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Enough is Enough: Secrets of the Warburg Photographic Collection

This article was contributed by Sue Wiseman, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities

A visit to the Warburg Institute always provides food for thought; indeed its very system of book classification is designed to precipitate serendipitous findings. So, I should not have been surprised when our Arts Week jaunt to uncover the secrets of the Warburg Photographic Collection, led by its least secretive of guardians, Dr Paul Taylor, provided me with a way to think about our Arts Week lead of art and politics, but I was.

The Warburg Photographic Collection is a library of images that runs from the early Renaissance to the eighteenth-century. As Dr Taylor explained, it covers that period because what Erwin Panofsky called the pre-iconographic and the iconographic exist in a particular relation during that time. So, if we see an image of a woman beside a pool we might think about it pre-iconographicallly – woman with pool. But if we are to think about it iconographically in the period 1450-1790 we are likely to think about the wither Susanna and the Elders (the Bible) or the classical goddess Diana, bathing with her nymphs because that is what Renaissance and eighteenth-century viewers might have had in mind. To stay with classical imagery, we might similarly understand a woman with a helmet on her head in pre-iconographic terms as – just that. However, considered iconographically she might be, or suggest, Athena, and the woman with snakes in her hair that she is killing shares the complex iconography of Hydra, with all the associations of rebellion and misrule. The collection stops in the eighteenth century because, as Paul reminded us, that was when artists and viewers began to think differently about images and for a time these associations faded. Nowadays, of course, they are a smaller but always available part of the thinking of an artist or a viewer and sometimes they give extra resonance not only to the images of artists as different as Cy Twombly and Cindy Sherman, but to the images we find around us in the our image-drenched everyday.

Thinking about pre-iconographic and iconographic looking is an important part of what   modern readers of the internet practice astutely all the time. Renaissance iconography can help us to see more clearly that thinking about images iconographically can add depth and resonance and make us understand more deeply the messages a particular image is offering or, often, selling us. And it is this, of course, that set me thinking about a specific hairy political problem that I have been struggling with. The problem is hairy in several ways –  it is tangled; there is something at stake, and, above all, it is a problem about political hair. Can Erwin Panofsky’s idea of the iconographic help me to understand the iconography of hair as it is playing out. Let us try the method.


Credit: Think London

Hair was brought to the attention of the viewing public when Donald Trump began his political ascent. His hair, like that of Boris Johnson, is unruly and speaks of disruption but also, I think, of the retention of youthful energy into old age. Jeremy Corbyn’s beard, of course, leads us not only to the Bible but to all the images of distinguished masculine age, but the neatness of hair and beard might be a careful distraction. More attention is paid to the appearance of female politicians. It is not that images of men don’t carry meanings but that in many systems of images, not only the Western art that makes up the bulk of the Warburg Photographic Collection, images of women signify instability. Modern politicians know this and part of life for a female politician must be using her image to her advantage – but always with an eye to forestalling problematic associations. Women in the public eye know all too clearly that part of what iconographic thinking does is make visibible some of the living connection between art and politics. Theresa May moves on the stage of world politics beside men whose hair draws comment, and (as Gaby Wood’s fashion-homage to May in Vogue tells us) we know that she is herself interested in fashion. So why has the image projected by her own sleek bob been so little remarked?


Credit: The Margaret Thatcher Foundation

If thinking about May’s hair as a bob is pre-iconographic, it can, nevertheless, take us towards some potentially helpful iconography. Perhaps the most obvious visual antecedent for a female Conservative Prime Minister is Margaret Thatcher and in some ways Theresa May has drawn on that legacy. She does it carefully, though. Just as she has told us ‘Brexit means Brexit’ she has said ‘Margaret Thatcher was a Conservative, I am a conservative’ or on 4 June 2017, apparently marking the latest attack over which she has presided as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, ‘Enough is enough’. These structures of speech are analogous to thinking pre-iconographically in that each rejects an invitation to make an association; they stop short of agreeing to a meaning that comes from outside the control of the speaker. The soundbites strongly associated with Margaret Thatcher such as ‘The lady’s not for turning’ are strong assertions and have over the years been subject to exactly the repurposing and satire that at least the three sentences I have quoted by May resist by refusing image, metaphor, analogy. If May’s speech is distinct from Thatcher’s in attempting insulation and resisting bold, unruly, assertion that might make her vulnerable, I think the same can be said of her relationship to Thatcher’s image. There is little to connect them beyond their use of suits and that is hardly a connection in the wardrobes of political women. May makes little use of Thatcher’s visual image altogether and a comparison on their hair bears out this question. Thatcher’s hair is bold yet fixed in a style now redolent of the aggressive management style of the 1980s when Teresa May was also making her way in politics.

By the time Teresa May caused a stir by putting some spring in her step by wearing a pair of leopard-print kitten heels to the Tory conference in 2002, Margaret Thatcher was long gone. Tony Blair has been elected on a landslide victory. The Tories were nowhere and May was not a particularly important politician. As the eagle-eyed commentator on the politics of fashion, Hadley Freeman, noted in The Guardian there might be some significance in May’s fashion choice. Could May be distancing herself from the difficult Thatcher image by fashioning her own image – in this case by using ‘the old trick of wearing an implausible item in order to create a new image and divert attention from a tiresome past?’ In the end Freeman decided that May liked shoes and liked fun. Yes, but fun and shoes still might have meaning.

princess_dianaFirst coming to politics under Thatcher, May’s formational years were not dominated by the fashions favoured by a woman born in 1925 and whose power hair seemed to grow into a larger and larger helmet as her popularity waned. Much more appealing to a Tory woman born in 1956 might be the fashionable dressing of another, potentially much more sympathetic, political figure – Diana, Princess of Wales. And if we look at the iconography of the People’s Princess in popular memory we can, I think, see much of what May quietly claims from the Thatcher years in her subtle iconography of heel – and hair. Of course, in the 1980s Diana was a troubling and troublesome figure of constrained femininity. However, as time passed, her femininity and fashion sense were remembered. She was beloved, a fashion icon and had the other kind of 1980s hair – various versions of a bob. Any young Tory politician would want to annexe some of Diana’s charisma and good looks. But with May’s subtle appropriation of heel and, especially, hair we might also find something of Diana’s set-apart quality and, of course, it can’t be missed that Diana was political – but she was a princess, not a mucky politician.

Vivienne Westwood by Mattia PasseriDiana was a princess, May was not and was only likely to attain power by a long and careful game. But they both liked fashion, and their tastes were shaped in the eighties. If one Queen of eighties fashion was Diana, the other was of course Vivienne Westwood. Producing madly wearable brilliantly iconoclastic clothes Westwood’s iconography was like Diana’s singular, but much more heavily Elizabethan. She can readily be found as Queen Elizabeth I and II and her Elizabeth gown is at present on display in the Chatsworth chinoiserie. As we now all know, May succeeded in the long game and soon after her accession to rule she made a speech about Brexit – wearing her ‘lucky’ suit. If the trouser part of the suit annexes the panther power of punk, like the leopard she trod in, then its Vivienne aspect fills in the regal dimension from head (hair) to (leopard) toe. If May is a ruler she is a queen – isolate, singular, and deriving her power from a mixture of personality and taste, not from power-dressing, muck-slinging politics.

All this, of course, makes us ask what is the iconography of a female ruler – not helmet haired like Athena or Thatcher, but subtle, powerful, yet without vulnerability? What might Diana and Vivienne do for her?  Well, Vivienne Westwood’s designs draw on the twin iconographies of Britishness (the tartan we find in May’s trouser suit) and the queens Elizabeth. Her designs suggest a rebellion restrained to an iconographic tradition of Britishness that punk both satirised and marketed and that was ultimately absorbed into Cool Britannia and the Olympic iconography of 2012. Westwood’s regal iconography combines deference to royalty and a fantasy of her own regal rule. There is no mistaking that just as her dresses might make a queen, so, too, they mean she is indeed a queen.

If we move up to the hair, then the bob is one of the most common and versatile styles for women’s hair. It can look natural, and that is the way Teresa May wears it (pre-iconographic again) yet it is often saturated with cultural meanings and knowledge. If we look back to the 1980s to think about bobs other than Diana’s, perhaps Debby Harry of the band Blondie offers an example of the bob. Like May, Debby Harry wanted to annexe values to her brand, but none of them were natural; her bob calls up Marilyn Monroe’s. Yet, where Monroe was wrecked by fame, by the time we were all looking at Debby Harry’s bob she had already survived heroin addiction: she was older than most punks; she was a woman and the band, brand and hair were hers – and her hair said it all as the name of that band: Blondie. So if Harry claimed and reworked classic feminine icons of modernity to offer a knowing bid for a modern kind of freedom in which the ‘natural’ was long past, May’s use of the blow dried natural look speaks of a return to nature but also, once again, an avoidance of the iconographic: no helmet for her rather subtle styling, subtle colour and age-appropriacy. Yet for all that May’s hair says to us ‘hair means hair’, the gently groomed and subtly coloured ‘natural’ bob is claiming the power of a quiet femininity that is mixed with brand princess.

Of course, I began by saying that men have an easier time in terms of meaning. Many are allowed to stay in the pre-iconographic. So as I am writing just before an election why can’t I offer some balance by considering Corbyn’s hair? That would be a different topic. Just for the present, though, perhaps we can visualise his head with hair and beard outlining a pineata. As it is repeated and violently struck, sweets and trophies fly through the air at some velocity. It is time to return to the Warburg Picture Collection to ask Dr Paul Taylor for help on the iconography of Corbyn as a pineata …