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I, and perhaps a fair number of you, have encountered generalizations about art that are rather macabre. The most popular notion, and perhaps the most incorrect one, contends that every work of artistic excellence incorporates death in some manner. The widely acclaimed artist Damien Hirst has commented on this before, arguing that “There’s only ever been that one idea in art – that Gauguin thing, you know: where are we going, what’s it all about, where did we come from, is there a reason? If you’re trying to make sense of life, then death looms big on the horizon.”

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Hirst’s most famous work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, has remained an intriguing yet controversial example of modern art. I write more on this work here.

Perhaps. The central tendency in most works of art, if you feel compelled to identify one, is this “making sense of life”, but this need not depend on the rather simple designation of death. How about love? Isn’t it remarkable that one of the most fruitful paths to self-understanding and self-love exists in the selfless care for another person?

So let’s discuss it! Valentine’s Day comes around this month, providing either a long awaited opportunity or compunction to buy something memorable for that person we love. For that couple, and those who are single, let’s highlight some compelling works of art about love. Love helps us make sense of life, and while these works cannot impact us as another can, they are a wonderful place to start.

Also, as you read this, I am privileged enough to be studying abroad with Mount Saint Mary’s in the city of Florence. As you’d imagine, I’ll be visiting every museum I can find, and guarantee that I’ll share the art I discover in my wanderings.

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Now, especially in Florence, sculpture is an integral part of its art history, most memorably due to Michelangelo’s David (which was placed in the Palazzo della Signoria). So let’s start with sculpture!

There are notorious examples of love in sculpture, and you’d likely first think of Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture, the one famously associated with Philadelphia. But when I think of love in sculpture, I cannot think of anyone apart from Auguste Rodin. There are some famous works of his which you may have seen, even if his name is unfamiliar. He crafted The Thinker, a bronze sculpture of a man ruminatively sitting with his chin resting upon the back of his hand. I became familiar with Rodin because of this work, in my time as a philosophy major, seeing its likeness on the walls of my old professors’ offices.

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He also sculpted The Kiss, a marble masterpiece originally intended to be part of a grand exhibition at a Parisian museum. It is a statue of Francesca da Rimini, a person most classically remembered as a sufferer in Dante’s Inferno, permanently lost in its second circle. Paolo, her lover in the sculpture, is not the man she married. The second circle is reserved for the lustful, and Francesca is stranded with Paolo in an eternal whirlwind, always subjected to its gusts, swept up in its speed, just as she was always swept away by her passions.

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What Rodin executes so brilliantly in his sculpture is the beauty of Francesca’s body and the devotion to her infidelity. If you were to look at a painting of Francesca and Paolo, such as Dante Rossetti’s portrait in the mid-1800s, you would find a woman who is only “50-50” in committing to her passions with her lover.

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You will find a similar theme in a few classically erotic paintings, especially of the European variety: women are depicted as secondary participants in acts of love, that the man initiates the passion which women then reciprocate. Rodin betrays this convention. Francesca is sculpted with exquisite detail, and is fully intimate in her kiss with Paolo. This, in turn, gives additional credence to her placing in the second circle; she truly belonged there because of her full investment in the act.

But as breathtaking – a word I rarely use – as this love sculpture by Rodin is, there is another which baffles me even more. Rodin created another sculpture for the museum, one that draws upon this full commitment of love by both participants: Eternal Springtime. Without having seen this piece, the title encapsulates the sentiments these lovers express, that being, a perpetual experience of novelty, of rebirth, of beauty.

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Rodin, debatably, is my favorite example of an artist adding modern elements to works of the past. I was lucky enough to have seen Eternal Spring at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Rodin based the movements of his sculpture on a masterpiece by Antonio Canova. Canova sculpted a famous (and rightfully so) work called Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, often deemed one the greatest works of Neoclassical sculpture.

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I encountered this in my art history class in high school, and was perplexed by its beauty and classical undertones. Psyche Revived is sourced in Lucius Apuleius’ classic work The Golden Ass, and the sculpture shows a young woman tenderly holding the back of Cupid’s head as he extends his kiss.

Eternal Springtime shares the pose of Psyche Revived, with the woman caressing the back of her lover’s head, leaning toward him as openly as can be. The man, similarily, leans in toward her with equal affection. The modern element which Rodin incorporates in this work, which ought to be discussed and celebrated, is the emphasis on the individuals. The subjects are not gods, or distant incarnations of the Passions. Psyche is often translated from the Greek as “soul”, or “breath of life”, while Cupid’s denotation is well known to us. Rodin’s greatest feat in this piece is emphasizing that these sentiments of enamor and fulfillment are not reserved to classical texts, or polytheistic deities. They are in each of us, they are us, they inspire and forge the art and relationships in which we fully invest ourselves.

How about novels? If you are an avid lover of the written story, as I imagine many of us are, I have a few recommendations to pick up this month. Many of you, myself included, are fascinated by history, so my first choice is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.7831611

This is a rich novel, difficult at times, yet immensely moving in its plot. The novel is similar to Gone With the Wind, in the lone sense that it tells a love story in the midst of tumultuous, revolutionary times. Doctor Zhivago is set in Russia between the Revolution of 1905 and the Bolshevik Revolution, centered on the life of one Yuri Zhivago, a doctor in practice but “a poet at heart,” and his ambition for love in the shaky stability of governmental upheaval. This work, a piece of historical fiction, excellently depicts the mannerisms and behaviors of early 20th Century Russian civilians in the wake of massive change.

The second novel is nowadays considered a classic of F. Scott Fitzgerald, his fourth and final novel, Tender is the Night. While this is not a tale of infatuation or a love that seems predestined, it nevertheless relays extensive detail on the nature of love and the dynamic nature of interpersonal relationships.tender

The novel displays the dealings of Dick and Nicole Diver, a couple who move to a villa in France. On the property lives a young woman named Rosemary Hoyt and her mother, whose presence begins to affect Dick’s emotional connections with Nicole. In the midst of this conflict, flashbacks catalog the characters’ histories, family backgrounds, and additional information which provides remarkable complexity to an otherwise cliché story topic. This book is worth reading for its emphasis on individuality, for its emphasis on honesty in both members of a relationship, and its devotion to succeeding in love in the face of tribulation.

There are too many intriguing romantic films, just as there are numerous romantic novels, to list in the span of this article. Films like The Titanic, The Notebook, The Time Traveler’s Wife, When Harry Met Sally and other popular romantic movies will be watched this month. Instead of these, I have a different recommendation for a film you may not have heard of. Its name is Chungking Express, a 1994 Hong Kong film by Wong Kar-Wai. The film consists of two stories focused on two different characters, both of whom are policeman in the ever-busy city of Hong Kong. This is not a film intended to draw an infatuated couple closer together, as a movie like The Titanic might. Instead, it is a deep reflection on the paradoxical influence of love on emotions. If you’re in the search for a different take on love this month, this movie is certainly for you!

Love is one of many ways that we make sense of life, and I hope that some of these will help you approach this phenomenon differently. Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! And as they say across the pond, “A presto!”

 

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