Monday, 16 May 2011

Fall-ing Apart?

The two pieces on paper depict a relationship enacted and played out according to their response to their fall into sin…

Jan Gossaert painted certain sixteenth century common-place scenes, so many times, that in viewing just a selection (as was at this exhibition) of the artist’s work, you may think you have seen all the depictions given of the Virgin and Child or Adam and Eve in the entire Renaissance – something the curators evidently intended to be noted when titling the show ‘Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance.’ It is not that the Dutch artist is particularly known for being the face of the Renaissance, or even the Northern Renaissance – that would be Albrecht Dürer almost undoubtedly – but that in a small study of his work, we see embodied many of the things that define the Renaissance, and a variety in approach to subjects that speaks for the North and the South, the printmaker and painter, the classically inclined and the landscape enthusiast.

I wanted to bring to you two of his Adam and Eve’s – not his most well known, and epically proportioned oil painting from c.1520, but some smaller more telling pieces on paper from around the same year. In the oil painting Adam and Eve stand frontally, like marble statues, while they hold onto each other shoulders alluding to their partnership, they are two separate being, uncomfortably posed before us. The two pieces on paper depict a relationship enacted and played out according to their response to their fall into sin.

The studies are quite different. Deviating from the model – the woodcut of 1520-5, finds the pair seated. The timings are somewhat unclear. Is Adam, caught in the intimacy of his wife’s approach, about to take from her the evil fruit? This could be true, but he has already been dressed in fig leaves. Could the grasping represent the desperation of their mistake, the intimacy representing the appeal of sin, but then the restoration of relationship? That actually, despite the apple, held between them, their relationship, a marriage to represent all of mankind, has no need to be eternally harmed by blame and separation – a relationship of restoration from God awaits in Jesus Christ.

I find the blame between Adam and Eve the ugliest of their sins. But ‘Adam and Eve’ of 1520 is quite aside form this. A tired Adam clings to Eve who holds the apple in her left hand. He doesn’t engage with the apple in the way that Eve stares at it distastefully. No, he is lost in his own shame. His melancholy leads him to reach for his wife for comfort – she who knows the shame he is experiencing, and is ready to angrily thrust the apple from out of the palm of the hand, onto the floor, where it will be out of sight, and through redemption their sin can be forgotten.

To me, these are truly unique and deeply psychological views of the unlikely protagonists Adam and Eve, that do not allow the viewer to take the moral high ground, but reflect on the complexity of the couple’s emotions at their fall from paradise, and lead us to reconsider the power of relationship.

You’ve only got to the end of the month to see these works featured in the exhibition at the National Gallery.

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