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Dorian's White

Dorian Allworthy pulled a copy of Moby Dick from her shelf and began to read from page 191:

All was now a frenzy. ‘The White Whale – the White Whale!’ was the cry from captain, mates, and harpooners, who, undeterred by fearful rumours, were all anxious to capture so famous and precious a fish; while the dogged crew eyed askance, and with curses, the appalling beauty of the vast milky mass, that lit up by a horizontal spangling sun, shifted and glistened like a living opal in the blue morning sea.

“What a really good writer,” she said closing the book. “Isn’t he a really good writer?” she asked, as if there were nothing particularly self-evident in calling the author of the great American novel a ‘good writer.’

It’s not unusual to fall a step behind in conversation with Dorian and it had just happened again. I was still puzzling over the passage from Moby Dick, and she was debating herself about Herman Melville’s place in the literary canon.

Stop. All I had asked was why she painted girls in white dresses.

I could see the point of my question evaporating into a mist of obscurity, so (after quickly conceding that Melville was indeed a very good writer) I pressed Dorian for an answer. She rose and walked to her easel, laughing nervously at my insistence. I suspected that she was buying time while she formulated an oblique response or until she had thought of a way to avoid giving any response at all. She extended both hands toward her painting. In it, a sturdy young woman in a white shift and with the pretty face of a barmaid looks up from ironing more white linen (okay, with red stripes). “Why do I paint girls in white dresses?” she posed the question rhetorically, but was still gesturing at the painting as if the ironing barmaid might answer. “What’s with all those girls in white dresses?” she paraphrased, affecting a disdainful tone. “What is with those girls in white dresses?” she asked a third time, picking up a brush, holding its handle to her face for more than a few seconds, then setting it back down again. She finally turned from the easel; I detected a slight shrug. She snatched a bottle of wine from the counter on her way back to where I was seated, and offered me a glass. White, of course.

I already knew the answer that Dorian had deftly concealed in chanting my question three times. At least I thought so then. White can be a surprisingly complex color or non-color as the case may be, and therein lies the root of its complexity. When something is nothing it can be almost anything. In most of the western world, white is the symbol of chastity and purity, which is why we pile mountains of white organdy atop virgin brides (wink, wink), hoping it will protect their virtue at least until the end of the ceremony. But in some parts of Asia, white is symbolic of death.

White is often spoken of as an embodiment of simplicity, innocence, youth, peace, and humility, none of which are contradictory, but they’re not actually synonyms either. White is clinical and precise, like a clean slate, a crisp winter day, or a china cup. But it’s also warm and comfortable, like a down pillow or the look of clouds on a summer afternoon. French laundresses are called blanchisseuses, as if everything they wash is white, or, in the insidious way that our languages ill-define us, as if being white is the same as being clean. White is a blank canvas: beautiful and terrifying.

Dorian Allworthy’s
Girls in white linen
Are never in a hurry
To turn into women.

My first guess was too obvious. I wondered if Dorian’s girls and young women in white could be an expression of feminine virtue – not a euphemism for virginity, but what the word really means: honesty, integrity, and righteousness. She would not have been the first artist to suggest essential goodness by draping the feminine form en blanc. I thought of all those nineteenth-century academic paintings in which women in classicizing robes hold nursing infants in one arm and sheaves of wheat in the other.

I knew that Dorian’s paintings had nothing to say about maternal charity – either literally or as metaphor – but maybe there was a parallel in her symbolic use of white. Perhaps the white dresses worn by her girls and young women were meant to reinforce their youth and innocence, their nobility, their values, virtues, and ideals, qualities that I, as a man, could witness but not truly know, qualities that were intrinsically understandable only to the sisterhood. Nice idea, but no.

Think about it: most of the men in Dorian’s pictures are also wearing white. Think about it more: white appears regularly in her still life subjects too. Does it have some special, suggestive meaning when she is painting lilies or koi or porcelain figurines? It could be just a favorite color or a preferred formal device. Artists are allowed such pets, and she does handle white beautifully. I strolled to Dorian’s easel for another look at the young woman ironing. Yes, those stripes were red.

Fishing for a clue, I reminded Dorian of a conversation we had had about Francisco de Zurbarán’s The Crucifixion (1627) in the Art Institute of Chicago, a painting that we both know well. The Zurbarán is large and dramatic, but it hangs in the same gallery as the museum’s iconic El Greco and far more visitors scurry past it than stop for even a glance. It’s an exceptional picture on any number of levels, but three hundred miles removed from the work, we both remembered the vividness of the white cloth knotted low around the waist and draping to the side of the dying Christ. Zurbaran achieved a startling variety of tones within the otherwise monochromatic whiteness of the holy garment. The same could be said for Dorian, but did she favor white just because she made it look so good? She wasn’t biting.

I was getting no closer to the heart of Dorian’s pictures. Whites blanch across so much of her work; they must be catalysts for meaning, but to what end? The attractive girls and young women in her paintings are often posed in nature or engaged in some silent act of domesticity, such as ironing. Speaking for male voyeurism and the empowered masculine gaze, the forest, la toilet, and even the ironing board are perfectly pleasant places in which to encounter attractive young women in white. But as conveyors of feminine identity, these settings are not without their problematic side.

Even in this (Post-)Feminist era, with all that women have achieved in a century of reform, we continue to live in an age of highly conventional gender identities that seem to grow more deeply engrained with each new generation. Recent self-help literature and at least one enormously popular work of fiction have traded on centuries-old biases that identify women as creatures of instinct and intuition, more attuned than men to the rhythms and cycles of nature.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with listening to nature, except that women are also bearers of intellect, discipline, self-definition, and self-determination, traits that Dorian herself possesses and that the earth-mother paradigm fails to accommodate. Her young women and girls in white simply could not be virgin priestesses, preparing Venus for the arrival of men from Mars. Or maybe they were; I no longer knew. I had wandered hopelessly lost into a blind alley. Dorian was smiling and a bit too smugly.

Dorian Allworthy’s
Girls in white linen
Are in such a hurry
To turn into women.

II should have listened more carefully when she was reading Moby Dick. As I was leaving her house, I realized that the passage from Melville’s novel was the only direct insight she had offered into the meaning of all that white in her work. Once I got home, I opened my own copy of the book, and read well into the night. It had been years since I had covered so much of the novel, and I had not so much forgotten as somehow diminished the degree to which the book is about obsession. And within the very passage that Dorian had read lived the essential conflict that was Ahab’s obsession for the great white whale. Two words summarized and fueled his mad, futile desire and his simultaneous attraction and disgust: “appalling beauty.”

It would be too simplistic to describe all the white linen that dazzles across Dorian’s work as her Moby Dick. She is no Ahab and for her, white is no obsession. But I do think she sees in it the same tremor and frisson of opposites that Ahab saw in his whale. Dorian’s white: the color that is no color; simplicity and complexity; attractiveness and its concealment; form and content, purity and something not quite so. White is Dorian’s “appalling beauty,” capturing loveliness while swaddling it in something less benign.

When I think of Dorian’s paintings, I remember the muscular young woman in a white sleeveless dress, who stands atop a rocky outcrop. Her knees are slightly flexed and her hands are balled into fists. She looks straight out in utter defiance.

I think of the little girl in white standing before a tree, with more linen hanging on a clothesline behind her. She is not intimidated by our presence, and the disarming bluntness of her gaze connects the yard she inhabits to the space that we occupy. A ladder leans against the tree almost waiting for her to climb out of the picture.

I think of the world-weary eyes of the seated little girl, slumped in a chair and wearing the hat of a court jester. She is not amused herself and does not care to be amusing.

And of course, I think of the ironing barmaid, who freezes us in our tracks with nothing more than the flick of her briefest glance. It would seem the singular look of a woman interrupted. But in the barmaid’s charming gaze, surrounded by white linen, Dorian invites us to peer into the terrible eye of Moby Dick.

Kevin Sharp
Director of Visual Arts
Cedarhurst Center for the Arts
Mt. Vernon, Illinois