04 January 2013

Of love, butterflies and metal fatigue

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are not, in general, top of my personal favourites list though I do freely acknowledge their power and art historical importance.
I have, in general, decided to avoid big spectacular block buster set piece art shows where there are so many people that I can't see very much, in favour of smaller events or long term collections where I can sit contemplatively[1] and take in the work itself.
The PRB are, on the other hand high in my partner's pantheon . Whilst we have been to permanent collections where they can be found in limited numbers, there will never be a better opportunity to see the spread of any aspect, or even some particular examples, than in a curated one off. So it was that (the end of year 'flu more or less shaken off) we spent a day in London jostling with hundreds of other visitors to Tate Britain's seven room extravaganza which ends in a week's time.
There is (with the possible exception of some graphic arts artefacts designed for mass dissemination) never any comparison[2] between a reproduction of an art work and the original. If I have only seen a reproduction of (for example) an oil painting or sculpture, however good a reproduction it may be, then I no more know that painting or sculpture than I “know” a person whose portrait photograph (however skilfully and insightfully made) I have seen.
In this temporary collection of the Pre-Raphaelites and their extended circle of influence, there were some works that I had previously seen “in the flesh” and some that I had not. To see just one new original which transcends its reproduction is ample reward for the time, effort and cost involved in getting to see it, and I got that reward in spades from what is almost the first exhibit.
William Shakespeare Burton's The wounded cavalier is one of those paintings which I have know in reproduction for long enough not to be able to place when I first encountered it (my best guess would be the early nineteen seventies, when I was about twenty), but of which I have never had a particularly high opinion. This was the first time, however, that I've seen the original, and I fell immediately head over heels in love with it. Reproduction shows the obvious symbolist themes well enough (and even their ambiguities), but not the visual and tactile quality of their execution.
I could gush embarrassingly, and at inordinate length, over any section or aspect you cared to choose. That woodland behind the wall, into whose infinite range of luscious grey green shadows you could slip away and lose yourself (for they extend infinitely far into a world beyond the painting itself). Any one of those lovingly painted ferns, leaves, stones (the stones which look so very dull and uninteresting in reproduction, but become luminous worlds when examined directly in very paint). The marvellously explored lichen patched bark of that tree at the centre of the image, behind which the dark coated male Puritan figure partially stands – or, for that matter, any individual patch of lichen on that bark. Pick any detail you like, any square centimetre of canvas, and I'll happily bore you till dawn with an account of how wonderful it is.
As it is ... I'll just choose a section for you, then expend only a few words before letting you scurry away in relief.
The cavalier's sword has been broken, snapped in two, in whatever action has just finished and left him wounded. You can see the haft and the first few centimetres of blade lying on the ground close to his hand at the bottom of the picture, just left of centre, between his hand and the base of the tree.
The rest of the blade has sliced through the bark of the tree and remains stuck there, just below image centre. I won't waste your time or patience by rhapsodising over what you can't see in reproduction (like the liquid metallic quality of the way the metal blade has been painted). I'll instead show you two details which may have missed your previous attention but quiver breathtakingly from the paint surface, a pale shadow of which can even be seen in a digital snapshot.
This sectional detail from the painting (click either image in this post for a larger view) shows just the half length of the sword blade towards its tip (in the painting that's the lower left section of the blade, after it emerges from the tree).
At the centre of my extracted detail, you'll see that a butterfly (almost certainly symbolising the soul … though of which character in the melodrama is open to discussion) has alighted on the blade.
At the bottom left, Hunt has not been content to paint the blade itself superbly well (you'll have to take my word for that bit, unless you make a trip to the London Guildhall[3] art gallery); he has gone on to painstakingly show damage on the cutting edge.

  1. I'll never understand how anyone can “do” one show or gallery in the morning, break for lunch, and “do” another in the afternoon. Given the opportunity, I'll willingly spend hours in front of one piece.
  2. Of course (though it's seldom mentioned) that can work both ways: the original is usually much more than the reproduction but it can also turn out to be disappointingly less. Less dramatically, it can also happen that an expected revelation of additionality fails to materialise, and the original (while not the same) is not at radically more or less than what one already knows.
  3. The Guildhall is the permanent home to which this painting will return after 13th January 2013 … which makes me kick myself for never having made the effort to see this painting before.


Dr. C said...

What could have caused the damage? I guess those conehead helmets that the Roundheads wore?

Felix said...

There, Doc, you bring me up against the unpleasant aspects of the painting which lurk beyond my delight in the paint itself.

The damage could have been inflicted by contact with an opponent's sword, though that would be more common lower down the blade towards the haft.

More likely, that close to the tip, is that it was caused by contact with the opponent's bones. I have a light weight Mora sheath knife, designed for fishing, which dates from a long ago time ago when I still ate meat ... similar notches in its cutting edge, near the point, are the result of using it clumsily to prepare rabbits for cooking.

Ray Girvan said...

I'm not a general fan of Pre-Raphaelites, but got into them when we lived in Birmingham, whose art gallery permant collection has some of the classics: Pretty Baa-Lambs; The Last of England; The Blind Girl; The Stone Breaker; Beata Beatrix; and Sir Isumbras at the Ford spring to mind.