Illus. 2, Titian, Venus and Cupid with a Lute-Player, 1555 to 1565, oil on canvas. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Introductory: Sight, the Mind's Eye and Art (excerpt)

 

            The picture-making that goes on in our head as we read is often complex, and rich in its connections, though very little attempt has been made to study it. One might ask, how can we possibly know what different people see, in their mind's eye, as they read? But actually the visual prompts in texts work in a way that is easy to analyse: and it deserves analysis because the life of many texts lies partly in the subtle, rich way in which words make us -- imaginatively -- see. That is why we call texts 'vivid', and praise writers for making us 'see' the people and places they describe. But to say this in general terms may be obscure. I shall give an example. If the discussion here is lengthy I shall be briefer hereafter, but the way in which visual suggestions cooperate here does seem to me as good an example as any one could find of what might be called a 'poetics of sight' working with visual vitality through words:

 

            'The white face of the winter day came sluggishly on, veiled in a frosty mist; and the shadowy ships in the river slowly changed to black substances; and the sun, blood-red on the eastern marshes behind dark masts and yards, seemed filled with the ruins of a forest it had set on fire.'

 

            In this passage, from an early chapter in Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, the colour cues -- white, black, blood-red -- ensure our mind's eye is open, especially when the 'shadowy' ships slowly grow to be silhouettes. In the first words of the passage we are given two images -- what might be called the 'material image', the imagined 'real' sight we are to see, of a whitely misty morning -- and what might be called the 'comparative image', the personification of the day as a person approaching us, whose face is white and who wears a white veil. The white veil makes this person a woman, even a bride, but women in white are eerie in Victorian fiction -- as in the novel of that name by Dickens's friend Wilkie Collins -- and the faint image of this white-faced frost-bride seems not so much virginal as ghostly. She could have behind her Miss Havisham in her old bridal white, the most memorable creation in the immediately preceding novel Dickens had written, Great Expectations. The image of a bride could hardly be called 'vivid', however, since the words 'face' and 'veil' are sometimes used in general speech without reference to people: it is simply their close conjunction here which provokes us, a little, to imagine a figure. The strong image here is the 'material image' of the whitely misty morning, while the combination of 'white', 'winter' and 'frosty' invites us to shiver as we visualize this winter dawn at the Essex end of London's docklands.

 

            It is the other way round at the far end of the sentence, where again there are two sights in play, the 'material image' of a low red sun seen behind the masts and yards of ships, crowded together in the docks ('yard' being used here in its sailing sense, as the spar on a mast from which the sails are hung): and the 'comparative image' of the same sun seen behind the embers of a  forest-fire, with the tree-trunks burnt to sticks -- the sun seeming now so close to the trees that it has itself set light to them. But while this comparative image may seem subordinate, a visual comparison introduced to help us see the early-morning docks -- as it clearly does -- actually it has a primary role. The material image of the sun and masts cannot be called weak -- 'blood-red' ensures that. But the sun-forest is stronger, and by the end of the sentence we see that the earlier, 'real' scene of the sun-and-masts has been a means of getting to it. For the final clause of the sentence ('seemed filled with the ruins of a forest it had set on fire') is arresting in its thought, and more emotionally laden than the foregoing words. It must be read with a cadence, with a sense of fatality both grim and great. By such means, which are often visual, Dickens builds the grave mood of his novel -- nearly the last that he wrote -- in which life is seen in a long and stricken perspective with an abiding sense of damage, waste and loss. The final image has an added poignancy because we might associate a dying conflagration more with sunset than with sunrise, while here one huge burnt-out conclusion is offered as the visible start of the day….

 

            And on the other hand there are aspects of painting which are manifestly poetic, like their use of visual metaphor. The phrase 'visual metaphor' has itself more currency now than it used to, in contexts ranging from film theory to handbooks on advertizing strategy. For the present however I shall try to indicate a broader sense in which one might usefully think of a painting as a 'visual poem' by comparing the different versions of a Titian subject -- the goddess Venus with a musician.

 

            In each painting in this series, a musician sits on the end of the bed of the goddess Venus playing either an organ or a lute: but as he plays he turns to look at her, as she rests on a cover of sumptuous red velvet laid over fine satin sheets. She is naked, and her body is glowingly beautiful in its warm pearly whiteness. In none of the paintings does she look at, or even seem much aware of, the musician (though in at least one there is evidence that Titian had earlier painted her with her head turned the other way). It has been suggested that the paintings allude to the doctrine of a hierarchy among the senses, as developed in the neo-Platonic thought of Ficino and Pico della Mirandola and taken up by Castiglione, but it is hard to argue that the paintings show clearly that either hearing (as of music) or sight (as of a painting) approach more closely the beauty of Venus. Rather the paintings suggest some equation, or correspondence between the visibly sensuous beauty of painting, the audibly sensuous beauty of music, and the sensuous and sensual beauty of the human body and love: as if each beauty were, to some degree, a metaphor for the others. The relation between them could be called poetic. It is a natural relation of course, since, away from the Church, much painting celebrated the sensuous beauties of the body and love, and, away from church music, much music made with woodwind and strings played or sang of the sweetness of love, and again of the yearning sweet sadness of love. As Count Orsino says, at the opening of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, 'If music be the food of love, play on.'

 

            Not all the paintings have the sweet loving melancholy of Count Orsino, however. In the version of the subject in the Prado, Madrid, dated to 1547-8, the musician is a mature, handsome knight with a prominent sword who fingers the keyboard of the organ while he turns, leaning thrustingly forward, to eye, from beneath the worldly, heavy eyelids of a courtier, the lustrous, middle to lower body of Venus (Fig. 1). In this case she may be aware of his gaze, as she toys with a tiny dog who sniffs her fragrant skin as the knight, with his sharp nose, seems also keen to do. The term 'Venus' at this period was not just the name of the goddess of love, it was also a euphemism for sex as such, and whatever its allegory this painting is, like others by Titian, directly sexual. In the garden behind the figures the erect statue of a satyr holds a pot of water on his head, from which thin streams loop in many directions. Close to the fountain, one animal sniffs the hind-quarters of another. Elsewhere a couching stag, with a full set of horns, sits erect with attention, while further off a young couple, clasping closely, slip away down an avenue. Given these prompts, the post-Freudian spectator may see in the squat organ-pipes a visual pun, as in the English word 'organ': one might even find in the two close lines of trees, which converge steeply on a clear bright space, an open welcome as of parting limbs. One might, moreover, compare the organist's fingers, moving lightly on the keys, with the fingers of Venus lightly stroking the dog, while her other hand, at which the knight looks, stirs carressingly on her own thigh. The painting, then, is not only full of quasi-poetic references, but also illustrates those clear-cut gender-political readings of art, where a naked woman is an erotic commodity and is portrayed as having no other desire than for her body to shine in the desire of men, who will not so willingly strip off their rich clothes. It is not clear, however, that Titian's attitude is celebratory: he paints Venus certainly so her naked beauty glows, but there is an observant detachment in the painting of the courtier with his dull eyelids and foraging nose. He could as easily be called lascivious as loving. The peacock of vanity sits on the rim of the satyr's fountain, and it is a sombre-coloured peacock, almost black. The painting, with its gross organ-pipes, may be critical of music itself, a notorious accessory to the arts of seduction.

 

            In another, closely similar, version, also in the Prado and dated 1555, the man is younger and less assured in his gaze, which is however more clearly directed to Venus's pudenda. The dog is replaced by Venus's child Cupid, who presses her soft breast while love-mother and love-child eyeball each other, their pupils millimeters apart, like a metaphor for the narcissism of lovers. The eroticism is more pensive here. The fountains spurting from the stone satyr in the garden are fewer and weaker, and there is no buck deer to sniff the exposed rear of a grazing doe. The stag is maybe more restful, though the two lovers slipping away under trees more clearly have their arms round each other. A more distinctly black peacock sits on the rim of the fountain. The organ pipes are taller and more slender: maybe they play a sweeter music. Here we are perhaps nearer to love than to lust, and though the reference to sex is clear, there is an allusion to the affinity or continuity between the love of parent and child and the love of young lovers.

 

            A dog had first appeared in an earlier version, in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, and dated c1550, but it was of no interest then to Venus or Cupid, who were absorbed in each other with a slightly glazed look. This dog had seemed to be there just for fun: it had wildly woolly white hair, and yapped directly us. There are numerous differences between this painting and the two foregoing. The landscape is without prominent erotic metaphors, and the musician is younger still, with a dagger not a sword, and is set further back: he gazes more with interest than desire at the goddess. He seems not to touch the keyboard, and this painting might be thought a deliberately mild exercise on the theme.

 

            Of the paintings in which the musician plays a lute, one (now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York) seems so obviously a studio copy of the other (now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) that I shall concentrate on the latter, the 'Venus and Cupid with a  lute-player' dated 1555-65 (Fig. 2). Here the musician is youngest of all, more boy than man. His gaze makes no approach to Venus's crotch, which (as in the other lute-picture) is covered with a wisp of see-through gauze. If we follow his eyeline, he seems to gaze, quite wistfully, at her shoulder, or possibly beyond. He may not look directly at Venus at all, nor is it clear that the musician and the goddess exist in quite the same dimension, for while he sits (like the other musicians) on the end of Venus's bed, Venus herself, and the rich red velvet on which she lies, seem to levitate some eight inches over the bed, or at least to be supported on some sort of concealed bolster. The relation of Venus's feet to the musician is again anomalous. One could think her bare toes must touch or press on his black velvet cape, but the cape shows no pressure. Actually the painting shows rather clearly that the musician and Venus were painted on separate occasions when the other model was absent. This might be said of the other paintings in the series, but those paintings allow for some mutual awareness between the figures, which scarcely seems present here. There is evidence on the canvas that in an earlier, overpainted version, the head of Venus was turned towards the musician, but as we see her now she is wholly unaware of him, gazing beyond the painting and a little upwards. She seems indifferent even to the fact that her young son Cupid is resting a crown of flowers on her head.

 

            But if the musician and Venus seem oddly lacking in rapport, they are united by the fact that in this version both figures gaze beyond the picture, while in this version (alone) Venus too is a musician. Her hand holds, idly now, the alto recorder on which she has been playing, while the lutanist still clasps his lute, though his gaze implies he may shortly pause. In this version music is important as music, whether or not it is the food of love. Resting beside Venus is a large bass-viol, which maybe she plays if and when she feels more energetic -- or which the painter or we might play, were he or we to join their consort. The score of a madrigal is set before our eye -- it is the closest object to us within the painting -- with the notes written clearly so that, if we had a recorder, and turned the painting upside down, we could play them (and they have been played, though the piece is not identified). The musician still is a knight or gentleman -- he has a sword -- and still we are in that world where men may be shown delighting in the beauty of women's naked bodies with no obligation to undress themselves. It is possible too that Titian's 'Venus' was a known, and not aristocratic, beauty of the time. Even so, there is not the emphasis on desire or lust seen in other versions. There is no spurting stone satyr in the garden, no sniffing buck, no pair of lovers making haste towards privacy. Nor is there an aristocratic park, with trees marshalled in rows. Rather, beyond the balcony, there is a Romantic landscape, unfenced and partly wild, with dark large wind-tossed trees and a recession of moorland towards blue mountains, roughly shaped and craggy, with further blue ranges receding beyond them, beneath an active, turbulent sky which also shows some blue. Animals run, and some sort of revels proceed beneath the trees -- the painting could hardly be called chaste -- but the scenery also evokes the distances and turbulences which may be found in human emotions: such emotions as may be conjured by a truly suggestive music. There is a sense in this painting of a 'beyond' to life: it lies to the upper right of the frame, where Venus and the musician gaze, but it also lies in the depths of the landscape into which we ourselves may stare. In this work the delicate and sexually desirable beauty of the human body is associated or equated with the wistfully seductive suggestiveness of music, but both are seen in the long perspective of the great space surrounding life, where pensiveness has an edge of sadness, an awareness of fragility and transience. The love-music of this period is often sweetly sensuous but with a sadness at its periphery.

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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