DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Love in Art for the Art Lovers in DC

Venus and Adonis by Titian
There are many ways you can show that special person in your life how much he or she means to you around Valentine's Day - a card, candy, flowers, chocolate. But if you live in the DC area and your special someone loves art almost as much as you, you could take them to the National Gallery of Art to hear lecturer David Garriff deliver his Love in Art Gallery walk-and-talk.

Each year, for 2 weeks leading up to Valentine's Day, Garriff takes visitors on a tour of some of the museum's best-known works which display how Italian, Dutch, and French painters used the theme of love in their art.

The best thing about the talk is not only does it teach you a lot about art, but it also makes you contemplate how love and its various depictions have both remained the same and changed over the centuries.

Many of the masterpieces explored in the talk used classic Greek and Roman myths for their source material, and no writer was more in evidence yesterday than Ovid, with his seminal work The Metamorphoses. 

Before beginning the 75-minute tour, Garriff promised an afternoon full of "amorous escapades and adventures" and that promise was fulfilled. We got to see a Roman god, which, as Ovid described it "his rigid member" extended and the female nudes so favored by art patron King Phillip the 2nd of Spain.

Famed symbols of love made appearances. Some were familiar, such as representations of that imp Cupid and his ever-present quiver filled with the arrows of love. Others, such as eggs with holes in them to represent the loss of virginity, were new discoveries.

One of the lecture's more interesting revelations was that while today we give cut flowers to represent our love, in olden times cut flowers in Flemish art were a symbol of decay and inevitable death.

The 10 paintings on the tour covered the gamut of love, from eternal devotion to an imbalance of feelings to 18th Century near-porn.

"Ill Matched Lovers" by Quentin Matsys
For example, in "Ill Matched Lovers" by Quentin Matsys, a lecherous old man fondles a young woman, while the woman steals the man's wallet and slips it to her fool-like accomplice behind her. "Dutch painters always included some type of moral or aphorism in their work and here we are reminded of a couple - 'There's no fool like an old fool' or "A fool and his money are soon parted,'" Garriff noted.

A much more risque picture of love was seen in the French work "The Swing." Here a woman is pushed high in the air by a man presumed to be her husband, while lurking in the bushes and watching is another man presumed to be her lover. At the height of her swing, her legs are spread wide open and her shoe flies off, presenting an open invitation to her hidden lover to engage in a passionate rendezvous later.

Garriff regretfully explained that he usually completed the special love tour with a look at Rodin's 19th Century sculpture "The Kiss". However, the section that houses that masterpiece is now undergoing renovation. In it's time, the Rodin piece was considered shocking. "When it was shown in the United States authorities would not allow men and women in to see it together. The men would go in for half-an-hour , then women only would go in for half-an-hour," Garriff said. "I guess they thought they couldn't control what would happen if they saw the work together."

The lecturer noted that throughout the ages, art has been used as an excuse to view some of the more carnal pursuits. "You could always say - 'I'm not just being prurient; I'm looking at Venus," he said.

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