Veronese: Master of colour and structure.

Sometimes, when you’re walking through the gallery, you come across a painting that stops you in your tracks. Often,  you’ve never seen before and it’s by one of the myriad artists that you’ve never heard of. And the gallery is the Hermitage.

 The painting is The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine from the Workshop-of-Paolo-Caliari,-called-il-Veronese is one such painting. And it is by one of the most famous Renaissance painters.

This painting depicts Catherine of Alexandria, who before her martyrdom was mystically married to Christ by the Virgin Mary, a ceremony seen as an allegory of the pious soul’s spiritual betrothal to God. Here she is richly dressed and crowned (the Golden Legend records that she was of royal birth) and kneels on part of the broken wheel on which she was to have been executed. With one hand the Christ Child takes the ring from the young John the Baptist, unique in Veronese’s depictions of this subject, and with his other he takes Catherine’s hand to receive it. (Royal Collection Trust)

What is so immediately striking about this painting is the way in which Veronese uses colour as a major structural component. The brown flesh tones of the four women, the Christ child and be seraphim form the cross structure of the painting running from the top right bottom left. The other structural element is from slightly stooped figure of John the Baptist through Catherine and Christ child running at right angles. This sets up the major tension in the painting which runs through the figure of Catherine.  Notice how the orange colours of John the Baptist’s cloak link through the garments of Catherine and her attendant and blue of John Baptist through links to the cloak of Catherine in the bottom right of the picture. And then the curve of John the Baptist’s arm swoops round includes the head of the seraphim, picks up Catherine’s arm and comes to include the Christ child. Brilliant

It is truly a masterwork of structure and colour. 

A conversation with Rembrandt

I was standing in the Hermitage admiring this painting.

It’s called Portrait of a Bearded Man.  A man standing next to me asked, ” What do you think?”

“It’s brilliant,” I said, “amongst the best in the collection.”

“Thank you,” he said. “But there is a lot of dross at the Hermitage.”

” It’s his eyes. He appears to be watching something or someone that had surprised, disappointed or saddened him. Did you know him well?”

“Yes. His wife had just died in childbirth and he was questioning his faith. So your interpretation is fairly accurate.”

“I find it remarkable that you have only used one colour.”

“Brown. Yes.” he smiled.  “It’s a very brown portrait. It’s a very subtle colour. It gives you a great range of tones:  dark around his eyes, and lighter across his forehead, allowing you to etch in the furrows and the lines on his cheeks and then midrange tones for his beard and clothes. But it would be wrong to think I only used brown,  there is a lot of black and yellow in there.”

“The overwhelming effect of this portrait is the way your subject appears to be gazing into space, not focused on anything. I’m trying to think but usually your subjects are looking directly at you.”

I fished out my iPhone and Googled Rembrandt portraits. I was right.

“Very perceptive,”he said,  “most artists prefer to do that. It’s about getting the eyes right and it helps to have them looking straight out at the viewer.”

“So. Would you be so good as to have a look at a drawing of a monster by my grandson. He worked very hard on the eyes.”

I opened up my iPhone picture of Winton’s monster.

Winton's Monster.jpeg

“Wonderful,” says Rembrandt, “that’s a very angry, scary monster. Winton has captured it with the eyes.  How old is he?”

“He is four.”

“Tell him Rembrandt thinks he draws very scary monsters.”


Bill Henson: Art, Pornography and Controversy.

Whenever Bill Henson has an exhibition in Australia there will be elements of all three.

And he is back: Bill Henson nudes back on major gallery walls in two new exhibitions
Henson has some fairly definite views of himself as an artist.

In an article in the SMH  Melissa Fyfe. who interviewed Henson wrote:

“To give you an idea of how Henson’s brain works within the Bill Bubble, take his explanation of one image: a nude boy, maybe 13, with a dreamy look on his face and a young girl leaning over him from behind.

The boy, Henson says, could be imagining the girl; like a gender-reversed depiction of death and the maiden (a common artistic trope of a semi-nude woman and the angel of death). He cites Austrian symbolist painter Alfred Kubin, who produced a particularly good death and the maiden, then quotes French sculptor Auguste Rodin on the beauty of destroying the beautiful. He follows up with a reference to wabi-sabi, the concept of imperfection in Japanese aesthetics. And finishes his answer citing the best musical version of the “sweet potential of life in the grip of death”, composer Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.

All I saw was a young boy enraptured.”

Henson is quite clear: it just comes down to taste. Do you like it or don’t you? Is it porn or is it art?”

Henson is a photographer of international standing who has exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. His first exhibition at the NGV was when he was 19.

He is “comfortable” that people will find his images, such as these, disturbing.

Henson’s view of the world of his young models is hauntingly dark one. And anyone who understands photography will recognise the work of a consummate craftsman.

Does this dark vision of adolescence qualify as art? Henson is clearly happy to let the viewer decide.

So what is the viewer to make of this dark underworld that seems so devoid of joy and of hope?

There is no denying that the pictures are beautifully composed and the models have a Caravaggio-like beauty.

There are some people who are pretty clear in their own minds that Bill Henson is a pornographer. Ex-PM Kevin Rudd, who condemned Henson’s images as “absolutely revolting and having no artistic merit”, is one of them.


It would be difficult to argue that these images are pornographic. A decade ago, the police in New South Wales decided, wisely and presumably on good advice, that taking legal action against Henson was futile.

People like Rudd and the other wowsers have missed the point. The question with Henson is judging his artistic or photographic merit. Where does he stand in the artistic pantheon?

In terms of his portraits of children, he can only be compared to Jock Sturges and Sally Mann, who are both stylistically fairly similar, however their work does not have the darkness and complexity of Henson’s.

Sally Mann and Candy Cigarette

Jock Sturges and Beach Scene

Henson is also a landscape photographer of prodigious talent, something that is overlooked in the heated discussion that swirls around his nudes.

When you look at his landscapes and the world that his models inhabit, it becomes clear that that Henson seeks to explore a different artistic terrain from that of more traditional and realistic photographers like Mann or Sturges. Certainly different from that of Ansell Adams or Henri Cartier Bresson.

Someone once said of one of Ansel Adams’ photographs, “There are no people in it.”

“Yes there are, “said Adams, “there are two, the photographer and the viewer.”

In Henson’s work there is a jostling crowd: the photographer, the models, the media, the viewer, Kevin Rudd, assorted wowsers, Tom Cobbley and all with an opinion.

Jock Sturges and David Hamilton: two different ways of photographing young women

On International Women’s Day it is interesting to reflect again on the way women are depicted in both art and photography.

The biblical heroine Susannah has been portrayed and sexualised since the Renaissance and is an excellent example of changing societal and artistic attitudes towards women. Her story is told in the book of Daniel. She was bathing in her garden and a group of elders is watching. 
They tell her unless she has sex with them, they will accuse her of adultery, the penalty for which is death stoning. She refuses and is tried. Daniel intervenes the in the trial and she is acquitted. The elders were stoned (in the bad way). Because the story involves her naked in her garden, it is excellent combination of biblical, which made its artistic representation acceptable, and the erotic, which made it interesting.

Alessandro Allori’s is probably the most erotic of the Renaissance versions.

More modern versions such, as those by Samsonov, show Susanna as a far more ambiguous figure. She is less the victim and more a participant, albeit unwilling, but her role has certainly changed.

For my commentary see Susannah: from biblical heroine to pop pornstar

Two modern photographers who, in many ways typify provide changing attitudes towards women, in both cases towards young women, are David Hamilton and Jock Sturges.

I have written extensively and often critically on David Hamilton.

With the storm of controversy surrounding the suicide of David Hamilton, it is worth examining the work of Jock Sturges, an American photographer who suffered at the hands of his critics in much the same way Hamilton did. However, the similarity pretty much ends there.

Some background on Sturges:

On April 25, 1990, a group of FBI agents and officers of the San Francisco Police Department raided the studio of photographer Jock Sturges, seizing his cameras, his prints, his computer — everything relating to his work as an internationally recognized fine art photographer, much of whose work involves nude portraiture of children and adolescents. The law officers discovered that they had taken on one of the art elite’s own as art communities, both in San Francisco and nationally, rallied around Sturges, his work, and the legitimacy of respectful nude photography of children and adolescents. Eventually, a San Francisco grand jury refused to indict Sturges on any charges.

Sturges’s work was again under legal attack. Grand juries in Montgomery, Alabama, and Franklin, Tennessee, have indicted bookseller Barnes & Noble on child pornography and obscenity charges for selling Sturges’s book, Radiant Identities, as well as the work of British photographer David Hamilton.

Supporters of Randall Terry and his organization, Operation Rescue — best known for their protests against abortion clinics — take credit for bringing the books to the attention of prosecutors by such actions as physically destroying books in Barnes & Noble stores.

<> on August 25, 2009 in Reston, Virginia.

Randall Terry

“The state attorney general in Alabama, a man who is running for re-election, postulates that my work is ‘obscene material of people under the age of 17 involved in obscene acts.’ This is pretty chilling language because, in fact, the people in my pictures are not engaged in any acts at all,” said Sturges.”

“I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual and psychological change, and there’s an erotic aspect to that.”

He does not seek to downplay the erotic content of his photographs. But it is of n entirely different nature from that in Hamilton.

“I will always admit immediately to what’s obvious, which is that Homo sapiens is inherently erotic or inherently sensual from birth.”

 I have argued that a significant proportion of David Hamilton’s work falls into the realm of softcore pornography.  I would also argue that a serious consideration of the work of Jock Sturges, whose work, I would argue, is in no way pornographic, would confirm this distinction.

Sturges differs from Hamilton in many respects, not least of which is that Sturges portrays  the latent sexuality of his subjects as part of the process of growing up whereas Hamilton was, for the most part, far more breathlessly voyeuristic. And there is an acquiescent eroticism and adolescent lesbianism in Hamilton’s work that is entirely absent in Sturges’.

In many ways, what personifies Sturges’ approach to his subjects is that he is a dispassionate photographer who, unlike Hamilton, observes rather than glamorises.

My favourite Sturges photograph is this one.

The two young women in the photograph are full of attitude, they are anti-models. The one on the left appears to be saying, “You want a photograph! Okay. Photograph this.” It’s a contrast to Hamilton’s work which is so beautiful and commercial. The models are so conscious of being photographed and the need to be beautiful.

You certainly couldn’t say that about the two young women in Sturges’s photo

I think that Sturges has certainly taken far better photographs, certainly in terms of composition.


Sex and power: the sexual predator in art and politics

This is an update that I did given the election of Donald PG Trump

In recent months, we have been treated to the unedifying spectacle of seeing one of Australia’s most popular entertainers convicted of sexually molesting underage children.

History is full of men in positions of power who have exploited women.

The sexual pecadillos of politicians are a constant source of outrage, amusement and amazement. But it is also true that some women are drawn to powerful men and many politicians are tempted to take advantage of this. In some cases, the relationship is consensual, in some cases it is not. Henry Kissinger famously said that power was the ultimate aphrodisiac. Henry was a bit of a ladies’ man, which is surprising because he was not the best looking bloke on the block but his track record was impressive.

Henry had som pretty good looking girlfriends. You might recognise some

Henry had some pretty good looking girlfriends.

Given that politics is the greatest source of power, particularly for men, it’s not surprising that men in positions of power will take advantage of this and are frequently drawn into sexual relationships that are politically damaging when discovered. Bill “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” Clinton is one of the better known examples of this and JFK was certainly a notorious pants man and probably with better taste than Clinton. He certainly didn’t suffer any public fallout from his relations with other women, most spectacularly Marilyn Monroe.

JFK and Munroe

JFK and Munroe

Anyone who was ever in doubt about the relationship between Kennedy and Munroe should watch the famous “Happy Birthday, Mr President” video clip. Certainly, Jackie Kennedy was in no doubt and reportedly stormed out of the function after Munroe’s singing solo.

Presidential peccadilloes had a nasty habit of surfacing every now and then. Bill Clinton was also a notorious pants man.  Things got really serious and very messy with Monica Lewinsky.bill-clinton-and-monica-lewinski

And there were always stories flying around about other women.


There is also a sly dig at Clinton in the immensely popular film Love Actually where the American president, played by Billy Bob Thornton, propositions one of the British PM’s staff.387368-4d43d21a-45b2-11e3-b6cf-917abbb54065

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Professor of economics at Sciences Po, Minister for Economics, Finances and Industry IMF Managing Director and contender for the French presidency was the unacceptable side of this strange dynamic and his chickens came home to roost when allegations that he had sexually assaulted a hotel maid sank his political career and shone a spotlight on his other sexual peccadilloes

Nafissatou Diallo and Tristane Banon: To the women who have accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping them

Nafissatou Diallo and Tristane Banon: Two the women who have accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping them

And then most recently we have President-elect Trump who has defined his presidency by saying: ” I just grabbed him by the pussy”, “When you’re a star they let you do it, you can do anything” as well as bragging about using his fame to try and “fuck” women and groping them without waiting for their consent.


Why are we surprised?

Such behaviour stretches back to time immemorial and one of the earliest accounts is from the 13th chapter of the Book of Daniel.

Two Elders, probably judges but certainly powerful and influential members of the community, watch the beautiful young Susannah bathing in her garden. They accost her and threatened to accuse her of committing adultery, for which the penalty is death, unless she has sex with them. She refuses and is brought to trial.

At the trial, the young prophet Daniel cross-examines the two Elders who contradict each other about which tree the act was performed under. Susannah is acquitted and the two elders are put to death.

There are more than 80 extant paintings of the story. Some artists, such Tintoretto and Rubens, painted it a number of times Nearly all of the artists who have painted it have chosen moment when the two elders proposition Susannah.

The elders are shown as wealthy, powerful, respectable and persuasive. In her 1963 book on Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil. Here we have another aspect, the respectability of evil.

 Bonaventura Lamberti (Il Bolognese)

Bonaventura Lamberti (Il Bolognese)

Susanna and the elders-Ottavio Mario Leoni

Susanna and the elders-Ottavio Mario Leoni

Susanna and the elders1588 Paulo Veronese

Susanna and the elders Paulo Veronese (1588)

Another group of artists paint a different picture. Here the Elders are less respectable and more menacingly evil.

Jacob Jordaens Susanna and the Elders

Jacob Jordaens Susanna and the Elders

Jordaens’ Elders are grotesque caricatures, a personification of evil lechery, while Rubens’ are the personification of anger, presumably at being frustrated by Susannah’s innocence. The veins standing out on the neck of the elder in blue indicates the vehemence with which he is putting his proposition.

Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens

Sisto Badalocchio

Sisto Badalocchio

Badalocchio’s elders are sneeringly contemptuous of their victim and the brilliantly luminescent painting by van Honthorst shows the two elders feigning concern lest Susannah draw attention to them.

Gerrit van Honthorst

Gerrit van Honthorst

In all the versions of the story, there is an undertone of violence in the portrayal of the two elders. In some cases, it is made explicit in the painting. In Alessandro Allure’s work, the physical threat is palpable, with the indignant Susanna already in the lecherous clutches of the Elders.

Alessandro Allori

Alessandro Allori

Similarly in Claude Vignon’s painting one of the elders is already beginning to man-handle Susanna.

Claude Vignon

Claude Vignon

The sense of violation is palpable in both of these paintings and it is a common theme in all of the others. In some, the sexual violence is implied and most audiences would know the back story to the paintings. But one thing that stands out in all the paintings is the sense of violation inherent in the mere presence of these splendidly dressed men in the company of a near naked women. In many of the paintings, Susannah shrinks away from her tormentors, ashamed to have been discovered naked. It’s a powerful depiction of the commonly held view that such situations are somehow the woman’s fault.

Brian Kosoff: Form and landscape

In a 2012 interview with ND  Magazine,  Brian Kosoff  said:

“Regarding landscape, I will often come across a scene that has all the right compositional elements but not the right light or atmosphere. In that case I take compass readings to determine ideally where I want the Sun to be, and then using astronomical software I will determine what date and time that year that it’s in the spot I want, and I’ll come back then. I will also take into consideration tides, moon position, foliage, weather, atmosphere, geography, agricultural cycles, etc.  I view the process of landscape photography in a more holistic perspective.

As an example for the image “Prescott Trees” I made three trips in a year from NY to Washington State just for that shot. The version I ended up using had fall foliage.


Prescott Trees

Kosoff works almost exclusively in black and white: “Black & White to me is the truest form of photography. I know that may sound contradictory given that B&W is inherently an interpretation of the scene, but B&W is all about light, tone, gradation and composition.  It’s doesn’t get much simpler than that.”

Black-and-white photography also allows the level of abstraction that colour photography does not. Kosoff has preoccupation with form, particularly contrasting form, in landscape. Prescott Trees has echoes of Ansel Adams sand dunes with its sharp edged lines contrasting with the softer  undulating shapes of the hills.

Kosoff is also adept at creating sharp contrasts in shape and form. In this photo, the trees  are situated between the open space of the field and the darker contours of the hills behind. The more defined shape of the trees and the gradations in tone constitute a contrast to the darker and softer shapes of the hills.

 Tuscan Field is photographically and thematically similar to Prescott Trees.  The tonal gradations in the slopes that dominate the foreground of the photograph are a sharp contrast with the line of dark trees silhouetted against the overcast sky. The way that Kosoff layers his pictures is similar in many ways to the technique that Edward Hopper uses in many of his paintings.


 Tuscan Field

The brilliantly composed Hay Bales is thematically and stylistically similar to both Prescott Trees and Tuscan Field. There are the two layers of the hills which give way to the the lower part of the sky scape where the five hay bales are silhouetted. The foreground is dark but subtly muted, particularly around the large hay bale. Overall, it is much stronger and in many ways a far more abstract composition than Prescott Trees and Tuscan Field.  The wavelike shape of the hills the foreground is punctuated by the solid shape of the bale while the silhouettes of the hay bales in the middle ground serve to emphasise and punctuate the shape of the second hill.

hay bales

Lone Pine Peak is a series of layers of contrasting tones and shapes. In the foreground is a fence made up of a series of white rectangles which serve to emphasise the uneven, layered rhythm of this painting.

lone pine peak

Lone Pine Peak

Behind the fence is a field in which a row of trees, similar to those in Prescott Trees. There are three layers behind trees.  The first is a line of black mountains that serves to emphasise the tonal gradations of the trees in the mid foreground. Behind that is range of mountains with sharper lines and contrasts and finally a slightly overcast sky.

In the same interview Kosoff says:”I admired Ansel Adams, but the more I shot landscape the less I was impressed with his photographs. Maybe this is because his work became so copied and was therefore less visually exciting to me. But his contributions to photography and the environment were enormous and no one will ever match that. I believe that photography is accepted as an art today because of Ansel Adams.”

Indeed, there are marked similarities between Lone Pine Peak and Ansel Adams’ Winter Sunrise Sierra Nevada. Although, as is common in many of Adams’s photos, you get the impression that a lot of work has gone on in the dark room to produce this particular print, something that is absent in Kosoff’s work


Ansel Adams: Winter Sunrise Sierra Nevada

Snowy Ridge is another brilliant composition. The structure is defined by the strong white line of the ridge which separates the snow from the dark winter sky.


Snowy Ridge

The feathery line of trees which runs along this dividing line creates a third dimension that runs across the photograph into the foreground. But it also serves to emphasise the strong compositional unity of this photograph.  The line of the ridge runs just below the tops of the trees in the foreground. The brilliance of this photograph rests in its wonderful balance of compositional simplicity and complexity. The photograph is held together by the subtle relationships between its elements: the contrasting foreground and background and the two lines of trees whose relationship to each other is tied together by line between the snow and the skyline.

At first sight, Silos lacks all the subtlety of Snowy Ridge. The foreground of the photograph is dominated by the lines of cut grass running across the plain emphasising the squat, contained solidity of the silos that dominates the centre of the photograph. Yet there is a poetic beauty in the contrast between their uneven orderliness and the clouds streaming across the background.




Two views of female sexuality: David Hamilton’s Nymphettes and Norman Lindsay’s Amazons

This blog is a comparison of the work of two artists, one a photographer, the other a painter. The aim of the comparison is to shed light on the nature of their work by using each as a frame of reference for the other.

David Hamilton (1933 – ) is a British photographer and film director best known for his nude images of young girls.


As much of Hamilton’s work depicts early-teen girls, often nude, he has been the subject of some controversy and even child pornography allegations, similar to that which the work of Sally Mann and Jock Sturges has attracted.

Norman Alfred William Lindsay (22 February 1879 – 21 November 1969) was an Australian artist, etcher, sculptor, writer, editorial cartoonist, scale modeller and an accomplished amateur boxer.  

normanlindsay portrait.jpg

Lindsay is widely regarded as one of Australia’s greatest artists and, like Hamilton, has been surrounded by some controversy. His book The Age of Consent was banned in Australia until 1962. Sixteen crates of his paintings which were taken to the US were impounded by authorities and burnt for being indecent.

There is much in common between David Hamilton and Norman Lindsay. The first and most obvious commonality is their celebration of the naked female body. However,  their work is in quite different traditions of this celebration.

Lindsay subjects are big women with Amazonian, gravity-defying  breasts of impossible proportions and thighs to match.

This great tradition of big women goes back to Peter Paul Rubens, probably greatest celebrator of big women and also to Pierre-Auguste Renoir.


 Rubens Andromeda Chained to the Rocks (1638-1639)


Rubens’ The Judgement of Paris looks forward to Renoir’s big women.


Renoir The Large Bathers

Much of Hamilton’s work celebrates the latent, but developing, sexuality of young women, also known as nymphettes.  His work is strongly rooted in a more recent tradition  in literature, photography and cinema. Most notably in Nabokov’s Lolita

and a series of films about highly sexualised young women and older men.


Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jane March in The Lover. Mena Suvari n American Beauty, Ariel Besse in Beau Pere, Jane March Colour of Night and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver

Hamilton is part of a photographic genre made famous by David Bailey and his portraits of the beauties of the 1960s and 70s.


Jean Shrimpton

bailey birkin.jpg

 Jane Birkin


and latterly Kate Moss

Perhaps  one of the most famous nymphettes is Natalie Portman as Matilda in Luc Besson’s  morally ambiguous The Professional.


These two different celebrations of the naked female body are apparent in a detail from Lindsay’s The Olympian Web, and in one of Hamilton’s portraits of the many beautiful young women that he photographed.



As well as their different traditions, both Lindsay and Hamilton have a very distinctive views of the sexuality of their subjects. In both cases, the depiction of this is closely linked to their stylistic approaches to their art.

There is a sense of innocence in Hamilton’s portrayal of youthful sexuality that is absent from Lindsay’s work. We see this in the etherial, dreamlike and, in many ways idealised, vision of innocent beauty and sexuality in Hamilton’s work.

sisters david hamilton 2



The sexuality of the young women in Hamilton’s photos has an inward and reflective aspect. Hamilton subjects very rarely look directly at the camera. They often appear preoccupied with some inner reality even when in the company of other young women.

Lindsay’s subjects, by comparison, are rarely reflective. Their sexuality is outgoing and aggressive and they are often focused on something, or someone, beyond the frame of the picture.


In  Lindsay’s The Invitation,  there is none of the demure innocence that characterises Hamilton’s work.  The invitation has a sense of sexual aggression and challenge that is frequently present in Lindsay’s portrayal of sexually desirable women. Certainly, there is a sense of the potency of female sexuality and power that is often in sharp contrast to the portrayal of the males in the paintings.


The Ragged Poet shows the poet, altogether a more attractive figure than the male in The Invitation,  surrounded by six women, all of whom appear to embody different aspects of female lust. While the women concentrate on the poet, he seems to be engaged with something beyond the frame of the picture, his art perhaps, which makes him oblivious to the  amorous attention of the women.


Another key difference is the embodiment of female beauty that the two artists celebrate. Hamilton subjects are young, long legged, blonde, delicately demure and almost impossibly beautiful.

Early work

nude classic

It is rare for Lindsay’s subjects to be as delicately demure.  And even at their most slender, they are still powerfully built women.

Norman Lindsay - The bathers.jpg

Many of Lindsay’s depiction of women were based on his muse and later, wife Rose Soady.



But often considerably enhanced.

Floral insperation.jpg

Floral Inspiration

(Four Nudes) By Norman Lindsay ,1937.jpg

Four Nudes

 Even from these few examples, it is clear that there is a richness to the narrative surrounding Lindsay’s paintings that is absent in Hamilton’s work which has a much narrower frame of reference. I will discuss this aspect of Lindsay’s work in my next blog.

David Hamilton’s soft porn images inspire new novel “The Merkin Chronicles

Edward Hopper: Shapes and Landscapes

A theme that runs through all of Hopper’s work is the image of the sun-lit shape. Many of his paintings, both his landscapes, urban landscapes and his interiors, feature large areas of bright light. Usually these paintings contain other aesthetic and emotional content.

But in some paintings, Hopper focuses purely on the idea of sunlight falling on walls, often white walls. In both Rooms by the sea and Sun in an empty room, the treatment is sparse and abstract and the focus is on the aesthetics of the shapes.

rooms-by-the-sea.jpgRooms by the sea

sun-in-an-empty-room.jpgSun in an empty room

These two paintings are structurally very similar. The light comes from an open space on the right-hand side,  the angles and geometry of the first impact of the light are echoed in the left-hand side of the painting and there is a view of the outside world through a door or window. In Rooms by the sea, the light falls on part of a painting in the next room, illuminating it, but not completely. Sun in an empty room is a brilliant evocation of  the asymmetrical geometry and tonal relations of sunlight falling on a wall and floor.

 While these two paintings are perhaps the most abstract of Hopper’s treatment of light, there are other paintings which demonstrate his preoccupation and fascination with tonal qualities of light on large objects and their place in the landscape.

Freight car at Truro depicts an abandoned freight car next to a railway line. It’s a large  structure slightly misaligned to its surroundings. Its rusted red structure is at odds with the sun drenched landscape of the background.

Freight car at Truro

 It’s a striking painting, emphasising the disharmony between the dark reds of the freight car and the more muted tones of the surrounding scenery.

Railroad Train is vintage Hopper.  While containing some of the asymmetrical qualities of Freight car at Truro, it contains many of his classic features, strong bands of colour running across the painting and the incomplete picture of the train suggesting, as in so many of his paintings, a story that is strangely interrupted and incomplete.

Railroad Train -.jpg
Railroad Train 

Like Freight car at Truro, there is a similar asymmetrical quality to Barn and Silo. However, there is a tonal harmony in this painting that doesn’t exist in Freight car at Truro.  The tonal gradations from the background hills to the silo in the barn and then to the golden colours of the grass in the foreground of the painting complete the geometry of the painting.

Barn and SIlo.jpgBarn and Silo

Many of the themes and ideas of Barn and Silo  and Freight car at Truro are present in Four Lane Road.  There is a large red rusting structure’  which is slightly out of kilter with its environment, in this case, an urban landscape. There is the same sense of decay, established with the contrast between the red rust and the sleeping-grey background ,that is present in Freight car at Truro.

Four Lane Road .jpgFour Lane Road

This painting is characterised by punctuations.  The sweep of the bridge, which is echoed by the curve of the structure in the right foreground, is punctuated by the tower which supports the bridge.  Both of these curving structures and the tower itself are integrated, both tonally and structurally, into the background of the buildings. And then, plonked in the left-hand side of the painting is the rusting red structure. Masterful.

In Cars and Rocks, we have a wonderful integration of shapes. The two motor cars are parked behind a line of rocks where the shape and structure of the cars runs parallel to the shape and structure of rocks.

Cars and Rocks Edward Hopper.jpg
Cars and Rocks

The car on the left is square and chunky, as is the rock that it is parked next to. The car in the centre of the picture is a more curved shape which is echoed in the shape of the rocks in front of it. The curve of the rocks the picture is picked up, but fragmented in the foreground, where the dark brown-black of the car bleeds away down the painting.

Gloucester Beach is, in many ways, a unique Hopper painting. It has a relaxed lyricism that is not present in the rest of his work. It is a romantic, idealised beach scene. Figures in the painting through the angst and  isolation common to so many of his paintings.

But it still maintains the hallmarks of Hopper’s use of light and structure. There are four structural elements in the painting. three of them serve as background: the sand the ocean and the sky. The fourth element is the figures on the beach.

gloucester-beach-edward-hopperGloucester Beach

 The visual centre of the painting is the grouping of the people on the beach. They are placed on the edge of a large foreground of sand, slightly bleached by the sunlight. The centre of the painting is dominated by a dark blue strip of ocean which separates the edge of the sand and the washed out sky in the background while serving to anchor the figures on the beach.

The sun-bleached white walls of Ryder’s House stand in contrast to the golden grass and the earthy tones of foreground and background hills.  It is very much “geometry and landscape” and like many of Hopper’s paintings of houses, there is a sense of isolation scene.

Ryder's House.jpgRyder’s House

Like the figures in Gloucester Beach,  the house is placed alone running across painting in this case a line of brown hills.  In the left background, the blue-gray strand appears to be the sea with the horizon dividing the sea and the clouds whereas on the right-hand side of the picture the distinction is somewhat more blurred and ambiguous.  The integration of the structural elements in the picture only serves to highlight the  geometrical starkness of the house.

These motifs are part of the  broader suite of hoppers were where he examines and explores the place of humans in an urban landscape and objects in houses the rural landscape of the American north-east.

Other Hopper posts

Sunlight and structure: Hopper’s Sun Watchers

Edward Hopper’s Travellers

Edward Hopper – “Lighthouse at Two Lights”

Edward Hopper: Urban Spaces, Interior Landscapes

Hopper’s Sunlight Paintings: Ideal Forms and Shadows

Edward Hopper: Shapes and Landscapes

Edward Hopper: the Sunlight pictures (i)

Edward Hopper’s search for ideal forms

Edward Hopper: travellers going nowhere

Hopper’s travellers (ii)

J M W Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire

Perhaps one of J M W Turner’s most famous paintings is The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up

The painting hangs in the National Gallery, London, having been bequeathed to the nation by the artist in 1851. In 2005 it was voted the nation’s favourite painting in a poll organised by BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

At the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October, the ship went into action immediately astern of Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. During the battle Temeraire came to the rescue of the beleaguered Victory, and fought and captured two French ships, winning public renown in Britain.

TurnerThe Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.jpg

The symbolism of the painting is obvious. The sun is setting on  a glorious chapter of English naval history. Steam driven vessels are replacing sail and here one of the iconic battleships is being towed the wrecking yard by a fairly grubby little tug boat.

The tugboat and the Temeraire form one of the major structural elements of the painting. The battleship already a ghost, is linked to the dirty brown tugboat by the plume of smoke coming from its smokestack and by a sailing ship that the two vessels are moving past.


At the top of the painting, this image is framed by a patch of blue sky in the background and the reddish-brown reflection of the sunset on the river.

At the bottom, the fiery sunset bleeds into the dark browns that fill the water around the two ships.

The fiery red sunset modulates into a cloud which hangs over the Temeraire in much the same way as the smoke from the smokestack does, but it’s purer and cleaner and tonally related to the hues. of the ghostly battleship.

Like most of Turner’s sunsets, the one is like no sunset you will ever see. It is part of Turner’s genius to turn even the most glorious of scenes into a work of art.

In the sky, directly above the setting sun, hangs the spirit of the Temeraire, trailing clouds of glory.


The painting has immense emotional impact. The might and beauty of the sunset dominates the painting which is suffused with a sense of loss. The ghostly grandeur of the battleship dwarfs the stocky utilitarian tugboat.


The painting is also typical of many of Turner’s major works with its major theme of the overwhelming power and beauty of nature.

Eternal triangles: Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan

This gorgeous painting by French painter Guillemot Alexandre Charles (1786-1831) depicts the moment when Vulcan is about to cast the net he has forged over the two lovers,  Mars and Venus, trapping them in flagrante delicto for all to see.


The beautifully shaped alabaster form of Venus dominates the centre of the painting. The goddess of love is portrayed as a ravishing (and frequently ravished) beauty.

Mars was the archetypical bad boy. hot tempered, always ready for a fight and desperately attractive.

Poor old Vulcan, by contrast, was rather more mundane. toiling away in his forge each day. Think Joe Gargery from Great Expectations.

The central figure, the blushing Venus, with her hand to a head in feigned concern radiates “well what did you expect?”


She is a ditzy Princess Di figure, a narcissist only partially connecting to the drama surrounding her.

The figure of Mars is similarly disconnected from the drama.


He stares at the viewer with sullen aggression saying, “So what are you looking at?”

Only Vulcan appears to be emotionally connected to what is happening.


He stares of Venus in puzzlement as if trying to understand what has happened. Surely this was not the first time. Her list of lovers included Dionysius,  Mercury, Zeus, Nerites,  Poseidon, and the mortal, Adonis. Perhaps that is what is puzzling Vulcan.

There are two strong compositional structures in this painting linking the three central figures.xomposition

The first runs from Mars’ shoulder down the figure of Venus where it connects with a transverse that runs along her right leg her foot, her foot and into the left arm of Vulcan. This structure serves to reinforce emotional content of the painting.

A secondary structure is in the background where the gods view the plight of the lovers from Mount Olympus.

The Gods look on

The Gods look on

Once he had ensnared the lovers with his net, Vulcan

…… call’d the Gods to view the sportive pair:
The Gods throng’d in, and saw in open day,
Where Mars, and beauty’s queen, all naked, lay.
O! shameful sight, if shameful that we name,
Which Gods with envy view’d, and could not blame;
But, for the pleasure, wish’d to bear the shame.
Each Deity, with laughter tir’d, departs,
Yet all still laugh’d at Vulcan in their hearts.

Ovid Metamorphoses Book IV

The title of the painting reminds me of the famous anecdote.

The famous Dr. Johnson was discovered one day by Mrs. Johnson in bed with one of her serving maids.

“Why, Dr. Johnson,” said his wife, “I am surprised.”

“No,” said the lexicographer, “my dear. I am surprised; you are astonished!”


Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter, Johnson’s wife: astonished not surprised