Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Enchantress by Heinrich Lossow

Well, if this didn’t enliven your Wednesday, nothing will…

I have not been able to learn much about German artist Heinrich Lossow (1840-1897).  Like many artists covered here, he was the son of an artist, sculptor Arnold H. Lossow; his brother, Friedrich Lossow, would become a noted painter of wildlife.

Lossow received some initial training from his father, and he later studied at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts under Karl Theodor von Piloty.  He continued his artistic training while traveling through France and Italy.

Lossow was also a noted illustrator, as well as a painter, enlivening editions of Shakespeare and many German novels; he was also curator of the Schleissheim gallery near Munich.  Lossow was a prolific pornographer in his spare time, and several drawings of the most salacious kind can be found through a quick Internet search.  His most interesting success in this field of endeavor is a painting called The Sin.  I’ll not reproduce it in these pages, but those interested in the private lives of nuns and priests can see it easily with yet another Internet search.

So, clearly Lossow’s imagination was … interesting, as can clearly be seen in today’s painting The Enchantress, which Lossow painted when he was 28.  In this picture, a young man falls under the erotic spell of a granite garden sphinx, locking one another in a passionate embrace.

Where to begin?  First, perhaps the most impressive thing about the picture is Lossow’s mastery of light.  The cool illumination is clearly moonlight, suffusing the entire scene with pale whites and blues.  Look, too, at the shadow thrown by the leaves on the sphinx.  That is the cool shadow of moonlight … and perhaps only the moon is the proper witness to what happens here.

The vegetation in this garden is lush … perhaps too lush for a proper garden.  Both the riot of vegetation and the moonlit gate in the background leave one wondering whether this is a garden or cemetery.

The man’s clothes are beautifully rendered, with an almost tangible sense of the velvet and satin.  But perhaps the most interesting thing about the male figure (and the painting overall) is the way in which traditional gender roles seem to have been switched.  It is the man who is supine in the embrace – indeed, his right hand seems to hold the amorous sphinx at bay.  Also, it is the female sphinx who holds him in place – look at the granite biceps and forearms tense as she closes tightly around her lover … or victim.

The headdress the sphinx sports also underscores her power as a pagan goddess and a figure from a dim, pre-Christian past.  Her otherworldly qualities are accentuated by the moonlight, and by her rather blank and terrible eyes.  Her claws would appear to be very dangerous – particularly when made of stone! – and the gentleman in her grip is clearly outclassed.  One wonders if he will survive this encounter.

There is a marked whiff of the unsavory in this picture.  Visitors to any collection of world class master paintings have seen various images of ancient monsters, creatures of myth and gods and goddesses.  But rarely have they reached from the cool depths of antiquity to prey upon modern man.  Or, perhaps this is Lossow’s not-so-gentle dig at various art connoisseurs and aesthetes.  A love of art can be a consuming passion, and this may be Lossow’s literal warning to anyone who loves art and antiquity too much…

More Lossow tomorrow.

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