Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day!

"Art from the Heart, A historical look at love's effect on art"
by Maryanne Jacobsen

There’s no question about it.

Falling in love causes people to act quite strangely. So does drinking absinthe, I suppose.

I have been trying to take some time each day to study the art of the masters recently, and have noticed that love has played a huge role in the creation of some of the weirdest paintings I have ever seen.

Example One:
“Isabella and the Pot of Basil” by William Holman Hunt

Hunt was a famous Pre-Raphaelite Artist. At first glance his painting looks rather innocuous. A tired woman is getting ready to make pesto sauce perhaps. But look a little bit closer, please. A recent visit to an exhibit at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota assured me that that is not the woman’s hair that is cascading so profusely over the sides of a dungeons and dragons- type basil pot.

It happens to be Lorenzo’s hair- Lorenzo being the sad woman’s murdered lover. Hunt painted this picture of a distraught Isabella after reading a Keat’s poem based on a tale from Boccaccio. It’s a very sad tale indeed, about a simple maiden whose lover is murdered by her brothers because he was not wealthy. When poor Isabella discovers the body, she cuts off her lover’s head and hides it in a basil pot, where it is obviously thriving deliciously along with tomorrow’s pasta herb, as we can see from the Hunt depiction.

Did Hunt really need to be so literal in his description, I wondered? And although Keats' prose is descriptively beautiful, evoking images of a lovesick woman whose ‘lute strings echo her beloved’s name, as she spoils her embroidery with much the same…’ in the end those lousy bastards steal the Basil pot from the poor sick chick and she dies of a broken heart.

Sheesh. (And I thought it was a pain replacing my wardrobe.)

Example two:

“Orpheus” by Gustave Moreau.

Moreau was one of those late nineteenth century French painters who felt threatened by the young upshots that had come upon the scene in his day- namely the Impressionists. Prior to the Impressionist movement, the artworld was dominated by teachers and artists that stuck to a few simple, intangible rules which had to be applied zealously and submissively. Originality was despised and acceptable painters of the day were forced to limit their canvasses to acceptable subjects like the gods and goddesses of the ancient myths.
Moreau took this to a bit of an extreme when he painted his rendition of Orpheus, and his own verbal explanation of the painting had to be included in the exhibition catalogue in order to clarify his deviation from the more typical and orthodox depictions of that very same legend.

According to the legend, the inventor of music was so beautiful that he could charm man and beast, but Orpheus ultimately met a gruesome end to his talents when he was torn to pieces by the enraged women of Thrace whose love he had spurned. The poor guy’s head and lyre were thrown into a stream by these aggressive and vindictive women, and one night in an opium-induced stupor; Moreau conjured up his own romantic depiction of how the legend should end.

I suppose Moreau was a hopeless romantic, for in his painting a young girl reverently recovers Orpheus's head and lyre, (the head now permanently attached to the musical instrument), and falls madly in love with this uhh… contraption. I have to give Moreau credit. He changed an act of overt violence into one of erotic contemplation, and is credited with being one of the earliest pioneers of surrealism.

Example Three:

“Luncheon on the Grass” by Edouard Manet

Manet was the guy that is now officially designated as the spiritual leader of the Impressionist movement.

It all began when a group of very talented young French painters were rejected en masse from the 1863 exhibition at The Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. These upstarts wanted to paint things their way, and the people in charge, who were all a part of France’s powerful “Pompiers” or bourgeoisie, would not allow it.

Manet was just doing his own free-spirited thing when he submitted his painting to the exhibit, but dear Lord…what in the name of sanity was he thinking?

My, my, my. Even in sexy, seductive Paris, this painting was considered a scandalous affair and Manet became an instant laughing stock among his teachers as a result.

Now I ask you this. Since nudity has always had a place in art, what’s wrong with this picture? Was there a typical lack of opposite sex communication between the parties? Should the parties have communicated beforehand regarding proper picnic attire?


Once again, being in love and the extreme stress that Cupid’s arrows can place upon its victim’s sensibilities, rendered Manet incapable of seeing the truth. The truth was that in submitting that painting he had sealed his fate and rendered himself the object of the vilest of attacks from the Pompiers, who used the opportunity of the scandalous painting to debase at all cost the emerging master of a dissident movement. Manet’s model, the buxom Victorine Meurent, happened to be an unsophisticated streetwalker, and Manet certainly immortalized her in her merry picnic pose, don’t you think?

So what is the moral of the story?

Love inspires, love kills, love blinds and love and lutes go well together if you’re headless. But then again, so do basil pots.

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