Let us not say, “If only the texts were richer, the witnesses more loquacious, the confessions more detailed!” Don’t we seem today to have everything we need in order to know our contemporaries: their revelations on recordings, their facial expressions in photographs? And yet… A rascal, say some; a saint, say others, speaking of the same man.
- Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century (1)
Lucien Febvre, the great French historian who was co-founder (with Marc Bloch) of the Annales, asked that 16th century thought be contextualised as 16th century thought. Attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, values and even feelings were materially conditioned; what could be understood of any given period was specific to that period alone. It therefore took an enormous amount of effort to understand and to write history. Febvre’s most famous book – The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais – might have been published in 1942, but it had been written over a ten year period and had been in gestation since the publication of Abel Lefranc’s introduction to Rabelais’ Pantagruel in 1922 (2). Clearly, while history was about time, it also took time.
In Australia, especially in newer fields such as film studies, we have been slow to properly undertake this process of historical contextualisation. This means that a filmmaker such as Paul Cox is in a paradoxical position. On the one hand, he is the recipient of awards and accolades which confirm his historical (and national) relevance. On the other hand, there is little scholarship to explain what he has achieved and why it is that his films are in any way significant to us. Certainly, critics have responded to his work, but film criticism cannot be confused with film history. Indeed, my problem is precisely the way in which discussion about Cox has not yet moved beyond the immediacy of any given person’s response to his work. We are therefore constantly returned to the situation that Febvre describes above: Cox is either an independent director making unnecessarily artistic films, or a European auteur valiantly fighting the stifling hold that bureaucracy has over filmmaking in Australia. In either instance, we are told very little about what he might have brought to film. What we can instead confirm is that the anachronism, which Febvre so lucidly fought against, is a worrying part of cultural discussion today. It is because of this that I have decided to contextualise the opening and closing shots of one of Cox’s most famous films, Man of Flowers (1983). What I think my analysis might indicate is how well-known films and even well-known shots still demand their own, separable, acts of historical interpretation.
1. Talking about Titian
Man of Flowers opens with a shot of Titian painting. Initially, however, we can only see some organ pipes and a distant garden; a viewer would have to be knowledgeable in Renaissance art to realise, before the camera begins to move, that this is a fragment of the artist’s Venus with an Organ Player (Madrid, Prado, c.1550). Moreover, since there are three Venus with an Organ Player paintings, it is not until the camera pans right, towards the head of the organist, that we realise that this is Titian’s third and last painting with this title. What is interesting about this choice of canvas is that it is unsigned. We can deduce it is a Titian; style, composition and genre all indicate that even if Titian did not paint the canvas alone, it was at least from his workshop. What this means, not only in terms of artistic collaboration but also in terms of introducing variants to a common theme, will play itself out in the development of Cox’s later work. For now, however, it is enough to realise that the work is famous but hardly a turning-point in the development of Titian’s career.
There were obviously not just these three Titian Venus paintings available for Cox to choose between in this opening sequence, there were many. Among these – and most famously – is Titian’s earlier Venus of Urbino (1538). There is also the Venus Titian finished about a decade later when he first changed the figure of this slender girl to that of a mature woman, and reversed the pose so that she reclines on the right of the frame (Venus, c.1545-1548), and his Sacred and Profane Love (1515) which, as Erwin Panofsky notes, was originally identified as The Two Venuses (3). There were also the two Venus with a Lute Player portraits which immediately followed the Organ Player series, and Titian’s more famous Flora (c. 1515), a portrait which tallies well in terms of both the subject and title of Man of Flowers. Why, then, did Cox choose the third and final Venus in a series of three Venus and organ paintings as his starting point? Why this particular frame of reference?
We might guess that an unsigned, more minor Titian painting allowed Cox the narrative and/or pictorial freedoms that a painting such as Venus of Urbino could not. Indeed, much has been written about the Venus of Urbino; it is such a canon in the history of the representation of the nude in Western art that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to counter or elaborate its meaning (4). Moreover, Cox might have wished to distance himself from Venus of Urbino’s evident focus upon marriage and domestic partnership (remember that this painting shows a naked woman reclining against the backdrop of marriage chests and the domestic bustle of two attending maids). In leaving this painting alone, Cox also relinquished the problem of the assertive female gaze, or at least the difficulty in negotiating a woman who looks back at the viewer and asks for a parity of sorts. He consequently did not have to deal with, for example, Manet’s modernism – that bold rewriting of the female nude – or fear that it would upset his Romantic frame of reference. Further, with regards to this choice of Venus, we clearly see that this figure has yet to pick up an instrument and suggest some form of active and artistic engagement, as she does in the later Lute Player paintings. Even her status as Venus is questionable since cupid has, after all, been replaced by a dog. Again following Panofsky, we might also note that in this image Titian no longer painted Venus as an idealised type but instead painted a woman who was presumably the patron’s mistress. Accordingly, Panofsky entitles this image Venus (?) with an Organ Player (5).
A title of this kind evidently focuses attention upon the identity of the woman. In Man of Flowers, however, it is clearly man who is given focus. Not only does the title of the film indicate this, but so too does the camera read Titian’s painting from a male point-of-view. It opens by panning right; we see the face of a man and follow his gaze as the camera gradually pulls back to reveal his object of contemplation (the woman’s genitals). In this way, a centrality is given the organist – apparently Phillip II – which is foreign to the painting itself (6). No longer does the work bustle with objects of possible contemplation – a woman caressing a dog, details in a landscape, an ornamental organ, male costume, colour, and so on. It instead asks us to see the painting in the way we might read a traditional written text: from left to right, seeing through the eyes of a male subject. But what is it that we are asked to see? Two resting legs and the smooth flush of a rounded stomach: we stare at the woman’s genitals but see very little. Obviously, female genitalia was not meant to be seen in a painting of this type. After all, this is an erotic image made for the private contemplation of a wealthy patron. But clearly, when we watch this film we are asked – in a gesture that would be impossible in any other art form – to look at the painting from within the very fiction of the frame.
It is only at the end of the shot that we realise the extent to which Cox has reworked, through film, the painting’s depicted meaning. We stop on the right of the frame, which has been cropped, and see the curve of a leaning shoulder. We catch a momentary glimpse of an arm but it is very difficult to establish what is going on here, since our gaze is still focused on the organist. It would therefore be easy to miss the woman’s attendant dog, hidden in the dark corner of the image for just a fraction of a second. The film therefore cleverly suggests that in the painting the woman is glancing downwards in coy acquiescence to the musician’s gaze. As a figure who is directing her action, and as the focus within the cinematic frame itself, the organist therefore newly asserts his primacy within the image and his patriarchal power over the reclining female figure. In the Titian painting, however, Venus instead attends to her pet and leans comfortably against a white pillow. It is unclear if she is distracted by the dog or if she has instead turned to pat him. Whatever the reading of the painting, hers is an independent act, one that is not necessarily driven by the gaze of the attendant organist.
2. Importing images
Thanks to this invention [the printing press], a public whose contours are still a little blurred but which included, at any rate, elements from the lower classes (artisans and even peasants) came into contact not only with the printed page but with the images that frequently accompanied it. The existence of relatively inexpensive, often illustrated books suddenly expanded, in both a quantitative and qualitative sense, the patrimony of words and images available to these social groups. The presumably enormous repercussions of this phenomenon are beginning to be investigated only now.
– Carlo Ginzburg, “Titian, Ovid, and Erotic Illustration” (7)
The National Gallery of Victoria (then the Melbourne Gallery) acquired Australia’s first and only Titian painting (A Monk with a Book, c. 1550) in 1924. Unlike its purchase of a Van Eyck two years earlier, which was lauded as “having done more for Australia as we can at present estimate” (8), this acquisition received mixed reviews. Locally, the painting’s authenticity was questioned and its dull colouring criticised; in the international press the work was considered a minor piece whose provenance was difficult to establish (9). Whereas earlier commentators were celebrating the splendid ambition of the Melbourne Gallery’s European acquisitions – these acquisitions were likened to “the audacity of some pioneer crossing a great territory to its farthest limit and planting his standard there as evidence of his claim to the whole of it” (10) – in 1924 the capacity of the Trustees of the Felton Bequest to properly build a world-class collection was instead being questioned. While today the painting has been certified as a Titian and is dated from around the time of the Organ Player paintings (c.1550), the origins of the painting were still in dispute as late as 1983 (11).What is of interest to us here is that there is no compositional, thematic, nor stylistic exchange between Cox’s Titian in Man of Flowers and the Titian available in the Gallery. Nor, too, is there crossover between Venus with an Organ Player and the Titian (Christ Carrying the Cross, c. 1565) which had recently – just four years earlier, in 1979 – come to Melbourne as part of the “USSR Old Master Paintings” show (12). To put it a little differently, Cox opens his film with a picture no local audience could access and that few would ever have had the chance to see. As a recently arrived European immigrant, he might have been one of the few to have seen the original painting. It follows that even if he had not, he is drawing upon his own iconographic history and not one steeped in the iconographic history of the fine arts (or film) in Australia.
Our geographic distance from Europe does not, obviously, denote historical or artistic ignorance; it merely means that we rely heavily upon the printed press for information and even access to art. Most spectators would therefore have known that this painting was a Titian. What is significant about this is that Cox filmed a reproduction when he filmed his Titian; he was not in the Prado recording the painting on film, but was instead in Melbourne reproducing a reproduction which had already lost much of the colour and depth of the original. This is consistent with what Australians have been accustomed to doing for generations, and it indicates both our engagement with and estrangement from European art and culture. Cox’s use of this image also reiterated the way in which our European patrimony is founded a priori upon reproduction and not, as is often the case in Europe itself, upon the movement of the original into so many other texts and illustrations. As Ginzburg indicates in his article “Titian, Ovid, and Erotic Illustration”, Titian was dependent upon popular presses for his understanding and interpretation of classical mythology. We must therefore mine vernacular texts of 16th century Italy – rather than the original Latin of Ovid – to establish the iconographic sources of his erotic images (13). In Cox’s film there is no such cultural circularity or exchange between the high and the low arts; a Titian painting, it appears, remains high art. It is the film itself which instead translates Venus with an Organ Player into the “vernacular”. Indeed, the film’s focus on the organist’s gaze and its transformation of Venus into Lisa, a bisexual young woman who not only strips for her patron (who is the aging organist, Charles Bremer) but who then willingly agrees to have him watch her with her lesbian lover, indicates the extent to which Renaissance eroticism has been lost to the more prurient demands of male spectatorship in contemporary society. What is remarkable about this change is not only the fact that Titian’s celebration of female beauty has been changed into such a glib male fantasy, but that Lisa reassures Charles that he is “a good man” when he asks to watch her with her lover.
While Titian’s Venus with an Organ Player was made newly relevant in Cox’s film, it nevertheless remains a painting that is beyond our physical and cultural grasp. Hence, although Man of Flowers opens with a view of this work in close up, we never otherwise see it in the film. The painting is instead introduced through the dialogue of “the man of flowers” (Bremer) who explains, in a letter to his dead mother, how he “found some etchings and paintings father had hanging on the wall in his private room. I’d long thought you’d burnt them. The Titian is still my favorite. I never understood why you so disliked it and kept saying how silly it was.” Led into the fantastic world of an eccentric man who says that a Titian has been hung for private contemplation in suburban Melbourne, we hear a host of related fictions: a Titian painting might be burned; a woman might think it silly, and so on. The point, I would argue, is not that Cox presumes cultural ignorance or misogyny on behalf of the viewer. Rather, Cox comically elaborates Titian’s general inaccessibility to audiences in Melbourne. We might have the only Titian in the Southern Hemisphere available to us in the National Gallery of Victoria, but the closest we might get to one of Titian’s more provocative and familiar nudes might indeed be here, in a reproduction reinterpreted within the diegesis of a 35mm film.
We never see Venus with an Organ Player hanging in Charles’ home but we do see it reproduced as a jigsaw puzzle. In a scene that is reminiscent of those in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) featuring Susan Alexander retreating to her jigsaw puzzles in Xanadu, we see Charles at home solitarily piecing together a puzzle of Titian’s Venus. We can briefly make out the title of the work – Venus with an Organist and a Small Dog – and we also briefly see the completed picture that Charles is working from. The camera pulls back on this until it has framed, once more, that section of the work that it prioritised in the film’s opening shot. We therefore see (upside down, as we are facing Charles) Titian’s organist gaze once more at the fold of Venus’ legs. We then cut to the next shot. Representational meanings are very clear: at this point in the film we know that Charles is also an organist, that he pays a young woman to undress for him in his house, and that he does this to the accompaniment of music. It would seem that the naked Venus in Titian’s painting is indeed responding, precisely as the camera suggested in the film’s opening shot, to her patron’s salient stare.
Here we are once more reminded of the way in which film is today part of that process of textual expansion noted above, whereby Titian is re-worked and made newly relevant to popular culture. Here Ginzburg’s idea that reproduction has greatly expanded our visual patrimony is reiterated, since we are talking about the same Titian painting circulating as a reproduction and a jigsaw, all within the filmed image (which is obviously itself a reproduction). Unlike Ginzburg, who joins a quantitative expansion to a qualitative one, however, we might instead note a closing down of the painting’s possible meanings. The Titian jigsaw does, after all, have the same aesthetic function in the film as the painting since we see the same cropped image. Moreover, Charles works on his jigsaw in the same place that Lisa undresses for him. It would seem that quantitatively and qualitatively we are seeing only Cox’s interpretation of Venus with an Organist and a Small Dog. We might contrast this closing down of the painting’s possible meaning to the jigsaw scenes in Citizen Kane. Welles makes the jigsaws that Susan Alexander endlessly undertakes a symbol of the investigative role which viewers must adopt as they try (like the journalist within the narrative itself) to fit all of the disparate pieces of Charles Foster Kane’s life together. Film, for Welles, is indeed about the quantitative and qualitative expansion of history’s possible meanings.
3. Listening to Lucia
Then, in a miraculous leap, Lucia flies toward Edgar, welcomes him, speaks to him, loves him, embraces in her empty arms an absent, hallucinated lover. Passion comes to life, the loving voice sings more steadily. Here is the sublime duet where the partner is missing; the phantom duet. It is a slow, sweet waltz, happy and tender. Lucia waltzes with her empty love. “Alfin son tua” she tells him. Finally, finally, I am yours, and you are mine…
– Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women (14)
Cox does not only physically and narratively re-frame Titian’s Venus, he also uses an excerpt from Gaetono Donizetti’s famous opera, Lucia di Lammemoor, as accompaniment to the image. Even before we see the organ in the opening shot of the film we hear “Ardon gl’incensi” (“They light the incense”) from Lucia’s “mad” scene. The film begins as the aria continues:
Le sacre faci intorno!
Ecco il ministro! Porgimi
La destra…Oh lieto giorno! (15)
Unlike Titian’s Venus with an Organ Player, this recording is credited at the end of the film. We learn that we are listening to Montserrat Caballé singing with the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Jésus Lopez Cobos. This recording was made just two years before Caballé’s first Australian performance in Melbourne in 1979, and at a point at which Caballé was one of the most internationally famous prima donnas’ on the operatic stage. By the time of the film’s production, therefore, Melburnians had recently had the chance to hear Caballé perform live at the Dallas Brooks Hall, if only for a single performance and in a recital program built around a series of famous arias. Kenneth Hince, in his review of this performance in The Age, would complain that “a major aria sung in recital, with piano, is rather like a page torn from a great book” (16). For our purposes, however, we can note that the opera was cut in much the same way that the Titian painting was re-framed in the film, and that Man of Flowers therefore followed custom in reducing Caballé to a famous operatic excerpt. Moreover, Cox chose a European diva rather than Joan Sutherland – who was Caballé’s contemporary and had risen to international fame through her own performance of Lucia two decades earlier – to perform the work. Cox was not, of course, worried about national origins: as he explains in his autobiography, Callas was unavailable and Caballé “moved him to tears” (17). In the context of the film, however, this means that Cox cropped Venus with an Organ Player so that we have Venus performing flirtatious coquetry at the very moment that we hear Caballé’s dramatic madness. It is as though the two are the flip sides of the same (Mediterranean) drama: a woman casts her eyes softly downwards in a gesture that indicates her abandonment to the organist’s romantic passion.
The musician looks at Venus while she celebrates, through this song, a public marriage ceremony. Already, even before we ask ourselves who Donizetti’s Lucia is, we must recognise the disjunction between her stated thrill at public spectacle and the very private nature of their visible setting. We might also note a disjunction between a virgin celebrating marriage as a spiritual ceremony and the physical intimacy that the couple in the painting already enjoy. Even within the context of the shot itself, then, the aria is slightly “mad”. Yet since we know that Caballé is singing Lucia’s mad scene from Lucia di Lammemoor, we also know that the female voice has indeed lost all reason and that Lucia does not experience the wedding that she is describing. Here the painting becomes a hallucination of sorts, an impossible realisation of a post-nuptial idyll. In this way, the film itself becomes “mad”, since it loses sense of temporal logic just as it loses sight of the paragone that Titian was so famously expressing. After all, how can a Renaissance painting be used to illustrate the Romantic world of Donizetti’s Lucia? To put it a little differently, how can a painting which so carefully balanced the audible charms of music with the visible beauty of Venus (remember that Titian’s organist does not interrupt his playing) be used to illustrate what a mad woman sings?
Here it must be remembered that Lucia sings her “mad” aria just after murdering her husband; she is one of the few heroines of 19th century opera whose disappointment in love is channeled into violence against men (18). A mad woman sings, but we know already (through the title alone) that this film will certainly not be about her. It will instead be about the male sensibility. The very threat of Lucia’s madness is thereby removed. I would go on to argue that an important shift has therefore been described in Man of Flowers, since a paradigmatic image of feminine madness in the 19th century is now used to illustrate or score the kindly recesses of male subjectivity. Charles Bremer, we will indeed discover, is an eccentric but gentle recluse. He pays for a young woman to strip for him, but he never engages her in sexual activity. When he finally murders David, Lisa’s unwanted and abusive ex-lover, he calmly eliminates evidence of the murder and arranges for David to be cast as a bronze statue. Caustically entitling this statue “The Origin of Art”, he donates it to the City Council. Unlike Lucia (who in Lucia di Lammemoor dies alone off stage in punishment for murdering her unwanted husband), Charles is never held to account for his madness: Lucia’s emotional depths are now his, but her moral culpability certainly is not. At the film’s conclusion – just after killing and embalming David – Charles calmly joins three other anonymous men who stand staring pensively out to sea. Donizetti, like Titian, therefore comes to us significantly changed.
4. Standing on the beach, staring at the sea
A man walking along the beach, deep in thought, clad in a black garment; gulls flutter around him, screaming in fright as if to warn him not to risk going out on the rough sea…
And though you cogitate from morning to nightfall, from nightfall to the approach of midnight, you would never grasp, never begin to plumb the ineffable Beyond! With presumptuous pride you imagine becoming a light to posterity, unraveling the dark mystery of the future, ultimately knowing and understanding what can only be a divine presentiment, what can be seen and recognized only through faith! Deep though your footprints may be on the bleak sandy shore, a gentle wind blows over them and will obliterate every trace of you, foolish man puffed up with vain conceit!
– Caspar David Friedrich (19)
Just as Cox opens Man of Flowers with Titian read anachronistically through Donizetti’s Romanticism, so too does he conclude it with Caspar David Friedrich’s German Romanticism brought anachronistically to a suburban Melbourne beach. The men that Charles joins on the beach in this final shot of the film recall the dark silhouette of the monk in Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1808/1809); so too do the dunes, flat sea, circling gulls, and darkening sky parallel the composition and style of this work. Even the fact that Friedrich’s image is a self-portrait (the monk’s blonde hair and bearing corresponds with his self-portraits of the period) (20) can be tied in to Cox’s own entrance into the final image. Indeed, Cox is the fourth and last man to walk into the picture, his loose jacket, full head of hair, solid frame, and relaxed stance all indicate that this is a cameo appearance. As with the Friedrich painting, however, you need to know the physical traits of the maker in order to establish a physical likeness. In this sense, the pictures function as self-portraits only for those familiar with the artists themselves.
Other parallels between Monk by the Sea and Cox’s final shot might be drawn. Most obviously, there is the fact that we are introduced to the picture through Charles, a monk-like figure (remember that Charles is chaste, forever playing the organ in the local parish church, and in this shot sports a white collar beneath a long, formal black coat). Further, all subjects turn their backs to us. We therefore join them as they stare at the vast space of the sea which – again, as in the painting – occupies a relatively small strip of the screen. Since Monk by the Sea was the companion piece to the more spiritual Abbey in the Oakwood (1809/10), there is also the relevance of Cox’s images functioning relationally (either in relation to the Friedrich painting, or in relation to the individual frame as part of a shot within the film itself). Even the three ships that we see in the scene, barely discernible in the distant fog, are not entirely at odds with the Friedrich painting since his original version of Monk by the Sea included two ships keeling over in the force of the wind (21).
While there are similarities between the two pictures or images there are, of course, significant differences. In the first place, one man has become four, so Friedrich’s pantheism is more expansive. Secondly, since we have already seen this sea (when, earlier in the film, Lisa retreated to a moment of private reflection on the beach) we are not on an unknown horizon contemplating the infinite beyond, but in urban Melbourne, looking out onto Port Phillip Bay. Friedrich’s metaphysical reflection on distance and being is consequently returned to us in comically concrete terms: the infinite Beyond is indeed a big expanse of sea and space which stretches into Bass Starit, the Indian Ocean and then onto Antarctica. Finally, these men do not have their heads resting on their hands, as Friedrich’s monk does, but instead stare out to sea. They are not dwarfed by the landscape nor caught up in a moment of mourning. Rather, they come together to stare at the sea.
As Cox explains, however, it was not Friedrich who specifically inspired this final image, but a postcard he had pinned to his wall (22). The reproduction that he provides in his autobiography of this image shows four men dressed in black, each sporting a Derby hat. There are some rocky dunes, a huge flock of gulls, and an open sky. The ocean is not visible; we merely presume its presence because the gulls are circling and the men are clearly looking at something. While a note may be made of the way in which Friedrich’s metaphysical symbolism has been replaced by a satire on bourgeois ubiquity (and hence the men in the bowler hats have replaced the endless “space” of the sea), my point is that Cox has not recreated a tableaux vivant of this postcard, but has instead recreated a Romantic painting. As Cox himself explains, “At the end of Man of Flowers this image becomes the painting, the mirror of life” (23).
In the film, we are introduced to the postcard well before we reach the film’s final shot. Charles is glancing through his mother’s memorabilia and discarding unwanted items into an open fire; for a brief moment the camera frames the image in close-up. Immediately after this, there is a shot of the open fireplace and we can assume that the image has been burnt. Again, there is an obvious nod to Citizen Kane, since Charles is posthumously burning objects which have lost their attachment to memory and therefore to meaning. But again, Cox departs from Citizen Kane. Unlike the burning surface of Rosebud (Kane’s childhood sled) lost to the characters in Citizen Kane, Charles’ mother’s postcard is burnt only to reappear later with a new significance attached to it. Narratively, this is a triumph of sorts: Charles is no longer indoors rifling though inherited objects nor writing letters to a dead mother, but is instead outdoors, allowing strangers to become a meaningful part of his world.
We return through film to a postcard and then back to Friedrich: as with Cox’s opening shot, we are using film to reproduce art history differently. As I noted above, this is consistent with how we have had to engage with European art in Australia. Indeed, just as Caballé was enjoying popularity in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, so too was Friedrich gaining an international audience in the years just prior to the making of Man of Flowers. For example, in 1972 the Tate organised the very firstFriedrich retrospective exhibition, and in 1974 the Kunsthalle in Hamburg followed this with a bicentennial celebration of the painter’s birth. But again, these exhibitions are yet another example of what was circulating and definitely topical abroad, but which never toured to Australia. Hence, while Friedrich’s work remained physically unavailable to us in Melbourne, he was nevertheless adapted visually and narratively to film.
What is striking about Cox’s return to European Romanticism is not so much what it tells us about the status of the original artworks, but the intersection it has with our own colonial history. We know, of course, that Friedrich was not alone in meditating upon the open sea: there was also Franz Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s Meerestille to music, Herman Melville’s description of the sea’s “heartless immensity” in Moby-Dick, and Coleridge’s writing and re-working of his The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and so on. In Australia, however, the sea may have been (and may still be) a space for poetic reflection, but it is always at the same time a real space that, for better or for worse, has been crossed. We must remember, on the other hand, that for the Romantics the sea was often only a metaphor or symbol: Schubert, for example, spent his life landlocked in Austria and never actually saw the sea. But for Cox, the sea was a necessary presence, a space that had been traversed. As he explains in his autobiography, he migrated to Australia by ship. This physical journey by sea was also a spiritual one. He states:
It’s hard to describe the cleansing of emotions I experienced travelling across the ocean on an old Italian liner to Australia, despite the fact that Holland was my birthplace. I had never seen the sea. The sea was more immense to me than the universe…. After a few weeks, however, I started to imagine that I’d fallen overboard and was drifting in the ocean – totally lost, totally alone, totally doomed. Overriding all this, I felt a mad passion to embrace – to embrace the world as large as it is. (24)
From this perspective, Cox’s Romanticism is uniquely Australian. By putting himself into the picture and putting the sea back into the frame, he explains our physical and metaphysical place in the world.
What is interesting about this are the very changes that Cox has brought to the meaning and function of the sea. In the film, his embrace gives the sea an opening and collaborative optimism entirely missing from Friedrich’s painting. As Heinrich von Kleist famously wrote, describing Monk by the Sea:
that which I should have found within the picture I found instead between the picture and myself, namely an appeal from the heart to the picture and a rejection by the picture: and so I myself became the Capuchin monk, the picture became the dune, but that across which I should have looked with longing, the sea, was absent completely. (25)
We might remember here that the postcard that we see in the film is indeed without a sea, and that Cox has instead reinserted this for us.
At this point, just as film “becomes the painting”, Lucia bursts back into song. For one final time we hear her “mad” aria. We know that Lisa (who now apparently desires Charles) has been told that she must remain “just friends” and that she is upset and has cried about this. We might imagine, therefore, that Lucia could be Lisa, crying for a love she can never consummate. But Charles is not dead, he is alive, and the two never actually shared a romantic love for her to lose. At the same time, Charles is too upbeat himself to be Lucia, in the sense that even if he were to hallucinate a possible wedding, he has just calmly rejected Lisa’s advances. Lucia’s “mad” aria, I would therefore argue, is less about love than it is about place and acceptance: “Finally I am yours and you are mine. O happy day.” Romantic man has been joined to a vast and very real expanse of sea. It is here, as we recognise the extent to which Cox has adopted and negotiated Romanticism for his own visual and narrative purposes, that we might finally trace a quantitative and qualitative development in our patrimony of words and images. “O happy day”: four men stand alone together, staring at the sea. For some, this is a collaborative and defiant vision of a white Australian homeland. It makes Romantic iconography culturally relevant to Australia, just as it implies a historic overlap between the two (remember that the emergence of Romanticism and the foundation of white Australia return us to roughly the same epoch). For other viewers, however, these four men joined to a great expanse of sea merely reiterates the stranglehold which the middle class male still has over the creation and production of white Australian identity. In this view, Cox’s Romanticism is just the soft underbelly of a more familiar and “blokesy” bonding, one which leaves the vast majority of Australians sadly – and madly – adrift.
I would like to thank Dee Gill and Adrian Danks for their suggestions and comments in the writing of this piece.
- Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, trans. Beatrice Gottlieb, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1982, pp. 4-5.
- See Febvre, pp. i-xxxi.
- Sacred and Profane Love did not appear as a title until 1693. See Erwin Panofsky, Problems in Titian: Mostly Iconographic, Phaidon, London, 1969, p. 110.
- See, most obviously, the collection Titian’s Venus of Urbino, ed. Rona Goffen, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997.
- Panofsky, p. 122, illus. 137.
- On the identity of the organist see Hugh Trevor-Roper, Princes and Artists: Patronage and Ideology at Four Habsburg Courts, 1517-1633, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976, p. 52.
- Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, p. 92.
- “The announcement that the Trustees of the Felton Bequest have acquired for the Melbourne Gallery what is, perhaps, the only work by John Van Eyck which remains accessible to purchase, is one to be received with no less respect than pleasure. […] it may well be a source of legitimate pride that Melbourne will possess the single example of the Van Eyck’s work which exists in the Antipodes, or the whole Southern Hemisphere.” Sir Charles J. Holmes, “A Van Eyck for Melbourne”, Burlington Magazine vol. 41, no. 236, November 1922, pp. 232, 235.
- See “New Gallery Pictures. Disappointing Titian”, The Argus 14 August 1924, p. 10; “Is it a Genuine Old Master?”, The Argus 15 August 1924, p. 13; Baron von Hadeln, “Some Little-known Works by Titian”, The Burlington Magazine vol. 45, no. 259, October 1924, p. 179.
- Holmes, p. 232.
- As the National Gallery of Victoria’s Sophie Matthiesson relayed in an email correspondence with me, Harold E. Wethy queried the attribution in 1971 in The Paintings of Titian, vol. II, Phaidon, London 1971. This was reported in Ursula Hoff’s Catalogue of European Paintings Before Eighteen Hundred, 3rd ed., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1973. Francesco Valcanover restored the attribution in 1999 in Tiziano i suoi pennelli sempre partorirono espressioni di vita, Il fiorino, Firenze, 1999. The work was conserved in 2004 and was published as by Titian in the 2003 handbook, NGV Painting and Sculpture Before 1800.
- See USSR: Old Master Paintings, Australian Gallery Directors Council, Sydney, 1979.
- I am stating Ginzburg’s argument very broadly. See Ginzburg, particularly pp. 83-85.
- Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1988, p. 89.
- (“…The holy torches shine around us! Here is the minister! Give me your hand… O happy day!”) Alphonse Royer and Gustave Waez, Donizetti’s Opera Lucia di Lammermoor, Oliver Ditson Company, Boston, 1880, p. 37.
- Kenneth Hince, “Evening of Finest Singing”, The Age 15 October 1979, p. 2.
- Paul Cox, Reflections: An Autobiographical Journey, Boston Currency Press, Boston, 1998, p. 156.
- See Mary Ann Smart, “The Silencing of Lucia”, Cambridge Opera Journal vol. 4, no. 2, July 1992, pp. 119-141, especially 125 for a discussion of how Lucia represents the violent, extreme end of nineteenth century maidenly madness.
- Cited in Helmut Börsch-Supan, Caspar David Friedrich, Thames and Hudson, London, 1974, p. 7. I would like to thank Pip Stokes for bringing Friedrich’s relevance to Cox to my attention.
- See Helmut Börsch-Supan, “Caspar David Friedrich’s Landscapes with Self-Portraits”, The Burlington Magazine vol. 114, no. 834, September 1972, p. 624.
- See Helmut Börsch-Supan, Caspar David Friedrich, p. 84 and Sterling Lambert, “Franz Schubert and the Sea of Eternity”, The Journal of Musicology vol. 21, no. 2, Spring 2004, p. 245.
- Cox, p. 154; image on p. 155.
- Cox, p. 154.
- Cox, p. 54.
- See Heinrich von Kleist, “Feelings Before Friedrich’s Seascape”, Berliner Abendblätter 13 October 1810, cited in Philip B. Miller, “Anxiety and Abstraction: Kleist and Brentano on Caspar David Friedrich”, Art Journal vol. 33, no. 3, Spring 1974, p. 208. Kleist famously re-wrote Clemens Brentano’s more negative response to the Friedrich painting. Although I do not want to go into the changes he made here, suffice it to say that Friedrich’s celebration of abstraction has been linked to other developments in art (Van Goyen and 17th century Dutch dune painting, as well as Mondrian). See Miller, pp. 206-207.