Unreal Nature

February 21, 2011

A Woman Flayed

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:06 am

… Perhaps there has been some confusion between physical and metaphysical terminology, and the word superficial has extended its meaning from thought to perception …

This is the fourth installment from The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form by Kenneth Clark (1956). Today’s quotes are from the chapter “Venus II”. I’m quoting Clark’s descriptions of two artists, Correggio and Rubens, and skipping Leonardo, Giorgoine, Titian, Boucher, Ingres, Courbet, Manet, and numerous lesser known artists. All interesting, but time and space limit what I shall give here. So, going right to Correggio:

… The difference between them is like a difference of sex or the difference between night and day. Where Titian saw form like a full, frontal relief, Correggio saw it gliding into depth. Where Titian seems to place his figures before an open window with daylight falling directly on them, Correggio seems to place them in the penumbra of a curtained gallery where the light comes from several sources. We seize upon the mass of Titian’s Venus immediately and abruptly; Correggio’s Antiope we caress. This feeling of tenderness he achieves by a rhythmic relationship of line and shadow that ultimately derives from Leonardo da Vinci. It is Leonardo who had advised the painter to penetrate the secrets of expression by looking at the faces of women in the mysterious illumination of twilight; and it was he who had studied scientifically the passage of light round a sphere. The delicately perceived continuum of shadow and reflection in Leonardo’s diagrams had its own sensuous beauty even before it was transferred from geometric spheres to the soft irregular sphere of the breast. Moreover, light that passes gently along a form, be it an old wall, a landscape, or a human body, produces an effect of physical enrichment not solely because of the fullness of texture it reveals but because it seems to pass over the surface like a stroking hand. In Correggio’s Antiope this effect is used with the greatest delicacy. As our eye follows every undulation it passes refreshed from shadow to light. Her arm on which she rests her ecstatically sleeping head is clouded with shadows and reflections. Every form has the melting quality of a dream.

Jupiter and Antiope

This, of course, is achieved as much by linear movement as by chiaroscuro. Correggio was a natural lyricist who gave a flowing meter to everything he made, from the whole design down to the curve of a little finger. Here, too, he was influenced by Leonardo, and was perhaps the only artist who gained something from the Oriental flexibility of [Leonardo’s] Leda[which only survives in copies by other artists]. But those curves which in Leonardo have an alienating detachment — curves of marsh grass or of swirling water — become in Correggio warm and delicately human. They are, and have remained, the signature of feminine grace; and although in the last century they have been vulgarized and shamefully exploited, when we meet them first they have the freshness of morning. No other painter, as Mr. Berenson said long ago, was ever more penetrated by femininity, so that his most warlike saints are tender, his most venerable anchorites have the graceful gestures of a girl. Like Botticelli, he passed easily from Christian to pagan subjects, but whereas the earlier painter thought first of woman as the Virgin, with all her sorrows and apprehensions, and was persuaded by learned poets to transform her into Celestial Venus, Correggio thought of her as a tangible human body and was happiest when the subject allowed him to show it undraped and enjoying the amorous enterprises of Jupiter. We can be thankful that he did not live twenty years later, when such subjects were generally prohibited.

And on to Rubens. I don’t show any of Rubens’ paintings because his color does not reproduce in the small online files that I can find:

… Why do we burn with indignation when we hear people who believe themselves to have good taste dismissing Rubens as a painter of fat naked women and even applying the epithet “vulgar”? What is it, in addition to sheer pictorial skill, that makes his nudes noble and life-giving creations? The answer is partly in his character and partly in the discipline through which he mastered his profession.

… Few men can have been so free from pettiness or perversity, jealousy or frustration. His figures never pause to calculate material advantage or nurse an unacted desire. They have the sweetness of flowing water.

Not unconnected with his gratitude for God’s bounty is Rubens’ humble devotion to the art of design. No other great painter has ever made such a prolonged, laborious, and fruitful study of his predecessors’ work. From antique cameos to Flemish primitives, from the tiny panels of Elsheimer to the vast canvases of the Venetians, Rubens copied everything that could conceivably add to his already overflowing resources. For the nude his models were, of course, the antique, Michelangelo, and Marcantonio. Titian he copied for his color, but altered his form. From them he learned what a severe formal discipline the naked body must undergo if it is to survive as art. Rubens’ nudes seem at first sight to have been tumbled out of a cornucopia of abundance; the more we study them the more we discover them to be under control. His procedure was that which has become the dogma of academics: he drew from the antique and copied from his predecessors till certain ideals of formal completeness were absolutely fixed in his mind; then when he drew from nature he instinctively subordinated the observed facts to the patterns established in his imagination. The average student cannot make a success of this procedure because accident is more attractive than substance. He seizes upon tricks of style and overlooks essential structure. Rubens did the reverse. He could give his figures so much of his own peculiar style and his own responsiveness to nature that we are seldom conscious of his sources.

… The fact that Rubens was more concerned than his predecessors with the flesh and with the texture of the skin has sometimes been considered a symptom of superficiality. In European art there has always been a belief that the more a figure reveals its inner structure the more respectable it becomes. Perhaps there has been some confusion between physical and metaphysical terminology, and the word superficial has extended its meaning from thought to perception, reversing the mental process that leads up to Swift’s famous defense of Delusion: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.”

Clark’s next chapter is “Energy” and he’s not talking gas and oil.

[It is my intention to pair posts (either on the same day or on consecutive days) from Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990) with posts from Kenneth Clark’s The Nude (1956). I’m doing this rather bizarre and arbitrary juxtaposition because, for me, the obvious contrasts as well as the occasional similarities make both books more interesting. My latest Walton post was yesterday.]



1 Comment

  1. Hmmm…

    “I once saw a woman flayed. You wouldn’t believe how it altered her appearance for the worse”. (Janette Turner Hospital; Due preparations for the plague. 2003, Pymble, N.S.W.: Fourth Estate/HarperCollins. 0732277302)

    I feel queasy.

    Comment by Felix — February 22, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

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