Vis­ual Arts Christo­pher Allen on why love (and sex) re­main pop­u­lar with the art crowd

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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

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