Visual Arts Christopher Allen on why love (and sex) remain popular with the art crowd
Christopher Allen Love: Art of Emotion 1400-1800 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Until June 18.
Love is clearly an appealing subject — on a slow day at the National Gallery of Victoria just before the opening of the Van Gogh show, this exhibition was full of young couples actually looking at the work and talking about it in a manner that seemed quite different from the way audiences respond to big-name exhibitions or the way they look at contemporary art, each of which is, in contrast, rather more selfconscious.
This is also, strictly speaking, too broad a theme for a focused exhibition, because the experience of love, although universal in many ways, is also subtly shaped by the cultural environments and traditions of different times and places. And there are many different kinds of love, from the erotic to the spiritual — all of which have things in common, but remain in other ways quite distinct. Here arguably the religious art, although some of the most beautiful in itself, seems to fall outside the main focus, which is on the erotic.
However, none of this matters very much, as the exhibition is essentially an opportunity to bring together, around a broad theme, some of the remarkable riches of the Felton Bequest, which across more than a century has allowed the NGV to purchase in excess of 15,000 works of art and allowed it to accumulate the only important collection of historical art, mainly European, in Australia.
Many of these works have been prints and drawings, sculptures and ceramics, and this exhibition reminds us yet again that such pieces, some of them multiples, are usually much less expensive than paintings by well-known artists, and are an excellent way of achieving a wider art-historical coverage. It should be noted, however, that even so-called old-master paintings remain much less expensive and far better value than modernist works from the impressionists onwards, whose values have been artificially inflated by market speculation. There are many delights in this exhibition, which is free and would reward a couple of leisurely visits, preferably with a magnifying glass if you want to appreciate some of the fine and sometimes very small engravings and etchings. Prints are often looked at too carelessly, but close inspection reveals the fascinating play of incised, acid-bitten or simply scratched lines composing images that can, in turn, range from an almost unbelievable level of resolution to free and improvised sketchiness. As for the theme of love and the erotic, Freud was not the first to discover that sexual desire was a pervasive force and hard for societies to manage and to channel into positive rather than destructive directions. For the Renaissance, it was the rediscovery of Greek mythology that gave artists an excuse, protected by the immense cultural prestige of antiquity and by the belief that the classical myths contained elements of mystical truth, to deal with erotic themes that had never before been accessible. One of the most popular subjects, represented here in several versions, was the love of Ares and Aphrodite (Mars and Venus in their Latin names). Unfortunately almost all Renaissance artists assumed the story told in a comic context in the Odyssey to be the original, and were unaware of the primary version in Hesiod. In the Hesiodic telling, Ares and Aphrodite are married; in the parodic version sung by Demodocus in Odyssey VIII, Ares is improbably married to the lame Hephaestus (Vulcan) and is having an illicit affair with Aphrodite. This is the version illustrated here in Goltzius’s engraving of the subject. But the ancients knew love can make us behave badly. Annibale Carracci’s anthology of love stories on the ceiling of the Farnese Gallery in Rome demonstrates the power of love as an universal force that can produce both good and evil. For those who have not seen this work, it is the most important painted ceiling in
art history after the Sistine Chapel, but because it is today the French embassy, it is only visitable on three days a week by online booking.
Sections of Carracci’s work are represented by two engraved sheets, which include illustrations of the stories of Hero and Leander (also represented elsewhere in the exhibition), Pan and Syrinx, Diana and Endymion, and Hercules and Omphale. In the latter scene, the great hero is so besotted with the barbarian queen that the two of them indulge in a little crossdressing.
In Flemish interpretations of this subject, Hercules is made to look overtly ridiculous, but Annibale, with a finer sense of decorum and the erotic, more subtly suggests his transgression through the fine silken fabric draped across his lap and the tambourine he plays. This was an instrument associated with the eunuch priests of Cybele, which no virile man would play; the symbolism would not be lost on educated guests, but it would go over the heads of the unlearned, and thus not provoke unseemly giggling among the servants.
From a little later in the same century comes an etching — with characteristically free and sketchy lines — by the complex and unhappy artist Pietro Testa, who sadly ended up drowning himself in the Tiber. On the face of it, this is a version of the Garden of Aphrodite theme, in which the goddess is surrounded by a crowd of little putti or cupids. The ultimate literary source is Philostratus, whose text was most famously illustrated by Titian.
Testa’s version is one of those pictures that will reward close examination with a magnifying glass, revealing the countless little faces and expressions each made with the free play of the etching needle cutting into the ground on the etching plate. In the centre is the goddess with a disturbing expression on her face, as though she had suddenly seen something. And perhaps she has, for on the right a cupid is about to shoot her with his arrow of desire, while other cupids sharpen their arrow heads on whetstones.
Above the goddess is a herm of Pan, the powerful but dark god of nature, whose face, with goat horns and ears, is distorted into a grimace, his tongue protruding sensually. A flying cupid conceals the spot that might be occupied by an erect phallus. Below, right in the centre, another cupid smells a rose, always a sexual symbol but here powerfully charged by the surrounding motifs. On the left of the composition meanwhile, a cupid veils his head like a ghost and terrifies a group of other putti.
Compared with the intensity and sense of real danger in this image, the Boucher painting (1748) near the beginning of the exhibition is relatively trivial and suggestive, almost prurient, especially in its use of ostensibly childish characters. The shepherd boy is teaching a girl how to play his flute, an instrument associated with the phallus since antiquity, while she idly fondles his staff with her other hand. The ambiguity is typically rococo: is the painting almost obscene, or is it only a corrupt mind that perceives such lascivious visual innuendo?
Regnault’s painting of Venus at her toilet, from just over two centuries ago (1815), includes no such flagrant symbolism, and yet the massive scale of the work makes it even more confronting. After all, what does the title, La Toilette
de Venus, refer to? Nothing other than preparing herself for an imminent sexual encounter. Her attendants all stand around, helping her to primp and anticipating their vicarious or voyeuristic participation in her night of pleasure.
And while some details in the painting are typically neoclassical in their concern for an- tique authenticity, others, like the large glass tilt mirror, are unmistakably modern, bringing the picture and its subject into a proximity to contemporary life that could be uncomfortable unless the painting hung in a gentleman’s private rooms or in the apartment of a kept woman or high-class courtesan. It could hardly hang in the bedroom even of a sexually liberated couple at the time, since it would be exposed to the eyes of servants and visitors.
Quite a different range of erotic, amorous or affective experience is suggested by Jacopo Amigoni’s large and enigmatic picture (c. 1750-52) of himself with his friend Farinelli, the most famous castrato of the 18th century. It is in fact a group portrait that includes Pietro Metastasio, the composer dressed in clerical costume, Teresa Castellini, a famous singer, and Amigoni leaning into the composition with his arm around Farinelli’s shoulders.
All were friends, brought closer by working abroad, at the Bourbon court in Spain. But the picture is even more complicated, for a young boy enters the composition from the right, aristocratically but rather improbably dressed in what looks like a miniature version of a hussar’s uniform; apparently he is Farinelli’s page boy. To make things more complicated, he hands Amigoni a loaded painter’s palette.
And there is more: a dog in the foreground whose collar bears the initials CBF — Carlo Broschi Farinelli. The same initials are inscribed on the sheet of music in the singer’s hand, and if one looks closely the partly legible text, in Italian, speaks of absence and longing. And finally there is a fragment of Roman relief on the left, two figures and a burning brazier, which may represent the story of Mucius Scaevola putting his hand in the fire to prove his courage.
Also filled with symbols, but much more readily intelligible ones, is a pair of prints by Hogarth with the titles Before and After. In the first, a young man tries to seduce a reluctant young woman. An excitable dog echoes his eagerness, while books in her dresser, including the erotic poems of Lord Rochester, hint at her ultimate receptiveness despite superficial resistance; on the wall, a picture of a cupid about to light a sky rocket is an obvious anticipation of sexual climax.
In the second picture, after the act, the sleeping dog and other symbols allude to the exhaustion of desire, and a volume of Aristotle open on the floor quotes his saying that all creatures are low in spirits after coitus. But by far the most interesting aspect of the two pictures is Hogarth’s analysis of male and female responses to consummation: the young man’s passion has been replaced by shame and dismay, while the girl’s reluctance has turned to tender attachment.
This lesson in psychology as well as morals could be purchased, as the inscription below states, for two shillings and sixpence for each sheet. The publication date is noted: December 15, 1736, and is “pursuant to an Act of Parliament”: for Hogarth had secured, in 1735, the passage of the first modern copyright law, which came to be known as Hogarth’s Act.
AFTER ALL, WHAT DOES THE TITLE, LA TOILETTE DE VENUS, REFER TO?
Venus preparing herself (La Toilette de Venus) (1815) by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, above; The singer Farinelli and friends (c. 1750-52) by Jacopo Amigoni, left; The enjoyable lesson (1748) by Francois Boucher, far left