For Halloween I’m sharing a dainty dish called The Vision of Faust, by Luis Ricardo Falero (1851-1896).
Falero is a little-remembered painter with a marked taste for the outrageous and the bizarre. He often painted witches, wizards and occult sequences from literary classics, and though his oeuvre was recherché, he was quite a gifted painter in his own right.
Falero was born in Toldeo and entered the Spanish navy at an early age. However, his artistic inclinations were stronger than his military ties, and he left the navy for a career in art. He studied in Paris and London, where he later settled. Falero had a deep and abiding love for astronomy, and the heavens around us were often integrated into his paintings.
Falero died early, only 45, though somewhat worn out by strife and ruin. At the time of his death he lost a paternity suite brought against him by 17 year-old Maud Harvey, who was seduced by Falero while serving as both his housemaid and model. He dismissed Harvey from service when she became pregnant with his child, and broke his promise to support her and the baby. She won a judgment against him of five shillings a week.
Ironically, Johann Goethe’s Faust concerns a middle-aged scholar (the somewhat flabby man in the painting) who sells his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles, in return for regained youth and sensual pleasures. He seduces a young girl, Gretchen, who bears his illegitimate child, kills the baby and is sentenced to death, but her soul is spared from Mephisto's clutches.
Goethe's Faust is an extraordinarily influential work, influencing operas, plays, films and … this picture. Aside from grand, cosmological themes, Falero was obsessed with the female nude, of which he was a master. His command of feminine anatomy was immense, and his skills at coloration and tone formidable. He rendered the female form with great charm and occasional wit.
In fact, the erotic urges of some artists are, if you’ll pardon the expression, naked on the canvas. It takes only a glance at Michelangelo’s body of work, for instance, to see his intense passion for muscular youths (the same can be said for American artist Paul Cadmus), and the overt passion by which Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet painted their female subjects made their passion for women visible. Falero’s erotic impulse is blatantly visible in his finished work. Note the rounded sensuality of the women in The Vision of Faust, and the creamy pinkish-white coloration. The women fly though the air visibly contorted by passion or erotic release – it is an extremely sexual representation. Indeed, even the hag/witch in the lower portion of the picture seems fired by a raw, sexual energy: one of her hands rests wantonly on the hip of a sensual woman, while the other fondles a ram’s horn.
Faust, too, though pudgy and obviously middle-aged, is sexually objectified by his warm coloration, and, more importantly, by the echoes of his figure to the ram behind him. A trick of the light playing on Faust’s hair gives the impression of horns, and his beard all too obviously mimics the ram’s profile.
Perhaps one of the key reasons this picture is so effective is its brazen, shameless sense of … blasphemy. The thick, cottony clouds highlighted and lit from behind are strongly reminiscent of hundreds of religious paintings, and the huge, menacing bat in the upper left seems to be an inverse image of the dove. Where religious pictures often have the transcendent resurrection of the dead, Faust features a reanimated corpse, its skull face leering hideously.
The Vision of Faust is a remarkable painting … I just wouldn’t want it hanging on my wall.