Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Art post - A Question of Propriety (1870)

Hi everyone,

Another art-themed post inspired by the National Gallery.  This time, the post is Edwin Long's A Question of Propriety (1870).

Image from here

According to the Gallery's notes, the picture is of "a Gypsy dancer brought before the Spanish Inquisition on the charge of corrupting public morals".  The Inquisitors seem to have asked for a demonstration.  If we look closely there is a figure to the woman's left with drums, and behind her a boy with a mandolin.

The picture doesn't make fun of its subjects.  It would have been easy for Long to have painted the Inquisition in unflattering terms - all burning pyres and chains. He doesn't.  His only concession to contrast is that their clerical robes appear dusty and drab compared with the dancer's bright clothing.  Even this may not have been deliberate: the metalware on her clothes echoes the armour of the soldiers (or vice versa).  The Gallery's description says that "captivated by her performance, the holy censors lean forward, their stern features softened with wonderment and pleasure".  This is what makes the painting particularly interesting: the real subject isn't the dancer's grace or fluidity but the effect this has on the churchmen.  Music and art seem to show them another facet of the God they served so flintily.

We can understand something similar now in stories of the Choir of Hard Knocks, or in videos like this one converting the concrete expanse of the Los Angeles River into a dance studio.  In the end, the power of any art shows in how it changes the performer, and even more in how it changes the viewer.

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