Two Paintings from the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool, England)

Greetings everyone!

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:

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And here is a photograph of the painting in context of the room, hung below another masterpiece:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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And up close:

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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!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

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Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus (Tate Liverpool- Liverpool)

Hi everyone,

Today I’d like to talk about a particularly interesting exhibit I visited in Liverpool several weeks ago. Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus sees the work of two brilliant artists exhibited together in the same space. The two artists in question are not usually associated with one another.

Tracey Emin was born in 1963 and rose to prominence as a member of the Young British Artists, alongside contemporaries Damien Hirst and Angela Bulloch. On her website it is written that “Emin’s work has an immediacy and often sexually provocative attitude that firmly locates her oeuvre within the tradition of feminist discourse.” I have been reading a book about the Young British Artists called Artrage!: The Story of the BritArt Revolution. In it, Emin’s works have stood out to me for their broad range of mediums and brutal– at times repelling– emotional honesty.

On the other hand, William Blake was born in 1757. His relief etchings and paintings, influenced by his peculiar views on the supernatural and sexuality, were largely criticized during his lifetime. The post-humous publication of his biography in the mid 19th century propelled his legacy into the foreground of artistic and philosophical thought. Today Blake is considered one of the most important artists in Britain’s history.

So why has the Tate Liverpool chosen to exhibit the works of these artists together? On its website, the museum cites “a shared concern with birth, death, and spirituality” as the reason for comparing the two artists side-by-side. It also touches on Blake’s categorization as a Romanticist. The Romanticism movement witnessed a creative shift towards the individual, his emotions, and his place in the natural world (alongside God, as well as plants and animals). According to the Tate Liverpool, the exhibit “affirms Blake’s romantic idea of artistic truth through existential pain and the possibility of spiritual rebirth through art.”

In this post, I will explore how Blake’s journey for artistic truth mirrors and enhances the emotional gravity of Emin’s famous work, My Bed (1998).

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First, take a look at Emin’s installation:

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Note the array of items strewn across the carpet– condoms, a bottle of alcohol, slippers, a newspaper, a razor, a cigarette box, dirty tissues, a belt, dirty underwear, and a stuffed animal, to name a few. Note also how the mattress has not been sanitarily fitted with a sheet, but haphazardly covered with a thin layer of sweat-drenched bedding.

Emin created My Bed after spending a weekend in her bed– this bed– guzzling alcohol after a sour break-up. She woke up one morning to the scene that us visitors now have the privilege to see as objective outsiders. She looked down upon the mess of bottles, tampons, and cigarette butts and realized that this bed, and all of the items around it, were the purest expression of her emotional state. Any other attempt to express herself at this specific moment in time wouldn’t hold a candle to the stark reality of her bedroom. And so, she exhibited the bed and all its accouterments at the Tate Gallery in 1999.

My Bed was met with a variety of responses, all of them impassioned. After all, how could one have a lukewarm impression of such a bold, shocking work? Some found it to be genius, a moving snapshot of the artist at a breaking point. Others ridiculed it, stating that a collection of objects– which anyone could piece together– could never be art. This was a perspective put forward by a visitor to the Tate Liverpool during a lecture I attended. The basis of the woman’s argument was that each individual aspect of the work, such as a single sock, was not art, so therefore the entire work could not be. The lecturer responded brilliantly. First he said, “You believe that you could have done this. And yet, think of the darkest time of your entire life. Everything you felt, deep inside. Now imagine sharing that with the entire world. Would you do that? Most people wouldn’t. But Tracey did. That is why it is so special.”

Secondly, he listed an idea and skill as the two concepts that can be utilized to make art. He pointed out that Emin undoubtedly has technical skill– it is evident in many of her other works. But an idea, too, can be art. And her idea was an emotional, painful, never-before-seen idea that causes visitors to stop and feel something. I personally really like My Bed. When I first saw it, I felt a pang inside my chest. While I have never gone on a three-day-long alcohol binge without eating, I have experienced loneliness– we all have. One’s bedroom ought to be a place of solace, but during dark times it can morph into a cave of isolation. Since it is no one’s space but your own, it is easy to retreat into it, and never expect anyone to come looking.

Here is a photograph of My Bed in the context of the room, and one of me beside it:

 

 

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With everything I’ve said about Emin in mind, let’s switch gears and take a look at a series of works by William Blake.

This first painting is a work entitled Pity (1795).

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It is worth mentioning that Blake claimed to see visions for the entirety of his life. Thus, the supernatural elements in a work like Pity take on a more series significance. This is not merely a religious depiction of an angel peering down at a sleeping woman, but a scene that Blake took to be real, to some degree.  Blake saw a very thin barrier between the living and the death, the divine and the human; a barrier that could easily be penetrated. The title of the work, “Pity” suggests that the angel above the sleeping woman is taking pity on her for some reason or another. Perhaps the figure dangling from his fingers is a man he is sending down to earth to be with the lonely woman. Or perhaps the figure has just died, and the angel is taking him up to heaven, away from the grieving woman. Either way, the fact that the angel has an opinion about the woman, and takes an active role in improving her well-being suggests that Blake viewed his own life as being influenced by supernatural beings. It reinforces Blake’s romantic interest in his own self and his place within the greater scheme of life. It also demonstrates what the Tate Liverpool describes as his desire to seek artistic truth through the depiction of his perception of the universe.

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Another work that achieves a similarly eerie effect is The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life (1805).

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Here, a wispy series of lines designates the outline of a soul. It peers down at the dead body below, longing to be with him. This drawing reflects Blake’s perception of life and death, and his characterization of the relationship between the soul and the human body. Perhaps it was his own fear of death that propelled him to make such a work; it reinforced the notion that there is some sort of existence after the body has expired. Or perhaps Blake witnessed such an occurrence in one of his visions. Either way, the drawing is another example of the artist’s exploration of his own place in a multi-dimensional world.

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I was quite fond of Blake’s 1826 painting, The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve for its emotional depiction of each member of the family.

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In this scene, Blake’s religious upbringing is evident. He depicts Eve bending over the body of her dead son Abel in sorrow, her arms contorting out of their sockets above her head. Behind her, Adam looks towards Cain with an expression of confusion and sadness. His hands are flexed upwards in a manner that today seems effeminate, but likely were composed with the intention of appearing shocked; the angle and straightness of the fingers can only be maintained with great tension and effort. Lastly, Cain flees the scene in a manner that manages to be both graceful and deeply distressed. Note his pointed right foot and the straightness of his right leg. He looks as if he is in the middle of a ballet. Blake maintained a high level of craftsmanship while simultaneously breaking traditional molds to show these biblical figures with real, human emotions. Take a look at Cain’s face below:

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Cain’s eyes dip to one direction, staring into nothingness as he panics about what he has done, rather than seeing what is directly in front of him. The sense of distress is reinforced by his furrowed eyebrows, carved from several upward brushstrokes and mirrored by upturned eyelids. An open expression of fear is frozen on his mouth. Though we cannot see Cain physically tearing his hair out, the tension in his arms– specifically a bulging vein in his left forearm– indicate the strength with which he is pulling at his hair.

The intensity of Cain’s expression, as well as those of Adam and Eve, serve to humanize a religious tale, placing it closer to the realm of reality. This signifies Blake’s own relationship with religion, or at least with the morals religion teaches. His conflation of the supernatural/divine with the real suggest that there is not such a strong boundary between the two. Furthermore, it reveals Blake’s own journey for truth through an exploration of morality.

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I have now delved deeply into My Bed and a series of Blake’s works. Before I wrote that this post would elucidate how similar the two artists are, and how their work reinforces the emotional weight of the other. Can you infer before reading further how this is so?

First and foremost, the two artists broke traditional expectations of what art is supposed to be. Emin created an installation that pushed the boundaries of modern art. She created a concept, withholding her technical skill, to showcase a moment of her life more truly and deeply than she believed a painting ever could. Furthermore, its autobiographical nature, unshielded by a frame or allegory, tested many people’s limits. Blake created religious images that challenged the norms of religious paintings by humanizing characters from the bible. He also confronted societal perceptions of life, death, the divine, and the supernatural by depicting interactions between these supposedly separate entities.

Secondly, the two artists used their own methods to explore the possibility of spiritual and artistic rebirth. Emin, though the display of My Bed, was able to look objectively at a moment in her life and realize its emotional power. In sharing this dark part of her soul, she accepted its place in her life and could potentially move past it. In doing so, she broke the rules about art and moved into a new creative headspace. Blake, with the aid of his visions and unique philosophical views, explored his place in the world through paintings that conflated seemingly disparate entities. This process legitimized his perception of the world while simultaneously shifting the paradigm of religious art.

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I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! If you’d like to read more about Tracey Emin I suggest you take a look at ArtRage! And if you’re interested in William Blake as I am, well, accompany me to the library because we both have quite a lot of reading to do. In my background research I also found several sources that touched upon his liberal sexual politics– apparently Blake also disagreed with marriage as an institution. How does that knowledge influence your reading of his works? I’m interested to hear.

And if you have the luck to be in Liverpool before early September, swing by the Tate. You won’t regret it.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤