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