Experiencing Nature: Through the earliest examples of Visual arts

The understanding of Nature as we, the modern people look into it, is much more different from the viewpoint of our predecessors; or rather say quite alienated from their standpoint. The relationship between men and nature in the pre-historic times was literally more physical. Men, breathing and living in the realm of nature, thus experienced it more directly. The expressions of his artistic prowess or any kind of ritual orientation incorporated the elements of Nature directly- not alienating from man’s life. Besides, what we regard as primitive art might not the reflection of conscious aesthetic considerations on the part of those who created it. The works that we, from our modern standpoint, deem “artistic” were, for them, expressions of feeling or of ideologies of spiritual beliefs. However, it is very difficult to summarize such a complex and varied phenomenon, spanning thousands of years. The Cave art of Lascaux, Altamira or the Cave paintings of Bhimvetka, all of these cave art reflects similar kind of attitude of prehistoric men towards Nature.

Paleolithic artists created reliefs by building up forms in clay rather than cutting into stone blocks or stone walls. This kind of example can be seen in the deeper interiors of cave chambers at Le Tuc d’auodoubert, France. (fig 1) A pair of Bison had been modeled in clay against a large irregular free standing rock. The two bison are strictly in profile, much like other examples of these kinds; shows the observation skill as well as the skills of execution of Paleolithic artists. The facial features of two Bison’s are modeled by hand and further finished by smoothening the surface of the body with some kind of spatula-like tool. However modeling a shape of some animals in considerable sizes, which can often be seen in Paleolithic art, examples of tiny shapes can also be found. A broken spear thrower (fig 2) in a form of a Bison found in La Madeleine, France is only four inches long. The most interesting feature of this piece of art is the imagination of the artist as he adjusted the arrangement of his Bison figure according to the shape of the Broken spear thrower. The sculptor incised line into the bison’s mane most probably using a burin. Compared to the previous example this one is much more detailed in terms of his facial features like eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth. It is also noteworthy as the artist turned the neck a full 180 degree to maintain the strict profile view.

FIG 3: Hall of Bulls, Lascaux, ca 15000 BCE

The Caves at Lascaux consist numerous images of animals on the deepest interior walls of these caves. A particular cave which is known as the ‘Hall of Bulls’ (fig 3) not because having only images of prehistoric bulls but consists numerous other animals too but most certainly it has four large images of Bull on its wall. These images of Bulls and various other kinds of animals are depicted mostly in lines and some of them have colour silhouettes. Prehistoric cave artist mostly used mineral extract mixed with animal fat or blood. Overlapping images on some walls also refers to the fact that these images might have been drawn in different time periods. An interesting feature of Lascaux cave paintings is the convention of showing bulls having horns that shows twisted perspective or composite view because the heads are in profile while the horns are in frontal, as in profile view one cannot see two horns of a bull simultaneously. It reveals that the artist did intend to approach to paint the bull in a descriptive way as having two horns complete the ‘concept’ of a ‘Bull’- then why not showing it?

Recent discoveries of Cave art at Vallon-Pont d’arc, France showed quite modified versions of painted animal heads. The carbon dating process also pointed a much strange fact that many of these paintings were much older than that of Lascaux cave art. Interestingly these animal heads (fig 4) shows profound observation of the artist as the horns of the bulls are overlapped one another in these painted animals which are quite convincing in terms of a correct anatomy of the bull in a strict profile view. However, all of these kinds of cave paintings were done in the deepest interiors of caves which were least accessed by humans, on the other hand, many of these paintings also show various aspect that relates these with prehistoric rituals. Rituals of the hunting-gathering community of men. Executing images of animals not only reflects the artistic ability of prehistoric men, it also reflects the idea of having some kind of rituals around these paintings. Many of these paintings of animals show marks of arrows in them and painted arrows too (fig 5). As some of them merely acted as a marker of target practice, painting a hunting scene would also show how these men mystified various ideas regarding the animals. Having them killed in the paintings thus allow the prehistoric hunters greater success in the original hunt.

fig 6: paintings at Bhimvetka, India, ca 12000 BCE

The paintings at the caves of Bhimvetka, India unquestionably shows these ritual aspects of these cave paintings which is almost thirty thousand years old. Fig 6 clearly shows an ongoing hunting scene where several men are chasing animals while riding horses. The shapes are strictly geometrical and crude but much more advanced in terms of narrative. Paintings at Bhimvetka are linear in nature. They not only exhibit animals but men with bow and arrow. Now these hunting scenes placed as a subject matter might have various reasons- a society of hunters and gatherers would know itself with this kind of vitality to show it in a painting, on the other hand, it also project the idea of a ritual where killing an animal on a painting would capture the soul of a real animal thus ensure greater victory in the hunt; this kind of ‘voodooist’ approach still exist in different tribal and folk communities across the globe.

The understanding of nature that incorporated in the works of Far-Eastern art can also be seen in the early Shang dynasty(1766-1111 BC) of China that also known as the Bronze era in Chinese history. In the earliest time in China, Neolithic man’s visual sense revealed only in the shapes and decoration of pottery. Already familiar with the properties of clay, potters invented shapes which gradually established as a part of the long heritage. The technological advancement then enabled these potters to justify their works of art or rather say pottery in newly developed medium-Bronze. Soon Bronze vessels became the emblem and stature of then Chinese Monarchs.

Shapes of Chinese Bronze vessels which were predominantly simple soon evolved into complex shapes and design due to the new medium-Bronze. Many of these vessels served as the functional object but the decorations and motifs of designs that incised in their thick outer wall revealed other facts: their association with rituals; rituals that shaped with a particular understanding of nature. Fig 7 shows a vessel mainly named as Li-ting which was used for heating wine or cooking food by placing them directly in the burning embers. In most cases, these early Shang dynasty vessels reflect motifs of various animals, Human faces, deer or elephant head or other mythical creatures. These motifs of animals can also regard the fact of a ritual: a ritual for sacrifice. But the question of mythical motifs is quite difficult to understand from our modern standpoint. The all-pervading t’ao-t’ieh mask, with its protruding eyes and ferocious upper jaw, must represent something important in terms of ritual as we know as blood sacrifices. This kind of rituals having a place on most of the earliest communities always refers to the fact of man mystifying nature. The unknown phenomenon of nature that could not easily understand thus must be calmed by making offerings to the unknown powers of Nature. Fig 8 shows a bucket named as ‘Yu’ is an example of late Shang bronze vessel, although the motifs of t’ao-t’ieh are not be seen the mythological creatures or shapes of composite animals made their way in the design of vessels. A terrified human figure in the clutches of a monster that too is composite one: a deer in the head, elements of a dragon in the body and serpents. The shapes and the decorations of these vessels, marvelous in their own way, provide a vivid insight into a society for which symbols of rituals were the chief elements of expression.

No discoverable common meaning or motivation seems to underline different artistic intentions; artists representing nature and those utilizing it cannot be measured by the same means. The way we modern people look at nature is far too different the way our predecessors looked into it. For them, Nature was wild and dreadful, and as we quite ahead of ‘controlling’ nature in one way or other, we thus alienate ourselves with nature quite often, our contemporary art practices show that. The physical experience of Nature that once men had felt, paved their way of looking towards Nature in their art, although incorporation of nature in the art might not be the same in different societies and communities but they all share similar kind of approach towards it.



  • Fred S. Kleiner. (2010). Art Through the Ages. Boston: Clark Baxter.
  • Mary Treager. (1993). Chinese Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Sherman E. Lee. (1994). A History of Far Eastern Art, Prentice Hall.
  • Andrew Graham-Dixon. Art: The Definitive Visual Guide, DK.

Framing the Subconscious


              Sometimes something comes along with the course of time and changes everything as it has been known thus far. 1870 onwards the scenario in the field of visual arts in European countries changed by the rise of radical movements like Impressionism preceding by Post-Impressionism and so on. However, 1900 onwards the turns changed quickly in succession of rapidly spreading “Art Movements” in a matter of no time. Within decades of 20’s and 30’s, the whole world witnessed the genius of radical movement like Fauvism, Cubism and henceforth Dadaism. As a matter of fact, the Fauvists by and large emancipated the ‘Colour’ and the Cubist showed the world viewer a whole new fragmented reality, and the anti-art and nihilistic attitude of Dadaism challenged the representational Institute of’ ‘Art’. In midst of this a new ‘Art movement’ emerged in 1920’s and changed the way ‘Art’ was defined. Combining both the ideas and intellect of Cubism and Dadaism, ‘Surrealism’ came into being to cater the world with a whole new approach towards ‘Art’.

With its nucleus in Paris and roots in Dada, Surrealism started its journey after the World War I in 1920’s. The influential force for Surrealism was the newly developed Psycho-analytical ideas of Sigmund Freud. Initially a Neurologist, Freud conceived the ideas of Psycho-analysis and compared the human mind with an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is actually the conscious being of oneself and the rest of it refers to the unknown realm of the subconscious. However, he also talked about the existence of the ‘Unconscious’ part of a human mind. At a very advanced level, he also proposed the idea of ‘Dream Theory’. Our very notion about dreams is more inclined towards pleasant dreams. However Freud suggested that Dreams can be an excellent tool to understand various aspects of one’s personality and behavior- nothing one does occur by chance, every action and thought are motivated by one’s unconscious at some level. As we all live in a civilized society we have a tendency to hold back our urges and repress our impulses. However, these urges and impulses must be released in some way; they have to have a way of coming to the surface in disguised form of Dreams. And that is where the dream theory comes.

The French poet, André Breton, who was known as the “Pope of Surrealism.” wrote the Surrealist Manifesto to describe how he and the ‘surrealist’ minds influenced by the hidden aspects of human minds thanks to Freud and wanted to combine the conscious and subconscious into a new “absolute reality”. It’s that reality that exists but we cannot see it or rather say do not want to see it. He wrote, I believe in the future resolution of these two states — outwardly so contradictory- which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a Surreality, so to speak, I am aiming for its conquest, certain that I myself shall not attain it, but too indifferent to my death not to calculate the joys of such possession.” But the important question was how to get this ‘Super-reality’- the unconscious part of the mind that is always guarded by the conscious efforts. Initially, with the aid of drugs or alcohol, Surrealists poets and writers tried to play games to bring the unconscious mind to the surface.  The surrealist artists tried to draw “automatically” to be free of the constraints of traditional representational art and they drew exquisite corpses or composite drawings to create new thoughts for the resulting figures that could not be imagined under ordinary circumstances.  There is much in Surrealism that is manifested exercise of free association derived from Sigmund Freud but the artists like Joan Miro, Max Ernst, and several others tried to incorporate that free association into the realms of visual arts practices.


Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

As a precursor of the Surrealist artist, the Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico produced empathetically ambiguous works of art in late 1910 that can be related to the later Surrealist works. Chirico painted series of cityscapes and shop windows that were a part of the movement called Pittura Metafisica; his ambiguous cityscapes flooded with the strange sunlight of autumn afternoons with long shadowy characters placed in vast open squares with public monuments that manifested his works with mystic reality. His vision can be read in one of his painting, “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street”, 1914. This simplistic representation of a steep street across the buildings filled with sinister air- small silhouetted girl with her hoop in the foreground, the empty van, the ominous shadow of a man emerging from behind the building- all of these elements make the painting more mysterious and creepy. Thus his ‘Metaphysical Towns’ had been a great deal of influence for both the Dadaists and, later, the Surrealists. The eerie mood and the visionary quality of the paintings of Chirico inspire later Surrealists who sought to portray the worlds of Dreams.


The Robing of the Bride”,1940

Initially a Dada activist, Max Ernst Became one of the early adherents of the surrealist circle of Andre Breton. Before joining Surrealists, Ernst incorporated found objects in his works and explored various other experimenting ways to bring innovation in the language of visual art. Working under the banner of Surrealism, Max soon began making paintings that shared the mysterious dream-like quality that cannot be experienced in the real world we know. In one of his later painting, “The Robing of the Bride”,1940, he created this dream-like atmosphere by painting some mere mystical composite creature: half-men, half-bird. The center in occupied by a mighty owl-headed caped naked female figure that directly stared back at viewers. In the left, sleek bird-men, perhaps Ernst himself, pointed an arrow towards his red-caped companion. The arrow, however, symbolizes the phallic sign; and the second nude female figure, eyes closed, brushed aside to the right while a many-breasted, pregnant hermaphrodite is seated in the right hand lower corner. The whole composition represents an unnatural combination of thinking but that was the field of exploration for the surrealists. Ernst own words can explain it further: “..Thus I obtained a faithful fixed image of my hallucination and transformed into revealing dramas, my most secret desires”.



The Harlequin’s Carnival, 1925


Categorized as ‘the most Surrealist of all’ by Andre Breton, Joan Miro’s works contained elements of fantasy and hallucination. Miro achieved this devising an innovative method: he started his paintings by scattered collage composition and the shapes of the colleges became motifs for his thoughts. Miro himself described his process as a back and forth switch between conscious and unconscious image making:”…I begin painting and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself under my brush. The form becomes a sigh for a woman or a bird as I work…..the first stage is free, unconscious….the second stage is carefully calculated.” His words echoed in one of his works, “Harlequin’s Carnival”- a party of imagery beast takes place in a room that opened to the sky by a small window to the right. It shows the abstraction that he was led by his calculated ‘unconscious’ mind to create something absurd looking creatures. He carefully used primary colours in this painting that are set off by the thin, mid-tone wash of the floor. This painting is in the truest sense, spontaneous expression of the little known submerged unconscious part of life.


The Treachery of Images, 1929

How do one relate a rational image to its irrational title that suggests the exact opposite, defying the norms of meanings? The image that we can see is the meticulously rendered depiction of a briar pipe by one of the celebrated Surrealist painter Ren  Magritte, done in late 20’s. This work is called” The Treachery of Images”. However one would not justify the title as long as he or she observe the caption beneath the image, contradictory to the obvious: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ means ‘this is not a pipe’! Magritte thus gave disruptive shocks to the viewers by challenging their expectations based on logic and common sense. Indeed, a treachery of the image!



Personal Values”, 1952

The interesting aspect of Magritte’s works is that his paintings take the form of a dialogue with the world and question the reality of real phenomenon and their relation to the painted image. One of his other works, “Personal Values”, 1952 depicts realistically rendered some toiletry objects in a closed room. But the disrupting scale of the realistic objects thus transforms this banal harmless painting into something very puzzling and annoying. The bed, the wardrobe is true to life-size whereas the comb, the shaving brush, the match-stick or the wine glass is depicted in such scale, way beyond our logical understanding of the objects. This trick was his trademark to reach to a certain level of reality that exists but cannot be seen: the unconscious. A similar approach is echoed in his own words: “The true art of painting into conceive and realize paintings capable of giving the spectator a purely visual perception of the external world.”The surrealist works of art that successfully evokes the most difficult questions about the possible realization of dreams in canvas and the symbolic functions of imagery are referred to the most celebrated surrealist painter of all whose “paranoiac-critical” method (in which


The surrealist works of art that successfully evokes the most difficult questions about the possible realization of dreams in canvas and the symbolic functions of imagery are referred to the most celebrated surrealist painter of all whose “paranoiac-critical” method (in which one thing is seen in terms of another) marked his sense of Unconscious and Subconscious in more complex manner: Salvador Dali. The most important thing to remember that the dream for Freud and Breton was a direct path to the unconscious, the way in which a dream deals with its subjects, distorting and allowing contradictory facts. The manifestation of a dream, what one remember when woke up, possibly masks hidden meanings which may be revealed by the dreamer’s association by complex analysis. Salvador Dali presented his complex paintings whose contents were the truest manifestation of the dream world. Dali described his creative process: “to materialize the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialistic fury of precision…in order that the world of imagination and of concrete irrationality may be as objectively evident…as that of the exterior world of phenomenal reality.” His words are best reflected in one of his most celebrated works, ‘The Persistence of Memory’, a haunting space filled with allegorical elements where time has ended.


The Persistence of Memory,1931

Dali brought his visions and fantasies to life by achieving meticulously detailed realistic rendering of objects, as he stated, ‘ hand-painted photographs’. It’s this realistic representation of something irrational and absurd that added the dimension of the unconscious. In ‘The Persistence of Memory’ Dali created an alien landscape filled with allegorical elements, tinted in bright and gloomy colours with detailed objects in logical explanations. The clocks are melted, one hanging from a lone olive tree, other lying dead on a raised platform on the left. The depicted Horizon is based loosely on a landscape near Portlight, northeast Spain and an absurd looking limped head lies in the middle upon which the fourth melted watch rests. A single and apparently dead olive tree signifies the dreamlike characteristics of the painting and also refers to that fact that olive groves were available in the region Dali came from; however traditionally, olive branch is the symbol of peace, purification and plenty. The clocks over the platform and the grotesque looking creature are melted and softened and no longer appears to be familiar or rational to our preconceived ideas and also defines the fact that time has stopped in that strange place. The red clock at the foreground that heavily filled with insects, insects that usually associated with decay resulting in death. A kind of representation referring memento mori. On the other hand, a dormant head lies slumped across a small stone ridge. Interestingly, it is often thought to Dali’s self-portrait in profile. However its shape derived from a large standing rock near the coast at Cadaques. Although this particular absurd looking creature had already appeared in his other works like, ‘The great masturbator’ and ‘ The enigma of desire’, both from 1929. The long eyelashes and the protrude tongue-like shape also add a dimension of eroticism. Dali rendered every detail of this dreamscape with precise control to make the world of his painting as convincing as possible although the subject is somewhat irrational that come from his unconscious.

Movements like Surrealism stems directly from the effects of modern age warfare. As Europe was left devastated and disillusioned after years of fighting in World War I. The effects of the war were visible everywhere in Europe as populations became stagnant, economies plummeted, buildings remained in ruins and many survivors suffered from depression. The general population had a feeling of utter destruction at the hands of man.  Emerging from this chaos, however, new artistic, political and scientific ideas developed in Europe. Surrealism influenced by these factors too, however, the realization and discovery of unknown Subconscious and Unconscious by Freud fueled the Surrealist ideas.   Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, Surrealism enjoyed widespread acclaim culminating in the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936. Surrealist theory embraced the irrational in human thought and behavior and practiced in the visual arts by the most complex minds that framed the Unconscious. Thus the biomorphic forms of Jean (Hans) Arp and Joan Miró and the realistic visions of Salvador Dali referred to the inner fear and unknown feelings of oneself that can only be encountered without being conscious. As we the viewer engages ourselves with the imagery of Unconscious, at such times we probably agree to what Edgar Allan Poe once wrote:

                                      “All that we seen or seem

                                  Is but a dream within a dream.” 

Olympia & Other Venuses

A painting made the generation of art historians and critics to rethink the prevalent discourses on the history of the ‘nudes’ in Western art especially contemporary French painting in the nineteenth century and created great stir and uproar at the salon in Paris. A single painting attracted so much negative and as well as the destructive attention that the Salon authority had to reposition it to a less accessible position from its academic counterparts. Today this painting is venerated as one of the earliest of its genre to incorporate the aspects of voyeuristic male gaze and its immediate transaction. Eduard Manet’s ‘Olympia’, a masterpiece now, thus had a history of overwhelmingly negative reaction. But what are the reasons that caused this kind of unwanted negative impact! The bourgeois, the general Salon attendees had been trained to look at nudes and it had its own genre from the classical times of Greek antiquity. Various gods and goddesses and demigods from the mythological origins thus usually represented in this genre. So what actually went wrong for ‘Olympia’?

Before discussing the reaction it is necessary to understand the scenario in 1865 in terms of the socio-cultural environment of the Salon.  Returning to France, Napoleon III established the second Empire in 1852 following the revolution of 1848 and was motivated to make his mark rapidly in the era of industrial progression, the new railways, new inventions, such as photography, and overseas expansion. However, the public was accustomed to see nudes and as a matter of fact it was a popular genre of painting by then; having said so, each year numbers of nude paintings were get selected to be exhibited at the Salon. In the year 1865 itself, along with Olympia, Louis Lamothe’s L’Origine du dessin, Louis-Frédéric Schutzenberger’s Europe enlevée par Jupiter, Firmin Girard’s Le Sommeil de Vénus, Felix-Henri Giacomotti’s L’Enlévement d’Amymone and Joseph-Victor Ranvier’s L’Enfance de Bacchus were also exhibited. But there’s a catch. Each of this paintings was typically idealized and set in an Arcadian realm. The attendees at the Salon were aware of the fact that the characters in those images are not real, unlike Olympia, who stared back at the viewers to question their covert morality. As a matter of fact, the ‘uncouth’, ‘corpse-like’ image of a prostitute was less expected to the Salon attendees.

There was a resurgence of movements like socialism and communism in 19th Century Paris, but the new bourgeoisie was sexually repressed which erupted into professions like prostitution into all levels of social structure. Same situation is echoed in the words of Parent-Duchâtelet: “We will have arrived at the limit of perfection…if we arrange it so that men…can distinguish those [prostitutes] from honest women; but that those women, and especially their daughters, cannot make this distinction…” The rise of prostitution concerned the bourgeoisie that the society was being demoralized from within. Prostitution thus gave women a kind of power, the ultimate transaction of selling the body for money that placed them in all quarters of society. And the name ‘Olympia’ itself was quite common in this profession; thus placing Manet’s painting from a ‘mythology-wrapped nude’ to a socially real character. That was much to make the public uncomfortable to see that painting!

Figure 1: Olympia, painted in 1863, exhibited at the salon in 1865

As a popular genre of paintings Nudes were always predominant in the Salon. However, it was the subject matter that constructed viewer’s notion of the image. From Titian and Giorgione to Giocometti, to Bougeroue and Cabanel, everyone painted female nudes (This genre of Nudes can be traced back to the Renaissance and mostly in the Nuditas Virtualis of Mannerism that gave rise to the profound latent eroticism in the disguise of Nude Virtue) but all incorporated the mythical fantasy that the viewer’s get to observed thus traditional representations of the nude put woman on display for the pleasure of a spectator presumed to be male, however the male viewer also understand the image is not from a real world, never invading his private space- creates no objection. As John Berger has observed, “almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal-either literally or metaphorically because the sexual protagonist is the spectator, owner looking at it.“(Ways of Seeing, 1972). This reading can be observed in the works of above-mentioned artists who had painted various versions of nude figures of Venus. Venus, being the Roman goddess of love and fertility was always been a favorite among the artists to portray, to portray the ideal beauty of humanistic values of classical antiquity. It is now much talked about how Manet was heavily influenced by Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and produced Olympia. However, genre wise they may have similarities but in terms of incorporation of the subject matter they simply diverse. In both paintings the figure had been modeled after a prostitute, however, Titian’s Nude was wrapped in the mythical veil of the ideal beauty of Venus, whereas Manet’s Olympia shocked the viewer’s for its utmost realistic depiction.

Figure 2: Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538

At the time of debut of ‘Venus of Urbino’ in 1583, Titian was a renowned Italian artist so the controversy was minimal. He had actually based his painting on another nude Venus figure, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. Giorgione’s painting depicts a nude female sleeping in nature, among the hilly mountainous countryside and the influence of this painting on Titian is quite visible.

Figure 3: Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, 1510

The elongated stretched torso (fig 3) and overtly sensuous pose wrapped in the veil of ideal beauty, where the background doesn’t correspond to the figure in any context, merely acted as a backdrop. Titian took this image and made some modification to the gesture of the right arm and transplanted inside a bedroom. This Venus, however, is not sleeping. She is in a posture of casual relaxation, gazes indirectly at the viewers in quiet coyness. However, this typical look in her face can almost be read as a welcoming gesture. She’s pretty much aware of the fact that she is being looked at and also calling out more attention from the male viewers. This “ethereal character of Venus gazing out so dreamily” drew viewers back to “medieval romance” and fantasy (Barolsky). Thus Titian’s Venus is alluring in her soft, indulgent beauty. From a perspective of formal analysis, the painting is composed of subtle brush strokes, done in minute detail.  The warm, glowing tone of her skin invites, while her adverted gaze depicts a kind of curiosity. Although the painting is centered on the nude Venus, compositionally it is divided in half by the background. A black and green backdrop frames Venus’s upper body, further accentuating her elongated torso.  Whereas, her legs are relatively short in proportion, and feet are tiny in size. The background display a separate room behind the couch, where Two servants bend over a chest, apparently searching for garments (Renaissance households stored clothing in carved wooden chests called cassoni) to clothe “Venus.” Beyond them, a smaller view opens into a landscape.


Figure 4: TheBirthh of Venus, Alexandre Cabanel, 1862

Not so long before Olympia made the impact on the salon-goers, In 1862 French academic painter Alexandre Cabanel painted ‘The Birth of Venus’ and received significant acclaim at the 1862 Paris Salon and was purchased by Napoleon III himself.  The painting depicts a nude Venus reclining across the surface of ocean waves and surrounded by cupids, dancing in the midair and hovering over the figure of Venus. Her eyes are half closed and the body is stretched in a sensuous posture. The influence of fellow French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and the Rococo color palette are strongly evident in this painting. And unlike Manet, Cabanel didn’t disturb general mass’s viewing experience of nudes.

Figure 5: The Birth of Venus, Alexandre Cabanel, 1862

Another academic portrayal of Venus is ‘The Birth of Venus’ (1879) by 19th-century academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This iconic painting had received great praising. Unlike the typical landscape format of his predecessors, Bouguereau painted his Venus in a standing posture in a vertical framework. The loose influence of Botticelli’s Venus can be seen. In this painting, Venus stands nude elegantly in an “S” curve contrapposto, emphasizing the feminine curves of her body, on a scallop shell which is pulled by a dolphin. Fifteen putti, including Cupid and Psyche, and several nymphs and centaurs have gathered to witness her arrival. Most of the figures are gazing at her, and two of the centaurs are blowing into conch and Triton shells. Venus’s facial expression is calm, comfortable with her nudity. She raises her arms, arranging her thigh-length, red hair further accentuating her feminine sensuousness.

The word scandal traced back to the Greek word ‘skandalon’, which means “trap, snare, and stumbling block.” As a matter of fact, the viewers of Olympia at the 1865 salon reacted as if they were trapped by this provocative scandalous image. Indeed, the bourgeois public took much offense at this apparent confrontation of morality that the painting had to be rehung high up at the Salon wall. But what exactly the pictorial elements in case of Olympia that caused so much of uproar? Unlike other paintings on Venus that we have seen above, Olympia was not adverting her eyes from the viewers. Her gaze was direct and challenging, captivating the viewers, her posture was rigid and upright. Another interesting factor which is less talked about is the particular stance of her left hand, firmly covering her genitals. This particular gesture of hand has indeed a name: ‘Pudica pose’ which can be traced back to Greek antiquity, in the works of Praxiteles who was the first sculptor to introduce this posture in the context of Venus portraiture. In this posture, an unclothed female (either standing or reclining- in most cases Venus portraiture) keeps one hand covering her private parts. The resultant pose – which is not, incidentally, applicable to the male nude – is somewhat asymmetrical and often serves to draw one’s eye to the very spot being hidden!

The word “Pudica” comes to us by way of the Latin “pudendus”, which can mean either external genitalia or shame, or both simultaneously. If we look back to the images of Venus we have seen earlier, in each case, the posture of the hand or say the pudica pose rather directs one’s gaze towards the genital that the hand is covering and also the hand seemed to be loosely placed, further conveying a sense of submission of the female figure to the male audience. However, in Olympia, it is quite opposite. The left hand is firmly posed on the lap. Interestingly, one might observe the use of less modeling throughout the figure but relatively much modeling in the hands further accentuating the fact that Olympia is very much aware that she’s being looked at and simultaneously challenging her onlookers! Manet further accompanied this rigidity of Olympia with quick, large brushstrokes. The strokes were visible on the painting itself, showing directionality of the brush. Artists of the past were careful not to leave brushstrokes, as these were considered imperfections. In fact, Titian might have covered Venus of Urbino with as many as nine layers of paint, to create her smooth, soft portrait. Interestingly, instead of drawing the audience in, Olympia has apparently repelled the viewers. Olympia also lacked color in many ways, as its primary tones were black and white. However, this blatant contrast in the painting brings vivid attention to the figure of Olympia while contrasting the black servant and black cat in the background. The black servant attending to her was not in the foreground, but just merely situated behind Olympia, presenting her a bouquet of flowers. The flowers interestingly enough were positioned not towards Olympia’s line of vision, as they “were not meant for Olympia’s eyes, but for the viewer’s eyes and edification” (Mitchell). As a matter of fact, the audience was Olympia’s suitor, her customer, and these flowers were a present and needed approval from the sender.

In “Olympia’s Choice,” The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers’, T.J Clark, wrote, “A nude…is a picture for men to look at, in which Woman is constructed as an object of somebody else’s desire. Nothing I go on to say about Olympia is meant to suggest that Manet’s painting escapes that wider determination, or even escaped it once upon a time, in the 1865 Salon. It was meant as a nude and finally taken as one; the texts I have collected should not be read as so many indices of defeat in that project, but, rather, for signs of difficulty surmounted….. Olympia is depicted as nude and courtesan, but also as naked and insoumise; the one identity is the form of the other, but the two are put together in such a way as to make each contingent and unfinished. The case is particularly clear when it comes to the picture’s obvious main subject: Olympia’s beauty, her sexual power, and how that relates to her body’s being female.” Interestingly, in the same text, Clack argues some of the allegations that made by some viewers and critics; he further wrote, “it was already in 1865– that Olympia is not female at all, or only partly so. She is masculine or “masculinized”; she is “boyish,” aggressive, or androgynous. None of these words strikes me as the right one, but they all indicate quite well why the viewer is uncertain. It is because he cannot easily make Olympia a Woman that he wants to make her a man; she has to be something less or more or otherwise aberrant. This seems to me wrongheaded: surely Olympia’s sexual identity is not in doubt; it is how it belongs to her that is the problem.” Obviously, the sexual identity of Olympia was not in scrutiny but her strong ‘manly’ aggressive ‘gaze’ becomes the root to all problems. Clark added, “They (the viewers) were offered an outward gaze: a pair of jet-black pupils, a slight asymmetry of the lids, a mouth with a curiously smudged and broken corner, features half adhering to the plain oval of the face. A look was thus constructed which seemed direct and reserved, in a way which was close to the classic face of the nude. It was close, but so is parody. This is not a look which is generalized or abstract or evidently “feminine.” It appears to be blatant and particular, but it is also unreadable, perhaps deliberately so. It is candid but guarded, poised between address and resistance –so precisely, so deliberately, that it comes to be read as a production of the depicted person herself; there is an inevitable conflation of the qualities of precision and contrivance in the way the image is painted and those qualities as belonging to the fictive subject; it is her look, her action upon us, her composition of herself.” The ongoing debate over the particular painting will never end. Scholars have discussed again and again but the aura that it created in the history of western art is unparalleled. In this juncture, I would like to mention the text that was initially written beside the painting by Manet himself. Manet added five lines of unforgivable verse by Zacharie Astruc:

“Quand, lasse de songer, Olympia leveille,

Le printemps entre au bras du doux messager noir;

C’est l’esclaue, a la nuit arnoureuse pareille,

Qui oieru fleurir le jour delicieux ii voir:

L’auguste jeune flUe en qui la fiamme oeille.”

In a letter to his friend Baudelaire, Manet mentioned, “The insults rain down on me like hail…” Yet while many looked upon Olympia as a symbol of depravity or a slattern, others recognized her as a triumph. The writer Émile Zola called it Manet’s “masterpiece,” declaring, “It will endure as the characteristic expression of his talent, as the highest mark of his power … When other artists correct nature by painting Venus they lie. Manet asked himself why he should lie. Why not tell the truth?”

Is she naked? Is she nude? She is sexually obtainable, more so than Titian’s Venus, which in turn is more so obtainable than the Venus in Giorgione’s version; yet Olympia repels her viewers with the utmost strictness of her gaze. As far as the female viewers are concerned, it may be this refusal reflected in the gaze of her, those particularly female viewers today, identifying- Olympia’s defiant look and gazing through the pictorial surface at the discomforted male spectator whose desire it confounds, appreciate most in Olympia’s representation. To conclude, I want to lend Clark’s words, “nakedness is a strong sign of class, a dangerous instance of it. And thus the critics’ reaction in 1865 becomes more comprehensible. They were perplexed by the fact that Olympia’s class was nowhere but in her body: the cat, the Negress, the orchid, the bunch of flowers, the slippers, the pearl earrings, the choker, the screen, the shawl they were all lures, they all meant nothing or nothing in particular. The naked body did without them in the end and did its own narrating.”

‘Potatoes’- A discourse after Roland Barthe’s Mythologies

Potatoes or ‘Aloo’ is the heart of the Bengali cuisine. Apart from the usual rice or ‘Bhaat’, aloo is taken as a staple food in Bengal and in the north eastern states of India where Bengalis usually reside. In an average Bengali household aloo is eaten routinely and in such quantities that it constitutes a dominant portion of a standard diet for people, supplying a large fraction of energy needs and generally forming a significant proportion of the intake of other nutrients as well. In almost all dishes of Bengali cuisine took Aloo in different avatars. It’s not just an important ingredient but history and emotions of long ages are also amalgamated into this vegetable. Julien crispy fried aloo accompanying the usual lentils with hot steamed rice or just boiled mashed with chilies and onions, or the most famous ‘aloo posto’- soft medium cut aloo in white gravy of mashed poppy seeds; the ultimate delicacy of every Bengali house, rich or poor, privileged or unprivileged- aloo has taken the front seat of Bengal cuisine over the period of time.

              Edward Terry mentioned the potato in his travel accounts of the banquet at Ajmer by Asaph Khan to Sir Thomas Roe, the British Ambassador in 1675. It is the earliest mention in the history of India (?). The vegetable gardens of Surat and Karnataka had potatoes as mentioned in Fyer’s travel record of 1675. The Portuguese introduced potatoes, which they called ‘Batata’, to India in the early seventeenth century when they cultivated it along the western coast. Then British traders introduced potatoes to Bengal as a root crop, ‘Aloo’. By the end of the 18th century, it was cultivated across northern hill areas of India.

              Bengali cuisine is known for its subtle flavours, and its huge spread of confectioneries and desserts. It also has perhaps the only traditionally developed multi-course tradition from South Asia that is analogous in structure to the modern Service ‘à la russe’ style other than the traditional ‘service à la française’ style of French cuisine. Food is served course-wise rather than all at once. And aloo comes in every mood in every dish- be it the contemporary notion of starters, in the main course as an ingredient of fish curry or accompanying the mouthwatering meaty delights or just simple and sweet vegetable delicacies or in the concluding dish which too can include aloo in the innovative avatar. Thus aloo almost becomes a symbol of regional and cultural identity of Bengalis. No one Bengali can be found who doesn’t like aloo in his mutton curry or in the Dum Biriyani. They love aloo as they equally love hour-long sessions of Addas. In the most humble form, aloo is served mashed with onions and chillies and this can be found in any household. Another variant of this can be found in the roadside stalls where mashed aloo is dipped into the flour mixture and get deep fried. This is one of the most common yet famous dishes of aloo, ready to accompany the crispy puffed rice. This famous aloor chop (potato-croquettes) can be rendered in various other ways – open all kinds of experimentation with the spices.