Sunday, 13 July 2014

How To Live Forever

Mary Cassatt frequently used Sara,
a little girl form her local village,
as a model.
Never mind the Philosopher's Stone. The road to immortality lies through the palette of a great painter. The models of the Masters live for centuries.
Sometimes the models are anonymous: Carvaggio chose his models from the streets of Rome – the saints we see, may be pickpockets or prostitutes or respectable citizens: we'll never know the stories behind the faces that look at us across a five hundred year gulf.
Rembrandt: Two Old Men Disputing
NGV, Melbourne
Some nameless regulars we come to recognise, like the old man who sat for St Peter in Rembrandt's Two Old Men Disputing, a treasure of the NGV. Both Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, with whom he shared a studio in Leiden, used the old bearded guy numerous times – he is always popping up in their work as various saints, apostles and prophets. Walk into any great art museum that has a Rembrandt or a Lievens, and you are likely to spot the venerable patriarch. He was probably just an old pensioner from the almshouse down the road, making a few stuivers by posing for the lads in the studio … little did he know that his real wage was not the few coins, but immortality.
Suzanne Valadon (Renoir)
Suzanne Valadon (Renoir)
Many of the models of the Impressionists have colourful stories. Suzanne Valadon was both a model and an accomplished painter in her own right.  She started her career as a circus performer, but after a bad fall, she took to modelling.  She was a favourite model of Renoir, who painted her many times. Degas encouraged her to paint and gave her lessons.

The job description of Model To The Impressionists did seem to include bedmate-duties. Suzanne is the mother of the painter Maurice Utrillo, but his paternity is uncertain. She told Miguel Utrillo, a Spanish artist for whom she had also posed, that she was pregnant but that she was unsure who the father was. He willingly signed a legal document acknowledging paternity, saying 'I would be glad to put my name to the work of either Renoir or Degas!'

Symphony in White
Jo Hiffernan, "La Belle Irlandaise", was 'n beautiful Irish woman who modelled for some of Whistler's most famous paintings, notably the Symphony in White. She was his mistress for years, until he left her for a younger model (as they do). This was Maud Franklin, by whom Whistler had two daughters, leaving her in the lurch when she was pregnant with the second child. Still, perhaps the distress she suffered was worth it: still pretty after 150 years, Maud lives on in the Freer Gallery in Washington, as  Arrangement in White and Black.
Arrangement in Black and White
After Whistler left Jo, she kindheartedly took in and raised his son Charles, who was the issue of a brief fling he had with Louisa Hanson, a parlour maid. Not exactly a prince among men, Whistler, for all that he loved his mum.
Les Dormeuses (The Sleepers)
Gustave Courbet
Jo went on to model for (and sleep with) Gustave Courbet. She was the model for two of Courbet's most famous works, Les Dormeuses and The Origin of the World.  Both were notorious at the time: the former because of its lesbian theme, and the latter because it is a close-up of Jo's nether parts. They are no eyebrow raisers today – you can see much worse on the internet any time you like. And, sadly, so can your ten-year-old.
The Origin of the World
(Gustave Courbet)
Marie was a Parisienne model who was famous enough at the time to be known by only the one name, like Madonna or Cher. She was nineteen when Jules-Joseph Lefebvre used her as the model for Melbourne's iconic Chloe. He also seduced her and then abandoned her, moving on to new conquests. Marie died at 21 in distressing circumstances, but as Chloe she graces the walls of Young and Jackson's, still full of charm and beauty after 150 years.

Friday, 4 July 2014

"Say Cheese!" ... Iconic Photographs

Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch

Photography has come along way since Louis Dagurerre started fiddling with his silver salts and iodine crystals in 1826. Thanks to technological advances, even beginners can turn out lovely photographs. There is no shortage of interesting and beautiful pictures for us to post online, where they ricochet back and forth endlessly between friends and strangers in e-mails and social media.
Among the countless images, there is a handful that absolutely stands out. Once seen, never forgotten. Here are some of them.

Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres (1933) is, as the title suggests, an homage to the painter: he pays tribute to the Ingres nudes, in particular The Bather and The Turkish Bath, but the photograph is also a visual pun that refers to the fact that Ingres was a talented violinist. Man Ray photographed the model Kiki in a turban, then painted the f-holes on the print and rephotographed it. Her arms are hidden, to emphasise the resemblance between the female shape and that of a violin.
Ingres: The Bather
Also from the 1930s is the photograph by Charles C. Ebbets of eleven construction workers, nonchalantly  seated on a girder eating lunch, 260 meters above the streets of New York. The picture was taken in 1932, during the building of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center. No safety harnesses: I suppose OH&S wasn't much of a concern back then. The country was in the grip of the Great Depression, and perhaps people were desperate enough for work to disregard safety issues.

You don't have to be an acrophobic to remember this one!

This photo, taken during the roundup of Jews after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, is perhaps the most emblematic one of the Holocaust. The picture is part of the official SS report on the "police action", which consisted of the destruction of the ghetto and the transportation of the people to Treblinka, where they were gassed. 

The seven-year-old boy with his hands up (in case he attacked the soldier with the gun?) is an unforgettable and heart-wrenching image. Some of the faces in the picture, including the soldier pointing the gun, have been identified. The little boy's identity is still a mystery. He may or may not  be Arthur Chmiotak, gassed at Treblinka, or Tsvi Nussbaum, who survived and eventually reached the US via Israel. Over the years several fame-seekers have claimed to be the boy, but their stories have all been disproved.

The award-winning Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry is sometimes called "the Third World's Mona Lisa". The photograph was the cover picture of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic Magazine.  

Her identity remained a mystery until 2002, when a National Geographic team travelled to Afghanistan to try and find her. Until then, the country was pretty much closed to Western journalists by the Taliban.

She was positively  identified, through iris recognition technology, as Sharbat Gula, twelve years old when the picture was taken. At 14,  she was married off to Rahmat Gul, with whom she lives in their remote village in Afghanistan.

They have three daughters and Sharbat hopes that they may someday be allowed to get an education.  So do I.

A young photography student, Robert Wiles, took this photograph just minutes after Evelyn McHale leapt to her death from the Empire State Building in May 1947.
Wiles was struck by her beauty as she lay, like Snow White, in the "bier" that the impact of her body had sculpted out of the roof of a Cadillac. Contrary to what one would expect after a fall from such a great height, there is no blood, no mutilation. Her skirt is decorously in place, her eyes are closed and her face serene, as if she is asleep. One elegant white-gloved hand is touching her pearls.

Robert Wiles named the picture "A Beautiful Death". LIFE Magazine published it in that month's issue. The image captured the imagination of the public and was endlessly reproduced. Andy Warhol included it in his "Death and Disaster" series.

Evelyn's suicide was an enigma: she was 23 years old, recently engaged to be married, and the cryptic letter she left behind did not explain her motive, merely saying "Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.”  Ironically, she added: “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me." 
Evelyn was not to have her last wish. Her picture and the remembrance of her tragic beauty live on. 

There are so many more iconic photographs that have become part of our collective memory: the mushroom cloud of the first atom bomb; Sherpa Tensing on top of Mount Everest; our planet seen from the Moon, like a beautiful blue marble; Neil Armstrong in his space suit; Marilyn with her white dress billowing up; Jackie Kennedy with her husband’s blood on her pink suit; little John Kennedy saluting his father's coffin; The man with the shopping bag in Tiananmen Square; the sailor kissing the girl on the day WW2 ended; three Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima ... And how about the fire-fighter giving the koala a drink on Black Saturday in 2009?  Magic!