Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Mistress of Montmartre

Suzanne Valadon:

Mistress of Montmartre
by June Rose

This is the very well-researched biography of a fascinating woman. It reads like a novel and has many illustrations.

Suzanne Valadon was an influential personality in the artistic world of Paris in the late nineteenth century. She modelled for and was the lover of many of the famous Impressionists: Dégas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir among others.

She also had a relationship with Puvis de Chavannes and a torrid six-month affair with Erik Satie, who was devastated when she left him and never had any other lovers.

She was also a good painter in her own right - she was encouraged by Degas who recognised her talent. She painted landscapes, still lifes and female nudes, naked in an unashamed way that was shocking at the time.

In 1894 she was the first woman to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Her work can be found today in many international galleries, including Centre Pompidou in Paris and at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As a painter, she will always be overshadowed by her strange but talented son Maurice Utrillo. His paternity was by no means certain. There is an amusing and probably apocryphal story about this in the unpublished memoirs of one of Utrillo's collectors, Ruth Bakwin:

"After Maurice was born to Suzanne Valadon, she went to Renoir, for whom she had modeled nine months previously. Renoir looked at the baby and said, 'He can't be mine, the color is terrible!' Next she went to Degas, for whom she had also modeled. He said, 'He can't be mine, the form is terrible!' At a cafe, Valadon saw an artist she knew named Miguel Utrillo, to whom she spilled her woes. The man told her to call the baby Utrillo: 'I would be glad to put my name to the work of either Renoir or Degas!' "

Suzanne Valadon was an illegitimate child and claimed (untruthfully) to be a foundling. As a child she moved with her mother to Paris and became a laundress.

While Suzanne was still in her teens, they went to live in Montmartre and there she became an acrobat in a circus. An injury ended this career and then she became a model and artist.

She had two failed marriages: to the exchange broker Paul Mousis and the young painter André Utter who was twenty years her junior.

When she died Georges Braque, Andre Derain and Pablo Picasso all attented her funeral at the Cimetière Parisien, St.-Ouen (Paris).

Many of our members will have seen Renoir's exuberant "Dance at Bougival", for which Suzanne Valadon and Paul Lhote were the models, when it was at the NGV as part of the blockbuster Impressionist exhibition in 2004.

Renoir painted Suzanne many times.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

George Stubbs
A Lion Attacking a Horse (c.1765
oil on canvas, 69x100.1
Felton Bequest

This painting was acquired by the NGV in 1949 on the advice of Sir Kenneth Clark, who wrote to the Gallery Director: "… the group itself is marvellous and had a great influence on the Romantic Movement. Gericault actually did a copy of it. I think it was cheap at £500, and would rather have it than a second-rate Braque at £2,000."

George Stubbs was perhaps the most famous painter of horses that British art has produced. As an artist, he was largely self-taught.

He had always been interested in anatomy and In 1756 he rented a farmhouse in Lincolnshire, where he spent two years dissecting horses and making anatomical drawings. In 1766 he published "The Anatomy of the Horse", a masterpiece which the "Oxford Companion to Art" calls "The most unique thing of its kind ever compiled". The original drawings are now in the collection of the Royal Academy.

Stubbs' work was soon greatly in demand. By 1763 he had produced a lucrative body of work for many wealthy and artistocratic patrons and was able to buy a house in fashionable Marylebone, where he lived for the rest of his life.

His most famous work is probably "Whistlejacket", a huge (eight by ten feet) painting of a rearing horse. It was commissioned by the Marquis of Rockingham and is now a showpiece of the National Gallery in London.

It is one of those pictures whose powerful presence have stopped me in my tracks like a fist to the solar plexus. Not that I have ever received an actual fist to the solar plexus, I am thankful to say, but I have watched many a film by Quentin Tarantino and I know the effect. Those breath-stoppers are usually huge, like "Whistlejacket", Kokoschka's "Bride of the Wind" and Leonardo's "Madonna of the Rocks", but there are some little ones that punch far above their weight: Vermeer's "Milkmaid" in the Rijksmuseum is only 15 by 18 inches, but it has no trouble making me cry every time I see it.

In painting "Whistlejacket", Stubbs broke with convention in placing the horse against a plain background, which only enhanced the powerful effect of the image. The Marquis of Rockingham paid Stubbs 60 guineas for the painting. It remained in the family until the National Gallery acquired it 230 years later for the sum of £11 million: a tidy profit!

A Hellenistic marble sculpture of a "Lion Attacking a Horse" (now in the garden of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome) was discovered in the River Almo more than a thousand years ago.

Hellenistic sculpture is characterized by exaggerated emotional display and virtuoso naturalistic detail. This sculpture was restored in 1594 and inspired many Renaissance artists to produce works in similar vein.

In the nineteenth century, the subject of a lion attacking a horse was again a very popular one and it recurs in the work of many sculptors and painters of the era. The metaphysical philosophy of Edmund Burke was in vogue at the time, especially his popular concept of the Sublime: the passion engendered by fear of death.

The horse was regarded as a noble creature, whereas he lion symbolized the primeval forces of unbound, often brutal, nature. When it showed terror, the horse — powerful, beautiful, and noble as man himself — exemplified the Sublime. The horse’s shock at encountering the lion reflected the viewer’s own.

Stubbs, who had seen the famous Hellenistic group in Rome, was preoccupied by this dramatic theme for thirty years, creating a whole series of lion-and-horse works: paintings, enamels, prints and even a relief model in clay. He drew the setting from his studies of Creswell Crags, a rocky, unpopulated landscape in Nottinghamshire.

The NGV also holds this sculpture of a lion attacking a horse, by Antoine-Louis Barye, one of the most prominent sculptors of the Romantic Movement in France.

Well known for the brilliant technique and realistic detail of his sculptures of animals in mortal combat, he was known as "the Michaelangelo of the Menagerie". Auguste Rodin was one of his students.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Vandals and Heroes

Over the centuries many great works of art have been cruelly vandalised, some beyond repair. Others, despite the experts' best efforts at restoration, will never be the same.

The vandals are often fanatics acting at the behest of some imaginary entity, but sometimes the damage is done by the custodians of the works themselves.

As recently as 2001, the two monumental Buddhas of Bamyian, listed by UNESCO as a Wolrd Heritage Site, were comprehensively destroyed by the Taliban .

The Mullah Mohammed Omar, having declared the statues idolatrous, announced to his flock that "it will give great joy to God if we destroy them". The lads assured the pious cleric the job would be done by teatime and they let fly with anti-aircraft guns and artillery. However, the Buddhas proved a hard nut to crack, in a manner of speaking. It took them several weeks of shelling, even placing landmines at the foot of the statues so that falling pieces would set off more explosions. Eventually they had to lower men down the cliff face to place explosives into holes in the Buddhas to finish them off.

The two magnificent statues, which had stood since the sixth century, were obliterated at last. Can't have idolatry !

The Rokeby Venus is one of the finest nudes ever created. A treasure of the National Gallery in London, the life-sized painting of a nude woman seen from the rear has been called the Baroque equivalent of a Playboy centrefold and the "most smackable backside in art".

Poor Venus also suffered at the hand of a fanatic: this one not so much religious as ideological. The militant suffragette Mary Richardson, who said she didn't like the way men looked at the Venus, took an axe to the painting, as described in The Times of Wednesday, March 11, 1914:

"The famous Rokeby Velasquez, commonly known as the "Venus with the Mirror," which was presented to the National Gallery in 1906, was mutilated yesterday morning by the prominent militant woman suffragist Mary Richardson. She attacked the picture with a small chopper with a long narrow blade, similar to the instruments used by butchers, and in a few seconds inflicted upon it severe if not irreparable damage. In consequence of the outrage the National Gallery will remain closed to the public until further notice."

The painting was carefully restored, but the slash marks are still faintly visible.

Picasso's masterpiece, Guernica, shows the tragedy of war and the suffering it inflicts upon innocent civilians. It is a powerful and emotional work, and has deservedly gained a monumental status as an anti-war symbol, a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war.

The painting depicts the bombing of Guernica, a town in Spain, by German and Italian warplanes. While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, Picasso suffered harassment from the Gestapo. One officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did."

In 1974, while on display at MoMA in New York, one Tony Shafrazi, protesting the My Lai massacre, defaced the painting with red spray paint, painting the words "KILL LIES ALL". Luckily the paint was removed fairly easily from the varnished surface.

I am very privileged to have had a close-up view of Michaelangelo's Pieta at St Peter's in Rome, two weeks before a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a hammer while shouting "I am Jesus Christ". Now the masterpiece is only visible through bulletproof perspex from a distance of several yards.

But luckily we can still get up close to admire Michaelangelo's exquisite Mother and Child in Bruges, the only one of his sculptures to leave Italy in his lifetime. That is, until some maniac gets word from on high to have a go at destroying it, when no doubt it will also be sequestered behind a perspex shield.

I'll end this sad litany of vandalism with the tribulations of Rembrandt's "Night Watch". It was first hung in the regimental HQ of the militia company it depicts. In 1715 it was moved to the Amsterdam town hall, where it did not fit on the desgnated wall, so the City Fathers lopped off a yard or so, containing three figures, from the left side, plus a couple of feet off the other three sides. That neatly solved the problem.

Luckily, the Rijksmuseum holds a smaller reproduction of the original work, so at least we know what it used to look like.

On the eve of the German invasion in WW2 the great painting was removed from its frame and rolled round a cylinder. It was then buried in sand dunes but later hidden, with the bulk of the Rijksmuseum's treasures, in a mine. Hermann Goering's fame as a non-paying art collector preceded him!

It survived the rigours of war with no damage, only to be attacked in 1975 by an unemployed school teacher, who fought off a museum guard and told bystanders that he "did it for the Lord." The painting suffered a large zig-zag of slashes. It was successfully restored but some evidence of the damage is still observable close-up.

In 1990, a man sprayed acid onto the painting with a concealed pump bottle. Security guards intervened and water was quickly sprayed onto the canvas. Luckily, the acid had only penetrated the varnish layer of the painting and the painting was fully restored.

… and now, at last, we come to the good bit, the story of two unlikely heroes: the writer Aldous Huxley and Anthony Clarke, a young officer in a British artillery regiment.

In the 1930s, Huxley was touring Italy, when he visited the village of Sansepolcro (Holy Sepulchre) in Tuscany. Here he saw "The Resurrection", the masterwork of the Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, painted circa 1460.

A tour de force of composition, Piero's widely admired painting depicts the risen Christ stepping out of his tomb while beneath him the guards slumber. Kenneth Clark called it "one of the supreme works of painting". Huxley was entranced by the work and described it in a book of essays as "the greatest picture in the world".

This is a bit from the essay he wrote about it:
"The best picture in the world is painted in fresco on the wall of a room in the town hall.

Some unwittingly beneficent vandal had it covered, some time after it was painted, with a thick layer of plaster, under which it lay hidden for a century or two, to be revealed at last in a state of preservation remarkably perfect for a fresco of its date.

Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world."

(I recently saw a BBC documentary about the painting, in which a teacher in the village of Sansepolcro tell the children in his art class the story, whereupon a little boy innocently asks if Huxley had seen all the pictures in the world.)

Come World War Two, and a British artillery battery is deployed outside Sansepolcro, Captain Anthony Clarke commanding. Orders come from H /Q to shell the village, which is held by the Germans.

Captain Clarke yells: "Fire!" and the first salvo rings out. Before he gives the order to fire the second volley, he remembers why the name "Sansepolcro" sounded so familiar to him: he had read Huxley's essay before the War.

Putting his career on the line and risking a court martial, Clarke gives the order to cease fire. He did not want to go down in history as the man who destroyed the greatest picture in the world.

For once God was on the side of the art lovers - the Germans withdrew without another shot being fired.

Anthony Clarke is a hero in Sansepolcro - his statue is in the town square and there is not only a street named "Via Anthony Clarke", but also numerous little boys called Antonio. Huxley also has a street named after him, but perhaps not any little boys - I don't think "Aldous" translates well into Italian!

I can recommend the BBC documentary series "The Private Life of a Masterpiece", which reveals the fascinating stories behind 24 major works of art. Comprising 7 discs with a total running time of ten hours, it is well worth the $70 they will charge you for it at any major audio-visual retailer. Christmas is coming!

Monday, 19 October 2009

A Decade of Birth Pains

The Judgement of Paris : Manet, Meissonier and an Artistic Revolution
by Ross King

This is an engrossing account of the decade between 1863 (when the first Salon des Refusés showed paintings rejected by the Salon of the French Academy) to 1874, the date of the first Impressionist exhibition.

The conflict between academicians and innovators during these years is dramatised by contrasting the careers of two very different artists: Ernest Meissonier, a conservative painter celebrated for detailed historical subjects, and Édouard Manet, whose paintings caused such uproar at the time.

Ernest Meissonier was the most celebrated artist of his day, showered with medals and honours. His works fetched record prices, while Manet was a laughingstock, scorned by the critics and the public alike.

But History has, as usual, sorted out the men from the boys… "Ernest who?" We all know who Manet is!

Many other artists of the day, among them Courbet, Degas, Morisot, Monet and Cézanne, are included in this compelling narrative of artistic life in Paris during a turbulent era. I was very interested to learn that what shocked people most about Manet's "Le déjeuner sur l'Herbe" was not the naked lady, but the fact that the men were (shock, horror!) not dressed in suits and top hats, but actually wore ordinary old everyday clothes.

I was made aware once again of how painters work in the context of the politics of the day, and how much schools of art are influenced by what is happening in society at the time. I always believed, as I suppose most of our members do, that the famous Salon des Refusés of 1863 was arranged by the rejected painters who were determined that the public should see their work.

Not a bit of it! The painters were, for the most part, reluctant to offend the judges of the Salon by participating in the mutinous exhibition and had to be coaxed to allow their works to be hung. It was the King who insisted on holding the exhibition, because his popularity was at a low ebb, elections were looming and he feared being ousted by the Republican movement.

This book reads as easily as a novel; it gives a fascinating account of the artistic civil war that raged around the Paris Salons in the decade that saw the rise of the wild tribe of upstarts who were contemptuously called "impressionists", painting, as they did, scenes of contemporary life with seemingly slapdash technique. Meticulously painted scenes from history, the Bible or the Classics were considered the only fit and proper subjects to hang on the walls of the Salon.

Ross King explains the bureaucratic machinery of the Salons in fascinating detail: how juries were selected, and how both artistic and national politics entered into the picture. He also vividly conveys the humiliation of the spurned artists, who received no explanation for the decision of the jury, simply an order to pick up their work, stamped with a large scarlet R on the back.

Mr King has written several other books that look interesting to me, notably "Michelangelo And The Pope's Ceiling" and "Brunelleschi's Dome : The Story Of The Great Cathedral In Florence". I am going to make it my business to get hold of them.

The Italian Connection

Two of my favourite Art/Lit authors are Carolyn Coker and Iain Pears. Pears is the author of the acclaimed international bestseller, "An Instance of the Fingerpost". This is a murder mystery, set in Oxford in the 1660's, and may be of particular interest to mathematicians, dealing as it does with calculus and cryptography. As algebra is not my long suit, I much prefer his novels featuring art historian Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano of Rome's Art Theft Squad.

The pair first meet in "The Raphael Affair", when Jonathan is searching for a long-lost Raphael in a tiny Roman church. Their collaboration continues in seven more books set in Rome, Venice, Siena and Florence. The stories are engrossing, the Italian settings are beautiful and I have learnt a lot about the Italian master painters while enjoying a good read.

Carolyn Coker's protagonist is Andrea Perkins, also an art historian. She lives in Boston and makes a living as an art restorer. Andrea sometimes goes abroad on various assignments – the books are mostly set in Italy: Florence, Ferrara and Venice, although there are a couple that take place in London and Los Angeles.

The first in the series is "The Other David": a rare “lost” portrait by Michelangelo has surfaced, of the same model that he used for his statue of David. Is the painting the real thing or the work of a super-forger? It is Andrea Perkins’ job to find out.

In "The Vines of Ferrara" Andrea is at the castle of the suave Count Geoffredo Gonzaga. Andrea is there to repair a crumbling fresco and retouch a set of fabulous fifteenth-century tarocchi -tarot cards. The castle was built as a summer retreat for Lucrezia Borgia … the perfect venue for a few murders!

I have just finished reading "The Hand of the Lion", in which Andrea is hired by the Committee for the Preservation of Venetian Art. She finds herself involved in a spectacular art theft, a kidnapping and a murder, all in the romantic setting of crumbling palaces and languorous gondolas along the Grand Canal.

I can hardly wait to get hold of the next one!

Homer Goes to Italy

Jane Langton's charming Homer Kelly series are often plotted around art related themes. Homer and wife Mary both teach at Harvard and they are very good at getting to the bottom of mysteries. I particularly liked "Murder at the Gardener", "The Thief of Venice" and "The Dante Game" for their art themes and vividly described settings.

In "Murder at the Gardner", paintings by Botticelli,Titian and other masters grace the palatial walls of Boston's Gardner Museum, placed there as decreed by the inflexible terms of Isabella Stewart Gardner's will. She stipulated that the whole collection should be auctioned off "should any changes or unwelcome disturbances occur". Of course all manner of "disturbances" do start to happen, including tadpoles in the courtyard fountain and ghostly music in the galleries. The hapless museum director desperately tries to hush it all up, but his efforts are foiled when the first body is found.

"The Dante Game" takes us to Florence, where Homer Kelly has gone to teach at an American school in a crumbling villa. The author has a keen eye for the architectural and cultural richness of Florence as she centers her plot around the pope's visit to a Florentine cathedral.

The scene of "The Thief of Venice" is Venice rather than Florence, but the atmosphere of the city is equally evocatively described, as Homer settles in to study Renaissance manuscripts, and Mary sets out to see the city. The plot deals with the discovery of art treasures hidden by Venetian Jews during World War II.

These civilised, literary novels are delightful - I also like the elegant line drawings by the author, which accompany the text.

The Nazis Strike Again

Art thefts by the Nazis during World War II are tailormade for thrillers about art. Aaron Elkins' "Loot: A Novel", is one of the best of the genre. It features Ben Revere, a retired art historian and curator who occasionally moonlights for the police.

In the last convulsive days of World War II a convoy of Nazi trucks loaded with Europe's greatest art treasures winds its way through the Alps toward a cavernous Austrian salt mine. With the Allies closing in and chaos erupting, a single truck silently disappears into a mountain snowstorm with its cargo of stolen masterpieces.

Fifty years later, in a seedy Boston pawnshop, one of the truck's paintings surfaces at last, pawned for $100 by a smalltime Russian thug. The next day, the shop owner, Simeon Pawlovsky, himself a Nazi death camp survivor, is dead, the life brutally beaten out of him. The painting is gone and Ben is on the case.

"The English Assassin" by Daniel Silva is a part of the author's scrupulously researched series about Gabriel Allon, an art restorer and former member of the Israeli Secret Service.

Switzerland's shameful WWII record of profiteering and collaboration with Nazi Germany
provides the backdrop for this superbly crafted thriller. When Gabriel Allon is sent to Zurich to restore the painting of a reclusive millionaire banker, he arrives to find his would-be employer murdered at the foot of his treasured Raphael.

A secret collection of priceless, illicitly gained Impressionist masterpieces is missing. Gabriel’s former Mossad handlers step out of the shadows to admit the truth—the collector had been silenced. Gabriel is put back in the high-stakes spy game, battling wits with the rogue assassin he helped to train.

The briskly moving story is full of unexpected twists – I found it a real page-turner and I learnt some interesting things along the way!

The Van Gogh Conspiracy

by J. Madison Davis

A bit of a far-fetched tale, this one, but it is an engaging story, well told. What would a conspiracy theory be without Hitler and the Nazis? Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda just don't have the same je ne sais quoi … for one thing, a tea towel and a night shirt can't hope to compete for sexy menace with jackboots and a cap with a death's head badge, worn at a rakish angle. Osama needs a new stylist.

But I digress – back to The Van Gogh Conspiracy: a "new" painting by Van Gogh is discovered in the barn of a rural French farmhouse. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam authenticates the painting and the poor French family in whose barn it was discovered stands to collect millions once the painting is auctioned.

Enter a holocaust survivor living in New York, who claims the painting is actually his, stolen from him during WW2 by You-Know-Who. He hires a team to help him prove that the "bill of sale" he has in Van Gogh’s handwriting is authentic.

The international investigation leads to the discovery of yet another never-before-seen Van Gogh. Soon it is revealed that someone working in the Van Gogh Museum has access to an entire horde of famous paintings looted by the Nazis during World War II. This evildoer has been secretly sending them to former Nazis around the world.

Suspend disbelief, enter into the paranoid spirit of the conspiracy theorists, and you have a good read on your hands!

Anatomy of a Genius

"My Name is Asher Lev" by Chaim Potok deals with the development, from early childhood to international fame, of an artist who is compulsively driven to paint the world he sees and feels, even when it leads him to what is considered blasphemy by the deeply religious Hasidic sect to which his Jewish family belongs.

As the novel traces Asher's struggle to express himself while living in the Hasidic community, Potok paints a luminous portrait of the artist's sometimes tortured existence, by turns heartbreaking and exultant.

Asher enters religious school; the wise Rebbe (spiritual leader of the Ladover Hassidim) acknowledges that his gift can't be denied and introduces him to Jacob Kahn, a renowned artist. (A character who seems to be based on Picasso.) Kahn takes Asher under his wing, mentors him and encourages him to express himself even when it leads Asher to paint works that incorporate Christian iconography, so inimical to his religion.

His compulsion to paint not only alienates Asher from his childhood world, but also causes divisions between members of his own family when an uncle offers his attic for a studio space. The uncle recognises Asher's genius early in his boyhood, and gets in on the ground floor by regularly buying pictures from his nephew, building up a valuable collection.

His father steadfastly refuses to accept Asher's artistic vocation, asking his son when he'll give up that "foolishness", even when Asher is already an internationally famous painter whose works hang in major museums. His mother is in the middle, trying to strike a balance between supporting her husband's extreme orthodoxy and her son's need to paint. The most poignant scene comes when Asher's parents finally come to one of his shows.

The walk out when confronted by "Brooklyn Crucifixion" , the painting central to the heartrending climax of the story. This portrays the agony of Asher's mother as a figure crucified by her inability to resolve the tensions between her husband and son. They see the crucifixion, so deeply antagonistic to their faith, as Asher's ultimate betrayal.

Chaim Potok was an accomplished painter, in addition to being a writer and a Rabbi. In a fascinating intersection between art and life, Potok himself created the painting "Brooklyn Crucifixion".

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

You buy a new house which has a granny flat in the back garden. "A nice little earner!" you think, and you advertise for a tenant.

You rent to Paul, a nice young man from Wyoming. He is an artist and you like the idea of having a bit of culture in the back yard. You have a few misgivings about all the empty grog bottles in the garbage, but if Paul is a drunk, he is a quiet one, and he pays his rent on time, so you shrug your shoulders and forget about it.

One day you wander down to the granny flat to take Paul his mail and you discover that he has made an absolute wreck of the place. Paint everywhere - great splashes and gobs of it, on the carpets, the walls, the furniture. You fly off the handle at him, but he calmly informs you that he is an action painter and uses the dripping, splashing and pouring techniques. You realise the object in his hand is your turkey baster that recently disappeared from the kitchen - he is squirting bright blue paint in pole-like stripes from it on a canvas laid out on the floor, even as you yell at him.

This is the final straw and you give him 24 hours to get out. After he has left, the flat has to be completely painted and refurnished. You have to get a new turkey baster too. Paul left a huge canvas behind - you give it to the guy who is taking the paint-spattered furniture to the tip, as he seems to have taken a liking to it. It is just a lot of squiggly splashes and it doesn't even have a proper title - it is called "No 5, 1948". What sort of title is that ?

Some years later, you recognise the picture on the tv news - Sotheby's had sold it for $140 million - a record price for a painting. You kick the cat, demolish the turkey baster and get drunk.

Paul Jackson Pollock: the tenant from hell!

I am Toulouse-Lautrec

I was born in 1864 into a wealthy and aristocratic French family. My parents were first cousins. My eccentric father was a very keen hunter of animals and women. He liked to dress up in fanciful costumes like chain mail. He abandoned me and my mother for long periods while he was off somewhere devoting himself to his hobbies of hunting and lechery.
Perhaps due to my parents' consanguinity, I had a congenital weakness of the bones. I broke both of my legs during childhood. The bones stopped growing and remained weak, while the rest of my body grew into maturity. I was less than 5ft tall. By way of cruel compensation, nature rewarded me with a thick beard, a deep voice and a strong libido. I was fond of boasting that "I may be only a small coffee pot, but I have a big spout!"

Sadly, my bulbous nose, short-sighted eyes and large head on top of my ill-proportioned body, made me unattractive to women.

Much of my childhood was spent on my grandfather's estate, where my cousins and I played and studied together. My family encouraged my interest in art and in 1882 I moved to Paris with my mother to study art.

In 1886 I rented a studio in Montmartre and moved into a nearby apartment, which I shared with a medical student friend. I frequented seamy bars and cabarets, and my life settled into a regular pattern of painting, drinking and late nights.

I contracted syphilis and was addicted to absinthe, a highly toxic liqueur, 140 to 160 proof, flavored with wormwood and other herbs. It is now illegal in most countries, but in my day it was freely available.

During this time I produced some of my most brilliant work, despite my debauched lifestyle. I specialised in posters, book and magazine illustrations, and theatre programmes. The performers at the Moulin Rouge, notably Jane Avril and Aristide Bruant, were some of my most famous models.

It was fashionable for the beau monde to go slumming in the nightspots of Montmartre, where I rubbed shoulders with bons vivants like
EOscar Wilde and King Edward VII, and indeed did portraits of them both.

I spent much of my time in brothels, not only to enjoy the sexual favours of the girls, but because they were excellent models. I even had a permanent studio in my favourite brothel.

After a violent attack of delirium in 1899, I went to a private clinic for detox and for a while it seemed to work: I even started painting again. Tragically, my health was too far gone and I died in 1901 at the age of 36.

My eccentric father sat by my deathbed flicking flies away with my shoelaces. My last words,"Old fool!" were addressed to him.

I am Chloe

I was painted in Paris by Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, the leading nude figure artist of the day. The famed Parisian model, Marie, posed for me. She died at 22, under sordid circumstances, but I am more than a hundred years old and as beautiful as ever.

I was an overnight sensation when I debuted at the Paris Salon of 1875. Lefebvre got the Gold Medal of Honour for me, the highest official award bestowed upon a French artist.

This success was followed by more acclaim as I featured as the central figure in the French Gallery at the Sydney International Exhibition, and then at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. On both occasions, I claimed the highest honours, and a growing group of admirers.

I did not go back to Paris, because I was purchased by a Melbourne doctor, Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, for the sum of 850 guineas. Fitzgerald loaned me to the National Gallery of Victoria in 1883 while he was on an extended visit to Ireland. Here my dishabille caused a sensation.

While I was recognised by the critics as superb, the general public of Melbourne was scandalised by the open display of a nude woman in a public place. My most vehement opposition came from the Presbyterian Assembly, who were outraged because I would be on view on Sundays. Protest meetings, letters and sermons followed. After a stormy three weeks, I was withdrawn from public exhibition in Melbourne, and sent to Adelaide. (The City of Churches! … whose brilliant idea was that?)

When the doctor returned to Melbourne, I remained in his private home for 21 years. At first passers-by complained that they could see me through the windows of his front room: Fitzgerald was forced to move me to a more private area of the house. What were they doing peering through his windows, anyway?

Upon Fitzgerald's death, I was purchased at auction for £800 by Norman Figsby Young, an ex-prospector turned art collector. He was the publican of Young & Jackson's Hotel. Henry took me back to his home above the hotel, but his deeply disapproving wife banished me to the public bar, where I charm the patrons to this day. During World War I toured Australia to raise funds for the Red Cross.

In 1995 I was on loan to the National Gallery of Victoria for a special exhibition: "Narratives, nudes and landscapes". Also in the exhibition, on loan, was "La Cigale", another nude by Lefebvre. In May 2005 the NGV bought "La Cigale" from the estate of her Melbourne owner, and she is now on public display at the NGV International.

It is nice to know that I have a sister just down the road – even though I have been in Australia for more than a century, I am still a French girl and sometimes I get homesick. I am able to visit her from time to time, when I am on loan to the NGV for special exhibitions. In 2004 I had to go to the NGV's conservation centre for repair when a bar patron broke my glass and scratched me.

Marie, who modelled for me, was only 19 when the rotter Lefebvre painted her. She fell madly in love with him at the time. He didn't knock her favours back either and you only have to look me to see why not!

He strung her along for a while and then he dropped her and took up with another model. The poor girl was devastated, but she didn't do anything as lame as drowning herself or pining away like other lovelorn Victorian maidens! No, she boiled up phosphorous match-heads, and drank the resultant poisonous brew at a dinner party to which she had invited Jules, his new girlfriend and all their friends, dying in convulsive agony. That showed them!

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Doomed Damsel: Ophelia

I am a fictional character and the subject of many paintings by eminent artists.

This one, in the Tate Britain, is perhaps the best-known. It was painted by John Millais in 1858; the model was Lizzie Siddal, who spent hours posing, fully clothed, in a bath of water. For her trouble she got £3 and pneumonia.

My fate was a tragic one, but I mostly brought it upon myself by falling in love with a rotter. On top of this my father was a control freak and my brother was subject to vengeful rages. Small wonder I went mad and drowned myself.

You may wonder what sent me off the deep end, in a manner of speaking.

Imagine that you are a teenage girl in love with an older man who returns your affections. Your father and brother believe that your boyfriend is a sleaze, who is Only After One Thing. They order you to stop seeing him and to return all his love letters and gifts. (They don't care that diamonds are a girl's best friend.)

You obediently avoid the boyfriend, but one day he comes to you, grabs you rudely by the wrists and stares unblinkingly at your face. You try to make civilised conversation, but you're rejected coldly, and he screams: "Get thee to a nunnery!" before stomping out, leaving you a sobbing wreck.

The next time you see him, he is basically cracking nasty jokes about you to his mates. Still reeling from this shock, you get the news that your boyfriend has now killed your father. You do what any well-bred girl would do in these traumatic circumstances: you style your hair becomingly, apply your make-up with care and throw yourself in the river wearing your most fetching gown.

(Unlike Virginia Woolf, who had a face like an old boot and jumped into the river wearing an unbecoming tweed coat. She stuffed stones in the pockets, totally spoiling the fit. This is why there are fifty paintings of Me by eminent artists and none of Virginia.)

Just as well that I drowned when I did, so I didn't have to see what happened next: my boyfriend's mother took poison, he killed his stepfather and fought a duel with my vengeful brother, killing him too. My brother killed him right back.

At that point, the fat lady sang "Revosti", and not a moment too soon.

Doomed Damsel: Elaine, the fair maid of Astolat

Elaine, just like the hapless Isabella whom we met before, is a favourite subject of the Pre-Raphaelites. She was the victim of her passion for a rotter. She had the misfortune to fall in love with Sir Lancelot, well-known adulterer and betrayer of his best friend, King Arthur.

The cad wore Elaine's sleeve during a joust, as a token of his insincere affection. Despite this good luck charm, he was injured in the fight. She nursed him tenderly back to health, but as soon as he was pronounced fit, Lancelot shot through to Camelot, where he enjoyed matinéé romps in Queen Guinevere's boudoir while Arthur dutifully slaved over the Round Table of an afternoon, signing decrees and dispensing justice.

Meanwhile, back in Astolat, broken-hearted Elaine retreated to the tower of Shalott, where she weaved upon a loom day and night, forbidden by a curse to look out of her window. She had to catch her glimpses of the world outside through shadows and reflections in a mirror on the wall. (It didn't even have the decency to tell her she was the fairest of them all.)

She grew tired of living her life through reflections, saying she was "half-sick of shadows". No sooner did she utter these words, or she saw in her mirror Sir Lancelot ride past, clad in shining armour and heartlessly singing "Tirra-lirra", if Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is to be believed:

… From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

Driven by love, the Lady of Shalott rushed to the window, in her haste breaking her loom and her tapestry, only to see Lance disappearing in the distance, on his way back to Camelot and Gwynnie. The mirror cracked from side to side as she cried: "The curse has come upon me!" Once again we only have Tennyson's word for this, and he doesn't say whether she was referring to her doom, the dastardly Lancelot, or a gynaecological matter.

She climbed down from the tower to the water's edge, where she found a boat and wrote 'The Lady of Shalott' upon its prow. She laid herself down and let the boat drift down the river to Camelot, singing one last song before she died of a broken heart. The song may have been "Tirra-lirra" or "Heartbreak Hotel" for all we know: Tennyson is silent upon the matter.

When her dead body drifted ashore at Camelot, it created a bit of a stir and among the rubberneckers was Lancelot. Pretending he had no idea who she was, he said piously:

"She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."

Poets and painters, from Tennyson to the  and beyond, had a field day with poor old : Elaine - we have numerous pictures of her in her tower and in her boat, but no explanations for several little mysteries that puzzle me:

Why did Lancelot wear her sleeve during the joust? Why not a scarf or a hankie? The girl probably took a lot of trouble to wear a nice frock; it seems a bit harsh to rip her sleeve off.

Who put the mirror curse on her and why? Why was she only "half-sick" of shadows? What would it take to make her completely sick?

Where did she find the paint for "The Lady of Shallot" on the boat's prow? Did she first paint over its legally registered name? Did she have to stand in the water to do it or did she just hang over the side and write upside-down? Did the boat owner's insurance pay for the damage?

Life is full of little mysteries.