In front of Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs, an older woman is pinching a younger woman’s right nipple. Another woman is photographing them. The women are clothed. They are obviously imitating the painting but it is unclear if they’re culture jamming or creating a memorable moment for themselves. Other gallery-goers wanting to study the painting hold back, wondering, disturbed, intrigued. Some wish the women were naked like the two foregrounded women in the painting taking a bath, washing down whiteness with the king’s blessing.

Maybe it’s a superstitious act around pregnancy. Maybe it’s mother and daughter performing an ironic ritual. Maybe they are not biologically related – maybe they are lovers. Maybe it’s a dynamic we aren’t imaginative enough to envisage or configure. The variables that can be viewed so coolly outside the frame, and so vulnerably within. A complex array of feelings, beliefs, circumstances and the moment itself. And we are too easily forgetting the photographer, who is clearly working with sympathy and understanding. They are all close, surely?

This is happening slow and fast. In real time we don’t have much choice but to jump to conclusions, make judgements, cast aspersions. For instance, to conclude that none of these people are who we might assume them to be. Not on any level. They are unearthly. They are learning by imitation. They are learning by subtly observing the response of bystanders to their simulacrum. The leering excitement in one observer’s eyes brings a stimulation that flows through the pinched and the pincher’s beings; the judgemental disgust of another observer brings a sense of dread and embarrassment in the next instant. As bystanders gather, the flux of sensations grows until their beings can no longer sustain the load and the picture is broken. The older woman stares at the younger woman, her fingers now separated from the fabric, the nipple. The photographer doesn’t move. The bystanders are whispering loudly, excitedly, in many languages.

There are issues of power. A bystander pushes past the photographer, breaks the line of vision, the shaky fourth wall, forces between the two women close to the painting, examines the faces then the nipples of the women in the portrait. The older woman and the younger woman are unearthly sisters? Studying a stream of old-fashioned negatives is the third woman, the photographer, inserted into the background. Behind her, the very idea of art, of display, of publicity. Or a contemplative moment. A backdrop to concentrating on the task to hand. The painting within the painting, the casual (work) versus the pose (work).

The loss of sensation in a nipple. The bringing back into focus through a public moment. The photograph that creates removal. Love. The unearthly beings are absorbing these factors in nanoseconds. They turn and look at the bystanders in wonder and they smile at the camera.

Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs was not their first choice. In fact, many other artworks had appealed to them over their years of wandering. The works of Georgia O’Keeffe kept them transfixed for years. They hoped to give birth to new O’Keeffe images but they couldn’t create anything but repetitions of themselves. They fed on scant desert landscape vegetation. They did not want to make more examples of themselves, even though they treated the outcomes with a distant love and respect, projected themselves into the conditions of alienation that seemed always to separate real life from the imagination, creativity from productivity. The codes of power that were inlaid into artworks to serve wealthy patrons were anathema to them, especially when time separated the cause and the effect. Art loses its moment so quickly.

But… they were fascinated with nipples. Nipples in all configurations. Nipples on any gender, any creature. Extraneous nipples, animal nipples, nipple-like mimicries in othered nature. The idea of feeding and just being, of the vestigial and the decorative. Of sensation and loss of sensation. Nerves and glands. Secretions. Privacy, vulnerability, social norms and exposure. At peace with one’s body. Had they been artists themselves, they would have painted nipples in ways that no human artist had envisaged. They saw a play where people were costumed as nipples of all different forms and configurations. They filmed it. The photographer was not fixed… the role shifted between the three of them. They would return to Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs and switch roles. Maybe they would find a way in after closing, avoiding alarms... They never perceived their performance as being true art in itself. Just a process towards understanding.

After each birth, it troubled them that their offspring could not be fed by the three of them… either through their own imagined nipples or via a prosthetic. But after the egg stage, the larvae emerged ready to feed and look after themselves. Sometimes they even skipped the pupa stage and went straight to adult – they didn’t need adults to become adults… they didn’t need nipples at any stage. They could not even derive pleasure or desire or a sense of who they were through how they related (or didn’t) to nipples. They could only see them in paintings and imitate them, wear them on the bodies they created to socially fit in, observe, understand, critique.

In a world so reliant on insects, humans seemed either indifferent or to loathe them. The extinction of an insect was barely registered. The achievement of any insect swarm or individual was unnoticed or negated. The art of insects – nests, markings, dances – were reduced to scientific curiosity or something to imitate in artworks.

But away from the artist’s intentions and obligations in painting Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs, there was a truth. Nipples stand for so much more than nipples, and an insect landing on the protective glass is an irritant the subjects of the painting won’t notice in the world they are shaped into. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "Nipples".

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