Tag Archives: Giorgione

Aesthetic Movement: Oriental Lyricism vs Sumptuousness of Renaissance

19 Feb

L’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake; welcome to the world of Aestheticism!

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865-67

“Now at last the spring

draws swiftly to its finish.

How alone I am.”

(Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura)

I bet that hearing the young Chelsea bohemians and aesthetes, such as Whistler and Rossetti, boasting about their art for art’s sake motto, was like a slap in the face to all that Ruskin had achieved in his writings and life long devotion to art. The English aesthetes continued in their paintings what the French poet and a devotee of Beauty, Théophile Gautier started. Art for art’s sake principle claims that the only purpose of art is to create Beauty; art should be its own purpose, and ought to remain detached from society, politics, philosophy or science. Perfection of execution and harmony of colours were seen as important means of achieving the Beauty. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) Gautier wrote: “Nothing is truly beautiful except that which can serve for nothing; whatever is useful is ugly.” This view of art having merely an aesthetic value clashed with John Ruskin’s opinion that art should convey the moral truths and influence us on a spiritual level.

Representatives of this wave of aestheticism in England, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, filled their canvases, in most cases, with beautiful women in sumptuous surroundings, wearing gorgeous clothes and evoking a mood of languor and sweetness smelling of violets and roses. This obsession with Beauty went in two different directions; the first was the Oriental-inspired musings, while the other went into the past and revisited the luxurious settings of Titian and Giorgione’s paintings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

“The temple bell stops –

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.”

(Basho, translated by Robert Bly)

Whistler is the representative of the first path; inspired by both his fellow painter Albert Moore and Japonism or the madness for all things Japanese, Ukiyo-e prints, porcelain and fabrics that ruined the minds of Parisian artists like plague, he created delicate, serene and lyrical paintings bathed in white and lightness. His famous “Symphonies”, the third one you can see above, were admired by his fellow painters such as James Tissot, Alfred Stevens and Edgar Degas, but also highly criticised too. Model for the girl lounging on the couch was Whistler’s mistress, model and muse Joanna Hiffernan who also posed for the Symphonies in White no. 1 and 2.

A painting needn’t always have a lady dressed in a kimono, white clothes or cherry blossom tree in it, for us to say that it was Japanese-inspired, it’s more about following the principles of Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese design by observing their use of perspective, flat portrayal of space, composition and bold outlines. This is also how Edgar Degas explored Japonism, by incorporating its interesting perspectives into his ballerina scenes, unlike Monet who opted for the simpler way: painting his wife in a colourful kimono.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866

Artists who took the second path, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, partly continued the Medieval reveries, but were mostly inspired by the luxurious, richly-coloured paintings of Renaissance ladies by Titian, Veronese and dreamy idyllic world of Giorgione. Ever since he painted “Bocca Bacciata” in 1859, Rossetti continually returns to the subject of a beautiful sensual and vain woman-enchantress with bloody lips of a vampire, clad in luxurious fabrics, surrounded with objects of beauty such as fans, jewellery or flowers. Her long and lustrous hair is ready to smother every man who dares to set his eyes upon her, her eyes are cold and large gemstones. “Monna Vanna” is another beautiful example of the rich-coloured dreamy splendour that Rossetti portrays, using different models but painting the same archetypal face with heavy-lidded eyes, strong neck and large lips.

Edward Burne-Jones, Le Chant d Amour (Song of Love), 1869-77

And at springtide, when the apple-blossoms brush the burnished bosom of the dove,
Two young lovers lying in an orchard would have read the story of our love;
Would have read the legend of my passion, known the bitter secret of my heart,
Kissed as we have kissed, but never parted as we two are fated now to part.
(Oscar Wilde, Flower of Love)

Edward Burne-Jones, a young admirer of Rossetti and a follower of Pre-Raphaelite ideas, also paints idealised worlds with much beauty but little content. In those reveries inspired by the Italian High Renaissance, like the “Song of Love” time stands still and figures are sinking deeper and deeper into the sweet languor that arises from imaginary sounds. Warm glowing colours are melting and draperies are heavy, as if carved from stone. Faces are strong and gazes distant. Claustrophobia and stillness almost painful, rapture captured for eternity, the height of ecstasy, the trembling of sighs, the caressing twilight that flickers in the distant sky, cold stone of the castle, eyelids closed by the intoxicating perfume of the tired tulips in the foreground.

No breeze, no movement, no bird is heard, the hand that lightly touches the keys of an instrument produces no sound, the drapery and the fine hair not dancing in the wind but stopped in the movement, the gaze is forever fixated. The figure on the right dressed in red, seems to be whispering Oscar Wilde’s lines “Had my lips been smitten into music by the kisses that but made them bleed” from “Flower of Love”. The painting itself has a mood of a flower which, unable to bloom or wither, chooses to stay crouching for eternity in the painfully agonizing stage of the bud.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

Just by looking at Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” and Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, it is easy to see their influence on both Burne-Jones’s “Song of Love” and Rossetti’s “Monna Vanna”. The same sweet languor pervades the air, the background reveals contours of a castle and a yellowish sky, and the draperies are similar as well. In Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, people are enjoying the music and each others company as warmth and indolence hang over them like a bright soft cloud.

Giorgione, Pastoral Concert (Fête champêtre), 1508-09

So, which direction of Aesthetic movement in painting do you prefer; oriental or Renaissance? It is pretty clear that I am all for the serenity of Whistler’s Symphonies in white influenced by Japanese-influence, but both possess their beauty. Whistler’s paintings can sometimes seem distant and cold, and the intensity of Rossetti and Burne-Jones’s colours and details can sometimes be overwhelming.

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Manet’s ‘Olympia’ – A Modern Venus

6 Feb

Paintings of Venuses pop up everywhere in the history of art, but my favourite representation of Venus, the ideal of beauty and a symbol of eroticism, is Manet’s version.

1863. Olympia - ManetOlympia, Edouard Manet, Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Olympia is a painting by Manet, painted in 1863 and first exhibited two years later. It shows a nude woman, Olympia, lying on a bed with a rumpled linen, completely uninterested in a bouquet of flowers that her black servant is presenting. Olympia is modeled by Victorine Meurent; Manet’s favourite model who posed for many of his famous works such as The Luncheon on the Grass, Woman with parrot, Street Singer and The Railway. Victorine, a model and an artist herself, was only nineteen years old when she set for this Manet’s masterpiece in 1863.

Manet’s unique depiction of a self-assured courtesan shocked both the critics and the audience. The painting was controversial not because it showed a nude woman, nudes were nothing new in art, but because of Olympia’s straight forward gaze and details that suggest that she is a courtesan. Orchid in her hair, her bracelet, worn out mule slippers, ribbon tied around her neck, pearl earrings and the oriental shawl on which she lies all accentuate her sexuality, nakedness and courtesan lifestyle. In addition, swept hair, the orchid, black cat and the bouquet of flowers were all recognised as symbols of sexuality at the time. Even the name ‘Olympia’ was associated with the ‘ladies of the night‘ in Paris at the time.

1863. Olympia - Manet, Detail 1

Olympia’s confrontational, blunt and uninterested gaze absolutely disgusted the critics. Olympia disdainfully ignores the bouquet of flowers presented to her by her servant, probably a gift from her client.  Some even suggested that she is looking in the floor indifferently because one of her client had just barged in unannounced. Her gaze is puzzling even today; at first it seems dull and lifeless, yet it possesses a whole set of emotions and thoughts. Her large dark eyes convey a mood of melancholy and contempt at once.

Manet’s representation of Venus was something completely new, and it was, as such, rejected by critics. Every tiny detail of the painting repelled them, from the model’s face to overt symbols of sexuality. According to Antonin Proust, French journalist and politician, ‘only the precautions taken by the administration prevented the painting being punctured and torn‘ by offended viewers.

Shocking the audience was nothing new for Manet; he did it before with his painting The Luncheon on the Grass. At the time, it seemed that there was nothing more he could do to infuriate the critics, but with ‘Olympia‘ he succeeded even in that. Namely, it was a challenge for Manet to paint a nude which would be shown in Salon at display. The painting’s modernity was defended by a small group of like-minded contemporaries with Emile Zola at their head. The painting’s ‘avant-garde‘ appeal was also appreciated by artists such as Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Gustave Courbet and Paul Gauguin.

1863. Olympia - Manet, Detail 5

Even Olympia’s hand position is a mockery of the old masters; in previous depictions Venus gently and modestly hides her pubic area with her hand, but here the hand looks almost ‘shamelessly flexed‘, according to a contemporary critic, showing Manet’s profound sense of wit and mockery of the relaxed and modestly shielding hand of Tizian’s Venus. In composition, Manet deliberately placed a black cat at the foot of the bed instead of the sleeping dog in Tizian’s portrayal of Venus of Urbino; black cat symbolising sexuality instead of the dog that was considered a symbol of fidelity.

Manet’s paintings may seem serious today, but deviations from the norms were a constant in Manet’s artistic career. The flatness of the painting is inspired by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints which influenced many artists later on too, most notably van Gogh. These served to make the nude appear more humane and less voluptuous which was the norm in all the previous representations of Venus. Here, Olympia’s body is rather thin according to the artistic standards of the day, and looks underdeveloped, more girlish than womanly. Also, the skin tone looks yellowy and sickly, not fresh and rosy as you’d expect from a goddess. The bracelet we see Olympia wearing on her right hand belonged to Manet’s wife, which again adds a natural tones to his art.

1863. Olympia - Manet, Detail 6

Manet’s version of Venus is all together an ironic take on the works of old masters and the representation of Venus in art in general. Prior to seeing Manet’s ‘Olympia’, the audience most likely had an image of a plump, healthy and womanly looking Venus, with long golden hair, representing the timeless ideal of beauty, but the obvious absence of idealism in Manet’s painting appalled the audience.

With this painting, Manet presented a modern Venus; a real woman with all her flaws and imperfection, in real and natural surroundings, far from the previous mythological settings. Double standards of morality of the Victorian society are evident here as well; a nude woman is appropriate only if it is the case of a mythological scene, but a nude prostitute is not acceptable, even if it mirrored the reality.

The modern Venus is a high-class courtesan waiting for a client. Victorine Meurent perfectly fitted in the role of Olympia for she is the modern Venus, the woman from the streets, not possessing the kind of artificial beauty painters have aspired to paint in the form of Venus ever since the Renaissance. This difference between traditional Venus and Manet’s modern one is particularly apparent if you compare ‘Olympia‘ with Alexander Cabanel’s ‘The Birth of Venus‘ painted the same year.

1863. Olympia - Manet, Detail 7As it is the case with ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’, Manet was inspired by the works of old masters regarding the composition. In part, Olympia was inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c.1538), or, painted even earlier, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (c.1510), which was painted by Giorgione and finished by Titian after Giorgione had died.

There are however many other female nudes that could have served as inspiration such as Goya’s La Maja Desnuda (1800), Paris Bordone’s Sleeping Venus with Cupid (1540), Reni’s Venus and Amor (1639), and many others. Again, in all these versions the atmosphere is sensuous, warm and opulent, whereas Manet depicted a drab everyday reality of a Parisian courtesan.

Olympia, a modern Venus, is nor erotic nor the ideal of beauty, she is a woman full of melancholy, disgust and contempt for the hypocritical high society.

1538. The Venus of Urbino is an oil painting by the Italian master Titian1538. The Venus of Urbino is an oil painting by the Italian master Titian, Uffizi, Florence

1508-10. Giorgione - Sleeping Venus1508-10. Giorgine’s ‘Sleeping Venus’, Old Masters Gallery, Dresden

P00742A01NF2008 0011800. The Nude Maja, Goya, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Manet repeated the tested recipe for shocking the audience and the critics, as with his previous masterpice ‘The Luncheon on the Grass‘, Manet used the composition from the respected artists and painted something completely modern, daring and scandalous, at the same time mocking the past and revealing the true face of society and its problems, its hypocrisy and insincerity. With a little wit, Manet turned a masterpiece into a scandal.