And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 28. september 2011

Musidora, the Bather

As I have probably mentioned a number of times, the City of York takes great pride in its sundry sons and daughters. Among these various known, half-known and unknown prodigies we find the painter William Etty (1787-1849), famous for nudes and controversies and currently honoured with a grand exhibition at York Art Gallery. I was alerted to this event by a friend of mine from Constantine House and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time exploring Etty's artwork. In a later blogpost I hope to return to the subject of Etty's art, but since I'm currently either too busy or too tired to compile a blogpost of sufficient length I shall leave you, for now, with an appetiser.

I was struck by much of Etty's work for several reasons, reasons I aim to come back to later. However, one of the pictures that really stuck with me for a long time afterwards was his brilliant painting Musidora, or the Bather, a painting met with general applause by art critics because Musidora, unlike some of Etty's other subjects or characters, did not display any lustful or inviting looks. When I saw the painting I noted that not only does not Musidora appear frivolous in any way, she looks indeed very anxious, fearing something she does not see but clearly apprehends, clutching a nearby branch in suspended terror. There is something genuinely ugly about the composition which makes a voyeur of the viewer, captivating him or her with colours and arrangement, drawing them all into the artwork to become those whom Musidora dreads. When you realise this you will feel sorry for the girl, you will feel guilty and perhaps a bit dirty too, but you cannot look away. Whether or not this was intentional on account of William Etty I can't decide, obviously, but considering how critics would condemn his figures for being too intemperate, too flamboyant this painting tricks the moralist into appreciating his or her own voyeurism and in that manner become the lustful peeper. The set-up is reminiscent of a painting by Etty called Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Minsters, as She Goes to Bed, a work castigated by the critics for its display of sexuality, only that in the case of Musidora the critics become Gyges, dazzled voyeurs of a woman belonging to another man, committing hypocrisy as they praise the painting and her trepidation.

In the days following Musidora remained in my head and in the end I wrote a poem hoping to convey how I imagine contemporaries of Etty must have stood before the canvas and delighting in her anxiety. The picture below is taken from the Museum Syndicate.


After William Etty

She halts, as by a shadow startled;
She looks around, but in the wrong direction,
Bewildered, naked, halting her descent
With just enough timidity to be accepted.

They gaze at her, some with a fierce invective
Stopped only by her face half turned away.
Her posture speaks of fear and their appraisal
Is founded on that fear. They lean and sway

To catch her angles better, that the light
Might in the end reveal what has been hidden
But only vaguely so. They nod and smile
While hoping secretly she will detect them.
- September 10-26 2011

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