Figure and Ground
We saw this painting at the De Young’s “Masters of Venice” show a few days ago; at 57” x 76 ¼,” it takes up most of one wall and is absolutely luminous. It is the second of Tintoretto’s known versions of the story (the first is in the Louvre) but this is the one that … well, everyone swoons over. The Biblical story behind “Susanna and the Elders” begins with a habit: she frequents her husband’s gated orchard at the same time each day. The “elders” of the title know this, and arrive as she is deciding to take a bath; Tintoretto captures the moment before they see her and before she sees them. Susanna refuses their advances, for which they punish her by accusing her of adultery with an (unknown) young man; at the trial, their lies are discovered and the elders are killed. Many painters give us the moment when Susanna becomes aware that the elders see her; Tintoretto shows the elders just getting into position.
Despite the many stories we could follow here -- Susanna’s chastity (in these times, faithfulness after marriage was just as important as virginity before, and the Susanna of this painting was often used as a model to follow), or the idea that “the truth will out” -- but I would like to follow a line of argument about figure and ground, to see if we can’t tie it back to -- text.
Here is the painting with some lines I have added to trace the peculiarities of the ground:
Take a look at the whole picture, with these outlines; you can see that the painting does not really hang together. To begin with the farthest-away portion, framed in yellow: a beautiful, pastoral garden, with deer to the left, ducks floating in water to the right. This clearly suggests Eden, innocence, perhaps to give us the idea that nature empathizes with our heroine; the eye doesn’t linger there, however, because it moves on to the title characters, who, oddly, are really part of the ground and not figures in their own right. The elders, outlined in red, bookend the hedge. The elder to the right of the hedge is tucked into the dead center of the upper portion of the painting, something that escapes us at first, because he is mirrored by a statue to the right of the archway that leads back to yet another level of paradise. He, and the un-articulated statue, are, essentially columns, supporting the arch. Perhaps Tintoretto has done this to let us know that this elder will not present any real problems in the long run. The second elder is curled into a space behind the hedge. If his robes were green, they would be a grassy hill. He cannot see Susanna yet, and as a non-actor, seems more ground than figure: he is given no shoulder-space and no real second arm, so he is, like the other elder, compromised, already.
Now look at the tree trunks behind Susanna, outlined in green; she could not possibly be leaning against them -- where are the roots? What is the relation between the bath, a squared edge filled with water (not outlined) and the trees? Another bit of ground is the vertical hedge: why does it appear to be wrapped in burlap, like a canvas in transit (did Tintoretto paint what was in the studio)? Why are the roses so evenly spaced? Why are there no breaks in the hedge, no pieces of light?
The strangest part, though, seems to me the ground that I have framed in blue, which is divided into at least two separate perspectival planes. First, along the hedge, the ground rises in a triangle back to the elder and the pastoral distance; and the source of that perspective would be the elder at front left, if he were in position to see Susanna -- but he cannot see Susanna, and we can. The ground inside my blue line is very difficult to read or reconstruct. It doesn’t make sense as real terra firma. Even the ground that surrounds Susanna’s clothes and borders the pool in the front is dark and vague. This makes no sense. Grass is easy to paint. Susanna is solid, but the ground she rests on is not. She is not sitting on dirt, or lovely little grasses and flowers, or a tree-root. Even the elder in the top center of the painting seems to be looking down, trying to find his footing… where can he step? The ground cannot be visually understood, mapped, or defined. It comes at us, as if we were overhead, in an apparent anticipation of Cézanne’s tipped-up table (see below, from 1890-4, “Still Life with Apples”):
So the ground is tilted, almost as if we were standing over Susanna, or standing in front of her. Oh, that’s right – we are. There is a second carefully-constructed perspective that gives the audience a role. We are supposed to see Susanna nearly head-on. David Rosand, in Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice, notes that, in this painting, the viewer is “a voyeur, but with even more privileged, and aesthetically sanctioned, access to the bathing body. Pictorial desire and sensual desire are conflated” (p. 181). So, whether we “desire” to be or not, we are the elders, except, of course, that we are not in a position to harm Susanna, to save her, or even to breathe Susanna’s air. She is, for us, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, frozen in time: “For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” But the question remains, as Robert Hahn notes: “If the painting could make me feel I shouldn’t be looking at all, why was it painted, and why in this particular way?” (“Caught in the Act: Looking at Tintoretto’s Susanna,” Massachusetts Review, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter 2004-5, p. 635).
So, perhaps there are answers in the last bit of un-articulated ground, the mirror. Why have we not seen more than a bit of satin and an hair-ornament reflected there? Why is the mirror there at all? What sort of woman carries her comb, her powders, and her vanity-table mirror with her into an orchard? She is not using it to apply make-up. Why is it there? I think the mirror is there so that Susanna has somewhere to look besides out at us. She looks happily at her own reflection, a female Narcissus. We are thus meant to be -- just like the elders -- voyeurs. (It is worth noting that in the earlier version of “Susanna and the Elders,” Tintoretto shows her looking out -- “as frankly as Manet’s Olympia,” Hahn says, p. 637). Here, I think there is meant to be more innocence -- on her part -- and more guilt, on ours.
So is there anything in the figure that relates to, or is in marked contrast with, this uncertain ground? Susanna, to begin with, is one solid piece of work. I wrote in an earlier blog piece (11/30/2011) that “she is all we see.” Sometimes, as would happen later with Rembrandt’s Saskia or Manet’s Victorine Meurent, an artist paints the same model in several different pictures. But Susanna is unique. Nude artists’ models were not readily available in sixteenth-century Venice, so Tintoretto often sketched from wax figures that he created, and he also drew “male nudes” and translated them later into “female figures” (Claus Virch, “A Study of Tintoretto After Michelangelo,” Department of Painting, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Susanna seems to have been modeled on a pretty hefty, almost manly, scale. Her arms and legs are muscular, and the one visible breast seems more male than female. Susanna’s strength and almost surreal calm make her seem sexually powerful, self-contained, as if she doesn’t need anyone else (rather like Matisse’s “Blue Nude – Souvenir de Biskra”). The ground is terribly ambiguous, the main figure, a rock. Why?
Because of … Text
I think it all returns to text. The ground is uncertain because it is an afterthought. The figure is certain because it obeyed the rules: all the naked ladies painted in Tintoretto’s time brought their texts with them, and so were guaranteed safe passage. They were goddesses or mythological or Biblical women. They were not Venetians. Griselda Pollock, in Differencing the Canon, writes that in this era, the genre of “the erotic female nude … was emerging … shifting the connotations of the female nude from its traditional iconographic association with truth towards its modern significance of (masculine) desire and its privileged visuality” (p. 105). So Tintoretto has done well to choose Susanna -- for his viewers. But what about the precise moment that he chooses? She looks at her reflection in the mirror with apparent pleasure. The elders are not yet completely on their marks.We look at her looking (as in this photo, below, from a New York Times review of an earlier Tintoretto show):
Why not choose another, later moment, as Anthony Van Dyck did, in 1621?
I think we can see why Tintoretto rejected this idea. Van Dyck’s Susanna is not calm, not a study in nude perfection, but a terrified young woman, confined in a small space with two men and three very large hands. (His aim is very different, of course -- he is a devout Catholic and an emotional painter of religious works). Van Dyck’s painting resembles a document: “Exhibit A.” Tintoretto’s vision, in contrast, is so painterly, so light-filled, that it leaves us with just enough room to mock the elders.
Tintoretto wanted achievement: “il disegno di Michelangelo ed i colori di Tiziano” (the drawing of Michelangelo and the color of Titian) was written on the wall of his studio. The shape, precise outlines, the delineation of the ground in this painting was unimportant to him. “Susanna” was painted in 1555-6, when he was 38, which would be young for an artist now, but in his time… he needed to get going. “Tintoretto took up either techniques or subjects utilized by the older, more established artists in order both to challenge himself and present his talent” notes Dan Clanton (in The Good, The Bold, and The Beautiful, p. 123). Tintoretto wanted to set off that body. He wanted it to be the first and last thing anyone saw. Robert Hahn asks, in all seriousness, a question he doesn’t exactly answer: “Is Susanna just another hot babe employed to strip for the bozos?” (p. 645). And the answer is, in pursuit of text, just … maybe.