Archive for the 'Western Art' Category

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Research Point – Trompe l’oeil

In this exercise we are asked to “research some of the ways in which trompe l’oeil has been exploited in works of art, particularly in decorative schemes”.

Petrus Christus Portrait of a Carthusian 1446   Oil on wood

Petrus Christus
Portrait of a Carthusian (and detail)
1446 Oil on wood
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Trompe l’oeil” has been defined: “Term applied to a painting (or a detail of one) that is intended to deceive the spectator (if only briefly) into thinking that it is a real object rather than a two-dimensional representation of it” (Chilvers, 1990, p. 636 (2012 printing)).

On the right is an example from 1446 – a fly apparently perches on the edge of the lower frame. It displays the skill of the artist, highlights the brief moment represented, perhaps serves as a symbol, momento mori, and presents the viewer with a momentary puzzle and surprise. However the artist has gone further. The lay brother is shown in a space, the corner of a room. It’s very hard to appreciate with modern eyes, but everything about the picture is presenting an illusion of three-dimensional space.

In his later discussion Chilvers distinguishes trompe l’oeil from other “pictorial illusionism” such as quadratura. This he defines as ” as type of illusionistic decoration in which architectural elements are painted on wall and/or ceilings in such a way that they appear to be an extension of the real architecture of the room into an imaginary space” (Chilvers, 1990, p. 507 (2012 printing)).

Masaccio The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and Saint John and donors 1425   fresco  Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and Saint John and donors
1425 fresco
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Masaccio’s fresco of the Holy Trinity includes amazing architectural features. It’s always dangerous to judge from photos, but the pilasters, attached columns and barrel vaulting of this image appear incredibly realistic, the tomb below projecting into the body of the church, the chapel opening out behind. Honour and Fleming (2009, pp 420-421) explain “with the aid of the new system of perspective Masaccio painted all the figures to scale and set them within a single unified space. … Two levels of reality, temporal and eternal, are … indicated”.

"Church of SantIgnazio (448552660)" by Tore Urnes from Oslo, Norway - Church of Sant'Ignazio. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Andrea Pozzo
painted ceiling in the Church of St. Ignazio.
“Church of SantIgnazio (448552660)” by Tore Urnes from Oslo, Norway – Church of Sant’Ignazio. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Masaccio’s work was created fairly soon after the re-discovery of linear perspective in the Renaissance. It is thought that he may have been advised or assisted in the work by Brunelleschi, a pioneer in the technique.

Just over 160 years later, Pozzo’s amazing painted ceiling in the Church of SantIgnazio was created. In the photographs I find it virtually impossible to determine what is physical architectural detail and what is part of the extraordinary paintwork. This allegorical fresco celebrates the triumph of Catholicism in the Counter-Reformation, and in particular the contribution of the Jesuits. The vision of heaven is apparently only completely convincing from a single point given the complexity of lines of perspective and optical illusion, but such details are lost in reproductions (or possibly most photographs are either cropped or taken from that particular position). The heathen and heretics tumble, Europe’s natural supremacy over all other continents is presented as natural, inevitable, perhaps ordained by god.

Discussing this work Honour and Fleming (2009, pp 576 – 577) explain the European attempt to impose order on the peoples discovered in the various voyages of discovery in the period. A classification system “which implied a process of social evolution from ‘savagery’ to civilization” was adopted supporting “the Christianization and commercial exploitation of the territory”.

Sacred Heart Church, Beagle Bay

Sacred Heart Church, Beagle Bay

In this light it is interesting to view the interior of the Sacred Heart in Beagle Bay. I included an image of the interior when writing about my recent trip to Western Australia (see 26-Aug-2014).

030The traditional owners of this land are the Nyul Nyul people, and they call this area Ngarlum Burr. The European name was given in 1838, the first Catholic missionary arrived in 1885, French trappist monks in 1890, replaced by German Pollottine missionaries in 1900. The church was designed prior to 1908, and was based on a photograph of a German village church. It was built 1915 to 1918 when wartime restrictions were placed on the movements of the German priests and brothers.

048I believe some of the wall painting and decoration with different shells goes beyond simple decoration, providing a brief impression of a real object, in particular in the treatment of the thurible (hanging censer).

Considered immediately after Pozzo’s work, it could seem possible that Sacred Heart church was another statement of the triumph over continents and peoples, imposing German architecture and christian beliefs, exploiting ‘savages’. Although very uncomfortable about our colonial history, I think that would be major distortion. The church remains the centre of an active parish. It “stands as a testimony to the generous work of generations of missionaries and Aboriginal people who have shared in the faith and aspirations of the Kimberley mission” (Kimberley Aviation, [n.d.]). The decoration includes tribal symbols of the local peoples as well as christian symbols. The woman who led the Sisters of St John of God to Beagle Bay has been quoted: “Remember, the natives did not ask us to come. We are here of our own choice and can only remain by their goodwill and the grace of God” (O’Brien, 1907).

After that side excursion I’ll finish with two more examples of trompe l’oiel – one all decoration, one quite different.

Masino Castle, Italy: the ballroom Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Masino Castle, Italy: the ballroom
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The first is extensive work in the Castello di Masino. The ballroom frescos date from around 1730 and provide colour, movement and interest in a rather sparsely furnished room (see for a limited amount of additional information).

In the ballroom rows of windows, external landscapes and interior furnishings are all created in paint. The original fortress was destroyed in the sixteenth century, and the many frescos created in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I would have like to learn more about this and the reasons for the frescos. They appear to be purely a rich and elaborate decoration, but the extent of the work seems unusual. Would it be a display of wealth, or would the painted rooms be a cheaper way of richly “furnishing” the castle?

Finally Stephen Pong’s Broken Well, included in the current Archibald Prize exhibition. This three dimensional work is purely an exploration of optical illusion, with no decorative intent. The artist states “We perceive what we expect to see until our brain is confronted with conflicting information. This sculpture creates such conflict as a result of the interplay between the physics of light, reflection and inanimate objects. Mirrors were used to create an optical illusion of a dark, bottomless well. The brick wall perimeter was carefully constructed so as to merge seamlessly into the mirrored reflection. The gripping hand has been incorporated to represent a person hanging off the wall and about to meet an unknown fate akin to the struggles and outcomes encountered in one’s lifetime.” The work uses concealed lighting as well as mirrors and careful restriction of field of view to create a quite convincing illusion.


Chilvers, I. (1990, 2012) Oxford dictionary of art & artists Oxford: Oxford University Press

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

Kimberley Aviation ([n.d.]) Sacred Heart Church Beagle Bay Information flier available at church.

Mother Antonio O’Brien (1907) quoted in signage in Relationships Exhibition at the Old Convent, Sisters of St John of God Heritage Centre, Broome

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Research Point – Trompe l’oeil
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Research Point – Trompe l’oeil

Broome to Perth holiday

DetailMapI’ve been away – 16 days and almost 12,000 km (6,820 by air, 4,990 by road, and miscellaneous extras by boat). My mother and I flew direct from Sydney to Broome, a day trip up the Dampier Peninsula to Cape Leveque (Chomley’s Tours – highly recommended), wandered down to Perth (Outback Spirit – very highly recommended), then flew back to Sydney via Melbourne. This is a Big country.

We travelled with Outback Spirit last year too, exploring Arnhem Land and the Cobourg Peninsula, and I found that impossible to describe in a simple post (see my attempt 29-Aug-2013). This post will be just as incomplete – even more so as I’m saving some items for OCA course-related posts. For now a few photographs will have to suffice.

Overwhelmingly we saw land.

We saw water.

Lots of plants and animals,

and the traces of mankind.

Journal making with Adele Outteridge

Last month I attended a two-day ATASDA workshop with tutor Adele Outteridge, learning how to make personal journals. I had a mix of motivations:

* to create something rather than reading about other people creating things
* to mix with real live people rather than sit at my computer
* to extend my work
* to learn techniques that could be useful in presenting my work
* to find a way to ramp up my journal usage

For the first book we used coptic stitch with multiple needles.
journal_01We started by preparing multiple sections of torn paper. I went for a wide variety of different weights and types, many of which I had prepared ahead of time in my theme of bush walks near my home and in particular wattle. I covered the board covers with some lovely imported handmade paper.

journal_02Stitching was done with pairs of needles – mine used two pairs, so four needles in total. Once you get into a rhythm (cross-over, link; cross-over, link) it’s a pleasant process. Adele had a particularly effective teaching process. She would talk about and demonstrate just one or two steps, we’d each go and repeat on our books, and we wouldn’t continue until we were all ready and she’d helped anyone with problems. Then we got the next step. It meant we fully understood each part, because we did it ourselves. There was very little confusion, no frustration, and everyone in the class was happy with their results.journal_03

Most pleasing of all to me is that my new journal is a work in progress. It’s come on walks, had bark rubbings added, flowers encased between pages, and here a “page” of gumleaves supported on open-weave hessian added to the tabs / spacers conveniently included.

journal_04The second method we learnt was stitching over tapes. This is simpler as you only use one needle in the stitching.

The starting point is the same – preparation of sections of paper, cutting and covering of front and back boards. I wanted to use this journal as an ideas book for weaving – just because I never get/make time for weaving nowadays doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it, and I want to remember potential projects when the time comes. I used alternating folios of gridded paper followed by drawing/watercolour paper.

journal_05I continued the tapes on the covers, making a woven pattern to fit with the theme of the book. Both the board covers and the tapes are more of the imported handmade paper, which has a wonderful texture to it.

journal_06Again the great thing about this book is that I am using it. As hoped, the blank page encourages me to think visually as well as verbally. The page size is just about right to catch a single idea. It also feels much more convenient to have ideas “condensed” in a single book instead of scattered through day books or in the margins of OCA course note-taking.

Very enthused, once home I got onto a supplier for waxed linen thread ( and extra information (books by Keith Smith,, recommended by Adele).

journal_07On the right is my first home-made attempt. It’s a little sketchbook, with alternating sections of grey and off-white paper (foolishly I didn’t make note of the specifics of the paper when I bought it). I used the four needle coptic stitching again. I think I got quite good tension and stitch-formation on this one.

journal_08Once again the exciting thing is that having this special journal is encouraging me to use it. The watercolour on the left is based on a section of Grace Cossington Smith’s The Lacquer Room (see 24-Jul-2014). In the past I’ve deliberately used a variety of papers and media, often A3 since I felt more comfortable at that scale. This smaller scale makes it easier time-wise, and I don’t end with oddments of single sheets floating around the workroom.

journal_09My most recent creation has a link to OCA coursework.

The next (and final) project is Landscape, and in one of the exercises we are asked to visit a landscape and draw or paint it for ourselves. As it happens in a couple of weeks I’ll be travelling through Western Australia on holiday, so I decided to make a sketchbook especially for the trip.

journal_10All the materials used were already in the house, which gives a nice feeling of self-sufficiency (quite illusory really, given the thread recently arrived in the post etc). The paper on the cardboard covers was protecting the table in past painting exercises. The ribbon tie weaves through the back, and I’m hoping will add some stability and protection on the trip. The paper is alternating 160 gsm drawing paper, which holds water colour quite nicely, and brown kraft paper, for note-taking and pencil sketches.

journal_11The basic format is landscape of course, but what I’m very smug about is the central folio of each section. Instead of just being folded in half, the paper is folded so it will open up into an extra-wide landscape format. After all, I’m expecting to see some very wide country!

I love, love, love this feeling of control and ownership. I’m able to consider my particular needs and to make something that I think will work for me.

The workshop was a great couple of days. For another view and some different books, see fellow-OCA student and ATASDA member Claire’s post I’m looking forward to using some of the new skills to enhance presentation of my college work, although postal weight considerations will always be in play.

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2

The Lacquer Room (1936) by Grace Cossington Smith (1892 – 1984) is the focus of my second annotation of an interior view. It’s a slight stretch to see this as “early twentieth-century”, but corresponds to the time-frames of the two suggested artists Matisse (1869 – 1954) and Dufy (1877 – 1953). The painting is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and is an example of exciting, vibrant, original, Australian art. Light, space and the relationship of figures to the setting are important elements in the painting of interiors, and I think this work provides an exceptional example of all.

Grace Cossington Smith The Lacquer Room 1936 oil on paperboard on plywood

Grace Cossington Smith
The Lacquer Room
1936 oil on paperboard on plywood
74.0 x 90.8 cm

The image above from my phone’s camera has dulled all the colour, lost all the vibrancy and crispness of the original. The AGNSW website (link above) has a better but still not really good version.

CossingtonSmith_sketchThe picture shows the basement café of a major city department store. On the right is shown a sketch Cossington Smith made at the café, including notes of colours and materials (the sketch is held at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) – see

Light shimmers in this painting. There are a few dark notes – shadow under tables, winter clothing – but most of the painting is in mid to high tones. The light has no obvious source. The wall-mounted Art Deco lights cast only a slightly increased light on the walls above them. The top of the free-standing lamp and the ceiling lights can’t even be seen. Instead an opalescent light suffuses the entire image, reflecting off surfaces to up-light faces. The light bounces around from the walls, floor, counter-sides, and mirror on the right. There’s so much light it is hard to believe this is a basement room (see a roughly contemporary photograph on the NGA site –

There is a darker bulk at the left of the image, women in dark hats and coats. This is cleverly balanced on the right by a truncated figure. Our eyes insert the additional weight.

CossingtonSmith_01The lower part of the image is filled with curves repeating and echoing – chair backs, heads, bodies… The closer you look the more you see – hair, eyes, caps and saucers. There is a uniformity imposed that unites areas across the work.

However that is only the beginning of the lines.

CossingtonSmith_08Contrasting to the lower section, the top third of the picture is boxy, with vertical lines predominating (highlighted in green). Other lines (in pink) vary in direction, but remain straight, distinct, uncompromised.

The two sections are divided by one long gentle curve of countertop from one side of the picture to the other. They are linked vertically by curves which run from one shape to another – a man’s hair parting to a woman’s jaw, for example. A few verticals also venture into the lower section – where lines run amok. The strongest are the red of the chair frames, with a strong band of dischordant near-verticals traversing the image. The edges of tables veer in slightly “off” directions. The floor heaves up to the right. The overall effect is busy, but strangely harmonious. This is a working room, a bustling café, and there is a sturdy sense of order in the momentary disarray.

The picture is full of colour, particularly complementary colours. The immediately apparent colour contrast is red – green. At the bottom of the picture red chairs reflect in the green tabletop in a wide range of “reds” and “greens”, but blues with orange, yellows with purple are also well represented.

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The oscillation of the vibrating contrasts adds to the luminosity of the image. Little dabs of repeated colour – blues in a coat seen again in tiny shadows on chair backs for instance – help to contain and unify what could have become chaotic.

Cossington Smith wrote of the genesis of this work “… I didn’t know it was there, but I just went down to get a cup of tea I think. And found this lovely restaurant. It was a great surprise to me. I was struck by its colour and general design … Scarlet, green and white held me spellbound. I quickly began drawing, writing the colours in words as I worked” (Cossington Smith, 1979). Colour was her inspiration. Writing colour names on her sketches was a standard part of her practice. Bruce James has suggested such notes “represented far more than a collective aide-mémoire. They constituted a chemical table via which the painter could conduct her polychromatic investigations into the dazzling Australian environments around her…” (2013, p. 34). James goes on to suggest that these notations were “so legible, so viable, so realisable” that the charting alone could be the full conception of the work, an early Sol leWitt.

Cossington Smith used distinct short, aligned brushstrokes to create the painting. Generally colour-mixing was done on the palette, or optically in the eye of the viewer. This increases the shimmering effect of the contrasting colours. The modern, highly reflective nitrocellulose paints used in the café itself are captured in matte oil paint – “Light reflecting from the shiny surfaces is cleverly captured through broken swatches of colour” (Dredge, 2013, p. 118).

The distinct brushstokes allowed the use of many colours without muddying, maintaining the bright, clean feel of the picture. The direction of the strokes provides some modelling of forms otherwise flattened in the patterning, and at the same time provide a unity and stability to the pulsation of light and colour.

There is a definite sense of depth in the painting. In the centre the eye is funneled in, through an empty space between patrons and tables to a waitress, then on behind the counter to be stopped by the back of another worker. However on closer inspection the space makes no sense – it is flattened and distorted. Tables dip and bend, their sides twisted from perspective lines. Just left of centre is the dominant figure of a man sitting behind a table – but where is woman who appears just to left of him? Is she sitting at the same table, but somehow just behind it as well? That seems to be her hand, but too large – or is the man possibly waving to us? In which case is the woman at another table further back? Behind this couple is one waitress apparently taking an order, and another possibly serving someone – but who, and how can there be space for them?

Space is sacrificed to pattern, to pleasing rhythms and repetitions. This is an interior, but not one we can really enter.

The various figures are firmly occupying their positions, especially those seated, but there is little relationship between them. Even those sitting at the same table do not interact. Most of those seated look out of the painting at us – or really at Cossington Smith in the act of sketching them. The café workers seem busy, solicitous to the needs of their customers – but which customers? None of those we can see. Faces are sketchy or not described at all, and one patron is cut off right through her face.

Modern, urban
This is a bright, modern, dynamic, urban scene. Although an introspective and solitary figure, Cossington Smith found urban scenes a source of energy and exuberance. The ‘Soda Fountain’ in the lower ground floor of David Jones was everything fresh, modern and exciting – art deco fixtures, American influences, an interior possibly designed by fellow artist Thea Proctor (McNeil, 2013, p. 98).

While celebrating the material aspects of modern life, The Lacquer Room also suggests disquiet at the human impact – “… in this colour- and light-filled vision, the darkly dressed patrons who sit silent, mostly solitary and hardly welcoming in their cartoon glances, continue to express the artist’s ongoing reserve at the strangers the modern city makes of its inhabitants” (Edwards, 2013, p. 148).

The Lacquer Room is a complete contrast to The first born by Gaston La Touche (see 19-Jul-2013). La Touche created his work to please the jurors of the Paris Salon. Cossington Smith had financial security allowing her to follow her own vision. La Touche created an idealised view of the life of the poor worker, Cossington Smith observed and celebrated her own environment. Colour and techniques are obviously entirely different, as are space (depth, flattening / patterning) and the relationships of the people within. La Touche explored morning light through the window while Cossington Smith suffused her work with modern electric lighting. I think the pair make a good introduction to the interior view in painting.


Cossington Smith, G (1979) quoted in ‘Grace Cossington Smith: The Lacquer Room’, Australian Eye: series 2, video recording, Film Australia, Lindfield, NSW & Art Gallery of New South Wales. Producer Malcolm Otton. Director David Muir.

Dredge, P. (2013) “Colour and modern paint in the interwar decades” In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 118-119. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Edwards, D. (2013) “Ultra-moderne: Implement blue and The Lacquer Room“: In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 148-153. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

James, B. (2013) “Writing colour: from Mrs van Gogh to Grace Cossington Smith” In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 34-37. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

McNeil, P. (2013) “Thea Proctor: towards a stylish Australia” In In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 98-103. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 1

This final part of the course begins with the interior – first as represented in paintings, then as an architectural space.

We are asked to annotate two interior views, and for my first I have chosen The first born by Gaston La Touche (1883) – an example of a nineteenth-century genre painting. The painting hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), in my opinion was the best match to exercise requirements currently on display, and had personal appeal in the sense of light and the hint of a textile connection.

This large, square picture was awarded a second class medal in the Paris Salon of 1888 and was purchased from the Salon for AGNSW.

The painting shows a bedroom in a working-class home. A child, the first of the family, has been born and can almost be glimpsed in the straw-line cradle. The new mother sleeps, exhausted after what may have been a difficult birth. The young father sits on a rough wooden box at the foot of the bed, leaning wearily. An older woman, perhaps the grandmother, watches over the family as the light of a new day enters through the curtained windows.

LaTouche_02A series of strong verticals structure the image. A range of diagonal and nearly-horizontal lines, shown in green on the diagram, create the space of the interior. We are looking into a bedroom, perhaps standing in the doorway. The window is deeply set with a small platform, separated from the main room by a light curtain.

The main elements of the image are contained in a smaller area, outlined in pink in the diagram. There are the three adults, the crib, and another presence – a religious image.

Most of the light in the picture is entering through the large window, and it is beautifully dispersed by the sheer curtains. There may be some additional light assumed from the doorway, otherwise it is reflected light which brightens the back of the man’s shirt.

LaTouche_03The light is particularly varied and beautiful around the head of the older woman – reflected from the curtains onto her face, gleaming through what I assume is flax on her distaff, highlighting the shaping of her cap. In addition a small beam of light reaches over the pillow to find the head of the sleeping mother.

The colour palette is limited, mainly shades of yellow and brown, with touches of pink in the robe folder over the end of the bedstead and the shawl of the watching woman. There is a wide range of tones, with that bright white morning light touching each of the main figures, and contrasting dark shadows in other areas.

LaTouche_04Large areas of the image are left bare – texture on the walls and floor – which provides general interest while keeping focus on the main action of the image. However there are also areas given careful attention, such as the still-life of jug and bottles on the rush chair seat, and the wooden box supporting the man.

The general genre of narrative painting of interiors has its base in Dutch art of the seventeenth century, when the wealthy merchant class looked to spend their new wealth on works of art to adorn their homes. Such paintings would be small, suited to the domestic scale, detailed, and show a familiar rather than mythological or religious scene, often with a moral message. Most of those criteria apply to The first born except for the scale. This is a large work, designed as an entry to the Salon. The picture was well received in that environment, a report from that time including “Each actor of this familiar scene is exhibited in the simplest, truest and most impressive attitude, and the light, sifted through the large curtains, enters soft and clear into the humble dwelling, filling its naked walls with a pleasant, subdued radiance. Nothing is abandoned to purr sentimentality, but yet a chastened tenderness seems to be diffused throughout the chamber. M. la Touche has here produced a powerful and exquisite work” (Gazette des Beaux Arts, 1888).

Despite this measure of success, La Touche did not continue with such themes for many more years. He destroyed many of his early work, and in 1891 “consigned fifteen years work to the flames of a bonfire in a single day” (Brindley & Maclennan, [n.d.]). Presumably the AGNSW work was saved by its sale and voyage to Australia.

Gaston La Touche The Arbor ca 1906   oil on canvas

Gaston La Touche
The Arbor
ca 1906 oil on canvas
180 x 201 cm
The Walters Art Museum

The Walters Art Museum suggests “As a mature artist, [La Touche] broke with his realist beginnings to paint in a harmonious decorative style that reflects the influence of the Rococo painters of the 18th century” (The Walters Art Museum, [n.d.]). From the web image it’s certainly difficult to reconcile the two paintings from the same hand. Another work, Pardon in Brittany (1896) in the Art Institute Chicago (, while apparently using a broader palette and quite different technique, shows a handling of light much more in keeping with his earlier work. La Touche was part of the Paris art cafe scene and received advice from Manet and in particular Felix Bracquemond. It is interesting to see a basically classic, academic (although not academically trained) artist producing “vigorous, harsh and somber” works (Turner, 1996?) modify his work to such an extent.



Brindley & Maclennan, [n.d.] BIOGRAPHY: Gaston La Touche ~ 1854 – 1913 [online] Available from (Accessed 19-Jul-2014)

Editor unknown, (1988) Gazette des Beaux Arts, Paris, June 1988, quoted in National Art Gallery of New South Wales catalogue, 1906

The Walters Art Museum, [n.d.] Gaston La Touche: The Arbor [online] Available from (Accessed 19-Jul-2014)

Turner, J. (1996?) The Dictionary of Art Vol. 18, p. 835. Photocopy sighted in Research Library, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 1
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 1

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


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