Lady Gustav

by on Sep.15, 2010

Has anyone noticed the curious similarities between Lady Gaga and Gustav Klimt’s portraits? Let’s first dispense with the most obvious, the face: the angular jaw, the prominent chin, the small mouth, usually slightly open – and yes, the lack of affect (Paglia). Klimt’s faces all look alike even though he used different models, which only appears strange until we realize that he wasn’t the only one who painted faces like that: it’s a classic Art Nouveau type. Somehow, Lady Gaga embodies that type in the present.

Lady Gaga

Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt

Job by Alfonse Mucha

I admit that the facial resemblance may be superficial and entirely coincidental, but now that I’ve made the connection, I’d like to pursue it further. In Klimt’s paintings, as in Lady Gaga’s costuming, the body and its accoutrements project into the surrounding space – or does space with its accessories envelop the body? I’m not sure which. Regardless, blending the female body with nature is an old trick, a way to eroticize the female by placing limits on her human agency. What may be new in Klimt’s work – and what the era of Art Nouveau contributed to the gradual shift from Classicism and Romanticism to Modernism – is an engagement with artifice. Klimt’s women are not nymphs, mermaids, or sprites, but faces and body parts drowning in excessive assemblages of pure ornament (more of Klimt’s work can be found here). What they seem to suggest is that desire itself may be artificial. And also that the body may be porous or amorphous, with no clearly defined boundaries. You know, the sort of things that critical theory, generally blind to early avant-garde art, has been proposing in the last forty years or so.

We could ask if Lady Gaga even has a body. On the one hand, the body is all too visible – the scant clothing, the overeroticized dance routines, the violence the body inflicts – but on the other, Lady Gaga’s body is such a wild collision of cultural referents that it seems to be completely overwritten – or written out – by them. And it is not just each of Lady Gaga’s costumes individually but also their sheer profusion and variety. (How many costumes exactly does she cycle through in “Telephone”?) Her body is little more than a vehicle for performance, a mannequin of sorts.

(There are of course obvious differences that must be noted. Klimt’s models are passive subjects transformed into erotic objects by the male artist. Lady Gaga is anything but passive: she’s her own creative agent and doesn’t shy away from the depiction of female violence, among other things.)

(Apropos of Camille Paglia’s suggestion that Lady Gaga represents the end of sex: as if the nudity-obsessed twentieth-century media had anything to do with sex to begin with. Wasn’t it more about normalizing certain official [patriarchal, heterosexual] modes of desire?)

:, ,
3 comments for this entry:
  1. Lara Glenum

    I love this, Jozko.

    Poe (and a swollen chorus of men across the millennia) says: “There’s nothing more moving and beautiful than a dead woman.” So Gaga cops a corpse pose, gets up and jerks. Spends her wad. Locates her pleasure in a thousand blind corners.

    She locates her own pleasure. She does not perform ours.

    She manipulates the conventions of the male gaze, but she does not perform for men. Or anyone. This for me, is at the heart of the Gurlesque.

  2. Johannes

    I agree, I think this post is absolutely super. Also it introduces a less orthodox idea of “avant-gardism” than the orthodoxy that that term has come to mean in contemporary poetry.


  3. The Immorality of the Gurlesque - Montevidayo

    […] Gurlesque represents what Josef calls below in his post on Klimt, “an engagement with artifice… faces and body parts drowning in excessive assemblages of pure […]