Saturday, October 20, 2012

Merle's Logs

I’m going to a Halloween party tonight, and in honor of the spooky season, I chose a spooky work of art. 

Hugues Merle, Une Folle (The Lunatic of Étretat), 1871, oil on canvas, 152.7 x 99.4 cm.

Actually, it’s several works of art. On the advice of his dealers, the artist Hugues Merle often did smaller versions, or “reductions,” of his paintings to sell commercially. I’m showing you the Chrysler Museum’s version because it has the best photograph and is most likely the original. There’s also a reduction (92.7 x 67.3 cm) at the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, New York, and two other paintings that have four kids standing around gawking. I don’t like the version with the kids as much. The woman’s hair is too flat, and Merle replaced the forest clearing with an amorphous mass of green and blue. Most of all, I miss the sense of isolation.

Not as good.

I’ve only seen Une Folle in person at the Arnot Art Museum. Although their version is smaller, it’s almost identical to the Chrysler’s in every other way. Except the name. I’m using Une Folle as an overarching title, but all of the paintings were known by several different names in the past and still go by different names now. The Chrysler calls their version The Lunatic of Étretat while Arnot just calls theirs The Lunatic. Other titles include La Folle, Pauvre Folle, Carmella, Pauvre Folle, Lunatique à Étretat, Poor Fool, Carmella, Poor Fool, A Crazy Woman, and A Mad Woman. It’s super confusing.

Anyway, Hugues Merle is an example of what today’s art historians sneeringly refer to as “Academic" artists. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts under Léon Cogniet (whose painting Scène du Massacre des Innocents was a huge influence), and was honored at the official Paris Salon on multiple occasions. He even exhibited Une Folle (most likely the large Chrysler version) at the Salon of 1873. Although Merle often painted sentimental mother/child scenes, he was also known for his depictions of the downtrodden.

Now, Merle’s been almost completely forgotten, overshadowed by his rival William-Adolphe Bouguereau. I feel for Merle. If the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel hadn’t introduced the two artists and suggested Bouguereau paint more like Merle, Bouguereau may not have been remembered at all. I, for one, don’t think any of Bouguereau’s works manage to capture Merle’s level of emotional desolation. I’ll talk about the one that comes closest in a later post.

Back to why I like Une Folle. It’s weird. The woman has a bonnet-wearing log all wrapped up nice and cozy in a blanket! She’s like the log lady from Twin Peaks, but better.

The Log Lady from Twin Peaks

Beyond that though, she looks so powerful. The way she clutches the log to her chest and stares out at the viewer with those big, shadowy eyes makes it look like she’s daring us to challenge her. And the Classic pose reveals dignity amidst delusion. It reminds me of that windy, dark, eerily lit moment just before a storm. It makes me feel giddy and energized. Like I should jump into the air and fly around on a broomstick.

I tried doing some research into the subject matter, but I hit a dead end. I want to know who the woman is and what happened to her to make her the way she is. Since some of the titles refer to her as Carmella, I thought maybe it had something to do with the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novella. But no.  It turns out that's just a vampire story. No logs.

I’m also curious to know who the model is. Either Merle makes all women look the same, or he painted her over and over.

Who is she?!

1 comment:

  1. I suggest that the painting is not "spooky" but heartbreaking. This broken woman, red-eyed from weeping, half mad from grief is holding a log, about the size of a baby and the log has a baby cap on it. It is wrapped like a baby. She is holding it like a baby. I think she has lost her own baby and is torn apart.

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