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

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Perelandra by C. S. Lewis (1943)

As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it also is dreadful?

This is the second in C.S. Lewis’s theological science fiction trilogy, which consists of:

  • Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
  • Perelandra (also known as Voyage to Venus) (1943)
  • That Hideous Strength (1945)

A recap of Out of The Silent Planet

In the first novel the Cambridge philologist, Ransom, was kidnapped by the physicist Weston and his partner Devine, and flown in their space ship all the way to Mars. Escaping from his captors Ransom discovers that Mars is inhabited by three very different but intelligent life forms who have forged a peaceful working relationship – the Pfifltriggi, the Hrossa, and the Sorns.

Elwin (it’s only in this second book that we learn his first name) Ransom – being a philologist by trade – swiftly learns the language of Mars which is called Hressa-Hlab. he also learns fellowship from the otter-like hrossa, hears wisdom from the tall, willowy sorns, and is taken to the sanctuary of the master spirit or oyarsa who rules Mars which, he learns, is called Malacandra in the local language.

Ransom also learns:

  • That what humans take to be the empty space between planets is in reality teeming with spirits which the human eye can barely detect, named eldila. What humans call space should really be referred to as ‘Deep Heaven’.
  • That each planet in the solar system (or ‘Field of Arbol’ as it is called) is ruled by a kind of tutelary spirit and that these spirits can communicate across space.
  • But that some kind of primeval disaster afflicted the Earth way back in its history, so that its spirit became wicked, or ‘bent’ as the hnau (intelligent creatures) of Mars put it. Hence Earth’s name in their culture is Thulcandra, which means ‘the silent planet’. (And hence the title of the book, ‘Out of The Silent Planet’.)
  • Thus Earth has been ‘enemy’-occupied territory since before history began (Chapter 15).
  • Movement in and out of the silent planet was banned eons ago, to prevent the rest of the solar system from becoming ‘infected’ with its wickedness.

It is symptomatic of Lewis’s goal of sacramentalising the universe that he says we must learn to refer to space not as ‘space’ – it is not empty space – it is teeming with mystical life forms and replenishing energy – it should be referred to as ‘Deep Heaven’.

Looming behind and above the eldila and each planet’s oyarsa appears to be the highest power of all, which the hnau refer to as Maleldil. It isn’t made totally explicit, but I think we are meant to take this to mean ‘God’.

Towards the end of Out of the Silent Planet the baddies Weston and Devine force their way into the sanctuary of the tutelary spirit, Oyarsa, and, after disarming them, Oyarsa tells them he will send them back to Earth. Ransom is given the choice whether to stay or to go, and reluctantly agrees to return with them.

All the way home, on what turns out to be a gruelling journey, the humans are watched over by eldila who will, Oyarsa tells them, decompose/destroy their space ship within minutes of its safe arrival – to prevent their ever returning.

The space ship just about makes it back to Earth, despite running low on food, water, oxygen and flying so close to the sun that Ransom fears the three men’s sight will be permanently damaged. Ransom clambers out of the ship’s manhole cover-type hatch into good old, pouring English rain and stumbles to the nearest pub (the ship has, of course, landed in rural England) where he asks for a pint of good old English beer!

Lewis in the postscript

But of all the strange things that happened in Out of The Silent Planet, for me the strangest was the postscript in which it is revealed that the narrator all along has been named ‘Lewis’, that this ‘Lewis’ is a friend of Ransom’s, and that ‘Lewis’ has agreed to write up this account of Ransom’s adventures, changing his (Ransom’s) name, and simplifying other matters, in order to make it into a publishable book.

Thus, right at the very end the text includes a letter supposedly from ‘Ransom’ politely objecting to some of the simplifications which ‘Lewis’ has made in order to lay the tale before the public.

Perelandra

Anyway, if you hadn’t read Out of the Silent Planet it hardly matters, since almost all of this material is recapped at the start of this, the second book in the series. Once again we are in the mind of the first-person narrator, ‘Lewis’, as he walks through the gathering darkness of a summer evening towards Ransom’s remote cottage, where Ransom has invited him to come and meet him.

But as he walks towards the cottage, Lewis finds himself experiencing a mounting sense of terror, as well as all kinds of hysterical fears – of the dark itself, and a sudden fear that Ransom is maybe not on the side of the angels, but has been recruited by the Dark Side of the universe to wreak harm on earth. By the time Lewis arrives at the cottage he feels almost hysterical, and feels a physical force barring his way, as if every forward step is having to be fought for.

Finding Ransom out, Lewis lets himself into the cottage. A little later Ransom returns and cheerily explains that, yes, the house is under attack by dark forces, by ‘bent’ terrestrial eldila. it was they who placed all those terrifying thoughts in Lewis’s mind to stop them meeting. Ah. That explains the vivid fears Lewis has shared with us readers.

And it is an oblique comment on the period when the book was written. In chapter 15 we learn the story is set in 1942, a dark time for Lewis and his British readers.

Now Ransom also explains that the big, coffin-sized object in the hallway of his cottage is some kind of extra-terrestrial transport device. It turns out that Oyarsa has been in contact and told him (Ransom) that he is going to be sent on a mission to Venus, or Perelandra as it’s known by the hnau.

Why? Ransom is not sure but thinks it’s because the dark archon, the bent oyarsa of Thulcandra, is planning some kind of attack on Venus. Obviously not in person, since he cannot pass beyond the orbit of the moon without being repulsed by the other oyarsa and eldila (as explained earlier). So he must be planning to use some other means – and Ransom is being sent to thwart them.

Ransom and Lewis then carry the coffin-shaped object, made of some ice-cold white material, out into the garden, Ransom strips naked, climbs into it, Lewis places the lid on top, and – it vanishes.

A little over a year passes, with all the ongoing threats and alarms of war briefly referred to, and then Lewis receives a message from Oyarsa (he doesn’t dwell on how) and hurries down to Ransom’s cottage, accompanied by a mutual friend who is a doctor.

They stand in Ransom’s overgrown garden as a casket-shaped thing is briefly silhouetted against the sun, then glides down at their feet. They open the lid to discover Ransom nude and covered in what appear to be red flower petals, but:

glowing with health and rounded with muscle and seemingly ten years younger. In the old days he had been beginning to show a few grey hairs; but now the beard which swept his chest was pure gold

The canny reader instantly suspects that, whatever tribulations Ransom might have gone through on his year-long trip into space, Lewis is going to emphasise the fundamental justness, beauty and healthiness of the universe. Although we have no inkling of just how much he is going to do that.

Once he has awoken and had a wash and shave and gotten dressed and been thoroughly checked over by the doctor, Ransom is ready to tell his story, thus:

Ransom lands and finds the Lady

The first thing he remembers is awaking to find the coffin-spaceship disintegrating and throwing him into an enormous sea amid vast waves as big as mountains under a multi-coloured sky.

The waves tower as high as alps then plunge again, but the sea is warm and the sky is the colour of gold. Eventually he sees a huge mat-like material going past on the surface of the sea, swims towards it, clambers ‘ashore’, and falls asleep.

When he awakes he is in a kind of wonderland of beauty, sweet scents, delicious colours, wonderful food.

The world had no size now. Its boundaries were the length and breadth of his own body and the little patch of soft fragrance which made his hammock, swaying ever more and more gently. Night covered him like a blanket and kept all loneliness from him. The blackness might have been his own room. Sleep came like a fruit which falls into the hand almost before you have touched the stem.

He discovers that the mat is big, big enough to contain woods and clearings, it lies flat on the surface of the gently undulating sea, and it is – a form of paradise.

Over his head there hung from a hairy tube-like branch a great spherical object, almost transparent, and shining. It held an area of reflected light in it and at one place a suggestion of rainbow colouring. So this was the explanation of the glass-like appearance in the wood. And looking round he perceived innumerable shimmering globes of the same kind in every direction. He began to examine the nearest one attentively. At first he thought it was moving, then he thought it was not. Moved by a natural impulse he put out his hand to touch it. Immediately his head, face, and shoulders were drenched with what seemed (in that warm world) an ice-cold shower bath, and his nostrils filled with a sharp, shrill, exquisite scent that somehow brought to his mind the verse in Pope, ‘die of a rose in aromatic pain.’ Such was the refreshment that he seemed to himself to have been, till now, but half awake. When he opened his eyes – which had closed involuntarily at the shock of moisture – all the colours about him seemed richer and the dimness of that world seemed clarified. A re-enchantment fell upon him.

In fact Ransom quickly learns that it really is paradise, for on another ‘island’ floating nearby he sees a human form which, when the ‘islands’ drift closer, he realises is a full-grown naked woman coloured green.

They wave at each other until Ransom nerves himself to take a risk and plunges into the sea to swim over to her island and…

Realises he really is in the garden of Eden. This woman is wonderfully simple, innocent, trusting and pure. The animals lovingly follow her. She has no ‘home’, there is no village or settlement, there are no ‘others’. Ransom quickly feels himself to be a blunt, ugly creature intruding into a world of prelapsarian harmony. Every single one of his questions prompts the lady to pause and think and he quickly realises that she is so innocent and unspoiled that even the sophisticated assumptions behind his questions are new and puzzling to her. He realises he must be careful, chaste, polite and restrained in what he tells her about the other worlds he knows about (Earth and Mars).

The only other one of her type she knows is ‘the King’, and she says she will take Ransom to meet him. The King is on the land of green pillars, which she points out. Ransom had glimpsed these pillars amid the floating islands, and now has it confirmed to him that they are on fixed dry land, marked by a set of enormous green columns towering into the air.

The lady calls dolphin-like creatures to the edge of their island and invites Ransom to climb astride one, as she does. The dolphins carry them to the island. They walk around it, Ransom delighting to be on good solid ground again. But then they see a black shape bobbing closer through the waves. It seems to be spherical in shape. Ransom has a bad feeling. It looks exactly like the spherical, steel and glass spaceship in which he, Weston and Devine flew to Malacandra in the first book. Is this the form the ‘attack’ is to take?

Yes it is. For indeed Weston comes towards the island rowing a little collapsible canoe. Up the beach he clambers and pulls a gun on Ransom, confirming the latter’s worst fears. However, the Lady has not, of course, seen a gun before. Lewis has painted such a convincing portrait of her complete innocence that we believe it when she simply walks away from the two strangers, down to the beach and takes a dolphin off the island.

Now during the lengthy conversations she and Ransom have had, she has let slip that Maleldil has given her everything she needs for a sweet life, but on one condition, with one rule to be obeyed – that she must not spend the night on the island, she must not sleep on solid ground.

Ransom (being a fallen human) is curious to find out why not. ‘Because it is His will,’ she replies, simply. All else is allowed, everything is free. But to show her obedience to her maker, to make that obedience light and free, there is just this one rule.

This explains why, with night coming on, the Green Lady had hastened down to the shore, quickly whistled up some dolphins (she is followed everywhere by admiring animals) and ridden off. Leaving Ransom to confront Weston.

Ransom and Weston’s theological argument

Now Ransom finds himself forced into an absurd theological argument. Here on the shore of an island among mountainous seas on a strange planet thirty million miles from home, he finds himself listening to a mad rhodomontade from Weston.

Perelandra was written at exactly the same time as Lewis was giving a series of BBC radio talks about religion (1941-44) which were gathered together into his most popular work of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity.

In his popular Christian works, Lewis not only defended Christian belief and put forward various (light and accessible) ‘philosophical’ arguments for Christianity, but also listed and attacked various ‘modern heresies’, i.e. types of contemporary belief which, he thought, were not only un-Christian but tended towards man’s unhappiness, if not the active promotion of evil.

So it is that he pro-Christian arguments and anti-‘heresy’ arguments which Lewis was working out at this period spill over into Perelandra. Or, probably more likely, he developed the arguments and counter-arguments, and then decided which would be appropriate for radio presentation and which would work best in a fictional setting. And also which could be shown in a fictional setting, such as the peace and harmony of all beings on a prelapsarian planet.

Anyway, it is obvious that Weston is made to represent what Lewis took to be the central strand of contemporary scientific and philosophical thought which he thought had brought the world to the disaster in which it found itself, had led to the rise of Fascism and Stalinism, and the plunging of the whole world into war.

Back in the first book, Weston had stood before the oyarsa of Malacandra and given a long speech declaring it was ‘man’s destiny’ to colonise the other planets of the solar system and then reach out into space. The implication – that ‘man’ would liquidate or take control of all the inhabitants of all the other planets of the solar system – was clearly depicted as totalitarian if not fascist in tone, a symptom of the disease afflicting the darkening world it was written in (1937-38).

Now Weston shows that he has adapted his beliefs and made them bigger. Previously he had talked about mankind. Now he claims that all organic life is driven by a ‘Spirit’, a Spirit which drove evolution from the very beginning, finding expression in higher and higher beings. This theory was known as ‘Creative Evolution’ and was very popular among the scientifically minded of Lewis’s day, among democrats and socialists who rejected orthodox religion, but still wished to find some kind of purpose or forward goal in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Ransom asks whether this ‘spirit’ is good or evil, but Weston sweeps the distinction aside, saying Ransom is too shackled by traditional religious dualisms. The spirit may take ‘good’ or ‘bad’ forms, it’s irrelevant, the thing is its forward, upward momentum, from triumph to triumph (echoing the triumphal rhetoric of the totalitarian states).

And he, Weston, now knows that he has been chosen as the vessel of the Spirit of Man, to take it to the next level. How? because he hears the Spirit speaking to him, whispering the secrets of the universe. The Spirit helped him create the space ship and it helped bring him here.

Now a notable thing about C.S. Lewis’s Christianity is that he took a great deal of Christian belief literally with a kind of bluff, hearty good sense – he took the stories of Jesus casting out devils, raising the dead and performing miracles, as literal truths – much to the scorn of his ‘sophisticated’ fellow dons at Oxford. But it was a simple. bluff, literal attitude which rang a bell among a less sophisticated public and made his radio broadcasts and theology books immensely popular.

Thus Lewis believed in a literal Devil who tempted people. Whereas sophisticated Oxford theologians argued that the devil and hell were allegories or symbols or psychological states, Lewis saw them as literal persons who you could meet and who could talk to you, persuade you, or possess you.

Thus the point of this scene in Perelandra is to show how Weston’s belief in the inexorable triumph of some amoral ‘Spirit of Man’ is not only a mistaken belief which results in shockingly immoral behaviour (Weston quite happily admits he would sell England to Nazi Germany if the Spirit told him), but is the result of Weston’s literal possession by an evil spirit.

And so, listening to Weston’s increasingly demented ranting, it dawns on Ransom that whole schools of modern thought might be heresies in the most literal sense – that they are inspired by the Devil.

That opposite mode of thought which he had often mocked and called in mockery The Empirical Bogey, came surging into his mind – the great myth of our century with its gases and galaxies, its light years and evolutions, its nightmare perspectives of simple arithmetic in which everything that can possibly hold significance for the mind becomes the mere by-product of essential disorder. Always till now he had belittled it, had treated with a certain disdain its flat superlatives, its clownish amazement that different things should be of different sizes, its glib munificence of ciphers.

In case there was any doubt about Weston’s demonic possession, Lewis makes it perfectly clear at the end of the scene when, as a result of Ransom’s persistent rejection of Weston’s arguments, the latter works himself up into a frenzy and then collapses and – for a moment – Ransom can see the helpless mortal man writhing in the grip of its evil demon and trying to escape.

‘Idiot,’ said Weston. His voice was almost a howl and he had risen to his feet. ‘Idiot,’ he repeated. ‘Can you understand nothing? Will you always try to press everything back into the miserable framework of your old jargon about self and self-sacrifice? That is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call that Force into me completely. . . .’

Then horrible things began happening. A spasm like that preceding a deadly vomit twisted Weston’s face out of recognition. As it passed, for one second something like the old Weston reappeared – the old Weston, staring with eyes of horror and howling, ‘Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake don’t let them…’ and instantly his whole body spun round as if he had been hit by a revolver-bullet and he fell to the earth, and was there rolling at Ransom’s feet, slavering and chattering and tearing up the moss by handfuls.

If this is like a scene from The Exorcist it is because Lewis did believe in literal devils and did believe they could literally possess people, as Weston is here, quite clearly, possessed.

His ‘wrong’ beliefs about the self-importance of Man, his denial of anything, any God or Moral Law beyond man, set him down the road to becoming the mortal instrument of spirits set on evil.

The result of this conversation, and of Weston’s collapse, is that Ransom spends the rest of the novel vividly aware that the thing he is facing is not human and this is conveyed with a real thrill of horror.

The thing sat down close to the Lady’s head on the far side of her from Ransom. If you could call it sitting down. The body did not reach its squatting position by the normal movements of a man: it was more as if some external force manoeuvred it into the right position and then let it drop. It was impossible to point to any particular motion which was definitely non-human. Ransom had the sense of watching an imitation of living motions which had been very well studied and was technically correct: but somehow it lacked the master touch. And he was chilled with an inarticulate, night-nursery horror of the thing he had to deal with – the managed corpse, the bogey, the Un-man.

The garden of Eden

What if earth had once also been a paradise? What if that is why the sights and smells and sounds of Perelandra seem not only sweet to Lewis, but deep, as if they recalled ancestral experiences from the origins of his race?

It was strange to be filled with homesickness for places where his sojourn had been so brief and which were, by any objective standard, so alien to all our race. Or were they? The cord of longing which drew him to the invisible isle seemed to him at that moment to have been fastened long, long before his coming to Perelandra, long before the earliest times that memory could recover in his childhood, before his birth, before the birth of man himself, before the origins of time. It was sharp, sweet, wild, and holy, all in one, and in any world where men’s nerves have ceased to obey their central desires would doubtless have been aphrodisiac too, but not in Perelandra.

What if the ancients myths and legends, recorded in the old books, are not – as sophisticated modern atheist philosophy has it – the childish stories made up by illiterate inhabitants of the Dark Ages, but the opposite? What if they are actual memories of people and values from an earlier time, when humans were closer to some prelapsarian truth, memories which lingered on after the spiritual disaster which overtook mankind?

He remembered his old suspicion that what was myth in one world might always be fact in some other. He wondered also whether the King and Queen of Perelandra, though doubtless the first human pair of this planet, might on the physical side have a marine ancestry. And if so, what then of the man-like things before men in our own world? Must they in truth have been the wistful brutalities whose pictures we see in popular books on evolution? Or were the old myths truer than the modern myths? Had there in truth been a time when satyrs danced in the Italian woods?

Lewis’s science fiction books are not only an excuse for fantasy – for the kind of fantasy mountains, flora and fauna, animals, skies and so on, that you might get in Wells and other sci-fi fantasists – but for fantasy underpinned by Lewis’s feel for both theology and ancient literature and myth.

From without, most certainly from without, but not by the sense of hearing, festal revelry and dance and splendour poured into him – no sound, yet in such fashion that it could not be remembered or thought of except as music. It was like having a new sense. It was like being present when the morning stars sang together.

Throughout the book the reader is given numerous extended descriptions of the sheer joyousness of the this Venusian paradise, less in ideas than in countless detailed physical sensations – Lewis very powerfully conveys the idea that Perelandra amounts to a kind of holiday from the normal sensations of his body.

He was riding the foamless swell of an ocean, fresh and cool after the fierce temperatures of Heaven, but warm by earthly standards – as warm as a shallow bay with sandy bottom in a sub-tropical climate. As he rushed smoothly up the great convex hillside of the next wave he got a mouthful of the water. It was hardly at all flavoured with salt; it was drinkable – like fresh water and only, by an infinitesimal degree, less insipid. Though he had not been aware of thirst till now, his drink gave him a quite astonishing pleasure. It was almost like meeting Pleasure itself for the first time.

The very names of green and gold, which he used perforce in describing the scene, are too harsh for the tenderness, the muted iridescence, of that warm, maternal, delicately gorgeous world. It was mild to look upon as evening, warm like summer noon, gentle and winning like early dawn. It was altogether pleasurable.

Eden is full of pleasure:

He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed. It could not be classified. He could never tell us, when he came back to the world of men, whether it was sharp or sweet, savoury or voluptuous, creamy or piercing. ‘Not like that’ was all he could ever say to such inquiries.

And blissful physical sensations:

He was approaching a forest of little trees whose trunks were only about two and a half feet high; but from the top of each trunk there grew long streamers which did not rise in the air but flowed in the wind downhill and parallel to the ground. Thus, when he went in among them, he found himself wading knee deep and more in a continually rippling sea of them–a sea which presently tossed all about him as far as his eye could reach. It was blue in colour, but far lighter than the blue of the turf–almost a Cambridge blue at the centre of each streamer, but dying away at their tasselled and feathery edges into a delicacy of bluish grey which it would take the subtlest effects of smoke and cloud to rival in our world. The soft, almost impalpable, caresses of the long thin leaves on his flesh, the low, singing, rustling, whispering music, and the frolic movement all about him, began to set his heart beating with that almost formidable sense of delight which he had felt before in Perelandra.

So in Lewis’s theology, pleasure, bliss and joy are not the temptations, are not the wicked things. The temptation is the fundamental mistake of not crediting God with creating everything.

We can all enjoy bliss such as we have never known – but it is all contingent on a right and proper and correct acknowledgement that God made us, that we are created beings and that the created should endlessly acknowledge the Creator for the gift of existence in all its wonder.

The beautiful setting, the lovely sky, the lapping waters, the docile creatures and the innocently dignified Lady – all make a luminous background against which Weston’s narrow-minded, egotistical, godless philosophy and pointlessly cruel behaviour, stand out all the more as wicked and squalid.

Temptation

Ransom takes a dolphin out to an island where he arrives in darkness, goes ashore and sleeps. When he wakens it is still dark and he overhears Weston tempting the Lady.

Maleldil’s prohibition of sleeping on the island clearly performs on this planet the role that God’s forbidding Adam and Eve from eating the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil performed on Earth. it is the one rule that must be obeyed. it is the stumbling block. Meaningless in itself, it is a marker of the creature’s obedience to the Creator.

Ransom feels sick as he listens to the subtle arguments that Weston is making to tempt the Lady: that sleeping on the island will make the Lady wise, make her more of a woman, will earn the King’s respect, why should she always know less and be subservient to him? And so on.

The Lady resists his arguments. Good triumphs. Ransom falls asleep again.

When he wakes again it is to find some of the frog-like creatures he had observed among the Lady’s animal followers have been maimed and mutilated. To his horror he follows a string of their writhing bodies, each one ripped open along the spine, until he finds Weston at work, torturing one of them, for no reason, just for the random cruelty. When Weston looks up from his work, Ransom for the first time realises what a devil looks like.

The smile was not bitter, nor raging, nor, in an ordinary sense, sinister; it was not even mocking. It seemed to summon Ransom, with a horrible naïveté of welcome, into the world of its own pleasures, as if all men were at one in those pleasures, as if they were the most natural thing in the world and no dispute could ever have occurred about them. It was not furtive, nor ashamed, it had nothing of the conspirator in it. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence. It was beyond vice as the Lady was beyond virtue.

The days begin to blur into one another. Over and over Ransom wakes to hear Weston keep up his unending siege of the Lady’s obedience. Forced to sit by most of the time, as he has to wait for the Lady to ask his opinion, Ransom (and we the reader) witness the prolonged battery of arguments launched from every side with which the un-Man assails the Lady.

This long passage is a sort of tour de force in which Lewis imagines just what the Devil said to Eve in the Garden of Eden, how he overcame her innocence, how he persuaded her that Maleldil had not banned her sleeping on the island in order to ban it as such, but so that she could grow in maturity and confidence, so that she could show both Maleldil and the King that she was no longer a child. Yes both of them would be pleased if she would only disobey the ban.

These and hundreds of other monotonously similar lies Ransom has to listen to again and again, And he is horrified to see it working. Ransom observes the Lady, under Weston’s ceaseless corrupting barrage, for the first time adopting a rather theatrical manner, no longer unself-consciously laughing and speaking but slowly becoming aware of herself, and beginning to pose. Weston gives her a hand mirror which initially surprises here, and which he uses to emphasise her importance, her supremacy, flattering her position of First Woman.

Always the weakest point of people is shown to be their egotism – their sense of self. Always their strongest point (in Lewis’s vision) is their sense of something outside themselves, of something greater, more powerful, to which they owe gratitude and obedience.

The decision

Eventually there are several pages describing Ransom’s agonised realisation that sitting by and watching primal innocence be corrupted isn’t enough. He has had no communication from Oyarsa, none of the eldila have told him what to expect or what to do.

And again, this is part of Lewis’s strategy in these fiction books and in his apologetics: he makes the very powerful point that it is up to us. In a roundabout sort of way this chimes with the contemporary message of the Continental Existentialists (apart from the obvious fact that they were mostly atheists) – but they both lead to the same conclusion – it is up to us to fight evil, often with little or no help from outside.

Everyone must make their decision and everyone defines themselves by their decisions. We are free to make or unmake ourselves, says Lewis, as clearly as his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre.

So Ransom has had no outside help from the moment he arrived, no communications, no hints or advice or guidance.

Now, after days of agonising, he decides that there is no alternative – he must kill Weston. Yes, it’s immoral, yes maybe he will damn himself – but he cannot stand by and allow the alternative – the corruption and damnation of an entire planet. And at this point he does hear a voice in his head. ‘It is no coincidence’, the voice tells him, ‘that his name is Ransom: he must be the price paid for the preservation of this world’.

The chase

This leads into what turns out to be a very prolonged and gruelling chase sequence.

1. Ransom gets up, goes and finds Weston and, without any warning, attacks him. They claw, scratch, bite, kick and punch each other. Eventually, the struggle breaks off as Weston staggers through forest down to the shore and straddles a dolphin fish and is away, Ransom pursuing. Day and night, night and day, falling asleep, nearly falling off, confronting the strange mute faces of the mermen beneath the waves, Ransom rides the dolphin-like creature in pursuit of the equally dazed and wounded Weston.

2. A day comes when Weston’s fish is exhausted and he stops running, turns and paddles it over beside Ransom. ‘Please,’ he wheedles, and then goes into another long, tempting speech, pretending that he is now simply Weston and that his devil has fled. Except he isn’t and it hasn’t. Only slowly does it reveal its devilish intent. Weston’s wheedling slowly turns into a grand vision of the horror and pointlessness of life, we only live briefly and then are pushed out of the bright atmosphere of the world into the darkness beneath it, squealing in pain and fear. It doesn’t matter whether there is a God or not, all that matters is escaping the darkness, the void, the horror… at which point Ransom realises that ‘it’ is still a devil, and also realises that he has been given an insight into what it means to be a devil, self-excluded from the grace of God.

3. The devil grabs Ransom’s arm and then lunges across from his dolphin, tackles his body, wrapping himself round Ransom’s waist and thighs and dragging him down, down under water. This leads to a nightmareish struggle in the cold depths of the sea, when you wonder if they will both drown and go to the underworld (anything seems to be possible).

But instead Ransom awakes to find he is in some kind of shingly beach in the pitch darkness. He finds Weston’s body and strangles him to death and breaks his ribs for good measure, and then collapses exhausted. Hours later, Ransom awakes again, again into pitch darkness, and begins to explore the ‘beach’ only to discover that it is a cave. By some chance he and Weston in their death-embrace have been washed into a cave, maybe deep under the waterline in some cliff. He tentatively tries easing down into the water but it is breaking against the sides with such violence that, in the dark, it is impossible to gauge its power and depth and Ransom has no way of knowing how much of a swim, and in which direction he should go, to escape out of the cave and make it back to the surface.

Instead Ransom sets off to explore the innards of the cave and see if he can escape that way, in a passage of nightmare intensity, bumping into walls, pulling himself up onto ledges, inching along in pitch darkness, stubbing his toes, scratching every inch of his exposed naked body, always climbing, with no idea where he is going or if there is any hope.

This passage is a form of Pilgrim’s Progress. It isn’t made explicit, but it is a Christian soul climbing up out of pitch darkness driven only by faith.

Only after a prolonged and increasingly hallucinatory climb does Ransom finally see a sliver of light up above, and walk up along a sloping stretch of rock to discover a fissure of light high above him.

He has to build a platform from loose rocks and jump up into the crevice, clinging on by his fingertips, then inching his way along it, his back against one wall, his knees and feet against the other, painfully upwards to emerge in a huge wide cavern illuminated by the light from a sheer drop at one end. He goes over to it and discovers it drops sheer, hundreds maybe thousands of yards down into raw, moiling fire.

As he turns from the blinding light back to the cavern, Ransom sees Weston, as in a dream, as in a nightmare, pull himself slowly up out of the fissure and stumble towards him. Half-mad, hallucinating, delirious, Ransom grips the nearest sizeable rock, says, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,’ runs at Weston and smashes his face in, smashing it literally to a pulp.

He then drags the mashed-face corpse over to the ledge and tips it over to plummet down down into the fiery lava beneath. Surely, finally, he has finished his task.

Days of climbing follow in a delirium of pain and exhaustion. Finally, crossing some cave, Ransom slips and falls into a fast-moving stream which sluices him out of a rock face and into a pool outside, on a mountainside, under the golden sky of Perelandra where he lies for days, drinking the stream water and reaching his hand up for sweet fruit, delirious, unconscious of the days and nights, slowly healing in body and mind.

Eventually, after many days, healed and ready to walk, the eldila appear, fragments of light in the daytime, silently telling  him that he must set off for some kind of happy valley, there beyond the hills.

The coronation

Ransom walks a long way, up hill, down dale, somehow knowing he must seek the hidden valley, climbing high into the mountains before finally descending to the most beautiful place he has seen in either of the two planets, Malacandra or Perelandra.

Here, drawn up in front of a natural temple, he encounters the oyarsa of the planet, and then witnesses an enormous horde of friendly animals attending the King and the Lady as they land at the beach and slowly progress up to the temple.

There follows an extraordinary extended coronation scene in which the Lady and the King are transformed into Tor and Tinidil, and receive stewardship of the planet and everything on it from the oyarsa. In extended speeches Ransom is told that the King and the Lady have learned about evil not by doing it, as Adam and Eve did – but by resisting it.

In this grand performance Ransom played a crucial part, allowing the Lady to learn just enough of the bad to be able to resist it, before himself disposing of the evil in a way no creature of Perelandra could have, without sullying itself.

Only a fallen man could deal with another fallen man. Ransom receives the fathomless gratitude of the King and the Lady. And in this whole story Weston, like Judas, played a preconceived role.

‘Little did that dark mind know the errand on which he really came to Perelandra!’

After the theology is explained there is a tremendous passage of three or four pages made up of twenty paragraphs, every one of which is a hymn to Maleldil, ending with the repeated phrase, ‘Blessed be He!’

‘All things are by Him and for Him. He utters Himself also for His own delight and sees that He is good. He is His own begotten and what proceeds from Him is Himself. Blessed be He!’

Not the kind of thing you get in a regular novel.

The prophecy

With no interruption, the King washes and laves Ransom’s battered body (in an obvious echo of Jesus washing his disciples in the New Testament) even the gash on his heel where Weston bit him, and which stubbornly refuses to heal.

Then the King lays Ransom in the ice-cold white coffin which has now appeared before them, of the same type which Ransom travelled there in, seals the coffin and Ransom is gone.

But not before the King has made this final prophecy, a prophecy about the Final Battle for the soul of earth, or Thulcandra, a prophecy which obviously sets the book up for its sequel, the final novel in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength.

We shall fall upon your moon, wherein there is a secret evil, and which is as the shield of the Dark Lord of Thulcandra – scarred with many a blow. We shall break her. Her light shall be put out. Her fragments shall fall into your world and the seas and the smoke shall arise so that the dwellers in Thulcandra will no longer see the light of Arbol. And as Maleldil Himself draws near, the evil things in your world shall show themselves stripped of disguise so that plagues and horrors shall cover your lands and seas. But in the end all shall be cleansed, and even the memory of your Black Oyarsa blotted out, and your world shall be fair and sweet and reunited to the field of Arbol and its true name shall be heard again.


The Discarded Image

In my review of Out of The Silent Planet I mentioned the way that most of Lewis’s books, after his conversion to Christianity in 1931, were driven by the urge to explain and proselytise for his Christian belief. Perelandra is even more overtly Christian than its predecessor, or rather all the ideas are based on Christian theology.

His openly Christian works of apologetics like Mere Christianity, the popular comic books like The Screwtape Letters, the famous series of Narnia books, and this, his science fiction trilogy, are all powered and underpinned by Lewis’s profound Christian belief working at various levels of explicitness, from High Theology about the Fall through to incidental insights about human nature – how we are less when we are selfish and self-centred, and more when we turn outwards and acknowledge others.

But to focus on the Christian element is to ignore the other, very large, possibly even larger, part of Lewis’s imagination, which was shaped by his deep and scholarly knowledge of ancient, medieval and Renaissance literature, knowledge which underpins the fantastical and beautiful sumptuousness of much of his imagery, and his sense of the stateliness and courtesy of the pure, of his spirits and kings.

I myself did a very old-fashioned English Literature degree for which I had to learn Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, and in preparation for which it was assumed that I would have read all of the Bible, Homer, the Aeneid, Ovid and Horace.

In studying Gawayne and the Green Knight or Chaucer or The Faerie Queen by Spenser, I found Lewis’s literary criticism of these works invaluable, not only for his detailed knowledge of individual facts or symbols – but for his matchless feel for the values of long-lost cultures.

Lewis’s final book was a scholarly work – The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature – a deliberately brief, almost note-form summary of the sources of much of the imagery and belief system of medieval and renaissance literature. It lays out very clearly and usefully key aspects of ancient and medieval cosmology, explaining their sources in a handful of seminal works, mostly from the ancient world, explaining (in the words of Wikipedia),

the structure of the medieval universe, the nature of its inhabitants, the notion of a finite universe, ordered and maintained by a celestial hierarchy, and the ideas of nature.

My point is that Lewis was absolutely drenched in the imagery and thought of the classical and medieval world, and in my view it is this – just as much as his Christian faith – which gives his fictional books their special feel, a really deep feel for older values, for ancient symbolism and allegory. It explains why the image from Narnia of children placing chains of flowers round the neck of a peaceful lion feels not just fanciful, but somehow profound.

That isn’t an image from anywhere in the Bible. But it is the kind of heraldic image anyone familiar with medieval texts, poems, marginalia or tapestries would appreciate. It is this – a sense of the medieval world somehow reborn across time and space – much more than the explicit Christian theology, which I kept being reminded of as I read Perelandra.

At Ransom’s waking something happened to him which perhaps never happens to a man until he is out of his own world: he saw reality, and thought it was a dream. He opened his eyes and saw a strange heraldically coloured tree loaded with yellow fruits and silver leaves. Round the base of the indigo stem was coiled a small dragon covered with scales of red gold. He recognised the garden of the Hesperides at once.

Lewis actually uses the medieval word ‘heraldic’ several times to convey the sense of dignified, richly felt, medieval symbolism which he is striving to create.

She had stood up amidst a throng of beasts and birds as a tall sapling stands among bushes – big pigeon-coloured birds and flame-coloured birds, and dragons, and beaver-like creatures about the size of rats, and heraldic-looking fish in the sea at her feet. Or had he imagined that? Was this the beginning of the hallucinations he had feared? Or another myth coming out into the world of fact…

They made the circle of the plateau methodically. Behind them lay the group of islands from which they had set out that morning. Seen from this altitude it was larger even than Ransom had supposed. The richness of its colours – its orange, its silver, its purple and (to his surprise) its glossy blacks – made it seem almost heraldic.

The heavens had vanished, and the surface of the sea; but far, far below him in the heart of the vacancy through which he appeared to be travelling, strange bursting star shells and writhing streaks of a bluish-green luminosity appeared. At first they were very remote, but soon, as far as he could judge, they were nearer. A whole world of phosphorescent creatures seemed to be at play not far from the surface – coiling eels and darting things in complete armour, and then heraldically fantastic shapes to which the sea-horse of our own waters would be commonplace

When his imagination looks for the beautiful, it is not to the Jewish imagery of the Bible, but to medieval iconography which Lewis turns, imagery forged of the strange union between popular folk tales and legends with the high art of Norman courtly chivalry, mixed in with the myths and strange arcane beliefs of the ancient world.

It is the formal beauty, the poise, the ceremoniousness, the tremendous feeling of correctness about this medieval imagery which gives Lewis’s fictional books – the Narnia books and this science fiction trilogy – a large part of their powerful imaginative impact.

The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir (1500) Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir (1500) Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

Note the ubiquity of the animals in this famous medieval tapestry, both regal (lion and unicorn) and sweetly domestic (dog, rabbits, foxes, lambs).

All of creation, not just human beings, are incorporated in Lewis’s vision – and this, again, reflects his medieval imagination, where animals peep out from the corner of tapestries or intrude into Chaucerian stories.

The comedy of Oxford dons

Although we are transported to other planets and subject to heady worlds of theological and courtly seriousness, Lewis lightens his sci-fi trilogy with an occasional sense of humour, particularly when it comes to taking the mickey out of his own world of stuffy and pedantic Oxford dons. Right in the middle of discussing the future of the whole world, they will be brought up short by a pedantic quibble about a point of grammar. Thus Lewis asks him, before he leaves, about the language he expects to find spoken on Venus:

‘And you think you will find Hressa-Hlab, or Old Solar, spoken on Venus?’
‘Yes. I shall arrive knowing the language. It saves a lot of trouble – though, as a philologist I find it rather disappointing.’

Similarly, once he finds himself in the pitch black cave under the sea, initially convinced it is simply night-time and he must wait for the dawn, Ransom sets out to pass the time thus:

He recited all that he could remember of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Æneid, the Chanson de Roland, Paradise Lost, the Kalevala, the Hunting of the Snark, and a rhyme about Germanic sound-laws which he had composed as a freshman.

‘A rhyme about Germanic sound-laws which he had composed as a freshman.’ 🙂

Once Ransom has finally decided to kill Weston, once he is in the black cave astride the enemy’s chest, squeezing its throat with both hands, he finds himself, to his own surprise, shouting out a line from the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon. I studied the Battle of Maldon at university and I have reviewed it for this blog. I would dearly love to know which line Ransom shouted out.

And it is typical of the hyper-scholarly nature of his characters that Ransom declares, towards the end, that, comparing the experience of being on the two planets, Mars and Venus:

Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre.

Surprised by joy

But the final memory and impression of reading the book is Lewis’s wonderful, delicious, intoxicating depictions of Eden, what bliss it would be, how it would feed all the senses without glutting or tiring them: how it would be made perfectly for men and women to delight in.

Two things account for the popularity of Lewis’s popular Christian books. One is that they are simple. He turned complicated theology or philosophy into the language of Daily Mail editorials, into terms understandable by almost anyone, but without any sense of being patronising. He just sets out at a popular level and then keeps on at that level.

But just as important, I think, was his immense capacity for conjuring up images, motifs, descriptions, settings, words and phrases to convey an immense, bountiful, overflowing feeling of happiness.

I’ve met and debated theology with Christians who have had bad experiences in their lives – rape, abuse, suicide of parents – and they all testified to the importance of Lewis’s writings in helping them find a meaning and a purpose in their lives, in leading them through darkness to greater faith. Helped by its promise that even the most horrific experiences can be transcended because of the beauty and love of the world God has prepared for us.

In a thousand different images, this is the confidence, the faith in beauty and bliss, the deep optimism, which all Lewis’s books radiate and which helps to account for their enduring appeal.

But he said ‘Hush’ to his mind at this stage, for the mere pleasure of breathing in the fragrance which now began to steal towards him from the blackness ahead. Warm and sweet, and every moment sweeter and purer, and every moment stronger and more filled with all delights, it came to him. He knew well what it was. He would know it henceforward out of the whole universe – the night-breath of a floating island in the star Venus.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent an earth man possessed by the devil from tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a second Fall
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines, and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibsonthird of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which young hacker Bobby Newmark discovers there is a lot more to cyberspace than he ever imagined.
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

Edward Burne-Jones @ Tate Britain

One aspect of being a successful artist is establishing a look, a style, a brand. This exhibition, the first devoted to Burne-Jones at Tate Britain since 1933, brings together over 150 objects including some of his greatest paintings, a roomful of drawings, wall-sized tapestries, even a grand piano he decorated – which all go to prove that he established the ‘Burne-Jones look’ early on, and then stuck to it.

The Briar Wood (1874-8) by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

The Briar Wood (1874-8) Picture one in the Briar Rose series, by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

People sleeping and dreaming are his subjects. Even when supposedly awake, all his figures look as if they’re sleep-walking through the situations he places them in.

The figures are tall, statuesque, rather elongated. If nude, they have beautifully defined musculature, if clothed the men, in particular, are often wearing fascinatingly detailed armour, while the women wear long gowns whose convoluted folds he captures with shimmering sensuality.

This painting, from a series depicting the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, shows all these features – human figures elongated, the (admittedly delicate but well-defined) musculature of the nude woman, and the fascinating style of armour Perseus is wearing, like no armour any real medieval warrior ever wore, almost cyber-punk in its fetishistic detail.

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1888). Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1888). Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Many exhibitions I’ve been to at Tate Britain set out to prove a thesis, but this show is a return to an older, more traditional type of curating, which sets out simply to explain and delight.

Serena Thirkell

I recommend buying the audioguide. It has four voices on it – 1. the exhibition curator Alison Smith2. an art scholar who’s a long-standing fan of Burne-Jones but whose name I didn’t get. 3. the novelist Tracey Chevalier. But the most interesting one is the voice of 4. Burne-Jones’s great, great, grand-daughter, Serena Thirkell. Serena’s memories are fascinating of growing up in a house where some of these famous paintings hung in the hall or dining room, and how she and the other small children were attracted, frightened and fascinated by them.

I particularly liked her take on the amazingly sumptuous painting, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. To the adult eye there are all kinds of things going on in it, from the (typically strange) armour of the king to the (typically blank) expression on the beggar maid’s face, to the heads-together pose of the two figures at the balustrade – obviously inspired by pre-Raphael Renaissance paintings – and ditto the carefully delineated leaves of the olive branches poking in from the left.

But what Serena remembered was the avenues of escape from the picture, the way she and her little friends could imagine scampering up the stairs to the gallery, and then through the window into the lovely Italian landscape you can glimpse outside. And how this sense of escape was balanced by the sense of threat created at the other end of the painting – caused by the narrowing, claustrophobic steps going down, past the king’s knees and feet, down, down towards… what scary darkness?

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

Her memories remind the listener that you don’t always have to respond to art with sophisticated theories or abrasive gender politics. Sometimes you can let yourself be swept off your feet to fairyland. Few artists devoted as much energy to creating that effect as Burne-Jones.

Seven rooms

The exhibition is arranged into seven rooms:

  1. 1856-1870 Apprentice to Master
  2. Burne-Jones as a draughtsman
  3. 1877-98 Exhibition paintings
  4. Portraits
  5. The series paintings – The Perseus series
  6. The series paintings – The Briar Rose
  7. Burne-Jones as a designer

Unusually, Burne-Jones didn’t attend art school at all. He began studying theology at university, before packing it in and essentially teaching himself art.

His theological knowledge and the iconography of Christianity i.e. the figurative depiction of key moments – the Annunciation, various saints though not, tellingly, the Crucifixion itself – stayed with him for the rest of his career.

Later in life Burne-Jones collaborated on designing stained glass windows for churches, which were produced in the factory of his close friend, William Morris. It’s estimated that he produced the designs for over 650 stained glass windows, which is why many of the patterns and designs in the final room, ‘Burne-Jones as designer’, seem so familiar. Anyone who visits English parish churches will have been exposed to his pervasive influence.

Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. Victoria and Albert Museum

Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. Victoria and Albert Museum

Room two shows how much effort Burne-Jones put into practicing drawing and sketching, especially on the four big trips he made to Italy during the 1870s, where he copied and studied extensively from the Renaissance Old Masters. Some of the sketches are breath-taking – of hands in different poses, or feet, the elaborate depictions of the folds of dresses, not to mention a standout sketch of a flowering plant and a page of sketches of birds. What an eye, what a hand!

Desiderium (1873) by Edward Burne-Jones. Tate

Desiderium (1873) by Edward Burne-Jones. Tate

This room also contains some surprisingly comic insights into his private life. Burne-Jones enjoyed a long friendship with the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, and the exhibition shows some of the comic cartoons he included in his letters to her. He depicts himself in these as a skinny, long-bearded, mournful man, which creates an irresistibly comic effect when placed next to the caricatures of his bosom buddy, the big, super-energetic, wild-haired William Morris. I laughed out loud at the cartoon he drew of himself falling asleep in a chair while Morris passionately declaims one of his interminable epic poems.

Room three is amazing – full of massive ‘exhibition’ paintings, made to stun his contemporaries and sell to rich patrons. Love Amid the Ruins, The Beguiling of Merlin, The Golden Stairs, Laus Veneris, The Wheel of Fortune and half a dozen other enormous, strange, haunting, remote, dreamy images, pregnant with meaning, in which movement isn’t really movement at all.

Reminiscent, it occurred to me, of Botticelli whose Spring or Birth of Venus both show supposedly dynamic images in which, in fact, nothing is really moving.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

Perseus

But the real Burne-Jones’ fan will be transported to heaven by rooms five and six. These recreate in their entirety the two most important series of paintings which Burne-Jones created. Room five contains the ten paintings he created to depict the Greek myth of Perseus between 1875 and 1885. The original idea was to hang ten oil paintings, interspersed with four relief panels on oak wood, all carefully arranged and lit so as to transport you into a mythic world of the imagination.

Only four of the planned ten were worked up into finished oil paintings (including The Doom Fulfilled, shown above) and the curators have hung these four, along with cartoons (actual size preparatory works) of the other six, plus one completed oak relief, placing them all in order so you can follow Burne-Jones’s huge and powerful depiction of the story through in order.

It’s a great bit of curating, which really works. Above all it shows you how muted, dulled and misty his palette was. And makes you realise this was always his style.

The Laus Veneris, which is used as a poster for the show, is in fact quite unrepresentative of most of the other paintings here, in its use of bright orange for Venus’s dress. Even in the first room of early works, his faces are softened and blurred, the colours are dark and misty. As the years passed he perfected the technique of using colour, but making all the colours submit to the same muted tonality.

The briar rose

A kind of silvery blue-black dominates the Perseus series and helps them to cohere, tonally. Whereas, when you step into room six, you are enveloped in the Briar Rose series, four massive paintings depicting the early parts of the Sleeping Beauty fairy story, where a kind of muddy brown dominates and unites the compositions.

The Garden Court (1874-84) by Edward Burne-Jones. the Faringdon Collection Trust

The Garden Court (1874-84) by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

There are scores of incidental pleasures to be had along the way, noticing how the sketched birds are incorporated into later paintings, spotting the influence of Michelangelo in the more muscular figures, or of Mantegna in some of the amazingly detailed swirling gowns.

The room of portraits caters to people who like gossip about artists, featuring as it does portraits of his daughter Margaret, his long-suffering wife Georgiana, several of the lady friends with whom he enjoyed passionate friendships (Amy Gaskell and Lady Windsor) his longstanding patron, William Graham, and so on, with a bit of juicy gossip behind each one.

Burne-Jones and European symbolism

But what interested me more was the link the exhibition helps you to make between later Burne-Jones and the European Symbolist painters of the 1880s and 1890s. The subject matter of both is generally the figurative depictions of human beings – realistic, easy to decode and relate to.

And yet stylised in powerful ways which seem charged with mysterious meanings. Especially all those women with the same faces, the same large eyes, the same vacant stare, the same elongated bodies draped, folded, bent in positions of sleep and languor – compositions pregnant with a meaning just beyond the mind’s grasp.

Some of the unfinished Perseus series, especially the one about Perseus’ encounter with Atlas, could be by a European Symbolist, transmuting what ought to be the straightforward telling of a well-known myth into something altogether new and haunting. The figures inside the globe Atlas is holding are depictions of the signs of the Zodiac, and yet they are the Zodiac symbols come to life and seeming to interact in strange and unknowable ways…

Atlas Turned to Stone by Edward Burne-Jones (1872) Southampton City Art Gallery

Atlas Turned to Stone by Edward Burne-Jones (1872), a peculiarly Symbolist work. Southampton City Art Gallery

Some people don’t like Burne-Jones’s big-eyed damsels, or jewelled dreamscapes. They see his entire visions as a creative dead end which helped maintain a kind of anti-modern, British philistinism right up to the end of the 19th century and beyond, while, throughout this period, the French were busy inventing modern art just 50 miles across the Channel.

But it is now 2018. We are well into post-post-modern art, into the era when the internet makes everything available to everyone, when there are no longer movements with fierce adherents and bitter opponents. The stakes are no longer so high or so intense. We can like whatever we want to. I thought this was an absolutely wonderful exhibition – the room of the Sleeping Beauty panels is worth the admission price alone.

The promotional video

This shaky handheld video gives you a good sense of what the show is like.


Related links

Newspaper reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Symbolist Art by Edward Lucie-Smith (1972)

Symbolist art does not depict nature as it actually exists, but brings together various impressions received by the mind of the artist, to create a new and different world, governed by its own subjective mood. (p.151)

Although this book is 45 years-old, I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop to compare and contrast with Michael Gibson’s account of Symbolism. Gibson’s massive books is packed with brilliant full-colour reproductions but, as I read it, I did increasingly find myself wondering where ‘Symbolism’ ended and where the simply fantastic or morbid or sensationalist began. So I read this book to further explore whether Symbolism was really a movement in a narrow definable way – or is just the word given to a kind of mood or feeling of other-worldliness apparent in a huge range of artists between about 1880 and 1910.

The World of Art series

Symbolist Art is a typical product of Thames and Hudson’s renowned ‘World of Art series’ in that, although there are 185 illustrations, only 24 of them are in colour. So you’re not buying it for the pictures, which can be better seen, in full colour, in numerous other books (or online); you’re buying it for the text.

Edward Lucie-Smith

Lucie-Smith was born in 1933 and is still alive (aged 84). Public school, Oxford, the RAF during the war, then freelance poet, art critic, essayist, author and curator, he has written over 100 books. His book comes over as significantly more learned and informative than Gibson’s.

Symbolism in Renaissance painting

He starts with a basic consideration of symbols in art starting back in the Renaissance. Renaissance art is packed with symbols – classical gods and goddesses are accompanied by their attributes, kings and queens are shown in allegorical paintings accompanied by war or peace or the triumph of the arts and so on.

To get the most out of Renaissance art you undoubtedly have to have a good eye for its religious, political and cultural symbolism. For example, spot the symbolism in this masterpiece by Rubens.

(In this picture the portrait of Marie de’ Medici – daughter of the Grandduke of Tuscany – is being presented to Henry IV, the king of France, and her future husband. The gods of marriage and love – Hymen and Amor (Cupid), to the left and right – hover in midair. From up in heaven the king and queen of the gods, Jupiter and Juno, look down in approval. Jupiter’s symbol, the eagle of war, clutching lightning bolts in his talons, is literally being squeezed out of the picture, to the left, while Juno’s symbols, the peacocks of love and peace strut (the male) and look down at the scene of love (the female). A pink ribbon symbolising their marriage binds them together. The chariot the peahen sits in bears a gold relief on the front showing Cupid standing on/triumphing over (another) eagle, and holding a garland (symbol of marriage). Behind Henry stands the personification of France, wearing French blue silk embroidered with gold fleur-de-lys (the coat of arms of the French monarchy). She is reassuring Henry that it is a good match for the nation. The burning town in the distance and the dark clouds to the left of the picture, beneath the eagle, symbolise War, as do the helmet and shield at the foot of the painting. These must all be abandoned so that Henry can concentrate on the lighter, feminine arts of peace, subtly emphasised by the light source for the whole scene coming from the right, the side of the Future, peace and harmony.)

Lucie-Smith draws the distinction between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ symbolism.

Open symbolism is the use of publicly available and traditional imagery. All of the symbolism in the Rubens picture is ‘open’ in the sense that any educated person could spot it.

Closed symbolism refers to ‘secret’ knowledge, available only to ‘initiates’. Renaissance and post-Renaissance art features numerous painters who included closed symbolism in their works: some has been investigated and explicated by later scholars; some remains obscure to this day.

Watteau

In other words, symbolism as a strategy or technique, is absolutely intrinsic to the Western artistic tradition.

What Lucie-Smith brings out is the strand of artists over the past few hundred years who brought something extra to the idea: who incorporated open symbolism or straightforward allegory (where x stands for y, where, for example, an hourglass stands for ‘Time’), but something else as well.

He takes an example from the wonderful Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). On the face of it Watteau was painting fashionable fête galantes for the French aristocracy, scenes of dressing up and carefree flirtations in an idealised classical setting, thus:

Yet (apart from the fabulous rhythmic compositions, the draughtsmanship of the figures, the wonderful use of colour) what makes Watteau ‘magical’ is the sense he achieves of a deeper meaning which somehow diffuses a mysterious influence around itself. According to Lucie-Smith, Watteau:

had already abandoned conventional allegory in favour of a use of symbolism which was more pervasive, more powerful and more mysterious. (p.21)

Something else is conveyed above and beyond the ostensible subject and its over symbolism. Somehow it achieves a sense of mystery.

The Romantic roots of Symbolism

There follows a chapter about Romanticism, a movement which I, personally, find boring, maybe because I’ve read too much about it and seen too many times the same old paintings by Fuseli (The Nightmare), Goya (The sleep of reason produces monsters) or Caspar David Friedrich (The Cross in the mountains).

Lucie-Smith’s purpose is to show that ‘Romanticism’ is (quite obviously) the godfather to modern Symbolism – in its use of obscure but meaningful images, nightmares and dreams, scary women and looming monsters – in the use of pseudo-religious imagery which has lost its literal meaning but acquired a spooky, Gothic, purely imaginative resonance.

Victorian symbolists

The next chapter looks at symbolist currents in British art during the 19th century, starting with the self-taught mythomane, William Blake. It then moves on to consider the group of artists who claimed to be his followers and called themselves ‘the Ancients’, including Edward Calvert and the wonderful Samuel Palmer, with his strange visionary depictions of rural Kent (Coming from Evening Church).

Then we arrive at the pre-Raphaelites. Lucie-Smith identifies Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the most ‘symbolist’ of these young idealistic painters, not least because his technique was quite limited. Rossetti wasn’t very good at perspective or realistic settings and so his mature paintings often have a vague, misty background which helps to emphasise the ‘timeless other-worldliness’ of the main subject (generally cupid-lipped, horse-necked ‘stunners’ [as the lads used to call them] as in Astarte Syriaca).

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Burne-Jones and Watts

Lucie-Smith credits Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) with developing the medieval and dream-like elements of pre-Raphaelitism to their fullest extent and in so doing creating a stream of late works devoted to expressionless women moving through heavily meaningful landscapes.

Burne-Jones exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889, where he won a first-class medal. (Intriguing to think the Impressionists were almost entirely excluded from this show and forced to mount an exhibition at the nearby Café Volpini – as described in in Belinda Thompson’s book about the Post-Impressionists.)

French symbolist artists were well aware of Burne-Jones’s work. But the most overtly ‘symbolist’ of the late Victorian artists was George Frederick Watts. He was quite clear about his intentions and his own words give quite a good summary of the symbolist impulse:

I paint ideas, not things. I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied me, I use painting; my intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall please the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall speak to the imagination and to the heart and arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity. (quoted page 47)

His many contemporary fans and supporters considered Watts a ‘seer’ and suggested his work be hung in a temple not a gallery (an ambition which sort of came true with the dedication of his final home and studio in the village of Compton, Surrey, to his work, a venue you can now visit – the Watts Gallery).

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

‘The dweller of the innermost’ is obviously someone important, and something very meaningful is going on in this painting – but who? and what?

Symbolism

All this background is covered in the first 50 pages of this 220-page book in order to get us to the Symbolist movement proper.

Symbolism in the narrow sense was a literary movement, embodied in the poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé in the 1870s and 1880s. They used real world images but set in shimmering, vague and allusive contexts. By the late 1880s this kind of literary worldview overlapped strongly with a revival of a so-called ‘decadent’ style, in both writing and painting. It was largely to distinguish between the two outlooks that the minor poet Jean Moréas in 1886 wrote the essay which introduced the term ‘symbolist’ and ‘symbolism’.

According to Moréas, both symbolism and decadence turned away from the oppressive mundaneness of the everyday bourgeois world but whereas the symbolists emphasized dreams and ideals, the Decadents cultivated heavily ornamented or hermetic styles and morbid subject matter.

Lucie-Smith asserts that the first phase of symbolism lasted from Moréas’s 1886 essay until he himself rejected the name in 1891. Its central figure was the poet Mallarmé. Lucie-Smith lists the qualities of Mallarmé’s poetry, and points out how they can also be found in the symbolist painters of the day:

  • deliberate ambiguity
  • hermeticism (i.e. closed to easy interpretation)
  • use of the symbol as catalyst i.e. to prompt a reaction in the soul of the beholder
  • the idea that art exists in a world separate and apart from the everyday one
  • synthesis not analysis i.e. while the Impressionists analysed light and its effects, the symbolists brought together elements of the real world – from tradition, myth and legends – into strange and new combinations or syntheses

An important element of synthesis was not only the unexpected combination of real-world elements, but the notion that all the arts could and should borrow from each other. Symbolism always hovered around the idea of a ‘total work of art’ which combines music, dance, art, even smells and touches. Everyone in the 1880s was entranced by Wagner’s massive operas which aspired to just this condition of being Gesamtkunstwerks or ‘total works of art’. The idea was very powerful and lingered through to the First World War – the Russian composer Scriabin composed works deliberately designed to evoke colourful fantasias and artists like Wassily Kandinsky in the 1900s theories about the closeness of painting and music.

Here’s a Symbolist depiction of the hero of one of Wagner’s massive operas, the pure and holy knight Parsifal.

Gustave Moreau (1826-98)

Moreau is the painter most associated with the first phase of Symbolism. He developed an ornate jewel-studded style of treating subjects from the Bible or classical legend.

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Reviewing the Salon of 1880, the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans singled out Moreau’s work for being mysterious and disturbing. Four years later in his classic novel A Rebours, which describes a decadent aristocrat who retires to his country house to cultivate sensual pleasures and experiences, Huysmans singled out Moreau as the patron painter of his decadent lifestyle, using a lexicon of late-19th century decadent terms: Moreau’s art is ‘disquieting… sinister… sorrowful symbols of superhuman perversities’ and so on.

Of his own painting Jupiter and Semele, Moreau wrote:

It is an ascent towards superior spheres, a rising up of superior beings towards the Divine – terrestrial death and apotheosis in Immortality. The great Mystery completes itself, the whole of nature is impregnated with the ideal and the divine, everything is transformed. (quoted page 66)

That gives you a strong sense of Symbolist rhetoric.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Huysmans also includes Redon in his short list of artists favoured in the country sensorium of his decadent hero, Des Esseintes. Redon seems to me by far the more symbolist painter of the two, and the polar opposite of Moreau. Whereas Moreau paints relatively conventional mythical subjects in a super-detail-encrusted fashion, Redon strips away all detail to portray the subject in a genuinely mysterious and allusive simplicity.

Redon wrote of his own work:

The sense of mystery is a matter of being all the time amid the equivocal, in double and triple aspects, and hints of aspects (images within images), forms which are coming to birth according to the state of mind of the observer. (quoted page 76)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98)

Puvis wanted to revive the academic tradition and his compositions of figures in landscapes in one way hearken back to the posed landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1661). But he did so in a strange dreamlike way which pointed forward, towards the semi-abstraction of Cézanne. He wrote to a friend that he preferred low skies, solitary plains, bad weather – a temperament which resulted in melancholy often mysterious paintings.

I don’t like Puvis because of what I take to be his rather ropey draughtsmanship – his figures seem angular and uncomfortable, especially the faces.

Eugène Carrière (1849-1906)

Lucie-Smith doesn’t like Carrière much because he developed one subject – family members, especially mother and baby – and painted them over and over again, in a very distinctive way, as if seen through a thick brown mist. I can see how this would quickly grow tiresome, but in brief selections Carriere comes over as a powerful element of the symbolist scene.

At about this point in the book it struck me that a quick way of distinguishing between post-Impressionist and Symbolist painters is that the former were experimenting with ways of depicting reality, whereas the latter are experimenting with ways to try and depict what lies behind reality. Of the former, contemporary critics asked, ‘What is it meant to be depicting?’, of the latter they would ask, ‘I can see what it’s depicting – but what does it mean?’

Paul Gauguin and the Pont-Aven school

Gauguin the post-Impressionist is included? Yes, because in the several summers he spent painting at Pont-Aven in Brittany, Gauguin attracted young disciples who both inspired him to become more abstract and ‘primitive’, but also came back to Paris to spread his influence.

The young Paul Sérusier organised a group of like-minded young artists at the private art school of Rodolphe Julian, which included Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis – and christened them the ‘Nabis’ (Hebrew for ‘prophets’). Without really intending to, Gauguin found himself being lauded as a prophet to the Symbolists. When he set off for the Pacific he was given a going-away party by the Symbolists, presided over by Mallarmé himself.

Here’s a work from Gauguin’s South Sea period.

Lucie-Smith says it is symbolist work because it has mystery, ambiguity and is clearly an invitation to seek some deeper meaning lying beneath the surface. Well, yes… I find several works by other Nabis more convincingly symbolist:

Lucie-Smith devotes a chapter to the Salon of the Rose+Cross founded by Joséphin Péladan in 1892, which held a series of six exhibitions from 1892 to 1897 at which they invited Symbolist painters to exhibit. Featured artists included Arnold Böcklin, Fernand Khnopff, Ferdinand Hodler, Jan Toorop, Gaetano Previati, Jean Delville, Carlos Schwabe and Charles Filiger.

The Salon combined rituals and ideas from Medieval Rosicrucianism with elements of Kabbala and other aspects of esoteric lore. Charming and distracting though much of this arcane knowledge may be to devotees, it is also, at bottom, a profoundly useless waste of time and intellect. However, the Salon of the Rose+Cross’s practical impact was to bring together and promote a wide range of painters who shared the symbolist mindset:

More impressive are Soul of the Forest by Edgar Maxence (1898) and:

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)

An illustrator who created line drawings in black ink, Beardley’s big breakthrough came in 1894 when Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, was published in a version with Beardsley’s woodcuts and caused a succès de scandale. Well aware of fashionable taste, Beardsley tackled favourite Symbolist themes like the medieval dreamworld of King Arthur, the femme fatale, Wagner’s operas, and pretty risqué pornography, as in his illustrations to the classic play, Lysistrata.

Beardsley’s clarity of line and hard-edged arabesques make him one of the founders of Art Nouveau.

Symbolists in other countries

This summary only takes us up to half way through the book which beings to risk – like Gibson’s book – turning into simply a list of relevant painters with a paragraph or so on each.

Part of this is because Symbolism was so thoroughly international a style, with offshoots all across Europe. Lucie-Smith makes the point that it was a little like the Mannerism of the end of the 16th century – the product of a unified and homogenous culture, and of a social and artistic élite determined to emphasise the gap between itself – with all its sensitivity and refinement – and the ghastly mob, with its crude newspapers and penny-dreadful entertainments.

Later chapters describe the Symbolist artists of America, Holland (Jan Toorop, Johan Thorn Prikker),  Russia (Diaghilev, Bakst and the World of Art circle), Italy (Giovanni Segantini, Gaetano Previati), Czechoslovakia (Franz Kupka), Germany-Switzerland (Arnold Böckin, Max Klinger, Otto Greiner, Alfred Kubin, Ferdinand Hodler, Franz von Stuck).

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

I particularly liked:

The books ends with extended sections devoted to James Ensor, Edvard Munch (who Lucie-Smith considers the most avant-garde painter working anywhere in the mid-1890s) and Gustav Klimt.

Modernists who had symbolist phases

Like Gibson, Lucie-Smith points out that a number of the great Modernists first passed through identifiable symbolist phases before finding their final styles.

Two great examples are Wassily Kandinsky, whose pre-abstract paintings are admittedly influenced by Fauve and Divisionist techniques but as, Lucie-Smith points out, depict undeniably Arthurian and medieval subject matter, and so qualify for the symbolist team.

The other is Piet Mondrian, the Dutchman nowadays known for his black-lined grids of white squares and rectangles, enlivened with the occasional yellow or red exception. But before he perfected the style that made him famous (about 1914), Mondrian had gone through a florid Symbolist period in the 1910s – in fact he was a keen theosophist (member of a spiritual movement akin to Rosicrucianism).

In a final, surprise move, Lucie-Smith makes a claim for Picasso to have gone through a Symbolist phase, before becoming the father of modern art.

He quotes Evocation, which does look remarkably like something by Odilon Redon (Picasso was only 19 at the time) and whose subject is a characteristically fin-de-siecle one of suicide and death. Or take Life, which uses a handful of meaningful figures to address this rather large topic, not unlike the confessional approach of Edvard Munch just a few years earlier.

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Finale

As with Michael Gibson’s book, I felt that Lucie-Smith pulled in so many outriders and fringe symbolists that he watered down the core vision and essence of Symbolism.

Beardsley? Gauguin? Whistler? Ye-e-e-s… but no. Beardsley is an illustrator who anticipates Art Nouveau design. Gauguin is a post-Impressionist. Whistler is a type of Impressionist with little or no interest in ‘religion’ or ‘the beyond’…

But that is the difficulty with the Symbolism as an-ism, it is extremely broad and covers themes, topics, ideas which spilled over from earlier movements, spilled into contemporary movements, which touched artists (and illustrators and designers) of all types and genres. At its broadest, it was the spirit of the age. All we can say with complete certainty is that the Great War utterly destroyed it, and ushered in a new, anti-spiritual age, in literature, poetry, music and the visual arts.

And, turning back to the immense and beautifully illustrated Gibson coffee-table book, I’d say that if you were only going to own one of these books, Gibson’s is the one: Lucie-Smith’s text is thorough and informative but Gibson’s illustrations are to die for.


Related links

Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012)

The historical texts need constant rereading as we attempt to understand better the problematic of femininity and the role of images in the social production of meaning. (p.31)

This is a massive, hugely impressive and very useful book, a comprehensive history of women artists from the Middle Ages to the present day, which reincorporates hundreds of women into the canon of Western art, while raising all kinds of issues, not all of them necessarily the ones the author intends to.

Women, Art and Society demands a huge amount of respect and being paid the compliment of being seriously read, analysed, questioned and critiqued.

Expanding the list of women artists

Women, Art and Society is a staggering 552 pages long, including 20 pages of bibliography, notes and references in very small print. It is hugely knowledgeable, scholarly and authoritative.

On the down side it is part of Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series which means that it is on the small side for an art book (20cm by 15cm) and has much more text than illustrations. The illustrations often share pages with text and so are often pretty small – 3 inches by 2 inches is typical – and the majority of them are in black and white. Also, the text refers to hundreds of art works which aren’t included. Nowadays we can look them up online but prior to the internet you had to read sometimes detailed analyses of pictures which you couldn’t see.

Oh well, you can’t have everything. All these disadvantages are outweighed by the book’s enormous achievement which is to hugely expand the number, range, depth, variety and achievement of thousands of women in art, to write them back into the history of Western art and, along the way, to point out again and again how women were deterred, derided, mocked and systematically prevented from making art by a whole web of laws and regulations, institutional barriers and cultural and social norms and expectations.

It is a lot to take in; I’ve reread it twice and should probably do so at least once more, as well as keeping it handy on the shelf as a reference book.

If (like me) you have only a shaky grasp of the (traditional, male) history of Western art and, if pushed, could name barely half a dozen (mostly male) artists for each major style, then this book will vastly expand your knowledge, bringing to light hosts of women who contributed to the art of every era of Western art and, in an astonishing number of cases, were actually leading lights of the time.

In this respect, this book is a massive achievement and an enormous revelation.

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola

A women’s eye view of the history of Western art

Taken as a basic history, the book gives a thrilling overview of Western art, starting in the Middle Ages with a consideration of women’s roles as producers of then-current types of artistic object (textiles, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts) and then proceeding very thoroughly and systematically, in chronological order, through all the major movements and art styles of Western art, right up to a 2010 work by Pae White (the final artist named in the text).

It has the thrill and the sense of empowerment which really sweeping historical narratives have, as well as the excitement of discovering entirely new aspects of a fairly ‘familiar’ story – not only the wealth of specifically women artists, but also accounts of the movements, exhibitions, networks and organisations which women organised for themselves to promote women’s art.

As one tiny example, take the enormous Women’s Building designed and built specially to hold works of art and craft solely created by women at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Chadwick spends some time explaining how the all-female organisers got into fairly heated debate about whether or not to include any men (No), whether to limit the displays to the ‘fine arts’ or include all creative endeavours women were active in, handicrafts like needlework, tapestries, carpet-making (Yes). If you didn’t know about these debates, you’ll find out about them here – if you did know a little, you’ll be surprised how long some of them have been going on.

I for one was surprised at just how many women’s institutes, women’s art schools and fabric and design and needlework schools, were being set up in the mid-Victorian era, and how well-established feminist artists and authors were by the later 19th century.

Simply by focusing relentlessly on women’s experiences and achievements, Chadwick brings to light all kinds of historical material, debates and discussions which shed light not only on the women’s (and men’s) art of their time, but also makes you reflect on our own values, now, showing you the deep historical origins of many anti-women commonplaces and prejudices which endure to this day.

Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Feminist issues

Liberally sprinkled throughout the factual history, amid her reclaiming of names and dates and works of neglected women artists, is Chadwick’s eloquent interpretation and exposition of the key issues of feminist art criticism. These can be broadly divided into reporting debates among feminists at the time, and reporting debates contemporary feminist art historians and critics have now about interpreting past art.

Historical debates

The 1893 the argument between women about what to include in the Women’s Building is one example of her summaries of historical debate, one among many, many other occasions when women debated among themselves the role of women, or the rights of women, or whether women have a special feminine ‘character’ or whether women’s art is detectably different from men’s art, and so on.

a) The nature of these debates is often fascinating, especially when the arguments on both sides still resonate to this day. (Is there such a thing as ‘the feminine’ in art?)

b) As with another book I have just read, 50 Women Artists You Should Know, it’s quite a revelation to realise just how long many of these debates, complaints, pleas and arguments have been going on for. When you learn that art critics were debating the ‘nature of femininity’ and ‘the role of women’s art’ in the 1750s, or that Mary Wollstonecroft published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 – 225 years ago – you begin to wonder whether any of these debates will ever be resolved. Maybe they are just discussions which will go on forever, reinvented and reinterpreted in each age, but remaining essentially unanswerable (not least because they are so big and simplistic). Maybe questions like ‘Is there such a thing as women’s art?’, ‘Does women’s art differ in any way from men’s art?’ are now just permanent features of the culture, alongside other old chestnuts like, ‘What is Art?’ ‘What is a work of art?’ ‘What is Beauty?’ and so on. Maybe they’re not meant to be answered – maybe their sociological purpose is to prompt debate, new insights and, very often, new art for each successive generation.

Feminist art history

2. Then there’s Chadwick’s summary of contemporary feminist theories, issues and ideas, which she uses retroactively to analyse the vast terrain she covers. In this respect, the preface to the original 1990 edition of the book (it’s been through five editions) reiterates some basic questions which the feminist art pioneers of the late 1960s and 1970s asked themselves and which form a sort of base camp for what follows:

  • Why did traditional male art historians ignore the work of almost all female artists for so long? (Although anti-women bias existed throughout Western history, the blanking of women artists in art history became really endemic in the Victorian period, reflecting the hardening of gender roles as a result of industrialisation, which crystallised previously quite flexible gender roles into really clear rules about men being the breadwinner and women being the angel in the house, stereotypes which endured well into the 1960s and beyond).
  • Were the successful woman artists who did feature in male histories isolated ‘freaks’, or the tip of a big iceberg of female achievement which had been systematically ignored? (As this book eloquently proves, there has been a vast iceberg of female artistic achievement through the ages.)
  • Did and should female artists lay claim to ‘essential’ gender differences which result in the production of certain kinds of imagery i.e. Is women’s art different from men’s art? (Some women artists and theoreticians have claimed their works were specially ‘feminine’, but in practice it’s impossible to tell from a painting alone whether it was done by a man or a woman – as the jungle of misattributions of paintings from the Renaissance to the 18th century amply demonstrates.)
  • Can works of art be viewed as androgynous or genderless? (Yes)
  • What is the relationship between ‘fine art’ – the ‘serious’ work of painting and sculpture – and the handicrafts which women either chose or were often forced to work in (quilts, needlework, tapestries etc)? Should it all be championed as women’s art or should the distinctiveness of ‘fine art’ be preserved? Or is that a male prejudice, a hangover from five centuries of masculine rhetoric about Great Artists and Old Masters, which we should deconstruct and overthrow? (Tricky: some feminists think craftwork should be included in a much more open definition of ‘art’, widened out to include all kinds of visual, textile creativity, not least because that would also ‘let in’ huge numbers of non-European women artists; others stick to the old definitions of ‘fine art’ as opposed to ‘watercolour’, ‘crafts’, if only for practical purposes of helping contemporary woman artists define what they do, where they should exhibit and so on.)
Still life (1653) by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Still life (1653) by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Fundamental feminist art ideas

So those are some of the big questions which Chadwick’s book raises, and numerous women artists and critics are quoted as discussing.

In a different category are the main feminist ideas, findings or axioms about women’s art and art history, which Chadwick reports and explains. Women theorists, practitioners and historians often disagree about the interpretations of these ideas, because they are now and have always been alive, debated, changing and evolving. But certain basic premises of the feminist position recur again and again and seem to be central. For what it’s worth, here is my attempt to summarise the main ‘findings’ of feminist art theory:

Throughout history art institutions were mostly run by men. Men privileged their own gender and male ways of seeing the world. They privileged genres to do with power and heroism (history paintings), genres which depicted heroic men and which were considered suitable only for male artists. They also created the whole idea of the artist as a ‘hero’, someone gifted with special powers and the unique ability to express the noblest thoughts of the human species – Religious ideas in the Renaissance, the power of Reason during the Enlightenment, Family morality during the 19th century, revolutionary and rebel ideas with the onset of Modernism. Later generations called these earlier pioneers the Old Masters, embedding ideas of masculinity, power, strength and so on into the very definition of art. In a host of ways, big and small, male artists were privileged by writings and ideas and expectations which promoted ‘male’ attributes and achievements.

Women artists were generally defined in contrast to all this, by a male notion of ‘the feminine’ i.e. as the opposite of the ‘male’ characteristics of power and virility. Therefore, if they insisted on working as artists, they were discouraged from working in the top genres like history painting, and instead encouraged to work to their ‘feminine’ strengths by doing portraits, animals, scenes of domestic life and so on.

If women artists were praised, it was generally for their ‘feminine’ attributes, i.e. their work was ‘delicate’, ‘sensitive’, full of ‘feeling’ etc, subtly relegating them to a second division, keeping their work within a supposedly ‘feminine sphere’.

By 1893 radical American women perceived the ideology of separate spheres as a male invention and a male response to feared competition in the workplace. (p.250)

Money plays a role. Men’s art fetched higher prices, therefore everyone involved in selling art had a vested interest in attributing art to famous men. Chadwick gives examples of works by 16th and 17th century women artists which were systematically misattributed to the male heads of their workshops so that they would sell for more, both at the time and later. The net effect of this money motive across the entire history of Western art was to reduce the number of works attributed to women, one more factor making them appear ‘marginal’. (And giving rise to a specialised area of feminist art scholarship which is the reattribution of older art away from men and re-establishing the oeuvres of long-neglected women artists.)

Another way traditional art criticism and history privileges men is in terms of size and scale. Big is best. Works on a ‘monumental’ scale are valued more than smaller works, and there is a long history of regarding women as simply incapable of working on this much vaunted ‘monumental’ scale. Women’s art had to be small and ‘domestic’.

Similarly, artists who are prolific tend to dominate the record e.g. the unstoppable Picasso. This bias doesn’t take account of the way many women artists were deprived of the money or resources to make large works, were ignored when big commissions came round, who chose to work on a smaller scale, or who were often burdened with the responsibilities of child-bearing and child-rearing and so produced significantly less than the child-free men.

Gender A lot of this debate is premised on the axiom that notions of ‘gender’ are entirely socially produced. A long list of feminist writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler has insisted that gender is created. As de Beauvoir wrote: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ Obviously, there are undeniable biological differences between boys and girls, men and women. But the cultural and psychological meanings of what it is to be a ‘man’ and what it is to be a ‘woman’ are entirely man-made (literally), are created, are social constructs, are something we are taught, and so can be changed.

The more we study history with this in mind, the more we see how ‘gender roles’ have in fact varied from place to place and time to time. Studying gender role-creation in the past suggests the extent to which gender roles are still socially manufactured and could, conceivably, still be rewritten for the better.

Just how far this process can go, whether 100% identity between men and women (and other genders or transgenders) is possible, remains to be seen / is the subject of ongoing debate and investigation, but this book opens up fascinating vistas, putting on record women and artists who were discussing and addressing these questions centuries ago.

The male gaze I Lots of male art depicts naked women. This is the most blatant example of the ‘male gaze’ i.e. the way men see in ways intimately involved with power, control and predatory sexuality. Tens of thousands of nudes display women in semi-pornographic poses, made ‘available’ to the male viewer, in passive, inactive, submissive stances. For hundreds of years women have tried to produce images of themselves, of the female body, which won’t lend themselves to exploitation by the ‘male gaze’. Is this possible?

For all these reasons and more, quite a few feminist art historians, critics and artists refuse to play the entire game of art history, refuse to take part in male institutions or exhibitions and refuse to contribute to a discourse of criticism and history which they see as hopelessly compromised, inescapably based on overwhelmingly ‘male’ notions of power and dominance. To take one example from hundreds, the notion that there is a ‘canon’ of ‘important’ works: Who says there is a canon? Who defines it? On what criteria?

And lastly, feminism is itself an unstable construct. From the start feminist criticism and history has been attacked from within by black and other ethnic or class-based points of view which point out that the women artists being ‘reclaimed’ and inserted into this male narrative were overwhelmingly white and often themselves very wealthy and privileged. From this perspective, the whole project of rediscovering and reinserting neglected women artists into ‘the canon’, the ‘official histories’, and subjecting them to ‘traditional art criticism’ just ends up reinforcing established (male) notions of race and class and economic privileges.

But, would reply Chadwick, if you don’t make the effort to rehabilitate all these women artists, you leave the male history unchallenged, women artists are lost to history, women’s voices go unheard. Catch-22.

The solution must, then, be to try and reconcile the two imperatives, to engage in a) the rehabilitation project while b) also looking for ways to deconstruct the very notion of a ‘canon’, at the very least to extend it outwards to include non-traditional art and art from other ethnic groups, and to be aware of more marginal, minority, genuinely unprivileged groups.

These, then, are some of the key ‘charges’ made against traditional male art history and criticism, some of the basic ideas which underpin the entire book, and these last couple of paragraphs summarise Chadwick’s position (as I understand it).

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1788) by Angelica Kauffman

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1788) by Angelica Kauffman

Some historical learnings

The main learning of the book is quite how many women have been involved in artistic production at all levels for the last 1,000 years (the book starts with nuns and craftswomen creating illuminated manuscripts and textiles from around 900 CE. It includes, for example, a section on the Bayeaux Tapestry c.1080, and on Hildegard of Bingen who flourished in the 1100s.) Hundreds of names which were new to me are given an introduction and analysis.

The second learning is the depth of feminist scholarship about all these artists. Of the hundreds of women artists mentioned here, all have been subject to one or numerous art critical and historical essays written about them by feminist theorists and scholars.

In other words, Women, Art and Society impresses not only by the sheer numbers and achievements of the women artists, but by the parallel numbers and achievements of women art scholars and historians in the modern world. Very sophisticated debates about individual artists, or entire eras, are now possible quoting numerous scholars not a single one of which is a man. Feminist theory, feminist history, feminist art criticism are now enormous fields in their own right.

The ‘male’ Renaissance

Chadwick deepened my understanding of the Renaissance by describing it in feminist terms. The Renaissance foregrounded learning, especially the mathematics which underpinned its astonishing achievements in creating realistic perspective in painting and neo-classical architecture. All the intellectual qualities required for this – maths, geometry, trigonometry, architecture and so on – were characterised as male qualities and women were discouraged or banned from learning them. Women were encouraged to study dress, deportment, morality and the sensitive arts.

This underlying idea of power, the power of the intellect, the forcefulness of monumental buildings in the new style, all rotated round and reinforced gender ideas about masculinity. Power, force and energy are the qualities admired, which climax in the High Renaissance and then drive on into the even more monumental and heavy Baroque.

Chadwick points out that the most influential book of art history ever is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. It does include some women painters but by privileging ‘male’ concepts of power and mastery it set the tone for a huge amount of the art criticism and history which followed.

Thus Chadwick’s account left me with a deeper understanding of how an anti-women bias was ‘inscribed’ into the founding texts of art history.

Northern versus southern art

It also helped me understand my own taste more. Though it’s heresy to admit it, I don’t much like Renaissance art or architecture – I find it inhumanly imposing, monumental and power-hungry – I much prefer the art and architecture of the Middle Ages (Gothic) and the painting of the so-called Northern Renaissance, a view or prejudice I’ve aired in several reviews:

Chadwick greatly deepened my understanding of the difference between Italian Renaissance and Northern European art. To put it in cartoon form: Italy was ‘male’ and the North (the Low Countries) ‘female’. What I like about Northern painting is that:

a) It is more human, it shows people more realistically, it shows peasants dancing (Breughel), there are hundreds of scenes of winter fairs and people skating on frozen lakes etc, its portraits are realistically plain and often ugly (whereas Renaissance portraits are about Power and Dukes and Popes).
b) It often depicts modest, quiet domestic scenes, flowers, still lives, women quietly working (Vermeer).

Chadwick explores the difference in a number of illuminating ways. I learned from her account that Michelangelo, no less, was quoted at the time giving a detailed account of why he despised and disliked Northern European art, precisely for the aspects I like, for its everyday scenes and understatement. Michelangelo thought it was all very pretty but lacked grandeur and dynamic design and humans (generally men) cast in bold dramatic postures. (p.118)

Italian Renaissance art was born of bragging. Each city state was proud of its artists and its huge buildings (much as northern British cities competed to build the most imposing town hall in the 19th century). The earliest records of individual artists were written to shed honour on their town of birth (or where they worked) and on their splendid sponsor, whoever that might have been, before praising the artist themselves.

Italian Renaissance art is grand, public and aristocratic – its patrons are dukes, cardinals and the Pope. Northern European art was smaller, more intimate and designed to be hung in the homes of the middle classes. Northern European art is more democratic.

Self-Portrait by Judith Leyster (1633)

Self-Portrait by Judith Leyster (1633)

Rococo art

King Louis XIV of France created a vast ideology of royal power based at his enormous palace at Versailles. When he died in 1715 he was succeeded by the boy King Louis XV and the court and all the aristocrats moved back to Paris with a big sigh of relief. Rococo art with its lightness of touch and fanciful subject matter, is:

a) a reaction to the straitjacket of Louis XIV’s power ideology
b) the result of the French aristocracy mingling with the well-to-do Paris bourgeoisie, more relaxed and pleasure-loving
c) the fact that the aristocracy, newly arrived back in Paris after a generation of exile in Versailles, hired or built grand new town houses which needed decorating. Hence an explosion of paintings, sculptures, carvings, mouldings, gildings all designed to enhance and bring out enjoyment of a more domestic, ‘feminine’ space and lifestyle

In fact, the 18th century has been conventionally characterised as a highpoint of ‘feminine’ influence in art and culture, dominated by the salons of powerful Parisian women, visually represented by frivolous and frolicsome subject matter.

As usual, Chadwick challenges this idea, which clashes with modern feminist doctrine denying the existence of a ‘feminine nature’ or ‘feminine attributes or ‘feminine art’ – but she first has to describe the period in traditional art historical terms before deconstructing it, and finds it difficult to avoid the fact that the art of Louis XV, dominated by women’s salons and women aristocrats is indisputably ‘softer’, hazier, more full of pastoral imagery, than the imposing icons of power politics of Louis XIV.

However you resolve that and other debates, the 18th century was indisputably the era of some really important and impressive women artists, Rosalba Carriera, Angelica Kauffmann and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun to pick just a handful among scores.

Self portrait in straw hat (1782) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Self portrait in a straw hat (1782) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Victorian feminists

I had no idea that a large number of American women sculptors moved to Rome and worked there in the 1850s and 1860s, daughters of supportive liberal families. The moved in an extended feminist network, many of them chose not to marry in order to concentrate on their careers, some were lesbians or notably non-conformist (they wore trousers, smoked, rode horses not side-saddle!).

Henry James wrote a satirical essay on them. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a fable/romance set among them, The Marble Faun (1859), and Louisa May Alcott wrote a novella about female friendships among the group, Diana and Persis (1879). It’s a whole community to read about and admire. Probably the most important was Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908).

Zenobia in Chains (1859) by Harriet Hosmer

Zenobia in Chains (1859) by Harriet Hosmer

I was also surprised to learn that so many women’s groups, institutions, art schools, feminist magazines, newspapers, activists and so on, began to flourish so early in the 19th century, in America, Britain and Europe.

From the 1850s onwards the diversity of women’s artists is matched by a steadily increasing diversity of women’s institutes, professional bodies, critics, theorists, writers, patrons and so on.

  • 1825 American National Academy of Design
  • 1844 United States National Woman’s Rights Convention
  • 1854 Cosmopolitan Art Association
  • 1855 Society of Female Artists
  • 1866 modern feminist movement launched in France
  • 1868 The Revolution (women’s rights newspaper)
  • 1876 Philadelphia Exposition featured a Women’s Centennial Executive Committee
  • 1877 Society of Decorative Art of New York
  • 1878 International congress on women’s rights
  • 1881 Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs in France
  • 1894 ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’ by Sarah Grand published in the North American Review crystallises the idea of the New Woman
  • 1897 Millicent Fawcett founds the National Union of Women’s Suffrage

As the book moves onto the turn of the century, there is more of everything: fast-growing populations, new technologies, scientific and medical discoveries, terrible mechanised wars, and a dizzying array of artistic movements – from late Victorian arts and crafts, Aestheticism, Symbolism, through the early 20th century revolutions of Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, on into the Great War with Dada and all the movements which come out of the Russian revolution.

The exponential growth of population and activity (in every field of human endeavour) over the past 150 years is reflected by the way the period from about 1850 to the present day takes up 350 pages (two thirds) of this 520-page book.

And Chadwick is there, reporting on the lead women artists in each of these movements, describing how they tried to navigate fast-moving social and political situations, position themselves in the male art world, and establish their own voices and styles.

It’s a massive story and far too complex to summarise here. Buy the book.

So much for the history. Meanwhile, as I read on and immersed myself more and more in the text, I couldn’t help noticing the intrusive presence of:

  1. the post-modern, feminist critical theory ideas which Chadwick invokes on every page
  2. the post-modern jargon or style which she uses with increasing frequency to describe artists and their works

1. The impact (or not) of post-modern French thinkers

The usual suspects In the preface to the 1990 edition Chadwick invokes the names of all the usual suspects of what was already called Critical Theory when I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s -Saussure (d.1913), Benveniste (d.1976), Marx (d.1883) and Althusser (d.1990), Freud (d.1939) and Lacan (d.1981), Barthes (d.1980), Foucault (d.1984), Derrida (d. 2004).

A lot of dead white men, then. Right at the end of this list she adds the famous French women writers of this ilk, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva. The same names are then all repeated again on page 502. This list of once-fashionable French thinkers effectively book-ends the main text.

This discourse is ageing But the list sounds pretty dated now. The network or matrix of ideas generated by these very influential French theorists was certainly the great new wave of ideas in the 1970s and 1980s, but now feels very passé. Just incanting their names takes me back to my student days in the 1980s, to the era of Reagan and Thatcher and Greenham Common, to the West’s enthusiastic support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan – back to an age now lost in the mists of time.

So I wasn’t surprised when, half way through the book, I googled Whitney Chadwick to discover that she is a 74-year-old white American feminist academic. She was born in the same year (1943) as Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell.

Nothing wrong with being old, we’re all getting old. But her age is an indication of where she is coming from, and explains why so much of her rhetoric dates from the strident and optimistic feminism of the late 1960s and 1970s, the kind of militant rhetoric which spread out of the academy into the wider political world in the 1980s when I was a student – but then evaporated like morning dew in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the deregulation of financial services, and the universal triumph of consumer capitalism.

Post-modern ideas mostly absent Anyway, Chadwick may well namecheck these French philosophes but – surprisingly – her book rarely uses or incorporates their ideas, above all their profoundly subversive ideas about writing and language, into the actual shape, pattern, flow and style of the text.

In the preface Chadwick briefly (in two sentences, p.12) invokes the idea from Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) that power in modern societies is expressed less by institutions than by the ‘scientific’ or learned discourses which they produce (about medicine, or mental health or sexuality etc).

In six sentences (p.13) she recaps Lacan’s theory that entry to the ‘symbolic order’ of writing and power is through possession of a penis in a phallocentric society, and that, lacking a penis, each woman is ‘constructed’ as a symbolic ‘other’ in the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order of ‘patriarchal’ society, deprived of power and ‘agency’.

I could do with a bit of clarification on these and related ideas, but this is notable by its absence. That list of Great Thinkers which I mentioned as coming on page 502 is, in its entirety, the statement that postmodernism:

brought to a wider academic and artistic audience new European influences that included Roland Barthes’s use of linguistic models in the interpretation of text and images, Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s analysis of social systems, and Jacques Lacan’s study of the structure of the unconscious. All of these investigations owed much to Marxist models of culture and ideology… (p.502)

And that’s your lot.

Not enough, is it? If these French theories underpin postmodern feminist theory, and that theory underpins and informs every page of this 500-page-long history, then I think the book ought to have started with a good, clear explanation of who the post-modern thinkers were, what their key findings were and how their theories are applied by feminists generally, and by feminist art historians in particular.

But the two places I’ve mentioned are the only places where Chadwick ever actually explains these post-modern ideas – ‘explain’ maybe giving too much credit to what is essentially a glorified list – and there is no one place where she goes into any of them in any kind of detail. My thumbnail sketch would be that the founders of postmodern Critical Theory:

  • question whether it is possible to name and categorise and write history or science or any ‘factual’ discourse without creating new impositions of power and control (Foucault)
  • claim that we can never be confident that an author’s meaning is fixed, stable or read as intended (Barthes)
  • undermine the ability to write anything definitive i.e. whose meaning isn’t sabotaged at every turn by a vast network of linguistic ‘traces’ from the infinity of other writings (Derrida)
  • undermine the whole idea of coherent prose because that very notion, that long tradition, has almost exclusively been a vehicle for masculine power (Cixous)

What all these thinkers have in common is to completely undermine the notion of human beings as stable fixed psychological entities; to undermine the ability of language to ever really convey anything for certain, because of the instability of the relationship between author, text and reader (Barthes) or because language itself isn’t a ‘site’ of authority, but the reverse, a potentially endless play of peripheral traces (according to Derrida).

From the feminist point of view, these sustained underminings of traditional notions of reason and authority can be powerfully deployed to criticise and undermine traditional male discourses of power and control – in society at large, but most of all in literature and the arts, which rely most completely on signs and symbols – precisely the areas of concern to the most subversive and disruptive findings of Barthes, Derrida, Cixous and their peers.

It is the complexity of the thinking about how traditional ‘discourse’ is undermined which explains why the writings of these French thinkers is, itself, so often tortuous and barely comprehensible, because they take their own findings about the unreliability of language and meaning at face value and try to write new kinds of prose to accommodate and express these findings.

None of these subversive ideas or disruptive prose strategies have any impact on Chadwick’s actual prose which is – certainly for the first half of the book – mostly indistinguishable from the most traditional style of male art scholarship. Take this passage:

The Birth of the Virgin is closer to a genre scene of family life in Bologna than to its Biblical source, despite its outdoor setting and nocturnal illumination. It balances a sense of monumentality and decorum with a naturalism close to that of the Cremonese school, and was influenced by Anguissola, whose work Fontana knew and admired and who no doubt provided an important model for her. Fontana’s Consecration to the Virgin, originally intended for the Gnetti Chapel in S. Maria dei Servi in Bologna, combines figures elongated according to Mannerist conventions with greater naturalism in the treatment of the children’s figures. Prospero Fontana’s influence continued to be felt in Fontana’s later religious paintings, as did that of Peleotti, for links between the Bishop and the painter’s family remained strong. (p.94)

This could have been written by Kenneth Clark or Ernst Gombrich in the 1950s, and a lot of the book is written in this surprisingly conservative style.

The steady pressure of feminist ideas So, in practice, hardly any of the deeply subversive ideas of the French post-structuralist thinkers are really applied in this plain prose. The reverse: Chadwick’s prose is almost always clear and authoritative (just like her male art historian predecessors) – which is a good thing and makes this a very good introduction to her themes and history.

But all that said, her feminist stance is continuously present throughout the book, in at least two major ways:

1. Not a page goes by without factual reference to the half dozen fundamental feminist ideas which I’ve listed above – that so-and-so was excluded from an academy, encouraged only to paint ‘feminine’ subjects, was marginalised because their work didn’t conform to ‘masculine’ values i.e. big and heroic etc. These were the recurrent experiences of women artists and so they recur in the text. On every page there will be detail of the social, political, legal and professional obstacles put in the way of women, across all the widely varying and changing societies of Western Europe, across the past millennium (it is an enormous topic).

Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) by Rosa Bonheur

Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) by Rosa Bonheur

And then, as the story reaches the later nineteenth century, there’s an increase of ideas and strategies and debate among women artists. This is further encouraged by the explosion of modernism in the decade around the Great War – and Chadwick’s prose increasingly reflects the language of women’s rights campaigners and writers, with the slow infiltration into the text of phrases expressing women’s rights, reproductive rights, feminine essence and so on.

But it’s when the book arrives at the 1960s that there is an absolute explosion of ideas, texts, debates, political activitism, philosophy and radical new feminist theories. This happens about page 330 and then dominates the remaining 200 pages of the text. From this point onwards the prose style changes significantly to include more and more of the jargon and clichés of postmodern feminist criticism. This had been sporadically present earlier. Now it becomes the dominant voice. Eventually every single woman artist is defined and summarised (and controlled and categorised) using the same, relatively small vocabulary of this rebarbative academic style.

Let’s look a bit more closely at this professors’ argot.


A Lexicon of Feminist Critical Theory

The following aims to be a deconstruction of Chadwick’s text which reads it not as a consecutive history but as an assemblage of terminologies, a discursive tessellation (‘a pattern of geometric shapes that fit together’).

In other words, I am perfectly well aware that it Women, Art and Society is a chronological history of women artists but, at the same time, the surveys of contemporary women’s art (fascinating and immensely informative as they are) can also be thought of as:

  1. a pretext for the generation of text, a machine for churning out textual phrases and semantic units (because, after all, every ostensible ‘subject’ is merely a pretext for the exercise of writing and reading, which are deeply pleasurable in themselves, regardless of the theme)
  2. elements in a system of meaning and inclusion. What I mean is that the lexicon Chadwick uses not only has an overtly analytical aim, but also amounts to the specialised vocabulary of a sect or group or tribe – the tribe of university-educated feminists – which signals membership of the tribe and offers the psychological reassurance of taking part in shared values and a shared worldview.

Looking at her book like this, as a kind of machine for generating meaning, could itself be divided into two main areas: one bringing out the ‘political’ aspect of the rhetoric (detailing its obsessive repetition and recombination of what amount to a small number of ‘political’ ideas (generally subverting the patriarchy) or the psychological aspect.

Of the two, I choose to investigate the psychological aspect because I think it is wider and deeper.

On this point of view, Women, Art and Society is a discursive machine for the generation of an awesomely long text which is made up of thousands of reiterations and recombinations of a handful of basic words and phrases, the net result of which is to reassure the members of the sect or cult of feminist Critical Theory of their essential virtue, their correctness, their inclusion in an elite group of intellectuals, and the sense that they are engaged in a vast, international political movement which is changing the world for the better.

Members of this élite (having done a university course in feminist theory, critical theory, queer theory etc may make you feel like you’ve entered an entirely new world but does, in fact, put you in a tiny proportion of the general population) signal to each other through this highly mannered prose style because it, like the catchphrases of any religion, is designed more for mutual reassurance, to encourage ‘group think’ and discourage dissent, to bolster the reader’s identity as member of the elect – than for its allegedly logical or intellectual content.

(This possibly explains why she doesn’t feel the need to explain the ideas of Barthes, Foucault, Cixous et al in any detail, because the ideas aren’t important; the recitation of their names alone serves a sociological purpose, as in any other religion which recites the names of its saints and founders to bind together its members.)

With this in mind – focusing not so much on their overt meaning as on their impressive ability to generate apparently limitless permutations in order to spool out webs of reassuring verbiage – here’s an introduction to the key terms and phrases of feminist critical theory.

Key terms of feminist art critical theory

Works are not hung on walls or published; they are ‘positioned’ or ‘located’ or ‘situated’. The actual subjects depicted are not ‘placed’ or ‘set in’ so-and-so location. They are ‘situated’ or ‘sited’.

Mary Bracquemond sited many of her works in the family garden. (p.238)

Spaces The varied and interesting places which you and I go to – home, work, supermarket, cinema, pub, park – are all subsumed into a special terminology which talks about ‘spaces’, particularly the binary opposition of the ‘private space’ and the ‘public space’.

Because it is axiomatic in feminism that women have always been relegated to the domestic ‘space’ (or ‘sphere’), it is always headline news when they make a work, sculpture, painting or publish something which enters ‘the public space’.

Morisot’s and Cassatt’s paintings demarcate the spaces of masculinity and femininity through their spatial compressions and their juxtapositions of differing spatial system. (p.238)

In ‘Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity’, [feminist art scholar Griselda] Pollock maps the new spaces of masculinity and femininity and articulates the differences ‘socially, economically, subjectively’ between being a woman and being a man in Paris at the end of the [nineteenth] century. (p.232)

Subvert Works of art or literature are never made for enjoyment. They always have a political purpose. In the right-on worldview of Critical Theory, this purpose turns out always to be rebellious. What this means is that works ‘perform’ one of the following actions: they ‘subvert’, ‘interrogate’, ‘engage with’, ‘circumvent’, ‘undermine’, ‘question’, ‘contest’, ‘challenge’, ‘confront’, ‘critique’ or ‘disrupt’ social norms, conventions, accepted opinions, stereotypes, patriarchal values, white male narratives, and so on.

Note that these are generally Latinate words – a sure way to impress your reader – often with melodramatic overtones thrown in. A painting ‘interrogates’ assumptions about x, y or z. Makes it sound like a scene from a war movie instead of a flat old painting hanging on a wall.

Barbara Kruger’s (b.1945) blown-up, severely cropped photographs of women, and their short accompanying texts subvert the meanings of both image and text in order to destabilise the positioning of woman as object. (p.382)

Cindy Sherman’s (b.1954) photographs reveal the instability of gender, and challenge the idea that there might be an innate, unmediated female sexuality. (p.383)

Levine’s work not only contests notions of originality and authorship, but it situates those ideas within the premises of patriarchy. (p.384)

Mary Kelly (b.1941), an American who lived in London during the 1980s, also refused the direct representation of women in her work in order to subvert the use of the female image as object and spectacle … Post Partum Document… addressed the positioning of women in patriarchal culture… [It also] deconstructed psychoanalytical discourses on femininity… in order to articulate… the child’s insertion into the patriarchal order as a gendered (male) subject. (pp.403-404)

Later works by Kelly, as well as by the American artists Martha Rosler and Carrie Mae Weems also interrogate the ways that women’s roles are formed within the family and in society. (p.404)

Messager’s Story of dresses examines and critiques Western cultural representations of female identity, intimate relations, sexuality and power. (p.410)

Other women use humour and irony to challenge social constructions of gender. Irish artist Dorothy Cross’s (b.1956) installation The Power House (1991) addressed issues of class and the gendered division of labour and space. (p.411)

Walker’s work confounds the visual codes though which race, gender, sexuality, and the history of slaves in the American South have been presented. (p.492)

Transgress With tedious predictability, feminist works of art ‘transgress’ this, that or the other social norms, conventions, boundaries and so on.

Catherine Opie (b.1961) has also benefited from the spaces opened up by the transgressive photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. (p.396)

Articulate Works of art don’t express feelings or ideas. They ‘articulate’ issues or ‘mediate’ narratives.

Millie Wilson’s work articulates the historical inaccuracy, often absurdity, of social constructions of lesbianism within dominant heterosexual discourse. (p.396)

Through performing the piece [Wake and resurrection of the bicentennial Negro], Ringgold articulated a specific story of family tragedy, loss and redemption. (p.362)

Sexuality, class, race, and ethnicity mediated women’s attempts to define what it meant to be a woman, to experience life from within a woman’s body and to understand one’s subjectivity as feminine. (p.367)

Address Works of art are no longer designed to please the eye, be beautiful or entertaining (how crude, how passé!). Their sole purpose is to address issues and themes. In exactly the way that your local council says it is addressing the issue of parking spaces or bin collection.

During the 1980s Hiller produced several multimedia installations that address issues of language and silence. (p.400)

Kelly’s photo/text installation Corpus (1985)… explores femininity and representation by addressing the issue of aging… (p.405)

Many art exhibitions these days aren’t organised in order to display works of art; they are organised in order to address issues. This is particularly true of Tate Britain which has had a long run of issue-based shows (Queer art (overlooked), British Empire art (restoring native peoples to imperial narratives), Folk art (too often ignored) and so on). Issues can also be tackled. Though Chadwick prefers them to be addressed.

Ines Garrido (b.1966) in El secreto de Duchamp tackled issues of gender. In a nearby gallery, Magaly Reyes (b.1968) exhibited a group of colourful and quirky self-portraits in the manner of Frida Kahlo that addressed social issues through questions of her own identity. (p.429)

Issues Whatever the precise verb used, contemporary art is all about issues. In this respect a lot of modern art is barely ‘art’ at all, but more plausibly a colourful extension of sociology or anthropology.

  • The 1997 Johannesburg Biennale ‘dealt explicitly with issues of colonisation, race relations and identity in South Africa…’
  • Lucy Orta (b.1966) addresses ‘issues of class’
  • Tracey Moffatt ‘addresses issues of cultural identity’
  • contemporary women artists from developing countries address ‘issues of displacement, imperialism, economic colonisation, sexuality and identity’
  • Salcedo’s contribution to the 1993 Venice biennale addressed ‘issues of representation’
  • The Australian Aboriginal Campfire Group speak to issues of cultural hybridity and displacement (p.452)
  • Kimsooja’s work addresses ‘issues of nomadism, migration, displacement, the body, and history.’ (p.485)
  • Contemporary women artists engage ‘issues of personal and historical memory’ (p.492)
  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

Discourse What works of art are usually interrogating is ‘traditional’ assumptions, customs, traditions etc. That sounds a bit obvious, so it’s better to use the buzzword ‘discourse’. This is a blanket term covering books, essays, lectures, articles, speeches, a society’s entire collection of ways of communicating.

Women’s positions in relation to imperialist discourse were seldom fixed … (p.199)

Each era has an official ‘discourse’ which is – it goes without saying – deeply sexist. Therefore, feminist theory prefers (or foregrounds or privileges) the kind of works which ‘subvert’, ‘interrogate’, ‘engage with’, ‘circumvent’, ‘undermine’, ‘question’ or ‘challenge’ the ruling ‘discourse’.

Inscribe New ideas aren’t taken up or incorporated; they are ‘inscribed’ or ‘reinscribed’ into the ruling discourse.

Narrative The ruling discourse is always male or masculine. All writing about anything before about 1970 was written by men for men. This masculinist ‘discourse’ ‘prescribes’ (like a doctor) or ‘constructs’ (like a builder) a ‘masculinist’ view of the world. The ruling discourse is made up of ‘narratives’. Again ‘narrative’ doesn’t refer to a specific work but to the general story an age tells itself, in effect its values. You often read about ‘Western imperial narratives’.

Hegemony is a term adapted by the Italian communist philosopher Gramsci in the 1930s to describe the across-the-board control of all aspects of society by nasty capitalists. Although Marxism is dead, Critical Theory has extended the term to refer to the ‘hegemony’ white people or men or heterosexuals (depending on which group you are ‘subverting’, ‘interrogating’ or ‘questioning’).

Thus subversive works try to ‘undermine’ or ‘engage with’ or ‘interrogate’ male ‘discourse’ or ‘narratives’ or ‘hegemony’. (Hopefully, you can see that, by mastering just a few basic phrases you can begin to build up impressive-sounding sentences of your own. It’s a bit like Lego.)

As [the 1980s] progressed an international group of younger artists… emerged to rework the feminist implications of materials into complex challenges to hegemonic movements in Western European and North American modernism. (p.503)

Code has two meanings. First, the usual one of codes of conduct:

In demanding access to art training and life classes women were not only challenging codes of feminine propriety and sexual conduct; they were also claiming the right to see and represent actively the world around them, and to command genius as their own. (p.178)

Encode/decode But works of literature or art are often said to contain secret ‘codes’. These difficult ‘codes’ (i.e. secret messages like ‘Men are Best’, and ‘Women are crap’) are ‘encoded’ in ‘texts’, ‘discourses’ or ‘representation’, and have to be ‘decoded’ by experts. For example, Harriet Powers (1837-1911) a black woman born into slavery in Georgia, went on to make story quilts. They were displayed at an 1886 exhibition.

Powers herself produced the detailed descriptions of each scene that enabled subsequent generations to decode its complex iconography. (p.21)

I’m not questioning this moving story. Just the way that previous generations would have written ‘read’ or ‘interpret’, but we write ‘decode’. The characteristic feminist theory tactic of combining the scientific-sounding (as in computer code) with a dash of melodrama ( James Bond secret codes).

Signifier is a technical term originating in linguistics and incorporated into semiotics, or the study of signs. Ferdinande de Saussure revolutionised linguistics by theorising that language is made up of signs which always consist of two parts – the signifier and the signified i.e. a sign’s physical form (such as a sound, printed word, or image) and its meaning, the thing signified or referred to. In Critical Theory this has been removed from its specific context in linguistics, and watered down to mean ‘representing’ or ‘standing for’ or ‘symbolising’. But, importantly, it retains the cachet of sounding scientific and serious.

By 1913, the Italian Futurists were exploring the idea of clothing as a signifier for revolutionary modernism. (p.262)

Competing ideologies began to use images of the body as signifiers for other kinds of social meanings. (p.274)

It is the images produced by modernists like Delaunay and the Russian artists which became the basis of a modern ideology in which the commodified image of woman signifies her expanded role as a consumer. (p.277)

‘Mark of’, ‘sign of’, ‘indication of’, ‘symptom of’, ‘representative of’, lots of more ordinary words would mean the same. But ‘signifier’ has the cachet of the difficult specialism of linguistics and the cool, newish (in the 1970s) discipline of semiotics.

Practices Artists don’t have techniques or styles or methods but instead the much more scientific or sociological term, ‘practices’ (like doctors and solicitors). This word ‘practice’ can be widely used. Critics don’t write criticism they ‘engage in a critical practice’. An art work doesn’t subvert the hegemony, it subverts the ‘hegemonic practices’ (of a particular era or society). After the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism emerged as

the dominant practice in American modern art (p.319)

Not style, kind, form, vein, strain, type, trend or technique. Practice.

Projects Alongside ‘practices’ goes the word ‘projects’. In general, it is nations that have ‘projects’ and it is most often used to describe European imperialism or, more correctly, ‘the European imperial project’. Having read quite a few histories of imperialism, it’s hard not to conclude that reducing the incredibly complicated history of imperial acquisition and conquest and the bewildering variety of nations, peoples and territories involved and the vast range of economic, strategic and military impulses at work, down to one little phrase, is hugely reductive.

In fact, it’s striking that Critical Theory, although it talks a good game about diversity and multiple points of view, in practice holds just one point of view and arguably a very narrow, repetitive one – hence, perhaps, its popularity.

The representational and discursive strategies that created the imperial nation as masculine, and the conquered, colonised and imperialised as feminine, implicate both race and gender in colonialist projects. (p.199)

Read that sentence carefully. Issues of race and gender were ‘implicated’ in imperialism.

The primary sense of ‘implicate’ is ‘to show or suggest that someone was involved in a crime’. It’s quite a dramatic word, most commonly used in connection with police investigations and lawyers in court.

But does ‘implicate’ here mean much more than ‘involved’? The sentence could be translated into something like: ‘Pictures and texts which depicted imperialism as essentially male and the conquered native peoples as feminine…. involved race and gender.’

This comes close to pure tautology, or repetition: ‘Pictures and texts which depicted imperialism as masculine and conquered native people as feminine involved ideas of race and gender.’

Isn’t that obvious? Isn’t the second half essentially repeating what the first half said? Interpreted harshly, the sentence doesn’t add anything to your factual understanding, it just summarises an attitude.

What it is really saying is: ‘You know I’m always telling you that all history represents a battlefield between men and women; you know I’m always telling you that race and gender are key ‘issues’ that recur throughout history and that’s why they’re so prevalent in contemporary art; well, by depicting themselves as male conquerors and native peoples as helpless and female, needing to be guided and tutored, imperial discourse does exactly what I’m always telling you it does. See? I was right. We are right. These issues are everywhere.’

The only real ‘information’ conveyed by the second half of the sentence comes from the melodramatic overtones of the word ‘implicate’. It is emotional or psychological information, rather than logical or historical information. ‘Implicate’ gives the mind a frisson and a thrill – God, yes, implicate – someone somewhere must be guilty, sooooo guilty.

To summarise: sentences like this (and there are thousands of them in the second half of the book):

  • Are essentially tautologous – the second part tells you what the first part has already told you, but uses bombastic rhetoric to make it seem like some really important new information has been conveyed. The sentence can be boiled right down to saying: ‘the imperialist strategies which cast race in terms of gender (male European good, female native bad) used race and gender’. A = A.
  • Are serving the far more important function of confirming the reader’s (and author’s) prejudices, and reinforcing the feminist theory worldview: Imperialist propaganda used issues of race and gender; See! I told you so! Issues of race and gender are everywhere, just like we teach you.

When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote about her travels in Turkey, she couldn’t escape the fact that she was a rich Westerner, or, to put it in femtheoryspeak:

even as she portrayed their clothing as more ‘natural’ than that of European women, and life in the harem as offering positive benefits to women, she remained complicit in the European imperial project of constructing the Orient, and conflating it with Oriental women. (p.199)

Aha, ‘complicit’, another threat word.

The primary meaning of complicit is ‘to be involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong.’ Thus femtheoryspeak claims that any writings undertaken during the imperial period implicates its author – that anybody who did anything during the imperial period was complicit in this enormous crime.

This is reminiscent of the language of Stalin’s show trials in the Soviet Union. The language of crime is used to smear and defame people who can’t talk back. Without bringing forth much actual evidence (as historians, for example, are compelled to), this rhetoric, through sheer repetition, builds up the sense of an enormous criminal conspiracy involving the whole of Western civilisation.

And, like all conspiracy theories, the psychological effect is to make the reader feel threatened on all sides, to circle the wagons, to believe all the more fervently in the great teachers and leaders of feminist theory. Only they can save us from the patriarchy. It’s not saying this on a rational overt level, nobody involved is children. But the emotional, psychological pressure to believe in the conspiracy is present in almost every word and phrase of a lexicon which (implicitly, through its choice of lexicon) claims scientific authority to highlight the heinous crimes being committed all around us by the patriarchy. Beware, sisters!

Anyway, back the lexicon, ‘project’ is interchangeable with ‘imperative’.

In 1863 Baudelaire situated fashion at the heart of the modernist imperative… (p.252)

Like ‘project’, the word ‘imperative’ makes a bunch of run-of-the-mill ideas, and a very shaky grasp of history, sound authoritative, urgent and thrusting – by virtue of both its Latinate origin and its overt meaning (‘an essential or urgent thing’) giving the impression that people just had to do it, to be modernists, chuck figuratism, use bright colours and abstract patterns. It was imperative.

Male gaze II Apart from obvious restrictions on what women could wear or do or go, male art always privileges the ‘male gaze’. This is the way women have been visualised and depicted for millennia as objects, to be savoured, visually enjoyed and (in the imagination, in the male mind’s eye) undressed and sexually possessed.

Feminist theory has often held to the premise that the viewing field is organised for the male subject who exercises power through looking, and in this way asserting visual control over the objects of his desire. (p.214)

I’ve always found it difficult not to have a male gaze, being a man who likes looking. I go to an art gallery with a female partner. If her gaze is meant to be so radically, drastically different from mine…. isn’t that somehow enshrining the very sexual difference we have been warned against? To claim that men and women see things in fundamentally different ways…. is that not an extremely gendered way of thinking about humans? Could a claim really be more gendered?

But it is a persistent thread:

The subject of the nude in art brings together discourses of representation, morality and female sexuality, but the persistent presentation of the nude female body as a site of male viewing pleasure, a commodified image of exchange, and a fetishised defence against the fear of castration has left little place for the explorations of female subjectivity, knowledge and experience. (p.282)

I’ve never understood why, if the naked female body is such an intense ‘site’ for male gaze, control, lust, othering, commodification and so on – that so very many contemporary women artists obsessively strip, photograph, paint, display and video their own naked bodies for all the world to see – half of the world being those very men whose wicked, wicked gaze we all know about it.

That’s why I like women artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Riley, Rachel Whiteread, Sonia Delaunay, to name a few, women who discovered new languages and new ways of seeing, instead of returning obsessively to the scene of the old, old crime of judging, assessing, defining and thinking about women in terms of their bodies.

Hon (1966) by Niki de Saint Phalle

Hon (1966) by Niki de Saint Phalle

Produce Anyway, all works of art, paintings and sculptures, are ‘produced’, making artists sound awfully grown-up, like proletarians working 8 hour days in a factory, not layabouts in a studio. And so artists are referred to as ‘producers’, their works are ‘products’, and workshops are ‘sites’ or ‘locations’ of ‘cultural production’ or display.

By 1997, international biennials provided key sites at which to consider the tremendous diversity of practices that had emerged among women artists worldwide. (p.442)

Sites can be not just physical places but metaphorical places within ‘discourse’ where meaning is ‘produced’ or (as you might expect) ‘resisted’ and ‘subverted’. Thus the lesbian feminist artist Harmony Hammond is quoted as saying:

‘I see art-making, especially that which comes from the margins of the mainstream, as a site of resistance.’ (p.13)

In the early 18th century:

The Salons of Julie de Lespinasse, Germaine Necker de Stael, Madame du Deffand, Madame de la Fayette, Madame de Sevigny, Madame du Chatelet and others became famous as sites of artistic, philosophical and intellectual discourse. (p.144)

More up to date:

In 1990, social historian Janet Woolf published an essay entitled ‘Reinstating Corporeality: Feminism and Body Politics’, in which she argued for the female body as a legitimate site of cultural politics. (p.407)

The body as a site for ideologically based inscriptions continues to play a significant role in the work of women artists. (p.508)

[Wanchegi] Mutu is not alone in focusing on the female body as site of political and social action. (p.513)

Map All these sites and locations need maps. More precisely, ‘map’, and especially ‘map onto’, have come to be jargon terms which indicate how one set of issues or ideas is combined with others, especially (with its original meaning in mind) ideas of place.

Zittel’s relationship to the California desert maps the personal present onto the historical past and structures her subjective experience of place through her interactions with loss and destruction as well as presence. (p.487)

Construct Linked to works of art being ‘products’ ‘produced’ at ‘sites’ of ‘artistic production’, is use of the word ‘construct’. Ideas are no longer developed, they are ‘constructed’, like bridges. Berthe Morisot’s paintings pay:

attention to the attitudes and rituals that mark the social construction of femininity. (p.300)

Surrealism constructed women as magic objects and sites on which to project male erotic desire. (p. 313)

The fact that, in this jargon, ideas, narratives, values or discourses are constructed means that they can also, of course, be ‘deconstructed’.

A number of women in Britain and the United States have adopted deconstructive strategies as a means of exposing the assumptions underlying cultural constructions of gender, race and sexuality. (p.393)

Negotiate You or I have to manage relationships or handle them or juggle commitments or navigate the obstacles of life. All these activities and more are subsumed under the Critical Theory verb ‘negotiate’ which, as usual, manages to sound both very serious (negotiate a peace deal) and filmic (The Negotiator).

Morisot and Cassatt’s ability to sustain professional lives and negotiate relationships of some parity with their male colleagues was class specific. (p.235)

Male gaze III In art criticism this relates to whether you get the sense that women in paintings are conceived of being able to do anything, or whether they are just passive objects for ‘the male gaze’. If a woman is painted naked by a man it is exploitation and objectification; if a woman is painted naked by a woman, chances are she is given ‘agency’ and is not just the passive victim of the male gaze. If a modern artist takes photographs of herself naked, stripping, in suggestive poses, sucking a lollypop or displaying her genitals this all, apparently, disarms the male gaze, because the woman in question is choosing to do it.

(Agency means the quality of being able to do something. Women do or (more often) do not have ‘agency’; yes if they’re asserting their identity and contesting patriarchal norms; no, if they’re victims of the male gaze.)

Thus feminist art criticism is as alert as a traffic warden to signs of whether women depicted in paintings are a) victims of the male gaze, or are subtly subverting it; b) as a result, do or do not have agency.

This is a responsible job. Gauguin’s women have a downturned gaze; they are victims; they lack agency.

Also, the male fantasy female nude tends to be voluptuous, plump and fertile. This was brought into relief by comparison with the paintings of the 20th century lesbian artist Romaine Brooks. Here, Chadwick claims, we can tell that the naked women are not victims of the male gaze because a) we know Brooks was a lesbian who – by definition – can’t have the male gaze b) they are slender and not plump c) they are not facing the viewer pouting or turning down their eyes on coquettish invitation; their gaze is independent, free spirited, off elsewhere.

White Azaleas (1910) by Romaine Brooks

White Azaleas (1910) by Romaine Brooks

Brooks’s paintings admittedly eroticise the female body (oh dear) but ‘in the context of a lesbian spectatorship’ (phew). This is the longest discussion of the male gaze and leads up to the notion that in her famous self-portrait, ‘the gaze is watchful’ (p.301).

Sexual difference refers to in any way noticing or highlighting the alleged differences between the sexes. This is a very bad thing.

Art history has never separated the question of artistic style from the inscription of sexual difference in representation. (p.25)

(Representation here means any form of representative art. As in all these examples, the technique – How to Talk Critical Theory – is to take a common or garden idea and describe it with a generalised abstract noun which immediately makes it sound more scientific and precise. It makes as if you have grasped an entire subject down to its finest details across an entire society or historical period.)

If you make any reference whatsoever to any differences between men and women you are not only a sexist (obviously) but you are making ‘gendered’ statements, analogies, comparisons and soon.

Such gendered analogies make it difficult to visualise distinctions of paint handling without thinking in terms of sexual difference. (p.26)

Basically any thought or idea which in any way compares and contrasts men and women as somehow definable entities with definable characteristics, is frowned on.

Krasner and other women Abstract Expressionists were well aware of the operations of sexual difference within artistic practice. (p.323)

Other women shared her [Lee Krasner’s] awareness of the deep divisions in the play of sexual difference within social ideology and artistic practice. (p.328)

The Other Look out for opportunities to use the ominous and meaningful-sounding phrase ‘the Other’. Generally ‘the Other’ is what the group which you are describing defines itself against, the negative which helps it create its own positive view of itself, whose (often made-up and falsely perceived) ‘inferiority’ is used to bolster our own right to rule and govern.

Since Critical Theory is generally attacking white men and their sexist gendered discourse, it will, for example, describe the way white imperialist discourse defined itself against ‘the other’ of the native peoples they were oppressing; the way white people defined themselves against ‘the other’ of black people; or the way men defined women as ‘the other’, loading them with an array of negative qualities against which to define their own rationality, responsibility and right to rule.

Thus, of Victorian women travellers, Chadwick writes:

They shared with their male contemporaries the need to claim and construct the Orient as a European ‘Other’ in their writings… (p.201)

Or:

The works of male Surrealists are dominated by the presence of a mythical Other onto whom their romantic, sexual and erotic desire is projected. (p.310)

Or:

The siting of woman as ‘other’ has taken place in societies that have rationalised both sexual and cultural oppression. (p.386)

Gauguin’s nudes are reprehensible because they are doubly patronising, not only deploying the ‘male gaze’ to control women’s bodies, but doing it in a contrived ‘exotic’ location which also essentialises, objectifies and degrades ‘native’ women. Double whammy:

Gauguin’s nudes recline in states of dreamy reverie or emerge from the imagery of an exoticised otherness (i.e. the Tahitian landscape constructed as ‘feminine’ through an over-emphasis on its exoticism, bounteousness, and ‘primitivism’ in relation to Western cultural norms) … (p.289)

Naughty, naughty Gauguin.

By reducing the vast complexity of all human history and culture, and the infinitely complex and multifarious human interactions between races, peoples, nations, groups, classes, and hundreds of millions of individuals, to a handful of basic binary opposites, the notion of ‘the Other’ could hardly be a more primitive, simplistic and reductionist idea.

As feminist theory morphed into the wider category of identity politics (i.e. taking in complaint by gays, lesbians and blacks) ‘the Other’ has found new applications for its simple-minded binary way of thinking. Since a 1984 New York art show about primitivism and modernism

postmodernist theory has examined constructions of ‘otherness’ in several overlapping forms, including the feminine Other of sexual difference, and the Other of discourses of the Third World and/or cultural diaspora. (p.386)

Something which is ‘other’ obviously possesses the quality of ‘otherness’, thus:

The place assigned woman by Lacan is one of absence, of ‘otherness’. (p.13)

And consigning something (generally the victims of cruel imperial men, such as colonised natives or women) to the category of ‘the other’, is known as ‘othering’.

Attentive We must all be ‘more attentive’ to the ever changing, ever more complex issues of gender identity and difference. You must. I must. We all must.

Lists Where possible use lists of high-sounding issues to appear earnest, committed and clever, in sentences like, ‘O’Keeffe’s practice addresses issues of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class’. No one will ask if you have any understanding of these ‘issues’ of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or class. Just reciting them is like a magic spell which conveys special powers and prestige on the reciter.

All the above contribute to ‘the social construction of femininity’, the idea that there is nothing particularly ‘feminine’ about women because ‘femininity’ is an entirely social construction, the creation of all-pervading ‘patriarchy’ which defines ‘the feminine’ in order to limit, control and repress women.

The patriarchy “Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property.” (Wikipedia). All feminists spend their lives fighting or trying to deconstruct the patriarchy with all its insidious tentacles of power.

During the late 1970s and the 1980s, a growing number of artists, male and female, worked to decentre language within the patriarchal order, exposing the ways that images are culturally coded, and renegotiating the position of women and minorities as ‘other’ in patriarchal culture. (p.382)

Refusing the image of woman as ‘sign’ within the patriarchal order, these artists have chosen to work with an existing repertoire of cultural images because, they insist, feminine sexuality is always constituted in representation and as a representation of difference. (p.400)

Perez Bravo, like so many modern women artists, took photos of her body to subvert the patriarchy.

Her photographs bypass ritual and essentialised representations of female power in order to explore feminine identity and the conditions of being female in ways that counter patriarchally constructed stereotypes of womanhood. (p.428)

Patriarchy is taken to be everywhere, responsible for all institutions, languages, codes and conventions, for the law, for all medical and scientific discourse, for all art and visual language.

Conclusion of feminist theory

Thus women are confronted every waking moment with ‘the problematic of femininity’ because their minds and personalities, their attitudes to their own bodies, and even the language they use to think with, are all hopelessly compromised by words, ideas, laws, institutions, religions, and cultural artefacts all created by ‘the patriarchy’ and designed to define ‘femininity’ in order to limit, control and repress women.

Medea (1889) by Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

Medea (1889) by Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

Reflections on post-structuralist rhetoric

These fifty or so key words and phrases can be endlessly recombined and recycled to produce a deceptively large number of sentences which all say more or less the same thing. Take one sentence from thousands:

Foucault’s analysis of how power is exercised has raised many questions about the function of visual culture as a defining and regulating practice. (p.12)

Has it now? And does the text go on to list and explain those questions? Nope. But it makes the reader feel as if they partake of some of Foucault’s searching (and usually quite difficult) analyses of key social institutions (the madhouse, the prison, the hospital) and somehow understand his insights about how power is ‘inscribed’ in ‘institutional discourses’ (even thought this has barely been explained).

It doesn’t matter. The key function of this rhetoric is that you, the reader, can ‘decode’ this jargon and so confirm yourself as are part of the Elect which really truly understands what is going on in Western society and is working to make the world a better, fairer place.

Why post-modern rhetoric is so widespread

I suggest that the jargon-heavy style of Anglo-Saxon, postmodern critical and feminist theory has become so widespread in modern writing in the humanities – art, literature, film studies, cultural studies, gender studies, post-colonial studies and so on – for a number of reasons:

a) because it sounds so intellectually impressive without, in fact, requiring too much thought
b) because it sounds so professional, not just anybody can talk and write like this, it needs years of practice
c) because it sounds so radical, so right-on, so politically committed without, actually, requiring you to take part in any particular political activity

A lot of the terms are borrowed from sociology which, back in the utopian 1960s, hoped to become a new scientific analysis of every aspect of society which, as its investigations progressed, would help to analyse out and solve pressing social problems.

Presenting these problems reconstituted as ‘issues’ and ‘problematics’ described in a deliberately objectifying would-be scientific jargon would – it was hoped – force readers and citizens to question previously held prejudices and assumptions, to overthrow them, to change society for the better.

It’s silly to be too dismissive because lots of social and cultural improvements have indisputably taken place in the language we use in subjects around sex, women and ethnic groups. Attitudes and expectations to all sorts of groups, not just to women and ethnic minorities and other sexualities, but to the disabled or mentally ill, are vastly more egalitarian and respectful than they were when Chadwick was first writing this book in the 1980s. It would be stupid to underplay the vast progress that has been made towards more equality and better life expectations for millions of people because of these cultural changes.

Nonetheless, my interest is in language and its rhetorics i.e. how language is used to argue, persuade and influence people (including, quite often, the writers themselves). And I find the ubiquitous post-modern rhetoric of Critical Theory to be:

  1. Closed It is a specialist jargon which in practice excludes almost the entire population of the country, and is only really accessible to a tiny minority of university lecturers and students. Ironic given its supposedly ‘democratic’ and ‘subversive’ intentions.
  2. Pretentious In the literal sense, it is designed to give the impression of profound thought while very often amounting to nothing but an iteration of what are, by now, well-worn clichés. This happens to every new style: it is developed by radical pioneers, it is bold and innovative, it helps people think and see in new ways, it finds proponents in the academy, it is formatted into term-long courses and topics, it becomes regularised and routinised so it can be taught and examined and marked, not only to students but to A-level schoolchildren, it becomes the accepted jargon of the times, it becomes the new orthodoxy. When a subject is being taught to a nation’s schoolchildren it is no longer subversive: it has become the opposite of subversive.
  3. Repetitive In at least three senses:
    1. The lexicon of post-modern or post-structuralist thought, the actual working vocabulary of Critical theory, is surprisingly small. There are maybe fifty words and phrases which are endlessly recycled and repeated. I list many of them below. Once you’ve grasped their general intention it becomes possible to combine and recombine them in sentences which essentially say the same thing, but sound impressive and clever. After a few hundred pages of reading the same words combined in slightly varying combinations, the reader develops a strong dense of déjà vu and repetition.
    2. Once something is being taught it is, by definition, being repeated: authors write it, lecturers speak it, students make notes, write exams and theses – this rhetoric is repeated. Repetition of any language tends to empty it of meaning: repeat the same word again and again and you experience the dizzy feeling of forgetting what it means, tending to prove Wittgenstein or Derrida’s ideas that language only works while it is in play, quick and dirty, moved around between text and reader, reconfigured on each reading. Repeated in the same way, in the same flat tone, hundreds of times, it becomes empty. So in a very basic sense, reading the same phrases and the same recombinations of phrases over and over and over again eventually makes your mind glaze over. They become invisible – at least to the fully adult mind.
    3. However, as Freud suggested over 120 years ago (yawn) our minds contain any number of ‘minds’. We aren’t single, unified, rational entities, quite the opposite, all kinds of people and age groups are competing in the battlefield of our consciousnesses. Among these is the child mind, still very present in all of us. And children like repetition. In her first book, The Sculptor’s Daughter, the Finnish author Tove Jannson describes the adult world from the point of view of a very small child, maybe 4 or 5 years-old. Something which comes over very strongly in these stories is the child’s need for a safe space, for reassurance, for repeated rituals and habits which create a sense of familiarity and security. Tea-time, bath-time, bed-time. And a bed-time story. And, with her usual acuity, Jannson points out that the bed-time stories must always start the same way (‘Once upon a time’) and, if they’re familiar, they must be told the same way, the same events in the same order, ideally in the same words.

I find in the endless repetition of the same fifty or so phrases of the Critical Theory lexicon the same sense of childhood reassurance. After a page of purely factual history, Chadwick will add a sentence or two of critical commentary – and the ardent young feminist will be back in her comfort zone, among talk of ‘discourses’ and ‘sites of production’ and ‘gender separation’ and ‘sexual difference’ and, of course, the most reassuring presence of all, the big, bad Daddy of ‘the Patriarchy’ – paradoxically reassuring in the way the Big Bad Wolf is in the fairy story, because the reader knows that the Patriarchy, just like the wolf, will be defeated in the end.

The language of post-structuralist or post-modern Critical Theory – in the way it is now universal in the teaching of the humanities, in gender studies and cultural studies and queer studies and film studies and literary studies – has become the opposite of disruptive and subversive; it has itself become a kind of safe space.

The Roll Call (1874) by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler

The Roll Call (1874) by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler

A pragmatic question

Leaving aside whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ prose style, or whether my interpretation of it as a form of semantic reassurance is correct or not — the only really important consideration is does it teach you anything, does it convey new information?

And my answer is a straightforward ‘No’.

This jargon rarely adds much to what the factual elements of the text haven’t already told you. To be told that Artemisia Gentileschi was forbidden membership of so-and-so academy but forged an immensely successful career through cultivating royal patrons – this tells you a lot, makes you admire and respect her achievement. To then be told that, in so doing, she ‘circumvented patriarchal narratives of feminine norms’ or ‘used her art to interrogate masculine ideas of a feminine “essence”‘, tells you a lot less. In fact it really only tells you about the worldview of the author, and encourages you to sign up to her worldview.

Partly because:

  • this kind of post-structuralist discourse is so generic, because it repeats the same handful of terms with monotonous predictability (negotiate, subvert, interrogate – discourses, narratives – in the public space, the private sphere – interrogating the feminist problematic, and so on)
  • and because Chadwick applies the same terminology to wildly different artists, working in wildly different times, places and cultures (both Artemisia Gentileschi and Georgia O’Keeffe ‘question masculine assumptions about ‘”feminine” art’)

the tendency is for your mind to switch off every time you come to another stretch of PoMo FemCrit and skip forward to the next bit of factual information.

It’s rather like driving at night and hitting a patch of black ice, skidding for a second or two, and then feeling the tyres getting a grip back on the proper road surface.

Feeding the swans (1889) by Edith Hayllar

Feeding the swans (1889) by Edith Hayllar

(Most of the explicitly feminist commentary on the hundreds of paintings included in the book make little or no contribution to one’s understanding. But I did like the observation that the innocuous painting above, portrays the Five Stages of Woman’s life – toddler, teenager, young lady, wife and granny – against the backdrop of what the critic calls the very ‘male’ ordering of the classical columns, symbolising the rigid rules and control of a patriarchal society.)


Chadwick’s last word on feminist theory

This book was published in 1990, so is quite obviously a summary of the feminist theory and rhetoric up to that time, the theory of the 60s, 70s and 80s. From before the Yugoslav civil wars, the Rwanda genocide, 9/11, the American invasion of Iraq, and so on. From before the internet, mobile phones, Facebook, snapchat and the entire realm of digital technology.

To give it credit, the book does address its own profound out-of-dateness in two places. There’s a final chapter which describes the ongoing production of women artists through the 90s and noughties (the kind of brief catch-up chapter you often see in books like this which have been in print for some time. I was a little awed by the way she makes no analysis of the impact o 9/11 or the Iraq War on feminist artists; maybe they didn’t notice.)

But more interesting is the second preface, right at the start. The book opens with the preface to the original 1990 edition which, as indicated, goes heavy on the feminist discoveries of the 1960s and 1970s, giving you a strong flavour of where Chadwick is coming from, and her continuing emotional allegiance to the revolutionary feminist fervour of that era.

But then, on page 16, there’s a brief preface to the current, fifth, edition of the book, published in 2012.

It’s less than a page long but in a way it’s the most interesting part of the book, because it consists of a potent recantation of a lot of the ideas which underpin the 500-page-long text. In this brief preface Chadwick concedes that, since the book’s original publication in 1990, ‘the art world has changed dramatically’ and that it is:

less dominated by discussions of postmodern theory and more attuned to the realities of global instability, less comfortable with the rhetoric of ‘women’s liberation’ and more concerned with changing economic and social conditions…

… artists and art historians must rethink issues of marginalisation not just in terms of gender, but also in relation to culture, race, geography and class…

… the idea of a universal ‘women’s movement has given way to new configurations that include ‘eco-feminist-artist collectives’ and ‘techno-savvy feminist groups’, the naming of sexual identities has expanded from ‘heterosexual/homosexual’ to ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bi’, and ‘transsexual’.

All true enough. Her concluding sentence, the summary of all her thinking in this area, the summarising thought for a book which must have taken some years to write and which she has lived with, pondered and updated several times in its 27-year existence, is:

The feminist rhetoric of the 1970s may no longer be relevant to the global realities of the twenty-first century, but feminism as a political ideology and a call to action continues to leave its mark on art and its history. (p.16)

‘The feminist rhetoric of the 1970s may no longer be relevant to the global realities of the twenty-first century…’

Quite a massive thing to write, don’t you think

None of this invalidates the scale and scope of her history of women artists, the way it pulls together and summarises the efforts of hundreds and hundreds of feminist scholars and art historians, its depth and range and formidable learning, nor the ideas and issues it raises on every page. But it’s still quite a bombshell to admit that this entire text, kick-started as it is on early feminist rhetoric and outdated theory, itself needs to be somehow thoroughly overhauled and dragged into the 21st century.

I wonder if somebody’s done it, written a 21st century post-feminist history of women’s art?

Boating (1910) by Gabriele Münter

Boating (1910) by Gabriele Münter


Modern challenges to the idea of Great Art

Just to complete this line of thought, what I’d like to read is a book which steps right back and explains why anyone in 2017 should give a damn about the ‘Great Canon of Western Art’, or ‘Western Art’ at all.

1. The death of High Culture

When Chadwick started writing, ‘Art’ was seen as a key achievement of the ‘High Culture’ of the Western World and it stood to reason, and made sense to her and her generation, that women artists should be reinstated in this canon and should be written about and understood on their own terms, not in the words, concepts and ideas of patronising men. Fine.

But in the last thirty years the whole notion of a Canon of Western Art has been pulled apart, undermined, or discredited. This was happening as she wrote, with the whole postmodern impulse of the later 1980s and 90s to equate all art, all images, all visual input, to value and assess them all on the same level, to cease privileging ‘high’ art, to follow through on Roland Barthes’ idea that a bus ticket tells you as much about a culture as its most famous painting. Mickey Mouse and Michelangelo were discussed in the same way on The Late Show.

So it feels like, while Chadwick spent a career disputing the way older male historians wrote about Western Art, the entire concept of what is and is not ‘Art’ and the importance and meaning of ‘Western Art’, have seismically shifted around her.

And with the advent of digital art and phones with high-powered cameras in the last 10 years or so, the entire world of what images mean, how they are produced and consumed and valued, has been thrown high in the air. Who knows where it will all land.

Sonia Delaunay, Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939)

Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939) by Sonia Delaunay

2. Art as investment/commodity in a hyper-capitalist world

The second thing which has worked to undermine any sense of the special spiritual or religious or moral or imaginative value of ‘Art’ is the way that, over the past thirty years since the end of communism, the world has become dominated by a uniform brand of neo-liberal or finance capitalism. This has generated huge surpluses of capital for billionaires in Russia or China or America, who regard ‘Art’ as an investment vehicle on a par with stocks and shares, property or gold.

Although she mentions Marx and the French Marxist Althusser on page 11 there is rarely any sense in her text of an even mildly socialist, yet alone full-blown Marxist critique of the historic association between artists and money and power, of the complex layers of exploitation on which art was built, or of the drastic effect of the contemporary monetisation of art and the art world.

Just as the past 40 years of feminist activism and scholarship enable us to look back at the past with new eyes, from a new, women’s, perspective, so the absolute triumph of finance capitalism should made us think anew about the role of MONEY in art, for Art always was (and is now more than ever) about money.

This vital strand in Art’s meaning is occasionally nodded to in the text (with occasional mention of wealthy patrons or, at the other end of the scale, in the Victorian era, the poor working conditions of women factory workers) but nowhere is it directly addressed as a fundamental condition for the commissioning, production, consumption and commodification of Art. 

At the time of writing the largest amount paid for a painting by a woman artist is the $44.4 million commanded by Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Then again, Chadwick is American and America has never had much of a radical tradition – I mean there has never been a real threat of a communist revolution there, as there was in all of Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Which is maybe why American academics have taken so completely to indulging in pseudo-Marxist, semi-subversive PoMo rhetorics. because they know, deep down, how utterly irrelevant they are to the political realities of their great nation.

As PoMo pseudo-Marxism, Critical theory, feminist theory and all the rest spread throughout university humanities departments – the country was ruled by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, George Dubya Bush and Donald Trump. Some subversion.

3. Women artists supporting the patriarchy

For Art, whether High Renaissance art or 21st century rebel art, has always been commissioned and bought by the richest people in a society. Because she’s batting for the women’s team, Chadwick task is to promote knowledge about the careers of Artemisia Gentileschi and hundreds of other 16th, 17th and 18th century women artists, but she glosses over quite a major point – that all these successful women artists worked for dukes and kings and emperors.

She likes to portray her women artists as rebels against masculine discourse and ‘interrogating’ ‘heteronormative’ assumptions and ‘circumventing’ the ‘male gaze’ and so on – while all the time missing an obvious point – that these women artists could hardly have been more the willing tools of the people at the very top of the patriarchal systems which Chadwick devotes her book to criticising.

It’s the equivalent of praising artists who worked for Hitler or Goebbels as being ‘subversive’. These successful 17th and 18th century women artists worked directly for kings and emperors. They were right at the heart of the patriarchal system. They were working directly for the patriarchs themselves, helping to create icons and images of male power, along with coins, medals, media of royal male control.

They weren’t subverting power. They were serving it.

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, king of Poland (1797) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, King of Poland (1797) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

4. Imperialism and colonialism, the absence of

When Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) goes to work for the King of Spain, Chadwick sees this as a fabulous thing, proof that women could succeed in a man’s world. But where did the King of Spain get the money he paid Anguissola with? From the silver mines of the Spanish Empire where native Americans were worked to death in appalling conditions. And the slave plantations in the Caribbean. And from the output of feudal labourers on the king’s vast estates.

The slave labour on which the wealth of Europe was based, which generated the money which allowed the kings and emperors to commission lavish paintings and sculptures from these plucky women artists, is invisible, unmentioned – written out of this account in exactly the same way that Chadwick is so upset that women artists were written out of art history in previous generations.

In the first, pre-modern, half of the book, there is nothing about the wretches who died to produce the wealth which was celebrated by women artists. Just more descriptions of the lavish furs, sumptuous silks and rich jewellery of Anguissola’s portraits.

The longest consideration of colonialism is in the section on lady Victorian painters and travellers and then the short section about Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women.

In the final chapters about today’s multicultural art scene, Chadwick ropes ‘colonial oppression’ in as a new bogeyman alongside the patriarchy, without showing much interest in the actual dynamics of the European empires, or in the violent independence movements which ended them.

All of that is transmuted into just another bloodless ‘issue’ for modern artists to tackle, address, mediate and negotiate. The entire history of European imperialism becomes just another item on the feminist critic’s shopping list.

This stunning painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist is not mentioned in the book.

Portrait of a Negress (1800) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist

Portrait of a Negress (1800) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist

5. A complete, fully political history of Western Art

A full history of this subject would contain the same basic narrative (the list of women painters remaining essentially unchanged) but would ‘situate’ their works in a much more sophisticated political narrative which took more account of the basically problematic basis of all Art, and quite a bit more account of the guilt, the inescapably compromised nature of all Western culture, tainted by its centuries-long history of oppressing, enslaving, murdering and working to death countless tens of millions of native peoples.

Compared to the scale of those horrors, the fact that a rival (male) painter spread rumours about Properzia de’ Rossi to spoil her career as a sculptor, or that no woman became a full member of the Royal Academy of the Arts until 1933, although obviously unfair, although obviously shocking, in the great scale of things just doesn’t get me so worked up.

It’s a question of perspective and morality.

Chadwick’s history is one in which we are invited to pour our hearts out for a relatively small number of well-off and often very wealthy or fabulously-rewarded artists working at the centres of European power and currying favour with kings and popes. And, in the present, we are meant to get worked up about debates currently going on among a predominantly white, middle-aged, academic elite of Western universities.

Royal women painters from the 17th century. Rich white American women’s righter from the 1870s. Prize-winning and grant-funded feminist artists at the Venice Biennale. Their names and achievements are recorded, memorialised, championed and promoted in countless articles, books like these, galleries and exhibitions.

I prefer to keep my sympathy for the vast numbers of nameless poor of both sexes who lived short, illiterate, poverty-stricken lives, not in white America but in Europe and Asia, or were worked to death in distant colonies, to produce the obscene wealth which 17th and 18th century artists were squabbling to secure – and for the modern-day slaves, for the forced labourers, and labouring poor all around the world who’ve never heard of Mary Cassatt or Judy Chicago.

It would have been preferable if women artists hadn’t faced so many handicaps and obstacles for centuries but, like the Great War or the Holocaust, the past is gone. All we can do is try to remove all such obstacles to women artists and academics today.

Chadwick’s book is a massive and major contribution to that process, to the rewriting of art history and to the rehabilitation of hundreds of women artists to their rightful place in that history. In terms of its contribution to academic curricula, to the writing and understanding of art history, and to increasing the understanding and enjoyment of the minority of the population who go to art galleries and are interested in art, it is a major scholarly and revisionist achievement, and a massive enrichment of our knowledge and pleasure.

But in terms of memorials and remembrance – it’s the anonymous labouring poor of all the ages who have my sympathy.

6. Making America great again

But by the end of the book I was sick of America and heartily sick of New York. It’s not so much that Chadwick is a white American, or that her history of the 19th century, and early feminism, and 1960s feminism, is almost entirely set in America, quotes American feminists and privileges mostly white American feminist art – but that time after time, hundreds of times, she will take American feminists, and American politics and American art movements as central, defining and paradigmatic of how all other women around the world should think.

Chadwick writes at length about what a hard time the women members of Abstract Expressionism had competing with the men, but it goes without comment that American Abstract Expressionism was the most important art movement of the period. Just as American Pop Art, minimalism and so on turn out to be the defining movements of theirs.

All the while she is championing the subversion and questioning of patriarchal narratives, the more basic narrative of American cultural supremacy goes unchallenged and unexamined.

For the most irritating thing about American cultural imperialism is that Americans don’t realise they’re doing it. They just take it for granted that American art is the best – like American cars and American technology and American democracy and American movies are the best in their fields.

And that New York is just, well, shucks, the most exciting city in the world. Which is why the final chapters of the book refer to contemporary women artists and again and again and again and again and again, they turn out to be based in New York New York, that wonderful town.

  • Shahzia Sikander was born in Pakistan but now lives and works in New York (p.445)
  • Mariko Mori was born in Japan but now lives and works in New York (p.457)
  • Non Hendratmo was one of a number of Indonesian artists who relocated to New York after the Jakarta riots of 1998. (p.461)
  • Kimsooja was born in South Korea but now lives and works in New York (p.463)
  • Ghada Amer was born in Egypt but now lives and works in New York (p.469)
  • Shirin Neshat was born in Iran but now lives and works in New York City (p.481)

When, of all the works by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, Chadwick selects Ramallah/New York your heart just sinks into your boots. Really? New York? Again?

When she finally gets round to using this new-fangled internet thingy, Chadwick googles the year ‘1990’ and discovers that the key moments of that year were the publication of her book in New York, the publication of American philosopher Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble, the swearing-in of the first female American Surgeon General and Jenny Holzer being the first women to have a solo exhibition in the America pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

America America America America.

I dislike the American supremacism which oozes from these pages (not overtly – on the surface it is all multiculturalism and new artists in developing countries). It’s just that they all come to New York to live and work and sell their art, an art which again and again is described as ‘subverting’ white Western stereotypes and ‘interrogating’ Western culture and ‘questioning’ Western capitalism etc, but which – it turns out  – is utterly dependent on Western art markets, Western art galleries and Western art magazines for its very existence.

And also on the vast sums of money managed by the Western financial system which is based in Wall Street, New York, a tiny fraction of which is siphoned off to fund the museums and galleries and biennials and expositions and exhibitions where feminist artists fondly display works of art which they think are subverting the system. No.

They are in fact part of this global system of capitalist commodification and consumer culture. As a visit to the bookshop of any art gallery, no matter how ‘radical’, instantly proves.

Why are they all in New York? They would say because it is a vibrant melting pot of culture and ideas. But in fact, it’s because that’s where the money is.

When Chadwick comes to do a thumbnail review of the last fifty years she thinks immediately of American artist Rachel Harrison, New York Times critic Holland Cotter, American scholar Linda Nochlin, the founding of Ms magazine in New York and goes on to generalise that:

American artists in particular explored formal, conceptual, and political issues related to materials, languages of form, and their hierarchical classifications. They incorporated personal and cultural histories in narrative and autobiographical art; they explored sexuality, gender, class, race and ethnicity in works that redefined modern art’s assumed hierarchies and relationships between form and content; they performed their bodies and their sexual identity in new ways…. (p.500)

Go USA!!

In a way, Chadwick’s book is a good example of Donald Trump’s policy of putting ‘America first’. Maybe he should give her a medal. God, I’d pay money to watch that award ceremony!

Untitled (1960) by Lee Bontecou

Untitled (1960) by Lee Bontecou

P.S. Has this rhetoric worked?

Chadwick’s history of women artists sees almost all women’s art works in terms of ‘projects’ and ‘strategies’ which have been designed to interrogate, subvert and challenge stereotypical ideas of ‘the feminine’, to contest and critique all notions of ‘sexual difference’ and – Project Number One – to undermine and overthrow the patriarchy.

If modern feminist theory began in the late 1960s we’ve had just about 50 years of it by now. In that period tens of thousands of feminist artists, sculptors, painters, installationists, gallerists, curators, critics, writers, philosophers and theorists have given all their time, energy, lives and efforts into eradicating sexist stereotypes and overthrowing the patriarchy.

It is not unreasonable to ask – Has it worked?

Well, in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, 53% of the voters – a clear majority – were women. That’s a good thing, right? If reality lived up to feminist theory about ‘all women’ wanting radical change, then you’d expect to see a drastic vote in favour of women’s causes and for the woman candidate, right?

And yet who did this 53% help elect? President Donald Trump.

It’s true that, overall, more men than women voted for Trump, and yet – in a key statistic for feminists – 53% of American white women the majority of white American women – voted for Donald Trump.

The majority of white American women voted for Donald Trump, the racist sexist pussy-grabber.

After 50 years of the best-organised, best-run and most advanced feminist movement on the planet, producing countless tens of thousands of art works, installations, happenings, posters, books, articles, learned papers, conferences and art exhibition excoriating sexism, challenging all notions of sexual difference and subverting the patriarchy – the majority of white women in America voted for Donald Trump.

Take a moment to let the implications of this startling fact really sink right in.

How do you account for the massive discrepancy between what these women artists and feminist critics think they’re doing (challenging, subverting mobilising, raising awareness etc etc) and what actually happens in the real world?

As a left-wing person who dissents from political correctness, I think it’s in part because modern feminism, with its impenetrable academic jargon and its incredibly narrow range of issues, almost systematically, almost deliberately goes out of its way to ignore the issues which most women (and men) face in today’s society: Will I ever have a stable job? Will I ever have a career? Will I ever pay off my student loan? Will I ever be able to afford a home of my own? How can I get affordable child care? Where is the next meal coming from? Are my kids going to be worse off than me? Who can help with my teenagers’ opioid addiction? How can I afford health insurance? What happened to my pension? Will I be able to afford a decent care home in my old age?

Contemporary feminist artists and curators and critics have collaborated to create a mystique, a jargon, and a terminology about their ‘practice’ which effectively seals modern art off from the modern world.

In the safe spaces of the international biennales and contemporary art galleries, in the world centres of art, in university courses on culture studies, on queer studies, film studies and the rest of it, members of this cult talk to each other in their arcane language, like medieval alchemists convinced that at any moment one of them will discover the philosopher’s stone which will transmute the base metal of the actual existing world into the gold of postmodern theory – a genderless world where the male gaze and sexual difference have been abolished and everyone celebrates difference and diversity.

But, unfortunately, from time to time society lines up to be counted, to give its opinion, to elect representatives on the basis of what it thinks is important – and on this simple, easy-to-grasp metric, the achievement of five decades of feminist analysis and postmodern critical theory unremittingly aimed at a radical and thorough-going transformation of society must be judged, as my teenage daughter would put it – an epic fail.

I like Rachel Whiteread’s work, I loved her concrete sculpture House. But I also know that the East End locals where it was located, hated it, sprayed graffiti on it and lobbied the local council to get it demolished. This stands for a symbol of contemporary art.

A peasant would have understood the Palace of Versailles and a portrait of King Louis XIV, both of which shouted: ‘I’m the boss’. But in my experience plenty of well-educated modern people hate contemporary art, don’t understand a word, think it’s all crap.

In fact contemporary ‘art’ is probably more disconnected from the lives and concerns of ‘ordinary people’ than ever before in human history. If the notion of ‘art’ contains some element of the idea of being accessible to a reasonable number of the people of its times, it’s questionable whether modern art even is ‘art’.

`House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

But meanwhile, back in international artworld, unbowed by recent batterings from reality, the comedy continues, the same writers and critics use the same words, the same ideas, the same lexicon, to describe the same artists, addressing the same issues, deploying the same strategies, going round and round in circles:

Women artists’ contribution to major international exhibitions – from biennials to recent museum-sponsored exhibitions like ‘Without Boundary (2006) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York – are shaping today’s visual culture worldwide. Redressing social inequalities, negotiating change, redrawing spatial, social, and subjective boundaries, women artists are challenging the so-called ‘alternative canon’ of earlier feminist art without abandoning the issues, practices, and processes through which sexuality, gender, and difference are articulated visually. (p.495)

Fine words, as my mother used to say, butter no parsnips.

To make it as simple as possible:

Feminist theorists kid themselves that they are ‘political’

But in a democracy political means communicating to a mass audience to persuade them to vote for your policies

Whereas, by virtue of its hermetic jargon and of deliberately outrageous behaviour, which is incomprehensible to all but initiates, the art world does the exact opposite of reaching out to a mass audience. Contemporary art concerns itself with a tiny globalised elite of artists, dealers, galleries and clients – virtually guaranteeing the failure of its ideas.

That these artists and their artworld critics and scholars imagine that they influence or change anything out in the real world just shows you how deluded and out of touch they have become.

To anyone who has actually been involved in politics, or engaged with a mass audience via television or the internet, and who knows the challenges of communicating to and influencing the largest possible audience, the isolation and ineffectualness of contemporary artists (male or female) and their artworld supporters, could hardly be more complete.

In fact, by diverting attention away from the real bread-and-butter issues which the great majority of the populations of modern, post-industrial countries face, if they have any impact at all with their endless wailing about gender and the body, it might that contemporary artists have helped to create precisely the popular image of a self-obsessed, out-of-touch, metropolitan elite which helped to alienate the majority of voters from what they perceived to be this elite’s cosmopolitan values, its support of sexual anarchy and unrestricted multiculturalism, and mobilised them into mass protest votes against the liberal status quo.

Hence Trump. Hence Brexit. Hence the ADF. Hence the exact opposite of everything which Chadwick and her artworld colleagues and critics stand for.

Elke Ekrystufek undermining the male gaze and subverting the patriarchy

Elke Ekrystufek undermining the male gaze and subverting the patriarchy

Disclaimer

Just to be crystal clear, I am myself left-wing. I support all the legal and social aims of feminism. But I think that the ‘practice’ of many feminist artists, and the accompanying prose of many feminist critics and theorists, has painted them into a corner and cut off all connection with the practical pursuit of power in democratic countries.

Chadwick’s book is immense and important (the grotesque length of this blog post is tribute to the wealth of ideas it contains and debate it stimulates). But the time has come for a new generation of women artists to figure out genuinely effective ways of lobbying for political change.

Taking photos of yourself naked in your bedroom is not going to overthrow the patriarchy. The patriarchy has heard all about feminist art. In fact, it sponsors and buys feminist art. Feminist art is, in a simple financial sense, one of the many faces of patriarchal capitalism.

Time for a change.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists

Reviews of general exhibitions which included women artists

From time to time Chadwick says some of her feminist women artists use humour in their practice. I didn’t see any sign of that anywhere. Not a laugh in the whole book (except the unintentional humour of some particularly fatuous piece of practice, or of particularly dumb-ass phraseology).

So if you’ve made it this far, you probably deserve a reward. Here’s a clip of some 1970s performance artists interrogating narratives of authority and contesting the construction of woman as ‘other’ under the patriarchy. A least I think that’s what Terry Jones is doing in this clip.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The Bristol Museum & Art Gallery opened in 1906 with money donated by Sir William Henry Wills, scion of the extensive Wills family which had made its fortune in the tobacco trade and was also instrumental in founding Bristol University. Their contribution is commemorated in the inscription on the museum’s monumental neo-classical facade, and also in the vast, neo-Gothic Wills Memorial Building built next door. The university, art gallery and the nearby Royal Western Academy all owe their existence to tobacco money.

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The modern museum contains a bewildering variety of exhibitions and displays: it’s Bristol’s equivalent of the Natural History Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery all rolled into one. I walked through a display on the geology and geography of the Bristol area, past another on local dinosaur fossils, past the Chinese silver, ignoring the lure of the Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, and bypassing an exhibition about objects from the British Empire…

Because my focus was on climbing up to the second floor where a series of five rooms house a lovely collection of fine art. The gallery owns some 1,300 paintings and 200 sculptures. The selection on display is arranged chronologically in rooms covering the Renaissance to the Baroque, the 18th century to Romanticism, Victorian art, contemporary and modern art, with a room devoted to French 19th century art. Lots of beautiful pieces by a wide variety of artists over an immense period, touching on countless stories, ideas and issues. The art alone is a feast for the eyes and mind.

European Old Masters: From religious devotion to artistic discovery 1300 – 1700

There’s a vast difference between the still-cranky, half-medieval, exploratory art of the early Renaissance, and the full-bodied Titian and Rubens style from the 1600s, those artists usually referred to as the Old Masters. This one room shows the development from the early Renaissance to the full-blown European style.

Personally, I prefer the earlier period, and art from the Northern as opposed to the Italian Renaissance. I’ve explored this fully in my review of a book about Art of the Northern Renaissance. For me Northern Renaissance art still has its roots in the best of the medieval worldview: it is humane, its portraits are realistic and characterful, the North eschews mathematically correct perspective for compositions which foreground gorgeous patterns on tiling or fabrics, and in the background are sumptuously green and fertile north European landscapes, the kind of countryside I love going for walks in. All these elements are present in this work from the second half of the fifteenth century.

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

Compare and contrast with the works, especially anything with a landscape, of the Italian Renaissance. These tend to lack the gorgeous medieval interest in fabrics or tilework; the landscapes are harsh, barren, dry and rocky; the deployment of perspective and vanishing points may be more mathematically correct (as in the tunnel in the work below) but, in my view, create an arid perfection. It is psychologically more intense (the way Christ has his back turned toward us is very dramatic, as is the figure holding his hands over his ears to block the horrific trumpeting of the devils); but visually less pleasing.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Age of Enlightenment and the Birth of Romanticism

The 18th century is the great age of ‘civilised’ behaviour, of polite gentility in art and culture, the age of China tea sets, coffee rooms where bewigged gentlemen debated a form of politics characterised by dominant characters rather than by the political parties we have nowadays, an age of royal scandals and almost permanent war against the French for control of the world. The heyday of historic paintings depicting thousands of naval and land battles which we have completely forgotten about.

For example, the Saints are a group of islands which lie between Dominica and Guadeloupe, where the Royal Navy won a famous victory over the French in 1782. This victory put us into a better bargaining position for the peace negotiations when the American War of Independence ended two years later – and it was considered a fitting subject for a history painter like Nicholas Pocock.

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

Sensitive portraiture flourished, the two giants of the mid-century being Thomas Gainsborough and the prolific Joshua Reynolds. Here is Gainsborough setting the unrealistically smooth complexion of his sitter against the luxurious folds of her expensive blue silk dress. The pearl choker gives definition to both face and costume. In her left hand, she is keeping the pink roses fresh by holding them in what I’ve just learned was called a ‘bosom bottle’.

Ann Leyborne Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Ann Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Further along the same wall is Gainsborough’s rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder and first president of the Royal Academy, with a frankly so-so portrait of Frances Courtenay (Lady Honeywood) and her daughter. White skin, rouged cheeks, big dress and – the great clichés of this kind of portrait – the hint of classical architecture in the background (here a classical balustrade, usually a classical column) and the sumptuous red curtain as if for a stage set. All the ingredients are here, but it’s not his best – the depiction of the little girl is poor, isn’t it?

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Places of desire: Victorian and Edwardian Art 1840 – 1920

I am a bit weary of modern curators and literary critics talking about ‘desire’: it’s a prissy, bourgeois, drawing room way of indicating ‘sex’ without being vulgar enough to come straight out and say so. It’s an easy term to attach to any depiction of the human body, as if you’re making an illuminating comment. It’s a dispiriting euphemism for an age which is obsessed with sex but hasn’t got the guts to confront it head on, which doesn’t want to face up to the ragged embarrassments of sex and libido, which wants to smooth messy human activities out into a polite term which is acceptable to the most prudish of academics. Whether or not you agree with my view, there’s no doubt that modern academics, scholars and curators often impose their bloodless notion of ‘desire’ onto the very different values and ideals of artists far removed in time and space from our sex-obsessed culture.

In fact, in this whistle stop overview of the Victorian room, I’d say there’s little or no actual desire in evidence – far more obvious is a lovely dreamy sensuality.

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

By this late stage of his career Burne-Jones had perfected the ‘look’ of his paintings which combined multiple copies of the same blank-eyed maidens with their rather triangular heads, apparelled in simple, chaste but sumptuously folded dresses, in settings usually drenched in flowers and natural imagery. Maybe there is ‘desire’ in this painting, if you’re determined to find it anywhere there’s a depiction of the human body – but, to my eye, it’s far more a depiction of the characteristically Victorian taste for simple, sensuous dreaminess.

Similarly, the most striking painting in the collection is of a knight being quite literally entranced and put into a hypnotic, dream-like state – La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

The Victorian room was quite empty so I had a go at standing with my hands in the same posture as the knight, arms outstretched, looking up. It’s a highly unnatural pose, it feels like a peculiar trance position as of a man, maybe as per the fictions of our own time, taken over by aliens or turned into a zombie.

It’s a massive painting and you can walk right up and see that his eyes seem to have become silvered over, like a man in a sci-fi story. The more you look the more you see the strange power flowing from the Lady’s eyes directly into those of the damned knight, bewitched and enslaved.

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

This was my favourite room. As I’ve grown older and soaked up more stories of the world’s empires, slaveries, holocausts, massacres and murders, of its endless wars and pogroms, of man’s escalating destruction of the planet and all the species on it – I feel less embarrassed about enjoying the good things, the beautiful things, the luxury and sensuality of life. It’s over quickly enough. Celebrate.

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

And late Victorian statuary achieved a perfection of detail which eluded even the ancient Greeks. I was in Bristol to visit my grown-up son and having a son adds layers of meaning and poignancy to this sculpture of Daedalus equipping Icarus because, of course, Daedalus is lovingly and carefully and unwittingly preparing Icarus for his death.

1895 was the year when science fiction arrived in England in the form of H.G. Wells’s masterpiece, The Time Machine. I took a Wellsian interest in the precise nature of the flying equipment Daedalus is tying to his son’s arms. Would it work? It appears to be eminently practical: the straps round Icarus’s (perfectly shaped) chest secure the majority of the wing equipment to his body, while the straps over the biceps attach the upper wings to the arms, and the hands grasp lanyards attached lower down the wing. What could possibly go wrong?

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

A shiny marble statue of a woman sleeping might be pressed into being an image of ‘desire’, but for my money is, again, much better described as an aspect of dream. Militating against the description of ‘desire’ is the simple fact that she is fully clothed. After all, much of Victorian poetry, under the influence of Tennyson, was similarly dreamy, escapist, seeking marmoreal perfection amid the filthy clatter of the Industrial Revolution.

<em>Sleeping nymph</em>(1850) by E.H Bailey

Sleeping nymph (1850) by E.H Bailey

This mood of refined and rather upper-class sensibility continued on past the death of Victoria. This late example from 1910 shows the influence of Whistler’s fin-de-siècle experiments in tone, making the palette conform to one register, depicting a soulful upper-class lady, such as drift sensitively through the pages of Henry James.

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

After all this richesse, these dreamy myths and lazing ladies, I myself was feeling rich and dreamy — but there were two rooms left to explore.

French art and impact

In the French room 23 paintings and one sculpture capture the development of French 19th century painting from salon and realist art towards the early days of impressionism, featuring less well-known works by Vuillard, Ribot, Boudin, Carriere, Daubigny and Fourain. There is a work apiece by the well-known Seurat, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro, Sickert and Monet. Having settled into a lazy late Victorian groove I warmed to A River Landscape by Karl Dabigny.

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

It reminds me of some of the haunting late landscapes set in Scotland by Millais. If you like Impressionism there are a handful of characteristic works, like The Entrance to the village by Alfred Sisley.

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

I think my favourite was the pre-Impressionist work by the great realist painter Gustave Courbet, a coastal view titled Eternity. A photo doesn’t do justice to the depth of colour and the ominous sense of cloud, sky and surf.

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Off to one side of these developments in what is, essentially, one genre – landscape painting – stand the experimental, highly symbolic paintings of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, vague and amateurish-seeming – the catalogue describes them as ‘fragmentary and intimate’ – but strange and hypnotic.

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Modern and contemporary art

Definitely feeling super-saturated with wonderful images, I stumbled into the final room, a survey of modern and contemporary art. This bright white room contains 15 paintings and five sculptures by big names such as Richard long, David Nash, Victor Pasmore, Howard Hodgkin, Spencer Gore. Barbara Hepworth was represented by a characteristic wired sculpture.

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Bringing us right up to date is a gee-whizz painting by Damien Hirst, aged 52 and said to be the richest artist now or who has ever lived, with an estimated worth of around £1 billion.

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

And everyone’s favourite Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, who is represented by A ton of tea shaped into a cube. Having visited Ai’s big retrospective at the Royal Academy, I know that Ai, like Hirst, works in sets or series, and so this cube of tea is just one of countless other cubes made from numerous other materials.

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

Summary

This is a really fabulous collection of West European art from the last five hundred years, including and referencing numerous periods and schools, traditions and histories. It is well worth travelling to Bristol to see, especially considering the fact that admission is totally free!

Beyond the rooms, the corridors and landings are also dotted with striking paintings and more sculptures. Probably the most popular is this work by Banksy, the street artist born and bred in Bristol. It is a Victorian stone statue of an angel with a pot of red paint thrown over its head.

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

According to the wall label:

The intention is to challenge what people expect to see in a museum like this and question the value we place on art. Banksy displayed this work amongst the museum collections during the 2009 exhibition ‘Banksy versus Bristol Museum’, after which he donated it to Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives.

Much more ‘challenging’ would be to explain to visitors the completely different worldviews, the cultural, social, technological, moral and religious values of historic periods remote from ours like the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 18th century or the Victorian period – their anxieties, their moral panics, the values they admired and looked up to – but that would take time, a lot of time, a lot of study and reading, and sensitive sympathetic imagination.


Related links

Other Bristol reviews

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

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.


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Medieval and Renaissance art at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance collection is scattered over different floors and different parts of the building. (See the V&A floor plan to understand what follows.)

If you enter the main entrance on Cromwell Road, turn immediately right, then left down the narrow steps (past the men’s loo) into rooms 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c, to begin at the chronologically earliest part of the display, covering the years 300 – 1500.

Stairs at the end take you up to level 2, where rooms 62 to 64 continue ‘Medieval & Renaissance 300-1600’. From this balcony level you can descend back to ground level and to the huge east hall (probably the first thing you see when you’re buying tickets or asking for information in the entrance lobby) this hall comprising rooms 50a, 50b, 50c and 50d, which house monumental sculptures and a vast stone church screen.

Also on the ground floor, though in the opposite wing, is another huge room 48a, which houses some Raphael cartoons and, in the corridor beside the main bookshop, rooms 16a, 26 and 27, which house a series of sculptures from 1300 to 1600. Close to this are the two large rooms 46a and 46b, which contain casts of Renaissance sculptures, the so-called ‘Cast Courts’.

Early medieval

A visit to all of these rooms confirmed me in my sense that I prefer art from what used to be called the Dark Ages and the early Medieval period, and my interest falls away during the religious revival of the 14th century – although I still like its humanistic medieval approach – and then falls off a cliff as the technically perfect artists of the Renaissance put their gifts to the service of hundreds of horrible Italian princes and the manufacture of countless pastiche classical statues, or gold-larded altars adorned with simpering Madonnas and halo-happy saints.

Why visit galleries or museums?

You visit museums or galleries not only to learn about the ostensible subject matter of what you’re seeing, but also:

1. Visiting helps you find out what you like and don’t like and so helps you define your tastes and preferences – helps inform and improve those tastes and preferences. In this day and age you don’t have to conform to pre-set canons of taste, but how do you know what you like till you try it?

2. It is also a form of therapy. By clarifying what you like and don’t like you find out who you are, the kind of person you are – an art lover, a science lover, a weapons lover, a photograph lover: there are museums and galleries for every taste. And finding out what you like is part of understanding who you are.

3. Exhibits are not only data for value judgements they are witnesses to the past and since all art is produced in some part of the past, it is difficult to avoid engaging with history, in one or other sense of the word. And understanding fragments of the past may help you better understand the troubled present.

Personal prejudices

If I ask myself why I like the pieces I warmed to, it is for one of two reasons:

1. Real Dark Age art is original, weird and different from the Classical or Renaissance periods which bookend it. It speaks of pagan mysteries, the Teutonic forests, a northern ecosystem, a barbarian bestiary of ravens, foxes, gargoyles, green men and grotesques, not laid out in expensive open perspectives, but crammed together into constricted spaces which make them adopt strange stylised postures.

In its avoidance of the the perfection of classical statuary, in its interest in energy compacted into a stylised space, it has obvious similarities with the Modernist art, especially from the period of the Great War, which I also love.

2. When the art of painting revives from the 1200s onwards, I dislike almost all religious ie Catholic, subject matter, and warm to the depiction of people in their own right, for their humanity, for the love of suffering humanity which they evoke. Linked to that view, I warm to animals, flowers, trees and all the indications of a lush, fertile northern environment, and am almost physically repelled by the harsh, barren, rocky landscapes under a pitilessly blue sky, which characterise so much Italian Renaissance painting.

Personal highlights

So this isn’t an attempt to be definitive or authoritative; it is a very personal list of highlights.

Rooms 8 to 10

  • Ivory Last Judgement and Transfiguration (800, recarved 860) I liked the very literal way the coffin lids were coming off in the middle of the image and how, at the bottom right, a big devil’s head is swallowing naughty sinners.
  • Elephant ivory comb (875) Ceremonial combs were used to comb the hair of a priest before he conducted the Mass. Combing was a symbolic process, which established bodily order. It also stopped unruly hair falling in the communion wine.
  • Tabernacle with deposition (1150) I liked the polished crystal in the base, the cartoon bendiness of the human figures and the way they blend into the crucifix which, unusually, has the form of an actual, organically growing tress, rather than the usual straight planks.
  • non-classical animals, bestiaries
  • Relief of the Virgin and Child in orange-red Verona marble (1160-80). The flat smooth expressionless faces remind me of Modernist sculpture, maybe of the Eric Gill reliefs on display at Tate Britain.
  • Grotesque corbel, made from carved sandstone between 1125 and 1150. Corbels stick out from walls to support other features. Why were grotesques and gargoyles so common on medieval buildings?
  • The Becket Casket (1180-90) I liked the stylised hieratic figures, especially the dancing knights beheading the saint, and the prominent polished rock crystals.
  • Virgin and child with goldfinch (1280-1300) made from elephant ivory. What caught my attention was the way Jesus is holding a bird like a toy. It is a goldfinch, symbolic of the crucifixion because it (supposedly) eats seeds of thistles, prickles, thorns.
  • Morse ivory fragment with the Deposition (c. 1190-1200) The humanity of the effort, the closeness, the physical intimacy of the task.
  • Relief of Saints Philip, Jude, and Bartholomew (1150) from limestone. I like the flat stylised effect. Again, like modern art.

There were two touchscreen information panels (complete with a quiz to take after you’ve read the content) about the Romanesque and Gothic.

Romanesque 1000-1200 (so named in the 1820s to refer to a ‘debased Roman style’.) Round arches lined by chevron or dogtooth patterns, scrolling plants, the human form more decorative than realistic, imaginary creatures. Characteristic buildings: Durham Cathedral. People: Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen of England.

Gothic 1200-1500 (used by the 16th century Italian Renaissance critic Vasari to refer to the ‘barbarous German style’ which defeated and repressed good classical taste until the revival of classical style in the 15th century.) Pointed arches, flying buttresses, curving human figures, naturalism of detail eg leaves, expressive emotion. Key buildings: Notre Dame Paris, York Minster (still the largest building in York, it took 250 years to build).

  • The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries; Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-30) This fills one big wall and has an audioguide of its own with a touchscreen which allows you to pick out particular details and hear them interpreted. Ever since I read the wall labels for the wall painting of Nebamun at the British Museum, I’ve realised the symbolic importance of hunting scenes: they may have value as naturalistic depictions, but their primary purpose is to assert the hierarchies of authority in a society, to show the ruling classes enacting, imposing and creating order in the natural world and, by extension, in their culture.

Rooms 50a, 50b, 50c, 50d

Nothing. I disliked everything in this huge space, the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast oppressive ‘s-Hertogenbosch Choir Screen which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection.

Rooms 62 to 64

  • The huge timber staircase from Morlaix in Brittany (1530) redolent of Henry IV and Falstaff’s tavern scenes.
  • Room 1 at the British Museum has an extended explanation of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ as created by collectors in northern Europe. One room here contains a small but striking collection of luxury items from the Cabinet of Curiosities or Kunstkammer of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564).
  • Towel holder (1520-25) The missing arms would have held a pole over which a towel would have been draped. Apparently, the fool towel holder was a common feature.
  • Virgin and very ugly Child by Carlo Crivelli (1480) Note the fly on the parapet. And the carnation and two violets.

In the eight rooms on this level, by far the best, the most stunning, original, powerful and sophisticated exhibit was a Benin bronze on loan from the British Museum, demonstrating the sophistication of other cultures as the Europeans began faring forth to discover and then colonise the world.


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Every room in the National Gallery

A friend’s son is over from Spain. He’s studying art and so we spent one full day, from 10am till closing time at 6pm, on a mission to visit all 66 rooms in the National Gallery. We did it, and with 20 minutes left over to slip into the Goya exhibition as well.

The four sections

The Gallery holds some 2,300 works. They’re divided into four periods or themes, all of which are found in the 66 or so rooms spread over the gallery’s second floor:

  • 13th- to 15th-century paintings (rooms 51-60, west or Sainsbury wing) Duccio, Uccello, van Eyck, Lippi, Mantegna, Botticelli, Dürer, Memling, Bellini
  • 16th-century paintings (west wing, rooms 2-14) Leonardo, Cranach, Michelangelo, Raphael, Holbein, Bruegel, Bronzino, Titian, Veronese
  • 17th-century paintings (north wing, rooms 15-37) Caravaggio, Rubens, Poussin, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Claude, Rembrandt, Cuyp, Vermeer
  • 18th- to early 20th-century paintings (east wing, rooms 33-46) Canaletto, Goya, Turner, Constable, Ingres, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh

Floor plan of level 2 Hover your mouse over a room to see its title and click through to a detailed listing.

NB Rooms 41 and 42 are closed, some of the paintings have been moved to rooms C, D and E on level 0. Floor plan of level 0

Audioguide

There’s an audioguide: it costs £4, covers almost every painting in the collection and takes 5 hours to listen to non-stop. Obviously, if you pause it to wander from picture to picture, have lunch or take a comfort break, it will take longer. Maybe reckon on doing one of the four themes or periods on each visit.

Personal highlights

As with my recent trip to the British Museum, these are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note:

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Burlington House Cartoon') (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 - 1519. The National Gallery, London.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (‘The Burlington House Cartoon’) (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 – 1519. The National Gallery, London.

  • Leonardo da Vinci The Burlington House Cartoon (1500) This is kept in a small darkened room by the entrance to the Sainsbury wing where you can sit and admire genius. It is worth visiting the National Gallery to see this one image. Has any artist ever made any image more perfect, more mysterious and profound than this one? Leonardo is in a class of one. If you had to explain Western art to a Martian this painting would do it.
  • The Wilton Diptych (1395-9) This was a portable altarpiece made for the use of King Richard II (1377-99). I like the sideways posture of the young king and the generally static, hieratic posture of the figures. A gallery attendant explained Richard has ginger hair and therefore so do the angels. I really liked the image of the white hart on the reverse, with a crown round its neck and a golden chain. It was Richard’s personal emblem and therefore it is stamped onto the chests of the angels’ astonishingly blue tunics, like the logo of a football team.
  • Jan van Eyck Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) Next to the famous Arnolfini Portrait is this work. Like so many works of the northern Renaissance it is of a real person. No Christ child, Mary, angels, Magi, disciples or attendant saints. A real person commemorated for all time in their hereness, nowness, personhood.
  • Robert Campin A man and woman (1435) Real people.
  • Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family (about 1470) Swabian. A real person painted with great delicacy and sensitivity.
  • Sandro Botticelli Venus and Mars (1485) Not really looking like any human beings ever seen, this is like a high class cartoon, complete with lines around the figures, and the stylised neck, jaw and hair of the woman.
  • Giovanni Battista Moroni – Portrait of a Gentleman (‘Il Gentile Cavaliere’) (1564) Not a beautiful man but the rendition is perfect in every detail, including the gold lining and buttons up the front, and the loose binding of the leather-bound books under his left hand.
  • Titian emerges as one of the great geniuses of painting. He seems to have introduced a new much brighter palette. His portraits of 16th century notables are striking and individualistic. But I was struck by the handful of outdoors paintings which seem to have created a new way of conveying the human figure in outdoor settings, complete with realistic trees and earth and streams, old ruined buildings, in a brown palette. Before him there was nothing like this and after him everything looked like this for centuries: the effect on Gainsborough, for example, seems obvious:
  • Paolo Veronese The Dream of Helena (1570) The posture of the dreaming woman is perfect and the light on the dress, shimmers impressionistically.
  • Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) A whole room is devoted to Poussin (room 19) and I thought it significant that it was almost empty (three people). I’ve read that Poussin is a very intellectual painter and appreciating him is a developed taste. But I find his paintings empty of all passion or feeling, the characters positioned in stylised gestures, the overall composition draining the mythical events depicted of all energy or meaning. They are like a kind of abstract idea of painting, specimens of what painting would be if drained of all passion or feeling:
  • Peter Paul Rubens (room 29) is famous for his plump women. Out of his big compositions I noticed his subjects’ black eyes, white breasts and shiny armour, all three exemplified in Minerva protects Pax from Mars (1630). In The Judgement of Paris (1632-5) the black eyes and white boobs are obvious, but the shiny armour is there in the bottom left, in the shield with an image of the Gorgon and a discarded helmet on the ground.
  • Rembrandt van Rijn Portrait of Aechje Claesdr (1634) I like north European art because its humanism trumps the Mediterranean’s emphasis on Christian ideology. The compassion doesn’t come from choruses of angels or saints turning up their tearful eyes to heaven, but from the honest depiction of real people in all their frailty and humanity, deserving our empathy and compassion.
  • Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (1654-6) by Rembrandt. His mistress, apparently, young, fresh faced, innocent, her open chemise hinting at her warm body, the whole image exudes intimacy, trust and love.
  • The solid, thick-waisted, small-breasted Rubens women make the Rokeby Venus (1647-51) by Diego Velázquez in the next room (30) all the more striking, her very slender waist, narrow back and defined shoulder blades looking anorexic by contrast.
  • Frans Hal Portrait of a Young Woman (1650s) A real person, looking innocent and vulnerable. You expect her to start talking to you
  • The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy (about 1760) by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, only a sketch but the more powerful for that.
  • Thomas Gainsborough The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1760) What could be lovelier, more charming, more innocent. After all the friars, monks, weeping saints and tortured Jesuses of the Spanish and Italian Baroque, coming into the Gainsborough gallery was like being able to breathe again. Generally, arriving in the English gallery with its trees, open country and educated landowners was a great relief: sun and air, trees and rivers and not a tortured, bleeding Christ in sight.
  • La Coiffure (about 1896) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. In last year’s Impressionism exhibition I was surprised not to like more Degas. But this painting seems to me a masterpiece: the combination of reds; the unfinished parts on the left; the heavy black lines giving a cartoon quality; the ordinary everyday subject matter; the two quiet women, not kings or gods or angels; the intimacy. A ragged modern perfection.

I learned…

Ugly babies There are a lot, a really huge number, of terribly painted babies masquerading as the little baby Jesus. I don’t think we saw one believable image of an actual baby, and so many horrid ones we started a competition to find the ugliest baby Jesus. From a strong field (eg Virgin and Child (1475) by Hans Memling) the winner was The Virgin and Child in a Garden (late 15th century) in the style of Martin Schongauer. Enlarge the image to savour the full horror of the old man baby.

Geniuses who died young

  • Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael (1483-1520) aged 37.
  • Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) aged 36.

Carlos’s Law All the Dutch winter landscapes under snow (room 26), of villages or towns with people ice skating on frozen rivers and so on, are immediately appealing:

My friend’s son is called Carlos and after he pointed this out we developed a hypothesis – maybe one day it will become Carlos’s Law – which is that: No painting of a winter scene can be bad. Or, Every painting of a winter scene is automatically good. This held pretty much true from the 17th century Dutch painters where it began to dawn on us, through the intervening centuries to the wintry Impressionist works at the end of the gallery eg:

Personal taste

Turns out I like medieval and Gothic art and don’t like the Renaissance. I like medieval art’s emphasis on the humane, on gorgeous or quirky detail, the prevalence of design and pattern over the clear and (to me) often empty or sterile backdrops which Italian Renaissance art uses to show off its mastery of perspective. Thus I prefer the tight composition, the symmetry, the packed and slightly claustrophobic feel, the sumptuous fabric and cracked floor tiles and the dense foliage climbing over the cloisters of The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor (1510) by Gerard David to, say, The Nativity (1470-5) by Piero della Francesca, with its – to me – sense of abandonment in a sterile, rocky, Beckettian landscape.

And so I preferred almost any northern Renaissance painter – van Eyck and the fabulous Hans Holbein and Rogier van de Weyden – to the more famous Italians, because they seem to me to be more humane; to value the truly human, often ungainly, individual over the more religious types of the Italian Renaissance. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars are smoothly executed cartoons: Robert Campin’s man and woman are people.

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