These are the photographs of Marisa Portolese, an associate professor in Concordia’s Fine Arts Photography program and a member of Milieux, who spoke with me recently about her work. Portolese shoots large scale colour portraits that look like film stills—stolen moments buzzing with what she calls “narrative potential.” The lush setting of her work combines with her ultra-feminine heroines to evoke the high drama aesthetics of Romanticism. But there’s something arresting about the subjects of Portolese’s photos—the laser-eyed women that feature in her series Belle de Jour (2002) and Belle de Jour II (2014), for example—that is decidedly anti-Romantic.
Dreaming or lifeless, the women featured in Romantic-era portraits are often shown with eyes shut. Their bodies drape over chairs, amid soft fabrics, in the arms of cloaked men. Millais’ Ophelia (1852), catatonic with madness, is carried down a river, adorned by flowers, to her death by drowning. Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) depicts a woman, asleep, splayed over a bed with her long white neck exposed while an incubus perches menacingly atop her vulnerable form.
Portolese’s work sidesteps the soft maternal femininity of the women of Romantic art. Even though much of Portolese’s work features mothers and children and takes up Romantic-era themes such as ‘family’ as a concept that “vacillates between the personal and the universal,” her subjects are active, energetic agents rather than passive, ethereal muses.
Whereas the Romantic era was very much “about looking inward,” Portolese tells me, she feels that her subjects have a “force in them that she wants to pull out, towards her camera.” In order to harness this energy, she assures her subjects with a mantra of empowerment: “This will be a strong portrait… You will have presence and control.” Whereas the Romantic era was very much “about looking inward,” Portolese tells me, she feels that her subjects have a “force in them that she wants to pull out, towards her camera.” In order to harness this energy, she assures her subjects with a mantra of empowerment: “This will be a strong portrait… You will have presence and control.”
Unlike Notman’s portraits, most of which were shot in his photography studio on de Bleury street at the end of the 19th century, Portolese shoots most of her work outdoors. She says that she enjoys “immersing [her] subjects in a magical setting” and that she “thinks of landscape as an enigmatic space that can be vast, wide and beguiling.” But even as the natural backdrops in her photos glow with sunlight and the spirited flicker of leaves in the breeze, there is also something intriguingly artificial about them. “I don’t always prefer to work with a sublime landscape,” Portolese explains. She also embraces “rough landscapes, settings that are more urban perhaps.”
The play between nature and artifice underpins much of Belle de Jour and Antonia’s Garden, perhaps especially so in Imagined Paradise, a set of portraits shot against floral wallpaper. Belle de Jour II is shot entirely outdoors, on Mont Royal, with its manicured lawns and fountains. “The mountain is like a studio for me,” Portolese explains.
Despite its historical referents, Portolese’s work is also era-ambiguous. “Clothes have the ability to date a photo,” Portolese tells me, “and I want the photographs to be timeless,” so she asks her subjects to wear a combination of their own garments and vintage pieces she picks up at local thrift stores. Many of the women in Belle de Jour wear slips or lingerie from the 40s or 70s, or even prom dresses circa 2002. These garments carry with them their own history—of other women’s bodies and identities; they enact a kind of object lesson in femininity as performed, prescribed and (often) enjoyed. When I ask about her relationship to feminism, Portolese says that in her first instalment of Belle de Jour, she drew from “iconic female types culled from art history and vernacular culture.” “I wanted to turn the male gaze back on itself in appropriating that gaze as a female photographer,” she explains. With her second series, she says that she aimed “to reference [a greater range of] plurality and difference in terms of walks of life and age groups.” She believes strongly in the tension between weakness and strength—because “vulnerability is not a bad thing”—and she uses this tension to generate the awkward elegance of her portraits.
“It’s about looking at images of women that you can’t ignore,” Portolese tells me. Against the archetypal association between women and flowers, Portolese sees her subjects as botanically-unique. Every woman is different in front of the camera. “Everybody unfurls in their own way.”