Friday, July 22, 2011

DIALOGUE WITH A FIG LEAF

Ever since civilization invented modesty, the fig leaf has created special challenges for artists.

One of Denis Zilber's typically fun solutions

The awkwardness of Durer's early efforts...


...eventually gave way to more natural looking solutions by artists such as Harold von Schmidt, Al Parker and James Avati:






But the motivations remained the same: to make the censor's prohibition seem like a mere coincidence of nature.  Each artist lies to us, suggesting that our view is being obstructed only by a random spoon or a fortuitous branch.

Art succeeds by directing our curiosity, and sometimes even by satisfying it, but never by thwarting it.  That's why artists attempt to disguise limits imposed on them by the censor.

Below, illustrator Geoffrey Biggs tried using randomly flapping clothes to satisfy his editor's restrictions.  Like most efforts to appear spontaneous, this required careful planning.  Biggs studied the text of a story in which a woman impetuously removes her outfit and  throws it at a man; he then carefully designed a solution which was technically compliant, but which still looked a little too natural for the editors of the Saturday Evening Post.  They went back to the author and demanded that he rewrite the scene to put underwear on the woman, then returned to Biggs and instructed him to change his illustration to conform to the text:     

Before                               After
The mere act of concealing something often attracts our attention.  Viewers may devote as much creative energy to imagining what is behind the fig leaf as artists devote to concealing it.  Some artists take advantage of this human reaction, deliberately playing up the fig leaf with symbolism or colors or shapes.

In the 1950s Illustrator-turned-religious-painter Harry Anderson used a lion for a fig leaf in this painting of the Garden of Eden:


Talk about attracting the viewer's attention... I don't know a single male who doesn't grow uneasy about the proximity of that lion's teeth (which certainly distracts from Anderson's original intention for the painting).

The elements of a painting don't stand still.   We cannot simply place one inert shape in front of another with no visual or psychological consequences.  Objects are imbued with significance, and this is part of what makes our world such a wonderful place.  So we should be neither surprised nor disappointed if an object we employ to conceal something strikes up a dialogue with the thing we are concealing.

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