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Work has become the habit of a lifetime, and a habit is hard to break. So, even though I have been retired for seven years, I wake up each day believing that I must produce something. What is produced is not irrelevant, but it is a minor concern compared with the unswervable drive to be productive.

That is why I continue to write this blog; it is why I keep making new photographs — compelled like William Blake’s Los, forging link upon link of a continuous chain.

Which is why, visiting my friends I cannot help but carry my point-and-shoot around in my pocket and take it out at seemingly random moments to point and shoot. Each visit I make, a theme arises, unbidden but clear. One visit, I photographed ceilings and floors — it is amazing how much I could find there. (Link here).  It is in these details that I find design: and it is the design rather than content that tickles my eye. (Link here). 

But that doesn’t mean content doesn’t count. This visit I began photographing randomly, as I do, making pictures of their cats, of birds, of the woods behind the house. But more and more, my camera kept finding circles. Circles, curves and arcs. 

It seemed as if one of the marks of human industry is the circle. Nature allows few of them, choosing a great deal more vertical and horizontal lines, such as trees and horizons. But the circle is human; it is idealized. 

Throughout the house, I kept finding them, in pots, in lamps, in clocks, dishes and sculptures. Round is an idealized form, almost Platonic. Industrial. 

Certainly, I remembered the Zen ideal of the enso, or circle, which is drawn swiftly with the sumi brush, in a single swish, or perhaps two. It is often incomplete, and usually scruffy with brushstroke. It is meant to symbolize enlightenment, but also the great emptiness of the universe. It is an expression of the Japanese esthetic ideal of wabi-sabi, or the beauty of imperfection, incompleteness or impermanence. 

It is very different from the Western concept of the ideal, or perfect. A perfect circle is difficult to draw freehand. The Greek painter Apelles once left a perfect circle on a wall in the home of his rival, as proof that he had been there.

More famously, the Italian Renaissance painter Giotto, when tasked by the Pope to demonstrate his mastery, scribed a perfect O in red paint. 

A Canadian math teacher from Ottawa, Alexander Overwijk, once made up a story of winning the 2007 World Freehand Circle Drawing Competition in Las Vegas, as a means of getting the attention of his students. (The fiction went viral, and you can find it all over the internet, as if it were real). He was able to draw such a circle on the blackboard for his class. (Link here). 

But perfection is boring. It is abstracted from the real world, a world of imperfection, incompleteness and impermanence. The real world has jagged or fuzzy edges, it is left perpetually unfinished, it is ambiguous. 

As I moved about the house, I kept finding not only circles, but curves and arcs, the incomplete circles. 

The 18th century philosopher Giambattista Vico wrote of the historical cycles of recurrence. Time, he implied, was not a straight line, but a circle. We see these cycles and epicycles in our own lives, inarticulate as infants and incoherent in old age dementia. Our lives recapitulate in our children’s lives, as ours recycle those of our parents and grandparents. 

Weeks cycle through from Monday to Monday, months from January to January. The clock on the wall from noon to noon. 

In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce begins the book with the end of a sentence that began at the finish of the book, “bringing us by a commodius vicus of recirculation” to the ouroboros of time and history — and the story. 

William Butler Yeats, in his A Vision, gives another version of the cycles of history, which in his case is paired with the phases of the moon. In Vico’s version, history has four stages; in Yeats, there are 28 phases. 

(The moon is one of those few natural circles, although, it should be pointed out, it is only perfectly round once a month. A second natural circle is the eye’s iris, from which I see the circles I photograph.) 

“In my beginning is my end,” wrote T.S. Eliot in East Coker — one of his Four Quartets. “In succession houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,/ Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place/ Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.”

“In my end is my beginning.” 

Round planets circle round suns; Shakespeare’s Puck promises he “will put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.” Now a moon named Puck circles the seventh planet of the solar system. 

As I continued to make pictures — and I wound up with 97 of them over a four-day visit — they tended to diverge from the circle to the arc, finding that incompleteness more interesting visually. The arc implies rather than states. It suggests; it doesn’t insist. It is metaphor, not fact. 

Curves are human, they are sensuous. Straight lines and squares are the stuff of Procrustes, something we overlay on the natural roundness of delight to pretend there is something schematic about the world, something we can graph and diagram. Something we can make use of. 

But the curve gives us motion, change, the complexities of the calculus. It is Ovidian, not Platonic. It is pleasure; it delights the eye. In the eternal battle between mind and body, the body has all the fun. The mind is a doughty schoolmarm. 

 

The metaphor is real. My wife died two years ago and now I am meeting my ex-wife again, after 50 years.

And so, I keep finding these circles and arcs, these bows bending like the curved universe Einstein posited. They delight me. 

Click on any image to enlarge

DemiEightpack

In 1991, actress Demi Moore posed for a famous Vanity Fair cover photograph, taken by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. It exploded as a “meme,” and was copied many more times.

Soon, it became impossible for an aspiring starlet not to be seen naked and gravid on the cover of one magazine or other.

Leibovitz herself seemed to feel “ripped off” and sued when an ad featuring Leslie Nielsen used the pose to sell the film, Naked Gun 33 ⅓: The Final Insult.

The courts didn’t agree with her, and anyway, we had moved on to other memes, including dancing cats on You Tube. The courts could hardly have decided otherwise, not only on the basis of fair use for parody, but because borrowing poses has been an essential tool in artists’ kit for millennia.

As Picasso didn’t actually say, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Actually, that quote has been attributed not only to Picasso, but to T.S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky, but goes back at least to 1897, when a variant version was used by critic W.H. Davenport Adams. Even quotes get borrowed or “stolen.”venus and eve

L-R: Venus de Milo; Eva Green in The Dreamers (2003).

The examples are legion. My interest came to me through the paintings of Manet, Titian and Giorgione.

First let’s look at a few examples.

One of the most familiar is the pose of the “Three Graces.” It shows up in many forms in antiquity.3 graces antiquity

L-R: mural from Pompeii; statue in the Louvre; mosaic from Anatolia.

It was used by many Old Master painters.3 Graces renaissance

L-R: Raphael; Rubens; Pontormo.

And even later.3 Graces recent

L-R: Edward Burne-Jones; Henri Regnault; Leonard Nimoy.

You could find dozens of others.

Adam and Eve became such a meme, too. One version has Adam with his arms around Eve. It became used for other things, too.Adam&Eve trio

L-R: Jan Gossaert, 1520; Gossaert, Neptune and Amphytrion, 1517; Two Virgins album, 1968.

Or take the famous Botticelli painting, Birth of Venus. The pose, with the goddesses hands vaguely protecting her modesty, and you find it all over Classical art and Renaissance painting, to say nothing about one of the oldest figures in Western art.Birth of venus archetype

Or even Playboy magazine, which — probably not on purpose — imitates some other, more famous images.buns foursome

Top: Playboy; Gauguin. Bottom: Boucher; Modigliani

But the main course:Edouard_Manet_-_Olympia_-_Google_Art_Project_3

Victorine_Louise_Meurent_(1844-1927)Edouard Manet created a scandal in the 1865 Paris salon when he exhibited his Olympia, a nude featuring the model Victorine Louise Meurent dressed up — or rather undressed — as a prostitute. She wasn’t, by the way, and later became a painter herself. Here is what she really looked like in 1865.

Her pose in the painting is an obvious quote of two famous paintings of the past, Titian’s Venus of Urbino from 1538,venus of urbino by titian

and Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, from 1510 (and probably finished by Titian, after Giorgione’s death).Giorgione_-_Sleeping_Venus_-_Google_Art_Project_2

The salient points of the pose are the recumbent nude woman, with her calves crossed.

This is a pose that even Giorgione can take no credit for. It goes back to antiquity. Here she is from PompeiiAphrodite_Anadyomene_from_Pompeii_cropped

The full meme version is the Titian painting, with these other points that get “borrowed” over and over, including in the Manet version.venus of urbino with labels

olympia handNotice that the space of the painting is divided in half, near and far, and that there is a distinct vertical line that, in this case points downward directly to the model’s pudenda, which is caressed by the curling fingers of her left hand. This gesture is highly ambiguous: Is she really masturbating? Can a great master really have meant that to be our take-away?

In the Manet, the similar gesture is more assertive: Olympia uses her hand as a kind of gate to paradise for which she and she alone holds the key. You won’t get past that hand unless she gives permission.

There is also an animal in the picture, other subordinate people.

These elements are used over and over, not least of all by Titian himself, who used the pose, or variants in several paintings.jupiter&antiope titian 1535

Jupiter and Antiope from 1535.venus&cupid titian 1550

Venus and Cupid from 1550.Venus,venuscupid and organist titan 1548

Cupid and the Organist, from 1548.

venus, organist and little dog, titian 1550And then, more lasciviously, in the variant, Venus, Organist and Little Dog, from 1550, in which the so-called “male gaze” is fairly explicit, even comical.

But Titian is not the only artist obsessed with this pose. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) painted nearly a dozen versions between 1515 and 1550, which he usually titled Nymph at the Fountain. Here are four of them.Cranach composite

She can’t quite figure out just what to do with that left hand.

Through so many of these paintings, note the presence of animals, the near-far background, the frequent strong vertical line bisecting the picture, and the frequent use of drapery behind the woman’s head.

Not all these paintings have all the components of the Ur-painting of Urbino, but each has some of the components.

Here’s a 1639 painting by Guido Reni, with the crossed legs, the drapery, the near-far and if there are no animals, well, Cupid at least has wings.reclining venus guido reni 1639

A 1540 painting by Paris Bordone, called Sleeping Venussleepingvenus bordone 1540

From 1523, a Sleeping Venus from Girolamo da Trevesisleepingvenus da treviso jr

From 1520 and Palma Vecchiovenus palma vecchio 1520

Even in the north, from Maarten von Heemskerk, in 1545Venus&cupid heemskerck 1545

And Jan Massys painted her as Flora in 1514023 Flora Jan Massys 1514  copy

While most of these come from the 16th century, the pose streches beyond, including this 1844 Nude Girl on Panther Skin by Felix Trutatnude girl on Panther Skin Felix Trutat 1844

Lord Frederic Leighton painted Cymon and Iphegenia in 1884, with the pose, but with Iphigenia modestly covered in draperyleighton iphigenia

He also did the nude version, Actaea Nymph on the Shore, in 1854.actaea-the-nymph-of-the-shore-1853 lord leighton.jpg!HD

And Paul Gauguin’s Noble Woman from 1896paul-gaugin-noble-woman-1896

There are many more. A pile of them are mirror images, with the nude on the right side of the painting.

Giulio Cesare Procaccini painted Venus and Cupids in 1625venus&cupids procaccini 1625

Palma Giovane in 1610 did Venus and Cupid at Vulcan’s Forgevenus&cupid at vulcan's forge giovane 1610

Lorenzo Lotto’s 1540 Venus and Cupid gets kinkyvenus&cupid lorenzo lotto 1540

Allesandro Allori’s Venus and Cupid from 1586venus&cupid Alles allori

Sebastiano Ricci’s Venus and Satyr from 1720venus and satyr sebastiano ricci 1720

I think you can even make a case for Piero di Cosimo’s Venus and Mars from 1490. Although, here it is Mars with the crossed legs. Still, animals.venus&mars piero di cosimo 1490

This is just a skim across the surface. I’m sure you can find many more examples of the reclining nude, legs crossed, with animals or cupids, with figures in the background and a wandering hand.

I’ll leave you with only three more:

Pablo Picasso’s parody, Olympia, from 19011901_pablo_picasso olympia

and Claes Oldenburg’s Pat, Lying as Olympia from 1959OldenPat,_Lying_as_Olympia 1959

And finally, E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville prostitute from New Orleans in ca. 1912bellocq13 copy

This meme gets around.