"Portrait of an Amateur Pathologist"
"Myrtle Corbin at the Moulin Rouge"

“One of the things that really drew people to the freak show over the years was the sense of the Other,” says Mundie, sipping strong coffee in the South Philadelphia rowhouse that he shares with his wife, painter Kate Wilcox Mundie CGS’99, and a couple of brooding cats. “There’s a visceral attraction to those things that terrify us. And in the case of human freaks, people continue to be interested because they feel that, ‘But for the grace of God, that could have been me.’ It forces them to confront their own situation, their own humanity.”

Mundie doesn’t actually call them freaks in the Barnum-style poster that introduces the series. His title is Prodigies: Anomalous Humans, and he has set them in an online gallery brimming with Victorian showmanship (http://www.missioncreep.com/mundie/images/index.htm). But in his introduction to the gallery, he makes it clear that he respects the word as much as the people it’s applied to:

“I chose to avoid using the term ‘freak’ outright because its modern usage has many negative connotations; however, note that among performers the term was considered an honorific … The term ‘freak’ itself is merely a shortened form of ‘freak of nature,’ meaning simply that which deviates from the expected—the exception that proves the rule.” Instead, he uses the word prodigy, which “points to the larger historical view of those ‘strange people’: as portent, the exceptional or marvelous thing that inspires fear and wonder.”

“The Golden Age of the freak show was really the Victorian era,” explains Mundie, whose mellifluous voice has a hint of carny showmanship. “Someone like P.T. Barnum, who really took it and changed it. This art form, if you will, this theatrical form that was thousands of years old, he suddenly turned it into show biz, and found a way to market it and really make it popular entertainment. I want to honor his vision and also that era.”

 

In the spirit of the circus or carnival sideshow, where even a three-legged man would be re-invented to appear more interesting, I have created new “histories” for my subjects in which fact and fancy are liberally mingled. The freakshow, with its quasi-religious overtones, has a theatrical heritage of stylized performance and presentation that dates back many centuries. Very often, a great deal of fraud was involved, but this seemed only to delight patrons all the more.—From the introduction to Prodigies.

One might think of Mundie as a Two-Headed Man—half carny-phile, half art-history aesthete. He is almost frighteningly articulate for a young artist, and he portrays his prodigies in exquisitely artful settings—an anonymous Bearded Lady as Vermeer’s “Lacemaker,” for example, or Myrtle Corbin, the Four-Legged Girl from Texas, dancing at the Moulin Rouge in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec. For Mundie, that context is a vital component of the portrait.

“That’s part of the series—my love of certain paintings, their history,” says Mundie, who has taught printmaking and drawing at the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia. “Some think of it as a parody of the painting; I think of it more as an ode, honoring that work.”

When he gets stuck on a particular drawing, he’ll put it aside and start flipping through old monographs and art-history books, letting his subconscious do the walking. Eventually, it reaches its unexpected destination.

“I may find some obscure Renaissance painter that no one’s ever heard of, or a painting I’ve never seen before, but there’s something curious about the sitter’s gesture—or what they’re wearing, or something in the background—that reminds me of a circus performer,” he explains. “It’s like this wonderful puzzle for myself, this challenge to find something to honor both the painting and the person, and bring them together to create something new out of it.”

Given that both art history and sideshows have their own formal conventions and traditions, this “blending of the aesthetic and the macabre is a natural pairing of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture,” Mundie writes—“especially since both appeal to one’s voyeuristic inclinations.”

Mundie’s prodigies are “often grotesque, to be sure,” wrote The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Edward Sozanski, “but they’re also drawn, in pen and ink, with an astonishing facility that in an odd way makes them sympathetic rather than objects of morbid curiosity … By inserting his subjects into historical contexts, Mundie tests his audience’s tolerance for aberration.”

The tolerance does get tested. When asked by the Gazette to assess Mundie’s work, Dr. Christine Poggi, associate professor of art history at Penn, found his introduction “quite disingenuous,” arguing that his portraits are part of a tradition of viewing physical deformities as “signs of mental or physical atavism, moral insanity, and so forth.

“The freaks at carnivals were hardly honored, but cruelly put on display,” Poggi adds. “He appeals to our prurient interest, delights in it, and seems willfully unconcerned about those who bear the burden of being considered anomalous or pathological. There is a long history of this sort of representation. It is not at all innocent.”

Not surprisingly, Mundie doesn’t see it that way.

“I want people to feel challenged by these images and to acknowledge and examine their own reactions, confront their own ideas of beauty,” he says. “Those with a very narrow conception of beauty cannot get beyond the misshapen bodies of my subjects. Are these people not worthy of consideration? Should they be locked away from prying eyes?

“To dismiss the role of performing freaks as ‘decadent’ or ‘prurient’ is to deny history, deny human nature, and deny these people a voice,” Mundie adds. “My portraits may titillate, but they are also undeniably beautiful portrayals of interesting people in an incongruous setting. The drawings should inspire dialogue rather than outrage.”

While he acknowledges that freak shows are viewed as “distasteful” in polite society, he insists that he is not mocking those who have participated in them. “In fact, my portraits honor these people as individuals and performers who played a very specific and stylized role that has been part of human civilization for millennia. Some were coerced and exploited, that is true; but many found the freak show the one place where they could earn a decent living on their own terms and achieve a level of acceptance, if only among their fellow carnies.”

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04

FEATURE:
Freak Love
By Samuel Hughes

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