The Body Guard

Marlene Dumas on Lidwien van de Ven

Dressed in Exposure

Time of the day – just before the night falls
Time of the year – always in the past
Identity – untitled
Sphere – autistic
Sex – female
Intentions – unclear
Dress – informal to naked

The Uncomfortable Audience

The impact of Lidwien van de Ven’s work relies toa large extent on discomfort. She manages to make her viewer feel uneasy. Her audience consists mainly of those who blush or those who get angry. Those moved by her exposures interpret them as vulnerable in the extreme, while those irritated and distrustful of her appearances interpret them as one-dimensional, begging for attention.

But what does she want? She states, ‘My work is about being there, about being and not having, about being able to and not about wishing to.’

Beggars on the street try to ‘force’ sympathy. They play on our collective feelings of guilt. Their expressions of need often annoy rather than melt the hearts they mean to reach. Does Lidwien use similar tactics? Or is it just those big eyes of hers that are ‘too’ big? What about similarities to animals that try to avoid punishment? The ‘guilty’ animal rolls over on its back or curls up in a foetal position, while pleading with its eyes. Instinctively it knows what to do. Aggressive behaviour is meant for the enemy and not for the master.

Lidwien’s images do not display sorrow, shame or suffering. There is no objective reason to assume that we are dealing with guilt or sins committed. The viewers who read these images as accusations or apologies confuse their real-life relationships with women (or other half-naked beings) with Lidwien’s portraits. This brings us to the core of the matter, the amount of the sexuality on display.

The ‘Kill Rushdie’ Islamic audience will have no doubt that this is the image of the Western Woman displaying her whorishness (never mind the art context). Such clear-cut explanations do have their charm, especially since most art criticism exhausts one with arguments that show how art always contains the opposite of what it seems to display.

Yet seeing that I believe art (by definition) cannot carry straightforward messages, being an interaction of the real and the imaginary, I dismiss this argument as oversimplification. On the other hand, this work must not be de-sexualized to make it easier to handle, or to ward off ‘unlawful’ thoughts.

This is an art that embraces sexual identity. The artist is both the subject and the object in these works. By her exposures we are ‘forced’ to reflect on our own notions of sexuality in art and life. Because of this, Lidwien does not make you forget your own limitations. She does not want you to identify with her.

She is somebody else. She is not your magic mirror. She remains a separate identity. She is not just ‘the other’ in relation to someone of the opposite sex. She is part of the ‘otherness’ of things that is, as she says, ‘with us, but not of us.’ Using one’s own image in one’s artworks is not necessarily narcissistic, just as selecting a pose, thus not being spontaneous, is not the same as faking. Her emphasis is not on the playing of roles but on the notion of selfhood, in spite of the fact that it might be impossible to show the self without becoming someone else. This brings me to a type of photograph which I want to relate to her work.

Females Are Insane (Portrayals of the Mentally Disturbed)

During the course of the nineteenth century, madness took on a female nature:
woman = irrationality, silence, nature and body; man = reason, discourse, culture and mind, (‘when men go mad it is because they have too many feminine qualities …..’).

Darwin’s theories also contributed to the view of women as inferior (more primitive) beings. The internal nature was identified through the examination of the external nature. Photography – the new invention, praised for its objectivity – very soon became a useful tool for surveillance and control, especially in prisons and asylums that needed records to identify inmates.

In England, Dr H.W. Diamond (one of the pioneers of psychiatric photography and a friend of Lewis Carroll) ‘modelled’ many a mad woman on Shakespeare’s Ophelia and other ruling aesthetic models of femininity of his time. A woman’s appearance was very important. If she did not pay enough attention to her dress, it could be read as a sign of lunacy, but too much attention was easily seen as the malady of intense vanity.

Lidwien’s images mostly have an unkempt or even a dirty appearance. The bodily positions she selects remind me of the dual expressions of mental illness as found in previous centuries, the tension of mania coupled with the passivity of melancholia. The melancholic is portrayed in a withdrawn self-enclosed manner (often with face obscured or hidden by the hands), next to the exposing pose of the maniac. Lidwien also places herself in environments of confinement – or rather isolation – that bring to mind the self-contained world of the insane.

I do not see these correlations as diagnostic signs with which to read Lidwien’s mental state. I see them as expressive signs, consciously or unconsciously borrowed from the vocabulary employed in medical illustrations. It is these undercurrents that give her work its own special flavour: sex perfumed with the memory of madness.

Freud banished the depiction of the insane (he rejected the idea of ‘seeing’ the patient) from psychoanalysis. The introduction of abstraction in parallel with the introduction of psychoanalysis removed the actual representation of the insane from the fine arts. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, the body, with its discomforts and pleasures, is brought to the attention again.

I’ll end with the case of Dr Charcot of the Paris clinic Salpêtrière, who had a photographic workshop installed in his hospital in 1880. There female hysteria was perpetually presented, represented and reproduced. The specialty of the house was hysteron-epilepsy and the star of the asylum was Augustine, also known by other names. For five years she was the example most frequently used for his studies. Then she got rebellious and violent, was locked up and escaped – disguised as a man. She was never found.


Lidwien van de Ven, The Body Guard. Originally published in Kapriolen: Zeitgenossische Kunst aus die Niederlanden, (cat.), Kunstverein, Munich, 1989; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts | On Others, first edition Galerie Paul Andriesse and De Balie Publishers Amsterdam, 1998; and second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.