Many people believe that Jesus, when alive, was both human and divine, or both mortal and immortal; many people, likewise, believe that God himself, of the Old as well as the New Testament, is both spiteful and forgiving, or both hateful and loving. And while we all believe such contradictory things about ourselves, about other people well known to us ‘in person’ (friends, lovers, colleagues), and even about the writers we read, we do not believe such things about relative strangers – that beautiful young man at the gym, that horrible troll there – and neither, as a rule, do we believe them about celebrities. We believe from reading him that Oscar Wilde – in person – was both superficial and profound. Or we believe that Roland Barthes in person – after publishing The Fashion System – was both structuralist and poststructuralist. And yet while Barthes himself, correctly, found that fictional characters seem realistic only if described by novelists as, say, demure yet determined, tender yet tough, casual yet cunning, he just as correctly did not find this to be so of female movie stars. ‘Garbo’s singularity,’ he wrote in Mythologies, ‘was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event.’
There have, though, been two exceptions to this rule concerning celebrities. One of them is Lisa del Giocondo, née Gherardini, better known as Mona Lisa. Consider this famous description by Walter Pater:
Hers is the head upon which all ‘the ends of the world are come,’ and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed.
For Pater, physical lust and spiritual ambition are opposites. The other exception is Kate Moss. Consider this description of her by Dennis Freedman, former creative director of the American magazine W:
Kate has been our muse – ours and our photographers’ – for the simple reason that there are so many aspects to Kate’s personality. She’s a woman, she’s a child, she’s a tomboy, she’s very sexual, she’s smart, she’s funny, she’s good, she’s bad.
For Freedman, it seems, intelligence and humour are opposites. Others have found Moss ‘perfect’ yet ‘imperfect’ (Brandon Hurst); ‘childlike’ yet ‘womanlike’ (Calvin Klein); ‘exquisite “bête”’ yet ‘monstrous “belle”’ (Craig McDean); ‘powerful’ yet ‘vulnerable’ (Laura Collins); ‘unobtainable’ yet ‘accessible’ (Collins again). Or to quote the photographer David Bailey: ‘She’s the kind of girl you wished lived next door, but she’s never going to.’
Many of these descriptions – perfect yet imperfect, unobtainable yet accessible – relate to a distinction often made with respect to oil painting but almost never to fashion photography: the nude human body v. the naked. The nude body, whether male or female, is – Garbo-like, or young-man-at-the-gym-like – always beautiful. It is an ideal. It does not return the viewer’s gaze. It is a passive object of that viewer’s gaze and also of his or her desire. And so it invites – indicatively phallic – penetration. Most Western art, of course, depicts nudes. The Hepburn-like (or horrible-troll-like) naked body, though, may or may not be beautiful. He or she is real. He or she does return the viewer’s gaze. He or she is an active subject of desire – as well as of everything else, to quote Nietzsche, that’s ‘human, all too human’. And so he or she invites not penetration but – indicatively maternal – protection.
Rembrandt painted some women naked. So, too, did Lucian Freud – including one portrait (reproduced in Kate: The Kate Moss Book) of a naked, full length, very pregnant Kate Moss. Mona Lisa too, coincidentally, seems pregnant – hence her not so enigmatic expression. She is both thinking and smiling about being pregnant. And so it should surprise no one that the journalist Stephen Bayley, in the Independent, has compared Moss to Mona Lisa: just as that painting – so claims the novelist Dan Brown, incorrectly – is an ‘androgynous’ self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, Moss’s ‘gamine look’ has a similar ‘sexual ambivalence’. Susannah Frankel, a fashion editor at the Independent, has made the same comparison: ‘Kate Moss is a modern-day Mona Lisa. Although at times she might appear to be featured everywhere, no one knows what she’s really like or ever seems to tire of guessing.’ (‘The more visible they make me,’ Moss has said, ‘the less visible I become.’ Jean Cocteau said it first.) Stella Vine, an artist who painted Moss both post-partum and wearing some clothes, has also compared them. There’s ‘bravery’, Vine says, ‘in Kate’s eyes’ – just as in those of Mona Lisa – ‘and I love her for that.’
Moss, then, when imaged not by such painters as Lucian Freud or Stella Vine but rather by fashion photographers like David Bailey, has almost always – even wearing outfits, but of course the fewer clothes here the better – seemed both nude and naked. And yet in these photographs she is not just both an object and a subject of desire. She is also, as Vine expressed it, a love object. This, no doubt, is owed to our little-girl-and-yet-grown-woman perception of her: Garbo-like yet also Hepburn-like, ideal and real. It is owed, too, to those either grungy or very beautiful clothes that Moss wears. It isn’t that the viewer, male or female, straight or gay, necessarily wishes that these outfits should be removed in conscious fantasy, striptease fashion, by Moss herself, or maybe by the viewer himself or herself; rather it’s that in unconscious fantasy he or she wishes to become the outfit. As Barthes put it, in his book on the historian Jules Michelet:
The ideal moment of love is not, for Michelet, penetration but juxtaposition, for it is not sex but seeing which gives its measure. Just as, when regarding the fish as gelatinised water, Michelet constituted the universe as a deliciously smooth object, so to protect Woman, to cover her, to envelop her, to ‘follow’ her entire surface, is to do away with any discontinuity of substance. The ideal figure of the lover is ultimately the garment: no more difference between algae and fish than between skin and the silk which covers it. When Michelet amorously describes the tunic coiled around woman, there is no doubt that he longs to be that garment and sees himself as such, a secret pursued, clung to, absorbed in extent and not in depth.
‘One should either be a work of art,’ Wilde wrote, ‘or wear a work of art.’ Either/or? Why not both/and? For Moss herself – naked yet nude – is a ‘singular’ work of art. Plus – aside from the grunge – she wears artwork. Plus we, as viewers, now see ourselves – on some level – as that artwork. Hence one might, if Moss, both be a work of art and wear a work of art; one might also, if Moss, make other people sense themselves as the works of art worn by this work of art; and yet one might also, if Moss, make other people sense that they, too, are Moss: both Moss the perfect, extraordinary artwork and Moss the imperfect, very ordinary human. Or to quote Simon Doonan, creative director for Barneys: ‘She is not a high-born girl. She’s a working-class slag from a crap town, just like me!’
Sensing through images alone the self-contradictory and hence realistic (or novelistic) nature of Kate Moss is both a demystification of this fashion ‘icon’ and a further mystification – or even deification – of her. Many ‘born-again’ and often homophobic Christians, in the United States at least, like to brag not just that ‘Jesus loves me’ but also: ‘I have a friend in Jesus.’ We feel, I’m afraid, the same way about Moss – ‘I have a friend in Kate’ – and for the very same reason. Jesus, his followers say, was both human and divine; Moss, her photographers show, is both naked and nude – which amounts to saying that she, too, is both human and divine. And who among us, not knowing the woman in person, could ever know they’re wrong?
Tabloid magazines and newspapers have published plenty of information about Moss that one wouldn’t necessarily infer from fashion photography. We’ve read in these sources, and also in biographies, about her love affair with Johnny Depp, about subsequent affairs with ‘bad boy’ musicians, about drugs allegedly consumed by them. None of it matters, though, as this information just supports what we already know – in general – about the human or rather ‘all too human’ part of the myth devised not just by fashion photographers but also by Moss, in her guise as a ‘method’ actress showing the camera what may or may not be her own character. (She says it’s not, in Kate.) To quote the American (and gay) literary critic Michael Snediker, talking about the photograph of Moss, taken by Richard Avedon, to which he is ‘most attached’: ‘I like that she aestheticises noli me tangere. It’s not that she seems to be in a heroin stupor. It’s that she seems damaged from the outset, as though there’s nothing we (scopophilically or otherwise) could do to her that hasn’t already happened. Our looking at her seems nearly redundant.’
One wonders to which photograph of Moss she herself is most attached. What does she seem to herself to be in it? Does she seem friendly? Self-contradictory? Or to be whatever perhaps superficial character (not herself) she showed the photographer? To judge from Kate, she may have no particular preference. ‘I remember sitting, standing, jumping, hanging, swinging, climbing, laughing, crying and falling for every single picture in this book,’ it begins. (I take ‘falling’ here to be figurative. I don’t know of any photographs of Moss in which she is literally falling.) Every picture? Yes, every picture. ‘Obviously,’ she tells the editor Jess Hallett in a ‘conversation’ included here, ‘these are all my favourite pictures.’ And what Moss sees in any such photograph, she says (I write ‘says’ because Moss has confessed, or pseudo-confessed, to Women’s Wear Daily: ‘I didn’t actually have to write anything’ for the book), is whatever (to her) rather comical, or at least amusing, and not at all (to quote Snediker) ‘damaged’ character she showed: ‘This book is a diary in pictures that began at the age of 14, and now when I look at an image, I am immediately transported back to that moment – the feeling – that everyone involved would put into the creation of the shoot.’ She says: ‘I love role-play and dressing up, and I can’t resist an adventure – I like to make it fun, to have a laugh whenever possible.’
There is one photograph reproduced in Kate in which Moss can actually see the real her having fun: ‘I think the one picture in here that is the most me,’ she tells Hallett, ‘is the Juergen Teller of me with pink hair in bed. Because it is just us having a laugh in my bed. There wasn’t a hair or makeup artist or anything.’
One wonders if Lisa Gherardini ever said something similar: ‘I think the one painting that is the most me, though, is the Leonardo da Vinci of me with brown hair in that chair. Because it is just us having a (perhaps pregnancy-related) laugh in that chair.’ Or rather, one hopes ‘Mona Lisa’ said this. One hopes that the woman was – as Kate Moss still seems to be – basically happy, and that she was not just some, to quote Pater again, weary-lidded and malady-laden thing. One hopes that neither of them was (or, in Moss’s case, has been or ever will be) at all troubled – or worse yet, influenced, or even worse, to invoke Louis Althusser, interpellated, which involves, basically, self-misrecognition – by all the ‘strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions’ that so many of us, myself included, have seen expressed in such work.
And with that not so strange thought in mind, please allow me to end on a personal and yet still Renaissance-inflected note. I first saw the image above, by the photographer Greg Gorman, about ten years ago. It struck me then – it still strikes me now, sometimes – as an ideal, glamorous and auratic image (because of the lighting), taken of an extremely beautiful young man at what must have been the peak of his physical perfection. It struck me, too, that the man might be deliberately citing – by having posed as – Michelangelo’s David. And so, having more or less fallen in love with him, or it, I bought and had framed a large poster version of the photograph. I hung it on a wall directly across from the desk in my study.
I must confess, though, or pseudo-confess, that despite my having continued to love the photograph, it had no point – no erotic punctum, to invoke Barthes in Camera Lucida – for me. It seemed to me to be boring, soft-core porno studium: banal, if beautiful, and very, very conventional. It seemed to present no contradictions other than ‘tender yet tough’, as well as that contradiction I would later (which is to say, here and now) associate with Kate Moss. Because the extremely beautiful young man in the photograph, like Moss in almost all the ones in Kate, is both nude and naked. He too invites both phallic penetration (or maybe just ‘juxtaposition’ à la Michelet) and maternal (as well as paternal) protection. But because this man, unlike Moss for the most part, has his back turned to us, he also seems – oddly – not to present himself at all. (One photograph in the book, taken by Mario Testino, is an extreme close-up of Moss’s ass. At least I think it’s her ass.) He seems neither self-absorbed nor theatrical – a distinction first made by the critic Michael Fried. The man, therefore, had no real – or realistic, or novelistic – character for me. He had, too, no real future I could detect – or at least imagine.
About two years ago, though, I met an extremely handsome artist called David Michalek. He’s the guy who – although straight – first got me interested in Kate Moss. (We were working together for a museum on something fashion-related.) He’s somewhat younger than I am (I’m about fifty). He and I soon became friends. Good friends, in fact. (Michael Snediker, as it happens, is another friend; Michael Fried is not.) And then one day David told me that while in college he had worked as an assistant in the studio of the photographer Herb Ritts. He mentioned that Herb had photographed him (several of those images – nudes – appear in Ritts’s book Men/Women); and that so, too, had another photographer: Greg Gorman.
The photograph by Gorman, I suddenly realised, is a photograph of my friend David Michalek. And so it – or he – now did have character for me. And so he was now, in the photograph, at the beginning of what I knew for a fact had been, and continues to be, a fully novelistic – or non-superficial – life. Has this life of his – like that of Moss, I hope – been basically happy? I hope so, too. I guess so. David says it has. He acts like it has. Yet he does not now look at that photograph and see in it how happy he was back then. (How could he see this, of course, with his face not showing?) All David now sees there (not that he has a framed poster of it; he has a print hidden under the bed), all David can imagine seeing there, he says, is his by now much, much younger self posing – for himself alone – as that beautiful, beautiful statue.