A Female Figure Laying on the Bed

Annaleen Louwes - Anonymous Den-Dolder (2003)
Annaleen Louwes – Anonymous Den-Dolder (2003)

This is the full text of an article that was published in the annual catalog of PHOTOWORKS (#22, WOMEN, 2015, pp.16-17):

Annaleen Louwes (b. 1959, The Netherlands) studies the edges of existential circumstances and how they are shown through the language of the human body. Her commitment to the subject led her to a psychiatric institution in Den Dolder, near the city of Utrecht, where she stayed for a period of three months. This portrait is part of the powerful series that resulted from that residency.

The first thing that comes to mind when looking at this image is what Georges Didi-Huberman describes as ‘the invention of hysteria’:1 the intimate and reciprocal relationship between the disciplines of psychiatry and photography in the late 19th century. Didi-Huberman focused on the immense photographic output of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, a notorious Parisian asylum for insane and incurable women that was originally built as a gunpowder factory but turned later into a prison for prostitutes and a holding place for the mentally, if not ‘criminally’ disabled. It was there, under the direction of the medical teacher and clinician Jean-Martin Charcot, that women inmates were identified as hysterics and, for the purposes of closer observation and study, were systematically photographed.

All kinds of women were under his study, but in particular those initially residing in the sprawling urban areas who were believed to be hypersensitive and susceptible to nervous disorders. A result of the pace of modern life, ‘hysteria’ in the age of Charcot was a common medical diagnosis, made almost exclusively of women, who were considered to exhibit a wide array of symptoms, including faintness, insomnia and muscle spasm. The list of symptoms also included nervousness, sexual desire, heaviness of the abdomen and shortness of breath: in short, behavioural characteristics that announced an overall ‘tendency to cause trouble’ and that therefore became an essential subject to be photographically documented at the Salpêtrière. Reflecting on Didi-Huberman’s book, Martin Jay noted in an editorial review that ‘the camera … solicited the theatricalized spectacle of hysterical symptoms suffered by women at the dawn of the psychoanalytic age’. In Louwes’s contemporary photographs, the suitcases under the bed help to forge associations with this aspect of Charcot’s ‘iconography of madness’. This does not look like an average guest on a hotel bed, resting after a long journey. Why hold on to the edge of the bed so firmly? To me, she looks somewhat defeated and, with her watch placed so tightly around the wrist that it reminds me of handcuffs, bound to her situation. Does this woman really want to go elsewhere? Why is she clinging on to the furniture? Is she free to go where she chooses? Or is she there to have symptoms treated, to be cured of ‘a tendency to cause trouble’? Would I ever think in that direction if not aware of the context in which the image was made, that this portrait was taken within a psychiatric institution?

For Charcot, the focus was all on the face and the body language of the women that he studied, which he thought offered clues as to why his young female patients behaved as they did. For Annaleen Louwes, the interest must have been of another kind. For one, the head of this woman has deliberately been excluded from the frame, and that makes her wristwatch the main object of study here. If we could look more closely we would detect the time when the picture was taken, perhaps, but we would still be left clueless about the facial expression of this person occupying the bed in this particular manner. Here we thus arrive at the limits of our observation: besides the fact that she might possibly be recognised by her rather characteristic chin, the woman remains anonymous, and that makes an interpretation of the bodily gestures of this female figure all the more instinctive, convulsive and potentially more gender biased when compared with the medical methodology of earlier days.