Archive for the '4 – Portraiture & figure painting' Category

UA1-WA:P4 Review

This Part of the course has been a struggle. I’m struggling with time; with depth – how far to go in research; and with focus, with a desire to get back to my own work, to be making, creating.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Looking back through my blog posts for over the last 4+ months there seems to be an ongoing theme of the politics and social meaning of art. It started with political cartoons, using images to comment on a current and continuing crisis (7-Mar-2014). Selecting busts of Trucaninny and Woureddy as examples of portrait sculpture allowed a more general consideration of the impact of colonisation and the implicit condescension of an “ethnographic” attitude (13-Mar-2014).
Maurice Felton Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark

Maurice Felton
Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark
1840 oil on canvas 142.5 x 114 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales

The annotation of Maurice Felton’s portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark provided a strong contrast in social conditions and also introduced (but did not develop) feminist concerns (19-Mar-2014). When visiting the National Portrait Gallery (11-Apr-2014) it all started getting too big for me – too much history I didn’t know, too many competing issues. My next annotation glanced at the art politics of the Archibald Prize, but is in honesty a bit brief and shallow (13-Apr-2014). (The 2014 Archibald opens in a few days)

Margaret Olley Portrait in the mirror

Margaret Olley
Portrait in the mirror
1948 Oil on cardboard

As a generalization, of all the genres of art I am least moved by or interested in portraits. . . As soon as I wrote that sentence I questioned myself, it seems ridiculous to be so sweeping – but with many exceptions, it’s basically true. I just scrolled through the finalists of the 2014 Archibald – So many of them are a lump of person (head, 3/4, full view) in a limited background. There seems to be a fair amount of effort for a likeness, perhaps with a few ‘tabs of identity’ like a painterly cartoon. I recognize the subject and feel vaguely clever, or I don’t and I can read some facts about them. I can’t tell myself a story about them because there’s a “correct answer”. As always, there are exceptions. I was intrigued by the photo of Mike Barnard’s You beautiful fighter (, and having read the artist’s statement I am still more moved by both the subject and the way he has based his technique on the story and the emotion. I’m looking forward to seeing the actual works when the exhibition opens.

Annotating Discobolus, a classical sculpture, returned my thoughts to questions of idealization, race and colonisation (23-May-2014). Combined with the impossibility of visiting a cast gallery and reflection on why that should be so (30-May-2014), the whole question of the Canon of western art was raised again. Whose heritage, what values, are being celebrated? In the next research point we were directly challenged on this, looking at the female nude through art history and the insights provided by a feminist critique (6-Jun-2014). I found introducing multiple perspectives enriched my experience of the artworks. Unfortunately the next exercise, annotating a female nude (8-Jun-2014), just made me cranky. First we were required to work on a classic nude in the western tradition, which forced me back onto internet images. We were then asked to compare this carefully selected masterpiece to a more recent work by a little-known female artist. I question the purpose of this requirement, which seems to me to trivialize important questions about women as artists and the depiction of women in art.

Henry Moore Helmet head no. 2 1955 bronze

Henry Moore
Helmet head no. 2
1955 bronze

A calming review of figure sculptures of the past century brought home how fortunate I’ve been in terms of access to artworks (13-Jun-2014). This was followed by the annotation of a Henry Moore sculpture (22-Jun-2014), in which I concentrated on ideas taken from the feminist critique, and also the context of work in a physical sense. The work by Moore on the right has only very recently been put on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), but makes a whimsical addition which could loosely be seen as “figure”.

Perhaps the most important thing I feel I have gained from the course so far is the ability to see artworks in context – historical, physical, thematic… agnswIn this I am greatly assisted not only by the course learning material, but by my local gallery, the AGNSW. Limited in space, with a major expansion years away, there is constant movement of the works displayed. Rather than a single work by an artist there will be a group of works, together with a couple of related or complementary pieces by other artists. A month or so later they could be gone. Recently the Kirchner I discussed as my Assignment 4 was moved upstairs and can now be seen together with a sculpture by Ossip Zadkine ( and a couple of paintings by Picasso, amongst other delights (the Picasso glimpsed in the photo, Woman lying on a couch (Dora Maar) (1939) doesn’t have a link, as it is on loan from the Lewis collection).

I feel this Part of the course has been a mixed bag – due to access to works, interest in the topics, this that and the other, and always, always time. I have a small pile of brochures and notes from exhibitions and events, just waiting for a write up – sometime soon.

UA1-WA:P4 Review
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting

UWA-WA1:P4 Assignment

I have chosen to analyse Three bathers by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner for this Assignment. It fits with the general theme of this part of the course, “Portraiture and figure painting”, it is available for me to view personally, and it was painted by a leader of German Expressionism, one of the founders of Die Brücke, at a critical time in Western history.

Painted in 1913, the work is held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) – see This large painting shows three women, roughly life-sized, standing knee-deep in foaming surf. A bird flies overhead, a jellyfish floats in the trough of the wave looming behind. There is no shore, no horizon, no sky to be seen.

For the assignment I traced the main shapes on the computer then printed multiple versions on A3 paper. I used these at the gallery to make notes, but have chosen here to recreate them in clean electronic versions for greater clarity.

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kirchner_toneThis is not a painting of high contrasts. On the right I’ve used a desaturated version of the image, indicating highlights in yellow and deeper tones in purple. Both are distributed across the picture.

Dark tones form a perimeter around the painting, enclosing and framing the scene. Smaller areas are used to create shadows and definition on the figures.

The areas of lightest tone are the foam of the breaking waves, a closer frame encircling the figures. Highlights on the bodies model their forms. The light seems generally to be falling from above on the left, but it is not consistent. There is reflected light on the inside of thighs. One of the lightest areas is the palm of the left hand on the rightmost figure. This draws attention to a darker area, and also emphasises the awkward stance of the woman. The jellyfish and in particular the bird also include light areas, drawing attention to these rather odd additions to the scene.

kirchner_thresholdA black and white threshold version of the image helps to identify the focus placed on the main objects by the overall use of light and dark.

The feathery, fluttering forms of gull, foam splash and jellyfish surround the solid blocks of the figures. The sea, the entire environment, is hidden in dark depths.

kirchner_linesShown in light blue/turquoise on the diagram, there is a series of lines across the width of the picture leading down to the right. They follow the crests of the waves behind and in front, connecting the figures especially along shoulders and a long, stretched leg, and in a combination of bird wing and waves in the upper right.

However the image as a whole is not sliding off to the right. The space between the front figure and the edge makes this clear. There are also bolstering, protective lines, shown in green, pushing back on the right and pulling/anchoring on the left. In red are strong vertical lines, particularly in the front-most figure, resisting the surge and providing a stability (although on a practical note, from personal experience I suggest such an attempt to maintain balance in the swell will be ultimately unsuccessful). There are no horizontal lines, although in purple I have shown a few balancing, almost restful, movements in the ocean swell.

There are lines in the figures going in almost every direction – those descending diagonals, also including heads, jaws, breasts, but these are countered by slightly less strong opposite diagonals, and also the erect front figure. This supports the idea of a captured moment in time, of dramatic change about to happen, a tense calm before the (overwhelming?) force of the wave hits and the figures are tumbled and overturned. Renée Free suggested that “the successive repetition of the line of the wave opposed by the verticality of the figures stiffening to ward off the threat, creates the sense of psychological and physical clash by compositional means” (Free, [n.d.]), and certainly the sense of threat and unease is strong.

The jellyfish provides a strange, ambiguous moment. There are so many lines, but there is no sense of a prevailing movement. I imagine it riding up the face of the wave then bobbing down, without anchor, at the mercy of the forces surrounding it – but within itself unmoved, in its element. A side note: this same object is seen by Donald Gordon as a “weed-covered rock” (Gordon (1968, p.92). I have returned to the original, but cannot accept this.


Landscape with houses Georges Braque Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

Landscape with houses
Georges Braque
Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

On first view the picture appears to have a limited colour palette – largely blue-greens and yellow-orange-tans. Renée Free in an AGNSW publication ([n.d.]) suggested Kirchner’s colours were those used by Picasso and Braque, as in this painting of Braque’s, derived in turn from Cézanne. Free also quotes Donald Gordon’s comments about the monumentality of Three bathers, evidenced in part by the “starkly simple colour scheme, playing off the blue-green of the waves against the orange hues of the figures”. I think these comments over-simplify what is actually a very complex use of colour by Kirchner. The cubists were interested in form and worked with a restricted palette. Kirchner made complex use of colour, together with brush technique discussed below, to model form.

kirchner_colourOn the right I’ve picked out just a few of the many touches of red and green that can be seen in the “orange” figures.
kirchner_colour_2The most obvious use is on the lips, suggesting lipstick and the dislocation of urban figures into a natural environment. However there are reflections and touches of red in the shadows of the jaw, the hair, a trace on the upper chest…
kirchner_handThat awkwardly turned hand of the rightmost figure is detailed in red, further highlighting its importance in the composition.

This complex use of colour is very different to the throbbing slabs of colour of works by Kirchner only a few years earlier, such as Four Bathers, 1910 (the best images I found were page 9 of and The differences could be due to a different location and light (the Moritzburg lakes rather than Fehmarn on the Baltic coast as in the focus painting), the tension of the threatening political situation, a move away from the influence of the fauves, or the new painting techniques Kircher had developed.

kirchner_techniqueKirchner used a range of techniques in different areas of the painting. The multiple layers of hatching used to model the forms of the figures is particularly interesting.
kirchner_hatching This section shows the torso of the central figure, bounded in front on the right by the arm of one figure and behind on the left by the arm of the other. The volumes are strongly modeled by a series of vigorous hatching lines in a wide variety of colours.

An early influence on Kirchner and other members of the Brücke group was tribal art seen at the Dresden Ethnographic Museum and coming from Palau, a Micronesian island at that time a colony of Germany. An angular mode began to appear in Die Brücke works. This was followed in Kirchner’s case by an interest in Buddhist cave paintings from Ajanta, India (see examples at Kirchner wrote of these frescos “They are all plane and yet absolute mass and, accordingly, they have absolutely solved the mystery of painting” (quoted in Gordon (1987) p. 77). Donald Gordon explained “in the course of 1911 [Kirchner] devised a zigzag hatching technique to model such rounded forms, both in his drawings and his paintings”. In Gordon’s account the frescos helped Kirchner to consider means of representing forms in two dimensions, part of the “fundamental ambivalence between sculptural and pictorial values, between representation and decoration, that lay at the heart of Expressionist style” (Gordon, 1987, p. 77). In this context it is particularly interesting to view Kirchner’s carving Lying Woman (1911 – 1912) – see

kirchner_hatching_2This section shows that Kirchner used a broader version of the zig-zags to create the volume of the waves in the upper left section of the picture. The crest of the wave behind is a dense, heavy mass of greens, reaching over to stab down on the women. There is a lovely, wide, more open zigzag in dark blue further to the left, describing the deep swell of the sea. Elwyn Lynn wrote of this work “All is vibrating. The nudes come to look unsubstantial, the brushstrokes indicate a nervous uncertainty” (Lynn, 1984). In my eyes the figures are solid and three dimensional, but certainly their situation appears temporary. The broader, more integrated brushwork on the sea generally suggests a swelling force, the descending crest a crashing power, that cannot be resisted.

kirchner_foamThe frothy mass of the smaller wave that has broken in front of the figures uses an impasto technique, with thick blobs of paint, dribbles and flutters creating depth and movement. In person the lumps catch fragments of light, creating still more life and sparkle. In the splash to the right of the picture the dribbles break up into feathery lines of foam. Elsewhere complex layers of colour suggest the depth and mystery of the turbulent waters.

In considering the symbology apparent in the picture, it is useful to review the changes Kirchner made from an initial crayon sketch to the final work.
The image of the sketch is taken from a copy in Darby (1985). The most significant change made was to the left-most figure, transforming from a male to a female. This provides a clear reference to the symbology of the Three Graces. James Hall provided a number of alternate meanings and attributes of this trio – “the personification of grace and beauty”; “the threefold aspect of generosity, the giving, receiving and returning of gifts”; “three phases of love, beauty, arousing desire, leading to fulfilment; or “the personification of Charity, Beauty and Love” (Hall, 2008, pp. 312 – 313). Given the erotic nature of much of Kirchner’s work the phases of love seem fitting, but there is a certain stiffness and remoteness about the figures which partially negates this. These Graces are awkward rather than graceful.

The Three Graces are also frequently seen as attendants to a goddess, in particular Venus. The sprays of foam around the feet of the figures is certainly reminiscent of the familiar image of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (, although here there is no gentle breeze caressing, or shy shielding of bodies. When looking at mythological paintings earlier in the course we were asked if these could still be relevant, and I think this more modern take with its edge of unease is a meaningful update.

This is not the only instance of myth in Kirchner’s work. Judgement of Paris (1913) is held by the Wilhelm-Hack Museum (see, but I found a better image in a Royal Academy publication (see, p. 12). In this “highly unusual and modern interpretation” we see “three modern, urban goddesses, … striking, mask-like features …, parading in front of a dark and mysterious Paris”, who may be Kirchner (Miall, 2003, p. 13). The three women are again arranged tightly together in a descending line, their faces clearly showing the influence of the Ajanta paintings. This time instead of an absent artist we see him in shadows, judging, disconnected.

Another interesting comparison is La ville de Paris (ca. 1911) by Robert Delaunay – see Here the three graces are seen in an urban environment, very clearly Paris. In this, “while still interested in portraying simultaneous views of his subjects, [Delaunay] rejected Cubism’s privileging of line over color and its virtual elimination of visual sensation through its muted palette” (The Toledo Museum of Art, [n.d.]). There is no angst or alienation here, and the colours as seen on the computer image are beautiful.

A second area of change from the sketch is the alignment of the bird to the upper right. The inward pressure in the final picture is an important structural element. Darby, following Hall, suggests this is a “symbol of air, one of the four elements”. This interpretation would highlight the absence of any land, let alone fire, to be seen. Venus can be associated with doves or swans, but this bird looks more like a seagull – which I’ve seen referred to as both good and bad omens for seamen.

The third change marked is the size, positioning and detail of the jellyfish. Darby again finds a mythological link, with “girdle of venus” a colloquial name for jellyfish. My internet search suggests this is a particular, flat, ribbon-like jellyfish, quite unlike the one shown in the painting. However the name could perhaps be used more generally. The change of position and sharpening of shape allows the jellyfish to provide an inverted continuation of the line of elbows and breasts across the canvas.

The sea is the birthplace of Venus, or Aphrodite (a name which may be associated with aphros, foam). Water is the source of life, and the threat of drowning; it can cleanse or engulf; the sea can be therapeutic, health-giving; it can be dark and mysterious; it is an unstoppable, undeniable force of nature. The figures stand in this seething mass, and their own position and nature is ambiguous. Their feet can’t be seen – are they mermaids rising from the depths? And come to that, where is the painter? He seems to be below, looking up, but there is no sign of the shore. He must be awash.

Donald Gordon wrote that “the prime emotional state of Expressionism is tension, ambiguity, ambivalence” (1987, p. xvi). The artists are reacting to their society and situation, anxious and critical of the stresses and alienation of urban life, rebelling. There was fear and hope – “central to the Expressionist enterprise was reciprocity: hope as answer to fear, decline as prerequisite for renewal” (ibid, p. 3).

In the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a canvas by Kirchner which vividly illustrates these concerns and ambivalence – On the front of the canvas is Street, Dresden (1908; reworked 1919; dated on painting 1907). Using heightened colours, Kirchner shows “figures with masklike faces and vacant eyes in an attempt to capture the psychological alienation wrought by modernization” (MoMA, 2009). The scene is crowded, bustling, airless, but each figure is alone in the crowd. On the reverse is a natural landscape, and nude women bathing. Continuing the theme of ambiguity, Gordon discusses this same work in comparison to Munch’s Evening on Karl Johan Street. There is the same “aura of decadence” and “anxious expressions”, but Gordon concludes that “despite protestations, Kirchner at some level wanted the Munch connection to be seen – in order to stress his conversion of a gloomy attitude into a gayer one” (Gordon, 1987, p. 29).

Nature and the City
kirchner_natureThe figures in this picture have chosen to bathe in the sea, but they are uncomfortable, alien. Rather than nurturing, nature surrounds and threatens. A bird arrows in, a jellyfish comes up behind perhaps about to sting, water is everywhere, about to mindlessly destroy. The individual will be lost to greater forces.

Lynn (1984) compared this to the painting by Braque shown above: “Braque gives order and completeness to nature; Kirchner tears it asunder with a conflict of adventurousness and timidity, threats and naive aspirations to harmony”. This is consistent with the ambiguity and tension of Expressionism. Will the bathers actually be overcome? Darby (1985, p.5) suggests that while “vulnerable and at the mercy of the elements” the figures “seem set to triumph over the threat and survive to be further fortified by nature”. This suggests the health-giving, restorative qualities of the sea are ultimately stronger than its mindless force.

Around the time of this painting Kirchner embarked on his series of urban street scenes, showing the decadence and moral and personal disintegration of the city. Darby continued “[Kirchner’s] paintings of prostitutes in the streets of Berlin, painted immediately after Three Bathers provide a contrast; his bathers retain some hope.”

Hope, War and beyond
Where Darby sees hope, Gordon sees something else – “the facial expressions of all three bathers and, particularly, the protective bunching of the shoulder muscles behind the neckless head of the rear figure betray an emotion which up to now was lacking in Kirchner’s imagery: fear” (Gordon, 1968, pp. 91-92). This directly raises the political situation of the time. In the summer of 1914 Kirchner and his companions were forced to flee early from their annual retreat in Fehmarn, following the declaration of war. On the journey home Kirchner was twice mistaken for a Russian spy.

Kirchner was an ‘involuntary volunteer’, signing up as an artillery driver to avoid conscription to the infantry. He suffered a series of mental and physical breakdowns. In Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915 – see Kirchner brutally records the damage and loss he feared as both artist and human being. The model in the background shows many similarities to the figures in Three Bathers – a life and world now irrelevant and powerless.

In 1916 Kirchner painted a mural in the Sanatorium where he was staying.

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The panel on the right seems to show a return to the Three Graces. The central figure is now seen from back, a more classical presentation. The “jellyfish” is definitely a rock, the bird of omen is now nearly past. The figures are now deeper, up to their waists in water, and the black smoke of modern engines is seen above. Can we claim that the worst has happened, the cataclysm hit, and the gaunt survivors have come to some kind of accommodation to their new reality? Are individuals once more able to connect with each other, to find a measure of freedom and joy?

For Kirchner himself it seems his life continued to be a struggle. Towards the end of his life he wrote ‘Did you know that as far back as 1900 I had the audacious idea of renewing German art? … I wanted to express the richness and joy of living, to paint humanity at work and at play in its reactions and interreactions and to express love as well as hatred…’ (quoted in Gordon, 1987, p.2). Kirchner admired the works of earlier German painters such as Cranach and Dürer (in this assignment I haven’t considered Three Bathers in the context of the history of nude paintings, but there is obvious potential for comparisons with Cranach’s The Three Graces, (1535 – see and Dürer’s The Four Witches (1497 – see , which could potentially be viewed as Aphrodite and the three graces)).

Instead of leading a new, vital German art, in 1926 Kirchner wrote “Modern German painting has moved so far away from me and become unintelligible in areas in which my work had, and still has, an influence…” (quoted in Kornfeld and Stauffer, 1992, p. 10). In 1933 the situation had worsened. Kirchner wrote “In the museums, the hard-won cultural achievements of the last 20 years are being destroyed, and yet the reason why founded the Brücke was to encourage truly German art, made in Germany. And now it is supposed to be un-German. Dear God. It does upset me.” (ibid, p. 12). In 1937 works by Kirchner were confiscated as part of the German campaign to ‘cleanse’ modern art, works by Kirchner were included in the “Exhibition of Degenerate Art”, and he was expelled from membership of The Academy of Arts in Berlin. In 1938 Kirchner took his own life.

Textile afternote:
I’m always happy to find textile connections when researching artists. Kirchner designed both embroideries and tapestries, although the only online images I’ve found is a small one of Black Spring, 1929 executed by Lise Gujer ( and some large stitching on a tablecloth in a photograph of Kirchner’s studio in Berlin in 1912 ( There was a flow-back into Kirchner’s painting, in what is called his “tapestry style” – see

Darby, G. (1985) An iconographical study of E. L. Kirchner’s Three Bathers 1913 (Manuscript) Methodology Essay Fine Arts IV 1985 (University of Sydney) Typescript.

Free, R. ([n.d.] “The First Acquisition”. Photocopy sighted in Art Gallery of New South Wales Research Library. Publication details not available.

Gordon, D. (1968) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gordon, D. (1987) Expressionism: Art and Idea. New Haven: Yale University Press

Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art. Boulder: Westview Press

Lynn, E (1984) “Nature versus humanity” in The Weekend Australian, 1-2 Sept, Surry Hills.

Kornfeld, EW and Stauffer, CE (1992) Biography Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Kirchner Museum Davos [online] Available from (Accessed 12-Jul-2014)

Miall, N. (2003) Kirchner: Expressionism and the city: An Introduction to the Exhibition for Teachers and Students Royal Academy of Arts [online] Available from (Accessed 29-Jun-2014)

MoMA (2009) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Street, Dresden Gallery Label Text. [online] Available from (Accessed 29-Jun-2014)

The Toledo Museum of Art, [n.d.] Catalogue entry [online] Available from (Accessed 7-Jul-2014)

UA1-WA:P4-p4-Exercise: Annotate a Henry Moore figures sculpture

I wrote about Henry Moore for a Research Point on abstract sculpture back in Part 3 (see 15-Dec-2013). Wanting to avoid too much repetition I’ve decided to meet this current requirement by looking at particular aspects of works previously mentioned.

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Henry Moore
Reclining figure: Angles
bronze, green patina
113.3 x 219.6 x 156.8 cm; 10.8 cm bronze base

This work was created late in Moore’s career, but the subject recurs throughout his work. Examples are included in his textile work – the large wall hanging Reclining figure of 1949 (linen printed by Ascher, see TEX 21.1 on and Reclining Figures 1944-46, which includes a body position very similar to the later focus sculpture (TEX 8.2 on

In my earlier post I found the distortions in the body somewhat unnerving, and suggested “this work seems to have no reason or meaning beyond Moore’s interest in working with volumes and forms”. Given my more recent studies, can my previous views stand?

First I should note a potential fallacy underlying my comment on the similarity of Moore’s reclining nudes of the mid 1940s and forty years later. A superficial similarity does not mean the works come from the same interests and point of view with no development or progression (which statement itself should not imply that development or progression are necessarily good or essential).

In recent exercises I have studied the reclining nude through art history. The focus work here is part of the continuation of that history, however I believe it does not trigger many of the issues within a feminist critique. Moore’s figure is not an idealization of the female form. It is a distortion, which could be interpreted as a violent act, but I see this as more using the figure as a known starting point in an exploration of volumes. The figure is not asleep or submissive or challenging in its gaze (if one stands “in front” to give the viewpoint of the classical painting). Instead she turns to direct her gaze elsewhere, to the side and over the viewer. Personally I don’t see this as a particularly seductive or erotic figure, although I note the polishing effect of the many hands which must have touched her breast over the years, entirely removing any patina.

The distortion of the figure could be related to Moore’s interest in surrealism, in particular a concern with metamorphosis. In his sketchbooks Moore could morph bones, stones or other natural items towards a human form. There is also an element of abstraction, although in this example the human figure is still clearly evident. For Moore “abstraction was a tool, not an objective” (Causey, 2010).

moore_agnsw_09The head is small compared to the bulk of the body and the facial features generalised, but there is still a clear facial plane, lines of hair, and an interesting echo and reversal in the shaping of the hair and the nose.

Aristide Maillol La Montagne [The mountain] 1937 Lead

Aristide Maillol
La Montagne [The mountain] 1937

Earlier works by Moore can show a fragility, even an anguish, perhaps “responding to the horrors of war” (Ure-Smith, 2011). The focus work, created decades later, has instead a strength, a monumentality. It seems to me anchored, and reminds me of Maillol’s mountainous figure (see 13-Jun-2014). However transplanted to Sydney, on a flat grassy area just before the slope to the harbour, I can’t claim that Moore’s figure is reflected in its landscape.

Moore had a close and loving relationship with his mother. One could read into the long line of the backbone in the focus work a trace from Moore’s rubbing of his mother’s back after a long hard day of work. The control and power of the work, a sense of gravity and stability, could refer to their relationship. I don’t believe this Reclining Figure can be included in the “images of anxiety” seen in some works (McAvera, 2001), but neither is the work “almost entirely lacking in any interior or psychological life” (ibid) – that deliberate, directed gaze is too suggestive of volition.

Good art, Moore asserted, contains elements both abstract and surrealist, classical and romantic: “Order and surprise, intellect and imagination, conscious and unconscious. Both sides of the artist’s personality must play their part.” (National Gallery of Art Washington, 2001). Reclining figure: Angles supports a wide variety of readings, some quite contradictory, and I believe is the richer for it.

I’d like to look briefly at another work by Moore I have seen in the past year – Hill Arches. This work more clearly displays a metamorphosis, an ambiguity. Is is the bones of animals or some kind of insect? In my eyes it is an erotic work full of sexual energy and activity (see 15-Dec-2013). Forms have been hollowed out, flesh stripped away, forms within forms laid bare. However it is the varied presentation of the work which I will discuss here.

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Henry Moore
Hill arches
1973 Bronze
National Gallery of Australia

There are multiple versions of this work. The maquette shows a wider spacing of the elements, losing drama and tension (see, or if that link isn’t good search for Object Number: LH 634 cast 0 ). The working model (Object Number: LH 635 cast 0) is tightened up considerably.

christanto_03The version pictured above is in a corner of the National Gallery of Australia sculpture garden in Canberra and is no.4 from an edition of 4. The work is in a little hollow, heavily shaded by trees, next to a rush-filled pond. The pond itself contains Dadang Christanto’s Heads from the North and in one of my photographs of Christanto’s work you can see Moore’s in the distance. Hill Arches doesn’t dominate space, it isn’t really framed by its environment. Instead I came across this work with a sense of discovery. The work almost blends in to the gardens, the large structure dwarfed by the trees, the colour melding with the natural surrounds.

My interpretation of the sculpture as a copulating couple was based on the angle at which I first saw it, but perhaps also by the rather out-of-the-way positioning and the sense of almost surprising the work in its private space.

I found some photographs from circa. 1985, 1990 and 1995 Landscaping of the sculpture gardens began in 1981 and most of the sculptures were installed in 1982 (see Piekains, 2003). In those earlier years the Moore sculpture was much more prominent, although even by 1995 it could be said “over the years, as the trees have grown, the work has appeared to sink a little into the landscape” (Hyden, 1995). The work in 2014 seems to have settled in still more, and with the increasing density of reeds in the pond it is not quite so accurate to claim “the Henry Moore sits in languid repose by the edge of the Marsh Pond, the lustrous bronze surface intentionally played off against the surface of the pond” (Piekains, 2003).

The situation of the sculpture seemed to have a strong influence on my experience of it, so I spent some time tracking down the other works in the edition.

moore_viennaOne version is in Karlsplatz, Vienna, Austria. The shot from the right is from Google Earth, and shows the work in a very formal setting to one side of an oval pool (I couldn’t even find the Canberra version, hidden in the trees on Google Earth). Photographs I found taken from various angles look completely different, influenced by the architecture of the different buildings behind – for examples see:

  • In the second photograph listed above the Moore work is a wonderful counterpoint to the baroque church behind, while in the third photograph it seems to float in the water like a strange ark.

    moore_usaAnother version is on its own island, part of the complex of the Deere & Company World Headquarters, Moline, Illinois – see

    The Headquarters, designed by Eero Saarinen, were the first known use of COR-TEN® steel in the architectural world. They have won multiple awards for architecture and the landscape design by Sasaki (see–company-corporate-headquarters/). The rounded lines of Hill Arches are a beautiful complement to the low rectangular buildings, sculpture and buildings both proudly displaying their metal skeletons.

    The final work of the Edition is owned by the Henry Moore Foundation and has traveled widely over the years. Photographs I’ve found include:

  • In Kew Gardens, 2008;
  • New York Botanical Garden, 2008
  • Atlanta Botanical Garden, 2009.
    Their blog contains many interesting photos, including loading onto transport (January 2010) and lit at night (15-May-2009)
  • Denver Botantic Gardens, 2010 – 2011.–Pond.htm
  • Hatfield House, 2011.
  • Perry Green, 2012
  • The different versions are different. For example the Canberra version is bronze in colour, unlike the green/turquoise patina of the Henry Moore Foundation work. They are presented in very different environments – Austrian urban, Australian bush garden, American industrial park, and a wide variety of temporary homes including both formal and informal gardens. The website of the Henry Moore Foundation suggests “Moore conceived [Hill Arches] for the top of a low hill but usually sited on grass, or in water, where its reflection produced an effect he particularly liked” (Henry Moore Foundation, [n.d.]). The very title of the work suggests landscape, but Cohen has claimed of the Vienna cast “losing all pretence to landscape, its curvaceous forms come to relate to the ornate dome and the twisting triumphal columns that flank the façade. Ironically, this sculpture conceived in terms of landscape has settled effortlessly into this most urbane of settings” (Cohen, 1998). In Atlanta “The turquoise Hill Arches float on a cloud of white Euphorbia “Diamond Frost” with a rose peaking through the background. I’ve eavesdropped on our visitors, and they are enamored with this piece and the lovely, delicate white flowers that set it off” (Atlanta Botanical Garden, 2009)

    Richardson (2007) wrote: “the sculptor commented in 1951, just as he was beginning to contemplate making works specifically for landscapes: ‘Sculpture gains by finding a setting that suits its mood and when that happens there is gain for both the sculpture and setting'”. Does it matter that the artist had one intention, and that I don’t think a single one of the photographs I found had the work sited according to that intention? Obviously many people have enjoyed the works as presented. Does this indicate a strong sculpture that can hold its own and contribute to almost any environment? Does it reflect the cachet of such a well known artist? Could it bring still more to the viewer if seen its intended setting? It is probably only a minority of artworks that are designed for a particular site and are seen only in that site. It has been an interesting exercise to trace the different variants of Hill Arches.

    Finally, I’m always happy to find a textile link. Go to to see a textile response to Hill Arches at Kew.


    Atlanta Botanical Garden (2009) Moore in America 8 May [online] Available from (Accessed 15-Jun-2014)

    Causey, A. (2010) “His darkened imagination: Henry Moore” in Tate Etc. 18 (Spring) [online] Available from (Accessed 13-Jun-2014)

    Cohen, D. (1998) “Hill Arches 1973” in Celebrating Moore: Works from the Collection of the Henry Moore Foundation edited by David Mitchinson, Henry Moore Foundation: University of California Press p. 305

    Henry Moore Foundation, ([n.d.]) Henry Moore Works in Public: United States of America: Moline [online] Available from (Accessed 15-Jun-2014)

    Hyden, J. (1995) Henry: Hill arches [online] Available from (Accessed 18-Jun-2014)

    McAvera, J. (2001) “The Enigma of Henry Moore” in Sculpture Magazine 20 (6) July/August[online] Available from (Accessed 20-Jun-2014)

    National Gallery of Art Washington (2001) Henry Moore: Abstraction and Surrealism: The 1930s [online] Available from (Accessed 20-Jun-2014)

    Piekains, H. (2003) Sculpture Garden: Art in Landscape essay originally published in the National Gallery’s of Australia’s Building the Collection publication. [online] Available from (Accessed 20-Jun-2014)

    Richardson, T (2007) “Henry Moore exhibition at Kew is a triumph” in The Telegraph 14-Sept [online] Available from (Accessed 15/6/2014)

    Ure-Smith, J. (2011) “The man behind the monuments” in 19 August [online] Available from (Accessed 15-Jun-2014)

    UA1-WA:P4-p4-Exercise: Annotate a Henry Moore figures sculpture
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
    Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
    Project four: Figure sculpture
    Exercise: Annotate a Henry Moore figures sculpture

    UA1-WA:P4-p4-Research Point: Recent figure sculptures

    This research point asks me to look at some more recent figure sculptures. I’m taking a quite literal approach by reviewing photographs I’ve taken of figure sculptures I’ve looked at over the past couple of years.

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    Gaston Lachaise
    Floating figure 1927
    135.0 (h) x 233.0 (w ) x 57.0 (d) cm
    This work is in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Australia. It’s a large sculpture of a large and strangely proportioned woman, but she looks so graceful and light – an elegant acrobatic performance.

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    Rayner Hoff
    Australian Venus circa 1927
    Angaston marble
    114.5 x 33.0 x 21.0 cm
    The Art Gallery NSW (AGNSW) nominates this work as a “collection highlight” on its website. Given my last two posts it immediately challenges me on feminist critique grounds. This figure is an idealized form, an entirely anonymous torso. The figure twists to display – flaunt – its physical attributes to the gaze. I recently wrote “Szantho’s work doesn’t ask questions, explore, push boundaries, even really present a strong point of view” (see 8-Jun-2014). I believe Hoff’s work shown here does offer more.

    Hoff was exploring Australian identity in his work. This is a healthy, athletic woman who would enjoy the beach and all the outdoor activities of Australian life. The stone is from an Australian quarry and has a texture and granularity that I haven’t seen (noticed?) in other marble sculptures. It is very sensual, an erotic dream – but has sufficient naturalism and grace to move beyond a mere pinup.

    In the background of one of the photos can be seen two other works of similar period which also reflect on aspects of national identity – The idle hour by Arthur Murch (1933 – and Australian beach pattern by Charles Meere (1940 – I really appreciate the thoughtful grouping of works in the gallery, giving context and depth to viewing of the works.

    Aristide Maillol
    La Montagne [The mountain] 1937
    167.4 h x 193.0 w x 82.3 d cm
    Close to Lachaise’s Floating figure in the National Gallery of Australia sculpture garden is this female form in triangles and cones. Rather than light and floating, she is massive, mountainous, anchored in the ground of lead which still holds her lower right leg. It could be a grassy plain, her thigh rolling hills leading to the mountain range of the left leg and on to the windswept hair of the summit.

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    Marino Marini
    Rider 1936
    bronze, unique cast
    203.0 x 94.0 x 165.0 cm
    I have trouble connecting with this sculpture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It is awkward and uncomfortable. Rider and horse don’t quite fit together. The photo of the legs is included because that is the first view I’ve found over a number of visits that seemed convincing.

    From the notes on the gallery website that sense of disquiet was intended by the sculptor. Marini was reacting to the Fascist regime under Mussolini, creating “a modern anti-hero whose vulnerability is very different to the traditional image of the all-powerful military hero on horseback”.

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    Margel Hinder
    Jerry (1945)
    23.0 x 23.0 x 22.0 cm figure; 25.2 x 27.0 x 27.0 cm overall
    martin_place_15This small wooden puzzle of a figure is so warm and inviting it took an effort of will not to take it in my hands at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It’s an amazing contrast to another work of Hinder’s that I’ve shown in the past, her Free standing sculpture outside the Reserve Bank of Australia Building – although that was tactile and inviting in its own way (see 31-Dec-2013). This seems to be an experiment in filling a cylinder with a human figure, with all sorts of lovely shapes inviting a closer look.

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    Rah Fizelle
    Veneration (circa 1947-circa 1952)
    wood (teak)
    86.5 x 29.0 x 13.5 cm figure; 91.0 x 36.0 x 22.7 cm overall:
    It seems to me that I can see a figure kneeling in worship here, although I haven’t found any confirmation of that other than that his “characteristic paintings and drawings of the 1930s are semi-abstract figure compositions” and “his art in the 1940s and early 1950s included near-abstract figures in carved wood, sandstone and pottery” (Thomas, 1981).

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    Alberto Giacometti
    Woman of Venice VII [Femme de Venise VII] 1956
    117.0 x 16.0 x 36.0 cm
    This figure seems outlandish in her proportions, but still so warm, human, vulnerable. There’s a tactile, almost melting quality – I noticed a particularly prominent “Do Not Touch” sign, so obviously I’m not the only one drawn to explore this work through my fingertips rather than my eyes. To me she seems to be wanting to open her arms, to hold and shelter us. I imagine an unquenchable spirit in the wasted body.

    I was surprised to see on the AGNSW website other interpretations suggested: “Whether we interpret her as a goddess or prostitute, Egyptian cult figure or decomposing corpse, one cannot remain unmoved by Giacometti’s powerful interpretation of humanity.”

    In the background to some of these photos is a portrait by Francis Bacon. That distortion seems hard, brutal, quite unlike the ethereal nature of Giacometti’s work.

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    Antony Gormley
    Angel of the North (life-size maquette) 1996
    Cast iron
    196.5 h x 535.0 w x 53.0 d cm
    This work in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Australia is a 1:10 model of the one in the UK. The National Carillon in the background of a couple of the photos was a gift from the British Government to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the national capital, but I prefer the link to the crane you can barely see in the third shot.

    The art gallery website suggests “as well as evoking a celestial messenger, the Angel of the North recalls the human/divine sacrifice of the Crucifixion”. I can’t agree. This figure stands erect, proud, head high, the wide arms or sails suggest a messenger, or a guardian, or an open embrace. I can’t see a broken body, a sacrifice. If anything this would be after the Resurrection – the Ascension.

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    Juan Muñoz
    Piggy back (right) 1996
    183.0 cm height; 62.0 x 56.5 cm base plate
    Currently this sculpture is in the front vestibule of the Art Gallery of NSW. The figures are slightly smaller than life-size.

    In this Research Point I have decided to make a broad but rather shallow review – for each work I present the work, some thoughts or reactions of my own, a few remarks gleaned from artist statement or gallery signage. With this work my personal response was so different to the gallery position that I have researched a little further.

    In the gallery I saw these figures as slightly “other” but engaging and playful. They appear mischievous, perhaps having some fun in a stolen moment of time during a day of hard labour. There is some incongruity – the feet of both men are arched like a ballerina’s. How could you carry that weight and balance on your tip-toes? Why put tension in your feet when being carried? They seem to be moving into the general walkway, becoming part of the crowds visiting the gallery.

    I was very surprised to read on the gallery website that figures in this series “look as if their skin has been burned, scarred or melted”, that “the peculiar quality of the surface of the objects is remarkably similar to calcified objects from a limestone cave”, “fossilised like the figures from Pompeii or like revellers who have been interrupted by Medusa and turned instantly to stone”. The notes claim “while this may be a purely subjective response the impact of such a reading is impossible to set aside once it is uttered.” On the contrary, I struggled to find any of this in the work I experienced.

    In an interview with the artist Paul Schimmel suggested “We are unable to relate to them on a personal basis… They stand in for the figure, but you don’t read them emotionally…” and Muñoz responded “They don’t try to coexist in the same space as the spectator. They are smaller than real figures. There is something about their appearance that makes them different, and this difference in effect excludes the spectator from the room they are occupying.” (Schimmel, 2000) This may have been in reference to other works by Muñoz, but the variance to my reaction remains striking.

    I think part of this is the placement of the sculpture in the gallery. In the same interview Muñoz claimed “I use architecture to give a “theatrical” frame of reference to the figure” and “the architecture behaves as a backdrop to the figures. For example, I learned from Carl Andre that the floor was important in the activation of space. But I make optical floors because they help me to magnify the inner tension of the figure. They create a psychological space for the figure that permeates the spectator’s perception.” In AGNSW the work is placed in an area at the side of the vestibule which is designed for the display of sculpture. The work is actually placed on the decorative tiling which defines the centre of the niche. Sculpture is expected here – and instead of claiming and controlling the space it is absorbed by it.

    This loss of impact is exacerbated by the area’s use as a general walkway, and the relationship / contrast formed by the sculpture in the niche opposite – more on that below when discussing the other work, Haft by Gormley.

    It was only when seeing images of other works by Muñoz in Tim Sandys’s essay Selling the Air – The Art of Juan Muñoz, particularly a detail of Conversation Piece, that I could understand references to the horror of eyes propped open, or hollowed out, or blighted faces. Some of the elements supporting this horror, such as a blade in the mouth, aren’t included in the AGNSW work. More than that, I realised why these figures at AGNSW are so familiar to me. Growing up on the other side of the world, I first met my grandfather when I was 18 and he was around 78 – small, wizened, mischievous in a quirky, stern, erratic way, arm permanently damaged by a bayonet on the Somme … and blind. I can imagine him with his brother, Uncle Wilf, in some bizarre escapade, in a tiptoeing piggyback.

    No matter what an artist intends, curatorial decisions, and even more one’s personal experiences and memories, impact the viewer’s response.

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    Dadang Christanto
    Heads from the North 2004
    cast bronze
    each 33.0 h 19.0 diameter cm. Installation (approx.) 1600.0 w x 2300.0 d cm

    From the signage at the National Gallery of Australia sculpture garden:
    Heads from the north is a memorial to those affected by events following an unsuccessful military coup in Indonesia in September 1965. The brutal suppression that followed had devastating consequences for the nation, leading to mass killings in late 1965 and early 1966. Dadang Christanto was an innocent victim: the eight-year old’s father was among the many who disappeared at the time. Barely holding their heads above water, the sixty-six sculptures signify lives lost and ravaged in the year 1966.”

    Standing in warm November sunshine, listening to the distant carillion’s music, I thought of the horrors of war, the futility, the ongoing cost in human lives – those lost and those living. We have so much, I wish Australia could find more generosity and warmth for refugees.

    Xu Zhen
    In Just a Blink of an Eye 2005
    Presented as part of the Kaldor Public Art Project #27, entitled 13 Rooms, April 2013

    Can a motionless breathing body be regarded as a figure sculpture? Is it conceptual art or performance art or any kind of art…?

    I don’t know the answers, or how useful such questions are.

    Here our assumptions, our knowledge, of physical contraints, of the material of the body, are challenged. A body which must be falling is frozen – but clearly alive.

    I’ve included this as the most sculpture-like of the various performance art events I’ve seen over recent years, as a challenge to the entire research point.

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    Antony Gormley
    Haft 2007
    mild steel blocks
    165.0 x 48.0 x 60.0 cm

    This sculpture by Antony Gormley is currently displayed in the entry vestibule, opposite the work by Juan Muñoz at AGNSW. The steel blocks form an oddly tender image of a man – withdrawn, perhaps shy or wistful.

    gormley_munozAs displayed the two sculptures, the building itself, the people walking through the vestibule – all combine in multiple layers of conversations and contrasts.

    Each sculpture is in a side area designed for the purpose of displaying sculptures – this area was built between 1896 and 1909, so they would have been very different sculptures, bringing in an additional sense of continuity as part of art history.

    Each work is centered in its area, contained and conforming.

    Both works are less than life-size, and that sameness reduces the impact that may have been intended in the selection of scale.

    The work by Gormley turns to one side, away from the visitors walking through, increasing the sense that it is alone in a crowd.

    The work by Muñoz is walking into the space, becoming one of the moving throng, lessening any sense of the alien or otherness.

    I think possible subtlety in Muñoz’s work is lost in this busy transitional area, while Gormley’s figure, obviously alien and out of place, cringing, maintains its impact in a difficult situation.

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    Li Hongbo
    Paper 2010

    This work at the White Rabbit Gallery is two roughly life-sized figures made from tens of thousands of sheets of paper glued together. The stacks of paper were carved into the form of human bodies using an electric saw. I’ve written about this work and others at the White Rabbit before (see 9-Nov-2012)

    The glued paper concertinas out, rather like the paper christmas ornaments I remember from childhood. One figures is exhibited with the paper still largely in place, with only the head unfolded. In the next room his twin is stretched and looped – it’s hard to accept that this was once a human form.

    biennale_16_li_hongboI have thought that this work is primarily an exploration of materials and technique, and that the human form chosen by the artist was simply an interesting shape with which to work. However Li Hongbo’s Ocean of Flowers in the 2012 Biennale of Sydney was based on the silhouettes of weapons – a shocking incongruity which makes me wonder about meanings underlying Paper.

    Alwar Balasubramaniam
    Nothing from my hands 2011-12
    Installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the 18th Biennale of Sydney

    This work is another to challenge the nature of figure sculpture, given the figure is notably absent. Balasubramaniam has said “these works are an effort to define the space in which one’s self ends and the other begins.” Made of fibreglass, wood and synthetic polymer paint, the works are based on casts of the space between the artist’s hands. There is a loss of identity at the same time as the (past) presence of the other is made apparent.

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    Robert Barnstone
    once removed 2013
    cast glass
    20cm x 10cm x 30 cm
    Sculpture by the sea Bondi 2013

    The artist states “these glass feet are a ghostly reminder of the presence of people past.” Installed on the rocky cliffs of Sydney, I think those bare feet must have been those of the original inhabitants, watching as the ships of the first fleet sailed past on their way to the harbour. The fragility of the glass echoes the fragility of people, the brief impression we make in the sweep of time.

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    Elyssa Sykes-Smith
    a shared weight 2013
    recycled timber
    120cm x 93 cm x 70cm each (2 figures)
    Sculpture by the sea Bondi 2013

    One of the things I most enjoy seeing at Sculpture by the sea is work which uses the unique surroundings. These figures by Sykes-Smith were set into a small cave-like fissure in the cliff face. They seem to be supporting the weight of the rock, soil and buildings above. The figures seem aware of each other, working together in this unequal task.

    Vince Vozzo
    moon buddha 2013
    130cm x 136cm x 59cm
    Sculpture by the sea Bondi 2013
    The artists statement: “For over 35 years the artist has had an obsession for the perfect human face. This spiritual and divine search has led to the creation of many different versions of heads and faces.” The huge, smooth, still face contrasted with the rough rock around and the ever moving and surging sea below. This is the last modern work I am presenting here, and it seems fitting to have returned to the idea of the perfect human form – the goal of the early Greek sculptors and so many since.

    Other works not included here but previously shown in this blog are:

  • untitled (old woman in bed) by Ron Mueck (see 4-Jun-2012) (2000-02);
  • Buck with cigar by Marc Quinn (2009), mentioned a number of times (see 5-May-2013);
  • works by Henry Moore (see 15-Dec-2013).
  • There has obviously been a huge range of approaches to figure sculpture over the past 100 years, with differences in materials, size, purpose … – and this is only those I’ve seen in a couple of years Canberra and Sydney. However none of these could really be called focal points in the cities. They are in exhibitions, or galleries, or sculpture gardens. I’ve been unable to find anything that could be described as permanent urban focal point, apart from war memorials (having made a semi-conscious choice not to include these in my survey).

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    Sydney has such focal points, but not modern. Queen Victoria oversees a busy junction just outside the Queen Victoria building in Sydney. Created by John Hughes this work, part of a larger monument, was unveiled in 1908 in the grounds of Leinster House in Dublin. By 1929 there was a drive to remove it as “repugnant to national feeling, and that, from an artistic point of view, it disfigures the architectural beauty of the parliamentary buildings” (The Irish Times, 1929). After various vicissitudes the work arrived in Sydney in 1987. I just wish I had taken a photograph of her in bright clothing as part of Sydney Statues: Project! in 2010 (see ).

    The second focal work shown above is the Archibald Fountain by François-Léon Sicard, erected in 1932. It stands in a large space of meeting paths in Hyde Park in the centre of Sydney. Now I’m actually writing this up I realise that the work falls within my “past 100 years” – a trick of the mind, as it is such an iconic work that I have known all my life.

    hillThe City of Sydney public art program seems to focus on moments of unexpected beauty (see Forgotten Songs by Michael Thomas Hill (completed 2011) is one lovely example – a delight hidden in the laneways behind Martin Place.


    Sandys, T. ([n.d.])Selling the Air – The Art of Juan Muñoz [online] Available from (Accessed 13-Jun-2014)

    Schimmel, P. (2000) ‘Juan Muñoz interviewed by Paul Schimmel’ September 18, 2000 in Benezra, N. and Viso, O. (2001) Juan Muñoz Chicago: University of Chicago Press [online] Available from (Accessed 12-Jun-2014)

    The Irish Times (1929) Quoted in Fallon, D. (2013) Story of the statue in front of Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building [online] Available from (Accessed 13-Jun-2014)

    Thomas, D (1981) ‘Fizelle, Reginald Cecil Grahame (Rah) (1891–1964)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 10 June 2014.

    UA1-WA:P4-p4-Research Point: Recent figure sculptures
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
    Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
    Project four: Figure sculpture
    Research Point: Recent figure sculptures

    UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Annotate a female nude

    The requirements for this exercise are quite precise: an annotation of a classic nude in the western tradition with a comparison to a specific work by a less well-known twentieth century artist. This had me wondering about the underlying purpose of the exercise.

    I’d seen the exercise coming up, and without reading the detail had already selected three works by the same artist in the Art Gallery of NSW to work on – the main work a nude by Dobell, plus comparisons to two smaller nudes by the same artist (the AGNSW has some studies for those, too). I particularly like some brushstrokes and a scarlet red which is carried through the main work.I thought it would be enlightening to think about different works and different purposes over time.

    While I started off rather grumpy, I’ve found the selection of appropriate works and thinking about what the exercise is trying to teach me very interesting in their own right. For the main work I have chosen what I think of as “The” classic nude in the western tradition, and as for the second work – I’ll give my thoughts on that later.

    sketch_giorgioneThe Sleeping Venus (also known as The Slumbering Venus) was painted by Giorgione 1508 – 1510, with some elements completed by Titian after Giorgione’s death. Given copyright concerns (of the photo rather than the original painting), I’ve included my rough sketch here – see for the best image I could find.

    The picture shows a naked woman, the goddess Venus, asleep in the foreground. Her long body stretches from one side of the canvas to the other. Behind her is rolling countryside, leading to a hilltop village in the middle ground on the right, another village and mountains in the distance to left, and in the far distance in the centre the sea can be glimpsed – a convincing sense of depth. The long, soft curves and contours of the goddess are echoed in the long curves of the hills in the landscape behind. She lies on fine, white cloth, with plump, rich, red and gold pillows supporting her. The left arm reaches back to support her head, exposing the perfect form of the goddess to our eyes. Her right hand rests on her pubic area, drawing our attention to her as a sexual being. Her smooth, unblemished skin fills our gaze. The colours appear rich and warm, based on the web image available and various sources referring to rich and bold Venetian colours. There appears to be a tree-stump in the centre of the image, almost a pivot point. Is this to create a balance, to remove a void in the centre, a partial distraction for the eye from the hand and groin of the goddess just below, some kind of allegory…?

    For a languid, atmospheric image there is actually a lot of content, a lot going on, except for a vacancy of grass towards the lower right. X-ray analysis reveals that cupid, possibly playing with a bird or a bow and arrows, was in this area. Probably completed by Titian, this area was degraded and painted over during conservation in 1837.

    Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Written by Francesco Colonna  Design of woodcuts attributed to Benedetto Bordone  1499

    Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
    Written by Francesco Colonna
    Design of woodcuts attributed to Benedetto Bordone
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Elements of the pose can be traced back to the Venus of Knidos, while the book pictured here was published only a decade before Giorgione’s work and would have been known to him. However this particular painting by Giorgione is regarded as “the work that founded the tradition of the reclining nude” (Chilvers, 2009, p. 250).

    That is not the only first (or close to first) claimed for Giorgione. He was early amongst those who focused on “cabinet” or easel paintings using brilliant oil-based colours, suitable for secular, private, wealthy clients. Giorgione also created a sense of mood in his landscapes with subtle use of colour and atmosphere, and in the focus painting the nude appears a part of that landscape, not simply posed in front of it.

    Little of Giorgione’s output during his short career has survived, and the attribution of a number of works are the subject of ongoing debate. His work can appear dream-like, not only in atmosphere but in a vagueness of subject or theme, creating a visual poetry. The Sleeping Venus could share this mystery, but the imagery is suited to its original purpose – to commemorate the marriage of Girolamo Marcello, Giorgione’s patron, and Morosina Pisani. The sleeping Venus and cupid are symbolic of a wedding. The gesture of her hand relates to the contemporary belief that to achieve conception both partners must be pleasured. The erotic overtones are within the context of the marriage.

    The scale of the picture invites the viewer in. The goddess in all her loveliness is displayed to us. The viewer could enter the picture and wake her, to share in her erotic dream. Many of the elements of concern in a feminist critique are present. The woman although identified as Venus, is anonymous not an individual and her form is more classical perfection than a real woman. She presents herself to the assumed masculine gaze, is available to the voyeur. Her pose is openly sensual. She sleeps, passive, unchallenging. The association with a marriage highlights that the masculine patron is acquiring for his “enjoyment the perfect partner – passive, receptive, available” (quoting again from Saunders (1989, p. 23) – see also my post 6-Jun-2014). Marriage at the time was a social and political contract in which the woman had no voice.

    In its historical context the picture was appropriate, innovative and beautiful. If painted today it wouldn’t be innovative (ignoring any time travel causality paradoxes!) and I would look for some additional conceptual basis underpinning the work – whether an expression of joie de vivre or a social statement, or an exploration of form…

    The more modern comparative work the OCA notes direct me to is Reclining nude by Maria Szantho. Szantho (1897 – 1998) was born and lived in Hungary. She represented Hungary, sending paintings to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but I was unable to find any works by her on the Hungarian National Gallery website (, using site search engine 8-June-2014). The limited biographical information I have found comes from a site maintained by her grand-nephew ( The best image sources I have found for Szantho’s works are (which when I viewed it 8-Jun-2014 had the picture nominated by OCA in the top row) and I have no information on size or date or materials used, and the image is limited to 736 pixels. I have not been able to locate any existing critical commentary.

    Presumably the point of the comparison is that here we have a painting of a reclining nude woman, by a woman, testing the scope and limitations of feminist critique – and the comparison of my reactions to this and to the Giorgione work is challenging. Szantho’s woman is anonymous. Her form may be regarded as a contemporary idealization – slim, relatively large breasts, pretty. In other works by Szantho there is a tendency to large eyes, thin eyebrows, bow mouth – the fashion plate of the day. The nude reclines, sleeping – vulnerable, unchallenging, available to the male gaze. There is little definition in the space around her – she rests on a white sheet with a red pillow, there are possible tufts of grass in the foreground and a rough bushy indication behind. From what I have seen during my search some people find her work beautiful, decorative, timeless. I think it is bad art.

    My check lists describing the two nudes are very similar, but the end results are quite different. How can I regard one as great art, endlessly interesting, and the other as trite and banal. I don’t particularly see it as degrading to women, just irrelevant. Szantho’s work doesn’t ask questions, explore, push boundaries, even really present a strong point of view. It is quite disconnected to any of the major movements in twentieth century art. From what I can see on the web image the colouring is a fairly blunt red-green contrast, while the body is not quite photo-realist and not quite anything else. The part I find challenging is that however well or badly painted I can accept one version of the perfected female form and the other I find a dolly-bird, empty-headed travesty. I can’t justify it, I simply note my social conditioning.

    The thing that gets to me in this exercise is that it is unfair. We are asked to compare a fringe artist to a legend of western art. I think it trivializes the feminist debate. One is a great of western art, possibly a pin-up in its day but always more than that. The other is an almost contemporary minor work, of pin-up quality in its day.

    Worse, in this course we so rarely get a chance to consider women artists – it’s a cultural fact that there are few known great women artists for much of western history. Finally we look at women’s art – and we get Maria Szantho. Line up all your male heavy-weights, selected from hoards of artists over the years – and pit poor Maria Szantho against them.

    A short list of nudes painted by women in the twentieth century that I think have something to say as part of western art history – not all “greats”, most not reclining, but all interesting:

  • Dorothy Thornhill, Resting Diana, 1931
  • Elise Blumann, Summer Nude, 1939 (There’s a wonderful male nude of Blumann’s too, but I can’t find a solid link. Try, entry for 26-Jan-2014.)
  • Dorrit Black, Music, 1927
  • Grace Crowley, Figure study, nude holding a book 1928-1929
  • Ethel Spowers, Resting models, 1934 (includes a reclining nude and an interesting red/green combination).
  • And as a break from the Australians

  • Vanessa Bell, Nude, c.1922–3
  • Sonia Delaunay, Yellow nude (haven’t got a date or a link, but I like it too much to leave it out)
  • References

    Chilvers, I. (2009) Oxford dictionary of art & artists (revised fourth edition) Oxford: Oxford University Press

    Saunders, G. (1989) The nude: A new perspective. London: The Herbert Press.

    Additional sources
    Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

    Robbins, GS ([nd]) Sleeping Venuses [online] Available from (Accessed 7-Jun-2014)

    UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Annotate a female nude
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
    Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
    Project three: The human figure
    Exercise: Annotate a female nude

    UA1-WA:P4-p3-Research point: The female nude

    This research point asks me to consider aspect of the female nude:
    * Do they exploit for male gratification or does it depend on context?
    * What does a feminist critique add?
    * How have women portrayed by other women through history?
    * How are women portrayed by other women today?

     Francesco Xanto Avelli Large plate: An allegory on the sack of Rome 1530

    Francesco Xanto Avelli
    Large plate: An allegory on the sack of Rome

    Wandering through the Art Gallery of NSW this was the oldest work including nudes that I found. It includes all combinations of male/female clothed/unclothed. Given the treatment and subject matter it’s hard to read it as exploiting women for male gratification. Many of the figures are based on classical works – for example the central female, Venus, is based on Hellenistic sculptures of crouching Venus (see one at the British Museum – Signage at the gallery includes “The sack of Rome was the world-shattering terrorist event of the renaissance period. On the reverse of this plate the artist refers to ‘5 May’ as we might ‘9/11’.” Why would the artist choose to use nudes in this scene? I wonder if in part he was trying to explain or understand the unexplainable, and to find distance from the immediate horror by seeing it in familiar, formal, classical forms. Raw history is seen through allegory, including Juno, Bacchus (from Marcantonio’s Due baccanti – see, and in the foreground the River God of the Tiber.

    Perhaps a more challenging example is Diana and Actaeon by Titian held at the National Gallery in London. At first glance there is a lot of beautiful, sensual, female skin on display. It could also be a man’s dream situation, stumbling across a bevy of beautiful and naked women. A simple and inadequate response is that I find the painting beautiful and sensual, and as a straight woman don’t feel I am exploiting anyone by gazing on the image. I’m also aware of the story being represented – another from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Acteon has accidentally wandered into the goddess Diana’s bathing place. The goddess, greatly displeased, turns Acteon into a stag, to be hunted and killed by his own dogs -as pictured in Titan’s The Death of Actaeon, also in the National Gallery ( This is not a good story for men leering at women.

    There are so many ways to read a painting, so many perspectives. Did you notice the black girl attending Diana (wearing stripes! see my post on The Devil’s cloth for more on that – 1-May-2014)? How many strong, powerful black figures does one see in western art before the 1800s? One of the three Magi, but little else. For an example of exploitation and abuse in art, go back to my annotation The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 by Alphonse de Neuville (24-Oct-2013) to see a work based in politics and oppression. There are many forms of discrimination and oppression – race, gender, religion, politics, sexual orientation, class… Campaigners against a particular wrong can seem to find its trace everywhere.

    There’s no denying that the sensual, the sexual, the erotic, is a fundamental element of a lot of art – and, I would say, of a healthy, balanced life. The question is of oppression – is there a systematic abuse of power? Before looking at a feminist critique of the nude in western art I wanted a more “traditional”, formal analysis, viewpoint. The OCA notes refer to The Nude: A study in ideal form by Kenneth Clark, but although in the NSW Art Gallery library catalogue I couldn’t find it on the shelves. Instead I took notes from The Body: Images of the nude by Edward Lucie-Smith (1981) (discovering later that he has also co-authored a book with Judy Chicago which seems to present contrasting interpretations of images of women in art – I haven’t been able to track down a copy).

    Lucie-Smith explains that the nude is central in western painting “not merely as the accepted measure of proportion and the noblest subject an artist could devote himself to, but as the yardstick of reason” (Lucie-Smith, 1981, p. 7). Artists attempted “to make perfection of body the mirror of perfection of spirit” (ibid, p. 13), and in failing to reach such lofty goals the artist could still reach greatness – “It is the struggle to transcent the sexual basis of what he was doing rather than its complete elimination, which makes Michelangelo’s male nudes so moving… Many of his contemporaries did not even bother to put up a fight. The nudes they painted were erotic without dissimulation.” (ibid, p. 13).

    When art was mainly commissioned by the church painting of nudes was restricted to particular scenes – Adam and Eve, the Crucifixion. When art became more secularized from the sixteenth century, it could become more overtly erotic – but “patronage of art – and its sexual rewards – were privileges of power” (ibid, p. 13). In the early seventeenth century art lost its “purient, keyhole quality” and “at the same time there is a more open acknowledgement of sheer sensuality: an increased passion for everything colourful and dramatic” (ibid, p.16).

    Lucie-Smith discovers widely varying artistic purposes.

  • Cagnacci has “a strong sado-masochistic streak” and “it is clear that the nude interests him for its vulnerability – it is the measure, not of reason, but of man’s capacity for sensation” (idid, p. 17).
  • In Angelica and the hermit “Rubens turns his painting of the nude into a statement that animal energy, without the least spirtual overtone, has virtures of its own which ought to be celebrated by artists. Sexual appetite, he tells us, can be treated as matter-of-factly as the business of working up an appetite for dinner” (ibid, p. 19).
  • “The typical Boucher work is unspecific, a mere diagram of female attractiveness, something disconcertingly close to the pinup drawings of the present day” (ibid, p. 20)
  • “Renior no longer to justify his interest in the nude by making it part of some mythological composition, nor even by making it obviously ‘decorative’ after the manner of Boucher and Fragonard… For Renoir the female nude has the magic of perfect ordinariness, with no need to stress the fact. It is as ordinary as a flower in full bloom, or a ripe fruit” (ibid, pp. 20-21).
  • In Bathesheba “what Rembrandt seems to be doing is using nudity not only as an emblem of genuine sexual desirability … but also as an emblem of vulnerability… One empathizes with Bathsheba rather than desiring her. Her humanity counts for even more than her sexuality” (ibid, p. 21)
  • Jacques Louis David “approached its erotic implications rather cautiously, prefering to use it … as a symbol of strength and heroism” (ibid, p. 24)
  • “Ingres was always fascinated by the idea of woman as slave or captive. The bound female figures in his Ruggiero and Angelica clearly had a deep psychological appeal for him” (ibid, p. 24).
  • Degas “in his misogyny pushes matter much further, suggesting that a human being is merely a kind of animal” (ibid (p.26)
  • Lucie-Smith finds examples of nudes used to symbolise sexual awakening, unfolding possibilities, as a means for the artist’s self-exploration – “powerful emanations of subjective feeling” (ibid, p. 28). In twentieth century art “the nude has become more rather than less central, since it remains the basic image of humanity” (ibid, p. 29). Aristide Maillot shows “residual classicism”, Francis Bacon “anguished distortion”, Matisse with Carmelina is “universal and impersonal”, Modigliani “turns the female nude into a musical interplay of stylized shapes”, while DeKooning found femaleness “simultaneously threatening and voluptuous” (ibid, p. 29)

    I can’t agree with all of Lucie-Smith’s assessment – for example look at Carmelina I see a strong woman confronting the artist. Renoir may have seen a nude as ordinary as a ripe fruit – but then how often is ripe fruit used to suggest sexual readiness? The reference to Rembrandt’s Bathsheba is interesting. I found two versions, showing different parts of the biblical story. At The Metropolitan Museum of Art ( we see Bathsheba at her toilet and she seems to look back knowingly, comfortable with our view. Just visible atop the palace in the background is David, also watching her. The version at the Louvre ( shows Bathsheba holding the summons from David. She appears withdrawn, pensive, troubled, vulnerable. I think Lucie-Smith must be referring to this version.

    Turning to a feminist perspective, I was able to find and skim through a book suggested in the notes – The nude: A new perspective bu Gill Saunders, written about eight years after the book by Lucie-Smith. Saunders begins her introduction: “Nudity is a politically, socially and sexually ‘loaded’ subject, liable to provoke extreme responses” (Saunders, 1989, p. 7). She continues “‘Nude’ is synonymous with ‘female nude’ because nakedness connotes passivity, vulnerability; it is powerless and anonymous”.

    Saunders develops her position:

  • “For the Greeks, the nude, apart from its celebration of physical beauty, expressed the nobility and potential of the human spirit, but in Christian theology nakedness became a symbol of shame and guilt … signs of sinfulness, grief and humiliation” (ibid p.9)
  • Of Christian art in the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, “nakedness is the outward sign of the sins of the flesh indulged and will be punished accordingly” (ibid, p.9)
  • Of Academic art training in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries “The apprentice painter was only permitted to advance to the next stage of his training – drawing from the living model, naked or draped – when his imagination was well-stocked with ideal forms to counterbalance the distressing variety of nature in the individual” (ibid, p. 17)
  • Pietro Cipriani  Venus de' Medici 1722 - 1724  Bronze

    Pietro Cipriani
    Venus de’ Medici
    1722 – 1724

  • “Most images of naked women by men are designed to display their bodies to the male gaze without challenge or confrontation … The male artist constructs for his own or for his male partron’s enjoyment the perfect partner – passive, receptive, available.” (ibid, p.23) Saunders refers to the “spurious modesty” of the Venus de Medici, whose female attributes are emphasized in the act of attempting to cover herself. The photograph included here is of a bronze copy made for the wealthy art collector on his ‘grand tour’.
  • These images enabled male voyeurism – with the woman blamed for the man’s reaction. “Such a displacement of blame is only possible where the naked woman’s glance does not engage the viewer leaving him … free to gaze at her body and to fantasize about it unchallenged” (ibid, p. 24)
  • The woman is anonymous, not an individual, not a challenge, passively displayed to the male viewer without obstruction. “Thus the objections to Manet’s famous nude Olympia were founded not in her class, her profession, or indeed her nakedness but in her unashamed awareness of the spectator’s desire… Degas’ alleged misogyny is actually a refusal to comply with the unwritten rule that the female nude be reduced to a sexual spectacle, displaying the body to a male spectator.” (ibid, p. 25)
  • “While the male nude can be eroticized … only the female is fetishized, mutilated, fragmented, rendered anonymous” (ibid, p. 71)

    Saunders does identify two specific forms of the active, rather than passive, female nude.

  • “… the embodiment, the allegorical personification, of purely male qualities, or attributes and functions permitted only to men in the social order of the time: Revolution, Victory, Virtue, Justice. She acts not as a woman but in her capacity as the representative of a male quality.” (ibid, p. 28)
  • Otherwise, active female nudity indicates voracious sexuality embodied in such mythic archetypes as Eve… These predatory nudes embody the dangerous ‘otherness’ of women’s sexuality unleashed” (ibid, pp, 28-29). An example of this is Susanna and the Elders by Tintoretto (to 1555/1556) ( Saunders states “The woman is clearly blamed for her predicament and presented as an exhibitionist: vain, worldly, narcissistic. Elaborately coiffed, she is rapt in contemplation of her image in the mirror. If she finds her own beauty so spell-binding, how can the Elders be blamed for succumbing to its temptations?” (ibid, p. 34)
  • Passive rather than active, vulnerable, powerless, anonymous, the object of voyeurism, the one to blame for men’s reactions, fetishized, mutilated, the allegorical embodiment of male qualities, the narcissistic temptress – I can see all of those elements in various artworks. Are they the rule, exceptions, or a more complex mix?

    When I quoted from Lucie-Smith I deliberately used comments about both male and female nudes. It seems to me that a particularly feminist reading must not only show that there has been oppression and abuse of power but that it is applied on the basis of gender. For example Francis Bacon both mutilated and fetishized the nudes he painted, including Henrietta Moraes in Lying figure (1969) (, but many more males are seen in his work.

    With her claim that ‘nude’ equates to Saunders seems in danger of a circular argument – the oppressive treatment identified in nudes only happens to women because only naked women are nudes. Saunders writes “In images of the male nude the emphasis is on how the body works rather than how it appears. Is is not devised for contemplation as a sexual object” (Saunders, 1989, p. 26). Perhaps the many obvious exceptions are covered in a more complete version of one of the quotes above: “Though the male nude can be eroticized – witness certain images of St Sebastian swooning in a state between pain and ectasy as the arrows pierce his flesh, or Robert Mapplethorpe male nudes informed by homosexual sensibility…” ibid, p. 71). The example from Botticelli’s work pictured here has Mars in that most vulnerable state, sleep. And while I am picking at counter examples, Saunders writes about the use of mirrors in Susanna and the Elders and other paintings as a symbol of the narcissistic and available woman. In the painting Carmelina by Matisse, mentioned above, it is the artist’s face we see in the mirror, while the strong female model has her back to it.

    One avenue I haven’t had time to explore that is clearly relevant to this is the preponderance of male artists in western art history. One notable woman artist was Artemisia Gentileschi, and her version of Susanna and the Elders (1610 – see shows the men looming over Susanna, who very clear shows her objection to their advances. The site linked here includes many works by Gentileschi, a large number of which show strong woman taking action against oppressive men.

    I would like to mention two contemporary female artists.

    The first is Judith Linhares, who paints very large, colourful scenes, frequently including nudes. I tracked down some videos of Linhares speaking ( She mentions the strong women in her background, her college training including anatomy, her early desire to “paint like the men” – large and abstract. She avoided the pretty, the decorative, to meet perceived criteria of seriousness, until in the early 70s she came to think “decorative hey, I’ll show them decorative” and started works in part about “indulgence of a girlish appetite”, with rhinestones and gauze and feathers – for example see For many years part of a politically focused womens group, they were visited by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, “trying to enlist them” – but Linhares never saw herself in the role of handmaiden. Linhares’ nudes are active and unabashed, moving through space and their lives.

    Julie Rrap is a contemporary Australian artist. Rrap’s work frequently involves a naked female body – her own. However this is not self-portraiture, she is not exploring or presenting herself. Instead she combines the roles of model and author, using her body as a tool. Rrap has been associated with feminism and it is interesting to see how she exploits and objectifies her own body as she explores various issues, including at times the representation of the female nude in western art.

    Lucian Freud And the bridegroom 1993

    Lucian Freud
    And the bridegroom

    Finally, I recently saw this painting at the Art Gallery of NSW where it is on long term loan from the Lewis Collection. The canvas is huge – 231.8 × 195.9 cm. The bodies seem vulnerable, sprawled asleep in the brightly lit studio. I find it very tender and beautiful.


    Lucie-Smith, E (1981) The Body: Images of the nude London: Thames and Hudson

    Saunders, G. (1989) The nude: A new perspective. London: The Herbert Press.

    UA1-WA:P4-p3-Research point: The female nude
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
    Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
    Project three: The human figure
    Research point: The female nude

    UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Visit a cast gallery

    At this point I am meant to visit a cast gallery. The notes mention “cast galleries are not highly valued at the present time” and suggest that if not able to visit one I should extend my knowledge “of the ways in which these classical ‘prototypes’ have been assimilated into the art of later centuries”. This seems to have a lot of overlap to the last exercise, especially given I wasn’t able to visit a classical sculpture for that (23-May-2014), so I have decided to change the question to ask – what has changed to make cast galleries and classical prototypes unpopular?

    Charles Nettleton Gallery of casts from the studio of Brucciani, London 1869

    Charles Nettleton
    Gallery of casts from the studio of Brucciani, London
    State Library of Victoria

    There have been such galleries in Australia. This photo is from the State Library of Victoria. I found mention of its gallery when researching portrait sculpture (13-Mar-2014), together with the comment “It is remarkable that the bust [of G. A. Robinson] survived to the present day. In the 1850s and 1860s, the National Gallery purchased hundreds of plaster reproductions and casts from European museums and art galleries. Deemed not worthy of a respected art gallery, many of these casts and reproductions were sold in the 1940s” (Knapman, 2010).

    griffen03The occasional cast may be used in art classes today – the photograph is from a class I did with Peter Griffen in 2012, with a cast head included in the selection of inspiration items on the table (2-Mar-2012).

    Some good reasons for cast galleries, from a recent post in the Harvard Art Museums blog: “Looking closely at the plaster casts lets students explore their size, materiality, texture, and three-dimensionality”; “use the plaster casts to help students understand how to discriminate between originals and copies”; “the deep understanding that comes from experiencing an object in person” and in an example “the figures’ positions and postures are meant to direct the viewer’s line of sight and set a particular mood” and finally “this plaster cast collection allows students to escape from the flat lands of the virtual world and begin to get some sense of what it is like for actual human bodies to interact with three-dimensional reproductions of the human body”. (Harvard Art Museums, 2014).

    Detail of Margaret Olley Portrait in the mirror 1948

    Detail of Margaret Olley
    Portrait in the mirror

    For art historians, there is also the opportunity to see hints of influence in later artists’ work. A slightly different example is given by the postcards in Margaret Olley’s self-portrait (20-Apr-2014) – not three dimensional or in scale, but hints to her training, interests and inspiration.

    Paul Cezanne Still life with plaster cupid

    Paul Cezanne
    Still life with plaster cupid

    The still-life by Cézanne that I annotated (30-Jan-2014) had a plaster cupid as its subject, and another sculpture can be seen in a canvas at the top – and can be viewed as linking to ideas of the erotic.

    Drawing from plaster casts was for many years a standard part of an artist’s training, but it didn’t appeal to everyone. I found a lovely passage in a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo: “First and foremost, I had to draw from plaster casts. I utterly detest drawing from plaster casts – yet I had a couple of hands and feet hanging in the studio, though not for drawing. Once he [Mauve] spoke to me about drawing from plaster casts in a tone that even the worst teacher at the academy wouldn’t have used, and I held my peace, but at home I got so angry about it that I threw the poor plaster mouldings into the coal-scuttle, broken. And I thought: I’ll draw from plaster casts when you lot become whole and white again and there are no longer any hands and feet of living people to draw.” (van Gogh, 1882)

    So apart from not suiting particular students, why would cast galleries be not highly valued, or “deemed not worthy”?

    Having a copy means you haven’t got the original. It’s second rate. As an ex-colony on the other side of the world there could still be cultural cringe (can we mix it with the big boys?) and perhaps want to have the best, or at least something real, or nothing – we don’t accept others’ crumbs. This would be reversing a previous desire to retain links and to bring as much as possible from “home”.

    However the trend away from cast galleries is more widespread. A page on the Victoria and Albert Museum website suggests that cast collections were uncommon before the 18th century. By the 19th century casts were “an essential part” of the initial collection of what was to become the V&A, and in the 1860s there was “an extensive campaign to acquire Italian casts”, but by the 1930s the enthusiasm was “long past”.(Baker, 1982)

    Twentieth century art movements such as cubism and abstraction could make classical sculptures appear less relevant.

    Traditional teaching of drawing based on casts is outmoded.

    It is now much easier to travel – why accept a substitute when if you want you can see the original? There is also generally easy access to good quality two-dimensional images of sculptures. It’s not the same as experiencing a three-dimensional work in full scale, but for many people may be seen as an acceptable substitute.

    There are so many sources of inspiration, why hang on to copies of one particular heritage? So much work has been created since the heyday of cast galleries of the mid to late 1800s, so many different concepts developed, that it is hard to justify the cost and space of dedicating galleries to copies of works no matter how seminal.

    I’m glad to be reaching the end of this section of work. Unable to put much of a local spin on classical sculpture or casts or to see them in person I’ve found it hard to generate enthusiasm. However in the last couple of days I’ve discovered that Discobolus, together with other works from the Greek and Roman collection of the British Museum, is due to be in Bendigo later this year ( That’s less than 900 km from here…


    Baker, M (1982) The History of the Cast Courts Victoria and Albert Museum [online] Available from (Accessed 25-May-2014)

    Harvard Art Museums (2014) “A Lesson in Looking” Harvard Art Museums blog 22-Apr-2014 [online] Available at (Accessed 24-May-2014)

    Knapman, G. (2010) “The Pacificator: discovering the lost bust of George Augustus Robinson” The La Trobe Journal No 86 December 2010 [online] Available from (Accessed 24-May-2014)

    van Gogh, V (1882) To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Friday, 21 April 1882. [online] Available from (Accessed 24-May-2014)

    UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Visit a cast gallery
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
    Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
    Project three: The human figure
    Exercise: Visit a cast gallery

    UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Annotate a classical sculpture

    For this exercise I have chosen to annotate Discobolus, one of the classical sculptures suggested in the OCA course notes. There simply isn’t a suitable work available for me to view directly. This work has advantages including: one version is held at the British Museum (I can include images under their terms of use); lots of information is available on line; it is a familiar form that has been reused and adapted. The great disadvantage of course is trying to respond to a sculpture reduced to photographic images.

    The Townley Discobolus © The Trustees of the British Museum

    The Townley Discobolus
    One of several Roman copies made of a lost bronze original made in the 5th century BC by the sculptor Myron.
    © The Trustees of the British Museum

    The original bronze statue by Myron c. 450 B.C.E. has been lost, but there are a number of Roman copies. The one above is the Townley Discobolus, held at the British Museum. Note that the head has been restored incorrectly, and should be looking back at the throwing arm.

    The Lancelotti Discobolus (I think this is also known as the Discobolus Palombara) is at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, as is the less complete Discobolus from Castel Porziano (see, or a video which shows the two versions side by side at

    The Discobolus shows a male athlete poised in the act of throwing a discus. The athletic body spirals around, caught in that brief moment before the release of energy. I believe the statue is around life-size, and the work is fully three-dimensional, to be viewed from all sides.

    discobolus_curveFocusing on the Townley version, since those are the best quality photographs I found, one can see multiple curves from every viewing direction. The overall impression remains one of perfect, effortless balance.

    The Townley Discobolus was brought to London soon after it was excavated, and displayed in Townley’s home. It’s shown below in a drawing by William Chambers, the Discobolus taking pride of place in Townley’s collection.

    Townley opened his home and collection to visitors, displaying his own connoisseurship and his philanthropy in educating the public and improving their taste. In the drawing a young woman can be seen sketching – life drawing of male nudes would not have been possible for her.

    To me this feels as if I am seeing the machinery behind “The Canon of Western Art” in action. A wealthy man collects art, exhibits and promotes it, and it becomes Great Art. I’m reminded of Charles Saatchi and the Young British Artists.

    In the case of the Townley Discobolus it doesn’t seem to matter too much that it started as a copy of an older work, that various parts have been restored or entirely substituted (the head and a hand are now regarded as not original), and the surface cleaned with acid, sand and brush. “This is an interesting example of a forgery being given legitimacy by academic experts, and itself becoming an admired prototype” according to Jones (1990). The Discobolus is such an iconic part of the Canon that Chinese sculptor Sui Jianguo has produced multiple versions, all clad in a Mao suit (see and the page of 1997 works on Sui’s website Sui combines ideology of Western art and the socialist theory of his own culture. He includes both in finding his own, modern way.

    Is the Discobolus such a perfect, beautiful, inspiring, fascinating work that it transcends issues such as originality or authenticity? Once again I am held at a distance, unable to experience the work directly. One could say it’s almost too effortless. A closeup of the toes suggest they are gripping, but otherwise the figure seems curiously static, made even more so by the perfect, expressionless face. This could well be related to relying on photographs, which tend to flatten and deaden, but the figure appears posed rather than about to burst into action. There are similarities in body position to Bernini’s David (1623 – 24;, but that is a much more active and emotionally-engaged figure. I would suggest even Michelangelo’s David (1501 – 1504);, while in an apparently more relaxed pose, is more clearly about to launch into action.

    Paul Landowski David combattant bronze, cire perdu (lost wax)

    Paul Landowski
    David combattant
    bronze, cire perdu (lost wax)

    For a David actually in action – and in a pose that can be linked to Bernini’s – I am very fond of the bronze by Landowski in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is a younger David, fully committed, flinging himself down a slope, arms and slingshot at full stretch. You can see his abdomen as he sucks in air, his focus as he looks up at the giant.

    Rather than a gangling boy, the Discobolus shows a young man in his prime – or rather a amalgamation of all the best parts of innumerable young men, creating a flawless form devoid of individuality. That also tests modern sensibilities. Many people struggle with body image, the desire for perfection, to meet the standards of modern media airbrushed photographs or gaunt strutting models. An interesting modern twist on this perfection is given by Quim Abella. This digital artist has taken classics including Discobolus, and repeated them in a huge variety of equally “perfect” forms – see Abella presents both genders, a variety of body shapes, sizes and colours, in the classic pose – but offers more a widening of “perfect” rather than a challenge of the concept itself.

    The Discobolus also fits well with the “bronzed Aussie” ideal – see for example Discus thrower by Max Dupain (c. printed 1939) in the National Gallery of Victoria I’ve written before about versions of Australian identity, when visiting the National Portrait Gallery (11-Apr-2014).

    Selection of a particular perfect type can be the flip side of exclusion. The Discobolus Palombara was bought by Hitler from the Italian state in 1938, and the link to eugenics and the desire for a “pure” race seems straightforward.

    huberA similar link is drawn by Sasha Huber in her work Louis Who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz (2010), currently on display at the Art Gallery of NSW as part of the 19th Biennale of Sydney. There is a film of Huber riding a horse in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro to Praça Agassiz, a public square, where she hung up a banner and read the text to locals gathering around. A translation of part of the text: “Scientist, naturalist, glaciologist, influential racist, pioneering thinker of apartheid, proposed racial segregation in the US” (from Huber’s website, Unfortunately I chose a poor moment for my photo, but you can see the banner beside the screen, and on the other side a plinth with a copy of the book (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today. Agassiz was a nineteenth century natural scientist who traveled in Brazil in 1865-66 taking numerous anthropological style photographs, all “proving” the indigenous peoples’ inferiority to the white race. I’ve seen many similar photographs taken in Australia, possibly taken with similar intent. In the book I found reference to Huber’s “unique interdisciplinary pursuit of the origins of racist assumptions and ponders on the influence of racist representations in the formation of visual culture and media” (Machado and Huber, 2010, p. 170), and nearby a photograph of the Belvedere Apollo ( The idea of a perfect form seems so often to lead to regarding others as lesser.

    gallery_sa_05Of course such a link is not inevitable. Last year I wrote about the juxtaposition of works at the Art Gallery of South Australia (see 5-May-2013). Buck with cigar by Marc Quinn (2009) faces the Bowmore Artemis (c. 180 AD). A modern beauty stands with confidence and pride in harmony with classical beauty. However it still seems to me a brave choice, a very modern choice, a challenging choice, to show such works together.


    Huber, S. and Machada, M. (2010) (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today São Paulo: Capacete Entretenimentos

    Jones, M., Craddock, P., Barker, N. (1990) Fake? The Art of Deception, London: BMP. Quoted on the British Museum website [online]. Available from (Accessed 18-May-2014)

    UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Annotate a classical sculpture
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
    Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
    Project three: The human figure
    Exercise: Annotate a classical sculpture

    UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – The Devil’s Cloth

    The Devil’s Cloth: A history of stripes and striped fabric by Michel Pastoureau looks at all things striped in Western societies from the Middle Ages onwards. For my current research project I am focusing on the use of stripes in art and on any symbology of stripes that may be of interest to an artist, so this post is not a review or summary, but a collection of ideas about stripes that may be relevant.

    Vengence of Chiomara French 15th-16th century Bibliothèque nationale de France

    Vengence of Chiomara
    French 15th-16th century
    Bibliothèque nationale de France

    The medieval viewer, “particularly attentive to the materiality and structure of surfaces” (p. 19), was disturbed by stripes, which disrupted the standard reading of levels in an image. The stripe was used on images of outcasts and deviants. From this came many years of stripes indicating perjorative status.

    Surfaces could be plain, patterned (eg with a regular distribution of fleur de lis), striped or spotted (irregular distribution). Striped and spotted were uncomfortable, with checks an intensified form of stripes.

    Development of stripes: Medieval – two alternating colours, equal widths, rarely vertical; Later – not only two colours, not always equidistant; vertical, celebrating life after the plague (p. 42); aristocratic – sophisticated, tasteful, fashionable (p. 41). Different forms of stripes could express different value systems – if wide and high contrast, the prisoner or gangster; if narrow and pastel or lower contrast, elegance.

    Early persons associated with stripes: Fortune, turning the wheel of destiny; Carmelite monks; Joseph (striped breeches); bastards; serfs; condemned; prostitutes; infirm; inferior occupations; ignominious trade; non-Christian; black Africans – servants or Magi (see for example Veronese The Adoration of the Magi, 1581 at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) – savages.

    The heraldic stripe: Stripes are a basic unit of heraldry, with many variations. A coat of arms provides “signs of identity, marks of possession, and ornamental motifs all at the same time” (p. 26). If stripes are balanced in number (a partition) it remains a single plane; if unbalanced (pieces) the surface breaks into figure and background. Interestingly Pastoureau finds that there are few if any negative connotations when stripes are included in the blazon of a real individual, only a link between illegitimate family lines and stripes in a certain direction. Those created for imaginary or literary characters are more likely to use stripes to suggest wrongdoing or flaws of character.

    Heraldry is a description of form rather than a particular physical creation. This seems to link with the more conceptual use of lines in art, such as LeWitt’s notations which can be implemented by assistants.

    Domestic stripe: Heraldry –> Livery –> Domestic (also inferior connotation) and also–> Uniforms

    The romantic, revolutionary stripe: impact of the American Revolution; French revolutionary stripe (link to against establishment?) –> patriotic stripe.

    The maritime stripe: Used in identifying ranks, in jerseys, sails (a connection to wind) and flags. Then by association we have the sea –> seashore (the sea-side a less constrained venue, so can risk a stripe) –> sports, leisure and health. see for example Eugène Boudin Trouville, La Nourrice (circa 1885,

    The protective, hygenic stripe: Stripes exclude – prisoners in striped uniforms behind bars – but those same bars guard and protect. We see striped pyjamas and underclothes – protection next to the body. These are often pastel colours, close to the undyed cloth that was once seen as most clean (given the source of some dyes).

    The stripe and children: Protective, seaside and sports or games all lead to a connection with children. We see freshness, youthfulness, gaiety, playfulness – happy, healthy, dynamic and summer-like.

    Stripes reveal and conceal: Stripes can play a trompe-l’oeil role. They disguise, fool the eye. I see a link as well to shadows, camouflage and concealment. Stripes also filter, such as shutters (linking back to protection).

    The identifying stripe: athletic teams, students, corporates, military.

    The warning stripe: Following the idea of the protective stripe, we see warning and forbidding stripes – often red and white. Pedestrian crossings, police tape, slow, detour, stop. Gates and fences form stripes – they are a guide and an obstacle. They can be agitating.

    The stripe and music: Musicians (minstels) were travelers, on the fringes, often seen dressed in stripes. The musical staff and the strings on an instrument form stripes. Stripes and music can both produce rhythm and flow.

    More stripes: ladders, railroads, the furrows from plowing, lines of telegraph poles, barcodes, combs (setting in order), tallies. Stripes are a warning of disorder and a form of putting in order.

    Properties of stripes: a structure and / or a form; in perpetual motion, animating; disturbing; attracting attention (used by artists in compositions to direct the eye); ambiguity (in small amounts); passage from one state to another; intrigue and captivate; energize; brighten; make rooms larger (vertical) or lower (horizontal); create rhythm; association with wind and movement.

    Weaving stripe: Claiming “striped fabric is very much subject to the constraints of weaving methods” (p.54) Pastoureau makes a link between the introduction of technology, such as spinning machines and the Jacquard loom, and the spread of stripes. I can’t accept a direct link – the technological impact was on productivity and industry, not the fundamental structures which can produce stripes – but there could be indirect impact via availability and cost of cloth.

    bluelineThe bellringing line: This is my addition, not included in Pastoureau’s book. In changeringing the order in which the bells are sounded is varied in specific orders called methods. The structure of a method can be expresses in a notation such as &-36-14-12-36-14-56,12. That can be expanded into a diagram showing each change with all the bells, and the path of a particular bell is indicated by a line – known as the blue line. (Diagram produced using the online method database It’s stretching from stripes to lines, but I find the conceptual and notational link relevant.

    Pastoureau writes “not only does the stripe show and hide at the same time, but it is altogether the figure and the substance, the finite and the infinite, the part and the whole”, ultimately concluding “Too many stripes can finally drive you mad” (p.91).


    Pastoureau, M., trans. Gladding, J. (2001) The Devil’s Cloth: A history of stripes and striped fabrics New York: Columbia University Press. (French edition published 1991)

    For actual reviews of the book see:
    Fyfe, J. (2003) “The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric by Michel Pastoureau” artcritical: the online magazine of art and ideas April [online] Available from (Accessed 25-Apr-2014)

    Rule, V. (2001) “Vertical or horizontal, ma’am?” The Guardian 15 Sept [online] Available from (Accessed 25-Apr-2014)

    UA1-WA:P4-p3-Research point: Representation of the human figure

    The artist’s approach to the human body has changed over the years.

    The Bowmore Artemis  c. 180 AD Italy, carved marble

    The Bowmore Artemis
    c. 180 AD
    Italy, carved marble

    An ideal form was pursued in classical times, very often male, but in the Art Gallery of South Australia last year I saw this beautiful Diana (see 5-May-2013). The draped fabric highlights the athletic young female body in motion, the perfect form of the goddess.

    Plaque 500-550 (circa) © The Trustees of the British Museum

    500-550 (circa)
    © The Trustees of the British Museum

    In early Byzantine art the focus was on symbology rather than an accurate likeness or an idealized form. This ivory plaque at the British Museum shows the Adoration of the Magi above and the Nativity below. It is very formal and stylized, full of meaning for the early Christian – for example below to the right Salome whose hand was withered when she did not have faith without proof.

    Matins – The Annunciation Horae B.M.V. : illuminated ms. on vellum Paris  ca.1490

    Matins – The Annunciation
    Horae B.M.V. : illuminated ms. on vellum
    Paris ca.1490
    State Library of Victoria

    I annotated this Gothic image in my post of 22-Jun-2013 (and wrote about my emotional experience of actually seeing and handling the book 17-Jul-2013). While still quite formal and full of symbolism, the figures are more natural and there is an effort towards perspective. The bodies show a sense of movement rather than being static and posed. The angel and Mary are of similar size, communicating together in the room, rather than relative importance being indicated by size and position. There is no real sense of individuals and some of the body proportions are odd, such as the small foot of the angel.

    Antonio Pollaiuolo The Battle of the Nudes © The Trustees of the British Museum

    Antonio Pollaiuolo
    The Battle of the Nudes
    1470-1495 (circa) a copperplate engraving
    © The Trustees of the British Museum,1.33

    In the Renaissance many artists were interested in showing knowledge and the mechanics of actual bodies, not idealized forms. According to Vasari, Pollaiuolo was the “first master to skin many human bodies in order to investigate the muscles and understand the nude in a more modern way.” (quoted in Bambach, 2002).

    In The Battle of the Nudes detailed knowledge of human anatomy is shown in a series of action poses. The front centre pair show the same pose from the front and rear – ‘pivotal presentation’. The bodies strain, the faces grimace, in the effort of the battle.

    After the skillful, highly detailed, anatomical accuracy of the Renaissance, artists turned to a more “mannered”, complex, virtuoso form of representation. Parmigianino was an Italian Mannerist painter. His Madonna of the Long Neck (also called Madonna and Child with Angels) (1534-1540, oil on wood, 219×135 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi,, has been stretched to create an exaggerated elegance. The madonna’s body forms a diamond filling most of the picture, her tiny head at the apex, her broad hips extended even further by the drape of her cloak, and at the base her small feet with elongated toes. The eponymous neck forms part of sweeping lines. Her right hand is long and graceful, the curve of the fingers denying their joints and even the ears are shaped to meet the artist’s purpose. The child is also elongated and distorted, a sleep like death – the pose is similar to Michelangelo’s Pietà. The space around also seems inconsistent, crowded on the left with angels, on the right incredible depth with a tiny St Jerome and what must be a massive colonnade. Parmigianino pushed beyond “natural” beauty to create incredible elegance and grace.

    Parmigianino also painted a remarkable self-portrait (held at Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna but I can’t find a stable link, so see It is a masterpiece of distortion and illusion, showing the artist reflected in a convex mirror, his calm and self-possessed face the centre as the world curves around him.

    In Neoclassical art there was a conscious return both to the idealized harmony and proportion of the body and often to themes and dress seen in classical statues. In Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii (1784 the male bodies (and their actions) are idealized – taut muscles clearly delineated, resolve expressed in their gestures and sharp geometry. It is a political as well as an artistic statement. The balancing feminine triangle of the grieving sisters on the right contrasts in the soft, pliant figures – which also show classical proportions and idealized beauty.

    Jacques-Louis David The Tennis Court Oath 20th June 1789 © RMN-Grand Palais

    Jacques-Louis David
    The Tennis Court Oath 20th June 1789
    © RMN-Grand Palais

    In The Oath of the Horatii David places the figures in a frieze-like band across a shallow space, using them to create a clear and dramatic composition. The same triangular, heroic stances can be seen massed in David’s later work The Tennis Court Oath (see my analysis 5-Oct-2013). Here they are repeated, pivoted, converging on the central figure reading the Oath. The draft of the intended painting shows the well-modeled nude figures. Most, although not all, are well-muscled, idealized forms. One of the religious figures at the front just left of centre seems less energized and has a slight paunch. This could be a statement about the vitality and importance of the church. It could also show a tension between using classical ideals and depicting real individuals with anatomical accuracy.

    The course notes ask about this very question – art based on the classical ideal and art pursuing anatomical accuracy. The classical nude is a conceptually perfected figure, not any one individual and not showing the variety of humans. It doesn’t seem to be particularly anatomically incorrect – simply a very restricted selection. In all the examples I’ve mentioned in this post the accuracy or otherwise of the figure is only one part of the artist’s purpose. This may be religious, or political, or displaying technical virtuosity or scientific knowledge. The figure is also a compositional device, one part of the whole artistic effect. I haven’t ventured into the modern era in this post – there have been so many movements and so many different approaches to the human figure! However I will point to one – Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) by Marcel Duchamp (1912, oil on canvas, Duchamp is exploring the painterly concern of showing motion in a painting – the figure is simply a vehicle for his experimentation.


    Bambach, C. (2002) “Anatomy in the Renaissance”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. [online] Available from (Accessed 26-Apr-2014)

    UA1-WA:P4-p3-Research point: Representation of the human figure
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
    Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
    Project three: The human figure
    Research point: Representation of the human figure


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