I had a recent revelation about a favorite painting of mine called Dress Ups by my father, the late artist Bernard Safran. I think its because I’ve been examining my parents’ lives more critically in the last few years while working on this blog, and I see things from a different perspective than I did when I was caught up in earlier family mythologies.
For years I’ve looked at the painting as a beautiful and poetic work – which it is. But now the painting also says something different to me. I don’t normally read meaning into an artist’s work (especially my own father’s), and yet I can’t help but see sorrow in this painting when I look at it.
My sister and I are featured in the almost life-size painting. I am 7 years old and she is 12. We are wearing beautiful old dresses that my mother bought at the Salvation Army. The hat I am wearing was made by my paternal grandmother for my mother.
In the painting, I stand facing the viewer holding an old baby doll. The doll’s name was Billy and he belonged to my mother (and her sisters) back in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Its head and hands were made of a composite of saw dust and glue and were finely crafted to look real. I particularly liked his little hands because they were the little chubby fists of a young baby. The body and arms and legs and feet were made of cotton and stuffed with something heavy (probably sawdust or sand), and when you held the doll it felt weighted like a real baby. Billy felt solid and warm.
I remember that my mother found Billy in the attic to give to me because I’d been whining and complaining that I wanted an antique doll. Both my sister and older cousin had inherited beautiful bisque dolls with long ringlets and silky dresses, and I was jealous.
So my mother found Billy and gave him to me to play with, and even though the doll had some awful cracks in its head I loved him and played with him far more than I did with my own little baby doll that I’d had for years.
I suppose that my father saw me with the doll and saw something more in it than I did.
The doll, in retrospect, was very grim and looked like something you might see in a horror movie today. The head had deep fissures with curled edges; some of his fingers were broken off; the surface was peeling; the back of his head had a hole in it; and only one eye still opened and shut.
I see now that the broken and damaged baby doll could be viewed as a kind of Memento Mori – a brutal reminder of death set in stark contrast to the clear beauty and innocence of childhood.
I see that the children are dressing up to pretend to be adults; longing to be older and yet not understanding the consequences of age.
And I see that the darkness of the background surrounds and isolates the girls and emphasizes their vulnerability.
Even my own face is more meaningful to me now – the gaze of this 7 year old is direct and unflinching; the expression somber. I look less like a child and more like a sad, world weary grown up.
And why does my sister stand apart from me and look off to the side? Is it that at 12 she is ready to leave childhood behind?
Something even more troubling to me is the knowledge that my parents lost their third baby when I was small – it was full term and was born dead. Does this painting somehow echo that grief that I know my mother never recovered from…
My father painted Dress Ups in 1967 not long after his first solo show in New York City failed, and not long after leaving the safety of Time Magazine with all its perks and prestige. It was well into his years of depression and paranoia.
I don’t think its a stretch to say that Dress Ups reveals a deeper, darker meditation on life and death than I ever wanted to see before.