Sunday, November 20, 2005

Philadelphia Art Museum Post 2: Of Mermaids, Fauns and Satyrs (with a few birds thrown in)

Second part of a post about the Philadelphia Museum of Art this weekend. The story continues...

Till human voices wake us: Edvard Munch's 'Mermaid'

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

- T. S. Eliot

One of the more interesting exhibits currently on at the Museum is a mini-exhibition of the work of Edvard Munch, centred around Munch's superb 'Mermaid' painting. 'Mermaid' is a true classic, an evocative allegory of young womanhood, a vision of the mermaid as a metaphor for sexual awakening. The focus of the painting is the figure of a young woman emerging tentatively from the water - flaming red hair, budding breasts, legs tapering off into the water that end in the barely visible tail of a fish. The expression on the woman's face is plainitive, haunting - Munch captures perfectly the balance between fear and confidence, between desire and innocence. Behind the girl the moon extends a long, almost phallic line of light in the water, a line rippled and broken by the girl's feet. The appearance of a tree on the side gives the impression of something secret, a hidden harbour, a dream glimpsed through the trees of sleep. This is a trembling and intimate painting, there is a strong sense of being on the verge of something, of a discovery about to be made.

The museum's special exhibit essentially explores Munch's art through the lens of this painting, bringing together a set of diverse Munch paintings that are somehow related to the 'Mermaid'.

Most notable among these are a set of other paintings of mermaids by Munch. The most beautiful of these for me was a painting called Mermaid on the Shore. There are many similarities between this painting and the Mermaid - both feature young women arising out of the water, but Mermaid on the Shore takes the young mermaid out of her solitude and locates her in a broader context of girlhood, introducing a set of fellow-bathers into the picture (something about the picture made me think of Renoir's bathers. I'm not sure what). Ironically, this actually increases the isolation of the young woman - where the Mermaid is a timeless dream-figure, the Mermaid on the Shore is a young girl alienated from her companion, her gawky figure and vivid, lonely eyes emphasising the awkwardness of her situation. The colours are fuzzier here, the whole picture has a blurred, overblown feel, which only serves to emphasise its sense of angst. The exhibition features a couple of other mermaids and a small, glorious Munch nude, but Mermaid on the Shore was easily my favourite.

Other works in the exhibition were more tangentially related to the Mermaid. A number of paintings here contain elements that return in the Mermaid, including two dramatically different versions of Voice (the setting is exactly the same, but oh what a difference in the central figure!) and a set of brooding paintings featuring a male figure seated by the sea in sorrow.

Most interesting perhaps were a series of paintings that deal more directly with female sexuality. These included:

A stunning black and white drawing of lovers in the sea, a woman's face, pale and beautiful emerging out of the waves of her hair, which are also the waves of the sea that her lover (barely visible in side profile) is drowned in.

An allegorical painting of three phases of womanhood - the young, virginal figure of a girl, dressed all in white, staring up at the moon; the temptress, sex as confrontation, a woman completely nude, her legs spread out, staring straight out at the viewer; and finally an old woman, with bent back and shaky hands, beginning to slouch her way out of the frame. (Comparisons to Klimt's famous Three Ages of Woman are inescapable)

A wonderfully ambiguous painting of a man sitting with his head on a table and a woman bending over him, her hair flaming orange. My initial interpretation of the painting was that the woman was consoling him, trying to share in his grief. Friends of Munch, however, have interpreted the painting to be the figure of a female vampire, sucking the blood out of her male victim - and looking at the painting you can see that image working as well. I'm not entirely sure how Munch meant it to be interpreted, but to me the dichotomy is what makes the painting interesting - the idea that a woman can be a caring friend and blood-sucking vampire at the same time.

My favourite painting in the exhibit though, was the one below - Madonna - an incredibly sensual image of a woman caught in the moment of conception; the flawless execution of an intriguing and irreverent idea. Thin threads of sperm dance around the border of the painting, and a tiny id-like figure crouches in the bottom left corner, but what draws you into the painting is the undeniable sexual tension in that figure of a woman that is at once vision and instinct. This is a spectacular painting, a work of dark and hypnotic power.

Eugene Atget: The World in Black and White

Also on display at the Museum is a collection of photographs by one of the great pioneers of photographic art - Eugene Atget. At first glance, Atget's pictures seem simple, almost stark, unadorned images of everyday objects, the quotidian rendered with loving precision in black and white. Atget covers a wide range of subjects - from Paris street scenes and shop windows, to the interiors of houses, to pictures of prostitutes, to loving chronicles of ancient sculptures in the great gardens and palaces of France. His photographs seem timeless, definitive, as though time were irrelevant, and the object, having been seen that way once, could never be different again. This is a form of exact nostalgia, of memory polished to a high silver sheen.

Looked at more closely, though, Atget's pictures turn out to have a lot more to offer. Most intriguing to me is the way he manages, time and time again, to find the right spot, the one exact perspective, from which the lines of the photograph will seem to radiate out in razor straight lines. There is a subtle geometry to Atget's work, an implicit exploration of line and angle that is truly beautiful to behold. Atget is also, in many ways, a nascent surrealist, every now and then his photographs juxtapose wildly disparate objects, creating a series of dreamlike images. But Atget is also a realist, who is enthralled by the camera's unparalleled ability to show us things as they really are. A number of his photographs show ragpicker's houses, broken down old carts, etc, all in an attempt to capture the beauty inherent in all decay. Conversely, his pictures of ancient sculptures are quick to put the decay of these sculptures on display.

Perhaps Atget's greatest gift then, is to find the dream in what is real, to produce images of fantasy without in any way distorting the truth of the visible world. In part this is achieved through Atget's loving use of light. Light in Atget's pictures is a tangible presence, palpable as fog. Seen through Atget's lens, even something as simple as a tree becomes an explosion of brilliance and shade. There's also the probing, whimsical nature of Atget's muse, his ability to spot the entertaining, the off-beat. So we have pictures of the turn of a staircase, pictures of a market where boots are laid out by the dozens, pictures of a shop with corsets, a picture of a crowd staring at an eclipse. What stands out in these pictures is Atget's incredible eye for beauty, his ability to discover the sublime in the everyday.

Nowhere is this great talent of his better exemplified, I feel, than in his pictures of various gardens and sculptures. As Atget photographs them, these are no longer pictures of mortal places, but images that date back to that earlier, purer time when gods and goddesses walked the earth. It's the casualness of the figures that's stunning here - Atget doesn't glorify the gods, he makes them familiar, almost unremarkable. In achieving this effect, Atget does with light what the great sculptors of old did with marble - he makes the gods human.

Endnote: A dash of colour

I can't end this post without a passing mention of the final special exhibit on at the museum, a tribute the work of four photographers (Eliot Porter, William Christenberry, Joel Meyerowitz and William Eggleston) who played a pioneering role in developing the art of colour photography. The images that stood out for me here were the photographs of Eliot Porter, particularly his photographs of birds caught in flight, as well as the urban portraits of William Eggleston. Beautiful stuff.


Zuckerman said...

Renoir's Bathers? I don't think there is any similarity at all, though the comparison is inevitable.

Am horribly envious that you got to see the Madonna. I'm a Munch fan and haven't seen any of his paintings except one of the versions of The Scream; deprived life that I lead out here...

Immensely enjoy your writing, btw.

Mrudula said...

Renoir's Bathers and Munch? There is no similarity even in the brush strokes. You got to see Munch's work. Ahh! (anguish)you got to see the Madonna!

Falstaff said...

Anjali / Mru: Sigh. Two points:

a) I didn't say there was any similarity, I said "made me think of" - to the extent that my thoughts were coherent there were more about what a contrast there was between the two paintings, not how similar they were

b)Also, that wasn't meant to be a keen artistic observation; I was just free associating and Renoir's bathers popped into my head. No logical reason. If I really try and analyse it it was probably because the figures of the two women in the background on the right reminded me, vaguely, of the bathers, and that made me think about how different the two paintings were.

meditativerose said...

Munch exhibit seems awesome ... should try and fit that in ...