Friday 22 May 2015

I'm Your Venus, I'm Your Fire, Your Desire

Well, here we are on the brink of a nice, sunny bank holiday weekend and so to get us off to a jolly fine start, I thought it might be splendid to have some rampant nudity…

Love's First Lesson Solomon J Solomon
Steady now, there is going to be a lot of that sort of thing in this post.  Today I’m going to talk to you about Venus, Goddess of Love and All The Good Stuff. She crops up quite a bit in art over the ages and the Victorians weren’t immune to her nudey charms.  Well, take this well-known image, for example… 

That’s Venus Verticordia (1865) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his only nude in oil and a gorgeous representation of the goddess as the turner of men’s hearts (‘verticordia’).  She is the very embodiment of beauty and female persuasiveness, holding her apple and flashing a bit of nipple (which in the real world doesn’t get you as far as you’d think.  Apparently.)  Rossetti also seems to say that the attributes of this goddess are very transient, the gorgeous blooms going to seed before our eyes and the butterflies epitomising the brevity of all life. Possibly she is so wonderful because she represents something so brief yet so utterly glorious – lust, youth, beauty – all gone before we notice. Well, that’s depressing, let’s see some more boobs to cheer ourselves up…

A Venus Albert Moore

This is one of my favourite Venuses as it is basically Action Man from the nipples down.  I’m sure I read a story that Mrs Moore didn’t want her husband looking at lovely ladies bits all day and so made him paint this from a chap.  That is hilarious because surely at some point Moore would have questioned whether women had a six-pack or not.  All in all, she does look like ‘Goddess of Love’ might be her wrestling name… 

The Birth of Venus (1923) Charles Shannon
According to mythology, Venus was born from sea-foam.  Coming from the water, she is seen as the balancing and tempering counterpart of Mars, a very manly God, seen elementally as ‘fire’.  When showing her in art, her birth and the associated sea-side jollity were understandable a popular choice. Shannon’s late piece, resplendent with deep water-tones and the glowing shell-pink torso, is a wonderful example.  Best known is probably this Rococo-esque  pastel explosion…

The Birth of Venus (1863) Alexandre Cabanel
Lawks! And similarly, this one…

The Birth of Venus (1879) William Bouguereau
Both pictures share an atmosphere of light, summery breezes and splashy cherubs.  Rather more people turned up to Bouguereau’s birth (dress optional, obviously) and he imagines her riding the giant clam shell, reminiscent of Botticelli’s vision.

Dear Lord, there is this one too…

The Birth of Venus (1933) George Spencer Watson

A bit out of our time-line, Watson was a very nice Victorian painter who obviously went a bit odd in his later years.  He died the year after this was completed.  Presumably this killed him.

Venus Born of Seafoam (1887) William Stott

Far more delicate is Stott’s fae lassy, toddling out of the sea with her hair swirling.  Looking remarkably like the Little Mermaid taking her first steps on dry land, it’s hard to reconcile this little sea-imp with the goddess of love, lust and fertility.  She is very beautiful however, as is her reflection in the glassy wet sand and I love the dappled foam of the breaking waves behind her.

The Bath of Venus (1895) William Blake Richmond
The study of antiquity and the availability of images from previous centuries informed the pictures in the nineteenth century in some very obvious ways.  Looking at Richmond’s goddess, you are immediately reminded of not only Botticelli, but also statues such as Venus di Milo.  The arms-up-knee-dip pose is a common one for Venus, elongating her body, raising everything perkily upwards, framing the face and freeing the hair.  It’s about display, of inspiring desire in the viewer. When you look at a picture of Venus you are meant to feel what the goddess symbolises.

Laus Veneris Edward Burne Jones
In the legend of Tannhäuser, the eponymous knight discovers the underground home of Venus (the Venusberg).  In the poem ‘Laus Veneris’ (‘In praise of Venus’) Algernon Swinburne told the story of Tannhäuser, and Edward Burne-Jones painting owes a great deal to the description in Swindburne’s work, which equally were inspired by Burne-Jones' watercolour of the same subject. Burne-Jones shows a sad, loney Venus, awaiting someone to love her (for what is the goddess of love without someone to love her?), while the knights outside pause at the sound of the beautiful music played by Venus’ companions. 
In the Venusberg (1901) John Collier
Popularised by Wagner's opera in 1845, Tannhäuser was a knight who spent a year worshiping Venus. Looking at Collier’s picture, it is quite obvious why our errant knight took a nice long time to worship the gorgeous goddess and when, after trying to repent for his saucy wanderings, ended up going back to the Venusberg and was never seen again. I mean, for goodness sake, would you leave?

Venus and Tannhäuser (1896) Lawrence Koe
Looking a bit more repentant in this one...
Poor Venus wasn’t exactly lucky in love.  Often men had to be borrowed from Roman mythology, so that she wouldn’t get lonely in pictures.  There are images of Venus and Adonis, but I really like this picture of Venus and her mortal lover Anchises…

Venus and Anchises (1889) William Blake Richmond
According to the myth, Venus pretended to be a princess and seduced the lucky Anchises for two weeks of sex.  No wonder he needs to lean against a tree. Nine months later she turned up with a baby and told him not to tell anyone of their epic romp or else he would get blasted by a thunderbolt.  I think I saw something similar on Jeremy Kyle…

Also Venus is seen with Mars, her lover and fellow deity…

Mars and Venus (1918) Mabel Layng
I love this modern allegory, with a First World War soldier beside his sweetheart. She has her apples around them and he is in his uniform, possibly on leave. It must have seemed so relevant to wonder at the relationship of love to war in 1918. Mars sits with his back to the viewer, unreachable and solid. Venus touches her heart with one hand and leaves the other hand open for him to take. Maybe Layng was optimistic that Venus’ gentleness would temper her war-bound lover as he is beginning to turn to her.

Venus and Cupid Evelyn de Morgan
One relationship that is ever-present in imagery of Venus is the one with her son, Cupid.  Cupid is a reflection of his mother, he is the mischief that desire causes and often Venus is called upon to correct him…

Venus Spanking Cupid Hans Zatzka
Yes, well, moving on.  I was thinking more in terms of one of my favourite non-Victorian works of art…
An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1545) Angelo Bronzino
I’ve always loved this picture despite the fact that it is really disturbing, not least because of the bloke screaming in pain on one side and the little snake/lion girl on the other.  Oh and the boob-squeeze too.  Wrong, wrong, wrong. Anyway, often Venus is seen removing or breaking the arrows of love from the hands of her little boy, implying that he does not have the maturity to understand the power of his actions. The use of Cupid in a scene is a way of showing the two sides of love, or how sometimes we mere mortals do not appreciate the importance of love.

The Veiled Venus (1900) Kohne Beveridge and Ella von Wrede

All in all, the repetition of Venus in art through the ages reveals our obsession with love in all its many forms. Love can be wild, sudden, physical, deep and everlasting but it will always be seductive and beautiful. The Veiled Venus above is a fascinating sculpture – the veil over the beautiful face is technically clever and very striking, but does emphasis how much we are not looking at her face, if you excuse the liberty.  Possibly it is a comment on how we mistake lust for love, how people assume they are in love when they are actually lusting after some rather striking curves. Still then, however problematic our relationship with the emotions of love and lust, the truth of Venus is that she can overcome our destructive nature.  Venus is always triumphant in her relationship with Mars, and we will always side with the goddess who would rather kiss you than kill you.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Behind the Mask

A wise friend of mine once said that the internet acts as a mask; we can be whoever we want to be, project whatever image we wish and be a carefully constructed person who may or may not bear any relevance to the person we actually are. There is a freedom in such a barrier, the ability to think about every word you say, every opinion you give, even down to the pictures you post.  All that others see of you is exactly what you want them to see. All this got me thinking about Victorian imagery of  disguises...

Portia (1887) Henry Woods
Shakespeare is riddled with people in disguise.  Portia from The Merchant of Venice dresses as a chap to become an apprentice to a lawyer.  She adopts the disguise in order to be free to behave in a way she would not be able to as a woman, and roles reverse even more dramatically when Portia saves a man's life. She moves from passive to active, all because of her disguise.

Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1851) William Homan Hunt
Julia from Two Gentlemen of Verona doesn't fare so well.  She adopts the disguise of a page in order to keep an eye on  her feckless lover Proteus.  It is as a man she discovers what a waste of space he is as he attempts to rape Sylvia.  When Julia faints from the horror of it all, Proteus remembers that he actually loves her and they end up married.  What a catch. I think she was better off being a chap.

The Little Foot Page (1905) Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale
Similarly, one of EFB's most famous paintings is of Burd Helen, disguising herself as a foot page to her rubbish lover.  What is wrong with girls? Here is our heroine hacking off her lovely hair as apparently that's how you can tell boys from girls.  That is exactly the answer my daughter gave me the other day when I asked her if she knew the difference between boys and girls.  She's nine so at least she has an excuse.

Alfred the Saxon King Disguised as a Minstrel... (1852) Daniel Maclise
This painting always makes me smile as it was in the book of plates I was given for my first university course featuring Pre-Raphaelite art.  I also think Alfred is disguised as a shiny round chocolate when I hear 'disguised as a minstrel'.  Possibly there is a difference in the reasons  why men and women disguise themselves.  Women disguise themselves to spy on their useless menfolk or save useless menfolk.  Alfred is on a covert mission which involves looking shifty with a harp, like a sinister busker.  His reasons for disguise are obviously far more important than checking up on his girlfriend.

How the Devil... (1907) Frank Cadogan Cowper
Bonkers title of the week goes to this gem, entitled (deep breath) How the Devil, Disguised as a Vagrant Troupadour, Having been Entertained by some Charitable Nuns, Sang to them a Song of Love. Well, that's a corker.  Standing on the refectory table, the devil has gained entry to the nunnery, playing on the charity of the women.  In return he sings a song that reminds them what they are missing.  Some nuns are happy, some are sad, some angry, jealous, wistful and so on.  Every emotion possible has flooded what was formerly a peaceful place.  He is temptation, a reminder of more fleshly concerns, reminding you of what you can't have. Through kindness the nuns have let in a seemingly benign thing which holds the secret to their unease, to the destruction of their peace of mind.

I particularly like this picture as it seems very current and relevant to my opening remarks.  I am reminded of an episode of a television programme called 'Catfish' where a girl had been welcomed into a group of online friends and had made it her fun to drive wedges between them by using fears and rumours. It seems a terrible shame when kindness extended to strangers can mean letting in someone whose purpose nefarious.  However looking at the nuns in the image above, not everyone is driven to painful distraction by the tempting song.  Some remember their strength, smile and move on.

Girl with a Mask Henry Nelson O'Neil
So much for full disguise. More common in Victorian art is the mask. Often shown with richly dressed young women off to balls, the black silk mask is seen as both a harmless accessory but also an alter ego.  This peachy-skinned beauty looks blameless but the mask gives a hint of something else.  What does she need it for?  What will it enable her to do?

Woman with a Mask (1908) Lovis Corinth
If my dress was as low cut as this I think I might wear a mask too. There is a hint of sexual freedom in the mask, the masquerade.  You can become a person not bound by society's rules, the mask almost making it compulsory to misbehave and be helped back into your frock with some serving spoons.

At the Masquerade Charles Hermans
Such masked events, no matter how posh, seem to be a cross between a circus and an orgy, taking on an almost nightmarish quality. People view and are viewed, everyone is anonymous and the addition of costumes lends an air of unreality to such gatherings.  You are able to get away with anything as none of this is real, none of it matters.  However badly you behave in this space it doesn't matter as you are not you and no-one else is real either.  Possibly that is how some people see the internet, one giant masquerade ball.

Masked Figures William Orpen
The problem with feeling comfortable behind your disguise is that you don't know how many others are in disguise.  In the confines of a masked ball it is quite obvious that you are all playing by the same rules, it's understood that you are all masked.  However here on line the person you are talking to may or may not be who you think they are and likewise, you may not be the person they think you are.  I have some very dear friends here on line who I have known for years without ever meeting.  It is a matter of trust between us that we are who we say we are.  I often joke that I am really a co-operative of gerbils, using our little paws to type the posts, although that is now proved untrue by the video of me online. How very unmysterious of me.  Sigh.

Cupid at the Masked Ball Franz Stuck
Like the devil in Cowper's picture, you can never know what or who is lurking behind the disguise.  Sometimes people hide themselves because they are the devil, but sometimes it might be because they are goodness, love.  There is no reason for Cupid to be disguised, but he is playing by our rules seeing as we insist on subterfuge.  In a play on 'love is blind', Cupid is waiting to create love between people who are not being themselves. Lord knows who you are falling in love with, but isn't that always the way?

Choosing a mask Charles Ricketts
It is inevitable that we all don masks on line to some extent or another because we all consciously or unconsciously project a persona that we think others will find interesting or attractive. Some of us put on a mask of mischief or argument in order to get attention that way. Some are flatterers, adorers, the most pleasant company imaginable.  All are aspects of who we are as people in real life.  How much the mask conceals or reflects us is something that others have to discover.

I know a Maiden Fair to see, Take Care Charles Perugini
Online, none of us appear to be wearing masks and that is the problem, like with Perugini's beautiful girl above.  This post was inspired by an incident on line recently of disguise and mischief, of certain people using the anonymity of the internet to bully privately while smiling publically.  As I am sure you are all thoroughly lovely people, here are some simple ways of protecting yourself against the ne'er-do-wells and trolls:
  • Be sure of whom you are friending online.  Do they know your friends, does anyone know them in person, how complete is their Facebook page?  These things are very important if you have had any trouble in the past.
  • Google search their profile picture - sounds crazy but can give you an immediate idea if they are being untruthful.  Right-click on their image, copy it and go to Google images.  There should be a little camera icon in the search bar.  Press that and paste in the image.  A search with that will show you if their picture is already being used on line by anyone else.
  • Do not be afraid to tell others if you are being bullied and don't be afraid to block. Most social networks have that option, you just need to look.
I have been the recipient of some unpleasant online behaviour and so if you need advice or just want to talk to someone, my email is on the side bar. Stay safe out there and use your mask responsibly...

Thursday 7 May 2015

Get Well Soon!

This post is for a most beloved friend who is currently undergoing a hillock in her health landscape.  In times of trial and trouble, it's good to know that the Victorians are on hand to show how to handle things in a dignified manner...

A Convalescent (1876) James Tissot
You can always rely on Tissot.  This is what you need to do - snooze in a wicker chaise by a huge pond in St John's Wood.  Look there is even cake and tea!  That's doing it proper. And a rug!  An outdoor rug: that's being ill with a bit of poshness.

A Convalescent John Kenworthy
Look, I'm not saying anything but I don't believe Kenworthy's young lady is even ill.
*Cough Cough* Yes, I'm terribly ill and that is in no way linked to how good my book is. Can I have a medicinal ice cream?

Convalescent (Emma) (1872) Ford Madox Brown
Blimey, Emma does look rather rough here.  Clutching a small posey of flowers is a particularly nice touch, being both smothered in pathos and rather aesthetically pleasing.  Come on Emma, we all know why you are convalescing.  Have a fried breakfast and a couple of asprins.  That's not ill, that's hungover, love.  Next!

The Convalescent (1884) Francis Tattegrain
I hope my lovely friend is convalescing next to some rather medicinal Dutch tiles.  It looks a bit gloomy in her room but the pot plant looks jolly and positive and at least she is getting some fresh air. I love the tiles on the windowsill, what a lovely idea, they completely detract from the rather lacklustre creeper up the wall. Also nothing says 'get well soon' like a miniature rose in a bucket.

The Convalescent (1898) Philip Wilson Steer
I do hope you are recovering in a massive hat.  I believe massive hats to have otherwise unrecognised health benefits, and it's also somewhere to hide your laudenum.  It looks like this young lady is convalescing in a carriage, which is definitely a rather elegant way of handling matters.  What is the point of being ill if you can't do it in public in a massive hat? Add a rug and a cake to that and you have the answer to all healthcare needs.

Getting Better (1876) J E Millais
The Victorians loved a good convalescing picture, for obvious reasons that the threat of sudden illness was perceptively more commonplace.  There are scores of poorly children pictures like this one by Millais.  I always thought that the little girl doesn't look that pleased to see her friends.  Maybe this is because the girl with her back to us is saying 'Oh, yeah, while you've been in bed I've scoffed all your sweets and nicked your boyfriend. Soz.' Soon as the little girl has got over the consumption, she'll be visiting her friend with 'a punch up the bracket' as my Nan used to say.
The Convalescent (1879) Helen Allingham
If you were poorly, you rarely got to be left alone, with scores of helpful relatives to stay by your side and read to you.  It all looks very pleasant and peaceful in Helen Allingham's picture, with lovely bright daffodils signifying the renewed health of the little girl and the happy slumbering of both patient and companion.
The Nurse Lawrence Alma Tadema
I guess that on some occasions you got read to whether you liked it or not.  Alma Tadema's patient looks a little like she wants to keep pulling that curtain. Maybe it's what the nurse is reading? 'Hi, I'm your reader for today, I've brough It by Stephen King or Fifty Shades of Grey, your choice...'
The Physician's Visit Ignacio y Escosura
Look, I don't mean to cast aspertions on this doctor's abilities but how exactly does the massive lute help anyone? I take it that is what the young man is holding, not some medical instrument - 'Open up and say Ah....' - doesn't bare thinking about, although we've all been there.  Now this young lady has a foot pillow and a tiger skin rug.  A snarling rug does lend a whole 'I'm ill but don't mess with me!' air to procedings.
Always Welcome Laura Alma Tadema
If only my beloved friend lived nearer then I could nip by and see her and sit on her bed like a tiny whimsical child (although with reference to my ability to do anything in a 'tiny and whimsical' manner, that ship has sailed many years ago). I love her little shoes, they are so nifty. I hope the little girl isn't looking after her mother - when my daughter does that it is brutal.  She does ensure we get better really quickly at the hands of Tiny Nurse Ratched.
The Convalescent (1874) Jules Saintin
So here is wishing my darling one a good book, a comfy chair and a speedy recovery.  If possible a nice outdoor rug and wicker chaise would not go a miss, but mainly I send all my love and healing thoughts. Get better soon!

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Review: Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)

Now, you know me, I'm somewhat west country in my origins, born in Wiltshire and able to milk a cow.  All this gives me obvious reason to love the works of Thomas Hardy.  About 10 years ago I gave a paper at a conference all about Hardy novels and movies.  Did you know Thomas Hardy got to visit the film set of an adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles?  Incredible to think of it really.  Add to this the 1967 film of Far from the Madding Crowd was filmed in my home town of Devizes, then Hardy and me were always going to get on well cinematically.  So imagine my delight to find there was a new version of Far from the Madding Crowd at the cinema this spring...

You probably already know the story, but it concerns Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a young woman who inherits a farming estate from her uncle, and the three men who attempt to win her love.  In the 'honest and rather gorgeous' corner we have Gabriel Oak (Matthias Shoenaerts), as saintly and solid as you can imagine from the name...

'Hello Ladies, I'm great with sheep...'
In the 'independently wealthy if a bit intense' corner is William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), not a man to be trifled with...

'Try and forget I was once Tony Blair...'
And finally in the 'hot as York in August' corner we have Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge)...

Deary me...
Bathsheba can have one of them, all of them or none of them, but what are the consequences of her actions?

Old George and Bathsheba
To start with, Bathsheba is a difficult character to like.  One of the reasons I appreciated the Hunger Games books is that Katniss Everdene (named for the Hardy heroine) shares the same awkward unlikableness, but both have a quality to make you not only stick with her but also identify.  She's a woman who has been given unbelievable choices in a time when she can't have expected anything like that and she's too young (and female) to have experience that will make her ability to choose possible.  I'm not sure I was completely won over by Carey Mulligan's portrayal but she does have ample apple-cheeked charm and looked determined as she dipped sheep, drove a wagon and sold grain. 

I'd marry him just for the wallpaper.
As for her three suitors, I felt that Michael Sheen stole every scene he was in and I would have married him without question.  That's just me and I may have been hepped up on giant chocolate buttons when I thought that.  Boldwood is meant to be the least appealing physically and he was the beardy one stuck between two gorgeous young chaps.  However his slow derailment at the fickle hands of Miss Everdene was just heartbreaking.  When he stands up and sings with her despite being so cripplingly socially awkward, you can't help but feel for him. The final discovery in his house at the end made us weep when it could have so easily come off as creepy and weird.  Just as Tom Hollander made you feel guilty for finding Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice vaguely appealing, Michael Sheen makes Boldwood blameless and wonderful, despite it all.
Dodgy jacket, great dancer.
Frank Troy however is a gitweasel.  We all knew this going in and Tom Sturridge (Millais in the recent Effie Gray biopic) does a good job of looking both gorgeous in a uniform and being a feckless ratbag.  He reveals Bathsheba's weakness, her inexperience and is an unflattering mirror of her.  He is vain, young and in need of flattery.  Our introduction to him as he waits and waits and waits at the church tells you all you need to know about him. He is a man of wonderful surface and very little else.  Even his great gesture of love towards the end of the film does not have much substance behind it.  If I had a complaint about Troy, it would be that Sturridge is a remarkably slight man, really no bigger than tiny Carey Mulligan and so he looked vaguely ridiculous next to Gabriel Oak, but maybe that was the point. I'm just saying I'd probably require a somewhat bigger man to sweep me off my feet (quite literally), which leads me to bachelor number three...
'Lawks, you're sturdy, aren't you?'
Last seen in A Little Chaos, Matthias Schoenaerts does a lovely, if stoic, job as Gabriel.  Enormous, dependable and fond of his dog, he is the perfect man for Bathsheba, but she has to take two hours to realise it. I was sorry they missed out the part early in the book where Bathsheba saves Gabriel's life because it gives more of an idea about how equal they are in terms of strength and ability to do right by people.  I'm guessing it would be a bit of a stretch to imagine tiny Carey being able to shift the poor chap.  Gabriel has what feels like only a handful of words to say in the film, but his goodness influences both Bathsheba and Boldwood, but not Troy which immediately tells you who is the bad apple. I was sorry he did not have a west country accent as it is something I love about a Hardy film, and I did feel a little unconvinced by the passion between Bathsheba and him when they finally did admit their love.  However, he did love his dog. I was completely convinced by that.
Man, Sheep, Countryside...
As with all 'Wessex' films, the countryside is very important.  I was sorry there was not any recognisable landmarks, such as Maiden Castle, in this one, but the use of colour was gorgeous.  All was green, grey, blue and brown, making Troy's red coat stick out so badly as to alert you to his danger.  The film poster uses the moment in the forest when he is there at odds to all that surrounds him and yet irresistible. All the costume was beautiful but that bloody red jacket put you on edge every time you saw it.
'I'm sure marrying a ratbag will all end up wonderfully, right?'
The supporting cast were familiar and marvellous.  Juno Temple made an ethereal Fanny Robbin, not as silly as previous interpretations of the part, and given less screen time than she deserved. Her fate and its effect on the characters was somewhat lessened by the brevity of her introduction but still she had an Ophelia-esque quality to her wedding gown that was nicely foreboding.
Insert cheeky Liddy quote here...
My absolute favourite character has to be Liddy, cheeky wing-woman of Bathsheba, queen of the withering look and splendid bonnet.  Jessica Barden will be instantly recognisable to Hardy film fans as the appalling Jody in Tamara Drewe, a modern-day version of the same story (and possibly my favourite Hardy adaptation).  Hardy story's rely on the subtle humour injected in the narrative by side characters and Liddy wonderfully fulfilled that role.  You need the humour in order to provide depth to the tragedy and although Far from the Madding Crowd is not as heart-stomping as Jude the Obscure, moments like the fate of Young George (*sob*) and Fanny Robbin (*sob sob*) need a bit of lightness to prepare you for the ending.
The West Country welcomes you...
This version of the story might not have anything new and revolutionary going for it but it is gorgeous to look at and skilfully handled. A stand-out performance by Michael Sheen makes this a must-see and anyone who fancies a wallow in gorgeous scenery will love the green and pleasant land on show here.  Take chocolates and a hanky and get comfy, you won't be disappointed.