Pre-Raphaelite Fetishism

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Model Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood consisted of a number of painters, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others. During the five years of its existence, it created a number of unforgettable images featuring a number of stunning models.

In his extensive history, The Victorians, A N Wilson writes:

The word ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ in popular modern parlance does not refer to particular painting techniques or attitudes to the Middle Ages. It means young women with pale faces, pouting lips and abundant hair. The hair was important; so important that hairdressing, for the first time in English history, came out of the private domain of the home.

Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia in a Painting by Millais

Pre-eminent of the abundant red-haired models of the Pre-Raphaelites was Elizabeth Siddal, who had a relationship of sorts with Rossetti. When she died in 1862 after years of drug abuse with laudanum (opium), she was buried with the only copy of a manuscript of poems by Rossetti, who later regretted his impulsive act. In fact, by 1870 he regretted his impulsive act of burying the manuscript with Siddal. He had the body exhumed and retrieved his manuscript.

Other equally beautiful Pre-Raphaelite models were Fanny Cornforth and Annie Miller.

Fanny Cornforth in “The Kissed Mouth” by D G Rossetti

Annie Miller in D G Rossetti’s “The Woman in Yellow”

Artemisia

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Maria Magdalen in Ecstasy

One of the great Italian Baroque painters just happened to be a woman: Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656). The daughter of another painter, her father Orazio, Artemisia concentrated on painting women subjects, frequently using herself as the model. She was raped by another painter of her father’s generation and was hurriedly married off to protect her.

Her paintings have frequently compared to Caravaggio in their sense of immediacy and their lushness. Julian Bell describes her painting Lucretia in The New York Review of Books:

Lucrezia (1621)

The half-stripped woman picked out against the dark in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Lucretia is viewed from above, yet as I stand before this yard-high canvas, she seems to bear down on me. Light, here, is weight: the gleam on shoulder, knee, breasts, arm, and neck presses on my eye and there is no distance from the presented flesh. I have to do with this stout woman as if I were wrestling or embracing her. For whether you interlock with someone in anger or desire, that person will always possess a separate life, will, mind, and narrative, and so it is here. Lucretia tugs not at me but at the dark above, at God. Her prayer, stab-sharp, convulses not only her temples and the hand that clutches a dagger, but the whole rough thrash of limbs, gown, and sheets that fills this single-minded canvas.

Interestingly, the ancient Roman subject of the painting, Lucretia, was—according to Livy—raped by one of her husband’s kin and committed suicide to assuage her violated honor.

Small wonder that Artemisia is regarded as some kind of proto-feminist! But if you disregard for a moment her subject matter, she is also a great painter. She is more than a feminist: she is a profoundly great artist.

The Other Borges

A Painting by the Younger Sister of Jorge Luis Borges

I was reading a radio interview by Osvaldo Ferrari with the late Jorge Luis Borges, when the subject came up of the writer’s sister, Leonor Fanny “Norah” Borges Acevedp (1901-1998):

FERRARI: As for your relationship with painting, Borges, we mustn’t forget that you’re the brother of a painter.

BORGES: Of a great painter, I think, eh? Although I don’t know if the word ‘great’ adds anything to the word ‘painter.’ Brother of a painter, let’s say. Now, as she explores subjects like angels, gardens, angels who are musicians in gardens …

FERRARI: Like the painting of the Annunciation, for example, which has the city of Adrogué in the background, which is in your house.

BORGES: Yes, which she wanted to destroy.

FERRARI: How dreadful.

BORGES: No, it’s because she thinks that she was still very clumsy, that she couldn’t paint when she made it. Well, what I know is that she sketches the plan of each painting and then she paints it. That is, the people who’ve described it as a naive painting are completely wrong. But art critics, of course, their profession is to get things wrong, I’d say … or all critics.

Woman Playing a Guitar, Painted by Norah Borges

Before one raising the issue of the blind writer as an art critic, let me say that Borges lost his vision in the mid 1950s, so he is talking of painters from his memories of thirty or more years ago. There is also a book I have of Borges’s film criticism, which also dates from before the onset of his blindness.

Because Borges and his writings have been so influential in my life, I am deeply interested in works produced by his family. For instance, Borges’s mother, Leonor Acevedo, collaborated with her son on a number of translations from the English.

Norah Borges

The work of Norah Borges is known and exhibited in South America.

Sacred Mountain

Frank LaPeña’s Painting Sacred Mountain

Yesterday, Martine and I visited the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park. Many of the galleries were still closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but what there was, was choice. I am specifically referring to the exhibit of California Indian art entitled “When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California.” What impressed me the most was work from a Nontipom Wintu artist from Northern California named Frank LaPeña (1937-2019).

Artist Frank LaPeña

What draws me to American Indian art is its spirituality and brilliant imagery—both qualities notably lacking in so many academic artists. These are not works to decorate a corporate boardroom: Instead, they are works to make you feel grounded in a separate reality, one that is part of the world from which the artist comes.

Frank LaPeña’s Dream Song

In a strange coincidence, there is an accused murderer with the same name who is totally unrelated to the artist. This other Frank LaPeña was recently released from prison in Nevada where he was wrongfully incarcerated for hiring a hit man to kill the wife of a Caesars Palace in 1974.

I will try in the week ahead to highlight some more California Indian artists from the Autry show.

Automotive Heraldry

There Is Something Classy About the Logos of British Sports Cars

As Martine and I attended a British car show at the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, I became acutely conscious of the snazzy sports car logos—far more sophisticated than most American and Japanese equivalents. Here are just a few of the hood ornaments I snapped at the show. They reminded me of the medieval art of heraldry.

You Can See My Reflection on the Hood

I Had Never Even Heard of This Make

I Don’t Quite Understand the Letters Above the Name “Lotus”

I feel almost Chestertonian in my seeing this heraldic connection, but I really think it is not all that far fetched.

The Eyes of the Inca

The Peru of a Hundred Years Ago Through Peruvian Eyes

Martín Chambi Jiménez (1891-1973) was a Peruvian photographer who was active until a 1950 earthquake destroyed much of his beloved Cuzco. In his studio, he took pictures like the above musical group with their traditional instruments. But he also traveled around, photographing the altiplano of Peru, the city of Cuzco, and such sites as the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Cuzco Street Scene

In 1979, the Museum of Modern Art in New York displayed an exhibition of Chambi’s photographs, which traveled to other cities and inspired other shows displaying his work. Chambi was a native-born speaker of Quechua, the language of the Incas, and he saw the people and the landscape as only a native could see them.

Quechuan Woman Chewing Coca Leaves

Below is one of the many images he shot at the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu As It Was 100 Years Ago

Photographers like Chambi are a rare link to the past in faraway places that were not in the mainstream of Western European Civilization.

Wrong Direction: U-Turn Required

Two Paintings by Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

I feel that with abstract expressionism, American art took the wrong direction. Instead of the painting becoming something for the viewing public, it became something produced because the painter had to work out something not quite communicable in his or her own mind.

It was during my college years during the mid-1960s that I first developed my dislike of what had become the dominant movement in American painting. (Fortunately, it no longer is.) In fact, it was Mark Rothko who first came to my attention—and I didn’t like him from the first.

It was Anais Nin who wrote in Volume 1 of her Diary: “I am essentially human, not intellectual. I do not understand abstract art. Only art born of love, passion, pain.”

Jackson Pollock’s “Convergence”(1952)

There are many abstract expressionist painters I do not like, so I am highlighting the three who particularly came to my attention: Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. If I somehow came into possession of one of their works, I would not under any circumstances put it on display. Instead, I would find some fool to pay hard cash for it. It would be ideal for a corporate head office, and not at all for the residence or office of a person who has chosen not be be schooled to appreciate such work.

Willem de Kooning’s “Untitled” (19 Something or Other)

I have come under fire from some of my friends over my attitude on modern art. I don’t dislike all modern art, just art that is divorced from reality as I know and understand it. I do not care a fig for whatever reality is in the mind of the artist if it does not in some way intersect with my reality.

Very interesting rectangles, Mark. I’ll let you know if I’m in the market for any. Oh, Jackson, I hope you’re not doing any graffiti in my neighborhood. And Willem, you built yourself quite a career with your multicolor daubs of an indiscriminate nature.

There really is not anything else I have to say. I’m not the artist, and certainly not the artist’s psychoanalyst.

Christian Archeology

Interior of the Palace of the Archbishop, Lima, Peru

What shocked me more than anything during my 2014 visit to Peru was that the archeology of Spanish Catholicism in Peru was fully as interesting as the archeology of the Incas and other pre-Columbian peoples. The pictures here all come from my visit to the Palace of the Archbishop next to the Cathedral in Lima on November 9, 2014. I was guided through the Palace by a very cute young Peruvian nun who kept addressing me as “Gentleman.”

As I visited the Palace and the various churches and convents, I thought to myself that the Christian religion in Peru had passed its peak. What remained was partially syncretic, but in any case visually stunning.

Chalice Flanked by Two Monstrances

I have often thought that it was not the King of Spain who benefited from the wealth of gold and silver transshipped from South America, as much as Holy Mother the Church. The churches and monasteries in the historic center of Lima are glistening with gold, silver, and precious stones. At the Monastery of Santo Domingo are the remains of three 17th century Limeño saints: Rose of Lima, Martín de Porres, and Juan Macías—all of whom were affiliated with the Dominican Order.

Brought up as a Roman Catholic, I found myself spending a lot more time in the churches than at the Inca ruins. They were usually beautiful and peaceful, even if I wound up attending Mass a number of times. In fact, I felt myself more a Catholic in Peru than I do in Los Angeles.

Statue of the Blessed Virgin

Whatever their original colors, it seems as if the paintings and statues of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints are predominantly reddish brown. This is particularly true of the Cusco School of Painting which predominated at the time. At some point soon, I will repeat a past post on the iconography of archangels shown in Peruvian paintings of the Cusco School.

Prophet and Visionary

Blake’s Swirling Lovers from Dante’s Inferno

I have always loved the poetry of William Blake (1757-1827), particularly “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” But now I am increasingly becoming interested in his art, which exhibit the seemingly contradictory qualities of naiveté and authoritativeness. The scene above is from Canto V of the Inferno, in Robert Pinsky’s translation:

And cursing the power of Heaven. I learned
     They suffer here who sinned in carnal things—
     Their reason mastered by desire, suborned.
 As winter starlings riding on their wings
     Form crowded flocks, so spirits dip and veer
     Foundering in the wind’s rough buffetings

The Complaint of Job

In the above drawing, we see Job at the left, with his taunting friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar on the right. Like much of Blake’s art, the image is almost deceptively simple. Note the positioning of the fingers on his right hand indicating Job’s increasing agitation. The “friends” appear smug and serious, assuming identical positions.

“The Ancient of Days”

Only Blake had the chutzpah to show God the Father intent in the act of creation. This is my favorite of the images shown here. You can see the force emanating from the Deity’s fingertips as dark clouds encircle him.

According to London’s Tate Gallery:

A committed Christian who was hostile to the Church of England (indeed, to almost all forms of organised religion), Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions. Though later he rejected many of these political beliefs, he maintained an amiable relationship with the political activist Thomas Paine; he was also influenced by thinkers such as Emanuel Swedenborg. Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake’s work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th-century scholar William Michael Rossetti characterised him as a “glorious luminary”, and “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”.

Posted in art

Andrei Rublev

Holy Trinity Icon (ca AD 1400)

I have always been fascinated by Eastern Orthodox icons, beginning around the time Martine and I began visiting Greek festivals in the Los Angeles area. Perhaps the greatest master of the icon was the Russian Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублёв), born sometime between 1360 and 1370 and died sometime between 1427 and 1430. Not much is known about his life, but his work continues to inspire. In fact, I have seen a number of copies of his icons at different Greek Orthodox churches.

To the untutored eye, there is something rigid about the typical icon, with its gold-leaf background and its lack of attention to perspective and even realism. Most subjects are of God, the Blessed Virgin, and various saints. We are not privy to the mind of God and must therefore be respectful of any representation of Him or the saints. These icons are objects of worship which are venerated by the faithful as they enter the narthex of an Orthodox church.

Rublev’s Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir (ca 1406)

However rigid the style may be, the facial expressions of the Blessed Virgin and the Infant Christ are incredible: On one hand, Mary seems to see the condemnation and crucifixion to come, while Christ seems to be staring at her with a look of purpose and strength.

Icon of Christ Pantocrator (Detail)

According to a famed dealer in Russian icons:

The iconographic type of Pantocrator (Almighty or Omnipotent in Greek) shows Christ as the Lord of the Universe, co-equal and co-eternal to the Father. The iconography originates in Byzantine art and is known since the sixth century. The earliest known surviving example is the icon of Pantocrator from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Later on, gigantic images of the Pantocrator, represented half-length with a book of Gospels in his hand, can be seen on the mosaics and frescoes of Byzantine cupolas. In Russia, this iconography usually appeared in the Deisis Tier, the main part of the iconostasis, but could also be used for independent devotional images.

In Greek Orthodox churches, the image of Christ Pantocrator usually appears in the cupola above the nave.

Over the years I feel I have come to appreciate the artistry of these icons. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend you see Andrei Tarkovsky’s great film Andrei Rublev (1966), which is available in DVD from the Criterion Collection. It is a hagiography of sorts, and rightly so as the Russian Orthodox church has declared Rublev to be a saint in 1988.