Massive books in my living room that could pass for furniture:
ROMANTICISM by Jean Clay
ESSENTIAL PRE-RAPHAELITES by Lucinda Hawksley (cover image)
"Essential" Pre-Raphaelites. Oh, how that word galls me. It’s a lovely tome, with all the major paintings and plenty of biographical "chisme" to satisfy. It’s just that word "essential". How dim do they think I am? Ordinarily, I stay away from — eschew, even — "essential" or "the complete" or even the patronizing "selected works of". Double ick! However, to be fair, some people need that. They need that flashlight down the path of cultural knowledge. Whatever works, I guess. Lord knows, I have no business being a snob.
I was fortunate enough some time back to vakay in London for a few days. I went to the "old" Tate and saw some of the major Pre-Rafs. Wow! What a difference. Photographs just don’t do them justice. The colors on the canvases were so rich you could almost taste them. Delicious, mouth-watering reds and purples. Blues that hugged you. Sensous, sensual greens that begged to be stroked. (Not allowed, btw.)
My favorites are Rossetti, Frederick, Lord Leighton, and "Love’s Shadow" by Frederick Sandys. (Hmmm, what is this weird attachment to Fredericks?) The expression and body language of the sitter in "Shadow" could be me. That’s my attitude. My expression. My teeth gritting in vexation. And I want that gorgeous bracelet!! It would take 50 pounds of extensions to get my hair looking like that, though.
Rossetti must have had a hairdresser as a collaborator. For a painter, he does great hair. Some painters do great hands, some lovely skin, some do amazing fabric. DGR does hair like nobody’s business! And he loves to stick one of these doodads in: A Fibonacci spiral hairpin. Is that cute or what. I’ve seen at least 3 paintings where he stuck one in a lady’s hair. Why? What does it mean? Is it a signal? Is it his signature?
The Jean Clay book is falling apart, but it’s one of my most treasured books. I first read it about 20 years ago when my dad brought it for me from our local library. I read it cover to cover — 3 times that year. I drooled over the Ingres’ and Fuselis and Goyas. I had admired some Goya drawings in a petite gallery in Bath and I liked his sarcastic paintings of frumpy Spanish royalty. My favorite chapter is Ch. V — Construction by Assemblage. A popular theme for this period was ancient Greek buildings in ruins. This represented a rebellion against formal classical Greek themes such as those painted by Jacques-Louis David.
See how cleanly rendered the arches and pillars are. Even the floor looks clean. An idealized, even deified, backdrop of ancient Greek architecture, or even Gothic architecture painted as if it were current, was a characteristic of the neoclassical period to show that Greek philosophy was held in high esteem. The angular precision of David’s Death of Socrates or Ingres’ Virgil Reading From The Aneid, which looks like a painting of statues/not people, showed more effectively than telling the superiority of reason and logic.
In the Romantic period of art, you could see the continued use of Greek pillars and buildings, but instead of being featured as tidy interiors, they were featured as ruined exteriors. Foliage curling around pockmarked pillars, severed, arches drowning in vines, and collapsing temples. The symbolism is so thick, you could cut it with a…a…a symbolism-cutting device.
And the book’s cover! Oh my God, the cover! It’s a Friedrich — my favorite Friedrich! Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. An iconic image representing self-determinism. It’s the one where a man stands at the peak of a mountain and looks out over other mountain tops floating in a sea of mist. It’s a rather obvious message to the old order: Monarchs! I don’t need no stinking monarchs! I can be the hero of my own life story.
The back cover is a Goya — The Crockery Vendor. The composition is simple, yet clever. All the males are facing away from the viewer and arranged in such as way so as to draw all your attention to the females. I don’t know why he did that, but it’s interesting. The little girl’s face is so cute, I can’t believe Goya painted it. The landscape, done in mucky browns, tans, and tarnished gold, looks bleak and forlorn, like you might see in an old Western. Those movies that took place on draught-ridden ranches. Ugh. And in the middle of it, a sweet little face holding up her piece of crockery, a glow of hope in the middle of ruin. Light appears to emanate from her eggshell skin, but the glow doesn’t reach very far. The men are all turned away from the light; the women all face it. Accident? No. There are no accidents here.
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