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: San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, 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.