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Laurence Alma-Tadema.                                                   




Always near, the blue opening unto the sea, sunlit and expansive, always near pillars of marble, polished stone, rich fabrics falling, folded, from the shoulders of people, always beautiful, and always near, the sense of eternity unfolding, present finally in the vision of a lost past.


Five paintings by Laurence Alma-Tadema from the Perez Simon Collection at the World Art Museum, Beijing (2008).


A late-nineteenth century classicism (for we are still in the realm and epoch of classical revivals). A world depicted, polished and delicately crafted, where everything is a work of art, a wonder to behold, pleasing to the eye…. Like the inhabitants of this classical utopia, perfect to the eye, but (nearly) always accompanied by a title, or showing a bodily posture, an attitude, a direction of the eyes, which indicates a problem elsewhere, away from the paradise depicted, present yet apart. A deixis given to us in the title (by word, outside the picture) or in the image, in the painting itself, in the direction of a gaze or the turning elsewhere of a body - inside the picture but indicating something happening somewhere else, outside the picture. Utopia, it seems, has been realised, is ever-present around us, it is only our equally everyday human frailties that persist in undermining its perfection… (a sane message in a world, as it was at the time of painting, about to plunge into a half century of carnage).


‘Unwelcome Confidences’ (1895) shows paired characters, one gazing down and inward, the other, up and out; otherwise the picture bears no trace of the ‘problem’ in its perfect world – the poison is in the words, spoken but unheard by us, and in the title, which contextualise the attitudes of the protagonists. In the background paired marble statues echo the passing of intimate information.


Similarly with ‘Her Eyes are with her Thoughts and They are Far Away’ (1897), where the title aptly describes the image content, made all the more poignant by being set in the usual classical utopian interior, beautifully depicted but irrelevant to the character in the picture whose cares are clearly elsewhere. 


In ‘Vain Courtship’ (1897), a young man regards a young woman who, not returning his gaze, looks pointedly out of the window. We follow the gaze (from left to right, ‘naturally’ enough) from him to her, to elsewhere…. (In a similar vein to the Alma-Tadema, also in the same collection, see John William Godward’s, ‘Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder’ (1906) where the female character’s inward gaze refers us outwards to an absent person, outside the picture, but not the world of the picture).


The world of art, the paintings seem to say, including most evidently themselves, can produce perfection, may themselves perform the ideal of perfection: but the world itself, no matter its intrinsic beauty, the elsewhere or outside of the world of the picture, is a place of mortality and sorrow. Of loss, the cause of sorrow, and its cure and counterpart, mourning. Art, by contrast, is the realm of perfection, of its attempted attainment. Reality, the world outside of that depicted in art, the world in which it exists, a part apart, and aspects of which it claims to depict within the frame that grants it its special status (the possibility of its perfection and aura of the ideal), this world is one of friction and struggle, whose face at every turn shows the mortal price of our being, a being from which we bring forth the art that would transcend it.


Art reminds us that it is perfect, we are not.


An art that in depicting perfection must therefore include one fault, the human.


An art that tells that only in art can utopia be achieved, history redeemed – and that, as proof, directs our eye to the proper place of suffering, the world outside of its protecting frame, our actuality.


Whence this beautiful content, this constant revival of a largely mythical classicism? If the answer lies in the lure of a lost civilisation that yet continues to enchant, then it also lies in the ability of this historical mirage to be the source of an appropriation (given what we know if the actual barbarism of the period) which permits a critique of the actual, of the present. A salve for the disenchantment of our mortal lot (for the pain of being made flesh…).  A mirror image to our world of woes. Always the harbour at the end of the shining sea, and high above, the arbour of eternal sunshine illuminating a world wished eternal in its perfection: and always the reminder, et in Arcadia ego, of the imperfections of actual life, of our mortal being, always.


Two exceptions: both evincing no external deixis of the kind found above; one including the ills of the world within its frame, evil as part of the perfect world, now no longer perfect; the other banishing all ills beyond any frame of reference save for that of the negative presence of the  title’s antithesis.


First exception (no external deixis, title apart, which refers to an -anecdotal?- historical event). In ‘The Roses of Heliogabulus’ (1888) the action, event or referent of the title takes place within the picture, is its topic. The fall into evil is presented as an event within the perfect world, oil coiling around water, in a combination of beauty and evil. A combination further carried in the mode of the operation of evil, the smothering of the guests at a feast with rose petals, Perhaps there is one other reference to the picture’s external world; a character in the drama looks out at the audience, at those witnessing the horrors of the rose petal feast, her gaze is directed at the implied audience of the picture. In the picture…And at an implied audience without the picture (outside), one standing in moral judgment of the events depicted, and whose actualisation is its latest and most immediate of observers, those morally ‘in the picture’ yet outside, those contemplating the moral failure of the aesthetic attitude, decoupled from all restraint, yet enjoying, at a viewing position once-removed, (which is the prerogative of art) the tableau themselves, ourselves. Beside ourselves, as it were, divided in moral appreciation and aesthetic pleasure, performing the artwork’s central contradiction. The flaw which accompanies all putative perfection.


Second exceptionno external deixis, no evil within. Opposite to ‘Roses…’ is ‘An Earthly Paradise’ (1891). A hermetically sealed heaven, a closed loop of bliss. An idyllic scene with child sleeping, mother (presumably she is such) in attendance…their embrace offering a vision free from all tension and conflict. The maternal bond inspires the ideal of a protecting world, world as home and haven, incarnating the limitless gift that lies at the heart of the true form of love, the care for others weaker or more vulnerable than ourselves. 


Apart from ‘Roses…’ and ‘Vain Courtship’, the world depicted is an entirely female one; largely interior, a sheltered, domestic, leisurely culture, perhaps to be contrasted to the public sphere or male Nature, or as stasis and space to male narrative time? A male ideal of a female haven? Constructed images all, bearing the weight of received binary alignments, replete with all the ideological loading of the time, and not the less beautiful for all that, (as we none of us can escape our time and its chosen modes of constructing our representations of ourselves, none meaning all, all lying inside – none more deluded than those who believe that they have actually attained the truth, the perfection of an unattainable outside, all without, no longer within, no longer here anymore – exiled from reality by certainty). Nonetheless beautiful.





Copyright 2008, Peter Nesteruk