Art in its many forms allows us to see more clearly the contemporary world we inhabit. Whether it’s a much-loved opera performed for more than a century or a work of visual art seen for the first time, art can help us clarify our understanding of today’s issues, expand our sensorial experience, and frame our worldview.

Take La traviata (meaning “The Fallen Woman”) and the portrayal of women. The opera derives from Alexandre Dumas fils’s play La Dame aux camélias (1852), adapted from his 1848 novel of the same name. The story was based on Dumas’s affair with the hotly pursued beauty and Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis, who died aged a mere 23. La traviata tells the tragic love story of the courtesan (aka “fallen woman”) Violetta Valéry and the romantic figure (aka “hero”) Alfredo Germont, told from Alfredo’s male perspective.

It was first performed in Venice in 1853 to a rather shocked audience and three years later it hit London by storm, generating a healthy swathe of righteous indignation. In 1856, The Times denounced it as “an exhibition of harlotry upon the public stage” and “the poetry of the brothel”, adding: “All the interest is concentrated upon the death-struggles of this wretched girl. It is for her that pity is asked, and it is to her that pity is given… Now, we say that, morally speaking, this is most hideous and abominable.”

Journalist Tom Service, who in 2015 co-presented a BBC documentary on Verdi’s opera (Falling for the Fallen Woman), commented: “La traviata exposed an open wound of hypocrisy, misogyny and sexual politics at the heart of European society.” Yet La traviata both repelled and enraptured audiences to become an opera of ravishing appeal and lasting emotional power.

Australian soprano Lauren Fagan will play the courtesan Violetta in State Opera’s new production of La traviata. Photo: Victoria Cadisch

Arcane and outmoded, the term “fallen woman” became loosely associated in 19th-century English society with the moral turpitude and audacity of perceived promiscuity and female sexual independence. It’s interesting to apply this lens to works of art in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. AGSA is unabashed about its loosening of the historical corsets when it comes to exhibition making, as we juxtapose works of art across time to forge spirited conversations. After all, all great art was contemporary once.

In the current exhibition Robert Wilson: Moving portraits, I have brought together two rapturous works to explore parallel ideas about performance and the female gaze in a counterpoint of control and action.

Texan-born Robert Wilson is well known to opera and theatre lovers as a towering figure for more than six decades on the international stage. His own production of La traviata, which premiered in 2015 in Linz, Austria, was awash with his defining qualities of exquisite lighting, precise movements and a minimalist palette as he created an otherworld of floating glass shards and lucid dreaming.

Dita von Teese has been applauded for re-energising burlesque and fetishism on her own terms

For Moving portraits, we have included 23 of Wilson’s Video Portraits alongside “rhyming works” that span 20 centuries and 12 countries, selected from AGSA’s collection. The video portraits move back and forth in time – they are evocations of individual souls as well as meditations on characters drawn from history, art, literature, science and mythology, from popular culture to French neoclassical art, from Hollywood allure to Japanese anime, and from the world of rare and beautiful animals. They exist in a holding pattern of suspended time, as would a conjured recollection or a lingering memory. Mere minutes long and endlessly looping, they are experienced as moving pictures, hovering between action and stasis, both still videos and moving stills. As Wilson says: “If we look carefully, this still life is a real life.” They inhabit a shifting space that spans reality, apparition and imagination.

Wilson’s Dita von Teese, Burlesque Performer, 2006, is accompanied by Australian photographer Pat Brassington’s The Long Goodbye, 2017, acquired by the gallery for the exhibition. These two works offer an inversion of “the fallen woman”; they are flying, not falling.

Dita von Teese is depicted by Wilson in full control on a swing and, located high on the gallery wall, his work encapsulates the singer, performer, actor and businesswoman. She has been applauded for re-energising burlesque and fetishism on her own terms, and has elegantly crafted her polished persona, which harks back to the cinematic allure of the 1940s. Her pink-sequined costume rhymes beautifully with the dazzling pink silks in The Long Goodbye.

Pat Brassington (born Hobart 1942), The Long Goodbye, 2017, Hobart, pigment print, 90.0 x 72.0cm; gift of Tracey Whiting AM through the Art Gallery of South Australia Contemporary Collectors 2022. Image courtesy of the Artist and ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne

Pat Brassington is considered one of Australia’s leading senior photographic artists, with an international reputation for creating original images that consider issues of the female body, the gaze and the subconscious. This photograph is a quintessential and provocative work by Brassington, ravishing in its palette and its sensuous abandonment. Her distinctive photomontages coalesce the prosaic with the paranormal and the mundane with the fantastical.

The female figure in The Long Goodbye is suggestive of the innovative, avant-garde American dancer Loie Fuller. Fuller was embraced as an emblematic figure within the French art nouveau for works such as her Serpentine Dance, recorded on film in 1905, which combined a flowing costume with idiosyncratic choreography. Called “the magician of the stage”, she was a game changer in her independence and the radicality of her choreography and theatrical lighting. The ambiguity in Brassington’s image is the disruptive inclusion of a mask-like and feline blindfold; this juxtaposition defies logic, and the image offers few clues to decode the narrative. “I aim to pitch my images just off the verge of normality, into those dense patches where the commonplace goes awry,” she says.

Brassington’s recent and preternatural colour works with cinematic compositions are crafted from unexpected superimpositions of both found images and her own images. These evocative and sensual images are infused with seduction and repulsion, and yet eschew definitive narratives or literal meaning. Brassington’s works act as meditations on the prosaic and the otherworldly; at times sexually charged with allusions to the interpersonal and the illicit, they are accompanied by a quest for psychological inquiry, are heady with symbolism, and allude to mystique and the unconscious.

I have been long fascinated with the different creative pathways that exist within visual arts and performing arts. So much of visual art is pure invention and presentation, while for live arts the emphasis is often on reinterpretation, representation and reinvention of existing texts, choreography or scores. Yet the excellence and power within both fields of creative endeavour speak across time to rest entirely on radicality and prescience to make work that connects, moves and endures.

So where does this leave La traviata? On this occasion, in the very good hands of director Sarah Giles. If her direction of Lorelei for Victorian Opera in 2018 is anything to go by, this production promises to be powerful, sensuous and vividly contemporary.

Rhana Devenport, director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, wrote this piece for the program of State Opera’s new production of La traviata (a collaboration with Opera Queensland and West Australian Opera), which will be presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre from August 25 until September 3.

Robert Wilson: Moving portraits is at the Art Gallery of SA until October 3.


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