Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nakedly Nude V, Where to look?: Bronzino, Tintoretto & a Nude-in-process

Yesterday we looked at a few characteristics of Mannerist painting ... the two I'd like to concentrate on merge in these next paintings: elongated or exaggerated bodies, and drama-filled small spaces. Let's begin with Agnolo Bronzino's "Allegory of Venus and Cupid" from 1545:

Generally, when the central figure in a painting is a nude, it is difficult for the viewer to look at anything -- or anyone -- else in the picture plane.  Here, that's a bit more difficult; the painter has offered us a fine puzzle. Venus's body is smooth, a bit long in the torso, and, if she had been posed alone, on, say, a divan or a rug, she would appear calm and elegant.  But we immediately notice the figure embracing her, who is captured in a rather uncomfortable, if not impossible, pose, and this body, too, is quite distorted, longer of trunk than would be normal. The figure to the right, and the head and shoulders above Venus, display quite a bit of emotion, more than off-setting the placid content on the faces of the two figures on the left.  Venus was Cupid's mother, so the viewer can hope that Cupid is the little guy on the right.  And everybody else -- or the disembodied others? The background seems to me a swirling collage of faces, masks, doves, twisted blue drapery (later to come of age in the "Demoiselles d'Avignon"?), then a screaming man with muscular arms, someone at the upper left ordering a coffee ... If it is Cupid embracing Venus, then that would explain the Last-Judgment imagery of the picture.  What do you think is happening here?  The uncertainty seems deliberate.

The next painting is Susannah and the Elders, by Tintoretto, from 1555-6:

We can see the elders, at each side of the hedge. They, too, seem quite uncomfortable, but they will soon be able to see ... well, pretty much everything they would hope to here.  This Susannah is substantial ... where Bronzino's Venus was nude, Susannah is naked (see my other numbered nudely/naked, nakedly/nude posts). She is not perfect; she is not anticipating a portrait to come of this quiet, reflective toilette. She is alone, she thinks, and not yet aware of her onlookers.  But she is all we see.  And her calm demeanor pulls us in -- because this moment is so fleeting.  But still we look at her.  Even more, I think, than we look at Bronzino's Venus.

Why is that? We look at the "Allegory of Venus and Cupid" because we cannot be sure what is happening; so, we look all over the canvas, and then all over the canvas, and then catch a detail or two, and then look all over again.  But when we move to Tintoretto's "Susannah," we get the male gaze. And so our tendency is to gaze, as well.  Our focus is certain here.

Thinking about the ways we process the nude and the naked body, I have been working on a new odalisque,  this one with a subdued background, a background that, I hope, might still draw attention. But it can be difficult.  Theodore Roethke wrote, in "I Knew a Woman":

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
.... What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

So, yes, it can be difficult to pull attention away from that naked "bright container,"  whether it is male or female.  Here is a detail of the bones, so far, in my newest painting:

Resting, now, until we do battle again, tomorrow. 



  1. Bronzino's Allegory is the subject of my historical novel Cupid and the Silent Goddess, which imagines how the painting might have been created in Florence in 1544-5.


  2. That must have been fun to research and to write! Thanks for visiting, and best of luck with your ongoing writing.... Ann