The Censored Scar
(this is a condensed
version of the article that appeared in Gauntlet)
Matuschka is on the cover and a portfolio of her work is included within the contents of the story.
"What Matuschka did with her photograph on the cover o the New York Times certainly educated people." -Susan Markisz
photo on the cover of the August 15, 1993 edition of The New York Times
was a watershed event. That photo was seen by over two million people the
week it came out and garnered more mail than any other cover in the magazine's
history. The comments ran from disgruntled cancer survivors who said, "I
feel my privacy has been invaded!" to delighted cancer survivors who
said, "I feel as if a burden has been lifted!"
Matuschka may have competed with several other photographers for that cover but, in retrospect, it seems to have been a perfect marriage of aesthetic sensibility and common sense.
Joanne Matuschka was born 41 years ago in Newton, New Jersey. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was thirteen years old and the effect was abiding. She ran away 6 months later and grew up too fast. She fell in and out of drug adiction, flirted with innumerable careers, always floating back towards pop culture and towards art. At various times Matuschka was a waitress, a cab driver, a go go dancer, a model and a musician. Tall, statuesque, she had "one of the best torsos on the planet". Her penchant for artistic expression led her to obsessively document her body in unusual ways. She made plaster casts of her "perfect" torso; she shot a series of nudes set against backdrops of decay and decimation. In this series, her beauty- representing a form of perfection- duels with the concrete reality of the ruins and the destruction. The series called "The Ruins," was popular- especially in Europe- and Matuschka began to gather an audience.
"'The Ruins' situation came out of this unhealthy relationship that I was having in the eighties and how I thought that this society was going to self-destruct," she recalled. "I'm not the only person who came up with that idea. But I was watching all these beautiful buildings in my neighborhood be destroyed . . . and I wrote this song called "the Ruins," and I had an independent record deal in Europe and they suggested I design the cover of the album. So I came up with this idea which was best created through photography. And that is how I became a photographer."
In the summer of 1991 Matuschka was slated to have her first photographic museum show in Helsinki, Finland. In spring of that year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the same age that her mother had been when she was diagnosed with the disease- age 37. The show went on without her.
That Matuschka had previously and meticulously documented her body for posterity now took on an ironic twist as her doctor advised an immediate mastectomy (which she now believes to have been unnecessary). True to her documentarian nature, Matuschka arranged to have the operation filmed.
Immediately after her surgery Matuschka executed two dozen drawings based on mastectomy. Interestingly, they were not self-portraits but targeted towards older patients. Some of these drawings were made into posters. For several months she contemplated whether or not she could begin taking any self-portraits of herself post mastectomy.
"How could I take such an asymmetrical situation- remove it from the look in medical books- and bring it to the level of my earlier work without evoking pity?" she asked significantly.
Chasing that "universal image" became Matuschka's studied ideal "but it wasn't so simple", recalled the artist. "No one said that nailing a jellyfish to the wall was going to be easy."
Matuschka brought a critical eye, considered thought, contrivance, artifice and farce into what had previously been exclusively within the domain of personal expression. She was savvy enough to add humor and irony to the substance of the shots. The contrived details in her "Hitlerettes" compete with the mastectomy scar for shock value. The casual eroticism is at odds with the political content. Matuschka's work includes a nod to modern art: there is as much of Andy Warhol as there is of Dick Avedon in her photos. Yet another sensibility imposed on the subject matter is the standards of high fashion photography complete with plot, wardrobe, make-up and setting. It seemed as if all of the many and varied experiencing of Matuschka's scattershot life came to bear on this subject. She gained both a vision and a cause and added activist and writer to her resume. She worked with several photographers at first but ultimately opted to do it alone, "since no one seemed to understand what I was after and that the head belongs to my body and should also be in the shot."
Matuschka threw everything she knew into this project and it showed in the work. That's why she got a phone call from The New York Times.
If the purpose of art is to define the times in which we live, to give witness to what it feels like to be alive during your time in history, then Matuschka has fulfilled this requirement. These works are imbued with the tenor of the times. These works are most modern; indeed, they would not have been made available at all for public consumption at any time before the last several years. They contain a microcosm of what it is like to live as the Twentieth Century comes to a close. We have gained the technical ability to achieve what is emotionally difficult to live with. We are rethinking our notions of beauty, and of propriety, and we are uncomfortable with new truths.
Matuschka has uncovered herself in a brilliant attempt to reveal brand new, still beautiful and profoundly uncomfortable truths. Those truths, like the scars, continue to be censored.