Art consultant Eleanor Chan discusses the kaleidoscopic meanings of love – and the works of art through centuries and cultures that have captured its beautiful profundity.
Love is a many splendored thing, as the Andy Williams song goes. While modern society might readily associate love with romance, one could argue that various other forms of love are just as intense, such as the unconditional love that a parent feels for their child, or the sublime experience one
has when encountering nature in its majesty and unpredictability.
According to the late Canadian psychologist John Alan Lee, there are six different types of love: eros, pragma, ludus, storge, mania and agape. Love, be it good or bad, is undoubtedly the most common theme in art. If art reflects society and provokes our thoughts of the world we inhabit, what better subject to turn to than love – one of the deepest of human emotions.
We all know that the feelings we have don’t always fall neatly under one type of love, but I’m taking on the challenge of introducing works that capture each of the six types. Below are some of my favourite art pieces evoking the emotion we call love – in all of its complexities.
More artists have probably created works around eros – in other words, romantic love – than any other kind of love. If you do a quick Google search, you’ll find dozens of artworks titled The Kiss. The most famous work by that name, however, is by Gustav Klimt. Said to be inspired by Klimt’s goldsmith father and the artist’s visit to the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, the shimmery work depicts Klimt and his partner in a tight, passionate embrace over a flower bed. First exhibited in Vienna in 1908, The Kiss has long been regarded as the epitome of the artist’s “Golden Epoch”, in which he started including gold leaf in his paintings.
Alas, I might have been too quick to claim Klimt’s work as the most famous The Kiss. After all, some art critics have noted that Klimt modelled his painting on French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss. In Rodin’s piece, the two figures were intended to be Paolo and Francesca from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The lovers were slain by Francesca’s husband, who surprised them as they exchanged their first kiss, and were thus condemned to wander eternally through Hell. It was originally a part of the artist’s The Gates of Hell, but when Rodin realised the portrayal of happiness was a divergence from its theme, he decided it should be a standalone piece – and rightly so.
It takes an understandably long time to get a permit to make art on the Great Wall of China. In the case of Marina Abramović and Ulay, they’d applied for the permit while still in love, but their relationship had soured by the time it got approved. The artist duo went ahead with it anyway and, in 1988, trekked from opposite ends of the wall to meet in the middle to break up. Is the resulting work, The Lovers, the epitome of a type of pragma (practical love), where their love for art superseded everything else? Perhaps, perhaps not, but this is one of the most powerful performance art pieces I’ve seen.
Dutch artist Jan van Eyck’s lush portraits are known for their exquisite attention to detail – and The Arnolfini Portrait is particularly so. The portrait depicts a wealthy husband and a pregnant wife holding hands, but not looking at each other – suggesting pragma, a love based out of mutual respect rather than passion.
Nobody captures the alienation of modern life better than Edward Hopper and I think Room in New York is a testament to that. Within a brightly lit room, a man and woman are focused on their respective tasks, paying no heed to the other – or to us, the viewers, who are peering in. They’re only separated by a table, yet also seem to be miles apart. Are they a couple cherishing their private time or are they estranged from each other?
Pierre Auguste Renoir’s dreamy Dance in the Country, featuring a dancing couple, is the epitome of ludus – a playful and affectionate love. The man is gently kissing the woman’s rosy cheeks, while the latter is looking at the viewer, her face conveying pure joy. The abandoned table, fallen hat and peeking guests on the left add a sense of playful spontaneity.
French-born American artist Nicole Eisenman is chock-full of humour – sometimes innocent, other times dark. I’m drawn to her recent Destiny Riding Her Bike. In this action-packed scene, the eyes of a boy and girl meet as they fall from a ladder and bike. The distorted lines and pastel tones add a sense of goofiness to the scene.
I look forward to the days when we can dress up, dance and drink with our friends, free from the fear of Covid. Renoir was famous for his impressionists depiction of Parisian urban life. Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, especially striking in its richness of composition and depiction of flicking light, perfectly captures storge – a love based on interest. The partygoers are dancing, conversing and flirting, deftly capturing the French appreciation for those fleeting moments in life.
John Whitehead Walton’s Anxious Moments: A Sick Child, Its Grieving Parents, A Nursemaid and a Medical Practitioner reads like items off a manual, but the intense emotion expressed is anything but. A sick child lies in bed while a nurse, doctor and parents look on in trepidation. Chiaroscuro is applied to stunning effect here, giving a halo-ish glow over the baby and her protectors.
When it comes to agape (altruistic or spiritual love), nothing beats falling in love with a rock. Yes, we’re looking at you, Tracey Emin. The artist married a rock in a ceremony in southern France in 2015, saying that she’d finally found her inner peace – although the telling of this love is more ambiguous. Among Emin’s works that have recently gone under the hammer at Phillips auction house, there have been such tender works as Wanting You, but also the abstract Believe In Extraordinary. Is it an intensely spiritual love or an obsessive love? It’s up to the viewer to decide.
Few Greek gods and goddesses inspire as much admiration as Venus, the goddess of love. Of all artworks and literature about her, Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is probably the most famous. A nude Venus is shown to be emerging from the sea, standing on top of a giant scallop shell after her birth. Her right hand covers her breasts, while her left hand, clutching the end of a long golden mane, covers her private parts. On the left of the painting, the wind god Zephyr puffs his cheeks, blowing her towards shore, while on the right, a female figure appears to want to shield her with a large coat. I first saw this magnificent piece at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and it touched me in a profound way. The Greek intellectuals say Venus is supposed to inspire two kinds of love: romantic love and intellectual love. Perhaps the power of Botticelli’s painting lies in its ability to capture both sides of Venus.
If Frida Kahlo’s love for Diego Rivera was captured in one word, it would be “mania”. There’s a lot of pain in Kahlo’s art – in part due to her chronic sickness, and in part due to her tumultuous relationship with fellow painter Rivera. The Two Fridas was painted after her separation from him. While one Frida is decked in European dress, the other wears a traditional Tehuana dress. The heart of the European Frida is cut open and in her hands is a pair of scissors. Meanwhile, the other Frida holds a portrait of Rivera. It’s a haunting depiction of Kahlo’s love for Rivera and a searing representation of heartbreak.
There’s mania for others, but also for oneself. We call this narcissism, from Narcissus, the Greek hunter who fell so deep in love with his own reflection in the water one day that he stared at it until the day he died. Painted by a follower of Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Leonardo da Vinci’s collaborator in Milan, the portrayal of Narcissus is subtle, but the single-minded obsession with the subject’s own reflection is unmistakable.
This article was originally published as "The Painted Veil" in the ECHELON Passion Issue (Issue 6).