19 artists writes about a work of art that influenced them
Vengeance of Achilles (1962)
‘A’ is for Achilles. So might begin a fantasy of an infant Cy Twombly’s educational wall frieze, alphabetizing the heroes of antiquity (‘B’ is for Bellerophon, ‘C’ is for Cadmus, etc.). ‘A’, here, in Vengeance of Achilles (1962) is covered in Crayola gore, as if language came pre-steeped in violence — a weapon from the very first letter. This drawing’s primacy is performed on every level: Achilles’s pre-eminence as a warrior only matched by this massive, fantasy-phallic blade of an ‘A’, seeking the titular vengeance against, perhaps, a certain complacency around reading, looking. This is something of what it means to me: language literalized, however tautological that sounds. ‘A’ is Achilles, not just a convoluted figuration or sign. ‘A’ blade to kill Hector; ‘A’ dick to perpetrate and promulgate vengeance, forever. It’s funny, right? Less so over time. Something about expression — Expressionism per se: male Expressionism’s terminal end is at the tip of that bloody ‘A’-dick. A point at which the male lexicon and its cursive will (and its practitioner’s grubby hands) always-already wound. Or, at least, since antiquity and myth.
Maybe there’s something repealed by Twombly’s pseudo-retarded hand here. A different sort of hand to the hacking warrior: a hand that outperforms (through unperformance) Expressionism’s gesticulative virility with an incomprehensible but desperate language. Which we are no way near beyond.
And maybe there’s something repealed by Achilles’s tender, out-of-shot heel, too — by which he was held by his mother, Thetis, as she dipped him immortal in the Styx, and by which single contact between mother and son Achilles remained mortal.
A K Dolven
Self-Portrait with Red Spot (1944)
It’s all about that red spot. An abstract red spot, just beneath her open mouth, as if she wanted to say something but was stopped a long time ago. The red spot makes me think and reflect more than any words from a mouth.
The Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck was in her 80s when she painted Self-Portrait with Red Spot in 1944. She knew what she was doing; it’s painted with such conviction. The spot is a convincing mark from a hand holding a paintbrush. Not a soft one, but a solid and steady paintbrush: a tool. This red spot is political.
Helene was talented — everyone knew that from the start. At 11, she was enrolled at the Finnish Art Society Drawing School. She went to Paris at the age of 17 with a travel grant from the Imperial Russian Senate and took part in major group shows. My compatriot Edvard Munch did the same. They were born a year apart. He died in 1944, she in 1946. Munch was supported early on by major collectors. Helene had her first solo show in her 50s, thanks to the Finnish art dealer Gösta Stenman.
This painting is also about the black eye: an eye larger than the mouth, an eye that tells about more than just seeing. Seeing is about thinking, according to John Cage. This eye has seen a lot. It’s as if all her thinking is present in that black eye. The other eye is washed out. One large black eye is enough.
The red spot is the painting. It has followed me ever since I first discovered this painting in a book when I was a young woman. The shadow in Munch’s Puberty (1894 – 95) had a similar impact on me at the time. It’s not the look in the young girl’s eyes, but the shadow, the oversized misshapen shade behind her: that is the painting, just as the red spot is in Helene’s work. In 2013, I stood in front of Self-Portrait with Red Spot for the first time, in the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki. Glass covered the painting. I took a photo with my phone, my self-portrait on top of her self-portrait. The red spot hit me. An endless conversation began. Since then, I’ve always referred to her by her first name: Helene. A Modernist painter, she was out of sync with her time; she had no children and was literally unbalanced: she fell down the stairs as a child and lived with a damaged hip for the rest of her life.
In 2014, I made a large horizontal painting full of red spots. I put red oil paint on my middle finger and pressed it repeatedly across the surface until there was no colour left and my finger was sore. The painting was in my recent solo show at Wilkinson Gallery, London. I gave it a straightforward title: this is a political painting. For every red spot in that painting, I thought of Helene as well as many other women.
A Game of Patience (Miss Margaret Austin-Jones) (1937)
There is a slither of daylight; a view of the outside world with its golden pastures, which I like to imagine roll down to the sea. Yet we are locked indoors, or at least under cover, held by the poise of this pale, unknown woman. Playing her game of clock patience, she is seated on a tiled terrace, her flesh the same colour as the walls behind her. We follow her gaze and wonder what or whom has appeared. Surely time has stopped. She gives nothing away.
As a child, I was rarely without my deck of playing cards. Enamoured by the game of patience, I would happily play in a crowded room, totally absorbed by the task at hand and always quietly thrilled by the deck. As a teenager, this was replaced by tarot cards and was put to good use, both alone and with friends. I no longer use them (I look for re-assurance elsewhere) although, rather superstitiously, I still hold onto this same tarot. It’s wrapped in its magical cloth and now lives at the back of a drawer. One never knows.
If my younger self could have time-travelled (and done a little shape-shifting) surely my ultimate destination would have been inside the world of this picture. I’m charmed by its codes and symbols, and how every surface seems smooth and artificial, except for the softness of the rendering of Margaret Austin-Jones’s hair. This precise and mannered painting with its taut surface and milky palette is thoroughly seductive.
The eye is drawn to the mounds of her breasts at the very centre of the painting, then downwards to the odd gathering of excessive fabric beneath — teetering ever so close to the surreal. It then extends to the turn of her wrists and the delicacy of her long fingers; even the white tabs on her dress’s neckline have something to say of ceremony. The contents on the round table lovingly play with repetition and doubling — its surface mirrors everything about her and, with crystal clear clarity, we are presented with the recipe for the casting of a spell.
Just as the black and gold frame inverts the decoration on the back wall, everything in this image is turned inside out or flipped upside down, all whilst appearing classically composed and unnaturely still. This painting feels like many things to me, but never has the veil between worlds seemed so alluring and in such clever disguise as a woman.
Saint George and the Dragon (c. 1530)
I’ve always had a thing for the Germans, in particular their attention to curls in both hair and fabric. Their downright obsessive focus is completely weird, and it’s what makes their art works genius. They take what happens naturally and turn it into something totally unnatural and unbelievable. Their insane curls reveal the suppression of a dark and intense turmoil. In painting, look at Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Baldung, Albrecht Dürer and Urs Graf to get an idea of what I’m talking about. With the sculptors, there is Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss. But the craziest of all is Master H.L., who takes it to a totally different level. There is still an academic debate over whether Hans Loy is the same person as Master H.L., so it’s quite difficult to find books on him. In 2005, I found an image of the back of one of his sculptures, Saint George and the Dragon (c. 1530). It was fascinating how rough and free H.L. was with the part that wasn’t on show. It’s extremely beautiful in its abstraction, especially in opposition to what is going on at the front of the sculpture. The artist’s dark, hidden temper was released for just an instant when creating the side that was never meant to be seen.
A Nobleman Kissing a Lady’s Hand (c. 1746)
Most noticeable is the bloated, fleshy pinkness of the man’s face, so close in colour to the bodice of her dress. If not from wine, his flush might be due to his social unease or simply to gravity, as he bows before this lady of standing, blood pumping forward, filling his head.
There have been several titles assigned to Pietro Longhi’s The Procuratore Pays a Call, A Nobleman Kissing a Lady’s Hand or Il Baciamano. (1746 ). I like the mild insinuation carried with the first but it’s the shorter Italian ‘hand kiss’ that draws attention, not so much to the characters as to the singular gesture of touch.
The genteel movement of drawing another’s hand to a mouth, so formal and repeatedly performed as to render its strange intimacy almost impersonal, speaks of a convention that might still pertain to painting. For convention is just that: a coming together, a body of knowledge or two or more, which have been rehearsed and know how to behave, badly even. Longhi reminds me that subtle gestures and arrested glances made by people in silks and lowered masks can conjure a tone or timbre that is not so easily read.
Longhi was long dismissed as a petit-maître for leaving behind altars and grand histories for minor depictions of social gatherings, games, ridotti, masquerades and parlour pieces. But I feel it’s in the marginal, the minor, that there might still be something to say or leave unsaid in painting. It’s where the quality of a fabric, the poise or position or weight of a thing, can allow for two suggestions of sense, both as touch and thought, to manifest in the kiss of a hand.
Having grown up in New Zealand, land of sheep, I am drawn to, and at home with, woven woollen tapestries of the 1960s and ’70s. The Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz’s weavings are excellent: bulky, scratchy, at once very heroic and very feminine.
I had been making sculptures with potatoes for a few years when I first came across Abakanowicz’s series ‘Embryology’ (1978 – 80). I’m not sure if she sees the reference to potatoes in her work, but to me it seems clear. Anyone who has dug them up from a garden knows how egg-like potatoes are, sitting together in the earth. They are a basic food, unglamorous and unchanging: I think people were having the same potato experiences hundreds of years ago as we are today. They are not a modern food; they’re delicious hot and refried the day after cooking. The potato-like shapes in ‘Embryology’ look defiantly organic: their variety is huge and they’re infested with black spot, grubs and big bruises.
Before coming across ‘Embryology’ I already knew and loved the large ‘Abakan’ cloaks that Abakanowicz began making in 1967 — massive, itchy-looking fibre drapes that hang in space and which are imbued with a strong female presence. I discovered ‘Embryology’ online, when I was researching ‘Abakan’. I fell in love with the sculptures immediately: they’re funny, casual and super-beautiful. I tried to find out as much as possible, and was disappointed to discover that I had missed seeing ‘Embryology’ at Tate Liverpool during the 2010 Liverpool Biennial. I still wonder: are they dusty? How big are they? And do they smell?
Niki de Saint Phalle
During the past year, I’ve been thinking very much about a film called Daddy. Lines like ‘Daddy was just a girl in disguise,’ and, ‘Oh daddy, how silly of you not to take your pill like I told you, now you’re pregnant!’ have lodged in my head. Niki de Saint Phalle made Daddy with Peter Whitehead in 1972. It’s a 90-minute film combining shots of De Saint Phalle making her ‘shooting paintings’ and a story about a family. Daddy, the abusive father, is dead and the daughter, played by De Saint Phalle, returns home and recalls her childhood. Memory turns into a retribution fantasy. In front of the church altar, Daddy is tied up, dressed like a woman, teased by young girls, made to drink urine and becomes pregnant. The sets are populated with De Saint Phalle’s sculptures. A casket opens and inside it is a large white plaster phallus. Red hearts are drawn on a young girl’s body dancing in front of an altarpiece, rupturing the religious order. In the most difficult scenes, the sculptures are used instead of words to reveal the narrative.
I had seen De Saint Phalle’s public sculptures in Spain and France. At first I thought they looked quite kitsch: they were large, colourful sculptures for kids and tourists to take their photograph beside. De Saint Phalle’s imagery has been bastardized, turned into mugs, key chains and general memorabilia. But the feature-length film Daddy preserves the original attitudes and intentions of her work. Watching it, I thought it very interesting that time has affected the reading of her sculptures so perversely, yet an obscure experimental film resets the tone to the original frequency. A must-see!
Adam Surat (1989)
‘People who live in skyscrapers see everything from far above.’ From the opening interviews in Tareque Masud’s documentary Adam Surat (1989), the narration inverts the on-screen image. The film’s subject, SM Sultan — a consummate outsider artist who had retreated from the bustle of 1970s Dhaka to live in an abandoned building in distant Narail — agreed to be interviewed on one condition: that the subject of the film had to be the Bangladeshi peasant, left behind in the post-liberation rush towards urban living and industrialization. A beautiful green field is overlaid with Sultan critiquing television pundits who tell farmers to ‘learn’ new agricultural practices; he also tells a story of inventing local pigments to free artists from the tyranny of imported paint supplies. In a climactic scene, the villagers who were Sultan’s lifelong companions (along with his collection of cats, dogs, mongooses and monkeys) go into an ecstatic frenzy — the Baul musician’s wandering mystic code, along with the liberating presence of local ganja, is there for the decoding. When the Dhaka culture Brahmins finally granted Sultan a solo show late in life, the museum guard refused to allow him in, mistaking him for a beggar. For the painter who exploded the rarefied national narrative with his iconic paintings of the Bengal peasant, this rejection confirmed that he had been right all along to escape this imitative urban modernity.
Stone Circle, Avebury
Avebury is the largest neolithic site in the uk. It comprises a huge stone circle and an avenue of stones that lead into the Wiltshire countryside; it is also within walking distance of the largest man-made hill in Europe. It’s an intense part of the uk, full of burial mounds and smaller stone circles; Stonehenge is nearby. I feel drawn to Avebury; a 21st-century pilgrim along the ancient M4 corridor.
The use and meaning of the site will only be known once time travel is invented. I like this fact. Having said that, I was recently bollocked by a druid at a talk I gave for my ignorance over the ‘true’ meaning of Avebury. I tried to explain to her that I didn’t like shutting down meaning; I like opening it up, which is why I like to make art. The druid was having none of it.
Anyway, the uncertainty of these places is what makes them so attractive to me; it means that such diverse characters as Kenneth Anger and William Morris could go to Avebury and be moved by the experience. Sites like these are meant to represent the very core of our national identity and yet they are truly mysterious. I think our national identity should be as mysterious and as personal as my relationship is to this place.
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin
The Catacombs, 4 December 1967 and The Catacombs, 7 November 1967
We were recently reminded of Billy Monk’s remarkable photographs through a series of chance encounters. We had commissioned the South African photographer Jac de Villiers to photograph the only known dodo egg in the world, which is on permanent loan to the East London Museum, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. In 1915, the museum’s curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, had inherited the egg from her great aunt Lavinia, who had received it from a sea captain who claimed to have found it in a swamp on the island of Mauritius. Two weeks before De Villiers’s visit to the museum, it was burgled: its entire meteorite collection, as well as some Ming crockery, was stolen during an early-morning heist. Luckily, the thieves overlooked the real treasure — the dodo egg.
But then, De Villiers is a man familiar with good luck. In 1979, he accidentally came across several folders of contact prints and negatives in a studio he rented in Cape Town. The photographs had been meticulously numbered and dated and their author turned out to be a little-known nightclub bouncer called Billy Monk. In the 1960s, he had worked at the notorious Catacombs Club in Cape Town and photographed customers with his 35mm Pentax with the aim of selling the images back to them. De Villers was struck by these remarkable photographs and, with the help of David Goldblatt, he arranged an exhibition in Johannesburg in July 1982. Monk was hailed by the local press as ‘a modern day Toulouse-Lautrec’.
Tragically, Monk never saw the show. In 1969, he had left Cape Town and begun earning a living diving for diamonds off South Africa’s west coast. This is what he was doing when his exhibition opened. Two weeks later, Monk decided to hitch-hike to Johannesburg to see it. But, on the evening of 31 July, he got involved in a fight. Monk had been a professional boxer in his youth but on this occasion his opponent pulled a gun and fatally shot him in the chest. He left behind a series of photographs that do what photographs can’t help doing, which is to document a moment in our history that has vanished. The Catacombs – an interracial club during the height of apartheid, in South Africa in the mid-1960s – is just such a vanished history. Monk’s pictures are off-the-cuff and casual, a style familiar to a generation brought up on Instagram. However, the sense in which they seem to diminish the distance between reality and the depiction of reality is shocking. We have always been touched by their tenderness and the heroic representation of outsiders – particularly, and unusually, women. In the words of novelist Karl Ove Knausgård, these rare photographs ‘belong to a past in such a fundamental way, the part of our past we have put behind us, which no longer fits into this world we have created where the great, the divine, the solemn, the holy, the beautiful and the true are no longer valid entities but quite the contrary, dubious or even laughable.’
No Title (1984)
Robert Therrien’s early sculptures seem to have autonomously materialized in their exhibited locations. Rising from the floor or hovering on the wall, they present us with a stubborn — and graceful — replacement for everyday objects and familiar functional forms. Constructed by hand from wood, bronze, resin and wax and then painted, these sculptures preserve images and motifs that the artist episodically returns to, re-fabricating numerous variations of a concentrated repertoire of forms. They are part of what I’d call a ‘prescription strength’ tradition of sculpture in California in which the diminutive, or frank, scale of an object is an integral part of its efficiency.
Therrien’s sculpture No Title (1984) is a tapered, snakelike form. Vaguely resembling a handrail, in both its densely burnished wooden surface and its physical proportions, the gesturepresented by the work solicits an anxious participation. Like all of Therrien’s work, it behaves in a singular way, based on its formal properties and the clarity of its specific installation (his works are usually sparsely hung and at odd heights). It adds a mysterious punctuation to the gallery — it’s hard to tell what the wall would do without it.
No Title was shown at Los Angeles County Museum a few years back and I kept returning to it, attempting to solve the enigma of its specific charge. I never did figure it out. There is privacy about it, equal parts architectural fragment and graphic symbol. It has the appearance of something re-presented from an object history at odds with those presently available to us.
Darstellung mit kritischen Objekten (Representation with Critical Objects, 1957)
I have been looking at Joseph Beuys’s drawings and diagrams seemingly forever, and I could have chosen any number of them to highlight what has influenced my way of seeing. I have picked the rather self-explanatory Representation with Critical Objects from 1957.
The outline of a body is as critical an object as the devices that surround it: furry pumps (or a dirty car exhaust), groin nets, ashes scattered with the left hand, all in an act of struggle, surrender, release. These things appear to expand out of the figure, or perhaps attack it, like organs that have left the body and then tried to find their way back in, but in a state of misrecognition. I love the way Beuys drew things that seem impossible to draw: what is drawn appears to be as unknown and mysterious as our relationship to the world, to the way things work, to how we work as physical and emotional organisms. There is a quality to Beuys’s lines that makes me wonder how he held his pencil in order to achieve such a combination of tremble and assertion, technicality and immensity.
It is as if the marks are executed by the same entity that they depict. They often appear to describe how things function, but what exactly that is, is never obvious or clear. Mechanical spirits, so to speak.
Socle du Monde (Base of the World, 1961)
I first saw Piero Manzoni’s Socle du Monde (Base of the World, 1961) in the 1980s and it made me exclaim: ‘I wish I had made that!’ Like many brilliant works, its execution is simple but, in my opinion, its simplicity belies the most complex and total work of art ever conceived.
The idea of creating a total art work has always fascinated me; I think it’s a desire that lodges in the minds of many artists. I tried to do it myself with Wide City in 1998. Then, a few years ago, I explored the possibility further by making a project based on Giovanni Segantini’s unrealized art work.
In 1897, filled with a positivist and utopian spirit, the great ‘Segante’, as his friends called him, set about creating a pavilion for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was a grandiose attempt to transplant a section of the Engadina Valley in Switzerland — stretching from Maloja to Saint Moritz (where the artist lived) — to Paris. With meadows, cliffs, flowers, creeks, plants and cows, the piece was to be enclosed by a landscape panorama, painted in collaboration with the artist’s friends, including Giovanni Giacometti and Ferdinand Hodler. Outside the pavilion, Segantini intended to display the logos of banks, tourist boards and hotels that were financially supporting the project.
Basically, if Segantini had succeeded he would have created a total art work, anticipating relational aesthetics by a century. Unfortunately, because of its complexity, its cost and the premature death of the artist in 1899, the project was never finished, and Segantini is now remembered as a great Symbolist landscape painter rather than a brilliant innovator. With Socle du Monde Manzoni’s creative spirit succeeded where Segantini — and, who knows, perhaps other artists — failed.
Gedicht – Poem – Poème /Change – Exchange – Wechsel (1973)
Who could create a trademark and taxonomize sameness while writing a poem? Who could turn his own initials into foreign cash, and have his way beyond the levelling of currencies with the introduction of the euro? Whose art work could successfully follow the philosophy of failure and self-defeat, and steer clear of the seemingly inevitable trappings of success? And, more importantly, who was capable of doing all of this without cynicism or the facile immediacy of irony? The answer? M.B.
Gedicht – Poem – Poème / Change – Exchange – Wechsel (1973), a screenprint by Marcel Broodthaers, is a lot of things to me: a reference manual, a discursive aspirational horizon and, simply, a pleasure to look at and wonder about. I have made many pieces with this seminal work in mind and continue to do so, at times more consciously than at others.
The 1970s saw an explosion of editions that arguably aimed at democratizing the aura of the art work by spreading it more thinly into serialized numbered units. Later, in the 1980s and ’90s, numerous limited edition publishers gave up their (rather flawed) ideal and became ‘proper’ art dealers, following the natural path to a higher profit margin. Broodthaers’s take on serialization was far ahead of his time. His uniquely critical, if hard-to-pin-down, attitude towards authenticity invested his multiples with no less aura than his unique works. Every unit of his editions seems to multiply the problem rather than to divide it. Gedicht ... is the embodiment of this paradox and, for me, Broodthaers’s greatest edition.
Vincent van Gogh
Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette (1886)
I was brought up with a framed print of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) at home, which I learnt to reconstruct in my mind, brushstroke by brushstroke. There is a raw emotional honesty in his work, which, when witnessed first-hand, never fails to astonish. You can unravel the history of how the paint has been applied, in layered dashes of startling counter-intuitive colour. The flickering build up of luminous paint allows you immediate access into the work, displaying an urgency and intensity that sweeps you along with a sugar rush. All channels are open, mainlining straight from the heart to the hand in unabashed sincerity. Van Gogh’s drawings, too, are brilliantly animated, pulsating with dots and lines often bordering on abstraction or musical score. I am unashamed to say Van Gogh is one of the few artists who can move me to tears.
Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette (1886) was painted early in Van Gogh’s career, when he was tussling with formal training at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. It’s an utterly contemporary image, more redolent of a heavy metal album cover, Bansky’s graffiti or a disenfranchised gunman. Who would have thought that this witty, urbane painting was by Van Gogh? In contrast to the brilliance of his later use of colour, this work is darkly macabre and knowing. The painter’s response to the tedium of capturing anatomical correctness was to add a cigarette to the long-dead skeleton. Why not a pipe? He shows a rare flash of irony, a waggish response to the restraints of academia, a shredding of tradition. I have a postcard of this somewhat tragi-comic painting alongside that of Van Gogh’s sunflowers on my studio wall: light and dark, joyous and cynical. All the well-trodden neural pathways are there, inexplicably crafted by the same hand.
Noli me Tangere (Let No One Touch Me, c. 1514)
I first truly ‘saw’ this painting when I went to the National Gallery in London, whilst still an art student at St Martin’s School of Art in the early 1980s. At the time, Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas (c. 1575) was on show at the Royal Academy in ‘The Genius of Venice’ exhibition and the St Martin’s painting department had erupted with excitement about its physicality — Titian’s brushwork, the remarkable loose ‘late work’ look of it all. These qualities had topical relevance, too, because ferocious, loose paintwork was all the rage in London art schools at the time.
Encountering Noli me Tangere (Let No One Touch Me, c. 1514) and then realizing it was an early Titian was a bit of a shock. He had painted it in his early 20s, roughly the age I was then. At the time, I couldn’t relate to it at all as a surface — it was carefully and delicately painted — but the image touched me profoundly in a way that I was barely aware of.
Over the years, I have returned to Noli me Tangere time and again. I am drawn to the gentleness of the image: it works on me in the way that a good Minimalist abstract painting works (an Agnes Martin, for example), demanding that the pace of looking be slowed. Christ’s gesture and his curved posture as he pulls back from Mary Magdalen’s outreached arm is compelling, because of the way it establishes a rhythm throughout the painting. A lazy zig-zagging, via the top of his gardener’s hoe, is then mirrored by the tree’s single downward branch, and by the hillside path behind.
Noli me Tangere is about a moment — a gentle breeze from the sea at dawn lifting a wisp of Mary’s hair and rustling the leaves of the tree — but it’s also about finality: the last physical possibility of touch, no more from this day on, the memory of which must remain solely in the mind.
Nude Bathing (1930–34)
Pierre Bonnard’s extraordinary treatment of interior spaces and idiosyncratic use of colour drew me to his late paintings, which document his intensely reclusive relationship with his wife, Marthe. The paintings are made from memory, informed by small pencil sketches and detailed notes recording the quality of light at particular times of the day. For me, the credible strangeness Bonnard achieves is akin to daydreaming, being held somewhere between thought and image.
Some people consider Nude Bathing (1930 – 34) unfinished, but it’s the work’s possible lack of resolution and openness that I find so compelling — as if it’s simultaneously a drawing and a painting. While the figure is placed centre stage, the colour arrangement and surface treatment brutally disregard the figurative information, making my eye move around the work in a disorientating manner.
A bold red rectangle, centre right, draws me in, ending abruptly in a yellow patch — a buttock running down into cold thigh and dark calf. The other leg is barely legible, lost in pale colour and patterned floor (which tilts upward). The calf reads more as a prosthetic, ending in a high heel.
Equal attention is given to props surrounding the figure which seem to take on lives of their own, while the upper body recedes, fused with fore- and back-ground in a diagonal swathe of flat ochre, defined by a few scratchy cold marks, shadows that float forward. In contrast to the androgynous figure, head bowed awkwardly towards a mirror, the reflected image of a pink fleshy female torso appears to be that of another, or of another time, like making love to one while thinking of the other. The tragic consequences of Bonnard’s affair — which ended in his lover’s suicide when he refused to leave his wife — come to my mind; the reddish line it reflects on the main figure feels raw. Over 80 years since it was made, Nude Bathing is still remarkably contemporary and relevant, curious and sad.
The Mocking of Christ with the Virgin and St Dominic (1442)
In cell No.7 of the Convent of San Marco in Florence, a blindfolded Christ sits crowned with thorns on a red box. Behind him, against a green rectangle, a disembodied head and four hands hover round his face in a menacing swarm that compresses the events of his mockery into one ignominious moment. Soon to be stripped bare and executed, he sits, unable to meet our gaze, anchored to his platform by a complex architecture of folds. On the edge of the dais is his weeping mother, Mary, and, beside her, St Dominic is lost in scripture. If Dominic looked up, he might balk at not finding a robed and tonsured Dominican friar before him, since the painting was originally intended only for ascetic eyes, not our secular and possibly ambivalent contemporary gaze.
Angelico’s The Mocking of Christ is a diagram for meditation on the humiliating and violent form of public love at the heart of Christianity; a love that can only be proven by human sacrifice. The very strangeness of the picture, however, strips back the biblical narrative to a set of human questions that transcend its theological envelope and reach both into the past and the future. I see René Magritte and Kazimir Malevich in its architectonics, colours and design; Marcel Duchamp in its mechanics; and I sense Aristotle underpinning Thomas Aquinas in its evacuated and diagrammatical cosmology. When I looked at this painting for the first time in 1986 — the summer before art school — the religious faith of my Catholic upbringing had all but left me. I gave up praying to paint; but then art may well be, as Terry Eagleton states, a transposed theological concept, which frames the mystery of what it means to be in the world.
First published in Issue 3