July 5, 2015

Every painting has a happy ending

This is my (only) favorite painting by the belated classicist painter John William Godward, The Fruit Vendor from 1917. It's a slight outlier in what Christopher Wood in his book Olympian Dreamers labels the "toga and terrace school" (followers of Alma Tadema), in that it does not imagine the frolics and treacheries of antique high society, but portrays a more down to earth subject. Indeed for me one of the chief attractions is that the cobblestone pavement and the carefully rendered stains on the plinth/balustrade seem to project the image into a contemporary park with a whiff of dog's (or is it the lion's, whose balls are hanging out) piss. The interplay of close colors in the fruit and the girl's clothing is much more interesting than Godward's usual work (where luxury garments will correspond to precious flowers), also the pronounced rhythm of the melon slices running four beats toward the full measure of the fruit itself (I suppose the peaches and melon have sexual overtones and the vendor is pining because she lost her innocence to a lover on the run?).

Anyway, the star of the painting, and my chief fascination, is of course the marble lion, so relaxed and self-satisfied, goofily smirking straight into the painter's brush. An upbeat cartoon lion totally ignorant both of the tender feelings of the soft head touching its belly, and of the empathy we as viewers are supposed to carry into the picture. What does it mean? That art is eternal, so in the end every painting has a happy ending? Of course, intentions of artists from this school are sometimes hard to fathom, as these men were often in an honest search for a higher truth and beauty producing what looks like half-assed porn today. Maybe the lion is an archaeologically exact reconstruction of an antique sculpture? Godward would have known e.g. the Lion of Knidos then already in the British Museum (much larger and from on top of some monument, but still I put it here as a lazy reference. It also has a very alive and unstatuesque gaze.)

(Speaking of half-assed porn, here is Godward's funniest painting, from 1908. While the artist has suggestively draped the uncleft flesh bulge that would, according to the laws of decency of the school that fostered him, have made up Athenais' crotch, he amps up the explicitness of the picture by letting her carry her beaver on a stick:


Godward's historical position appears as that of the last in an overripe tradition, and he sort of added an exclamation point to the fact when committing suicide in 1924 at age 61. Wood writes: "By the 1920s, the rule of Bloomsbury had begun. All Victorian painting was denounced as absurd, irrelevant, and totally lacking in significant form; and none more so than Alma-Tadema's, whose works were a byword for bad taste. For a classical painter, there was nothing to do but give up, or put your head in the oven, and at least poor Godward had the courage to do it."

Actually, we don't really know much about his reasons at all (go here for a full discussion within a very detailed biography). The headline for the report of his demise in the Fulham Gazette has another focus again: "Fulham Artist Dead before Blank Canvas. Amazing Gas Tragedy. Cheque for Work on Door!" Simply amazed that an artist in this modern age and time would not be overjoyed to sell any work at all.

But the story of the last Victorian succumbing to the pressures of modernism was simply too good not to be true, and so an unfounded myth came up which said Godward had left a note stating the world was not big enough to hold both him and Picasso. (I've no idea how far back that kind of trope goes which I associate more with shootout situations in Western movies.) And so it is for the supposed arch-modernist to supply the last twist to the story. Because shortly before Godward's capitulation, Picasso had embarked on his own version of a toga and terrace school, a sort of beach and nightgown school, which adds new life(?) to the selfsame moribund tradition, and also is as hard to fathom in its serene goofiness. Just look at The Source from 1921:

It's the lion and a water vendor rolled in one? In deference to poor Godward, we will not think about why this might actually be a decent work (for an earlier post on DalĂ­ making fun of Picasso's masterpiece of his beach and nightgown period go here). The most interesting aspect might be the chaiseloungey rock the woman rests upon, which makes no sense at all except to carry her sculptural form, the most damning evidence might be the way the artist has carefully painted a more nicely-rounded face into the heavy figure, as if he were after proper beauty.

Anyway, judged from a classicist viewpoint, this is nothing to shoot yourself over. Godward would not have known these works, he probably thought Picasso was still painting cubist masterpieces. The Internet could have saved him.

No comments:

Post a Comment