Oil on canvas, 1888, by Briton Rivière (1840 – 1920)
This heart-wrenching painting by the British painter, Briton Rivière could arguably stand at the crossroads of a cultural flashpoint, both in its time and in our own. Was it painted in the tradition of the Academy which was aligned with the Victorian strictures of investing art with moral agency and therefore meant to hark back nostalgically to a grander coalescence of might and power? Or was it part of the ‘fin de siècle’ attitude towards art which preoccupied the champions of the Aesthetic Movement and sought to strip art of anything save its status as an object of beauty? In other words, are we meant to learn from it or simply adore it? As an image it is easy to see how its neo-romanticism would appeal to the British sensibility of the time: it overtly signals that particular euphemistic tendency to conflate savagery with beauty, bravery with echoes of barbarism. Barbarism has always, ironically, been an acceptable human tendency, providing there is a higher objective which motivates it and therefore cleanses the conscience: strutting about foreign lands and slaying heathen infidels in the name of Christendom, for example. Then, given that its subject matter so readily evokes connotations with the Crusaders and the age of Medieval chivalry (translation: white supremacy), and given its unfortunate statuesque characteristics, are we not now tempted to rip it from the walls of its resting place and turf it in the nearest river, citing our contention with imperialism as justification?
The problem with the current mood of evisceration is that it stridently ignores artistic individualism coupled with art’s fundamental duty to engage and provoke. It sees art through a one-dimensional lens as surface representation while denying the reality of how powerful and vital both ambiguity and allegory as cognitive devices in art really are. The very best art never functions in static isolation, but fluctuates with every view and every viewer. If it provokes awe in some and fury in others, it is only doing what societal representation does as a matter of natural course: its very diversity is proof of its strident authentic vitality. Yes, public statues commissioned in a bye-gone age may now be – paradoxically given they are made of stone and bronze – the most animated provocateurs of our time, but the fact that they provoke at all is a bizarre testament to their currency as a rallying point for advancement. The biggest danger to humanity is the complacence we lapse into when we fool ourselves into believing the battle is won. We need constant reminders to contextualise the injustices of the past. If every contentious statue were entirely absent from public life, and by extension if we removed every historically sensitive work of art from the walls of every gallery, we would only be diluting the essential power art has in society to constantly enliven our collective conscience. It surely stands to reason that we learn more from the past by constantly engaging with it than by obliterating its every remnant and lessening its prescience in our mind’s eye? We need some art to shock us into action: hence the universal hatred of the censor in anyone who genuinely understands the importance of art as a mirror to society.
The debate is far too complex to do justice to here, but it strikes me when looking at Requiescat (Latin: Rest in Peace) that it serves as a near perfect encapsulation of the ambiguity which energises our perspectives. It would seem that Rivière’s painting sets about – whether intentionally or retrospectively – to summon a series of binaries which straddle the intersection of a number of potential contentions. First, the juxtaposition of the crude and the refined trigger off an uneasy contemplation of the way we tend to extol virtue on acts of vice and violence. Our fallen subject is decked out in the fine armour of a knight, a nobleman, a soldier: quite probably all three. Actually, on closer reflection, the armour is slightly tarnished and is not so resplendent; it does not spark with life as the armour depicted in Carpaccio’s Young Knight in a Landscape (1510), Sanchez Coello’s Portrait of Alessandro Farnese (1588) or even the dark shimmer of the breastplate in Titian’s 1538 portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere which is an energised black (well it is by Titian!). There is something cold and melancholy about the appearance of weighty armour on a dead soldier; an exoskeleton of a kind which is now wholly redundant, entirely pointless. The chiaroscuro here in Rivière’s painting creates an ethereal tone which both accentuates the sentiment of death and also focuses the source of light onto the lower half of the scene. The knight is laid out in state on elaborately embroidered tapestry which contains snaking vines and petals and creates a further layer of duality between the man embroiled in the violence of conflict and the man as a romantic figure of chivalry and Courtly Love. How do we consider the one aspect in light of the other? What questions are posed to the valorous knight of his rampaging deeds in far off lands as he goes about his gentle seduction of the maiden in the secret garden of love? The armour provokes a darker narrative which perpetually begs for resolution. The wreath of honour on his breastplate creates a feathery, delicate texture to contrast sharply against the cold solidity of the metal: with some intention, we feel, our emotions are being elaborately toyed with.
Indeed, the inclusion of the bloodhound changes the perspective of the composition entirely. The dog is the central figure on whose focus our sense of pathos rests. The painting essentially becomes an allegory for blind loyalty and unconditional devotion which a dog has for its master, but which we have for our overlords too. The dog is also unable to question, to challenge, to strike out under his own conscience. His only obligation is the fealty he must display to the hand that feeds him. This unquestioning belief in some unspecified ideology of righteousness and superiority is what, we can’t help but feel, now lies as an accusation of some sort against the fallen knight as he rests here in death. His presence raises the question: is the true definition of honour in dying for what you believe in, even if that belief is blind to reason, oblivious to truth, ignorant of prejudice? There is something very proud and defiant in the bloodhound’s posture which stands as an extension for the attitude of his dead master. Note how his pronounced, muscular breast is pouting, how his ears are laid back compliantly, how his nose hovers beneath the naked human hand of gentle companionship which once stroked and comforted him. His eyes are staring fixedly on the expressionless face, as if he is waiting for a sign, a command, some facet of life, his own sense of self so entirely dependent on the whims and fancies of his human keeper. We observe the totality of the dog’s devotion and reflect the essence of such in the slain figure towards his own master, be that his king or his God.
The truth is the dog humanises the knight. The little we see of his human flesh and features invoke a sense of nostalgia because we immediately understand that no matter how much politics and dogma and social sensibility might shift over the centuries, the loyalty of a dog towards his master is one of the constant measures of our human existence. The dog’s steadfast devotion contextualises the truism that the campaign of war is human enterprise in which human capital is traded: concealed within every metal casement of armour there is a blood and bone man; behind the fixity of steel, a human heart beats. We might well be tempted to view a gallant knight nowadays and condemn him as any manner of elitist imperial conquer, but no matter how provocative his actions may now register to us, and no matter what has happened in our history which has unfolded way beyond his uncomprehending actions, a dead man being watched over by his pet dog will always reflect back at us what art does best, mirroring the rich ambiguity and the infinite complexity of our existence.
Image courtesy of the Gallery of New South Wales.