Human tragedies in fine arts
Book explores emotions found in paintings from Botticelli to Schiele
By Kwaak Je-yup
First-time visitors to any great European art museum must feel it: the fear of having to take in walls full of “great art.”
But often these grand halls of the world’s finest collections tend to overwhelm and rob the pleasure rather than assist the novice.
Japanese art historian Nakano Kyoko, best known for her documentaries on public broadcaster NHK, wants to change that.
With her newest book “Read the Mind through Terrifying Portraits” (translated by fellow art historian Lee Yeon-sik), the author explains in plain, easy language what she knows and more importantly how she feels when she sees these images she considers so fearful.
A great storyteller she may be, but the result is a mix, not only of the obvious between the objective and subjective, but also the engaging and the alienating.
The volume’s most gripping chapter is on her selection from Russian art, in which explicitly frightening portraits from Ilya Repin were natural choices. Powerful images and tragic royal intrigue make an effective combination to carry the momentum all the way through. It was a pleasure, even if morbid.
Look at the cover painting from 1879 — without fear of one’s own ignorance — Repin’s portrayal of Tsarevna Sophia Alekseyevna (1657-1704), the imprisoned half-sister of Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov better known as Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725). Her face is full of wrath; her arms are crossed, in a defensive posture. To her right a lady-in-waiting dressed in black crouches in the dark, frightened to death and finally a man hangs outside the window. Her situation at death’s doorstep is unambiguous, and Sophia Alekseyevna is constantly reminded of it, quite bluntly. The dead man outside, according to Kyoko, was her key ally.
The pitiful 1675 portrait of Charles II of Spain (1661-1700) by court painter Juan Carreno de Miranda, is an additional example of Kyoko’s safe but effective selection. As the successor to Diego Velazquez, Carreno provides a startling image of a 13-year-old invalid — even after the contemporary Photoshop equivalent of enhancing the king’s best features and hiding the less appealing.
He was the unfortunate product of several intermarriages of the Austrian Habsburgs and appropriately put the end to the family’s Spanish line, dying childless.
A couple of hundred years later, the Austrian branch continues to weave many tragedies, with Elisabeth of Bavaria, Empress of Austria (1837-1898), better known by her nickname “Sissi.” She was the empress consort to Franz Joseph I (1830-1916). Popularly caricatured as a traveling queen with a lavish enviable life and style too, Kyoko writes there was much loneliness she had to endure throughout her reign. She had to get away to forget her troubles.
It is difficult to be fully convinced by Kyoko’s interpretation of German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s portrayal of Sissi, her most famous representation widely used as her “official” portrait by many souvenirs, tourist sites and guidebooks.
Kyoko’s approach to Winterhalter’s 1865 work is more nuanced because she needs to make her case against the painting’s ambiguity. The shadow cast on her giant white dress is supposed to represent the gloom surrounding her. Diamond stars dotting her long lush hair do not matter.
Her smile, rosy cheeks and sensual bare shoulders are unmentioned. The author’s approach is strangely one-dimensional, even dictatorial for an interpreter of fine arts.
Kyoko does win credit as a natural, unpretentious storyteller whose writing, even through translation, automatically absorbs the reader. When in royal courts or the realm of Greek gods, it is a marvelous talent that wins hearts and minds, befitting her other day job.
However, she simplifies the whole process too much, which was least effective in dealing with the much more complex works of Austrian painter Egon Schiele.
Finally, her formula for art appreciation is certainly helpful, but she should not discount the pleasure of letting art “happen” for the viewer.
Artworks should be more than just identifying different components.