Tag Archives: art

True or not? Actors were once considered ‘professional liars’ and denied a Christian burial

Adrienne Lecouvreur as Cornelia  by Charles-Antoine Coypel

Too often I have been disappointed in trivia I had learnt as a teenager which I had for many years accepted as common knowledge, like the fact that eskimoes have an inordinate amount of words for the word ‘snow’, or the Victorians being prudish to the point that they covered their piano legs with embroidery to hide them from view.

Both the story of the snow and the piano legs turned out to be common misconceptions.

So I am pleased that what I had always accepted as fact, that actors were denied a Christian burial, does appear to be true.

Proof: French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692 – 1730) who was refused a Christian burial by the Catholic Church upon which her friend Voltaire wrote the caustic poem, “Sur la mort d’Adrienne Lecouvreur“.

Why were actors refused a Christian burial?

Because — according to them — an actor is a liar.

This goes back to Plato, who said that fiction is untruth and untruths are lies. And we should not tell our children lies if we do not want to corrupt them.

Following his reasoning, actors are actually professional liars

Illustration: Adrienne Lecouvreur as Cornelia by Charles-Antoine Coypel

I am a god in the deepest core of my thoughts

A Pilgrimage to San Isidro (1819–23) by Francisco de Goya

Detail of A Pilgrimage to San Isidro (1819–23) by Francisco de Goya

I’m a stickler for firsts and origins, almost childishly so, or at least obsessively.

While researching Goya I stumbled on a letter by Goya to Bernardo de Iriarte dated January 4, 1794, in which I read:

I have devoted myself to painting a group of pictures in which I have succeeded in making observations for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works, which give no scope for fantasy and invention.” (tr. Enriqueta Harris)

Goya’s insistence on his artistic freedom (key to the notion of “romantic originality“) in making art with ‘fantasy‘ and ‘invention‘ “for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works” makes this dictum one of the candidates for a Manifesto of Romanticism.

Other dicta which emphasize the egomaniac (wording by Nordau) importance the Romantics placed on untrammelled feeling is the remark of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich that “the artist’s feeling is his law” and William Wordsworth‘s ascertainment that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings“.

In the Dutch language, the poet Willem Kloos said “I am a god in the deepest core of my thoughts,” giving voice to the Romantic conception of the artist.

Goya was a god too (and perhaps the first Romantic painter) though not a god that sought to please, soothe, nor comfort.

Illustration: A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, one of the black paintings by Goya

A rudimentary taxonomic vocabulary for hybrid creatures

 Gryllus detail from the bottom of the central panel of Bosch's Last Judgment in Vienna.

Detail from the bottom of the central panel of Bosch’s Last Judgment in Vienna.

In my previous post[1] I mistakenly claimed that bodyhead is the term for what we Dutch-language speakers call koppoter or kopvoeter.

In reality, the term bodyhead was coined by English artist Paul Rumsey in the late 20th and early 21st century as titles to his own Two Bodyheads. A quick search in Google Books confirms this.[2]

Paul pointed me to the gryllus, a creature similar to gastrocephalic creatures (belly faces), to blemmyae and to his own bodyheads.

Gryllus, a term new to me, appears to be an interesting word, leading me to the discovery of the rudimentary taxonomy of hybrid creatures of the title of this post.

How so, you ask?

Here we go:

Gryllus (plural grylli) means pig in Greek and cricket in Latin. (Marina Warner, Monsters of Our Own Making).

In Plutarch’s Moralia, Gryllus was one of Circe’s victims who preferred to stay a pig after his transformation. This episode is known as “Ulysses and Gryllus“. Innumerable writers have commented on this episode, see “reasoning beasts”.

Another ancient writer who mentions grylli is Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. His concern is visual, i.e. painting. He uses the word gryllus for a class of grotesque figures first used in painting by Antiphilus of Alexandria: “he painted a figure in a ridiculous costume, known jocosely as the Gryllus; and hence it is that pictures of this class are generally known as “Grylli.”

The history of the grylli has received its most in-depth study in Marina Warner’s Monsters of Our Own Making. Most sources agree that the current meaning of the gryllus derives from Le moyen âge fantastique (1955) by Jurgis Baltrusaitis.[3]

The book Images, Texts, and Marginalia in a “Vows of the Peacock” by Domenic Leo gives a taxonomic vocabulary of hybrids in which the gryllus is one element:

“I am using terminology proposed by Sandler, “Reflections on the Construction of Hybrids,” and Jurgis Baltrušaitis, Le moyen âge fantastique. The rudimentary taxonomic vocabulary for hybrids is as follows: bifurcated (head as center with two bodies), gryllus (body with no torso: head replaces genitals), pushmepullu (one body with a head emerging from each side), and composite (hybrids created from multiple parts).”

There is also this excellent Spanish-language page on grotesque grylli.[4].

… in a garret with a leaking roof

The Poor Poet (1839), a painting by Carl Spitzweg.

Look where this sufferer from artistism, this bourgeoisophobe, this starving artist, this beautiful loser, this bohemian, this tortured artist, this seeker of artistic inspiration, this man afraid of writer’s block, look at where this poor soul ends up: in a garret with a leaking roof.

How very romantic, how utterly romantic is this notion of the Artist, the creative genius touched by divine inspiration.

Bohemianism and ‘artistism’

Paris street – set design for Act II of Puccini’s La bohème by Adolfo Hohenstein.

One of the funniest episodes in the historiography of bohemianism is the first appearance of the term bohemian in relation to artistic endeavor. The year is 1834 and Félix Pyat, a French journalist of communard persuasion, publishes a well-written article called “Les Artistes” in which he derogatorily describes wannabe artists as “alien and bizarre … outside the law, beyond the reaches of society … they are the Bohemians of today” (tr. Levi Asher).

Félix Pyat connects ‘one who lives like a Bohemian’, meaning like a vagabond, with artists and he calls the latter “les Bohémiens d’aujourd’hui” (the Bohemians of today).

The funniest bit is when he condemns artistry itself, comparing it to a disease which he calls “artistism”:

“That which should be the exception of privileged natures has become a general rule; what am I saying, a fashion, a rage, a furor, a contagious, epidemic, endemic malady, a scourge worse than cholera, a veritable plague from the Orient, artistism.” (tr. Geerinck, Daniel Cottom, 2013)

The term Bohemianism, meant as a slur by Pyat, was later reappropriated by the artistic community.

The illustration above by Adolfo Hohenstein is extremely picturesque and immediately recognizable as a French or Parisian street.

The ornamental print: the highlights

The past few months I’ve been absolutely smitten with the ornamental print. Interest in these as part of the Old master print aesthetic dates only from the 1870s (when the first museums of applied arts were founded in Europe) and has been on the rise the last few years, thanks to sites such as Il Giornale Nuovo and its heir BibliOdyssey. My fascination with them was rekindled recently by taking the book Quatre siècles de Surréalisme out of my library in September. This post is meant to give you the highlights of my research in the field the past few months.

Thus, ornamental print highlights include:

Elephant coming out of a chimney[1] by Wendel Dietterlin, Bouquet on back of peddler[2] by Isaac Briot, Habit d’orfèvre[3] from Les costumes grotesques et les métiers by Nicolas de Larmessin II, Leviores et (ut videtur) extemporaneae picturae[4], Mask with dishes around the eyes and pointed serrated crests on the cheeks and forehead[5], Cartouche in auricular style (Johannes Lutma)[6], Fontaine Rocaille[7] by Gabriel Huquier, Mascarade à la Grecque album, Jeune Moine à la Grecque [8][9], Œuvre de Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier frontispiece[10], Auricular Cartouche with Figures within a Strapwork Frame[11], An antique vase with handle formed by a dog[12] by Enea Vico, Neuw Grottessken Buch by Christoph Jamnitzer [13], Balançoire chinoise[14] by Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

Some perennial favourites, which cannot be strictly called ornamental prints, need to be mentioned here: Bizzarie di varie figure by Bracelli, Varie Figuri Gobbi by Callot, Les Songes Drolatiques by Desprez, the grotesques of Arent van Bolten[15], the Geometria et Perspectiva by Lorenz Stöer, Scenographiae, sive perspectivae by Hans Vredeman de Vries[16] and Perspectiva Corporum Regularium[17] by Wentzel Jamnitzer.

Illustrations: Fantastic Sea Carriage by Cornelis Floris and Poop of the Soleil Royal by Jean Bérain the Elder.