Thursday, October 25, 2012

Three Portraits and Four Faces

He stands like some 18th-century captain-explorer at the prow of his ship, his eyes shaded from the glare of the fierce tropic sun as he voyages on towards uncharted horizons (below). It is the gesture of shading his eyes that makes this self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds so daringly unique, and he leaves us wondering. Was this a simple natural gesture, betraying the fact that he was bothered by the direct sunlight streaming through his studio window, and making it difficult for him accurately to gauge the exact colours on his palette? Or was this the way in which he consciously wished to portray himself, searching for a landfall on some undiscovered shore of art?

If the latter, then Reynolds was navigating treacherous shoals. His flair for experimenting with concocting his own oil paints was very much a hit-and-miss affair. 'Mix a little wax with your colours,' he is reputed to have advised a student, 'but don't tell anybody.' Within his own lifetime, he saw his own paintings crack with the brittleness of the unstable pigments which he used. 'All good paintings crack.' was his typically spry response.

This self-portrait in pastels by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (below) has long been one of my favourite self-portraits by an artist. We easily can imagine Chardin working quietly and alone in his studio, intensely observing his own likeness in a looking-glass, then briefly focusing back towards his easel as, step by step, he transmuted his own features into art. A hint of quizzical enquiry plays around the upturned corners of his mouth: a self-regard which is also a self-awareness of his involvement in the task to which he has committed himself.

Here in the interior of his studio, his fashionable wig has been replaced in favour of a comfortable white scarf secured in place by a blue headband. In this self-portrait he makes us, his audience, privilege to his informal dress. We see Chardin as he saw himself in the privacy of his own house, and not as we would see him had we encountered him on the street. The pink and blue neckerchief, the steel-rimmed pince-nez perched upon his nose, all combine to underscore the informal humanity of the artist himself. When I look at this self-portrait I find myself thinking: yes - Chardin was someone whom I would like to have met and talked with. He was, I am sure, a decent and likeable person.

As does Reynolds, Chardin provides himself with a neutral dark background - common-enough to be seen in portraits of his time. And he plays the harmonics of his colour palette throughout this work, dragging the pinks and blues of what he is wearing through his own features. Seeing this portrait in our own time, it is difficult to appreciate just how cutting-edge Chardin's techniques were. His method of using hatched lines of pure colour (the detail, above) in such a way that the eye of the observer mixes them together from a distance was revolutionary for its time. More than two centuries later, I have used this identical technique when I have worked with pastels, and I owe it to Chardin's groundbreaking originality.

Fast-forward exactly one hundred and one years on from the affable originality of Chardin's self-portrait. The neutral background darkness is still there, but what a different world we find ourselves in. The Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin presents his likeness to us (above), but his is not the only presence which we see: the all-too-real face of Death emerges from the shadows over the artist's left shoulder. But this visible horror seems to leave the artist unmoved; he even inclines his head towards the grim figure, almost in a gesture of familiarity. Death the fiddler calls the tune, and Böcklin, unphased, calmy paints along.

Death here might be portrayed as tangibly as Albrecht Dürer's figure of Death of almost four centuries before (see this blog's header), but there is no gothic grimness in this self-portrait. How could there be, when the overwhelming feeling is one of reconciliation, of an awareness of death as being simply a part of the scheme of things, as real and as necessary to the scene as the artist's own palette and brush which he holds. Death cannot be defeated, but it can be accepted. That is what Böcklin shows, and this simple realisation is his triumph.

On Sir Joshua Reynolds: Charlotte J. Blennerhassett: Sidelights
On Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin: Geneviéve Monnier: Le Pastel
On Arnold Böcklin: Ursula Bode: Kunst zwischen Traum und Alptraum

Artist: Sir Joshua Reynolds
Work: Self-portrait, 1747
Medium: Oils
Location: National Gallery, London

Artist: Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin
Work: Self-portrait, 1771
Medium: Pastels
Location: Louvre, Paris

Artist: Arnold Böcklin
Work: Self-portrait with Fiddling Death, 1872
Medium: Oils
Location: National Gallery, Berlin

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Judith: The Woman with a Sword

You know straight away that a woman who carries a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other has a story to tell. The story of Judith could be found in the Old Testament’s Book of Judith until just over a century ago, at which time the book was dropped from the canon. But in or out of the Bible her story endures, and always has been one which spoke to artists.

Judith, as her story relates, is a beautiful widow who, in order to save her beleaguered city from the surrounding Assyrian army, dresses herself in her most seductive finery, and with only her handmaiden for company slips out of the city to visit the encamped Assyrian commander, one Holofernes. The general is duly charmed: charmed enough to incautiously fall into a drunken stupor. Judith seizes the moment - and the general’s own sword. Two terrible strokes are enough to make the general shorter by a head, and with the compelling and bloody evidence wrapped up in the handmaiden’s hamper, our heroine slips back home. Long story short: headless corpse discovered in the cold light of morning, army in demoralized disarray, city is saved.

A beautiful and daring heroine will always appeal to artists, and Judith has been portrayed – often multiple times by the same artist – throughout the history of art. Botticelli, Caravaggio and Klimt have all seized upon the theme, from demure poses which focus on Judith’s finery to the actual nitty-gritty of grim and graphic severance. Jan Massys (below) presents us with a coyly-smiling Judith wearing the delicate ghost of a chemise which preserves nothing for modesty, while Conrat Meit’s masterful and sensitive sculpture in alabaster (above) grants his Judith a three dimensional actuality. Both of these confidently-poised Judiths are from the mid 16th century.

In a post-Freudian age it would perhaps be an easy option to discuss the male fear of the powers of the castrating female even with just these first two examples, but it seems more fruitful to approach such works, not from the point of view of contemporary psychology, but as the expressions of art which they are. Just as with Greek art, it is the nudity of Meit’s Judith which makes her heroic, which lifts her out of time to become something *mythic in a way in which Judith in all her finery could not convey. The subtlety and fidelity of Meit’s carving is monumental, even for such a comparatively small-scale work - it is just 29cm (1 foot) high.

Now to two Judiths in their finery, both from the 19th century. Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant’s assertive Judith (above) owes much to the then-prevailing Orientalist style, and is the richer for it. No severed head is here visible, but the hand which grips the haft of the sword, and the deep blood red of the drapes in the background, do more than enough to suggest such details of the story without any further need to get into the specifics. This Judith has used her own sash to support the sword’s scabbard, and so has made the weapon – and the situation – her own.

In August Riedel’s Judith (above), the gruesome trophy is only partially glimpsed, although the dangling lock of dark hair is telling enough. But this Judith is essentially of the artist’s own time and place: a fabulous poster girl for a 19th century revolution. The artist has utilised the backlit sleeve to draw attention to the contrastingly dark blade, and although the costume’s rich brocade worn by the model is as likely to be a curtain drape or an improvised table spread, we hardly care. This is a Judith whom we would cheerfully follow over the barricades in the name of liberty.

The 1920’s sees Franz von Stuck’s Judith (above) transformed into a fully-fledged femme fatale, and wielding a blade that looks massive enough to fell a sequoia. At her feet the insensible Holofernes lies oblivious to the coming blow, and Judith herself casts an impenetrable shadow over the blood-red background, leaving almost half the canvas in ominous darkness. This is not reality. This is opera, with all the enhanced drama which stage lighting and prop weaponry can bring to a scene.

Jan Saudek’s 1996 work Sword (above) employs the style of a staged 19th century studio photograph as a counterpoint to the essentially contemporary pose of his model. The artist’s image is not about seduction, nor even about Judith’s story as such. It is about power. Saudek’s image is already far removed from von Stuck’s operatic Judith of a few decades earlier, and an impossible gulf away from the ennobled Judiths of previous centuries. Its essentially predatory power ignores the courageous heroism and altruistic ideals of the original Judith story, which in itself is perhaps a sardonic-enough comment on changed times.

Four and a half centuries of time separate Meit’s Judith from Saudek’s, and the differences in between are plain to see. Assuming that the story endures for another several centuries (and I for one hope that it will), how will an artist portray such a future Judith - a Judith as removed from our own time as Saudek’s is from Meit’s?

*See my previous post: Naked or Nude? This post and my other post (Five Women and Four Serpents) which also features the work of Jan Massys can be found on my sidebar's Top Ten Posts.
If you’d like to read about another (shocking!) aspect of Judith’s story, you’re welcome to visit my other blog here: Renaissance Snuff

Sunday, July 8, 2012


The city of Alexandria in Egypt, in the year 285. A man, then aged thirty four, turns his back on his estate, his possessions, and all that his life has been up to that moment, and walks away into the unforgiving desert dunes. What drives him into the hot North African winds, into this landscape of dust and nothingness, is his longing for an experience of the divine, of something that would infuse his life with a transcendent other. It was then not unknown for those who sought such mystic encounters to retreat to the less-frequented outskirts of the city. What was different about Anthony is that he went farther. In the inhospitably barren wilderness of the Egyptian desert, far from the city, Anthony settled down to a life of total seclusion that would last for thirteen years.

Other locations as remote, and other unrelentingly reclusive periods would follow, as Anthony's pious reputation spread widely enough for his life to be chronicled, and for his name to become a title. He was now Anthony of the Desert. The chronicles recounted his privations and his visions, and interpreted these in the context of his Christian struggles with his adversary the Devil. It is these accounts which have provided a rich theme for artists. But when we look at these works, what appeals to the artists would seem to have less to do with Anthony's fervent piety than with the visions with which the Devil chose to tempt him.

Piety, it seems, is not only a more difficult quality to portray convincingly, but less appealing for artists than the parade of phantasms which the Devil supplied to the hermit, either in the form of voluptuous temptresses or bizarre and terrifying monstrosities: all of them fertile ground for the creative imagination of artists from Hieronymus Bosch to today's intricate sculptural constructions by Kris Kuksi (above).

Henri Fantin-Latour's 19th century temptresses drift towards the studying Anthony out of nebulous wreaths of vapour (above). But Alexandre Louis Leloir and Domenico Morelli (below) supply the saint with altogether more substantial female company. Leloir's Anthony grips desperately - and rather melodramatically - onto his crucifix as two apparently all-too-real temptresses seek to embrace him, while Morelli's Anthony strives not to notice as his own two female illusions emerge insidiously from underneath the reed matting of his hermit's cave as three more disembodied females lurk in the shadows.

John Charles Dollman has a kneeling and inexplicably clean-shaven Anthony studiously ignoring both a single alluring female and a whole menagerie of desert animals - wolves, foxes and apes - circled around the entrance to his firelit retreat (below). Mere illusions ought not to cast shadows, but the shadows cast by Dollman's phantoms give them a telling reality. The impassive saint seems calmly unaware of these presences, making them more curiously real to us, the artist's audience, who have not endured Anthony's privation-induced visions.

Intriguingly, Dollman returned to the same subject twenty eight years later, and the differences with his first canvas are striking, with the colours being quieter, more muted (below). Although fewer in number, the animals are much the same, but it is the woman who has undergone the greatest transformation. Now substantial enough, not merely to cast a shadow, but to leave her footprints in the desert sand behind her, her modest pose conveys not so much wantonness, but humility. Silently she stands with her hands clasped behind her back, seeming almost to offer herself in companionship to the kneeling hermit. We feel that, once he turns to become aware of her presence, his gesture will be one, not of tortured horror, but of calm acceptance, a surrender to the seeming reality of this comforting presence which has come to him in the moonlit desert silence.

Perhaps in the intervening years Dollman had reached a deeper understanding of the nature of illusions, coming at last to a realisation that our own awareness, while it might not shatter such illusions, at least reaches a measure of acceptance. And in that acceptance the illusions are themselves transformed into something less threatening, more consolling, in the midst of hostile realities. 

This post is complementary to my current post about Anthony of the Desert on my other blog, which investigates Anthony's life. You are welcome to visit and read my post here:
Anthony of the Desert: Life as Fiction.

My own portrayal of Anthony can be seen at: Anthony of the Desert.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Shadows in Eden

Why was the simple idea that space is infinite considered to be a heresy? Just how seaworthy would Noah's Ark really have been? What might you experience if you spend a night inside the Great Pyramid? You are welcome to visit my new blog SHADOWS IN EDEN, where these and other topics both maverick and progressive will be posted. The question of infinite space is already on the blog, and other subjects will follow - and this blog will soon have a new post as well! Just click on the link here, or on the SHADOWS IN EDEN picture on my sidebar.