The Dog is one of the fourteen Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings, see Painting It Black) that Goya painted in his house outside Madrid towards the end of his life. The Dog conveys a sense of sublimity, terror and an unbearable pathos with an enviable simplicity.
The painting is divided in two unequal parts: a dirty ochre above and a dark brown below. There has been much debate regarding the origin of the shadow to the right of the painting, and whether it is intentional, however it probably was the previous design on the wall which Goya painted over. Staring upward into the vastness of the sky is the dog, alone and apparently sinking into the quicksand of the earth. All the heart-break and despair involved in terrestrial existence is concentrated in the expression of mute appeal of the dog as he searches the heavens for a sign of a return of his varnished master.
The Dog has been called the first Symbolist painting and was held in particular high regard by Picasso and Joan Miro.
One of the most important of the Austrian Symbolists, Alfred Kubin was the master of macabre art and the morbid image, who, in his insistence upon portraying all the horrors lurking just beneath the surface in the unconscious mind, can reasonably be said to have anticipated the Surrealists.
His life reads like a cross between a Freudian case study and a decadent fiction. He didn’t meet his father until he was two and afterwards he only felt, ‘hate, hate, hate’ towards him. His beloved mother died when he was ten and the following year he lost his virginity to a pregnant friend. This unhappy childhood led to his abortive suicide attempt on his mother’s grave when he was nineteen. He joined the army but that resulted in a nervous breakdown.
Kubin worked primarily as a book illustrator, mainly of Gothic and fantastic fiction, notably Edgar Allen Poe, E.T.A Hoffman and Gustav Meyrick. In 1906 he married the half-Jewish heiress Hedwig Grundler and they moved to an isolated 12th century castle in Upper Austria, where he was to remain to his death. The marriage was a success, much to everyone’s surprise as Hedwig had a heavy morphine dependency that required frequent hospitalizations.
Kubin was a friend of both Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky and did show with their Blauer Riter group, however his avant-garde involvement ended by the time of the WWI.
Kubin was also a talented writer and his brilliant proto-surrealist novel The Other Side of 1909 (which I intend to write about in detail at some point) was much admired by his friend Franz Kafka and also by that troubling genius of German letters, Ernst Junger.
Hilma af Klint raises many questions concerning the history of modern art. Wassily Kandinsky’s untitled watercolour of 1910 was long considered to be the first abstract painting, a turning point in the course of Modernism. Abstraction was to influence, and at times dominate the art of the entire 20th Century. Yet this tidy version of events was upset to a certain extent by the discovery of the private abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, some of which predate Kandinsky’s watercolour by 4 years.
Hilma af Klint was born into a naval family in the Karlberg Palace just outside of Stockholm, Sweden in 1862. After an idyllic childhood she studied at Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she graduated with honours and as a post graduate scholarship was awarded an atelier. She made a living as a conventional landscape and portrait artist, occasionally supplanted by botanical and technical drawings
af Klint had developed an abiding interest in Spiritualism and the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky at an early age after the death of her younger sister in 1880. She formed a group called ‘the Five’ with four other women artists with the expressed intention of contacting the ‘High Masters’. The group met weekly to conduct seances and in 1896 experimented with automatic drawing and writing, a full twenty years before the Surrealists. During one seance in 1905 she received instructions from a spirit named Amaliel that she was to execute the’Paintings for the Temple’. af Klint said she had no idea what the Temple was but from 1906 to 1915 (with a four year hiatus between 1908-1912) she completed 193 large scale paintings , some as large as 10 foot tall, a remarkable work rate, especially considering her petite stature (she was 5ft on the dot).
af Klint was in no doubt that she was receiving assistance from the beyond. Commenting on the Temple paintings she noted, “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”
In 1915 the guiding spirit left, but af Klint continued painting in the abstract vein, though on smaller canvases. The paintings of this period show the marked influence of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Upon meeting Steiner, Hilma showed him the Temple paintings, however he said that the world wasn’t ready to see them for at least another fifty years, which may have influenced her decision to stipulate that the 1,200 paintings and many notebooks (which explains in depth the complex letter and colour symbolism of the paintings) wouldn’t be made public until twenty years after her death.
After her death in 1944 her nephew Erik af Klint, Vice-Admiral of the Swedish Royal Navy complied with her wishes. He offered the Swedish Moderna Museet Hilma’s complete archive in 1970 but they declined. In wasn’t until 1986 that an exhibition of her work was held. af Klint’s work is held in by a foundation so none of her work is on the market or held by museums. There are plans however for an exhibition centre dedicated to af Klint just south of Stockholm.
The question whether af Klint or Kandinsky was the first abstract painter is largely academic. af Klint abstracts were created in isolation and remained private until 80 years after they were painted. They show an urgent spiritual need to fashion a personal mythology in the manner of Blake or Goya’s Pinturas Negras. Interestingly the recognised pioneers of abstraction, Kandinsky, Malevich and the unknown af Klint were all immersed in esoteric and Theosophical doctrine.
In upcoming posts I will discuss the symbolic system as outlined by af Klint to shed further light on these mysterious paintings as well as a feature on her major series, The Ten Largest.
One of the most famous portrayals of the female nude in Western Art, Diego Velázquez’s Venus at her Mirror, more commonly known as the Rokeby Venus, (so-called because it hung in the 19th Century at Rokeby Park, Yorkshire before becoming part of the National Gallery in London permanent collection), is a landmark of erotic art.
As Titian and Rubens were both connected to the Spanish court, it is likely that Velázquez would have been familiar with both Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and Rubens Venus in Front of the Mirror, which are cited as possible sources for the Rokeby Venus, however Velázquez was working in the severely censorious and repressive atmosphere of the Spanish Golden Age, where the Spanish Inquisition monitored art for immorality. Several Spanish Cardinals had called for the destruction of any artwork featuring nudity, but some Spanish courtiers and nobility held private collections of such work. Velázquez position as court painter to King Philip IV enabled him to become the first Spaniard to feature female nudity; it would be 150 years before another Spanish artist, Goya, would again take the risk, in his incomparable La Maja Desnuda.
As in Titian’s painting, Venus is shorn of her traditional mythological trappings, the only indicator that this is a mythological painting is the winged presence of her son, Cupid, who holds the mirror for her rapt self-appraisal. In a departure from previous representations of the Goddess, Venus is a brunette and is noticeably more slender than the fully figured versions of Titian and Rubens (especially Rubens). One of the most controversial features of the painting is the blurred face in the mirror in contrast to the precisely delineated derriere that is the focal point of the composition.
Outside of Spain, Velázquez wasn’t well known until the mid 19th Century, when he was discovered however he would have an important influence upon Modern Art. Manet, Picasso and Bacon are among those who have acknowledged their indebtedness.
The King of Kink, Helmut Newton (see Dreams of Desire 55 (Helmut Newton) knowingly references and updates the Rokeby Venus in one of his coolly fetishistic photographs from the late 70’s/early 80’s.
The Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828), along with the English poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) and the French pornographer and philosopher the Marquis De Sade (1740-1816) completed the Enlightenment by showing its reverse. These very different figures with very different opinions and beliefs instinctively realised that humanity cannot bear the harsh glare of reason for too long, and that you ignore the dark irrational impulses residing within the mind at your peril.
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is No 43 of the 80 etchings that comprise the satirical series Los Caprichos. Showing the artist asleep at his work desk, he is surrounded by the creatures of the night, including owls, which from the Middle Ages symbolised folly, and bats.The full epigraph for this etching states, ‘Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.’
Goya however was fascinated by these monsters produced by the sleep of reason. From 1790 onward Goya produced one searing work after another on the subjects of the Witches Sabbath, the disasters of war, the continued presence of superstition and the horrors of the Inquisition. In his home outside Madrid in the last years of his life he produced the brilliant yet extremely disturbing murals known as the Pinturas Negras (see Painting It Black and The Dog).
The last thirty years has seen an excess of rationality, a supposed end of history as the globe embraced free markets and liberal democracy and we all bowed to the logic that quantity would bring quality of life. As Goya, De Sade and Blake showed us at the end of the eighteenth century, examples that Nietzsche and Freud followed and expanded, reason only satisfies so much before it becomes too much. At the moment we are drifting off into sleep, waiting for the monsters produced to be unleashed.