Albright’s picture, which is on display in the Art Institute of Chicago’s small exhibition of his work, insists that Dorian Gray’s eternally youthful appearance was the least important part of his Faustian pact. The portrait is of an old man, but it is even more of a repulsive one, designed to provoke disgust. In the full-length portrait, Dorian stands with his arms by his side in a pose of mock elegance. Next to and behind him are the accoutrements of traditional portraiture: an elegant side table, a wall clock, a carefully hung brocade curtain. Like his clothes, these objects are rendered incomprehensible by decay. His trousers and jacket are full of burns, slashes, and tears, covered with brown and yellow stains. His face, leering and grimacing directly out of the canvas, is splotchy and noticeably encrusted with what looks like leprosy: small raised bumps cut through with deep furrows.
The premise of Dorian Gray — that moral corruption would manifest as physical decay — seems perfectly aligned with Albright’s concerns, which remained remarkably constant throughout his long career, spanning the mid-’20s until his death in 1983. The painting he produced for MGM is of a piece with almost all of his other work, if more vividly colored (Albright used a brighter than usual palette for the painting to show up to full effect in Technicolor) and perhaps less realistic. Though none of his other subjects have the same renown as Wilde’s fictional character, all of Albright’s portraiture contains the same obsessively rendered detail and, above all, the same relentless fascination with how grotesque the human body can be.
The son of a successful landscape painter, Albright trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and first worked as a professional artist during World War I. Stationed in France, he was commissioned to produce sketches of the injured. A small corner of the exhibit in Chicago is devoted to this first entanglement with the morbid, where the centerfold of one of Albright’s sketchbooks is laid flat behind glass; an iPad allows one to view the rest of the pages and zoom in on the anatomical details. The drawings are largely of single wounds: bright red shapes with highlights of yellow and green, set against much more faintly drawn arms, legs, and torsos. Albright’s first official commission supposedly set the course for the rest of his work, but a world of difference lies between the war sketches and his later paintings. The sketches turn parts of human bodies into objects for observation and study. They are direct: objective, difficult to look at, but entirely straightforward. The portraits Albright started to create are also objectifying: they turn the human figure into something alien and bizarre. They are revolting and seductive.
Even from the small selection of portraits on display in Chicago, one initially has the suspicion that Albright’s disgust with humanity may have favorite targets. Fascinated with corruption, degeneration, and the beauty of decay, Albright’s art — in addition to its strong resemblances to contemporaneous European painting, especially neue Sachlichkeit — picks up on themes favored in writing in a line running from Baudelaire through Lautréamont, Huysmans, and perhaps even Wilde. For Albright, as for the earlier 19th-century writers, women seem, at least initially, to be exemplary disgusting objects.
Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida takes these elements even further. Ida sits in front of a dressing table covered in perfume bottles and makeup jars. Dressed in a short slip and silk shirt, she holds a powder puff in one hand, pressed against her heart, and a hand mirror in the other. Her legs, which almost overwhelm the composition, are an expanse of bright, pale skin. They are swollen, and around the ankles is a network of varicose veins while higher up, heavy cellulite creates strong shadows on her thighs. The insistence on the tools for the creation of feminine beauty seems like an argument that however much powder, perfume, or makeup Ida applies, she will still be fundamentally grotesque.
Albright was hardly unique in his view of women’s bodies. Baudelaire, after all, had described an animal’s carcass (in a poem of the same title) as having its “legs in the air like a lustful woman / who is burning and sweating poisons.” Baudelaire stands as a particularly extreme representative of a tradition of hyperbolic disgust at the body in general and women’s bodies in particular. Note the direction of his metaphor: it not only compares a woman to a prototypically disgusting object, but it also uses women as metaphors for a corpse. Winfried Menninghaus, in the introduction to his 1999 book Disgust, wrote that “[t]his book about disgust is thus, at the same time, a book entirely concerned with the (masculine) imagination of the vetula, of the disgusting old woman.” There are, of course, artists and writers for whom, less ostentatiously than Baudelaire, women are the default choice when one needs an exemplary disgust-object.
This pervasively misogynist perspective seems at first to sum up what is happening in works like Flesh, the 1928 painting that lends its name to the Art Institute’s current show. Its subject, Arline Stanford, is shown head-on, slumped shoulders, wearing a low-cut undershirt that shows a vast expanse of chest and shoulders, puffy and crisscrossed with wrinkles and folds. Her skin is pale, bordering on sallow, rendered by Albright with a muted but kaleidoscopic variety of reds, pinks, yellows, and purples. The face is perhaps the most shocking, covered in the same leprous combination of crust-like scars and deep furrows that Albright would use on Dorian Gray nearly 20 years later. The insistent equivalence between women and the grotesque is only intensified by the fact that a year before Albright painted Arline Stanford in Flesh, he painted her husband Arthur in The Lineman, a relatively calm portrait of an electrician. Arthur is hunched over, arms hanging by his side, bedraggled and depressed, perhaps, but certainly not grotesque or disgusting. Viewing these twin portraits of husband and wife side by side only confirms the suspicion that, even if Albright’s men are hardly heroic figures, women’s bodies are the real objects of his revulsion toward human beings.
Nevertheless, long before he was commissioned to produce the painting for MGM’s Dorian Gray, Albright had turned the full power of his microscopic style onto male subjects, who would become more and more prominent as his career developed. His 1930–’31 And God Created Man in His Own Image (Albright’s titles continued to grow unwieldy over the years) contains the most leprous image next to Dorian Gray’s: heavily wrinkled and completely covered in pustules, scars, lines. For a moment, the complete engulfment of the face by these accretions makes the image appear easier to stomach compared to the more localized eruptions in Flesh and Ida — there is no contrast to “normal” skin. The subject is shirtless; his arms and face are a brownish-red, while the areas of his flesh normally under a shirt are a pale pink-blue. All of it is sagging and wrinkled, with tufts of wiry hairs on his upper arms and chest. This man has, apparently, just taken off his shirt — one sleeve is still attached to his forearm — and the top buttons of his jeans are undone, as though threatening to show more.
Albright might not have managed to decouple bodily disgust from femininity fully. Nevertheless, his disgust is far more expansive than the tradition epitomized by Baudelaire. Indeed, the most striking pieces in the Chicago show are a series of about 20 self-portraits dating from the last two decades of Albright’s life. All are rendered in the same over-detailed, hyper-disgusted style in which he had been working for four decades. In a painting from 1982, the year before his death, Albright depicts himself with his trademark leprous skin, but also with eyes that are at once tiny, deeply sunk, and bloodshot, surrounded by folds of green-yellow skin. His mouth, hanging half open, is chafed red, as is the tip of his nose and the space between his eyebrows.
Viewed while walking by quickly — or indeed, glimpsed a few seconds on screen — all of these pictures are easily digestible, even attractive. The sheer attention Albright paid to detail (which also meant it took him years to finish work) gives the images a baroque complexity; anything that elaborate generates a kind of pleasure. The level of detail in Albright’s execution also demands more prolonged attention, which does not eliminate all pleasure. There is a pleasure, too, in looking at horrible things. Despite his sense of shame, Leontius in Plato’s Republic cannot stop himself from looking at the corpses piled against the walls of Athens. “Fine, you wretches,” he says to his eyes, as a last attempt to disavow his attraction, “fill yourselves up on this lovely sight.” Being in front of many of Albright’s paintings feels similar: they are horrible, but endlessly seductive. Something is improper, perhaps even disrespectful, about them, but always some new detail, another vein, another hair, lump, or sore avails itself to discovery.
Jean Dubuffet, who contributed a brief essay to a catalog of a 1964 retrospective at the Art Institute and the Whitney, took Albright to be a crusader against the Platonic injunction to turn our eyes away:
Rarely, it seems to me, perhaps never, has the platonic and humanistic spirit been opposed with the weight and authority of so devastating a wind. Never has an assault of such force been given to the rationalistic order, to the secular esthetics which rule in our midst and to the metaphysics from which they proceed.
In the same catalog, the curator Frederick Sweet closes his preface by remarking that Albright “does not think that his interests are morbid, nor does he consider himself a realist, but feels that life and death, growth and decay, are all part of existence.” Death exists, of course, but the hope in those lines seems to be that Albright’s portraiture contains, alongside its relentless disgust for the human body, a more redeeming message. Perhaps he is proposing some sort of empathy: that we may age, gain weight, lose or sprout hair, develop leprosy, but that through all of these bodily changes we remain human, and that all of these supposedly disgusting qualities are simply what it means to have a body. As such, they are to be celebrated. If that reading is right, the closest literary antecedent for Albright would not be Baudelaire but Walt Whitman and his celebration of the body: “All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one’s body, male or female, / The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean.”
Dubuffet and Sweet’s sentiment comes to the same point: that Albright’s unwavering attention to the parts of our existence at which we would rather not look forces a confrontation with our embodiment and finitude. Albright’s portraits would seem to offer the visual analogue to the project of anti-disgust advocated most recently and forcefully by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who claims Whitman as a primary source of inspiration. This requires a turn away from thinking of ourselves as detached from our bodies, not to submit to the lure of idealization, to confront the limits but also the peculiar joys of being finite human animals.
As good as that sounds, it is not at all clear that this is what Albright is up to. Albright’s portraits do at times seem caught between a Platonist condemnation of the body tout court and an honest reckoning with the inevitability of decay and the inevitable difficulties entailed by having a body. Albright’s own pronouncements from the 1964 catalog must rank as one of the stranger artist statements produced for a major museum:
In this eternal smog-land of ours, if the real truth appeared, it would blind us, it would incinerate us as the sun would blind and incinerate us on close approach. We are shadows of the real but not the real; we live by half-truths and half facts. […] The body is our tomb. Shake the dust from our soul and maybe there lies the answer for without this planetary body, without eyes the light would not hurt, without flesh the pain would not hurt, without legs our motion might accelerate, without endless restrictions our freedom greater, our slavery less, without examples all around us our originality might be different. Without a body we might be men.
Albright seems at turns revolted by and deeply empathetic with his subjects. Yet even if his portraits demand that we look honestly and hold our gaze, bodies seem to be unambiguously bad things for Albright. If his portraits are filled with empathy for his subjects (which they are), his empathy is based on the shared misfortune of being embodied. The problem, of course, is that we cannot get out of our bodies. Plato thought that we could, through suitable intellectual exercise and purification, leave our physical vessels behind and attain pure understanding. Albright, it must be said, knew better. But on the more basic point of whether it would be preferable not to have a body at all, he agrees. Without finding anything but pain and encumbrance in embodiment, how could he not? Whitman and his successors’ celebration of bodies in all their many forms — including the ones usually called disgusting — ultimately requires that there be something redeeming in having a body, like the physical pleasures of food and sex. Even those who turn toward bodies with disgust do not deny that they are sites of genuine pleasure (indeed, part of the reason they are problematic is because they are so pleasurable), even if they also bring inevitable pains. Albright categorically denies this. For him, there are no benefits to having a body: not in the straightforward sense championed by Whitman and not even lurking in the background of disgust, as it does for Baudelaire. Albright’s painting is so unsettling because his vision of bodily corruption is uncompromising. Whatever else it is, it is a decades-long argument that in the end, it would be better not to have a body.
Elena Comay del Junco is an academic and writer based in New York. She is finishing her PhD in philosophy at the University of Chicago; her academic research focuses on ancient Greek philosophy.