Progression of Art
Moderne Amoretten (Modern Cupids)
The three canvasses that make up this work are here arranged as Makart himself stipulated. All three depict a woodland scene, populated by pale-skinned women. Clutching one another, they are clad in loose, flowing drapery which appears to evoke a scandalously revealing version of contemporary fashions. In the central canvas, a woman crowned with flowers and two others are borne up by four young children, two cupids and two fauns.
By using gold rather than blue sky as the background to this painting, Makart overwhelms the spectator with an opulence that is continued in the tumble of foliage and cascade of sumptuous fabrics. The only respite from this ornamental suffocation is the cool whiteness of the figures' bodies which provide a "breath of fresh air" over any cloying eroticism. Makart's technique is reminiscent of Medieval and early Renaissance painting, a key source of influence for Symbolism and Aestheticism. In the left image, the twisting women linking hands is strongly reminiscent of the archetype of the three graces, a classical trope that is counterbalanced by the modern dress. This dance continues in the canvas to the right, although here it seems to have reached an erotic crescendo, with two of the women kissing passionately in a whirl of limbs and drapery, indistinguishable in their whiteness.
The horizontal side-pieces are contrasted with the vertical central canvas, where the figures are seemingly carried down and out towards the spectator. The cupids and fauns here mark a descent into a deeper, darker eroticism, highlighted by the rabbits, a symbol of unchecked copulation. Covering the figures' groins are pipes, reminiscent of the lusty god Pan, and dead birds, binding up desire with lifelessness. As with the gold background, the composition and symbolism of this work as a whole seem poised above the precipice where decadence becomes frenzy, threatening at any moment to topple downward. Makart's famous triptych featured as the decorative centrepiece of the first exhibition at the Künstlerhaus, home to the Austrian Artists' Society, the oldest surviving artists' collective in Austria and societal forerunner to the Vienna Secession.
Oil on canvas - Belvedere Museum, Vienna
Venice pays tribute to Caterina Cornaro
In this vast tableau a large crowd gathers to pay tribute to a seated and richly-robed Queen who sits towards the right of the picture frame. Clothed in the richly-colored style that recalled the Venetian Renaissance, the crowd carry pots, musical instruments and even weapons. Fabrics drape the backdrop on the right-hand side, but to the left, blue sky, classical architecture and the sails of ships can be seen.
Makart's first history painting, Venice pays tribute to Caterina Cornaro was an unprecedented success; people flocked in their thousands to see it in Vienna before it toured throughout Europe. The grandiloquence of the painting seems rather at odds, however, with its subject matter. Caterina, a fifteenth-century Cypriot Queen, was of minor literal or symbolic importance to the contemporary history painter. But the attraction of the work lies not so much in its subject-matter but rather in its variety and vividness. In her book Hans Makart: Painter of the Senses, Stephanie Auer referred to the painting as "a hymn to life and an act of homage to colour" rather than an earnest veneration of the long-dead monarch. According to Auer, indeed, Makart had succeeded in "transporting the viewer into an ideal world, a fairy-tale past that intentionally lies beyond the bounds of historical reality". Whereas historical painting was typically the vehicle for a contextually significant event and/or message, here the opposite is the case. Markart summoned the past to escape, portal-like, into the textural beauty of marble, fabric and flesh. Some sympathetic contemporary critics called Makart the new Paulo Veronese with one declaring: "Nothing more glorious has been created since the glittering golden age of Italian art".
Oil on canvas - Belvedere Museum, Vienna
The Death of Cleopatra
In this painting Cleopatra, the legendary queen of Egypt, is shown at the moment just before her suicide. She reclines on a bed of fabrics, semi-nude and wearing jewelry and her crown. To her left, one of her servants weeps, whilst just below the queen another has already passed. A brazier burns on the left-hand side.
Theatrical melodrama pervades Makart's depiction of this famous subject matter; his use of chiaroscuro picks out the stark whiteness of Cleopatra's body, as if she were spot-lit on a stage. In fact, many details seem to have been drawn from Shakespeare's account, such as the presence of the servants, and the detail of the queen's royal attire. The spot-lighting then leaves the other areas of the painting, in which can be found mourning and death, murky and foreboding. In the bottom-left of the frame, meanwhile, the flowers and animal skins seem almost to be rendered in grisaille (flat shades of grey). These great contrasts in lighting culminate in the brazier, whose silhouette is topped by a bright white flame. As a whole, the painting evokes the sense of the queen's preeminence and the moment of her death; a tragic elevation before her fall which seems to engender her far-off, almost longing facial expression.
Another sort of longing is present in the asp, whose thin, black form and tiny wisp of a tongue stand out against her breast; sensitivity, eroticism, and danger combine in the painting which presents, as Shakespeare writes, a death which is "like a lover's pinch, which hurts, and is desired". In the sensuous decadence of Cleopatra's naked, jeweled body Makart seems to echo the Symbolist artist Gustave Moreau, who also painted a version of Cleopatra. However, in comparison to Moreau's implacable, flat figure, Makart bathes his Cleopatra in shadow and in dramatic perspective.
Oil on canvas
In the Five Senses Makart depicts five female nudes, on five separate canvases, each placed in a forest setting. The women are "rotated" towards a different viewpoint and are engaged respectively (reading from left-to-right) in the activities of touching, hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting. The prevailing theme is unambiguous however: female eroticism.
"Touching" turns away from the spectator, her legs grasped at by black gauze and funerary white flowers while resting, perhaps, on her shoulder is a cupid-like figure. Covered with pure white drapery, meanwhile, "Hearing" cuts a slightly more chaste, distracted figure as she clasps reed-pipes. "Seeing" is bedecked in many necklaces, a sharp hair-pin, and a jeweled girdle with her lips painted red - material riches that, coupled with her narcissism (as she admires her own gaze in the mirror), resembles the tradition of moralistic vanitas paintings. "Smell's" sensitive underarm and waist are caressed by rich pearls and sashes but Markart tests the boundaries of nude portraiture with the profusion of blossoming flowers which were (and are) a widely recognized symbol of the female genitals. "Tasting", finally, is the only fully nude figure and she, like "Touching", turns away from the spectator, the outline of her curves cut sharply against the dark background. Reaching, like Eve, to grasp a fruit, and her state of total undress, intimates a coming sinful fall. This "Edenic" nudity is very much comparable to the work of Makart's contemporary Hans von Marées. Where Marées experiments with homoeroticism and flat, painterly strokes, however, Makart maintains a more academic naturalism; he maintains a focus more in line with nude convention of fully-rounded soft femininity.
As many art historians and critics have remarked, this series of works essentially presents five different viewpoints of the academic female nude, the type of which might have been practiced for use in history paintings. In Hans Makart: Painter of the Senses, Werner Hoffman writes that the Five Senses "are five ways of experiencing the specifically feminine: we taste it, we absorb its aroma, it enchants our ears and rivets our eyes, it arouses our desire to touch". There is an all-encompassing fullness to the work which might be compared to Makart's expansion of the definition of art more generally, fusing decoration, fine art, and elements of erotic life.
Oil on canvas
The Entrance of Emperor Charles V into Antwerp
Set in 1520, this work shows the youthful king riding a black horse into the centre of Antwerp, flanked by ornately-dressed subjects and several semi-naked women. They proceed along a street strewn with flowers, with the tops of houses visible above them.
The Entrance of Emperor Charles V into Antwerp was the source of considerable controversy at the time of its first exhibition due to Makart's inclusion of the naked female figures. This was dismissed as both historically inaccurate and somewhat indecorous for a scene which was central to Austria's sense of national identity. Equally shocking was the fact that the faces of the women were uncannily similar to living members of Viennese high society. As Werner Telesko points out in Hans Makart: Painter of the Senses, however, neither historical accuracy nor nationalist sentiment were particularly important for the artist, who prioritized "a contrast between costume drama and nude painting [...] neglecting the historical situation and location".
As with so many of his other works, it is the exquisite layering of different textures that is central to the picture's quality: from the lush fabrics, to the shine of the horse’s plate-armor, to the sheen whiteness of bare female flesh. Indeed, there is such a cascade of figures and finery in the work that it is almost impossible to delineate dimensions or background; the buildings and sky seem to float above the mass of people quite separately, and an ominous black mass rears up to the left of the monarch. Clearly dreamlike fantasies of luxury and power overrule historical accuracy.
Oil on canvas - Hamburger Kunsthall, Hamburg, Germany
Portrait of a Woman
In this three-quarter length portrait the subject is shown standing, illuminated from the top right. She gazes towards the source of this light, and leans against some architecture which is partially concealed by a gauzy material. Dressed in black, her right hand rests on her shoulder, with her necklace entwined around the fingers.
Although famous for his colossal, multi-figure paintings, Makart also created many female portraits during his lifetime. He continued working on this particular example until the time of his death, and so it may well be unfinished. The portrait departs from Makart's familiar style in a variety of ways: instead of a mass of varied fabrics, two similar shades of the same gauze dominate the painting. Like a shroud, they both conceal and reveal the details of the body and of the architecture against which it leans. The style of this stonework, and indeed of the painting as a whole, is rather gothic; whilst the partial-concealment is erotic, it is also mysterious and not altogether comforting. The same extreme paleness in his other female figures is also present here, but it is interrupted by the strong shadow which cuts across the woman's face. This, along with the uncharacteristically commanding expression, might well be compared to a mythical figure of dangerous and powerful femininity, such as Clytemnestra or Medea. The haziness continues into the background in the top of the painting, which is misty and as undefined as is every other element of the work. This might be thought of as one of Makart's most "Symbolist" paintings, where his usual bright sensuality is transfigured into something much more brooding.
Oil on canvas - National Museum, Warsaw, Poland