Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Young Women of Sparta (1868-70)

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Young Women of Sparta

To quote Richardson: “Thanks to Corot, Picasso and Braque saw how the presence of a stringed instrument could endow a figure painting with the status of a nature morte. Corot provided the cubists with their quintessential human subject.”

He also provided them with a model for their own tonally subdued palette, a reaction in part, no doubt, against the immpressionists. As Rosenblum has pointed out, Picasso was also aware of this subject of the gypsy mandolinist through a series of picture postcards inspired by the popular nineteenth-century opera Mignon (1866), by the composer Ambroise Thomas. A number of these show the title character playing the mandolin. The romantic nature of the setting and the relaxed pose create a kitsch counterpart to Corot’s original painting. Both sources act as a thematic bridge across the high-low culture border, the crossing of which, as we have seen, was frequently an outcome of Picasso’s work.

The relationship, however, goes much deeper than just a formal connection with such artistic precedents. In Corot’s less well known painting Young Women of Sparta (1868-70), the subject of music is combined with a pose of more explicit sexual allusion. The Italian (Neapolitan) mandolin, with its distinctive round back, like its older cousin the lute and unlike the pear-shaped, flat-backed Portuguese version, is placed in the lap of the reclining figure, making clear the sexual symbolism – the womblike swelling of the back, which in the lute had been associated in the seventeenth century with the physiognomy of pregnancy, and the provocatively placed sound hole. [Simon Shaw-Miller, Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage, Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 111-112]

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