Be it Art

A reflection about art and all its meanings

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Art as Beauty, Art as Sublime

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, by PicassoProfessor Shad Wenzlaff, at Edgewood College, recently asked his Art History class to site works of art that they considered beautiful and others they could consider Sublime.

Prof. Wenzlaff offered quotes by Gavin Hamilton as well as Edmund Burke to help formulate the perceived difference. I found this question intriguing and offer up my opinion of work that fall into these separate categories.

To put a framework around the following quotes, here is a brief note about art in the mid1700’s. At this time, Europe entered an era of Enlightenment. People began to base their thinking upon reason and order. New discoveries in science were being made and shifts in philosophy were giving ‘mankind’ great confidence through intellect. (‘Man’ being gender neutral!) This new thinking gave way to a revival in classical art from ancient Rome and Greece.  Within this new context, art theorists began to discuss beauty in art.

Cavin Hamilton provoked discussion among other Enlightenment era art theorists by stating:

“According to strict classical theory, the visual arts were concerned with the production of beauty, and therefore could not engage in any kind of theme that produced distortions of extreme emotion, as this would interfere with the display of pure beauty.”

Edmund Burke responded to Hamilton’s theories, but went on to revive the role of  The Sublime in art:

“Beauty was generated from our sense of love and attraction, the sublime from our sense of aversion and fear.”

If we adhere to these theorists’ definition of art that is strictly beautiful we would be inclined to find work based on aesthetic merit, with little overriding emotional display – especially of anything negative or disturbing. Here are examples I believe to be simply – beautiful

  • Doryphoros, by Polykeitos, c. 450-440 BCE Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples
  • David, by Michelangelo, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence
  • Birth of Venus, Botticelli, 1484-1486, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
  • Symphony in White NO.II: The Little White Girl, by Whistler, 1864, Tate, London
  • Blue Dancers, Degas, 1899, Pushkin Museum, Moscow

On the other hand, work that could be considered Sublime, can be beautiful, but carries with it an emotional charge, often dark, thought provoking and sometimes uncomfortable.

  • Allegory with Venus and Cupid, Bronzino, 1540, National Gallery, London
  • Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch, 1505-1515, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
  • Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, Picasso, 1907, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Olympia, Manet, 1863, Musee d’ Orsay, Paris


Art of the Day – Kathe Kollwitz (1867 – 1945)

In the Hands of God-Kollwitz

In 1988, The Milwaukee Art Museum published a small booklet of the small-scale sculpture in their permanent collection.  This is where I fist spotted a relief sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz, a German artist, called: In the Hands of God. (1935)  I was truly taken by this piece and thought I’d share it with you.

Kollwitz mainly drew pictures in black and white, was a relief printmaker and created bronze sculpture.  Most of her work addresses death, despair and poverty.  Although her images are often emotionally unsettling, she captures these human conditions with such raw honestly.

She is definitely an artist worth further exploration.

The images of her work below are arrange in a gallery.  For a closer look, click on an image to enter the gallery.


The Power of the ‘Venus Pudica’ Pose

Knidian Aphrodite   Olympia by Manet

Knidian Aphrodite                                                          Olympia

Praxiteles, c.350 BCE                                                      Edouard Manet, 1863

Marble, 6′ 8″                                                                      Oil on canvas, 130 x 190 cm

Vatican Museums, Rome                                                Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Olympia detail

The history of the female nude in art is charged with control issues of feminine sexual power. The nude female’s sexuality can be owned by her, or its ownership and control can be transferred to the viewer by how the artist chooses pose, gaze and the context of the nude; hence the dynamics of the viewing experience.

A good place to begin the history of the female nude is with the ‘Venus pudica’ pose where an idealized female figure is depicted covering her pubis with her hand. So powerful is this pose that it defines the terms of feminine sexuality rooted in passivity, vulnerability and shame.  Even after centuries, feminine sexuality in art was influenced by the historic use of this pose and was not publicly challenged until the 19th century. At a time when artists in France demanded artistic freedom, and Napoleon III permitted works rejected by the Salon to have their own exhibition in the Salon des Refuses, Manet submitted a work of art that served as a turning point to how the female nude could be depicted: Luncheon on the Grass (1863).

luncheon on the grass         Luncheon on the Grass -close up

Luncheon on the Grass

Edouard Manet, 1863

oil on canvas, 7′ x 8’8″

Musee d’Orsay, Paris

The artist Praxiteles, in 350 bce, created the first cult statue of a goddess to be represented completely nude: the Knidian Aphrodite.[1]  He posed her with her hand covering her pubis, unlike the male sculpture of the time where no special attention was given to their sexual organs.  This pose solidified a new point in the history of art; it privileged the female over the male nude and sexually defined the represented woman by her pubis and, on that account, kept her in a perpetual state of vulnerability.[2] According to Salomon, this pose, named the ‘Venus Pudica’, established the artistic codes of female nudity as fetishized, and provided the visual basis for the concomitant unequal power relations.[3]

The origins of the Venus pudica pose were a culmination of the views towards women expressed in ancient Greek mythology and philosophy. Greek mythology often portrayed women as sexually tempting objects who were vulnerable and objectified.[4] Aristotle wrote of the concept of ‘sophrosyne’ or the ‘soundness of mind’.[5] This quality was said to come from within a man, but had to be externally exerted from outside in a woman.[6] Therefore, modesty and sexual self-control must be imposed upon a female, hence the hand covering the pubis in an act of external control.[7] The Venus pudica pose became a tradition and was widely reproduced in many works of Greek art for centuries. The Capitoline Venus sculpted almost 200 years after Praxiteles’ sculpture, used this pose but was sculpted with mindless disregard of its origin. This shows that over time, a complete acceptance of this pose developed as a depiction of female vulnerability and lack of power.

Capitoline Venus

Capitoline Venus

2nd Century AD


National Gallery of Art, Washington

The French Royal Academy was founded in 1648.  At this time, the female nude in art symbolized the same qualities defined by the ‘Venus pudica’ pose introduced in 350 bce. It was considered ‘good taste’ for academic artists to portray the female nude as vulnerable, powerless, and ideal, often as a goddess who innocently postured herself as sexually available to the viewer. As late as the 19th century the Venus pudica pose had become the classic pose assumed by models in academic learning situations, and was represented as such in many paintings and prints of the academy per se.[8] According to the French Royal Academy, historic painting was based on subjects from ancient or modern history, classical mythology, or the Scriptures, and required a thorough knowledge of important literary and historical texts.[9]

It was not until a group of French artists in the mid 1800’s challenged the academic principles and philosophies and began to exert the idea of artistic freedom. New styles such as Realism and impressionism emerged from classical art.  Soon followed other styles like fauvism, cubism, abstraction and surrealism. Artists moved away from painting ideal scenes, to painting both traditional subjects (like the female nude) and non-traditional subjects in contemporary contexts with new artistic freedom.  This new movement, beginning with Manet, marked the beginning of Modern Art and made room for new sexual dynamics to be explored in the depiction of the female nude.

In 1863 Manet released his influential painting, Luncheon on the Grass to the Salon des Refuses.  According to Bowness, Manet chose to revivify traditional pictorial values in his painting, but painted them askew. It was a realistic painting, but the perspective was off.  For example, the woman wading in the background is painted too large for her distance away from the picnickers.  Manet’s use of lighting flattened the picture; half tones were eliminated.  There seems to be two different paintings superimposed upon one another; one landscape and one of figures and they do not completely mesh.

Manet’s contemporary depiction of the female nude in this painting was met with scandal. It was considered shocking and distasteful by academic standards. Manet created what seemed to be a conscious affront to tradition and accepted social convention.[10] To fully examine the impact of the depiction of Manet’s nude in the foreground of his painting, his painting will be compared to another painting of a nude, The Birth of Venus by Cabanel (1878) that was fully accepted and exalted by the critics.  The comparison will emphasize the pose, the gaze and the context of each nude, while considering the power dynamics between the viewer and the viewed.  Through examination and comparison of these pictorial elements, it can be shown that Manet’s nude was considered distasteful because Manet changed the traditional viewing experience expected by his viewers. ‘Systems of comfort’ were put in place for the viewer by academic art. Females were easily objectified, passive and sexually submissive. These systems provided freedom and comfort for the viewer by giving the viewer power and ownership of the view.  When the viewer no longer had the power over a female nude, as in Manet’s painting, the discomfort translated back onto the female as being distasteful and perhaps promiscuous.

Birth of Venus by Cabanel

Birth of Venus

Alexandre Cabanel, 1875

oil on canvas, 41 3/4″ x 71 7/8″

Musee d’ Orsay, Paris

The nude in the foreground of Manet’s painting is sitting in a casual, almost intellectual pose.  She is not preoccupied with presenting herself to the viewer, but acts as though the viewer’s gaze may be interrupting her conversation. Although nude, she is not sexual in pose. The lack of sexual accessibility in her pose gives her power. In contrast, Venus’ supine pose expresses passivity and sexual submission.  Her pelvis is tilted toward the viewer as to display herself for viewing.  Her breasts are fully exposed and her arms are away from the body as not to block its view.  Instead of using her hand, her knees are slightly bent as to hide her pubis in shame. Although this is not the pure Venus pudica pose, it conveys the same traditional body language.  The viewer has power and ownership of Venus’ sexuality.

In Manet’s painting, the nude female in the foreground looks directly at the viewer.  The viewer cannot help but to lock into her gaze and acknowledge her as an individual woman.  Because she is now an individual, she cannot easily be objectified; she has individual power.  With her power, she seems to own her nudity and her sexuality. She is aware of her circumstances and has made the choice to be nude, hence her discarded clothing within her reach. The viewer is given access to her with limitations.  Venus, in Cabanel’s painting, is painted true to academic standards.  She does not gaze at the viewer and perhaps is not in a state of awareness. She does not engage or ask anything of the viewer. She is in a state of mind separate from the viewer so the viewer is free of limitations to fantasize and look upon her as an object of beauty and sexual desire. This sets the viewer up as a voyeur and owner of the viewed.

Manet painted The Luncheon on the Grass in a contemporary and realistic setting.  Bowness states that two naked women having lunch in the woods with two elegantly attired men suggest impropriety. The context forces the viewer to see ordinary people in an ordinary environment.  It is more difficult to objectify a woman who is not mythological or placed in a fictitious setting. Venus, on the other hand, straddles the line between being real and being mythological.  She is painted in a fictitious setting with cherubs flying about and her body floating on top of waves. Venus as a real woman is abstracted and therefore represents an ideal.

As is seen from the comparison, Manet makes his viewer uncomfortable. For the first time, the viewer is not handed the ownership of the nude female’s sexuality. The viewer stands confronted with her power, her raw sexuality and without the systems in place which provide comfort to viewers of nudes painted by artists of the classical tradition. The viewer stands unprotected. These ‘systems of comfort’ include objectification though passive pose and gaze and placing the nude in a surrounding that often allows her to straddle the line between real and divine. The viewer has to allow the woman in the foreground to control and own her own sexuality. This breaks new ground in two ways. First, giving the woman in Manet’s painting freedom, forces the viewer to think about giving all females their sexual power, and secondly the viewer cannot easily get sexual satisfaction from the woman in the foreground, which is sought and expected from the nude in the painting, The Birth of Venus. Cabanel uses the traditional methods to pad the viewer’s sexual experience, making it satisfying and comfortable.If nudes in art were, in essence, seen as a means of sexual gratification, Manet’s nude would cause the viewer irritation because her image needs to be intellectually processed and cannot be simply viscerally responded to.

The birth of Modern Art allowed artists to challenge the traditional views of feminine sexual power in art, put into place by Praxiteles and his Venus pudica pose.  Manet’s painting, The Luncheon on the Grass was a critical painting in breaking the social conventions of female sexuality and shifting the power dynamics in the traditional viewer’s experience. This new viewer’s experience, initially met with resistance and shock, paved the way for future artists to further visually explore the complex issue of the female nude and the ownership and power of her sexuality.


[1] Nanette Salomon, “The Venus Pudica: uncovering art history’s ‘hidden agendas’ and pernicious pedigrees,” in Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings, ed. Griselda Pollock  (London: Routledge Press, 1996), 70.

[2] Ibid., 72.

[3] Ibid., 73.

[4] Ibid., 74.

[5] Ibid., 75.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] Ibid., 75.

[8] Ibid., 70.

[9] H.H. Arnason and Elizabeth C. Mansfield, History of Modern Art , 6th edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010), 3.

[10]Ibid., 30.


Arnason, H.H. and Elizabeth C. Mansfield, History of Modern Art. 6th edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010.

Salomon, Nanette. “The Venus Pudica: uncovering art history’s ‘hidden agendas’ and pernicious pedigrees.” In Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings, edited by Griselda Pollock, 69-87. London: Routledge   Press, 1996.

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Art of the Day – Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket

Nocturne in black and gold

Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1875

Oil on panel 23 ¾” x 18 3/8”

Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan

Today I am showing you what I think is a significantly important painting in the history of Modern Art. Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket, painted in 1875, broke visual ground as a precursor to abstract, or non-representational art. James Abbott McNiell Whistler (1834 -1903) painted this picture using an abstracted style; a completely different style from any accepted, academic painting of the time. Whistler believed in “art for art sake”, or that art need serve no other purpose than beauty alone.

Art academies began to form in Europe in the 18th century.  These academies instructed and encouraged artists in the visual arts. They held exhibitions of juried works, called ‘Salons’ and were very influential in molding the public’s taste of art. As time went on, artists who did not agree with the confines of academic art began to publicly display art that broke the rules.

Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket is pinnacle in challenging the status of accepted artwork. A leading art critic named John Ruskin was deeply disturbed by Whistler’s work and thought this piece looked unfinished and devoid of moral purpose.  He publicly criticized Whistler’s work and Whistler in turn sued Ruskin.  Whistler’s case against Ruskin was a defining moment as he publically justified the value of abstracted work by stating that a painting has no need for an identifiable subject matter and can be solely about beauty and devoid of a moral message.  Whistler won the case, but went bankrupt due to all of the legal fees.

From this time forward, I believe the scope of ‘what is art?’ began to expand and gave the artist more power to express him or herself beyond the imposed academic rules.

Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael W. Cothren. Art: A Brief History. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. 2012


The Renaissance Approach

red and yellow arches

As artists, we often know that our art comes from a place deep inside us.  It is often such a hidden place that artists speak of ‘tapping into it’, or having a ‘creative block’.  Some artists feel as though they themselves are not responsible for the art they produce, but an outside spirit moves through them.  No matter how each of us relates to our core of creativity, it is a place that culminates from the complexities of our being. It is a place to be nourished and tended to.

I was blessed as a child to have a father who taught me how to tend to my creative inner landscape. I have always thought of my father as a Renaissance Man – a man who had a broad knowledge of many things, who thought outside the box and was willing to entertain new ideas. He was so sensitive to feeding one’s soul intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, that he built a room in our house that held art, literature and science. He called this room his library.

Bookshelves lined the walls, an old tapestry rug covered the floor and two soft armchairs filled the corner of the room. He had a microscope and a telescope on the corner table.  Among his many books he placed an interesting collection of objects including fossils, dried butterflies and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. The books ranged in subject matter from art, philosophy, geology, world history, architecture, mathematics, poetry and classic fiction. I spent many hours in my father’s library reading his book collection and pondering the wonderful objects he placed upon his shelves.  Although I enjoyed learning about the world through these books, the most important realization I made was how all subject matter seemed so beautifully connected and interdependent.  I developed a love for learning and a method of nurturing of my creative space.

As we know, the Renaissance was a time of great intellectual transformation.  A new cultural movement embraced ideas about art, science, politics, philosophy, religion, exploration and architecture. This explosion of thought originated in Italy and fostered the growth of some of the greatest artists: Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, Michelangelo and of course, Leonardo da Vinci.

There was a new concept of artistic perfection that began in Florence during the Renaissance.  The concept was of disegno –or drawing and design. There was the concept of disegno esterno or the external physical manifestation of art (the artwork), and disegno interno, or the internal, intellectual idea behind the art (the artist’s meaning and content). During the High Renaissance ‘beauty’ or perfection was achieved when both disegno interno and esterno were in perfect balance. Reaching this perfect balance in today’s world, means nurturing both.

I think living with a ‘Renaissance Approach’ means having an insatiable curiosity for everything; it means complete engagement with the present.  It means surrounding yourself with people who challenge and support you. It means trying new things, keeping an open mind, and embracing your senses. It means learning everything you can about every thing.

My ideal artistic goal is to be what I call, an ‘artist complete’: one who is capable of integrating all things, seeing and thinking deeply, and translating interior thoughts authentically into art. I believe the challenge to walk closer to this every day is to live with a Renaissance Approach.

If you are interested in reading a book about the 7 extraordinary qualities of Leonardo da Vinci please check out this book: How to Think Like Leonard da Vinci, Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael Gelb.