Tag Archives: Portrait

Not a good painter, but a great artist

This autumn, the National Gallery in London hosts Goya: the Portraits, a show which preparation spanned a whole decade.

As you start looking at Goya’s portraits, a terrible realisation hits you like a ton of bricks. Goya was not a good painter, in the classical sense.

He was so bad with colour nuances that his seated men look like men whose legs were cut in half. He could rarely separate an object from the background and most of his characters look like cut-outs pasted on a background painted by an amateur theatre decorator. His attempts to add depth by mixing colours of the background and the garment of his sitter are appalling.

Here are a few examples of his failings:


Yet, he was a great artist.

To judge Goya by the standards of classical realism is like…judging Einstein by spelling errors in his thesis on the theory of relativity.

Goya was a prophet. He foresaw the new levels of inhumane cruelty that would blast the world apart a hundred years later. He felt that the time was coming when Man would become a suicidal mass murderer. He drew the WWI and WWII a hundred years before tanks and gas chambers were invented.

I understand there was no space for it, but if I curated the exhibition, I would show at least some of his Disasters of War to remind people of his greatness that exists beyond his career as a court painter.

But even if he never produced his haunting images, he would still be a great painter. His radical inventiveness might have come from his desire to hide his lack of painterly skill, but it doesn’t make his innovativeness any less seminal.

He brough the genre of Reclining Nude to a new high by replacing nudity with nakedness in his Nude Maja. It was not just about the body. It was about transforming women from a passive object of male desire into an active party in negotiating a sexual situation.

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He then created the concept of eroticism that is still in use today with this reclining girl:


A note to my male readers. If a woman has never thrown herself at you, you may experience the feeling standing in front of this painting. Beware! She is also so innocent that when you catch her, you’d feel an immediate urge to propose.

Would you care then that the cover on the bed could be painted somewhat better? There were hundreds of classical artists all across Europe at the time, but you wouldn’t want to propose to any of their nudes or semi-dressed girls. In ten minutes, you wouldn’t even remember what they looked like.

Again, his nudes were not his major achievement as a painter. I began with them because I hoped they’d motivate you to read further on.

His most important contribution was the introduction of an artist’s attitude to the sitter as an essential element of portraiture. He was honest with his sitters, showing their faces with all the defects, wrinkles, and after-stroke consequences, and he was honest about his feelings towards them.

This makes his portraits alive and speaking to or even conversing with the modern observer. Not all of them, of course, because we are generally very selective about people we want and like to talk to, but regardless of how picky you are, you can find your perfect mate among the 70 portraits currently on show at the National Gallery.

Goya’s sitters have been dead for two centuries already, but their types live on.

A wise man who wants to make the world a better place and knows the recipe? To whose ideas the world resists (which is normal) and creates in the man a melancholic attitude?

Meet Mr Jovellanos, portrayed in 1798.


We can skip the symbolism of Minerva (she’s a retired goddess anyway) and, having appreciated the melancholic pose of the portrayed (who wouldn’t get stressed out by so much paperwork?), focus on the face:

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The guy is talking to us. Goya captured one of his words in mid-air. He may be tired, but he is still interested to know the observer’s (or, rather, the listener’s) thoughts on the subject he is talking about.

Perhaps, he is explaining why he hates wigs, and that the man’s fundamental freedom to wear his hair the way he wants it should be respected by the king? We don’t know. Appropriate this wise guy and make your own story.

Or, if you want to meet a man of action, here’s your hero, Mr Saavedra.


The man’s impatience is conveyed by his pose and the camp table that can be folded and moved any moment now. There are only a few sheets of paper on it. The sitter is not a man of many letters, but of much action.

I have to note that many observers go dizzy about the way the chair, the legs of the table and those of the sitter are arranged, wondering if Mr Saavedra may require assistance to disentangle himself, but, as I said at the beginning, the composition Goya had chosen for this portrait might simply have exceeded his abilities to paint it.

Eight legs are difficult to handle, but it is not an important (albeit funny) part of this painting. It’s the sitter’s eyes, his gaze, which is inexplicably intense and serene at the same time, that makes him into an archetypal action hero.

Or, perhaps, you don’t care for wise or action men, and want someone to share you passion for arts and music?

I have a buddy for you. The Marquis of Villafranca.


This man could become a second (or first) Casanova, but he’d chosen music as his passion. He is wealthy, but modest (his hat is quite ordinary). He is sporty (note the riding boots) but cultured (he leans on a piano). He’s got great legs and tender hands.

And the way he looks back to the observer still sends crowds swooning.

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You can imagine how many more friends there are in this show to choose from.

Goya brought his love, respect, adoration, and sometimes hate of the sitter into his paintings.

A modern man may wonder why an artist would want paint a portrait of someone he detests. That’s the downside of being a court painter who is obliged to paint his king.

So, here is my warning to you:

As I was standing yesterday in front of his official portrait of King Ferdinand, the tyrant who came to power after the French were finally kicked out of Spain, I was overwhelmed with a desire to kick first his knee, then his groin, and when he would have bent over with pain, his face. My murderous intent was so strong, I wondered if the National Gallery should place a couple of armed guards in front of this painting. I am afraid there bound to be a visitor who may not have the nerve to hold back.


Ferdinand VII was a bastard, metaphorically and literally. His mother confessed on her deathbed that none of her children were conceived by her husband, the king. Ferdinand was selfish, vengeful, dishonest, and, above all, dumb, which made him exceptionally cruel to his people, friends and enemies, both real and imaginary. He bankrupted his country and left it in the throes of a civil war upon his death. Well worth kicking in the groin, if you ask me.

I can’t recommend to skip, to walk past this portrait because it shows how innovative Goya could be when he had strong feelings towards his subject.

The embroidery on the king’s cape is pure abstract expressionism. In fact, it is so expressive it can be a painting in its own right. The royal symphony of pure reds, golds and silvers is poisoned by streaks of pure black that represent the chaotic and toxic character of the king better than a wikipedia article on him.

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So if you decide to go to Goya: the Portraits show at the National Gallery in London, leave all sharp objects at home for you might be tempted to use them on a painting.

Besides, there’s a bag search at the entrance.

Mental chair for Sunday evening

I have already quoted Matisse once on his idea of art providing a “mental chair” to the observer, but here it is, shown in all its glory in a small painting of a reclining woman (1946).


What’s unusual about it?

The woman is taken from above, as if Matisse were hovering over her with his easel. The perspective is twisted so much the room resembles a capsule or a cocoon. The girl is totally relaxed: look at the way Matisse painted her legs.

She appears to be both lying down and flying with the chair cover becoming her wings.

Do you recall Cezanne’s theorem that everything is made of cyliners, pyramids, balls and boxes? Matisse says, at least in this painting, that everything’s built mostly of hearts, a blue box and a black square.

And if the hearts are more or less an obvious though sentimental choice, what’s the role of the black box (linked to the chair by the red border)? And what about the space of green and yellow dots that resembles a field with flowers behind the chair?

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Is it a door to this warped room of calm soaring? A black square that the observer can use to come and leave?

And what about the plant that resembles a birdview of a palm tree? It does help to build up the flying sensation, but was it its sole purpose?

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Any ideas? I’d love to hear what you think.

Best portraits, or twenty synonyms of gloom

If you are too happy and need to rev down the engine a bit, visit the BP Portrait Award Exhibition in London. That’s the place that will bring you down to normality. Otherwise (that is, if your happiness gauge is not stuck in the heart-endangering zone) it will just make you miserable.

I am telling you why in a bit.

it is an international juried show, which means there’s a group of art experts who sift through a ton of anonymous submissions to choose a few dozen portraits that are cream of the cream. The best there is to savour in the portrait department of fine arts. At least, that’s the idea.

The real outcome of this sophisticated selection process makes me think that if this jury were dealing with criminals, first-degree murderers would walk free, and first-time pot smokers would be sent to the gallows.

Adepts of conspiracy theories may jump at “BP” in the show’s title. Perhaps, British Petroleum pays for this travesty because polluting the environment is not enough for these guys anymore. Too trivial, you know. Poisoning culture is way more exciting.

A good half of the portraits in this show seem to have been made with a single purpose: prove that a man can do no worse than an ink-jet photo printer. The picture below is not a photograph. This is a portrait that won the 2nd prize.

Eliza by Michael Gaskell,copyright of the artist

Eliza by Michael Gaskell, (с) artist

Indistinguishable from a quality photo. A single man can do no worse than a Canon camera and an HP printer combined. Mission accomplished? Wait, perhaps, this is not all there is to this portrait?  Let’s hear the artist out.

‘I hope this painting conveys a sense of Eliza’s [the artist’s niece] growing confidence as she develops into a woman’, says Gaskell, ‘but retains some of the self-consciousness which was also present at the time.’

OK, I know that verbal statements of visual artists should never be taken at face value. Still.

Did she lose her self-consciousness when she became a woman? Is this something common to a lot of women that an individual case is relevant to an audience wider than this particular girl? And how do I know that she develops into a woman? I am not sure the approach of Balthus is appropriate when portraying an underage relative, but a sign, a marker of adolescence would be appreciated.

The painter said he was influenced by Hans Memling (whom I adore) and the Jury somehow decided that it’s rather Vermeerish. I find this faux art-history game of influences cute, but just don’t see how it makes it a great portrait. A lot of artists were influenced by Memling, with Paul Gauguin, perhaps, known to have been hit the strongest. But it was not the fact of Memling’s influence that made him great.

Indeed, Memling often used dark backgrounds, a similar turn of the head, a similarly exposed neck and forehead (along with a thousand other artists), but his girls would normally  look a bit lower than Elize because they were portrayed praying on the side of a large religious piece. They would be somber and still, contemplating their lives, sins, and virtues in the presence of the real Madonna, their earthly beauty made all the more authentic and striking by the celestial glory they were witnessing.

If Elize’s growing confidence (confidence in what, actually?) was the real objective of the painting, why is she averting her eyes from the artist? Confident people don’t button up their shirts all they way up, and they show interest in the outside world. Confident people are curious, interested in their environment. If confidence was the subject of the painting, it was replaced by ordinary dullness.

Now, the first prize.


Annabelle and Guy by Matan Ben Cnaan, (c) the artist

The observer is pinned down by the pensive stare of the girl, who put her hand on the man’s shoulder who stares intensively wide of the observer, while his hand touches the back of his dog who got fixated on something off to the left. The sun, the gravel, the ruin at the back speak volumes of the rugged character  of the group.

Does it make me interested to learn more about these two people and their dog? Probably, yes, even though I find the painting strained, unnatural and affected. You can see the same effects in group photographs that take too much time to set up, if the photographer forgets to ask for a group “cheese!”.

What do I learn about them next? According to the NPG,

“this allegorical portrait is partly inspired by the biblical story of Jephthah, an Israelite judge who vowed to God that in return for victory over the Ammonites he would sacrifice the first thing that greets him upon his return from battle. To his horror it is his daughter who rushes out in welcome but he upholds his vow and sacrifices his child. At the centre of the portrait, located close to the artist’s home in Israel’s Jezreel Valley, is his friend Guy and step-daughter Annabelle.”

The jury must be joking. How does an incorrectly translated ancient Jewish myth about a guy who would be locked up as a schizophrenic today become the most relevant artistic achievement in contemporary portraiture?

The third prize went to a gloomy couple too.

My Mother and My Brother on a Sunday Evening by Borja Buces Renard, (c) the artist

The NPG says the artist has painted his mother Paloma and his brother Jaime in the living room of his parents’ house on a typical Sunday when the family would gather and talk. It’s great the artist’s brother would pass as John the Baptist’s double. His hands signal he is reserved, composed, and somewhat closed for business at the moment. It is also, I believe, important that the artist’s mother seems to have an expressive personality (her hands again), but looks tired and reliant upon her poker-faced son.

Perhaps the artist could shed a bit of light on how and why watching them watching me is supposed to make me go ballistic emotionally, for a prize-winner, I guess, is meant to do it.

The artist says, “‘Making this weekly event slowly disappear, I wanted to portray this emotion in my painting, with the image of my father missing and that difficult time for all of us, especially for my mum whom had dedicated herself to taking care of him. Our living room, in which we all spent many evenings together was the place that would best capture that moment.”

OK, it is a family that is about to suffer a tragic loss, and there’s also the last moment of them separating for a week, but – regardless of how compassionate the observer is – what is the emotion in this painting? Quiet tiredness? But was it worth the paint to paint quiet tiredness? I am not sure.

The Judges’ verdict was very different from the artist’s intentions. They said, ‘We were drawn to the intensity of the relationship depicted between this couple, which was assumed to be that of mother and son. There was much admiration for the loose, unfinished quality of the painting.’

Come on, guys, if you admire loose, unfinished qualities of paintings go see Nikolai Feshin, a Russian-American painter of the last century. His portraits are much more intense in terms of colour conflicts, and the way he sculpts his subjects. Compared to him, your third-prize winner is a second-grade student.


A healer from Taos by Nikolai Feshin – a fragment

Now, I won’t be showing you the remaining dozens of bleak faces, and uninspiring bodies. There was one portrait in the show that was great, and it was this:


The History Men: Dr Thomas Rohkrämer and Dr Kay Schiller by Milan Ivanic, 2014 © Milan Ivanic

These are two history professors, talking.

The artist says: ‘I couldn’t follow the conversation: what I could do was to draw them, and respond to the intensity of the conversation.’

And that’s exactly what he did, but in a way that makes the observer want to join or to listen to what the two sage men have to say. Look how the spectacles of the professor on the right side lit up in response to what is being said, and created an intense light spot against the purple background, which is dark but not gloomy. Look at the complexity of folds in the shirt of the professor on the left side that goes against the smooth and cheerful surface of the other professor’s shirt. Look at their glasses on the table: very different yet attracted to each other.

All these “details” create an atmosphere you want to join, you want to bathe in. That is, of course, unless you didn’t storm out of the gallery in search of a decent psychiatrist by the time you get to this painting.

Speaking of psychiatry, there is a case that the Judges better report to a medical professional before it is too late.

Rebekkah by Sara Berman, 2014 © Sara Berman, Oil on canvas

Rebekkah by Sara Berman, 2014 © Sara Berman, Oil on canvas

This is a self-portrait. You know what the artist says?

The self-portrait is by one of the artist’s alter egos, Rebekkah. Berman says of the work: ‘I am interested in self and identity, particularly the spaces we occupy both physically and psychically. Rebekkah is wearing one of her favourite jumpers. It was the jumper that inspired the portrait.’

Is her jumper really that important that it deserves a portrait? Well, I think Sara Berman, aka Rebecca, is lying. She was not inspired by her jumper. She was informed by Matisse and inspired by the multiple personalities residing in her head.

Unlike this artist, Matisse was not painting people with multiple-personality disorders. He portrayed integral individuality, i.e.people who can be calm and composed (the yellow side of Delectorskaya) or cheerful and explosive (her blue side), with the differently styled hair being an extra symbol of this. Matisse could use red in the eye (Mme Matisse), but the objective was bigger than just to show a lack of sleep.


Picasso said, famously, that stealing from other artists to create something totally new is OK. It is borrowing from them that’s not productive.

And, in fact, there is so much “borrowing” in the show, that it is depressing. Not because the portraits are all doom and gloom, but because no innovation can be found. No new styles, no new ideas.

For me, this portrait (that’s the last one for today) was the highlight for this point:


Portrait of Esta Sexton aged 12 by Paul P. Smith, 2014 © Paul P. Smith

The artists’ idea was simple: he wanted to capture the final months of the young woman’s childhood as she grew into adolescence. He says: ‘Technically, I wanted to paint something colourful, but with the warm colours in the foreground and the cooler tones in the background.’

Forget that the artist here is talking like a child, and seems to be waging the old battle with a printer. The real sin here is that he borrows from Matisse, Van Gogh, and Balthus without adding anything novel or exciting. At least I don’t see it. Perhaps, someone could point it out to me? Don’t mention the flower in the hands of the girl though, a picked flower is such an obvious symbol, I feel awkward for the artist who employs it in a scene about adolescence and womanhood.

Balthus was the artist who said it all about “growing into adolescence”. He often used side lighting that would crawl over the body like a paedophile’s hand, highlighting the budding sexuality of his subject. His girls would often have a similar demure look on their faces as if saying, “I long for something, but I don’t know what it is yet”. And there would always be a sign of this mystery. Here, it is the curtain that’s half-pulled aside, with the deep shadow that’s hiding behind it (adult life) and the shoes that are the bright, innocent and cheerful spot symbolic of the life of a child. The shoes would soon become too tight for the girl.  Did Paul P Smith add something new to our understanding of adolescence expressed by Balthus? I think not.

A Saia Branca (The White Skirt) 1937 oil on canvas 130 x 162 cm Private Collection

A Saia Branca (The White Skirt) by Balthus, 1937

Matisse used background/foreground contrast to create a conflict reflecting the personality (or at least his idea of personality) of his subject, as well as to bring out the important bits of the portrait (with the face, obviously, being the focus most of the time).


And yes, the whole composition is very…vangoghish.

portrait-of-père-tanguy-1888But Van Gogh was not about “something colourful” for the sake of colour. He was carefully choosing colours to express both the character and his attitude to the character and would link them up in the eye of the portrayed. Yes, each and every colour used by Van Gogh in a portrait can be found in the eye.


Read more on Van Gogh’s portraits here.

I am not saying Paul Smith’s portrait is bad. It is good. It is just not museum quality that I would expect from a major juried show.

So my big question is, have great innovative artists decided to stay away from the exhibition or it is the jury that threw them out?

What do you think?

Corporate Utopia

Rembrandt is more often compared to writers than painters. He has been likened to Shakespeare in England and Dostoyevsky in Russia for his explores of human character under extreme strain and stress, be it a brush with death or burial under cornucopia’s gifts. That might be true, but for me he is more of a philosopher with prophetic insights into the social order that would flourish many centuries later.

He craved for recognition when he was young, and for money, when he got recognised and bankrupt. At the time, group portraits were as good a commission in the protestant Amsterdam as an altarpiece in Rome, so the order from the Textile Guild was a godsend.


This is a group portrait of the so-called syndics of the cloth merchants’ guild, or people who ruled the textile trade in the Netherlands, using the subtle tools of quality control. They were a powerful group intricately linked to the Republican government that, at the outset, allowed them to oust British textile makers from the market, and at the end, let them exercise a lot of control over the government itself. I can easily see a modern EU bureaucrat in this role.

The first impression from this painting is that the syndics have assembled for their regular meeting. No. Syndics were never getting together for meetings or board presentations. Each of them was elected for one year, and had to come three times a week to the guild hall, one by one, to certify the quality of fabrics presented for inspection. I guess that saved a lot of budget: something modern EU commissions might like to copy. Each syndic paid for his own portrait within this group, as was the custom, so Rembrandt, having learned his lesson from the Nightwatch the hard way (when some of the unfavourably portrayed watch members declined to cash up), gave each of them the representation beyond what they deserved, or could even hope for.

To put it simply, Rembrandt created a portrait of the utopian corporate board. You don’t see such boards in the real life, but each board hopes to be as close to this ideal as possible.

Three of the syndics are watching you, the observer, with the other two eyeing up something to the left of you. If you look at the way the figures are lit, you’d realise it is not the light coming from the window on the left, it must be some large opening, like a big door that you’d left open when you entered.

Now, how does the board react to you and your news, idea, or proposal?

Each of the board members has his own “character”:



They are all different, but Rembrandt makes them united by grouping them around the table that gives off welcoming red warmth as if a fireplace, and by horizontal lines in the wood panelling.

Each of them brings in an ingredient without which a corporation is likely to collapse, but with all of them together, it is destined to prosper. Why? Because it reacts to challenges both effectively and efficiently, just as a management textbook of the 21st century would prescribe:

LogicThe only problem is that such boards do not exist: stupidity, and greed inevitably get in the way.


Does sex sell?

When it comes to the beauty of a female body, many painters say the key to success in winning the battle against photography is nakedness, eroticism, and sex seasoned with glamour. Art galleries are jam-packed with paintings and collages celebrating fast cars, full lips, cup D size breasts. This desperate idea (that pornography can beat photography) is substantiated by the claim that while a photographed nude can sell only if it was signed by Helmut Newton, a painted nude is Art regardless of who painted it, so it can be sold to anyone not allergic to paint chemicals.

I could agree with this opinion, with a one-word reservation. It is the key to success for bad artists.

A good artist does not have to paint a naked body to send his male audience into blissful contemplation culminating in cash transactions. On the contrary, men have been intimidated into believing their interest in nakedness is immoral, and even a greatly executed nude (unless it was signed by Lucien Freud) is likely to be collecting dust in the gallery’s storeroom.

I don’t blame feminism for this depreciation of the Reclining Nude (even when she’s not actually reclining). Art critics have done more harm to the genre than all the feminists combined.

John Berger, one of the most influential art critics and thinkers (most BBC presenters tend to become icons at some point) should be the prime suspect in the dock for discrediting the beauty of a naked woman. He never hesitated to cut and then interpret artworks to fit his marxist theories.

In his book Ways of Seeing, he used the head of Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque as a proof that the glamorous pin-up culture of the 1970s (very modern at the time) was keeping up with the quincentenary tradition of showcasing nudes for the carnal pleasures of male observers: he wrote that both pics were showing women posing “with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her—although she doesn’t know him”.


Illustration from Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Poor Ingres must have turned in his grave the moment the book was published.

The Odalisque, in its full form, is detached from the viewer by smoking whatever substance she was enjoying before Louvre visitors started taking pics in front of her.

Source. I am happy for the girl in the photo, for if she likes this painting, she'd never become a hardline feminist.

I am happy for the beautiful girl in the photo, for if she likes this painting, she’d never become a hardline feminist who contemplates art history through the black lens of “unjust male dominance”.

Her half-turned head shows a moment’s distraction, not full attention. I mean the Odalisque’s head.

You, the observer, might have stirred her curiosity. Not because you’re a man she doesn’t know and wants to charm. There’s only one man who can take her, and it is her sultan. Are you the sultan? Are you a sultan? No? Well then you must be one of the eunuchs, because if you are not, you are very likely to become one sooner than you can prove yourself to be a true gentleman by saying, “Oh, excuse me, sir, I must have dropped my spectacles somewhere around here”.

A French mind of the 19th century saw an Odalisque as a beauty one can only enjoy at a distance, but can never enjoy physically. Of course artists were exploiting this theme to create titillating erotic images that would sell like fresh baguettes at the time, but Ingres was not one of them. He wouldn’t distort the woman’s body as much as he did (adding three vertebrae at the bottom), were he intent on creating cheap thrills for his viewers.

But even if we assume that she was painted as a courtesan in odalisque disguise, we can’t say she’s looking back with calculated charm. She is so damn used to men looking at her body that she doesn’t care about “looks” anymore. Show me the money first. We’d talk seductive looks later.

I can offer Mr Berger a much better head and body. The Russian Alternative, if you want, even though art historians may argue that Leon Bakst spent more of his “productive” time in France than in Russia and is, therefore, a French artist. The lady, to whom you are about to be introduced, is also a perfect example of the Dressed Nude: a sexually arousing image without a single naked body.

This is the head of the woman from Leon Bakst’s painting, “The Dinner” of 1902.


Bakst’s lady, just like the girl in the photograph, challenges the viewer with direct and intense eye-to-eye contact.

Bakst’s lady has more clothes on. And yet, she’s much more seductive, especially if we look at the full picture. A good artist doesn’t just give you a sexy body to gawk at: he offers you the beginning of a story for which you can create your own climax.

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Some observers fail to immediately notice a vacant chair at the bottom; along with the fact that the table is set for one more person. The inattentive blame the busy top half of the painting. It is not so much busy as distracting. It is about blunt flirtation with the eyes and the smile, and undisguised seduction with a push-up bra, which makes her breasts rhyme with the voluminous oranges. Those oranges beg to be taken. The breast-orange pun is obviously intended: her outstretched arms become a visual aid for those, whose observation power is paralysed by the low neck of her dress.


The folded fan in her hand is something that could make Freud’s bogey go boogie with excitement (it’s Zigmund this time).

I first wondered why Bakst chose oranges over apples that are instantly associated with sin, sexuality, and temptation.

No. That would be trite.

Comparison of apples to breasts was so common in art history, it became a bad-taste cliché when Cranach the Elder passed the torch to Cranach the Younger. Bakst must have opted for oranges, because he wanted to exclude the Adam-Eve associations (the flower of the lady’s innocence had been bruised long before she was seen dining, and the observer doesn’t look like an embarrassed Adam either), and because apples are consumed as is, while an orange has to be peeled first. I don’t have to add, “just like the lady in question”, but here you are, I said it.

And yet, were the idea here limited to a direct juxtaposition of oranges and breasts, the painting would slide down to a banal poem of two lines rhyming “bosom” and “awesome”.

Bakst’s Dinner (1908) goes beyond the trite two-liner, quadrupling it into a full-blown promise of sex.

Quadrants4Note how the lower parts of her figure are partially obstructed by layers of table cloth that is painted just like the skin of an orange. The artist indeed mixes orange with ochre to paint the stripe separating the vacant seat and the woman.

To cut the long story short:


The famous marketing model (today seen as outdated) that describes the workings of advertising as AIDA (awareness, interest, desire, action) was introduced by a US guy a few years before this painting was completed, and I seriously doubt the painter was aware of it. Yet, he came up with basically the same model.

This painting is a great example of creating an involving sex-story without showing any nudes. Bakst could go with a high-neck gown without rendering the picture less sensuous.

PS The small detail I also like about this painting is that the face is done in somewhat “mute” manner. It is not detailed, or specific, or exact and leaves space for imagination: the observer himself can “paint” the blueprint of the face the artist gives us in a variety of ways. 

PPS Having visited an amazing exhibition of Renoir in Martigni today, I feel it’s time to talk more about nude paintings, tracing the genre’s history from Giorgione to Ingres, Renoir, Degas and beyond. It is time to win back the Nude genre.


Forgotten wedding fashion

“Honey, let’s talk about a metastable allotrope of carbon”
“What?! Now?! I couldn’t care less about it!”
“Good-good… So a diamond wedding ring goes off the list…”

The wedding ring is an important symbol of love (both are endless, at least at the start), bonding, and financial status of the new family.

Wedding rings also signal to others that their owners are wed. There are people who believe it is the rings’ most needed function.

Challenge your man if he can take off his ring with one hand while his hand is in his own pocket, and if he’s doing it fast and easy, start talking to your divorce lawyers.

In the 19th century, as I discovered at a temporary exhibition hosted by the Hermitage (in St.Petersburg), women were wearing wedding bracelets as well. These bracelets would have a portrait of their beloved husband. If you read my post on the differences between enamel miniatures and photographs, you’d realise how excited I was to see this portrait.

Gavriil Yakovlev, Portrait of Julia Telyakova in evening dress, 1848

Gavriil Yakovlev, Portrait of Julia Telyakova in evening dress, 1848

Let’s do a close up onto her arms:

Enamel miniature bracelet

The wedding bracelet doesn’t just signal to the viewer that she’s married, it also announces she’s married to a very attractive young officer whose gauntlet will be thrown at you on a slightest suspicion of you being improperly gallant towards the wearer.

Would you wear such a bracelet as a wedding ring? Do you think this fashion can be revived? 

Tiny big love

We take thousands of photographs. 32GBs are barely enough to hold the most recent stock of them. We are holding them tight, but…we don’t come back to them. I am not saying we don’t look at them, occasionally, or rather the most recent ones.

We certainly know the photographs are there, inside those memory chips inside our phones or computers. Pictures of folks we love; people who might get offended unless we took a photo of them; and places we think other people are desperate to see shared. We may even thumb through the pics while travelling on the Tube or suffering through an especially boring business meeting. But we don’t get back to these people, or inside those moments. The thumb (or is it the index finger?) keeps sliding through them with the rhythm of a dejected masturbator.

It’s like having a huge library, but never reading a single book: just looking at the neat rows of their spines.

Yet, there was an art, now lost, that was capturing images in a more meaningful way.

It was the art of enamel miniature.

Yes, like this:


Count Orlov was a lover of the Russian Empress (the 18th c). Count Stroganov (early 19th c) introduced the game of chess with live people as chess pieces in Russia.

You may think you can take a photograph, size it down to an oval holder and get yourself a proper miniature? No, the secret to enamel miniature is the process of how it is created. Once you know it (and clients who ordered miniature portraits would usually be enlightened by the maker), you’d never be able to look at it the way you look at photographs.

This process is very much like building a relationship.

First, there must be a foundation, a solid background on which it is built. “I kinda really luv u” texted as a declaration of love is just not good enough. People refer to this “foundation” as deep love, or love mixed up with respect, or profound feelings coupled with other psychological needs (stir, do not mix), but in enamel craftsman’s terms it is taking a copper plate (or gold!), cleaning it, calcinating it in hydrochloric acid, drying it up, and enameling the back of it. This counter-enameling process helps to prevent a possible change of shape in the future, a change that could produce cracks on the face of the plate.

It is not all, though.

Muffle furnace

Muffle furnace

The front of the plate is then covered by the first layer of white enamel mixed with water. It is then put into a special drying cabinet. After it dries up, it is fired in a muffle furnace at 700-800C. At this temperature level, it doesn’t matter if I use Fahrenheit or Celsius. Anything gets fried up at this heat level.

And then the last step is repeated two more times, after which the front of the plate becomes smooth and ready to be painted on.

It takes a lot of time and effort, but we want the relationship end-product to last, don’t we?

To begin painting we need the right kind of brush, which has to be made of hair taken from an ermine’s tail. I don’t know what sounds an ermine emits when hair is pulled out of its tail, but I know just how noisy animal-rights activists can be about it.


Lady with the Ermine, by Leonardo da Vinci

This Lady with the Ermine by Leonardo, according to the latest findings of researchers in Krakow (where it is permanently exhibited), is in fact comforting the ermine after da Vinci harvested its tail for material.

For centuries this obvious explanation has eluded art historians: the mistress of the Duke of Milano tells the artist, “People say I am committing the sin of adultery, but you’ll be double damned for what you did to my ermine”.

Thusly shamed Leonardo abandoned the idea, and the art of enamel portraiture lost its potentially greatest artist.  PETA is rumoured to consider making this lady their honorary founder.

Now that we’ve got the perfect brush, we need the right paints, and for this we’d need some chemical knowledge and a lot of patience.

Different paints get “baked” at different temperatures and they also change colour after work is completed and put in the furnace for final fixing.

Yep, no marriage is easy, for spouses may change in unpredictable ways under stress. Managing the relationship through heat and frost is the chemistry of marriage. Next time someone points at a middle-aged couple holding hands and says, “Look, they’ve got some chemistry between them”, you’d know the couple simply knows when to turn off the heat and what to expect if the fire gets hotter. “Know thy partner’s firing levels” could have made a great eleventh commandment.

We’d need oxides of different metals first. Copper oxide gives green, cobalt yields blue, iron is red, and tin is, yes, white. If we add gold to ferro-oxide, we’d have cardinal purple.

Finding metallic oxides may not be easy, unless you live in the Detroit area, with lots of scrap metal lying around, just like Bob Dylan whose lifetime passion is making gates our of found broken car parts:

Exhibition of gates welded by Dylan from scrape metal. These are the kind of heavenly doors that are not easy to knock on, given that they cost a few hundred thousand pounds/euro/dollars.

Exhibition of gates welded by Dylan from scrape metal. These are the kind of heavenly doors that are not easy to knock on, given that they cost a few hundred thousand pounds/euro/dollars.

The oxides that we shave off scrape metal are mixed with lavender oil and turpentine. Do not attempt to buy all of these ingredients all together: the store manager may think you’re building a bomb, police would raid your premises the next day, and even though they won’t find any bomb, they’d find ermine hair. Cruelty to animals is not necessarily better nowadays than building a bomb.

We then put our paints in an open furnace and wait until the oil is vaporized.

Ok. We are ready to begin!

Remember though we first have to use paints that have the highest temperature of fusion or melting. We then put the medallion in the furnace, bake it, and start painting it again (after it cools down of course). This process need to be repeated for almost each and every paint, that is, colour.

If you have ever had a prolonged argument with your wife or husband about something, that is the process when arguments are laid on the table, then cool down for a day, then new arguments appear out of the blue, and left steaming for a few more days, and then… no, she or he says, “This is far from being over yet!”

Oh, remember that paints change colour after baking, so you need to know that red may turn out violet, making a bonny face the victim of strangulation.

When everything is painted and baked, the portrait is covered by another later of transparent enamel and, yes, you guessed right: it’s put in the furnace again.

At each step of this complex process, even a minor mistake or a tiny speck of dust can utterly ruin the whole job.

If you are fortunate, you get not just a portrait, but a monument to your memories and feelings.

It is tiny, can be hanged on the neck, can be worn as a talisman in the pocket, but it is a formidable anchor for your memory.

Enamel masters have always been rare. If you live in the UK, you must have heard of Nicholas Hilliard (1547 — 1619) or Jean Petitot (1607 – 1691), for they left some important miniature portraits that no history book with pictures can escape publishing.

My favourite Hilliard is this romantic, pre-Raphaelite man, painted 300 years before pre-Raphaelites.


What I like about Petitot is that he died a happy man, while painting a miniature portrait of his beloved wife.

Today, there is only a handful of true enamel miniature masters who still do the job properly, and if you are lucky to find one of them, remember, prices start from $1000 (600 pounds) for a simple study. It may be well worth a wasted terabyte of photos, but it is sufficiently expensive to warrant attention to whom and what exactly you want to have immortalised. At the very least, do not ask the miniaturist to draw from a photo.