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Monday, May 15, 2023


I am passionate about book covers. During my career I have, on commission from various publishers, produced the artwork for many titles by a variety of authors, including Ursula Le Guin, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier and Mary Shelley. It is, after all, the cover art which in no small part has an influence upon a potential reader, and therefore should faithfully reflect in visual form what an author expresses in the text.

First published in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has gone on to become more than a familiar name. Two centuries later we now use the term ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ to describe something – some scheme or invention – which in the beginning had seemed like a brilliant and promising innovation, but which in practice has slipped its leash to threaten our jobs and even our social wellbeing. We must see whether AI – artificial intelligence – will prove to be one such, but there now can be little doubt that the former wonders of the industrial age, with their polluting fumes, non-biodegradable plastics and other environmentally damaging materials, come under this description.

The young chemist Victor Frankenstein’s decision to pursue his experiments with matter to convert that which is non-living into a living organism eventually produces a creature of great stature. Victor had imagined that his being would be a thing of striking beauty, but the opposite turns out to be the case. The parchment-yellow skin of the creature is shrunken and stretched taught over his bones, making him appear more as an animated corpse than as a naturally living being. Victor flees his own created horror in revulsion, but when he eventually returns the creature is missing.

In spite of these horrors, Frankenstein is not a ‘scary monster’ story as such. It is a true archetypal gothic. Which is to say that it is a tale of unrelenting and remorseless fate set in an almost unbearable emotional landscape of loneliness and isolation, and it is this which provides the true horror. The novel’s various settings, from the jagged peaks of the Alps to the bleak frozen wastes of the Arctic, provide the physical backdrop, serving to enhance the desolation of what is experienced emotionally by Frankenstein in his desperate pursuit of his flawed creation. 

The monster desires nothing more than simple acceptance and a companion of his own kind, and it is the denial of these which drives his own frenzied behavior of cruel despair. I have here used my own digitally enhanced painting of my cover art (the top image) because this is what I most wanted to convey: the monster’s face as a sort of geography of pain and loneliness. We might conclude that there already are human monsters in the world who, through war or blind fanaticism or a craving for power, cause sufferings enough, without our striving to create artificial monsters of our own.

Artist: David Bergen (‘Hawkwood’)
Work: Frankenstein, 1993
Medium: Oil paint on canvas, enhanced with digital textures
Location: Artwork owned by the artist, published by The Penguin Group, 1994

Artist: Philip James De Loutherbourg
Work: An Avalanche in the Alps, 1803
Medium: Oil paint on canvas
Location: The Tate Gallery, London

Artist: Caspar David Friedrich
Work: Mountain Landscape in the Mists, 1774-1840
Medium: Oil paint on canvas
Location: Staatliche Museen Heidecksburg, Rudolstadt, Germany

Artist: Caspar David Friedrich
Work: The Sea of Ice, 1823-1824
Medium: Oil paint on canvas
Location: Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany

Friday, March 31, 2023

Jan van Eyck and an Unmade Bed

There is something about this painting that I find disconcerting, and it has both nothing and everything to do with the painting itself. The painting is The Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin, by Jan van Eyck. It was painted sometime between the years 1400-1450, presumably on commission from the chancellor, who seems to have been keen to put on display his devout humility to all who saw the work.

The artist himself was a true pioneer in the use of oil paints, and although he sometimes is credited with the invention of the medium, it was more the case that he refined and perfected it in terms of the use of the necessary clarifying oils and varnishes, and in the thorough preparation of the pigments. The use of an easel, now so synonymous with artists and painting, was also popularized by van Eyck, so his career marks something of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ period in the history of Western art.

In the painting we are shown the chancellor kneeling in devotion before the seated Madonna and Christ Child who holds an orb in his left hand and raises his other hand in blessing, while a blue-robed and fiery-winged angel holds a bejeweled crown above the Madonna’s head. The perspective of the elaborately-tiled floor leads our gaze out between the room’s [1] columns with their foliated capitals towards a small garden where a pair of magpies wander between beds of red blooms and white lilies. From there we may mount a short flight of steps up to a parapet where two figures who share the parapet with a pair of splendid peacocks look out over the view of a distant [2] city on a river, while in the far distance, beyond the city’s surrounding hills, a rolling mountain landscape is shrouded in haze.

It is a scene which defies its static subject matter, allowing us tangibly to sense the air of the 15th-century, not only through the richness and color in the costumes of its participants, but also in the soft diffuse interior lighting and in the atmosphere and detail of the distant landscape beyond. The painting is in every way a considered masterpiece by an artist who himself was an innovative master of his craft. It is not overly large in scale, being only an average arm’s length square. Neither is it unique in its subject matter, for there are [3] many such paintings on such a theme from the same time frame. To our 21st-century eyes the idea of including a wealthy patron actually in the company of religious deified persons might seem daringly presumptuous, even rather blasphemous, although to do so was simply a common convention of the artist’s time.

Why, then, should I find this painting disconcerting? When I look at the painting and others from the 15th-century and the later periods of the Renaissance and afterwards, the thought which preys on my mind is simply: are there any artists right here in the 21st-century who could actually achieve such results? I’m not referring to the religious sentiments present in these works, but to the virtuoso techniques employed in their creation, and the fidelity of the end results. Because if the answer is: “Well, maybe not” then we as a species – as a creative species – are in trouble. Such a conclusion would mean that we already have peaked. We have passed our zenith, and in response to the works of these creative giants of former centuries we now seem only to be able to produce [4] glass balloon dogs, [5] unmade beds, and [6] buildings wrapped in plastic.

And if you’re an admirer of such works, be honest: look at them dispassionately and ask yourself if you truly consider their creation to be on a more superior level of artistry to that which already has been accomplished back in the 15th-century. I emphasize the word ‘superior’, not ‘equal to’ or even ‘as good as’ or just ‘different from’, because we are here considering a possible evolutionary regression, and ‘as good as’ is not going to cut it. To go one step further: During my career I used to be paid good money for producing the sorts of portraits that now can be created with [7] AI. I have seen them, and I honestly cannot tell that they were not created by an artist using conventional brushes and paint, albeit a rather mediocre one. "AI.. could spell the end of the human race." Not my words, but those of the late Professor Stephen Hawking. I’m grateful that I’m now retired.


Artist: Jan van Eyck 

Work: The Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin. Between the years 1400-1450.

Medium: oils on wood

Location: The Louvre, Paris

Open the image below in a new tab to view a large scan of the painting.


[1] The notable divisions of space between the columns are intended to be symbolic of the Holy Trinity.

[2] The city portrayed by van Eyck is a generic northern European city, rather than being a specific place.

[3] These include the works of such artists as Hugo van der Goes, Lucas van Leyden, Quintin Massijs, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden, and those artists whose names are lost to us but whose works still survive, such as the ‘Master of the Legend of the Holy Lucia’, and ‘Master E.S.’

[4] Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog in various examples.

[5] Tracy Emin’s My Bed installation shows her own unmade bed.

[6] Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, known collectively as ‘Christo’, were known for wrapping up such structures as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Reichstag building in Berlin.

[7] ‘Created with AI’: created with artificial intelligence. That is: an artefact that has been produced wholly and independently by digital algorithms, without any human input.


Holger Borchert, Till: Van Eyck tot Dürer, De Vlaamse primitieven & Centraal-Europa, 1430-1530 ('Van Eyck to Dürer: The Flemish Primitives and Central Europe, 1430-1530'). Lannoo, 2010.

Leman Hare, T: The World’s Greatest Paintings: Selected Masterpieces of Famous Art Galleries, vol. III. Odhams Press Ltd., c1935.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Thief, the Miser and the Shepherd

A certain day in the late 1970’s saw me boarding a train at Amsterdam station to travel to Brussels for the afternoon. For me it was worth the round trip, as I was on my way to see a special exhibition of the collected paintings of the 16th-century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel. Among the impressive large-scale works was a more modestly-sized painting depicting a mysterious and rather sinister black-robed figure being surreptitiously robbed by a strange-looking thief enclosed within a sphere.

The composition of the work was bounded by a circle, and at the base of the painting, immaculately lettered in gothic blackletter script, was a rhyming couplet in archaic Flemish:

Om dat de werelt is soe ongetru / Darr om gha ic in den ru

My *book on the subject translates this phrase as:

“Because the world is so faithless / I am going into mourning”

Still, having no book with me at the time, and as Dutch is my second language and closely related to Flemish, I was able to translate the phrase into contemporary Dutch:

“Omdat de wereld is zo ontrouw / Daarom ga ik (gekleed) in rouw”

And this produces a different inflexion of meaning to Bruegel’s painting than the translation given in my book back home. The key lies in that word ‘ongetru’. It has nothing to do with any lack of faith, but actually describes someone who is untrustworthy and devious (‘ontrouw’ means ‘unfaithful’ in the sense of infidelity, and by contrast, someone who is faithless is described as ‘ongelovig’). So rendered into English the phrase actually reads:

“Because the world is so untrustworthy / That is why I go (dressed) in mourning”

Now Bruegel’s essential lesson makes sense! The painting’s English title is ‘The Misanthrope’: someone of a miserly nature who despises and shuns the company of his fellows. And indeed, the black-clad old greybeard portrayed by the artist seems to be just such a type. But what of his furtive companion?

In ragged gray leggings and enclosed within a transparent orb, the hunched figure is in the very act of cutting the fastening of the greybeard’s purse (hence the archaic slang term ‘cutpurse’ to describe a thief). So the figure does not symbolize ‘earthly vanity’, as claimed by my above book, but is the world itself, as the rhyming couplet makes clear. Such a crystal sphere or globe was the standard 16th-century means of depicting the world. Thus William Shakespeare, in naming his theatre The Globe, sought to express the idea that the events which unfolded on the stage were a mirror of events happening in the world at large.

The miser has given up on trust. And it is his abandoning of that trust which has embittered him to become what we now would call a ‘grumpy old man’! It is in this embittered state that the world around him obligingly turns his mental preconceptions into a self-fulfilling prophesy. He virtually invites his own robbery.

And in an apparent wish to underscore this point, the artist shows three metal caltrops which are about to be stepped upon by the old man. Caltrops were used in the warfare of the time, and scattered in the path of oncoming troops or advancing cavalry. Their fiendish design ensured that, however carelessly-tossed, they always landed with one spike uppermost – as in the next two steps the self-absorbed miser is about find out.

But there is one other figure in the painting. In the background, in a field near to a village with its mill, a shepherd watches over his flock. It is a scene of pastoral tranquillity and trust. And it is this background scene which provides the counterfoil to the dominating cynical foreground events. We are being cared for, Bruegel seems to reassure us, if only we have trust in the situation in which we find ourselves.

*Gregory Martin: Bruegel. Thames and Hudson, Ltd, 1978.

Artist: Pieter Bruegel
Work: The Misanthrope, 1568
Medium: Tempera on canvas
Location: National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples, Italy

Caltrops photo from International Military Antiques

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Extreme Love

The phrase ‘extreme sports’ has become a familiar one, and as the term suggests describes situations in which the participants are prepared to go to extremes in order to test the borders of what is possible, what is ‘do-able’. Only by pushing against those borders can we discover new territory within ourselves, take on new challenges, and explore our own limits and capabilities. But what if we apply such a term to emotional territory? Can there exist such a thing as extreme love?

Artemisia II was for a brief two years the ruler of Caria, a Grecian-influenced province of Ancient Persia in western Anatolia. She succeeded Mausolus, who was both her husband and her brother, and history records her devastation at his death. Where does love go when the object of that love no longer exists? How does such a love find a new form? If it is strong enough, then it will not fade, but seek to transform itself into new emotional territory, begin to explore its own farther limits. Inconsolable, Artemisia strove to find a way to give her love a new form, to absorb her beloved into her own being, to allow the departed in some radical way to endure within her inmost self.

From the carefully preserved ashes of Mausolus this woman who was both a bereaved sister and a widow took each day a small measure and mixed it with a beverage, which she then drank. We do not know over what period of time the grief-stricken Artemisia continued to ingest her late husband’s mortal remains, although it is reasonable to assume that she must have weighed each little portion of ash with utmost love and care, in order to protract the process of consumption for as long as was possible. We do know that she continued to pine away, until merciful death took her as well just two years later.

In her short reign Artemisia managed to express her grief in a more conventional though no less memorable way, through the medium of architecture. In the name of her beloved we recognise the term ‘mausoleum’, for Artemisia it was who ordered the first mausoleum built to honour her husband’s memory. And true to the intensity of her emotions this prototype of all future mausoleums was on such a grandly impressive scale that it is on the exclusive list of the seven wonders of the Ancient World as the [1]Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. 

Of ashes and architecture, it is the ashes which paradoxically seem to have proven the more durable of the two. Artemisia did not live to see the Mausoleum’s completion, and only a few scattered and fragmented columns now [2]remain to suggest its former magnificence. But more than eighteen long centuries after the lovelorn ruler lingered over what she knew was the last goblet of her husband’s remains, the Italian artist Francesco Furini selected this mourning heroine as a suitably dramatic subject for his art, and created an imagined portrait of her.

Furini has served Artemisia well. In the limpid darkness of his subject’s eyes we glimpse what never can be regained, no, not even with draughts of funerary ash and memories fashioned from resplendent marble. But also in those composed, resigned depths we might discover, if we open ourselves both to Furini’s genius and to Artemisia’s spirit, a hint of the strength which only the most extreme love will let slip through the door: the mysterious force of a love more potent even than death.

[1] The site is now Bodrum, in contemporary Turkey.

[2] A series of 15th-century earthquakes further weakened the parts of the structure which still remained, and the close of that century saw Christian crusaders make use of its stones to reinforce their nearby castle. They additionally heated and burned some of the remaining marble columns, then mixed the ash with water to create building mortar. With an irony of history, the crusaders had unknowingly subjected the very building in Mausolus' memory to the same process as his remains had been subjected by his desolate widow. The reconstruction (right) shows one possible version of the Mausoleum's appearance.

Artist: Francesco Furini
Work: Artemisia Prepares to Drink the Ashes of Her Husband Mausolus, c1630
Medium: Oils
Location: Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut, U.S.A.

If you would like to read another of my posts which features the art of Francesco Furini, you are welcome to visit my other blog here: Lot and His Daughters: The Inside Story

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Dürer’s Sea Monster

I can just see the headlines: "NOBLE LADY ABDUCTED BY SEA MONSTER – Authorities Baffled”! As well they might be, for as with those two fantastic figures of Death and the Devil which escort the fearless knight in Albrecht Dürer’s other masterpiece [1]engraving, the artist once more has provided us with a fantastic being so credible in his detail that we doubt his non-existence. This triton or merman, with his growth of horn, his turtle shell shield and his scaley tail, positively bristles with self-assured confidence. And he looks wily and sly enough to know exactly how to go about carrying off fair maidens to the depths of his watery realm.

The scene provides us with enough incidental detail for us to piece together what has taken place: a lady – her elaborate headdress (above) suggests her social status – while bathing in an estuary near the sea shore, is being abducted by the fish-tailed merman. To the left, three other bathing women (below) hastily retreat to the safety of dry land while a fourth woman swoons in horror on the shore. Next to them a running man in a [2]turban raises his hands in a gesture of startled helplessness. One feels nevertheless that given the chance of a face-to-face encounter, the man, even armed with his sword, would be no match for this cunning and grizzle-bearded hybrid, and the lady’s fate seems sealed.

What makes the scene so intriguing, so mischievous, are the conflicting signals which the lady is giving out. Dürer suggests little outward show of resistance by her to the astonishing fate which has overtaken her. Her vaguely anguished expression is, if anything, contradicted by her body language; her right hand rests languidly across her naked hip, while her left almost brushes the creature’s genitals, and she seems to recline at her ease on the back of her fantastic abductor with as much aplomb as she would were she safely at home relaxing on a chaise longue. It is this which makes us feel that the regret in her face is only token as she leaves the receding shore forever and rides off to her new life aquatic.

Dürer has divided his composition into two halves: the top half provides us with a classic landscape of a walled town dominated from the heights by a castle (above). In the distance a ship, its sails billowing, beats its way along the coast towards the horizon. This part of the scene seems peaceful enough, but it is the lower half of the composition that brims with action, and thrusts us into the centre of the drama which unfolds before us.

The pace of the monster’s progress is indicated by the foaming wake that streams away from himself and his human prize, and Dürer has used the line of the cliffs in the background to mirror this, creating a kind of left-to-right bow wave of motion (above) from the top to the bottom of the entire scene which gives the composition its tangible dynamism. We ourselves feel irresistibly swept along on this wave, with the creature’s shield forming the prow, and it is the artist’s genius which sets it all in motion.

Art critics usually cite The Knight, Death and the Devil, Saint Jerome in his Study and Melancholia as Dürer’s engraved masterpieces. But as an image of unexplained strangeness and power - and mischievous charm - [3]The Sea Monster resonates in the mind as surely as these.

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Work: The Sea Monster, 1498
Medium: Engraving
Location: The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and other collections housing this print.

[1] Please see my post The Knight, Death and the Devil

[2] Just as all things Chinese became fashionable and influenced the arts in the 19th-century, fanciful and exotic Middle Eastern styles became the thing in Dürer’s day. The artist featured this influence several times in his work, as in this Turkish family (left).

[3] My blog aims to provide the best quality scans of the various artworks featured. Please note that this image of The Sea Monster is high resolution, and may take time to download with a slow connection. The second image from the top in this post is an actual size detail taken from this scan. For the same reason, wherever possible I include the borders (however irregular!) of the original engravings: borders which are almost always cropped off even in quality art books which feature such engravings. I like to 'do the right thing' by the artist, and if the border is a part of the engraving then it should be included.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Ecstasy of Eve

Whether or not our beliefs endorse the account of Eve’s creation in the [1]second chapter of the Book of Genesis, even a charitable soul has to concede that the idea of a fully-grown woman being fashioned from a sleeping man’s rib and then being extracted from his side is a clumsy and disturbing image to get one’s head around. But as it nevertheless is a scene which is central to the Biblical creation story, it has both drawn and challenged artists, and its various depictions take in a spectrum ranging from bravura originality to pedestrian literalism and all shades in between.

Solomon J. Solomon’s The Birth of Eve (above) is surely one example from the top end of such a spectrum. It carries a force of conviction which sweeps us up into Eve’s drama, and we become willing believers in the scene – whether we buy into the Genesis account of her creation or not. Caressed by two supporting angels, the newly-emerged Eve rises from the flesh of a comatose Adam. All around her, swirls of new life eddy in vortices of charged energy, and we are left to guess whether her swooning pose indicates either the cathartic ecstasy of her creation, or the painful trauma of her emergence into the world. Perhaps these extremes of emotion lie close enough together for her to be experiencing both.

Earlier centuries clung more safely to the security of scriptural literalism, with the resulting imagery being both more pedantic and more unintentionally bizarre than the sensuality permitted by a later age. Bartolo di Fredi’s fresco (above) introduces what I irreverently think of as the 'Caesarean section' category of depictions of the scene. In a charmingly decorative Eden, a dark-robed God, supported on a hovering formation of red angels, offers the emerging Eve a steadying hand. Our sense of logic shouts to us that the fleshy space from which she emerges is an undersized impossibility, and we unconsciously suspect the unseen hollow chamber in the earth beneath the sleeping Adam, as we would suspect the stage illusionist’s concealing mirror which makes it appear as if his pretty assistant is emerging from an impossibly small box on a table.

His titan status in art history might lead us to expect something more from Michelangelo. But in the event, his depiction of the scene on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (above) is as banal as any other of its kind. Flanked by four extravagantly voluptuous male nudes which apparently had more to do with Michelangelo’s own [2]sexual preferences than they did with anything remotely Biblical, Eve steps out of Adam’s side with all the demure aplomb of a woman alighting from a bus. The artist balks at showing the actual physical opening of the flesh, and opts instead for a fudged compromise which gives the impression that Eve is in fact emerging from a cave behind the sleeping Adam, which summons an unwitting echo of the cave of birth featured in the pagan mystery schools of Ancient Greece right there on the ceiling of what is, after all, a Christian chapel.

What cannot be denied about Michelangelo is his iconic influence on subsequent depictions of these events. Although this influence is obvious in the engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (above), where Michelangelo gives us mere fleshy puppets, von Carolsfeld at least invests his characters with some humanity. God, appropriately larger-than-life and surrounded by rays of deific glory, blesses the wondering Eve who gazes steadfastly into her creator’s face as cloud-wreathed angels look on. The oblivious Adam, when he awakens, is in for a welcome surprise.

Henry Fuseli, better known for his dark portrayals of disturbing visions and nightmare visitations, provides us with an emerging Eve (above) straight from those worlds. In a scene of impenetrable inky shadows, both Eve and Adam swoon in apparent trauma as a uniquely clean-shaven and remarkably gothic God rolls his eyes to his own heaven. No comforting escorting angels here. All other details are swallowed up in the surrounding gloom, and even the relieving vegetation of Eden is replaced by an unyielding granite boulder. It is a secular interpretation which would have been impossible to consider before the romanticism of the late 18th- early 19th-century, and the more original for that.

Although he tends to be associated with the 19th-century pre-Raphaelites, George Frederick Watts was more of a visionary in line with such artists as Fuseli and William Blake. Watts tells us that he was inspired by contemplating the swirling patterns in carpets and wallpaper to produce his visions of winged angels and mystical beings, and his depiction of Eve’s emergence (above) seems to owe something to that technique of trippy visions. All superfluities are here dispensed with. Even the characters of God, Adam and the angels are brushed aside in the artist’s drive to produce an ecstatic vision of Eve becoming aware of her own existence, as she is borne up in the cloud of her own floating hair and the wreathing forms of the birds and flowers of Paradise. Watts, as with Fuseli, rode the wave of the Romantic movement in the arts to create a fabulous image whose rich sensuality would have been impossible for previous more scriptural centuries. But unlike Fuseli's bleak shadows, what we sense in Watts is the emergence of a new and intensely personal spirituality that we recognise as essentially contemporary in its quest.

With Martha Mayer Erlebacher’s creation of Eve (above) we have arrived in a radically different world. Eden now seems as bleak as the waste land which reaches to the uncertain horizon beyond, and the [3]legendary four rivers which flow out of Eden serve only to drive the focus towards the two central figures. But the figure lying on the bare ground is no slumbering Adam. Instead, what we are shown is an anonymous Caucasian female, with Eve as an African American woman. A more radically original version of the scene than this it is hard to imagine. Perhaps it took a woman to shake the original story loose from its Biblical literalism and offer us an interpretation which drives beyond all borders to reach new and questioning territory. Supernatural elements are not even hinted at in Erlebacher’s vision of things. Instead, we are confronted with stark and simple truths: that it is the woman who is the creator, that racial preconceptions have no place in scripture, and that even the earth of Eden can at times feel like cold, hard ground.

[1] Genesis 2:21-25 are the verses which relate how God fashioned Eve from a rib of the sleeping Adam. This and other events of the Creation directly contradict the version of the forming of the first unnamed man and woman in the preceding chapter (Genesis 1:27), in which the couple are created simultaneously with no mention of the rib. Some commentators take this discrepancy either as an indication that at least two versions by different writers have been combined in this part of Genesis, or that the Genesis 1 version of events actually refers to the couple of Adam and Lilith, Adam’s wife before Eve was created. Lilith, being created simultaneously with the first man, was therefore also his equal: a state of affairs that patriarchal scripture could not and would not tolerate, and Lilith was therefore edited out of the canonical version to linger instead in Hebrew legend. 

[2] Please see my post Fear and Loathing in the Sistine Chapel for other examples of the ways in which Michelangelo’s homosexuality influenced the frescos which he produced for the ceiling of the Papal chapel.

[3] In Genesis 2:10-14, the four rivers are given as the Pison, Gihon, Hidekel (Tigris) and Euphrates. The identity of the first two remains speculative.

Solomon J. Solomon: The Birth of Eve. Oils, 1908, Art Gallery of New South Wales (?), Australia. Up until 16 December, 2009, the painting was owned by the Ealing Borough Council, who due to increasing costs of upkeep, and security and conservation concerns, auctioned it through Christie's on that date for a hammer price of £713,250. ($1,159,031), a realized price just above its reserve price of £700,000. I have traced a photo of it on public exhibition after that date to the collection to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which presumably is the new owner.

Bartolo di Fredi: The Creation of Eve. Fresco, 1456. Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, Italy. 

Michelangelo Buonarroti: The Creation of Eve. Fresco, 1508-12, Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld: The Creation of Eve. Engraving, 1825. One of a complete cycle of engravings which von Carolsfeld produced for an illustrated edition (at left) of the Bible.

Henry Fuseli: The Creation of Eve. Oils, 1791-93, Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.

George Frederick Watts: She Shall be called Woman. Oils, 1875-92, Tate Gallery, London (not on public display at this time).

Martha Mayer Erlebacher: The Creation of Eve. Oils, 1996, private collection.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Three Portraits and Four Faces

He stands like some 18th-century captain-explorer at the prow of his ship, his eyes shaded from the glare of the fierce tropic sun as he voyages on towards uncharted horizons (below). It is the gesture of shading his eyes that makes this self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds so daringly unique, and he leaves us wondering. Was this a simple natural gesture, betraying the fact that he was bothered by the direct sunlight streaming through his studio window, and making it difficult for him accurately to gauge the exact colours on his palette? Or was this the way in which he consciously wished to portray himself, searching for a landfall on some undiscovered shore of art?

If the latter, then Reynolds was navigating treacherous shoals. His flair for experimenting with concocting his own oil paints was very much a hit-and-miss affair. 'Mix a little wax with your colours,' he is reputed to have advised a student, 'but don't tell anybody.' Within his own lifetime, he saw his own paintings crack with the brittleness of the unstable pigments which he used. 'All good paintings crack.' was his typically spry response.

This self-portrait in pastels by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (below) has long been one of my favourite self-portraits by an artist. We easily can imagine Chardin working quietly and alone in his studio, intensely observing his own likeness in a looking-glass, then briefly focusing back towards his easel as, step by step, he transmuted his own features into art. A hint of quizzical enquiry plays around the upturned corners of his mouth: a self-regard which is also a self-awareness of his involvement in the task to which he has committed himself.

Here in the interior of his studio, his fashionable wig has been replaced in favour of a comfortable white scarf secured in place by a blue headband. In this self-portrait he makes us, his audience, privilege to his informal dress. We see Chardin as he saw himself in the privacy of his own house, and not as we would see him had we encountered him on the street. The pink and blue neckerchief, the steel-rimmed pince-nez perched upon his nose, all combine to underscore the informal humanity of the artist himself. When I look at this self-portrait I find myself thinking: yes - Chardin was someone whom I would like to have met and talked with. He was, I am sure, a decent and likeable person.

As does Reynolds, Chardin provides himself with a neutral dark background - common-enough to be seen in portraits of his time. And he plays the harmonics of his colour palette throughout this work, dragging the pinks and blues of what he is wearing through his own features. Seeing this portrait in our own time, it is difficult to appreciate just how cutting-edge Chardin's techniques were. His method of using hatched lines of pure colour (the detail, above) in such a way that the eye of the observer mixes them together from a distance was revolutionary for its time. More than two centuries later, I have used this identical technique when I have worked with pastels, and I owe it to Chardin's groundbreaking originality.

Fast-forward exactly one hundred and one years on from the affable originality of Chardin's self-portrait. The neutral background darkness is still there, but what a different world we find ourselves in. The Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin presents his likeness to us (above), but his is not the only presence which we see: the all-too-real face of Death emerges from the shadows over the artist's left shoulder. But this visible horror seems to leave the artist unmoved; he even inclines his head towards the grim figure, almost in a gesture of familiarity. Death the fiddler calls the tune, and Böcklin, unphased, calmy paints along.

Death here might be portrayed as tangibly as Albrecht Dürer's figure of Death of almost four centuries before (see this blog's header), but there is no gothic grimness in this self-portrait. How could there be, when the overwhelming feeling is one of reconciliation, of an awareness of death as being simply a part of the scheme of things, as real and as necessary to the scene as the artist's own palette and brush which he holds. Death cannot be defeated, but it can be accepted. That is what Böcklin shows, and this simple realisation is his triumph.

On Sir Joshua Reynolds: Charlotte J. Blennerhassett: Sidelights
On Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin: Geneviéve Monnier: Le Pastel
On Arnold Böcklin: Ursula Bode: Kunst zwischen Traum und Alptraum

Artist: Sir Joshua Reynolds
Work: Self-portrait, 1747
Medium: Oils
Location: National Gallery, London

Artist: Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin
Work: Self-portrait, 1771
Medium: Pastels
Location: Louvre, Paris

Artist: Arnold Böcklin
Work: Self-portrait with Fiddling Death, 1872
Medium: Oils
Location: National Gallery, Berlin

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Judith: The Woman with a Sword

You know straight away that a woman who carries a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other has a story to tell. The story of Judith could be found in the Old Testament’s Book of Judith until just over a century ago, at which time the book was dropped from the canon. But in or out of the Bible her story endures, and always has been one which spoke to artists.

Judith, as her story relates, is a beautiful widow who, in order to save her beleaguered city from the surrounding Assyrian army, dresses herself in her most seductive finery, and with only her handmaiden for company slips out of the city to visit the encamped Assyrian commander, one Holofernes. The general is duly charmed: charmed enough to incautiously fall into a drunken stupor. Judith seizes the moment - and the general’s own sword. Two terrible strokes are enough to make the general shorter by a head, and with the compelling and bloody evidence wrapped up in the handmaiden’s hamper, our heroine slips back home. Long story short: headless corpse discovered in the cold light of morning, army in demoralized disarray, city is saved.

A beautiful and daring heroine will always appeal to artists, and Judith has been portrayed – often multiple times by the same artist – throughout the history of art. Botticelli, Caravaggio and Klimt have all seized upon the theme, from demure poses which focus on Judith’s finery to the actual nitty-gritty of grim and graphic severance. Jan Massys (below) presents us with a coyly-smiling Judith wearing the delicate ghost of a chemise which preserves nothing for modesty, while Conrat Meit’s masterful and sensitive sculpture in alabaster (above) grants his Judith a three dimensional actuality. Both of these confidently-poised Judiths are from the mid 16th century.

In a post-Freudian age it would perhaps be an easy option to discuss the male fear of the powers of the castrating female even with just these first two examples, but it seems more fruitful to approach such works, not from the point of view of contemporary psychology, but as the expressions of art which they are. Just as with Greek art, it is the nudity of Meit’s Judith which makes her heroic, which lifts her out of time to become something *mythic in a way in which Judith in all her finery could not convey. The subtlety and fidelity of Meit’s carving is monumental, even for such a comparatively small-scale work - it is just 29cm (1 foot) high.

Now to two Judiths in their finery, both from the 19th century. Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant’s assertive Judith (above) owes much to the then-prevailing Orientalist style, and is the richer for it. No severed head is here visible, but the hand which grips the haft of the sword, and the deep blood red of the drapes in the background, do more than enough to suggest such details of the story without any further need to get into the specifics. This Judith has used her own sash to support the sword’s scabbard, and so has made the weapon – and the situation – her own.

In August Riedel’s Judith (above), the gruesome trophy is only partially glimpsed, although the dangling lock of dark hair is telling enough. But this Judith is essentially of the artist’s own time and place: a fabulous poster girl for a 19th century revolution. The artist has utilised the backlit sleeve to draw attention to the contrastingly dark blade, and although the costume’s rich brocade worn by the model is as likely to be a curtain drape or an improvised table spread, we hardly care. This is a Judith whom we would cheerfully follow over the barricades in the name of liberty.

The 1920’s sees Franz von Stuck’s Judith (above) transformed into a fully-fledged femme fatale, and wielding a blade that looks massive enough to fell a sequoia. At her feet the insensible Holofernes lies oblivious to the coming blow, and Judith herself casts an impenetrable shadow over the blood-red background, leaving almost half the canvas in ominous darkness. This is not reality. This is opera, with all the enhanced drama which stage lighting and prop weaponry can bring to a scene.

Jan Saudek’s 1996 work Sword (above) employs the style of a staged 19th century studio photograph as a counterpoint to the essentially contemporary pose of his model. The artist’s image is not about seduction, nor even about Judith’s story as such. It is about power. Saudek’s image is already far removed from von Stuck’s operatic Judith of a few decades earlier, and an impossible gulf away from the ennobled Judiths of previous centuries. Its essentially predatory power ignores the courageous heroism and altruistic ideals of the original Judith story, which in itself is perhaps a sardonic-enough comment on changed times.

Four and a half centuries of time separate Meit’s Judith from Saudek’s, and the differences in between are plain to see. Assuming that the story endures for another several centuries (and I for one hope that it will), how will an artist portray such a future Judith - a Judith as removed from our own time as Saudek’s is from Meit’s?

*See my previous post: Naked or Nude? This post and my other post (Five Women and Four Serpents) which also features the work of Jan Massys can be found on my sidebar's Top Ten Posts.
If you’d like to read about another (shocking!) aspect of Judith’s story, you’re welcome to visit my other blog here: Renaissance Snuff

Sunday, July 8, 2012


The city of Alexandria in Egypt, in the year 285. A man, then aged thirty four, turns his back on his estate, his possessions, and all that his life has been up to that moment, and walks away into the unforgiving desert dunes. What drives him into the hot North African winds, into this landscape of dust and nothingness, is his longing for an experience of the divine, of something that would infuse his life with a transcendent other. It was then not unknown for those who sought such mystic encounters to retreat to the less-frequented outskirts of the city. What was different about Anthony is that he went farther. In the inhospitably barren wilderness of the Egyptian desert, far from the city, Anthony settled down to a life of total seclusion that would last for thirteen years.

Other locations as remote, and other unrelentingly reclusive periods would follow, as Anthony's pious reputation spread widely enough for his life to be chronicled, and for his name to become a title. He was now Anthony of the Desert. The chronicles recounted his privations and his visions, and interpreted these in the context of his Christian struggles with his adversary the Devil. It is these accounts which have provided a rich theme for artists. But when we look at these works, what appeals to the artists would seem to have less to do with Anthony's fervent piety than with the visions with which the Devil chose to tempt him.

Piety, it seems, is not only a more difficult quality to portray convincingly, but less appealing for artists than the parade of phantasms which the Devil supplied to the hermit, either in the form of voluptuous temptresses or bizarre and terrifying monstrosities: all of them fertile ground for the creative imagination of artists from Hieronymus Bosch to today's intricate sculptural constructions by Kris Kuksi (above).

Henri Fantin-Latour's 19th century temptresses drift towards the studying Anthony out of nebulous wreaths of vapour (above). But Alexandre Louis Leloir and Domenico Morelli (below) supply the saint with altogether more substantial female company. Leloir's Anthony grips desperately - and rather melodramatically - onto his crucifix as two apparently all-too-real temptresses seek to embrace him, while Morelli's Anthony strives not to notice as his own two female illusions emerge insidiously from underneath the reed matting of his hermit's cave as three more disembodied females lurk in the shadows.

John Charles Dollman has a kneeling and inexplicably clean-shaven Anthony studiously ignoring both a single alluring female and a whole menagerie of desert animals - wolves, foxes and apes - circled around the entrance to his firelit retreat (below). Mere illusions ought not to cast shadows, but the shadows cast by Dollman's phantoms give them a telling reality. The impassive saint seems calmly unaware of these presences, making them more curiously real to us, the artist's audience, who have not endured Anthony's privation-induced visions.

Intriguingly, Dollman returned to the same subject twenty eight years later, and the differences with his first canvas are striking, with the colours being quieter, more muted (below). Although fewer in number, the animals are much the same, but it is the woman who has undergone the greatest transformation. Now substantial enough, not merely to cast a shadow, but to leave her footprints in the desert sand behind her, her modest pose conveys not so much wantonness, but humility. Silently she stands with her hands clasped behind her back, seeming almost to offer herself in companionship to the kneeling hermit. We feel that, once he turns to become aware of her presence, his gesture will be one, not of tortured horror, but of calm acceptance, a surrender to the seeming reality of this comforting presence which has come to him in the moonlit desert silence.

Perhaps in the intervening years Dollman had reached a deeper understanding of the nature of illusions, coming at last to a realisation that our own awareness, while it might not shatter such illusions, at least reaches a measure of acceptance. And in that acceptance the illusions are themselves transformed into something less threatening, more consolling, in the midst of hostile realities. 

This post is complementary to my current post about Anthony of the Desert on my other blog, which investigates Anthony's life. You are welcome to visit and read my post here:
Anthony of the Desert: Life as Fiction.

My own portrayal of Anthony can be seen at: Anthony of the Desert.