Collapsing The Distance

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Édouard Manet – Olympia (1863)

Looking with 21st Century eyes, it’s difficult to believe that the paintings of Eduard Manet once provoked such an outcry. To contemporary eyes Olympia looks hardly radical or provocative; a reclining nude painted in a realistic fashion. The walls of national collections of Western art the world over are crowded with such paintings. Even at the Salon des Refuses in 1865, at which Olympia was exhibited, the female nude was a perfectly acceptable subject and in previous years works like Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus had been exhibited without an eyebrow being raised.

Yet when Olympia was first exhibited in Paris, the popular press raged and stormed in a way that would make today’s tabloid hysteria over a priapic golfer seem measured by comparison. The painting, and by implication the artist, was, according to the journalists, both incompetent and immoral. The fury was not just limited to writers and critics, the exhibition visitors were also so enraged that the organisers were forced to put guards on the painting to stop it being torn to shreds.

As far as Manet’s incompetence was concerned, the writers drew attention to the apparent slapdash application of paint; great splodgy sweeps of paint appeared to have been smeared onto the canvas. The brush strokes were visible on the surface rather than being disguised by the repetitive and meticulous painting and under-painting of heavily diluted paint that was prescribed by the state-sponsored Art Academies and studios in which all painters learnt their crafts.

The case for ‘immorality’ is slightly more complex. Unlike Cabenel’s Venus, Olympia wasn’t a mythological fantasy, she was a contemporary woman, but not just a contemporary woman. Her shoes, bangle and choker identified her to the critics as a prostitute probably from the Batignolles suburb of Paris – a well known destination for gentleman of the middle classes looking for entertainment. In fact the model was Victorine Meurent a close friend of Manet’s who went on to become a painter herself, but it’s clear that the critics’ interpretation was what Manet had intended. For the establishment of late 19th Century Paris such a woman was not a suitable subject for a large scale work of art, which were normally reserved for noble themes from mythology, history or the Bible.

The offence of the subject matter was compounded by the fact that the clear source for the composition of Olympia was Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The nude was posed in a similar way and the picture space was divided by a screen. Manet’s alterations to the orginal subject piled offence upon offence in the eyes of the critics, the dog that lies curled up at Venus’s feet, representing loyalty, was replaced by black cat, recognized as a symbol of licentiousness, back arched and hackles raised, staring beadily at the viewer. While Venus’s left hand rests, almost beckoning, on her groin, Olympia’s is taut, protective and entirely in control.

It was this assertion of Olympia’s self determination and control of the depicted situation which caused most problems for the critics. The classical and academic nudes that were a staple of the Salon never made direct eye-contact with the viewers, they stared into the middle distance or looked up coyly through their eyelashes offering their bodies as art objects to be admired in a morally uplifting way. Any suggestion that the enjoyment that might be gained by the frock-coated and top-hatted men who attended the Salon and perused the nudes of Cabanel might have been more sexual than spiritual were easily dismissed by appeals to the noble subject matter at hand. But a modern woman, a prostitute at that, staring directly at the viewer with a questioning expression on her face allowed no room for such ethical dodging. It’s entirely possible that the men who expressed their outrage at Olympia may well have been leaving the Salon to attend an assignation with one of the many barmaids or laundresses of Batignolles a comfortable distance from the high society of Paris and their homes. Olympia collapsed that distance.

Manet had painted a modern woman in a modern way. He’d brought real life into the unreal world of the art gallery, showing up the hypocrisy of the great and good of Paris’s fashionable set and ruling classes in the process. He paved the way for the Impressionists who followed hot on his heels and all of those modern artists who came in their wake. It’s perhaps a bit of stretch to call him the father of Modern Art, there are too many other precedents to take into account, but the father of Modern Art as Outrage? I’m prepared to give him that one.

A Lot of ‘Not Much’

 


Richard Serra, Trip Hammer (1988), Tate London

It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but some Minimalist art is big, really big. It almost as if the artists want to emphasise that there’s not much there by making an awful lot of ‘not much’. Donald Judd’s series of free standing boxes for example are big enough for a few close friends to climb into, Robert Morris, Carl Andre and Tony Smith all made works that left little room for viewers in the gallery, but perhaps the master of minimalist overstatement is Richard Serra.

I’ve alluded in past blogs to the brain-scrambling theoretical debate about the nature of art that raged in the journals of the mid 1960s. It really is too arcane to go into in any great depth here but to simplify one of the central platforms of the minimalist project addressed the issue of Art’s relation to the real world. On one side were the critics and theorists who had supported the first wave of American Abstract Expressionists. Art should, they said, be an end in itself, it should have nothing to do with the real world, the ideal art was concerned only with itself, with colour and form. Such an approach, it was argued, made art a specialised sphere of activity and one that could lift the viewer into a timeless state of being away from the mundane concerns of the world.

Predictably such a dogmatic approach didn’t sit well with the stirrings of political unrest and burgeoning counter-culture of the 1960s, and soon opponents of this isolationist approach argued exactly the opposite, that art should anchor the viewer in their place and time, that it should make people aware of the world, not create a hermetic bubble into which they should escape. A new art was required, one which, in Claes Oldenburg’s words “does something other than sit on its ass in a museum”. A new wave of artists and approaches emerged that brought real life back into the gallery in the form of stuffed goats, comic book art and installations while performances and ‘happenings’ were staged and collaborative sculptures were built as part of protests taking art out into the real world.

For the Minimalists a key aspect of bringing the real world into the gallery involved a conscious rejection of the traditional materials and methods of art. Paint, bronze and marble were replaced by plastic, concrete, steel and aluminium, many of these materials being made, not by the artists themselves, but by industrial manufacturers working to the artists specifications. The artists studio was no longer an ivory tower of contemplation but a noisy factory full of dirt, steam and sparks.

Richard Serra could arguably be seen as the most ‘industrial’ of the Miminalists. From his early work that involved splashing the walls, floors and corners of the gallery with molten lead he progressed to installing increasingly large sheets, slabs and tubes of COR-TEN Steel that were held in place only by their weight and the effects of gravity and balance. As well as being unashamedly industrial, this choice of material connected with the rejection of a ‘timeless’ experience of art by being specifically designed to corrode over time, thus the physical nature of the work itself would change while it was displayed.

The viewers’ experience of the work was also intended to unfold over time, the simple shapes allowing them to comprehend the object in front of them as they walked around it, the absence of such unnecessary complications as intricate shapes or different colours allowing the viewer to explore the relationship between the space the work and themselves. It’s a difficult theoretical argument to get across without lapsing into the kind of talk that graces Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner, but Serra’s work is, I think, the clearest illustration of this particular aspect of the debate.

Encountering Serra’s Trip Hammer is an unnerving experience. Two great slabs of rusting steel are arranged with no visible means of support in the corner of the gallery, one nine foot high monolith is balanced vertically on it’s smallest edge leading into the corner of the space, the second, slightly smaller slab balanced on top horizontally, its longest edges at 45 degree angles to the converging gallery walls. The familiarity of the material and simplicity of the precarious arrangement gives you a a very real understanding of the hard physical facts of the sculpture, its texture, temperature and most importantly its weight. You can easily imagine the whole thing toppling over and crashing through the wooden floors. Even if it wasn’t for the Health and Safety precautions of a gallery rope that now surrounds the work you really wouldn’t want to get too close. You do become acutely aware of the realities of your physical self in relation to the looming rusted metal in front of you.

Serra’s work has been criticised for it’s authoritarianism, its machismo and for creating a relationship between art and viewer akin to that between a ‘bully and victim’ and given that in 1988 two art handlers were seriously injured by a falling sculpture the ‘victim’ status of people encountering the work can sometimes be applied literally.

Of course there is something unashamedly macho about a form of art that requires foundries and heavy machinery rather than brushes and white gloves to create and install, and yes there is something authoritarian about an art that dominates a space and threatens to crush the viewer like an ant, but I think it needed to be. A seemingly impenetrable barrier had been set up between art and life and the strategies necessary to bring that barrier crashing down weren’t polite, weren’t tasteful and they weren’t quiet, they were noisy, tacky, flashy, flamboyant, exciting, frightening, dirty, rough, big and on occasions dangerous.

Just like life really.

Mistakes and Expectations

Marc Quinn – Stuart Penn (2000)

Art Historians make mistakes. It goes with the territory, paintings like The Massacre of the Innocents get attributed to the wrong artist, new evidence comes to light and completely turns received wisdom about a sculpture on its head; it all part and parcel of dealing with a subject that attempts to knit together a coherent story out of a mass of uncertainties, contradictions and, on occasions, downright lies. (The dates that Kasmir Malevich inscribed on his Black Square paintings being an example of the latter – though to be fair he was as mad as a bag of badgers in a spin dryer.)

Since the discipline took lessons from the likes of Foucault and Barthes and developed doubt into a valid ideological position, negotiating the potholes and chicanes of art history is slightly easier – in the first year of study, the student art historian learns the magic word ‘problematic’, a useful means of tying up the flailing loose ends of a tricky paper. You can even use it as a verb, “This is of course problematicised by…” It’s a cop out really, but a necessary one, without it you’d never finish an essay.

Sometimes the repercussions of these mistakes only affect the rarefied circle of art history itself, tiny ripples in a small pond, a few papers may have to be re-written, some textbooks and monographs may fall out of favour and conferences will be arranged. Other times these ripples can have wider implications changing the direction that art and culture take and influencing the nature of public taste.

For centuries, art historians and theorists held up Classical Sculptures as exemplars or quality and ideal beauty; painters copied figures from them, sculptors worked hard to reproduce their style in their own work and the young men of wealthy families were sent off on Grand Tours to view them to distract them from deflowering the chambermaids for a few months. If the philosophers and politicians of Athens and Rome favoured such sculpture, so should younger societies aiming for a return to the artistic glories of those once great civilisations. Almost subliminally the notion that the very best sculpture was carved from white marble sank into the Western cultural consciousness. And even by the time that Modernists, like Barbara Hepworth were making abstract sculpture, white marble was still seen as a prestige material.

Yet recent scientific investigations of sculptures such as the Parthenon Marbles have revealed traces of pigment and there’s now a consensus that they were extremely brightly painted and adorned with all manner of jewellery and accessories. So it seems that a few hundred years in the development of ideas of what is beautiful, sophisticated and above all tasteful were in a large part based on a whopping great art historical mistake.

We still feel the influence of this mistake today. Take a look at Antonio Canova’s Cupid and Psyche and imagine how different about it you might feel if it was more like Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Even though I know that there’s a great big misunderstanding lurking at the heart of Canova’s aesthetic decisions, I can’t help thinking it would look hideous if it was a gaudy as the Koons. The association of white marble with grace and beauty remains so deeply ingrained that even a few colourful revelations can’t shift it.

Marc Quinn made great use of this association in a series of sculptures he made in 2000. Take a look at Stuart Penn above, it seems at first glance like any other classically influenced sculpture, and when the series were exhibited in the sculpture rooms at the Victoria and Albert museum, they seemed right at home amongst the 16th to 18th century figures, if anything a casual viewer might have been led to believe they were in fact older than Canovas and Bolognas by virtue of the missing limbs.

It’s the missing limbs here that are key. Quinn’s models for the series were sitters who had either been born missing limbs or had lost them due to accident or disease. So used are we to seeing classical sculpture fragmented and damaged that an absent arm or leg is part of our expectations of work like this. We edit out the vacant limbs of the Venus De Milo to look at her beauty, and that’s exactly how we react to Stuart Penn. Among the stone pantheon of gods, athletes and heroes we look past his physiological differences and see his beauty.

Quinn’s marbles are overwhelmingly positive and uplifting. It’s a stunningly clever trick to mobilise the centuries-old prejudices of history and taste to both defeat and draw attention to those of the present and to subtly use our expectations of art to challenge our perceptions of real people.

So here’s raising a glass to the mistakes of art history (no matter how problematic they are).

Zips

Barnett Newman – Onement I (1948)

I’d loved Barnett Newman’s paintings since adolescence, the simplicity and effrontery of painting a stripe of one colour flanked by another and calling it art appealed to the same bloody-minded bit of teenage rebellion in me that worshipped Joy Division, it was sparse and stripped down, making noise by what was left out rather than what was put in.

I’d studied his paintings in reproduction, but apart from three relatively small canvases in the Tate collection, I’d never seen any of his work in the flesh until a major retrospective at Tate Modern in 2002.

The exhibition was arranged chronologically, as you passed from room to room, you passed through the years of the artist’s work, starting at the beginning and ending at the end. This might seem obvious, but since the sixties other ways of arranging exhibitions, or ‘hangs’, have come into fashion. Sometimes a hang may be arranged by subject or medium; it all depends on the story that the curators want to tell. In group shows or retrospectives of art movements, these thematic hangs can set up new and exciting relationships between artworks, it’s something we take for granted, but a good hang can breathe new life in to a work that has almost faded into the background because of its familiarity.

For an abstract artist though, I tend to think the chronological hang works best, particularly for those of the first half of the twentieth century for whom abstract art was a matter of stretching the possibilities of painting. Abstract art is now so ubiquitous in homes, boardrooms, shopping malls and restaurants that it’s hard to imagine a time when it simply wasn’t considered a possibility. Viewing these artists’ works in chronological order helps us reconstruct some idea of just how revolutionary their project was.

For the European pioneers of Abstract Art there’s an excitement in seeing their works slowly creep towards a complete rejection of images from the real world. For example, viewing Piet Mondrian’s series of paintings of trees from the 1910s (Red Tree, Grey Tree,Tree,Apple Tree) is an exciting experience, you see an artist reaching and grasping for the abstract yet still tied by the conventions and culture of his time to the image of a tree. It’s like watching a piece of elastic being stretched and stretched and stretched, you’re just waiting for that connection between painting and the real world to snap.

For the American abstract painters of the 1940s and 50s, the situation is slightly different, the ‘Abstract Expressionists’ as they’re awkwardly named, all developed a ‘signature style’ that anyone with even a passing interest in Modern Art is familiar with. If we see splashes we know it’s a Pollock, if we see monolithic blurry rectangles we know it’s a Rothko and if we see stripes, or ‘zips’ as he called them, it’s a Newman.

The excitement and tension in an exhibition of these artists is seeing their work creeping towards the discovery of this signature style. The first few rooms of the Newman exhibition were filled with intricate organic doodles that recall the ‘automatic drawing’ experiments of the Surrealist Andre Masson. Occasional zips made cameo appearances, but only as background elements. These were followed by a tantalising series of monochrome works in ink where a series of ‘almost’ zips made their first starring roles – sometimes they didn’t quite make their way all the way down the page, sometimes they were subtly angled, like the blade of a stiletto stabbing its way through a mess of ink. Finally in the third room the first true zip made its appearance, in Onement I, a great untidy streak of orange cut across a loosely painted background of maroon.

It’s hard to get across how exciting I found this experience, even as I write now the rational, cynical part of my mind is saying “It’s just a stripe for God’s sake” but it was like seeing a film all the way through for the first time that you’d only previously seen the last five minutes of. You know the hero will defuse the bomb; you just don’t know how he going to do it and as the story unfolds you’re bouncing up and down in your seat screaming “The disarming code’s tattooed on the dog’s ear!” or in this case “Paint a bloody stripe!”

So are Newman’s zips ’just stripes’. On the face of it does seem rather simple. There’s a story that the artist Franz Kline found himself in conversation with an American collector who had just returned from one of Newman’s shows. The work was, the collector complained, empty and repetitive, there was he asserted ‘nothing to see’. Kline asked him to describe the canvases on show, their dimensions, their colours, whether the zips were horizontal or vertical, what colour they were, were they painting over the background colour or next to them, were they darker or lighter than the backgrounds. After a lengthy inquisition during which the collector was made to detail the many variations on the theme, Kline remarked “Well I don’t know, it all sounds darned complicated to me.”

I think that’s what I love about Newman’s work , it’s the single-minded pursuit of a simple idea and exploring its many variations, taking something as simple as a stripe and pushing it as far as it can go. It has something in common with minimalist music, take Sigur Ros’s Samskeyti which repeats a simple piano arpeggio over and over lulling you into familiarity, slowly introducing and building up different background atmospherics that subtly change the nature of the melody, then when you’re least expecting it, the arpeggio leaps up an octave and it’s a surprising and sublime experience hearing it for the first time. Newman’s paintings work like that for me – familiarity with a theme making its variations so surprising.

Anyone can make the simple look complicated, what’s really difficult is making the complicated look simple.

What’s The Story?

Edward Hopper – Automat (1927)

It’s the ‘story’ bit of art history that really fires me up. Happily works of art are surrounded by stories. Stories of how they were made, of who made them, of who has owned them…I could go on (it would be a nice easy way of filling up a blog post), but the point is that art is like an anchor for a whole web of stories that spreads out from it backwards and forwards in time, sometimes parallel, sometimes crossing over and sometimes directly contradicting each other.

Sometimes this web of stories can become so dense and knotted that it’s almost impossible to see through it. Over the years many friends have made the trip to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and their reaction invariably contains the words ‘disappointing’, ‘small’ and ‘brown’. I think the problem is that Leonardo’s painting is just too well known, it has so many stories floating around it, it’s weighed down with myths and legends, it’s been parodied and reproduced, it’s made cameo appearances in films and television series and been printed on T-shirts, mouse mats and shopping bags. In fact, if you can stamp an image on it, the chances are that La Giaconda’s been on it at some point. Because of this fog of stories and ideas that gather around the painting our expectations of it are so high that even if it was a hundred metres tall and made of platinum we’d still find the experience of a face-to-face encounter sadly anticlimactic.

But it’s also the absence of a story that can fascinate us and draw us in, Brozino’s Allegory, intrigues precisely because although the story has been lost it’s so clearly dripping with narrative intent that we have to fill in the blanks.

This natural reaction to fill in the blanks has been used by modern and contemporary artist to great effect – the installations of Mike Nelson and Ilya Kabakov both play with narrative instinct, offering us enough clues to know there’s a story there, but not enough for us to be absolutely certain of the strange characters that once inhabited their strange ghostly spaces and stage sets or the encounters that took place there and it’s then that our own stories, our memories and experiences, come into play, meshing and tangling with the artwork’s as we try to make sense of what’s in front of us.

For me though, the master of the uncertain narrative in art is Edward Hopper. His paintings of modern life in rural and urban America in the first half of the 20th century drip with intrigue. Hopper’s world is one where every figure or building has a secret and where every gas station lies on a road that could lead to adventure or disaster. He gives us enough tantalising detail to draw us in, setting up situations like the first chapter of a book or first scene of a film and letting us run with it wherever our minds take us.

The cinematic quality of Hopper’s work is almost a cliché now but it bears repeating, so strong and familiar is his use of the visual grammar of starkly lit and almost deserted urban spaces that we associate with film noir that it’s the first thing that strikes us when we see his work. It should be noted however that the relationship between Hoppers work and the look of Hollywood films isn’t a one-way street. Hopper influenced as much as he was influenced – Alfred Hitchcock for example used Hopper’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad as the basis for the design of the Bate’s Motel in Psycho, and his paintings continue to make their presence felt in the world of cinema – Terence Malik, Ridley Scott, David Lynch and Sam Mendes have all acknowledged the debt they owe to Hopper.

Automat sets up one of these ‘first scenes’ brilliantly. It’s night, a girl sits alone in an automated fast food restaurant. She’s removed one of her gloves. Outside the street may or may not be deserted, we can’t tell since the reflection of the sterile and brightly lit interior has obliterated our view of the outside world. It’s difficult to tell whether her blank gaze rests on the table in front of her or the empty chair opposite. The restaurant itself seems deserted, and here the title of the work comes into play, by making it clear this is an automat, we know that there are no waiting staff present merely morgue-like rows of mass produced food in glass-fronted, coin-operated pigeonholes. Her only company seems to be the bowl of fruit that sits on the windowsill behind her.

This last detail reminds me of Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere – is there an implication that the girl, like Manet’s barmaid, is as much a commodity on display as the fruit bowl? Unlike Manet’s painting however, Hopper leaves us, the viewer, out of the equation, at the Folie begere, we’re clearly meant to identify with the top-hatted dandy we can see in the reflection to the left, but here in the Automat we seem to be absent rather than present – we have no reflection and the girl does not acknowledge us – we’re a ghost, a voyeur, like a film goer we can only watch, we can’t interact.

So what’s the story?

The great thing about Hopper’s work is that the gaps he leaves in the narratives are so flexible that no two people are likely to come up with the same story. Pete, my mum and I all stood in front of Automat when it was shown as part of Hopper’s retrospective at Tate Modern in 2003, and all of us came up with different stories – for me (morose as ever) the girl had been stood up by a blind date, for Pete she was a spy waiting for another agent to arrive so she could hand over the microfilm and for mum she was taking a break from a shopping trip, enjoying a moments quiet away from the busy city outside. Of course none of us were right, but none of us were wrong, we brought our own perspectives to the painting and as a result the encounter probably said more about us than it did about the painting.

So after all that what have learnt? I’m a miserable git, my mum’s a shopaholic and Pete’s a spy. Hmmmm. Must look into that. Might explain why he never lets me drive the car – worried I’d set of the ejector seat probably…

Sometimes a Lance is Just a Lance (But In This Case It Probably Isn’t.)

Sandro Botticelli – Venus and Mars (c.1483)

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.

Between Comfort and Horror: Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Dorothea Tanning - Nue couchée 1969-70 (The Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive)

I’ve spent the day writing an article on Surrealism generally and in particular the work of the male artists of the movement. I should point out that since the subject of the piece is my old friend the Minotaur, the gender bias involved was driven by the subject rather than a sin of omission. In fact if I was to write a more generalised piece on the movement  I think the balance would definitely be tilted in the other direction, as it’s the work of artists such as Lee Miller, Louise Bourgeoise, Meret Openheim and Leonora Carrington that really fascinates me. It’s not that I find the work of the male artists uninteresting, just that, perhaps as a function of my own gender I find them easier to pin down, less challenging.

It’s therefore a touch ironic that it was only when I called it a day today and pulled my head out of the books on Man Ray, Dali, Picasso and Masson that I learned of the death of Dorothea Tanning, and it seemed only right to put down a few words of appreciation for this often overlooked artist.

I vividly remember seeing  Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at the age of about 13. Then as now themes of dreams and fantasy fascinated me and it pulled me in far more than Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus that was hanging nearby. Looking at it now with hindsight I think I can see why  – of the two dream images it is Tanning’s image of a girl venturing out onto a landing to be confronted by an apparently animated giant sunflower that speaks honestly of childhood nocturnal fears. The sparse composition, the empty corridor disappearing into the distance, the multiple doors and the apparently innocent object made threatening by its monstrous scale all come together to create a landscape that seem genuinely dream-like, by comparison Dali’s painting seems like a junk-shop arrangement of ideas – one painting looks like a child’s nightmare, the other seems like a painting of an adult thinking about what a nightmare should look like.

However, as much as her paintings continue to intrigue me , it is the series of soft sculptures that Tanning produced in the 1970s that really pull me in. These strange fabric constructions of female bodies merging, stretching, grasping, bulging out of items of furniture and climbing up walls occupy a space between comfort and horror. Like the work of her contemporary Louise Bourgeoise, these works are simultaneously attractive and repellant, speaking of both the joys and fears of the relationship between mother and child; when confronted by them in a gallery you’re not quite sure whether you want to hug them or run away very quickly to avoid being swallowed up and smothered by the plush folds.

Both her paintings and sculptures have clearly been an influence on more recent generations of artists,  Helen Chadwick, Sarah Lucas and Cathy De Monchaux all spring to mind and perhaps less obviously, comic artist Jill Thompson (her work on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in particular.)

It is sad that her work is not as widely known as most of her male counterparts from the movement, and that contemporary surveys and exhibitions still tend to focus on her position within the movement as one of a number of romantic partners to the male artists. (Apart from one boxed out text discussing the 1942 painting Birthday, the catalogue of the 2001 Tate show Surrealism: Desire Unbound spills as much ink on the subject of Tanning’s marriage to Max Ernst as it does to her work).  Hopefully her death will lead to a long overdue reappraisal of her work.

(To learn more about Tanning’s life and work, please visit the Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive.)