Feb. 14 is nigh! A valid reason
To commemorate the season
Of love and matters of the heart
As expressed in works of art,
Chosen from our fine collection
And brought to you, with much affection!
The Valentine card in the form that we send (and hopefully receive) today only really became big business in the early 19th century. Its popularity was massively boosted from the 1840s onwards with the advent of the postage stamp. But art that depicts themes of love, the focus of this blog, is older than Greek vases and the wall paintings of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Venus and Cupid
Any serious (or indeed frivolous) depiction of love in the classical tradition normally requires the presence of Venus, often in the company of her son Cupid. While Venus is nobly chaste, and also embodies the supreme virtue of Peace, Cupid is altogether naughtier. After all, he is the god of desire, attraction and affection, and has endured longer than Venus in Valentine imagery. Odoardo Fialetti (1573–1638), a Venice-based printmaker and painter, depicts Venus holding Cupid’s quiver. She appears to speak to him as he shapes his bow. This is one of a series called Scherzi d’Amore (1617), best translated as ‘trifles’ or ‘jests’ of love. In another scene she spanks him, but Te Papa’s etching is altogether subtler. Is she about to confiscate the quiver, possibly in revenge for him having made her fall in love with Adonis? Or is she telling him that he will need to fill the empty quiver with arrows in order to be effective on affections?
Apollo and Daphne
The Neopolitan artist Fedele Fischetti (1732–1792) depicts Cupid slightly later in his career, about to shoot the warrior god Apollo, with the anxious nymph Daphne in the background, her movement denoted by the stylised whirl of drapery. This is an unusual moment to choose: more familiar is the lovestruck Apollo in pursuit of the resisting Daphne, who is transformed into a laurel tree at the moment of contact. Although this is a small-scale ink drawing, its execution is fluent and charming. We can sense how it might form the basis of a far larger fresco painting or tapestry, for which Fischetti was famed. An art historian would term it ‘Rococo’, denoting the featherlight decorative style that dominated 18th century European painting, sculpture and decorative arts, perfect for conveying themes of love.
‘The Love School’ and ‘Desperate Romantics’ are both terms applied to that phenomenon of British 19th century art, Pre-Raphaelitism. In their early, most exciting phase, the Pre-Raphaelites rejected the classical tradition, which they considered frivolous and corrupt. Instead they found inspiration in gothic architecture and late medieval illuminated manuscripts, together with the legends of King Arthur and the poetry of John Keats and Alfred Tennyson. Love and romance, often taking a tragic turn, are central to Pre-Raphaelite iconography and Amor Mundi by Frederick Sandys (1829–1904) is no exception. Te Papa has two pencil studies for Sandys’s wood engraving published in The Shilling Magazine in 1865 to illustrate the poem by his friend Christina Rossetti, sister of the famous Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti. ‘Amor Mundi’ can be translated as ‘worldly love’ and the sensual pleasure that accompanies it. The poem begins with a pair of lovers at the top of a hill, floating in contentment. Then the mood turns sombre as they descend and are confronted by black clouds and ‘a scaled and hooded worm’. ‘Scaled’ evokes the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the ‘hooded’ image of Death awaits them. Christina Rossetti warns: ‘The downhill path is easy but there’s no turning back’. Sandys’s figures, particularly that of the woman, are seen at the moment when the idyllic mood changes. The little drawing of a foot is surely in response to the beautiful lines: ‘And dear she was to dote on, her swift feet seemed to float on/ The air like soft twin pigeons too sportive to alight’.
An unwanted advance?
Half man half horse (or later goat), satyrs are lovers of wine, women and song who honoured Silenus, the minor Greek god of fertility. In Roman mythology, Silenus was displaced by Bacchus, hence the term ‘bacchanalia’, which came to mean almost any drunken revelry involving a large cast of satyrs and nymphs. Artists across the centuries, from Titian to the French sculptor Jules Dalou (1838–1902), depicted bacchanalia with gusto. The theme provided a good excuse for nudity under the veil, so to speak, of classicism. Dalou used this age-old subject matter in a modern, unbeautiful way, showing a tangle of interlocking limbs and conveying the ferocity of the embrace. There are close overlaps with the contorted and tormented forms of his more famous contemporary Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell figures. Traditionally, the couple were interpreted as lovers enjoying their abandonment: a raunchy Valentine’s theme, perhaps. The angle at which Te Papa’s bronze statuette was photographed seems to confirm this, as the nymph sinks into the satyr’s embrace. But when the satyr is viewed frontally, she pushes her hands into his chest in resistance. But she can’t – or won’t – step away. The ambiguity between love and lust gives this sculpture a physical and emotional complexity.
Love and virtue
Asterié, a-turn-of-the-century Neo-classical painting by Edward Poynter (1836–1919), commands almost everyone’s respect and admiration today. At the time, Poynter was President of the Royal Academy, the most prestigious position in British art. The subject matter is inspired by a relatively little-known ode by the Roman poet Horace. The languishing Asterié is being pursued by Zeus in the absence of her husband, Gyges, who is away on business in the East. The carnations beside her – and worn in her hair – symbolise love and marital fidelity. She gazes through the window to the street below where the lecherous god is stalking her. Horace urges her to stay staunchly faithful to him, and the morally upright Victorian audience of the time probably felt similarly. Will true love and fidelity hold out? The answer appears to be genuinely ambiguous and the viewer is left in a state of suspense. Rather like the iconic paintings of C.F. Goldie, the emotional power of this work is enhanced by Poynter’s technical mastery.
With love from Jim
Jim Dine (b. 1935) is America’s Dick Frizzell – a technically talented and restlessly prolific artist, immensely popular with the public and correspondingly unpopular with ‘pointy head’ critics! Ken Johnson, in the New York Times, commented witheringly of Dine’s 2004 retrospective: ‘a deeper sense of purpose remains hard to discern’. But is such an ideal in art essential? Isn’t it the sheer banality of Dine’s signature heart imagery that makes it so appealing? While elementary school students in America enjoy copying and interpreting his motifs, a child of six could never make a colour etching quite like A Heart Called Paris Spring. The gestural drawing relates to the Abstract Expressionism of Willem de Kooning, while the resonant, singing colours evoke the Parisian early modernists Robert and Sonia Delaunay, and help explain the unusual title The Heart Called Paris Spring. Yet art historical pedigree is not Dine’s prime consideration. He claims that he uses the heart ‘as a template for all my emotions. It’s a landscape for everything’. It certainly is accessible, and makes the perfect image with which to conclude this Valentine’s Day blog.
For more art for lovers and art lovers, go to the Arts Te Papa website.