A Visual Analysis of Albright's 'Into This World There Came a Soul Called Ida'
When one encounters Ivan Albright's Into This World Came A Soul Called Ida, their initial reaction might be one of disgust. The portrait, a woman sitting on a chair at a vanity contemplating her reflection in a hand mirror, suggests the inevitable process of aging. The woman, Ida, is dressed in a style which for the time, the late 1920's, would have been deemed as risqué. She is dressed in an open silk over shirt covering a slip type undergarment which reveals she has no restriction in the form of a brassiere. Her patchwork skirt exposes a prodigious amount of her thigh lending to the presumption that Ida is a woman of loose morals.
Aside from Ida, the other entity in the portrait is the vanity she sits before. Upon the vanity sits a vase with flowers, and two crystal jars placed atop lace matting. In the forefront sit a comb, folded money, a container for her face powder, a lit cigarette, and a burnt match. The floor of the room she is in consists of worn and torn carpeting well past its prime, and littered with a variety of debris.
Albright uses Ida as a metaphor for life lending itself to death. She sits in a meager room, surrounded by her creature comforts, while in the background nothingness prevails. He paints the room to be almost at an angle pointing downward, slipping off into some mysterious abyss. While all is slipping away, Ida contemplates herself in the hand mirror with vacant eyes. The reflection she is met with is the inevitability of death, as that reflection has all the semblance of a corpse. While one hand powders her breast in an effort to preserve herself, the index finger on the hand holding the mirror intentionally points upwards toward heaven indicating that between the nothingness in the past behind her, or the abyss she is slipping into, she would prefer the alternative of heaven, should it present itself.
Ida sees herself as dead and clinging to life. Albright expresses this by painting her as a corpse in decomposition. The brightest colors he uses are red, blue and purple. Ida's skin is the color of death; it is ashen and pallid representing her very existence. “In religious symbolism, the color purple reflects pain and suffering” (Kohl), which is represented in Ida's blouse and gives the impression of a funeral bunting. “Red is Representative of fire and blood” (Kohl), which is only evident in patches on her skirt of “blue representing truth” (Kohl), and the worn carpet, as well as the powder puff she holds to her heart... The mirror she holds is black representing the death she sees in its reflection.
While everything else in the painting seems to signify death, or doom, the choice of lighting is interesting. It seems to be coming from above, although not from an electrical source, but from the heavens giving her image a certain aura about her which might signify the possibility of redemption or salvation. The lighting also draws Ida out towards the viewer in a sort of reverse perspective letting the viewer know that this is the main subject here at hand.
As Ida sits and contemplates her fate, behind her sit her life's simple comforts. This can also act as an anthropological biography of the woman herself. The three things closest to her are her cosmetic case, her comb, and her money. The comb and cosmetic case are indicative of her vain attempts at recapturing her youth and beauty, while the money represents the produce of those assets as indicated by its reflection on the compacts case.
On the left of the vanity sit a burnt out match and a smoldering cigarette. Her lipstick is on the cigarette giving it the identity of being hers. The match is the fire that lit that cigarette, now extinguished, as she feels her life is soon to be as well through her own neglect as represented by the cigarette forgotten and burning away into the wood of the vanity. In the background on the vanity sit three pieces of crystal, one vase with flowers, and two empty jars. Some superstitious beliefs relate crystal to having healing, calming, and aura cleansing powers. One can not be sure if it was Albright's intention to bring out any significance in this, or whether he just wanted to fill space with something.
In Guy Hubbard's Discussion of Ivan Albright's, Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, he states, “Albright's approach to painting was unique and so were his interpretations of his subjects and the objects surrounding them. He transformed whatever he saw in front of him into something quite different on canvas. He painted people and objects to suit his own thoughts and sometimes he altered them into what he wanted them to be. But he never put on canvas what he saw in front of him. His models and the objects surrounding them were there only as a point of departure for his own ideas. Nothing in his pictures was left to chance. He once wrote that 'Things are nothing. It's what happens to them that matters’” (Hubbard). Given this insight into the artist, one would have to presume that everything is there for a reason.
The two principles that stand out in this work are the texture, and perspective. Albright was known to be very meticulous in his detail. For paint he ground his own colors and used poppy seed oil to mix them, rather then the usual linseed oil. He was known to have used hundreds of different brushes for a project, some with as little as one hair on them for the finest depictions, such as the hair strands on Ida's comb. This is all evident in the texture of everything depicted in the painting, but none so much as the detail he paid to Ida's skin. The bulbous contour of her legs and face depict far more than the effects of aging alone. They in fact show the rotting decomposition ones body is resigned to in death. The layered patterns of the carpet, along with a tear in the fabric beneath the chair she sits on give the carpet a life of its own, defined, yet worn from time and abuse, much like the paintings subject herself. The texture of the vanity behind her is more of a matte. He gives no real definition to the outline of the lower drawers, there was nothing in there of any significance to the subject, but it works as a great backdrop for Ida's leg.
The matte of the vanity, the detailed carpet, empty black backdrop and the eerie feel to the lighting all combine in giving this work its perspective. While the intentional tilt towards the low right tries to lead the eye down and out of the painting, the angles of everything else represented in it draw the eye back in and up, as the main subject, Ida, sits in an unworldly illumination of her own, pulling her out towards the viewers eye.
As I stated earlier, on first impression, Ida might bring a feeling of disgust, although a host of other adjectives come to mind as well: Grotesque, macabre, monstrous, or ghastly just to name a few. But after closer inspection of the work, the inner beauty seeps out. The black backdrop works to bring Ida out to the viewer, as if to ask for forgiveness. The true genius in this work is the fact that Albright was able to take a young and pretty model, transform her into a hideous creation of his own mind, and then bring that creation to life.
The following is an excerpt from Susan S. Weininger's Ivan Albright in Context:
“Albright’s image, on the other hand, does not posit everlasting life. Its pathos is located in the purely human dilemma it depicts. In 1960 the artist explained his interest in death and decay by asserting their legitimacy: "In any part of life you find something either growing or disintegrating. All life is strong and powerful, even in the process of dissolution. For me, beauty is a word without real meaning. But strength and power — they're what I'm after." In the poignancy and silent fortitude of Ida, Albright realized an image whose resonance and impact meet the challenge he set for himself."
Albright's intent was to show life for what it is; the precursor to death. He painted a portrait, not of a woman, but of existence, fleeting, and in its waning stage. He shows the void that is the empty past, the skewed representation of the present, and the reflection of what we all become. As the master of the macabre, he has achieved his purpose at every level, while still being able to leave the viewer with a humorous, though be it dark insight to the artists mind. One can only wonder what might be the outcome if he were to lock Ida and his picture of Dorian Grey alone in the same room overnight.
Hubbard, Guy: Clip & save art notes - Discussion of Ivan Albright's Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, Arts &Activities, Dec, 2002
Kohl, Joyce: Significance of colors.
Weininger, Susan S.: "Ivan Albright in Context," in Ivan Albright, organized by Courtney Graham Donnell, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1997: p. 61: http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/ARTH200/Body/Vanity.html