On Abandoment and Disappointed Love

d4051821r(c) Watts Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 

George Frederic Watts first painted the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the late 1860s. This decade saw a revival of classical subject matter in British art. It is a measure of Watts’s flexibility as an artist that, in the middle of his career aged about fifty, he should become deeply involved in a new movement in art, sharing the aims of much younger painters such as Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones. His Orpheus and Eurydice paintings are among the most powerful early masterpieces of this ‘aesthetic classicism.’ As with most subjects that gripped his imagination, Watts treated it several times, refining the composition until it fully realised his ideal.

The story of Orpheus is recounted in many ancient sources. The most accessible account, and probably the one used by Watts, is found in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses (book X).

Three subjects from the story were particularly attractive to artists:

Orpheus playing in hell;
Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice’; and
Orpheus’s head and lyre, which continued to sing after his own death.

In the 1860s Watts treated many themes of abandonment and disappointed love. Clytie whose yearning for the sun god Apollo turned her into a sunflower and Ariadne deserted by Theseus, share similar themes with Orpheus and Eurydice. Watts probably exposed deep personal emotions in such subjects, for his first marriage, to the young actress Ellen Terry, ended in separation in 1865, after they had been together for only eleven months.

But Watts’s impetus was not simply personal for the Orpheus and Eurydice theme was also popular with his closest artistic friends in the 1860s. In Victorian High Renaissance, Allan Staley suggests that Watts took it up in direct response to Frederic Leighton‘s 1864 Royal Academy picture (Leighton House). This is a distinctly odd treatment of the theme in which Orpheus pushes Eurydice away. Watts’s painting may be intended to criticise this version. Leighton became Watts’s near neighbour in Kensington in 1866, and the two men exerted a strong influence on each other for the next six years. In the late 1860s Burne-Jones produced illustrations to William Morris’s unpublished Orpheus and Eurydice poem. (He later re-used them for the 1880 Graham piano, the designs for which inspired John Singer Sargent‘s portrait of Comyns Carr. Watts painted portraits of his friends Burne-Jones and Morris in 1870 (Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and National Portrait Gallery).

There are many studies for the various versions of the work. Most appear to date from the late 1860s when Watts conceived and developed the subject. Two drawings are in the Royal Academy, London, among the collection selected by Edward John Poynter, as President, under the terms of Watts’s will. A head study for Orpheus is in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham’s collection (Cecil French Bequest). A drawing for one of the horizontal format compositions is in the collection of David Loshak. Most interesting among the drawn studies is that in the collection of Sir Brinsley Ford. The upper half is very close to the composition of the present picture, but the figures are full length and a third figure (omitted from all known painted versions) appears in the bottom right corner. This emphasises the placing of this version in the sequence of Watts’s paintings between his abandonment of the horizontal format and his development of an upright one. Watts also produced sculptured studies for the figure and head of Orpheus to help him realise the difficult pose of the figure and the tormented expression, both hard for a model to hold. (Two studies, plaster casts from clay or wax originals are in the Watts Gallery, Compton.) Watts’s interest in sculpture developed in the 1860s, when he made both finished works (such as the bust of Clytie) and such studies. The production of sculptural studies for paintings was a Renaissance practice and passed into the academic tradition. The studies and the finished painting reveal Watts’s fascination with dynamic twisting poses and especially with the stretch and turn of the neck. This seems to have been a personal idiosyncracy. Found in many other works of this time (such as Clytie), it should be seen as an aspect of Watts’s enthusiasm for the Renaissance artist that earned him the nickname of ‘England’s Michelangelo.’

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Shots in the Dark

By Patty Smith
from Details, November 1992

 

Self-Portrait, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985

 

“When Robert and I were young, scarcely twenty, we’d sometimes go to Coney Island, have a Nathan’s hot dog, sit on the long pier, and dream about the future. Robert wanted to be a rich and famous artist. (He did it.) I wanted to do something great. (I’m still working on it.) We’d cast our wishes like the shoeless kids and old men who cast out their fishing lines. We’d sit there until dawn, then head back into Brooklyn. We were never afraid. New York was tough but kind. We were always all right. Maybe just a little hungry.

It was the summer of 1967. I had left the security of family, cornfields, and billowing New Jersey skies to seek my fortune in New York. I met Robert, a smiling, barefoot kid as misfit as myself. That fall, we got a place on Hall Street in Brooklyn, across from Pratt Institute, where he was a student. The streets were run by painters and poets. Everybody had a vision. Everybody was broke. Nobody had a TV.

Ours was a bleak little apartment that he brightened with Indian cloths, religious objects, and his own work. I tacked pictures of Rimbaud over my writing desk, played my Juliet Gréco records, and read Illuminations. Robert had a Timothy Leary book–one of the few books he actually read. (He often fell asleep in foreign movies. It was the subtitles, he said.) He was always working on a drawing, an installation, or a new piece of sculpture. He’d work twelve hours straight, listening to the same Vanilla Fudge album over and over. His work was asymmetric, psychedelic, and he was always scavenging for materials. I had to hide my best stuff, for many a wolf skin, brocade, or crucifix was sacrificed on the altar of art.

At twenty, we were still learning about ourselves, trying to make sense of what was going down. Assassinations, Vietnam, universal love, where our next meal was coming from. New York was going though its own changes–the Beat residue of the early ’60s was giving way to the divine disorder of 1968. All this was new to me–beaded curtains and LSD were not big sellers in South Jersey.

Robert and I rarely fought. We did bicker, though, like siblings, over everything. Trivial things. Who would do the laundry. Who would get the last sheet of drawing paper. Who was the better dancer. (He refused to acknowledge the superiority of my South Jersey over his own Long Island style.) What to eat. All he ever wanted was spaghetti and chocolate egg creams.

Our main preoccupations were art and magic. Magic was an intuitive thing you either had or you didn’t, and Robert was sure he had it. It was a gift from God, and he pinned his faith upon it. I always admired his confidence. It wasn’t arrogance, it was just there, unshakable. And he was generous with it–if he believed in what you were doing, he somehow infected you with it. His major source of anxiety was money, because executing his ideas required it and he loathed employment.

We were not the hippest people. That was not the thing. The thing was to develop a vision that would be worthy of remembrance, or even a bit of glory.

Sometimes we’d pass the night by sitting on the floor, looking at books. Some my mother gave me: The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, Brancusi, The Sacred Art of Tibet. And his own big coffee-table books on erotic art, Tantric art, and Surrealism. I’d plait my hair like Frida Kahlo, he’d stretch out in an old black turtleneck and dungarees, and we’d find refuge in the pages and emerge inspired, full of resolve.

Robert loved the large-format book. He wasn’t much of a reader, but he’d study the plates–the work of Michelangelo, Blake, Duchamp–and extend what he saw in works of his own. He dreamed of having such a book someday, devoted to his own particular vision that was, in the late ’60s, still forming.

This was on my mind recently when I opened the package containing the unbound sheets of his forthcoming book, Mapplethorpe. A large, exquisite book, admittedly not for every coffee table, but coffee-table size, just as he wanted. It forms a visual diary of his life, opening not with his name, nor a text, but with an image of a proud, frayed American flag. The stars block, and are therefore illuminated by, the sun. Toward the end of the book is one of his last self-portraits, in which he is aged considerably from physical suffering, stubborn, stoic, and a bit frayed, like the proud and weathered flag.

Robert took his first pictures in 1970. We had parted as a couple, but we stayed together as friends. We tackled Manhattan: The Chelsea Hotel. Max’s Kansas City. The Factory. The ’70s. Robert loved Manhattan, its perpetual twilight. He felt alive there, free. He loved socializing-even though he was shy–and he loved Andy Warhol, who was also shy and loved to socialize.

Like many exploring their sexual identity at that time, he cased the emerging frontier. Christopher Street. Forty-second Street. The leather, bars. The baths. He shifted identities, not out of crisis, but out of delight. One month, the sailor; the next, the hustler. “How do you like this new image!” he’d ask, pleased with himself in a black net T-shirt, tight pants, and a piece of red silk tied around his throat. In that same black net tee he hung out on Fifty- third Street, where he observed the hustlers, photographed the hustlers, and perhaps hustled himself. He wore the T-shirt executing art. And when he finally took it off, he stretched and mounted it on a frame and exposed it as art itself.

He was using at this time an old Polaroid. A pack of film was costly and might take the place of a meal, so each shot was important. Robert never took snapshots. He always knew beforehand the image he was after. He followed me around with that Polaroid constantly, issuing simple commands. “Can you stand in that shaft of light?” “Slowly face the wall.” Each shot taken with a studied economy, an economy he employed throughout his working life. Even later, as his work developed, he never used a motor drive, never shot roll after roll. His process was not a passionate one. His work was the result of a contemplative, deliberate act. He never drew lines; he crossed them, without apology, to create something present, new. A contact sheet would reveal just twelve images. They were all alike, except for the one he had marked, the perfect one. “The one with the magic,” he’d say.

I admit I hoped his photography was a passing phase. Somehow, being shot with a cheap Polaroid didn’t correspond to my notion of the role of the French artist’s model. But he took it seriously. He liked the speed, the immediacy. He was convinced that the common Polaroid print, in his hands, was a viable work of art.

He drew his subjects from life’s walk, and his work reflected change–both personal and social. Many of his models were biker boys, call boys, men of the street. His form was classic, stylized–“I’m not after beauty,” he would say, “I’m after perfection, and they’re not always the same.”

In the early ’70s he began to use the large-format camera, and he committed himself to photography, championing its elevation and exploration. Portraits, still lifes, early flowers, the S&M suite. At first I found the S&M photographs, which were difficult by most standards, frightening. I once asked him what it was like being there, observing, immortalizing the private rituals of these people. He said it was “somewhat scary. But they know what they’re doing. And so do I. It’s all about trust.” He used these photographs, which caused such a stir years later, to tease me relentlessly. He knew I was squeamish about them, and he’d slip prints into my books. So on a rainy Sunday, I’d open a beautiful copy of Peter Pan or Arabia Deserta and be assaulted by an image of a bloodied member in a vice grip. “Robert!” I’d yell. And I could hear him, through the wall that separated our studios, giggling.

I think the furor his work caused after his death would have amused him. But the attention paid to just the sexual aspect would have surely dismayed him. He was not intentionally political. He was not an activist. He shot what he saw–just as Genet wrote what he experienced–with grace. All his work–from the translucent skin of a lily to the arched torso of a black male–represented him, his vision of the world. Just as Pollock hated being called an Abstract Expressionist and Manet deplored the title Impressionist, Robert never wanted to be pegged. Not even as a photographer. The true artist desires, and deserves, to be remembered only as an Artist.

Shortly before he died, I sat with Robert in his studio. He still worked, despite terrible bouts of coughing, vomiting, and excruciating pain. With the aid of his youngest brother, the photographer Edward Maxey, he was able to produce some final, perfect images. We sat amongst large, exquisite prints. A cluster of deeply ripe grapes. A single rose. And a marble portrait of Hermes. The skin of the white statue burned and seemed to emit its own light against a field of black. It was as if, through Robert’s eye, it had glimpsed life.

“I think I’ve done everything I can with the photograph,” he said. “I think I’ll go back to sculpture.”

He had on that day the anxious, fervent gaze he often wore when he worked. I remember that same look as he photographed me in Burbank, California, in full sun before a drying palm. It was 1987, I was six months pregnant and feeling the strain. Robert was not well. His hand trembled and, as he worked, he dropped and broke his light meter. But we took the picture anyway, barely saying a word. He checked the image and drew the camera closer. “Can you raise your head just a little!” It was much like the first pictures. High concentration. Simple and direct. Within that modest photograph is all our experience, compassion,, and even a mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death. I was carrying life. My hair is braided and the sun is in my eyes. And so is an image of Robert, alive.”

Even When We Don’t Reach It

L’Homme qui marche (The Walking Man), Auguste Rodin, 1907

Having eliminated all anecdotal details to focus on the sensation of movement, Rodin produced an unprecedented and powerfully expressive interpretation of it, reiterating the force that had so captivated him when standing before incomplete antique statues and Michelangelo’s unfinished works.

 

SPAZIERGANG

“Schon ist mein Blick am Hügel, dem besonnten,

dem Wege, den ich kaum begann, voran.

So fasst uns das, was wir nicht fassen konnten,

voller Erscheinung, aus der Ferne an—

und wandelt uns, auch wenn wirs nicht erreichen,

in jenes, das wir, kaum es ahnend, sind;

ein Zeichen weht, erwidernd unserm Zeichen . . .

Wir aber spüren nur den Gegenwind.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Muzot

1924

 

____________________________

 

A WALK

“Already my gaze is upon the hill, the sunny one,

at the end of the path which I’ve only just begun.

So we are grasped, by that which we could not grasp,

at such great distance, so fully manifest—

and it changes us, even when we do not reach it,

into something that, hardly sensing it, we already are;

a sign appears, echoing our own sign . . .

But what we sense is the wind against us.”

Translation by Robert Bly

In the Beginning

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, 1510

 

“Ever since those wondrous days of Creation
our Lord God sleeps: we are His sleep.
And He accepted this in His indulgence,
resigned to rest among the distant stars.

Our actions stopped Him from reacting,
for His fist-tight hand is numbed by sleep,
and the times brought in the age of heroes
during which our dark hearts plundered Him.

Sometimes He appears as if tormented,
and His body jerks as if plagued by pain;
but these spells are always outweighed by the
number of His countless other worlds.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Adam

Adam, Auguste Rodin, 1880-81.

Rodin drew his inspiration directly from the section of the Michelangelo’s fresco entitled The Creation of Adam

 

“High above he stands, beside the many
saintly figures fronting the cathedral’s
gothic tympanum, close by the window
called the rose, and looks astonished at his

own deification which placed him there.
Erect and proud he smiles, and quite enjoys
this feat of his survival, willed by choice.

As labourer in the fields he made his start
and through his efforts brought to full fruition
the garden God named Eden. But where was
the hidden path that led to the New Earth?

God would not listen to his endless pleas.
Instead, He threatened him that he shall die.
Yet Adam stood his ground: Eve shall give birth.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Pushing the Button

“I always wanted to draw and paint. I had no literary ambition: I aspired to be a Michael Angelo, not a Shakespear (sic). But I could not draw well enough to satisfy myself; and the instruction I could get was worse than useless. So when dry plates and push buttons came into the market I bought a box camera and began pushing the button”

George Bernard Shaw
(Reply to Helmut Gernsheim as to why he had taken up photography)

 

Self-portrait (young man) in Chair, George Bernard Shaw, c. 1904

An Image to Represent Philosophy

Le Penseur (The Thinker),  by Aguste Rodin. Rodin first conceived the figure as part of another work in 1880, but the first of the familiar monumental bronze castings did not appear until 1904

 

Le Penseur (The Thinker) is a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin, usually placed on a stone pedestal. The work shows a nude male figure of over life-size sitting on a rock with his chin resting on one hand as though deep in thought, and is often used as an image to represent philosophy.

 

The Thinker in The Gates of Hell at the Musée Rodin

 

Oginally named Le Poète (The Poet), The Thinker was initially a figure in a large commission, begun in 1880, for a doorway surround called The Gates of Hell. Rodin based this on The Divine Comedy of Dante, and most of the many figures in the work represented the main characters in the epic poem. Some critics believe The Thinker, at the centre of the composition over the doorway and at about 70 cm high larger than most other figures, was originally intended to depict Dante Alighieri at the gates of Hell, pondering his great poem. However, there are questionable aspects to this interpretation, including that the figure is naked, Dante is fully clothed throughout his poem, and that the figure, as used, in no way corresponds to Dante’s effete figure. The sculpture is nude, as Rodin wanted a heroic figure in the tradition of Michelangelo, to represent intellect as well as poetry.

 

Lorenzo de Medici’s tomb

 

This detail from The Gates of Hell was first named The Thinker by foundry workers, who noted its similarity to Michelangelo’s statue of Lorenzo de Medici called Il Pensieroso (The Thinker). Rodin decided to treat the figure as an independent work, at a larger size. The figure was designed to be seen from below, and is normally displayed on a fairly high plinth, though the heights chosen by the various owners for these vary considerably.

Overcoming Temptations

The Temptation of Saint-Anthony, by Max Ernst

 
 

In 1946 the David L. LoewAlbert Lewin film production company held a contest for a painting on the theme of Saint Anthony’s Temptation, with the winner to be used in the film The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (Albert Lewin, 1947). The movie is in black and white except for the one shot of Max Ernst’s Temptation in color. Various artists produced paintings on this subject, and contest was won by Max Ernst, whose work was duly shown on-screen. However, the most well-known of these paintings is a failed contestant, Salvador Dalí‘s version. This was the only art contest in which Dalí participated during his lifetime.

 
 

The Temptation of St. Anthony, Salvador Dalí, 1946

 
 

Besides Dalí and Ernst, Ivan Albright, Eugene Berman, Leonora Carrington, Paul Delvaux, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Louis Guglielmi, Horace Pippin, Abraham Rattner and Stanley Spencer, were also invited to create a work on the theme. Fini did not produce a painting, but the others were paid $500 for their submissions, with an additional $2,500 prize for the winner.

 
 

The Torment of Saint Anthony, attributed to Michelangelo, c. 1487–1488. Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists noted that Michelangelo had painted St. Anthony after a print by Martin Schongauer

 
 

The Temptation of St. Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch (triptych, c. 1501)

 
 

Throughout history, artists and authors (including Paul Cézanne and Hieronymus Bosch) have used the temptation of St. Anthony as subject matter for creative works. Dalí’s depiction is classical, erotic, and surrealist.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (French La Tentation de Saint Antoine) is a book which the French author Gustave Flaubert spent practically his whole life fitfully working on, in three versions he completed in 1849, 1856 (extracts published at the same time) and 1872 before publishing the final version in 1874. It takes as its subject the famous temptation faced by Saint Anthony the Great in the Egyptian desert, a theme often repeated in medieval and modern art.

The temptations of Saint Anthony were:

Frailty
The Seven Deadly Sins
The Heresiarchs
The Martyrs
The Magicians
The Gods
Science
Food
Lust and Death
The Monsters
Metamorphosis

In September 1849, Flaubert completed the first version of a novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. He read the novel aloud to Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp over the course of four days, not allowing them to interrupt or give any opinions. At the end of the reading, his friends told him to throw the manuscript in the fire, suggesting instead that he focus on day-to-day life rather than fantastic subjects.

Flaubert exercised an extraordinary influence over Guy de Maupassant, Edmond de Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet,  Émile Zola and Franz Kafka. Even after the decline of the Realist school, Flaubert did not lose prestige in the literary community; he continues to appeal to other writers because of his deep commitment to aesthetic principles, his devotion to style, and his indefatigable pursuit of the perfect expression.

He has been admired or written about by almost every major literary personality of the 20th century, including philosophers and sociologists such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Paul Sartre whose partially psychoanalytic portrait of Flaubert in The Family Idiot was published in 1971. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is another great admirer of Flaubert.

A Distinguished Soul

Femme au Papillon, (Woman with Butterfly), Antoine Watteau, Circa 1716-1717

 
 

“Watteau, ce carnaval où bien des coeurs illustres,
Comme des papillons, errent en flamboyant,
Décors frais et légers éclairés par des lustres
Qui versent la folie à ce bal tournoyant ;…”

(“Watteau, carnival where many a distinguished soul
Flutters like a butterfly, lost in the brilliance
Of chandeliers shedding frivolity on the cool,
Clear decors enclosing the changes in the dance…”)

Charles Baudelaire
Les Phares (Les Beacons)

 
 

Butterflies wander freely around space. They move from thing to thing and aren’t touched by time or history. Les Phares begins by invoking a symbolist kind of garden. And in each stanza, Charles Baudelaire evokes several great artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrant, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pierre Paul Puget, Antoine Watteau, Francisco de Goya, and Eugène Delacroix.

The stanza on Watteau invokes butterflies. Watteau, in this stanza, is associated with the carnival where “many a distinguished soul flutters like a butterfly, lost in brilliance.” Besides acrobats, jugglers, and side show performers, we often find the clown. And one of Watteau’s most famous series of paintings takes Commedia dell’arte as their subject. One of the most famous of these, is his painting of Pierrot. Baudelaire, no doubt, was aware of this work, and wrote about it in his famous essay The Painter of Modern Life.