Holocaust Selfie

Migrants flood European cities, rape white women, rob taxpayers by living off benefits, and enforce their Sharia laws on the enlightened average Westerner.

Now, if this were true, as some right-wing media claims it to be, would you have at least a modicum of sympathy for anti-immigration rallies and the average Western strongman punching some sense into the unenlightened average refugee?

Don’t stand up indignantly just yet. Social experiments on the rise of fascism have proven that getting a “yes” to my question takes a few days of work in an average US classroom.

Recently, a group of refugees waiting to be transported to Finland from Russia were beaten up by local men for groping Russian girls at a disco. It was hailed nationwide as the right (Russian) way of dealing with the refugee problem.

I am sure a sizeable proportion of Calais residents would cheer up Frenchmen doing the same to the Jungle camp residents.

What comes next?

Vigilante militia and patrols, of course. Easily identifiable by their uniforms and shoulder bands. Strong men would patrol the streets without being slowed down by police regulations. That will order things up.

And next, obviously, a system of identification needs to be set up. Syrians would be required to wear, say, a yellow star. Afgans would be assigned a green one. North Africans… I don’t know, pink? And, of course, how could I forget, before their papers are properly checked, to prevent terrorists entering the EU, they all would have to be detained in some special places, let’s say, temporary migration camps. A simple electical fence, barbed wired, will protect them from justifiably hostile local populations.

If you think a reinvention of the Holocaust is impossible, think again. There’s a generation of people now who are barely aware of the dreadful events taking place more than 70 years ago. Collective human memory is, perhaps, as selective as the individual mind and tends to bury painful moments under the thick blanket of cute cats, X-Factor winners, and loan payment dates.

Alexander Mikhalkovich, a Latvian artist, who describes himself as a web-terrorist, set it his purpose to make people remember the Holocaust.

He inserts Holocaust photographs in web-services such as Foursquare or Google at the exact geo locations where the events depicted took place so that whenever a visitor checks in, they are getting a scene of mass execution or something similar innoculously inserted in the user-generated galleries of splendid views and relaxed passtimes.

This is his statement and some of his work:

I believe that the Latvians have begun to forget about the Holocaust. It is difficult to know about it if you are not interested in this topic specifically. People are often in places where terrible things happened recently, but they do not know it. Finding some terrible photo evidence, I wanted to remind people about the Holocaust in Latvia. I decided to bypass the security systems on popular photo hosting services on maps, such as Google Earth, Panoramio and Foursquare and dilute our usual photoblog of travel photos with examples of Nazi atrocities. On these giants, there is an automated system for testing the photos before making them available to the public. With the help of special programs I changed the GPS data about the location of my smartphone. So I make minor visual changes in the picture, trying to make it invisible to the verification system of copyright. Amazingly, the little Stamp tool – and Google Image (service to search for identical pictures) can no longer find the picture. But the trick of such a giant like Google is not so easy. My photos were uploaded to Google Earth, moderated during two days and as a result were not put in the public domain Perhaps at some stage of the inspection, the robot had suspicions and he sent the photos to the moderation man Because of this, I had to concentrate on Foursquare, because my elaborated algorithm perfectly bypassed secunty of the service. Now I feel like Abba Kovner, a member of the Jewish Avengers; a terrorist group after the war who dreamed of taking revenge on Germany by poisoning the Dresden water supply. I’m a terrorist, but in the name of Memory. I’m invading your world of sunsets, selfies, kittens and happy meals; reminding you of what lies beneath the beach you are lounging on.

Art_Forcing_the_internet_to_remember_the_holocaust_07

Once, Foursquare commented on a photo of a group of Jewish girls lining up to be executed, “You’ve got gorgeous hair today!”.

This is the kind of digital art that should make the headlines.

 

Nude or Naked? Art or Kitsch?

Pigeonholing female nude and naked in a practical way that may revitilise your next gallery visit. 

The debate about nude and naked has been raging on since Kenneth Clark said 60 years ago that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.”

Try to feed this line to a feminist today.

Fifteen years after Clark, John Berger summarised the distinction between nude and naked: being naked is just being yourself, but being nude in the artistic context is being without cloths for the purpose of being looked at.

John Berger believed that Western art had been predominantly about female [self] objectification, in the sense that while women had always been presented as goods for male consumption, they were taking an active part in this process themselves. It’s difficult to argue with this: popularity of Instagram selfies like the ones below is a living proof that not much has changed since the Ways of Seeing was first shown on BBC.

inst

It is perfectly ok. Girls are doing their best to look attractive to boys. Boys appreciate it by following their accounts, writing sleazy comments, and fantasizing in ways I don’t want to talk about. Instagram owners whistle all the way to the bank.

All I am saying is that consumer preferences still centre on the flirtingly erotic presentation of the female body, but a modern-day classic reclining nude painting would be deemed a horrible kitsch fit for the likes of Donald Trump or seedy strip clubs.

So, the question is: what kind of paintings of nude or naked bodies are not kitsch or a mindless repetitions of past masterpieces? Which of them have value?

As a collector and art history enthusiast, I needed a simple classification system for nude paintings that would show me their “ideological” value whenever I come across one. I say “ideological” because my decision to buy something is based first on whether a painting says something new about portraying a nude or naked body and then on whether it is, in my subjective view, a good painting in its own right, in terms of composition, colour, et cetera. If you read this blog, you know I often go so analytical about deconstructing paintings that it raises suspicions if I wanted to be a autopsist as a kid and my parents wouldn’t let me.

My system is simple. It is a matrix made by two questions:

  • Is the model aware of a male observer?
  • Does the model care about the male observer?

NOTE: ALL DIAGRAMS ARE CLICKABLE AND SOME NEED TO BE ENLARGED TO BE READ

Chart1

The definition of “nude” and “naked” becomes pretty much simple:

Chart2

And art history of the female nude can be briefly summarised:

Chart3

To give you a few examples (yes, now you have to click on it):

Chart5

You can see that some paintings like Picasso’s D’Avignon ladies or Rembrandt’s bathing nude can’t be easily pigeonholed to a single box, but represent a transition from one box to the next. These “transitional works”  represent valueable moments  when artists were searching for new ideas in portraying the unclothed human body.

Today, “progressive” thinkers view most of nude art of the past as chauvinistic garbage (with Renoir being one of the most hated artists). the art world gravitates towards the right side of my table. Indeed, the three “naked” boxes represent the contemporary territory.

What’s disturbing is that all the attempts to fill in these boxes with art have produced very few masterpieces, with loads of ideologically “right” but ugly artworks. Of course, when I say “ugly” I mean something disgusting for me personally. There are people who find Carroll Durham or Sara Lucas beautiful, but I find comfort in knowing many smart men and women who side up with me.

Sara Lucas, for instance, is mostly working in the “is aware – doesn’t care” box with her cigarette butts:

q2

Well, it is definitely more provocative than Matisse’s Dance, but is it more inspiring? Not for me, but the art world seems to have appreciated her effort.

She also tries to work in the bottom box (“model knows she’s not watched and doesn’t care”) by doing toilet selfies, but as her intention to appear uncaring reveals her pathetic desire to be seen and liked, I can’t say the attempt is a success.

sarah-lucas-op-toilet--w500

As an art history guy, I love the nude left side of my chart.

The top left box, the most “basic” one, is, in fact, a vast territory in its own right. There are segments of “authentic shyness”, “fake modesty”, “shameful resolve”, “indignant sale”, and a host of others.

Some of the segments are filled to the brim with art and some still stand pretty empty.

And the transitions between boxes remain almost unexplored.

Which is one of the reasons why I bought this nude last weekend:

IMG_20160216_094529

If – as I believe – she covers her face in shame, she falls in the traditional top right box with all the Titians, Manet, Ingres, and countless others.

But.

She refuses to collaborate with the artist to model fake modesty of a girl who pretends to be ashamed being caught naked. She is ashamed, but she’s not putting on a show of it. She also doesn’t want to watch back the male observer of the painting. She doesn’t want to meet his eyes, she doesn’t want to be the object of his desire. She surrenders her rather voluminous breasts (take them if you please) but not herself, as a person.

This, in my view, is a very interesting turn in the old debate about women taking an active part in their own objectification.

The Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders in art can be seen as a curious reference here.

Almost all artists would represent Susanna as shyly trying to cover her body while facing up to the two men:

susanna-and-the-elders-ottavio-mario-leoni

Susanne and the Elders by Ottavio Mario Leoni

In the vast majority of this type of paintings Susanna is presented in a seductive pose to make the male observer want her. Artists believed that an aroused observer would feel the same kind of feelings like the elders and, knowing the two ended up dead for their attempt to extort sexual consent from the woman, would learn a moral lesson. Maybe artists pretended to believe it, of course, as an excuse to paint a seductive nude woman (sex sells).

Artemisia Gentileschi was the only artist (perhaps because she was a woman, with a relevant personal background) who turned Susanna’s face away from the bastards with her body language signalling that she doesn’t want to listen to their sex extortion proposals, and she doesn’t want to see them, just like my face-covering girl.

A_Gentelleschi_Susanna

You see, a true depiction of shame is very unique in this genre.

Now, the painterly qualities of my nude.

Look at the shadows and tones, because the work is done with almost the same colour. She is lit, as if by a flash that went off above her. The hand movement is blurred as if she barely had time to raise her arm. The frontal flash of light stands very well as a symbol of the rush of attention of the male observer whose eyes take in the body as a whole, not seeing, skipping the details (like the bellybutton or nipples) at first.

Oh, the artist behind my nude is Victor Dynnikov. Click on his tag at the bottom if you want to see more of his work.

Print out my nude/naked table and take it with you next time you go to a gallery. It can be fun putting paintings into boxes. If you are a couple, talking about art may never be the same again!

Happy New Year!

Seasonal greetings to all my readers, friends, and even to over a thousand visitors who ended up on this blog googling “nude white women standing facing forward” (I hope antique Venuses you were likely to find here provided an adequate reference if not the desired thrills).

I wish you all a year full of creativity, new art finds, ancient art history revelations, and – to the “forward-looking” thousand of guests – to discover the “three quarters” angle.

I have seen precious little art and read nothing but labels since December, travelling through Geneva to the French Alps and lamenting global warming along the way. If you doubt it exists, go visit glaciers or rather places where glaciers used to be a mere decade ago.

In fact, Geneva should run a referendum of relegating December from winter to late summer.

It’s serene, green, and ticks life away as a $2m tourbillon watch locked in a safe deposit box in an underground bank vault. Geneva is great to visit if you need a few peaceful days, but many of its residents complain it becomes too peaceful in about two weeks of living there, when life starts resembling the said bank vault, but without the money being stacked high all around.

I am sure in terms of art Geneva could benefit from an injection of creative steroids. The only exhibition I enjoyed (out of the two I visited) was a tiny show of Apocalypse graphics in the Art and History Museum, where visitors were provided with magnifying glasses to see tiny details of the exhibits.

It helped me to find something new even among the images I had seen many times before, like Durer’s Adam and Eve of 1504:

DP816026 - копия

No, it’s not the cat and mouse at the bottom. They are too obvious: one can miss neither them nor their metaphoric references.

My surprise was the bewildered goat at the top right corner that has climbed up a cliff and watches birds flying below, and the cunningly evil expression of the snake achieved by Durer’s endowing the snake with almost human eyelids.

Of course, as any large city, Geneva tries to compensate the lack of private art initiative with public spending. This Xmas it was running a festival of light installations by contemporary artists which I would totally miss were I not living right in front of one of them.

Sophie Guyot, an artist from Lausanne, converted Longemalle square into a garden of symbolic objects that would light up in the evening changing colour from white to red and providing the perfect photo opportunity for transit skiing enthusiasts:

She left the interpretation open: it can be flowers, animals, or even human organs. The latter must be addressed to those who have reviewed a Hannibal Lector movie recently, which I find slightly disturbing, given the generally festive time of the year.

Otherwise, it is just fun and a huge electricity bill.

But, despite the slow start, I hope 2016 will serve me with a healthy helping of great art, heaps of art history discoveries, and plenty of opportunities to write about it all.

Happy New Year and see you soon in this blog!

P.S. WordPress spellchecker insists on replacing “Durer” with “Durex” in a vain hope I would abandon art and move over to the more popular domain of erotic literature. Thank you, I’d rather stay with “ü”.

There is money in fandom

We all know there’s lots of money in fandom: all those tickets, scarves, t-shirts, badges, and hospital bills for cracked skulls, squashed faces, and broken teeth. When I think of fans, and especially fans of popular games, I imagine a legion of happy bartenders, dentists, and Chinese exporters of fake club paraphernalia.

Ever since men first united for a mammoth hunt, they’ve been happy to splash on tools and tokens that would help them reach their cause, even if it was another evolutionary dead-end.

Fans, and especially male fans, are a treasure trove for any trade, because men get irrational when it comes to being a club member, especially when this club encourages mad behaviours, idiotic hats, and girls’ getting topless.

fans

Men frown at their wives when they want to change curtains bought ten years ago (“nothing’s wrong with the old ones!”), but are happy to buy club shirts that change design each season to make fans keep buying them, and then pay for tickets to stand-up shows to be informed by comedians of how stupid they all are.

Fandoms keep everyone happy. Except artists. 

Artists celebrate sports and sportsmen, but ignore fans and their fandoms.

My dear fellows, why do you turn your back on an opportunity that’s more generous than Donald Trump in his promises?

The global art market features precious few artworks that celebrate fans (if you take wedding cake toppers off the list).

il_570xN.402720602_nzw4

Throughout art history fans only feature in supporting roles.

Alexandre Falguiere Lutteurs Борцы 1875

Alexandre Falguiere Lutteurs, Wrestlers, 1875

George Bellows Stag at Sharkey's (1909), oil on canvas

George Bellows Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), oil on canvas

And only occasionally, in preparatory drawings or sketches, fans take centre stage:

George Bellows, Preliminaries of the Big Bout (1916), lithograph

George Bellows, Preliminaries of the Big Bout (1916), lithograph

In the examples above, artists used the audience as a backdrop to enhance contrast in their work. The strained body of the fighter becomes all the more strained when contrasted with a relaxed pose of a spectator. The honestly of the fight becomes accentuated with a fat cat watching it with a betting interest in his eyes. Still, it’s never about fans themselves!

In my search of artworks dedicated to sport fans, I couldn’t walk past Toronto.

There, Michael Snow, a renowned polymath artist, mounted sculpted fans high up on the wall of a stadium. This is a rare case when sculptural caricature is paid for by the caricatured (indirectly via taxes, of course).

6732492143_b84b2b6617 The Audience (1)

I find it strange. Is there nothing to glorify about fans?

Fandom can be a good thing, you know. There are decent values in there, hidden beneath all the violence and stupid acts we get in the news.

First, fandom is about equality. It is about people being equal in the ecstasy of victory, in the drunken gloom of defeat, or in their meaningless fist-fights with men from other fandoms. Second, fandom is about togetherness, being a part of the pack. Give me a third or even fourth if you are a fan of anything, but even equality and togetherness alone are enough to cheer up the fandom concept.

Where is art that would celebrate this?

So far, I could find only a single artwork that would not be a mockery or social critique of fans. It is a work by a Latvian sculptor, Olita Abolinya.

Olita Abolinya, 1971 Latvia Болельшики.preview

Olita Abolinya, Fans, 1971

I assume this is a group of Soviet soccer fans. Soccer championships in the USSR were taking place in winter because sports were meant to build character rather than entertain.

It’s a good piece. It shows fans in cold weather but the pink clay somehow radiates warmth that the group generates by being connected to each other.

And this is it.

Just. One. Piece.

So, if you are an artist and want to sell to the profitable fan community or get over a creative block, look into the fandom good sides.

Show fans resolved to support their team when it lost.

Show a family, in which husband and wife support opposing teams, and do not fight over which club their kids will support when they grow up.

Show fans united not through a goal or win, but through deep understanding of tactics and strategy in football, soccer, hockey, golf, or sack jumping.

It’s all out there, waiting for your talent to crack it.

PS If you are not an artist, but have artist-friends, forward it to them. Make them rich!

08_09_2008_0770860001220859142_dominique_regnier

Ass to luv iz da baby

This is how a rapper would understand “astalavista baby”, I assume, and you’ll get my drift in a minute, for I have a bum-related art question for rappers. As I don’t know any personally, I hope you can propel it to someone who knows one, so that they could answer it.

Who the hell is buying the stuff?!

Under “stuff”, I don’t mean art or contemporary art, in general. Of course, you can hear this question when a Gainsborough admirer stumbles upon Turner Prize exhibits at Tate Britain in London; a lover of Raphael takes a wrong turn and ends up in Centre Pompidou instead of Louvre, or you yourself see a yellow Hummer H2 squeezing through a side street. In the latter case, we know the answer, of course: it must be a rap performer, a Top Gear show making fun of rap performers, or Arnie on a mission.

Yet, there’s one kind of art that makes me whisper this question. It is a realistically sculpted nude female body in an erotic posture. There are a few sculptors, quite successful commercially, who make this stuff.

Something tells me that the buyers come mainly from thriving mob and rapper communities. Unlike art historians who present their evidence and then shoot their arguments, these gangsta art-lovers shoot first and try to hide all the evidence later: that’s why I have to lower my voice asking this question in public.

There are sculptors who do it in wood, which makes me think of a moment when Mr Gepetto, Pinocchio father, was feeling especially lonely.

rs1

This is work of Richard Senoner, who claims he is “converting expressiveness, aesthetics and harmony into sculpture”

Potential customers! Remember, this art is unsafe. The wood will crack in unpredictable places just about the time the running of your hand over it becomes an integral part of your daily routine. Instead of thrills, you may start getting daily splinters.

PS. If you don’t run your hand over it, what was the point of buying it in the first place?

There are artists who do it in bronze. Galleries in seaside French towns are filled to the roof with bronze seductresses sporting polished thighs and bums. It is as if Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Miro, Signac or Marquet have never existed, let alone lived in this part of the world. But I will rest the issue of why French Rivera visitors are prone to indulge in bronze figurines with fake-looking breasts. It is probably the sun. My question is not about this artless and anatomically bizarre bronze merde that costs marginally more than the metal that went into making it in a Chinese melting shop.

My question is about this:

bum1

This is a French sculptor. Great carving. Unparalleled polishing. His stone bums sell for 5 to 7 thousand euros. To whom?! Who is stoned enough to buy himself a stone bum?

Wood is warm to the touch at least. But what do you do with stone?

This sculptor also does ice.

08_09_2008_0798142001220859142_dominique_regnier

Ice I can try to understand. Get yourself an ice bum, lick it to nothingness, die from pneumonia, don’t forget to croak you die as a performance artist before your last wheeze.

But, I am sorry to repeat myself, what do you with a stone bum?

08_09_2008_0622517001220859142_dominique_regnier

You can treat yourself to his website if you choose to. There are a few items there that could make this blog banned in some conservative countries. Remember, it can’t be unseen.

No rapper friends? Then give me your vote, please!

The Burden of White Liberal Intellectuals

The initiative of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to change politically incorrect names of its exhibits is big news now.

NYT: The Rijksmuseum is in the process of removing language that could be considered offensive from digitized titles and descriptions of some 220,000 artworks in its collection. Words that Europeans once routinely used to describe other cultures or peoples, like “negro,” “Indian” or “dwarf” will be replaced with less racially charged terminology.

The museum’s management believes that black people coming to galleries would be offended by portraits of long-dead black people painted by long-dead white artists. I think that this assumption is very contemptuous of black people and is, in fact, racist.  This belief assumes that black people are intellectually inferior: unlike white curators, black visitors are incapable of understanding that, sometimes, a historical artwork needs to be viewed in its historical context to be appreciated.

This theory of black people’s inability to come to terms with historical facts is justified by Martine Gosselink, a high-brow Dutch curator of the museum, through what she believes is a valid parallel with a nickname the Dutch are referred to by other Europeans.

quote

First, I don’t see a problem here. People of Wisconsin, also called Cheeseheads, be they dark or fair-skinned, seem to have no objections to cheer-cheesing anytime, anywhere. Perhaps, a Wisconsin consultant could enlighten the Dutch on ways to embrace and enjoy it, rather than resist it.

BlhYycpIYAEG_KG

Yes, the guy in this photo looks like a grumpy cat, but I am sure it's not because he's wearing a silly hat. I bet it was an awkward question about his performance during the football game.

Yes, the guy in this photo looks like a grumpy cat, but I am sure it’s not because he’s wearing a silly hat. I bet it was an awkward question about his performance during the football game.

Second, the curator exaggerates the offense. A cheese tasting room in Amsterdam openly invites visitors to “become a cheesehead” and no one complains that the slogan is cheesy.

Third, “Cheesehead” may represent an ethnic slur for the Dutch, but – come on! – the Dutch are famous for their cheese, and they make a lot of money out of it. It’s ridiculous to equate it with the offense contained in the word “Negro”, which reminds black people of the times when they were slaves and worked for food and not being beaten by their owners, staying destitute after decades of hard labour if they were lucky to survive.

The curator’s artless cheese vs.slavery analogy reminds me of a story a friend told me about her birth-giving experience.

She goes into labour; her hubby is at her bedside, holding her hand. While thrashing about in acute pain, she notices her husband’s suffering expression: he is, obviously, in agony, but is doing his best to hide it. She asks him through clenched teeth, “Darling, what is it? I can see you’re in pain!”. “Yes,” he answers, pointing at the elastic band of his disposable med cap, “it’s killing me. It chafes my forehead terribly!”

She started laughing so hard she pushed the baby out.

Yet, there is a voiceless minority group that might be actually offended by this anti-offense campaign. It is the group of dead artists whose artworks are being renamed.

Simon Maris, “Young Girl Holding a Fan,” circa 1900. Old title: “Young Negro-Girl.”

Simon Maris, “Young Girl Holding a Fan,” circa 1900. Old title: “Young Negro-Girl.”

Simon Maris made his name painting female portraits, and being a friend of Piet Mondrian.

At the time, black women were employed as domestic help or concubines, which was not hugely different from slavery. They were referred to as Negroes. They were being dehumanised by “scientists”, white elites, and common people. A year before the painting, Kipling’s The Burden of the White Man was published. Racism, that justified invasions and atrocities in “less developed countries”, was on the rise.

It was at this point that Maris painted a Negro-girl as a princess, bringing out her humanity for everyone to see.

It is not a young girl holding a fan. It is a brave statement that a Negro-girl is as beautiful, graceful, intelligent, and interesting as the most refined white lady.

I guess, Maris, and the girl he painted, would be deeply offended if they learned the title of the painting was changed to please…no, not “a million people deriving from colonial roots, from Suriname, from the Antilles, from Indonesia, and so on” of whom the curator pretends to care, but the curator herself.

Even though I can’t stop white liberal intellectuals in their pursuit of boasting to the world how liberal they are (no one, actually, can stop them), let me know if you agree or disagree with me on this particular case of liberalism mopping up [art] history. 

Cucumber up your art

Friends&Family know I love pickled cucumbers. My fav restaurants are aware of this character flaw and bribe me with an extra portion of pickles whenever I order a burger. Pickled cucumbers guarantee my loyalty, shut my eyes to poor service, and double sales of mineral water.

There was a single artist in history who had a similar infatuation with this vegetable, and I am sure he was not into its fresh variety because the colours he used to paint cucumbers appear rather pickled.

It was Carlo Crivelli, a Venetian-born artist of the 15th century.

He was a cheerful descendant of the Renaissance line fathered by Pisanello and Gentile da Fabriano, who, unlike Masaccio, didn’t care about humanistic ideas, focusing instead on truthful depiction of nature, and especially those bits of nature that make today’s hipster Instagrammers so hip with their snapshots of dead leaves, graffiti, and other hipsters taking pictures of graffiti and dead leaves.

Hipsters making hipster photos

Hipsters making hipster photos

It wouldn’t come as a surprise now that pre-Raphaelites, the hipsters of the 19th century, embraced Crivelli as a brother.

Carlo’s love for cucumbers is unique in art history. He understood that the beauty of cucumbers was not in the eye of the beholder, but in the contrast of its rough pimpled skin and irregular shape vs. the smooth and round forms of meaty leaves, apples, and marble floors.

DT1356 - копия

Madonna and Child — Carlo Crivelli, ca. 1480,

Yes. I know.

The giant fly in the left corner, which scares infant Jesus into bracing himself while protecting his bird, commands your undivided attention now, in the manner of an Italian driver holding you by the scruff of the neck after you’ve backed into his van.

Resist. Leave the fly where it is. It is not going to buzz away, and we are here to talk about cucumbers, OK?

The Metropolitan, which has the Madonna, say the cucumber is a symbol of redemption. Sorry, guys, but redemption is reserved after gourd, which looks like a pear-shaped pumpkin, unless it is molded into Chairman Mao or Buddha by its Chinese grower (it is all the rage in China right now, I am told):

Gourd

German art historians believe Crivelli used cucumber as a symbol of the male side of sin, with its female side contained in an apple.

Really? Hanging a cucumber as a Freudian symbol (long before Freud) off the garland right in front of Madonna’s face and not being burnt at the stake would be, I assume, an impossible achievement in Italy 550 years ago.

The problem is that no one seems to know what symbolic meaning Crivelli attached to cucumbers (or, as I am certain, pickled cucumbers).

Most of Renaissance symbolism is well-researched and widely known. Cherries stand for droplets of Jesus blood; pomegranate is the Church and its flock; buttercup means Christ and his future passions; and massive fruit & veggie garlands hint at agricultural achievements of Paradise gardeners who can do wonders without manure-based fertilisers and pesticides.

What about cucumbers?

Look at this Annunciation by my cucumber friend Carlo:

The_Annunciation,_with_Saint_Emidius_-_Carlo_Crivelli_-_National_Gallery

As we scan this painting, we are awed by its wonderful detail, amazing colours, and perspective perfect for exactly 50% of perspective (its depth is OK, but horizontally it ceases to exist). I love the scene with the Archangel, who is performing his most important duty in all of the New Testament, and is distracted by a saint who hopes to get a blessing for his construction project. Somehow, it is a very familiar situation.

And, as we get to the bottom, we can’t but frown at the cucumber there.

Somehow, the apple is OK. Adam, Eve, the original sin, it all fits the narrative. But a cucumber?

Let me blow it up for you, so that its wonderful detail can be appreciated in all its exquisite glory.

cucumber

What is its meaning?

One bit I am sure of, is that experts who believe it is a dick metaphor are dickheads. The myth of Crivelli’s cucumbers being related to the male end of the original sin appeared because of Crivelli himself. In Venice, he fell in love with a beautiful woman. Take a young Italian artist, add a beautiful woman, sprinkle it with Venetian atmosphere (remove the stench of canals first) and you get love potion you can sell to anyone any time. Carlo fell in love so hard that his Madonnas would have the face of his beloved thereon in. This story could have an ending similar to that of Filippo Lippi’s love affair with a nun if only Carlo’s sweetheart was not already married. That adultery cost Carlo six months in prison, banishment from Venice, and the myth about cucumbers for the next five centuries.

When this painting was exhibited in the Hermitage in St.Petersburg, their curator explained it as a symbol of paradise abundance. Why is then a single apple placed next to it? I doubt paradise menu is limited to these two food items. Instead, I see the Hermitage curator going like, “oh, my god, oh my god, this is a dick metaphor! Those religious fanatics won’t let the gallery show it! What shall I do? What shall I do? I need to invent something entirely different!”

A curator from the National Gallery in London, which is the Annunciation’s home base, asks a food expert about the cucumber meaning. The food expert offhandedly says the cucumber is the symbol of Christ, and apple stands for the Virgin. Yes, my jaw dropped too.

As I and Carlo are both cucumber enthusiasts, I am sure I can propose my own, undoubtedly correct, explanation for his cucumbers.

Five hundred years ago, the cucumber was associated with the image of the Virgin Mary. It implied that the Mother of Christ was never touched by sin. The idea originated from a passage from the prophet Isaiah: “And the daughter of Zion is like a booth in the a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city”.

A cucumber, populated by numerous seeds residing inside its thick “walls”, may indeed be seen as a metaphor for a besieged city. It’s a bit stretched but who wouldn’t struggle to come up with a symbol for a woman who had a child and stayed a virgin resisting all the temptations that might have been around?

That’s the reason a cucumber appears in the Madonna and Child painting, although the way it sits next to apples creates a very bizarre still life.

apples-cucumber

I don’t think apples here stand for the original sin either. There are three of them there and even though Christ was brought into this world to atone for the original sin (and a lot of other sins tailgating it) putting an apple into triplicate to drive a point seems a bit excessive, especially next to the symbol of the Virgin. Note that the apples are still attached to the branches (disregard the inconvenient fact that the cucumber grows on an apple tree: even Gregor Mendel would struggle to explain it).

It’s more likely and logical that the apples stand for wisdom, which people should respect but leave to Nobel Prize winners to pick. There’s wisdom in it too: I knew guys who hoped they could do six years of pure math and not become decidedly potty in the process. Ha! This kind of wisdom takes no prisoners.

The Annunciation cucumber is more complicated.

cucumber

It slips out of the frame into our world. It is possible that Carlo did it to flaunt his painterly skills, of course, but I don’t think it was his sole intention. He was very careful about symbolism and wouldn’t waste a whole cucumber to boost his vanity.

The Virgin sits behind an iron-barred window. This makes a cucumber, as a besieged city metaphor, quite appropriate here but…placing it on the floor ruins the hypothesis. No one dared to throw symbols of divine entities on the floor. Never.

You only throw sins beneath your feet. And sins indeed are the alternative, and more fitting, interpretation of the cucumber and the apple.

Let’s begin with the cucumber.

When the Israelites were in the desert, they preferred to eat cucumbers rather than manna sent from Heaven. It’s not a figment of my imagination, it’s the Bible:

The Israelites complained (Numbers 11:4-6): “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.” 

Thus, cucumber became associated with perdition, or final and irrevocable spiritual ruin, resulting from rejection of God and His gifts. Was this tiny bit of the Scripture well-known or relevant to Crivelli? And why didn’t he use watermelons, onions, or garlic (it could guard the painting against vampires as well)? My hypothesis is simple. Carlo was a vegetarian. Out of the list of vegetables in the paragraph above only cucumbers represent something that can make you sated. Cucumbers were the only “real food” on that menu. Crivelli awareness of the story might have been additionally supported by the fact that Christian vegetarians have often used manna to justify their claim that God never intended man to eat meat. This made the story top-of-mind for Carlo.

In this context the apple next to the cucumber stands for the original sin (we can’t do much about it because of Eve), and the cucumber, as a symbol of perdition, becomes logically protruding into our world (avoiding irrevocable spiritual ruin is indeed in our own hands).

Crivelli doesn’t just decorate his painting with symbolic stuff, he sends out a coded message, a motivational prep talk that, given the meaning of the cucumber and apple, can be reduced to: “Do not reject God who once came into this world to atone for your sins.”

Bingo!

We all know that love can do miracles. It can heal wounds… save lives… help to explain art history mysteries (if it is love for cucumbers, of course). So, spread the word, love pickles, and tell me if your feelings are changed next time you bite a cucumber!