The shock of the old

The latest in a long line of people (me included) who have pointed out that the Royal Academy has had a Professor of Drawing who can’t actually draw, Tracy Emin, is Quentin Letts in the Mail. Emin’s value, such as it is, is in calculated attempts to be vaguely shocking, in which she is not alone. The famous unmade bed of My Bed is a good example: bit of a laugh, no real substance. There are lots of other dreary examples of the same tactic. Yawn.

If you want to see real subversive art of one kind or another, rewind a few hundred years. Here are two very different ones.

Firstly, two sketches by Rembrandt of Elsje Christiaens. She was an immigrant maid  from Denmark, who ended up in Amsterdam, and killed her landlady. This was 351 years ago, and Rembrandt quickly sketched her hanged body on display in a gibbet. The front view in particular is heartbreaking.

I think it’s an extraordinary work in its technique, subject and emotional impact. The small details only magnify the horror.

For quite different reasons, here’s a work Danae by Jan Gossaert, a much less well known painter. Gossaert was a player in the Northern Renaissance, with a particular gift for architecture and portraiture. The painting crops up regularly in ‘erotic art’ essays. Danae was imprisoned by her father, King Akrisios of Argos, who was naturally concerned by a prophecy that he would one day be killed by a son of his daughter, Danae. Unfortunately for him she was impregnated anyway by Zeus, taking the form of a ‘golden shower’. Perseus duly killed Akrisios, albeit by accident. You can see why it gets it the erotic label. Danae is more dishevelled than Tracy Emin’s bed, and just possibly the golden shower has various dubious connotations. In the internet free world of 1527 one imagines it could convey all sorts of meanings to the different observers in the Burgundian court.

Danae, by Jan Gossaert, 1527. Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Both of these examples also demonstrate something I’ve blogged about before, not least because it also applies to medicine – if you intend to push the limits of your art/craft, make sure that you’ve got the technical chops and reputation before you do. You may end up rich, but you can’t buy credibility.


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