Paula Modersohn-Becker’s ‘Curious’ Self Portrait

Paula Modersohn-Becker executed many self portraits during the year 1906 when she was having an extended stay in Paris. This was a decisive year for her because her husband Otto, living back home in the Worpswede artist’s colony in Northern Germany, was pressurizing her to return home and have children (their marriage remained so far unconsummated). Torn between her art and the demands of wife-hood, she was wondering what life would be like if she did have a child. Would she able to work with a baby? Many women artists managed this, but Paula was a ‘whole-hearted’ character and no doubt would have not wanted to compromise and juggle both. Her friend the sculptor Clara Westhoff had written that motherhood was important to Paula and that she believed one couldn’t be a ‘full’ woman without having given birth. The numerous tender depictions of mother and children in her oeuvre reinforce this.
In her intriguing Self Portrait of 1906 she looks as though pregnant – in fact she wasn’t, though it was painted on her sixth wedding anniversary. (Interestingly she did a self portrait with a bridal veil in the same year (above). She looks out at the viewer with large innocent eyes and a listening, quizzical expression, as if to ask ‘What would it mean for me if I were to bear a child?’ She cups the growing belly with great love, so we know it’s important to her. (There are similarities to a painting of a young girl attentively holding a small vase of budding flowers painted a year later, which could be seen as a kind of self portrait (above). Her pale form merges with the similarly coloured, rather grubby-looking background as though she is asking whether in motherhood her individuality would be lost. She wears her bold amber necklace with pride – a statement perhaps of her ‘earth mother’ status. Her tanned face and right hand also emphasize her connection to the sun, to nature.
The portrait is an endearing one, as it is both bold and fragile (it’s thought to be the first self portrait of a woman artist naked). The sketchy, pale left hand resting lightly on her navel which appears unfinished, echoes the open-ended nature of the work. We the audience are deeply involved in her quest for self and it seems only complete through our response to it. Ironically and tragically, Becker died the following year, only a few days after giving birth to her daughter.

‘Behind the Mask’: Part 2

The concept of the mask is another motif which frequently occurs in women’s photographic portraiture. The French writer Claude Cahun was the first to exploit its possibilities to disguise her true identity. But what is true identity? She was born a female (Lucy Schwob), but changed her name to ‘Claude’ as it used by both men and women in France. She considered herself to be ‘gender neutral’. She took self portraits with the help of her step-sister partner Marcel Moore (these weren’t intended for public display), in which they set out to confuse the viewer and deliberately elude gender specification. She is refusing to be categorized. In the ‘Self Portrait against a Quilt'(at start of Post), she wears a mask so that her eyes are obscured and the viewer can’t return her gaze. In this way she rebels against the tradition of female as object for the delectation of the viewer. Her arms held up against her chest emphasize her inaccessibility.
In a purposeful imitation of Cahun’s self portrait as a burlesque performer, ‘Don’t Kiss me I’m in Training’, Gillian Wearing, a contemporary artist and formerly one of the YBA’s, sets herself up in the same guise but dangles a mask from a rod echoing a device in a second Cahun image (above). This is a rather obvious rendition of Cahun’s statement:‘Behind the mask, another mask’. Cahun was brilliant at the subtle manipulation of her identity – unfortunately her photographic followers were not so adept.
Cindy Sherman takes photos in series wherein she features in different disguises. She is totally at the centre of her own masquerade designing, directing, styling herself in her works, which aren’t so much self portraits as ‘tableaux’. They seek to overturn female stereotypes. Her first b & w series ‘Film Stills’ worked well, but in subsequent series her premise seems worn out. In her ‘Clown Series’ she employs the bright colours of Pop Art and commercialization to completely hide herself. As she says, though she is the star of her work, she is anonymous within it. However, compared to Cahun’s imaginative imagery achieved with a cheap camera, her work seems cheap – and all too obvious.

‘Behind the Mask’: Part 1

Julia Margaret Cameron, born in India, was a natural photographer, though she took it up late in life. In her short lived career of 11 years she produced some moving portraits and ‘tableaux’. Her depictions of her niece Julia Jackson (mother of Virginia Woolf) with long flowing hair and unmade looks, could have been taken in the sixties, it is so free and natural. She took to the camera like a duck to water. As she said ‘Photography was like water to my parched lips’. Heavily criticized for her inclusion of imperfections such as blurs and out of focus, she was nevertheless much appreciated by the radical Pre-Raphaelites with whose romantic style she ha much in common. And they loved long loose hair too! Half in shadow, half in light, Julia’s face expresses two sides of her personality long before the advent of Freud and psychoanalysis. Cameron also had a penchant for dressing folk up in Medieval guise to form literary tableaux (see above, Lancelot and Guinevere).
Subsequent women photographers have developed both concepts – that of the disguise and of the two personas. Surrealists such as Kati Horna and Dora Maar (above), have both made the message more overt. The Surrealists of course were obsessed with the idea of the subconscious, irrational part of the psyche in which dwells the dream-life and imagination. This is the dark side. Interesting that Cameron as early at the late 19th century preempts this. And in a way the Pre-Raphaelites who she was closely involved with, did too. They often depicted sleepy young women in a reverie, suggesting their dreams were of more value than their conscious life. These are the very beginnings of Surrealism.

‘TWIN GWEN’ No. 2

As I mentioned in the previous post, Gwen John didn’t look after herself well. She ate little and lived in poverty for much of her life. Her attic room (high up therefore cheap), in Montparnasse is simply furnished, if not sparse. Whilst she lived there she was working as an artist’s model for Rodin, so this space is not principally a working one. Executed in her characteristic muted palette with ghost-like transparency, there is a feeling that the artist is both here and not here. The empty chair, reminiscent of Van Gogh’s famous yellow seat, suggests both her presence and her absence. The two images in my opinion should be ‘read’ together like the previous ones. Painted around the same time, we see John’s characteristic use of a template, but with significant differences. In the left image there is a bowl of flowers on the simple pine table and a coat and parasol rest on the wicker chair. These features together with the delicate muslin curtain and the warm pink glow, suggest femininity and quietness. The closed window suggests a separation from the busy metropolitan world of Paris – a separation typical for a middle class woman of this period who would have been expected to be chaperoned in public. In the image on the right, the window is open, there is no parasol and a book is open on the table in place of flowers. The coloration is more blue and colder. It is tempting to see here an expression of a more extrovert and ‘masculine’ intellectual identity. The two together could represent a kind of ‘Ying and Yang’ – an introvert and extrovert self.
Though apparently tentative and quiet, both works are actually powerfully expressive. One feels these almost empty spaces could be the venue for something important to happen – an original thought or feeling perhaps?. They are also highly personal, speaking not only of John’s living accommodation but of her inner self. The unusual composition with the slant of the window recess, the slight tilt of the wall line, the simple blocks of building across the street and the strong contrast of light and shade, render them iconic. Once seen, they are never forgotten.

‘TWIN GWEN’ – No.1

Gwen John regularly executed several versions of the same composition (incidentally, she won a prize for composition at The Slade, where she trained). Here and in the next blog I’m going to examine two versions of a nude girl and two versions of her room in Paris. Though similar in so many ways, there are strong differences between each version which could be thought to express two different personalities or ‘sides’ to the artist.
We know that John was a conflicted person, having both a passionate nature (she formed extremely close attachments to those she fell in love with, including Rodin) and a retiring, reserved, bookish side. These two aspects can be discerned in her self portraits (shown as opening images here and in the next post). The earlier Self Portrait dating from c.1899 (shown here) shows her as a governess-type – upright, proper and rather superior. Yet with reddened lips and hand on hip something else comes through – she’s an intriguing combination of flamboyance and reserve: commanding yet at the same time withdrawn. We see the same dichotomy in her later self portrait of 1902 where she appears more humble and modest – yet her domineering crimson blouse speaks of passion, and her ‘artist’s cameo’ brooch, of bohemianism.
Her dual portrayal of her friend (though not a bosom buddy- there was some antagonism between them), forms almost a diptych – to my mind they should be hinged together. Both are sinister in their own way. Clothed she is nevertheless vulnerable and possible prey – her exposed neck and shoulders (bare – no necklace), speak of sexual availability as does her left hand suggestively cupped by her intimate parts. The deep shadow behind her gives a sense of the ominous displacement. In her eyes there is a sort of fear or apprehension. She hasn’t yet been taken but she is probably about to be. The companion painting shows her naked – a cloth barely covers her womanhood, and she wears a necklace upon which hangs a single pearl – perhaps a symbol of a lost purity? Her hair is slightly dishevelled and the fear in her eyes is transformed into a leery knowingness. Her left hand though still cupped, has dropped as has her whole body posture. Is this an image of post-coitus? In both images the sloping shoulders and emaciated figures suggest loss and deprivation.
We know that Gwen John neglected herself – she neither ate nor exercised properly (her brother Augustus complained about this). She also often used her models as a kind of replica of herself. Looking at these two sister images (a ‘before and after’?), one feels disheartened and depressed. These are powerfully realistic images, far more disturbing than Munch’s ‘Puberty’ of 1895. Is this what love and sexuality were for John? If so, it’s not surprising she became a Catholic!

‘Coke and Industry’

Joseph Wright of Derby was an unusual and eclectic artist. You only have to glance at his Self Portrait as a Young Man (above) to realize he was a bit different. He is most famous for his candlelit paintings of scientific experiments, the best known being ‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’. In this he emphasizes the concentration involved in scientific research, as well as its importance to the whole of society (expressed in the broad range of participants). The powerful use of chiarascuro (contrast between strong light and shadow), greatly heightens the intensity. The same is achieved in ‘The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone’. The latter is more mythological than historical but demonstrates the extreme drive in the Industrial Revolution to transform ordinary materials into tangible wealth.
Wright mixed with the leading industrialists of his day, including members of the Lunar Society (so-called because they met at full moons in order to more easily find their way home!) This group of intellectuals and innovative thinkers also laughingly referred to themselves as ‘lunar-ticks’. Yet though so involved with science and industry, Wright also executed some more romantic works for the Upper Classes.
Several of these are outdoor portraits. Sir Brooke Boothby lies nonchalantly by a spring dreaming about Rousseau and the Cokes casually discuss a garden design. These more intimate, relaxed portraits are descended from the Rococo style in France in which the gentry are shown pursuing leisurely activities in a rather romanticized fashion. In the latter work of 1782, Daniel Coke (who was an MP for Derby and was known for his good looks), is the stable point, shown studying a plan for his garden in Derbyshire whilst his distant cousin the Rev.D’Ewes Coke and his wife give a lending hand – an unusual ‘conversation piece’. Its simple pyramidal composition and clever rhythmic flow, give it an easy elegance. And yet it breaks the mould by having the point of focus outwith the composition to the left where the planned garden presumably lies. Another great portraitist of the age, the German Johan Zoffany, often portrayed family groups outdoors in unexpected compositional formats such as this. (Note also the umbrella lying on the table. The first light weight folding umbrella was invented in 1710 – this could be an early example in art).
The ever versatile Wright also excelled at romantic landscapes, particularly of the moonlit variety. SEE NEXT BLOG.

‘Not so Black and White’: 2

At first sight the beautiful, elegant and nobly attired black woman appears not much different from any other lady sitter – apart from the colour of her skin that is. Benoist enjoys painting its dark, sumptuous tones and contrasting them with the white cloth. She is perhaps showing off her skill to the Salon audience and critics, demonstrating that she can excel at something unusual, even as a woman. We may think the bare breast is a symbol of the ‘noble savage’- that only the African woman can be natural enough to reveal. Yet many portraits show European nobles with a breast exposed – it was a sign of virtue (would you believe it?) and also of abundance and fertility. But is there another possible implication here? The Amazon warriors were purported to have removed one breast to ease their arrow shooting. Is there a reference perhaps to a fighting spirit? Or is it exposed for the delectation of the male viewer? Certainly it is emphasized by the powerful hand and scrap of bright red, placed beneath it.
Some scholars think that the artist admired her sitter (who was probably the servant of her brother-in-law), and envied her greater freedom – freedom from social etiquette that is, not personal freedom, of which she would have had little. It is notable that Benoist ended her painting career when her lawyer husband gained a prestigious post in the conservative Bourbon government. Women in 18th century France were often compared to slaves in feminist tracts – their bodies and property belonged to their husbands.
It is easy for us to romanticize this ‘exotic’ black lady. She looks so noble and dignified. The simplified Neo-Classical style renders her somehow important. But how did she feel, being requested to sit for a portrait by a privileged white superior? Did she enjoy sitting for it? Did she see it as part of her duty? Was she paid to be a model? Or did she sympathize with Benosit’s agenda, which may have been to promote white womens’ freedoms along with those of African slaves? This was the age of anti-slavery and in 1794, slavery was abolished in the French colonies (though later re-introduced). Benoist was involved in politics due to her family connections. She also had feminist inclinations and late in life started an art school for women.
The portrait received a mixed reception at the Salon. Some critics called it a ‘horror’ but others praised it. Personally I don’t think we should idealize it for its possible emancipation theme. I think it’s more likely that Benoist, like her mentor Vigee Le Brun, was clever enough to capitalize on the fashion for freedom which was at a peak at the time and that she used a bewildered servant for her own career goals.

‘Not so Black and White’: 1

No-one’s ever heard of Marie-Guillemine Benoist. For a start, her name is impossible to get to pronounce. Moreover, if you look at her flattering self portrait of 1790, you could be forgiven for thinking she’s more interested in being a fashion icon than an artist. With her classy neoclassical dress, her free-flowing hair and her alluring expression, she could entice even the most faithful wedded man. She shows herself at work but the way she is turned towards the viewer and the fact she has not a spot of paint on her lovely white dress or pale forearms, makes this seem somewhat unbelievable.(Though it is the norm in women’s self portraiture as they were expected to be lady-like at all times). How could this ‘girl’ have painted such a powerful masterpiece as the 1800 painting ‘Portrait of a Negress’? In fact, how could any woman artist prior to the 20th Century, have painted an image with such strong political implications?
Benoist was a very successful high society artist from a privileged background, and like most female artists of the time, mainly did portraiture, which was thought a suitable genre for the fairer sex. She was also involved in the top levels of government due to family connections, which helps to explain her interest in the slavery issues embodied in this work. She was also involved in the revolutionary regime, executing a portrait of Napoleon’s sister and training for a year in the influential republican Jacques Louis David’s famous studio. The latter was keen to support women artists in the ‘serious’ genre of history painting – one from which they were largely excluded due to their prohibition from the life class. (David was prohibited from entering them into the life class by the prestigious and controlling French Academy).
The influence of the powerfully virile David helps to explain Benoist’s feisty narrative morality painting ‘Innocence between Virtue and Vice’ in which the allegorical figure of Vice is portrayed as man rather than the more traditional ‘sinful’ woman. Torn between the worldly life which was governed by the patriarchy and in which women had few rights and the more heavenly one in which a taste of freedom could be found, (symbolized by the sunrise and the temple), you could see the work as a kind of self portrait. It is known that Benoist had Feminist inclinations and later on she set up an art school for women. Convention compelled her to marry, but perhaps, like her mentor Vigee le Brun, she would have preferred to remain free? This conflict between freedom and social restriction is also expressed in ‘Portrait of a Negress’ and mirrors one of the major concerns of late 18th Century France as it strove to modernize. It also helps to explain the discrepancy between her dainty Rococo-style self portrait and her political masterpiece. See next Blog: ‘Not so Black and White 2’.

‘The Plot Thickens’

The oil painting of an old man in a Private Collection, attributed to Quentin Massys (another version exists in Paris shown here, with gold background and inscription), is thought to form a pair with the ‘Ugly Duchess’. The continuous ledge and reflected resting hands tie them together. The scale is slightly different, as is the positioning, (the profile view is more typical of the early Renaissance), but this is the case with many marriage diptychs, which were common in the Renaissance. In many cases the differences could be explained by different dates of execution (for example, the wife could be commissioned as an ‘approval’ portrait, and the husband added upon or after the actual marriage). Unfortunately neither of these two panels are dated, though the Paris one is. Both the man and woman are displaying rings, which suggests marriage, but as we explored in the previous post, it is probable that this caricature of ‘mutton dressed up as lamb’ represents a ‘type’ not an actual person. This conclusion is substantiated by the fact that her image has been used as a template for later characters e.g. John Tenniel’s Duchess in Alice and Wonderland.
The plot thickens further by the existence of an engraving done in the 17th Century – presumably a copy of the diptych. Here the couple are labelled as ‘The King and Queen of Tunis’. So is the gentleman a real person or just a ‘type’ like his companion? He certainly has an air of reality about him, and is free from the grotesque looks and embarrassing dress of his companion. He looks like a kindly, intelligent and scholarly man although there is a slight humour in his protruding ear and hooked nose.
The existence of this other painting only deepens the mystery. If the ‘Ugly Duchess’ is a satire of a lusty old woman inappropriately seeking a younger suitor, who is the old man? Is he an imaginary husband reprimanding her offer of a rosebud with his negating hand gesture? If he is imaginary, why is there a lusher, seemingly solo, replica panel? If only we could travel back to 16th Century Europe!

‘Mutton Dressed as Lamb’

There is some mystery surrounding the painting ‘The Ugly Duchess’, so nick-named as it was used by John Tenniel as the basis for an illustration of the Duchess from ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Was it derived from an earlier Leonardo drawing (now lost) or is the reality vice versa and was Leonardo inspired by her? It is known that the two artists exchanged drawings. Another mystery is the identity of the sitter, if it is meant to be a specific person? In the past she was generally thought to have been Margaret of Tyrol, an infamous Countess with loose morals, who lived some 100 years prior to the date of this painting and who was also labelled rather rudely, ‘satchel-mouth’. Nowadays it’s usually thought to be a caricature of a type (perhaps modeled on someone with Paget’s Disease), and a warning against vice – the crime of trying to recapture the sexuality of youth. The tight rosebud she holds in her right hand and probably offers to a hoped-for suitor, is symbolic of her sexual state – she is closed up so to speak, and will never blossom. Very sad. Yet with her outmoded dress and monkey features, she is also a ludicrous figure of fun. A possible literary influence is Erasmus’s well known essay In Praise of Folly (1511), which satirizes women who “still play the coquette” and “cannot tear themselves away from their mirrors” and “do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive withered breasts” !!! Watch out all you pensioners!
In the Renaissance ideals of beauty and proportion were extremely important and believed to be a reflection of the inner life. A pale skin and high forehead for example, were seen to represent virtue and purity within. Elegance of dress (for example, a fine headdress and gauze veil), equally expressed ladylike virtues. By extension, disagreeable attire and distorted features could signify ugliness of the soul. What we are seeing here is undoubtedly a demonstration of the latter.

A third mystery surrounds the existence of a second panel (in Paris), which is thought to adjoin it and form the right wing of a diptych. It features an old man (not grotesque like his companion), who appears to be reprimanding her. As you can see from the illustration above, the ledge is continuous and his raised hand forms a counterpart with her right. I will discuss this in the next post so as not to overload you!

‘SP or not SP?’

Sofonisba Anguissola was an extremely successful Italian Renaissance artist who was admired by both Michelangelo and Vasari, who praised her in his ‘Lives of the Artists’. She was born in Cremona, went to Rome and from there gained the attention of Phillip II of Spain who contracted her to be an art tutor and lady-in-waiting to his new Queen, Elisabeth of Valois. When the latter died, the king married her off to a wealthy noble and provided her with a lifetime pension. She was truly a successful woman and lived to the ripe old of 92.

Anguissola executed several self-portraits. In the majority she looks very pious, modest and pure (in one she holds a small book in which is inscribed ‘ Sofonisba, a virgin, made this herself’.  These were all qualities expected of a lady (she had the advantage of being born into a noble family). But the most unusual self portrait attributed to her, is one in which she shows herself in the process of being painted by her teacher, Bernadino Campi. In concept and design it is highly innovative – very unlike her previous self portraits.

Here she is portrayed as an extremely impressive and resplendent woman, being larger in scale than Campi and richly dressed. Here not the restrained buttoned-up girl of the previous self portraits but glowing and statuesque – and seemingly about to come to life and walk out of the painting. There has been much discussion over the interpretation of this work.

I personally would refute it is a self portrait. It cannot definitely be attributed. It is often difficult to tell a pupil and master’s work apart. I think it more likely to be a portrait by Campi demonstrating his skill in creating such a successful pupil who has outgrown him in importance. Whereas her features are generalized, his face is real and has the probing quality of a self portrait. He looks out at the viewer as if to say ‘I, Campi, have done this. The skill of my hand has brought Sofonisba to life’. Perhaps he executed it when he discovered she had joined the Court of Philip II of Spain in 1560?

N.B. In most reproductions of this work on the web, the figure of Anguissola is shown with two arms! I simply can’t find out whether this is a later addition or an incomplete change of mind. Only in the wga version shown above, is the arm ‘normal’. If anyone who reads this speaks Italian, could they phone the National Gallery in Siena and ask if they can help?!

Agnes Martin – ‘a world without objects’

The little known Canadian artist Agnes Martin intrigues and fascinates me. When you see her at work, you realise how compelled she was to paint, and what a chore it was – especially later on in life. She continued to have visions whilst rocking in her rocking chair or meditating. These came to her in miniature (I have read, the size of a postage stamp), and were then scaled up into huge canvases. She destroyed anything that wasn’t quite perfect. Yet when you see the works, they appear ghost-like and hesitant as if something isn’t quite present (a lot like the work of Gwen John). It is known she suffered from some form of schizophrenia (though that is a very broad term). For many years she didn’t work. Eventually (in her fifties), she moved from arty Manhattan to remote New Mexico, and built her own house there, living in near total isolation until her death in 2004. She evidently had trouble fitting into society and there is a loneliness about her work which provokes sadness. She claimed to portray pure states of being e.g. joy, gratitude – and usually they are happy states (which she is striving for?) In ‘Friendship’ she uses incised gold leaf and gesso (very medieval materials) – friendship is like gold, and never-ending as the repetitive rectangles testify. And it contains you. There is a Minimalist quality about much of her art, yet she claimed to be more of an Abstract Expressionist as FEELING was very important to her. Personally I find her canvases very restful and contemplative. Somehow by having a melancholic element, they ‘ease the soul’.

‘The Weeping Woman’: Part 1

Dora Maar (born Theodora Markovitch in 1907), is better known as a mistress of Picasso than an artist in her own right. He did many portrayals of her and labelled her the ‘weeping woman’ because he said ‘he could never see her, never imagine her, except crying’. We usually see Dora Maar through Picasso’s eyes, as his mistress the ‘weeping woman’. There’s no doubt she was depressed (see next Post) but she also produced some pretty good photographs, including several of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (and a photo of him working on it, above).
Her intriguing image entitled ‘Ubu Roi’ (above), is taken from a play of the same name published at the end of the previous century which was beloved by the Surrealists as it was anarchic and absurd. Maar’s photograph was exhibited at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 and became an emblem for the movement afterwards. It also has a political message for the thirties with the rise of dictators throughout Europe. Dora Maar, like most of the Surrealists, was politically and actively left-wing. Ubu the ‘king’, the anti-hero, is a monstrous autocrat symbolized here by a young armadillo whose armour protects him from the consequences of his actions. Nobody seems sure where she acquired the creature (she kept it private). Some think it’s an embryo photographed in a specimen jar. Its baby-like features are precisely what makes it interesting. Is she saying that the Facist ego-maniacs (Hitler, Franco etc) are merely vulnerable children beneath the surface? If that is the case, is there a reference to Picasso himself? We know he was childish and petulant and incapable of loving anyone but himself. Psychoanalysis was a powerful influence on art in the first part of the 20th Century, and particularly in the Surrealist movement of the thirties.

 

‘The Weeping Woman’: Part 2

Prior to meeting Picasso, Dora Maar modeled for the experimental photographer Man Ray – he did the famous photos of her with the intrusive elegant hands (for which she was famed), often including a miniature model of them. It is said that Picasso fell for her when she was stabbing a penknife between her fingers (obviously a type for self harm against her most valued asset), at the Cafe Les Deux Magots. She nicked her finger and it bled and Picasso took the blood-stained glove home as a momento.
But Dora was a competent and well trained photographer in her own right. She took journalistic photographs during the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War (which didn’t help her own state of mind), and photographed Picasso’s famous ‘Guernica’ but her most fascinating works are the Surrealist ones of the mid-thirties which have a strong autobiographical undertone.
‘Silence’, ‘The Years Lie in Wait for You’ and ‘Hand in Shell’ all have a feeling of entrapment as though her destiny has already been decided. All are typically Surrealist with their strange juxtapositions, eerie and threatening atmospheres and collage effect. For me, they make me want to cry along with the ‘weeping woman’. Particularly the latter in which one senses the limp, lifeless hand which could have achieved so much, is somehow anesthetized. Worse than a slow directionless snail, it has no momentum at all.
Dora gave up photographic work under pressure from Picasso (he said that all photographers were painters waiting to be released) and she took up painting. (‘I was not Picasso’s mistress, he was just my master’ she is purported to have said). She readily retired to Vaucluse when he bought her a house there in the forties, after she suffered a mental breakdown. It is easy and fashionable, to blame Picasso for everything, but the truth is she was a person who didn’t believe in her own creative talent and resigned herself to solitude too easily. Though she did some colourful landscape paintings in oil in later life, (you can google them if you want to have a look), to me they seem as despairing and empty as her photos.

‘The Charm of the Birdman’

Leonora Carrington fell for Max Ernst even before meeting the charming chap in London. She had seen his work “Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale” and loved its maker immediately. She could relate to it exactly and understood it intuitively. It is a type of combine before the time of Rauschenberg, (who invented the term to describe some of his works). Both a painting and a sculpture (pieces of wood are attached to form a gate, a shed and a door knob) it could also be termed a piece of furniture. It was inspired by a dream Ernst had while suffering from fever associated with measles. As Ernst recalled: “the dream was provoked by an imitation-mahogany panel opposite my bed, the grooves of the wood taking successively the aspect of an eye, a nose, a bird’s head, a menacing nightingale, a spinning top, and so on.” Born from dream and hallucination, it is a typical Surrealist collage. A poem Ernst penned shortly before making this work begins, “At nightfall, at the outskirts of the village, two children are threatened by a nightingale.”

The work is practically indecipherable and is meant to be. There appears to be three children rather than two – one running off centre left with a knife, one swooning on the ground and the other in the arms of a man on a shed (bird house?) roof. Like ‘Inn of the Dawn Horse’  it is full of drama, mystery and theatricality.  ‘Why is the Nightingale a menace’ one may ask? Normally thought of as a harmless creature with a beautiful voice, here it metamorphoses into a murderous threat. The disconnect throws us, and takes us out of the rational in truly Surrealist style.

Ernst did have a ‘bird connection’. He had developed an alter-ego on the death of his beloved pet cockatoo (which died the same time as his sister was born). This higher self otherwise known as ‘Loplop’ was the subject of several paintings and also of stories written by Carrington. In a 1939 portrait by her, he is wearing a cloak of feathers, presumably referencing his bird self. Like a magician, he carries a horse captured in a glass lantern, whilst a second horse is frozen in the background. The horse is representative of Leonora’s alter ego. He has her captured under his spell – but will he release her? In the end he had no choice, as later that year she left him.

‘Horse Woman meets Bird Man’

In ‘Inn of the Dawn Horse’, Leonora Carrington portrays herself as the central, almost supernatural character in her own drama (the theatrical open curtain on the rear wall underlines the dramatic effect). Her wild hair and electric eyes express her rebellious nature and unique individuality. Her bourgeois chair is feminine  (she came from a wealthy industrialist family), its quaint little feet discreetly nudged by the chair skirt. Yet she, with her opened legs, riding jacket, jodhpurs and voracious stare, is assuredly masculine. The hyena, like a familiar, encapsulates both sexes as it is both dangerous and lactating. Leonora can tame it with her magical energy.  This woman is so powerful, she can alter the world around her without even moving!

As for the horses, the one above her head undoubtedly symbolizes her childhood rocking horse, Tartar who would go out into the world and return with intriguing tales and stories. Now on the move, it represents her stirring spirit or alter-ego. As for the horse bounding out of the strange opening, it is truly liberated and can run free. Now aged 20, Leonora can finally break from the stifling bonds of her restrictive upper middle class background. This is a new dawn.

Executed shortly after her meeting and instant falling in love with the Surrealist painter Max Ernst in London, this Self Portrait demonstrates the new found self-confidence and creative power resulting from his influence. She needed the backing of a successful artist such as he, to launch herself into the world. Her official ‘coming out’ a few years earlier, meant nothing to her – this was her true coming out.

The new biography by Carrington’s cousin, Joanna Moorhead (published by Virago), is a very descriptive and easy read.

 

 

‘Art with Feeling’ – Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe not only executed beautiful plant paintings, she also made some powerful, almost Futurist, abstract work. As soon as O’Keeffe broke away from the mimetic art that she was trained in, she inclined towards the abstract. Her early charcoal plant-based forms are what inspired her husband to be, Alfred Stieglitz, to exhibit her work at his cutting edge 291 gallery in New York. This gave her the confidence to give up her teaching career and get submerged in her own work.

Unlike the Arps with their rational geometric abstraction, O’Keeffe always worked from the heart. Influenced like so many Moderns, by the soulful writings of Kandinsky, she felt that colour and form should come through feeling: “What is right artistically can only be attained through feeling. Even if overall construction can be arrived at purely by theory, nevertheless there remains something extra, which is the true spirit of creation”. In this respect she had an opposite intention to the Arps – abstraction was more of a tendency than a coherent movement, and within it there are many, many strands.

O’Keeffe wanted to drive to the very heart of natural phenomena (so eloquently expressed in her flower paintings where she zooms into their centres). She spent long hours walking and immersing herself in nature. As she wrote to a friend about her experience of a storm on the Texan plains: “the whole thing—lit up—first in one place—then in another with flashes of lightning—sometimes just sheet lightning—and sometimes sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across—I . . . sat on the fence for a long time—just looking at the lightning.” This may have been the basis for Orange and Red Streak, where she captures the dynamism and fire of lightning in a dramatic and hard-edged idiom.  In From the Lake she seems to capture the very first movements of watery creation. Discarding naturalism, these images are stripped down to elemental, organic forces.  In this she is in tune with the philosopher Bergson’s concept of intuition (like Kandinsky, a profound influence).  ‘Intuition is a method of feeling one’s way intellectually into the inner heart of a thing, in order to locate what is unique and inexpressible in it”. Somehow O’Keeffe achieves this – she uses her mind to plan, reduce and order, and at the same captures the mystery at the heart of nature.

 

 

‘Art without Feeling’ – The Arps

The Swiss artist Sophie Taueber-Arp, and her French husband Jean Arp, often collaborated. There seems to have been no unhealthy power imbalances between them as is often the case with artistic relationships. Sonia Delaunay, a good friend of Sophie Arp, for example, reduced her artistic output in favour of supporting her husband’s work.

The Arps were very interested in chance and accident and the idea that the artist, rather than the autonomous creative genius he was thought to be in the past , is not central to the work he creates. In this collage they wanted to exclude as much personal input on the part of the maker as possible, and so the paper rectangles were cut with a paper-cutter rather than scissors  and were laid out in a strict grid system in an attempt to prevent any personality creeping in. As well as an interesting experiment, this was an extreme form of rationalism. Abstraction (especially geometric abstraction), often aimed to eliminate emotion and feeling, which is subjective, in order to express archetypes (e.g perfect geometric shapes and pure colours), which are objective. However, the insertion of two rectangles of silver leaf (the pale bluish oblongs), don’t fit into the ‘rational system’ and create a subtle and intriguing effect which in a way subverts the whole idea of objectivity.

In an earlier experiment, Jean, who like Sophie was heavily into the Dada movement, had made a collage with a very opposite method, though with the same desire to remove the artist’s personal feeling and intent. Dada was a rebellious trend which reacted against the ‘serious art’ of the past which it believed was primarily based on the rational intellect. It placed a high value on chance and the playful and random. Apparently, after working for a long time on a rigorous drawing, Jean –

“[. . .] finally tore it up, and let the pieces flutter to the floor of his studio [. . . .] Some time later he happened to notice these same scraps of paper as they lay on the floor, and was struck by the pattern they formed. It had all the expressive power that he had tried in vain to achieve. How meaningful! How telling! Chance movements of his hand and of the fluttering scraps of paper had achieved what all his efforts had failed to achieve, namely expression. He accepted this challenge from chance as a decision of fate and carefully pasted the scraps down in the pattern which chance had determined’

Yet one can hardly believe he didn’t order these ‘random pieces’ carefully when he stuck them down as the work has a strong feeling of balance and control about it. I think both works prove the opposite to what Arp intended – you can’t have a purely rational nor purely chance work of art.

 

Neglected! – Gabriele Munter

Not many have heard of Gabriele Munter, though most will probably have heard of her more famous partner Wassily Kandinsky who wrote extensively about colour theory and is often thought to be the founder of abstraction.

The two of them lived together in a house which she purchased in a small town called Murnau in the Bavarian Alps. It is now called ‘The Munter House’ and is a Museum open to the public. At the time it was known as ‘The Russians’ House’ by the locals as Kandinsky was Russian, as were Alexej Jawlensky and his partner Marianne von Werefkin who used to stay there for long periods to paint and discuss art. Munter was German. All of them practised in an Expressionist idiom using radical, unexpected and subjective colour to express mood and emotion in a move away from Impressionism with its emphasis on the senses and  naturalism. (The Expressionists believed Impressionism lacked soul). Yet each of them developed their own distinctive style.

Munters’ work, with its strong outlines and pure colours, was heavily influenced by the glass painting she encountered in the region. She began painting on glass herself and encouraged Kandinsky to do the same. They were also both influenced by folk art with its simple, joyful bold patterns. Much of the furniture in The Munter House is decorated in this ‘naive’ style. There were also several religious paintings in the house – mostly icons. Though Expressionism broke away from the sophistication of Academic art, it looked back to native local traditions, which included religious art. The unspoilt countryside was also an inspiration.Many of Munters’ works are landscapes. At times they, like Kandinskys’, border on the abstract.  She seems to have worked directly from the heart and was perhaps not so restricted by artistic theory as her lover.

Unfortunately Kandinsky was forced to flee upon the outbreak of WW1. Munter left with him for Zurich. Kandisnky then returned to his native Russia. Munter believed he would return to her after the War (it was the general belief it would be quickly over) – but he didn’t. She took many years to recover and return to the house with her new partner in the 1920s.

 

 

The Grieving Parents at Vladslo

‘The Grieving Parents’ by Kathe Kollwitz are monumental figures which dominate their territory like Sphinxes in the Egyptian desert. At first it is difficult to relate to them as they are abstracted, universalised, archetypal. But as you look more deeply, you see all the familiar signs and gestures expected from ordinary parents mourning the death of a child – but the emotion is buried, like the dead soldiers, deep beneath the stone overlay. Symbolically they are the parents of over 25,000 dead soldiers buried in Vladslo Cemetery, Belgium.

The father figure (on the left), is folding his arms against himself in a gesture of self-protection. He is bare-headed, chilled, gripped with fear. Yet he is determined not to be bowed down and to face the world – as stereotypically one may expect from the male parent. The female figure (on the right), in contrast is bowed down – arms crossed against her chest over her grieving heart in prayerful gesture. Bare-headed like her companion, she has a priestly aura – almost monk-like. Her crossed arms are the only reference here to Christianity. Will her holding onto her grief possibly redeem it? Is this a sign of hope?

There is a poignant space between the two figures – again, this may be expected as we know bereaved parents usually grieve in very separate ways – it can often divide them. The isolation of both the parents from each other and the dead in their separate slab-marked graves (the original crosses have been removed), is perhaps the most chilling aspect to this powerful work. And yet we know it’s a work of great compassion in which the parents unite with the dead and also with us, the viewer or visitor, on some other mysterious level – personal feeling is universalized.

On another level, the figures symbolize the sculptress Kathe and her husband Karl, who lost their son Peter in the First World War. Karl, a doctor, has his eyes focused on the 9th slab which contains his sons’ remains. This is the skill and signature of Kollwitz – she transforms her own deeply painful personal experience into universally applicable truth.

Cassatt & Japonism

As we discovered in our last session of A History of Women Artists, Mary Cassatt was a great experimenter. Like her close friend and sometimes collaborator, Degas, she explored a variety of media including metallic pigments added into her paint or pastels, the use of old-fashioned paints such as distemper and combined printing techniques. In 1891 she commenced a series of ten works influenced by Japanese woodblock prints which had recently been on show at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Unlike the woodblocks though, she used several different printing techniques, sometimes within one piece (etching, aquatint, drypoint). The bold compositions and colours of Japanese prints (or ukiyo-e), with their unusual, often high viewpoints, radical cropping and expansive flat colour fields, greatly influenced the Parisian avant-garde artists. (Cassatt was born in America but spent most of her artistic career in Paris and exhibited with the Impressionists). The series of ten prints (sometimes called simply ‘The Ten’), depict intimate scenes of women at their ‘toilette’ – washing themselves, their babies, doing their hair etc. In keeping with Impressionism, ordinary scenes of daily life take over from the past ‘official’ Academic preference for ‘grand themes’. The Japanese style similarly makes ordinary daily life a worthy theme for art – what’s more, it elevates it, lending the scenes a grandeur which transcends their inherent ordinariness. In keeping with Buddhist thinking, everything is sacred – even the most mundane act. It wasn’t only the style of Japonism which influenced Cassatt and other avant-gardists (particularly Van Gogh), but the philosophy of the divine in the everyday. ‘The Ten’ were exhibited at Cassatt’s first independent exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1891.

Art in Partnership 3: Siddal and Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal worked part time in a milliner’s shop and her simple beauty was there spotted by the artist Walter Deverall. She later became the lover and wife of another Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It is thought he did over a thousand paintings which included her portrait. Other Pre-Raphaelites, notably Millais in his painting Ophelia, used her as a model. Though supposedly in love with her, like Rodin and Prud’hon, Rossetti declined to marry her at first (he made several proposals which he later broke). It was the puritanical John Ruskin who finally urged him to tie the knot. It was Ruskin also who appreciated her work – for she was a keen artist as well as a fine poet. Most of her paintings, which are in watercolour, (an example shown above), are based on ballads and are done in the typical Pre-Raphaelite, romantic-medieval style). Ruskin offered her a yearly payment in exchange for all the work she produced. Unfortunately Siddal (originally ‘Sidall’ but Rossetti decided to dispense with an ‘l’), suffered from a chronic respiratory disease – probably T.B. She became quite frail, very depressed and also addicted to laudanum. Her knowledge of her husband’s many affairs didn’t help. Neither did the birth of a still-born daughter. She died of an overdose in 1862, only two years after her marriage. In his grief Rossetti buried a volume of his poetry in her grave, which he had slipped into her red hair. About 7 years later he got a licence to dig up the coffin and had the book retrieved in the dead of night. Rossetti desperately needed Elizabeth as a muse – as his sister, the poet Christina described:

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

When she became infirm, his love waned (surprise, surprise!). He needed to idealize her, as is clear from his romanticized portraits of her. And as Christina says, he would override reality in order to do so. She needed his love, as much as he needed to fantasize about her. She couldn’t fully occupy her work which is hesitant and tentative, in spite of Rossetti’s encouragement and tutelage. She had nothing behind her to substantiate her career, except this and the vague approval of Ruskin – no artistic training nor parental encouragement. It was difficult enough for an ambitious woman (which she was not), to succeed in the Victorian era WITH these assets. AND she was unwell for most of her life.

Art in Partnership 2: Mayer and Proudhon

From her Self Portrait (above; date unfortunately unknown), Constance Mayer looks like a very interesting woman. In the archetypal pose of the creative melancholic, her head rests in her hand as she gazes dreamily into the distance, contemplating matters of a meaningful nature. But there’s also a sense that she’s already given up. A promising young artist, she exhibited her joint self portrait with her supportive father at the Paris Salon aged only 21 (see feature image). She also studied under Greuze and worked in the studio of Napoleon’s favourite, Jacques Louis David. If it wasn’t for her melancholy temperament and blighted relationship with Pierre Proud’hon, she may have become a very successful artist. As it turned out, no-one’s heard of her and until recently most of her oeuvre was attributed to her lover. In 1802 she became a kind of pupil of his – but like Claudel and Rodin, they not only worked closely together, but lived closely together too. When Prud’hon’s wife was placed in an asylum (for openly suggesting her husband was having an affair with the Empress Josephine, whose portrait he was painting at the time), Napoleon himself provided them with adjoining apartments at the Sorbonne. Constance looked after him and his 5 children. They collaborated on many works, he doing most of the design and under-drawing and she doing the painting. Apparently she was the more competent artist. After the death of his wife in the asylum, Mayer naturally assumed he would marry her. But this wasn’t part of his plan. In her despair she killed herself by cutting her throat with his razor (in 1821, at the age of 46). Tragic as that was, it was probably a better fate than spending 30 years in an asylum as Camille did. Her eerie painting ‘The Dream of Happiness’ (shown above), uncannily predicts her dark future. The ideal loving couple (presumably representative of the two artists and a hoped-for baby), at peace in the stern are being rowed by a strong and competent oarsman – but unfortunately he has no control as his hands are being guided by mischievous Cupid, god of love. The bark heads towards a dark and uncertain future behind a deathly-looking tree. It is interesting to compare this fatalistic work with Claudel’s ‘Age of Maturity’ (in previous post). Mayer and Claudel needed the inspiration and guidance of a stronger male artist, but also perhaps sensed that love couldn’t be relied upon.

Art in Partnership 1 : Claudel and Rodin

Rodin loved Camille Claudel but was unwilling to leave his ‘permanent’ mistress Rose Beuret who kept his house, cooked for him and even tolerated his many affairs. Rodin had no reason to marry or commit to Camille. She however, wanted more – and quite rightly most of you will say. Typical male – wanted his cake and eat it! He wanted the romance and passion with Camille with the stability of sweet Rose at home. Camille did manage to get a contract drawn up with him, establishing some rights. However, what she really wanted was marriage. What if she had compromised and settled for what was within her reach – his artistic and financial support and a market for her work he could bring her from his contacts? This would have brought her stability and enabled her to continue working. Instead of which, when things had soured between them, she destroyed most of her work, lived like a tramp and ended up in an asylum for the last 30 years of her life. The tragedy of this is overwhelming – one can hardly take it in. Interestingly, she started to show signs of instability after her first successful solo exhibition. It was then she began to make claims that Rodin and his cronies were stealing her ideas. Maybe she just didn’t have the strength to stand on her own in the still male-dominated art world. Her emotionally charged nature would have added to this difficulty. Maybe she needed to be in some kind of relationship with Rodin, whether a loving or a hateful one.  It’s certainly the case that most of her work (or what remains of it), springs from her feelings for Rodin and symbolizes aspects of their passionate, if ultimately doomed affair. Perhaps without that relationship, her passion had nothing to feed off – like a fire which goes out when it has nothing left to burn. All questions, questions – and speculation!

‘The Proposition’ Part 2

We can’t help but have negative feelings about the man in the work discussed earlier – ‘Man Offering Money to a Woman’ by Judith Leyster (shown above).

We are ‘signalled’ to find him ominous. Firstly there is a vast shadow behind him, which we instinctively interpret as ‘dodgy’. Secondly he appears to have crept in from the outside making us feel he is an unwelcome guest. Thirdly, his hand on the woman’s shoulder and the attempted payment, suggest pressure upon her. Lastly he has animalistic features – a fur hat, rugged face and beard. If he was clean shaven and had silky blond hair, we might feel differently!

All these ‘signals’ though, are highly speculative. In fact, they are based on subtle cultural conditioning which may bear no relation to the truth. For all we know, the man could be her brother telling her he’s decided not to go to the pub and is giving her the money saved for housekeeping! Or he could be a fine upstanding customer who is insisting on paying the lady for mending his shirt! Let’s face it, we really can’t be certain what is going on, especially since we don’t have the artist’s title for the work . . . and that’s precisely why it’s so intriguing.

If a gallery decided to call it ‘The Love Token’ no doubt we would interpret it differently again.

The work is superb in its’ open-ended ambience. It reminds me of some of the work of Walter Sickert, who was a master at playing with meaning, often re-titling his works several times to confound the public.  His belief that meaning should not be fixed and should challenge the viewer’s instinctive desire to pin down, makes him one of the most interesting artists of all time. Many of his pictures, like Leyster’s, show ambiguous relationships between a male and female with the male protagonist often appearing ‘dodgy’ (see ‘Ennui’ above) – but we can never be entirely sure . . .

‘Breaking the Mould’ 2: Rosalba Carriera

Like Therbusch, Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757), was another lady artist who broke with convention. She developed her own pastel technique to perfection using it as the finished medium, which was unusual as pastel was traditionally used only for preparatory drawings. She created beautifully soft, sensitive and insightful portraits which were immensely popular. She began her career by painting miniatures for visitors to her native Venice (many on the ‘Grand Tour’). These were often done on ivory which heightened the luminosity of the skin (it was cut into thin sheets and sanded for better adherence). In 1720 she made her first visit to Paris where she was elected to the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture by acclamation rather than application. This was an immense achievement – especially since she was, like Therbusch, a foreigner. Whilst there she got to know the leading Rococo artist Antoine Watteau (who died young, shortly after the portrait above was completed), and even gave artistic guidance to Quentin de la Tour, who went on to become the leading pastel portraitist in France. Most amazing and unusual though, are her self portraits which are astoundingly honest and unpretentious. Unlike Vigee Le Brun, she was no beauty and yet she makes no attempt to flatter herself. Her late Self Portrait (above), executed when she was the ripe old age of 73, emphasizes her ‘masculine’ intellect (like Therbusch’s innovative self portrait in my previous post). She resembles an ancient philosopher (the wreath around her head underlines this), contemplating life’s mystery – or perhaps its tragedy (it is sometimes thought to be a personification of tragedy). Carriera suffered from routine bouts of depression, especially towards the end of her life when her eyesight failed. I think her portraits are truly probing and different and her self portraits so hard-hitting they could be mistaken for Modernist works. My advice – look her up!

‘Breaking the Mould’ 1 – Anna Dorothea Therbusch

I have said in my Newsletter (to subscribe go to ‘Newsletter Sign Up’ tab), that the 18th century saw a proliferation of successful women artists. At last the art world was opening up to them. Though still not allowed into the life class, many became members of the powerful Academies (in France, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun & Adelaide Labille-Guiard, and in England Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser). The little known Anna Dorothea Therbusch (born Berlin 1721), was admitted into the Parisian Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in 1767, which was unusual for a foreign woman. The fact that she was friends with Diderot and his circle may have helped. She was a popular portraitist but failed to make a living in Paris and eventually returned to her native Prussia with debts. Why was this? Probably because she didn’t fit into the ‘mould’. Though doors were opening for female artists, there were still many expectations of them. They were expected to be attractive, coy and coquette-ish – and to keep their place below their male counterparts. Therbusch did not conform to any of these! As we can see in her well-known Self Portrait (above), she was keen to assert her powerful intellect and under-assert her good looks and feminine charms! She deliberately shows herself as aged (she was only 56), and with masculine features (note the emphatic and slightly muscular legs – the decorum of the time dictated that a ladies’ legs  should be well hidden beneath the skirt). The prominent monocle and the open book emphasize her learnedness as well as her disinterest in looking ‘pretty’ for the male gaze. Compare this to the self portraits of Vigee Le Bruns – she was master (or should I say ‘mistress’?), of social manipulation. Though I admire Le Brun for her ‘working the system’, I can’t help admiring Therbusch even more for her breaking with convention. (She even overtly drew from the male nude. Diderot posed naked for her). Without wishing to culturally pigeon-hole, perhaps her German-ness aided her in discarding the accepted aesthetic and freed her from the bonds of Academicism.

Judith Leyster’s ‘The Proposition’

In Netherlandish art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, meaning is often hidden or ‘disguised’. This makes it difficult for us to be sure about interpretation. The 20th Century art historian Erwin Panofsky was the first to attempt to decode its iconography in his book, Early Netherlandish Painting. In the famous Renaissance Arnolfini Portrait (above), by Jan van Eyck, there are so many hidden messages, whole books have been written on that one work. In a later painting from the Dutch Golden Age (17th Century), usually called ‘The Proposition’ by Judith Leyster, there are not quite so many hidden symbols, but the whole concept of veiled meaning nonetheless persists. The astounding detail used in Early Netherlandish art which was largely a result of innovations in oil painting techniques, had eased in the Baroque Period and artists generally employed less detail in their work. In this intriguing work by Leyster, detail is replaced by a powerful, almost threatening, murky atmosphere. The virtuous woman (wearing a white shirt – colour of purity, and sewing – symbol of good domestic virtue), is intent on her task, while a dark-clad man who seems to have come from outside, appears to bribe her (he hands her some coins). She’s having none of it, and though he places his hand on her shoulder in an attempt to interrupt her, she refuses to engage with him in any way and concentrates on her needlework. The candle flame could possibly represent the light of Christ, (see the Still Life by Clara Peeters in previous Post), and by extension, the goodness of the woman’s spirit. But the most overt symbol in the work is the foot warmer lodged beneath the woman’s skirt – the fact that it is half visible and her foot is upon it means, according to the language of the time, that she is available – that is, unmarried. Is this a straightforward morality picture,  demonstrating the virtue of the pure female resisting the advances of the unwholesome male, even though she is free? The threatening shadow behind the man would certainly seem to propound this. Or is it a portrayal of an innocent courtship ritual (handing coins to a lady was an acceptable convention for opening a courtship)? Why do we assume the man is ‘bad’? (to be continued) . . .

Symbolism in Dutch Art (Clara Peeters)

Does all art have meaning? A question which arose at the last ‘Girl Power’ talk, was ‘does all art necessarily have a meaning?’ I replied that everything has a meaning (even the tiniest action or event – but then, I am a very Eastern-minded person believing in Karma, destiny, re-incarnation etc, which not everybody does). I get the point of the question though – sometimes it seems if art historians and appreciators read too much into every art work. What if the artist/maker didn’t intend those interpretations, and we are living in a ‘fantasy world’ – or worse, distorting the original straightforward function of the artwork?

There are many types of meaning, but here I’ll look at the two obvious ones. 1) The conscious symbolism which the artist intended the work to have and which we can be more or less sure about through historical and cultural fact 2) Meaning gained over time through interpretations i.e. ‘acquired meaning’.  The latter is the most contentious, as how can we be sure there is in fact definitely meaning intended and it’s not just the viewer’s own fanciful imagination seeing what it wants to see? The real danger is, we could potentially read ANYTHING into the work – there are no boundaries!

If you are a very academically minded person, you may want to stick to the first approach. But for me, the whole beauty of looking at art is the interchange between viewer and work, and the evolution of that through time. I’m sure the artists themselves would prefer their art not to be pinned down to identifiable certainties. Obviously there are a whole range of symbols and meanings lost to us through changing cultures and values  and we have to work hard at understanding these, which involves study and a rigorous approach. That is a necessary duty of the art historian. However, we are all, as viewers, entitled to interpret and find meaning in whatever way we wish –  as long as we keep ourselves in check and  accompany our own feelings with some academic study. Let’s remember that when an artist executes a work, there are a whole range of meanings which are expressed UNCONSCIOUSLY. No-one, not even the maker, can categorically prove their existence.

Italian v. Netherlandish Renaissance Art

Why is Italian Renaissance Art so much more sophisticated than its Netherlandish counterpart?
Being a Mediterranean country, the Italian artists were far more influenced by Classical Culture which had developed a sophisticated skill in the portrayal of the human form (note all those marble statues!). There was also a lot more Classically-based theory circulating about art and its premises. Harmony, proportion, perspective all came under scrutiny. Many treatises were published, such as Alberti’s On Painting. Due to the prevalence of fresco painting in Italy (not a suitable technique in Northern territory due to the wetter climate), there was a freer approach to painting (strokes had to be done quickly before the plaster dried). The Italian artists were not as hung up on detail (though the Northern oil painting advances did influence them), and were more concerned with idealism than realism. Finally, though both Italy and the Netherlands were deeply religious countries, there was far more piety and religious fervour in the latter.  Humanism and its related secularisation had taken deep hold in liberal Italy, but not so in the North where a hesitancy in being aesthetic and an almost childlike reticence, restricted the depiction of human life.