Kitsch or just plain creepy?

2011-03-01 00:00

“YECH,” said my editor, pulling a face, “I think this book warrants a story about kitsch.” So here it is, a story about kitsch art and Australian photographer­ Anne Geddes’ new book, Beginnings, but not necessarily in that order.

I first came across Geddes’ work when I was pregnant and liked it — her work, that is, being pregnant I absolutely­ loved. Perhaps I can be forgiven that slip in aesthetic judgment — blame it on the raging hormone-induced porridge brain that goes with pregnancy. Geddes specialises in photographing­ babies and nature and often the two together. Her previous work featured baby photographs that have spawned a lucrative line of merchandise, including maternity wear, baby clothing, posters, toys, bags, cards and calendars. While her work is certainly imaginative — who’d have thought of photographing babies inside pumpkins and flowerpots or dressed up like Adolf Hitler? — it’s hard to deny that it’s just a bit too “cutsie­-pie” to be seen as “serious art”, whatever that is.

Searching the Internet for a definition of kitsch I came across several that captured my editor’s opinion of Geddes’ work exactly: “Art with an exaggerated sense of sentimentality or cliché”, said an on-line gallery dedicated to the form. “The contemporary definition of kitsch is considered derogatory, denoting works executed to pander to popular demand alone and purely for commercial purposes rather­ than works created as self-expression by an artist. The term is generally reserved for unsubstantial and gaudy works that are calculated to have popular appeal and are considered pretentious and shallow rather than genuine artistic efforts,” said Wikipedia. Ouch.

“Like forgery, kitsch is an inevitable feature of an art world in which money­ and desire are spread more widely than taste and knowledge,” said the MacMillan Dictionary of Art. Double ouch. No point denying that these definitions can be applied to Beginnings­.

However, we have to admit that defining and appraising art is a highly subjective matter. For example, I have very sour memories of trying to enjoy the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. While I was in raptures about the Frank Lloyd Wright building as well as all the art, my husband descended into helpless, hysterical laughter and had to be banished to the coffee shop as he was disturbing other visitors. He just couldn’t take what he was seeing seriously and accept it as art, despite the fact that his philistine eyes were looking at works by the likes of Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinksy­ and Pablo Picasso­.

Who’s to say then, whether Geddes’s work is kitsch or not?

The book contains some genuinely beautiful images of natural phenomena like flowers, buds, bulbs, pupae, cocoons and pods, all elements that are associated with the cycle of life, growth and transformation. Geddes explains that she wanted to explore the parallels between humans and other “miracles of nature”. She placed babies and pregnant women alongside and sometimes inside these natural elements: think pregnant belly­ encased in a protea bud, draped in a peach skin, cupped in a chestnut shell or studded with dandelions or single geranium flowers. Imagine newborn babies tucked into buds, bulbs, pupae, cocoons nests, seeds, and flowers.

I taste-tested her book on several colleagues who concurred with the editor, but went one step further: “Oh no, not her again, I think we’ve all got past that stage and this stuff is just plain creepy,” said one. “I’d love her work if it was my child pictured, but it’s so cheesy,” said a second. Geddes failed the cross-cultural test too: “Why do that?” asked a black colleague, brow furrowed, staring at a photo of a pregnant belly encased in a bird’s nest. “It’s creepy.” (There’s that word again.) Judging from the wide product­ range available from the online Anne Geddes gift store, there are thousands, perhaps millions of people who like her work, even if they also relegate it to the category “kitsch”.

So what do I think? This book is not kitsch like Geddes’ previous work, it is, as several colleagues commented, “really creepy”. Natural elements buds, birds nests, bulbs, pregnant bellies and babies may be, but meant to go together in this way, they just aren’t.

Geddes explains that this book represents a return to her photographic studio after a two-year break to write her autobiography. There are many, I suspect, who would say she should have stayed away longer, if not for good. • Beginnings is published by PWC. The hardcover retails for R369,95.

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