Cindy and Esther: What Would Sherman Think of Purim?

March 5, 2012 at 1:42 pm, by

Purim is one of the most interesting and peculiar holidays of the Jewish calendar. We read from a book named after a woman: a book filled with intrigue, romance and betrayal, and distinctly omitting God. We are commanded to lose ourselves until we cannot tell the difference between blessed Mordechai and cursed Haman. We are commanded to revel and be confused and disoriented. What purpose could such a command possibly have?

Two days before Purim, I visited the MoMA to seek out a person who knows costume and carnival better than anyone on the art scene–Cindy Sherman, a contemporary artist legendary for photographing herself and transforming herself into myriad images reflecting social personas and icons. Sherman’s grand retrospective is a provocative display of decades of images that play with the central symbols of our culture–everything from film noire to decadent Old Masters paintings, from celebrities like Madonna to aged yearbook photos, campy medieval reenactments and scary evil clowns. Walking into the retrospective is similar to attending a Purim carnival, where suddenly a community is transformed into a variety of different personas (Elvis chatting with Tinkerbell and Yoda as they prepare to pray).

What is even more intriguing, however, are the personas that Cindy Sherman dons that are somewhat mundane–the overtanned 80s soccer mom, grasping at a stonewashed youth. Aristocratic women posed in their “natural” habitat in a stately drawing room. In these photos, she calls attention to the fact that in our daily lives, we are always donning and taking off costumes: trying to look older, trying to look younger, trying to look more professional, more successful, more…

As I was looking through the exhibit, I decided to try and find a few characters from the Megillah in Cindy Sherman’s work: Who is her Esther? Her Vashti? Her Haman? How would a contemporary feminist artist portray these characters that haunt our Jewish imagination?

Our Purim story begins with King Achashverosh and his somewhat puzzling wife, Vashti, who is only mentioned briefly–when his highness demands that his wife appear before the court during his banquet, she refuses. The King casts her out of her position for fear that all the women in the land will follow her example. For years, Vashti had been vilified and scorned for this decision (commentary always favoring Esther as the heroine of the story). However, modern feminist thinkers have actually pointed to Vashti as an alternative heroine, one who stands up for her own dignity, even at the cost of losing everything.

These two Vashtis can be illustrated by two very different figures in Sherman’s work. The first Vashti is the one the king would like her to be. “Untitled #276” shows a grotesque queen, legs spread apart and stockings rolled down in a somewhat pornographic stance. She holds an ironic bouquet of lilies, symbolizing her virginity and purity, which is long gone. Similarly, her bleached blonde wig is adorned by a crown of dainty flowers, but her sheer dress reveals the exaggerated contours of her breasts and genitalia. This is the queen as the king would want her – her beauty and virtue on display, at once submissive and seductive. Quite different however, is “Untitled #465.” Here we come across an older, remarkably elegant lady, whose expression exudes dignity but also loss. The mouth is set firmly, with deep smile lines which have now turned to a frown. She turns her back on us, as though rejecting us, but still looks back with a hint of sorrow in her eyes, as though thinking of what once was. She faces the stairs to the palace, as though she is leaving everything behind, but retaining her own pride.

After this scene, a new queen must be chosen and the king invites a harem of girls to beautify themselves and meet him, a-la-the Bachelor, for one on one dates with the possibility to spend the night together. “Untitled #463” captures the spirit of the harem, in a party scene commissioned by Vogue. All the women seem simultaneously glamorous and generic–each with the same overdone lip-gloss and carefully tweezed brows. But one emerges, as she is slightly bigger and more garishly made up than the rest. The Jersey Shore queen bee finds her power in hideous blue eyeliner and sharp acrylic nails. She is at once seductive and repulsive–but she will get what she wants. Generally, when we think of Esther, we think of the timid, sweet innocent girl who was manipulated and pimped out by the one man she trusted and ultimately rose to save her people. But indeed, wouldn’t Esther have had to work very hard to stand out among all those women? Would Achashverosh have chosen a quiet Jewish wallflower? She must have done something to catch his eye. Sherman’s images capture the sense of a huntress seducing her prey.

And how about Achashverosh? What is he like? For him, I would cast “Untitled #201,” one of the Old Masters adaptations–this one depicting a pompous man decked out in a grey wig. In the manner of a French king, he immediately appears pompous, frivolous and foolish. This is further exaggerated by a mere hint of makeup on the nose and exaggerated black eyebrows, which conjure the image of a clown, one Sherman repeats often in her work. It is interesting to note that while men are rarely represented in Sherman’s work, they are always present as a motivating factor for the women–the male gaze is always present, lusting after women and judging them. The power of sexuality as currency is a recurring thread throughout the exhibit. This shady, perceived presence of someone looking over your shoulder reminded me of Mordechai–though he rarely acts in the story himself, he manipulates Esther and through her, the king. His presence is always felt, despite the fact that he has no real power or stature in society. Esther’s feminine wiles are really the only thing Mordechai can use to his advantage, but they are a great asset.

And of course, we cannot forget Haman, the ultimate villain. Who would be cast in this role in Sherman’s universe? One of the series of photos that is particularly heart-wrenching is a series done in 1981, depicting women from centerfolds of men’s magazines in vulnerable positions. What is interesting about these is that the women are stripped of their costumes. Plain makeup, disheveled hair, posed lying in bed and trying to cover up, these women are exposed for who they really are. There is a sense that they have been attacked, but the attack is on their privacy, as for once we see them without their costume. This points to our need for costume, for a level of separation from society around us. I think, to Sherman, Haman is the hurtful gaze of the public and the media, that judges women and causes them to feel naked and seek out false disguises. But Sherman also fully engages in the process, placing herself in front of and behind the camera and showing that she is at once the victim and perpetrator of this act.

Ultimately, costumes allow us to tell others who we would like to be, who we would like to never be, and who we think we might be. Cindy Sherman and the Purim story show us that sometimes masquerade reveals ugly truths about the world we live in. Power struggles, beauty as a form of currency, gender–these are all key themes of both stories. And in both cases, the worst betrayal of all is ripping off the mask.

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