25 Jul

The Tempest, c. 1507 by Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco).

Although I often have a go at contemporary art– and a lot of it is absolute bullshit because the artists who make it have less self-awareness and intelligence than your average contestant on Britain’s Got Talent– I also don’t have much sympathy for the view that proper art is old art, proper art is figurative art, proper art is something that looks pretty hanging on the wall. Just because a painting is old that doesn’t mean it’s good. Loads of bad art works are still around and they probably shouldn’t be, many good ones have been lost. I’ve seen the actual painting reproduced above; it’s quite small, and it hangs in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice. Yes, I know, wankorama, in the last post I was casually dropping it in that I saw this and that in Tokyo, now Venice…

Various art critics and academics have had a stab at unravelling what Giorgione was trying to say with this painting. It used to be referred to as a picture of Mercury and Isis, even though these two mythological characters don’t even come from the same cosmologies as each other. It’s been spoken of as an allegory of charity, death and other things that you’re fairly safe in speculating that a 16th century painting’s about. I think I can slice right through this particular Gordian knot and explain all instantly. The painting is not enigmatic. Superficially it’s well done and everything, but this painting is total shit.

Milk, milk, lemonade…

Artistic license, surrealism, irrational connections and fantasy can all be wonderful things. Being totally random and incompetent isn’t wonderful. What the hell is going on here? Mardy woman decided to breastfeed a baby next to the river, naked except for her satin Vegas Elvis cape?  Breastfeeding is a normal thing, but there’s no reasonable reference point for the way it’s depicted here. If you saw a woman doing something like it for real on a towpath in the Midlands, for example, you’d think fucking hell, she’s totally mental and give her a wide berth if you were sensible. 

Obviously we’re meant to assume that her right breast is behind the baby’s head, but look closely– study that tit– and it’s clearly right in the middle of her chest. In fact the whole area between her belly and her neck is physiologically implausible, and one begins to suspect that the Elvis cape is deliberately masking a body that doesn’t add up. Either she’s a hunchback or her shoulder is jointed somewhere it shouldn’t be. The baby is basically just an amorphous blob that the artist cheated on by putting the woman’s leg up. Did he paint a woman naked for absolutely no good reason, then tried to make it seem less pervy by painting the baby in afterwards?

Meanwhile, the buildings in the background are all much too small for people to get inside them. What the hell were those two adjacent, pencil-thin pillars ever supporting? What’s up with those weedy trees of indeterminate species? Why is that lactophiliac creeper standing in the river like an idiot? Was he there before the breastfeeder came along and he just decided to stick around so he could enjoy the show? Or was he splashing around fully clothed in the river because he’s also mental, then she came along with her Lovecraftian maggot baby, doffed her Elvis jumpsuit and just got right down to it for his edification?

Obviously this isn’t the only bad historical painting that still somehow shows up as a supposedly legitimate part of the canon of Western art. I’m just using it as an example. Don’t ever say that art isn’t what it used to be.


  1. juice weleen 25/07/2012 at 12:24 PM #

    very entertaining interpretation…. you realise that most alot of these things are symbolic?

    • Alistair 25/07/2012 at 1:50 PM #

      No, I did not know that imagery in art works can be symbolic or allegorical, not just literal depictions of actual events, and I’m shocked, SHOCKED to find this out so late in my career. Thanks for the heads up.

      Obviously I’m fucking around with you. Symbolism is not an invitation to stop making sense. There’s symbolism, there’s artistic license, and then there’s “can’t really paint breasts, babies or buildings very well” like this ham fisted hack.

      • juice weleen 26/07/2012 at 7:20 AM #

        haha true. how funny. its interesting to read some “real” interpretations of art. i studied art history, i think it bored (/didn’t make sense etc?) me so much that i kinda just got over it. so i take pictures of garbage bins and floor tiles. haha
        keep it up! looking forward to reading more

      • Alistair 26/07/2012 at 9:23 AM #

        Sounds like money well spent on your art history course…

      • juice weleen 27/07/2012 at 12:54 PM #

        tell me about it! i’ll be paying it off for at least the next 10 years. oh well. i have a wonderful collection of soft skills!

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