Monday, 28 October 2013

Fear and Loathing

Vanitas by Pieter Claeszoon

Having recently enjoyed the Monet exhibition at the NGV and the Australian Impressionists at the Ian Potter, we have had a surfeit of beauty and it is time we balanced it with a dose of the macabre, the chilling and the disturbing. And I don't mean those Renaissance martyrs who piously cast their eyes upward and maintain a saintly smile while they are being neatly and bloodlessly grilled over an open fire, pierced with a dozen arrows or having their eyes plucked out. No, I'm talking Goya, Picasso, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Gleeson: those masters of raw violence and searing agony, lurid images that fascinate as they repel.
A Grotesque Old Woman
by Quinten Massys

Starting on a satirical note, let's look at A Grotesque Old Woman by Quinten Massys. He painted this in 1525 and clearly nothing much has changed in the last 500 years: women still delude themselves that they can dress a chewy mutton chop as a spring lamb cutlet. Massys' old woman didn't have collagen and botox at her disposal, but she gave it her best shot with rich jewels, a fashionable hat and a really disturbing, wrinkly decolletage. Her futile vanity is only emphasized by the huge ears, the wrinkles and the simian features.
Saturn Devouring His Son
by Francisco Goya

Much more macabre is Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son, one of the fourteen "black paintings" that he did in oils, directly onto the walls of the dining and sitting rooms of his house. The plaster was later transferred to canvas and they are now in the Prado. Very frail. After the ravages of the Napoleonic wars, the internal bloody strife in Spain, and his own brushes with death, Goya was depressed, disillusioned and very much aware of his mortality. All of the "black paintings" are intense and haunting, "Saturn" perhaps most of all. It depicts the myth of the Titan Saturn who devoured all his children at birth, because there was a prophesy that one of them would overthrow him. Goya might have meant it as an allegory for the way the turmoil in its own body politic was destroying Spain.
Guernica by Picasso

The horrors of war is a fertile field of inspiration for fearsome and powerful works by great artists: Picasso's harrowing 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 Sower
by James Gleeson

During the 1940s, James Gleeson's work was imbued with images of war and violence. "The Sower" (1944) and "The Citadel" (1945) are fear and loathing personified. The former is a nightmare of distorted body parts, dragon heads, skulls and jagged, toothlike rocks: flesh, scales and rock are all rendered in tones of brown and grey and seem to be of the same substance. I am reminded of the Greek myth of the fierce, cruel warriors who sprang from the earth when dragons' teeth were sown. I imagine that Gleeson's title must refer to the prophet Hosea's strictures on the Israelites' warring with the neighbours: "For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind." Nothing much has changed in 2000 years, then.
The Citadel
by James Gleeson

Apocalyptic as "The Sower" is, "The Citadel" is more fearsome. The lurid images of mutilated body parts and an eye rimmed with teeth exert a hideous fascination. Rotten teeth chew on an arm, intestines are draped over mounds of cancerous flesh and horrid spiky plants grow at the base, like Triffids feeding on the corruption. Like Goya, Gleeson seems to see the wholesale killing in war as humanity cannibalising itself.
The Blinding of Samson
by Rembrandt

The Samson and Delilah story is a staple of biblical genre painting, but whereas most painters show a drowsy, post-coital Samson having his hair snipped by either Delilah or her henchmen, Rembrandt chooses to run the film past the hair-cutting and freeze the frame where they put Samson's eyes out. The dagger plunges into Samson's eye, his teeth are bared in an agonised scream, his toes are clenched and his whole body distorted in torment.
An Old Man and his Grandson
by Domenico Ghirlandaio

To dispel the taste of fear and loathing, let's end with a picture that leavens grotesquerie with affection: Ghirlandaio's double portrait of an old man, his nose a grotesque mass of bulbous growths, and a boy, presumably his grandson.  The picture is dominated by the noble ruin of the old man's face, in contrast to the perfect and childishly chubby face of the little boy, complete with wavy golden locks. The ravaged old face and the beautiful young one contemplate each other with affection – the painter has unerringly caught a fleeting moment of tenderness.

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