If you’ve been following, you’ll see that I’m on quite the roll this week! I posted about the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth on Tuesday, and the Tate Liverpool yesterday. I’m blogging about my Euro trip in order, so this will be the last England post! I was very excited to visit the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool because the collection houses some of the world’s most famous Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art. Rather than analyzing an overarching exhibition, I will discuss two fascinating paintings from the collection. Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903) and The Punishment of Lust, by Giovanni Segantini (1891) reveal much about morality and gender politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903) is one of my favorite paintings. I believe I have reblogged it on my tumblr a minimum of seven times. Seeing the work in person was an absolute dream. Here I am posing beside this beautiful painting:
And here is a photograph of the painting in context of the room, hung below another masterpiece:
Echo and Narcissus tells the story of the Roman myth whose characters bear the same names. Echo was a maiden infatuated with Narcissus, who in turn was too self-absorbed to notice her advances. She withered away until just her voice– an echo– remained on this earth. As punishment for his behavior, Narcissus became obsessed with his own reflection, and could not bear to part from it. Here, we see Echo looking longingly at Narcissus:
Note her body language. Rather than pointing towards the object of her desire, Echo’s torso is flush with the canvas. Her bent knees are positioned even further away from Narcissus. And yet she turns her face to look back at him, creating a thin line of taut muscle in her throat where she twists her neck. She clutches a tree in one hand while the other is used to steady herself on a rock. The tension in her body language demonstrates her convoluted emotions; part of her body turns away from him while the other part physically reaches out towards him.
Furthermore, her posture is that of a person trying to emulate a certain persona. Her knees and feet are kept modestly pressed together, covered in a draped pink fabric. Yet she allows the fabric to fall away, revealing the breast closest to Narcissus’ line of vision. Her gaze, too, affirms her desire. It is a bit difficult to see in this photograph, but t Echo’s eyes are wide open. Zoom in on this version of the picture to see better. The angle of her pupils points her focus directly on Narcissus. Waterhouse employs the tiniest of brushstrokes to indicate her slightly-arched right eyebrow, which lends her face a combination of intensity and distress. Echo’s love for Narcissus comes at the expense of her own composure.
Now take a look at the way the artist paints Narcissus:
We are not able to see his face as it is focused on his reflection in the water. However, we can learn a lot from his body language. Narcissus lays down on the rock in order to get as close as possible to the water. His right hand reaches towards the lake. What could he accomplish in doing so? He cannot be using it to, say, drink water or catch a fish, because he is already engaged in an activity: looking at himself. Thus, the movement of his hand is part of this activity. He is reaching out to touch his reflection, which is by nature a non-tangible entity. He is so obsessed with himself that he disregards what he knows to be the properties of water in order to be closer to his reflection. This demonstrates the severity of his curse. There is also a moral lesson for the viewer behind this pictorial choice. Waterhouse seems to be warning the viewer that self-involvement engenders irrational, foolish thinking.
If you take another look at the zoomed-out picture you’ll see that there are a few yellow flowers growing by Narcissus’ feet. These are Narcissus flowers, commonly known as daffodils. The myth describes how these flowers sprouted when Narcissus finally died at this very spot.
What do you think Waterhouse was trying to accomplish in Echo and Narcissus? Was he warning viewers about the dangers of lust and self-absorption? Or was he simply fond of Roman mythology and its possibilities for Victorian painting? In the wall plaque, the museum states that unrequited love was a favorite theme of Waterhouse’s. Keep in mind that this was 1903, and gender dynamics were quite different. Perhaps Waterhouse’s paintings fetishize the stereotypical lonely female. They certainly do the protagonist no favors in rounding out her character. Though what I like about Echo and Narcissus is that neither character comes out unscathed. Echo is foolish to contemporary viewers, perhaps, but Narcissus is as well. Waterhouse makes less commentary on their genders than on the concepts they represent.
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Speaking of morality, the painter Giovanni Segantini painted his own tale of warning about vice in The Punishment of Lust (1891). Take a look:
And up close:
What we are presented with here is a supernatural scene in the midst of an ominous landscape. Two curiously identical figures float in mid-air, their torsos facing in opposite directions. Their hair- a beautiful golden red- rises in the air as well. Some strands float parallel to the earth while others blow gently in an invisible wind. The arms of both figures are relaxed. The figure on the viewer’s left floats easily, her arm resting in the air as if there is a bed beneath it. The figure on the viewer’s right floats just as soundly, though her hand rests on her belly. We are not given privy to the legs of either girl, as they are encased in a silvery fabric that stretches ambiguously up each of their bodies. It is not clear where the fabric starts and ends. There is the semblance of a visible breast on the body of the figure at right. The impressionistic quality of the brushstrokes and the similar coloring of the fabric, the girls’ skin, and the landscape behind make it difficult to discern fabric from skin and snow. We are also not given access to either girl’s face. They are turned towards the sky and powdered with droplets of color that blur their features. Tiny smudges of grey suggest the shadow of closed eyelids.
What other clues do we have, besides this analysis of the figures’ bodies? We have their desolate landscape. The earth is barren, covered in a thin layer of white snow. The scraggly bushes and trees around the figures are few and far between. It is not immediately clear if they are dead or simply leafless for the winter. There is also a stretch of black mountain uncovered by white snow. The world is not a frosted wonderland of snow mountains and evergreen trees. It is a wasteland, just too cold enough for proper greenery to grow, but not cold enough to create a winter wonderland. If my memory of 8th grade earth science is correct, this could very well be the tundra.
Because the figures are situated in such a desolate wasteland (and because of the title of the painting) it is clear that the figures are enduring a supernatural punishment for their sins- specifically, lust. Is this lust for each other? The two women are intertwined. Perhaps their lustful sin is the engagement in lesbian sex. They could also be sisters, or mirror images of one self. What do you think?
On the plaque at the museum it is written: “This is based on the 12th century poem, Nirvana, by Luigi Illica, which describes the progress of neglectful mother through a Buddhist purgatory. The tree symbolizes the tree of life. The floating mothers’ souls will eventually achieve Nirvana, a Buddhist heaven represented by the mountains. The painting may be the Italian artist’s protest against women’s emancipation.”
Wow, take a second to take that all in. No matter how much visual analysis I did in front of this painting, there was a zero percent chance I was ever going to land on that interpretation. I simply am not exposed enough to Buddhist imagery to have made that leap between tree and tree of life, or floating bodies and the achievement of Nirvana. However, with all that in mind, do you have any initial reactions? I am struck by two things. First, the fact that Segantini has painted two separate mothers identically. Surely the artist had the capability to paint women who look different, so why paint them the same exact way? Perhaps their neglectfulness as mothers renders them unworthy of individualistic depiction. Secondly, the fact that the artist actively protested women’s emancipation lends the work another layer of significance (and makes my blood boil). He clearly did not think very highly of women if he was against their emancipation. So, the depiction of women as sinful, neglectful mothers is a warning to lawmakers in society. If women cannot be trusted to perform their traditional duties as mothers, how can they be allowed to take on more societal responsibilities? (This literally pains me to write). And so, with this wall plaque to help us interpret The Punishment of Lust, we come away with a deepened understanding of both the artist’s personal politics, and the significance of the painting itself.
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It is sometimes difficult to be a woman and love Victorian art (or pretty much any art before the 1970s) as it often features women in objectified, fetishized positions. Rarely do I see a painting that is actually propaganda for misogynistic politics, but I am no stranger to the fetishized nude. What does this mean for me as an art historian, student, and woman? As I often say, learning about art is important because art is a reflection of how people feel and think. If you want to better understand history and conflict, you must look at the art being made by those living within it. And so, in order to understand the history of gender politics and make positive steps towards improving conditions for women, we must understand how we got to where we are. We must look at the history of gender roles and how people felt about these roles. One of the best ways to do so is through art. Sometimes this can be upsetting, as in the case of The Punishment of Lust. Other times it can be rewarding, especially when you find a painting that seems bizarrely feminist in a time when feminism was not being discussed at all. (Read: Olympia).
Let me know if you have any thoughts, feminist, artistic, or otherwise. I’m going to go look at some works by female artists and feel powerful again.
Until next time!