Intimate Moments in Art and Politics:

Rembrandt’s Bathsheba with King David’s Letter and Cassatt’s Letter—icons in the Politics of Postmodern Gender Dilemma

Abstract

      This article discusses the intimate moments in art regarding a comparative critique of the following paintings: Rembrandt’s Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, Cassatt’s Letter, Munch’s Voice, and Picabia’s I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie.  In the first two artworks, the written letter is the iconic medium of communication in the narrative: the initial or final moment of intimacy.  In Munch’s Voice, it’s the awakening of the subject in its stark frozen posture. In Picabia, it’s the metaphor, combining nature and the machine that represents the narrative. The unsettled posture in the nude or in the clothed figure drives the told narrative. The untold, speculative narrative, however, is driven mostly by the formal properties—the elements of art toward abstraction. Significantly, the more realistic works are then perceived as a subtext, poised to regard certain gender issues with response to political or domestic concerns of alleged intimate impositions in recent times.

Paul C. Blake

Independent artist/writer and thinker

      It is uncommon for an attractive but less sumptuous woman to be summoned to a royal or presidential palace or even by an unknown suitor as the subject of ones desiring. In antiquity, Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah was the subject of King David’s impromptu desire.  Gazing from the rooftop of his palace, the king spotted Bathsheba while she was taking a bath on the grounds below.  He then contrived a plot to make her his wife when he deliberately had her husband killed in battle.  It is the moment when she received the king’s letter requesting her to join him in the palace that Rembrandt has chosen to depict. (fig.1.1)  Contrarily to the biblical account, the letter here is the artist’s device to draw ones attention to the subjects deep and troubling contemplation of the king’s imposing request after reading the letter. 
1.1 Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Bathsheba at her bath. 1654. Oil on canvas Photo: Herve Lewandowski © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resources,NY

Bathsheba holds the letter above her raised knee, deeply pondering it as her maidservant gives her a pedicure. In preparation to meet the king, she is shown in the nude in an awkward posture with deep sadness and a melancholy look on her face.  At that time, she was not considered innocent but shameful since she did not take care to conceal her nakedness and therefore looked upon as betraying her marriage vows (Davies 723).  Not erotic, but her fleshy and palpable body makes her sensuality difficult to ignore. Under the circumstance, she is but a dethroned goddess flawed by the physical and psychological attributes of humanity.  In the giggling, amorous flesh and troublesome mind, she is weighed in the balances and found wanting—as she lacks the will power to resist the king’s demand.  Paradoxically, her non-idyllic form, including her fat swollen belly, hanging breast, rough hands and garter marks about her hips appears attractive to the one most desiring of her. In this dash of realism, she is just an ordinary woman with a sensual body marked by another’s desire.  Her emblems of adornment including an arm bracelet, earing, necklace and cherry-like nipples are the accentuating variables in her attractive sexuality.  She is certainly not the realist’s barefaced, reclining, propositioning and tantalizing Olympia in the nude as depicted by Edouard Manet. She only has to appear as an ordinary or a private woman—without proposition or prostitution in her own private space.
      On the other hand, in Mary Cassatt’s etching and aquatint, Letter, (fig. 1.2) a woman is depicted licking the seal on the envelope she’s holding.  Like Bathsheba, the young woman in Cassatt’s etching appears uneasy and tensed as she presses forward in her anxious posture.  Art historian, Laurie Schneider Adams has perceived the subject’s apprehension not by a specific narrative but through the formal expression in the agitated surface designs (822).  The subject’s pressing concerns may be obscured by her downward gaze but not by her insecure gesture as she seals the envelope or the flurries of leafy, organic shapes and patterns on the wallpaper spilling onto her dress. On the wall about her head, these floating randomized shapes sometimes appear like a swarm of butterflies, but onto her dress they soon appear crab-like. This metamorphosis may hint at the idea of butterflies gnawing the stomach. 

      Concerning shapes, Arnheim discussed the difference between physical shape and the perceptual shape. “Physical shape of an object is determined by its boundaries…Perceptual shape, by contrast, may change considerably when it’s spatial orientation or its environment changes” (47). So in the Letter, the ornamental leafy motif may reflect an image relative to the emotional and psychological environment.
1.2 Mary Cassatt, The Letter, 1891. Etching and aquatint Worcester Art Museum ((MA) Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs Collection, 1926.205
At this juncture, let’s consider the impetus of psychology—the mannerism of both subjects’ posture. The solemn yet distant gaze and the raised eyebrow in one or the concealed facial expressions in the bowed head of the other are apparent signs of the worries they nurtured. In the moments of her mental deliberations, the apprehensive Bathsheba must consider whether she is going to honor or dishonor the royal invitation to be in the king’s bed. In this context, she appears anxious in her posture. Sigmund Freud while discussing anxiety refers to it as neurotic anxiety which includes a general apprehensiveness, free-floating, affecting judgments, inducing expectations, and waiting for the opportunity to find justification for itself. It is the kind he calls the anxious expectation in which the tormented would always expect the worst (Riviere 609).  He also observes that in the sphere of character-formation, sexual restraint goes hand in hand with a certain anxiousness and cautiousness, but “how anxiety develops out of sexual desire is at present obscure; we can only ascertain that desire is lacking and anxiety is found in its place” (Riviere 611).
      The awkward psychological moments in the receiving or sending of the letter appear dynamic in the less composed oblique posture of the subjects. Neither frontal nor profile, the three quarter view of their revolving bodies away from the picture plane have also enhanced the energetic moment in time. Consequently, the dynamics of this obliqueness seem appropriate to the psychological epoch of an impulsive gesture in time. Concerning aesthetics on visual perception, Arnheim observes that the oblique orientation is probably the most elementary and effective means of obtaining directed tension as it is perceived spontaneously to be a dynamic straining toward or away from the basic spatial framework of the vertical and horizontal (424, 425).  
      Besides the sense of insecurity and uneasiness reflected in Cassatt’s woman sealing the letter, other artists have cemented this agitation in the frozen posture of an erect subject—one not merely bounded to the external constraints, but rather an internal, psychological environment as manifested in Munch’s Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice) (fig. 1.3)  Obviously, this is not the  fairy-enchanted forest in a Shakespearean scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Hermia awakens, calling out for Lysander's help, because she has just had a nightmare in which a snake ate her heart. It is not an awakening of love conjured up by the misadministration of a love portion. Rather, in his caged like woods, Munch’s subject is caught between repression and the stark desire to speak as her rigid stance is also amplified by the strict verticals of the Asgardstrand trees. At the core of her being, the young woman in Munch’s landscape appears not just surrounded by the external vertical elements of her caged environment but by her anxiety trapped in her apparent upper torso as she presses forward with her hands pinned behind her back. The repressive voice without the utter is but a striking footnote in the subconscious deliberation in the intimate realization of one’s self. A floating lamp post like an obelisk, perhaps a phallic symbol, is depicted in her background along the sandy shore line of tranquil waters. In the archaic times, she reflects certain composure in posture, a crude development in the shocking realization concerning the discovery of her human sexuality.  “The female standing (kore) in this period is, on the other hand, regularly shown covered with drapery, which is foldless and adheres closely to the body” (Richter 56).  Another critic’s notion of the uncertain and precarious experience is not merely a romantic one but a search to resolve the meeting of the internal as well as the external conflicts in the deliberating feminine self as in the case of Edvard Munch.  “The self is a battleground where the irresistible force of desire meets the immovable object of social constraint” (Hughes 276).

1.3 Edvard Munch Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice ) 1893 Oil on Canvas 87.9 x 108cm Photograph © 9/26/16 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
      In modern art, the artist has used the Cubist’s element including the juxtaposition of shapes to reorganize his or her narratives in terms of abstraction. For example, in 1914 the French artist, Francis Picabia, created an image of the sexual encounter he had experienced on a transatlantic liner with a ballet dancer. He called the painting, I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie. (fig. 1.4). As he forged an alliance between nature and the machine, the mechanical energy in the rustling tensions of intimacy is sensed in the striking, aluminum and abstract petals. On the turf of Cubists’ conventions, love slips between the crowed overlapping and semi-transparent planes with a pent up clamor for an eruption like the potential energy trapped in an exhaust system of the stirring and blooming engine. In this new and fresh alliance, it is the shock of the new in the refreshed experience of intimacy that appears attractive. “Look at the machine, the play of pistons in the cylinders: They are steel Romeos inside cast-iron Juliets. The ways of human expression are in no way different to the back-and-forth of our machine. This is a law to which one must pay homage, unless one is either impotent or a saint,” recalled Hughes in the words of the novelist, Joris Huysman (51). In this erotic and somewhat neurotic moment, form becomes essence in the multifarious assemblage of the climatic experience of sexual intercourse. The couple as it were seems to have ‘lost their minds, in the abstract momentous expression of feeling and form.
1.4 Francis Picabia I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie 1914 Oil on Canvas ©The Museum of Modern Art Digital Image Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
      No matter the form, realistic or abstract, the tension is perceived well into the artist renditions of intimacy.  In the traditional works, it appears in the constricted features of the face or on the shrugged shoulders and frozen stance in the postures of anxious figures.  In the more modern work, it appears on the cutting edge of the fan like blades of petals connected to the exhaust pipes reflected in the stigmas. These are merely the perplexed or gleeful, intimate moments in art as it becomes transformative and universal over time.
     Furthermore, as we begin to read the painting as a text, Rembrandt’s painting, Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, appears relevant across time and space with allusions to similar contemporary gender issues including sexual harassment in the work place. “The text is plural…it accomplishes the very plural meaning: an irreducible. It…is a passage, an over crossing; thus it answers…to an explosion [and] a dissemination” (Barthes 159).  An ancient dilemma has become a political debate in more recent times. In Postmodern times, the public portraits of women in the political arena have become revealing in the cases of sexual harassment and propositioning for the sake of pleasure.  In the work place or in the Oval Office, it makes no difference; this reoccurring dilemma is still the same despite the proposition or the cover-up. Besides the luminous nude, a blue dress has become sufficient in the masculinity of the overbearing propositions.  The cases of Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky have strong reverberations in retrospection of the iconographic posture of Bathsheba in Baroque times. Much of the debate on Capitol Hill is not about the redemption of the plaintiff but to post a sticky note with a warning on the conscience of the defendant—that is not just a small slap on the wrist but a big slap in the face to the often powerless  and troubled victim— frequently the feminine gender.
            Most striking, and ground breaking is the Avant-garde testimony of the accuser Professor Anita Hill, “the poised daughter of so many generations of black women who have been burned carrying torches into the battle for principles” (Gibbs 35).  By her glance, she could be Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, but in her anxious and tense posture—not the ordinary girl or the extraordinary seducer. Here, she is depicted in her teal blue dress while surrounded by her interrogators—the patriarchs of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. (fig. 1.5)  Her dress however is not flourishing with the ornamental floral patterns of Cassatt’s subject in the Letter (fig. 1.2) but by the political fixtures of curious faces of senators stirring the feeling of butterflies in her stomach. Unlike the Letter, the dialogues were spoken openly in this hearing—not closed or privately communicated.
1.5 Paul C. Blake Gender, Politics & Sex 2016 Collage Artist Collection

      In the open dialogues of She Said, He Said, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Professor Anita Hill spoke of the humiliation, and frustration she experienced while working in the company of her boss Clarence Thomas. “She spoke of her fear of being squeezed out of good assignments and losing her job,” said writer Jill Smolowe (39).  In a pensive mood, much more than Bathsheba, Hill related, “What happened and telling the world about it are the two most difficult…experience of my life” (Smolowe 37). In the mounting pressure to deliver answers, a transfixed, steady gaze from the corners of her eyes, drawn to her interrogators’ flogging and unanticipated questions may reveal an inkling of the underlying pressure to answer thoughtfully and earnestly without compromising her integrity while avoiding indirect implications of any flirting or indiscretions. Now, consider this and who said: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” (Mac. 1. 4. 13-11).
     Regarding expressions and perceptual purposes, Arnheim wrote that “in the narrower sense, expression is said to exist only where there is a mind to be expressed.  The face and the gestures of a human being express what is going on inside” (445).  This, too, is perhaps the perceptual qualities in the general anxiety or unhappiness of the burdensome feelings in the interrogated subject as she is jarred by the proposition of her suitor or darted with the suspicious questions of her interrogators. Then, when it was all said and done, justice appeared up-side down in favor of the Patriarch on the crown or the one later to be confirmed. 
          Still here and now seeps a fractured spirit not just in their sometimes solemn and distant gaze but in the unread or read dialogues of their anxious and awkward postures or even in the sharp and edgy contour lines of her abstract, fleeting and flowering body. Very much so heaps a longing, a voice not long heard in a measure of time until now, though just barely attended.  In passing, or with great contempt, it might be said that all remain just this one abstract and mechanical thought of her—I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie—merely a memory of the patriarch’s presumption of or for sexual pleasure, expressed in the attractive blooming petal-like forms inextricably fused with machine symbolism into and beyond the modern era (Hughes 51).  All that she once was or might have become—in his subjunctive, and possessive deconstructed mind— is still in the here and now—another prance to the catch with an out of order fumble when it’s all said and done.                                                                                                                 


Works Cited
Adams, Laurie Schneider. Art across Time. 2nd Edition New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2002. Print.
Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Los Angeles: University of California Press Berkeley, 1954. Print.
Barthes, Roland. Image Music Text. Trans. Stephen Heart. New York: The Noonday Press, 1977. Print.
Cassatt, Mary. The Letter. 1890-1891. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester.
Davies, Penelope J.E., et al, eds. Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition 8th Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2011. Print.
Gibbs, Nancy. “An Ugly Circus.” Time, 21 Oct. 1991, p. 35. Print.
Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. New York: Alfred A. Knope, 1981. Print.
Munch, Edvard. Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice). 1893. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund.
Picabia, Francis. I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie.1914. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Richter, Gisela. A Handbook of Greek Art. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980. Print.
Rijn, Rembrandt van. Bathsheba with King David’s Letter. 1654. The Louvre, Paris.
Riviere, Joan. “A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis.” The Major Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1920. 449-638. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. Lamar. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959. Print.

Smolowe, Jill. “She Said, He Said.” Time, 21 Oct. 1991, pp. 36-40. Print.


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