Defining or even contemplating female subjectivity is a complex undertaking since woman is often positioned as the object. When a woman is photographed she is regularly regarded as a passive body without any control over her own representation. Due to this prevailing notion, it is difficult and even controversial to view the photographed woman in another light.
A Space of Self-Fashioning is an untraditional interpretation of the photographs of Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione (1837-1901). With the exception of a MET exhibition “La Divine Comtesse” and a few academic articles, the estimated 400 photographs of Castiglione have been regulated to the margins of art history. Researchers and historians have dismissed them as “too eccentric and too ambiguous for serious study.” (Apraxine, Pierre. La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000 (11).) Academic articles have considered them no more than a submission to pre-scripted images of femininity.
This thesis challenges a reductive interpretation of the photographs of Castiglione as an account of female narcissism and self-objectification. Instead, I position them as a rich case study for analyzing the photographic self-portrait as a means of identity construction, appropriation of the power of representation, and subjectivity in the formation of femininity. However, this thesis does not deny the self-surveillance that is part, employing Foucault’s concept, of the “technologies of the self” that Castiglione enacts. As both the subject and object of her photographs, Castiglione is both the artist and the work of art; it is on her own body that she self-fashions her image, sexuality, and femininity.