Friday, 30 January 2015

John Collier, Obviously...

When I'm preparing posts on subjects like femme fatales and naughty women I always look forward to finding a suitable work by John Collier.  He's one of those painters who never fails to deliver something a bit saucy and fabulous, but on the whole his finer details are not really well known so I thought I'd do a post on him because he deserves it.  Plus, obviously, lots of nude-y ladies...

Manaeds (1886)

Born 1850, John Collier is probably remembered these days as a minor Pre-Raphaelite, catching the edges of the movement and occasionally applying it to his works.  In his lifetime he was recognised as a portraitist of tremendous skill and feeling, and produced images of the leading men of the day, many of which we recognise as being their almost 'official' image.

Charles Darwin (1881)
If you search for his work on the National Portrait Gallery website, or on 'Your Paintings', you will see a whole cavalcade of bearded, serious chaps doing serious, bearded, Victorian stuff which no doubt would make them very respectable.  I find the image of Darwin interesting as there is no hint of what he does, why he is famous, just his solemn face and hat in hand, revealing his pink scalp.  The majority of these portraits are just the men in a darkened room, all effort and interest in their faces, their expressions, as a window to their genius.

John Collier (1883) Marian Collier
John Collier married fellow artist Marian Huxley, daughter of the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, in 1879 after spending time within the Huxley family. After the birth of their daughter, Joyce, Marian was taken to Paris to treat her post-natal depression where she contracted pneumonia and died.  Collier then married his sister-in-law, Ethel, in Norway in 1889 (coming a cropper of the law against marrying your in-laws in this country, like Holman Hunt). In case you were wondering, he was also the uncle of Aldous Huxley, son of his brother-in-law and friend, Leonard Huxley.

An Incantation
It's fascinating reading Collier's obituary from The Times as they regard him as not a great artist but one who was extreme in his accurate presentation of the facts.  They felt he reduced art down to copying a subject without any artistic interpretation. Even when he went nude-tastic, it should not be thought that he was having fun:
'His occasional paintings of the nude show at least an appreciation of line and a pleasure in the surfaces and textures, and some of his landscapes have charm, but the effects were transferred to, not created on the canvas. Beauty for him was a matter of subject and there the matter ended'

Now, I hate to argue but I find tremendous amounts of artistic imagination in works like An Incantation and possibly his best known nude, Lilith...

Lilith (1889)
Look at the contrast between the skin of the snake and blonde loveliness of naughty Lilith, the wonderful tumble of hair. It seems a shame to think that Collier didn't paint these beautiful works with the pleasure that it affords others, and interesting that's the way the critics interpreted it. Unless of course his diary read 'Today I wrapped a python around a naked lady and painted. Had lunch. Stopped python squeezing naked lady to death. Painted. Had tea. Went to Bed.'

Marriage de Covenance (1907)
 As a writer, I adore what is known as his 'problem paintings', a term that the artist loathed.  He grumpily commented that 'They are nothing of the kind. The ones that have been so-termed merely depict the little tragedies of modern life, and I have always endeavoured to make the meanings perfectly plain.' In other words, he wrote stories condensed to a scene.  Take Marriage de Covenance above.  A girl has been told she is to marry for the benefit of her mother who is standing by the fireplace, while the daughter wails and clutches the bedspread. There is no mystery, only details for the viewer to fill in - why does the girl not want to marry the man? Does she love another? Is the man she has to marry a gianty weirdo with a funny beard and a limp and a fondness for eating kippers in bed? What's in it for the mother?

A Fallen Idol (1913)
When A Fallen Idol was exhibited in 1913 he explained the picture thus: The weeping woman is the Fallen Idol. It is a young wife confessing to her middle-aged husband. The husband is a studious man, and has probably neglected her. At any rate the first thing that occurs to him is - is it my fault? I imagine he will forgive his wife.

I love the idea that the woman has done something naughty but Collier blames the husband for neglecting her, it shows a very open mind on the subject of marriage. It also tells of a very straightforward attitude to what art is, which is entertainment, a still movie, a static book. And sometimes they were a thing of scandal...

Clytemnestra (1914)
This lovely lady (a later version of the subject from his 1882 original) was allegedly banned in 'a Northern City' but the reason was not just her boobs but her boobs and big knife combo (come on, it's a pretty decent way to go), explicit female violence, which was too shocking for the public delicate constitution. Maybe as Collier had the reputation for realism in his work, this was too much for anyone to deal with, all too realistic, present and threatening.

The Prodigal Daughter (1903)
I approve of Collier's use of women as the major active protagonist in his works. I've used The Prodigal Daughter before in a post about Prodigal Sons, but look at the magnificence of this woman, back, showy, unrepentant. Her parents look shocked.  She looks pleasingly dramatic.

Sacred and Profane Love (1919)
Being a later Victorian artist, he lived on into the twentieth century and his art changed in terms of costume but not in mode.  In Sacred and Profane Love, the returning soldier is faced with two women, both beautiful but one sedate and the other somewhat lively (in a suspicious, been-at-the-gin kind of way).  Whilst this seems to be straightforwardly about whether you pick the sensible girl or the low-cut-top girl, it might also be about the sort of life the soldier picks on his return - will he return to his pre-War life of sensible duty or does it let it all go with the new, unpredictable hedonism?

The Amber Necklace (1930)
I do love reading how mid 20th century art criticism responded to Victorian art and the Pre-Raphaelites and while we consider Collier a bit Pre-Raphaelish (new, totally legit term I just made up), he doesn't seem to count as a follower at all in criticism at the time of his death.  He is aligned with artists like Frank Holl rather than, for example, Arthur Hughes yet paintings such as The Amber Necklace are as beautifully rich in ornament as something like Dolce Far Niente by Holman Hunt. It also interesting that while noting his adherence to nature, his alleged extreme verisimilitude  is never connected to the Pre-Raphaelite's desire to reproduce reality.  Poor Collier is seen as a mere recorder in paint rather than a creator of imaginary scenes, which seems unfair.

Godiva (1898)
I would love to see an exhibition of his work, and I really must read one of the books he wrote on painting as Collier seems to have taken the role of bridesmaid in Victorian art, never the bride.  He has a healthy showing in regional galleries, so there is a good chance that if you are in this country, you probably aren't that far from a Collier.  What a lovely thought.

Unless it's Clytemnestra, then it's a little bit alarming...

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Review: Art & Soul Catalogue

If you are unable to get to Exeter this Spring to see Art & Soul: Victorians and the Gothic (website here), then I may have a solution for you.  The lovely people at Samson & Co have sent me a catalogue of the exhibition, and here is my review...

I hadn't really thought about it, but if you use the words 'medieval' or 'gothic', then you probably aren't using them in the same way as a Victorian.  In fact, after the advent of the film Pulp Fiction, to 'get medieval' on someone implies a swift and brutal end, and saying that someone or something is gothic is more to do with black nail varnish than arched windows.

Before Thomas Dudley Fosbroke coined the term 'Medieval' in 1817, the period between the 5th and 15th century was known unimaginably as 'the Middle Ages', that is the bit between 'bye bye Romans *sniff*' and 'it's all got a bit Tudor-y'.  That in itself got split when the early part of the Middle Ages became known as the Dark Ages.  Nobody liked the Dark Ages.  Gothic was used not specifically to describe the Germanic tribes that had migrated north in the 5th and 6th century (as the Romans had used it), but to describe culture in the Middle Ages, then the heavy typeface and architecture in the 19th century.

Page from 1865 manuscript of Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Victorians loved history in a similar way to us, but for them the chance to own it through image and word was a novelty.  The Victorian year was filled with anniversaries of battles, coronations, executions, and books on all time periods filled the shelves of libraries everywhere.  This wasn't just a time of knowledge and learning, it was also an expression of the intense anxiety about the future.  If learning about history told them anything it was that not even the best society in the past was safe from destruction and steps forward in science showed how species, like nations, could vanish.  There was a move to protect the history of the nation with groups like The Society of Antiquaries and SPAB, plus an effort to collect folk traditions and songs.  Public galleries opened and a taste for images of the past, brought vividly to life, could be seen by everyone.  The imagination began to run scared from the present and the furthest it could go back was the Medieval period.  It was the first British period to be fully documented and had an aura of a pastoral golden age.  Even Gothic architecture was seen as more organic, more in touch with nature and not a product of the scary industrial world.

The Funeral of a Viking Frank Bernard Dicksee

Industrialisation had revolutionised the lives of ordinary people but in the generations after, it began to be seen as a cause of a loss of craftsmanship, pollution, bad housing, dangerous machinery, poor health and generally not improving the lot of workers.  During the 1840s, the 'hungry 40s' as they were known due to food shortages, the Medieval period was seen as a time of a more natural way of life and bountiful food. As a flipside of that, do you think our nostalgia for rationing in the 1940s and 50s is an expression of our obese society now?
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at the Bal Costume, 12 May 1842 Edwin Landseer

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (or The Parting) William Theed
 No-one was safe from this nostalgia, even if you were Queen.  Victoria and Albert embraced the medievalism which fitted with her Germanic roots and they were portrayed in art and sculpture as the perfect Medieval couple.  Even a spot of Viking heritage was reflected in Alexandra of Denmark, thereafter Princess Alexandra after her marriage to Albert Edward.  Tennyson described her as the 'daughter of the vanished Vikings'.  Again, it's interesting how the use of that word has changed.  Viking now tends to be more complex than the rape 'n' pillage stereotype, although the splendid recent tv series lobs in more violence than trading, but for the Victorians, the Vikings were noble warriors, reflected in romantic adventures by writer like Walter Scott and Charlotte Mary Yonge.

Ellen Terry in King Arthur

It would be impossible to talk about the Medieval without talking about King Arthur.  Not actually a king, but promoted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, then compounded by Mallory in his 15th century Morte d'Arthur which added round table, grail and Arthur's death to the existing legend of wizards and magic swords.  The pinnacle of this king-worship has to be Joseph Comyns Carr's play King Arthur of 1895, produced by Henry Irving, music by Arthur Sullivan and sets and costunes by Edward Burne-Jones.  A veritable who's who in artistic Britain, it's source material was Idylls of the Kings by a man who carries quite a bit of responsibility for the Arthurmania, Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The Lady of Shalott (1894) John William Waterhouse

Oh, Tennyson, you've got a lot to answer for, not least the Elaine of Astolat variation, The Lady of Shalott.  Between 1862 and 1913 more than 26 paintings on the subject were exhibited and people had been inspired to create pictures and illustrations both before and after that main period.  For the Victorians, Tennyson and others inspired by the Medieval maidens were both supporting and challenging the sexual status quo; the women were maidens in distress, separated from society in towers, waiting to be rescued by daring men, but they were also sexual transgressors, destiny-seizing creators of art sacrificing their lives to be free.

King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, from the Tristram and Isolde stained glass panels, designed by William Morris (1862)
 Craftsmanship was re-embraced by Morris and Co who mixed Medieval designs with the desire to bring the 'joy' back to the workplace by removing industrial drudgery.  The firm produced furniture, tapestries and stained glass panels.  Morris was also responsible for the Kelmscott Press bringing a level of craftsmanship to book production hot on the heels of the industry's ability to mass produce.

Lord Eglinton dressed as the Lord of the Tournament (1840) Edward Corbould

Gothic and Medieval crept into every aspect of Victorian life, from the designs of the Houses of Parliament down to what your face looked like.  One of my favourite influences of medievalism is the notion expressed in the catalogue that the Victorian beard was a by-product of the fashion for Anglo-Saxon chic.  Beards were not fashionable in the 1830s and 40s but grew in popularity, coupled with some extreme fashion for armour, as worn at the 1839 Eglington Tournament. How we think of the Victorians to cultural products which we regard as being typical of the era are all infused with the cultural influences and historical aspersions of the thousand years that became the Medieval period. However you look at it, the two are arguably inseparable and change the way you look at the period and possibly reassess our own.

The catalogue by Joanne Parker and Corinna Wagner is beautifully written and richly illustrated.  Without knowing it, sometimes we forget exactly how pivotal the notion of Medieval is to the Victorians, both in fact and developed fantasy.  It shaped and changed society, expressed an interest in the past and their terror at the present and future.  In many ways it made me reflect on our current concerns with the past and how we are not so very different from our Victorian forebears.

To buy the catalogue look here (UK) or here (US)...

Sunday, 18 January 2015


It has been mentioned to me on a few occasions that I am rather prone to change my profile picture regularly.  For reasons numerous and complicated I seem to have a compulsion to take and change my pictures, but part of it is that I am rather accomplished at the art of the self-portrait or the 'selfie'. It's all to do with angle and lighting (thank you Kim Kardashian) and by manipulating these I can give you an impression of what I am like.  In real life, I am a little awkward, talk either too loudly or too quiet, cannot express myself as well as I can in type, but in the silent, static image I can control what you think of me.  Well, sort of.

Me in 2008, at the beginning of my selfie habit
Me, a couple of weeks ago
A self portrait is the ultimate act of persona control - it enables the viewed to set the message for the viewer.  For an artist it has an added dimension - it also says 'look how good I am at my art'.  In a heady mix of personal image and display of talent, the self portrait tells us a lot about the artist and their world...

John Everett Millais (1847)

J E Millais in 1883
Before and after Pre-Raphaelitism, we have the most successful of the Brotherhood, with two of his self portraits.  Eager, young and vivid, young Millais holds his palette and looks to us in readiness.  Older Millais stands still for us to admire him.  There is a connection in the way Young Millais looks at us, directly at his audience, his customers.  He needs to connect with us, not just artistically.  You could cynically say he wants to be recognised, needs to see our response, needs us to feel a connection so that we will buy his work.  Older Millais slips into shadow, is a man being looked at and does not need to be assured of our interest.  He already knows it.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Good Lord!)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1861)
The two self portraits by Rossetti are often the subject of very academic discussion about whether or not he was ever 'really that hot' (technical term) or whether the later portrait was more honest. In his youthful portrait, he looks romantic, Byron-esque, appropriate.  In his later picture, he looks serious, adult, possibly befitting his new role as husband and serious artist/poet.

Rossetti's self portraits give the impression of a more private audience than Millais was expecting.  Possibly the sketch-quality of Rossetti's portraits gave the impression that he intended the pictures for an intimate circle, as mementos of him.  Millais', especially the latter image, are public pictures, an official image of the artist.

Ford Madox Brown (1877)
The semiotics of self-presentation are complex.  It can go beyond 'here is my palette, here's how I paint' to incorporating a background hinting at style, influence, taste.

Frederic Leighton (1880)
Sometimes people are so famous they do not need clues.  Possibly the most famous artist of his era appears in Doctor of Civil Law robes, his Royal Academy presidential medal just seen.  The classical frieze behind him hints at his artistic nature, his style and leanings.  In the 1888 portrait by G F Watts, Leighton appears in similar dress but a palette and brushes are beside him.  Possibly as the above painting was a self-portrait, Leighton felt it would be superfluous to include the tools of his trade.

Ralph Headley (1895)
The act of painting, the method and skill is most amply expressed in Headley's self-portrait of 1895.  The vase which holds his brushes, together with his hat and gloves shows his taste.  The mirror is a pseudo-honest way of showing how the portrait was achieved but also is a clever trick.  You the viewer are stood where the artist should be.  We are both admiring his work while holding his place.  It is sly humour and we share the joke.

Lovis Corinth (1914)
Like Leighton, Corinth does not need to tell you he is a painter.  At first I wondered if this was a comment on war due to the date but there are earlier images of him in armour.  It is a comment on Corinth as the man, the knight, the protector.  He is a man in archaeic dress but his painting style is erring on the modern.  He is a contradiction, a statement.  This, however, is not the most provocative self portrait that Corinth painted...

Self Portrait with his wife and a glass of champagne (1902)
Potentially uncomfortable at dinner parties, the Corinths leave little to the imagination about their lifestyle.  The champagne glass echoes the breast clasped in his other hand, his model and his drink both acting as pleasures in the artists life.  Behind is not an easel, but a table of food and drink.  The Corinths are about the good life and their intimacy involves the viewer in a rather startling manner.

Elizabeth Siddal (1853-4)
Speaking as a woman (hello, where are we going with this?) image today is a precarious balance of attractiveness and competence, both seemingly and worryingly distinct from each other.  Maybe it was ever thus and maybe so for men too, but you wonder if there was that choice to be made for women artists.  Should you show your best side, or should you be more than honest, possibly brutal?  Comparing Siddal's portraits by her lover, which are kinder, softer to her own image of herself, it is possible to see it is the same woman but she has exaggerated her palour, her hooded eyes, the starkness of her expression. It is how she sees herself, a self assessment without compromise or flattery. Is it about her as worker rather than her as muse?

Sarah Harrison (1900)
Given that this is a period where women artists were still considered 'hobbyists' it is perhaps unsurprising that they would add more gravity to their image, reflecting the struggle to be taken seriously; a woman who appears with the tools of her trade, ready, able and serious in her task.  There is no frivolity, no pandering to vanity in Harrison's self portrait above.  It's not that she isn't a good looking woman, it's just if you compare for example Leighton's magnificence with Harrison's subtle richness, the emphasis is on the sharpness rather than the attractiveness of the subject.

Zinaida Serebrjakova (1909)
Entitled Self Portrait at the Dressing Table, Serebrjakova demonstrates that it was possible for a female artist to exploit a muse cliche and show herself combing her hair in underwear.  Reminiscent of Rossetti's women in the 1860s, the artist appears with the accoutrements of feminine charm, but she is a mirror image, signified by the candle on the left hand side.  The artist has painted herself as an impossible reflection.  Unlike Headley who seems to be caught in the act of painting himself, Serebrjakova is preening, possibly as a comment on what society expects her to be doing in a mirror rather than what she actually was doing. Whether this contradiction was caught by her audience is another matter.  It might just be that Serebrjakova knew a picture of her in her underwear would sell possibly better than one of her looking studious.

Alvin Coburn (1905)
With the advent of photographic self portraits, the notion that the camera was the medium of unartistic truth was shed almost as soon as it was assumed.  By the turn of the twentieth century, artists such as Coburn, above, could present themselves as avante garde young men, just as much as an artist like Maxwell Armfield...

Maxwell Armfield (1901)
Armfield's portrait has gone beyond just one man's self portrait to encompass all young men of his artistic leanings.  More than any other selfie I have seen, Armfield is not only himself in his tempera vision, he is all men of that aesthetic, sensitive beauty with pink bows, flowers in wine glasses and the beauty of decorative art surrounding them.  He is a man, he is an art movement and he is only 20 years old.

The nuanced difference between portraiture and self portraiture may be slight at times.  If someone has a say in what image is taken of them, is shown of them, then in a way the only difference becomes the display of talent.  A self portrait is control of image, a parcelling up of what people will get from you.  Are you serious?  Are you precise?  Are you a big letch and a drinker?  All can be shown.  The colour, the shadow, the background, dress, undress - all tell you something of the person you are buying into either ideologically or literally.  With Armfield you are buying an aesthetic young man with dandyish tendencies, with Leighton you are buying the establishment.  So what do I want you to buy into with my image?

I'm not sure, but it will probably be different next week....

Monday, 12 January 2015

A Captive Audience

Imagine being a Victorian artist's model for a moment.  You must be asked to do some odd things, pose in some strange ways, but I'm guessing there were three words that were guaranteed to make a poor girl groan...
I'm painting Andromeda!

Andromeda (1869) Gustave Doré
Bare behinds, chains, rocks, scaly beasts, none of it hints at a comfortable working environment.  In some ways it's unsurprising that this Greek myth princess drew so many admiring glances in 19th century art as she offered a perfect opportunity to show a princess in dire danger without a stitch on.  Actually, it's not just the Victorians who fancied a bit of sea-beast action, as Andromeda appeared in art of the 16th century, not to mention ancient world mosaics and art. The more things change, the more they stay the same and some things (when they are to do with nudey wenches) really do not change...

Andromeda Chained to a Rock (1874) Henri Pierre Picou
Andromeda was the daughter of an ancient Greek King and boastful Queen who said her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs.  Well, this hacked off Poseidon, Sea God, who sent Cetus, his big fish monster, to attack the coastal community until Andromeda was fed to him.  Perseus, on his way home from killing Medusa, happened upon the maiden and sea-monster and turned one to stone and made off with the other.  Everyone likes a happy ending, and in theory she had a nice garden ornament out of the whole ordeal, which is a bonus.

It is a moment of the story filled with some highly desirable artistic features.  You have a girls, sea and a big sea-beast of vague description. Picou has gone with a dragon-y, goblin-y thing, crawling out of the foamy brine towards the kneeling Andromeda (unless she just stops at the knees), while Perseus seems to bungee into view with his gorgon head. Andromeda has gone with the classic hip-pop that all the boys like, plus the total nudity (which I gather is quite popular with boys too).  I feel I ought to say something about her lack of body hair but we'll come to that.  She was chained to the rock for ease of snacking I suppose, with only a badly fitting cloak to stop chaffing.  If you are about to be bitten in two, I suppose a little scuffed-up bum is the least of your worries.

Perseus and Andromeda (1929) Robert Anning Bell
Comfy cloak-pillow has been provided for Bell's princess, and the sea seems rather tame.  In fact I wouldn't mind dabbling my toes in that beautiful sea.  Plus no chains!  Come on, if you had to be left out for the sea-beast, there are worse way to goes than a coordinated cloak/ties/lipstick ensemble.  Perseus again seems to be lobbed into view brandishing his magic head.  I wonder if there are some discreetely forgotten stories of princesses on the way home where he lurched into view shouting 'Don't look at the Gorgon head!'
'What Gorgon he--'

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) Gustave Moreau
Moreau's crowned and draped princess looks a bit bored as floaty Perseus and a proper dragon scrap it out in the background.  Moreau painted out the copy of Vogue that's on her knee, honest.  When you've quite finished, chaps, I'm right over here, just sitting.  Really, take your time.  Oh, you've brought a head that can turn things into rock?  That's great because I can't get enough rock.
She looks the least distressed and the most unimpressed of any Andromeda I've seen.  

The Doom Fulfilled Edward Burne-Jones
I love this picture, I get quite overcome in Southampton Art Gallery's Perseus room.  I don't know if it's the wonderful girl-bottom or the handsome chap with a giant snake between his legs (I am so sorry) but this is a picture that makes me happy.  I love the blue of the dragon and hero - how exactly is the dragon-snake holding that pose out of the water?  I love that Perseus is so bad-ass that he's not even bothering to get his Gorgon head out, just gets out his big sword, while she with the arse-dimples looks on.  Burne-Jones even smoothed out the rock where she had to stand.  There's a man who treats his princess sacrifice right.

Captive Andromeda (1876) Arthur Hill
Popping that hip and looking all kinds of saucy, Andromeda is definitely posing for the artist: 'Deary me, I'm all naked and imperiled. Won't a handsome chap swoop down and save me?' I know your sort, Hill's Andromeda, you attention seeking hussy.  

It is interesting looking through the princesses, seeing which artist is showing full frontal and which disguise what they could not show.  To modern eyes, the smooth-moulded lady area seems weird and more perverse than if they had shown her more realistically blessed.  The artists who either turned her to the side or caught her drapery mid-tumble do not draw attention to that which is not there.  

Andromeda Sarah Hill
A side-on Andromeda, resigned to doom on her rock has pathos without being obviously titillating.  Compared with Arthur Hill's nipples-and-knees, Sarah Hill's princess anxiously catches her foot behind her ankle and waits.  Only the slightest ripple is visible around the base of her rock, hinting that the beast is on its way but not quickly enough to put her out of her misery.

Perseus and Andromeda (1891) Frederic Leighton
It isn't out of the realm of possibility that she'd be able to keep the drapery around her lower regions while in distress and that is what Leighton shows us.  Leighton has given a bit of thought to this, showing the dragon crouching over the captive princess (oh, peril!) while Perseus rides in on his sky-horse (no bungee!) and Andromeda manages to remain fairly decent.  Classy bloke, Leighton.  Note the curve of the cowering dragon reflected in the curve of the princess, her hair mirroring the tail which drapes her opposite side.

If painting Andromeda decently seemed a challenge, imagine how difficult it must have been to keep her modest in 3D...

Perseus and Andromeda (1894) Henry Fehr
Just to the right of Tate Britain's entrance stands this delicious pile of mythological Jenga.  Poor old Andromeda is on the bottom of the heap, squashed by scale-y dragon thing and on top is Perseus.  There is a model who suffered for someone else's art.  There seems to be a fair amount of leg crossing and keeping our knees together in this pile-up.  Classical jeopardy is all very well but no-one needs to be flashing their moo to the art-going public.

Andromeda (1869) Edward Poynter
If I have a favourite Andromeda, it has to be this one from Poynter.  It would be worth being eaten by a dragon if you get to look this fine.  The colour of her hair and the wonderful storm-sea shade of her wrap.  That drapery, whipping around her foreshadowing the beast that is on its way.  It is beautiful, dramatic, breathtaking in the shape of the sea, the shades of red and green. She is not hamming up the moment, she is there and she is scared, the dragon has nothing to do with it.  Something is coming and she already has her eyes shut: that's how scary the sea beast is.  It's always better when you don't see the monster because your imagination will always provide something far more frightening than  anything you are shown.

Andromeda (detail) (1851) John Bell
Andromeda gave artists a nice legitimate reason to show nipples and frontage, all in the name of Classics.  If you think about it, there is no reason why the poor lass needs to be naked, in fact, if I was being fed to a dragon I'd want to go in wearing armour or at least a bra with a nasty underwire.  Don't make it easy for Mr Sea-Beast!  Also chains, she needed to be chained there, apparently.  Sometimes not just chained up a bit but with arms above her head (so uplifting).  Oh you naughty Victorians!  However, all that turbulent sea gave a perfect excuse for some red hair, gorgeously offset with acres of creamy skin. The problem with Andromeda, not unique in art of the era but seemingly a particular problem for maidens with their arms chained above their heads, is what to do with the lady-areas. The traditional solution is the smooth, doll-mould of a pelvis which must have seemed both attractive and appropriate to a contemporary audience but just serves to highlight the opinion we have of Victorians as sexually repressed weirdos. That seems a shame because any era that can bring us something as glorious as Poynter's Andromeda can't be all bad...

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Endless Night

Welcome to 2015, my lovely readers and what a splendid year it should prove to be!  There are a veritable bevy of gorgeous exhibitions littering the horizon, including one this autumn on the artist Edward Robert Hughes.  Probably better known as 'The Other Hughes', he is best known for late Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite influenced works, including this one...

Night with her Train of Stars E R Hughes
Dark hair and dress, Night flutters through the sky, shushing a baby who scatters poppies into the air, which turn into a flight of golden birds.  All is movement, travel, but on silent wings, and cherubs cling to the folds of her dress.  I can't quite work out her wings, it is as if another figure of equal size to her travels behind her, just out of our sight.

Night and Sleep Evelyn de Morgan
It is not unusual for Night to travel with a companion; de Morgan shows us two androgynous figures, swirling through the sky.  Night leads Sleep, shelters them, while Sleep rains down poppies, symbol of both dreams and death.  The sky is not dark, but Night seems to be holding up a cloak that symbolises the night sky and both have closed eyes.  I love the echoes in the figures, the girdle and the shoes, the cloak held by night and the robe worn by sleep.  Night leads us, protects us and we are powerless but to echo its movement.

The Spirit of the Night Constance Phillott
More often than not, Night is a woman and there is a feeling of protection, of a mother tucking in her children to sleep.  Because of the darkness, the deep colouring of the robes, there is also a slight hint of threat. Night covers and smothers, Night renders us unconscious and the poppies speak both of dreams and death.  The bats that fly Phillott's Night are not comforting or protective and she looks like Death, rather than Night, about to engulf the slumbering young woman.

Night and Sleep (1894) Simeon Solomon
When Night and Sleep appear together, they can appear like lovers.  Solomon's images of Sleep and Dreams often have them intertwined, echoing lovers in the night, bound by darkness.  Possibly the safety of the dark can enable love, allowed by Society or otherwise, to express what cannot be looked upon in the light of day, expressed and explored.  Night can allow things to happen, things to be seen that would otherwise not be approved of.

Night (1885) Heinrich Faust
Moon Nymph Luis Falero
The sexuality of Night, Night as a saucy nymph, is expressed in works such as the ones above.  Again I have to call for a full exhibition of Falero's work because it is delicious.  Night as wanton streaker, her skin glowing like the moon, her hair as dark as the night sky, is the flipside of Night as Mother.  This is not a woman who wants to tuck you up and she certainly doesn't seem to want any sleep.  The presence of bats reflects the animalistic nature of Night, unruly, somewhat demonic but irresistible.

Night Edward Burne-Jones

Night Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn
When not enticing the viewer to nocturnal orgies, Night can appear as a solitary, almost lonely figure.  Night can be a time when we feel alone, that all other people are absent from our landscape and we travel friendless and unaided.  Burne-Jones' Night floats, her face turned away, unaware of our presence and de Glehn's figure closes her eyes, her arms protectively across herself.  Night is often a time for worry, the unending roll of thought which is devoid of light or hope.  Night sees no company, no help, she travels alone.  In the endless stasis of the night, we feel vulnerable like de Glehn's figure, yet completely alone.  There is no threat, nor any company, in the landscape of the night, so why do we feel so afraid? Possibly it is the darkness, disguising the things we fear, the eternal anticipation of attack as they remain unseen, untackled.  All we need to do is wait for morning, and all can be revealed and relieved.

Dawn Frank Dicksee
 Night, for once almost recognisably male, is driven from his position by the glory of Dawn, who seems a nice girl if a little ostentatious. There is nothing dynamic about Night who looks, for want of a better word, sad, weary, and just trundling off down from the hill.  Dawn seems to be shouting 'Ta Dah!' in a golden triumph of rebirth, but the figures echo each other, her swirl of scarf becoming Night's mists.

On the Wings of Morning E R Hughes
So back to Hughes, and the coming of the dawn over the landscape of night.  Dawn is winged, like Night and her confetti of birds shower from her pastel wings and the blush of the clouds. Below her, bats of night turn to birds of day.  Her face is definitely one of triumph, day over night, life over death, hope over despair.  She, like Night, is alone, but she is flying towards something, bringing with her the day in all its golden splendor.

We are past the shortest day of the year and although our nights are long, Spring is coming.
Sleep well, dear readers.

Night (19th Century) Unknown American Photographer