Nude” does a pretty good job of getting that across but mom was more than just that.

Mom wrote a memoir called “Through Another Lens.” It focuses on her distant past although mom was very much into the present. She couldn’t see very well but her mind was active and she liked having people read to her. She was smart.

It’s insulting to denigrate mom as merely a muse. She was important. Edward Weston said so.

P.S. Don’t read anything about subordination into the doorway nude. Edward Weston released the shutter by accident.

peter hoh said...

Rachel, thanks for weighing in.

The internet is full of people who opine about things they know little about. It also allows people to connect with those who actually know something.

I was quite taken by the documentary made about your mother's time with Weston. I'm sure I would have enjoyed meeting her in person. I am glad that you and she were able to enjoy your time together these last many years.