Passions and Fervour. The Art of Powerful Emotions

Intro

Passion and Fervour. The Art of Powerful Emotions 9 October 2020 – 14 February 2021 LWL– Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster

Where there is no passion, everything is missing. There is nothing that can be attained without passion.

Alberto Moravia (1907-1990)

Passion / Leidenschaft – do the two words have exactly the same meaning? In modern English, “passion” evokes very powerful emotions, but the word originally referred to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Leidenschaft, the German equivalent, was coined in the 17th century by the writer and language reformer Philipp von Zesen to fill a gap, as even Martin Luther, who produced the first German version of the Bible, had not translated the Latin word passio.

Jacopo da Montagnana, Lamentation of Christ, around 1480 tempera and oil on canvas, 148 × 109,5 cm, © Landesmuseum Hannover

In both languages, the word “passion” has now lost its connotation of suffering and most people understand it as a positive synonym for “enthusiasm” or “ardent love”.

Ignaz Günther, Saint Theresa of Avila with an Angel, 1771 limewood, painted, 62,5 × 40 × 12 cm, © Bayerisches Nationalmuseum München / Krack, Bastian

The saint seems to be enraptured as she ascends to the skies together with an angel. She looks upwards, fulfilled by the divine love…

Käthe Kollwitz, Two Lovers I, around 1909/10 black chalk, 48,8 × 31,5 cm, © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln

… like this voluptuous woman, who also leans her head backwards as she abandons herself to pleasure. In both works, the artists chose similar devices to express two kinds of passionate love.

The saint seems to be enraptured as she ascends to the skies together with an angel. She looks upwards, fulfilled by the divine love…

Robert Arnold (born in 1954) used a comparable stylistic device for his video, inspired by the covers of cheap novelettes that take up the old cliché of the handsome macho man with a seductive power that no glamorous woman can resist.

Robert Arnold, The Morphology of Desire, 1998 video, 6 min, © Robert Arnold and LIMA Amsterdam

Which message do the Western fine arts convey with these images that create an enthralling tension between body and soul, emotions and reason? And which style is best suited to expressing powerful emotions?

Behold, and feel his suffering!

Behold, and feel his suffering!

Master of Catherine of Cleves, Flagellation of Christ, from the Hours of Catherine of Lochhorst, around 1440/50 miniature painting on parchment, 19,2 × 12,9 cm, LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster/ Sabine Ahlbrand-Dornseif

In the Middle Ages, the fine arts focused on representing the life and suffering of Jesus Christ. Thinking and acting as a Christian were inseparably coupled with strong impulses such as fervour, devotion and ecstasy.

From the 13th century onwards, medieval scholars such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, who worked on the basis of Ancient sources, developed a new approach to emotions in Christian theology and everyday praxis. Their works were innovative as they stressed the importance of feelings for individuals.

Rediscovering Aristotle

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) decisively influenced the medieval scholars. His work »De Anima«, first translated into Latin in the 13th century, reshaped the perception of man. In his endeavour to answer the philosophical question of what it means to be alive, Aristotle wrote: “It seems as though all affects of the soul, such as anger, clemency, fear, compassion, courage, joy, love and hate, are connected to the body, because it also suffers when they occur.” In short: the exterior appearance reveals the interior essence. The theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas (around 1225–1274) reinterpreted this idea, stating that this life is just a passage to the life to come. Moreover, the fact that Saint Thomas underscored the beauty of Creation conferred a new value on the life in this world. These new ideas had a considerable influence not only on the Church as a whole, but also on the representation of emotions in the fine arts.

During the 13th century, the theological discourse stressed the importance of emotions and this was reflected in the fine arts. This sculpture figuring the head of a young man gently smiling, created around 1245 for the Benedictine abbey of Saint Maximin, is an example of this development.

Head of a Young Man or an Angel, around 1245 sandstone, frame remains, 32 × 24 × 26 cm, © GDKE / Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier / Th. Zühmer

In the Middle Ages, the ultimate devotion was to really feel the suffering of Jesus. This prompted artists to create works that figured particularly shocking episodes of the Passion in order to arouse compassion, such as pictures of the Man of Sorrows, or pietàs depicting the Virgin Mary mourning her dead son

Pietà of Unna, around 1380 walnut wood, painted, 127 x 97 x 53,5 cm, LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster/ Sabine Ahlbrand-Dornseif

The Virgin Mary is cradling her dead son looking at him intensively. This sculpture renders the instant that immediately follows the Descent from the Cross, as the Mother of God takes her leave from the crucified Jesus. The work was intended to prompt the compassion of believers.

This smiling saint with red cheeks and a lively glance seems particularly vivid despite her austere posture. She is visibly looking forward to paradise. As Jesus Christ supposedly never smiled, the artists rarely depicted joy and confidence in previous epochs, all the more as smiling was considered diabolical. And until the 18th century, people believed that they could die of too much laughter…

Reliquary in form of a bust, second quarter of the 14th century walnut wood, original colours, face partially preserved; lost ground cover, 51 × 25,5 × 24 cm, Museum Schnütgen, Köln, © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

The magic of reliquaries

The word »relic« derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning remains. Accordingly, reliquaries are containers for physical remains of saints. Various holy relics were said to have beneficial powers, and therefore attracted countless pilgrims from the early Middle Ages onwards. The reliquary that figures a smiling young saint refers to an episode during the siege of Cologne by the Huns around 300 AD: the prince who commanded the besiegers fell in love with Ursula, a fervent Christian, and proposed to spare her on the condition that she marry him. When she refused, the Huns killed her and eleven thousand of her retinue. Ursula’s confident smile on the reliquary expresses her delight in anticipation of paradise.

The face shows the colour of the heart.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

Crying, or laughing? Despite the title, we don’t know the emotions – nor even the gender – of the person that Matthias Grünewald (around 1480–around 1530) portrayed in this drawing. The work, which obviously concentrates on rendering the face of a particular individual, could be a detailed sketch for one of the altarpieces created by the artist.

Matthias Grünewald, Head of a Child Crying, 1515/20 black chalk and brush, 27,6 × 19,6 cm, bpk / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Volker-H. Schneider

The treatment of Biblical subjects like the Expulsion from Paradise underwent various stylistic changes. However, the message of such works remained clear to believers and the changes mainly affected the social codes associated with the subjects. For example, the corporal dimension of the relationship between Adam and Eve progressively became more important, and the apple was no longer necessary as a symbol of temptation.

Albrecht Dürer, Small Passion: The Fall of Man, 1511 woodcut on paper, 12,9 × 9,8 cm, LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster/ Hanna Neander Sebastian Büheler after Hans Baldung Grien, copy after Adam desires Eve (The Fall of Man), first half of the 16th century feather pen in brown, 27,5 × 12,8 cm (paper), Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg

While Adam and Eve were figured side by side in early representations of The Fall of Man, they are facing each other in this etching by Dürer. The work evidences the interest in representations of nude bodies in the early 16th century, notwithstanding the religious character of its subject. Baldung Grien goes even further as he represents the beginning of a sexual act with the man touching the woman on an intimate part of her body.

The search for happiness is intrinsic to man. Therefore, nobody can reject this goal nor refuse to be happy.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (about 1225-1274)

Expression of emotions in Classical art

Expression of emotions in Classical art

Silvano Bertolin, Replica of the Laocoön Group, 2006 cast marble, patinated, 225 × 170 × 105 cm, © Lessing-Museum Kamenz

Man as a thinking and sentient individual became ever more important at the end of the Middle Ages, and the Humanism that developed at that time endeavoured to create a synthesis between Ancient virtues and the Christian doctrine.

The word “Renaissance” was coined to express the revival of fine arts after the end of the Middle Ages and the new perspectives that opened up at that time. The artists developed an interest in nature and Italian works became ever more influential. Renaissance works figure people in a realistic style, with individualised faces and realistic bodies. Nudes with ideal proportions became omnipresent after the theologian, architect and art theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) had developed a mathematical analysis of the human body’s proportions.

Invention of the theory of art

Artists were no longer considered as craftsmen from the Renaissance onwards. At that time, the humanist Leon Battista Alberti proved himself as an art theorist, especially in his book »De Pictura«, where he outlined rules for creating successful paintings. Thanks to its scientific approach, this work decisively enhanced the prestige of the art of painting. In particular, Alberti stated that the emotional impact of a figure results from both individual and common characteristics, like age and gender, that opposite expressions such as laughing and crying are not always clearly discernible, and that the function of a work of art is not only to educate and moralise, but first and foremost to bring pleasure.

Silvano Bertolin, Replica of the Laocoön Group, 2006 cast marble, patinated, 225 × 170 × 105 cm, © Lessing-Museum Kamenz

In 1506, a Roman winegrower discovered by chance a two-meter high marble statue that exactly met the ideal proportions and power of expression described by Alberti. The work figures the hopeless fight of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons against several snakes. The desperate expressions of the figures, their pathetic efforts to resist the monsters, and their endurance of suffering have a durable influence on numerous artists, especially Michelangelo (1475–1564).

Giovanni Giacomo Caraglio, Furor, copy after Rosso Fiorentino, 1520/40 copperplate engraving, 25 x 18,6 cm, bpk / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Volker-H. Schneider

The figure on this work is in such a rage that all muscles and tendons of his body are prominent. The man uses his arms and legs to repel the monsters that attack him. His gestures and his expression are similar to those of Laocoön and his sons, so that this allegory of Fury is a two-dimensional companion piece to the sculpture.

The “Pathos Formula”

In the early 20th century, the expert on art theory Aby Warburg (1866–1929) compared Ancient portraits with similar works created during the Renaissance. After detailed examinations of tapestries, coins, post stamps and printed portraits, Warburg suggested that all these images were conveying a universal language rooted in our cultural memory. Furthermore, he discovered that particular gestures and expressions were recurrent across various epochs, which prompted him to call these similar renderings of emotions the “Pathos Formula”.

Taking their inspiration from Classical models, the Renaissance sculptors created more and more virtuoso works. Their achievements became passionate balancing acts that express a dramatic message using tormented bodies.

(Attributed to) Antonio Susini, Rape of a Sabine Woman (group of three characters), copy after Giambologna, around 1600 (model: 1582) bronze with a red golden patina, darkend, grey marble plinth, 58 × 24 × 23 cm ohne Sockel, 65 × 28 × 26 cm mit Sockel, LIECHTENSTEIN. The Princely Collections, Vaduz – Vienna

This representation of a rape, a common subject in Classical art, is a perfect example of »figura serpentinata«, i.e. figures with snake-like twisting of their bodies. The three-character group is a partial representation of a mythological event: the abduction of Sabine women by Roman warriors. The gestures and facial expressions of the characters, combined with their entwined bodies, perfectly renders the dramatic dimension of the kidnapping.

Rape of a Sabine Woman

Confronted with a dearth of women in Rome, Romulus, the founder of the city, conceived a stratagem: he invited people from the neighbouring towns to a festival of games and, during the event, he gave a signal to his followers at which they grabbed all the young Sabine women present. Their fathers and brothers wanted to avenge the abduction, but the women had since freely decided to marry the Romans. At the beginning of the fight for vengeance, the Sabine women intervened and prompted the enemies to reconcile. In the centuries following the Renaissance, historical painters often treated the subject of the rape of the Sabine women.

Imitating the sculptors, Renaissance painters also created works with characters in dynamic postures. The work by Paolo Fiammingo (around 1540–1608) is a good example of this development: the bodies of the couple in the foreground to the right adopt the twisting of the figures on the statue after Giambologna (1529–1608) entitled Rape of a Sabine Woman. Moreover, Fiammingo’s work perfectly illustrates the competition between sculptors and painters in the Renaissance: as a statue can be appreciated from all sides, Fiammingo countered this advantage by painting the couples viewed from different perspectives.

Pauwels Franck, alias Paolo Fiammingo, The Fruit of Love, 1585/89 oil on canvas, 158,7 x 257,3 cm, KHM-Museumsverband, Wien

In the past, daring pictures were usually hidden behind a curtain and made visible only to selected guests. This applied in particular to The Fruit of Love, which was commissioned by the Augsburg-based merchant Hans Fugger (1531–1598) and hung in the castle he had erected in Kirchheim, Swabia. The tension captured in this painting, inviting erotic fantasy, is the result of the contrast between dominant men and passive women.

A question of attitude

A question of attitude

Peter Paul Rubens, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, around 1620 oil on wood, 49 × 39 cm, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brüssel, © RMFAB, Brussels / J. Geleyns - Art Photography

The representation of emotions came to a climax in Baroque art. Sweeping gestures, transfigured looks — In order to win over the viewers, artists of that period exaggerated everything in their works.

One of the reasons for this development was the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, as the latter sought, during the Counter-Reformation, to attract believers using impressive and gigantic works. The attitude towards passion in the fine arts finally became a distinctive feature of the patrons’ religious and political camps.

Antagonism among Christians

Political and religious upheavals characterised the 16th and 17th centuries. The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther (1483–1546) published his Ninety-five Theses and gave precedence to the written word over any picture in religious matters. Thanks to the recently invented printing press, the new ideas rapidly spread across the Christian world and began competing with the old faith. The confrontation culminated during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) that divided Europe into Catholic and Protestant camps. This strong antagonism was echoed in the fine arts as well. One and a half centuries earlier, the art theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) had stated that paintings were like windows opened on the world, granting the viewers a passive role at most. But in the Baroque era, the catholic church used the fine arts for propaganda purposes against the Protestants, hoping the impressive images would attract believers.

Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents, 1611/12 oil on canvas, 162,5 × 232 cm, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brüssel, © RMFAB, Brussels / J. Geleyns - Art Photography

Raging soldiers, mothers trying to protect their children: Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) gave three different versions of the massacre of innocent new-born babies mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 2:16–18). These paintings particularly evidence Rubens’ mastery. The ruthless infanticide gave many other artists the occasion to render violence, brutality and hideousness in an appropriate, aesthetic form, as recommended by Aristotle.

Johann Michael Rottmayr, Glorification of Jesus’ Name, around 1703/04 oil on canvas, 150 × 90 cm, © Belvedere, Wien

Direct connection between earth and skies: this trompe-l’œil that seems to open up the vault of a church on the skies figures characters gesticulating as though on a stage. The intent is to suggest contact between the believers on one side and God and the saints on the other, so that the viewers become part of the painting.

Guido Reni, Saint Margaret, about 1606/07 oil on canvas, 92.5 × 76 cm, LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster/Hanna Neander, on permanent loan from the Federal Republic of Germany

A dramatic chiaroscuro underscores the saint’s languishing look to the skies.

Anthonis van Dyck, Lamentation of Christ, around 1618/20 oil on canvas, 99 × 74,5 cm, KHM-Museumsverband, Wien

This picture showing the naked body of the dead Jesus Christ after his martyrdom generates a wealth of emotions. The face of the Virgin Mary expresses grief; Saint Mary Magdalene kisses Jesus’ hand to express her mourning.

Camillo Rusconi, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, around 1727/28 red terracotta, remains of a glaze and white oil-based paint, 39 cm high, Privatsammlung, LIECHTENSTEIN. The Princely Collections, Vaduz – Vienna

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), a key figure of the Counter-Reformation, looks upwards and points his right hand to the skies, showing the way to God. The book he holds in his left hand identifies him as a scholar.

A dramatic chiaroscuro underscores the saint’s languishing look to the skies.

The artists commissioned by the Catholic church in the 17th century did everything in their power to satisfy their patrons. Painters, composers, writers and architects used all available means to generate strong emotions and win over believers, thus creating a total work of art.

The passions are the only advocates that always persuade. […] The simplest man with passion will be more persuasive than the most eloquent without.

François Rochefoucauld (1618-1680)

Emotions under observa­tion

The flourishing art market that developed in the Netherlands in the 17th century considerably influenced the painters’ styles and the subjects they treated.

The Dutch artists benefited from the expanded market. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), seeing himself in competition with the older Peter Paul Rubens, who was already famous at the time, developed a more personal, less formal way to render emotions, as evidenced in his numerous self-portraits. Focusing on precise observation rather than on the search for ideal types, Rembrandt revolutionised the art of painting.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Self-portrait with a Cap, Wide-open Eyes and Open Mouth, 1630 etching, 5,1 × 4,6 cm, © (CC BY-SA 4.0) Städel Museum / U. Edelmann / ARTOTHEK ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.de)

Rembrandt advised his pupil Samuel van Hoogstaten (1627–1678) to study emotions in depth. Personally, he used a mirror and various accessories for the more than eighty self-portraits he painted, thus being both actor and spectator in his own creations. A number of the works that figure the artist with various facial expressions were conceived as sketches for historical paintings.

In search of system­atization

Physiognomy is a science rooted in Antiquity that claims to assess a person’s character from their facial expressions.

In 1688, Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), court painter of Louis XIV, compiled a book containing sketches of twenty-four facial expressions that stand out for their correlation between human face and those of animals.

Mixed emotions

Le Brun was the first to list the various types of physiognomies identified at the time, and to compare some of them with animal heads. According to him, there were three basic types of character among humans: neutral, noble and devilishly passionate. Le Brun also determined that various parts of the human face play specific roles in the expression of emotions. Moreover, he assessed that emotions can be either simple or complex, with fear, deception, wrath and hope belonging to the second category.

  • Bernard Picart (after Charles Le Brun), Four sketches from the Characters of Passions […], 1713 etching, 39 × 28 cm (paper), Wellcome Collection, London
  • F. T. Rochard (?) after Charles Le Brun, A series of lithographic drawings, before 1827 [illustrative of the relation between the human physiognomy and that of the brute creation], etching, (CC BY-NC 4.0) Wellcome Collection, London, (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0)
  • Langlois (?) after Charles Le Brun, A series of lithographic drawings, before 1827 [illustrative of the relation between the human physiognomy and that of the brute creation], etching, (CC BY-NC 4.0) Wellcome Collection, London, (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0)
  • A.-J. (Bertrand) Defehrt after Charles Le Brun, Three plates with four faces each, out of: Encyclopédie, 1762/77 [Hate or jealousy, rage, great pain, desire], etching, 35,1 × 22,1 cm, Wellcome Collection, London

Le Brun’s endeavour to systemise the various facial expressions and the associated emotions had a considerable influence on artists and philosophers until the middle of the 19th century.

William Hebert (after Charles Le Brun), Despair, around 1770 etching in crayon style, 23,5 × 20 cm, Wellcome Collection, London
Jean Boinard, Head with changing expression: Democritus and Heraclitus, 1683 oil on canvas, 67 × 55 cm, © Musées du Mans Jean Boinard, Head with changing expression: Democritus and Heraclitus, 1683 oil on canvas, 67 × 55 cm, © Musées du Mans

Jean Boinard (1633–1711) was among the artists who applied the system developed by Le Brun. Using the court painter’s physiognomy book, he created a portrait on which eyes and mouth can be changed, the figure being either joyful and laughing, or horrified and disdainful. Boinard had his invention patented, but the work in question is not considered a piece of fine art. Nonetheless, Head with changing expression illustrates the popularity of the theory of physiognomy in the 17th century.

Art enlightens

Art enlight­ens

Johann Caspar Lavater, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniß und Menschenliebe, 1787 book with copperplate engravings, 17,7 × 11,4 × 2,7 cm, © Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Münster

The fine arts had to fulfil new functions from the 18th century onwards, as the bourgeoisie played a growing social role and new moral standards were applied to works of art.

The grandiloquent gestures of the Baroque era were preserved, but presented in a new context. This development mirrored various changes in society and first became evident at the French royal court: aristocrats were required to control their emotions and to accept the rules imposed by the king. A refined code of conduct gradually developed and set the standard for all of society.

Enlightenment

"Dare to be wise!" proclaims Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as the motto of Enlightement. The basic principle was that Reason and Virtues had to determine all human actions. Intelligence would enable the people to discard outdated concepts and accept new discoveries. This affected not only faith and church, but also the concept of the divine right of kings. However, this development did not mean that feelings should play no role at all, but heralded a shift from grandiloquence to moderate expression of emotions. The Enlightenment paved the way for the advent of democratic societies. It was at the heart of both the French Revolution and the affirmation of a bourgeois society.

Many of the novels published in the 18th century moved the contemporary readers to tears, so that the century is sometimes called »the epoch of sentimentalism«. Works of art that expressed emotions contributed to the advent of new moral codes. The advantage of this approach was the possibility to experience emotions “without the turmoil and confusion caused by emotions in real life”, as stated by the philosopher Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783).

René Gaillard (after Jean-Baptiste Greuze), The Father’s Curse: the Punished Son, 1800 copperplate engraving, 48,9 × 62,8 cm (sheet), 57 × 69 cm, Wellcome Collection, London

This work that figures a wealth of strong emotions is not intended to win over the viewers like in the Baroque era, but to educate them. The dramatic charge of the scene forms a contrast with the intimate character of the bedroom, which underscores the moral intention of the work.

If there were nothing moral in a man’s heart, whence would come his ardent admiration for heroic acts, his turning with love to the great souls, his enthusiasm for virtue?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Emile, or on Education, 4
William Hogarth, Before and After (before), 1736 etching, ca. 41 x 33 cm, © Kunsthalle Bremen / Karen Blindow / ARTOTHEK William Hogarth, Before and After (after), 1736 etching, ca. 41 x 33 cm, © Kunsthalle Bremen / Karen Blindow / ARTOTHEK

The first etching shows an old man in his attempt to seduce a young woman: his wig is askew, the table is overturned, the dog is barking. The second picture figures the couple after consumption of the sexual act: the man, surprised and ashamed of himself, holds up his still open trousers with one hand. Such etchings by William Hogarth (1697–1764) visually transpose the characteristics of satirical novels of the Enlightenment.

Grimacing curios­ity

In the 18th century, the fine arts not only fulfilled moralistic purposes, but also developed an interest in analytical observation of the world.

The endeavour to comprehend and organise the world also included efforts to understand passions. Philosophers and natural scientists examined the interaction of body and soul. This led, in particular, to the development of physiognomics, a science that aims to unravel the mysteries of the human character. All these developments found their echo in the fine arts.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Sorrow Withdrawn Inside, after 1770 bust, lead, 38,3 cm, bpk / Landesmuseum Württemberg / P. Frankenstein / H. Zwietasch

Although this face with its extreme deformations, deep wrinkles, screwed up eyes and distorted lips is somewhat overdone, it is the result of a keen observation of the model.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Maudlin Old Man, after 1770 bust, lead, 33,2 cm, bpk / Landesmuseum Württemberg / P. Frankenstein / H. Zwietasch

These works, from the »Character heads« created by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) at the end of his career, illustrate the artist’s interest in rendering emotions.

Although this face with its extreme deformations, deep wrinkles, screwed up eyes and distorted lips is somewhat overdone, it is the result of a keen observation of the model.

Describing Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s working method, a contemporary author stated that the artist would look at his face in a mirror at one-second intervals and draw the results of his experiments empirically; he would also frighten people in the streets to study the expression of horror on their faces. Messerschmidt specialised in bizarre grimaces, so that people around him assumed his odd behaviour was the result of psychical disorders.

Arnulf Rainer, Without Title (Self-portraits), around 1969 silver bromide vintage print, unique copy, ca. 5.7 x 4.4 cm, Galerie m, Bochum

Two hundred years later, Arnulf Rainer created similar works using another media. For these self-portraits, made in a passport photo booth at a train station in Vienna, the artist also made absurd grimaces that recall Messerschmidt’s »Character Heads«.

Photography is a marvellous discovery, a science that has attracted the greatest intellects, and an art that excites the most astute minds […].

Nadar (1820-1910)

Photography offered new possibilities to render emotions more or less objectively. The novel technology made possible not only to study gestures, but also to make direct comparisons with the idealised facial expressions of Ancient sculptures. The neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne (1806–1875) stimulated the facial muscles using electrophysiology and took photographs of his patients that list the various human passions.

Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression, 1876 book, 25,5 × 7,8 × 3 cm, © Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Münster

In the 18th and 19th centuries, emotions were channelled in fixed pathways and social paradigms. Resistance grew to this dictatorship of feelings, however, especially from Romanticists and the first women’s movement. In the 20th century, artists of all kinds expressed the passions in their treatment of essential subjects.

Emotionality in modern art

Emotio­nality in modern art

Jeremy Shaw, New Covenant Church 4, Pray III. Jun 8, 1980, from the series Towards Universal Pattern Recognition, 2017 kaleidoscopic acrylic, chrome, photography, 34.8 × 40.5 × 14 cm, private collection. Photograph: Timo Ohler by courtesy of the artist and the König Galerie Berlin/London/Tokyo

Modern art is characterised by its wide range of subjects and media. In works that deal with human passions, the artists often turned to subjects and pictorial styles of the past.

Among the inspiration taken from past periods are Biblical and mythological subjects, which the artists reinterpreted in new styles and contexts. For example, »Bacchanalia« by Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) seems at first glance only to figure an unrestrained festival honouring Bacchus, the god of Wine.

People are dancing, naked and uninhibited. In the foreground lies Pentheus, who was not invited to the feast and is being punished for looking on. Madness, violence and lust dominate the picture. Introducing modern devices in his composition, such as the upswept hairstyle of some women, Corinth located the decadent scene in his own epoch. The German public in the era of Emperor William II was so upset by the painting, by its irony and the clash between mythology and present, that the work could not be exhibited until much time had passed.

Lovis Corinth, Bacchanalia, 1896 oil on canvas, 117 × 207 cm, © Landesmuseum Hannover

When you stand before a painting, you don’t need to think to understand it, but you should think after you have understood it.

Wolfgang Pfleiderer (1877-1971)
Leonetto Cappiello, Absinthe Ducros Fils, 1901 five-colour lithography, 139 × 99.6 cm, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel/Ute Brunzel

Relaxed and happy, the woman holds a bottle of absinth in the air. Like a modern maenad, she invites the viewer to drink alcohol.

Georg Kolbe, Amazon, 1912 bronze, 37.7 cm high, Georg Kolbe Museum, Berlin/Markus Hilbich

Contemporary art critics considered this statuette by Georg Kolbe (1877–1947) to be expressing a new attitude toward life. Indeed, the naked young dancing girl expresses a new approach to freedom of the body.

Ludwig von Hofmann, Ecstasy, 1900/1925 colour woodcut on paper, 36.2 × 47.5 cm, LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster/Hanna Neander

Likewise, the three women in the woodcut by Ludwig von Hofmann (1861–1945) are pictured in ecstasy. The artist took his inspiration from unrestrained dancing maenads of Ancient times.

Relaxed and happy, the woman holds a bottle of absinth in the air. Like a modern maenad, she invites the viewer to drink alcohol.

I am interested in what the old masters didn’t paint, those steps in between.

Bill Viola (born in 1951)

The video artist Bill Viola knows how to render intense emotions in painting-like quality. The Quintet of the Astonished, for example, a contemporary rendering of the Passion of Jesus Christ, figures a chiaroscuro typical of the Old Masters. Viola took his inspiration from Christ Crowned with Thorns, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch (about 1450–1516).

In the video, the five actors are first motionless, then transfixed, showing a series of emotions. The use of a high-speed camera enabled an extreme slow-motion technique that perfectly renders the slightest change of the facial expressions. Thus, the viewer experiences the highs and lows of the suffering and enraptured people portrayed.

Bill Viola, The Quintet of the Astonished, 2000 video installation, 15:20 min, with John Malpede, Weba Garretson, Tom Fitzpatrick, John Fleck, Dan Gerrity, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, © Bill Viola Studio/ Photo: Kira Perov

Christian subjects and their approach to emotions remain omnipresent. Enraptured looks to the skies still express the hope for divine intervention or faith in a better future. When such images are seen in movies, on posters and in newspapers, they are comprehensible because they are rooted in the pictorial tradition of Western culture.

Created by “Z” for the East German DEFA company, Glaube an eine Bessere Zukunft […], 1946 colour offset poster, 86 × 60.2 cm, Sabine Ahlbrand-Dornseif (Münster)/Dr. Jürgen Krause (Berlin)

On the occasion of the regional elections in Saxony on 20 October 1946, the CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) commissioned this poster that figures Hildegard Knef (1925–2002) looking hopefully to the skies, a still from the movie Murderers Among Us.

Attributed to Ferdinand Murmann, Saint Sebastian, after 1630 ivory, 31 × 10 × 9.4 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Kunstkammer

This statuette that figures »Saint Sebastian« also looking to the skies copies the gesture of the character to the left in the Ancient Laocoön Group.

Guido Reni, Saint Margaret, about 1606/07 oil on canvas, 92.5 × 76 cm, LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster/Hanna Neander, on permanent loan from the Federal Republic of Germany

This painting figures Saint Margaret after she overcame Evil and as she is dialoguing with God. Her right hand on her chest underscores her deep emotion, while the left is resting on Satan in the shape of a dragon.

On the occasion of the regional elections in Saxony on 20 October 1946, the CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) commissioned this poster that figures Hildegard Knef (1925–2002) looking hopefully to the skies, a still from the movie Murderers Among Us.

Various mirrors shatter the picture of the praying woman like a kaleidoscope, and generate pulsing and vibration. The woman’s facial expression, however, could be that of a woman having an orgasm. With this provocative work, Jeremy Shaw (born in 1977) underscores the duality of an instant of both spiritual and corporal intensity.

Jeremy Shaw, New Covenant Church 4, Pray III. Jun 8, 1980, from the series Towards Universal Pattern Recognition, 2017 kaleidoscopic acrylic, chrome, photography, 34.8 × 40.5 × 14 cm, private collection. Photograph: Timo Ohler by courtesy of the artist and the König Galerie Berlin/London/Tokyo

Works that render the faces and bodies of women as seen by men dominate across all epochs in the history of art. Female artists like Maria Lassnig (1919–2014), however, opened new perspectives.

Maria Lassnig, Two Ways of Being (Double Self-portrait), 2000 oil on canvas, 100 x 125 cm, © Maria Lassnig Foundation, Vienna / © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2020

In »Two Ways of Being«, Maria Lassnig turns herself inside out: The artist exposes the most private part of herself in order to study her own personality from inside. She tracks the location of her emotions and associates particular colours to her bodily sensations. In this double self-portrait, the artist shows herself within and beyond the boundaries of optical perception.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Self-portrait with blood), 1973 photography on paper, 39,8 x 31,0 x 32 cm, Tate, London, © The Estate of Ana Mendieta, Collection, LLC, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. / Photo © Tate / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

This self-portrait figures Ana Mendieta (1948–1985) with her face full of blood. It belongs to a series dedicated to psychological and physical violence against women that the artist started after a fellow student had been raped and murdered. The photograph is a kind of “selfie” and therefore very modern. At the same time, it recalls pictures from past centuries that figure the martyrdom of Jesus Christ, and thus prompts religious associations. In this work, Ana Mendieta utilises and scrutinises a traditional style to express emotions. The photograph generates compassion in the viewer but unlike similar works of the past, it is an expression of feminist social critique.

Hint

Hint

Don’t let love make a fool of you!

This towel-rack adorned with a relief that figures two lovers was probably a wedding present to be affixed in the private rooms of an aristocratic couple. A man with a fool’s hood hugs a woman who holds a bar for a towel. She is willing and ready to accept the kisses of her partner. Small fools are perched on the shoulders of both characters. This work is intended to underscore the importance of faithfulness between married people: both the bride and the groom must remain clean—not only by washing and drying their hands…

Arnt van Tricht, Towel-rack with Two Lovers, about 1535/40 oak, 46 x 51 x 23 cm, Museum Kurhaus Kleve