Archive for the '4.3 The human figure' Category

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 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.

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
1499
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/365313

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:

  • Dorothy Thornhill, Resting Diana, 1931
    http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=40730
  • Elise Blumann, Summer Nude, 1939
    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.)
  • Dorrit Black, Music, 1927
    http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/217.1976/
  • Grace Crowley, Figure study, nude holding a book 1928-1929
    http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/170.1980/
  • Ethel Spowers, Resting models, 1934
    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

  • Vanessa Bell, Nude, c.1922–3
    http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bell-nude-n05077
  • 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 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

    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
    1530
    http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/389.2011/

    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 – https://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/m/marble_statue_of_aphrodite.aspx). 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 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bacco_-_Raimondi_Marcantonio_(1480-1534)_-_Due_baccanti_-_Incisione.jpg), 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 (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/titian-the-death-of-actaeon). 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 Carmelinahttps://www.mfa.org/collections/object/carmelina-32429. 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 (http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/437393) 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 (http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/bathsheba-her-bath) 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
    Bronze
    http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=313766

  • “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) (http://bilddatenbank.khm.at/viewArtefact?id=1564). 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) (https://www.fondationbeyeler.ch/en/collection/francis-bacon), 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 http://www.artemisia-gentileschi.com/susanna.html) 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 (http://www.romanovgrave.com/grave_videos/judith-linhares-interview-at-ed-thorpe-gallery). 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 http://www.judithlinhares.com/Archive1970_17.html. 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
    1993

    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.

    References

    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
    1869
    State Library of Victoria
    http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/127359

    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
    1948
    http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/454.2001/

    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 (http://www.bendigoartgallery.com.au/Exhibitions/Forthcoming_Exhibitions/The_Body_Beautiful_in_Ancient_Greece). That’s less than 900 km from here…

    References

    Baker, M (1982) The History of the Cast Courts Victoria and Albert Museum [online] Available from http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-cast-courts/ (Accessed 25-May-2014)

    Harvard Art Museums (2014) “A Lesson in Looking” Harvard Art Museums blog 22-Apr-2014 [online] Available at http://magazine.harvardartmuseums.org/article/2014/04/22/lesson-looking (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 http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/latrobejournal/issue/latrobe-86/t1-g-t4.html (Accessed 24-May-2014)

    van Gogh, V (1882) To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Friday, 21 April 1882. [online] Available from http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let219/letter.html (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
    http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=396999&objectId=8760&partId=1


    AN00398497_001_lAN00398587_001_lAN00396828_001_l
    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 http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en/national-roman-museum-palazzo-massimo-alle-terme/sculptures/discobolus-discus-thrower, or a video which shows the two versions side by side at http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/myrons-discobolus.html).

    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 http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2012/sui_jianguos_discus_thrower.aspx and the page of 1997 works on Sui’s website http://www.suijianguo.com/). 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; http://www.galleriaborghese.it/borghese/en/edavid.htm), but that is a much more active and emotionally-engaged figure. I would suggest even Michelangelo’s David (1501 – 1504); http://www.accademia.org/explore-museum/artworks/michelangelos-david/?gclid=CLjH3dTtoL4CFUFwvAodCgoAVQ), 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)
    http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/SO1.1961/

    landowski_01landowski_02landowski_03landowski_04
    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 http://www.quim-abella.com/index.php/ct-menu-item-7/ct-menu-item-9/ct-menu-item-13. 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 http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/74489). 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, http://www.sashahuber.com/index.php?cat=28&lang=fi&mstr=4). 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 (http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/MPCs/MPCs_Sala02_01.html). 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.

    References

    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 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?assetId=396999&objectId=8760&partId=1 (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: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

    Plaque
    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
    http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/117039

    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
    http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=763560&partId=1&searchText=v,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, http://www.virtualuffizi.com/madonna-and-child-with-angels%2C-known-as-the-%22madonna-with-the-long-neck%22.html, http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/madonna-with-the-long-neck/gAEsEn4eJXVHyg) 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 http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/self-portrait-in-a-convex-mirror/ZQEd-Sg2nqL5mg). 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 http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/oath-horatii) 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
    1791
    © RMN-Grand Palais
    http://www.histoire-image.org/pleincadre/index.php?i=215

    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, http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/51449.html. Duchamp is exploring the painterly concern of showing motion in a painting – the figure is simply a vehicle for his experimentation.

    References

    Bambach, C. (2002) “Anatomy in the Renaissance”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. [online] Available from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/anat/hd_anat.htm (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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    Fabulous figure sculpting workshop with Kassandra Bossell!

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