Italian Vogue had two outstanding issues this year. First, in July, came the amazing all-black issue.
And then, in November, one of the most beautiful editorials of the year, inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film Persona, a paranoid seaside lesbian vacation, with Susan Sontag.
Steven Meisel has an extraordinary relationship with Italian Vogue. He’s shot every cover of every issue for as long as I can remember. Meisel particularly loves to “discover” new models — and among the girls he rocketed to acclaim via Italian Vogue are models like Karen Elson, Sasha Pivovarova, and Coco Rocha. His signature style is a little desaturated, a little obsessed with doubling, mirroring, and repetition, a little moody, and perhaps ever so slightly off; the scenes he creates are often filled with a vague dread, like a David Lynch movie.
What do I love about Italian Vogue? Covers like this. Toni Garrn, 17-year-old Calvin Klein favorite, and her 21-year-old German compatriot, Katrin Thormann, looking lovely and peachy and perhaps just a little awkward, as though they’ve been disturbed in some moment of intimacy. “A New Look At Seasonal Dressing.” (There’s a cover line we could never improve.) What does that even mean? Italian Vogue is confident you’re going to want to find out.
The editorial inside, called Cottage In Riva Al Mare (“Cottage by the sea”) is the kind of 34-page spread that would’ve been reduced to an incoherent 12-page hackjob under Anna Wintour’s watch at American Vogue. Each image is its own best reason for existence; there isn’t exactly anything as didactic as a plot going on here, but the general idea is that two women have gone away to the coast for something more purposeful than a vacation. They play dominoes, they read, they face off with arms crossed, they make love, they weep. Their queasy friendship — if it is a friendship? — doesn’t seem likely to survive these intensities of feeling. The last image is of Katrin clutching her suitcase, her back to the ocean.
The obvious reference is to Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona, which is more or less about an actress named Elizabeth, played by Liv Ullman, who becomes an elective mute following a sort of psychic break during a performance of Electra. She goes to the seaside in the care of a psychiatric nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson), and, over the course of the film, some sort of exchange occurs. It’s as if Alma can’t help but fall into the void created by Elizabeth’s silence, and in her willingness to fill the space left by Elizabeth’s withdrawal, Alma loses something of herself.
Susan Sontag loved Persona; in her 1969 book Styles of Radical Will, she called it “Bergman’s masterpiece.” In examining the contemporary critics’ general distaste for the movie, she wrote:
To be sure, some of the paltriness of the critics’ reaction may be more a response to the signature that Persona carries than to the film itself. That signature has come to mean a prodigal, tirelessly productive career; a rather facile, often merely beautiful, by now (it seemed) almost oversize body of work; a lavishly inventive, sensual, yet melodramatic talent, employed with what appeared to be a certain complacency, and prone to embarrassing displays of intellectual bad taste.
The strange thing is, most of that’s also a familiar vein of criticism in regards to Meisel’s work — a withering level of productivity, “often merely beautiful,” melodramatic, complacent, empty-headed. In looking over this editorial, which because of the simplicity of its mise en scène probably is going to divide opinion, Sontag’s words about its most direct filmic inspiration came to mind in an entirely different context. So, here we go, because I thought it would be fun: Steven Meisel, annotated by Susan Sontag.
“Persona is constructed according to a form that resists being reduced to a story — say, the story about the relation (however ambiguous and abstract) between two women named Elizabeth and Alma, a patient and a nurse, a star and an ingénue, alma (soul) and persona (mask).”
“There might exist what could be called a dormant plot.”
“After we have seen Elizabeth enter Alma’s room and stand beside her and stroke her hair, we see Alma, pale, troubled, asking Elizabeth the next morning, ‘Did you come to my room last night?’ and Elizabeth, slightly quizzical, anxious, shakes her head no.”
“One tactic upheld by traditional narrative is to give ‘full’ information (by which I mean all that is needed, according to the standard of relevance set up in the ‘world’ proposed by the narrative), so that the ending of the viewing or reading experience coincides, ideally, with the full satisfaction of one’s desire to know, to understand what happened and why. (This is, of course, a highly manipulated quest for knowledge.)”
“There is, above all, the connection between the two women themselves, which, in its feverish proximity, its caresses, its sheer passionateness (avowed by Alma in word, gesture, and fantasy) could hardly fail, it would seem, to suggest a powerful, if largely inhibited, sexual involvement.”
“But, in fact, what might be sexual in feeling is largely transposed into something beyond sexuality, beyond eroticism even.”
“The business of the artist is to convince his audience that what they haven’t learned at the end they can’t know, or shouldn’t care about knowing.”
“My own view is that the temptation to invent more story ought to be resisted.”
“The viewer can only move toward, but never achieve, certainty about the action.”