Lord Leighton’s Flaming June (1895)

In a house in Italy where I stayed for a few days one summer a poster of Lord Leighton's Flaming June hung over the bathtub. It is a famous but maligned picture that some Britons adore. I spent hours wondering whether the critics who think it kitsch are right. The UK's Independent recently described it as a travel brochure. "You've got indolence, luxury, mild eroticism (the see-through costume, the peeping nipple) and a warm climate....You could put a caption along the bottom.. "THIS SUMMER... DREAM OF CYPRUS", and you wouldn't be falsifying the picture's appeal." But, then, the critic added: "an artwork's overt message is only one aspect. A picture could hold these corny ideals, and still be worth looking at....it depends [on] how it's painted." And then he trashed the painting for not being realistic enough for what he thought was its message as though that would make it art.1 

At first sight many Pre-Raphaelite paintings can resemble first-class illustration and I long thought that Flaming June fell into that category. It was only on noticing the lower left corner of the woman's robe, in the poster above the bathtub, that all changed. I had no idea at the time what Leighton himself looked like but some folds in the orange robe looked so like a face, I knew it was Leighton's. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Leighton, Flaming June (1894) Oil on canvas. Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico

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G.F.Watt's portrait of Leighton (far left) confirms that the painter had a hooked nose, large nostrils and deep-set eyes with heavy lids just like the folds in the fabric. He intended them to represent himself. As you will see under Veiled Faces artists have been creating paintings like this for centuries. The actual figures, "emerging" from above these hidden faces, are self-representational even when, as here, of the opposite sex. The poetic mind must always be androgynous and whole. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Portrait of Lord Leighton by G. F. Watts
R: Detail of Leighton's Flaming June

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That detail changed everything. Now I read the picture as an image inside Leighton's head with the water symbolizing the light outside his eye. It is water because all we ever see is a reflection of what we have inside, our mind here symbolized by the reflective surface of water.2 The frame at top is his "upper eyelid". Below his "eye", unseen from outside, lies his muse whose age, beauty and eroticism suggests his own creative fertility. Artists differ from us lay people by being able to access that deeper level of human consciousness that is the same in all of us. That's why the level of the mind below his eye is androgynous and slumbering, the whole conception emerging from the inner eye of Leighton himself at the bottom.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Leighton, Flaming June (1894)

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You may still not like Flaming June. That's not important because personal taste has nothing to do with whether an image is art. Who cares if you don't like Hamlet? The play is universally agreed to be great literature. It is the same in the visual arts, only that when it comes to vision we all think we are experts. You are free to like or dislike Leighton's Flaming June as you please but his conception of the painting can no longer be dismissed as a "travel brochure." Leighton, it seems, knew more about the poetry of art than his critics.

More Works by Leighton

Notes:

1. Tom Lubbock, "Leighton, Frederic. Flaming June. 1895", The Independent (UK), Friday 25th April 2008.   

2. Picasso, as just one example, used the reflective surface of a mirror to symbolize an eye in Man Looking in a Mirror (1968). So did Jan Van Eyck, half a millennium earlier, in The Arnolfini Wedding (1434). That eye, like Picasso's, has still not been seen by the experts. 

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 16 Mar 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.