Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cave of the Storm Nymphs by Edward John Poynter


With many of my readers still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Irene, I thought we might look at some of the nymphs and troublemakers responsible.  (Your correspondent, a New Yorker, did not emerge unscathed – a neighboring tree toppled into our yard, turning our deck and trellis into so many toothpicks.)
Sir Edward John Poynter (1836-1919) was an English painter and president of the Royal Academy.  Though English, he was born in Paris and left school early because of poor health.  He spent winters in Madeira and Rome, where he met the great English master Frederick Leighton in 1853.  So impressed was young Poynter by Leighton that he studied art upon returning to London before going to Paris to study with classicist painter Charles Gleyre.  (His classmates included James McNeill Whistler and George du Maurier, who would later record the Paris art world in his novel, Trilby, which also introduced the character Svengali.)
Poynter married society beauty Agnes MacDonald in 1866 and they had three children. Her sister Georgiana married artist Edward Burne-Jones; her sister Alice was the mother of writer Rudyard Kipling and her sister Louisa was the mother of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.  An illustrious family, indeed.
Poynter was more than an artist; he was also a celebrated teacher.  He was the first Slade Professor at University College, London, and principal of the National Art Training School.  He entered the Royal Academy in 1876, and also received a knighthood that year.
Like many artists of great talent and ambition, Poynter was enamored of large, historical canvases.  Many of his pictures depict the ancient world or touch upon the mythic qualities of the sea.  Many of his large pictures encompass the white-capped wastes of endless ocean, or take place in the underground grottos of mythic creatures.  His output declined in quantity dramatically with his acceptance into the Academy, where Poynter proved to be an able administrator.  He was a staunch advocate of high artistic standards, and lived to see the beginnings of a Modernism that would alienate much of art from the human condition for another 100 years. 
Cave of the Storm Nymphs was painted in 1903.  It is in many ways a remarkable picture.  The triangular composition ensures the dynamism of the three splendidly rendered figures.  The nymphs are in varying stages of action: setting aside a seashell harp, carelessly throwing away golden coins and lying luxuriously amid ship plunder.  The golden red hair of the top two figures is blown by wind and spray, the hair of the lower figure spreads wantonly about her head and purloined fabric.  The sculptural monumentality of the women is underscored by a sensitive rendering of anatomy.
The sand and cave wall of their retreat are thick with water – in fact, you can feel the cool dampness and moisture just looking at the painting.  Poynter uses few warm colors to enliven his work – the movement of the central figures and storm-tossed ship provide the vitality missing in his coloration.  The tempestuous green sea blows fiercely behind them, a ship reaching upwards before it is covered by the greedy, unforgiving waves.
It is clear here that the sea nymphs care little for the treasure, though they disport themselves around it so languidly.  No, these nymphs are sirens, luring seamen to horrible deaths as a form of amusement and diversion.
Poynter’s mastery of color and light are stunning.  Though the source of light is the raging storm without, it illuminates the contours of the nymphs within.  Rather than plunge the figures in darkness, it serves to illustrate their voluptuous contours.  The light also makes the shell-harp incandescent, the siren’s beacon for unwary sailors.  The hair of the central nymph seems to glow with the light; indeed, the hair of the central figure, and that of the nymph above, seems almost unhampered by gravity, as if they were still under water.
Cave of the Storm Nymphs makes us believe in an invisible world.  It is a picture cool and calculating, painted by a master at the top of his form. 
"Careless of wreck or ruin, still they sing
Their light songs to the listening ocean caves,
And wreathe their dainty limbs, and idly fling
The costly tribute of the cruel waves.
Faire as their mother-foam, and all as cold,
Untouched alike by pity, love or hate;
Without a thought for scattered pearl or gold,
And neither laugh nor tear for human fate."

1 comment:

Christopher Adam Lessley said...

The sexual tension of the lower most figure, with the pearls in her hand, another sexual indicator, cannot be ignored. She is painted wonderfully and contrasts with the naturally sitting figure, upper left. The sitting figure's nakedness is almost unnoticeable whereas the lying figure with her arched back and moist skin is given up for anyone who'd have her. Poynter's painting ability here is astoundingly quiet but for the aspiring realist, deafening.

Some modernist or feminist has or will accuse this picture being piggish; nothing more than a patriarchal pin-up, commodifying the female form or made for a rich man's parlor. That sort of hype couldn't be farther from the truth.

Classicists use paintings to often disseminate the wisdom of past epochs much like and as much as the Catholic Church's religious paintings. Art historians are quick to say the latter did so mostly as an education program for the poor and illiterate but often never attribute the 19th century artists the same even though artistic attention and exhibitions of the Academy in Paris were the superbowls of their time.

The lust for treasure often results and/or bed-mates the lust for flesh, food and power. All ultimately wreak havoc upon those individuals who are unable to managed their worldly passions.

These ancient and dire warnings of the Greeks and even of Romans like Cato the Younger, are cultural, social, economic and religious all-at-once, though I doubt Odysseus' ship ever looked so daintily adorned. Anyone with half a brain can find a connection to these issues in our secular and science-only society and our current economic and cultural decay.

Those of our past were wise to acknowledge the truth of human nature and its timeless barbarity. We have much to remember and re-learn.