Creamy Psychology - Keep An Eye On The Hands


This year I have had the pleasure of working with Yvonne Todd on the display of some of her costume collection as part of Creamy Psychology. When Robert Leonard first asked me if I would like to curate what he called ‘the frock room’, all I could see in my mind’s eye was Alice Bayke (2002) and her polyester ruffles. The thought of a room full of cheap, flammable polyester made me shudder. Little did I know what was to emerge from Yvonne’s wardrobe.  It was a treat to work with a collection that featured beautiful garments by designers such as Norman Norell, Ungaro and the Hollywood costumier Bob Mackie.

 Alice Bayke 2002

As I wrote about Yvonne’s use of costume in her work, I spent a lot of time intently gazing at her photographs. The more I looked, the more I became distracted and subsequently obsessed by hands. While many of Todd’s female models are famously dead-eyed, their hands are mobile and expressive.  They brought to mind historian Susan Vincent’s observation that:

‘Clenched in anger, pledged in loyalty, extended in friendship, plighted in love and even tied when powerless to act, the hand is busy in the most public, and private of moments’.

2006, a picture of plighted love.

Todd’s portraits are full of busy, telling hands. As such they somewhat unexpectedly, have something in common with 16th and 17th century portraiture  – a genre in which beautiful, pale and articulate hands stand out against bodies lavishly encased in heavy velvets and silk brocades. In this cloth-bound, skin-free world, hands were charged in a way that is difficult for us to grasp in our ‘let it all hang-out’ age. Hands direct the viewer’s eye - pointing, clasping objects of importance, displaying jewellery and status. Todd uses hands in a similar way.

Todd’s most famous hand, perhaps, is that which appears in Menthol 2 (1999) – elegant, pale and slim fingered, it is finished with long acrylic nails, the type that are squared off at the ends. You can almost hear their annoying click, click on the mirrored surface except, perhaps that they could be part of a dead hand...

 Menthol 2 – nails worthy of Carmela Soprano

Of such talon-like nails, Edie Falco, the actress who played Carmela on the hit TV series The Soprano’s recalls:

‘Carmela's nails were a whole thing. She could never really touch anything. There was always this miniscule distance between her and everything in her environment...’

The nails dictated how Carmela held her arms, how she gestured, how to interact with the world. Such nails are the prerogative of women that don’t really need to use their hands, of decorative women.

Female Study Gold 2007

French polished, buffed or with neatly trimmed nails, Todd’s hands clutch, wring, and nervously fidget. While faces appear immobile beneath layers of make-up, knuckles tense, and veins swell. Some hands are bare; others are primly, or sinisterly, gloved. Who is being protected from who? The sitter or us?

 Ethlyn 2005

Hands often hold something – flowers, a sugar cube, an Alcoholics Anonymous Bible (but isn’t she only 12?).  Are they symbols of their undoing? Meanwhile, her men confidently wield signs of their professional selves, glasses; a pen, a navy blazer.  The top of a finger is missing.

Finally, hands, both male and female, find ecstatic release down on the imaginary beach of Seahorsel.

Moon Sap 2012

And then there’s the crumbed hand...

Keep an eye on the hands.

Claire Regnault, Senior Curator History, Te Papa