September 18, 2010

Blown about the desert dust

When I recently searched this painting out again, it struck me that while I remembered the composition rather well, my mind had added colorful detail to the bear on the left: I was absolutely sure it would have a bloody snout and paws. Which of course doesn’t even make physical sense; and without the additional gore, it’s a much better painting. Still it’s clear where that mental image grew: the famous Tennyson verse from In Memoriam, where man was a creature “who trusted god was love indeed / and love Creation’s final law,— / tho’ nature, red in tooth and claw / with ravin, shrieked against his creed.”

The painting is better with paws licked squeaky clean, but it still strikes a precarious balance between gloating grimness and operatic smugness—the bear on the right relishes the tasty spare rib of an explorer with eyes closed in histrionic satisfaction. Think what a strange subject for a painting that really is, two ice bears devouring the frozen bodies of the members of a polar expedition, sort of seen from the animals’ vantage point. When Edwin Landseer painted this in 1864, the fate of John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition in search of the North-West passage was still very much on the public mind (the full story became official only in 1859), and it seems the artist made several references to the actual reports (the weather, the impotent rifle, etc.) that left no doubt whose bones the animals were chewing on. Is that what the artist wanted to offer, a graphic illustration of a miserable fate, now creep yourself out?

Don’t trust an artwork until you’ve read the title. And that is: Man Proposes, God Disposes. That’s really really grim. These polar bears are god’s cleaning squad, removing the remains of a human ambition that has of course rightfully been thwarted by the higher being. And they get to enjoy themselves doing it high time. The theme jibes rather well with the Tennyson quote above, both works are partly products of a first wave of Darwin reception. Only that Tennyson shrieks in pain against the slaughter that god will endorse, while Landseer seems to offer an ultra-puritanical stance which rejoices in the misfortune of those who seek a truth outside of scriptures. Luckily, it doesn’t work this way. God just adds a spiritual dimension to the horror. “It may be questioned whether the representation is not too purely harrowing for the proper function of art,” the Illustrated London News noted at the time. The public loved the painting and shuddered with delight. It is a pure (and successful) exploitation painting. And after the violence, here’s the porn:

It was good for both of them. This is The Shrew Tamed from 1861 and must be the most blatantly postcoital painting ever. Which one’s the shrew? The woman would have been read by the cognoscenti of the times as one Catherine Walters, highly celebrated close-to-last courtesan in London. Again, the critics did notice a deviation from the proper function of art in this portrait: “A high-bred horse of soft silken coat, dappled with play of light and shade as on velvet—subdued by a ‘pretty horsebreaker,’ is certainly unfortunate as a subject.” More remarkable than the subject itself, and perhaps more unfortunate for the critic, is the bearing of the horsebreaker, that of an independent, even dominant but carefree woman. The painting seems to celebrate her freedom, which comes with the privilege of an outsider status that is the product of projection from those powerful enough to be bored by the society they rule. 

The courtesan’s spaniel on the hay takes the position of a leopard in an earlier painting, Isaac Van Amburgh And His Animals from 1839, whose composition is sort of abbreviated in the later work. Alerted as we now are to the rather free and easy play with gender and sexual signifiers, it becomes difficult not to see van Amburgh as staging a rather decadent tableau here. It is interesting that the animal tamer’s reputation (allegedly he was the first to deliberately put his head in a lion’s mouth) does not suggest his stage act fit the somewhat effeminate image. On the contrary, when he came under attack for spreading cruelty and moral ruin in his own country, the United States, van Amburgh quoted the Bible, “Didn’t God say in Genesis 1:26 that men should have dominion over every animal on the earth?” and continued to mistreat his feline wards, and who knows maybe the lamb too. He was usually portrayed in not quite so languid a pose, among other artists by Landseer himself, but rather as a tyrant within the empire of his cage. I would guess that our portrait was part of a public relations program, since there is another by Landseer, where van Amburgh is shown caring for his flock like a good shepherd.

Again, who’s the shrew (here the tamer tamed?), anyway Landseer seems to go about his job with such evident gusto, delivering the limp hero in somewhat faggish terms, that I suggest the painting very well knows what plush abode it is setting up. See the strangely subdued society visible without the bars, are their looks not disapproving of that bohemian lifestyle of the fop within who shares his diggings with the viewer?

I’ve dwelled on these two paintings partly because I find it much easier to see an intelligent painter at work in a sort of frivolous painting than I do in kitsch (and of course much of Landseer’s main oeuvre to us today comes across as maybe quaint and able but definitely on the queasy side). The intelligence of this painter has been described by John Ruskin in his rather famous eulogy on The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner from 1837 (which I’m not showing, because it’s, well, oh so corny). “Here the exquisite execution of the glossy and crisp hair of the dog, the bright sharp touching of the green bough beside it, the clear painting of the wood of the coffin and the folds of the blanket, are language—language clear and expressive in the highest degree. But the close pressure of the dog’s breast against the wood, the convulsive clinging of the paws, which has dragged the blanket off the trestle, the total powerlessness of the head laid, close and motionless, upon its folds, the fixed and tearful fall of the eye in its utter hopelessness, the rigidity of repose which marks that there has been no motion nor change in the trance of agony since the last blow was struck on the coffin-lid . . . these are all thoughts—thoughts by which the picture is separated at once from hundreds of equal merit, as far as mere painting goes, by which it ranks as a work of high art, and stamps its author, not as the neat imitator of the texture of a skin, or the fold of a drapery, but as the Man of Mind.”

My favorite of the corny paintings is Saved from 1856. (Yes, that image looks kind of fishy, I couldn’t find another one. There’s something wrong with that dog, see the displaced front paws. Oh, but it’s a Newfoundland of the kind that has since taken over Landseer’s name, so . . . ) If I tried to analyze what makes this painting special for me, I’d have to think on Ruskin’s terms. The relaxed pose of the rescued boy (who’s unconscious yet) tells the story of how shortly before his struggle for life would end in exhaustion he suddenly realized he would be saved by a Newfoundland ex machina—and then the boy just let go and passed out. That, Ruskin says, is thought, but no matter how convincingly rendered (and, yes, subtle), I cannot see it as thought exactly, it’s such a cheap story. The highest thought in the painting, judging by the Ruskinian method anyways, would be the expression of the dog himself (I’m sure it’s a he). When I stare at his mouth I feel my tongue loll in exhaustion, my gaze strays, my brow begins to knit and my ears fall back behind me. Supreme though rules the dog’s one visible eye. It can be translated into several sentences that to me read: “Lord have mercy, I’m getting too old for this job. I know that you know and I know that I will do it again, and it will be the death of me. But you’ll grant me one more, I’m sure of that, we have a deal.”

So I detect the special quality of these works exactly at the point where Ruskin places it—in the gaze, in the poses, in the anthropomorphization of dogly details—but I no longer read them as thoughts. What I do read into them is an animation of animal psychology that is really a forebear of comics, the kind of cuddly comics that lets men have dominion over all the animals of the earth and sort of peaks with the Disney brand. (I’m foolishly dropping this here by the wayside, is there a history of comic books aware that John Ruskin had postulated a philosophy of the genre roughly contemporary with the first Rodolphe Töpffer publication?)

What is also interesting is that here we are at the exact opposite of our view of creation from what the first polar bear painting said. Now we have Nature flossed and pedicured. But it doesn’t matter. Like our Ruskin paragraph seems to suggest, the proper function of art works from the largest possible amount of narrative, and aims to bring in more narrative through means fair and foul, details and titles. The nature of that narrative will be secondary, as long as it related to man.

Funnily (but no, it’s not surprising), Landseer needs none of that. Here’s The Desert, a painting from 1849:

Study of a dead lion, is it? No, it’s much more. And Tennyson chimes in, we take him up at the exact spot we left him. He now wonders, should man “who loved, who suffer’d countless ills, / who battled for the True, the Just, / be blown about the desert dust, / or sealed within the iron hills?”

The answer has bitten the dust.

(PS: I've posted some follow-up thoughts on Landseer's Saved, paintings of apes, dinosaurs, and their fitness for the evolution of comics here.) 

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