Archive for the Sculpture Category

Notes from the Studio: Wise Athena

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Adolf Furtwängle, Lemnia Athena (reconstruction), 1891
Marble
Staatliche Museum, Albertinum, Dresden, Germany

For the past several months Athena, the Greek goddess of war, civilization, wisdom, strength, strategy, crafts, justice and skill (a versatile goddess if ever there was one) has been much on my mind. In fact, she’s become the central energy source of a commissioned piece I am now completing, a digital montage which owes its technical inspiration to the work of Hannah Höch. I’m hoping Athena will stick around even after our work together is completed; I’d be grateful if a bit of her majesty, grace, and wisdom would rub off on me.

Although best known as a Greek goddess, the cult of Athena predates the ancient Greeks. Perhaps she was brought to Greece from Egypt in the 2nd millennium BCE. Classicist Robert Graves tags the “birth” of the Athena myths to Crete as early as 4,000 BC. Nevertheless, the Greeks embraced her wholeheartedly; as early as the 7th c. BCE she had become a central player in the pantheon of the Gods and patron of city of Athens. On the Acropolis, besides the Parthenon, she has two other temples—the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheum. The epithet Pallas frequently added to her title derives either from the Greek “to strike” or (more probably) from the Greek “girl.”

Athena Parthenos (replica)
Marble
Parthenon Museum

Throughout antiquity Athena (Hellenizing Romans turned her into Minerva) assumed many sculptural guises; undoubtedly the most famous of which is the Athena Parthenos, a massive ivory and gold statue (36 meters high) located on the Acropolis from the 5th century BCE to the 5th centure CE. The sculptor Pheidias set the Athena standard—in adition to the Parthenos, he also crafted a reputedly even-greater bronze statue, made out of the spoils taken by the Athenians in the battle of Marathon and a small bronze statue called the “beautiful” or the Lemnian Athena, as it  originally was dedicated in Athens by the Lemnians.

Alan LeQuire, Athena Parthenos (life-sized relica)
Steel, resin, paint
Nashville, USA

Helmeted Athena is the most common rendering of the goddess, likely to personify her mythic origins. Traditional stories recount that Zeus was warned by Gaia and Uranus that his children by first wife Metis would be dangerously clever. Fearing that Metis would bear a son mightier than himself, Zeus swallowed her. No doubt envisioning the power her daughter might possess, Metis immediately began to fashion a robe and helmet for her. The hammering of the helmet caused Zeus such great pain that he called out for his skilled son Hephaestus to split open his scull with an axe. As a result, Athena emerged, fully grown and wearing her mother’s robe and helmet. Eternally a virgin deity, Athena never took a lover or consort.

Athena
Ceramic
Pella Museum, Greece

Athena is an unusual goddess, as female deities are rarely depicted in full armor. Armored Athena wears any of a number of different types of helmets—the gorgeously-shaped Corinthian with its distinctive bubble; a Roman-type galea with plumage; and sometimes just a small cap-like covering. Traditionally, Athena’s shield and aegis (collar/belt) bear the face of the gorgon Medusa. Medusa serves a double purpose—as a reminder of Athena’s involvement with Perseus’ defeat of the famous monster and as device in battle with which to transfix her enemies with fear (Medusa is reputed to have turned men to stone as they looked on her). For followers of Athena, inclusion of the Medusa iconography  would have served as a reminder to visiting foreigners of the military power of the city.

Armored Athena is usually depicted with an extended right arm supporting a small representation of Nike, the Goddess of Victory, in the palm of her hand. Often she is also accompanied by the snake Erichthonius, whom she adopted. The first virgin mother?

Athena, ca. 350
Bronze
Piraeus Museum, Athens

Athena di Mirone
Vatican Museums, Rome
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Sculpted versions of the armored Athena perfectly portray the androgyny of the goddess, who traditionally embodies both feminine and masculine attributes. Although girded for war, Athena disliked fighting without a purpose, preferring to use wisdom to settle disputes.

Athena, strong and sensible woman. The shrewd companion of heroes (Odysseus, for one). The goddess of heroic feats. Patron saint of the “useful and elegant” arts—weaving, pottery and music at any rate.

Ongoing visitor to my studio, please.

Bust of Athena,
Glyptothek, Munich

Athena (Lanckoronski relief)
University of Haifa Library, Israel

Mattei Athena
Louvre, Paris

Wider Connections

Robert Graves—The Greek Myths: Complete Edition

Sheila Dillon—The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World

The many faces of Athena

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Anselm Kiefer: Mirroring the Messy World

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Mixed Media, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and Examiner.com, is a guest contributor at Venetian Red. Today she comments on German artist Anselm Kiefer.

By NANCY EWART

Anselm Kiefer, Wolundlied (Wayland’s Song) 1982
Oil, emulsion, and straw on canvas
with lead wing and gelatin silver print on projection paper
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

Anselm Kiefer is an artist with large ambitions. He engages head on with the darkest period in the 20th century—National Socialism—searching for transcendence and the human place in the cosmos. Over the course of this decades-long investigation the artist has created works that manage to combine elements of destruction, creation, self-reproach, agonizing memory, the ghosts of militarism, anti-Semitism and the worship of violence. In his art Kiefer references, among other things, the occult, the Kabala, Biblical stories, and the Holocaust. He draws on a diverse array of Germanic spiritual guides including Richard Wagner, Frederick II, Joseph Beuys, painters Arnold Bocklin and Caspar David Friedrich and novelist Robert Musil, the Symbolists and the German Expressionists (i.e. Nolde, Kirchner, Beckmann), whose dramatic emotive paintings often focused on societal critiques.

Examining the Nazi past was an ambitious, if not hugely unpopular, proposition for a post-war German artist living in a country that likely preferred amnesia to analysis. Naturally,  Kiefer has said that he always wanted to deal with large issues in his art. He has not been shy about it, visually quoting from the Fascist architecture of Albert Speer and plumbing the German myths and legends so beloved by the Reich.  From the start Kiefer’s work was a loud and uncomfortable reminder that the nation had unfinished business. It has been hugely popular and greatly unpopular. In the hands of a lesser artist an agenda this challenging might have been reduced to grandiose or banal statements. Kiefer, however, has managed to stay true to the powerful emotions inherent in his subject matter, producing visually complex paintings that can still elicit raw emotion, nearly 70 years after the end of the War. A viewer of a Kiefer work today can count on confronting the messiness of the German cultural legacy—its inherent paradoxes, ambiguities, sublime achievements and horrific disasters.

In 1987, as Kiefer was claiming notoriety, Robert Hughes pointed out in his essay “Germany’s Master in the Making”: “His ambitions for painting range across myth and history, they cover an immense terrain of cultural reference and pictorial techniques, and on the whole they do it without the megalomaniac narcissism that fatally trivializes the work of other artists to whom Kiefer is sometimes compared— Julian Schnabel, for instance.”

Anselm Kiefer, Zim Zum, 1990
Acrylic, emulsion, crayon, shellac, ashes, and canvas on lead, 149 3/4 x 220 1/2 in.
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Born in Donaueschingen in southwest Germany in 1945, a few months before the end of the war, Anselm Kiefer was the child of a devastated country. He grew up in a Germany struggling to recover from the disasters of war. Fundamental to his art, however, were his observations of the ways in which Germany dealt with the Nazi past during the boom of the postwar economic miracle.

In 1964, before deciding to pursue a career as an artist, Kiefer began to study law. Even as a very young man (Kiefer was 20 at the time), he was drawn to the larger philosophical questions, specifically the relationship between history, philosophy and religion, as a way of making sense of the moral dilemmas inherent in Germany’s Nazi past.

As a law student, he was intrigued by the theories of Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt’s philosophy “explored the most fundamental challenge of law and government; to reconcile the inherent tension between the concepts of free will, authoritarianism and spirituality.” (Wikipedia?) He formulated a world-view that mankind is self-interested and therefore, governments must be authoritarian for the sake of progress. Schmitt joined the Nazi party (as many, but not all, Germans did) but his interest in esoteric traditions, secret societies, the Jewish Kabala and Freemasonry caused him to be soon viewed with distrust.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Milchstrasse (The Milky Way), 1985-87
Emulsion paint, oil, acrylic and shellac on canvas with applied wires and lead
(Courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery)

But for Kiefer, Schmidt’s texts introduced him to esoteric theology that would later influence his artistic endeavors. “I was interested in people like Schmidt,” the artist has said, “because they got caught between the power of government and the power of God.” (Heaven and Earth, Auping, p. 28)

An increasing desire for solitude led Kiefer to the Dominican monastery of La Tourette. He spent three weeks living as a guest of the monks, “just thinking quietly—about the larger questions.” (Heaven and Earth, p 29). This marked a turning point in his life; soon thereafter he abandoned his law studies and turned to art.

At the Dusseldorf Academy Kiefer came under the spell of Joseph Beuys, who inspired him to think about the role of cultural myths, metaphors, and symbols in understanding history. Beuys, the older artist, was perceived as much a performance artist as a shaman, given to transitory and mystical events (talking to a dead hare, sweeping a pavement). As the protégé, the younger artist Kiefer was more interested in traditional expression. He began to be serious about art in the mid-1960s, jas Germany entered an era of hope and prosperity. The public wasn’t altogether ready in revisiting the shameful Nazi past.

Kiefer wanted to open up the wounds of Germany’s past that were still festering from the unexamined infections of anti-Semitism and rabid nationalism. He has been accused of trying to glamorize the Teutonic sagas and racism that led to the Holocaust. The 1975 photographs of Kiefer giving the Sieg Heil salute in front of various historical locations were categorized as neo-fascist and a “sinister nostalgia for Hitler.” It’s a difficult business to attempt to simultaneously mock, criticize and parody Nazism. Sometimes, Kiefer’s work can be too dense with allegory to be understood.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Meistersinger, 1981
Oil, emulsion, and sand on photograph, mounted on canvas
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

He was much more successful in his response to the poet Paul Celan’s haunting meditations on the Holocaust. In his poem “Death Fugue,” Celan, a concentration camp survivor, evokes the death camps, the black sky, burning fields and omnipresent color of lead, which became one of Kiefer’s predominant materials.

Kiefer’s use of lead (both as color and material) in his work is a deliberate choice. The medieval alchemists used lead as a catalyst in their attempts to turn dross into gold. It was a basic ingredient in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone. Later alchemists such as Paracelsus viewed alchemy as a spiritual discipline and alchemical rituals as metaphors for transformations. Lead is also the symbol of creativity since it has been associated, since antiquity, with Saturn, the outermost planet known in the medieval cosmos and the Roman God often identified with melancholia and artistic creation. Additionally, in the book Heaven And Earth (p.39) Michael Auping quotes Kiefer as saying “For me, lead is a very important material. It is, of course, a symbolic material, but also the color is very important. You cannot say that it is light or dark. It is a color or non-color that I identify with. I don’t believe in absolutes. The truth is always gray.”

Kiefer does not believe in permanence. His monumental works have disintegration and decay built into them as a way to emphasize meaning and morality. They do not exalt power or the Aryan ideal of classical, “white” masculinity or the Nazi fantasy of a 1000-year Reich. By confronting “the still disturbing underlying bogeys of modern German society,” he seems to live up to the radical avant-garde stance taken by those artists branded as degenerate in the 1930’s by the Nazi government.

According to Dore Ashton, Picasso is supposed to have once asked rhetorically, “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes of he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet.” He continued: “Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world…”

Kiefer holds up a mirror to Germany, and, by extension, to the world. He shows us our wounded body and broken spirit; he reminds us of the suffering that we have both caused and experienced. In this way, his works evoke secular altarpieces, contemporary Grünewalds, which evoke history’s suffering victims nailed to the cross of war. His enormous landscapes function as postwar battlefields. They are barren to be sure, and mysterious fires burn in the muck, but the distant hope of regeneration and redemption is present. Kiefer’s paintings seem to be saying that it is only through self awareness that we will be liberated.

Wider Connections

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven And Earth, ed. Michael Auping
Monumenta 2007—“Women in the Work of Anselm Kiefer”
Dore Ashton—PICASSO ON ART: A selection of views

Venetian Red Archives: The Power of August

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contemporary Art, Design, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles on August 3, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Aside from Julius Caesar, Augustus is the only Roman Emperor to have a calendar month still named after him. Today, we reach into the Venetian Red archives to showcase six of our most interesting posts, hoping that they will be blessed with similar endurance.

Florine Stettheimer, Soiree, 1917-1919
Oil on canvas
(courtesy Beinecke Library, Yale University)

1. “Florine Stettheimer: ‘Occasionally a Human Being Saw My Light'”:  Stettheimer was a dedicated, accomplished artist who was full of contradictions. She wanted to both avoid the critical spotlight and achieve recognition for her work. In her paintings and poetry she created and re-created the narrative of her life.  Christine Cariati uncovers the nuances of this under-appreciated artist’s work.

Peplos Kore, 530-525 BC
Marble, about 4 1/2 feet (statue only) not including plinth,
(courtesy Acropolis Museum, Athens)

2. “Bewitched by the Peplos Kore”: Buried on the Acropolis for more than 2000 years, the Peplos Kore was among the shards of figures found during an archeological dig in the 19th century. Liz Hager explores the reasons this celebrated sculpture continues to bewitch.

James Leman, silk design, 1706/7
Watercolor on paper

3. “James Leman and Anna Maria Garthwaite: Silk Weavers of Spitalfields”: French Huguenots revolutionized the silk weaving industry in England in the 18th century. Christine Cariati explains why three centuries later the gorgeous designs of master designers James Leman and Anna Maria Garthwaite still dazzle. . .

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Louis XIV, 1665
Marble
(Chateau de Versailles)

4. “The History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Louis XIV”: A multi-talented artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini virtually single-handedly created Baroque Rome. In April 1665 he went to Paris to work on designs for the east facade of the Louvre, then the royal residence. The project was not a success. This meeting of French and Italian aesthetics provides Liz Hager with an opportunity to explore 17th century lace and the fashions it spawned.

Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Carthusian, 1446
Oil on oak, 11.5 x 8 in.
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

5.“Petrus Christus: Portrait of a Carthusian”: The best portraits exert a magical power to reach across the centuries and seize a powerful hold upon our imagination. Christine Cariati decodes much of Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Carthusian, but the portrait keeps some secrets to itself. . .

Mark Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950
Oil on canvas,
(Private Collection)

6. “Notes from the Studio: Swagger & Despair”: Liz Hager explores what it means to be an artist in search of an audience.

Venetian Red in Tuscany: Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri

Posted in Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture, Site Work, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.

Daniel Spoerri, Grass Sofa, 1985-93

By LIZ HAGER

Daniel Spoerri’s delightful sculpture park lies just past Seggiano on the country road to Castel del Piano. Filled with contemporary art, Il Giardino provides a refreshing respite from the days upon end one spends in Tuscany viewing 13th century altarpieces. Respite, that is, if one has the good fortune to find Il Giardino. Even armed with a detailed map and explicit directions, this visitor nearly missed it. The spider web of poorly-marked roads that criss-crosses the area easily confounds even the most experienced of navigators. On the verge of making what I was sure was another in a sequence of wrong turns, I noticed, less than 100 meters up the road, two large but tasteful signs announcing the garden.  And, of course, the entrance was exactly where the directions said it would be. . .

Spoerri (born 1930) was born Daniel Isaac Feinstein in Romania and emigrated with his mother to Switzerland in 1942.  The artist is best-known for his “snare-pictures,” sets of objects (such as table settings) found in chance positions, which he affixes together on boards for posterity. In fact, Spoerri has produced a wide body of work, which generally has its artistic roots in Dadaism.

He opened the garden in 1997, but it is still off the beaten track for English-speaking visitors (though German and Italians seem to know it). Think of Il Giardino as a scaled-down version of Storm King—a network of paths, fields, and forested knolls punctuated by about 100 pieces of sculpture. Spoerri is of course well-represented by perhaps two dozen works, including the 1991 very clever Circle of Unicorns and Chamber No. 13, Hotel Carcasonne, Rue Mouffetard 24, Paris 1959-1965, a full-size fun-house-like reconstruction in bronze of the room in which he wrote An Anecdoted Topography of Chance. But he has also filled the park with many other artists, most of whom, though well-known in Europe, might be new to American visitors. (Nam June Paik, Jean Tinguely, and Meret Oppenheim are exceptions.) Swiss-born Eve Aeppl is well-represented by scores of her “extraterrestian” busts, but the park also includes “one-offs” from artists like Roberto Barni (figures on seesaw); Olivier Lucerne (whimsical gaggle of concrete geese); and Italian Giampaolo di Cocco (astartling and sobering Ars Moriendi, which consists of elephant carcasses).

My favorite piece at Il Giardino has to be Israeli artist Dani Karavan‘s site work Adam and Eve. The sliced and gilded trunk of an olive tree creates an abstract pas de deux that speaks to deep layers of symbolism, which are all the more enriched by the work’s siting in Tuscany. Perhaps it was just that they had colonized my subconscious, but I couldn’t help but think of Adam and Eve as a contemporary echo of all those 13th century altarpieces.

Wider Connections

Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri
Daniel Spoerri images
Daniel Spoerri: Coincidence As Master

What’s Trending: The SF Fine Art Fair

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Painting, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Klari Reis, Hypochrondria
Installation: Epoxy resin in 150 petri dishes
(The Cynthia Corbett Gallery)

How visitors to Miami Basel do it?  Walking the comparatively-miniscule 80+ booth show at the SF Fine Art Fair yesterday afternoon left me psychologically knackered.  Of course, I only stopped at a small portion of what was on view. Drive by scanning is a necessity. Still, I’m not sure I could be an Art Fair warrior.

Klari Reis, Hypochrondria (detail)
Installation: Epoxy resin in 150 petri dishes
(The Cynthia Corbett Gallery)

Despite the fatigue factor, fairs offer the most effective platform from which to view the commerce of contemporary art. Given the necessities of the gallery business, fairs aren’t always the best place to see truly inspiring new work (isn’t the much touted “up and coming star” an oxymoron?), but they do offer an unparalleled opportunity to reflect on “trending” in both the art- making and art-buying communities. Evesdropping among the Influencers and Buyers is inevitable, but it can be both an enlightening and depressing experience.

Jae-Hyo Lee,  0121-1110=106062, 2010
Stainless steel bolts, nails, burnt wood,  and sealer

Jae-Hyo Lee,  0121-1110=106062 (detail), 2010
Stainless steel bolts, nails, burnt wood,  and sealer

In terms of art making, the SF Fair (through Sunday at Fort Mason) sports the spectrum of expected artists: the established (and dead), the well-vetted,  and a sprinkling of the nearly newly-minted MFAs.  Painting dominates; no new trend there.

Alyssa Monks, Vapor, 2008
Oil on linen
(Scott White Contemporary Art)

Alyssa Monks, Vapor (detail: just to make sure it was actually painted. . . ) 2008
Oil on linen
(Scott White Contemporary Art)

Figurative styles, in particular hyper-realism, are alive and well—Janet Fish, Alyssa Monks (gloriously rendered bathing water, a subgenre all her own), Jeanette Pasin Sloan, and Alan Magee (he’s cornered the stone market, but VR readers will appreciate his portrait of Hannah Höch) are all on the walls. Much abstraction too adorns the walls; lots of dots, it seemed, though for my taste Barbara Takenaga and Teo González do them best. Patterns abound: Mark Emerson’s Utfart (at JayJay’s booth) is the equivalent of Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy.” Stylistic granddaddy of the genre Robert Kushner, represented by a stunning and muscular gold and copper infused arabesque at DC Moore booth, makes everyone else’s attempt look whimpy. Figurative/abstract mixes à la Squeak Carnith and Inez Storer are very much in evidence. Does the scratchy gestural style still have runway? Text also puts in a strong showing, from the obvious attempts to engage the viewer—Carnith’s Is This Painting?—to the more subtle  like Dunce at Rebecca Hossack’s booth.

Teo González, Beach (study), 2010
Acrylic on clayboard
(Richard Levy Gallery)

Barbara Takenaga, Black/White/Blue, 2008
Acrylic on canvas
(DC Moore Gallery)

Anecdotally-speaking, acrylic seems to be gaining ground on oil. Perhaps understandably (it doesn’t have the sell-power of painting), drawing was not much around, Alice Attie‘s pen and ink text-pictures caught my attention for their use of text as a structural element and finely-detailed work.

Katherine Sherwood, Neuron Nurse, 2010
Mixed Media
(Gallery Paule Anglim)

On the photography front: Sebastiao Salgado’s magnificent black & white journalistic shots inspire awe no matter what their environment; Erika Blumenfeld‘s ethereal abstractions of the Polar environment are a welcome change on both a visual and intellectual level from the legions of more mundane landscapes; and Isidro Blasco‘s  3-D stage set-like landscapes are intimate visual delights. I can’t shake the feeling that Robert Silvers’s work (Marilyn and dollar bill ) feels like a photographic retread of Chuck Close territory, but I imagine his prints are wildly popular for the a-ha moment inherent in the gimmick..

Stuart Frost, Gaiola, 2009
Medium seagull feather quills
(Richard Levy Gallery)

However, a lot of unconventional fine art media were on display, though not all of the pieces were successful.  Jaehyo Lee’s burnt wood and nail “Starry Night”-ish abstraction was sublime majesty, but Gugger Petter’s  “Madonna” at Andrea Schwartz’s booth felt overly gimmicky.  (“Look Ma, I can weave newspaper into a real picture.”) In a refreshing moment, glass artist Jeff Wallin was actually in the Patrajdas booth talking about his portraits.  Canadian artist Cybelé Young’s quirky miniature sculptures (at Rebecca Hossack) offered a refreshing respite from the scores of more self-consciously wrought work (which is not to overlook the loads of care that went into fashioning them).

Cybelé Young (no identifying tag)
Rebecca Hossack Gallery

A special thanks to Catherine Clark for the only two (that I saw) video-related pieces—John Slepian’s stamen and a Lincoln Schatz “generative” video, both of which use the digital medium in richly-complex and visually-arresting ways.

John Slepian, stamen, 2009
Computer-based sculpture: computer, LCD monitor, speakers, glass bell jar, moss, stand
(The Catherine Clark Gallery)

And finally, but not least, San Francisco’s own Arion Press had a small sampling of its collection of artists’ books—I could have looked at more.

And on the art buying side, I think Fine Art Fair Director summed it up perfectly in his introduction to the Guide: “With a rebounding economy, there is no better time to invest in art.” Consultants and designers referred to large-scale paintings as “right for the so-and-so project” and legions of young blonds, as well as older couples, seemed intent on buying.

“Swan’s Way”: The Many Seductions of Leda

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved

 

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

—William Butler Yeats, excerpted from “Leda and the Swan”

MoreauLeda

Gustave Moreau, Leda and the Swan, 1865-75
Watercolor on paper, 34 x 21 cm
(Gustav Moreau Museum)

Since antiquity, when it was first associated with music (through Apollo), the swan has occupied rich symbolic territory within the annals of art. Other birds may have commanded more visible spots: the dove (peace, the Holy Spirit); the owl (wisdom); the crow (loquacious indiscretion), the peacock (pride), but the swan has adeptly defended a more difficult tract—the duality of human nature.  At once graceful and sinister, placid and nasty, chaste and sexual, poetic and prosaic, the swan has functioned as the representative of hypocrisy.

Leda-and-the-Swan—Sanctuary-of-AphroditeLeda and the Swan, mosaic from Sanctuary of Aphrodite on Palea Paphos, ca. 100-200 CE

The most oft-depicted swan motif in the history of art is of course Zeus’/Jupiter’s “seduction” of Leda—Jupiter, in the guise of a swan and seeking protection from a marauding eagle, “falls into” Leda’s arms. She is married to Tyndareus at the time, so this is an illicit affair. Depending on the version, the union produces either all celebrated offspring—i.e. Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra and Castor/Pollux—or just Helen and Pollux.

Rich with symbolic possibilities, the theme has inspired scores of artists to heights of visual poetry and understandable flights of eroticism.

After Timotheos, Leda and the Swan, AD 1-100
Marble, 52 inches
(The Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Seduction and violation, fidelity, sex, love, and motherhood—Leda has it all.  The comparative ways in which artists through the ages have dealt with the myth illuminate different cultural touch points. But the Leda of art almost always seems to exude the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes with seduction, rather than the deminution, degradation, and shame brought on by violation. Perhaps this is because Leda has been largely rendered by men.

Beyond this, the male pantheon is nearly equally divided between those depicting the act of copulation itself and some other moment, either before—foreplay and caressing—or after—tending the babies.  Interestingly, not until the modern era have female artists in any numbers embraced the theme.

Apparently, the Greeks and Romans did not consider it permissible to depict a women in the act of copulation, so, in the few examples of classical sculpture that have survived, the swan slithers up Leda’s front side, its phallic neck telegraphing the act to come.

Leonardo da Vinci, Leda and the Swan, 1510-1515
Oil on panel, 112 x 86 cm
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

The myth languished until the late Middle Ages, when Humanist rediscovery of classical texts (in this case, Ovid’s Metamorphoses) led to its rejuvenation. Renaissance artists were hugely enthusiastic about Leda, no doubt in part because it allowed them to depict copulation, a most profound human act. The mind-boggling paradox here is that at the time it was acceptable to depict a woman fornicating with an animal, though not with a man.

Many versions echo the Leonardo example above—narrative time has been erased, so that Leda may embrace the swan and her children in a pastoral scene of familial affection. (Note: Leonardo also expressed his naughtier side in this Leda.) Corregio and Pontormo provide further examples of this tradition.

Tintoretto, Leda and the Swan, 1555
Oil on canvas, 162 x 218 cm
(Galleria Uffizi, Florence)

Tintoretto twisted this convention and brought Leda inside, though who can blame him with sumptuous Venetian interiors all around him. The nude defensive gesture and the cage show us that she is protecting Zeus (swan) from being carried away by the eagle (domestic). But it’s hard not to think that Tintoretto is suggesting she might want more of a good thing.

Michelangelo went all the way, so to speak, by throwing Leda’s leg over the slithering swan. He set a more explicit standard and his painting, now lost, inspired numerous copies, most famously Rubens and Bartolomeo Ammanati, who executed the moment in sculptural form.

after Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan, after 1530
Oil on canvas, 105.4 x 141 cm
(National Gallery, London)

Subsequent artists were not so chaste. In the particular work below Boucher focuses greater attention on the sumptuous rippling of the flesh of the women than on the act of seduction/violation. But the painting is still rather tame—the phallic symbolism of the swans neck only hints at what is to come. (Is it too much to wonder about two women and a swan?) Other Bouchers are not so implicit.

Francois Boucher, Leda and the Swan, 1742,
Oil on Canvas, 23 1/8 x 29 1/4″
(Stair Sainty Matthiesen Museum, New York)

In his rendition below, Paul Cézanne used various figural attributes to compositional success. The exaggerated curves in Leda’s body mirror the bird’s graceful neck and arc of its wings; therein Cezanne achieves compositional balance. One senses that the story and its symbolism were of less important to Cézanne than the opportunity to show what he could do with shapes and color schemes. Although the scene isn’t as explicitly sexual as some of the other Ledas, though all those curves suggest enough.

Paul Cézanne, Leda and the Swan, 1880-1882 (best estimate)
Oil on canvas, 59.8 x 75 cm
(The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa.)

A few years before Cézanne, Moreau painted his Leda series. Drawn to symbolism, Moreau focused predominantly on the union, the sacred marriage of woman and god. Reputedly, it was these paintings inspired Yeat’s poem.

Salvador Dali took a decidedly contemporary approach, linking Leda (a portrait of his wife Gala) to the atomic bomb (dropped on Hiroshima in 1945). Like suspended particles, all elements of the painting float more or less unconnected in space. Nevertheless, the composition is highly-organized, for Dali strictly followed divine proportions. It’s all connected with his deep belief in the efficacy of mathematical ratios. As Dali was deeply religious, this painting could also be interpreted as his version of the annunciation.

Salvador Dali, Leda Atomica, 1949
Oil on canvas
(Teatre-Museu Dalí)

Cy Twombly’s 1962 abstract version is powerful visual evocation of motion. One feels the beating of the swans wings, the pumping of the heart, the  flurry of activity inherent in the act of seduction.  On a more literal level, the work ties into the artist’s environment, specifically the graffiti-covered walls of Rome, where he lives.

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, 1962
Oil, pencil, and crayon on canvas, 6′ 3″ x 6′ 6 3/4″
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Marie Laurencin was one of the first modern female artists  to tackle Leda. In her 1923 work, she elicits the protective mother through the tender embrace of the woman’s arm around her swan. Note the calming hand upon on the bird’s back. This painting speaks quietly but convincingly of the nurturing female.

Marie Laurencin, Leda and the Swan, 1923
Oil on canvas, 26 1/2 x 32 inches
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Contemporary women seemed to have pushed the myth beyond conventional interpretive boundaries. In her performances, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta channels the myth through themes of violation, rage and revenge. Contemporary sculptress Barbara Balzer finds the whimsy in a swan literally “coming home to roost.”

LedaBarbara Balzer, Leda and the Swan
Ceramic sculpture.

The male contemporary renditions of the theme are fairly graphic—interestingly Steven Kenny adds a menacing swan, thus straying into the territory violation (though Leda doesn’t resist much).

And then there are the just plain weird interpretations, i.e. Bjork’s 2001 Oscar dress.

21st century Leda—Bjork in a distinctly unsuccessful interpretation.

Certainly, Leda and the Swan provided fodder for much artistic inspiration over the ages. And it’s gotten me thinking about the implications of an ancient myth in today’s cultural milieu.

The Rabbit Hole

More Ledas: Géricault; Pier Francesco Mola; Jean Thierry
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke
“Sculpture by Barbara Balzer: Timeless World of Intellect and Beauty”

Notes from the Studio: The Iconic Face of Liberty

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Public Art, Sculpture with tags , , , , on April 13, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

This striking black and white picture, shot by an unknown photographer, is the face of the Statue of Liberty. It was taken in 1885 when the statue was uncrated and waiting to be assembled at Bedloe’s Island. I’ve had this picture tacked up on one studio wall or another for more than 30 years. During that time, hundreds of other pictures—inspiration, sketches and notes—have come and gone, but this one remains a constant. The scale (note the man standing frame right), the shadows and the intense gaze, create a dramatic image that has never lost it’s impact.

Model for plaster mock-up in Bartholdi’s studio, c. 1880

Stripped of all her symbolism, including the radiant crown, the torch, the  broken chains underfoot—and all of our many associations with the assembled statue and its abiding presence on Liberty Island in New York Harbor—what remains in this photograph is the powerfully haunting face, strong and beautiful. No one knows exactly who served as model for this statue by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. It is said to either be a likeness of Bartholdi’s mother, Charlotte, or Isabella Eugenie Boyer, the French-born widow of American industrialist Isaac Singer.

Whatever Bartholdi’s inspiration, it is always instructive to step back from an overly-familiar image and think about the meaning and depth behind it. This statue, originally entitled Enlightening the World, has a face worth taking a second look at.

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