Posts Tagged 'UWA-P4-research_point'

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
bronze
135.0 (h) x 233.0 (w ) x 57.0 (d) cm
http://nga.gov.au/international/catalogue/Detail.cfm?IRN=77438
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
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/6549/
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 – http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/873/) and Australian beach pattern by Charles Meere (1940 – http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/OA20.1965/). I really appreciate the thoughtful grouping of works in the gallery, giving context and depth to viewing of the works.

maillol
Aristide Maillol
La Montagne [The mountain] 1937
Lead
167.4 h x 193.0 w x 82.3 d cm
http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=116514
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
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/113.1979/
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)
wood
23.0 x 23.0 x 22.0 cm figure; 25.2 x 27.0 x 27.0 cm overall
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/189.1980.a-b/
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:
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/SA1.1962.a-b/
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
bronze
117.0 x 16.0 x 36.0 cm
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/612.1994/
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
http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=191980
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
bronze
183.0 cm height; 62.0 x 56.5 cm base plate
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/293.1997/
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
http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=131001

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.

XuChen
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
http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/13rooms/xu-zhen

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
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/74.2008/

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
http://www.whiterabbitcollection.org/artists/li-hongbo/

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.

balasubramaniam
Alwar Balasubramaniam
Nothing from my hands 2011-12
Installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the 18th Biennale of Sydney
http://www.mca.com.au/news/2012/09/05/last-chance-use-mca-insight-18th-biennale-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.

vozzo
Vince Vozzo
moon buddha 2013
sandstone
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 http://sydneystatues.wordpress.com/statues/queen-victoria-qvb/ ).

    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 http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/explore/arts-and-culture/public-art). Forgotten Songs by Michael Thomas Hill (completed 2011) is one lovely example – a delight hidden in the laneways behind Martin Place.

    References

    Sandys, T. ([n.d.])Selling the Air – The Art of Juan Muñoz [online] Available from http://www.timsandys.com/essay_dissertation.htm (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 http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/042901.html (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 http://www.insidehistory.com.au/2013/07/statue-of-queen-victoria/ (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, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fizelle-reginald-cecil-grahame-rah-6185/text10629, 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-Research point: The female nude

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

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

    Francesco Xanto Avelli
    Large plate: An allegory on the sack of Rome
    1530
    http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/389.2011/

    Wandering through the Art Gallery of NSW this was the oldest work including nudes that I found. It includes all combinations of male/female clothed/unclothed. Given the treatment and subject matter it’s hard to read it as exploiting women for male gratification. Many of the figures are based on classical works – for example the central female, Venus, is based on Hellenistic sculptures of crouching Venus (see one at the British Museum – https://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/m/marble_statue_of_aphrodite.aspx). Signage at the gallery includes “The sack of Rome was the world-shattering terrorist event of the renaissance period. On the reverse of this plate the artist refers to ‘5 May’ as we might ‘9/11’.” Why would the artist choose to use nudes in this scene? I wonder if in part he was trying to explain or understand the unexplainable, and to find distance from the immediate horror by seeing it in familiar, formal, classical forms. Raw history is seen through allegory, including Juno, Bacchus (from Marcantonio’s Due baccanti – see http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bacco_-_Raimondi_Marcantonio_(1480-1534)_-_Due_baccanti_-_Incisione.jpg), and in the foreground the River God of the Tiber.

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

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

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

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

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

    Lucie-Smith discovers widely varying artistic purposes.

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

    I can’t agree with all of Lucie-Smith’s assessment – for example look at Carmelinahttps://www.mfa.org/collections/object/carmelina-32429. I see a strong woman confronting the artist. Renoir may have seen a nude as ordinary as a ripe fruit – but then how often is ripe fruit used to suggest sexual readiness? The reference to Rembrandt’s Bathsheba is interesting. I found two versions, showing different parts of the biblical story. At The Metropolitan Museum of Art (http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/437393) we see Bathsheba at her toilet and she seems to look back knowingly, comfortable with our view. Just visible atop the palace in the background is David, also watching her. The version at the Louvre (http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/bathsheba-her-bath) shows Bathsheba holding the summons from David. She appears withdrawn, pensive, troubled, vulnerable. I think Lucie-Smith must be referring to this version.

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

    Saunders develops her position:

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

    Pietro Cipriani
    Venus de’ Medici
    1722 – 1724
    Bronze
    http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=313766

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

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

  • “… the embodiment, the allegorical personification, of purely male qualities, or attributes and functions permitted only to men in the social order of the time: Revolution, Victory, Virtue, Justice. She acts not as a woman but in her capacity as the representative of a male quality.” (ibid, p. 28)
  • Otherwise, active female nudity indicates voracious sexuality embodied in such mythic archetypes as Eve… These predatory nudes embody the dangerous ‘otherness’ of women’s sexuality unleashed” (ibid, pp, 28-29). An example of this is Susanna and the Elders by Tintoretto (to 1555/1556) (http://bilddatenbank.khm.at/viewArtefact?id=1564). Saunders states “The woman is clearly blamed for her predicament and presented as an exhibitionist: vain, worldly, narcissistic. Elaborately coiffed, she is rapt in contemplation of her image in the mirror. If she finds her own beauty so spell-binding, how can the Elders be blamed for succumbing to its temptations?” (ibid, p. 34)
  • Passive rather than active, vulnerable, powerless, anonymous, the object of voyeurism, the one to blame for men’s reactions, fetishized, mutilated, the allegorical embodiment of male qualities, the narcissistic temptress – I can see all of those elements in various artworks. Are they the rule, exceptions, or a more complex mix?

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

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

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

    I would like to mention two contemporary female artists.

    The first is Judith Linhares, who paints very large, colourful scenes, frequently including nudes. I tracked down some videos of Linhares speaking (http://www.romanovgrave.com/grave_videos/judith-linhares-interview-at-ed-thorpe-gallery). She mentions the strong women in her background, her college training including anatomy, her early desire to “paint like the men” – large and abstract. She avoided the pretty, the decorative, to meet perceived criteria of seriousness, until in the early 70s she came to think “decorative hey, I’ll show them decorative” and started works in part about “indulgence of a girlish appetite”, with rhinestones and gauze and feathers – for example see http://www.judithlinhares.com/Archive1970_17.html. For many years part of a politically focused womens group, they were visited by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, “trying to enlist them” – but Linhares never saw herself in the role of handmaiden. Linhares’ nudes are active and unabashed, moving through space and their lives.

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

    Lucian Freud And the bridegroom 1993

    Lucian Freud
    And the bridegroom
    1993

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

    References

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

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

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

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

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

    The Bowmore Artemis  c. 180 AD Italy, carved marble

    The Bowmore Artemis
    c. 180 AD
    Italy, carved marble

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

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

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

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

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

    Matins – The Annunciation
    Horae B.M.V. : illuminated ms. on vellum
    Paris ca.1490
    State Library of Victoria
    http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/117039

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

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

    Antonio Pollaiuolo
    The Battle of the Nudes
    1470-1495 (circa) a copperplate engraving
    © The Trustees of the British Museum
    http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=763560&partId=1&searchText=v,1.33

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

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

    After the skillful, highly detailed, anatomical accuracy of the Renaissance, artists turned to a more “mannered”, complex, virtuoso form of representation. Parmigianino was an Italian Mannerist painter. His Madonna of the Long Neck (also called Madonna and Child with Angels) (1534-1540, oil on wood, 219×135 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, http://www.virtualuffizi.com/madonna-and-child-with-angels%2C-known-as-the-%22madonna-with-the-long-neck%22.html, http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/madonna-with-the-long-neck/gAEsEn4eJXVHyg) has been stretched to create an exaggerated elegance. The madonna’s body forms a diamond filling most of the picture, her tiny head at the apex, her broad hips extended even further by the drape of her cloak, and at the base her small feet with elongated toes. The eponymous neck forms part of sweeping lines. Her right hand is long and graceful, the curve of the fingers denying their joints and even the ears are shaped to meet the artist’s purpose. The child is also elongated and distorted, a sleep like death – the pose is similar to Michelangelo’s Pietà. The space around also seems inconsistent, crowded on the left with angels, on the right incredible depth with a tiny St Jerome and what must be a massive colonnade. Parmigianino pushed beyond “natural” beauty to create incredible elegance and grace.

    Parmigianino also painted a remarkable self-portrait (held at Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna but I can’t find a stable link, so see http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/self-portrait-in-a-convex-mirror/ZQEd-Sg2nqL5mg). It is a masterpiece of distortion and illusion, showing the artist reflected in a convex mirror, his calm and self-possessed face the centre as the world curves around him.

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

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

    Jacques-Louis David
    The Tennis Court Oath 20th June 1789
    1791
    © RMN-Grand Palais
    http://www.histoire-image.org/pleincadre/index.php?i=215

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

    The course notes ask about this very question – art based on the classical ideal and art pursuing anatomical accuracy. The classical nude is a conceptually perfected figure, not any one individual and not showing the variety of humans. It doesn’t seem to be particularly anatomically incorrect – simply a very restricted selection. In all the examples I’ve mentioned in this post the accuracy or otherwise of the figure is only one part of the artist’s purpose. This may be religious, or political, or displaying technical virtuosity or scientific knowledge. The figure is also a compositional device, one part of the whole artistic effect. I haven’t ventured into the modern era in this post – there have been so many movements and so many different approaches to the human figure! However I will point to one – Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) by Marcel Duchamp (1912, oil on canvas, http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/51449.html. Duchamp is exploring the painterly concern of showing motion in a painting – the figure is simply a vehicle for his experimentation.

    References

    Bambach, C. (2002) “Anatomy in the Renaissance”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. [online] Available from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/anat/hd_anat.htm (Accessed 26-Apr-2014)

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

    UA1-WA:P4-p2-Research Point: Artists’ self-portraits

    This Research Point poses a number of questions about artists’ self-portraits.

    1. Why might an artist choose to paint (or sculpt) a self-portrait?

    My initial assumption here was cost and availability. Models may be hard to find and hard to afford. Only a limited number of sittings may be possible for a commissioned portrait. I’ve found there are many other reasons.

    Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669) each painted many self-portraits throughout their careers. Dr. Andrea Bubenik has suggested their motivations include “social ambition, pride in artistic profession, preparation for posterity, experimentation, medical diagnostics, and self fashioning” (Bubenik, 2011). Artists in their time were still regarded as any other craft workers, and showing themselves in rich costumes could enhance their prestige and social standing. The portraits could act as a form of advertising, displaying the artist’s virtuosity. In a self-portrait the artist could experiment with techniques or compositions in a way not possible within a commissioned work, for example by using a convex mirror. An example of “medical diagnostics” is a sketch by Dürer in which he points to where he was experiencing pain in his side (the work is held at the Kunsthalle, Bremen. A link to an image is https://www.museodelprado.es/en/exhibitions/exhibitions/at-the-museum/the-renaissance-portrait/the-exhibition/self-portraiture/).

    Many of these motivations have remained relevant to artists through to the current day. However I think the two most common are the idea of a self fashioned or constructed persona, and the expression of the world view or personal concerns of the artist.

    2 (a). How do artists explain themselves when portrayed as an artist? What visual clues do they give?

    Information on the Museo Nacional Del Prado website (link above) suggests that it was not common for an artist to portray themselves as an artist until the late sixteenth century. Calling attention to their tools of trade could hurt their social position.

    Judith Leyster’s work (c. 1630; http://www.nga.gov/content/
    ngaweb/Collection/highlights/highlight37003.html
    ) shows the young woman turning away from her work to smile at the viewer. She appears confident and competent, dexterous with her brushes and palette. The canvas on her easel shows a unfinished genre painting of a musician, thus displaying the artist’s skills in both portraiture and genre painting. Leyster’s clothing shows fine lace and gleaming fabrics – not the most practical of outfits for painting, but further demonstrating her technical skills.

    Adélaïde Labille-Guiard Self–Portrait with Two Pupils http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/53.225.5

    Adélaïde Labille-Guiard
    Self–Portrait with Two Pupils
    1785 Oil on canvas 210.8 x 151.1 cm)
    http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/53.225.5

    In 1785 Labille-Guiard is seen at her easel. While the unfinished canvas cannot be seen, the portrait itself shows her command of composition and colour. She is confident with her tools – brushes and palette in hand, crayons and paper on the footstool nearby. All three women are shown in very fashionable attire and it has been suggested that this, together with the statue of the Vestal Virgin in the background, could display the artist’s feminist agenda, teaching and advancing women and seeking equal rights in the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Metropolitan Museum of Art [n.d.]).

    Marie-Denise Villers

    Marie-Denise Villers
    Charlotte du Val d’Ognes
    1801 Oil on canvas 161.3 x 128.6 cm
    http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/437903

    It is not clear whether my next example is in fact a self-portrait. The catalogue entry presents a rather confusing sequence of attribution and re-attribution, but the work “may be a self-portrait”. I have included it because the artist’s tools shown are so much simpler than my earlier examples. A large sketchbook is propped in the young lady’s lap. She holds a brush, and another may be stuck in her hair, but there is no sign of paints or any other painting paraphernalia. The interior shown is also very simple, but there is a rather strange view through a cracked window, showing a couple in conversation in the distance. The artist is backlit, her face brightened by light reflected from her sketchbook. Her gaze is intense and serious. Could there be a questioning of the choices available – her art or marriage?

    Nora Heysen’s 1932 selfportrait (http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=204031) pares the visual signs of the artist down to a minimum. She is seated and holds her palette (apparently gifted to her as a child by Dame Nellie Melba) and brushes. Her strong hands, her direct, searching expression, are all that are needed to show a modern, confident, independent artist. There is a blue curtain behind, the artist and her palette fill the frame. A few years after this painting Heysen became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize.

    A great contrast to this is a more recent winner of the Archibald, Brett Whiteley’s Self portrait in the studio (1976 http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/1.1977/). Virtually the entire picture space is filled by the room and the view of the harbour outside. Whitely’s hands can be seen, one holding a small mirror, the other in the early stages of painting his head. His face is visible reflected in the mirror. The room is full of visual clues about the artist and his work, but the work as a whole challenges the concept of portraiture itself.

    2 (b). How do artists explain themselves when portrayed in a role other than artist? What visual clues do they give?

    I have found two self-portraits by Artemisia Gentileschi in which she shows herself in a different character. The first is Self-Portrait as a Lute Player c. 1615 was recently acquired by Wadsworth Atheneum (see http://nordonart.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/wadsworth-atheneum-acquires-an-artemisia-gentileschi-self-portrait/). The artist is playing a lute. The instrument itself is beautifully detailed. The artist’s hands with their long fingers are in the act of playing. She herself is voluptuous in a low-cut gown. She could be the personification of Music – or just possibly a courtesan.

    The second work by Gentileschi has a odd twist because it shows her as the allegory of Painting – see http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/eGallery/object.asp?maker=12024&object=405551. The Royal Collection website explains “Artemisia follows the standard emblematic handbook of the period, the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, where Painting is described as ‘a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation’’” (Royal Collection [n.d.]). The only item missing is the gag – Painting may be dumb, but this artist has a voice – for of course as well as allegory this is also a self-portrait of the artist, complete with brushes and palette.

    3. Can you find new insights in artists’ comments about their own self-portrait?

    Nell, winner of The University of Queensland National Artists’ Self-Portrait Prize 2013. Without her comments I would not have been able to interpret her work. A performance, a video, the destruction of one work in the creation of a new one – it defies my description, so I suggest you look at http://www.artmuseum.uq.edu.au/nell.

    One of the things I particularly like about this prize is the associated UQ Art Museum’s Selfie Comp. The short list can be seen at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.747970175229375.1073741830.108507249175674&type=1. The “selfie” has become so common and normal – it seems so relevant, but I haven’t been able to frame any questions or challenges it may pose to portraiture.

    While looking through the associated documentation I found “Judge Blair French said good portraiture was inextricably bound with a consciousness of time and transience, and could embrace its complexity and hold on our experience.” (University of Queensland, 2013) I’ve only ever done rough self-sketches, never attempted a self-portrait (another of the Research Point questions). I would like to think on French’s quote for a while, and perhaps make a later attempt.

    References

    Bubenik, A. (2011) “Dürer and Rembrant: The relevance of Early Modern Self-Portraiture” In Portraiture/Self Portraiture/Identity: UQ Art Museum Learning Resource [Seminar] University of Queensland [online] Available from http://asset.artmuseum.uq.edu.au/interpretive-resources/UQAM-Learning-Resource-CPD-Portraiture-2011.pdf (Accessed 17-Apr-2014)

    Metropolitan Museum of Art [n.d.] Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788): Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (French, Paris 1749–1803 Paris) [online] Available from http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/436840 (Accessed 17-Apr-2014)

    Royal Collection ([n.d.]) Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/3): Self-portrait as the allegory of Painting (La Pittura) [online] Available from http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/eGallery/object.asp?maker=12024&object=405551&row=0&detail=about (Accessed 18-Apr-2014).

    University of Queensland (2013) Sydney artist Nell wins $50,000 UQ National Artists’ Self-Portrait Prize [online] Available from http://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2013/10/sydney-artist-nell-wins-50000-uq-national-artists-self-portrait-prize (Accessed 18-Apr-2014)

    UA1-WA:P4-p2-Research Point: Artists’ self-portraits
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
    Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
    Project two: The artist’s self-portrait portrait
    Research point: Artists’ self-portraits

    UA1-WA:P4-p1-Research Point: Portrait sculpture

    For this Research Point I decided to start my investigation with two portrait busts I saw recently when visiting the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Canberra.

    Benjamin Law

    Benjamin Law
    Bust
    1936
    © The Trustees of the British Museum

    Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy (1936) by Benjamin Law is a painted cast plaster sculpture. In primary school I was taught that Trucaninny was the last Tasmanian Aborigine.

    Benjamin Law

    Benjamin Law
    Bust
    1935
    © The Trustees of the British Museum

    Woureddy, an Aboriginal Chief of Van Diemen’s Land (1835) was made by the same sculptor a year earlier.

    There are multiple cast versions of these busts. The photographs here are from the British Museum because my use falls within their terms of use. Their colouring and condition are different to the ones I saw at the NPG which are painted black. The Australian Museum has two sets – one painted black, the other with more detailed paintwork. The Australian Museum photographs provide particular interest which I’ll mention later. The direct links are: British Museum –
    www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx?museumno=2009,2025.1
    www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx?museumno=2009,2025.2
    NPG – www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?irn=1721
    www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?irn=1722
    Australian Museum – australianmuseum.net.au/Truganini-1812-1876

    A very brief and rough history. Tasmania is a state of Australia, a large island and many small islands to the south of the main continent. Aboriginal people have been living there for 45,000 years or so. The British began to settle in southern Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, in 1803. There was conflict virtually from the start, over land, food sources and abductions (for sexual partners and labourers). The situation worsened significantly from 1824 as the colony expanded and population grew. The Aborigines resisted with guerrilla war tactics, the colonial government declared martial law between 1828 and 1832 – the Black War. The Black Line in 1830 was a chain of colonists – convicts and freemen – which over several weeks swept across the settled land in an attempt to drive the Aboriginal people onto a peninsula where they could be contained. Disease, fighting, massacres had decimated the Aboriginal people. Eventually in 1833 around 220, given various promises, were persuaded to surrender and were moved to Wybalenna on Flinders Island. By 1835 there were fewer than 150 alive, by 1847 just 47, and the last, Trucaninny, died in 1876. Tasmanian Aborigines were said to be extinct. It wasn’t true, and there’s lots of scholarly and not-so-scholarly debate about the rest.

    The busts are life-size. At NPG the Woureddy bust is set on a plinth putting it at an average man’s height. He looks out confidently, directly. Close by the Trucaninny bust is on a lower plinth – a small woman. Her gaze is down and unfocused, I couldn’t find a position where I could meet her eyes. Both are dressed in what appear to be animal skins. The contrast in their stance is striking. The simple explanation would be that this portrays the individual personalities, but from various accounts I have read Trucaninny was not a shy or easily overwhelmed woman, and the sorrowful, passive, submissive posture of the bust is extreme.

    Benjamin Law arrived in Tasmania in 1835 and created the bust of Woureddy soon after. It could be that Law was not well informed of the history and situation of the aborigines in the colony and that he saw Woureddy as the “noble savage” of Rousseau, free of the vices of civilized men, peaceful, content, without foresight. When working on Trucaninny the next year Law may have been more informed about the devastation of her people and reflected that knowledge in the bust.

    The contrast between the busts could been intended as a symbol of the binary nature of men and women. Europa and the Bull (see 28-Jul-2013) shows the strong, active male and the woman acted upon, with no voice in her situation. That explanation leaves a nasty taste, given both Woureddy and Tucaninny were ultimately unable despite their efforts to help their people against the power of the colonists (that is, they were together on one side of a different binary (power) relationship).

    Benjamin Law Bust of George Augustus Robinson 1836

    Benjamin Law
    Bust of George Augustus Robinson
    1836
    State Library of Victoria
    handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/71284

    Of interest here is a third bust by Law, apparently dated between Woureddy and Tucaninny. George Augustus Robinson was the “conciliator” or “pacificator” who persuaded the remaining Aborigines in Tasmania to surrender and accept relocation. Robinson commissioned his portrait bust from Law. I saw a similar ones at Elizabeth Bay House (see 30-Nov-2013), although the one shown in my post was marble rather than plaster and commissioned by the Linnean Society rather than self-commissioned. Robinson’s bust is in neoclassical style, showing him draped in a toga, fit but slightly older than his age at the time (around 45), wise, calm, noble, with the authority of antiquity behind him. Woureddy and Trucaninny are depicted in the skins of the savage, deliberately stressing the primitive – at a time when they would have generally dressed in european style clothing. Combined they could be viewed as a Dying Gaul (see www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/press/exh/3655.html), defeated yet still in death noble, dignified.

    Similar approaches can be seen in images of Native Americans, for example the sculptures of Ferdinand Pettrich (see www.skd.museum/de/sonderausstellungen/archiv/tecumseh-keokuk-black-hawk/index.html. His c. 1850 Bust of Kee-o-kuk (Watchful Fox) shows the proud, erect head of the chief of the Sauk-Fox, while The dying Te-cum-seh depicts the fallen, dying warrior. These works were created at a time “when the US government’s policy towards the Native Americans was becoming increasingly hostile and the young nation was striving for further expansion and a national identity, while the native inhabitants were fighting for their physical and cultural survival” (Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2013).

    As mentioned above, Robinson commissioned his own bust. Law acted as an entrepreneur when he created the busts of Trucanniny and Woureddy, reproducing them multiple times in a money-making venture as a memorial to the end of the Black War. Public reactions at the time were quite different. A number of contemporaries saw Robinson’s bust as a vanity piece, self-aggrandisement by a man who had managed to make considerable money doing his “humanitarian” work with the natives. The other two busts were a commercial success for Law, but not as works of art. Instead casts were purchased by museums and individuals for their ethnographic value as a record of what was assumed to be a primitive and dying race.

    There may be an extreme example of this ethnographic focus, seeing the casts as specimens rather than portraits of individuals. In the copies of Trucanniny shown above and at NPG the figure is shown wearing a necklace of shells. A staff member at NPG explained to me that these were a tangible sign of Trucanniny’s connection to land. The shells were a kind found at her traditional home, and the necklace was knotted in a specific way which she would have been taught as a young woman by tribal elders. I was taken to another part of the gallery and shown a later photograph of Trucanniny, still wearing the shells (see www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?searchtype=basic&searchstring=aboriginal&irn=1401&acno=2009.4). It seemed a small positive in a very difficult life that she had been able to keep the necklace and the connection to land. I was shocked later when researching for this post to find that on one of the versions of the cast at the Australian Museum the shells are absent – yet another layer of dehumanisation.

    Researching these portrait busts I keep coming back to the beliefs and attitudes of the colonists. There was an assumption of superiority and often an expectation indigeneous people would die out. People acted in an involved web of financial, religious and humanitarian motives. Benjamin Duterrau’s painting The Conciliation (1840 – see foundingdocs.gov.au/enlargement-eid-49-pid-66.html) shows Robinson shaking hands with one of a group of Aborigines, bringing peace and fellowship after the dreadful Black War. It could be likened to Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1771-72) by Benjamin West (see http://www.pafa.org/museum/The-Collection-Greenfield-American-Art-Resource/Tour-the-Collection/Category/Collection-Detail/985/mkey–2609/). I don’t know American history so can’t comment on the earlier image, but Duterrau’s image of peace and harmony, the suggestion of equality in a handshake, the idea of a “treaty” is far from the actuality. Over 150 years later the Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 (Tas) “acknowledges the dispossession of Tasmania’s Indigenous people and recognises certain rights of Tasmanians of Aboriginal descent. It is the first such legislation in Tasmania, where the assumption that no Aboriginal people remained after the first 50 years of the Colony meant the issue of reconciliation in law was ignored” (Museum of Australian Democracy, [n.d.]).

    Reference

    Arnoldsche Art Publishers (2013) TECUMSEH, KEOKUK, BLACK HAWK (catalogue entry) [online] Available from www.arnoldsche.com/en/New-Books/TECUMSEH-KEOKUK-BLACK-HAWK.html#/16/ (Accessed 8-Mar-2014)

    Museum of Australian Democracy, [n.d.] Documenting a democracy: Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 (Tas) [online] Available from http://foundingdocs.gov.au/item-did-79-aid-7-pid-66.html (Accessed 13-Mar-2014)

    Resources

    ‘Robinson, George Augustus (1791–1866)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-george-augustus-2596/text3565, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 13 March 2014.

    Delaney, JJ ([n.d.]) Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online] Available from http://www.iep.utm.edu/rousseau/ (Accessed 9-Mar-2014)

    Knapman, G. (2010) The Pacificator: discovering the lost bust of George Augustus Robinson. The La Trobe Journal 86 (December), pp. 37 – 52. Available online at http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/latrobejournal/issue/latrobe-86/t1-g-t4.html (Accessed 8-March-2014)

    Lyndall Ryan and Neil Smith, ‘Trugernanner (Truganini) (1812–1876)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/trugernanner-truganini-4752/text7895, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 13 March 2014.

    UA1-WA:P4-p1-Research Point: Portrait sculpture
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
    Project one: The portrait
    Research Point: Portrait sculpture


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