Frank Zappa once posed the question ‘Does humour belong in music?” Given that the album in question contained the song Penguin in Bondage, it’s pretty clear that in the mind of the late lamented pointy-bearded musical loon/genius and Czech cultural attaché the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
Although music was Frank’s target, the question can and should be applied across the arts and that great big ‘yes’ goes across the board, the canon of ‘great paintings’ included.
For example I find Ingres’s Angelica Saved by Ruggerio absolutely hilarious, largely due to the expression on Angelica’s face which seems to have fallen backward through time from a Beryl Cook painting, I can never decide whether she’s thinking “About time too.”, “Oh no not you again.” or “Watch what you’re doing with that bloody lance.” The great thing is that the more detailed analysis you apply the funnier it gets – I once spent a joyful half hour in front of it with a well-respected lecturer in Art History and Gender Studies whose psychoanalytic interpretation had tears of laughter streaming down my face and brought gasps of shock from a coach party from the Batley Guild of Disapproving Women who were tutting around us like a flock of tweed starlings. ( I wont go into the details but the shape of the rock that Angelica’s chained to had a starring role.)
So, if art is so funny, why do galleries echo with hushed whispers rather than gales of bawdy laughter? Simply because it’s the way the gallery space encourages us to behave. Carefully spaced and meticulously lit, hanging in neat rows or arranged on plinths, painting and sculptures are presented to us as sacrosanct objects and we respond in quiet reverence.
This is all well and good, I like a nice empty gallery, I like being able to sit quietly and lose myself in a work of art cloistered away from the noise of the city. (Anyone who’s been in a gallery with me will have noticed me grinding my teeth if someone’s mobile phone starts to ring).
But displaying work in this way also has the effect of separating the work from the life it once had. It’s true that much of the work we see in, say, the National Gallery was once displayed in chapels and churches, even if lit by candlelight rather than halogen, but just as much was hung in sitting rooms, theatres, public offices, clubs, bedrooms and all manner of improbable locations. In their original settings these paintings and sculptures would have been surrounded by political arguments, bawdy singing, declarations of love and lust, drunken fights and laughter.
Take Sandro Bottticelli’s Venus and Mars. Hanging in its white-walled cell in the Sainsbury Wing of the National it seems like a contemplative illustration of a scene from classical mythology – a post-coital moment in the tempestuous and illicit affair between the gods of love and war. (At the time Venus was married to her sort-of uncle/brother Vulcan – classical mythology is more preposterous and convoluted than any soap opera, if you ever have the inclination read The Iliad, it’s like Dynasty on crack with togas). Venus gazes towards her sleeping lover with a cool look, resigned and a touch disdainful at his lack of stamina. A gang of attendant satyrs play exuberantly with Mars’s weapons and armour, one blowing a conch-trumpet in his ear in a futile attempt to raise him for another round of lovemaking.
On the face of it it’s a nice simple allegory. Love conquers war. But when we realise what the painting actually was it becomes so much more. Although there are no surviving documents about the painting’s commission, the size and subject matter point to it either being part of a painted bed-head or the front of a cassone – a richly decorated ‘wedding chest’ that would be given to newly married couples to furnish their bedroom as part of the bride’s dowry. The presence of the wasps buzzing around Mars’s head suggest that this may well have been a commission for the Vespucci family – close financial and political allies of the Medici family who held Florence in the grip of their influence at the time.
Marriage in Florence was an incredibly political business, cementing diplomatic allegiances and business deals, and these noble families, jostling for control of trade and influence, frequently used the commissioning of both religious and secular art as means of displaying their power. It’s not too much of a stretch to read a political message into Venus and Mars, to me there’s a suggestion that the power in the relationship lies firmly with Venus, and by implication the brides family – the wasps serving as a reminder to the groom that even when he’s asleep, they’ll be there, hovering close by, ready to deliver a sting should he step out of line.
So much for the political message, but I think there’s a sexual message here too. Earlier and later works on the same theme (such as Poussin’s and a mural from Pompeii) show Cupid and cherubs playing with Mars’s weapons of war, symbols of profane, possibly illicit, but still human love. Botticelli on the other hand uses satyrs, traditionally representing boisterous and bestial untamed lust, two waving the lance around with gleeful abandon while another sneaks underneath him reaching for his sword. Sometimes Freudian analysis can be all too easily applied and while I certainly subscribe to the view that sometimes a lance is just a lance, I can’t help thinking that in this instance it probably isn’t.
Take this painting off the wall of the National Gallery and stick in the bedroom of a newly wed couple and the high-minded noble message of ‘Love conquers all’ gets a nudge nudge wink wink coda.
‘Love Conquers all (but sex never shuts up).”
It’s a beautifully painted, graceful, elegant and erotic incitement to pleasure, a seaside postcard of a painting with a subtle political sting in its tail. Go and stand in front of it and laugh – I’m sure the people it was painted for did.