We,from EWAG, wish all our readers and followers, friends and lovers, a very Happy New Year! May your 2016 be a year of great joy; and may the year bring us even closer in interaction and spirit.
The New Year has always been a time for fresh resolutions. And for our Art History section today, we are featuring ten of the best New Year resolutions depicted in artworks. Of course there are many more, and coming down to us over great time. But this is a pick amongst them – and we think they are the ten of the topmost.
These could be the Ten Commandments of the New Year. They could also be the Ten Rules that you could live the year by. Rest assured that great artists have grappled with the same issues that many of us may be grappling with – and have put down their thoughts and feelings in these works of art.
1. Give up smoking
Horror at Home, Damien Hirst
Saatchi Gallery, London
This could be a scene from an Alan Carr session in which the smokers keep on puffing, stubbing out their fags in overflowing ashtrays, appalled to see the accumulation of butts. Hirst’s gigantic Brobdingnagian tray is filled with the contents of several bin bags, apparently all from a night at the Groucho club in the days when members could chain it. The work stinks, the pristine sculpture is defiled, life is going up in smoke. Let Horror at Home stiffen your resolve: it’s an all-out cautionary tale.
2. Give up drinking
L’Absinthe, by Edgar Degas
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Degas’s L’Absinthe, with its dead-eyed couple apparently paralysed by the eponymous drink, appalled French critics when it was first shown in 1876. How ugly and disgusting to portray an inebriated woman! In Britain, it was considered a morality tale: this is what happens when you drink too much. But in fact it is a painting of modern life, in Baudelaire’s famous phrase, composed in the studio under the influence of Japanese art. She’s stoned, he’s drinking a hangover cure in what looks like the cold light of day. It’s the morning after, or they’ve been at it all night. They’ve got to give up.
3. Read more
The Artist’s Two Youngest Sisters, Constantin Hansen
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
A book so riveting two children can read it at once without irritating each other? If only Hansen had revealed its title. But of course his reading party is really a portrait by other means, of his younger sisters in spellbound concentration, as well as the joys of reading. He painted the girls absorbed in writing and thinking too, completing the triangle of literature. Hansen is a pioneer of the Golden Age of Danish painting. He cared for these girls on his own, from a young age, when their parents died very suddenly of typhus.
4. Give more
The Boy With the Club Foot, Ribera
The boy is a beggar, but is he actually begging? Ribera’s great portrait makes a monument of this spirited child with his defiant grin and marching pose. The viewpoint is low, so you have to look up to the boy, and the deformity all but invisible in the shadows. He carries his crutch like a spade or weapon and appears anything but downtrodden, for all his shoeless and orphaned state. But it is a performance, an act of bravery, for in his hand is the written plea: “Give Me Alms, for the Love of God.” Keep him in mind in 2012.
5. Exercise more
The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, Henry Raeburn
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh
The Skating Minister, Raeburn’s most famous painting and world-famous as a Christmas card, marries two apparently opposing genres by making an action shot of a portrait. The figure cuts a dark diagonal through the chill grey light, his blades etching criss-cross lines on the ice, gliding forward apparently without exertion. The painting imitates his perfect balance. Walker was a founder member of the world’s first figure-skating club, which could only exercise when the loch froze. There’s no excuse for the rest of us.
6. Get organised
The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes, Eric Ravilious
This is a dream of perfect order, and not just for gardeners. Indeed there is no sign of a gardener here, unless perhaps God himself is implied. Everything is beautifully organised, from the tomatoes above to the potted cyclamen below, with not a single weed nor a leaf out of place. The perspective is pristine, the watercolour so clear, light and symmetrical in both its form and content, the white paper burning through the foliage like sunlight. It is the greenhouse from paradise, the platonic ideal of organisation, a spur to action. Tidy greenhouse, tidy mind.
7. Lose weight
Alessandro del Borro, Charles Mellin
The great fatso of art fills the frame, side to side, genially displaying his bulk – a living embodiment of too many dinners. He is depicted from below, close up, in profile and between two pillars so he seems to jam the space. But the face is shrewd and the body stout as that column. Alessandro del Borro was a Tuscan nobleman and soldier who fought for Florence, Spain and Venice, where he was nicknamed the “Terror of the Turks” for his ingenuity. Once thought to be by Velázquez, now by Mellin, the portrait gives you the man in full.
8. Learn something new
Aún Aprendo, black chalk drawing
Goya Prado, Madrid
An old man with grizzled locks and long white beard moves resolutely forward on two sticks. The body is frail, and the sticks can only give temporary stability but still the man keeps going. “I am still learning,” reads the caption, which might of course mean nothing more than learning to hobble, but few can resist a more biographical interpretation. A dauntless old man still out and about, still experimenting, still curious to discover something new – like Goya, who made the drawing in his 80s, still inspired to live and learn.
9. Spend more time with your family
The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, Thomas Gainsborough
National Gallery, London
Gainsborough’s much-loved painting of his daughters Mary, aged six, and Margaret, aged four or so, shows the girls breezily tripping forward after the elusive butterfly. But the day is passing. The wood is dark, a storm seems to be gathering, perhaps even dusk, and though these little bodies are moving fast, the faces are more anxious and static. Carpe diem. Childhood is brief, ephemeral as a butterfly and will pass parents by if they do not pay attention.
10. Stop procrastinating
Painting, Smoking, Eating, Philip Guston
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
In this tragicomic painting, the American artist Philip Guston portrays himself as a caricatural cyclops stuck in bed with his sloth, his weak will and his ruinous appetites. He lies beneath a fat plate of ketchup-covered chips, paralysed and anxiously eyeing the pile of old shoes that had become a motif of these later paintings. Guston is not painting, he’s not eating; in fact he’s just smoking himself to death. Get up and get on, says the picture. But of course Guston has – the painting is the evidence.