Kiki Smith – “Uncommon Beauty.”


Kiki Smith, Born, 2002, Bronze.

Kiki Smith investigates the human experience and draws from a variety of artistic expressions. “Since she emerged in the early 1980s, Smith has been a fascinating and inventive presence. Her provocative meditations on the human body and the realms of myth, spirituality, nature, and narrative have resulted in works of extraordinary power and uncommon beauty.” (1) Smith’s practice also references her extensive knowledge of art history but instead of using the female form as the subject of her art, she uses the feminine as the object. The body is a “receptacle for knowledge, belief, and storytelling.” (2) In the 1990s Smith began engaging with feminine archetypes, from the biblical through to cultural mythology and fairy tales. (3) Unlike her predecessors, Smith weaves these stories together and invites new narratives & interpretations. (4)


Kiki Smith, Lilith, 1994, Bronze with glass eyes, 80 cm x 68 cm x 44 cm

6613911795_4f2007f542_zAt The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Smith’s bronze sculpture, Lilith 1994, was cast from a live model that crouched on the floor. Lilith was Adam’s first wife, but she infamously abandoned him and ran away to the Garden of Eden. Lilith refused to submit to a subordinate role and is therefore considered a symbol of feminine strength. (5) But according to Hebrew lore, Lilith is depicted as a night demon. Smith converges these narratives and displays the sculpture upside down clinging to the wall, her glass eyes eerily peer down at the viewer. (6)


Glass Eyes.

images-1Kiki Smith, Pietà, 1999, Printer’s ink, ink and graphite on joined paper, 140 cm × 77 cm

Smith’s Pieta drawings depict the grieving artist cradling her dead cat. The intimate self-portraits mimic the history and traditions of the Pieta in both title and composition. (7) The drawings further explore Smith’s resounding themes of human experience: death and the fragility of life.


Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498–1499, Marble, 174 cm X 195 cm

Smith uses fairy tales like, Little Red Riding Hood, as a metaphor to express her perturbed feelings about the feminist experience in patriarchal culture. (8) Smith’s monumental sculpture, Rapture 2001 depicts the macabre scene when the woodcutter saves the grandmother and the young girl from the wolf. Yet, a life-sized woman steps out of the stomach of a dead wolf that is lying on its back in Smith’s bronze sculpture. Smith explores the idea that the tale is inherently violent and that critics have interpreted it as a symbolic parable of rape. (9) On Smith’s work Langer writes, “The challenge here is not to make bad literary picture but rather to create counter-narratives that are dramatic, sometimes reckless, many times vulgar, and above all strange. These images are self-consciously primitive with their swelling contours, violent, intensely personal touches of color, and successive layers of strokes and lines cutting into the surface.” (10)


Kiki Smith, Rapture, 2001, Bronze,


1. Walker Art Center, Collections > Kiki Smith, accessed 15 March 2013 <>

2. PBS, Art in the Twenty-First Century, accessed 15 March 2013, <>

3. Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., 2005, Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005, accessed 15 March 2013, <>

4. ibid., p. 8.

5. ibid., p. 4 & 7.

6. ibid., p. 7.

7. ibid., p. 9.

8. C Langer, review of W Weitzman’s ‘Kiki Smith: Prints, Books & Things’, Woman Art Journal Vol. 26, No.2 (Autumn, 2005 – Winter, 2006)

9. Bonner S, Visualising Little Red Riding Hood, London’s Global University, 2009.

10. Langer, op. cit., p. 56.


Born <>

Lilith <>

Lilith <>

Lilith <>

Pieta <>

Rapture <>

Jean-Martin Charcot – Capturing the Mind.


Régnard, “Lethargy. Contraction of the stern-mastoidian frontal muscles,” Iconographie, vol. III.

There were approximately four thousand women patients hospitalised at The Salpetriere when Jean-Martin Charcot began working there in 1863. The patients were, “female paupers, vagabonds, beggars, ‘decrepit women,’ ‘old maids,’ epileptics, ‘women in second childhood,’ ‘mishappen and malformed innocents,’ incorrigible women-madwomen.” (1)

francis-galton-2Composites Male Portraits of Criminals Convicted of Murder, Manslaughter or Crimes of Violence.

During the late Nineteenth century, photography was synomonous with authenticity. The body was institutionalized by Francis Galton in 1882, who produced composites of criminal and ethnic types. Alphonse Bertillion also devised a scheme in 1879 of measuring and auditing the body. Charcot was the leading neurologist of the time and Freud’s mentor. (2) He described The Salpetriere as, “a living museum of pathology.” (3)

iii_c_138Alphonse Bertillion, Poster of Physical Features, Musée des Collections Historiques de la Préfecture de Police

Charcot desired to capture what cannot be seen; the inner workings of the mind. Charcot systematically employed photography to capture the experience of hysteria, “thus demiystify it- for science, for fame, and for the “hysterics” themselves.” (4) He “used photography to visually represent a disease that defied anatomy and, thus, physical examination.” (5)

Charcot’s standardized images of the women are, “like phosphorescent specimens pinned in velvet boxes.” (6) The women are subjected, made subject and alienated through visual representation. They are forced to participate in constructing the image. Didi writes of the contrived staging and repetition of certain poses that represented different psychological illnesses. Charcot and his assistants were accused of coaching patients to perform, so he began focusing on symptoms that couldn’t be rehearsed. When a new symptom was discovered it was reproduced in the hospital’s photo studio for the scrutiny of Charcot’s gaze. (7)

In Lethargy, the woman is in the lethargic phase where the phenomenon of neuromuscular hyper-excitability is at its peak. (8) She is being touched by an instrument in order to trigger a response from the muscle; the muscle basically contracts. The reaching into the “dark chamber,” (9) the supposed “hand of God,” is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s imagery in La Jatee, where scientists perform experiments upon the male protagonist which will either result in insanity or death.


La Jetee Film Still, Directed by Chris Maker.


1. G Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003, p. 13.

2. U Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002, p. 26.

3. Didi-Huberman, op.cit., p. 13.

4. U Baer, op.cit., p. 14.

5. ibid., p. 30.

6.  ibid., p. 16.

7.  ibid., p. 31.

8. Didi-Huberman, op.cit., p. 96.

9. U Baer, op.cit., p. 35.


Lethargy G Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003, p. 201.

Francis Galton

La Jetee film still