art, lovelife, meaning of life, screen

Hands Solo

read my fingers

Goya’s portraits; palms, fingers and thumbs; getting the yips at the theatre; Carol on the big screen; photos by Saul Leiter; the woman who lost her sparkle; holding hands on a date

At the Goya show downstairs at London’s National Gallery, the Duchess of Alba, Cayetana de Silva,* is dressed in mourning following the demise of her husband several months ago. Her death style is glamorous and bold. She’s wearing a showy, intricate black lace dress, a red sash, and cute shoes. Her dark eyes are small and her complexion is pink and flush.

The Duchess of Alba by Goya, detail - rings on her fingers
the rings don’t lie

While the Duchess is still officially in a state of bereavement, her stance is not grim, not withdrawn, and not meek. Her feet are planted and splayed, her chin is up and out, with her shoulders arranged with maximum confidence. The left hand rests on the hip to confirm the cocksure tone. On a prominently positioned right hand, Alba’s wearing two rings. The ring on the middle finger says ‘Alba’; the one on her index says ‘Goya’. Like ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Boyfriend’.

Alba looks out from the canvas with intent and with something on her mind. (Is she staring at us, the viewer, or is her gaze simply for Goya, her possible lover?) She points at the ground; her elongated index rigid and straight. Our gaze follows the gesture, and if we stay with it, we can just about see that written in the yellow sand near her feet is the date of the painting, 1797, and the words ‘Solo Goya’ – ‘Only Goya’.

The Duchess of Alba by Goya, detail - shoes and Goya's signature
solo Goya

Does Solo Goya merely serve as Goya’s signature? Or perhaps also as a comment on his social rank – it’s only Goya, not like he’s nobility or a cardinal, just the guy with the paintbrushes. Or does this mark indicate a special place in Alba’s heart – Only Goya, Alba loves Goya, just him, and nobody else. What dead husband?

For the nine months following the demise of the Duke, Cayetana de Silva withdrew to the family estate, near Cadiz, and took Goya along. He got a lot of painting done during this period. We don’t know what else happened. 

Two years after these many months in the country, Goya finally completed La Maja – his notorious pair of erotic portraits. There’s La Maja desnuda and La Maja vestida, the nude maja and the maja dressed – like an on/off twin set on Reddit.** The woman holds the same pose in both paintings, nude and clothed, reclining on vast plumptious pillows tossed across a daybed, staring at the viewer with a direct gaze, no apologies, hands raised behind her head to give her breasts extra lift in the perennial nudie style.***


La Maja desnuda and La Maja vestida, by Goya

You might suggest that the model for Maja looks a bit like Alba. But the the art critic Robert Hughes concluded otherwise, spoiling the centuries-old gossip. In researching his biography of Goya, Hughes decided that it isn’t Alba revealing her breasts and pubic hair on canvas after all. In fact the model for one of classic art’s most celebrated erotic performances was probably Pepita Tudó, the secret mistress of the politician Manuel Godoy. (It was Godoy who first commissioned Goya to create the nude Maja for the minister’s private collection.)

Goya, The Portraits, The National Gallery, LondonThe Alba painting is the lead item for the National Gallery show, featuring on the exhibition poster and other promotional materials – possibly even the fridge magnet, although I couldn’t find any in the gift shop. The cost of entrance was sixteen pounds; plus the front desk requested a gallery donation on top; plus they said I should probably put my rucksack in the cloakroom, for which there was an additional charge. How did exhibitions and cinema get so expensive?

I decided against the long queue to store my sack and went into the show, where all the rooms were semi-dark and cram-packed. That’s what the sixteen pounds gets you, a game of masterpiece sardines. 

First I look at the faces on the portraits. I guess we all do this. I haven’t read any reviews of the show, but I’ll assume they refer to the eyes and expressions of the subjects as offering acute psychological insights across the centuries. The flesh tones draw you out towards the subjects’ clothes, to Goya’s brilliance at recreating fabric on canvas. He’s also very dab with jewelled button holes, or the fine detailing of collars, hems and ruffs. 

Some of the early portraits are group compositions where small clusters of people flicker in the background. These shadowy second-tier characters lead the eye off and away from the principal sitter. What are they doing back there, these enigmatic Rosencrantz and Guildensterns? It’s tempting to read more into their presence than is suggested by the composition, that they’ve maybe also been planted and coded for posterity, hanging back there in the half light trying to tell us something across the years.


Count of Floridablanca, Goya
will this do, Count?


In the Count of Floridablanca (1783), Goya puts himself in the picture, front left, presenting the work in progress to his patrician master. It feels modern when painters perform self-referential manoeuvres like this; you don’t expect it from all those years ago – assuming they were too busy in those days with plague and an overbearing God to have fun. 

Masaccio Detail of St. Peter Raising the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned as First Bishop of Antioch, Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria del Carmine, Florence
I’ll be watching you

And yet playful self-consciousness isn’t new at all. A long time before Goya, all the way back to the early 15th century, Masaccio depicted himself staring out from the fresco crowd scene at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. And soon after there was Jan van Eyck’s signature in the Arnolfini Wedding ‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434’.

Goya also shows up in The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón with a palette and brushes.

The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón, Goya
a knowing smile from the late 18th century

But who’s the guy on the right wearing the white headscarf? He’s smiling out at us, so amused about something, but we’ll never know what. Behind laughing guy the drapes are green and brown and shouldn’t really detain us. But the indeterminate backdrops of Goya’s portraits give a kind of soothing pleasure, his variegated colours a space for the gaze to dwell.

Antonia Zarate, 1805-1806 by Francisco Goya
upstaged by my backdrop

The actress Antonia Zarate sits on a yellow sofa, with gloved arms and her mantilla falling down over the shoulders, almost to her elbows. She has a soft, concerned expression and behind her there’s a speckle-brown wall. The backdrop is my favourite part of the painting.

Queen María Luisa Wearing a Mantilla, Goya
I’m the queen

The high-ranking subject for Queen María Luisa Wearing a Mantilla poses with a fan and a pink bow before a wash of grey paint.

Friar Juan Fernández de Rojas, by Goya
you’re handsome

The face of Friar Juan Fernández de Rojas is lit up and contrasted to his black frock and hat, while set against a piebald backing of dark yellow with purple streaks. 


The Count of Cabarrús, by Goya
you need to see me dance

The Count of Cabarrús is surrounded, almost floating in a cloud of dull yellow and green.

It’s no stretch imagining the portraits being pinned for their colours on Pinterest, for designers to re-pin and swatch. The green behind Doña Isabel de Porcel would be a bold statement in your home, day or night. I wonder if interior decorators look to Goya for ideas?

Doña Isabel de Porcel, by Goya
true glamour is timeless

I don’t get time to answer, as suddenly a gruff voice is saying something harsh in my bad ear. A burly security bloke in a blue padded jumper tells me to take the sack off my shoulder.

I knew this would happen. I shamelessly point to a sweet looking old lady standing in front of Luis María de Vallabriga. Her bag’s bigger than mine, I say, and she’s wearing it over her shoulder same as me. Likewise some of the other sweet old ladies in her gang. But the guard insists my sack’s bigger. 

I should just take the compliment and move on. But an ingrained tendency to argue back to authority means I don’t always do the simple thing, preferring to stand my ground, disagreeing from a losing position, my public defeat the inevitable outcome. And so it goes, after we’ve exchanged several words underlining our fundamental difference of opinion as to what constitutes a dangerous rucksack in a public space, the guard asks me to hold the bag in my hand and I sigh, comply, and go to the next room.****

Cardinal Luis Maria de Borbon y Vallabriga
God’s humble servant

This one’s even more densely packed than the last. Except for a space over in the far corner, with an empty spot in front of a portrait of Cardinal Luis Maria de Borbon y Vallabriga. The cardinal is tall and dressed to kill in a red chasuble and coruscating ropes of jewellery. The red chasuble is fierce scarlet, or crimson, maybe carmine. The red reminds me of a blind date back in the summer, when the woman said the roses in Regent’s Park were too bright

I put my bag down between my feet and stare at my hands, and then up at the cardinal, my hands again, and then back to the painting, and I decide after some amount of scrutiny that the cardinal looks like me. Not my twin, not like the minor character that time in NYPD Blue who was my mirror image, but a general ball park resemblance to my younger self.*****

Cardinal Luis holds a prayer book at an angle from his body that looks imminently painful, perhaps to indicate how seriously he takes his religion. He’s not the only one holding a religious book. There are several men clutching breviaries and missals dotted through the six rooms of the exhibition. There’s much holding all round, in fact, with the more worldly males posed with legal or financial documents in their hands, underscoring their line of business, social rank and material wealth.


Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, by Goya
oh Mourinho, why?

Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, government minister for Grace and Justice, takes a break from the fatiguing affairs of state to rest an elbow upon a thick bed of papers, with one document balanced between right thumb and fingers.
Several female sitters hold fans. But the Duchess of Osuna carries a book, maybe to indicate an intellectual equivalence to her husband.

Duke and Duchess of Osuna, by Goya
the family that poses together…

Ferdinand VII, by Goya
…would make an excellent bumbler in a sitcom

Ferdinand VII grasps the sceptre, symbol of sovereignty, wearing a face fit for a career in British TV comedies. While some of the male sitters pose with one hand on the hilt of their sword, suggesting a manly martial readiness, Charles III of Spain is all done up in a hunting costume, clutching onto the business end of a hunting rifle, but actually looking flushed and done-in with all the exertion.

The Dowager Marchioness of Villafranca, by Goya
I know secrets

Doña Antonia Zárate clasps a letter slice. The scary dowager marchioness of Villafranca has a fan between the tiny fingers on her lap. 


Every portrait now, I check the hands. I’ve got hands on the brain. I guess it started almost directly after the guard forced me to carry my bag. But hands in images have always been a detail of interest.

I think my all-time favourite photo of the Annoying Son, is the one taken when he was still at nursery, so many years ago, that I still have in a frame at home. The thing about the photo that always gets me is how he has his little hands placed in front of him perched on a cushion, one on top of the other.

It’s actually not so strange to become fixated on hands, these five digit things dangling in space from the bottom of our arms. It used to happen to me at the theatre during a time when I couldn’t suspend disbelief. I ceased believing in the basic pretence that keeps theatre propped up night after night, and would sit in the stalls waiting for an actor to screw-up their lines, or for something else to go wrong, like a piece of the set collapsing. I remember one night at an Arthur Miller play, a trapdoor opened at the front of the stage, a large gaping black hole, and I sat there gripped by the possibility that one of the actors would forget about the opening and fall in. And what if it was a really deep black hole and the actor died?

Les Main Sales, Jean-Paul Sartre, period jacket cover
a man, a woman, a pistol – it’s an existential cliffhanger

And then one night I went to the Greenwich Theatre and a gun didn’t go off. It was the climax scene to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Dirty Hands, when a key character was supposed to be shot as the culmination of the drama as well as its core themes. It’s where the play had been leading for two and a half hours. Except the pistol failed to sound, leaving the actor Edward Woodward looking lost and a bit silly, momentarily wrenched from his character, uncomfortably stranded between performance and reality.

It is a clear sign of trouble at the theatre if you find yourself looking at the actors’ hands. Hands are often a tell, or reveal, exposing the lesser performer’s limits. The good actor takes all of their body inside the role; while less brilliant actors don’t always appear to know what to do with their dangling mitts, hanging uselessly, but inescapably, at their sides. And each time I found myself fixing upon a performer’s undirected hands, I grew convinced that the actor was worrying about the exact same thing, suffering similar criticial thoughts in their head, fidgeting with their fingers as they waited to say their next line –  clenching, then unclenching a fist, like a panic signal: sort of unintentionally waving, while semi drowning… 

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol, film still
eyes and hands

In the Todd Haynes film Carol, hands feature subtly, but pointedly, as story guides, indicating not only a desire between two women, but a love that cannot be named – because it’s New York in the early 1950s. In the lead-up to Christmas, the older lover (HRH Cate Blanchett) mislays her gloves in the toy section of a department store, buying a train set for her daughter.

The return of the gloves by the sales assistant (a pixie Rooney Mara, far from the kickass punk of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) sets in motion a daring romance that changes lives. The film opens and draws to a conclusion with the same restaurant scene: a pivotal lovers’ meeting where a hand rested on a shoulder signifies so much – not only a yearning, or the danger inherent in forbidden loves, but the risk inherent in love itself, of all the ambivalences and uncertainties that can exist between two people.

The story is from Patricia Highsmith originally, but many of the themes are familiar from the earlier films of Haynes – from Poison to Velvet Goldmine to Far From Heaven. The super-laden depiction of a muffled queerness – and the often contorted sublimations of desire – is a career-long concern of a director who feels at times almost too cerebral for his own films.

Reflections, photo by Saul Leiter
Reflections by Saul Leiter

The lookbook for Carol is partly the 1950s cinematic melodrama (From Sirk to Ray) blended with the urban melancholy of Edward Hopper. But more specifically the blurry New York photography of Saul Leiter is a strong influence. 

Red Umbrella, photograph by Saul Leiter
Red Umbrella by Saul Leiter

The unclear view is a central theme in Leiter’s work. The smudged and only half-seen – what the writer Teju Cole describes as ‘mirrors and glass, shadows and silhouettes, reflection, blur, fog, rain, snow, doors, buses, cars, fedora’ – supports and reinforces Carol’s narrative of hidden desire. In an interview shortly before he died in 2013, Leiter explained the world he saw through his lens: ‘There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden…’

Saul Leiter

The set designs for Carol feel dense and weighted, and it takes nearly two hours and many months of narrative time for someone to say I Love You; really say it, out loud. And it is within the screaming absence of these forbidden words, that the erotics of hands are deployed as both desiring and poignant.


Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Todd Haynes at a Cannes photo call 2015
the hands of Mara and Blanchett with director Todd Haynes, Cannes 2015

Hands can be conduits for desire, sometimes objects of desire, and also a means by which we express our passion. Putting your fingers in a lover’s mouth, one or two delicate, sensitive digits (digits which also perform all the basic handwork that gets us through the daily grind), can seem more intimate than coitus. When a finger is used in this way, in a love scene on TV or at the cinema, it’s often deployed as foreplay, but it can seem like a lot, almost a crossing of a significant boundary – like everything, or sometimes maybe too much.

Vela (Ex No2) once nursed in a backwoods community in her home country. She looked after old people in a poorly-resourced rural hospital and told me something I’d like to forget, but haven’t (so, I’ll pass it along). That seniors, like heroin addicts, often suffer with constipation, and the hard-pressed hospital often left the residents to deal with the problem by themselves, fixing it as best they could. Vela said a lot of the older patients had brown, yellow stains on their fingers.

‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’

Yeah, I understood. Maybe that’s the kind of indignity the woman who lost her sparkle didn’t want to stick around for, preferring to die instead. 

The Sparkle Woman’s story came out in mid winter: in south London, a failed suicide bid following a breast cancer diagnosis had left a 50-year-old woman dependent on life-saving dialysis for the rest of her days. At this point, the reportedly beautiful woman – who’d lived a full, amorous, glamorous, luxury life – decided she had reached the bottom of the pit and declined the necessary treatment. Feeling that she had lost her allure through age and illness, she elected not to go on living. The hospital responsible for her care took legal action to impose the dialysis against the patient’s wishes. The judge, however, backed the woman and shortly she died.

Down in the pit, if you ever go there, it’s dark and you can’t see well. And so it can be hard to make out an exit, to see a possible turnaround ever happening again in your life. That’s darkness for you. In discussing his times with depression, the writer Matt Haig remembers the extra emotional dismay that can rise up around Christmas: ‘It could intensify what depression already, to some extent, made you feel: that the world was having fun while you definitely weren’t. Christmas intensifies… the contrast between light and shade. The light around you seems brighter, so the dark feels darker.’

In a similar thread of finding trouble in the dark, the writer Matthew Spender’s A House in St John’s Wood, a biography of his famous parents, sees the inquisitive writer-son unearthing his mother’s private journal after her death. Before bed, Natasha Spender lays it all out in her journal, her confused feelings concerning the convoluted state of her marriage stripped bare: ‘Her harshest entries were written late at night, but in the morning she found her angry emotions had vanished. Her waking self was devoted to the image that their marriage was strong. Natasha at three in the morning was an entirely different person from Natasha at breakfast. She asked herself: are the late night entries the faithful ones, or those I write during the day?’ 

Lou Reed Coney Island Baby - original LP cover
something like a circus or a sewer

We’re often a different person late at night – ‘all alone and lonely/ in your midnight hour’, as Lou Reed once sang (or drawled). But the trial is not these fissures of the self, but simply the downward spiralling that may occur when the darker version of us takes charge. This is when you must get the light back, somehow.

Because life does go round, it can come back bright again. And then you find yourself ready to go once more, to try anew, to perhaps fall better this time… 

…In a canteen restaurant in a London art centre, my hands are stretched out across the table, held in the palms of a new lover. She’s talking to me about intellectual, but also romantic stuff. She’s talking, and I’m listening, and I am thoroughly present in the moment. But I am also very aware of my hands in a similar way to all the hand-tormented actors of the stage. Our two pairs join us together – bridging the space between. But what kind of shape are my hands in? Are they possibly too hot; worse, clammy? Are there bumps or snags in the palms, on the knuckles, or around the nails? I don’t think so. I think my hands are ok. But should I let go now we’ve been holding a while? Is the first to release to be seen as the least passionate or less interested? 

I’m over-thinking it. And am no clearer as to how you stop over-thinking it. We’re holding hands and it’s lovely, and meaningful, but just like when I recklessly think I can carry two mugs of coffee into the next room without any bother, my brain has now decided that because both hands are occupied, my nose is suddenly very itchy. Insanely itchy.  

How do you kick these thoughts away? I decide I’m not going to submit to this self-sabotaging tripping me up all the time and just keep holding on. Only to simultaneously devise a workaround compromise by releasing one of her hands to tackle my nose, which it turns out wasn’t really so itchy after all. This is the same brain that keeps on telling me to go to the toilet, when I’d rather spend a little longer with this woman who has to rush and catch her train in a few minutes. 

I could just dismiss this nagging thought of the toilet, dismiss any thinking whatsoever, and just reach out and touch her on the cheek. With one of my hands.  

A woman's hands


And that’s all for 2015.

 * The Duchess of Alba’s full name goes like this: Doña María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva Álvarez de Toledo y Silva Bazán, décimo tercera duquesa de Alba de Tormes, décima primera duquesa de Huéscar, sexta duquesa de Montoro, octava condesa-duquesa de Olivares, décimo primera marquesa del Carpio, décimo tercera marquesa de Coria, novena marquesa de Eliche, décimo segunda marquesa de Villanueva del Río, sexta marquesa de Tarazona, marquesa de Flechilla y Jarandilla, décimo primera condesa de Monterrey, décimo cuarta condesa de Lerín, décimo tercera condesa de Oropesa, décimo cuarta Condestablesa de Navarra, décimo segunda condesa de Galve, décimo cuarta condesa de Osorno, de jure duquesa de Galisteo, décimo primera condesa de Ayala, novena condesa de Fuentes de Valdepero, condesa de Alcaudete, condesa de Deleitosa, señora del estado de Valdecorneja, señora de las baronías de Dicastillo, San Martín, Curton y Guissens

 ** I’m not linking to a Reddit on/off twin set

 *** Maja means bohemian wild thing – an actual social type, but also perhaps a fantasy ideal of a rebel outcast

 **** Maybe this habit for disagreeing with public officials is a reaction to growing up with an authoritarian parent; one who also, perversely, encouraged us to talk back to power. Inevitably it’s about five paintings later that the spirit of the stairs arrives in my brain and I realise that what I should’ve actually said to the guard was that if there weren’t so many of us packed into the room, if the gallery wasn’t so set upon gouging out maximum profit, then there’d be no problem, that Goya wouldn’t feel like Oxford Circus Tube at rush hour, and I could wear my sack on my shoulder, the way I like it. 

 ***** Does the Cardinal really look like me, or am I imagining it? Is there a medical condition for regularly seeing your double in culture, up  on screen or in paintings? Or does it just fall under the broader category of infantile narcissism?