Is sin even a thing in today’s mad, mad world? Where the word ‘sorry’ is flung about with thoughtless abandon and the sense that it grants instant absolution, does a speck of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, or sloth still keep us awake at night?
A new exhibition opened this week exploring depictions of ‘sinful’ behaviour through religious and secular art. The small but beautifully curated show features eight historic works from the National Gallery, and two contemporary works on loan from artists Tracey Emin and Ron Mueck. The exhibition offers the chance to get up and close and personal with iconic works in an intimate setting.
Venus and Cupid, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1529), Venus and Cupid, 1529. Photos by Irene Caswell at the exhibition, originals © The National Gallery, London. [Click image to enlarge].
The exquisite painting of Venus and Cupid by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) is one of my favourite works from the show. It is a joy to see it so close and to study the detail. It is playful, delicate and wildly romantic. The Renaissance focus is on nature and beauty, and offsetting Venus’ naked form is a complex headress adorned with pearls, and complimentary jewellery around her neck and wrist. Her direct gaze is seductive and yet playful, reminiscent of the saying ‘butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth’. Venus has one hand placed elegantly on the trunk of a tree, drawing attention to a handing plaque that translates roughly to ‘life’s pleasure is mixed with pain’.
At her side, her son and the god of Love, Cupid, wearing a very cross expression and clutching a stolen honeycomb, rather sweetly demonstrates the indusputable fact of life by complaining about bee stings. Cupid, called Amor in Latin, and in Greek, Eros, is easily recognised by his tiny wings. Cranach the Elder paints Cupid without a bow, arrow and quiver with which he targets lovers.
Ron Mueck began his career as a model and puppetmaker, working in the film industry. Mueck created the character, Ludo, for the Jim Henson film, Labyrinth, (1986) starring David Bowie. I haven’t come across his work previously but now that I have I’ll look out for more of his incredible sculptures.
Youth depicts a young black man dressed casually and displaying a knife-wound in his right side. His head is looking down at the gash so it is not possible to determine his state of mind but there is a calmness in his posture. He doesn’t seem to be in pain, nor feeling angry but rather he appears surprised to see the blood blooming on the bright-white fabric of his T shirt. It is a powerful piece suggestive of not only the troubled street culture of modern society but it also mirrors the wound Christ received in his side while on the cross during crucifixion.
The detail is so lifelike and the overall composition is simple with clean lines. The youth wears the contemporary everyday ‘uniform’ of a plain T shirt (noticeably without slogans or brand logos) and blue jeans, with bare feet. A quick google shows that the sculpture doesn’t always create a shadow on display but here it is haunting, an alter ego or the shadow of death? The work emphasis human behaviours and their (often unforeseen) consequences. Often we make quick decisions without thought for (or the time to assess) the long term effects and it is the multitude of choices we make daily that make up a unique life.
Two Tax-Gatherers (probably 1540s), Workshop of Marinus van Reymerswale, Netherlands. Photos: Irene Caswell. Originals © National Gallery, London. [Click image to enlarge].
Greed remains prominent in today’s world and in Two Tax-Gatherers it is depicted by the lists of duties on wine and other goods. Enthusiastic tax collection by kings and officials dates back over the centuries and here it is represented by the coins on the table. In the 16th century tax collectors received a percentage of the revenue they collected and the money collected is meticulously recorded in a ledger. Neither character is pleasant looking and the man on the right has the most extraordinary expression on his face, not delight or greed, but definitely sour-faced. It is an extraordinary painting in terms of composition, with both men dominating the canvas, and the use of such vibrant colours and elaborate detail in their rich dress.
The Effects of Intemperance (about 1663-5) by Dutch artist, Jan Steen. Photos: Irene Caswell. Originals © National Gallery, London.
The effects of too much alcohol is the subject of Jan Steen’s painting, The Effects of Intemperance (c. 1663-5). Steen was a keeper of a tavern so was familiar with the over-enthusistic imbiber. However, his work portrays the situation in a light-hearted manner. A wife and mother has lapsed into a drunken sleep while the family has taken the opportunity to get up to mischief by offering wine to the pet parrot, feeding their own food to the cat (sounds familiar, something they don’t themselves like, no doubt), A boy attempts to steal from his mother’s purse while the fatyher/husband is in the garden engaged in a dalliance with the maid. It’s interesting that there are no men who are drunk or getting up to no good which must have been all too familiar then.
Sin at The Arc, Winchester. L to R: The Woman taken in Adultery, Rembrandt (1644); gallery view showing the Rembrandt and Youth by Ron Mueck; The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen (1663-65). Photos: Irene Caswell. Originals © National Gallery, London. [Click on image to enlarge].
Rembrandt’s painting The Woman taken in Adultery is set at the moment when a woman is accused by church elders of committing adultery. Jesus states that the one who is without sin is the one who should cast the first stone, a passage from the bible. Although the light that shines on the woman is incredibly executed, I find the work a little uncomfortable because of the sombre colours, dark environment and the accusatory subject matter. You need to be a real connisseur of the Masters to appreciate this work.
My lowered eyes caught sight of the clear stream,
But when I saw myself reflected there,
Such shame weighed on my brow, my eyes drew back.The Divine Comedy, Dante.
Pink neon. It was just a kiss, Tracey Emin (2010). Photograph © Tracey Emin.
A (proper) kiss is a language all of its own and when is a kiss ever just a kiss?Tweet
It has taken me a while to enjoy Tracey Emin’s work. An ambiguous statement, some critics have suggested It was just a kiss as a reference to Judas’s betrayal in kissing Christ. And it could be read as a confession or self-justification, an admission or a denial. But I don’t think Emin is referring here to a welcoming peck on the cheek.
The Arc gallery, Winchester, is one of only four galleries in the UK to host this exhbition and the only one in the south of England so catch it now. Sin runs until 14 May 2023. Adults £9.50, concessions. www.arcwinchester.org.uk/event/sin
The exhibition is curated by Dr Joost Joustra, Ahmanson Research Associate Curator in Art and Religion at The National Gallery, London. Curators talk with Joost Joustra, 31st March 6:30pm – 8:00pm, Tickets include entry to the exhibition.