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films and television

War and “Place de la Concorde” by Degas

Edgar Degas, "Place de la Concorde," 1875. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Last night, I watched The Rape of Europa PBS documentary about Nazi looting during the World War II era. Near the end of the film, I was surprised to see Edgar Degas’s painting Place de la Concorde (1875, shown above) appear on the screen. This painting apparently resurfaced in 1995 after having been missing for four decades. Place de la Concorde was brought to Russia by Soviet “trophy bridgades” after World War II. These Russians had been sent to Germany to reclaim the stolen art which the Nazis had taken from Russian collections. In addition to reclaiming art which had been taken in the first place, some of these “trophy brigades” retaliated and decided to help themselves to works of art held in German collections. Such is the case with Place de la Concorde, which was taken from the collection of the German collector Otto Gerstenberg. It is likely this shady history contributed to the reason why this painting was held from public view for four decades. Today, the painting is a celebrated work in the Hermitage Collection and was featured in a six-month exhibition which ended at the beginning of this year.

The current context and location of this painting in the Hermitage Museum is interesting to me on several levels. On one hand, the subject matter and of this painting (especially what intentionally is not depicted in this scene) raises some interesting contrasts in relation to the current Russian ownership. Back when Degas painted this scene, only a few years had passed since the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the bloody civil war in Paris, the Commune (1871). During that time, the French lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. As a result, a statue by James Pradier that was located in Place de la Concorde, The City of Strasbourg (1836-38, shown below) came to be seen from 1871 onward as a symbol of the lost territory. The statue was draped in black on state occasions and occasionally decorated with wreaths until France regained the region in following World War I.

James Pradier, "The City of Strasbourg," 1836-38. Place de la Concorde, Paris. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Degas, however, chose to not depict The City of Strasbourg in his painting; the statue would have been draped in black to mourn the loss of the territory, therefore serving as a direct reference to the war and destruction which recently took place in France.1 Instead Degas intentionally removed this statue and reference to war with his strategic placement of the striding figure of Baron Lepic. Degas, along with other Impressionists, sought to escape from and ignore the death of the French and Parisians (and the figurative death of the territory of Alsace-Lorraine) by not referencing the recent wars in their Impressionist art.2 In contrast, with the placement of Place de la Concorde in the Hermitage Museum today, it seems as if the Russians are trying to compensate for the death of their people (1.6 to 2 million Soviets died in the Siege of Leningrad during 1941-1944) by keeping this trophy painting that once belonged to a German collector.

Although in the 19th century Degas tried to avoid a direct reference to war, this painting no longer can function in that way. The current context and placement of Place de la Concorde within the Hermitage Museum has created a new meaning for this painting which is intrinsically linked to war. The current museum label at the Hermitage proudly displays that this painting came “from the collection of Otto Gerstenberg.” This painting has changed in its function due to its current context, arguably and ironically opposite to what Degas intended in relation to its subject matter.

In 1997 the Russians created a law which claimed that this painting, along with other “displaced” trophy items that were part of the Russian post-war expedition, are inalienable property of the Russian Federation. The painting is now displayed in the Hermitage with a dark brown frame, which reminds me a little of the dark drapery which would have cloaked the statue that represented the lost territory of Alsace-Lorraine. Although Degas didn’t want to depict the draped Strasbourg statue within his painting, Place de la Concorde itself is now cloaked in a state of mourning, serving as a reminder of the past and the loss of Russian lives.

1 Paul Wood, “The Avant-Garde and the Paris Commune,” in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 122.

2 Ibid. Paul Wood discusses how “The Commune and the Prussian war silently haunt Impressionist painting in small tics and changes in viewpoint,” which includes the striding figure of Baron Lepic.

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Vik Muniz and Perspective

Muniz, "Action Photo after Hans Namuth" (1997). Photograph of image created with chocloate syrup

Vik Muniz is a contemporary Brazilian artist who is based in New York. He is particularly interested in referencing images from pop culture or fine art, but with the use of unconventional mediums like peanut butter, syrup, wire, and sugar. A few years ago, I saw his works Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter and Jelly) (After Warhol) and Medusa Marinara (among many others) at an exhibition in Seattle.

Last night, I watched the documentary Waste Land which discusses how Muniz created “Pictures of Garbage” (2008), a series of large-scale portraits that were comprised of rubbish and junk that was found at Jardim Gramacho, a large landfill near Rio de Janeiro. The ThinkShop blog has already highlighted the Marat: Sebastião portrait that was created as part of this project, so I won’t say much on that topic here. Instead, I wanted to point out how different visual perspectives (particularly aerial views) form an interesting aspect of the documentary and Muniz’s work itself.

Tião (portrait sitter) and Muniz's assistant Fabio Ghivelder look at "Marat: Sebastião" in studio

There were several points in the documentary where the film would pull out to show aerial views of the recycling pickers at Jardim Gramacho. I remember at one point someone commenting that the workers looked like small ants from such a distance. It was interesting to see that Muniz’s own approach to creating his photographs was also with an aerial view approach. After taking photographs of his subjects, the image was projected on the bottom of a studio floor. Recycling pickers were recruited to help fill the portrait shadows and lines with different types of materials that were taken from the landfill, under Muniz’s supervision. The documentary has a few great shots of Muniz giving orders to the assistants below, using a laser pointer to indicate what areas needed attention.

Viewer looking at a detail of Muniz's "Narcissus (after Caravaggio)"

Interestingly, though, I noticed that the documentary had several scenes which scanned up-close details of either the recycling pickers or the final works of art created by Muniz. Both an aerial (distanced) view and an up-close view were presented in the film, which mirrors the perspectives that Muniz wants to encourage for those who view his works of art. Muniz said as much in the documentary itself, and also in a different interview: he wants viewers to step away from his photographs to see the overall subject matter clearly, but then step close to the the photographs in order to notice the medium and details. It is this back-and-forth movement of the viewer (which almost seems ritualistic to me, particularly in a museum setting) that Muniz wants to encourage.

I’m quite a fan of works of art that encourage such dynamic interactions between the works of art and the viewer. I like to think that, as a Brazilian, Muniz is influenced by colonial Brazilian art (i.e. the Brazilian Baroque) which requires such participation on behalf of the viewer.

Muniz, "Narcissus (after Caravaggio)," 2005

For those who are interested, Muniz created another series two years earlier that was also based in Rio de Janeiro. “Pictures of Junk” (2006) was created with the help of art students in an underprivileged area in Rio de Janeiro. These works of art were also made with junk, but the compositions were based off of famous Western works of art, such as Narcissus (after Caravaggio) (shown above), Saturn Devouring One of His Sons (after Francisco de Goya y Lucientes), and The Birth of Venus (After Botticelli) (Triptych).

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The Slashing of Velasquez’s “The Rokeby Venus”

Velasquez, "The Toilet of Venus" (also called "The Rokeby Venus), 1648. The National Gallery of Art, London. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Last week I met a feminist scholar who mentioned that she likes to show her students Velasquez’s “The Toilet of Venus” (commonly known as “The Rokeby Venus”) when she takes students to London on a study abroad program. This scholar teaches her students about the suffragette Mary Richardson, who slashed this canvas multiple times in 1914 in order to protest the recent arrest of suffragette leader Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst.

Detail of damage to "The Rokeby Venus." The attack by Mary Richardson occurred in the National Gallery 1914. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

I recently watched a BBC documentary (from “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” series) that covered more details about this attack (beginning about 32:17 in the linked video). At the time, Mary Richardson did not mention that she was bothered by the painting itself. However, Richardson mentioned in 1952 that she was bothered by the subject matter of this painting (as a female nude which attracted the attention of male viewers); this sentiment appropriately encouraged the soon-to-be feminist movement to uphold this attack a symbols of feminist attitudes toward the female nude.1

I think that the image of the slash marks are particularly interesting, because they remind the viewer that the Venus is actually an illusion which is painted on a two-dimensional surface. It’s also interesting to see how the media responded to this attack, since they cast Mary Richardson as a murderer (referring to her as “Slasher Mary,” which is a charged term given that Jack the Ripper killings took place a few decades before). Since Venus was proven to be an illusion instead of an actual body, Richardson had essentially “killed” the Venus.2

It is also interesting that Richardson concentrated her attack on the body of the Venus figure itself, as if to prevent the back and buttocks from serving as palpable, believable fetishes for the male viewer. In its original (now restored) state, this painting is well-construed for fetishization: the back and buttocks are highlighted as objects, especially since the “subjecthood” or “personhood” of the female is lessened through the obscured face (which is not only turned from the viewer, but is represented in the mirror in a very blurry, undefined manner). Richardson’s marks, however, challenge and defy this fetishization.

Do you know of any other physical attacks on works of art by feminists? Do you have any other thoughts on what new meanings were created by Richardson’s slash marks?

1  In 1952, in an interview, Mary Richardson said, “I didn’t like the way men visitors gaped at the painting all day long.” This quote is mentioned in “The Rokeby Venus” episode from “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series, but also found at “Political Vandalism: Art and Gender” found here: http://www.angryharry.com/rePoliticalVandalism.htm

2 Laura Nead discusses how the media used words that seemed to suggest that wounds were inflicted on an actual body, instead of a pictorial representation of a female. See Lynda Nead, “The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality”. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 2.

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A Timeline of Early Modern Censorship

Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, 1424-25. Image on right shows the fresco after its restoration in the 1980s, which removed the fig leaves that were added in the 17th century. Image courtesy Wikipedia

A few weeks ago I was contacted by an art magazine, specifically requesting information on nudity and censorship in the history of art (since I had previously written on this topic). It took me a few hours to compile the necessary information for this group. Unfortunately, I never received any response after sending a detailed email to my contact, so I assume that the information I sent will not be used in the final article or timeline about censorship. Instead, I have decided to publish my research here.

Although the following timeline is not complete by any means, I think that these are some of the most significant and interesting events which surround the issues of censorship and nudity for the Early Modern period in Western art.

Reconstruction of copper “skirt” which allegedly was placed on Michelangelo’s “David”

  • c. 1504: Objections arose regarding the nudity of Michelangelo’s “David” (to the point that people threw stones at the statue). It is reported that a skirt of copper leaves was created to cover the statue at one point, although we don’t have a mention of this skirt by Vasari (see some commentary on this problematic story HERE). If anyone knows of more historical accounts that discuss this skirt, please share in the comments below!
  • Around 1541: Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini (Ambassador of Mantua) work to have Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” censored, due to the nudity. This undertaking is known as the beginning of the “Fig Leaf Campaign.”
  • 1547: In Spain, the first edition of the Index of Prohibited Books (written in 1547, published in 1551) does not mention nudity specifically, but condemns “all pictures and figures disrespectful to religion” (my emphasis).
  • 1555-1559: Pope Paul IV undertakes censorship of nude works of art, which includes the castration of ancient statues.¹
  • 1563 (December 3-4): 25th session of the Council of Trent (as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation) specifies that art should avoid lasciviousness, “in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.”
  • 1565: Daniele da Volterra (later known as “Il Braghettone” or “The Breeches Painter”) was hired to paint bits of drapery over the nude figures of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. These “breeches” by Volterra were the first; other bits of drapery were added to this fresco in the following centuries.
  • 1592 – Clement VII undertakes a personal inspection of Rome to ensure that revealing sculptures, including semi-nude depictions of Christ on the cross, are covered with drapery.
  • 1644 – 1655: Pope Innocent X had phalluses chiseled off of Roman sculptures in the Vatican. Metal fig leaves were placed on the figures instead.
  • About 1680: Fig leaves were added to the bodies of Masaccio’s Adam and Eve figures in the Brancacci Chapel (see image above). These were removed in the 1980s, when the frescoes were cleaned and restored.
  • 1758-1759: Pope Clement XIII covers more sculptures at the Vatican with fig leaves

Spanish stamp from 1930, based off of Goya’s painting “La Maja Desnuda,” c. 1797-1800. Image courtesty Wikipedia

  • About 1797-1800: Goya paints “La Maja Desnuda” (sometimes called “The Naked Maja”) which is among one of the first works of Western art to depict a woman with visible pubic hair. In 1815, Goya was summoned before the Spanish Inquisition to discuss this painting. “La Maja Desnuda” was turned into a stamp in the 1930s by the Spanish government, but the US Postal service would not deliver incoming letters that were marked with this stamp. One source reports that the US Postal service ruling was reversed as late as 1996!
  • About 1803: Goya paints “La Maja Vestida” (“The Clothed Maja”), which is a painting of the same woman who posed for “La Maja Desnuda.” It could be that this painting was created in order to be more acceptable than the previous version.
  • 1846-1878: Pope Pius IX places fig leaves on more statues at the Vatican.
  • 1878-1903: Leo XIII places fig leaves on more statues at the Vatican.
  • 19th century: Modifications were made to Bronzino’s “Allegory of Venus and Cupid” (discussed in detail HERE).

Large fig leaf covering the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “David” in the Victoria and Albert Museum

  • About 1857: Large fig leaf is created for the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “David” which is located at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
  • 1865 – Victor Lagye creates copies of Adam and Eve for the Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, with the figures clothed. These copies were placed in the altarpiece.
  • Between 1981-1994: Some (but not all) of the “breeches” of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” fresco are removed during restoration and cleaning of the chapel. Others are not removed because the painting could have been damaged in the process.

Censorship in regards to nudity really begins to end in the late 19th century. The early twentieth century sees a lot of nude sculptures that are also more provocative and sexual in nature.

Can you think of any other significant dates in regards to nudity and censorship? I stuck with the Early Modern period in my timeline, but we could also go back to ancient period (I’m reminded of when Early Christians destroyed nude sculptures of the Parthenon in the 5th century CE.)

If you are interested in learning more about censorship and nudity, I would recommend watching this documentary: “Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover Up in History.”

1 Art historian Leo Steinberg explained that we don’t know a lot about the specific censorship actions taken by Pope Paul IV. He writes, “But we are not well informed about the chronology of these practices. Montaigne (Essays, III, 5) cites ‘many beautiful and antique statues’  which were being ‘castrated’ in Rome during his youth by order of ‘that good man,’ meaning Pope Paul IV (1555-1559).”  See Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) p. 186. This book is a reprint of Steinberg’s original 1983 publication. Citation online HERE.

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Manet Portraying Life: Exhibition on Screen

Edouard Manet, "The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil," 1874

This is my new favorite work of art by Manet: The Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil (1874). On one hand, it reminds me a bit of my own little family and home: my currently-bearded husband, my little boy, my flower garden, my yard. Plus, when learning more about this painting on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, I grew to like Manet even more than I already do. In 1924, Monet wrote about his experience of sitting in his garden for this very portrait:

“Manet, enthralled by the color and the light, undertook an outdoor painting of figures under trees. During the sitting, Renoir arrived. . . . He asked me for palette, brush and canvas, and there he was, painting away alongside Manet. The latter was watching him out of the corner of his eye. . . . Then he made a face, passed discreetly near me, and whispered in my ear about Renoir: ‘He has no talent, that boy! Since you are his friend, tell him to give up painting!'”

I don’t really care for Renoir’s art, and it turns out that Manet felt the same way. I have a feeling that Manet and I would have gotten along!

Yesterday I was introduced to Manet’s portrait of the Monet family through a film screening of the exhibition, Manet Portraying Life. This show is currently on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. This film screening was informative and entertaining. I especially liked the analysis of the paintings given by various individuals who were invited onto the set, including curators, artists and even an actress, Fiona Shaw. The host Tim Marlow and Shaw had a really interesting conversation; they discussed how Manet’s The Railway (shown below) seems to include an interesting pattern – almost a barrier – created by the iron bars. These bars seem to separate these delicate females (and the viewer) from the industrial world of the railway. Even the smoke coming from the railway area seems to add an element of mystery (or perhaps inaccessibility) to modern life.

Manet, "The Railway," 1873

There were several little snippets of information that I learned during this film screening. Here were a few other short points that stood out to me:

  • Matisse used to show people Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (1863) in order to prove that black could be used without making it seem like a “hole” in the canvas. (This negative attitude toward black, especially during Matisse’s career, must have its origins in the late 19th century after the rise of Impressionism.)
  • One of the interviewees mentioned that Salon paintings in the 19th century were hung in rooms according to the name of the artist. From what I understand, artists with last names that began with the same letter would have been grouped together. This practical method of hanging is very interesting to me, especially since earlier museums chose to hang their paintings in either a chronological and/or a thematic fashion. (See more information about the Salon hanging method in the comments below.)
  • Manet felt that Velasquez was the greater painter of all time.
  • Carte-de-visite photographs may have influenced Manet’s work; these comparatively cheap photographs were left as little tokens or remembrances when an individual visited friends or family in the 19th century. Manet may have looked to some carte-de-visites when working on specific portraits.  This information made me wonder if the monochromatic tan background or sepia-like tones of photographs might have directly or indirectly influenced the backgrounds Manet used for several of his portraits (for example, as seen in his Portrait of Berthe Morisot from 1872).

Manet, "Music in the Tuileries Gardens," 1862

I also enjoyed that the film included some of the background information about Manet’s life and/or the history behind the paintings themselves. I appreciated a discussion of Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” idea in conjunction with Music in the Tuileries Gardens. The film host emphasized that Manet is shown as a flâneur in this painting: he is depicted in the left corner, an observer of modern life who is separated from the crowd. Another commentator in the film also jokingly noted that Manet has decided to depict different prominent critics and writers in the painting: those who might have written and commented on Manet’s art found themselves within the crowd!

I also learned that this painting alternates between spending six years in the National Gallery in London, and then six years in The Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin. This arrangement is due to a bequest that was contested: when Hugh Lane suddenly died in 1915, his official will stipulated that the painting would go to the National Gallery, but an unofficial addendum to the will (found in his desk) said that the paintings should be in Dublin. The six-year arrangement is a balance between following the legal will and honoring the wishes of the deceased donor.

I was hoping that the film camera would move through the different galleries so one could get a feel for the hanging and the layout of the exhibition space, but that didn’t really happen too much. Instead, the film mostly examined isolated works of art. Only some of the paintings in the show were discussed or even shown, which has led me to look for additional information and interviews about the show elsewhere online. That being said, I still really enjoyed the film; I hope to attend the future screenings this year (on exhibitions about Munch and Vermeer).

Did anyone else go to this film screening or see this exhibition (either at the Royal Academy of Arts or at the Toledo Museum of Art)? What were your thoughts?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.