Tuesday, January 27, 2015

MWA XXXII: Houdon's Winter

The great blizzard we were expecting turned out to be a bust in NYC. We got about 8 inches of snow in Central Park and a foot at LaGuardia Airport. Nevertheless, it is reportedly still windy and cold, with snow blowing everywhere. And anyone who endures this kind of winter weather knows that one of the great challenges is trying to stay warm outdoors. That challenge is, perhaps, one of the reasons why I've always admired the sculpture you see here, which I've selected as January's Monthly Work of Art. The statue is just under life size and was made by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), an artist known to this day for his ability to capture personality and psychology in his portrait busts and statues. This sculpture, Winter, was cast in bronze in 1787 and intended as an allegory, and likely may have been intended to be grouped with other figures representing the other seasons.

Whenever I see this work in the Petrie Court at the Met Museum, I'm always struck by how successfully the sculptor personified the feeling of shivering, to the point that it makes the viewer shiver with her. One could argue that the most obvious reason why is because she is essentially nude but for the shawl draped around her head and shoulders. But the real reason she shivers is because of how she holds her body. You sense a shiver not from her nudity but from her body language. The shawl is clutched around her, her arms wrap tightly together, and her legs are pressed tightly, so as to create a feeling of warmth in the cold. With a title such as Winter, one imagines she has been removed from a narrative scene where perhaps she is poverty-stricken and shivering in the cold. In a greater display of art, it is possible Houdon intended her to be dressed, but he may have reconsidered his plan when he saw the study of the nude form itself and recognized how important the body language spoke the sensation he sought to capture. The position of her leg in contrapposto also suggests motion, and I've often wondered if perhaps she has just touched her big toe into a pool of water and that is what is making her shiver. From that perspective, the title of Winter is misleading, for this is not an outdoor scene but a naturalistic scene of a woman bathing, a tradition in art that one associates more with Japanese Ukiyo-e and Impressionist paintings and prints by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Regardless, the girl's naturalism in her body language is what makes this sculpture so fascinating. There is a frisson of sensuality in her nudity as well, for she covers herself modestly like a Venus Pudica, and hides her innocent face with the cloak. In doing so, she is stripped of her identity and she comes to represent any innocent young woman alone in the world. Indeed, the more one ponders her state of being, one cannot help but wonder if she also represents the victim of a sexual attack, something which has robbed her of her innocence and left her shivering in the coldness of society. It is this multi-layered combination of innocence and sensuality, external coldness and bodily warmth, that makes this sculpture such a fascinating work to behold. Details of the sculpture enhance aspects of its naturalism further, how the texture of the cloth differs from her glossy fingernails and supple flesh pressing into her arm. But it is the overall sensation of her body shivering that makes this a magnificent work of art.

The Met Museum recently has launched a new online media component called Viewpoints: Body Language, in which a group of figurative sculptures are given due acknowledgment through the use of video and audio clips, highlighting their power as representations of the human form. It is worth going to the page for Winter (click here) and listening to the curator, educator, and outside scholars respond to the sculpture in short videos and audio clips. There are links on the left to numerous other works in the collection. This is a fine example of how social media can enhance the learning experience of sculpture and educate people about an art form frequently misunderstood and often underappreciated.


Sherman Clarke said...

Well, I know at least one stop I need to make the next time I'm in the Petrie Court. I often stop in the court to observe and/or admire one or another work and must admit that I've never noticed Winter.

bklynbiblio said...

The sculpture is usually up against the wall of the former entrance. I think the bronze coloration actually hides her among all the white marble! But she's worth noticing.