At eighteen, lying on a carpet of cushions in the garden-summer after my exams. That would have been the first time I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. ‘Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.’ Nabokov’s ‘tangle of thorns’ felt more like a saccharine web of salted caramel, one that I couldn’t resist sinking into.
Hisaji Hara’s photographs have the quality of sun-bleached pages in an old paperback we feel too guilty to go back to. Showing at the Michael Hoppen Gallery until the 31st March, Hisaji Hara has recreated in photographs the paintings of French-Polish artist Balthus. Balthus is famous for his luxurious paintings of adolescent girls which he insisted were not erotic, and here Hara has revisited the full charge of that original eroticism.
It is evident in this homage that Hara holds Balthus’s work as a thing of dreamy, nostalgic beauty but can’t bear to subject such visual poetry to the moral scrutiny it warrants. As I languished in the hot summer sun and in Lolita, if I succeeded in forgetting, I did not remind myself of the true nature of the story. I let myself fall in love with the enchanted nymphette, innocent of the fantasy. I played Nabokov’s game, just as Hara plays Balthus’.
Hara imbues his work with heavy sensuality in more subtle ways than Balthus. Bringing the dancing lovers off ‘The Street’, into the telescopic gaze of an endless corridor and this intimately enclosed interior space, suggestively reveals a sub-plot in Balthus. There is a natural sensuality in Hara’s medium too; the soft, dusky quality of the prints which recalls the light that escapes through curtains after languorous extended lie-ins. I can see the ghost print of the photographer’s hands on the stiff limbs of his models. In the flesh of Hara photographs, Balthus’ stiff poses become those of automatons, these are portraits of Coppelias quietly practicing their routine after school.
Hisaji Hara may have clothed the subject of “The Room” and carefully eschewed the recreation of “The Guitar Lesson”in which a woman holds a naked girl and plays her as though she were a musical instrument, but Balthus’originals leave their eerie sweep of light on Hara’s images. Despite those soft legs with their innocent white socks and hard black shoes, I can’t keep the instinct that these school girls aren’t wearing any knickers beneath their skirts, submerged.
As I walked away from the Michael Hoppen gallery, I remembered reading Lolita for the first time. In order to give myself over to the pleasure of Nabokov’s novel it was necessary to sink a frame into the salted caramel swamp of Lolita, to confine to shadow and obscurity the clear-cut figure of Humbert Humbert, and leave only the residual first enchantment of ‘Lo, plain Lo,’ ‘Lola in slacks,’ ‘light of my life,’ without all of the weight of suggestion.
Hara has deliberately narrowed his perspectives, holding us out of the image within multiple frames. Balthus’ questionable eroticism seems to lie just outside of our accusatory glance, but it is still there. The woman who throws the curtains open in a soft flood of revealing light in Balthus’ ‘The Room’ keeps her presence behind the blurred black of the door frame in Hara. The pictures swell beyond the shadows, back to the echoes of Balthus’ work and leave the viewer, not Hara, as the fleeting silhouettes looking in on private, domestic scenes. But it is cowardly of the photographer to have left us both inside and outside of the image in this way.
To separate pure aesthetic pleasure from subject matter feels bourgeois and archaic. The aesthetics of a work of art are no longer contemporary art’s first priority; Hara’s photographs seem shallow, despite all their atmospheric depth, for their neglect to challenge. To submit to the sensation of Hara’s work is certainly a pleasure, but once you walk away you begin to feel a little dirty about the whole experience.
To see Hisaji Hara in pictures go to The Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2012/feb/26/hisaji-hara-photography