Night light, 1978, oil on canvas. Joan Semmel, born 1932, American. MOMA, NY
One day, I watched a young woman, a recent Polish immigrant to the eastern US, put her young daughter to sleep in a public place.
With the palms and fingers of both hands moving together and in the same direction, she rubbed the little girl’s arms from shoulder to wrist.
Quick, forceful movements up and down, up and down. Repeatedly. First one arm. Then the second.
Sunlight, oil on canvas. Joan Semmel, American born 1932. Jewish Museum, NY
The child stopped whimpering and fell asleep. When she awoke a few minutes later, her mother repeated the touching. The child fell asleep.
It was a warm day. This was not about warming the little one.
This must have been for comfort. A resounding signal to the child’s brain that her mother would be with her during the hours of her sleep.
I felt a faint anguish for the child.
The probability is that the child will grow up in a society where touch is so hedged about with taboos and sexual touch so spiked with grenades, that the touch synapses of her brain will become etiolated for lack of stimulation.
We live in a deficit of touch.
We will, almost all of us in the ‘West’, deny this because it is politically incorrect to say it. We comfort ourselves with the belief that we are in control of our own bodies. That, at least, in a world in which we control little else.
But it is a vast universe of look-don’t-touch in which we live.
Probably one of the consequences of our march away from small hunter-gatherer bands to vast cities with strict rules for contact-avoidance to reduce the possibility of conflict.
And a consequence of the battles for societal control over the bodies of women: freedom to marry or not, sex, abortion, body size, body image.
Joan Semmel’s paintings date from the late 1970’s: the years of women’s consciousness-raising in the ‘West’. She continues to paint the body – but not only – and now in glorious colour.
These are self-portraits-without-a-mirror. All that any of us would know of the outside of our bodies if mirrors did not exist.
Without a mirror, our obsession with how we look might evaporate. Along with the distortions in behaviour which result?
And touch might come into its own.
We might love differently, then. Ourselves and others.
But we are never going to smash our mirrors: we have made sure that breaking mirrors is accounted bad luck.
Which is why this post aligned itself with the number 13, I suppose.