Thursday, 14 April 2011

Holly - A National Portrait Award finalist?

This has been all over the media yesterday and today: 'An eight-foot high portrait of a naked model handcuffed to a rock has been shortlisted for the National Portrait Gallery's annual art prize ... Mr Smith, who said his artwork Holly was inspired by the Greek myth of Prometheus, called it "a message of composure in the face of adversity".' (Quoted from the BBC website report - and a closeup of the pic is also on the BBC site.)

The Greek myth of Prometheus refers, as Wikipedia will tell you, to the person who 'stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. Zeus then punished him for his crime by having him bound to a rock while a great eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day'. The same or similar myths, actually, appear in a wide range of cultures but in the contemporary era, it might equally refer to the problems with nuclear energy, and the punishment might be considered appropriate for those who make stupid decisions about where to site nuclear power plants and how not to build sufficient safety features into them. But that's by the way.

The interesting things about the picture are that (a) it harks back to very Victorian, if not earlier, styles; and (b) Holly, the Promethus-inspired figure, is female. And I'm not sure how to read these points. Artists, of course, have never been shy of the idea of depicting nude and restrained women though I haven't seen a lot of it in mainstream art in the last few years.

Of the more recent works you might think of Tamara de Lempicka, whose work often included nude or semi-nude women in a range of styles, including art deco and cubist - and a few pictures included the more overt use of restraints, in paintings such as Andromeda (1927-8). Andromeda, again in Greek mythology, was the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, king and queen of the kingdom Ethiopia. Cassiopeia boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, the nymph-daughters of the sea god Nereus. To cut a long story short, Poseidon sent a sea monster to ravage the coast of their country until Andromeda was sacrificed. She was chained naked to a rock on the coast to await her fate, but was discovered by Perseus who killed the monster and married the fair maiden. And this was a creative theme in the history of art, with rather fetching paintings by Edward Poynter and Paul Gustave Dore (both done in 1869) among many others.

(Incidentally there's a pic I thought was by De Lempicka of a nude standing woman with arms chained above her head and a cityscape behind her, viewed through a window or balcony and done in an art deco style with a few cubist elements - but it's not on the official website and I can't find it anywhere else. I first saw it a decade or so ago so my memory may be wrong, and if you have any suggestions I'd be grateful.)

I could blather on about the role of naked women in art, especially in submissive, 'damsel in distress' or otherwise rather louche poses, but there's no point because the theme has been covered extensively by Janine Ashbless with a post on naiads, another post on naiads and one about mermaids, and Billierosie's blogs on Ingres and on the Pre-Raphaelites among many others.

I guess by way of a conclusion, what I'll say is that the decision to paint a contemporary work like Holly in a style that harks back to the Victorians does speak to some of the more voyeuristic tendencies of that era, so it will get the work noticed - but at the same time the mythology is there to support an interpretation of a person bound by circumstances beyond their control and trying to compose themselves in the face of adversity. It's just the Prometheus thing I don't get, because the reference that stuck me was Andromeda. In which case, where do we look in this day and age for Perseus?

Finally, Velvet recently came across Caged Angel's website recently for reasons too boring and technical to explain. But if you're into contemporary erotic art have a look at the 'adults only' gallery there...


  1. Isn't it bloody annoying when you know damn well that you've seen an image and can't find it anywhere. I remember a Jean-Paul Gaultier Ad from the 1990's. It was for perfume, on the Romulus and Remus theme. A giant female model in a body stocking with a set of 8 mammaries, turns to the camera and roars. 8 tiny men are beneath her, suckling from her. I can't find it anywhere on the web and what is even more annoying, is that I cut the ad out of a magazine, and I've put it "somewhere safe". Can I find it? Like hell!

    Great post, sorry it's billierosie and thanks for mentioning my blog!

  2. I do vaguely remember that image, but I can't remember anything about it - whose it was, what was being advertised etc.

    As to the one I can't remember - I had thought it was de Lempicka, and I'm fairly sure I saw it on an arts website devoted to her work. But when I went back to look for it a while later it had gone, so it's possible it was wrongly attributed or something. No doubt it will turn up suddenly when I least expect it!