Art Thoughts, Week 35 -- Denis & Models

Mother and Child, Maurice Denis, French (1870—1943) c. 1895, oil on canvas, BF 335.

In one way or another, from the subtle to the blatant, all artworks operate under the influence of a model. That is, a pattern or precedent which informs a new work in its own foray into space. Even an object as unprecedented and radical as Duchamp’s ready-made urinal, has as its model traditional sculpture – though it differs greatly in execution and concept, it differs much less in its basic formality. Instead of marble: porcelain.

Maurice Denis’ Mother and Child falls into line behind a long tradition of paintings of the Madonna and Child (i.e. the virgin Mary and the Christ child), a model both powerful and pervasive in Western art. And, though not necessarily intended by Denis, any arrangement of a mother and child in such a composition invariably refers, and is somehow related to, other Madonna and Child paintings. However, once a model is used and acknowledged, the most persistently successful artist proceeds to further re-mold and alter the model in significant ways. Denis, for his part, turns us to the power of depiction.

In all Madonna and Child paintings, a relationship is implicit. But within this assumption, all degrees of relationships may be found. Many late medieval and early Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Child emphasize the alienness of the Christ child – assuming him to be more spiritually detached – as opposed to Mary’s more obvious humanness. And there is of course physical interaction, and along with occasional differences in scale between Christ and Mary, it is often evident that these two figures are in a tenuous place – they are not of necessity intimate; and there is an insinuated spiritual divide. A relationship is definitely active too, in Mother and Child – and, as in most early Modern depictions of familial relationships, in contrast to those earlier traditions, their revelations are more realistic and honest. We can draw some conclusions about this relationship based on the relative depictions of mother and child. The mother, save for her bas-relief face, is depicted fairly flatly. She becomes a backdrop (secondary to the muddy puce and maroon bars in the background) to the more consistently roundly modeled and vivacious infant. Besides her face, the mother’s hands are the only other modeled part of her body. The black shape of her torso and dress edges create a flat, board-like layer, through which the hands and face emerge – much like a painted board at a carnival, where one pushes through their face and sometimes hands, to become a strongman; clown or animal. The mother’s hands and face therefore act as “entry points” into the infant’s world and that is, essentially, how infants encounter their mothers: through sight and touch; especially the mother’s physiognomy. Therefore, though their similar modeling suggests a lively commonality, the brushwork seems to weight the balance of the relationship towards the infant. There is some evidence this might be a portrait of Denis’s wife and child. If this is the case, then a natural realization of one’s – and one’s spouse’s – place in relation to the reality of a new child, could surely have entered into Denis’s decisions of how to depict his wife and new child, and especially how to make those depictions differ. In all unequal relationships, there is bound to be a shift in the balance of importance, and for mother and child – any parent and child, really – that is certainly the case. In many Madonna and Child paintings, it is harshly evident that the Christ child will soon overshadow and surpass his mother in importance. And in this case at least, the Denis painting follows its stylistic model.

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