American Literary History 13.3 (2001) 544-577
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Woman as Ruin
Tacey A. Rosolowski
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Most of my artwork has been a result of my trying to get out of the ruins, to make beauty out of damage.
On 15 August 1993, photographer-artist Matuschka's self- portrait Beauty Out of Damage (1993) (Fig. 1) appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine as the signature image for Susan Ferraro's article, "The Anguished Politics of Breast Cancer." Though the article does not focus specifically on Matuschka (it details grassroots agitation for greater attention to breast cancer and its survivors), within a matter of days, her image proved to be a lightning rod for controversy. The New York Times received 125 calls on Sunday alone and 200 letters in the days following (50 is usual for a "hot" story). Matuschka came to be known as "breast cancer's pin-up girl," an icon for ordinary women made extraordinary by this disease (Conway 1). 1
Readers of the New York Times were clearly moved by Matuschka's image, both for better and worse (responses were either wildly enthusiastic or caustic in their criticism). Their response foreshadowed the image's fate: Beauty Out of Damage is today the most recognizable image of breast cancer in existence, and one still able to provoke controversy. Yet more profound than its power to move emotions, the deeper importance of Beauty Out of Damage resides with the strategic way it orchestrates a movement, a shift, within traditional ways of representing and viewing the damaged female form. To begin to understand this shift we must understand the wider contemporary and historical context of images in which Matuschka's photograph appears. This will allow us to appreciate the details of Matuschka's artistic choices and how they exemplify the obstacles encountered when attempting to alter conventions for representing the female body in visual form: a project that necessarily challenges both the aesthetic of body conformation and traditions of positioned spectatorship. [End Page 544]
Another image, photographer Susan Markisz's The Road Back: Self Portrait II (1992), was also considered but passed over for the Times cover. In comparison to Matuschka's complex composition, Markisz takes a deceivingly naturalistic approach to her subject matter. In Self Portrait II, she stands against a plain background, with eyes closed and face turned in profile, offering an unembellished nude torso to the viewer. She holds her arms outward, bent at the elbows like wings, and brings the outspread fingers of her hands to cover her whole and mastectomized breasts. With body and visual composition stripped [End Page 545] down in this way, Markisz's image "does not objectify the icon," as she says, "rather it attempts to illustrate the underlying emotions attached to the diagnosis of breast cancer" (Markisz).
Exploiting the fact that few spectacles are as resonant in their signifying potential as the partially clothed or unclothed human form, both Markisz and Matuschka challenge the taboos proscribing visual representation of the scarred feminine body. But whereas Matuschka clearly utilizes conventional codes of feminine beauty, Markisz confronts viewers in a more direct and unembellished manner. In particular, Markisz's photo, where the shadowy mastectomy scar emerges from under her concealing hand like a sixth finger, demonstrates how even the subtle suggestion of a ravaged, nude female form brings aestheticized physical damage into an uneasy relation with codes of normalcy, ideality, and beauty. Markisz's rejection of high-fashion flash may have fed the Times' decision not to use her image. The body's power to disturb has ensured the image's fate in other contexts. Her self-portrait was accepted for "Healing Legacies: a Collection of Art and Writing by Women with Breast Cancer," a 1993 exhibition presented in the US House of Representatives. However, her remarkably modest representation of a mastectomized body was excluded from the Rotunda because of exhibition guidelines prohibiting "subjects of contemporary political controversy or of a sensationalist or gruesome nature" (Rudner 18).