I’m very taken with LitHub’s post on a new book about Robert Wasler, “the original art blogger…[who’s writings] make most art criticism seem dry, impersonal, and dull.”
The encounters I had with professors and students alike in many of my humanities courses at BU left me breathless: I got endless stimulation out of the fact that I was constantly surrounded by people smarter and way more knowledgeable than me.
And yet there’s a unique thrill a young scholar can feel in realizing that one can be impressed and yet still disagree with an argument made by an experienced and engaging professor.
I was sitting in a lecture on the art of Spanish painter Francisco Goya. The professor in question gave a brief biographical sketch, emphasizing Goya’s humble origins and how he rose socially as his exceptional talent was recognized.
When the professor displayed the above painting, I smiled at the familiar, doofy family of the King of Spain, standing there twinkling, utterly assured of their incredible charisma and talent, unaware of how unintelligent they actually looked (and probably were).
So imagine my surprise when the professor went on to comment on Goya’s so-called motivations behind this painting. She said something along the lines of: “And we can see here how Goya admired the royal family. He paints them in gilded splendor, and we can see in his work his obvious admiration and envy. Goya so wanted to be a part of this world of nobility, and he paints this beautiful family portrait in awe of this glittering possibility.”
The verbal flourishes are obviously mine, but you can see what the gist of her argument was; that Goya was genuinely admiring of royalty, and he is unironic in his portrayal of the family of Charles IV.
This certainly sounded like news to me. I had always heard (from other informational sources) that Goya recognized what an unphotogenic family he was tasked with painting, and wisely decided to dissimulate the obvious. He couldn’t make them look brighter then they actually were, lest he risk angering the royals in overly idealized images. But he could make up for their crude features by emphasizing their sumptuous clothes and mien of power.
Instead of wondering which was the “right” or “wrong” perspective on this topic, I turned to my own knowledge of Goya’s life, and what I could see in the painting. It’s true Goya did yearn for the prestige which came with being the court painter of the Spanish crown, a position which came with the additional perk of unquestioned financial patronage. It is not unreasonable to presume he was impressed with the glamour of royal life.
But this was a court known for its decadence and decay. Charles IV was not an imposing sight; a kind but weak-willed monarch, he was said to have left most state affairs in the hands of his ministers, and even his wife, portrayed prominently in the center of the painting, while the king went off hunting. The Spanish monarchy was to later crumble at the feet of the French Bonapartes who invaded Spain in 1808, less than a decade after this painting was completed.
And then, one only needs to look at the figures in the painting. The nasty beauty mark on the face of the old crone to the left. The sagging flesh on the faces of the older members of the royal family, and the strange, frigid, doll-like quality of the faces of the younger ones. The vacant expression of the king. As talented a painter as Goya could have certainly made some of these ugly features at least look interesting and engaging, especially if the artist felt any trace of personal admiration for the owners.
But what truly stand out in this painting are the royal costumes. Beautiful, expensive, intricate, and apparently more valuable than the people who occupy them.
I have trouble believing that an artist with such emotional and compassionate sensibility as Goya would have been impressed merely by the wealth and rank of such a family. And while I could certainly believe Goya craved to partake in higher echelons of society, there is no nobility of feeling or intellect conveyed by these figures which could better justify such yearnings. So while I could find interest in many other points made by this professor, I remained inclined to trust what I could actually perceive on the canvas.
I’ve never been a terrible fan of Edgar Degas. I think it’s all in the face of his subjects:
The MFA closed (today, February 5th) it’s Degas and the Nude exhibit, a collection of Degas’ paintings, prints, and drawings where he explored the marvels of the human body and the startling beauty found in its infinite variations.
As I walked through the exhibit, I noticed there were paintings by other artists, among them Henri Gervex and Pablo Picasso. My unfailing method of detecting these rogue artists (besides certain styles; Matisse is unmistakable) was by looking at the face of the model. If I detected any note of personality in the model, I knew it was not a Degas.
The collection was gorgeous, but I found it telling that the painting that I was most tickled to see was Henri Gervex’s Rolla:
I’ve seen this painting many times, on the cover of my Barnes and Noble edition of Lady Chatterly’s Lover (which is, incidentally, one of only two books my mom “prohibited” me from reading as a teenager. Quite laughable, really).
But it wasn’t until I saw it up close that I realized how truly beautiful this painting is. Before I actually read the caption labeled under the painting, I decided to draw my own conclusions as to subject matter.
I could see that it wasn’t a Degas immediately because of the woman’s face. It has too much personality; her facial features are clear and marked. I realized how surprising this was considering the man’s face is in shadow.
More astonishing, I realized the woman is the one langorously stretched out asleep, after a night of what we can only assume was vigorous and awesome sex. The woman is lying exposed to us, but unabashedly, with no trace of shame or guilt. Her removed clothes lie in the foreground, and her trim body, while relaxed unconsciously, is so boldly unapologetic in its nudity. It is luminous, and gorgeously painted.
This is thrown into sharp contrast with the man. He’s dressed: I’ve learned (particularly from films) that it is never a good sign when after (or before, or during) sex, only one figure is dressed. He looks to me like he’s preparing to slip away; he’s clearly just been looking out on the beautiful Parisian morning, but he seems mournful, with his drooping mustache, sad eyes, and tense posture.
Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Unless the couple was married (unlikely; how many Victorian couples do you know who happily enjoyed a healthy and satisfying adult sexual relationship?), shouldn’t the man be lounging in his pleasure, and the woman be tense about her decision, and her new (or renewed) status as a fallen woman? Why is she so at peace? Why is he so wistful?
Turns out that the painting (from 1878) is based on a poem by Alfred de Musset, and is about a man who commits suicide because he ruins himself by sleeping with a famous prostitute. Naturally, it was rejected by the Parisian Salon for “immorality”, as any decent painting from the latter half of the 19th century should have been.
How refreshing! Not to crow, but it’s startling what Gervex has done here: for once, the grieving subject in a painted sexual encounter is not some woman being raped, or giving in to the advances of some unscrupulous seducer. Not to be harsh on poor Rolla, but how interesting it is to see a woman, even a “fallen” one, in such unperturbed sexual bliss, while the man feels tortured over his decision, and indeed holds himself accountable.
Despite the vastly different contexts, compare it ever so briefly to Degas’ The Tub (1885)
Or even better, to his The Dancing Class (1873-75):
All of the Degas I saw today either hid or blurred the subject’s face, a face which was inevitably female. While the artist’s skills at pastels are exquisite, and the evolution of his style in these explorations of the nude was fascinating, I couldn’t look at his art in the same way again after having given Gervex so much thought. Degas objectifies; Gervex dared to see a woman as something other than a thing, something not to be used, but to be understood.