Visual Art

For 20 years, photographer Polixeni Papapetrou’s images were often inspired by her daughter. A new retrospective of this work explores the tensions between art and motherhood and the shifting boundaries between adult and child. By Kirsten Krauth.

Olympia: Photographs by Polixeni Papapetrou

An installation view of Olympia: Photographs by Polixeni Papapetrou, at NGV Australia.
An installation view of Olympia: Photographs by Polixeni Papapetrou, at NGV Australia.
Credit: Tom Ross

The photographer Polixeni Papapetrou courted controversy, as the most innovative artists often do. Her relationship with her daughter, Olympia, defined and inspired her work, and wandering through a retrospective exhibition of Papapetrou’s photographs at the National Gallery of Victoria, we see Olympia grow up: from chubby baby perched next to a Mona Lisa cushion and glaring at the camera, to naked child in the pose of Lewis Carroll’s Beatrice Hatch, to feisty teenager sporting an “Ask Me Again When I’m Drunk” T-shirt. Throughout these series, which span 20 years of her career, Papapetrou’s photographs have a rare clarity, investigating what it means to be a photographer and mother, the imaginative and playful worlds of children and the cultural expectations of representing innocence.

From the moment Olympia was born, Papapetrou observed that her daughter had something different: a sense of mystery, a rare and compelling gaze that no one else in the family had. While Papapetrou never planned to take photographs of her children, Olympia picked up a toy mask and demanded to be photographed in it, resulting in the Phantomwise series. This joyous and intimate exploration of make-believe incorporates many elements that also define Papapetrou’s later work: masked identities, the shifting boundaries between the self and character or the child and adult, and the way body language and gesture can convey emotion.

From that moment on, Papapetrou saw her work as a site of collaboration with her kids; she also photohraphed her son, Solomon. “It did not come solely from my imagination,” she once explained, “but rather from paying attention to theirs.” In the monograph accompanying the exhibition, Olympia describes peeking into her mother’s studio as a four-year-old, watching the models and begging to be included. She enjoyed being part of the performative space, as Alice (in Wonderland), a sailor or a “Chinaman” on tea boxes: “In my mind I was in Japan one day and the next I was in Turkey, being transported across the world on a black magic carpet.”

The series Dreamchild (2003) and Wonderland (2004) see Olympia taking on the role of Alice in re-created scenes from Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and inhabiting restaged versions of his child portraits. Carroll, whose writing and photography infuse Papapetrou’s imagery, was the pen name of Charles Dodgson, a controversial figure for his photography of children, especially the Liddell sisters and the nude portraits of Beatrice and Evelyn Hatch.

Alice Liddell recalled that before taking a photograph, Dodgson would become caught up in the narrative world of the image about to form, telling a tale to the sisters to lure them into the pose. Similarly, Papapetrou encouraged Olympia to be fully immersed in the storytelling. Papapetrou’s husband, Robert Nelson, painted the Alice in Wonderland backdrops not just behind Olympia in the studio but continued them over the floor, giving them an intense three-dimensional quality that lures us into the frame. In the monograph, he explains: “It was important for Polixeni that her diminutive actors could walk upon the scene, not merely stand in front of it … a miniature world where the performers engage the space with their whole body.”

While Dodgson took a number of photographs of naked children, only four survive; he destroyed negatives and prints. The exploration of transgression and erotic charge – along with innocence and play – lingers in Papapetrou’s imagery. This brought cultural anxieties into focus in 2008 when Art Monthly magazine published a nude portrait of Olympia on the cover. With moral panic surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of Rosie and Jesse McBride and Bill Henson’s images of girls on the cusp of adolescence, the reaction to the Art Monthly cover was not just about how we choose to depict and see naked children but also about the role of mothers as artists.

In 1991, Sally Mann, before publishing her collection Immediate Family, which features images of her children in the nude, took the unusual step of going to the FBI with her photographs, husband and children, and asking: “Are you going to arrest me?” The controversy for both Mann and Papapetrou stemmed in part from an ambivalence about a mother using her children to further her career – were the images erotic and exploitative or just naturally naked bodies moving through a private and closed-in world? In response, as her children became teenagers, Papapetrou turned to masks and costumes, offering them privacy to explore and perform.

In all of the artist’s work, it’s the dissolving line between child and adult, mortality and death, that focuses our attention: the fleeting fragrance of a body unconstrained, swirling in a heightened state for a glancing moment. In her memoir Hold Still, Mann explains her attraction: “Ultimate beauty requires that edge of sweet decay, just as our casually possessed lives are made more precious by a whiff of the abyss.” This edge infuses Papapetrou’s later series in the exhibition, in particular Melancholia (2014), Eden (2016) and MY HEART – still full of her (2018).

The Melancholia series was photographed in a two-day period after Papapetrou received her second cancer diagnosis, when she found out she had two weeks to live. In a direct response to the idea that this would be her last exhibition, she dressed Olympia as a clown with a grotesque mask, inhabiting the poses of sadness: grief, despondency, decrepitude, pathos. As we can’t see Olympia’s face, her heartbreak comes through in the subtle way she positions her body – hands clasped, head angled slightly. Here, the transformative power of the body-in-grief is a reminder of Polly Borland’s Morph series, where Borland searched for the moment her subject Sibylla inhabited the costume completely, when she became the costume. Papapetrou said her interest was always in “people who have transformed their identity, masked it and constructed an alternative one”.

As it turned out, Melancholia was not to be her last series. In Eden, she positioned her daughter as a May queen, celebrating a beautiful girl under the bower of a floral wreath, sheathed in vintage patterns – the bursts of spring in floral tribute and, by implication, a reminder of how fleeting such abundance is. Her final exhibition, MY HEART – still full of her, took place in April 2018, the same month she died. While Papapetrou had been too ill to take photographs, her daughter and husband remember her planning the exhibition in bed, looking through early negatives and pairing her self-portraits from the 1980s with images of her daughter.

At the NGV, this final section in darkness is serene and profound, the glint of images printed on metallic foil making them evasive at first glance. It’s a rare chance to see the artist and her muse side by side, daughter and mother so alike they are almost impossible to tell apart, standing in for one another. Olympia remembers: “As if countenancing her imminent death, she allowed a portrait of me to assume her role, with the confessional title My ghost, 2018.”


Olympia: Photographs by Polixeni Papapetrou is at NGV Australia, Federation Square, until March 29, 2020.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 2, 2019 as "Child rapport".

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