Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Vandals and Heroes

Over the centuries many great works of art have been cruelly vandalised, some beyond repair. Others, despite the experts' best efforts at restoration, will never be the same.

The vandals are often fanatics acting at the behest of some imaginary entity, but sometimes the damage is done by the custodians of the works themselves.

As recently as 2001, the two monumental Buddhas of Bamyian, listed by UNESCO as a Wolrd Heritage Site, were comprehensively destroyed by the Taliban .

The Mullah Mohammed Omar, having declared the statues idolatrous, announced to his flock that "it will give great joy to God if we destroy them". The lads assured the pious cleric the job would be done by teatime and they let fly with anti-aircraft guns and artillery. However, the Buddhas proved a hard nut to crack, in a manner of speaking. It took them several weeks of shelling, even placing landmines at the foot of the statues so that falling pieces would set off more explosions. Eventually they had to lower men down the cliff face to place explosives into holes in the Buddhas to finish them off.

The two magnificent statues, which had stood since the sixth century, were obliterated at last. Can't have idolatry !

The Rokeby Venus is one of the finest nudes ever created. A treasure of the National Gallery in London, the life-sized painting of a nude woman seen from the rear has been called the Baroque equivalent of a Playboy centrefold and the "most smackable backside in art".

Poor Venus also suffered at the hand of a fanatic: this one not so much religious as ideological. The militant suffragette Mary Richardson, who said she didn't like the way men looked at the Venus, took an axe to the painting, as described in The Times of Wednesday, March 11, 1914:

"The famous Rokeby Velasquez, commonly known as the "Venus with the Mirror," which was presented to the National Gallery in 1906, was mutilated yesterday morning by the prominent militant woman suffragist Mary Richardson. She attacked the picture with a small chopper with a long narrow blade, similar to the instruments used by butchers, and in a few seconds inflicted upon it severe if not irreparable damage. In consequence of the outrage the National Gallery will remain closed to the public until further notice."

The painting was carefully restored, but the slash marks are still faintly visible.

Picasso's masterpiece, Guernica, shows the tragedy of war and the suffering it inflicts upon innocent civilians. It is a powerful and emotional work, and has deservedly gained a monumental status as an anti-war symbol, a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war.

The painting depicts the bombing of Guernica, a town in Spain, by German and Italian warplanes. While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, Picasso suffered harassment from the Gestapo. One officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did."

In 1974, while on display at MoMA in New York, one Tony Shafrazi, protesting the My Lai massacre, defaced the painting with red spray paint, painting the words "KILL LIES ALL". Luckily the paint was removed fairly easily from the varnished surface.

I am very privileged to have had a close-up view of Michaelangelo's Pieta at St Peter's in Rome, two weeks before a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a hammer while shouting "I am Jesus Christ". Now the masterpiece is only visible through bulletproof perspex from a distance of several yards.

But luckily we can still get up close to admire Michaelangelo's exquisite Mother and Child in Bruges, the only one of his sculptures to leave Italy in his lifetime. That is, until some maniac gets word from on high to have a go at destroying it, when no doubt it will also be sequestered behind a perspex shield.

I'll end this sad litany of vandalism with the tribulations of Rembrandt's "Night Watch". It was first hung in the regimental HQ of the militia company it depicts. In 1715 it was moved to the Amsterdam town hall, where it did not fit on the desgnated wall, so the City Fathers lopped off a yard or so, containing three figures, from the left side, plus a couple of feet off the other three sides. That neatly solved the problem.

Luckily, the Rijksmuseum holds a smaller reproduction of the original work, so at least we know what it used to look like.

On the eve of the German invasion in WW2 the great painting was removed from its frame and rolled round a cylinder. It was then buried in sand dunes but later hidden, with the bulk of the Rijksmuseum's treasures, in a mine. Hermann Goering's fame as a non-paying art collector preceded him!

It survived the rigours of war with no damage, only to be attacked in 1975 by an unemployed school teacher, who fought off a museum guard and told bystanders that he "did it for the Lord." The painting suffered a large zig-zag of slashes. It was successfully restored but some evidence of the damage is still observable close-up.

In 1990, a man sprayed acid onto the painting with a concealed pump bottle. Security guards intervened and water was quickly sprayed onto the canvas. Luckily, the acid had only penetrated the varnish layer of the painting and the painting was fully restored.

… and now, at last, we come to the good bit, the story of two unlikely heroes: the writer Aldous Huxley and Anthony Clarke, a young officer in a British artillery regiment.

In the 1930s, Huxley was touring Italy, when he visited the village of Sansepolcro (Holy Sepulchre) in Tuscany. Here he saw "The Resurrection", the masterwork of the Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, painted circa 1460.

A tour de force of composition, Piero's widely admired painting depicts the risen Christ stepping out of his tomb while beneath him the guards slumber. Kenneth Clark called it "one of the supreme works of painting". Huxley was entranced by the work and described it in a book of essays as "the greatest picture in the world".

This is a bit from the essay he wrote about it:
"The best picture in the world is painted in fresco on the wall of a room in the town hall.

Some unwittingly beneficent vandal had it covered, some time after it was painted, with a thick layer of plaster, under which it lay hidden for a century or two, to be revealed at last in a state of preservation remarkably perfect for a fresco of its date.

Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world."

(I recently saw a BBC documentary about the painting, in which a teacher in the village of Sansepolcro tell the children in his art class the story, whereupon a little boy innocently asks if Huxley had seen all the pictures in the world.)

Come World War Two, and a British artillery battery is deployed outside Sansepolcro, Captain Anthony Clarke commanding. Orders come from H /Q to shell the village, which is held by the Germans.

Captain Clarke yells: "Fire!" and the first salvo rings out. Before he gives the order to fire the second volley, he remembers why the name "Sansepolcro" sounded so familiar to him: he had read Huxley's essay before the War.

Putting his career on the line and risking a court martial, Clarke gives the order to cease fire. He did not want to go down in history as the man who destroyed the greatest picture in the world.

For once God was on the side of the art lovers - the Germans withdrew without another shot being fired.

Anthony Clarke is a hero in Sansepolcro - his statue is in the town square and there is not only a street named "Via Anthony Clarke", but also numerous little boys called Antonio. Huxley also has a street named after him, but perhaps not any little boys - I don't think "Aldous" translates well into Italian!

I can recommend the BBC documentary series "The Private Life of a Masterpiece", which reveals the fascinating stories behind 24 major works of art. Comprising 7 discs with a total running time of ten hours, it is well worth the $70 they will charge you for it at any major audio-visual retailer. Christmas is coming!

Monday, 19 October 2009

A Decade of Birth Pains

The Judgement of Paris : Manet, Meissonier and an Artistic Revolution
by Ross King

This is an engrossing account of the decade between 1863 (when the first Salon des Refusés showed paintings rejected by the Salon of the French Academy) to 1874, the date of the first Impressionist exhibition.

The conflict between academicians and innovators during these years is dramatised by contrasting the careers of two very different artists: Ernest Meissonier, a conservative painter celebrated for detailed historical subjects, and Édouard Manet, whose paintings caused such uproar at the time.

Ernest Meissonier was the most celebrated artist of his day, showered with medals and honours. His works fetched record prices, while Manet was a laughingstock, scorned by the critics and the public alike.

But History has, as usual, sorted out the men from the boys… "Ernest who?" We all know who Manet is!

Many other artists of the day, among them Courbet, Degas, Morisot, Monet and Cézanne, are included in this compelling narrative of artistic life in Paris during a turbulent era. I was very interested to learn that what shocked people most about Manet's "Le déjeuner sur l'Herbe" was not the naked lady, but the fact that the men were (shock, horror!) not dressed in suits and top hats, but actually wore ordinary old everyday clothes.

I was made aware once again of how painters work in the context of the politics of the day, and how much schools of art are influenced by what is happening in society at the time. I always believed, as I suppose most of our members do, that the famous Salon des Refusés of 1863 was arranged by the rejected painters who were determined that the public should see their work.

Not a bit of it! The painters were, for the most part, reluctant to offend the judges of the Salon by participating in the mutinous exhibition and had to be coaxed to allow their works to be hung. It was the King who insisted on holding the exhibition, because his popularity was at a low ebb, elections were looming and he feared being ousted by the Republican movement.

This book reads as easily as a novel; it gives a fascinating account of the artistic civil war that raged around the Paris Salons in the decade that saw the rise of the wild tribe of upstarts who were contemptuously called "impressionists", painting, as they did, scenes of contemporary life with seemingly slapdash technique. Meticulously painted scenes from history, the Bible or the Classics were considered the only fit and proper subjects to hang on the walls of the Salon.

Ross King explains the bureaucratic machinery of the Salons in fascinating detail: how juries were selected, and how both artistic and national politics entered into the picture. He also vividly conveys the humiliation of the spurned artists, who received no explanation for the decision of the jury, simply an order to pick up their work, stamped with a large scarlet R on the back.

Mr King has written several other books that look interesting to me, notably "Michelangelo And The Pope's Ceiling" and "Brunelleschi's Dome : The Story Of The Great Cathedral In Florence". I am going to make it my business to get hold of them.

The Italian Connection

Two of my favourite Art/Lit authors are Carolyn Coker and Iain Pears. Pears is the author of the acclaimed international bestseller, "An Instance of the Fingerpost". This is a murder mystery, set in Oxford in the 1660's, and may be of particular interest to mathematicians, dealing as it does with calculus and cryptography. As algebra is not my long suit, I much prefer his novels featuring art historian Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano of Rome's Art Theft Squad.

The pair first meet in "The Raphael Affair", when Jonathan is searching for a long-lost Raphael in a tiny Roman church. Their collaboration continues in seven more books set in Rome, Venice, Siena and Florence. The stories are engrossing, the Italian settings are beautiful and I have learnt a lot about the Italian master painters while enjoying a good read.

Carolyn Coker's protagonist is Andrea Perkins, also an art historian. She lives in Boston and makes a living as an art restorer. Andrea sometimes goes abroad on various assignments – the books are mostly set in Italy: Florence, Ferrara and Venice, although there are a couple that take place in London and Los Angeles.

The first in the series is "The Other David": a rare “lost” portrait by Michelangelo has surfaced, of the same model that he used for his statue of David. Is the painting the real thing or the work of a super-forger? It is Andrea Perkins’ job to find out.

In "The Vines of Ferrara" Andrea is at the castle of the suave Count Geoffredo Gonzaga. Andrea is there to repair a crumbling fresco and retouch a set of fabulous fifteenth-century tarocchi -tarot cards. The castle was built as a summer retreat for Lucrezia Borgia … the perfect venue for a few murders!

I have just finished reading "The Hand of the Lion", in which Andrea is hired by the Committee for the Preservation of Venetian Art. She finds herself involved in a spectacular art theft, a kidnapping and a murder, all in the romantic setting of crumbling palaces and languorous gondolas along the Grand Canal.

I can hardly wait to get hold of the next one!

Homer Goes to Italy

Jane Langton's charming Homer Kelly series are often plotted around art related themes. Homer and wife Mary both teach at Harvard and they are very good at getting to the bottom of mysteries. I particularly liked "Murder at the Gardener", "The Thief of Venice" and "The Dante Game" for their art themes and vividly described settings.

In "Murder at the Gardner", paintings by Botticelli,Titian and other masters grace the palatial walls of Boston's Gardner Museum, placed there as decreed by the inflexible terms of Isabella Stewart Gardner's will. She stipulated that the whole collection should be auctioned off "should any changes or unwelcome disturbances occur". Of course all manner of "disturbances" do start to happen, including tadpoles in the courtyard fountain and ghostly music in the galleries. The hapless museum director desperately tries to hush it all up, but his efforts are foiled when the first body is found.

"The Dante Game" takes us to Florence, where Homer Kelly has gone to teach at an American school in a crumbling villa. The author has a keen eye for the architectural and cultural richness of Florence as she centers her plot around the pope's visit to a Florentine cathedral.

The scene of "The Thief of Venice" is Venice rather than Florence, but the atmosphere of the city is equally evocatively described, as Homer settles in to study Renaissance manuscripts, and Mary sets out to see the city. The plot deals with the discovery of art treasures hidden by Venetian Jews during World War II.

These civilised, literary novels are delightful - I also like the elegant line drawings by the author, which accompany the text.

The Nazis Strike Again

Art thefts by the Nazis during World War II are tailormade for thrillers about art. Aaron Elkins' "Loot: A Novel", is one of the best of the genre. It features Ben Revere, a retired art historian and curator who occasionally moonlights for the police.

In the last convulsive days of World War II a convoy of Nazi trucks loaded with Europe's greatest art treasures winds its way through the Alps toward a cavernous Austrian salt mine. With the Allies closing in and chaos erupting, a single truck silently disappears into a mountain snowstorm with its cargo of stolen masterpieces.

Fifty years later, in a seedy Boston pawnshop, one of the truck's paintings surfaces at last, pawned for $100 by a smalltime Russian thug. The next day, the shop owner, Simeon Pawlovsky, himself a Nazi death camp survivor, is dead, the life brutally beaten out of him. The painting is gone and Ben is on the case.

"The English Assassin" by Daniel Silva is a part of the author's scrupulously researched series about Gabriel Allon, an art restorer and former member of the Israeli Secret Service.

Switzerland's shameful WWII record of profiteering and collaboration with Nazi Germany
provides the backdrop for this superbly crafted thriller. When Gabriel Allon is sent to Zurich to restore the painting of a reclusive millionaire banker, he arrives to find his would-be employer murdered at the foot of his treasured Raphael.

A secret collection of priceless, illicitly gained Impressionist masterpieces is missing. Gabriel’s former Mossad handlers step out of the shadows to admit the truth—the collector had been silenced. Gabriel is put back in the high-stakes spy game, battling wits with the rogue assassin he helped to train.

The briskly moving story is full of unexpected twists – I found it a real page-turner and I learnt some interesting things along the way!

The Van Gogh Conspiracy

by J. Madison Davis

A bit of a far-fetched tale, this one, but it is an engaging story, well told. What would a conspiracy theory be without Hitler and the Nazis? Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda just don't have the same je ne sais quoi … for one thing, a tea towel and a night shirt can't hope to compete for sexy menace with jackboots and a cap with a death's head badge, worn at a rakish angle. Osama needs a new stylist.

But I digress – back to The Van Gogh Conspiracy: a "new" painting by Van Gogh is discovered in the barn of a rural French farmhouse. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam authenticates the painting and the poor French family in whose barn it was discovered stands to collect millions once the painting is auctioned.

Enter a holocaust survivor living in New York, who claims the painting is actually his, stolen from him during WW2 by You-Know-Who. He hires a team to help him prove that the "bill of sale" he has in Van Gogh’s handwriting is authentic.

The international investigation leads to the discovery of yet another never-before-seen Van Gogh. Soon it is revealed that someone working in the Van Gogh Museum has access to an entire horde of famous paintings looted by the Nazis during World War II. This evildoer has been secretly sending them to former Nazis around the world.

Suspend disbelief, enter into the paranoid spirit of the conspiracy theorists, and you have a good read on your hands!

Anatomy of a Genius

"My Name is Asher Lev" by Chaim Potok deals with the development, from early childhood to international fame, of an artist who is compulsively driven to paint the world he sees and feels, even when it leads him to what is considered blasphemy by the deeply religious Hasidic sect to which his Jewish family belongs.

As the novel traces Asher's struggle to express himself while living in the Hasidic community, Potok paints a luminous portrait of the artist's sometimes tortured existence, by turns heartbreaking and exultant.

Asher enters religious school; the wise Rebbe (spiritual leader of the Ladover Hassidim) acknowledges that his gift can't be denied and introduces him to Jacob Kahn, a renowned artist. (A character who seems to be based on Picasso.) Kahn takes Asher under his wing, mentors him and encourages him to express himself even when it leads Asher to paint works that incorporate Christian iconography, so inimical to his religion.

His compulsion to paint not only alienates Asher from his childhood world, but also causes divisions between members of his own family when an uncle offers his attic for a studio space. The uncle recognises Asher's genius early in his boyhood, and gets in on the ground floor by regularly buying pictures from his nephew, building up a valuable collection.

His father steadfastly refuses to accept Asher's artistic vocation, asking his son when he'll give up that "foolishness", even when Asher is already an internationally famous painter whose works hang in major museums. His mother is in the middle, trying to strike a balance between supporting her husband's extreme orthodoxy and her son's need to paint. The most poignant scene comes when Asher's parents finally come to one of his shows.

The walk out when confronted by "Brooklyn Crucifixion" , the painting central to the heartrending climax of the story. This portrays the agony of Asher's mother as a figure crucified by her inability to resolve the tensions between her husband and son. They see the crucifixion, so deeply antagonistic to their faith, as Asher's ultimate betrayal.

Chaim Potok was an accomplished painter, in addition to being a writer and a Rabbi. In a fascinating intersection between art and life, Potok himself created the painting "Brooklyn Crucifixion".

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

You buy a new house which has a granny flat in the back garden. "A nice little earner!" you think, and you advertise for a tenant.

You rent to Paul, a nice young man from Wyoming. He is an artist and you like the idea of having a bit of culture in the back yard. You have a few misgivings about all the empty grog bottles in the garbage, but if Paul is a drunk, he is a quiet one, and he pays his rent on time, so you shrug your shoulders and forget about it.

One day you wander down to the granny flat to take Paul his mail and you discover that he has made an absolute wreck of the place. Paint everywhere - great splashes and gobs of it, on the carpets, the walls, the furniture. You fly off the handle at him, but he calmly informs you that he is an action painter and uses the dripping, splashing and pouring techniques. You realise the object in his hand is your turkey baster that recently disappeared from the kitchen - he is squirting bright blue paint in pole-like stripes from it on a canvas laid out on the floor, even as you yell at him.

This is the final straw and you give him 24 hours to get out. After he has left, the flat has to be completely painted and refurnished. You have to get a new turkey baster too. Paul left a huge canvas behind - you give it to the guy who is taking the paint-spattered furniture to the tip, as he seems to have taken a liking to it. It is just a lot of squiggly splashes and it doesn't even have a proper title - it is called "No 5, 1948". What sort of title is that ?

Some years later, you recognise the picture on the tv news - Sotheby's had sold it for $140 million - a record price for a painting. You kick the cat, demolish the turkey baster and get drunk.

Paul Jackson Pollock: the tenant from hell!

I am Toulouse-Lautrec

I was born in 1864 into a wealthy and aristocratic French family. My parents were first cousins. My eccentric father was a very keen hunter of animals and women. He liked to dress up in fanciful costumes like chain mail. He abandoned me and my mother for long periods while he was off somewhere devoting himself to his hobbies of hunting and lechery.
Perhaps due to my parents' consanguinity, I had a congenital weakness of the bones. I broke both of my legs during childhood. The bones stopped growing and remained weak, while the rest of my body grew into maturity. I was less than 5ft tall. By way of cruel compensation, nature rewarded me with a thick beard, a deep voice and a strong libido. I was fond of boasting that "I may be only a small coffee pot, but I have a big spout!"

Sadly, my bulbous nose, short-sighted eyes and large head on top of my ill-proportioned body, made me unattractive to women.

Much of my childhood was spent on my grandfather's estate, where my cousins and I played and studied together. My family encouraged my interest in art and in 1882 I moved to Paris with my mother to study art.

In 1886 I rented a studio in Montmartre and moved into a nearby apartment, which I shared with a medical student friend. I frequented seamy bars and cabarets, and my life settled into a regular pattern of painting, drinking and late nights.

I contracted syphilis and was addicted to absinthe, a highly toxic liqueur, 140 to 160 proof, flavored with wormwood and other herbs. It is now illegal in most countries, but in my day it was freely available.

During this time I produced some of my most brilliant work, despite my debauched lifestyle. I specialised in posters, book and magazine illustrations, and theatre programmes. The performers at the Moulin Rouge, notably Jane Avril and Aristide Bruant, were some of my most famous models.

It was fashionable for the beau monde to go slumming in the nightspots of Montmartre, where I rubbed shoulders with bons vivants like
EOscar Wilde and King Edward VII, and indeed did portraits of them both.

I spent much of my time in brothels, not only to enjoy the sexual favours of the girls, but because they were excellent models. I even had a permanent studio in my favourite brothel.

After a violent attack of delirium in 1899, I went to a private clinic for detox and for a while it seemed to work: I even started painting again. Tragically, my health was too far gone and I died in 1901 at the age of 36.

My eccentric father sat by my deathbed flicking flies away with my shoelaces. My last words,"Old fool!" were addressed to him.

I am Chloe

I was painted in Paris by Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, the leading nude figure artist of the day. The famed Parisian model, Marie, posed for me. She died at 22, under sordid circumstances, but I am more than a hundred years old and as beautiful as ever.

I was an overnight sensation when I debuted at the Paris Salon of 1875. Lefebvre got the Gold Medal of Honour for me, the highest official award bestowed upon a French artist.

This success was followed by more acclaim as I featured as the central figure in the French Gallery at the Sydney International Exhibition, and then at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. On both occasions, I claimed the highest honours, and a growing group of admirers.

I did not go back to Paris, because I was purchased by a Melbourne doctor, Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, for the sum of 850 guineas. Fitzgerald loaned me to the National Gallery of Victoria in 1883 while he was on an extended visit to Ireland. Here my dishabille caused a sensation.

While I was recognised by the critics as superb, the general public of Melbourne was scandalised by the open display of a nude woman in a public place. My most vehement opposition came from the Presbyterian Assembly, who were outraged because I would be on view on Sundays. Protest meetings, letters and sermons followed. After a stormy three weeks, I was withdrawn from public exhibition in Melbourne, and sent to Adelaide. (The City of Churches! … whose brilliant idea was that?)

When the doctor returned to Melbourne, I remained in his private home for 21 years. At first passers-by complained that they could see me through the windows of his front room: Fitzgerald was forced to move me to a more private area of the house. What were they doing peering through his windows, anyway?

Upon Fitzgerald's death, I was purchased at auction for £800 by Norman Figsby Young, an ex-prospector turned art collector. He was the publican of Young & Jackson's Hotel. Henry took me back to his home above the hotel, but his deeply disapproving wife banished me to the public bar, where I charm the patrons to this day. During World War I toured Australia to raise funds for the Red Cross.

In 1995 I was on loan to the National Gallery of Victoria for a special exhibition: "Narratives, nudes and landscapes". Also in the exhibition, on loan, was "La Cigale", another nude by Lefebvre. In May 2005 the NGV bought "La Cigale" from the estate of her Melbourne owner, and she is now on public display at the NGV International.

It is nice to know that I have a sister just down the road – even though I have been in Australia for more than a century, I am still a French girl and sometimes I get homesick. I am able to visit her from time to time, when I am on loan to the NGV for special exhibitions. In 2004 I had to go to the NGV's conservation centre for repair when a bar patron broke my glass and scratched me.

Marie, who modelled for me, was only 19 when the rotter Lefebvre painted her. She fell madly in love with him at the time. He didn't knock her favours back either and you only have to look me to see why not!

He strung her along for a while and then he dropped her and took up with another model. The poor girl was devastated, but she didn't do anything as lame as drowning herself or pining away like other lovelorn Victorian maidens! No, she boiled up phosphorous match-heads, and drank the resultant poisonous brew at a dinner party to which she had invited Jules, his new girlfriend and all their friends, dying in convulsive agony. That showed them!

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Doomed Damsel: Ophelia

I am a fictional character and the subject of many paintings by eminent artists.

This one, in the Tate Britain, is perhaps the best-known. It was painted by John Millais in 1858; the model was Lizzie Siddal, who spent hours posing, fully clothed, in a bath of water. For her trouble she got £3 and pneumonia.

My fate was a tragic one, but I mostly brought it upon myself by falling in love with a rotter. On top of this my father was a control freak and my brother was subject to vengeful rages. Small wonder I went mad and drowned myself.

You may wonder what sent me off the deep end, in a manner of speaking.

Imagine that you are a teenage girl in love with an older man who returns your affections. Your father and brother believe that your boyfriend is a sleaze, who is Only After One Thing. They order you to stop seeing him and to return all his love letters and gifts. (They don't care that diamonds are a girl's best friend.)

You obediently avoid the boyfriend, but one day he comes to you, grabs you rudely by the wrists and stares unblinkingly at your face. You try to make civilised conversation, but you're rejected coldly, and he screams: "Get thee to a nunnery!" before stomping out, leaving you a sobbing wreck.

The next time you see him, he is basically cracking nasty jokes about you to his mates. Still reeling from this shock, you get the news that your boyfriend has now killed your father. You do what any well-bred girl would do in these traumatic circumstances: you style your hair becomingly, apply your make-up with care and throw yourself in the river wearing your most fetching gown.

(Unlike Virginia Woolf, who had a face like an old boot and jumped into the river wearing an unbecoming tweed coat. She stuffed stones in the pockets, totally spoiling the fit. This is why there are fifty paintings of Me by eminent artists and none of Virginia.)

Just as well that I drowned when I did, so I didn't have to see what happened next: my boyfriend's mother took poison, he killed his stepfather and fought a duel with my vengeful brother, killing him too. My brother killed him right back.

At that point, the fat lady sang "Revosti", and not a moment too soon.

Doomed Damsel: Elaine, the fair maid of Astolat

Elaine, just like the hapless Isabella whom we met before, is a favourite subject of the Pre-Raphaelites. She was the victim of her passion for a rotter. She had the misfortune to fall in love with Sir Lancelot, well-known adulterer and betrayer of his best friend, King Arthur.

The cad wore Elaine's sleeve during a joust, as a token of his insincere affection. Despite this good luck charm, he was injured in the fight. She nursed him tenderly back to health, but as soon as he was pronounced fit, Lancelot shot through to Camelot, where he enjoyed matinéé romps in Queen Guinevere's boudoir while Arthur dutifully slaved over the Round Table of an afternoon, signing decrees and dispensing justice.

Meanwhile, back in Astolat, broken-hearted Elaine retreated to the tower of Shalott, where she weaved upon a loom day and night, forbidden by a curse to look out of her window. She had to catch her glimpses of the world outside through shadows and reflections in a mirror on the wall. (It didn't even have the decency to tell her she was the fairest of them all.)

She grew tired of living her life through reflections, saying she was "half-sick of shadows". No sooner did she utter these words, or she saw in her mirror Sir Lancelot ride past, clad in shining armour and heartlessly singing "Tirra-lirra", if Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is to be believed:

… From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

Driven by love, the Lady of Shalott rushed to the window, in her haste breaking her loom and her tapestry, only to see Lance disappearing in the distance, on his way back to Camelot and Gwynnie. The mirror cracked from side to side as she cried: "The curse has come upon me!" Once again we only have Tennyson's word for this, and he doesn't say whether she was referring to her doom, the dastardly Lancelot, or a gynaecological matter.

She climbed down from the tower to the water's edge, where she found a boat and wrote 'The Lady of Shalott' upon its prow. She laid herself down and let the boat drift down the river to Camelot, singing one last song before she died of a broken heart. The song may have been "Tirra-lirra" or "Heartbreak Hotel" for all we know: Tennyson is silent upon the matter.

When her dead body drifted ashore at Camelot, it created a bit of a stir and among the rubberneckers was Lancelot. Pretending he had no idea who she was, he said piously:

"She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."

Poets and painters, from Tennyson to the  and beyond, had a field day with poor old : Elaine - we have numerous pictures of her in her tower and in her boat, but no explanations for several little mysteries that puzzle me:

Why did Lancelot wear her sleeve during the joust? Why not a scarf or a hankie? The girl probably took a lot of trouble to wear a nice frock; it seems a bit harsh to rip her sleeve off.

Who put the mirror curse on her and why? Why was she only "half-sick" of shadows? What would it take to make her completely sick?

Where did she find the paint for "The Lady of Shallot" on the boat's prow? Did she first paint over its legally registered name? Did she have to stand in the water to do it or did she just hang over the side and write upside-down? Did the boat owner's insurance pay for the damage?

Life is full of little mysteries.

Doomed Damsel: Isabella, the tragic herbalist

 Painters love a doomed damsel as a subject. The pre-Raphaelites were particularly fond of combining long tresses with a touch of anguish.

As happened to Hamlet's Ophelia, doomed damsels usually bring their tragic fate upon themselves by falling in love with rotters.

In the case of Isabella, an Italian lass, the rotters were her two brothers, not her lover, but love was, as usual, the root cause of her doom. (No pun intended.) The whole thing was a disaster: nobody won except the painters.

It all began when Isabella fell in love with Lorenzo, a carpenter employed by her brothers. Hoping to marry their sister off to a rich guy instead, the brothers hit upon a cunning plan to cope with the Lorenzo situation: they lured the carpenter into the forest, where they killed and buried him. They told Isabella they had sent him on a business trip, but Lorenzo's ghost came to her in the night and told her everything, including the location of his grave.

Isabella found the grave, but rather than put a posy on it and say a little prayer, she chose to dig it up in order to take him home with her. The late Lorenzo was a strapping lad - finding his body too heavy to carry, she hacked off his head and tucked that under her arm to take home. Here she put it in a terracotta pot, covered it with potting soil and sowed basil seeds on top.

The basil did rather well, as you would expect: all that organic fertiliser. She watered it with her tears and spent hours hugging the pot and talking to the plant. (She may have been an ancestress of Prince Charles.) One wonders if she used bits of the basil in the pasta sauce she cooked for the brothers.

People started calling her weird for spending all her time mooning over a pot of basil and the brothers couldn't interest any rich guys in marriage with a madwoman, however beautiful.

So they hit upon another cunning plan: they would steal the pot of basil. With the object of her obsession removed, they hoped Isabella would return to normal. Unfortunately the two broke the pot and saw their victim's head. Realising the game was up, they fled the jurisdiction. Isabella, bereft of Lorenzo, basil and all, pined away and died.

Keats wrote a poem about her; Holman Hunt, John Millais, John William Waterhouse and John White Alexander painted her, but it seems the Italian police ignored the whole thing! Had it happened here, Melbourne's Finest would have sent Forensics to check out the crime scene, arrested the whole lot of them and arranged counselling for Isabella.

Get the Kleenex ready for next month's sad but mystifying tale – the story of Elaine.

Fancy meeting you here!

My mother, who was an art teacher, had unorthodox ideas about the interior decoration of her children's bedrooms. My friends had framed pictures of Disney and Beatrix Potter characters on their walls, which were gradually replaced by sellotaped posters of Cliff Richard and Elvis as teenagery set in.

No framed Peter Rabbit or sellotaped Elvis for me and my sister! My mother had a vast supply of A3-sized reproductions of famous paintings. She subscribed to an art magazine which featured a different one as a centrefold each month. She pulled them out and stuck them on cardboard, ignoring the staple holes. She clothes-pegged them, three at a time, to a piece of clothesline which she had nailed to the wall facing our beds. She changed the pictures every couple of weeks. Throughout my childhood, I saw those pictures first thing in the morning and last thing at night: if I ever happen to run into Pope Julius II or Mona Lisa at the MCG or the Boxing Day Sales, I will recognise them immediately and greet them like old friends.

Over the years, I have in fact run into many of these old friends in various art galleries in the world, and it always comes as a delightful, if rather disconcerting, surprise. For one thing, in my mind all these pictures are A3 size, so I have to make what in some cases is a very considerable mental adjustment. Holbein's "Ambassadors" in the National Gallery, London, (which I discussed in a previous WASP article) is two metres square – a far cry from the A3 print along which I used to squint to see the skull appear.

An even bigger surprise than the size, is always the colour: even with today's cutting-edge technology, reproductions never get the colours perfectly right. In the 40s and 50s when I grew up, they hardly ever even came close.

I loved looking at the little Infanta Margarita by Velasquez, in her bubble-gum pink hoop skirts and long golden tresses – that, to my eight-year-old mind, was how a princess should look – not like the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose who wore smocked frocks and white ankle socks just like mine!

Thirty years later I ran into the Infanta, in the Prado in Madrid. The bubblegum pink frock was a lovely muted shade of apricot and she was four times taller than I remembered her, but there she stood, the same little princess, looking gravely at me just the way she used to, but without the staple holes in her forehead.

A picture that fascinated me as a child was Ghirlandaio's double portrait of an old man and a boy, presumably his grandson. At that age I was oblivious to the loving relationship between the benevolent old man and the trusting child. All I could see, was the grandfather's nose, a mass of bulbous growths.

When I eventually saw the original in the Louvre, I could look at it with an adult's perspective. The picture is dominated by the noble ruin of the old man's face, in contrast to the perfect and childishly chubby face of the little boy, complete with wavy golden locks.

The ravaged old face and the beautiful young one contemplate each other with affection – the painter has unerringly caught a fleeting moment of tenderness.

This picture is a perfect illustration of what Renaissance philosopher Leon Battista Alberti meant when he wrote that a good portrait painter possesses a truly divine power, making the past present and representing the dead to the living many centuries later.

Visiting the NGV's wonderful portrait collection is always an adventure: you never know whom you'll meet in the next room: Cleopatra, the Doge of Venice or King David - they all live in St Kilda Road and you can visit them free of charge, any time you like!

Isn't Melbourne Marvellous?

Aubrey Beardsley

I was born in Brighton, in 1872. My father was a ne'er-do-well, descended from London jewellers, and my mother was a governess. I was diagnosed with tuberculosis at seven, famous at 20 and dead at 25. I had very little formal art training: I attended Bristol Grammar School as a boarder for four years, and then became a clerk at a London insurance company, where I did not remain long.

Oscar Wilde described me as having "a face like silver hatchet and grass green hair." Oscar exaggerated: my hair was not green, but I was certainly a weird-looking fellow.

Both my sister Mabel and I were considered by our parents to be artistically and musically gifted. Mabel later became an actress.

I admired the Pre-Rapaelites and met Burne-Jones, who took me under his wing, arranging for me to attend night classes at the Westminister School of Art -- the only formal training I ever received.

Although a member of the homosexual clique that included Oscar Wilde and the English aesthetes, I was basically heterosexual, though my only female partner had been my adored elder sister Mabel, with whom I had an ongoing incestuous relationship that had started in our childhood. Rumours that she miscarried or aborted my child, were fuelled by the drawings of diminutive foetus-like monsters which started to appear in my work by 1892.

My first commission was to illustrate J. M. Dent's edition of Malory's Morte d'Arthur.

The next year Wilde's scandalous play Salome was published in its original French version, and I was commissioned to illustrate it. This assignment was the beginning of celebrity but also of an uneasy, and at times unpleasant, friendship with Wilde, which officially ended when Wilde was tried and convicted of sodomy.

My fame was established for all time when the first volume of The Yellow Book appeared in April 1894. This famous quarterly of art and literature, for which I served as art editor, brought my work to a larger public. It was the venomous elegance of my startling black-and-white drawings, title-pages, and covers which made the journal an overnight sensation.

Although well received by much of the public, The Yellow Book was attacked by critics as an outlet for the "indecent" work of Wilde and his aesthete cronies. In April 1895, following Wilde's arrest, I was dismissed from my post, even though Wilde had in fact never contributed to the magazine. Soon afterwards, however, I was appointed art editor of The Savoy, a magazine similar to the Yellow Book. I continued to illustrate books . Among these were editions of Pope's The Rape of the Lock, Ben Jonson's Volpone, and The Lysistrata of Aristophanes.

I became renowned for my dark and perverse images and grotesque erotica. My most famous erotic illustrations were on themes of history and mythology, including my illustrations for Lysistrata and Salomé.

During the last four months of my life I was ravaged by chills and haemhorrages, but continued to work feverishly on my drawings for Volpone, even when I was finally bedridden. In November 1897 I went to Menton in the south of France on my doctor's advice, and four months later I died there.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

John Donne said no man is an island, and certainly no artist is an island – everyone is influenced by the work of those they admire and study. When looking at paintings by the great artists, one is often conscious of nuances and echoes of the works of other artists: Rembrandt uses light and shadow in the same way as Carvaggio, look at a Canaletto sky and you see Claude Lorrain's way with light, every time you clap eyes on a Rubens you can't help thinking: "this guy has seen a Titian or two!"

Sometimes there is no more than a striking similarity between two paintings that indicate how one artist's work influenced another: a case in point is Sargent’s "Fumée d'Ambre Gris" and Whistler’s "White Girl" – both are studies of white on white and in some ways Sargent surpasses Whistler in his handling of showdows and the play of light accents. Whistler was older and vastly more popular than his fellow-American ex-pat, who admired his work and studied it.

Why does Manet's "Olympia", which scandalised Society even more than his "Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe", look so familiar? The painting was inspired by Titian's "Venus of Urbino", which in turn is a dead ringer for Giorgione's "Sleeping Venus".

What I enjoy most of all, is when I come across a painting which is a parody, a re-interpretation or perhaps an homage to some other famous work. Something in the manner of the remakes of famous movies – when Gus van Sandt remakes Hitchcock's "Psycho", is it homage or does he think he can do it better?

Rene Magritte did a series of paintings that was based on well-known paintings by the earlier French artists Jacques Louis David, François Gérard and Édouard Manet. Characteristic of this series was Magritte's substitution of coffins for the people in the original paintings. Magritte's version of David's famous portrait of Madame Récamier is both disturbing and surprisingly humourous, particularly when you catch a glimpse of the remains of the original sitter's gown squeezing out from underneath a coffin, instead of cascading over a young seductive woman.

I saw Magritte's coffin version of Manet's "The Balcony" in an exhibition in Antwerp, but it didn't mean much to me at the time. It is only when I saw the original Manet at the NGV, where it was the star turn of the Impressionist exhibition, that I did a classic double take and realised where I had seen this group before. I couldn't wait to get home and look at my Magritte book!

Our own James Gleeson in his turn pays homage to the great Surrealists: several of his works, in the retrospective the NGV held a few years ago, are very reminiscent of Magrittes I'd seen in Antwerp's Stadsmuseum: meticulously drawn everyday objects in an extraordinary context: the "magic realism" that Magritte pioneered. Indeed, Gleeson also echoed Magritte's trick of creating surrealist versions of famous paintings: I was delighted and amused by a large canvas called "Faux Delft by day/night" …

When I first looked at it, it seemed so familiar, yet I knew I had never seen it before. Then it dawned on me that I was looking at Vermeer's "View of Delft", rendered surrealistically! Instead of the Dutch ladies in the foreground, Gleeson had painted himself at his easel. He used the same palette of colours and kept the skyline similar, although Vermeer's buildings are now bottles and pelicans and weird animals, with the same silhouettes. I like a painter with a sense of humour!

Among the Archibald finalists of 2005 was Rodney Pole's portrait of fellow-artist Kerrie Lester, that gave me a great deal of pleasure and amusement. I have always liked Goya's imperious Duchess of Alba, and this was unmisktakably Kerrie Lester channelling the Duchess: the stance with down-pointing finger, feet turned out in their winkle-picking shoes, the red sash, the imperious stare – even the background is the same.

Picasso had a deep admiration for the work of his fellow Spaniard, the great Velasquez, and in a true act of homage, he painted a series of 58 interpretations of "Las Meninas", one of the world's most famous paintings, between August and December 1957. The paintings fill the Las Meninas gallery of the Picasso Museo in Barcelona, Spain.

Have you come across other examples of artistic homage? Let me know!