When she saw what she had done she went to the Tate and gave its Fontana rubbish forty one. I wish.
This posting began life in the early hours of a cold and rainy November Sunday as a sort of place holder for my forthcoming Glossary Gloss on Lord Clark and his justly famous book The Nude. The text of the Gloss is already finished and it awaits only completion of the illustrations. I take a lot of trouble over the illustrations and usually encapsulate the captions with the image using Adobe Illustrator software. Sometimes it takes as long to do the illustrations as it does the text. I think the extra effort worthwhile because a site like this not only has its regular visitors, it is a destination for folk searching on a particular art subject. The pictures will be what is looked at first and if you are trying to put over a message (which is what blogging is all about) you need to start there. Anyway, that’s what I think.
In the coming Glossary Gloss there is a discussion of dehanchement which is Lord Clark’s word for contrapposto. I refer to the discovery by me and Ian Tovey that the horizontally dehanched Rokeby Venus (by Velazquez, pride of the National Gallery) retains its allure when rearranged vertically. The illustration here comes from The Count and the Widow, a feature of this web site somewhat neglected in the past few weeks but still very much an on-going enterprise. As a place holder ornament I thought it would do nicely. And that, I thought, was that.
Then, during a waking-up tour of various issues surrounding my life, it occurred to me that I have a lot of stuff on the Rokeby Venus, written and not published, which made it worthy of an Art Note in its own right. This is it.
There may be no single painting in the National Gallery of which more has been written and whose image is more indelibly impressed on the minds of art lovers than the Velazquez Rokeby Venus. Some people call the painting the Toilet of Venus and some people call it Venus at her Mirror but by whatever it name the picture goes the erotic waves pulsing from it can not be ignored. As I like to point out at every possible opportunity, the ultimate accolade came at the beginning of an hour long television programme devoted exclusively to this painting by the British Broadcasting Corporation early in 2003. It opened with the immortal words “The most smackable bum in western art.”
The pose - which shows only a rear view of the lady, her face reflected in a mirror - has naturally given rise to speculation as to what she would look like from the other side. Might she, like some other famous Venus’s in art, be pleasuring herself? The expression on her face says she might well be, but from what we can see of her left arm she would have to be double jointed for her left hand to be actively employed. More likely the obverse, as a numismatist would term it, would show a royal flush of cleft, breast and nipples. All laid out on a black silk sheet ground.
I sometimes wonder if the National Gallery warders (which is what the Gallery calls it Old Master minders), in a counter-boredom strategy, allow their minds to dwell at unhealthy length on what may be the view from the other side. Unwittingly, if there is anything in the theory that the Rokeby Venus is not one but two works of art, they will be exposing themselves to subliminal imagery in which sex is combined with violence .
To begin at the beginning. The Rokeby Venus was painted by the Spanish Court Artist Diego Velazquez somewhere around 1650. It is what I call Velazquez’s Snow Knight (see here in the Glossary) because there is nothing nearly comparable to it in the rest of his considerable output. Velazquez was working in an ultra-religious enclave untouched by the blast of Renaissance liberalism blowing through the rest of Europe. No one knows who the lady was and with Spanish Inquisition spies everywhere the painting could only have been displayed privately. A less likely start in life for one of the most outstanding examples of the nude genre of all time cannot be imagined. Snow Knight, it will be recollected, was a horse who had never won a decent race in his life and would never do so again and started in the Derby as a rank outsider. (The odds of 50 to 1 were the bookies mugging the punters.) The horse led the field from start to finish. The odds against Velazquez producing the Rokeby Venus were 5000 to 1.
Snow Knight returned to obscurity but fame and fortune awaited the Velazquez painting. In 1814, having at one time been owned by the Duchess of Alba (herself famous for being painted with and without clothes by Goya), it was purchased by the Squire of Rokeby Hall, Yorkshire. At this point the painting acquired the name by which it is popularly known. At Rokeby, according to the BBC, the painting was hung over the fireplace but well above the eyeline of the ladies so as not to embarrass them. Hogarth, doubtless, would have hung it behind a curtain with one foot poking out.
The purchase by the National Gallery of the Rokeby Venus in 1905 represented a major milestone in the history of the National Gallery and a victory for the National Art Collections Fund that had been formed two years earlier in an attempt to prevent the exodus of national art treasures to wealthy overseas buyers. It immediately became the flag ship painting in the National Gallery’s collection.
In 1905 Lucio Fontana, aged 6 and son of an Italian sculptor, arrived in Milan from Argentina where he had been born. In the years leading up to the second World War he acquired a reputation as an abstract artist producing large quantities of abstract ceramics and abstract sculptures. He spent the war years, 1940-6, in Buenos Aires further enhancing his avant-guarde credentials and providing further evidence that, whatever else could be said about him, he was not stupid. Between 1947, back in Italy, Fontana issued a series of manifestos on the subject of spatialism in which he rejected easel painting in favour of art that would “transcend the area of the canvas.” Sometime around 1950 Fontana established as his speciality works comprised of holes in plain coloured canvas. In 1958, in a move that was to make his name famous across the world of art, he replaced the holes by slits. The slit canvases and bronzes are considered to be the culmination of a conception of art that regards it as a record of action and gesture. It is an area in which Fontana is considered to have been a pioneer. There is, however, a persuasive case for saying that a suffragette called Mary Richardson got there before him.
The lone voice that attests to Mary Richardson’s place as the true founder of spatial art is a young Danish artist called Lisa Rosenmeier. Ms Rosenmeier is an artist who uses museums, the Internet and the mass media to present viewers with what she describes as suggestive, many-layered congnitive spaces in which the viewer is involved both mentally and physically. It would do Ms Rosenmeier a great injustice to say that this sounds reminscent of slits in canvas because, unlike Fontana who made a career of goosing the gullible and never produced anything worthwhile, she has produced a quite remarkable web site in which she employs state of the art web technology to tell the story of Mary Richardson’s happening at the National Gallery on 10th March 1914. If the web site is typical of her work Ms Rosenmeier is certainly someone to watch.
Mary Richardson was a militant suffragette who went up to the painting of the glass framed Rokeby Venus as it hung in the National Gallery and without warning produce a meat chopper hidden in her muff with which she attacked the painting. On hearing the sound of breaking glass a police officer who was at the door to the room and a gallery attendant rushed towards her but before they could seize her she had made seven large cuts on that part of the canvas on which Venus’ naked back and bottom were painted. The picture was, says Ms Rosenmeier, the victim of one of the most dramatic art actions in modern times.
The situation that had made Mary Richardson flip was the increasingly savage conflict between the suffragette movement and the government of the day. The struggle by women to obtain the vote had been gathering momentum since before the turn of the Century. Under Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst’s leadership women who were arrested for disrupting meetings and other kinds of disorder refused to be fined and chose imprisonment instead. Once imprisoned they went on hunger strike. The authorities responded by force-feeding, a brutal process which inevitable led to a public outcry. On June 4th 1913 Emily Davison threw herself under the King Edward VII’s racehorse Amner as it rounded Tattenham Corner in the Epsom Derby and was killed. (Amner, it may be noted, was third from last at the time – which is around where the eventual winner is usually to be found. One of the greatest ever Derby jockeys, Harry Wragg, was known as “the Head Waiter.)
Nine months passes and as Mary Richardson is making her way towards the Rokeby Venus clutching her hidden meat chopper Mrs Pankhurst is again in prison and on hunger strike. On her arrest Mary Richardson tells the police: “They are killing Mrs Pankhurst. You can get another picture, but you cannot get a life.”
Mary Richardson’s strategy, says Ms Rosenmeier anticipated some of the formal features explored by happening artists and by Fontana. She succeeded both in transforming the beautiful Venus from aesthetic object to murder victim and in transforming woman’s position in art from passive to active, from the role of model to that of actor. But first and foremost she ripped the canvas in order to expand the concept of beauty in a work of art from the “aesthetic” to the “ethical”, and thereby also to encompass justice, equality and women’s suffrage.”
First she crushes the glass with a meat axe, says Ms Rosenmeier. Then she penetrates the canvas with a sharp object. First a short slash, then long slashes placed with extreme precision. This new artistic strategy is a settlement of accounts with the tradition that has dominated painting since the Renaissance, in which illusion or trompe l’oeil is used to create spatiality. Mary Richardson does not wish to paint the illusion of space but to create real spaces. By shattering its framework she has given painting a third dimension.
Although Mary Richardson would have been unaware that she was putting down a marker for a place in the history of art she might have appreciated the connection which is often made between Fontana’s slits and the female vagina. Daniel Cottom, Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, places them in a direct line with Courbet’s Origin of the World, Hans Bellmer’s Poupees and Cindy Sherman’s photographs of grotesque anatomical models - all of which were equipped with between-the-leg orifices. And in 1995, when the Pompidou Centre in Paris mounted its mega sex art show Femininmasculin: The Sex of Art, the front page picture in Libération was illustrated by a photograph of the Lucio Fontana exhibit which the Associated Press report described as “an abstract vagina - a black slit painted on white canvas.”
The difference between Mary Richardson’s artistic creation and Fontana’s oeuvre was that her’s was the action of a woman moved by what she perceived as a great injustice whereas all that Fontana ever set out to do was impregnate the world’s cultural heritage with holes and slits, with money passing. Mary Richardson’s action, by contrast and in Ms Rosenmeier’s words, touched upon the most essential problems of work in 20th century art history “not least the interference of the painting with space”. Comparisons, she says, place spatialism - articulated by Fontana - on a lower plane. Ms Rosenmeier’s article is here.
Be all this as it may, Mary Richardson left the Rokeby Venus with not one but seven slits and, even though the painting has been carefully repaired, the slits are still faintly visible. If there is anything in the aura theory (that there is something special about an original work of art that a reproduction just does not have) this painting must be as lethal an example of vagina dentata as any that can be imagined. The National Gallery’s warders should be beware.
“Vagina dentata” means a penis-eating woman and has little currency outside of the world of art. It is a subject for another day. It comes in a package with the Guerrilla Girls and with what Camilia Paglia calls “uppity women”, the Dwork, et al.
I have a huge admiration for the suffragettes. In another life I was what was known as an anti-smoking activist. I never quite saw myself as that, but it is what the newspapers called me in the three parliamentary by-elections that I contested. To this day, whenever I see teenage girls smoking so that the tobacco companies can make money, I wonder where their mothers are. Why are they not standing outside the offices of the tobacco companies? They could echo Mary Richardson’s words when she got arrested. “You are killing our children. You can find another way to make money, but you cannot get a life.”
You will find a clue to Kermit the Frog’s Great Art Mystery Quiz in the Glossary definition of Art here .