The comfort of dogs

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Maria, from SterneHeartbroken Maria, with her beloved dog, Sylvio, from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) by the great Joseph Wright of Derby.
Ferens Art Gallery. Image source: All Things Georgian an essential online guide to the society and culture of the British 18th century.

“Her goat had been as faithless as her lover; and she had got a little dog in lieu of him, which she had kept tied by a string to her girdle: as I looked at her dog, she drew him towards her with the string.—“Thou shalt not leave me, Sylvio,” said she. I look’d in Maria’s eyes and saw she was thinking more of her father than of her lover, or her little goat; for, as she utter’d them, the tears trickled down her cheeks.” From ‘Maria’, in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne (1768)

Maria is another casualty in the line of emotionally abandoned girls, like Ophelia, driven out of her mind by grief from a lover’s desertion and a father’s death, and Marianne Dashwood, whose excess of 18th century sensibility is the same as a major depressive disorder today, and real-life sisters, Sally and Maria Siddons.

Rose tiara

Rose Tiara, Me Too Era © PJR

This ghostly exuberance, this rose-pink nostalgia, pink, the colour of ironic femininity and about-to-be-lost illusions, knowing and sweet; this decaying crown of experience in the benighted, bee-endangered, Brexit semi-coma is the last shout of beauty on the edge of dying.

On the edge of good taste, too, some would say. Such overt flirtation and florid excess, such abandonment to the moment, such tender voluptuousness, too fragile to touch; their éclat is not for all seasons.

Performance at this level is exhausting. Tomorrow, or the day after, their lovely faces will shrivel, shrink from their reflections, and shed fragrant tears, little pink silk sheets littering the floor, until they are bald.  I owe them the courtesy of hiding them before anyone else sees them like that.

On my last English mantelpiece, the flush of full-blown roses looks dimmed, as if an interfering prig has veiled a group of over-dressed, over-scented, over-the-top fifty-something women at a party long ago, their magnificent defiance muted into memory – 

nah, old pink roses will be back screaming and shouting at you from somewhere next year.

Flaming June

Flaming June by Frederic Leighton, 1895.

“Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!”
George Meredith, Modern Love, 1891

Here is art for art’s sake, feminine beauty celebrated for aesthetics, not individual rights; sensual delight enjoyed at the expense of reason; a revelling in red and yellow, the apotheosis of orange; amoral, superficial, cheesy and good enough to eat; the taste of strawberries and cream or the touch of hot sun on your neck while you drowse on a hot summer’s day. All that, and a picture that will immortalize her, but not enough to make her happy. When she wakes up, the world will disappoint her.

A woman thinking outside her box

Circle of Robert Peake, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1619
Adopting the conventional Renaissance pose of melancholic meditation, the young woman rests her head on her left hand.
At the same time, she rebels against the constrictions of mortality, and expectations of how young women should behave and think.
Her right hand reaches out of the frame, in the style of Baroque trompe l’oeil, challenging the observer’s perceptions of reality, and testing the limits of her own and the artist’s power.
She is forever in transition between two states, dabbling her fingers in eternity.
It’s only a game, a flirtation, a harmless trick to beguile us all – or is it? Though she appears so prim and proper, purse-lipped and passive, her gaze is directed out at you and me, not inwards.
She’s reflecting melancholically about us, not herself.
“Don’t tell me what to do. Don’t tell me what to feel and think. You don’t know me, though you think you do. I’m coming out of this frame you’ve put me in. There’s lots to do in the world out there. What about you? What are you doing? What have you done? Take my hand, and I’ll be with you, now and always”.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Shakespeare, Sonnet 18 Written between 1593 and 1601, published in 1609.

The Autonomous Woman

I’m still looking at her. I lied in the previous post about ambivalence. I know very well that she is informed, not defined, by other people’s abuse.  This post is too long for comfort, but if you want to see Artemisia Gentileschi meet Jane Austen, read on.

marymagdaleneArtemesiaG The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA

“Till this moment I never knew myself”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813

Of all women, why should the Magdalene repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a triumphant victim of patriarchy who earned her own living, became a player in global religion, and a legendary heroine of romance, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not patronize her.

Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account. We are looking at her at the moment she knows herself.

Gentileschi also cast Mary Magdalene, the sinning woman, as the personification of  Melancholy, an ambivalent attribute.

ArtemisiaGentileschiMaryMagdaleneMelancholy

Artemisia Gentileschi, Maria Maddalena come la Malinconia 1621 -25.
Oil on canvas. Museo del Soumaya, Mexico City. Image: Wikipedia.

The Renaissance began the modern cultivation of melancholy, or predisposition to depression, as a desirable creative condition, on the dubious premise that the more you suffer, the better your art. This has been proved true only in cases where there is pre-existing talent and a strong technique. Intensity of feeling alone never wrote a good book or painted a great picture. greatest struggle is to transmute personal experience into art

Gentileschi’s interpretation of a passive Temperament is characteristically unromantic: the sensual, dishevelled Magdalene is slumped in her chair, looking like a lethargic and sulky teenager, the opposite of her usually dynamic heroines.

Gentileschi (the daughter, not the father, the overshadowed Orazio, a dutiful father and fine painter in his own right) is a colussus straddling art and gender history. Continue reading

Ambivalence

Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders 1610 Oil on canvas Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden.
Image: WGA
The first known work of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1653) is a classic study of sexual harassment. Other painters often portrayed Susanna looking coy, sometimes willing, a starlet enjoying the attention of producers at the pool.
This Susanna is unambivalently saying NO

Some male painters visualized Susanna leading her old, fat, powerful voyeurs on to commit a completely consensual act of physical contact.

  Alessandro Allori Susanna and The Elders 1561 Oil on canvas, Musée Magnin, Dijon. Image: WGA.
No ambiguity here, jusr a compliant girl and a cute dog in a male abuser’s fantasy.

“I have been bullied by men and women, but the first to bully me were women.” Noelle Mackay #NotMeToo

hecate or the three fates blakeHecate or the Three Fates by William Blake, c. 1795. Tate Gallery London.
Image source: WGA

Hecate, sometimes on her own, sometimes three-headed, a triple deity, incarnates the ambivalence of all female power, from witchcraft to motherhood.

Artemisia Gentileschi The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA

Of all women, why should the Magdalen repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a victim of patriarchy who earned her own living and became a player in global religion, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not punish her.

Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account.

In 1611, when she was about 21, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by her art teacher (Tassi). She and her father were not afraid of disclosure. During the trial, as part of checks on her virginity, Artemisia was tortured.

The abused women in her mature paintings are strong, introspective, assertive, independent.

Nothing frivolous intrudes on the monumental composition of her paintings, where a constant battle for light and dark is played out with unforgiving realism.

She painted women in moments of terrifying self-knowledge, finding reserves of violent, sometimes murderous, passion they had never guessed before. Her subjects are not victims or martyrs, projecting self-pity or self-promotion. They take responsibility for their actions and emotions. They are heroines, avengers and fighters for justice; they are autonomous women.

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Jane Austen Mansfield Park 1814

 

 

Give them back their future

If you were young, how would you be feeling about your future, decided by your elders in a badly informed opinion poll last year?

Past and Present, No. 2 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg Past and Present, No 2 1858. Image: Tate

Two orphaned sisters are reduced to poverty and despair because of the actions of their parents. The elder girl is now responsible for both their fates, and neither she nor we see any hope for her as she looks yearningly at the moon.

On Saturday’s Unite For Europe march, the intelligence and passion of three speakers (Ismaeel Yaqoob, Elin Smith, Felix Milbank) representing Students for EU moved the crowd in Parliament Square and along Whitehall as in turn they pleaded eloquently for isolationist, zenophobic Brexit to be reversed so they can have their futures back.

The New Cosette, marching to Unite for Europe on 25 March, 2017 © Martin Hübscher

In 1858, Egg told another tale of an older generation’s betrayal of the young. A whole family, father, mother and two children, are victims of unfair, unnatural social rules designed by patriarchy to benefit itself.

Continue reading

The Epistolary Problem

“I made this [letter] very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.”
(Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.)
Blaise Pascal, apologizing to his correspondents in Letter XVI, Provincial Letters, 1656.

metsuman

Metsu, Man Writing a Letter 1662-65 Oil on panel. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Image: WGA

Surfing the net for versions of this quote, you come across English criticism of Pascal for not making his aphorism shorter. Translators improved on the original, which is spread in stately baroque fashion over two sentences, into variants of:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter

This is pithier and therefore sounds wittier to English ears. It omits the rich caress of the word “loisir”and the grace notes of irony and politesse. Maybe the literal translation should only be said with a French shrug to make the rest of us appreciate its élan.

Pascal was not writing an Oscar Wilde play; les lettres provinciales are not a bourgeois comedy of manners. Pascal was engaged in intellectual battle with the powerful Jesuits, laying waste to their methods of ethical reasoning with impregnable arguments of his own.

Brevity is the soul of wit, but it is very difficult to be truthful, and fair to your casuistic opponent, in a few words.

No-one likes receiving a letter of complaint, of any length, and finding the time to read it is a chore.

It is easy to write a short love letter, which the recipient would be happy to find leisure to read again and again. Anyone looking at them would think they were wasting time:

metsuwomanreading

Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter 1662-65 Oil on panel. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Image: WGA

Some letters are too personally important to be read in front of witnesses; their content penetrates your mind so deeply that you feel your axis shift. The minutes you spent physically reading a letter like that are preserved in your mind for ever. You will never be quite the same again. Till this moment I never knew myself.

vermeerwomanVermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter 1663-4. Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Image: WGA
While she reads her letter, time stands still. Vermeer painted the silent gaps in time.

Epistolary (Half) Eschewed

Portrait of a young woman gilbert stuart

Portrait of a Young Woman, writing a letter, by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1802 -1804. Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I am sorry to have interrupted her; she is rather lovely, rather to be loved and written about than briefly employed as a cover girl.

All roads in this land lead to Pemberley. Jane Austen, the prosaic revolutionary, waits quietly, with gloves and bonnet on, at the crossroads of 18th century and modern novels. The bonnet conceals the expression in her eyes, which isn’t quiet at all.

Audio: Till this moment, I never knew myself

Pride and Prejudice, which seems so fresh and spontaneous on every reading, took eighteen years to evolve, from the first draft written in 1796-97 to publication in 1813. It had a gestation period almost as long as the heroine’s life at the stage when we first meet Elizabeth Bennet, aged 20. And which of us remembers anything before we are two, anyway?

Poor Clarissa Harlowe was only eighteen when her ordeals, recorded in epistolary form by Samuel Richardson, started.

Clarissa is an articulate, morally courageous young woman, not immature at all, whose fortitude and capacity to forgive her abuser overcomes adversity far more severe than any suffered by an Austen heroine – and yet she has martyr written all over her, which Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Elinor Dashwood, even Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Eliot, do not.

Their creator gave them autonomy. They step off the page. They walk into our minds, and they get transplanted into other times and places. They dress and speak differently in all these reincarnations, their education and professions and leisure pursuits vary, but they are still recognizable, except, perhaps, when attacked by zombies.

They are not social rebels; they don’t demand equal rights. They would have been deterred by the violent excesses of the French Revolution which had just rocked Europe. The only revolutionary changes that take place are in their own heads.

They are not submissive and they refuse to be victims. They are paragons of self-improvement, never blaming other people or fate for their shortcomings.

They are intelligent young women, articulating a life of the mind richer and more independent than offered by ribbons, posies and billets-doux.

fragonardletter

 The Love Letter by Fragonard, 1770s. Image: WGA.
Arch, erotic and epistolary – the Rococo melted away with the advance of more demanding, independent-minded literary heroines.

Jane Austen began writing novels on the conventional epistolary model, and quickly abandoned it after Lady Susan (c. 1794), and the first draft of Sense and Sensibility (c. 1795). Continue reading