Category Archives: Eighteenth-Century

One hundred and ninety three

Vertebral column with dissections of nerves and blood vessels, with the figure of a man representing Ecclesiastes

1731 by Johann Georg Pintz
Wellcome Collection; Skin Exhibition until 26th September

Pintz was a German artist, not a man of medicine, which illustrates perfectly the blurred line that historically lies between art and science. With no photography scientists often had to be artists in order to properly document their findings and, though one could dismiss these works as nothing but clinical drawings, the Wellcome’s current exhibition Skin proves otherwise. The exhibition is an intense exploration into what literally lies beneath our bodies through the perhaps juxtaposing medium of fine art. Beauty is paired with the grotesque as skin is peeled back to expose muscle and flesh, articulated through the skilled lines of engraving or the expressive strokes of painting. Wellcome’s passion for medicine, his collection of its artefacts, also turned into a collection of art. Pintz’s approach to the vertebral column is architectural, looking at the pillar of the human body rather like a Greek or Roman column; here the annotated capital is replaced with a blood vessel. The spine is even mounting on the curling, faded face of parchment, pinned on the graceful structures of architectural columns themselves. The viewpoint here, seeing our body through the eyes of one who intends to draw out beauty from the objects of the world, is intriguing, reminding of that key similarity between art and science — their determination to re-present the world.

 

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One hundred and thirty

Death of Vali; Rama and Lakshmana Wait Out the Monsoon
From Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas

c1775 by Jodhpur
The British Museum

Śrī Rāmacaritamānasa is an epic poem by the sixteenth-century poet Tulsidas, mostly telling the tales of Sri Rama, the crown prince of Ayodhya. Now widely considered one of the greatest works of Hindu literature, it no wonder that this was inspiration for Jodhpur almost a century later. Jodhpur truly captures the life of the text, the enticing pull of words that transports the reader to a different world; his painting is a detailed illustration teeming with life. Although nothing can match the ability of words to penetrate personal imagination, visuality has the power to be provocatively fantastical, presenting us with a world which dances out of our own. Jodhpur’s painting does just this; the scene brims over with the excitement of its own action. Clouds swell in omnipotent curls (this is the story of the triumph of monsoon), lightening wiggles almost playfully from its depths while elephants play on the ever-bounding hills, raising their trunks in salutation, dancing it seems to the tune of the weather. Deer and fawns multiply out of the forest; two lions stop to make conversation; peacocks perch gracefully on top of carnival coloured trees; and man, hindered by nature, shelters in the bubble of the forest, or in the safety of turrets that climb from his fairytale palace. This playfulness, encouraged by the incredible detail, is characteristic of Indian art (see postcard fifty-six), and the intense colours of Jodhpur’s painting only exalts this. The trees glow in orange and pink, embers in the sweeping of a magical fire, the landscape is a lush bright green watered by needles of rain, while the sky is black yet un-menacing, fronted by swirls of inky indigo. Transporting us away, Death of Vali is exotic, exciting, just as story telling should be.

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Ninety-seven

Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse

1784 by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Dulwich Picture Gallery

Mrs Siddons was an infamous actress at a time when it was only just becoming acceptable for women to take the stage. Reynold’s dramatic portraiture, which often put his subjects on an artistic pedestal, playing to their whims in a ‘larger than life’ celebration, is particularly potent here. The actress in Mrs Siddons is expertly drawn out; she sits above us on stage, surrounded by mysticism and intrigue, encouraged by the smoke-like effect, created in the ripples of translucent fabric that line the floor, clouding beneath her. Tied to the stage, she sits on a wooden throne that rises from it, her vast skirts lost in the material mist they melt into. Her skin is lit from below, the blush and glow of warm orange; she is illuminated by the perfected atmospheric light that the stage candles would have provided. Her beauty is thus highlighted, in contrast to the shadowy figures of metaphors behind, ghostly in both their depiction and facial expressions. Her position also reflects her desired stature, the profile of her face gazing dramatically upwards in an expression of knowing self-worth. Her are arms duly posed, encouraged again by the luxurious swathes that cloak them, one draped across the arm of her chair, the other poised upward, ready to act in any needed action of theatrical expression.

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Ninety-five

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Charlemagne Leads Angelica away from Roland

c1785 by Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada

Fragonard was a successful French painter, popular with Louis XV and his court; his paintings were fanciful, fantastical and often full of Romantic subjects, encouraged by his delicate, wildly coloured depictions. It is interesting then to see his work in monotone, without its sumptuous and electrifying colouration. We may see the delicacy of his creations, his figures materialising out of a wash of earthy pigment and pencil, faces meticulously drawn, spherical in their convincing three-dimensionality. Draped clothing is translucently pulled into the clouding behind, and silvery wings, weightless in their restraint of line – lighter than air – carry their owners in flight. What is particularly interesting is that though the drawing has little tone, Fragonard’s would-be use of light is evident. His paintings notoriously have an illuminating source, fuelling the fantastical themes, filling them with a sense of wonder. In this painting it would surely stream from the sky-bound explosion the angels euphorically swoop round, beams bursting, in light of Charlemagne’s act of leading Princess Angelica away (taken from Ariosto’s Italian epic ‘Orlando Furioso’). Compositionally Fragonard makes the illustration’s dramatic light clear, without the submergence of illustrious and highlighting colour – it is clear that his wondrous paintings do not owe their back-lighting to painted colour alone. What we see here is a vision, black and white, but full of vitality even before its complete realisation.

 

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Seventy-nine

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Maharao Umed Singh of Kota Hunting at Night

1790, in Kota
Victoria & Albert Museum

Like postcard fifty-six, also part of the V&A’s Maharaja exhibition, this painting is absorbingly illustrative. The picture transports us to a different world, enveloping in its distinct style and happily consistent palette. The blues and greens are illustrious; subtle but compelling, they give the picture a magical quality, a fantastical glaze between the image and realism. The cliffs glow indigo under an inky sky, while blue tipped leaves erupt from the spreading arms of branches; glittering in their numbers, they wave in the frozen breeze. Frozen dead still, as the scene has been stopped mid-action; the tiger is caught dead leaping to pounce, tongue lolling, he raises a paw to strike, only to have it stopped mid-air. The tigers, though the object of the hunt, monopolise the frame, visually striking with dagger-thin stripes on bright fur. The bull, though matching their size, is dark blue and blends into the palette of the surroundings; indeed, Maharao Umed Singh himself has become camouflaged in foliage, the man in the tree is barely visible. The image is romantic, less about the triumph of humans hunting and more about the magical landscape of nature – the encompassing night shrouding the fairy tale beauty of the pool, dotted with delicate lilies while the full moon watches over the scene, lighting enchanted trees.

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Twelve

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Joyce at Platzspitz

1937 by Carola Giedion-Welcker
Zurich James Joyce Foundation

The James Joyce Centre in Dublin feels like Joyce. This is mostly because Mr. Bloom’s front door is attached to the wall in the garden. It is strange but rather wonderful that someone decided to save the door of a fictional character, place it against another wall and display it as a historical spectacle. It is satisfying (if you’ve read Ulysses) to stand by Mr. Bloom’s front door; humorous, because of his character, and silly as you know he’s not real. This photo embodies that feeling; here stands Joyce himself, his elbows jauntily poised, his head cocked to one side and his left leg straight out supporting the pose. The position is slightly comical, full of personality and possibility, even though we can’t see his face. The waters are not Dublin’s but, bearing in mind this is Joyce, his stories come flooding back. The pose and its simplicity makes this an extremely fitting portrait of James Joyce; the fact that it is unceremoniously from behind only adds to the effect.

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