All entries for Friday 05 May 2006

May 05, 2006


Writing about web page /teamcolour/entry/Mythology/

What was the appeal of classical mythology as a subject for artists and patrons?
Within the history of art the time of antiquity has set the foundations for the progression of painting, sculpture and architecture. The supremacy of Greek innovation and the strength of the Roman Empire have been felt throughout the ages as new archaeological findings have revealed more about the artistic merits of antiquity. It is these merits of design and formulation of artwork that has been further developed and continually referred to by artists of other centuries and therefore makes classical culture highly influential on contemporary times and artworks. Yet, the time that is more commonly associated with the revival of antiquity is that of the Renaissance, as the term itself, is defined as re–birth or revival which corresponds with the re–birth of classical culture, as shown by the resurgence classical mythology as a sole subject matter for art.

In classical literature, one of the most influential figures was that of Ovid. His epic poem “Metamorphosis” sets down the myths of the Roman gods, their actions and the subsequent consequences of their often detrimental behaviour. It is this work that was the basis for the depiction of classical mythology both in the time of antiquity but also succeeding centuries, most prominently that of the Renaissance as Svetlana Alpers describes it to have been the “painter’s bible”. “Metamorphosis” helped to change traditional subject matter in art from Christian depictions to that of the classical pagan mythology. This was a significant change in the art world as it strained the moral boundaries that had been upheld whilst artists had created works for religious patrons or the Church. Yet, classical mythology appeared to oppose moral behaviour as Ovid graphically described the seemingly immoral actions of the gods, an infamous example being that of the rape of Europa by the head of the Olympian gods, Jupiter, whilst posing in the disguise as a white bull. The early fourteenth century audience had previously revered the Christian works of the Middle Ages that had portrayed dominant themes of Christian beliefs, acting as a direct contrast to the more sexually and decadently charged works that came as a result of Ovid’s poem.

The Renaissance artists succeeded the tradition of depiction of biblical scenes taken from the Old and New Testament, leaving a limited scope of artistic licence as most scenes were based on the finality of mortal existence which held little interest for both artists and patrons. The introduction of classical mythology allowed a wider range of subject matter as portrayal of sexual love, civic pride unrelated to God and ambiguity over the power of God, as well as human possibilities, were exposed to the potential of the artist. Looking at Gianlorenzo Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne” the viewer is attentive to the moment in which Daphne begins her transformation. Alike to the work of Antoine Pallaiuolo, Bernini depicts the moment in which Apollo finally manages to make contact with Daphne but instead of feeling flesh he can see her skin slowly turn to bark as she is transformed into a tree to protect her from the overpowering god. This depiction of the actual transformation is unusual as Nigel Llewellyn supports the view that “few artists sees to the catch the moment of transformation” , as it was seen to be too contentious in the eyes of the Church as it went against the idea of 1 Corinthians 6:19, that the body is a temple given by God therefore meaning it should be treated in a respectful manner. Also this deformation of the human body did not adhere to the public idea of decorum in art as the human body was being distorted in full view of the spectator, therefore crossing boundaries of social convention and beliefs abut the sacred quality of the human body.

Despite the introduction of this more ostentatious subject matter the depiction of mythological scenes still fell under the category of history painting and resumed the most prominent position in the genre hierarchy. In this way the works of Titian, Rubens and Correggio were highly successful in attracting the attention, as well as the appreciation of patrons as “mythology was most obviously appealing in its rich repertoire of love stories” . Yet, attention was also gained from the church authorities who were concerned by the sexually explicit nature of these pieces, as seen by Correggio’s portrayal of Danäe as she sits nude in her bed chamber surrounded by cherubim, being produced but were unable to hinder the scale of popularity of the mythological paintings. In this way it became a show of power and wealth for patrons to commission works by prominent artists for the decoration of their palatial homes. When talking of artists, there is the understanding that unlike contemporary painters or sculptors today, artists before the sixteenth century were craftsman, rather than individuals who painted out of pleasure. The presence of patrons is highly important as it was this group of wealthy or influential characters that controlled the aesthetics and subject matter of an artwork as it was produced to become their property. This sense of ownership is a notable theme in the production of art works in the history of art as it was only a select group of people who could afford to commission works, therefore leaving a clear definition of class and monetary wealth within society.

Although boundaries of decorum were being pushed with works like Titian’s “Danäe and the Shower of Gold” , as the female protagonist lies naked on her bed in an overtly sexual position, a compositional set–up used by Correggio in his piece of the same title. Yet, despite the blatant eroticism of both pieces Titian’s works were described as poesie, meaning that they were symbolic and not a purely erotic visual. This was not a boundary that had been experienced with pieces artwork as the Middle Ages had concentrated on religious scenes which did not share the pagan and immoral connotations associated with classical mythology. Yet, this display of nudity and eroticism was not the stance all artists took in the conversion of literary myth to visual myth. The artist Edward Burne – Jones depicts the same myth of Danäe in his 1887 piece “Danäe and the Brazen Tower” , but depicts an earlier section of the myth leaving Danäe fully clothed in a more rigid and sculptural stance, therefore shifting the focus of the painting onto her emotional turmoil as her look of apprehension is evident as she looks onto the brazen tower being constructed in her father’s courtyard. In this way there was the appeal of the artist’s ability to interpret the different sections of the Metamorphosis poetry and as there was no visual guide it was left to the control of the artists, a new way of painting that led into the sixteenth century and progressed until the modern day.

The use of classical mythology was important for both artists and patrons alike as it incorporated a greater sense of elitism as those who would have commissioned a painting and those who would have executed the design would have had to have enough intelligence in order to translate and understand the Latin text set down before them by Ovid. This theme of classical mythology being used by artists in order to show intellectual superiority was used by the men training in France at the Ećole des Beaux Arts. This is described by the eighteenth century artist Jean–Baptiste–Siméon Chardin as he recounted how he would shed tears infront of the classical sculptures of the Satyr, Venus and Gladiator . This helped to educate young artists about the style of classical art as well as learn the mythology behind the scultpures they studied, thus it could be argued that it provided their work with a greater variety of influence and depth as the classical myths opened a range of poetic images that could be arranged by the artist without revoke as it was taken from literature rather than an exsting piece of art. This view is supported by Goncourt Brothers as they admit “…Ovid and Boucher. A page of the former has all the briliance, fire, the style and the appearacne if a canvas by the latter…”. This reveals how classical mytholgy was a challenge taken by artists as they wanted to capture the same spirit of literature in a compositional set–up. This desire that was furthured as Ovid’s standing in literature was as one of the most influential writers, thus if his work could be transferred to painting, the status of mythogical painting and the artist would be raised in turn.


Follow-up to a feminism essay from Team Colour

How were the visual arts involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role if women in late 19th and early 20th century Britain?

“Independence is happiness…” Susan B. Anthony

During the late nineteenth century, the political system was subjected to change as the women’s suffrage movement emerged wanting to revolutionise the voting system. As a group of women they held no authority over social or governmental practices as they were deemed second–class citizens with no economic or political power. In this way the visual arts was the one media in which they could publish their message for freedom without imposing on political sanctions they were disallowed. It was an extremely public media that served as a means of mass communication without militant behaviour that would tarnish women as revolutionary and subversive, undercutting the possibility of reformation. However, this communication to the public through a passive resource was also used against women by anti–suffragist groups, therefore making a mockery of their message for liberty but also giving rise to the change of boundaries between the passive woman and the aggressive feminist.

During the Victorian period and running into the Edwardian period, social beliefs about the role of women was that they should be attentive to men and retain femininity through elegance of nature and presentation. This feature was combined into the suffragist visual arts as they strove to maintain equilibrium between politics and art, as well as passion and reason and femininity and aggression. Artistic integrity was represented through the influence of the Pre–Raphaelites whose images of women suffragist artists used as models of femininity for their posters. For example this can be seen in the figure of Edward Burne–Jones’ “Danäe and the Brazen Tower” (1887) as the figure of Danäe is a slim and beautiful woman, modestly dressed and seemingly innocent. This unthreatening image of woman was used by suffragists to present their desire to vote as something that would not jeopardize their authority and would ease the burden of man, as well as the rest of the nation.

Femininity was also preserved through the literal portrayal of women as feminine in the design of suffragist banners. The suffragists used social stereotypes and enforcements in order to protest against the constrictions put on them as non–voting citizens. This is seen in the embroidered suffragist banners as they used the feminine attribute of needlework proficiency as a protest medium. Once again it mixed together femininity with art and politics. It formulates a serious statement but one that satirises the label imposed on them by society, especially as it is an imposition that enables their protest to be so easily viewed. This provides a bold statement about the changing role of women as they no longer hide from such audacious displays of discontent.

This idea of still making women appear submissive to the power of men, whilst having some political aspirations and control, was used to generate the support of men. Yet, other forms about the demarcation of femininity were used in order to attain the support of fellow women. In this poster “The Bugler Girl” the artist Caroline Watts presents a militant woman, based on strong women of the past like the goddess Athena or the martyr Joan of Arc who appears in Pre–Raphaelite works. This early twentieth century image shows a new facet of the suffrage movement and about the role of women in society as it shows a more aggressive and warrior–like woman, therefore contrasting with their image of woman maintaining their position as domestic and caring citizens.

When creating public posters rivalling the conformity of the social structure often female suffragette designers signed their work with initials or maintained anonymity in order to retain their identity, not their individuality but the fact that they were female. This view that the world would not appreciate or pay attention to the work of women artists raises Linda Nochlin’s question of “why are there no great women artists?” One of the greatest fears for men at the time was that if women were given the vote they as men would lose their place in the home as the breadwinner but also the dominant character in the family. This is shown in this 1910 work “Election Day!”, in which the husband appears almost tied to the home as the apron strings appear entwined in the back rungs of the chair on which he is left seated holding babies as his wife walks out, in a masculine dress, as if ready for business.

Although this is a suffrage poster, apparent through the title “Election Day!” and the “Votes for Women” banner, this set–up of a female attired in respectable yet masculine was used to show by anti–suffragist artists to imply women’s recklessness of ‘abandoning’ the home and husband in order to seek enfranchisement. John Stuart Mill captures the mood of the time in his statement that “Everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.” Therefore although some men may have been sympathetic to the cause of women, as shown though the production of suffrage posters by men, they still expected their dominance to prevail and her affection to be unconditional, consequently propagating society’s antiquated beliefs.

Other artists in the late nineteenth century captured the fragility of women’s position in society as the Pre–Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were sympathetic to the plight of women at the time, created works that centred around the fallen woman. In Rossetti’s work “Found” he shows the fallen woman to be crouched on the floor in shame as she is being held by a man who looks on her in a bewildered recognition. In Holman Hunt’s “Awakening Conscience” the female in this painting is made a pitiful character, like Rossetti’s protagonist, as she seems to awaken from her life as a mistress. She seems to wish for a new beginning as she looks out the window at a new day whilst she literally turns her back on her lover who appears to be trying to regain her attention. In this way both artists showed that the women society despised as immoral were in–fact victims of circumstance and not entirely responsible for their position in life. In this way femininity in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was not only defined by men but also women as they also demarcated the roles in life set for them, such as the moral woman being the stable force at home and the immoral woman that should be condemned to life out of society.

In regards to Nochlin’s question of why there were no great women artists, a recurring feature of late nineteenth century and the art that had preceded it was the issue of the spectator. As a general rule the audience for paintings were automatically assumed to be men. Therefore much of the works that were highly appreciated were the produce of male artists for male spectators; although this does not negate the presence of female involvement in producing art that was respected by male audiences. It is with the turn of the twentieth century and the suffrage movement that the presence of women artists became more perceptible due to the impact of female suffrage artists, female British artists like Rosa Bonheur and female French painters like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassat who were making names for themselves as professional artists, not just amateurs who hid their talent in order to conform to social beliefs working women. As Nochlin describes in concern to the professionalism of women in nineteenth century Britain, “…the middle–class woman has a great deal more to lose than her chains.” The role of women was changing not exclusively due to political pressure for emancipation but also through the courage of individuals who successfully pushed themselves forward into the art world, suggesting that women were not in fact without genius or talent but needed a suitable time and courage in order to break forward.

Yet, this involvement in the art world was not purely based on the female artist as, for example, Rosa Bonheur was supported by her artist father establishing a more secure position in art society. Despite this Bonheur’s presence was not wholly accepted as her femininity was challenged due to her dressing in men’s clothing, her “work clothes” and her beliefs about not giving up art for the prospect of marriage or children, thus going against the belief that marriage was the ultimate goal for a respectable woman. It also has to be considered that Bonheur’s work did not stretch social boundaries as it remained inoffensive by revolving around animal studies and not political themes. It is this political involvement that changed the role of women as they became far more militant in their desire to attain their goal, suffering the degradation of imprisonment or force feeding during their hunger strikes.

Gizelda Pollack writes how a “trickle of references to women artists in the 16th century grows by the 18th century to become a flood in the 19th century” . Yet, whilst there was a flood Pollack found that by the 20th century the number of women artists began to dwindle with emancipation and better education creating a sense of absence in the art world after a long battle for their right to be acknowledged as artists but also feminine women. Therefore the visual arts had been highly influential in the changing demarcation and role of women in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century due to the visible surge of female artist, a profession that before would have tarnished a woman’s respectability. Yet, it has to be acknowledged that whilst women managed to create new boundaries both socially and artistically they were often still dependent on the help or appreciation of men and in their fight for emancipation they had to turn to more militant and aggression action in order for recognition of the lengths they would go to in order to win their rights to vote, and also not to be pigeon–holed as persons without worth in more intellectual fields of work and life.


Follow-up to Psychoanalysis from Team Colour

How does psychoanalysis shape our understanding of the production and perception of art objects?

Psychoanalysis in the perception and understanding the production of art unfurls the issue of how much the personal experiences and backgrounds of artists is reflected in their work. This is a psychological approach that was born from the work of Freud and Jung, although it is the theories set down by Freud, and of the contemporary analyst Schapiro that I will be discussing. It is not only the issue of psychoanalysis that needs to be considered but also the concept of psychobiography is also a concern that needs to be addressed as it researches further into the personality and character of the artist, analysing the emergence of motivations, therefore creating a fuller background to the production of their artwork. Yet, psychoanalysis and psychobiography are not without faults as analytical concepts and this is an issue that will be discussed in conjunction with works that have become as famous for mystery surrounding the artist as they have for the technique used to create the work.

In psychoanalysis one of the prevalent themes set down by Freud focuses on the issue of the familial relations. These issues centre on the supremacy between the parents but also between the relations between a child and their parent of the opposite sex. In this way the issue of gender is prevalent in Freud’s work, an attribute he bestows on old masters, an example being Leonardo da Vinci. From what can be gathered from da Vinci’s encrypted personal writings and his biography set down by others Freud drew out what he believed to be reoccurring motivations for da Vinci’s work. Freud saw da Vinci as a man that was somewhat dependent on a matriarchal environment as he passed from the house of his mother to the house of his step–mother and father from an early age. Freud believed that he was haunted by a dream of being threatened by a vulture as an infant in the cradle. In this way Freud linked this vulture imagery to his early sixteenth century piece “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” (1502–16) as he proposed that the profile of a vulture can be seen in the blue robe draped around the Virgin, with the tail of the bird being placed by the child’s mouth, almost seen to enter it. The identification of the bird in his dream being a vulture was significant as it provided a link between da Vinci as a child and the feminine. There was a belief that vultures were an Egyptian symbol of the other, as well as the idea that only vultures were in fact female propagating the idea of Virgin birth. The significance of the tail imagery relates to eroticism and vulnerability as the tail is associated with phallic imagery that seems to threaten the young child, who Freud believes is symbolically representative of da Vinci surrounded by his birth mother (the Virgin, a relative concept to his being illegitimate therefore not knowing his father from an early age) and his step–mother (St. Anne).

Although there are issues surrounding his family and divisions over the matriarchal figures in his life, it has to be acknowledged that in this case psychoanalysis is not the pure reasoning behind the literal structure or symbolic structure of the painting. At the time the work was being produced there was a significant culture for works that included St. Anne, accounting for her presence with the Virgin and child. Due to her presence and the placing of the figures in a triangle that dominates the composition this could account for Christ’s missing companion, the infant John the Baptist, to whom he was typically painted alongside. This absence due to the lack of space on the right results to a lamb being put in place of the absent Baptist infant. Yet, the greatest inconsistency as put forward by Schapiro is the fact that the vulture dream encountered by da Vinci, rather dubiously on reflection of the bizarre nature of the dream and the fact that it could have been a later dream imposed on his childhood memories, is the mistranslation of the word vulture, i.e. that it was not specifically a vulture that da Vinci identified, but just a large bird. Another idea that Freud touches on with his idea of da Vinci’s unconscious obsession with his two mothers is that of women being objects of fetishes and desire. This is an issue explored not only by da Vinci but also became a highly prominent theme within the work of the Surrealists and modern artists.

As a movement Surrealism was rooted in the innovative experimentation taken from the Dada movement, but was also influenced by the psychoanalytical works of Freud and Jung. Within the movement the involvement of women was seen to be fundamental as described by Briony Fer saying “Surrealism placed ‘woman’ at its centre, as the focus of its dreams” . Women represented objects of desire, and fetish but also due to the psychoanalytical idea that women were closer to madness as they were “closer to the irrational…the constant’ other’” . This was respected as the insane, like children, were able to depict the workings of the unconscious as they lacked elements of understanding that is inherent in `the works of the sane. Yet, like the majority of art history women were the subject of Surrealists works placed under inspection by either a male artist or a male spectator. Looking at Man Ray’s photograph of Meret Oppenheim “Meret Oppenheim à la presse” (1933) naked standing behind a printer’s wheel whilst covered partially in ink there is an undeniable eroticism to the concept of the painting as the woman is placed as an object of desire, an object to be longed for by the male spectator. Yet, despite this psychoanalytical concept this can not be the only explanation to the structure and set–up of the composition as it also exposes themes of modernity and the human body blending into the machine, more a call to arms against the effect of modernity than just pure fetishism on the part of the artist and spectator. In this way the desirability of the nude woman and the disjuncture of her naked body being placed alongside the printing wheel creates a shocking composition, therefore making a statement about modernity.

One of the issues surrounding modernity and culture was that of the gender difference between men and women. Freud put forward the idea that the difference between men and women was not based on biology but more of the culture in which they lived. This aspect is one that influenced the photographer Claude Cahun, as although born a woman she spent much of her adult life switching genders in front of the camera. In order to explain this the concept of psychobiography could be used as it could be reasoned that from an early age she was troubled by the removal of her mother to an asylum and later becoming anorexic, a disease usually associated with a want to change physical identity. Therefore in her photographs it can be seen that she seems to take on an androgynous state as it hard to tell whether she is in fact posing as a man or a woman. Her personal background is a useful possibility as to explaining why she worked with the issue of gender but is not the only possibility as between the 1920’s – 40’s there was an increased demand for the perfect faces of woman in film and advertising. With the removal of men as a sex symbol as described in ‘The Female Nude’ “…it can be said that the unclothed male model dominated the life class in European academies…until the late eighteenth century…there was a perceivable shift in emphasis to the study of the unclothed female model…the female nude had become the dominant form in European figurative art.” . The woman became the new object of desire but also the object that needed to be flawless. Ironically the object that men desired needed to be distorted in order to sustain appeal. This is shown in the work of Cindy Sherman as she takes her own image like Cahun and models it on the glamorous and desirable faces seen in Hollywood, despite the fact that the more she does this it shows the greater loss of her own identity. In this way psychoanalysis is useful in conjuncture with pressures on gender and sexual difference of the time as it exposes how the desires felt by men are influential in creating the masks women wear in order to retain desirability. The issue of the female mask was also scrutinized by Surrealists in association with psychoanalysis.

As a practise psychoanalysis and psychobiography are intriguing ways in which to view possible influences on the work of artists, yet it can not be supposed that they are accurate or even conclusive. As a concept both analyses can not be tested like other methods of science therefore lack certain grounding that can make their influence unquestionable. There is also the problem that psychobiography as well as psychoanalysis is purely subjective as it relies on the evidence given either by the artist themselves or taken from the opinions of others. In this way the analysis that is created is dependent on information that, itself could not be accurate, but could be translated incorrectly as seen in the case of Freud and Leonardo da Vinci’s dreamt vulture. Freud shows how he used information gained from the testimony of da Vinci but also findings he found in his own self–analysis and found links in da Vinci’s work that proved his theory, whilst ignoring information that could easily disprove his ideas. Yet, despite these drawbacks psychoanalytical works help to create underlying structures of possibilities that bring to the surface a range of ideas that would not initially be considered and yet help to explain aspects of both the production and perception of artworks.

May 2006

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