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.

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My Favourite Work of Art?

A few weeks back I encountered an article by Alexandra M. Korey of the great ArtTrav site which posed the question “Is it possible for an art historian to have a favourite work of art?”  It’s a good question, and as she notes as a breed we are so conditioned to be dispassionate, critical and distanced from our emotional reactions to works that we develop what she terms the ‘neutrality disease’.  We’ll talk excitedly about this work or that, but ask us if we actually like it and we’ll stutter, get a blank eyed stare, say something along the lines of “Well it’s not quite as simple as that..” and probably shuffle off to the bar to get another glass of Chianti – basically the question will provoke the art historian’s equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death.

The thing is, if you’ve spent a decade or so under a pile of books on politics, philosophy, colour theory, linguistics, wading through letters and commissioning documents and arguing the merits of one critical position or another, you are in danger of no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

Of course your own view of the work is still there, but it’s no longer just you and the work standing there in the gallery face to face; you’re now looking at it through the eyes of countless other viewers, critics and commentators – the still, small voice inside you that once would have said “I love that!” is now drowned out by an infinite chorus of voices all vying for your attention.

It’s an inherent problem with the subject I suppose, trying to be cool and analytic about a sphere of human activity that is by it’s very nature emotional, subjective and more often than not utterly irrational is an enterprise so riven with contradictions that it would seem that one side or the other would have to be shut down, or at least buried deep, to allow the other impulse to flourish. Yet practically all all the people I know who have been through the academic mill of the art world, whether they be theorists, historians or practitioners get a little glint in their eyes when then talk about their subject, they’re passionate people and will happily talk through the night on the subject of art.

The problem is, I think, we love our subject too much and making any sort of value judgement feels slightly unfair.  I was once stopped by a Sky News camera crew outside Tate Britain and asked who I thought should win the Turner Prize that year. “Well it’s not as simple as that..” I began.   Several minutes later after I’d babbled about the inherent difficulties of making a comparison between Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed and Gillian Carnegie’s paintings, the TV folk backed away slowly and ran off to find someone less mad who’d deliver a more coherent, and probably more outraged, soundbite.

By now the astute reader will notice that I’ve spent nearly 500 words completely avoiding the central question. Of course there are works that I dearly love and some that I love better than others, the problem is I’m trained not to just say that I love something, but to explain why and more often than not I really can’t answer that question with any reasoned argument.

For example of the two great Renaissance David’s, I prefer Donatello’s to Michelangelo’s. Now of course I’m aware of the history of both pieces, of how Donatello’s was the first free standing cast bronze sculpture made since antiquity, that Michelangelo’s had a political dimension with an implied message of  a stand against tyranny following the expulsion of the Medicis from Florence, and so on.  But my preference is based on none of that history, it merely the fact that Donatello’s bronze figure, with it’s hat, wry smile, not to mention the feather of Goliath’s helmet that snakes up the figures inner thigh, just makes me smile more than Michelangelo’s monolithic marble sculpture; it’s just a bit more, well, cheeky I suppose and ‘cheeky’ really wouldn’t get me any marks in a essay.

Of course that’s not to say that an understanding of the history or interpretations of a piece don’t come into play.  Before studying Botticelli’s work, I didn’t really pay much attention to him, Primavera seemed nice enough, well executed, a bit fey, but nothing that really pulled me in, the mythological subject interested me but it never really moved me. Then I started reading about his techniques, the classical philosophies that underpinned his practice, and how the painting fitted into the cultural and political world of 15th Century Tuscany and it came alive for me. It’s now a painting that I return to again and again, reading every scrap of new research or opinion on it, it’ll intrigue me forever.

And still I’m dodging the issue, how can I choose just one work of art. I have to admit defeat I think and say that I can’t. My love of Art comes from so many different places and in so many different forms; Art can get me in the heart, the head or the gut, it can seduce me, shock me and intrigue me, frequently all three at once. So I’m going to cheat, in the spirit of a well known radio show I’m going to choose my Desert Island Art, eight works that I’d take with me when I get cast away.

1) Marcel Duchamp – The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23)

Well you didn’t expect me to get through a blog post without mentioning him did you? The great prankster’s crowning achievement, a mass of techniques and images, art theory and practice colliding head on with physics and philosophy, all backed up by reams of fragmentary and impenetrable notes, letters and slogans. Madness, genius or one of the greatest artistic jokes ever perpetrated, I can never make up my mind whether it means nothing or everything and I doubt I ever will, but it’s great fun trying.

2) Eduoard Manet – The Luncheon (1868)

So difficult to choose one painting by Manet, but it’s got to be this one, I love it for the way it gives you vague clues to the dynamic between the characters, but not enough to be sure of exactly what’s going on. It could just be the end of a meal, but the fruit, wine and oysters on the table recall the memento mori of Dutch still life painting and what are the armour and pistols doing there? The contemporary critic Gautier suggested the meal might be taking place before or after a duel. We’ll never know the answer, and I suspect that’s why it’s an Art Historians’ favourite, we’ll be able to argue about this one till the end of time.

3) Sandro Botticelli – Venus And Mars (1483)

As much as I love Primavera, this is the Botticelli that I would happily lift of the walls of the National Gallery and bring home tucked under my coat. It makes me laugh every time I look at Venus’s disdainful gaze at the exhausted Mars and the gambolling satyrs, particularly the one blinded by the god of war’s oversized helmet. It a gloriously funny painting and yet, as I’ve written elsewhere, one underpinned with sly political messages.

4) Kit Williams – One of Six to Eight (from Masquerade) (1979)

Again I’ve written at length about Kit’s work before. It was encountering Masquerade as a ten year old that taught me to stop just seeing art and start looking at it, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.

5) Matthew Barney – The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002)

Five films and a mass of sculptures, installations, photographs, drawing and prints all making up one artwork that’s either a towering work of ambitious conceptual genius or the greatest shaggy dog story ever told. Either way I love it for its multiple shifting narratives, its complexity and its sheer bloody-mindedness in pursuit of an artist’s unique vision. Quite how I’m going to fit it all onto my desert island is beyond me however.

6) Barbara Hepworth – Pelagos (1946)

At the other end of the spectrum, something so simple and elegant. Inspired by the coastline of Cornwall, a wave fixed in time. Just beautiful.

7) Duccio di Buoninsegna – Maesta (1308-11)

The greatest masterpiece of the Sienese school, a vast altarpiece compirised of one monumental panel of the Virgin and saints and forty three smaller panels showing scenes from the gospels. Technically breathtaking, endlessly fascinating and deeply moving even for a godless heathen like me. Most of all I love it though for for being the reason for my first visit to Siena and starting my love affair with that city.

8. Tracey Emin – Tattoo (2001)

Two photocopies in a frame, one of Polaroid photos of the artist and her tattoos, the other a heartfelt handwritten text outling her feelings about them, looking back on her motivations for getting them in her youth with a mixture of disdain and resignation. It’s a great piece about looking back on the mistakes of your past and learning to live with them, even if you would quite happily go back in time and give yourself a slap. Other than that I love it because we own it, and walking into that gallery back in 2001, when Tracey was very much the artist in the headlines and picking up one of her works for £50 was one of the most exciting moments of my life. Occasionally Pete or I do a little research to see how much it’s worth now, it makes us smile, but I doubt we’ll ever sell it.

So now to the knotty question of if I could only take one…Well, I think it’ll have to be the Hepworth, as the waves lap against my feet that little wooden wave will remind me of were I am and of where I used to be, and that seems a quite a good reason; but is it my favourite? Well it’s not quite as simple as that…..