Friday, May 28, 2010

The Tainted Lips of Angels

It is not quite what we expect. We see familiar-enough elements here - the background of decorative blooms, the two sublime faces in profile, the haloes, and the open book which these other elements suggest is a hymnal (below). All of these combine to convey something angelic, saintly and devotional. And yet the woman in the foreground (and therefore presumably the second woman behind her) is naked. Why this should be so can only be *answered by saying that this was the way in which the artist Louis Welden Hawkins chose to portray her in his painting The Haloes. Why, then, is this element disconcerting?

The language of art has encouraged us to associate the portrayal of haloes and hymn books with religious devotion. Bare breasts generally are not considered to be part of this mix. And yet here those elements are seen together. Whether we consciously think of it in this way or not, Hawkins' painting subtly challenges us to redefine the way in which we might regard such religious iconography. Had the artist opted for a simple willful blasphemy (as others such as Felicien Rops have done), then it might be both more offensive, more explainable - and perhaps less interesting. And yet there is nothing of that here. The two faces express only demure devotion (detail, below).

Hawkins' painting seems to strand us in a paradoxical no-man's-land between the sacred and the secular. It is orthodoxy passed through a filter of paganism. A year later it seems that paganism gained the upper hand in the artist's Autumn (below). Here the woman appears comfortably to belong to the natural world. Her eyes are closed in the breeze that bends the rushes, and that caress is carried along the horizontal watery reflections in the background to lift her floating hair. Perhaps Hawkins intended his figure to express a nature spirit, although even if she is human then she surely has one foot in such invisible realities.

In Autumn, the element of nakedness belongs with the classical world of nymphs and Arcadian glades. But the artist is not yet done. With Innocence (below) we are presented with yet a third type of nakedness, as Hawkins continues to ring his subtle changes on this theme. As in The Haloes, there are two naked women portrayed, but this time the theme is of innocence and temptation.

The background (detail, below) portrays in a faux-woodcut style reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer's works the whore of Babylon from the Book of Revelations, holding the poison chalice of abominations and riding the seven-headed beast. The partially-hidden woman with writhing Medusa-like hair - evidently the temptress - offers a symbolic sphere/apple to the innocent, who with a Latin crucifix around her neck eyes the sphere wonderingly.

Ever-mysterious, the artist portrays this crucifix-wearing woman of naked innocence with her hands crossed beneath her breasts. She holds two olive branches, while the lilies in the foreground underscore the symbolic language of pure unblemished innocence. But the expressions of the two women - the temptress and the innocent - seem almost interchangeable. Can innocence 'corrupt' the fallen, as much as the other way around? Far from being curiosities of art symbolism, Louis Welden Hawkins offers us in these three depictions of women in their nakedness unexpected depths of meaning and interchanges of roles. And these women are naked, rather than nude, although what that difference actually is I'll maybe save for another time!

Artist: Louis Welden Hawkins
Work: The Haloes, 1894
Medium: Oils
Location: Private collection, Paris

Artist: Louis Welden Hawkins
Work: Autumn, 1895
Medium: Oils
Location: Victor Arwas collection, London

Artist: Louis Welden Hawkins
Work: Innocence, 1895
Medium: Oils
Location: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

*What Hawkins had in mind is more fully answered by a text that once was a part of the painting's original frame but which has now been lost, which read: 'They sing the songs of angels with lips still tainted by earth.'