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‘When did you last see your aunt?’ Depends what you mean by ‘see’, Paula Coston suggests

July 26, 2013
Book jacket for 'Aunt Kitty's Stories', 1870

Book jacket for ‘Aunt Kitty’s Stories’, 1870

Auntly figures coupled with boys in art – specifically, how the boys seem to see the auntly figures within their shared images – are interesting. (But then, I’m drawn to the strangest stuff.)

Take Aunt Kitty. Pretty gruesome. A sort of nightmare pantomime dame. All that paraphernalia – voluminous skirts, bonnet, pebble specs, bushy eyebrows, fearsome puppet-like baby in yet more voluminous skirts – seems meant to keep those infants at bay. If you didn’t know better, you might think they’re fixed on her in near-horror: ‘What sharp teeth you have, grandma!’ Of course they’re supposed to be mesmerised by her storyweaving powers.

Mind you, some of the children aren’t exactly pretty either. The boy on the right is crude and very unlovable. I note he’s ogling her mouth – which the modern eye could interpret as a grotesquely sexualised fascination, if it wasn’t wise to the genre of book. Still, undeniably, he’s looking at her mouth. He’s interested in her verbal output, and not in her at all.

'Learning the Alphabet' by Théophile-Emmanuel Duverger, 1821-1882 (n.d.)

‘Learning the Alphabet’ by Théophile-Emmanuel Duverger, 1821-1882 (n.d.)

The relationship of Duverger’s boy with his auntly figure isn’t much different. She’s a spinster, of course: see the spinning wheel, the usual visual code for that. And I say ‘auntly figure’ as opposed to schoolteacher: if she is a teacher, she’s in her own home, and I’d still guess more likely aunt or some such given the domestic touches of the spinning wheel, and the footstool, and the cupboard of plates behind her. The two don’t touch: the stylus in her hand makes contact with some letter of the alphabet on her knee, and so does one of his hands, but no flesh meets. I love the look she’s giving him under those raised specs: she’s intent, intense, if maybe a tad too stern, because she’s putting heart and soul into her teaching. Sadly, the boy doesn’t reciprocate her gaze: he’s lost in his own little world of learning puzzlement.

Book jacket for 'The Sporting Spinster' by Harold McGrath, 1926

Book jacket for ‘The Sporting Spinster’ by Harold McGrath, 1926

Harold McGrath’s 1926 novel is about a boy who is raised by his ‘thoroughly mad Jazz Age aunt who drinks, smokes and swears’. I get a pang of annoyance at the stereotype (one that my own life does nothing to dispel) that the aunt is a spinster – yet again. He’s not looking at her in this image, either. I assume though that in the story he has spiffing, whizz-bang adventures with her. (There’s a looming demonic shadow behind the car, as if it’s pursuing them both, and at the moment he just seems terrified.)

I wonder if the 20s were the beginning of one caricature of ‘Auntie’ – the eccentric: at one end of the spectrum exciting, and quite fun if rather quirky, at the other end of the spectrum just laughable?

'Child and Aunt' by Paul Klee, 1937

‘Child and Aunt’ by Paul Klee, 1937

Sadly for the purposes of this humble post, Paul Klee wasn’t really into personality and relationships. (BTW, I wonder if it’s significant that sometimes this picture is titled ‘Child and Aunt’, at others, the two nouns are reversed.) Blow me, but while the visual cipher for the aunt figure is looking at the cipher for a child figure (boy?) – albeit over her shoulder – the boy (?) is gazing anywhere but at his aunt. Yet again. Maybe his eyes are even closed? Meanwhile, a few black line hieroglyphs once more encode the woman as a type: a big-bosomed P.G. Wodehouse dame in a feathered hat. Nice and easy to laugh at.

'Aunt Betty' by Jorge Santos, b.1959 (n.d.)

‘Aunt Betty’ by Jorge Santos, b.1959 (n.d.)

Thank goodness for Jorge Santos, then – at least, I think I’m grateful. At first glance, maybe the viewer’s shocked, or even repelled, by the image of Aunt Betty with no clothes on. But look again, and the scene refreshes.

Santos’s art is apparently known for ‘What if?’ scenarios: he’ll depict a conventional scene and then subvert it by introducing some disruptive deus ex machina, some element that we would never expect in that particular time and place and situation. I look at the family, and I see the conventional mother, father and 2-point-something children settled rather upright in the conventional sitting room, the heart of the home in theory, although it’s terribly stark, probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s. They stare rapt, mesmerised, at some kind of entertainment, their focal point precisely where ‘the wireless’ or, in the 1950s, the newfangled thrill of the TV might easily stand.

And there’s Aunt Betty instead, in the raw, in all her blatant, unashamed magnificence, hearty and laughing and entertaining them no end – probably far more than any TV ever could. She’s being honest: she’s being who she is, without holding anything back, literally naked to the world. Suddenly, at second glance, she’s not grotesque – unlike Aunt Kitty, above – at all, and the image ceases to disturb.

Don’t know about you, but I wish I could decode the looks on the family’s faces (and, because of my boy interests, especially the boy’s.) Those expressions could mean several things, from utter joy and rapture to guffawing amusement; and of course, if the latter, that places poor Aunt Betty squarely back in the ‘eccentric auntie, good for a laugh’ category – no better than that.

I concentrate on the boy, and the details hold me. His mother has an arm round his shoulder, which would seem like pure affection if what he was enthralled by was an entertaining broadcast – but with Aunt Betty standing there, doing her nude hakka thing, you could see the mother as protective, even warding something off (Dad is doing something similar for his daughter, in an interesting symmetry). The boy’s left arm is behind him, hand pressed firmly on the carpet as if – in the light of Aunt Betty – he’s literally knocked back by the whole experience. Then the apple clutched in his other hand: ah, the apple! He’s taken one bite out of it. Does this hint that, having seen Aunt Betty, he’s tasted the fruit of knowledge, experienced something that will never return him to his innocent self again? Of course, that could be a good thing; we don’t know, but I kind of hope so. His world is perhaps less stark now than his living room suggests.

And here’s the really good news. He’s at least looking at his auntie, unfaltering, wide-eyed – with full appreciation, IMHO. A boy and auntie interrelating at long last.

This post is dedicated to the painter Gwen John (1876-1939), unmarried, and an aunt to her painter brother Augustus’s many children, several of them boys. Sadly, she never painted boys, though she did paint many young girls. I like to think that Santos’s picture might have heartwarmed the painter from some of her bleaker, isolated-aunt remarks, such as, ‘I should like to go and live somewhere where I met nobody I know till I am so strong that people and things could not affect me beyond reason,’ and ‘I think the family has had its day. We don’t go to Heaven in families now but one by one.’

One Comment
  1. Duncan permalink

    Love the first Gwen John quote. it fits in with your theme, but I think lots of people feel like that for all sorts of reasons. All the talk Aunts made me think most strongly of PG Wodehouse’s menagerie of aunts. Isn’t Bertie Wooster (and all his Drone friends) just a little boy, too? Scared of, but admiring, his aunts.

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