Monday, October 12, 2009

The Little Shepherd and the Little Vampire

Under the vast blue bowl of the sky a shepherd boy lies sprawled upon a grassy hilltop, shading his eyes from the glare of the sun (below). We know that it must be the height of summer: the sun is directly overhead, and the boy's light clothing, and the insects which float busily in the air around him, all tell of the season. The boy's eyes are closed. We cannot know his dreams and thoughts, but our own childhood memories must somewhere contain scenes and experiences such as his, and with these to draw from, we can readily identify with his summery daydreams.

The picture was painted by the Bavarian artist Franz von Lenbach in 1860, when the artist would have been just twenty four years old. When viewed as a whole, von Lenbach would seem to have had a respectable if rather standard career, painting the portraits of the notables of his day, from Bismarck to Pope Leo XIII, as well as several notable composers, including Richard Wagner and Clara Schumann (below). He apparently also worked on commission as a copyist - that is, an artist who paints copies of the works of other known artists so that his clients could own a 'genuine' Velázquez or some other masterpiece to hang in their private collections.

Fast forward from the painting of the shepherd boy another forty three years to 1903, just a year before the artist died. This time, von Lenbach turns his canvas upon himself and his own family (below). We are shown the artist himself, together with his wife Lolo and their two daughters Marion and Gabriele. But it is certainly not just in the loose, scrubbed-on treatment of the brushwork that sets this work so dramatically apart from the little shepherd. No happy and contented family here, for von Lenbach opted to follow the prevailing fashion and portray his nearest and dearest with all the moody and brooding intensity which was 'The Look' of the time.

In fact, going on the way in which they have been painted, we might only be mildly surprised if Frau von Lenbach and the youngest daughter Gabriele (detail, below) opened their mouths to reveal predatory vampire fangs. The half smile which plays on the girl's mouth is betrayed by those evil-intentions eyes (just cover over the mouth to see what I mean). Let's face it: would you want your daughter to have little Gabriele as a playmate? One shudders to think what she does to her dolls. Well, fortunately we can assume that this was not how the von Lenbachs looked in their day-to-day existence, any more than a snapshot of a happily smiling and consciously posed family group is typical of that family's everyday appearance.

It is as if between the happy smile and the glowering frown there lies an ungraspable something which perhaps is what we think of as 'everyday life'. Both the smile and the frown are therefore somewhat artificial: unnatural states contrived by the camera or by the artist's brush. And between the little shepherd and the little 'vampire' is an artist's entire career, moving from summery innocence to something darker, changing in ways which the young twenty four year-old artist could not imagine.

Artist: Franz von Lenbach
Work: Shepherd Boy, 1860
Medium: Oils
Location: Schack Gallery, Munich

Artist: Franz von Lenbach
Work: The Artist with his Family, 1903
Medium: Oils
Location: Lenbachhaus Gallery, Munich

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