More self-promotion . . . from September 15th a solo exhibit will open at the LJG Gallery* with three of my recent projects. Sarra, of course (read more here and here,) and also Les Contes de Camondo, a series I did on the Turkish-Parisian family who left us the stunning Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris. The third project is about my grandfather Eli’s youth in Amsterdam’s poverty-stricken Jewish Quarter, around the year 1900.
Les Contes de Camondo
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Turkish-Jewish Camondo family of bankers settled in Paris where they became avid art collectors. One of the sons, Moïse, married and had two children, but within years his wife left him. So Moïse raised the little ones by himself, in the beautiful house by the Parc Monceau that he had built around his ever-growing collection. He worshipped his son Nissim, and feared the worst when the young man enlisted for the French air force during WWI. On September 5th 1917 his nightmare became reality. Moïse was inconsolable and retired from work and public life. He died in 1935, leaving his entire art collection and his house to the French state on condition that the house would be a museum in memory of his son. His daughter, her husband and their two children were murdered in Auschwitz.
Rudolf Lucieer is Moïse de Camondo, David Lucieer is Nissim.
Little Boy Eli
The story of my grandfather Eli de Vries (1890-1969).
All I know about his youth, in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter, is that he had to go to work at the age of six. No idea what he did – running errands probably for the neighborhood shopkeepers. Maybe he helped the local photographer? Was he a delivery boy? Did he pick up dirty laundry? I hope he had some time to play with his brothers and sisters – he had two older halfsisters from his mother’s first marriage, and four brothers and a sister, all younger. Of all eight only Eli and his brother David, four years his junior, survived the Holocaust. First they lived in a street called the Dijkstraat, later they moved to a canal called the Rechtboomsloot. The house on Dijkstraat no longer exists, the one on the canal looks glorious now. But when they lived there, all ten of them, it must have been a disaster. I’m sure they didn’t have the entire house to themselves.
Life treated Eli well. He had three daughters, three grandchildren, and together with David he ran a successful Dutch-American business. He moved to New York and held office at the Chrysler Building.
This is my hommage to him. To him, and to all the desperately poor little Amsterdam boys who, against all odds, made it possible for little Amsterdam girls to grow up in peace and comfort only sixty years later.
Amos Hartogs is my grandfather Eli. He is eight years old.
*The gallery of the LJG synagogue, Zuidelijke Wandelweg 41, Amsterdam. By appointment only, if you want to go there call them on 020-5400120 or drop us an email: email@example.com.
My latest project, SARRA, YELLOW VEIL, will go on show this coming Sunday (6-19).
The exhibition will run from June 19th through to August 7th 2022
at The Amsterdam Picture Room, Tweede Laurierdwarsstraat 53 h, 1016 RA Amsterdam
opening hours: Saturdays and Sundays 1 – 5 pm, and by appointment.
You can read more about Sarra here, but let me give you some background information about the project and how it came about:
Three years ago, while preparing a month-long stay in Venice, I came across the story of Sarra Coppia Sulam, the poetess, musician, salonnière who lived in the Venetian Ghetto during the early 17th century. I immediately knew she would be the subject of a photo series.
But it took time. While I was there, other stories drew my attention; I got caught in the devastating flood (check out this post) – then there was a small issue with a pandemic, but now it is done! Sarra’s on the walls!
Wonderful Dutch actress Nyncke Beekhuyzen volunteered to be my Sarra, thinking along with me, coming up with invaluable ideas, giving me lots of her time in between rehearsals, performances, filming, and her young family.
My research led me to an amazing, very comprehensive book about Sarra by professor Don Harran. Unfortunately he is no longer with us, but I want to thank him posthumously – I couldn’t have done it without his book.
I concentrated on the fascinating correspondence Sarra had with Ansaldo Cebà, a Genovese monk thirty years her senior, that lasted four-and-a-half years and became decidedly steamy. All that time he tried to convert her to Christianity, she steadfastly refused to give up her Jewish faith. They told each other off, but they also exchanged poetry and wrote songs for each other like turtledoves.
Now here’s the thing: he copied all of his letters to her before sending them, but he lost – threw away? – her letters to him . . . and after they stopped communicating, a few months before his death, he had his letters published. (Which apparently was not an uncommon thing then.)
Reading up on Sarra, picturing her life, designing and sewing her clothes, I became so curious about her letters, that I decided to write them. We had crept under each others’ skin, anyway – I figured I might as well. And of course I had Nyncke to read them – she did so beautifully. So now Sarra graces the walls and her voice fills the room.
The title, by the way, refers to the fact that for the women of the Ghetto it was mandatory to wear a yellow veil – the men had to wear yellow hats. God forbid you’d meet a Jew without knowing it! The ghetto had three entrances – bridges – that were guarded by soldiers and only opened between sunrise and sunset. If you were outside after hours you’d face quite severe punishment.
There’s much more to tell about Sarra, but I really hope you can come and meet her if you are in Amsterdam this summer! By all means get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org, we’d love to hear from you.
I need to get something off my chest. I often hear people speak about models in a slightly condescending manner: just pretty faces, bimbos that don’t need to do anything but strike a pose. Well, no. It’s a trade. And a tough trade at that. Artists’ models who, often stark naked in a freezing studio, stand for hours in weird contortions – photographic models who, also in the cold, have to look summery happy in a teeny bikini, ogled by the local village idiots. It is no mean feat. They are expected to understand everything: the instructions of the photographer, the stylist, the editor – of everyone shouting at them during the shoot. An experienced model knows about light, about focal points, about lenses, what his or her best angles and poses are.
Unfortunately it isn’t only outsiders who look down their noses at models, some painters and photographers do it too. They should be ashamed of themselves and remember they’d be pretty damn lost without the input of those boys and girls.
So yes, high time to put The Model in the spotlight here.
Victorine Meurent, the famous model of Edouard Manet. She herself was a painter, too. The consensus is that she was a prostitute, however that isn’t certain at all. (I myself assumed so too, in my comment about Olympia in ‘Women on Beds’. My sincerest apologies, ms. Meurent!).
Elisabeth Siddal. Dante Gabriel Rossetti fell in love with her, painted her, married her. Her health was frail and she died very young. Rossetti had just finished a collection of poems, and in his despair, he placed the manuscript under her head in the coffin. After a couple of years he started to regret that, and his friends volunteered to literally dig up the poems. To ease his feelings, they told him that Lizzie still looked just as she had done when she was alive, only her hair had grown so much that it filled the entire coffin. Would that have made him feel any better?
Jane Burden Morris. The wife of designer William Morris. Dante Gabriel Rossetti fell in love with her, painted her, had an affair with her. But no, he didn’t marry her and he didn’t have her exhumed either.
Dorothy Dene (stage name of Ada Alice Pullan). Muse – and lover? – of Frederic Lord Leighton. Supposedly the two of them were the inspiration for Pygmalion (and thus for My Fair Lady), him being an upper-class London gentleman and she being a poor girl with acting ambitions. The fact that they both knew George Bernard Shaw, and that Leighton paid for all her elocution lessons, prompted this story. When Leighton’s Kensington mansion (now a very lovely museum) was being restored, a separate entrance was discovered, for use solely by the models. So whose reputation was this supposed to protect? In any case, it is fair to say Dene was Leightons favorite model, featuring in this, his most famous painting: Flaming June. Her legs look outrageously elongated (making her fit seamlessly in the post about weird body parts) but apparently she really was extremely long-limbed. There’s a fun story about this painting: it is said that a young Andrew Lloyd Webber saw it in a shop for – brace yourself – £50. He asked his aunt to lend him the money, but she refused on the ground that “she wouldn’t have Victorian junk in the house”. So a Puerto Rican museum scooped it up. And in the end Lloyd Webber did alright, too.
Leighton and Dene again, because it is such a striking example of the impossible poses a model has to wriggle herself into. I wonder – on what, or who, could he have based the dragon?
Evelyn Nesbit. The first real, paid, photographic model. Also the woman at the center of all sorts of scandals and crimes, most notably the cold-blooded and very public murder of her ex-lover by her husband. Honestly, what an era the turn of the century was – crimes passionels, substance abuse, addiction, court cases . . . let’s just say Nesbit was a true child of her time. She also was one of the original Gibson Girls: portraits, drawn by New Yorker Charles Gibson, of beautiful, self-assured, sexy girls who became the archetypical faces of the 1890’s and 1900’s.
Verushka. Strikingly tall and beautiful Countess Vera von Lehndorff-Steinort – another amazing life story. Daughter of a Prussian nobleman who was executed by the Nazi’s because of his involvement in a famous, but foiled, plot to assassinate Hitler (July 20th, 1944). The events left his widow and their four daughters homeless and displaced. Veruschka was discovered by a modelling scout when she was in art school in Florence. She is in her eighties now, an accomplished visual artist. I absolutely adore her. I might do a separate post on her – in fact, I think I’ll do a ‘Models Part II’ in the not-too-distant future. One of the things I admire in Veruschka, is her gutsy, curious approach to her work. She was pretty much the inventor of body paint, something she used frequently in her own artwork too.
Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, known professionally as Dovima, wasn’t afraid to model with big animals either: here she is, shot by Richard Avedon in 1955, one of the most famous fashion photos of all time. This picture really shows what modelling is all about: sell the dress, sell yourself, sell the photographer’s resourcefulness, and making it all look perfectly normal. Life wasn’t very kind to Dovima: although she is considered to be the first supermodel, she made very little money. She ended up working as a waitress in a pizza joint till her death, at just 62.
Same session, same designer: Dior. I actually like this image better, with those repeated ornamental trunks and arms. But there aren’t very many ‘landscape’ fashion photos, and obviously Avedon had his reasons to crop this. Who knows? The negative of this one has disappeared. For ever, it seems.
Saskia van Uylenburgh, Kiki de Montparnasse, Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, Beverly Johnson, Christy Turlington, Alek Wek. Part two is definitely on its way. Although I’m not entirely sure yet when. Because first I need to tell you, asap, about my upcoming exhibition.
Just a quick post to tell you about my second Venetian project:
SARRA, YELLOW VEIL. The story of Sarra Coppia Sullam.
The highly educated poetess, writer, musician and salonnière of the ghetto. Intelligent, witty, beautiful Sarra from the first half of the 17th century. Who had a long lasting correspondence with Ansaldo Cebà, a Genovese monk thirty years her senior. In many letters he tried to get her to convert to Christianity, which once made her suggest he would convert to Judaism (ouch!). In spite of their different religions, the fact that she was married, and that he was sworn to celibacy, their letters sometimes got quite steamy. But they never met.
Although she experienced great sadness in losing her baby daughter and suffering several miscarriages, socially life was good. Sarra surrounded herself with intellectuals, scholars, artists, teachers, who frequented her house and further educated her.
Until one of them, Baldessare Bonifacio, inexplicably turned against her and published a tractate: ‘Immortalità dell’Anima’, in which he accused her of denying this immortality of the soul. This would have been a mortal sin in both Christianity and Judaism. Sarra was recovering from a serious illness, but in only two days she wrote a scathing reply. She also sent a letter to Cebà for support. It took him months to reply, and then he only told her to . . . convert.
Trouble didn’t end there. Another of her regular visitors, her poetry teacher Numidio Paluzzi, turned against her too. With the help of Sarra’s servants, he devised a plan to rob her, ridiculously enough claiming it was the work of spirits.
We don’t really know how all this affected Sarra. She died in February 1641, after a three-month illness.
The question is, of course, what triggered the men surrounding this exceptional woman to behave in the way that they did. The answer probably lies within the question – the mere fact that she was a woman, and Jewish to boot, is more than likely at least a big chunk of the reason.
With very special thanks to Nyncke Beekhuyzen, ‘my’ wonderful, gorgeous Sarra.
On Sunday, January 30th I will be giving an online lecture about this project, in cooperation with The Poorters (Burghers) of Venice. The English version will be held at 5 pm CET. If you would like to attend, book here.
It will set you back € 15, which is more than our usual talks, but that’s because it’s a charity thing – next time we’ll be back to half that amount. Promise.
. . . or so says 17th century art theorist André Félibien. Now he was the same guy who felt the need to categorize different types of paintings with his very strict hierarchy, claiming that the painter of for instance an Arcadian landscape is a more elevated soul than the painter who paints a bowl of fruit. So I will take his remark with a grain of salt. But, Félibien’s BS aside, there’s no denying that the frame has a huge influence on the image. It leads your eye to the picture, it shields it from outside influences, it supports it, it enhances it. And sometimes it becomes an integral part of it.
Frames often are pieces of art themselves. With or without a work inside – apparently a famous icon of the Madonna went on tour in Communist Poland, traveling from one rural village to the next. Then rumor spread that the police had ‘arrested’ the Madonna, which prompted the people to start praying to empty frames.
In the 13th century frescoes were adorned with painted edges, and many articles about the history of frames start there, but they are probably just echoing each other (hey, that’s ok – all knowledge of history is second-hand, after all). It so happens the frescoes of ancient Greece had those edges, too. This is Hades with Persephone, storming towards us on their chariot. Fourth century BC.
Aawwww, look at this dog. A guilty looking cutie, His Masters Voice avant la lettre. This is a second century mosaic from Alexandria, Egypt, with its own round frame mosaicked in. Flanked by a couple of strikingly human lions.
This is an illustration by the ‘Master of James IV of Scotland’ – a so called emergency name because nobody knows for sure who the artist was. He definitely was a Flemish miniaturist, a maker of illuminations in books. This incredibly beautiful image comes from a Book of Hours, a prayer book, that he made for the Scottish king and queen. Look how he painted that frame around St. Dominic – who has, by the way, a few very weird pets: a dog chewing on some sort of rocket, and a mutant ninja crocodile. It was made around 1515, executed in tempera (pigments in an egg yolk base), ink and gold leaf. The latter is probably where the term ‘illuminations’ comes from – the images reflected so much light that they literally illuminated things.
Madonna and Child between Two Angels. Yes, titles can be very accurate descriptions of the work. This amazing glazed terracotta relief was made by Luca Della Robbia in Florence, ca 1450. Terracotta, literally cooked earth, is a pretty heavy and vulnerable material, but still this ‘tondo’ – round image – has a diameter of a 100 cm. He obviously made the frame out of six identical pieces, using a mould. Every time I look at this, it strikes me how modern their faces are.
Jean-Etienne Liotard, Lady with a jonquil, ca 1755. A typical Rococo frame, with much less symmetry than you’d think at first glance – if you closely compare the left and the right, you see tiny differences on either side. Nifty! And very 18th century, when the most influential decorative motif was the sea shell, and of course there is no such thing as symmetry in nature.
Charles Allston Collins, Convent Thoughts, ca 1850. A quintessential Pre-Raphaelite painting, although Allston Collins was never formally a member of the group. Look, she is holding a book of hours – with a framed illumination! And also a passion flower, apparently to symbolize her union with Christ. Lots of lilies, the symbol of the Madonna, in- and outside of the painting. It is a botanical Bonanza. The famous critic and Pre-Raphaelite patron John Ruskin wrote in a review of this: “I happen to have a special acquaintance with the water plant Alisma Plantago … and I never saw it so thoroughly or so well drawn […] For as a mere botanical study of the Water Lily and Alisma, as well as of the common lily and several other garden flowers, this picture would be invaluable to me.”Unfortunately for Ruskin, experts have figured out there is no Alisma Plantago in this picture.
Here, too, the frame is closely related to what’s inside it. This time more subtle, echoing the architectural forms. This is Fernand Khnopff’s painting of his sister Marguerite, from 1887. It has been rumored that there was something incestuous going on between them. Whatever the case, in this painting she is decidedly unapproachable. And to underline that, he has also stuck her in a box-like frame. Wow. His motto, written over the entrance of his house in Brussels was: ‘On n’a que soi’, ‘you only have yourself’.
Gustav Klimt, Love. 1895. Even though he might very well have been a bit of a weirdo, I. LOVE. KLIMT. His father was an engraver, so he had pretty much unlimited access to gold leaf. And boy! Did he know how to make use of it. The difference between a reproduction and the real thing is bigger with Klimt than anywhere else. And if you want to see how paintings and frames become one, look no further. This is a fairly early work, but very Klimt-esque: with a couple of spooky figures, notably Death, Youth and Old Age, looking down on the lovers. Are they doomed? Is all love doomed? What’s with those pretty but thorny roses on the frame?
Largo, 1898. Ludwig von Hofmann was a German painter, son of a Prussian statesman. He went to study in Paris, where he met Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – whose influence is highly visible in his paintings, balancing between symbolism and Art Nouveau. Much of his work was deemed ‘entarted’ – degenerate – by the Nazis. And yes, folks, that is pretty much all I can tell you about him. But just look at this painting! Or rather: look at this frame! It’s mad, 1.20 m wide splendor.
Franz Stuck, 1900. Portrait of Frau Feez. Ohhh, ahhh, the turn of the century really is the golden age of framing, isn’t it? Stuck was incredibly famous in his day. In 1892 he was one of the founders of the Münchener Sezession, the inspiration for the more famous Wiener Sezession. And a whole load of more Secessions globally. This was after all the era of the ‘brotherhoods’, of artists getting together in rebellion against stuffy conventions. His name always sends a shiver down my spine, even though I love his work – he was Hitlers favorite painter, you see. But don’t hold that against him – he died in 1928.
Pablo Picasso often used elaborate Renaissance-style frames around his shockingly modern cubist paintings – more than likely in a rebellious move, almost like an obnoxious son standing up against his father. Although in this case he applied a piece of rope, which, together with the word Jou, adds to the playful, outdoorsy feel of this ‘Still life with chair’, from 1912.
Howard Hodgkin felt that “the more tenuous or fleeting the emotion you want to present the more it’s got to be protected from the world.” One of his trademarks is the way his paintings ‘overflow’ onto the frames. This is Red Bermudas, 1980. An intriguing title, especially if you know that his titles always had to do with the moment, or the occasion, that inspired the painting. There’s something really moving about his work, I can’t pinpoint exactly what. Maybe it is because when I see his paintings, in my mind I also see his face. He had the most gentle gaze.
Frederic Brenner, Installation, Ellis Island 1996. This ah-ma-zing French photographer published an equally amazing book with (group) portraits of American Jews: Jews/America/A Representation. In it, there is a series of portraits he did of famous Jews who contributed to American society and culture. They all posed with the same frame. Also in the book is an essay by Simon Schama, who is not exactly gushing with praise for the portraits. But then he describes what happens when they are put together in Brenner’s installation on Ellis Island, the place where the sitters, or their parents and grandparents, entered the country. It all comes together. It becomes symbolic. Profound. Even more so now, because the original World Trade Center looms in the background. Little did we know.
And, finally, a recent image, from 2020. Hassan Hajjaj’s portrait of DJ Jamie Jones. The word ‘recent’ might be slightly misleading here, because Hajjaj has been doing this for years – framing his portraits with cans, ketchup dispensers, etc. It has gained him the nickname ‘The Andy Warhol of Marrakesh’. Hajjaj divides his time between Morocco and the UK, and is a sought-after chronicler of pop culture.
16th, 17th and 18th century frames are everywhere. I’m leaving most of those out since we are all pretty familiar with them. It is a vast subject, boundless (!) in fact, and I would much rather show some stuff that might be less well-known. If you want to know, see and read more, I can wholeheartedly recommend https://theframeblog.com.
I feel a little guilty for not blogging since April. And for not showing more women on beds, in spite of my promise ages ago. I guess the only way to make it up to you is to present you with lots of naked chicks today. All in excellent taste of course, and in art with a capital A. Here are some more examples from my ever growing collection. Picked and ordered rather randomly.
Jules Joseph Lefebre, 1874. French painter, teacher and, as far as I’m concerned, the King of Kitsch. Compared to other stuff he did, this painting is relatively kitsch-free. Except maybe for the incense burner, which is there to underline the mysterious, exotic atmosphere. He had a magnificent technique, I’ll give you that, and a string of famous and talented students:
Like Felix Vallotton, 1896. This is one of his most famous woodcuts (a technique he more or less resuscitated single-handedly) called La Paresse – in the collection of my local Van Gogh Museum.
Paresse, laziness, was a much-loved subject: this is Paresse Matinale, by Louise Breslau, 1910. (I wonder if she and I are related? My maternal grandmother’s name was Breslau.) Maria Louise Catherina Breslau was German-Swiss but spent pretty much her entire adult life in France, together with her colleague, muse, lover(?) Madeleine Zillhart.
The Austrian artist Johann Baptist Reiter, 1849. Most paintings by him that I found were portraits of women and girls, all with the same slimey smile. But this is stunning. Look at that light! It hangs in Vienna’s Belvedere, which has just landed at the top of my bucket list.
Isaac Israels, Nude (Sjaantje van Ingen) ca. 1900. In 2009 this painting was voted the most beautiful nude in Dutch art, in an election organized by the magazine of the Rijksmuseum, leaving candidates like Rembrandt behind. It is privately owned – by one very lucky SOB . . .
Another one of my heroes: Pierre Bonnard, La Siëste. 1900. Now hangs in Melbourne’s national Gallery of Victoria. They supply an interesting provenance: apparently it was acquired from Bonnard by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who sold it to Gertrude Stein, only to get it back from her a few years later in exchange of a Renoir. Ms Stein, I dare say that swap was a big mistake. Big. Huge.
Otto Schmidt, Viennese Nude on the sofa of Siegmund Freud, 1900. Otto Schmidt published a book, ‘Der Wiener Akt’, with photos of nude women. Officially it was an educational work, but it found its way into many collections of erotica.
Victor Pasmore, Reclining Nude, 1942. Pasmore is known for his abstract art primarily (which is beautiful and worth checking out). But this painting, too, is stunning – it gently, lovingly, catches the vulnerability of a sleeping person. And it reminds me of a sleeping cat. (In my book that’s a plus.)
Imogen Cunningham, Phoenix on her side, 1968. The photographic answer to Pasmore’s painting. These two women also collaborated on ‘Navajo Rug’, probably Cunningham’s most famous photo. I had a hard time choosing, but in the end decided on this one. I might show you more of Cunninghams work in due course.
Saul Leiter, Inez, 1947. Leiter was a fashion photographer, a painter, an experimenter. He was also trained as a rabbi. The beautiful, intimate, tender photographs he took of the women in his life, weren’t published until after his death – in a book called ‘In My Room’.
Bert Stern. The famous ‘Last Sitting’ with Marilyn Monroe. Of which Stern said: “I was preparing for Marilyn’s arrival like a lover, and yet I was here to take photographs, not to take her in my arms, but to (…) turn her into an image for the printed page.” Stern was pretty much the same age as Monroe, handsome, a new dad. In the book he later compiled about that photo session, he admits to having confusing, less-than-professional feelings for her. The shoot, at least the fashion part of it, was commissioned by Vogue magazine in June 1962. Six weeks later – days before publication – Marilyn Monroe died.
And lastly, let’s have a look at the Odalisque, one of the staples of art history.
An odalisque was a concubine – often enslaved – in the harem of the Turkish sultan. The word probably stems from the Turkish ‘odalik’, which means chamber girl (oda means room).
Western painters, particularly those of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, could not get enough of them. Together they painted thousands of lush, sexy women, often reclining on exotic furniture, relishing their own voluptuous bodies, doing absolutely nothing. The artists of that period were fascinated by the Middle and Far East: the fashion of Orientalism was everywhere, and not just in the visual arts.
This trend, too, has its roots in colonialism, which makes it sort of difficult to look at. These images are highly romanticized – the painters seized the opportunity to transport us all to some delectable fantasy, disregarding the true circumstances of these women. And totally ignoring the fact that they were appropriating a different culture, turning it into an unsavoury pick-and-mix. Which I guess puts those images level pegging with our holidays to faraway places, where we lose ourselves in Dolce Far Niente, basking in the sensuousness of the afternoon sun – not thinking of anything else, least of all of underlying injustice in the countries we are temporarily usurping.
Allright. Time to climb down from my soap box and show you the pictures.
Henri Matisse, Odalisque Couchée aux Magnolias, 1923. Matisse painted his odalisks over and over and over again, many with lavishly decorated backgrounds. His model here, as in many other paintings he made between 1920 and 1927, is Henriette Darricarrère. Matisse praised her for her ability to model for hours on end with her arms raised in the air. Due to her training as a dancer, no doubt.
Another of Matisse’s odalisks, from the Stedelijk (municipal) Museum in Amsterdam. This painting originally belonged to a Jewish collector, who perished in WWII. (Apparently, he gave it in safe keeping to either the museum, or a private person, the articles I’ve been reading contradict each other.) Like countless other artworks, this was confiscated by the Germans. The Dutch Restitution Committee is still working to return the pieces to the heirs of the original owners, I’m not sure what is going to happen to this particular painting. The girl, the concubine, has a slightly pained look on her face, which I guess fits her circumstances – and maybe the painting’s circumstances, too.
Henri Adrien Tanoux, L’Odalisque, 1913. Back to where we started: in the realm of kitschy academism. Tanoux painted this when he was in his late forties, ten years before his death. Not that it makes any difference – his painting remained the same throughout his life. It just became more and more old-fashioned, I suppose. No surprise then that he was a regular at the Paris Salon.
Is it beautiful? I guess. But there’s something in it that bothers me, in spite of the excellent execution. It’s the jewelry she wears – the chain around her ankle, the slave-band bracelets. She’s just too subjugated.
Just as I can sometimes crave a chunk of milk chocolate, I sometimes enjoy watching this type of romantic, smooth, sugar coated art. Although, like with the chocolate, I usually end up nauseous.
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!