Social distancing is the need of the hour. Having to stay inside endlessly, I started to wonder what qualities I would want to surround myself with when having to stay indoors, which would instill positivity, a sense of movement and aesthetic beauty. These are some paintings that I would like to be quarantined with, which have personally spoken to me for their various exceptional qualities. By Shalini Passi
1. Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, 1477-84
Botticelli’s Primavera is one of my all-time favourite works. An allegorical celebration of spring, Primavera is considered exceptional for its classical symbolism, elaborate composition and delicate attention to detail. The lively painting is also simultaneously a celebration of life, and the three graces dancing alongside Venus, who is featured in the painting along with Cupid.
The painting also depicts Mercury, the Roman God of May on the left of Venus and Zephyr, the Greek god of the west wind to her right. Zephyr is shown grabbing Chloris, a nymph associated with flowers. The delicate depictions of flora, spring and its bountiful natural elements make the work beautifully elegant.
2. Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, (1480-1505)
Bosch’s triptych is characteristic of his bizarre, indecipherable style. The hold that the work has emanates mainly from its quality of rendering new meanings. The details give new meanings and readings to anyone no matter how many times one looks at it, making it the perfect work to lock yourself in with and endlessly ponder over.
The triptych depicts creation and damnation, beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and descending into the artist’s imaginative depiction of Hell. One can endlessly go over the work and its varied mastery in depictions of these various visions of Bosch’s definition of Earthly visions and delights, as well as its obverse side.
3. Leonardo da Vinci, The head of Leda, (1505-8)
This work is a study made by da Vinci of Leda in the lost painting Leda and the Swan. One can observe the intricate detailing that had gone into the work, specifically in the complicated hairstyle that da Vinci chose to represent and effectively perfect in this study.
This painting would make the ideal quarantine artwork by making you simply observe and look at every single strand that the artist found important enough to render in excruciating detail. One can arguably spend hours just tracing the delicate coils around Leda’s face, and it makes for an intricate and beautiful work that leaves you spellbound.
4. Alonso Sánchez Coello and El Greco, Lady in a Fur Wrap, 1577-79
The unsigned painting has been attributed to the Greek artist Domenikos Theotikopolous (El Greco), with experts coming forward and contesting this claim. The painting was ultimately attributed to Coello, following an investigation by Museo del Prado, Glasgow Museums and the University of Glasgow. The mystery of its origins and attribution only adds to the aura that the work exudes.
The work exudes an aura of mystery and beauty, with the portraiture against the dark backdrop illuminating the figure in the frame. The magnetic pull of the work makes you want to go into the lives of people at the time. This work has haunted me ever since I saw it several years ago, and its pull remains till date.
5. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, (1625)
Bernini’s Baroque sculpture depicts the myth of the Greek god Apollo pursuing the river nymph Daphne. The futile pursuit ends with Daphne metamorphosing into a laurel tree as Apollo clutches her hip. The sculpture appears as though caught mid-movement, and this technique which illustrates an entire story was mastered through in the Baroque period. The movement embedded in the work speaks especially to me today as during quarantine everything around you is still, and yet time is passing. This duality of movement and being still is encapsulated beautifully in this work.
6. William Blake, Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, 1786
Blake’s illustration of the scene from William Shakespeare’s play Midsummer Night’s Dream is rendered in watercolour and graphite. The medium itself adds a hazy dreamlike state to the work, which is heightened by its subject matter.
This particular play by Shakespeare holds a very special meaning for me, so having this watercolour to view gives me an otherworldly experience when I view it.
7.Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1829-33
This 19th century masterpiece is one of the most well known works from ukiyo-e artist Hokusai. The work is a part of a print series prepared using woodblock printing. It is also well known for being inspired by the Dutch style of linear perspective in painting, and for using Prussian blue, a colour popular at the time.
The great wave in the print invokes a certain peace in the viewer, and is something which I have found extremely relevant in these times. Although the wave’s current position appears deadly, especially for the boatmen, it also frames Mount Fuji brilliantly, an important geographical site for the Japanese.
8. John Everett Millais, Ophelia, (1851-52)
Millais’ painting is considered one of the most important pre-Raphaelite works, revered universally for its beauty, and its depiction of nature. Natural themes were important to the pre-Raphaelite painters, whose work paid incredible attention to detail.
This work is one of my personal favourites, and it features the character from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The painting depicts her tragic death, making the work simultaneously beautiful, yet tragic, themes which personally appeal to me.
9. Édouard Manet, Olympia, (1863)
Manet’s Olympia was at the centre of a controversy when it was first unveiled to the public at the Paris salon in 1865. Manet was fascinated with Titian’s works, with Olympia being inspired by the painting Venus of Urbino (1532-34). Titian’s Venus modestly covers herself while Manet’s Olympia is unabashed in her sexuality, and in confronting her viewers’ gaze on her body.
The boldness of the work invited criticism at its time, but Olympia is undeniably considered a masterpiece and carries within itself multiple meanings. It can be considered a work that embodies both a critique and is representative of its times.
10. Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm or Surprised! (1891) and The Dream (1910)
Rousseau made a number of paintings with a jungle theme, with Surprised! being the first of his jungle paintings. It depicts a tiger preparing to pounce on its prey in the middle of a raging gale. The Dream is the largest of the jungle paintings, featuring a surreal portrait of Yadwigha, Rousseau’s Polish mistress.
Both the works are emblematic of Rousseau’s specific series, that dealt with depicting thick foliage and natural phenomenon in increasingly subversive ways. The works are especially relaxing to look at when you are isolated and want to immerse yourself in a luxurious artistic experience. The lush natural landscape and its masterful rendering that does not stay in the realm of naturalistic representation makes the work truly ethereal in nature.
11. John William Waterhouse, Pandora (1896) and Boreas (1903)
During these uncertain times, our minds can be boggled with different anxieties, worries, and our deepest, darkest fears. Waterhouse’s Pandora represents this inner state of our minds, and Boreas effectively conveys this turmoil that is rendered beautifully through the metaphor of a strong wind.
The myth of Pandora’s box is a cautionary tale that discourages us from unleashing undue worries and anxieties upon ourselves. In times like these when our mind is like Pandora’s box, it is perhaps healing to remember to keep in control what we can.
12. Gustave Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, (1902)
This work by Klimt was painted directly onto the walls for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition, intended to be a celebration of the composer. The composition of the painting and its inherent darkness represents. The frieze is representative of the human desire to navigate suffering and to live in a tempestuous, imperfect world.
There are a number of works which I can keep continuously looking at, not only for their mastery but also because of the effect they produce in the viewer. Aesthetic depiction of everyday life and its occupants is an endearing feature of the arts, along with its ability to instil varied emotions along with it. The works I highlighted in the article are only some of the many powerful works of art that elicit strong responses from me, while also helping me cope with the difficult times we are going through today.