Jean-Etienne Liotard. On optical illusion and sexual confusion.
This week was the grand finale of epochal exhibition of Jean-Etienne Liotard, court painter and villain, first to travel around UK including Edinburgh to end at honoured second floor glass entrance London Royal Academy space which previously housed Waterhouse, Moroni to name just few, while contemporary blockbuster shows like simultaneous AiWeiWei would occupy first floor.
My connection to the artist is highly personal. As a child, my father would stimulate my interest in contemporary and experimental art, classical being obligatory but a mere stepping stone. Nevertheless his undisputable favourite was Liotard’s La Chocolatiere, a pastel owned by venetian Count Francesco Algarotti, a luminary and collector who called the work “Holbein in pastel”, which also my father showed me repeatedly as ideal of good taste. I think what he was trying to say was: keep modest, hold Your chin not too high and back straight, do not look a person straight in the eyes, dress tidy, always serve Your guests something tasty to please their senses – and You might even keep Your head from being chopped off on Guillotine.
Liotard, born in Geneve, belonged to the race of 17th century wandering geniuses consisting of Voltaire and Casanova, Mozart and Tiepolo, having lived in all notable places of Europe and Levant. When Liotard appeared in 1753 in London he was heralded as “The Turk”, as he adopted the image during his stay in unknown city in Moldavia, current Romania, an exotic costume comprised of bright red kaftan and Cossack Fur Hat. Joshua Reynolds called his appearance shocking and his behaviour “very essence of Imposture”, his style of carrying oneself flamboyantly and épater (Quote Wiktionary: épater, eɪˈpateɪ, French epate/verb: Shock people who have attitudes or views perceived as conventional or complacent, ex “the artist was trying to épater les bourgeois again with ‘Altar’, made of bloodstained stretchers”) nicknamed “the turquerie” coming into fashion right after. Jean-Jeacques Rousseau, fellow swiss and friend of Liotard, was painted by Allan Ramsey at the same time in his favourite Armenian cloak, the garb also adopted by Willam Constable (to be spoken of later) who Liotard in his turn had painted.
Liotard had travelled to orient through Constantinople in the train owned by two big british travellers, Earl of Sandwich and William Ponsonby, Earl of Bessborough, who he made acquaintance with in a coffee house in Rome where they were admiring his miniature copy of Venus de Medici, and decided to hang along. Thus he spent in Constantinople 4 years, becoming part of local international art scene intermingled with diplomats. Many of his portraits, known otherwise for breathtaking depiction of fabrics, especially female, have oriental setting, otherwise coming into fashion a little bit later, as a famous private portrait of teen Queen Victoria in turkish costume on a divan almost century after.
(Victoria, Princess Royale, by Sir Willam Charles Ross, 1850)
(Marie Adelaide de France en Robe Turque, Liotard, 1753)
Now, to the strange portrait of Willaim Constable, the three: Artist himself, Rousseau and the abovementioned having high liking for fur Cossack Hats. William Constable, baronet, was a prominent at time art, artifact and curiosities collector and his museum is now known as Burton Constable Hall in Yorkshire. It was the time of expansion of knowledge, travel and early science. Like Sir Isaac Newton who started Spalding Gentlemen’s Society noted for its collection, it was a form of secret society of people of knowledge. Rousseau is a link between the two, as running from French mind police, he was at some point hiding in Spalding.
If You look at the portrait from the right corner, the hand gesture is an upward pointfinger, compositionally parallel with with downward pointfinger in the shadow in a delightfully balanced 8, or a mild elyptic ying-yang. It is a perfect gesture for cultural discourse, intelligent contemplative dialogue. If we, on the other hand, look from the left corner, what do we see: Is it a gesture of straightened point and pinky finger, known to contemporaries as a goat? The same optical illusion we see in portrait of David Garrick, 1751.
We know this effect from classical puzzle piece by Hans Holbein the Younger called The Ambassadors, shown to every teenager taken with a class excursion to London National Gallery because they just love puzzles.
If we look against the Crucifix, the funny pattern on the floor turns into a skull, while if we come towards the Crucifix and look from this corner, the skull disappears completely, thus mediating the idea that Cross conquers death and opposition to Cross makes death appear in its fullest gruesomness. One cannot clearly experience this cathartic discovery on a photo and has to really spend time with the painting one-to-one.
Some years ago i was having a stand at Chelsea Art Fair not far from a sculptor, Jonty Hurwitz. Apart from looking a bit and having same level of energy as Mozart in old Forman movie, witnessing his works makes You realize: You cannot make or construct an optical illusion, it is a work of a genius, and a genuine A-Ha and not random blah-blah-blah or dahhhhh experience for a viewer.
Further, to choice of subjects. We know Liotard as court painter, renowned for crown portraits, including children, George, Prince of Wales, among others. Also, of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stewart pretender to throne, who Liotard knew in Rome, as well as much of Jacobite lodge in exile.
This portrait is surprisingly more affirmative and masculine then Charles Edward is traditionally known. On escape from Scotland through Isle of Mull arranged by Flora McDonald who’s father owned shipping business, he had to dress as a girl. And not only to dress as a girl, but to be able to pass the inquisitive hostile eyes of security, who’s only goal was to reveal and capture him. That means he could indeed pass himself as a girl.
Now, look at family portrait of Liotard. If i do not tell You who the sitters are, would You think it is a Young handsome male and baby girl? No, it is Liotard’s wife and her elder son, a very famous miniature drawing.
Liotard himself made numerous selfportraits over the cause of time. Flamboyant, artistically mad. Some silly kid looking at his self portrait dropped “Liotard rhymes with retard”.
So what is Your chocolate of choice? Mine is definitely Whittard, it also rhymes with retard, but kinda a retard with lots and lots and lots of whit.