Weird Canvases : Hysterical Postures

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“Weird Canvases” is a continuing look at amazing art found in unusual, unrecognized, or otherwise unexpected places.

This week: Hysterical postures

Perhaps moreso than any other artform, it is “performance art” that has been increasingly pushed into questionable, and unsettling, realms. The last couple decades alone have borne the “poetry slam” (two words that should really never hang together) and fare like Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, a machine that eats two gourmet meals a day and then defecates. Yes, amidst all this it can be easy to forget that performance art was once grounded in important stuff like socio-cultural dissent. Indeed, consider what Freud called the “Theatre of the Ritual Crises” — the performance art of 19th century Parisian hysterics. These bizarre postures were incited by bodies and minds in absolute artistic revolt, escaping their confines via the unrestrained pursuit of pure imaginative experience.

“Hysteria,” as a dubious medical diagnosis and social phenomenon, cast its darkest pall amidst Paris’ Belle Époque. At the height of the “epidemic,” around 1875, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital housed thousands of “hysterics,” many of artistic temperament. According to Elaine Showalter’s Hystories, it was the social boatrockers, the artists and intellectuals, who were targeted for diagnosis. “Treatment” was a six-week bed-stay in isolation, and probably maddening in itself. And, as bodies settled into repose, minds began to dream.

Most of what happened in those darkened rooms, behind closed doors, has been lost to time, but some rather spectacular evidence remains. When it comes to definitive depiction of hysterical performances, photographer/neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot killed it and illustrator Paul Richer grilled it. They dropped their expansive Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere in 1875 and it remains the singular artifact of a long-forgotten artform. Its indelible images of absurd spasms, rigid catalepsies, and voiceless ecstasies captured the attention of the Surrealists. Indeed, Charcot took a distinctly surreal approach to cataloging hysterical postures, regarding them as three-dimensional symbols in a ritual geometry. He identified 86 postures in four distinct phases, giving this perverse theatricality the hallmark of any engaging performance — a narrative arc.

Période épileptoide (epileptoid)

The epileptoid phase, the first movement in a symphony of spazz, is the ecstatic mimicking of an epileptic fit. This is an exploratory overture, interested in soliciting an audience. To dime store de Sades, it might seem pornography at its barest essentials. There is a woman. A bed. A vague incitement to lust. Yet, the whole affair is as sexless as a geometry textbook. Indeed, this phase finds the performer rocking more angles than a rhombic triacontahedron.

Période de clownisme (clownism)

The phase of extreme contortions and illogical movements, Clownism is regarded as the “Theatre of the Impossible.” It is also the most artistically ambitious phase, challenging audience expectations while energy levels were still robust. The pièce de résistance is a completely arched back supported solely by the head and feet, a posture which oddly recalls the infamous backward-leaning groupie Van Halen’s Diamond David Lee Roth is said to have once employed as a coffee table in his mansion.

Période des attitudes passionnelles (“plastic poses”)

The most exalted of phases, “plastic poses” basically set the interestingness to 11 for Charcot, who photographed it relentlessly. Postures exhibit clearly recognizable dramatic forms —crucifixions, prayers, calls — all of highly theatrical presentation. Individual movements stutter rigidly as limbs spontaneously freeze at the joints. To the modern sensibility, hysterics in plastic poses might look something like West Coast pop lockers severely displaced in space and time.

Période de délire (delirium)

The climax of the performance accordingly throws the most intense vibe. It is frantic moments of pure physical presence, and the body appears as a landscape of suffering. Delirium is also the only phase in which hysterics start “talking” — bizarre utterances that are to language what a roller coaster flying off the rails is to health and safety.

It is difficult to dismiss the nagging realization that we now discuss this performance in terms structured by male interlocutors. Indeed, there are significant overtones of patriarchal oppression here. But, often, it is precisely where the hues of oppression run deepest that the contours of revolt can begin to be traced: an arm frozen in defiance; a hollow-faced gaze affixed somewhere beyond pallid walls; the outlines of quiet dissent, artfully rendered. In sum, hysterical postures are aesthetically and conceptually spectacular reactive performances that punch through the overcast social climate with every jerked spasm. How refreshing it all seems in an era where “performance art” has opted to simply remain languidly in repose and to dream much less vividly.