Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Female Nudes in Painting

One of my favourite love poems is one by John Donne, titled “The Flea.” In this intriguingly lusty poem a flea engineers a consummation between a clandestine couple by mingling their blood it sucks in its own body. Whenever viewing erotic paintings, Donne’s poem springs to my mind. I feel like that sneaky flea, serving as an intermediary between the fateful lovers, and being complicit in the sexual affair whilst not actively engaging in it. Then I check the distance between the painting and me, the discreet distance that prevents any hypnotized ones from absorbing too further and caressing the painting without noticing.

I will be more prudent on my definition on eroticism and discuss only female nudity in art. Reclining nudes in painting fascinate me, and for a long time I have wanted to write on a piece that delves into a panoply of naked beauties. My personal favourite has always been Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510). It is the image that most reminiscent of a relaxing holiday in a far-flung land. The goddess lolls on a red mattress, which, against a landscape with sombre colours, is made a distinct feature of the painting. A silver sheet pours flowingly from out beneath the mattress and sends crinkles and ripples that underlie the circumference of Venus’ voluptuous body. For the sake of discretion the private part is covered by the goddess’ hand, which clutches rather than laying gently above. For me that particular hand gesture is what stirs up all sexual wonders- the slight curl of her fingers deliberately puts her body part into focus. It seems as if the goddess is grabbing at something she dearly protects and cherishes.

If Giorgione’s Venus poises between modesty and eroticism, then a more sensuous and bold Venus is introduced in Titian’s. In Venus of Urbino (1538) the goddess is almost rendered as a temptress, who lies amid a Renaissance surrounding sumptuously embellished with rich decorations. Titian had his Venus’ eyes opened, exuding both wide-eyed naiveté and dangerous seduction. With those eyes the goddess confronts the viewers unfalteringly, as if inviting anyone who is willing to enter her world. A puppy (a symbol for fidelity) is sleeping unperturbedly; implying that the last vestige of virtue is at risk of fading away. A girl at the back is up to ears in rummaging about a treasure trove, but her mother’s secrets she can never dredge up.

And the tension of sexuality just gets more and more layered and compounded. In 1863 saw the display of Edouard Manet’s Olympia. In comparison with Giorgione’s and Titian’s Venus, Manet’s goddess is far from ideally beautiful. In fact her body is awkwardly disproportionate. Yet Olympia seems by no means abashed by her flaws. Despite how the painting appears rather cursorily done, the confrontational stare is still there. This time, the gaze looks enigmatic. Neither grabbing nor clutching, the hand places on the private part palm-down, but with no distinguished ladylike grace whatsoever. Her maid brings to her a bouquet of fresh flowers, a gift presumably from her former client. Yet the flowers do little to catch her attention. Instead her eyes are steadfastly on us; we, her next prey she is ready to pounce upon. A black cat exerts itself on the edge of the bed; she symbolizes a prostitute.

This is how human flesh is celebrated in art: nothing is concealed, nothing is kept secretive; everything is exposed before your goggle eyes. With the prevalence of nudity in art, viewers scarcely blush when beholding such paintings in galleries, but once the eroticism is powerful enough, our every sense still pricks up.

Monday, 3 September 2012

John Martin, the Great Day of His Wrath (1853)

The sky is ablaze with burning flames and the earth splits asunder- the image of an impending apocalypse looms. Those paintings are impregnated with forebodings of the demise of all living things, and can be served as memento mori- mostly cautionary tales that remind people of their mortality. Landscape paintings that depict the biblical scenes of eternal damnation (most often the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) are sometimes reinterpreted as prophetic visions of the end of the world. Painters as early as one in the Romantic period, John Martin, conjured up images that continued to awe and frighten the viewers of today.

In John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath (1853) a volcano erupts and its ashes and fire surge towards the air, rendering the sky an infernal red. One can easily establish himself into the painting and feel the quake rumble under his feet. The earth takes a topsy-turvydom, where the ground and sky suddenly become one. There are people in the painting who, dwarfed by the horrendous landscape to a horde of small ants, cling onto the shaky cliffs to struggle on their vain existence. This is the scene when the happening precedes its harbinger; all in the blink of an eye we might all vanish, engulfed by the fire and all in a whirl.

Our painting is immediately reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s, another English landscape painter whose posthumous fame outstrips that of Martin’s, Eruption of Vesuvius (1817). In Turner’s painting the juxtaposition of light and dark is more pronounced, as seen in the fire bursting from the crater is wrought almost blinkingly white. There is more of a feeling of marvel and beauty, an aesthetic that almost borders upon serenity that accompanies this outrageous disaster, when viewing the painting. Looking at the painting I harbour a hope, a hope for those that escape unscathed and witness the horrible event from afar. It is often the times when tomorrow still seems a long distance away, and we just seize on to the moment when we are still alive, and that makes us inexpressibly blissful.

It is hard not to reference Joachim Patinir when Martin and Turner are discussed in conjunction. In the Flemish master’s Landscape with the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1520) the disastrous scene is partially blocked by the rock formation installed arbitrarily in the middle of the painting. At the other side of the rock shows a rather peaceful scene with the angels gleefully rambling- an ironic contrast to the great disaster just one stone away. Patinir followed the convention of putting in one painting two images of contrasting moods and values. Viewers are then asked to choose the path of either eternal damnation or salvation (like the traditional format of a Prodigal Son painting). The purpose is often to face and root out the vices lodge in human hearts, and so as to inspire moral conscience.

With the advance of technology and scientific reasoning people however are still inclined to consult natural occurrences for signs and warnings. Preternatural landscape paintings like Martin’s inevitably become a vehicle for soothsaying. When our painting was exhibited some art critics saw it as a response to the emerging industrial scene of London. The scholars often apply a more negative reading to the painting, yet if they focused on the sunlight that seems to break out from the thronging clouds, the hope is nigh.