Antonio Canova (1757-1822) produced some of the sexiest sculptures in the history of European art. A good example is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European sculpture court: “Reclining Naiad,” a life-size marble representation of a fit young woman lying naked on a sheet over a bearskin, her most impressive feature being her exquisitely supple backside. Similar examples are almost everywhere at the Victoria and Albert in London. However, the show on him currently at the Metropolitan in NYC presents a series of challenges for those that expect a certain type of sensual classicism from his work and it also highlights how the ‘art industry’ (in which museums, in general, should be inscribed) and, in this case, Ken Johnson from the NY Times, in particular, find it difficult to understand the phenomenology that “Antonio Canova: The Seven Last Works.” demands in order to be properly appreciated.
The exhibition consists of rectangular plaster reliefs that Canova made during the last two years of his life, six on loan from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and one from the Gipsoteca in the sculptor’s hometown, Possagno. They’re not remotely erotic or even particularly sensual, and they have nothing to do with the Greek mythological subject matter for which Canova remains best known. Rather, they illustrate seven scenes from the Bible: four from the Book of Genesis, and three revolving around the birth of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospel of Luke.
The series starts with a bang in “The Creation of the World,” in which God appears in a swirling robe over tumbling waters, waves of energy pulsating around his bearded, curly-haired head. He spreads his arms between a sun that resembles the head of a lion and an earthly sphere prominently displaying the boot-shaped landmass of Italy. Here, and in the next two of the series, it seems as if Canova could well have had a mind-altering encounter with the works of William Blake.
In “The Creation of Adam,” a hovering, electrically radiant God places his hand on the forehead of a standing Adam whose nude, muscular body, rendered in profile, recoils as if from the shock of the life force suddenly animating him. In “Cain and Abel,” the bigger, standing sibling raises a stout tree branch behind his head, winding up to club his kneeling and pleading younger brother. It’s a powerful choreography of physical violence.
“The Sacrifice of Isaac” pictures Abraham about to slay his son, who kneels passively on a stone bier. A cartoonish hand of God reaches out from a cloud in the panel’s upper left corner to stay Abraham’s sword-wielding arm. Here, the dynamic intensity of the preceding panels wanes; it’s more like a staged tableau than like a religious vision.
The remaining three, all representing New Testament scenes, tend toward symmetry and stasis, favoring a formal monumentality meant to promote a spirit of reverential solemnity. In their archaic style, they hark back to the early Renaissance murals of Giotto, and they relate to the stripped-down Neo-Classicism of Canova’s contemporary John Flaxman. About them The New York Times’ Ken Johnson says that ‘they aren’t awesome; they’re stiff, dry and dispassionate, and the bony whiteness of the plaster enhances the desiccated feeling’.
Then he adds: ‘All three works feature meetings between voluminously enrobed figures represented in profile. The angel Gabriel offers a flower to Mary, who stands with bowed head in “The Annunciation.” In “The Visitation,” Mary enters from the left to greet the elderly but pregnant Elizabeth, who has descended two stairs to embrace her younger and also pregnant cousin. In “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple,” Mary holds out her newborn to a priest who prepares to take him. A pair of rudimentarily rendered doves nest in a basket on a pedestal between them.
Canova made the series for a Neo-Classical church he designed and financed for Possagno called the Tempio Canoviano. He meant to create 32 panels all together, and for all to be reproduced in marble and installed as metopes like the Parthenon (formerly Elgin) Marbles in a frieze around the three sides of the top of the building’s colonnaded front porch. The seven he completed are ensconced there now, and Canova’s remains are interred in the church’.
I think that Ken Johnson is being unfair here because the stiffness of the figures is the direct result of a highly rhetorical classicism that should be compared to Nicolas Poussin’s Sacraments, to give just an example, instead of with Canovas’ erotic exercises in über-sensuality. From a phenomenological perpective, it should be born in mind that these figures were supposed to be seen from four metres below (as with the Elgin Marbles) and that is the reason why the gradation from shallow at the bottom to bas relief-like at the top adds up to that sense of stiffness when looked at them out of context. Having said this, I found it very interesting how Canovas used Hellenistic Baroqueness to depict pagan motives but in these religious works he sticks to hard core Athenian classicism. I think this show is great no matter what The New York Times says. Just a though.