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.
The 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 http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/sleeping-venus/xgFm1GCECrnfQA?projectId=art-project 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.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 (http://www.mng.hu/en, using site search engine 8-June-2014). The limited biographical information I have found comes from a site maintained by her grand-nephew (http://www.szantho.ca/601.html). The best image sources I have found for Szantho’s works are http://www.pinterest.com/anjawessels/maria-szantho/ (which when I viewed it 8-Jun-2014 had the picture nominated by OCA in the top row) and http://maherartgallery.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/maria-szantho-1897-1997.html. 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:
http://www.treasures.uwa.edu.au/treasures/31/ (There’s a wonderful male nude of Blumann’s too, but I can’t find a solid link. Try https://www.facebook.com/ArtGalleryWA, entry for 26-Jan-2014.)
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/255.1975/ (includes a reclining nude and an interesting red/green combination).
And as a break from the Australians
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.
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 https://sites.google.com/site/sleepingvenuses/home (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