The Devil’s in the Details
The stories of iconoclasm carried out by artists, and not by religious or ideological censors, come down to us from the time when these acts began to be recorded in artists’ biographies. In a few instances the recorded accounts (or public discussions) have held on for years, proving relevant to researchers and museum staff even today. For in one way or another, relative to their symbolic value, the work’s value is affected by its destruction. And then there are those pieces that have undergone substantial reworking by the author. That which is gone, often proves more intriguing than that which remains.
It is suggested that the motive that drove Sandro Botticelli to throw his best work onto the fire in Florence’s main square was a maniacal fixation with the fiery sermons delivered by friar Girolamo Savonarola. On “Fat Tuesday”, 7 February 1497, copies of Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, Ovid’s “Science of Love”, musical instruments, costly dresses of rich Florentine women, broken bottles of perfume and Venetian chandeliers, as well as Botticelli’s own paintings on mythological themes were burned. Some years later, the reformer Savonarola who had called for this resistance to luxury and sensual indulgences, was tried and convicted by the papal curia of heresy, and burned at the stake.
Botticelli returned to painting, though his “Mystical Nativity” (1500) was less concerned with the joy of the birth of Jesus than with “Revelation of St. John the Divine.” The apocalyptic motifs researchers note there – the lusty embrace of the painting’s heroes, on whose faces is there is no joy, only strain and alarm, though others regard this as a paraphrase of Savonarola’s “Christmas Sermon” in which he called on Florence to recreate itself as a new Bethlehem. Whatever was intended, it stands as the final canvas from Sandro; he was considered to be a failure, and he no longer took up the brush, dying in obscurity in a monastery hospital. For reasons that remain unclear, his “Mystical Nativity” ended up in a removed, dark corner of the Roman Aldebaran Villa.
The story of Michelangelo’s Pieta with Nicodemus (Pieta Bandini) sculpture takes place a half-a-century after Sandro Botticelli had supported the installation of the artist’s “David” on Florence’s Palazzo della Signoria. Michelangelo was by this time older, celebrated, and quite wealthy, and could allow himself to acquire a large slab of marble and to work nearly eight years on this difficult, four-figure composition. Finally, one morning in 1555 he took a hammer and did considerable damage to his statue.
Giorgio Vasari, artist and architect, in his “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” establishes that the irritated Michelangelo who laid the blame on his assistant, and on a dark-streaked interior defect in the marble, that he had somehow carelessly chipped off a piece of the Virgin’s elbow. Yet, he did not throw out the broken pieces, which the wealthy Bandini secured from Michelangelo, and which the Maestro’s student, one Tiberius Calcagni, continued to collect over a period of years. The work itself, which should have served as Michelangelo’s tombstone, was no longer interesting to the artist. Vasari asserts, however, that the depiction of Nicodemus provided an excellent self-portrait of the sculptor.
Vasari considered Michelangelo to be past his prime, his creative powers on the wane. He did not grasp the artist’s innovations that went far beyond a merely Renaissance aesthetic and into mannerism, and even the baroque.
20th–century research has put forward a number of hypotheses as to why Michelangelo took such an unprecedented step. First, the artist had not accounted for the proportionately fluid complexity of his design. The figure of Mary Magdalene is significantly smaller in relation to the figure of the Virgin Mother, and Christ is too large, relative to the others. If all the figures were stood on their feet, side by side, the difference in their relative sizes would become immediately apparent. Secondly, it’s not complexly evident whether this composition is intended as the “Pieta” (lamentation), “The Descent from the Cross”, or “Laying in the Tomb”. And third, the positioning of the legs of Christ is not entirely clear. The left is not visible, not from any angle, though the right is supported by the right hand of Mary Magdalene, and rests against the Virgin Mary’s thigh, giving the appearance that the hand and thigh are nearly touching.
This latent eroticism of the “legs entwined” motif in a contemporary context is attended by no visual cue, but was well understood by the audiences of that earlier time, informed as they were of the subtleties of iconography. Fourth, in his fifties Michelangelo was in regular communication with the Spirituali group of the poetess Vittoria Colonna whom he adored. The circle debated the potential for reformation within Catholicism, cultivating the esoteric significance of controversial figures the likes of Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a secret disciple of Christ who brought aloe and myrrh to anoint the body before burial. Michelangelo was aware that talk of reformation interested parties who could summon the Inquisition under newly elected Pope Paul IV, directly involving him and the other members of Vittoria’s group. Vittoria died in Michelangelo’s presence in 1547. Given these details, the artist’s partial destruction of his sculpture was certainly a deliberate act, and not the impulsive and wrathful act of thwarted genius.
The restored sculpture was forgotten for a long time, but certainly influenced the work of Domenico Theotocopuli – El Greco – who viewed the work in Rome. From 1571 to 1575 he painted two versions of “The Pieta” which employ a similar compositional union of four figures. Both are now in museums in the United States.
Botticelli’s final painting would achieve cult status over the centuries, though not in Italy, but in Britain. As forgotten as the rest of the artist’s work, it was discovered by the English Pre-Raphaelites, the articles of John Ruskin raised the value of the “Mystical Nativity” to 1,500 pounds, purchased by the National Gallery in London. They had brought the work to London in the mid-nineteenth century having bought it in Rome for eighty pounds.
The second half of the nineteenth century was richly complex and peripetian with respect to religious themes – the fashion for symbolism led to difficulties in interpretation of ambiguous imagery, and those educated in realistic or impressionistic modes of interpretation, had long been on the lookout for some new form of expression.
The story of “Demon Cast Down” by Mikhail Vrubel, though brief, is movingly recorded by Alexander Benois, who witnessed the strange metamorphosis that took place with the painting in the year 1891. The artist who had created in the previous year “Demon Seated”, as if unable to restrain himself, continued reworking the painting through the morning of its exhibitions in Moscow and St. Petersburg, even in the presence of the audience. Vrubel was hoping that the Tretyakov would acquire it, but was terribly agitated because friends and artists close to him (Valentin Serov, Ilya Ostroukhov) were critical of the distorted anatomy of the figure, the sheer contours of the mountains literally crushing sufferers, and the overly bright peacock feather palette.
Benoit writes: “This last fight was something horrifying, monstrous. Every day we discovered further changes. The Demon’s face grew more horrifying and pained.” In the end the face of the Demon had been nearly obliterated by the repeated scraping away at the layers of paint. Vrubel suffered, obsessed with Lermontov’s poetic Demon there, mocking him. Nadezhda Zabiela told her sister Katarina, nee Ge: “Everyone – relatives and friends – have noticed that there’s something strange happening with Mikhail Aleksandrovich, but nonetheless we can’t be sure because he’s not talking nonsense, acknowledges everyone, and remembers everything. He’s only become much more self-confident, and has lost his shyness, talking all the time…there were days when “the Demon” was quite frightening, and then there was visible an expression of profound sorrow and beauty on its face.” A year later Vrubel was hospitalized: he was convinced he was hearing choral singing, and was insisting that together with Raphael and Michelangelo he had painted frescoes at the Vatican.
A few halls away from where two darkened Vrubel “Demons” (the artist had mixed bitumen in with his paint for a blackening effect) reside in the Tretyakov, hangs a painting by his relative, Nikolai Ge: “What is Truth?” (1890) – a painting which had twice been censored by the author, and also banned from exhibition. Infrared imaging has recently uncovered under a layer of paint a work entitled “Mercy” (1879) – one notable for the level of public criticism it had received at its public exhibition. The canvas bore the author’s alternative title of “Is This Not the Christ?” with the text from Matthew’s Gospel inscribed on the frame: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” For his audacious citation and “awkwardness” the artist was roundly criticized, leading to Ge’s removing the canvas to his farm at Pliski in the Chernihiv Gubernia of Ukraine, where he painted another scene over it.
Or perhaps, scenes.
In addition to “What is Truth?”, traces of what may be an early version of “The Crucifixion” have also been identified. The outline of the earlier image shows through, and above and to the right of Pontius Pilate is the clear outline of a face. The painting was exhibited publicly in 1890 at a showing by the Russian Wanderers group, and received a mixed reaction. The Holy Orthodox Synod ordered the painting to be removed. Arts patron Pavel Tretyakov was not keen to purchase a painting for his collection which he could not exhibit, but an outraged letter from Lev Tolstoy convinced him to pay Ge’s price. A decade later the Synod declared Count Tolstoy anathema for “defending” the non-canonical depiction of Christ in the painting, as well as for his recently published novel “Resurrection” which veered far from orthodox teaching.
To all appearances the twentieth century could be viewed as atheistic as long as we don’t forget the role played by shadowy and sudden acts of
self-censorship of sacred motifs, which nonetheless managed to “highlight” the lives of a number of artists.
Camille Claudel’s history of mental illness and her subsequent destruction of nearly all his work brought greater scrutiny to the issue of conceptual originality in art. Yet it remains uncertain what role not only August Rodin – whom Camille had publicly accused of plagiarism – played in her confinement, but also that played by her brother Paul, a noted religious poet. With increasing frequency we see statements to the effect that the frank eroticism in Camille’s art did not please Paul, a Catholic visionary. He had her committed to a mental hospital, and kept her there for more than thirty years – her vivid personality otherwise casting a shadow on his public and diplomatic career.
Still another tale from the previous century involves Francis Bacon’s deliberate destruction of his early works. His impassioned “casting about” for everything he had created before 1944 bordered on obsession. He would make significant outlays to purchase these paintings only to destroy them just outside the gallery doors, and then throw the shreds into the trash. His eccentric behavior arose from the notion that his early “Crucifixion” and “Triptyches” were derivative of Picasso, and the concept of purifying suffering insufficiently expressed. Their stylization had outbalanced expression, Bacon struggled against the modernism of Picasso, turning instead to the Renaissance expression of Matthias Grünewald.
And so is closed this notional circle of artists who, when not destroying were often neglecting their less-favored work – work that has nonetheless become oddly crucial for artists from other eras, nations, and sensibilities. The “suicidal” states of these artists are attributed by critics and scholars to advancing age, religious or ideological obsession, mental illness, or personal phobias and delusions.
But what about artists? They – from their workshops or their hospital beds – have been largely silent on the matter.