29th November 2007
My association with Ian Tovey dates back to 1995 and to my ill-fated newspaper publishing venture. He has since gone on to do great things and his work appears at weekly intervals in one of our leading quality newspapers, The Observer, which is part of The Guardian group and hits the streets every Sunday. Whilst I am “of a certain age” when it is possible, and indeed meet, for a person to take a relatively detached view of sex and sexual matters, Ian is younger by several decades. He has a huge talent for a capturing a likeness and I kind of feel proud for spotting him at the beginning his career. OK! OK! So I am talking the talk. But if you want some proof I will walk the walk with you just a few steps to the most recent edition of the Observer where, as ever, his work is prominently featured in the main part of the newspaper.
As soon as the Decima Four had completed their detailed assessment of whatever erotic content there was to be found in the National Gallery’s paintings – the starting point for my Guide to Erotic Art in the National Gallery project - I put to Tovey the idea that he should provide the book’s illustrations. There would be twelve in total. Each illustration would re-interpret a famous National Gallery picture. The selection process proved more difficult than I had anticipated, however, and ground to a stop at just seven. These seven more or less selected themselves by combining an iconic image familiar to members of the public with very definite erotic content. The remaining five candidates for the Tovey-Samuelson treatment were less obvious either because the erotic potential was more obscure or because the pictures were not very well known.
The first-to-be-chosen seven were: Judgement of Paris by Rubens, Young Spartan’s Exercising by Degas, Venus with Mercury and Cupid by Correggio, Venus and Mars by Botticelli, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid by Bronzino, Angelica saved by Ruggiero by Ingres and The Rokeby Venus by Velazquez. These seven works are more than iconic, they are super-iconic. They are instantly recognisable to anyone with even a slight acquaintance with Old Master art. For the remaining five, we eventually settled on Cupid Complaining to Venus by Cranach the Elder, Chastity by Moroni, Judith in the Tent of Holofernes by Liss, the Bagnio scene from Marriage A la Mode by Hogarth (the same Horrible Hogarth and the same Marriage A La Mode that I have been writing about for weeks now) and Ladies and Gentlemen playing La Main Chaude by Janssens. The Cranach and the Hogarth are very iconic, the Moroni and the Liss less so, and the Janssens not at all. In fact the Janssens picture - which I picked out from the Gallery’s catalogue - was nowhere to be seen in the Gallery’s public rooms. It was eventually unearthed in the basement storeroom.
The description “Tovey-Samuelson” for these re-interpretations is appropriate because, although every molecule of ink on the drawings comes from Ian Tovey’s hand, the underlying conception of what to do with each picture was largely mine. And as the work proceeded I was never backward in putting in my two penn’orth. My brief to Tovey was that he would do “straight” pictures. By “straight” I meant without surrealist overtones. This is akin to instructing a rottweiler not to bark but I was not displeased with the outcome of our joint efforts. For most of his commercial work Tovey is left to his own devices and receives (and needs) little or no direction at all. With my work, the drawings were batted to and fro until I felt that we had sucked into the open every vestige of eroticism bottled-up within the picture on the National Gallery’s wall.
Later, I commissioned further illustrations along similar lines from Ian Tovey for two subsequent writings. One was a book with the working title A Surfer’s Guide to Erotic Art on the Internet – which in essence was a book about the still to be publishedGuide to Erotic Art in the National Gallery book – and which has been overtaken by this blog. The other vehicle for the Tovey touch was the Ten Sexiest Moments in Mythology to which references have been made in these pages. This project generated ten more illustrations (one for each sexiest moment) for the Tovey-Samuelson collaborative oeuvre. The Ten Sexiest’ book will eventually find a publisher. The illustrations for the Surfer’s Guide’ will come in handy and will not be wasted.
The sex angles present in the twelve works selected for re-interpretation for publication with the Guide to Erotic Art in the National Gallery, aka the “Tovey Twelve”, can all be summed up in a few words. Keeping to the same order as above: Paris is judging a beauty competition between three voluptuous females without a stitch of clothing between them. Naked Spartan boys are wrestling nearly naked Spartan girls. Not everyone thinks that Venus and Mercury were just good friends. Venus and Mars (another of her boyfriends) are relaxing after making love. Cupid is French kissing his mother (Venus again). The naked Angelica is chained to a rock averting her eyes from the knight who has come to rescue her. (Tovey and I always referred to her as “the tot on the rock”.) The Venus which for years hung above the mantlepiece in Rokeby Hall (who was not Venus but a dishy piece especially well furnished in the bum department and Official Best Bum per the BBC) is the equivalent among Old Master works of art to Jennifer Lopez. Cranach’s Venus (her again) looks anorexic (which is typical for this artist) but this does not stop her strutting her stuff. Chastity is sitting very unchastely with her legs spread wide open. Whether Judith had sex with Holofernes is an open question. Bagnio, in Hogarth’s time, was the name for a brothel with rooms for renting by the hour and “La Main Chaud” (literally “hot hand”) is an old French party game in which playful socialites get to spank each other.
Of the twelve pictures, Cranach’s painting, responds the least to the Tovey-Samuelson treatment. We have her on the catwalk where she is probably infecting the male members of the fashionista audience with erectile disfunction. It has been doing that to National Gallery goers for four decades now and in today’s blame culture the Gallery should think about whether they should continue to have it on display.
The mostly widely accepted explanation for what the Cranach Venus painting is about passes over her 200 calories a day skin and bones frame and homes in on the little Cupid who, the story goes, has been trying to steal honey from a hole in a tree. It is a shame that there is no Tarzan-like figure in Cranach’s picture because then I could get to tell the story about Tarzan and Jane, unsuitable though it is for a scholarly discussion about art like this one.
The story that I am not going to tell is about how Jane (a big well fed girl) comes across Tarzan in the jungle and strips off and invites him to make love to her. Tarzan says that he “not know how”. Jane explains to him what is involved. Tarzan then moves back half a dozen paces and takes a running kick at Jane’s crotch. Jane collapses and gasps “What do you think you are doing?” “Check for bees,” says Tarzan.
Not very long after Tovey and I had finished our twelve re-interpretations of National Gallery paintings the Gallery itself embarked upon a similar project and put on a show in which 24 contemporary artists were invited to re-interpret a similar number of the Gallery’s most iconic masterpieces. The show was called Encounters - New Art from Old. The Gallery marked the occasion with a sumptuously illustrated book which would have been a fun read but for the suffocating curatorial artspeak that accompanied the pictures. This is a whole other story, the telling of which must await another day.