After seeing works by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) recently, in a virtual visit to the Louvre, my confusion about the painter flared up again: how is it possible that someone who is capable of painting fabrics and materials with such stunning precision, so messes with the human form?
The anatomy of the men he paints is always spot-on. (Except for the hands, but more on that another time.) The women though, are all over the place. His poor distorted Odalisques of course, but also many others – especially their arms spin mercilessly out of control. How is that possible? What is going on? What kind of man was that Ingres anyway?
He was an amazingly talented young man, who had a hard time choosing between the violin or the paintbrush for a career. Painting won, but he never gave up his music. In French, the expression “un violon d’Ingres” means a hobby performed at a (semi) professional level. That explains why Man Ray, the experimental photographer from the 1920’s, gave this photo that title – his high end hobby was the female body.
But I digress. Back to Ingres, who considered himself a truly classical painter, in the tradition of Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David. However, to our eyes his history and mythology paintings often seem camp and over the top. He is better remembered for his portraits, which he made primarily to earn a living – he rather looked down on portraiture.
Thetis, a sea nymph and mother of Achilles, throwing herself at mighty Jove (Zeus in Greek). It is as if she’s holding up a spare left arm. Her right arm is about the length of her leg, by the way. But look at the way he painted the fabric! Those draperies! That bas-relief! And – ugh, gross – the misshapen small toe of the Supreme Being.
Madame Marcotte seems to have an arm lying loose inside her dress. And what a dress it is, too! The collar leaves something to be desired, I’d have a word with the dressmaker on that, but the fabric is to die for. I have looked at this portrait endlessly with my photography students and we’ve come to the conclusion he must have had the dress in his studio – propped up on the sofa, without anybody inside it.
Ah, yes, those Odalisques. Naked girls in Eastern bath houses. Ingres painted them throughout his life, in exactly the same manner – with those stretched out backs and funny buttocks. I’ve read that he was ‘looking for ideal beauty’, and that his paintings were the ‘first steps towards abstraction’. But I can’t help thinking there’s something else going on. Could it be that he was afraid to look at women? His work is often classified as Erotica. Now I’m no expert on the male gaze, but I can hardly imagine that life-threateningly elongated spines turn men on.
Maybe the mere fact that they were naked was enough for the stuffy bourgeoisie of the time, maybe no one dared to look at nude women then. Or was Ingres simply more into men?
Ingres used models of course, possibly several within one painting, for various details. He also used a camera obscura, which contributed to the accuracy of the backgrounds and the precise rendition of the materials.
Still, I’m puzzled – did he not care? Were the anatomical glitches a hidden referral to his disdain for portraiture? Did he think we wouldn’t notice? Were such details considered unimportant? Or could it be that he really was experimenting with proportions after all?
And possibly Ingres studied this, a copy of a lost Michelangelo. No offence meant, but Leda here is an anatomical disaster. As if being violated by a swan isn’t bad enough! (Zeus, aka Jove, at it again.) One boob smack in the middle, an endlessly long body, ditto thighs . . . jeez.
Another Leda and the swan, painted this time by Paolo Veronese, 1585. Luckily her breasts are pretty much where they should be, but just look at those shoulders! And she has no hips. You know what? I think a guy modelled for this, and Veronese added a pair of boobs later. That swan looks a little rough around the edges by the way – you wouldn’t think there was a Deity hiding in there.
I guess Ingres could also have studied this portrait, by Antoni van Dijck, of the British Stuart brothers, 1638. I’ll say nothing about the expression on their snooty faces, nothing about their decadent hands (later, promise). No, it’s the arm. Again. What on earth is going on under that gorgeous blue-and-silver outfit? Between that arrogantly thrust out elbow and the shoulder? There’s something seriously wrong with that upper arm. And isn’t his body terribly long for his legs? Van Dijck must have had an off day, he usually gets his proportions just right. By the way, did you notice the guy’s boots? Very elegant, wedge/heel thingies. With both spurs pointing in the same direction. I dare say that’ll have precious little effect.
Proserpine, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874. Ingres certainly cannot have seen this, he’d been dead for 7 years when this was painted. The model is Rossetti’s lover Jane Morris. She did have the most astonishingly striking looks, but that upper back is just weird. I read an article which drew a parallel between her bulging neck, the tragic story of Proserpine, and their complicated romance. AND Rossetti’s depressions. Actually it sort of makes sense, even though initially it sounds like ramblings. Her contorted neck, her twisted hands, subconsciously give you the feeling that things aren’t right.
And then there was André Kertesz (1894-1985). A Hungarian photographer who lived in New York most of his life, with a long stopover in Paris. There the (satirical, slightly risqué) magazine Le Sourire commisioned him to make ‘something’. He got hold of two funhouse mirrors, found models who were willing to get undressed, and shot close to two hundred pictures in a couple of months: Distortions (1933). He himself considered the result funny, and sometimes a little scary. It took him fourty years to get the book published.
Maybe all these artists were looking for the effects of a body in images, investigating to what extent you can mess with it before it loses its appeal – and what happens when you do cross that line. Who knows? I can definitely see the connection between Kertesz’ Distortions and Ingres’ Odalisques.
But loose arms? Men’s shoulders on female bodies? Still weird. Sorry.
“Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
So spoke Jesus to Mary Magdalen when she came to his grave after his crucifiction. To her horror the grave was empty, but there were people all around it and one of them turned out to be Jesus himself.
I wasn’t brought up with the New Testament, and I’m having trouble trying to figure out what this story means. Why shouldn’t she touch him, when he’s standing there in front of her, seemingly alive and kicking? After all, doesn’t rumor have it that they were lovers? Is it because, now that he is on his way to heaven on such a very special ticket, she’s no longer clean enough for him? After all, rumor also has it that she was a prostitute.
Another translation is ‘don’t cling to me’, so possibly he meant to say: I am dead, you should let go and live your life without me. Which would be rather sweet of him.
Maybe it’s because he has been dead for a few days, so he could be carrying all sorts of nasty bacteria that might make her sick? That could very well be it, I have heard many Bible stories explained in such a pragmatic way. Although, it could also be ten months of social distancing messing with my brain here.
In any case, this story captured the imagination of generations of painters. Noli me tangere is also the title of a famous book about the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines and its film version. There’s an opera with the same name, apparently Petrarca used it as a metaphor in a poem, medical students are warned with it that they should leave certain bodyparts and ailments alone.
There’s even a theory that the Gadsden flag – that yellow one with the rattlesnake and the text ‘don’t tread on me’ – harks back to Noli me tangere. It was the symbol of various American military divisions and has nowadays been adopted by extreme right movements in the US – which explains why it was all over the place at the storming of the Capitol on January 6th.
One of the exciting things of such a recurring theme, is that you can clearly see the changes and developments in art. Let’s start with Giotto. This is one of the frescos at the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. As soon as I can go back to Venice, I’ll get on a train. I will book a double time slot, and tell you all about it! I meant to go last year, but then the floods put a spanner in the works.
Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1306. Thir-teen-o-six! Isn’t that amazing? Yes, to our eyes it still seems a little stiff, but it is such a huge leap forward from the flat renditions of Byzantine art. He is the first to add depth to his models, literally and figuratively speaking. And the first to paint sleeping soldiers – aren’t those guys supposed to keep watch?
Fra Angelico, more than a hundred years later, ca. 1442. His background is much more detailed than Giotto’s. Near Jesus he painted tiny red flowers in the grass. They look like drops of blood, echoeing the stigmata on his feet. He is also carrying a scythe or something over his shoulder – initially Mary Magdalen mistook him for the gardener, you see.
Juan de Flandes, ca. 1500. This John was Flemish, but in his twenties he left for Castille, where he was appointed court painter. That is why he is known as a Spanish painter, although it seems to me that his Jesus and Mary M. look decidedly Flemish. Luckily he ditched the clumsy halos of his predecessors.
Titian, 1514. Things are beginning to move and there really is something going on between the two. I’m sure I can actually see their bond. The way Jesus is trying to dodge her tells me he is doing so purely out of love for her. They are so beautiful, both of them! That tree seems to go through his head in a slightly awkward way, but it also sort of lifts him up, as a prelude to his ascension, while she stays close to the ground, literally down to earth. It is a gorgeous tree, a real Titian-tree. The foliage, by the way, is brown because of the discoloration of the originally green paint, not because of acid rain.
Paolo Veronese, ca. 1530. One more halo, but certainly not a clumsy one – Jesus really is the light here. A hundred years make a huge difference in this case. Veronese applies his stunning pastels, plays with light and shadow, adds a group of flustered angels in the background, and his Jesus is toned and muscular. It’s the height of the Renaissance. Almost all Veronese’s figures have gigantic hands – he probably considered that beautiful.
Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1530. Holbein was German by birth, but he started his career in Switserland. From there he travelled to France, possibly in the hope of becoming court painter there. That didn’t work out, but in 1526 he went to London and there, at Henry VIII’s court, it did. Big time. It is tempting to make fun of his Noli me tangere – Jesus looks as if he is about to deliver a karate chop, MM seems to think he is after her flask of oil, and one seriously wonders where that sea of light comes from, in a pitch dark tomb. But that’s not fair because it really is a beautiful painting that tells the entire story in a very clever way.
Lavinia Fontana, 1581. Jesus as the gardener again, with an outsized shovel and with a weird, rustic hat that hovers over his head like an off kilter flying saucer. He’s quite cute – chubby, a bit of a dad bod. Half cuddly hubby, half maffioso. Maybe Lavinia’s husband, Gian Paolo Zappi, was her model here. He was a painter himself, but he gave up his career in order to look after the kids and the household, so she could attend fully to her art. Wow! Gentlemen, do you hear that?
Abraham Janssens and Jan Wildens, ca. 1620. Two painters from Antwerp collaborated on this – Janssens did the figures and Wildens the landscape (he was considered the landscape specialist and painted backgrounds for many of his contemporaries). If I wouldn’t be familiar with the story, I would have given a totally different meaning to this – I’d have thought that the woman’s vegetable stall had been wrecked by a naked jerk with a shovel. And I would feel terribly sorry for her.
Rembrandt, 1638. ‘Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the tomb’. The only painting in this post that officially has another title. Typically Rembrandt again: with that light, that fierce landscape, but especially because of the expression of the characters – you can see the confusion in their faces and in their body language. And look at that angel, the way he sits! Don’t think I’ve ever seen a more approachable angel. The couple walking away in the bottom left hand corner is much more mysterious.
Simone Cantarini. Or is it Daniel Seiter? I can’t figure out who painted this, but I know it was around 1648. Cantarini was a pupil of Guido Reni, he studied and worked with the master in Bologna. Until they fell out, massively. Daniel Seiter was a Venetian who was very succesful and raked in commissions everywhere, from Tyrol to Rome. This Noli me tangere is now in the Schloss Schleissheim Museum in Bavaria. Whoever painted it, I think it is stunning. He so caring, she so full of anticipation – it is so intimate, lovers on their way to bed. Of course we know better – on account of the title, and a couple of subtle hints: the stick in his hand, undoubtedly the handle of some gardening tool, her flask – the symbol of Mary Magdalen, his blue robe (because blue pigment was so outrageously expensive, it was more or less exclusively used for divine figures, predominantly for the holy virgin). And then there’s that hand . . . in almost every painting Jesus has those ballet hands. The story tells he blessed MM, that’s why. I did notice that she often holds her hands that way, too – though not here.
Jules Valadon, second half 19th century. I came across this in the catalogue of a French art dealer. It is small, about 20×35 cm. Oil on a wooden panel. I can’t tell you much about the painter. He doesn’t seem to be related to Suzanne Valadon. I did read though, that he took a rather unpleasant stance in the Dreyfus affair – that horrible matter where French army officer Alfred Dreyfus was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment based on false accusations that turned out to be triggered by blatant anti-semitism. It pretty much split the country in two, and Jules here was a so called Anti-Dreyfusard. Not good, but this painting is breathtaking (there’s that dilemma again). I’m wondering – who is who? Is Jesus sitting and Mary Magdalen standing? Is that how he rejects her? Or is it the other way around: she sitting, bound to earth, and he upright, ready to ascend? With a bit of a halo?
There are hundreds of Noli me tangere paintings, all with something special, something unique. From the images in this post I like the Valadon best. Who knew? Maybe it’s because the landscape reminds me of the Negev desert near Arad, in Israel. The painting wasn’t even that expensive . . . I wonder if it is still for sale?
First things first: the book ‘Giuseppina della Laguna’ is out! In a limited edition of ten, it tells the story of that mysterious little girl who lives in the Venetian lagoon. You can watch the series here. This charity edition, which sells for € 275, holds five extra photos. The net proceeds (€ 225) will go towards restoring the damages caused by the horrific flooding of Venice, exactly one year ago.
If you feel a connection with this city-unlike-any-other and consider making a donation, why not do so now? A unique book, hand-printed, numbered and signed, will come your way – in sincerest gratitude. Drop us an email and we’ll sort it out.
That was the commercial break. Now back to our regular program.
THE CITY IN ART
“There was neither the symmetry nor the richness of materials I expected,” a disappointed British visitor of Venice remarked in 1774. He had seen the paintings of Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768), and to his dismay he realised that the painter had been rather nonchalant about reality.
Canaletto was a star in 18th-century England. In his hometown of Venice, he had met John Smith, an English art collector, who acquired most of Canaletto’s works and sold them on to the British king, George III, in 1763. (Consequently, the municipality of Venice only owns two Canalettos, while the Royal Collection has loads, as does the Wallace Collection, also in the UK.) Canaletto was invited to London where he made many more cityscapes, aka ‘vedute’ – veduta means ‘seen’ in Italian.
Canaletto’s nonchalance is a hot topic with art historians. There’s a lot of discussion about his work method: did he use a camera obscura to accomplish his astonishing lines and perspective? Or did he make an underdrawing with pencil and rulers? The latter we know for sure, it is visible with IR-research. But why should one exclude the other? The camera obscura seems to be a bit of a touchy subject, as if it is something improper. I don’t really get that. I’m going to devote a separate post to that. But first back to the vedute and the (un)realistic representation. I for one don’t mind at all that the vedutisti took those liberties – it’s a great way to practice close-reading an image.
These two Canalettos, both from the 1820’s, clearly show the liberties he took. We see the same area, but in the image below he pasted the steps of a bridge against the building – I suspect it is the bridge ‘behind’ us, on the other side of the Doges palace. Hey, minor detail. The church with the white domes is the Santa Maria della Saluta (St Mary of Health), built after a horrific outbreak of the plague. That building with the ball on top is the Dogana, the customs office. Both feature heavily in nine out of ten vedute, and in reality they are further away from each other. But this works wonders for the composition.
Francesco Guardi is the other famous Venetian cityscape guy. Fifteen years younger than Canaletto, part of a large family of painters. This is his rendition of the Tre Archi bridge, across the Canale di Cannareggio (ca 1770). I used to cross that bridge almost daily, my apartment was pretty much next to it, and I can assure you the water isn’t nearly as wide as here in Guardi’s painting. And the bridge isn’t curved, it is straight as an arrow. It crosses the also-straight canal in a straight line.
Bernardo Bellotto, ca 1738. Canal Grande. The palazzo on the left, with the wooden pointed roof, is Ca’ Rezzonico being built (it’s much higher now). In the background you see the tower of the Basilica dei Frari, in front of it is Palazzo Balbi, nowadays home of the regional government. So far, so accurate. But the light? Totally inaccurate yet again. Is it coming from the right (the east) or from the front? He did paint it beautifully, with that stormy, sort of impressionistic sky and all those highlighted details. The boat on the right is fabulous, it has a little roof terrace!
James Holland (ca 1840) has probably done his sketches sitting on a boat. The mooring post on the right suggests he’s on land, but then that would be Giudecca and that can’t be, that’s much further away. The fact is, there are mooring posts everywhere in the middle of the lagoon, but this one certainly isn’t there anymore – they deepened the whole Canale di Giudecca to accommodate those stupid cruise ships. True to life or not, he gives us two exemplary colors of Venice – that peachy pink and the turquoise. Although the Doges palace, on the right, isn’t really peachy but more beigey. Oh well.
JMW Turner (ca 1841). Same spot, but seen from the other side. An art critic said of this painting: “Venice was surely built to be painted by Turner”. How very true. Turner added some inexplicable details here – that unit in the middle, it looks like a quotation of Saint Mark’s basilica. No idea what it is. And there in the lower righthand corner, the things in front of those teeny tiny dogs, what are those? A revolver? A giant orange? A Chinese vase?
Another Turner (1840). The lagoon at sunset. Those colors again. So beautiful, I could weep. And, at least to me, so very Venetian. The first time I flew into Venice, the sky was full of enormous pink, orange and red flames. Turner to the max. Later I would often sit at the waterside in the north-west of the city, watching the lagoon at sunset, seeing this.
John Singer Sargent, 1904. Again, those colors! Again, one of my heroes! And the same spot again, though from a totally different position this time. Apparently tourism is on the rise – it is starting to become pretty crowded near the Doges palace. On the right you see the infamous pillars of the Piazzetta (the small square on the waterfront). A Venetian will never walk in between the two. That would bring bad luck, since the spot originally was an execution site.
Singer Sargent also saw different colors of the city: ‘Venice in grey weather’, ca. 1880. Actually, those dates don’t really matter – hardly anything changes there. Check this live webcam.
James McNeill Whistler makes us turn 180 degrees. ‘Nocturne in Blue and Silver. Also from 1880. Breathtaking.
Walter Sickert, 1935. ‘Variations on Peggy’. You immediately think of Peggy Guggenheim and her famous art collection, but this refers to Peggy Ashcroft, the actress. That Sickert fellow I need to write some more about. Stunning work, rather shady character. Possibly even very shady – but you don’t notice that here, just a beautiful, intriguing image, clearly influenced by photography, and yet again, those colors . . .
To finish, back to Turner once more. This is his hommage to Canaletto, the partiarch, the supreme deity of anyone who ever depicted Venice. He’s standing there behind his easel, by the wall on the left.
Signore Canaletto, Turner, Sargent et al – grazie. Grazie mille!
Years ago I bumped into an aquaintance who wanted to know what I was working on. I told her it was a series about Potiphars wife. “Oh, that bitch!!!” was her reaction. I nearly burst into tears. “She is not a bitch!” I always get terribly attached to the characters I photograph. And they are never bitches.
It’s a nasty story, that of Zuleika. For that was her name. She was married (arranged, of course) to Potiphar, a fat old flabby – I imagine – top dog in Pharao’s court. When Joseph appeared there, she fell hopelessly in love with him. The boy was such a conceited, spoiled little brat that his brothers had thrown him into a well. They meant to teach him a lesson – they even considered killing him. In the end they sold him to a passing caravan, which is how he had ended up at the Egyptian court. Officially as a slave, but it wasn’t long before he landed a job as confidant of the pharao. A whole year long he paid daily visits to Zuleika, flirting like crazy probably, but never touching her. One unlucky day it became too much for her, and – according to the horribly moralistic tale – she threw herself at him. He fled the room and forgot his cloak (you know, Technicolor Dreamcoat and all that). In her despair, Zuleika accused him of sexual assault, and he was thrown into jail. Only to be released again in no time – after which he was appointed court dreamologist and eventually making it to viceroy. Poor Zuleika was completely stuck.
Potiphars wife has long been a highly desirable subject for artists. Undoubtedly because it gave them an excuse to paint a hot (naked) broad, in the meantime hiding behind morality. After all, no one spoke about female sexuality – that was something to be savored in secret and denied in public. It was solely for ‘bitches’.
I know a Hebrew scholar who, as a student, was instructed to skip the story of Zuleika (Genesis 39). Good thinking, university! That way you make certain that each and every student reads it.
Master of Affligem, ca 1500. A painter we basically know nothing about, except that he came from Flanders and that he painted six tondi, round paintings, about the life of Joseph – which is why he is also known as ‘Master of Joseph’. Here he tells the the entire episode with Zuleika in one image: she grabs him (with an extremely motherly look in her eyes), on the right she points at ‘exhibit A’, and behind that we see Joseph being captured.
Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 1540. It looks like William Blake! But it was made three hundred years earlier. Mrs. P . has a really modern hairdo – actually they both have very modern looks. It is an incredibly dynamic painting. Here too, the course of the story is depicted in the background.
Anonymous artist, slightly later than Coecke van Aelst, and painted in a slightly clumsier manner. But it’s hilarious to see how the entire household goes into disarray. And those jugs in front of the bed, all the time? Yup, you got it. Sexual symbols.
An engraving by Harmen Jansz Muller, after Maarten van Heemskerk, ca 1600. Man, is she ugly, this particular mrs Potifar. And the place is swamped with creepy monsters. In this case, I’m with Joseph.
Ludovico Cigoli, 1610. Italian Baroque painters could not get enough of our story. They have all made multiple images of it, over and over again. With models who all had the same, slightly slimy expression on their faces. I’ve chosen Cigoli on account of those crazy shoes.
The lustiest Zuleika is by Rembrandt (1634). And his Joseph is visibly in two minds. In other words, they are by far the most human. This etching truly is another shining example of Rembrandt’s genius.
Costume design by Léon Bakst for the ballet La Légende de Joseph. Staged in 1914 by Les Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev’s company, with music by Richard Strauss. Speaking of crazy shoes! These are cothurni, originating from the ancient Greek theater, later often worn by Venetian hookers, but hardly ever used in ballet performances. Dancing in them sucks.
India, 1888. In the Qoran, Zuleika is mentioned by name, and the story is told more extensively there. It describes how she introduces Joseph to her girlfriends. The women, who are peeling oranges, are so dazzled by his beauty, that they collectively cut their fingers. Apparently the scene turned quite bloody. I really appreciate that their feelings were taken into consideration!
And finally, my own Zuleika, portrayed by stunning Dutch actress Anna Drijver (2005). Persistent rumors have it that Potiphar was a eunuch. What a crappy life that girl must have had – and then going down in thousands of years of history as a bitch, too . . .
Brave, beautiful Zuleika, I think you are fantastic!
It’s been awful quiet here, sorry. I’ve been working hard on my project about the mysterious Venetian little girl (read more here). It is finished!
During the month of November a special edition of the book will be available, for the benefit of the restoration works in Venice, in cooperation with a Dutch charity that deals with Venetian preservation, restoration and educational projects. By the way – if you are aquainted with similar international organisations please let me know.
I will explain more nearer the time. For now, here’s a taste of what’s to come.
And in the next few days I’ll write a decent post. Although, the subject this time is slightly less decent. In other words, fun. Watch this space!
I read a plea somewhere the other day, for everyone to pay attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ll gladly comply.
Minorities in art is a tricky subject. Belonging to a minority myself, I am sure we are all hyper sensitive and I dare say, rightly so. There’s a plethora of images in which blacks, Jews, gays, Asians, Roma and Sinti, indigenous people – keep going – are portrayed as caricatures. It hurts. Not to the extent that we drop dead on the spot (others take care of that) but if you see yourself, your ancestors, your ‘landsleit’ depicted like a freak, it screws with your mind. Recent developments got me thinking, so I started digging in the history of art. It isn’t nessesarily a pretty sight. There are works that probably don’t mean any harm, like the portrait by Gerard Dou of a young black guy wearing a turban (1635). Or Rembrandt’s ‘Jewish Bride’ – so called presumably because it portrays Isaac and Rebecca (1665). As a child I couldn’t figure out what to think of the title, wondering why it would matter if she was Jewish or not and feeling uneasy. I still do. There’s the painting (1778, usually attributed to Johan Zoffany) of Dido Elizabeth Belle who was the illegitimate daughter of an officer in the British Navy and an African woman, perhaps a slave. Dido was brought to England and put in the care of her father’s uncle, a nobleman. These paintings are relatively kosher, I guess. I hope.
But things have gone from bad to worse. Slave trade became totally institutionalized from the 17th century, anti-semitism has been anchored in Christianity for literally thousands of years, and the result is that today our perception of discrimination has suffered inflation. How could we possibly NOT get infuriated when we see and hear about the wrongs in history, past and present? Just weeks ago, when there was a large BLM demonstration on Amsterdam’s Dam Square, our scary politician Geert Wilders – the one with the weird bleached hairdo – called it a “leftist” event. What? Does being against racism have a partizan side? Is it ‘leftist’ to look after your children? To love your parents? This is about humanity. And while I’m at it: it is totally, completely, utterly unforgiveable that one minority discriminates against another. We sure as hell should know better. Ok. Back to art history.
Jan Steen, 1663. Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerrit Schouten. A family portrait of a wealthy beer brewer, filled with typical 17th century luxuries. Including a slave. Also, there are the usual reminders of our mortality, and Jan Steen is in the picture, he always is. That’s the unnerving thing about this – in spite of the opulence, it is all so normal.
Chair from the 18th century, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice. Black figurines used as the chair’s legs. Disgusting.
François Auguste Biard, ca 1833. Slave trade, Sierra Leone. Biard traveled through Africa, and with his paintings he criticized the practices he had witnessed. The French slave trade was still legal then.
Slave trader’s business in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. My stomach turns.
Between 1866 and 1870, US politics granted full voting rights to all (male) American citizens, including freed slaves. But the opposition against these rulings was so powerful, that in 1877 they were overturned under the so-called Jim Crow laws, named after a blackface character. It took till 1965 to re-install legislation that allowed general voting rights for Afro-Americans and there are many accounts of those laws still not always functioning properly. It goes to show that clocks are being turned back, all the time. Obama’s election becomes more and more of a miracle.
Gordon Parks, Ella Watson, 1942. Called ‘American Gothic’, in a referral to Grant Wood’s painting. Ms Watson was a cleaning lady at a governmental institute in DC. She had lost her husband in a freak shooting two days before their daughter was born. That same daughter died eighteen years later shortly after giving birth and Watson worked her butt off to raise her grandchildren. The oldest child was paralyzed. Gordon Parks carefully documented her life of hardship in close to a hundred photographs. Worth checking out.
Elliott Erwitt, Segregation Fountain. North Carolina, 1950. When Erwitt took this picture segregation was still legal and it would be for another 14 years. I was a small child in the early sixties. My mom and me were living in New York State, in a crummy apartment. Luckily a girl came over to help clean the place. She turned out to be just fourteen years old, and brought her newborn baby. She had just arrived from the Carolinas, having hitched a ride on a cattle truck. The baby needed a clean diaper and she put it on the floor. Of course my mom picked it up and put it on her bed. The girl was horrified, and cried out: “I can’t put my baby on no white man’s bed!” A few days later we were on a bus in NYC. A limping old lady, a black lady, boarded so I got up for her. The entire bus turned on us and we had to get off as soon as we could.
A sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, inspired by the Akan practice of portraying the dead. Please try to watch this incredibly meaningful video. It really hits home.
This is just a random couple of images, chosen solely for their impact. They are drops in the ocean, not a lot is going to change because of this post unfortunately. But I had to speak out. Let’s all continue to do so.
For the Dutch, the Eighteenth century wasn’t the best of times. We weren’t happy back then, we had fought and lost wars, the East Indian Trading Company had fallen flat on its face. So much for world supremacy. We simply stuck our heads under the pillow and let all those pretty frivolous frills pass us by, we were too hurt and too Calvinistic for that. Maybe that wasn’t such a stupid move – after all you cannot, against all odds, keep on pretending you are still the most powerful nation in the world (I’m looking at you, Britain). We did continue our colonial shenanigans but that only made matters worse. Artwise we were a bit of a mess.
Why am I bringing this up? Where does it lead to? To Romanticism. Yet again. That enormous, overwhelming movement that started in the Eighteenth century, very much a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. And this time we aren’t just focusing on desolate landscapes – today it gets really scary. Spooky!
In 1764 young Horace Walpole, the son of the British Prime Minister, wrote a novel: The Castle of Otranto. It is said to be a rather mediocre book, but it is considered to be the first ‘Gothic Novel’, making it the start of a steadfast movement within romanticism. Gothic – an English term for an international cultural phenomenon. At first used in a derogatory manner, its meaning shifted halfway through the 18th century. Art historians began to appreciate the characteristics of Gothic architecture – the meaning ‘medieval’ remained, but the negative connotation disappeared. It intertwined with the supernatural, after all the Dark Ages formed a perfect backdrop for a world full of ghosts, vampires, undead, and droves of their innocent victims.
From the beginning of the 19th century, all this creepiness had a more or less unforeseen side effect: blinding aesthetics. Painting was of course an ideal way of visualizing the Middle Ages, Arthurian legends, fears and frights – every aspect that makes up Gothic. Just like the theater, where Shakespeare was being rediscovered, and where the developing classical ballet also offered endless possibilities to bring the supernatural to life.
In Great Britain in particular, people were actually living Gothic-style. During the Victorian era entire neigborhoods were built that could have provided the phantoms and the doomed with turn-key accommodation. Apparitions, messages from beyond and live-in ghosts included.
Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768. ‘The experiment with the air pump’. I told you he’d be coming back! Here we see Gothic in its ‘Fear of Science’ mode. It all seems very rational, but clearly the scientist is a madman, the lighting scares the poop out of us and the weather isn’t helping either.
Henry Fuseli, 1793. ‘Hamlet’. One of many paintings depicting Shakespeare scenes, by the Swiss/British painter. Shakespeare inundated his plays with fantasy figures (no wonder he regained fame). In this scene the rebellious young prince scolds his mother, in an attempt to avenge his murdered father. Whose ghost immediately appears to calm him down. I totally love the expression on his dead face: “What to do with this hothead of a son? Dad isn’t angry, he’s just really disappointed”.
Another Fuseli. ‘The Nightmare’, 1781. Undoubtedly his most famous painting. The horse in question is on the left, same weird eyes as Hamlet Sr.
This is William Blakes ‘Ghost of the flea’, 1820. Blake, the visionary who traveled the world (and time) in his paintings and poems, but who in reality never left London. Unrecognized in his day, he is now considered a genius loner, ultimately Gothic.
Caspar David Friedrich. Another reappearance. ‘The Abbey in the Oakwood’, 1810. With every painting I pick, I think to myself “It doesn’t get more Gothic than this”, and now I’m really writing it down, too. Isn’t it insane? Could also be used for a very,very, VERY scary version of Swan Lake.
Théodore Géricault, 1818, The raft of the Medusa. Journalism goes Gothic. In 1816 the French naval vessel the Medusa got shipwrecked. The incident caused a huge uproar – apparently the captain got himself into safety, but his crew, all one-hundred-and-fifty of them, ended up on a wonky raft, stuck on the ocean for weeks. Only fifteen of them survived, mainly by eating their dead raftmates. Géricault shows the moment where a dot appears on the horizon: the ship that will save them. A true child of his time, he covers reality with a thick, highly romantic blanket. Actually, his own life too, was pretty romantic (or shall we say Gothic): his studio was full of half-dissected horses and humans, he got his aunt pregnant, hid in Italy after that, painted a series of portraits of psychiatric patients, and died at 32, probably of syphilis.
William Holman Hunt, Isabella and the pot of basil, 1867. One of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Those guys are the very incarnation of the Gothic soul. They need their own separate post, but I’m squeezing this painting in here. This is Isabella, originally from the Decamarone, who hid the severed head of her lover in a pot of basil. As one does. Holman Hunts wife died in childbirth, but in spite of that – or because of it – he used her as a model here.
Photography, the new medium, proved a perfect way to make the dead live forever. Corpses were dressed to the nines and then the photographer was called in. By the way, there’s a persistent rumor that all very early photos of people were of dead bodies, on account of the crazy long exposure times. Although it is probably an urban myth. Either way, this particular person appears extremely dead. But then again, I once had a student who told me he slept in a coffin. Lovely guy, great photographer. And deliciously Gothic.
Actually I wasn’t planning on blogging about my own work. But my ever-supportive husband said: “You are starting a new project, if not now, when?” So here goes.
First, a quick introduction. Last autumn I went to Venice, on my own, for a month. I wanted to do a photo series about a 17th century poetess, Sarra Copia Sullam. I still do, but for now the plan is on hold, because I came across two other projects – women – that need to come first. I met these women in November, one is a stunningly beautiful prostitute with a grueling past, the other a small girl. I’m going to start with her. This is the story:
My first time on the Canal Grande, I saw a little girl in a porta d’aqua, comforting another girl. They weren’t really there, I knew that, but still. I saw her again and again, that little comforter, and I just knew it: she exists. For sure.
Three years later I was back, still thinking of the little girl. And then I found her.
Her name was Giuseppina Gabriel Carmelo. On November 29th, 1904 she lost her life in a boating accident. Together with a group of women, she was in a gondola that was hit by a vaporetto, late at night and in dense fog, somewhere between Murano and San Michele. Eventually the bodies of all the women were found, but not that of Giuseppina. However, some foggy nights you can see a small coffin floating on the water, with four burning candles on it’s corners. That way Giuseppina warns and protects the boats that need to be out on the lagoon under harsh circumstances. She will bring solace and aid to everyone who needs it in Venice.
My head is spinning as I read Giuseppina’s story. There she is! You can find her in every anthology of Venetian ghost stories. The inhabitants of La Serenissima boast that they have more scary legends than any place else in the world. Some are really hair raising and actually I don’t feel my little girl belongs there. Anyway. I want to shoot backgrounds, so that I can later add a model – my usual work method. But this trip, and these projects, run far from smoothly (neither do I by the way, I’m sporting a crutch due to an injured achilles tendon). I will spare you the details.
And then came November 12th 2019. The worst flood in 53 years. It was absolutely horrific and it stank like hell. The fridge of the girl downstairs filled with sewer water, the lady from upstairs came to the rescue and I babysat for her sleeping child. Orchestrated by Giuseppina probably.
Back in Amsterdam the images enter my head. I’m missing a few backgrounds, but that’s ok, I’ll be going back soon anyway. Or so I thought. I crash with my bike, bruise a rib, all of a sudden there’s this frightening virus in the Veneto. I stay home, lock down, and brood. At last I ask Yona Hartogs (a nine-year old Julia Roberts) to model for me. Luckily she and her Mom agree. I style and sew, costumes and hats, get in the car to drive to their house – battery dead. Ok, the jinx apparently isn’t quite gone yet, but hey, onwards and upwards!
The mooring at San Michele, the cemetery island. In the background is Murano, so this has to be close to the spot where the accident happened.
Stunning house on the north lagoon, overlooking The Spot. It seems a serenely magical place, but I believe it is a party venue.
This is the north-west tip of Venice, not many people know this corner of the city. The houses are mostly new builds, although you hardly notice that. It is a very residential, totally adorable area. I only got to know it because my Italian lessons were there (easyitalianlanguage.com – highly recommended).
It doesn’t get more Venetian than this. All the elements are there: a canal, boats, the ‘altana’ – the roof terrace where the women used to lighten their hair in the sun, after dousing it in urine. There’s a ‘porta d’aqua’, the water door (this one has that typically Venetian pointed frame), the wrought iron window grills there on the left . . . mmmmm, beautiful.
A collapsed mooring pole (is that what you call it in English?). Yeah, they fall over, too. A month later it was still lying there. This, by the way, is also the spot where I dropped my crutch in the water. Swiftly grabbed it, saving it from the poop! (Parts of the sewage still end up in the canals. You get a €600 fine when you jump in.)
And then the water came. It was horrible. Really really frightening. The sound of the sirens – four, highest state of alarm – will ring in my ears forever. These shots are from the next day, when the worst was very much over. I’m curious to see if Giuseppina will appear on the scene, there is a lot to be done.
Our dark hallway. No electricity.
Two days later, low tide. The clean-up can begin.
I will give an update every now and then, watch this space.