Women combing their hair has always been a magnificent and revealing image for me.
I start with a solemn piece by Munch, who opens this small collection of pictures. I love the red, the fiery orange and dark yellows, in contrast with the cool colors of the window. There is a sense of transience in the picture, the young woman is ready to do something else, go out and enjoy life, open the window for good, this little ceremony is like the last thing she does before delivering herself to the world. She is ready to enjoy life, she does not have much time for brooding and contemplation, she gets the job done as required, but this is about it! The sure sign of this psychological posture is the fact that the woman is fully dressed when she is combing her hair, and she is standing.
It may be the length of the hair (οι βοστρυχοι στα ελληνικα) it may be the serenity of the process, it may be the curved body parts, it may be the fact that in the process the woman is reflecting upon her appearance or something else.
Whatever it is, this type of image speaks to me.
Rossetti’s Lady Lilith (1863) is combing her hair and watching herself on the hand held mirror. The first wife of Adam has a lot to think about and to contemplate while watching her own beauty on the mirror. The atmosphere of the picture is gloomy and totally inward. Lady Lilith is not interested in anything really, but herself. This morbid narcissism is totally captivating in the picture. It is after all, a picture of vanity. The simple act of combing the hair becomes an open door to the woman’s personality. Her naked shoulder is escaping from the gown and is a clear sign of the intense carnal aspect of the picture. Although she is not naked or half dressed, this may be even more powerful.
Renoir is here painting the innocence and quite anticipation of the young girl in a fantastic way! The contrast of the browns and the beige with the flesh and the white night gown is startling. The purity and magnificence of the innocent is portrayed in the picture. Here, we see that this is really a portrait, not just a portrayal of the act.
The subliminal Titian is here painting the wife of one of his clients, who emerges triumphant from the act of combing her hair, and is helped by the servant who humbly looks down. She is not primarily a sexual agent, she is primarily a woman in charge. Her sight is full of determination, whether this refers to the hair or something else. She is a woman who means business and nothing else. The posture of the servant is exemplifying the power as virtue that the picture radiates. The colors of the gown and shirt of the lady are not accidental. She is a creature of black and white.
Let me now move to pictures that are made by Edgar Degas in the last decade of the 19th century. One of the reasons I fell in love with Degas was his mastery of this subject.
Here we have an orgy of reds, oranges, mixed with pink and the combing is done by a domestic helper. The young woman is totally left to the hands of her servant, maybe asleep, maybe dreaming. In stark contrast, the helper is awake, alert, and diligent in performing the task. The only sign that she may be awake is the posture she makes with her left hand.
This is a similar picture of Degas, but the combing here is done most likely by the sister of the young girl. The most beautiful part of the picture is the bent hand that supports the hair.
What a change when we move to the endlessly fascinating Balthus and his Alice! Alice is practically naked, and exhibits her beauty unashamedly. And why not?
She is young, she is beautiful, there is nothing to worry about, but the extent to which she will enjoy the pleasures of life. The room is empty, there is only one chair, we cannot make out her social class or status. Does it matter? I believe this is one of the points made by Balthus.
Cathy’s Toilette is a violent vibrating picture of domestic life gone on the rocks.
As I go through a period of preparation for my long anticipated trip to Japan, I include a serene picture from Japan.
In closing, I would like to show another Degas picture, whose colours I love.