Steph Goodger: Lusitania

The Abyss, the Abyme and the Proscenium


Just the name RMS Lusitania has a haunting ring to it. This Cunard ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915 and sank within 18 minutes, 11 miles off the Irish coast, killing 1,198 people.  Actually the story is more complex than that, as there was a much debated second explosion which led to the ship sinking so fast.

Intrigued by the story of the Lusitania, I was doing some research and stumbled upon a series of remarkable photographs of the sumptuous, stylish, First Class cabin interiors. The photographs were professionally taken for advertising purposes, evidently before a single passenger had set foot on board. Not one personal item or object of human necessity was visible in any of the rooms. There were no signs of touch or movement, with every bedspread identically folded, every lamp identically positioned and every curtain drawn in exactly the same way.  According to Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, a photograph, in essence, shows us That-Has-Been. These photographs were disturbing for being like an empty stage before the performance.

During the first lock-down last year, I decided to make a series of watercolours based on these photographs, to explore what was so fascinating and disturbing about them. In making this Lusitania series, I became fascinated by the mise en abyme present in a multitude of ways in the photographs.  The repetition of identical cabins, visible through the open doorways, and the reflections in the many mirrors, made it difficult to be sure what was real and what was an illusion of depth and space.

Although these interiors were physically weighty, furnished in polished wood and glass, I wanted the watercolours to have an illusory, ephemeral quality, as if they existed as floating apparitions, without an outside world attached to them, as in a dream.

Abyme or abime, is inherited from Old French abisme, from the Late Latin abyssimus, the superlative of abyssus, meaning ‘bottomless pit’. The term, mise en abyme, literally means, placed into abyss. In Western Art, the term drily describes placing a copy of an image within itself, or inserting a story within a story, suggesting an infinitely recurring sequence. Famous examples of mirrors in paintings, creating the mise en abyme effect, include Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, and Diego Velázquez’ Las Meninas, 1656.

In The Arnolfini Portrait, the mirror is thick, round and heavily decorated. It is a little floating spherical world of its own inside the painting. In it we see the back view of the sitters in a miniature fisheye lens view of the room. We also see ‘l’envers du décor’ behind the scenes of the painting.  We can make out  two or three figures, witnesses to the marriage perhaps, framed in a doorway. This doorway is not to be walked through. The painting has trapped it in the orb of the mirror and it rebounds in reflection for eternity!

Something similar happens in Las Meninas, except that Velázquez has somehow flipped the scene. He has situated himself in the foreground, in the act of making a different painting. Or perhaps creating the painting he is in? We shall never know! The king and queen of Spain, the presumed original sitters for a different painting, are now out the pictorial space. They are still present however  as a reflection in a mirror  behind the artist on the wall. Unlike the subjects of The Arnolfini Portrait, they are facing their reflection, witnessing their mirror image and caught in an infinite moment of rebounding gaze and suspended narrative. Velázquez has turned what was behind the scenes into the subject and turned the subject into a phantasmic image.

‘..Velázquez has arrested a real moment of time long before the invention of the camera…’   EH Gombrich, The Story of Art, (Las Meninas) P. 323

The double meaning of the mis en abyme, placed into abyss, has an eerie significance when you consider the Lusitania’s fate. In the photographs the Lusitania’s First Class cabins appear identical in every disturbing detail. There is something infernal about the very idea of one identical room leading to another and yet another.

‘.. the always rather anxious impression of “going deeper and deeper” into a limitless world..’  Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, chapter Intimate Immensity. P. 185

(He is talking about forests here, but I think the description equally applies to the cabins.)

As well as actual repetition, the cabins are filled with mirrors of all sizes creating a myriad of reflections- long mirrors on wardrobes, mirrors on top of chests of draws, mirrors hung over sinks.  It starts to get confusing as you study the photographs for a while. What is real repetition and what is reflection?   Is that a doorway or the reflection of a doorway in a long mirror? It is disorientating not to be sure.

The mirrored reflections also show us glimpses of the cabin beyond the frame of the photograph. From the vantage point of the photographer, we see the fractured details of what exists behind him, beyond the scope of his vision. The mirrors disrupt the continuity of the image, interjecting random fragments of objects, pieces rebounding around the space. When, as often occurs in the cabin photographs, one mirror is reflected inside another, a dizzying mise en abyme of infinite repetition is created.

‘Let two mirrors reflect each other; then Satan plays his favourite trick and opens here in his way, (as his partner does in lovers’ gazes) the perspective on infinity…’   Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Mirrors chapter,  P. 538

The First Class cabins should have had the best views available, and yet another highly disturbing aspect of the Lusitania photographs is their lack of any view of the outside world. It is as if there is no outside world. Portholes cast what appears to be daylight into the cabins, but we never catch a glimpse of the world beyond.

‘..The way mirrors bring the open expanse, the streets, into the café—this, too, belongs to the interweaving of spaces…’ Benjamin, Mirrors chapter, P. 537

This is never the case, however, in the cabin photographs. There is no respite as the mirrors reflect and re-reflect the fragmented interior details.

‘..If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and an outside, this surface is painful on both sides.’  Bachelard, chapter The Dialectics of Outside and Inside. P. 218

The painful border-line between the inside and the outside of the cabins resembles a passage between worlds-  something like the trauma of birth or the struggle of death. Above and below are another, similar form of border-line. What is bright, ordered and abounding with life above the surface of the water, completely transforms into darkness, chaos and deathly silence, beneath.

Proscenium arches large and small abound within the Lusitania’s First Class cabins. They allude to the sense that these are nothing but stagings. Within these little theatres, the passengers will play out their roles on the stage which has been set for them. Under the illusion of land-lubberly security, they will dine and dance, sleep and dream, in high-class, art nouveau grandeur.

‘Nevertheless, the pomp and the splendor with which commodity producing society surrounds itself, as well as its illusory sense of security, are not immune to dangers…’  Benjamin, chapter, Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century, P.15

The ocean liner was at the apex of the industrial dream in 1915. It was the epitome of power, strength and invulnerability. A phantasmagoria (Benjamin) of power and strength.

‘Every epoch has such a side turned towards dreams, the child’s side.’ Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, P388


To see the images: Lusitania Series


Steph Goodger (b.1974) lives and works between Bordeaux, France and the UK. Steph has been selected for the John Moores Painting Prize three times, in 2020, 2016 and 2004. She has exhibited widely in the UK and internationally. Recently, Steph has exhibited in collaboration with another painter, in two public galleries in the Bordeaux Region of France: Le Pôle Culturel, Lormont (2020) and Le Forum des arts et de la Culture, Talence (2020). She also had a solo exhibition at Christie’s International Real Estate, Bordeaux (2020). In the UK Steph was a judge for the BEEP Painting Prize 2020, run by Elysium Gallery, Swansea. In between lock downs she also took part in the group painting exhibition, Every Day at Terrace Gallery, London. 






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