The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera (1978)

We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. We anxiously follow what we suppose to be important, while what we suppose to be unimportant wages guerrilla warfare behind our backs, transforming the world without our knowledge and eventually mounting a surprise attack on us.
(The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, page 197)

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts, each of which is a self-contained story although, as the recurring titles suggest, with recurring themes:

Part One – Lost Letters
Part Two – Mother
Part Three – The Angels
Part Four – Lost Letters
Part Five – Litost
Part Six – The Angels
Part Seven – The Border

Short sections

And each story is itself broken up into numerous, very short, numbered sections, often as short as a page long. For example, the first story, Love Letters, is 22 pages long and is divided into 19 sections.

The reading experience is dominated by this fragmentation of the narrative into short sections. Kundera uses the ‘short section technique’ for a number of purposes.

One is to continually change perspective on events, shedding ironic light on his characters’ mixed motives and misunderstandings. The most obvious way is to describe a piece of dialogue or event, and then devote separate sections to the speakers’ often wildly differing interpretations of what they just said or meant.

It also allows him to switch from close-up description of actions carried out by the protagonists, to higher-level reflections, about human nature, the character of irony or comedy, generalisations about men women and love, or about fate and destiny – and especially about Czech history, and of course, focusing on the most traumatic event of his lifetime, the communist coup of 1948 and its consequences.

The ‘short section technique’ allows Kundera to set off a train of events and then to step right outside them and present them from the perspectives of the different characters, revealing – more often than not – that they completely misinterpret each other’s motives. This has been the bedrock of his authorial approach since his first novel, The Joke – the basic premise that people really, really don’t understand each other, and that pretty much all our intentions and aims and plans turn out to be wildly miscalculated, and consistently backfire.

I read all Kundera’s books back in the 1980s when he first became very fashionable, and I had remembered Laughter and Forgetting for being lighter and funnier than its predecessors – but this, I think, was a misleading memory. Although the text is much more broken up and ‘bitty’, more interrupted by digressions and ideas – the actual content is just as grim as its predecessors. The opening story, in particular, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

1. Lost Letters

It is 1971 and Mirek is a dissident who played a prominent role in the 1968 Prague Spring, then, after the Russian tanks and half a million Warsaw Pact soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia, was thrown out of his job and became an unperson. Since then he’s religiously kept all his diaries and journals and the records of meetings of him and dissident friends, despite them all advising him to burn or destroy them. But:

It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. (p.3)

When we read that grand opening sentence back in the early 1980s (the book was published in English in 1980) we all thought it said something profound and beautiful about human nature and politics and society, and the need to resist the ever-growing forces of oblivion (as well as being a good example of Kundera’s straight-out, intellectual, almost academic style. No long paragraphs setting the scene or describing dawn over Prague or an unmarked car drawing up outside a house, none of the normal conventions of fiction. Instead Kundera goes directly to the beliefs and ideas of his main characters.) Anyway, rereading the story today, I realise this simple interpretation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The main event in the story is Mirek driving out to the village to meet up with an old flame of his, his first love in fact, Zdena. Why? Because she has a big cache of all the letters he wrote to her and he wants to secure, protect and guard his archive. Also, there is a deeper psychological reason. He wanted:

to find the secret of his youth, his beginnings, his point of departure. (p.18)

The body of the short story concerns Mirek’s thoughts and reflections about Zdena, for example the fact that, back when they were going out, she was plain and ugly, his friends, and even she herself, were surprised that he was going out with her. Nobody knew that he was timid and shy and a virgin.

As he drives, Mirek realises that his car is being followed, by a car driven by a couple of security goons who make no attempt to hide. When Mirek stops at a friend’s mechanic shop to get the car tuned up, the goons stop too, and watch him, with a smirk.

So that when he finally arrives at Zdena’s house, and is reluctantly invited in, and makes his pitch to ask for his letters back, and she surprises him by saying a categorical NO… Mirek is convinced it’s because she is in league with the security men, and is keeping the letters to hand them over to the authorities, preparatory to his arrest and trial etc. She always was a communist die-hard, a party fanatic, even when they were going out together, as he now remembers bitterly.

But the narrator has told us otherwise. He has explained that Zdena was not a party fanatic but simply clove to the party after Mirek dumped her. After he dumped her, she needed to have something she could trust and base her life on and his became an absolute faith in the Party. It was Mirek who made her what she is.

And, we learn, she is not at all in league with the security men, who she doesn’t even know about. She is simply scared – scared witless, scared of how it’s all got too big and scary, how they’re arresting people, how he might be bringing trouble into her life. She is simply too paralysed by fear to hand the letters over.

Demoralised, Mirek gets back into his car, the security men get back into theirs, and they tail him back to Prague, despite a small interlude when he throws them off in a village and sits parked by the railway station, dazed, pondering his past and future.

The narrator now picks up the theme about memory and forgetting which was announced at the beginning, reflecting that Mirek’s true motive in seeking the letters wasn’t because he never loved Zdena, or regretted loving Zdena. It’s because he loved Zdena so much and is now embarrassed about being associated with such a plain, if not ugly woman, that he wants to erase her from his past. Which leads us up to the author’s message, a characteristically jaundiced view:

By erasing her from his mind [by finally repossessing the letters] he erased his love for her… Mirek is as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting that they want a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. the past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten. (p.22, italics added)

So 1. that grand opening statement turns out to be a lie. Mirek is lying to himself. His grand claim to want to preserve the past from forgetting is completely contradicted by this analysis of his motives. According to his creator, Mirek is every bit as mendacious and controlling as his enemy, the Communist Party.

And 2. when Mirek arrives home he discovers the police are already there, have ransacked his apartment, and read through all the diaries and journals in which he recorded meetings with other dissidents, their criticism of the Party, their analysis of its tyranny after the crushing of the Prague Spring. In other words, they have seized all the documents in which he foolishly implicated and betrayed his closest friends. The last sentences of the ‘story’ are bleak and unforgiving.

After a year of investigatory custody he was put on trial. Mirek was sentenced to six years, his son to two years, and ten or so of their friends to terms of one to six years. (p. 24)

So let us return to that ringing opening line – ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’: it now appears to be contradicted in at least two ways.

  1. Although it’s Mirek’s own line, we have seen that, when push comes to shove, he doesn’t believe it; his quest to reclaim Zdena’s letters is, according to his creator, a quest to erase and rewrite the past as completely as the Communists want to.
  2. Worse, it turns out to be a ludicrously selfish and self-serving position and one which ended up condemning his best friends – and his own son – to years and years in prison.

Could it be that the opposite is true? That maybe the past ought to be forgotten? Certainly I think so. I completely disagree with the old cliché “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s the other way round. Those who obsessively remember the past, are doomed to walk within the confines and categories it imposes on us. In Northern Ireland throughout my life and in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, there were groups of people who clung on to the past, cherished and nurtured their grievances, thirsted for revenge, determined to re-enact the past (the freedom struggle of the Irish people, the freedom struggle of the Serbian people) but this time to win. it seemed back then that it is precisely those who remember the past, who are doomed to repeat it.

Maybe the content of the story proves the complete opposite of that ringing opening declaration.

2. Mother

Marketa and Karel are married. At first they lived with his parents, but Marketa and his mother had daily run-ins, which became so intense that they eventually moved to the other end of the country to be as far as possible away. Then Karel’s father died and Mother was left alone, and Marketa, as she got older, softened. It is Easter and Marketa invites Mother to come and stay for a week, Saturday to Saturday, because they’ve something planned for Sunday.

This is an orgy, well a ménage à trois. Marketa knows Karel has a high sex drive. Early on in their marriage it became clear that he would be the unfaithful one and Marketa would suffer but enjoy moral superiority. Then one day, in a sauna at a spa (the Czechs and their spas!), Eva walks in, naked, beautiful and confident, and starts chatting to Marketa. Soon they are good friends and it makes Marketa feel in control when she introduces Eva to Karel and they become lovers.

The irony is, we learn a few pages later, that Eva and Karel had been lovers for years before this. Their first meeting and love-making is very erotically described. It had been Eva who suggested that she approach Marketa. And so the three of them have settled into having periodic three-way sex. Sunday evening has been set aside for one such session.

But Mother mischievously declares she will only leave on Monday and both Karel and Marketa fail to argue her out of her decision.

On the fateful Sunday evening, the girls have slipped off to the bedroom to change into their sexy outfits (a negligee so short it reveals her pubes, for Eva, a pearl necklace and garter belt for Marketa) and are about to return to the living room, where they’ve been chatting and drinking for Karel, for the erotic entertainment to begin… when Mother comes in!

Now, the saving grace is that Mother has gotten pretty short-sighted and so doesn’t even realise the girls are wearing next to nothing (Marketa scampers out to throw on a raincoat). In fact Karel maliciously welcomes her untimely visit because he’d been getting irritated with the girls. And the story is unusually sympathetic to Mother – unusual in the sense that almost all Kundera’s narratives focus on horny men. She has stumbled back into the living room because she is troubled by the memory of reciting a poem which she had described earlier, over dinner, to Marketa and Karel. She had told them it was a poem about the Austro-Hungarian Empire which she recited at the end of the war. But Karel points out that she left school well before then. Alone in her bedroom, it dawns on her that he is right, and that it was a Christmas poem, not a patriotic one, and that she had recited it years earlier. And now she blunders back into the living room – just as the orgy is about to begin – to set them all right. And, in this odd, ludicrous setup, proceeds to recite the poem again, reviving the distant memory of her girlhood.

And then she goes one further by pointing out that Eva reminds her of Nora, a friend of hers when she was a young woman. And all of a sudden Karel has a flashback, remembers being four years old, in some spa town, and being left in a room, and a little while later the tall, statuesque naked body of Nora entered the room and took a nightgown off a hook. The memory of being four, of being small, and looking up at this huge naked Amazon, has stayed with him ever since.

Having said her peace and fused a bit more, Mother goes quietly back to her room, whereupon Karel arranges Eva as he remembers Nora in that distant memory, and kneels down so she is towering over him. Fired with lust, Karel proceeds to make love to both women furiously.

But, as with all Kundera, there are other perspectives. While he is tupping them, Marketa is miles away, tries to reduce Karel to a headless machine. And afterwards, as the girls are lying on the couch, Eva quietly reinvites Marketa to come away with her and have a threesome with her husband. And Marketa quietly accepts.

Karel may be lost in his childhood reveries, but this doesn’t stop the other characters – his wife and mistress – carrying on living their own lives, pursuing their own goals and agendas.

3. The Angels

The angels are those who believe the world is full of order and rationality. They are humourless imposers of order and pattern and meaning. They are terrifying because they want to abolish all the muddy, confused, speckled, mongrel mixedness of the actual world and real people. Kundera identifies them with the Communist Party, Soviet tyranny, feminists, modern literature teachers, and with hypocrites like the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard, who wrote inspirational poems about Freedom while at the same time supporting the Czech regime which sent poets to their deaths.

To begin this assault Kundera creates a pair of earnest and utterly humourless American feminist literature students who don’t understand that a play by Ionesco is meant to be absurd and funny. And when they do grasp this basic fact, he satirises the funny little choked breathy noise they make. He is referring to their laughter.

The students have a narrow, dogmatic literature teacher, Miss Raphael, who is lonely. She is looking for a circle of like-minded believers to dance with. She has tried the Communist Party, the Trotsykists, the anti-abortionists, the pro-abortionists (this pairing is included to show that she has absolutely no moral underpinnings or beliefs, but is just looking for a gang she can join).

Then Kundera describes the way the idealistic young people, students and writers and artists, danced in the street after the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, danced and laughed, even as innocent politicians and poets and artists were being executed in prisons just a few miles away.

Thus they danced in circles, the high-minded angels, laughing their laughter of joy because the world is so ordered and rational and just. And – in a touch of magical realism – their dancing bodies slowly lifted off the ground till they were dancing in the air.

Similarly, when the two humourless feminist students give their humourless interpretation of Ionesco to their class, their humourless teachers joins hands with them and they, too, rise up into the sky.

But not everyone can join a circle. Circles, in fact, can’t be broken. Unlike ranks. Anyone can slip into the ranks of an army, they are designed to allow any number of new members to fit right in. But getting into a circle is hard, if not impossible, without momentarily breaking it. Circles are exclusive.

Kundera very forcefully emphasises how he doesn’t belong to the flying circles of dancing angels, sublimely convinced of their own rectitude. He was once a Communist, he once danced in those circles, but he was unwise and tactless and expelled from the party, and forbidden to work. He was kicked out of the circle and he has been falling ever since (for nearly 30 years, by the time this book was published) falling falling falling like a meteorite broken loose from a planet (p.66).

Then he gives us an extended example of how his misplaced humour prevented him from ever dancing with the angels.

Forbidden to write for any official outlet, friends got Kundera a job writing an astrology column in a popular magazine for young socialists. It was harmless work, and not particularly well paid. But after a few years, the intelligent young woman editor – known only as R. – who had given him the job was called in for questioning by the security police. Does she realise she is ridiculing socialist youth? Does she realise she is mocking the people? Does she realise she has been associating with notorious enemy of the people Kundera?

She is promptly sacked from her job and when she turns to others in the media, they all cold shoulder her as well. Her career is through. Her life is over. She meets Kundera in a borrowed apartment and she is so terrified by what is happening to her, that she has to keep going to the toilet, her bowels are that upset.

And as he listens to her repeated flushing of the toilet, Kundera realises he has become a curse to those he knows and loves. He really cannot go on living in his homeland, bringing bad luck down on everyone he knows. He will have to go into exile. He will have to carry on falling, falling, falling away from the circles of the angels, the laughing angels, laughing because they know the Truth about a world which is orderly and rational and for the best, rejoicing in how:

rationally organised, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on earth was. (p.62)

4. Lost Letters

The title makes you think it might return to the character Mirek, who we met in the first story. Not at all.

It concerns Tamina. She is a Czech exile, working in a café in an unnamed Western town. She and her husband fled Czechoslovakia illegally, pretending to go on holiday. Thus she never brought all her belongings. Her husband got ill once they were abroad, sickened and died. Hollow and sad, she works at the café, listening to every customer who wants to bend her ear.

One day one of the customers, a tiresome wannabe writer named Bibi, mentions that she and her husband are thinking of going on holiday to Prague. Suddenly Tamina wakes from her sleep. Back in Prague, in a drawer in a desk in her mother’s flat, is a bundle of all the diaries she kept during her eleven-year marriage to her husband.

Suddenly Tamina is fired up and wants them back. She has been living like a ghost. The prospect of repossessing them promises to fill in her life, colour it in, give it detail and background and depth. The rest of the story details her struggles, first of all to get her mother-in-law to unlock the desk and get out the notebooks (every phone call to Prague costs her an arm and a leg), then to persuade her father to take it from the provincial town where they live to Prague where he can hand it over to Bibi.

Just about everything which could go wrong does go wrong, but the ‘story’ is really a peg for Kundera to hang miscellaneous thoughts on. One of these is an extended disquisition about graphomania, namely that back at the beginning writing promoted mutual understanding. But in our current state of graphomania, the opposite is true:

everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without. (p.92)

and again, a bit later:

The proliferation of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, women on the delivery table, mistresses, murderers, criminals, prostitutes, police chiefs, doctors and patients proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out and into the streets with a cry of ‘We are all writers!’

And then:

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and misunderstanding. (p.106)

This was written over forty years ago. How prophetic of the age of Facebook and twitter.

Another theme of the story is how fatuously stupid Westerners are. Several scenes and characters exist solely to satirise the West. For example Bibi dreams of being a writer but comes over as a narcissistic fool. They do contrive a meeting with a real published author, Banaka, who comes over as a pompous bore. One day he turn up in her cafe drunk and on the verge of tears because he was the victim of a poor review in a newspaper. Pathetic.

A professor of philosophy holds forth about the nature of the novel. On a separate occasion Tamina’s with Bibi, her husband and a Japanese woman, watching TV on which two authors get irate. One of them is insisting that the fact that he spent his entire childhood in the village of Rourou is important, very important, vitally important if you are to understand his work. In the room Joujou tells them, straight-faced and humourlessly, that she rarely used to have orgasms, but now she has them regularly. Bored, Bibi remarks offhand that what they really need round here is a revolution to shake things up.

Since all Kundera’s work up to this point describes what a revolution really looks like in practice i.e. the repression, the arrests, the executions, and the systematic humiliation of the entire population, it is difficult to think of anything she could say which would be a more damning indictment of her empty-headed idiocy.

After struggling to get through to her bloody family in Czechoslovakia, Tamina finally gets through to her brother and persuades him to travel to the provincial town and gather her diaries and notebooks from her mother-in-law. He reports that he’s done so, but found the drawer unlocked and the notebooks ransacked. Her mother-in-law has been through them, maybe read everything. Suddenly they don’t feel so precious…

Bibi abruptly announces she is not now going to Prague so Tamina shifts her attentions to Hugo, a young man with bad breath who regularly visits the café and is in love with her. Torpidly, she lets herself be taken out for a date, then back to his place, and stripped naked and penetrated, all without any excitement or interest, solely because Hugo says he will go to Prague and get her things. But he is irritated at her complete passivity. In subsequent meetings she just sits there dumbly while he craps on about his big plans to write a book, yes a book! a book all about power and politics. And then he tells her he has published an article about the Prague Spring which means he will not be allowed to travel to Czechoslovakia. He is sure she understands, he had to, he owed it to the world to share his article.

And suddenly she is so revolted by him, and the memory of him penetrating her, that she runs into the toilets and copiously strenuously throws up. And her vomiting seems, to this reader, to also be a reaction to the self-deception, narcissism and superficiality of the spoilt West.

There was only one thing she wanted, to preserve the memory of her husband and their time together untainted. And just about everyone she knows has conspired to foil that endeavour and desecrate his memory.

She went on serving coffee and never made another call to Czechoslovakia. (p.115)

What this story has in common with the first Lost Letters is how bleak it is.

Part Five – Litost

Kristyna is in her thirties. She lives in a small town with her husband, a butcher, and their little boy. She is having an affair with a mechanic who she allows to penetrate her in the locked security of the garage tyre bay. Then she meets the student, home from university for the vacation, and is seduced by his ways with big words and poetic quotations. He is desperate to make love but she wants him to remain on the level of poetry and ideas. Saying yes would drag him (and her) down into the world of the mechanic. So she meets with him in out-of-the-way places and lets him kiss and touch her but always refuses to go all the way. Finally the holidays end and they make a last-minute pact: she will come up to Prague and stay the night in his accommodation. They both know what this means.

Litost is a Czech word which combines grief, sympathy, remorse and an indefinable longing (p.121). It is ‘a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self’ (p.122). Kundera gives us some stories from the student’s past to flesh it out.

The night Kristyna is coming to stay, the student’s professor, who Kundera wittily names Voltaire, tells him the greatest poet in the land is having a get-together that night and he’s invited. The student is thrown into a quandary: sex or literature? He is young. He chooses sex.

When Kristyna arrives in Prague she is horrified at the seedy little restaurant he’s arranged to meet her in, the kind of place the butcher takes her to. It’s dirty and full of drunks and they give her a table by the toilets. By the time the student arrives, she’s ready to give him a piece of her mind. But he also is chagrined: she is wearing the most embarrassingly provincial clothes imaginable, including heavy strings of pearls and black pumps.

He tries to mollify her and they go out into the streets. She had dreamed of nightclubs and theatres and glamour – but he is only a poor student, after all. He takes her to his garret; it is small and shabby. Suddenly he has a brainwave. He tells her about the evening of poets, and says he’ll go (he can’t take her, it’s men only) but he’ll take a book and get it autographed by the greatest poet.

She willingly agrees, chooses a book off the poet’s shelf and settles down while he hurries off.

Kundera, with the airy candour which has become second nature, tells us that he’s writing all this in 1977. He eventually couldn’t put up with life in communist Czechoslovakia and drove west, as far west as he could till he stopped in the Breton town of Rennes. Now he is setting this passage fifteen years earlier, in the happier days of 1962. He paints a charming eccentric portrait of an evening’s drinking and squabbling among a variety of poets he humorously names after famous poets in the Western tradition, namely Goethe, Verlaine, Petrarch, Yesenin, Lermontov, and the cynic and anti-poet Boccaccio.

This extended depiction of a bunch of boisterous drunken poets is mildly entertaining but I was struck by the echoes of his novel, Life is Elsewhere, about a lyric poet, in which we met Lermontov quite a few times. And by the way Lermontov, in this book, dismisses all the rest of the poets as ‘Mama’s boys’ (p.141) – exactly the accusation Kundera threw at lyric poets as a class in the earlier novel.

Eventually the party breaks up and all the poets group together to help carry Goethe downstairs because he is very old and can’t walk without crutches. Then Lermontov gets in the taxi and volunteers to take him home and handle Mrs Goethe, who is a dragon and always cross when he husband is out late.

The student walks with Petrarch who tells him lots of things about love, for example love and laughter are opposites. Then rushes back to his garret where Kristyna is awaiting him. He presents her with the book of poetry which he got Goethe to sign and indeed write a long personal message for her, and she is genuinely thrilled. He tears off his clothes and jumps into bed with her and she kisses him back but then, when he tries to part her thighs, refuses. And refuses and refuses and refuses. All night long, For hours. He is fired up and hard as rock. But she still wants to preserve the student on a different plane from the rest of her life. (Also, the delivery of her son was so difficult the doctors told her she must never again get pregnant or it would endanger her life.)

Eventually the student rolls off her body and onto his back and, for some obscure reason, Kristyna reaches out and grasps his rigid member, but doesn’t move it or do anything to relieve the pressure. Just holds it. Like a mother, like a sister, passionlessly.

Litost!

Part Six – The Angels

This begins as a literary-political essay about Prague which Kundera calls a city of forgetting. In the works of Kafka Prague is a city which has forgotten its own name, full of unnamed streets and even the characters have forgotten their own names – Josef K. Kundera then moves on to discuss T.G. Masaryk, seventh president of Czechoslovakia, who was installed by the Russians in the aftermath of the crushing of the Prague Spring, and who is known as ‘the president of forgetting’ (p.158). Among other things he sacked some 150 Czech historians, as part of a repressive policy of obliterating the past and writing a new official version.

Tamina reappears, she of Part Four. She is sad because she has forgotten so many details about her husband, not least after making love to the despicable, smelly Hugo. Her plight reminds Kundera of his father, whose dementia meant he slowly lost the power of speech until finally all he could say was one phrase: ‘That’s strange!’

Kundera’s father was a musicologist and had been working on a study of Beethoven’s variations. With the airy confidence with which he slips so much factual content into all his books, Kundera proceeds to stop the narrative while he writes a page or two about the profundity of the variation form, ‘the form of maximum concentration.’ Indeed:

This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, a sense of which fades into the distance. (p.165)

And the figure of Tamina is at its heart, the faithful lover who struggles to remember her beloved.

The rest of the story is odd, and reminds us that, although we remember the sex, and the politics and the philosophy, dreams and fantasy are also a recurring theme in Kundera’s work.

A nice-looking man named Raphael comes into the café, knows Tamina’s name, and asks her to leave with him. They go outside and get into his sports car, and drive off, drive into the country, the green landscape turning sandy, then ochre. It reminds Tamina of the landscape her husband was forced to work in, when he was kicked out of white collar jobs and ended up working a digger on building sites.

He parks by a river and points down towards where a boy is holding the painter of a boat. As in a dream she gets into the boat and he starts to row, but she takes over, rows and rows, they arrive at a strange strand, are greeted by children, she disembarks and is shown the way to a dormitory where she’ll be sleeping, the children tell her that only children live on the island (she walks along the shore and ends up back where she started), and are divided into ‘squirrels’ and ‘tigers’, they are fascinated by her mature breasts and black pubic hair, and she finds herself at night being touched and stroked so she achieves a strange kind of climax, until one day one little urchin twists her nipple hard and she throws them all off, she tries to join in their games, like hopscotch, but gets things wrong, they chase her, catch her in badminton nets, a little like other outsiders in science fiction scenarios, finally she runs down to the seashore and swims, while they yell at her from the shore, she’s a strong swimmer and swims all night imagining she must reach the other side, but when dawn breaks she realises she’s only a few hundred yards from the island and is overcome with fatigue.

Some of the children come out in the rowing boat to watch her curiously, they make no offer to help her, and watch, while she goes under, once, twice, and then drowns.

Part Seven – The Border

This appears to be a whole-hearted satire of life in the West. Jan is from the East and observes the people round him like a zoologist. Jeanne likes to sit cross legged like the Buddha while she traces the outline of the coffee table before her, drawing attention to herself and her asinine comments. Jan drops in on the Clevis family. They are card-carrying liberal progressives, who subscribe to all the best liberal opinions and when he drops in they’ve just finished watching a TV programme on which representatives of all the schools of thought debated one of the big issues of the day, which is whether women should go topless. Jan listens to their fourteen-year-old daughter shout that she’s not going to be anybody’s Sex Object, while her mother cheers her on. The narrator reflects that millions of women across the west have burned their bra and now go about their days work wobbling as Nature intended.

They remind me of the right-on, vegetarian, socialist feminist family, the Webers, in the Posy Simmonds cartoon strip. And any number of other right-on families who were mocked and satirised in the 1970s.

The Clevises point out that poor Jeanne has gone through tragic times because her son ran away for a few days. Jan reflects on what the term tragic means in his country and how trivial it is in this country.

Jan is seeing a girl from a sports rental company. She is an orgasm fanatic. She is determined to have as many as possible, and gives him a running commentary when they’re making love, telling him just what to do when, and where to put his hands and whether to speed up or slow down. She’s like the cox of a rowing eight.

There’s a lot more discussion of sex. Jan speculates there are three kinds of erotic history: all the women you’ve had; all the women you could have had but let slip; and then all the women you could never have had. He is alarmed that more and more women seem to be slipping into this category. Is it because they have ‘begun to organise and reform their perennial fate?’ (I take it he’s referring to feminism).

There’s a passage about the male gaze (presumably Kundera was introduced to all these ideas, along with humourless feminist students, only once he’d arrived in France, in 1975), which he takes for granted as already being a well-known concept. This was forty years ago. Less well known, he asserts, is the fact that the object can look back. The object can cease to be an object, open its eyes, and unsettle and unnerve the gazer, and his protagonist goes on to discuss about various examples of women who bite back, with his girlfriend Edwige, the feminist.

For example, their friend Barbara is known for giving orgies (who are these people? how did he get to know so many women obsessed with sex? how come I never met or heard of anyone like this when I was a young man?) One day she invites their friend Ervin who arrived to find two pretty women and Barbara. Barbara got out an egg timer then the three women stripped naked. Then she told Ervin to strip naked which he quickly did. Then she set the egg timer and said he had precisely one minute to get a hard on or they’d throw him out. And all three women stared at his crotch laughing. Then they threw him out.

Then Jan and Edwige discuss rape. Jan sees rape as integral to eroticism, whereas castration is its negation. Edwige says if rape is integral to eroticism, then we need to develop a new form of eroticism. He defends women who say the word ‘no’ when they don’t mean it. She gets angry and says ‘no means no’. He trots through a repertoire of sexual scenes – the woman acting coy, having to be brought round, concealing her charms, the man having to talk her round, persuade her to reveal herself, and so on. He calls them time-honoured images. She says they certainly are time-honoured – and idiotic! Time to change them all!

And so it goes on, the never-ending ping-ping game between men and women.

Meanwhile, the notion of the border is applied to several situations. A friend is dying of cancer. Jan reflects how very close death is all the time to each of us. The border is an inch away. Ten years ago he used to be visited by a woman for sex. They both stood and stripped in the same hurried way each time. One time she caught his eye and smiled a sad sympathetic smile. Jan was inches away from bursting out laughing, which would have ended their sexual affair. The ‘border’ was there filling the room. But he stifled his laughter, stayed this side of the border. Another time he chatted up a young woman on a train but it just wouldn’t click, despite taking her to the dining car, then out into the corridor and lifting her head into the light as he had done a thousand times before. There was a border of seduction, but he just couldn’t cross it.

There’s also a border when it comes to repetition. Every time something is repeated it loses part of its vital force. Every action therefore has a border, this side of which it retains meaning, that side of which it has become meaningless automatism.

Similarly, many of Jan’s fellow exiles initially felt great attachment to their old country and fiercely vowed to fight for its freedom. But that passion faded, and now many are scared to admit they have passed beyond a psychological border where they realise there is no cause and no fight. And no purpose.

Their friend Passer dies of cancer. At his funeral the hat is blown off the head of Papa Clevis and in successive gusts blown to the feet of the solemn funeral orator. Everyone strains to contain their laughter. Then it blows into the grave itself. When the orator bends to throw the first earth into the grave he is stunned. The watchers strain every sinew not to burst out laughing.

Jan attends one of Barbara’s legendary orgies and is appalled to discover what a bully she is, pushing and arranging and goading and forcing everyone to have a good time. Jan buddies up with a bald man who quips ‘Major Barbara’ and comments that she’s like a coach training her team for the Olympics. Barbara spots them chatting and separates them, taking the bald guy off to a corner where she starts masturbating him, while Jan finds himself being handled by the clumsy provincial stripper who had started proceedings. He finds himself looking over at the bald man, and coming up with more jokes and references and ludicrous metaphors, and suddenly both he and baldie burst out laughing. Barbara is furious. He expels Jan from the party.

Sex is a serious business. It cannot stand being mocked. Now, as Jan moves into his forties (Kundera was nearly 50 when this book was published) he finds himself more and more aware of all these borders: death just inches away; absurdity underlying all our behaviour; sex just a facial flicker away from guffaws.

In the last sequence in the book, just before he goes abroad for good (to America, I think), Jan takes his feminist girlfriend to an island which is a nudist colony. In their rented cottage they strip off, then walk down to the beach to join grandparents, parents, teenagers and toddlers, all stark naked.

Here his misunderstandings with Edwige – and the entire novel’s theme of misunderstandings – reaches a kind of climax. She is obsessed with ‘the Western Judaeo-Christian’ tradition of shame of the body. But Jan is thinking about something quite different. More and more he has been dreaming of a state of bodily arousal which is pleasure but innocent of climax; a pre-sexual state, which he associates with the Greek myth of Daphnis and Chloe.

They sit on the beach in the sun, watching all the naked people around them, and Jan murmurs ‘Daphnis’. Edwige hears this and pounces on it, convinced he shares her feelings about a feminist escape from the Judeao-Christian sexist tradition. He nods agreement although he is sick to death of her trite, stupid obvious ideas, the way she feeds everything into the same half dozen, half-baked ‘issues’. Instead he is consumed with a sense of the sheer absurdity of human existence, and this conviction – so similar to the recurring obsession of his author and creation – is cemented in the vivid image which ends the book.

A group of Edwige’s nudist friends has just come up and been introduced to Jan, and Edwige has mentioned Jan’s throwaway idea that they should name the anonymous little island Daphne.

Everyone was delighted with the idea, and a man with extraordinary paunch began developing the idea that Western civilisation was on its way out and we should soon be freed once and for all from the bonds of Judeo-Christian thought – statements Jan had heard ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand times before – and for the time being those few feet of beach felt like a university auditorium. On and on the man talked. The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand. (p.228)


Thoughts

Are these stories continually interrupted by multiple digressions into interesting topics? Or essays on interesting topics into which ‘characters’ and their slender narratives are occasionally inserted?

Of the five books by Milan Kundera which I’ve read so far, this one has by far the most ‘interruptions’ and digressions; it feels the most finely balanced between narrative and editorial, between story and lecture.

For example, the story titled Litost, with its rhetorical questions and technical explanations (of foreign words and their etymologies) keeps reverting to the nature of an academic essay, a quality demonstrated by one of the last sections which is titled Further Notes for a Theory of Litost. 

Or take the section about the two types of laughing, the demonic which celebrates chaos, and the angelic which celebrates order, which underpins the sections about Angels i.e. that their laughter is repressive.

Or Kundera’s touching memoir of his senile father, and the way he (Kundera) came to understand his father’s scholarly fascination with the variation form.

In fact Part Six has an extended passage remembering much more about his father the musicologist: how he explained to the young Milan the structure and purpose of the key system, before Kundera himself goes on to give his account of the collapse of that system, as overthrown by Schoenberg, the reluctant revolutionary, who ushered in the twelve-tone system, which was to dominate international classical music after the Second World War.

There’s a lot lot more topics like this: on the nature of absurdity and human intention; on the nature of love; on the nature of political and cultural forgetting.

A cultural conservative?

Although he is a striking radical in the technique he brings to the novel, in chopping it up into these bite-sized sections, and inserting all kinds of authorial asides, and with the brisk no-nonsense way he gets straight to the gist of a character’s thoughts… in other ways, when you look at what his discussion values, Kundera can come over as a surprisingly cultural conservative.

In this book he thinks ‘beauty’ is a thing of the past which has been buried under a deluge of pop music and public announcements. He thinks Schoenberg murdered music and, as with the three-hundred page diatribe against lyric poetry which is his second novel, Life Is Elsewhere, he did it with the best of intentions. His innovation represented the death of classical music, but he made it with excitement and daring, and his post-war devotees were zealots and extremists of the kind Kundera deplores.

Bleakly, he says that everyone who spouts the big word Progress, imagines it means progress towards a bright new future. They don’t realise that what they are moving towards is death (p.179).

He hates pop music. There are a couple of pages comparing the Czech pop singer Karel Gott with the president of forgetting, T.G. Masaryk, in the sense that both want to bury the past. Pop music is ‘music without memory’, music deprived of the legacy of Bach to Beethoven, music reduced to the stumps of its basic elements, mindlessly repeated over a nightmareishly amplified totalitatarian beat.

Towards the end of the book he rubbishes the entire notion of ‘progress’.

Jan had never shared Passer’s enthusiasm for observing how things change, though he did appreciate his desire for change, considering it the oldest desire in man, mankind’s most conservative conservatism. (p.215)

Pessimistic stuff, isn’t it?

Lost in the West

In this the book represents Kundera’s uneasy transition to the ‘free’ society of the West. In a sense, it was easy to write in the East because art, poetry and literature were taken seriously, especially by the regime, which paid artists and writers the great tribute of locking them up and, in the Soviet Union, of murdering them.

In the communist East there was not only a shortage of food and consumer goods (cars, fridges), which meant you made do with a much more threadbare lifestyle – but a shortage of types of lifestyle. At its simplest, you were either for the regime or against it, and everyone trod a very careful path so as not to put a foot wrong and be dragged off to prison.

This was Kundera’s first book published since he defected to the West (in 1975) and although his technical achievement (the chopping up of narratives into micro-sections and their interleaving with meditations on all kinds of subjects) has reached giddy heights, it seems to me that he is struggling with the sheer profusion of narratives available in the West.

Put simply, there’s so much crap. Radios are on everywhere blaring out idiot pop music, muzak in lifts and supermarkets, so much cheap food the inhabitants make themselves sick and fat, shiny adverts bombard you from radio, TV, cinema and huge hoardings.

And people fuss and fret about such trivia – epitomised by the monstrous superficiality of the would-be novelist Bibi in Part Two, or the ludicrous self-centred ‘tragedy’ of Jeanne in Part Seven, or the stupid television debates about whether women should or should not go bare breasted on beaches. Is this it? Is this what thousands of years of human civilisation dwindle down to? An endless froth of trivia?

Maybe this is what he means when he says that the entire book is about Tamina, protagonist of the fourth and sixth stories, which is at first a puzzling statement, since a number of the other characters (Mirek and Karel spring to mind) are well defined and memorable. But:

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror. (p.165)

And who is Tamina? She is an exile in the West. She loves her country and feels she left her soul there. But all her attempts to reclaim it are foiled. She is appalled by the superficiality (Bibi) and selfishness (Hugo) and pretentiousness (the writers bickering on TV) of ‘cultural’ life in the West. And what happens to her in the end? She drowns.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

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Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece @ the British Museum

In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. (Rodin, 1892)

Rodin and the British Museum

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, is widely seen as the godfather of modern sculpture. He visited London for the first time in 1841. On a trip to the British Museum, he discovered the so-called Elgin Marbles, the supersize Greek sculptures of men horses and mythical creatures which once lined the Parthenon in Athens – and was immediately captivated by their scale and power.

For this exhibition the Museum has had the strikingly simple and effective idea of borrowing a substantial number of Rodin’s classic works from the Rodin Museum in Paris, and placing them next to and among a generous selection of original Parthenon sculptures. Over 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster, along with some 13 of Rodin’s sketches, are displayed alongside major pieces of ancient Greek art from the Museum collection.

Thus the exhibition includes a number of Rodin’s greatest hits, iconic sculptures which are part of the Western imaginarium, such as The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais.

Years ago, when a teenager, I hitch-hiked to Paris, kipped in the Bois de Boulogne,and spent the days going on pilgrimages to all the art galleries and museums. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the Musée Rodin and that disappointment has lasted to this day. The exhibition was an opportunity to see if my largely negative image of Rodin stood up to the evidence or was just a personal prejudice.

The ancient Greeks

Between 1800 to 1812 workmen employed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, or ‘the Sublime Porte’ as it was referred to in those days –  removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, the vast temple to Athena in Athens, as well as sculptures from the nearby buildings Propylaea and Erechtheum. These were shipped to Britain and put on display but, even at the time, contemporaries were critical enough for Parliament to hold an enquiry into his actions. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government who passed them along to the recently created British Museum where, despite vocal lobbying by the Greek government, they remain to this day.

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Throughout the nineteenth century the art of ancient Greece, and especially the statuary, was seen as the peak of human creativity and art. Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had attempted to recreate some of their magic in painting, but the Greeks remained the source of artistic ideas of Beauty, which were built around realism – the realistic depiction of the human and animal body, with accuracy, elegance and grace.

The Parthenon figures were carved to fill the triangular pediment at the west and east of the building, as well as to fill the metopes or square alcoves roughly above each of the 46 outer columns. There was also a set of inner columns supporting an inner wall, and above these ran a continuous frieze of figures carved in relief.

There was, in other words, a huge amount of space to be filled by more than life size carvings of gods and heroes and animals (mostly horses being ridden in battle). Hence the fact that, even though the Elgin Marbles only represent a fraction of the originals, they still fill a vast gallery at the Museum.

Because all the statues we have now are worn to a kind of perfect white, people forget that Greek sculpture was originally brightly painted, and sometimes had gold leaf applied. This is a fanciful imagining of how the Parthenon would have looked when new. At this end we can see the pediment filled with freestanding statues of gods, small in the narrow ends, growing larger in size to gesture up towards the King of the Gods at the apex. And underneath you can see a set of 14 metopes above each column, each with an individual carving of an incident from Greek myth.At the Museum the curators tried to recreate the effect of the arched pediment by placing the scattered fragments in their correct positions relative to each other, with the metope carvings placed separately. This is how Rodin saw and was overwhelmed by them.

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is so special about the sculptures from the Parthenon? They were thought, even by the Greeks themselves, to be the peak of their artistic achievement. The sculptor in charge of the works, Phidias, was credited with a godlike power for realism, for his ability to summon the gods from Olympus, and heroes from the Elysian Fields, and place them before the viewer.

For me the important factors are:

  1. They are larger than life. They had to be since they were embedded 30 metres high on walls.
  2. As a result their gestures are clear and distinct. The overall positioning of all the figures creates harmonies and rhythms which are perceivable even at a distance.
  3. Counter-intuitively, maybe, there is a staggering amount of detail in the sculptures. Observed down at eye level in an exhibition like this (as they were never intended to be seen), you can see the amount of effort that has gone in to depicting the muscles, ligaments and veins of, for example, this wonderful horse’s head, with its flared nostrils and bulging eyes. It’s called the Selene horse’s head because it is part of a frieze depicting the moon goddess, Selene.
Selene horse's head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

Selene horse’s head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

There is therefore, to my mind, a kind of super realism about the figures. They are larger than life in both senses – the subjects are gods of heroes of legend, and the figures are all larger than life size – yet they include finely carved details which also work to ennoble, expand and aggrandise the figures. They are images of power, imaginative, political and cultural power.

Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910 Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo by Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

By the 1880s Rodin had made his reputation as a sculpture and was gaining public commissions. He had always been fascinated by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, still in his day held up as the absolute peak of human artistic achievement.

He had already studied Greek sculpture from books, sketches and casts available to him in Paris (he never, in fact, went to Greece). After all the Louvre in Paris has a large collection of ancient Green sculpture. Where possible Rodin collected fragments of ancient sculpture when they became available, placing them around the garden of his property in Meudon. Apparently he moved and repositioned them among the trees and bushes to create changing artistic effects.

Eventually he amassed a collection of some 6,000 fragments and he never ceased sketching and drawing them, from all angles. The result is a vast archive of sketches, drawings, half-finished carvings and completed sculptures.

Rodin’s aesthetic

But Rodin wasn’t slavishly devoted to simply making copies of ancient Greek perfection. He had a more modern aesthetic than that. He came to believe that sculptures had a life cycle of their own, an inner artistic integrity. If many had been damaged, well, that was their fate, and their current damaged state was somehow ‘true’ to their inner destiny. Thus Rodin resisted various suggestions that ancient Greek statues be ‘repaired’. You can see what he’s getting at.

Rodin liked the way that powerful expression was conveyed through the fragmented bodies of the Greek statues. He even removed the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past. By doing so, he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso.

This explains the prominence of process in Rodin’s own work. Many of his pieces seem to be emerging from the stone they are carved in, often with struggle. Similarly his ‘finished’ pieces often betray the work and effort required to make them.

The exhibition displays a massive male torso from the Parthenon next to a similar sized male torso by Rodin. The Parthenon one is smooth (though with pockmarks and gouges caused over time) but the Rodin one has a deliberately knobbly bobbly surface – at its core it is a realistic depiction of the male body, muscles and all, but in Rodin’s hands the sculpture also preserves the sense of effort which went into making it. The statue is not so much an image of Perfection as a symbol of the human effort to create Perfection.

Torso by Auguste Rodin

Torso by Auguste Rodin

On reflection, it is this deliberate favouring of a muddy, impure, less than precise, deliberately knobbly, bulgy, imperfect surface, which I don’t like about Rodin.

You see it in individual works and in his larger compositions.

The gates of hell

In the same year he visited the British Museum, 1881, aged 41, Rodin received his first big public commission, to create the bronze gates for a new museum of the decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante, Rodin decided to create a set of gates on the theme of hell (‘Abandon hope all ye that enter here’ being the motto carved above the gates of hell in Dante’s medieval poetic epic, The Divine Comedy).

To this day I remember the massive build-up given to this piece at the Musée Rodin in Paris, and then my massive disappointment on seeing it. Instead of clarity and order – the clarity and rhythm you see so perfectly achieved in the Parthenon friezes – what I was immediately struck by was what a mess it is.

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

I defy you to figure out what is going on here. Your eye is drawn to the three figures at the top (themselves in a demoralising, broken backed huddle) then to the figure of the Thinker beneath them and beneath him? What the devil is going on in the two panels of the doors? And what is happening on the two columns either side of the doorway? I still find it as muddy and confusing as I did forty years ago.

The exhibition has a large section devoted to the gates. Rodin worked on it for decades, even after the planned museum was abandoned and the commission rendered redundant. He continued tinkering with all the small figures, taking many of them out of the gates and blowing them up into full-scale figures.

The most famous is The Thinker and there is a huge cast of it here. For me it epitomises Rodin’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

On the pro side it captures an archetypally human action in such a profound way that it quickly became an icon of Western art, and is probably among the half dozen most famous art images in the world (along with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David etc).

But, up close and personal, I don’t like it. It looks lumpy and unfinished. (Alas it reminded me a bit of The Thing from the Fantastic Four comics in the way the surface, though polished and shiny, is ridged and gnarled and patched with what look like strips of clay used to build up the figure, rather than the actual lineaments of cartilage and muscle.)

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

It looks unfinished in exactly the way that the Gates of Hell look unfinished to me – muddy and indistinct.

This, I’m sure, is part of Rodin’s conscious aesthetic, a muscular, sculptural style which makes a virtue of flagging up its own effort, the struggle of creation.

Aesthetic of the unfinished

Among other aspects of this, Rodin encouraged the assistants and students who often helped him to carve his figures (he ran a workshop full of assistants) to leave secondary parts of the sculpture unfinished, and even to emphasise the physicality of the work by marking secondary areas with notches created by claw hammers and chisels.

This is perfectly obvious in Rodin’s other supersonically famous work, The Kiss of 1882. The exhibition curators a) are proud to have borrowed this larger-than-lifesize plaster cast of the kiss from the Rodin Museum. And b) make the ingenious suggestion that the pose of the two lovers (actually a scene from Dante’s Inferno of two adulterous lovers about to be discovered and murdered by the cuckolded husband) is based on the pose of two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

But for me the really dominant motif is the deliberately rough unfinished nature of the rock they’re sitting on. On the plus side I suppose the proximity of the gouged and hacked rock emphasises and brings out the luxurious smooth polished surface of the lovers’ two young bodies. But I still don’t like it.

To clarify further, here are two works which are directly related. The first one is a scene from the fight between the lapiths and the centaurs, which takes up a large part of one of the friezes on the Parthenon and is thought to be an allegory of the struggle between reason and animality. Note the clarity, even the stylised nature of the pose, and the clarity of line of each of the figures.

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Next to it the exhibition places a sculpture titled The Centauress (1904), a figure Rodin expanded from a minor position on the gates of hell.

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

I found this object particularly ugly and clumsy. The device of having the figure emerge from heavily-notched stone really doesn’t work for me at all. The way her overlong arms are merging with the pillar strikes me as some kind of horrifying physical deformity or mutation. It is not a very good depiction of either a horse’s body or a woman’s torso, and the less said about the unformed / melting head the better.

To summarise – Rodin’s attempt to assimilate the Greek influence and go beyond it to create a new ‘modern’ aesthetic of fragments which foreground the effort of their own creation has, in my opinion, very hit and miss results. Mostly miss.

His large masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, is here – as a complete piece showing six larger-than-lifesize statues of the six men, alongside individual preparatory studies of some of the figures.

If you are a student of sculpture or a fan of Rodin this is a really thrilling opportunity to study his sketches, his inspiration, his working practices and the models which go towards creating a masterpiece. But for me, set among the light and clarity of line and design of the Greeks, they felt clumsy and hulking, their postures contrived and awkward.

Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

Phidias

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the cusp of modernism

Rodin lived long enough to see the advent of full-blown Modernism. By 1905 Matisse and Picasso in their different ways were experiencing the influence of ‘primitive’ masks from Africa and the Pacific which were suggesting entire new ways of seeing and thinking about ‘art’.

Within a few years a new generation of sculptors would break decisively with the entire Western tradition and its indebtedness to the naturalism of the ancient Greeks – the ones that spring to mind being Jacob Epstein (b.1880), Eric Gill (b.1882), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (b.1891) and Alberto Giacometti (b.1901).

I suppose it’s unfair to compare Rodin to what came after him, but for me this next generation of sculptors blow the world apart, open the doors to an infinity of possibilities, and are the true creators of modern sculpture.

For me, a piece like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (c.1913) is worth more than everything Rodin did put together. I like clarity of line and design as against muddiness and vagueness, crisp geometry as against random lumpiness, and energy as against languid kissing, dull thinking and the hapless, demoralised postures of the Calais Burghers.

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

For me the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is sensuous but with a virile, alert, energetic sensuality, the sensuality of athletic life.

Light and airy exhibition space

By far the most striking thing about the exhibition is that the Museum has opened up the big windows at the end of the Sainsbury Gallery in order to let light flood in.

The partitions between different sections of the show do not extend to the ceiling so the effect is not of separate ‘rooms’ – rather dark and gloomy rooms as they had for, say, the Scythians exhibition – but of light flooding throughout the space, showing the Greek works, in particular, in something more like the fierce Mediterranean light of their homeland.

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

I’m afraid this isn’t a very good photo, but enough to show how the individual statues are staged at the window end of the exhibition, building up to the full cast of the Burghers of Calais in the middle distance of the shot.

The effect of this natural light, and the clean lines and clarity of the modern floor-to-ceiling windows, are wonderfully uplifting. It was relaxing to just sit on the benches conveniently placed next to them, and to enjoy the precise, geometrical architecture of the Georgian houses opposite, and the bright patio space with its carefully tended shrubs and small trees.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites @ the National Gallery

This is a smallish (just 33 works) but really beautiful and uplifting exhibition.

It’s devoted to showing the influence of the northern Renaissance painter, Jan van Eyck, on the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters. Well, I love Northern Renaissance art and I love later Victorian art, so I was in seventh heaven.

In the mid-19th century Jan van Eyck was credited as the inventor of oil painting by the Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, author of the Lives of the Great Painters (1550). We now know this not to be strictly true; a more realistic way of putting it is that Van Eyck and his contemporaries in the mid-15th century Netherlands brought oil painting to an extraordinary level of refinement and brilliance. They were the first to use multiple ‘glazes’ (building up successive layers of partly translucent paint) and to pay astonishing attention to detail, producing works which combined amazing precision and sumptuous colour, with an intoxicating sense of depth.

Van Eyck versus del Piombo

The exhibition opens with a ten-minute film (shown in a dark room off to one side) which explains the idea succinctly. In the 1840s the National Gallery only owned one work by any of the Netherlandish masters – Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, which it acquired in 1842 when the National Gallery itself was only 18 years old.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

At that point, the Royal Academy’s School of Art was located in the same building as the small National Gallery collection. All the art students of the day had to do was walk along a few corridors to view this stunning masterpiece. Among these art students were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in 1848.

Nearby hung the very first painting acquired by the Gallery, this enormous work from the High Renaissance, The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo. The PRBs thought that works like this had become so stylised and formalised as to have become meaningless and devoid of emotion. They disliked the artificial poses, the pious sentiments, the sickly colouring, the simplified pinks and blues and greens.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The raising of Lazarus typified everything the PRBs disliked in painting, a sterile academicism. Compare and contrast the van Eyck, with its precision of detail (look at the pearls hanging on the wall, the candelabra, the fur trimming of husband and wife), the humane mood and emotion, and the realistic use of light.

The PRBs rejected Piombo, Michelangelo, Raphael, all the masters of the High Renaissance and, as a group, made a concerted effort to return to the twinkling detail and humanity of medieval painting. (A trend which was helped by the medievalising tendency in Victorian culture generally, epitomised by the poetry of Tennyson, the historical novels of Scott, and which would be carried through into the Arts and craft movement by William Morris).

The appeal of the Northern Renaissance

In total the exhibitions comprises a room or so of works by van Eyck and contemporaries (Dirk Boults, Hans Memling) before three rooms look at masterpieces by the PRBs which pay homage to the Arnolfini Wedding; and a final room looks at its influence on art at the turn of the century.

Pride of place in the first room goes to van Eyck’s stunning self-portrait. For me this epitomises the strength of northern Renaissance painting in that it is humane and realistic. Unlike Italian Renaissance paintings which tend to show idealised portraits of their sitters, this presents a genuine psychological portrait. The more you look the deeper it becomes. His wrinkles, the big nose, the lashless eyelids – you feel this is a real person. For me, this has extraordinary psychological depth and veracity.

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Near to it is a Virgin and Child by fellow northerner, Hans Memling. I love the medieval details which cling to these works, the toy sailing ship in the background such as might have been used in the Hundred Years War. Note the way there is perspective in the picture (things further away are smaller) but it is not the mathematically precise perspective which Italian Renaissance painters liked to show off. In particular the floor is set at an unrealistically sloping angle. Why? To show off the detail of the black and white tiling, and especially of the beautifully decorated carpet.

As well as the humanity of the figures and faces, it is this attachment to gorgeous detail which I love in north Renaissance art.

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The convex mirror

Next we move on to the first of the Victorian homages to van Eyck and it immediately becomes clear why the exhibition is titled Reflections. The curators have identified a thread running through major early, later and post-Pre-Raphaelite paintings – use of the CONVEX MIRROR.

If you look closely at the Arnolfini Wedding, you can see not only the backs of the married couple but a figure who is usually taken to be a self-portrait of the artist. It adds an element of mystery (nobody is completely certain it is the artist in the mirror), it expands the visual space by projecting it back behind us, so to speak, and painting an image distorted on a convex surface, along with the distorted reflection of the window, is an obvious technical tour de force.

Now look at this early Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, the Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) in which a ‘kept woman’ is suddenly stirring from the lap of the rich bourgeois who keeps her (in this instance, in a luxury apartment in St John’s Wood).

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

Note the sloping floor which gives full scope to a gorgeous depiction of the patterned carpet; the hyper-realistic detailing of every one of the cluttered elements in the room, for example the grain of the piano, the gilt clock on top of it, the crouching cat, which recalls the dog in the van Eyck. But behind the figures is an enormous mirror which adds a tremendous sense of depth to the main image.

Maybe it is a symbol in a painting packed with religious symbolism: maybe the window opening into sunlight and air is an allusion to the woman’s possible redemption from her life of shame.

The curators have selected works which demonstrate the way the mirror theme is repeated by all the pre-Raphaelites, famous and peripheral. Here’s an early Burne Jones watercolour where he’s experimenting with a complex mirror which consists of no fewer than seven convex mirrors each reflecting a different aspect of the main event (the capture of Rosamund by Queen Eleanor).

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

The exhibition explains that this type of convex mirror became highly fashionable among the PRBs and their circle. Rossetti was said to have over 20 mirrors in his house in Chelsea, including at least ten convex ones. In fact we have a painting done by his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn which shows a view of Rossetti’s own bedroom as reflected in one of his own convex mirrors.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

A generation after The Awakening Conscience Holman Hunt uses a mirror again, this time because it is part of the narrative of the influential poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott. In Tennyson’s poem the eponymous lady lives her life in a high tower, shut off from real life outside, devoting her life to creating an enormous tapestry, seeing the world outside only as it is reflected in a grand mirror. One day along comes the heroic knight Sir Lancelot, the mirror cracks and the lady rises up, leaves her ivory tower and ventures out into ‘real life’.

(A relevant fable for our times, maybe, when so many of us are addicted to computer screens and digital relationships that we have coined an acronym, IRL [in real life] to depict the stuff that goes on outside the online realm.)

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries/Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries / Bridgeman Images

Note the wooden sandals or ‘pattens’ on the floor which are a direct quote from the Arnolfini Wedding, as is the candelabra on the right.

This painting is hanging in a room devoted to the story of the Lady of Shalott since, obviously enough, the mirror plays a central part in the narrative, and so gave painters an opportunity to explore ideas of distortion, doubling and reflection, ways to convey complex psychological drama.

Nearby is hanging another masterpiece by a favourite painter of mine, John William Waterhouse.

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / Bridgeman Images

In the mirror we can see what the lady sees i.e. the window through which she can see dashing Sir Lancelot and the green fields of the real world. But we are looking at her looking at him although, in fact, she seems to be looking at us. And in her eyes is conveyed the haunting knowledge that, although her life to date may have been a sterile imprisonment – in fact, her emergence into ‘real life’ – in the poem – leads to her mysterious and tragic death.

I love Waterhouse’s faces – like Burne-Jones he hit on a distinctive look which is instantly identifiable, in Waterhouse’s case a kind of haunted sensuality.

By this stage, we are nearly 40 years after the first Pre-Raphaelite works, and Waterhouse’s art shows a distinctively different style. Among the things the PRBs admired in van Eyck was the complete absence of brushstrokes; the work was done to such a high finish you couldn’t see a single stroke: it was a smooth flat glazed surface, and they tried to replicate this in their paintings. Forty years later Waterhouse is not in thrall to that aesthetic. He has more in common with his contemporary, John Singer Sargent, in using square ended brushes and being unafraid to leave individual strokes visible (if you get up close enough), thus creating a looser, more shimmering effect.

In the final room the curators attempt to show that van Eyck’s convex mirror remained a source of inspiration for the next generation of artists, including Mark Gertler, William Orpen, and Charles Haslewood Shannon. These artists incorporated the mirror into their self-portraits and in domestic interiors well into the early 1900s, as seen in Orpen’s The Mirror (1900) and Gertler’s Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918).

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Conclusion

In the final room the curators include a massive copy of Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) on the basis that the van Eyck was for a time hung in the Spanish Royal Collection and so might have directly inspired Velázquez’s use of the mirror motif.

At moments I became confused whether this was an exhibition about van Eyck’s overall stylistic impact on the Pre-Raphaelites – or a history of ‘the mirror’ in painting. You feel the exhibition doesn’t quite do either theme thoroughly: ‘the mirror in art’ would be a vast subject; ‘van Eyck’s convex mirror’ would result in probably a smaller show than the one here, whereas ‘van Eyck’s influence on the PRBs’ would have stopped earlier, certainly not including the 20th century works and probably not the Waterhouse.

So in the end I was left slightly confused by the way the exhibition had two or three not-totally-complete threads to it. But who cares: on the upside it includes a number of absolutely beautiful masterpieces. The mirror theme is kind of interesting, but I found the alternative thread – the direct relationship between van Eyck’s meticulous realism and that of the early PRBs – much the most visually compelling theme.

It is epitomised in this wonderful masterpiece by John Everett Millais, painted when he was just 22.

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

No convex mirror in sight, but what is in evidence is a luminous attention to naturalistic detail (the needle in the embroidery on the table, the leaves on the floor, the wee mouse, bottom right, echoing van Eyck’s doggie) and the technique.

The curators explain that Millais used a resin-based paint for the stained glass and especially the blue velvet dress, comparable to van Eyck’s use of layers of ‘glaze’ — both of them seeking – and achieving – an incredible sensation of depth and colour and sensual visual pleasure which only oil painting can convey.


Videos

Here’s the one-minute promotional film, with funky three-dimensional techniques.

And the 50-minute-long presentation by the exhibition’s co-curators.

There are a few other short films the National Gallery has produced on aspects of the show, all accessible from this page.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo and Sebastiano @ the National Gallery

Introduction

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born near Arezzo, in Tuscany, in 1475. At age 13 he was sent to study art in Florence, the greatest centre of art and learning in Italy, where he was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio, a master in fresco painting, perspective, figure drawing and portraiture. Here he imbibed the Florentine principles of meticulous figure drawing and careful planning of a composition.

Sebastiano Luciani, later nicknamed del Piombo, was born ten years later in 1485 in Venice. He became a pupil of Giovanni Bellini and then of Giorgione. From the latter, especially, he absorbed a more improvisatory approach to composition, combined with a soft almost misty use of light, along with the traditional Venetian emphasis on gorgeous colour. (The greatest colourist of all, Titian, was born in Venice just 5 years later.)

In 1511 Sebastiano arrived in Rome whose art world he found riven with rivalries, especially that between the established genius, Michelangelo, who was hard at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a commission which took from 1508 to 1512) and his main rival, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino – otherwise known as Raphael – born in 1483, who was soon to be commissioned to paint the walls of the nearby Vatican library.

Michelangelo never liked oil painting; he was more a sculpture or a creator of frescos. He quickly realised that Sebastiano was the only oil painter in town who could take on Raphael, so there was a strong element of calculation in  his befriending of the younger man. Sebastian, for his part, was able to work with the greatest genius of the age.

It was the start of a 25-year-long friendship, which included a long correspondence, and collaboration on a number of major commissions. This exhibition features seventy or so works – paintings, drawings, sculptures and letters – which are masterpieces in their own right, shed light on the working practices of both men, and chronicle a unique friendship at the height of the Renaissance.

Differing approaches

Their differing approaches are epitomised in the first of the show’s six rooms by two unfinished works. Michelangelo is represented by a painting of The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’). Note the careful composition, the adult figures and child figures in neat rows, and the high finish of the human skin, almost like sculpted stone.

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels ('The Manchester Madonna') by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

Compare and contrast with Sebastiano’s Judgement of Solomon. It’s possible to see, on the unfinished legs of the figure at right, various other postures which have been tried out and superseded. Also the faces are much softer and misty, something which is especially clear on the face of the mother on the right.

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

Collaborations

1. The nocturnal Pieta

Lamentation over the dead Christ, also known as the Viterbo Pietà (about 1512-1516) was Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s first collaboration. Michelangelo did the design and detailed sketches of the figures (sketches which can be seen here, next to the finished work) while Sebastiano actually painted it, adding the background landscape characteristic of Venetian art. (Compare and contrast with the softness of the figures and the mysterious background in the famous Tempest of Sebastiano’s teacher, Giorgione). In fact, this is, apparently, one of the first nocturnal landscapes in European art.

For my money, by far the best thing about it is the body of Christ. It has the best of both artists – Michelangelo’s sense of structure and musculature, softened by Sebastiano’s smooth oil technique.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

2. Raising of Lazarus

There are several stories about this painting.

1. It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici in Rome, who simultaneously commissioned a ‘Transfiguration’ from Raphael. The Lazarus was taken to Cathedral of Narbonne, where Giulio was cardinal.

2. Raphael’s Transfiguration is arguably the better painting, in terms of the drama of its structure and composition. The Sebastiano comes over as more cluttered and cramped. In fact the reproduction below makes it look better – more dramatic – than it is in real life, where it feels immense and overpowering.

3. X-ray photography has shown that Sebastiano changed the posture of some of the figures. The audioguide suggests that Michelangelo dropped by after the initial outline was created, and suggested changes to make it more dramatic e.g. the arm of Lazarus (bottom right) originally stretched out towards Christ and his head was further back. Changing the arm and head positions makes his figure more dynamic.

4. Lastly, the painting came into the ownership of the British collector Sir George Beaumont who, in turn, left it to the nation in 1824, in the collection which was to become the foundation of the National Gallery. All the NG’s works are numbered and this painting is actually the very first in the catalogue – NG1.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

3. The Borgherini chapel

The Borgherini Chapel was commissioned by Michelangelo’s friend and broker, the Florentine banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini (1488–1558) and was created inside the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome.

The frescoes showing The Flagellation of Christ and The Transfiguration were painted by Sebastiano. Michelangelo was slated to provide the designs, but left Rome for Florence after only providing drawings for the central Flagellation and possibly a layout for the Transfiguration. The entire wall and alcove of the chapel has been recreated using state-of-the-art digital technology by Spanish workshop, Factum Arte.

The composition is in three levels: centre bottom is Christ being flagellated; above in the ceiling is Christ rising to heaven; above that is the coat of arms of Pierfrancesco Borgherini. He is flanked by three sets of ‘authorities’: on the lowest level, by Saint Peter (left) and Saint Francis of Assisi (right) (the namesakes of the sponsor); to either side of the transfigured Christ are Moses (left) and Aaron (right); above, on the flat wall, are St Matthew (left) and Isaiah (right). It is these last two figures which are most reminiscent of Michelangelo; they could both have come straight from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The exhibition's digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of An Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

The exhibition’s digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

It’s only mentioned a few times, mainly in reference to the stunning over-life-size sculpture of Jesus by Michelangelo which is displayed here in two versions, but I was fascinated to learn how the image of the resurrected Christ was an object not only of anatomical beauty but of philosophical and theological inspiration for these artists and contemporary humanist reformers. The perfection of the naked body, as first created by Greek sculptors 2,000 years earlier, embodied a perfection of moral and theological being to which all humans could aspire. Hence there is a kind of luminous perfection of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

Catholic Christianity and its discontents

It’s sort of obvious, but all these works celebrate Roman Catholic Christianity, at its headquarters in Rome, working for its chief officer on earth, the Pope. As a Protestant I am always aware that these exquisite art works were produced with money mulcted from the peasants and poorest people of Europe by huge numbers of roaming tax collectors, penance providers, summoners and pardoners of the kind satirised by Chaucer over a hundred years earlier, and whose cynicism and corruption so disgusted the monk Martin Luther that he undertook a sweeping condemnation of the entire structure of the church and its underlying theology.

These years of glorious artistic achievement also saw the start of what came to be known as ‘the Reformation’, triggered when Luther nailed his 95 theses against the church to the door of his local church in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther’s theology was diametrically opposed to the optimistic humanism of Michelangelo and many of the other artists of the High Renaissance. While they thought humans could aspire to an almost supernatural perfection – bodied forth in their immaculate statues – Luther emphasised the irredeemably fallen state of degraded sinful humanity – incapable of anything, any action, any moral behaviour, any thoughts of beauty, without the all-powerful grace of God to lift us.

The sack of Rome

The Reformation itself doesn’t impinge on any of these works, but the chronic instability of central Europe certainly does. For the cardinal who commissioned Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus went on to become Pope Clement VII, ruling from 1523 to his death in 1534. In the interminable conflict between the Holy Roman Emperors (in this case, Charles V), the Papacy and the rising power of France, Clement made the mistake of allying with France. This led a large mercenary army of Charles V to lay siege to Rome and, on 6 May 1527, to breach the city walls and go on a week-long rampage of looting, raping, killing and burning.

Clement retreated to the enormous Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was accompanied (presumably among many others) by Sebastiano who forged a close friendship with him. Before and after the siege Sebastiano painted several portraits of Clement. As a result, in 1531 Clement appointed him piombatore, or keeper of the lead seal which was used to seal papal messages. It was a lucrative sinecure paying a stipend of some eight hundred scudi and explains why in later life he was nicknamed ‘del Piombo’, which translates literally as ‘of the lead’ and, more figuratively, as ‘of the seal’.

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

End of the friendship

Raphael had died suddenly, very young (aged 37) in 1520, at which point Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome. During the 1520s he gradually lost his Venetian style, adopting more monumental forms and a cooler range of colour. According to Michelangelo’s friend, the painter and great historian of Renaissance art, Giorgio Vasari, Sebastiano grew increasingly lazy, addicted to gaming and drinking.

His friendship with Michelangelo seems to have ended in the mid-1530s. Michelangelo had spent much of the 1520s in Florence, carrying out various commissions for the Medici family. In 1534 he returned to Rome and to a major commission to paint the end wall of the Sistine Chapel with the scene of the Last Judgement. The story goes that Michelangelo asked his old collaborator to prepare the wall for him, but that Sebastiano prepared it to be painted in oil – using a technique he had developed in Michelangelo’s absence. Apparently, Michelangelo was furious, had Sebastiano’s preparatory work torn down and insisted on doing the fresco his way.

Maybe. But Michelangelo was notoriously touchy. As the historian who is interviewed on the audioguide put it, Sebastiano had a longer run than most friends of the irascible genius, possibly because through most of the 1520s they’d lived in different cities. Maybe it was simply living in the same city again, that led to an inevitable break.

The works of art in this exhibition are stunning. But it can also be enjoyed as the story of a remarkable friendship; as giving fascinating insight into the compositional and painting techniques of the High renaissance; and as shedding an oblique light on the seismic contemporary events of the reformation and the Sack of Rome.

Although housed in just six rooms, it feels very, very full – of ideas, insights and breath-taking works of art.

Favourite

It’s easy to be over-awed by the brilliance, or certainly the size, of many of the works on display here. For me (the copy of) Michelangelo’s sculpted Pietà was head and shoulders better than anything else on display. It is an astonishing work and mind-boggling to realise that he made it when he was only 25!

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo's Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter's, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter’s, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

But it would be easy to overlook the maybe thirty sketches and cartoons by both artists – the Michelangelo generally more forceful and energetic than the Sebastiano. My favourite work in the whole exhibition was Michelangelo’s Seated nude and two studies of an arm. I love sketches and drawings which emphasise structure and draughtsmanship. And I like unfinished works, which are full of mystery and suggestion. So this really pulls my daisy.

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

The video

No self-respecting exhibition these days is without at least one promotional video.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Aspects of Paradise Lost

Theology

Does PL succeed in justifying the ways of God to man?
A: No. The whole argument hangs on three or four very debatable points:

  • Whether you accept the assertion, repeated over and over by God, the Son, the angels and the narrator – that worship from created beings is only meaningful if it is freely given i.e. created beings have to be free – and that freedom involves the freedom to do wrong and well as right. To which one replies: a) couldn’t God have created a world in which there was no evil? Hence, no temptation? Lost of freedom and choices: just nothing Evil. b) couldn’t God have intervened at various points to prevent the tragedy? The obvious answer is, Yes.
  • Whether you accept the assertion that all mankind deserves to be punished for something done before they were born. Obviously not.
  • Whether God could have forgiven them there and then and said, I’ll give you a second chance. Why not?
  • (All this is accepting the hard-to-understand but much-repeated point that merely because God foresees something, does not make it pre-ordained. Let’s accept that.)
  • (And accepting the strange idea that God makes a universe knowing it will be wrecked – why?)

The solution to the entire problem with Milton’s theology is to realise that Christianity is not designed to tell a logical story of the creation: Christianity has devised a myth which explains the current state of mankind, society and people. For those who buy into the myth it has tremendous psychological power – but it is a myth, created retroactively to make sense of the status quo – if you examine the same myth as if it were a logical story explaining the origin of the universe then it becomes highly questionable, because you are essentially saying that God created an imperfect world – and there’s no way out of the paradoxes that throws up – because the Christian response – that, no, God created a perfect world and we, humanity, screwed it up, works if you relate that myth to your own personal life story which will inevitably involve screw-ups and failings (that’s what the whole myth is designed to do). But fails as a stand-alone account of the creation of the whole world, viewed in the abstract. Thus Milton tries heroically, epically, but fails to justify the ways of God to man. God’s ways seem harsh, cruel and arbitrary.

If it succeeded, why isn’t part of the syllabus at any Catholic or Protestant seminary school? Because, by taking the story so literally, Milton lets the cat out of the bag.

Architecture

Does the poem lay out its pretty well-known story in a suitable way?
I think Milton succeeds admirably in taking the well-known story and adapting it for the traditional methodology of epics i.e. starting in media res and telling key events in flashback – just as Odysseus tells all his exotic adventures in flashback, or Aeneas tells the people of Carthage his story ditto, thus Raphael tells the origins of the rebellion and the War in heaven and the Creation of the universe in flashback; and just as Aeneas is vouchsafed a vision of the futurity of Rome, so Adam is given a vision of the future of humanity. Top marks.

However, it is a major flaw that the poem tails off as it drags on – that Raphael’s account of the Creation or Michael’s prophecy are boring. Why? Because we’ve read them before, described much more snappily, in the Bible.

Style

Does Milton’s style help or hinder one’s reading? Is it answerable to the subject matter?
Although the essence of Milton’s style remains the same throughout (the Latinate grammar, the odd use of syntax, Latinate vocabulary) no-once can doubt that the poem goes off. The best books are the first four. Why? Several reasons:

  • In Hell Milton is free-est to invent episodes; thereafter he is more constrained by the Biblical account. Thus in Book X it is a breath of fresh air when Satan encounters Sin and Death again, making their way up to the Universe.
  • Milton seems to have put more effort into fully imagining these early books: one simple indicator is that they are packed with epic similes – whereas the long books of Raphael’s are almost barren of similes – making you realise how refreshing they had been, to add variety to the style and rhythm.
  • If books VI, VII, X, XI and XII are boring because they have to retell large chunks of Genesis without using similes, other sections of books V and so on are just as boring because they have to convey long gobbets of Christian theology. Long stretches are not much more than versified pamphlets.

Epic poem

Does PL succeed as an epic poem in the tradition of Homer, Virgil, Camoes, Tasso?
A: Yes.

Aesthetics

Taken all in all, is Paradise Lost a success?
A: A limited one, or Yes, with reservations. These reservations stem from:

  • The failure of the theology to allay big doubts about God, its fundamental aim.
  • The failure of the later books to maintain the imaginative force and novel subject matter of the earlier ones.
  • The consequent flattening or failure of the style, which becomes pedestrian and boring for long stretches.

It seems to me axiomatic that Milton was a devout Christian who wrote the poem with the explicit aim of justifying the ways of God to men. The facts are the following: the first four or so books are the best. ‘Best’ means they are most enjoyable to read because containing the highest proportion of vivid and memorable language.

From Book V onwards the poem becomes more stodgy – the Raphael books: his account of the origins of the devil rebellion i.e. Satan’s revolt against the Son up till Abdiel standing up against the rebels (V), the actual War in Heaven (VI), the creation of the universe and of Man – all this feels already-read (VII), and then Raphael’s deliberately vague description of the Universe; then Adam’s memories of waking & meeting God (VIII).

The whole of Book IX is an account, told in real time, of Eve leaving Adam, then being seduced by the serpent to eat the fruit, then persuading Adam to eat it. This ought to be the dramatic centrepiece of the poem but is the dullest – we know what’s going to happen so there’s no drama – instead there is lengthy and hard-to-follow argumentation between snake and Eve – she eats – and then between Eve and Adam – he eats – they make love – then feel guilt and shame.

Given a choice, which would you rather read – bks 1,2 & 3 – or bks 9,10,11?

Book X where the Son quickly judges the pair is only enlivened by the great scenes of Sin and Death building a path up to the earth.

Book XI where Michael lays out the future of the human race is dull.

Milton’s style

Debate ranges over Milton’s style, at one end people say it’s recognisably English phrasing and syntax – at the other Dr Johnson & co say it’s written in a style heavily influenced by Latin, and unlike any English ever spoken. I’m at the Dr Johnson end, but then most poetry is unlike the language actually spoken by citizens. The question is not the disputed source or origin of Milton’s style. It’s whether it works.

Christopher Ricks’ book shows in minute detail that Milton’s style is highly considered, carefully wrought, and meaningful i.e. for long stretches it does work.

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