NUDES AND NUDES
The nude takes many forms, and serves many agendas. Here are four examples, proving that in art, as elsewhere, form follows function.
Peter Paul Rubens devoted himself to fleshy, sensual women–richly detailed, like everything else in his paintings. The danger in being so single-minded is that the world is wide, and it is boring to notice only one possibility.
El Greco’s nudes, by contrast, are symbols of innocence, but being less bogged down in detail they are as convincing, and paradoxically more sensual, than Rubens’.
Cranach’s Venus is more overtly provocative than either the Rubens or the El Greco, but he manages this with less detail than either. He emphasizes social cues–the hip-forward posture and the teasing veil–while simplifying the body to little more than a lively silhouette. Rubens couldn’t pose a model in that position because if he did he would have to deliver the naughty bits.
Seurat dissolves the figure in pointillist dots and dashes. You’d think that this method would produce a remote and abstract image, but although she is the least detailed among these four examples, she is the most realistic, and has the most actual presence. She’s not a symbol or a pinup; her pose suggests nothing beyond herself. She’s a model posing against a wall.
This post is a reprise from February, 2012
I never visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York without devoting a few minutes to Gallery 501: the Studiolo, or study room, from the ducal palace of Gubbio, dating from 1478-82. Its murals are executed in intarsia, or wood inlay. Everything between the text band of gold and blue at the top and the red tiles at the bottom, which is the floor of the gallery, is a flat surface, like a painting. All the “paneling”, the “cabinet doors” seen at various angles, the “objects” inside, the “bench”, the “cast shadows”–everything–is illusion, executed in cut-out shapes of various woods.
There is no furniture in Gallery 501, so a standing visitor sees it, as it were, from above. The perspective eye level–just about that round object in the lower part of the cabinet–assumes that the viewer is sitting in a chair.
Part of what makes the effect so winning is that there is no attempt to fool the eye. The only colors are the colors of the woods employed, which range from warm light to warm blackish. The illusion is at once convincing and forthrightly playful.
The woods are slimmed to uniform veneers, then cut to shape, then placed. It’s a small room, but you can see how it would take years to execute. It was completed the year the duke died. I wonder if he ever had a chance to spend time there.
AT THE WHITNEY–FINE and OH PLEASE!
The current hanging at the new Whitney in New York includes several galleries of portraits. A mixed bag, as big shows tend to be. The standout on the quality side is this intricate portrait of Andy Warhol by Alice Neel (1900-1984), which I’d never seen in the flesh before. The whole composition is on the left; the colors in the detail are much closer to the real thing. The actual work, of course, is subtler yet.
The thing about Neel’s best work is how she picks through what’s in front of her, and includes only what is essential to make her point. The couch and background are barely there; she scrubs in just enough blue to make the generally pretty cool flesh tones seem warm by comparison. The modeling of the body is wonderfully rich, but not pedestrian–she doesn’t want the hands, for example, competing with the face, so she leaves them merely in outline, and leaves the left knee almost untouched–we don’t need to be told about the left knee. But then she models the shoes fully to engage the eye wherever it goes. A fascinating and eccentric piece altogether.
On the “oh please” side there were many contenders, but this “look at me”-size photorealist oil, “Untitled (after Sam)” by Rudolph Stingel represents the silly end of things pretty competently. The wall label informs us that “The despondency of his body language suggest a moment of melancholy, self doubt, or perhaps total exhaustion. . . Stingel has stated that the work is not a self-portrait but a depiction of him playing a role.” It is one of a series “of paintings of photographs of me posing. Like movie stills.” Okay, so I have to read the label to learn that it’s a painting that might mean this or might mean that or might mean nothing at all.
I didn’t need to read the label by the Neel to be told what her painting was about. I could pretty well tell just by looking at it.
Oh Whitney, where art thou?
A TRUMP PORTRAIT
This blog largely concerns itself with good art, because that is where the most interesting ideas are found. But bad art, while not uplifting, can still be full of information. Here we have an example. The portrait (of Donald Trump, in case you didn’t recognize him) is feeble and kitchy, and the massive gold frame is vulgar–very much in keeping with the subject as he is portrayed: cocky and superior.
Of course, portraits can be off, but he must be pleased with this one if he hangs it in a public place. Which brings us to Maya Angelou, who put it very well: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
A FAVORITE FRA ANGELICO
Fra Angelico (1395-1440) produced many fine paintings, but this one engages particularly by the boldness of its abstraction. We have two vignettes, subtly united: the bottom of the bed platform aligns with the base of the wall in the right half; the curtain rod aligns with the top of the doorway; the little window on the right echoes the large doorway on the left; Damian’s colors, robe shapes, and halo are repeated; Palladia’s head in the right half is the focal point of all the receding lines.The masterstroke, though, is that while the figures are richly modeled, the wall shapes are flat, unmodulated planes with no irrelevant architectural details to water the narrative. The two figures on the right are united by their mutual gesture but wonderfully differentiated, she and her dark doorway as a rectangle, he as a free-form silhouette floating against the white wall. The contrast is visually dynamic, which, of course, makes for lively story-telling.