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« How to recognize different vintages of wine from quite a long time ago (prasad) | Main | "A Border Passage" by Leila Ahmed »

June 17, 2012


Good article Norm! The toes on the right foot are wild, are they not? Thanks for pointing that out. Between that and his shins (it is as though his legs were broken just above the ankles), I wonder if that is artistic license on the part of the painter, or the Saint was believed to have had a congenital deformity, had suffered torture or had an accident. If I had to hazard a guess it would be that the artist was depicting suffering, possibly torture. Not to get too clinical, but a broken tibia that was not set correctly may have been the source of the artist’s inspiration. Either way, it is an intriguing work of art.

@ My friends and readers,

Let me introduce my cousin, Louis Defilippi, a biochemist who lives in Chicago. He is the de facto genealogist for the Costa family.

@ Louis,

It's interesting what you bring from your background to an interpretation of art. Stick around. We have a couple of artists that frequent Accidental Blogger and I hope they weigh in on the discussion. The owner of this blog, Ruchira Paul, is a chemist, writer, and a very good artist.

You will find people here who are very interested in the history of U.S. immigration from all corners of the globe. You have the same proclivities and your genealogical experience gives you a great perspective we can all benefit from.

Norm: Thanks for the post, the photo and the introduction to your cousin. (For accuracy, I should point out that I "was" once a chemist. "Use it or lose it" has taken its toll over many years of non-chemical pursuits)

As for the observation, "Did we have a budding Picasso long before the real one?", I would think that very likely and this artist was not the first nor the only one. You must have noticed that the majority of primitive and early religious art work from all over the world is highly abstract. Millions of ancient tribal and sacred art from the middle east, China, Japan, India, Africa (northern and sub Saharan), the Pacific Islands and pre-Columbian south America did not pay heed to exact human, animal or plant anatomy. The artists created stylized but beautiful versions of the world as they saw fit or as tradition demanded. In fact the eccentricities help us to recognize the era and the region in which the art or the artifacts originated. Art was not about accuracy; the symbolism and the context were key allowing for unbridled artistic license. The classical, photographic style of painting and sculpture came much later.

I don't like to over-analyze art or try to get into the artist's head. Art after all, is like spectator sports - each one of us experiences it differently, influenced heavily by our own cultural and psychological makeup. But it is still fun to speculate on what the artist may have meant even if we are totally wrong in our conclusions. So I will take a crack at the desert hermit. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that the anatomical peculiarities were deliberate and not a haphazard effort by the artist. I think the torso of the hermit is meant to evoke a tree, hence the tree-trunk like look. He is standing very tall dwarfing the landscape around him. In his isolation, meditation and extremely sparse worldly needs, the hermit is like a tree - surviving on very little from the ground, air and water around him and just as quiet and self contained.

What a great find! Anatomical accuracy in painting and sculpture relied on artists having access to cadavers to learn anatomy. Such access was forbidden by the Church until the Mid-Renaissance, with Michelangelo risking his life to learn what he needed through dissection. You can see the painter here was trying to represent ribs and ankles, without quite knowing what they were. The way he painted toes was, I believe, an attempt to tackle representing the continuous recession in space of five toes on one foot. Like anatomy, perspective reawakened in the Renaissance, through math, not dissection, although representing the human body as existing in space partakes of both.

Well, what I wrote above is the straight art historical take on it, although I am not sure Ruchira's isn't better.

Many "incorrect" representations are more psychologically interesting than orthodox ones -- in devotional painting and in ordinary portraiture. If you look at the work of the limners, itinerant portraitists in the colonial period in the US, you see primitive techniques used in the same era that provided some lucky painters with a classical painting education and a knowledge of anatomy that compared with a physician's. The limners were folk artists, but it is their work that truly puts a face on early America.

Regarding the odalisque of Ingres, the late Robert Rosenblum, an art historian who wrote wonderfully, remarked that Ingres would distort the anatomy of women quite knowingly, because there could be no question he knew the correct number of vertebrae, for example. One effect of his painting women into spaces they were too large or too long for was to underline the claustration of the subject, her lack of maneuverability. To the male gaze of the day, this would have been erotic -- according to Rosenblum.

However appealing Rosenblum's thesis, we are comparing painting that involves distortions by an artist with no knowledge of classical anatomy (the painter of St. Onofrio) with deliberate distortion by an artist (Ingres) who knew as much anatomy as any artist ever can have known.

Picasso drew some of his inspiration from African art in terms of simplification of the human form, before he moved into the cubist mode, as I found out on viewing his personal art collection (currently on display in a special exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.) In fact, the display was juxtaposed with some 18-19th century African art that made the connection clearer. If you have a chance to visit Toronto, this would be a fantastic time to do so.
There were a gazillion reclining nudes, none of which approached the eroticism of the Odalisque, despite the similarity of subject. Picasso spent a good deal of time trying to represent the reclining nude in the most symbolic abstract that he could muster.

@ Ruchira and Elatia,

Thank you so much for some great reflections and ideas about this painting and all those other things wrapped into your comments.

Speaking of primitives in art, I was reminded of a woman I was asked to evaluate by her employer. This was quite some time ago. She was an African-American from the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn. She came from a small town in the South. She never left her home town except to relocate to Brooklyn. She was there for a number of years, but never ventured out of Brooklyn. She took some adult education courses and was most involved in a photography class.

I met with her in the company's offices in mid-town Manhattan over a period of three days. I gave her a battery of tests, interest inventories, and the like as well as just talking to her. The employer did not want me to give her any personality tests, but they told me they thought she was schizophrenic. I wanted to get some sort of handle on her inner mental life, though I thought the employer was unbalanced not she. So, one afternoon I took her for a walk over to MOMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wanted to do a stand up, walk through projective test - you know, free associate to the stimuli in front of you.

I brought her straight to the Picasso exhibits. I did not give any intro to the art we would see, not even to say that this was the work of the artist Picasso. Guernica was still there, and it was the first room we walked into. I don't remember her exact words, but it was the equivalent of "Oh God, look at the pain." The woman had injured her back in a work place accident and was in constant pain. But her reaction to Guernica was not the most interesting part. We moved to another room where the paintings that were assembled represented a specific theme/period of Picasso. Almost as soon as we walked into the room she said, "This is African."

The woman gave normal informed responses to everything she saw. She even took the time to point out a number of photos, not Picasso, and explain how the effect was achieved by using the right combinations of focus, exposure, and paper for developing. I never forgot her. I finished my work and report and assured the employer that she was not schizophrenic.

@ Sujatha,

Thanks. I was composing my comment as you were publishing yours. I was going to say something about the eroticism of the Odalisque, but chickened out. Now that you brought up the subject I am feeling a little more brave.

I found, and still find, the Odalisque to be erotic - not exactly very erotic, but moving in that direction. Ingres makes it so easy for me to want to extend my hand and caress her hip and start to slide my hand over her buttock. OK. That's it. The rest is just for me.

Norman and Sujatha, can you think of another reclining nude who is both turned away from the viewer and looking over her shoulder at him? This gives the impression that although she is motionless, she is aware of at least visual chase being given. Nymphs surprised by satyrs were painted this way in classical art -- frolicking, bathing in a stream, enjoying privacy which they now know to be interrupted. This is what's erotic about it: that she has been approached from behind and is now aware of it. Contrast this with Manet's full frontal, meet-your-gaze-head-on nude, the courtesan Olympia, in the same-named painting. She knows you've come to look, and she's getting her living by letting you. Scandalous to the 19th century, sure, but not particularly erotic. Now compare both to "The Rokeby Venus" of Velasquez. Reclining facing away from the viewer on black satin sheets, she is probably the most beautiful nude in art, but she is preoccupied with her reflection in a mirror supported by a cupid. She neither knows nor cares that you are there, nor would care, if she did know. Goddesses, should they experience an interest in mortal men, simply take them, and the shoe is never on the other foot. The same cannot be said of courtesans or odalisques.

I remember seeing a Modigliani reclining nude which in my estimation scored pretty high on the erotica scale although she was full frontal and looking at you. But I agree that the backward glance of the odalisque is charming.

@ Elatia,

Now that you describe it, I've seen the same technique in any number of films. Meryl Streep comes to mind - perhaps in the French Lieutenant's woman. The same effect is created even when fully clothed. Another that comes to mind, I think, was in the movie Zorba the Greek and involved the widow and the Englishman.

@ Ruchira,

Here's a Modigliani in the both looking away and then back over the shoulder.

That page is 404ed. The one I had in mind is not looking away or over the shoulder. Elatia, with her encylopedic memory, probably knows the one I mean. Let me search also.

Norm: I think you mean this one. I was thinking of another one - here.

@ Ruchira,

Thank you. It's the same model, but the one I reference mimics the position of the Odalisque. The other is very erotic, unlike the others. It's beautiful, too. I think its the closed eyes smile that does it.

@ Elatia,

The Rokeby Nude is very beautiful. Everything is in the right place, the right size and proportions, and in relation to everything else. But, when it comes to the exaggerated Odalisque, well.........sigh.......

This may be the one Norman is thinking of.

The best reproduction I could find. In the Montmartre of his time, it was commonplace to speculate whether Modigliani had already slept with his model when he painted her, or was just about to.

@ Elatia,

That's the one.

A comment on proportion. First I feel that Rucheria's "tree" comment is spot on. Just look at the icon from the waist down only and it is clearly arboreal in nature. Also note that iconography follows a number of rules that, if not known, might make the viewer believe that the artist does not understand proportion, or that they are not capable of depicting it correctly. This belief is not correct. There are a number of guiding rules that the artist uses to create his/her art in this context. From "" there is the following: "The art of making Orthodox icons follow certain symbolism that carries a meaningful message. Some of these characteristics are: First, large and wide eyes symbolize the spiritual eye that look beyond the material world, the Bible says "the light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be simple, thy whole body shall be full of light" [Matthew 6:22]. Second, large ears listen to the word of God; "if any man have ears to hear, let them hear"[Mark 4:23]. Third, gentle lips to glorify and praise the Lord "My mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips" [Psalm 63:5]. The eyes and ears on a figure in an icon are disproportionately large, because a spiritual person spends more time listening to God's word and seeking to do God's will. On the other hand,the mouth, which can also be often be the source of empty or harmful words is small. The nose, which is seen a sensual is also small. Also, when an evil character is portrayed on an icon, it is always in profile because it is not desirable to make eye contact with such a person and thus to dwell or meditate upon it. Figures in Coptic icons often have large heads, meaning that these are individuals devoted to contemplation and prayer. Icon artists deeply understood the meaning and benefit of icons on the spiritual life of the believers. It is interesting to note that the majority of the Coptic icons' artists did not sign their names. They were not looking or self-glorification and fame, even the few who signed their names did so in the form of a prayer;
such as "Remember O Lord your servant (name)". Some icons portray Saints who suffered and were tortured for their faith with peaceful and smiling faces, showing that their inner peace was not disturbed, even by the hardships they endured, and suffered willingfully and joyfully for the Lord. Although the aristic style of iconography varies a little from one culture to another, all Orthodox icons have the same meaning, usage and symbolism (this includes the Eastern Orthodox Churches; Greek, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, ... etc, as well a[s] the Oriental Orthodox Churches; Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Ethiopian, ... etc)."

@ Louis,

Thanks. This is very helpful. From the quote on icons and symbolism it looks like the artist is being true to form with St. Onoufrios. The Roman Church, at some point (I don't remember when) started to codify the rules for sacred art. Ever wonder why depictions of Jesus, the saints, Joseph, and Mary (especially Mary) seemed so consistent? These rules carry down to the present day? Regarding the rules you described above, did you get the impression that they were codified like the Roman Church, or more a tradition or school of sacred art?

I may be just agreeing with the last person I heard, but thanks to you Ruchira's sense of the arboreal seems more obvious. If you hadn't thought of it before, then try not to think of the Ents in "The Lord of the Rings," now that you've seen this icon. Do an image Google of "Ents Lord of the Rings."

Getting back to Ruchira's observation, the Onoufrios tree looks like a giant in the land of Lilliputians, especially when you start with an examination of the feet and the perspective (or lack of it) in relation the landscape elements at the bottom of the icon. My art education is rather ad hoc, but this "great find" (Elatia's words) is becoming more and more interesting and fascinating. I'm going to modify the words of Elatia, regarding anatomical accuracy, and change it to be in line with the rules of iconography, "Many "incorrect" representations are more [spiritually] interesting than orthodox ones."

@ Sujatha, Elatia, and Ruchira,

Regarding the simplification of the human form in primitive art and in the work of more recent artists, yes I agree that Picasso was doing the same when inspired by African art. Now look at the (Odalisque-like) Modigliani in Elatia's link, the one I was referring to.

Look closely at the woman's face. She is definitely a beautiful woman, and no doubt a depiction of a real human female. The face, in my view, is highly simplified almost to the point of anime or from a graphic novel. I can imagine it being used as a backdrop in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. It looks like Modigliani was paying homage to Ingres by making her hips, buttocks, and thighs bulbous and out of proportion. Or maybe he was spoofing and playing around.

Elatia tried and failed to post the following:

"I want to ask everyone to think about Aby Warburg, one of the pre-eminent art historians of the last century. He devoted his life to studying the mysteries of iconography. Today, students may learn the Warburg method at the Warburg Institute of the Courthauld Institute of London University, set up to facilitate the escape of Warburg -- and the escape of his library -- from the Nazis in 1938. If students opt for that, it will be years before they can learn enough to matter. Why, in devotional art, things look one way and mean something else, is an infinite subject. A subset of it is why sacred objects and persons may look distinctly un-beautiful and wrong to the uneducated eye, and yet be anything but that once enlightenment comes. So we could get in deep waters here.

Although we don't know too much about it, this panel is in the Byzantine tradition -- a highly conservative tradition lasting from the late Hellenistic era through the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and spanning Italy through the late gothic era, Greece, the Christian areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Russia, and overlapping hugely with the Coptic art of North Africa. For 1500 years, artists in this tradition were seeking NO change. But even artists who are taught that immutability and tradition are the highest values will never make sure nothing changes -- they cannot. Byzantine art is full of paradoxes, therefore. In one work, you can see sharply observed and recorded detail and stylization that amounts to abstraction.

Extreme stylizations to signify holy persons are as Louis has observed a convention. But they are only one reason why devotional art of this style looks as it does. For any appearance in painting, there is almost never one reason alone. In painting for church walls -- we don't know where the present panel was meant to be seen -- an artist in the Byzantine tradition was allowing for poor visibility. Gilding, large eyes, sharply delineated (as opposed to delicately modeled) facial features were all a great help if the idea was to allow a visitor to the church to contemplate the holy image, not just to know it was there in the dark. Many enormous Madonna and Child wall paintings in the Byzantine tradition look dour and hirsuit to us, until we remember there were no floodlights. An impression of stillness and immeasurable sadness is best conveyed from a distance and in partial light by outline and contrast, not by volume and modeling. Part of the story of an image is the story of how it is physically experienced, over time, and of the necessary limits that entails.

Needing to hew to convention, a Byzantine painter would not have overvalued a naturalistic appearance for his most holy subjects. However, there are signs in the present work of the delight taken in accurate representation of landscape elements, and the angels are not terrifically stylized. Making the very holy look "Other" was a natural thing to do, too. That painters may represent special subjects less accurately than they would have the latitude to represent subjects of secondary importance is a completely different question than how much accuracy in representation they were capable of. The difference analogizes to being capable of math yet having very little interest to use it, and not being capable of math while, also, having no interest in it. I believe we should look at art with respect to the cultural -- and other -- values of the civilization that produced it, and not compare every representation of a human being to the figures on the Parthenon Frieze. But I believe also that the whole story of art contains and expresses many different truths, some at loggerheads with others, and that we should try to look at the many things that are going on at a time in a work of art, not one by one, but like we look at a palimpsest, the full meaning of which is manifold."

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