Monday, May 6, 2013

MWA XIV: Furse's Diana

Few people know much about Charles Wellington Furse. I certainly never heard of him until very recently. British-born, he died in his mid-30s, soon after painting the work you see here, Diana of the Uplands, 1903-04. The model for the picture was his wife Katherine, and according to the Tate's website she recorded that her step-mother-in-law helped create the wind effect, and the greyhounds were hired specifically for the picture (one black dog and one white dog, although Furse combined their coloring). The title refers to classical imagery of the ancient Roman goddess Diana, who was depicted in art as a huntress accompanied by dogs. This genteel woman is meant to be a modern-day Diana, one who may lead the dogs to a hunt in the Highlands, but who would never carry a bow-and-arrow or a rifle to actually hunt, as that is the work of men. This is a modern-day portrait of opulence and refinery, a Gilded Age homage to womanhood among the British upper middle classes. The color palette and brushstroke, as well as the portrait style, clearly shows the influence of Furse's contemporary, the American society portraitist John Singer Sargent. But there also is a feeling of Grand Manner portraiture that reaches back to the eighteenth-century style of Thomas Gainsborough. The loose brushstroke captures the wind-swept feel of the hills around the woman, and her taught arm reaches out to show her struggle to restrain the dogs, eager to hunt. Indeed, the dogs looking outside the frame for prey creates a perpendicular sense of vision that contrasts with "Diana" gazing at the viewer, bringing you the viewer into the hunt scene as well. It is a fascinating, introspective-yet-staged portrait that suggests a particular moment in time.

I never would have chosen this picture as this month's MWA had I not gone this past Friday to see the exhibition Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century at the Yale Center for British Art. The exhibition is ambitious, arranged on two floors, and incorporates paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, decorative arts, fashion, and audio/video works. It ties in well with the popularity of Downton Abbey, but that is a coincidence, as this exhibition was planned long before the show ever aired. In the US, however, how many actually know what "Edwardian" means? It is exclusively British in that it refers to the short reign of King Edward VII (Queen Victoria's heir) from 1901-10, although it stretches Edwardian back to the mid-1890s and up to World War I. Much as the term "Victorian" is fraught with problems because it lasted 64 years, "Edwardian" equally is problematic because, for such a brief period of time, the world and cultural world expanded in ways too difficult to define by a single style. Indeed, one problem with the exhibition itself is attempting to define what Edwardian even means. I left feeling more confused because all the thematic arrangements and numerous works of art demonstrate the diverse approaches artists took with different ideas and the lack of centralization that is "Edwardian." But then again that was perhaps the curators' point, to problematize that idea and move beyond it. I also was surprised that, despite the text-based acknowledgment of the British Empire reaching its height during the Edwardian period, there is very little international art or cultural objects to demonstrate the global impact of British imperialism and its subjects. Nor is there a sense of the working classes or anyone other than the highest echelons of society (hence the "opulence" part of the exhibition). What does make the exhibition exciting and refreshing, however, is the introduction of new ideas, artists, and works that were popular a century ago in the London art world, such as Furse and the portrait above. The pictures by Sargent shine (as always, he was a brilliant artist). Photography is brought in beautifully with rare autochromes (earliest glass-based color photographs) and the thematic arrangement of society photos showing off the first motor cars like equestrian portraits of the past. All in all, the exhibition is interesting in showcasing heretofore little-known works and artists, and putting together a large number of themes that show how many ways the Edwardians celebrated their cultural life. If this exhibition accomplishes anything, hopefully it will be the opening up to future scholarship further examination of the areas and ideas not seen in the exhibition, so as to better demonstrate how fascinating this world just before the outbreak of World War I actually was. Indeed, the charm of Downton Abbey isn't so much what's happening upstairs, but what's happening downstairs and outside the walls of the estate too.

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