Monday, May 30, 2011

Giorgione vs. Titian (Hint: No Contest)

In the art of the high Renaissance, the connection between beautiful women and the divine was absolute. Courtesans became the models for goddesses and demi-goddesses in the paintings of da Vinci, Raphael, Giorgione, Veronese, Correggio, Titian, and others we know and don't know. Take Raphael's fresco of the apotheosis of Galatea. An epic figure riding a giant seashell drawn by dolphins, gazing ecstatically up at a hidden source of light in a cloudy renaissance sky, nude but for a red cloak flapping in the wind, surrounded by earthbound centaurs and a triton (half man, half whale) abducting nymphs right left and center and raising alarums with trumpets and conches to the putti raining arrows down from above. Galatea was painted in the likeness of the Roman courtesan Imperia.

There are countless other examples. Some of the women's identities we know, some we don't. Dozens of variations of Leda and the Swan (Correggio's version at right). Danaë lying on a bed whose sumptuous drapes are drawn back to reveal her receiving a shower of gold sprinkling on her lap from above. Flora, a fertility goddess closely associated with Venus.

The real-life model for Titian's versions of these subjects appeared again (and again) in Sacred and Profane Love, a painting where the nude is the sacred one, and the brooding housewife profane. The woman who is the identical model for both is widely believed to have been Titian's mistress Cecilia, of whom he made an honest woman, Renaissance-style, by marrying after she bore him the second of four children.Titian's paintings are swollen with emotion, and the sensuality - whether of sex or violence - is overripe and sensationalist. His women are certainly beautiful, but it's Titian's idea of beauty, not theirs. Titian's women have been captured on a surface of lush colors, forced to offer their naked breasts and bellies and plump legs to us. On the rare occasion they do look at us, they do not confront our gaze, but look askance. It's as if they weren't seeing us, but rather the man who was painting them.

Giorgione and Leonardo never did that. They somehow managed to let their women be themselves, enigmatically themselves, their moods changing each time you take a fresh look. They reveal less of their flesh than Titian's, yet are more sexy. Some gaze solemnly off to the side, in a classic three-quarter view, some look directly at the viewer. Some cast their eyes downwards, tragically or with a peace that passeth understanding.

The eyes of Giorgione's nude Venus are closed. She is asleep, seemingly dreaming the epic landscape behind her, both fantastical and vividly real, which at once frames and reflects the curves of her body. She is not an object of desire in the conventional sense - in the tradition of the reclining nude that Titian so excelled in. Rather she is such a complete embodiment of the place of the human in the natural world that you could just as easily describe her as naked - in the same way as, say, a stream could be naked, or a blade of grass.

Anthony di Mello once drew a telling distinction between two kinds of pleasure within a larger discussion of the nature of love. The first was the pleasure of receiving glowing praise from respected peers for a special achievement. The second was watching a beautiful sunset. Di Mello saw merit in each of these two kinds of pleasure - or two kinds of love - but cautioned that the first, being dependent on the opinions and judgments of others, is vulnerable to exploitation.

If we came across a nude woman sleeping in a field next to, say, the Appalachian trail, I think we would agree she was making herself vulnerable to exploitation. Equally, many would argue that the nude Danaës and Floras and Ledas and Venuses depicted by Titian and others on red velvet bedspreads or in leafy copses - for the pleasure or aesthetic approbation of the eye of the beholder - were painted in a way that rendered women more vulnerable to exploitation.

But Giorgione's Venus is different. She isn't in the slightest bit vulnerable. She is sleeping the sleep of the most wise and powerful of gods. When we look at her, we are not inflamed with desire, but struck with awe.

Perhaps tellingly, Giorgione's student Titian was entrusted only with painting the drapes on which she dreams.

Giorgione's women are depicted with a level of dignity and intelligence and gravitas that gives them an equal measure of power with the viewer. I read somewhere that Leonardo himself was the source of that old saying, "The eye is the window of the soul." Titian didn't seem to be too concerned as to whether that window was open or not. But Leonardo was.

As was Giorgione. He painted an unknown woman who a century later another unknown person was to name 'Laura' after the laurel branches which frame her against a chiaroscura background. She is gazing off to the left and gently holding open the fur lapel of a sumptuous red cloak to reveal a naked breast. The skin of her throat melds with the delicate tiny strands of fur in a sfumato effect - you can't tell where her skin begins and the fur ends, save where a length of thin white lace curling down from her opposite shoulder brings things into focus (albeit still a misty one). The fur is the same color as the stray lock of hair whose tip brushes against her bare neck. She is alluring without making the slightest effort to be so, her portrayal balanced tantalizingly between ethereal artifice and animal sensuality. The latter has been conquered and subjugated for now through the mortal sacrifice of the beast whose de-fanged hide now caresses her bare skin. But Laura's smoldering brown eyes are the same color and texture as the shimmering lush strands of fur. The soul of the animal is touching her in the most intimate way imaginable. It lays dormant somewhere inside her - inside this portrayal, which is all we have left of her - eternally waiting to be unleashed by our gaze.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Lucky Age

Study for The Golden Age (1862)
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University
Adapted by

I was lucky. It was a weird time, which I haven’t really seen again.
Laurie Anderson, New York Times, April 28, 2011

Bill Viola said it. Peter Stein said it. And now Laurie Anderson has said it. We were lucky, they said, to have come of age at a time when we did, when so much was possible.

Viola was making video art in the 70s when few people even knew what it was. In those days, the video artists didn’t think about making money from their art, and they all knew each other, like a family. Stein was selected to lead the Schaubühne in Berlin in 1970, and famously ran the soon-to-be-legendary theatre as a socialist collective. Anderson lived in SoHo in the 70s, where she and numerous others turned the raw lofts and water tower-dotted rooftops into their artistic playground.

In an exclusive midtown club. In a penthouse at Lincoln Center. In a feature article in the New York Times. Everybody’s doing it. All these world famous artists are saying it. I was lucky.

So what gives? Why should this be happening now?

I’m sure there’s a touch of “golden age” thinking here. It’s only human to idealize the past. But that doesn't explain it. The 60s and 70s were unquestionably an exceptionally fertile time for art and ideas. There’s got to be more.

Maybe they have reached an age, reached a point on their climb up the mountain, where they can pause and look back over the landscape and see that those of us who came afterwards weren’t so lucky. Cramped by the rise of corporate power. Stunted by conservatives and neocons aggressively rolling back the permissiveness of the 60s. Numbed by a US media dragged inexorably rightwards by the Machiavellian grip of Murdoch and Rove and their ilk. Despairing at the powerlessness of the anti-war movement to prevent the parade of military adventures and misadventures that followed Vietnam. Tehran. Grenada. Beirut. Panama. Iraq. Somalia. Haiti. Yugoslavia. Afghanistan. Iraq. Libya. Abbottabad.

Or maybe the realization has well and truly sunk in that they made it, and many of their friends didn’t. While they’re living the dream - Stein perhaps most spectacularly so, in a rambling country villa overlooking Rome - artists with whom they shared such intimate discoveries way back when are struggling to deal with harsher realities. I heard a writer on the radio the other day talk about growing up in the sixties and seventies, when they all believed they had been blessed - whether by Bob Dylan, contraband substances, or otherwise - and destined to be forever young. They saw their parents’ beer bellies and thinning hair and budget clothing simply as bad life choices. Only now are they realizing that they are becoming just like their parents, albeit without the experience of having lived through the Second World War.

Or maybe those artists feel blessed by having chanced upon a particularly potent creative process early on in their careers which, as it happened, has sustained them to this day. And, whether by chance or design or through sheer communion with the source, they have remained healthy enough to live a full creative live. Joseph Campbell and Anthony di Mello talked about a stream of awareness that you can access anytime - it’s right there. All you have to do is recognize the layers of dross that are obscuring it for what they are, and they'll fall away, and you can just go ahead and dip right in. Maybe those artists did that, and did it early. And they’ve never forgotten how to do it.

Maybe, also, there are other unfortunate ones who didn’t come afterwards when there were more layers of dross to contend with; nor were they the ones who kept on keeping on but weren’t as well prepared to get older. Maybe these artists knew of a third class of unfortunates: peers who fell perhaps too heavily under the spell of that special time of the 60s and 70s, when all of them were busy creating a new world. Maybe some of these peers made that experience the very substance of their art, their lives. Maybe when the walls started closing in, in the 80s, that continued regardless. Maybe there wasn't anything left to make their art or lives about, but they still couldn’t stop themselves from going down the rabbithole. And maybe it dawned on an unfortunate few that they had staked their spark on something that wasn’t meant to last, that only lasted as long as the spell did, and there was no turning back. Maybe that thought lodged itself deep inside, like a spur in a bone, and as it grew it threw them more and more off kilter. And, one day, whether by accident or design, maybe fate dealt them an unspeakably sad end, one which that tragic flaw had brought to pass in some mysterious way beyond our understanding.

I wonder whether that time in the 60s and 70s was indeed a golden age, whether it was like the late Renaissance, or the Elizabethan Age, or periods of ancient history we don’t know enough about to pin down but we can glimpse in fragments of stone and words that leap out and ignite our imaginations like invisible wildfire. And I wonder whether that time, that so recent dawning of the Age of Aquarius, might have lasted as long as those previous golden ages, had the politicians and power brokers not stepped in and snuffed it out. It feels like it should have.

Were those golden ages just a natural occurrence, a spontaneous alchemy of creative delight that occurred according to some unknowable, unpredictable cycle of nature, like green rays at sunset? Or can we ourselves create the conditions for a golden age? Can all the blood, sweat and tears which has been shed since the “lucky” times in the staunch belief that art is the best way to change the world be enough to one day defeat the efforts of those who seem hell bent on destroying everything we've been working for?

I see little of more importance to this country, its future, and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.
John F. Kennedy

Fancy that. Were they just lucky to have him as president at exactly the right moment? (Even Stein in Berlin, where to this day a key passage of the “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech is etched into John-F.-Kennedy-Platz, all arranged by students in the wake of his assassination).

But let’s look at it another way. We are no longer in the twentieth century. God knows SoHo ain’t what it used to be, and the old rules no longer apply. The people who made the Arab Spring understood this. To make our new golden age, is it really necessary any longer to have the patronage or political blessing of a queen or a president?

Could we all be presidents of the new golden age? Could we really be lucky enough to do that?