Wednesday, December 28, 2016

283. Julia Domna Stolen and Found

Recently, Julia Domna was in the news.

In May of this year, Christie's in Amsterdam was offered for sale a statue with the head of Julia Domna. As the experts were suspicious, the firm's lawyer contacted the Art Squad of the Italian police, and it was found out that the statue was stolen from Hadrian's villa in Tivoli, probably after the last time it had been on display in 2012. Earlier in December, it has been returned by the Dutch police. Amsterdam police say two people were arrested and charged with theft and trying to sell the sculpture.

The History Blog reported on this, and published a few images of the statue.

Julia Domna, 2nd C. (Hadrian's Villa)
The History Blog wrote:

The auction house cooperated with the investigation, suspending the sale so the Art Squad and the Dutch police could work together to research the head. In addition to confirming the true origin of the object, the joint investigation identified two Dutch citizens who were illegally in possession of the statue head. Armed with all the evidence, the police confiscated the portrait and returned it to representatives of the Carabinieri Art Squad. It will be kept with authorities in Rome while the legal case proceeds. When it’s all over, Julia Domna will go back to Hadrian’s Villa with all her family members.

The Vale Press published Michael Field's play about Julia Domna in 1903. It contained an illustrated border page with the beginning of the text, but no illustration of Julia Domna herself. Ricketts rarely did the obvious thing.

However, there are two other women on this border page.

Charles Ricketts, 'Vesta', in Michael Field, Julia Domna (1903)
The first one is the goddess Vesta, a statue of Vesta in her temple, veiled, and her eyes closed.

The second one is Medusa, with snakes in her hair and around her neck.

Charles Ricketts, 'Medusa', in Michael Field, Julia Domna (1903)
Ricketts has followed the traditional iconography of Medusa, but his rendering of Vesta is less conventional, including some oval shaped clouds and a monumental background that looks like a stage set. Apparently, Ricketts thought it necessary to include her name in the illustration. The name has been written on a banner, although there are only four letters, not five, as the T and A have been drawn as a ligature.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

282. The Prodigal Son

The third number of The Dial, the magazine edited by Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts, contained a 'Personal Note' that was most likely written by Ricketts:

“Poems Dramatic and Lyrical” The plate facing page 200 and appearing to illustrate the poem “The Prodigal” (after Albert Durer)” was done as an illustration to a different poem by Lord de Tabley on the same subject “The Prodigal” page 189 “Rehearsals.” Through inadvertence no mention was made of this mistake in the second edition of  “Poems Dramatic and Lyrical”

'Personal note', in The Dial, No. III (1893)
Rehearsals, A Book of Verses had been published by Strahan & Co. in London in 1870. (The full text is available on the website of the Internet Archive.)

In Poems, Dramatic and Lyrical (1893), Ricketts's illustration was placed facing a sonnet by De Tabley, called 'The Prodigal'. The original poem that was illustrated by Ricketts was not a sonnet, but it carried the same title:

The Prodigal

The scath of sin is on my brow like lead.

The draff of swine is in my lips for bread.
Father, I know thy glory is not dead.
I will arise.

The servants in thy house are clothed and fed

Full and to spare. I perish here for bread.
My sin hath clothed thy presence with such dread,
I may not rise.

Mine, mine the guilt, all trespass deep and red:

Thine, thine the mercy on this fallen head.
Naked I come, yet thou shalt give me bread.
I will arise. 

Ricketts originally made a drawing to illustrate this poem that refers to Luke 15:17-19. His drawing was reproduced in photogravure, an etching process, by the firm of C. & A. Dawsons, the Typographic Etching Company.

Charles Ricketts, 'The Prodigal' (1893)
In December 1892 the author had written to the publishers:

Dear Sirs, I quite approve of the design for The Prodigal Son [...?] you have kindly forwarded at the request of Mr. Elkin Mathews. 

However, the book's production was not without misunderstandings. De Tabley had selected and deselected a lot of poems for Poems, Dramatic and Lyrical, and 'The Prodigal' poem that was illustrated by Ricketts was omitted from the final selection. De Tabley wrote a new poem instead:

The Prodigal (After Albert Dürer)

In a strange country, father, most forlorn,
Broken with sin: for many idle days
Crowned with a chaplet of the Devil's bays:
My food the husks of swine, my raiment torn,

I drive my weltering flock in mire at morn
To pasture acorns on the forest ways.
Alone with droning owls and bickering jays,
I herd my hogs and wind my herdsman's horn.

The servants in thy house are clothed and fed,
Nourished with meat and strong with purple wine.
Make me thy servant: feed me lest I die.

Naked I perish for a crust of bread,
Ragged I kneel among the troughs of swine.
Out of thy far land hear my abject cry!

De Tabley's new poem is partially a rewritten version of the earlier poem, especially the sestet that echoes several lines from the older poem.

The main question raised by the result, is that the reader does not realize that it is not Ricketts who has illustrated De Tabley's poem, but De Tabley who illustrated Ricketts's drawing.

Ricketts made an illustration of the prodigal using only a few lines from the poem: 'The draff of swine is in my lips for bread' and 'Naked I come' - and from these words an image grew that was not described in the poem at all. The main subject was not taken up by Ricketts: the guilt, the contrast between the poor son and his rich father, the wish to return home, and the doubts about this intention.

Ricketts needed to invent his own art, his own image to juxtapose to a writer's text, but De Tabley did not understand this desire. He wrote a poem that mentioned elements that are obviously taken from Ricketts's drawing, the poem's ending tries to capture in words what the image shows:

Ragged I kneel among the troughs of swine.

Ricketts wasn't the kind of artist who applauded such servitude. He considered the artist to be an independent spirit. His art works never aspired to be illustrations, but works on their own, telling an autonomic story. His protest to the new poem was worded as a 'Personal note' in The Dial. He urged the publishers of De Tabley's poems to include this note in the second edition of the book, but that did not happen (not even in the third printing).

Ricketts's illustration was more than a meditation on some words from De Tableys' poem, the drawing for 'The Prodigal' also meant to reflect Ricketts's admiration for the work of Albert Dürer.

Albert Dürer, 'The Prodigal Son'

There are many differences, but one can see that the word 'swine' and 'prodigal' in De Tabley's original poem conjured up in Ricketts's memory Dürer's engraving 'The Prodigal Son' (c. 1496), in which the prodigal son kneels among swine. Ricketts diminished the distance between foreground and background; his houses are less German in appearance, the swine have a friendlier look, the prodigal son is much younger, and half naked. Ricketts's drawing is more intimate, less formal, and introduces a pump, while the prodigal son looks at the viewer.

Ten years after the publication of his illustrations for De Tabley's poems, Ricketts published another two illustrations for the parable of the prodigal son (in The Parables from the Gospels, 1903). In one of these a similar scene has been depicted: the prodigal kneeling down next to a trough surrounded by pigs; the shed in the background resembles the building in the earlier illustrations, although the major part of the structure is now in ruins. The prodigal himself hides his face from the spectator.

Sketches, proofs and prints of these are now on view at the commemorative exhibition in Museum Meermanno in The Hague, celebrating Ricketts's birth in 1866, 150 years ago. More information about the Meermanno exhibition can be found on the museum's website. On view until 8 January!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

281. Nimrud - Nimrod

Recent news about the city of Nimrud in Iraq was all about vandalism and pillage by ISIS. The destruction of Assyrian antiquities in the region around the ancient city of Nimrud reminded me of the biblical figure Nimrod. Nimrud - Nimrod - that's how the mind works.

A long poem about Nimrod as the architect of the tower of Babel was published by John Leicester Warren, Lord de Tabley, in Poems Dramatic and Lyrical (1893).

Nimrod, wood engraving from Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum (Lyon, Guillaume Rouillé, 1553)
In the Bible, Nimrod is associated with some Assyrian cities, including Babel or Babylon. However, he was not actually mentioned in the passages about the building of the Tower of Babel, an etiological myth that was meant to explain the origin of different languages.

De Tabley's poem introduces Nimrod as a mighty king who tries to find an equal enemy in the gods. He decides to build a tower to reach their home in the skies. 

And the tower rose: the masons at its height
Could see the ocean now that we had left
A year behind us: ever at its base
The thousand-throated labour like a sea
Continually murmured: tier on tier
It darkened heaven, a monster in the sand,
And height succeeded height and pause was none:
Until its summits entered in the zones
Of cloud, and these about it clave all day
As on some giant peak untrod of man.

Then, Nimrod leads his men upwards, in battle, trying to conquer heaven, but he falls down:

There as I lay confounded, like a child
That cannot move his limbs; it seemed there grew
Enormous light out up above the cloud

This light then is accompanied by a 'terrible' voice. In the Bible, this is the voice of God who has decided to stop Nimrod, and to confound the speech of men.

Charles Ricketts, 'Nimrod' (1893)

Charles Ricketts's illustration for this poem shows a startled Nimrod in front of the exploding tower, with a cloud and a light source to the left of his face, while powerful diagonal lines run to the right of his face down towards the exploding tower, flames coming out of every opening and debris scattered everywhere. At the base of the tower some people on horseback try to escape. At Nimrod's feet lies his crown (to the left), and in the bottom right-hand corner the head of a dying man is visible.

Charles Ricketts, 'Nimrod' (details) (1893)

Nimrod in Ricketts's image is not an older bearded general (as in the Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum, 1553), but a young man who has closed his eyes to symbolize his loneliness now that the confusion of languages has taken hold of his troops. In the poem Nimrod notices that they can no longer understand him:

I was to these a babbler as the rest.

Gleeson White praised the five illustrations that Ricketts made for De Tabley's Poems Dramatic and Lyrical

Take, for instance, the "Nimrod," and note how the impassivity of the stricken hero, with all the accidents of cloud and flame, is rendered more impressive by the oak-sprig in his girdle, plucked from the tree which has since fallen behind him. The lightning still playing on his crown, upon every metallic surface of his spear, and the decoration of his garments, leaves no doubt of the source of the catastrophe. Nor must one fail to recognise the tact of the artist in closing the eyes of the man, who seems to be the only thing remaining alive when all has crumbled about him. To analyse these more minutely, it is interesting to compare the different treatment of the nerveless hand of the Nimrod who has dropped his shield with the searching hands of the figure that represents Death (in the frontispiece "Death of the Old King").

Charles Ricketts, 'Nimrod' (detail) (1893)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

280. Christ Seen From Behind: Art Around 1890

The crucifixion has been depicted in art so often, that for an artist to come up with a new view verges on the impossible. Usually dramatic effects were sorted by the positioning of the figures around Christ, at the foot of the cross.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York lists examples on its website. Italian painters, for example, 'continually renewed' the Passion scenes 

through creative engagement with established conventions. Unlike the stories associated with Christ's birth, the episodes of the Passion are colored by painful emotions, such as guilt, intense pity, and grief, and artists often worked to make the viewer share these feelings. In this, they supported the work of contemporary theologians, who urged the faithful to identify with Christ in his sufferings that they might also hope to share his exaltation.

Charles Ricketts, illustration for Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx (1894)

In Charles Ricketts's version of Christ on the cross, published as an illustration for Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx (1894), the crucified figure is on his own, and, remarkably, hangs as if on the cross, but the cross has been omitted from the image.  

The Metropolitan considers a number of ways to enhance the dramatic quality of the scene:

The climactic moment of the Passion story is the Crucifixion itself. Paintings of the subject were usually intended to foster meditation on Christ’s self-sacrifice, and they thus indicate his suffering by showing him hanging heavily with bowed head and bleeding wounds

Ricketts does suggest the heaviness of Christ's burden, but avoids showing the wounds. The bowed head is shown, but the face is not, and the head of hair is almost entirely covered by the crown of thorns.  

The MET's website argues: 

The figure of Christ is rarely distorted, however, and his state of undress often reveals an idealized body based on classical models. A crowd of other figures typically surrounds the cross, and they are frequently notable for their expressiveness. As depicted on a small altarpiece by Pietro Lorenzetti, Christ is crucified between the two thieves mentioned in some of the Gospels, while the Virgin Mary swoons piteously in the foreground and a host of figures, some in oriental dress and some in Roman armor, take part in the execution or gaze at Christ as though he has somehow stirred them

Fra Angelico, 'The Crucifixion'
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
The MET: 

Fra Angelico's small panel of around 1420 includes many of the same elements, but sets them within a more methodically constructed space. This change reflects a shift in style, but it also imbues the scene with enhanced reality, which in turn makes the scene more accessible to pious meditation. In addition, Fra Angelico magnifies the emotional responses of the figures around Christ's solitary cross: the Virgin Mary falls to the ground, Saint John clasps his hands intensely, Mary Magdalene reaches out in a sharply foreshortened view, angels lament against the gold ground of the sky, and the semicircle of onlookers assume carefully varied attitudes of indifference, pity, or wonder.

In my earlier blog on Ricketts's representation of the crucifixion (see also a blogpost from 2013 on the same subject), I included a prepatory drawing by Fra Bartolomeo. I received a reaction on these blogs from Hugh Chiverton in Hong Kong, suggesting that Ricketts's image seems to be unique in its kind. However, he suggested to consider two images by contemporary artists that may be of interest.

James Tissot (1836-1902) made hundreds of gouache illustrations of biblical scenes, all researched in the region of the 'historical' events. One of those paintings has an interesting angle on the crucifixion scene: it is called 'Behold Thy Son (Stabat Mater)'. The whole series is part of the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

James Tissot, 'Behold Thy Son (Stabat Mater)',
watercolour, c. 1886-1894 (Brooklyn Museum)
The Tissot watercolour shows the cross seen from behind, but unlike Ricketts's image, we do not see the head of Christ or his back, which are hidden behind the cross. We do see part of his sides, and of the loin cloth he is wearing. The focus of the image is on Maria, Mary Magdalene, St John, and others, including Roman soldiers.

The scene is full of drama, and people. Once more, the obvious loneliness of Christ in Ricketts's image forms a stark contrast with this traditional imagery.

Another image that our reader in Hong Kong, Hugh Chiverton, sent to me, was a photograph by Fred Holland Day (1864-1933), who, in 1898, did a series of photographs with himself as Jesus, viewed from several angles.

Fred Holland Day, 'The Crucifixion',
photograph (1895)
Some of these photographs show the cross in profile, others are close-up studies of Christ's suffering face, and one pictures a soldier on watch with the cross and Christ at an oblique angle. The series of photographs evoked a motion picture.

While Tissot's images were pious, Day's photographs were seen as 'too realistic', as blasphemous even. Fred Holland Day and Herbert Copeland were the American publishers of Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx. Day therefore had seen Ricketts's image.

Among the many depictions of the crucifixion, the one by Ricketts seems to be unique.