Hans Memling and Cubism

Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man (c.1470-75), detail. Oil on panel. Frick Collection, New York.

Every time I look at this Portrait of a Man by Hans Memling I feel a little sick. I’m serious. It makes me slightly nauseous. Perhaps Walter Pater, the 19th-century art historian, felt similarly about the Mona Lisa. He described her as a weirdo and he's right.1 No Renaissance woman had sat for the public with her hair down. Besides, she is not in her palazzo but way above high mountains in a lunar landscape. She is a goddess. Yet what do people fall for instead? Little ol’ Lisa. The deadening effect of visual expectation and familiarity has likewise blinded viewers to the utter strangeness of Memling’s man above painted 30 years earlier.

Take a careful look again. The side of his face on the right including his nose is in profile. Yet the other side, including both eyes, basically faces us. If I try to focus on one side and then the other, my head swims. It’s disturbing. His nose should either touch the contour of his far cheek or it should face us. It does neither.2 Yet the true mystery is not why this man's face is so messed up (see entry, coming shortly) but why we think he looks normal! That is a question for neurology but what I find yet more thrilling is that Memling, a 15th-century craftsman, understood all this.
 

Picasso, Head of a Woman (1960) Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It helps demonstrate, as I have written before, that Picasso did not invent Cubism as such.3 He transformed the methods of Renaissance artists into a non-illusionistic form. Memling’s patrons had wanted artists to portray nature; with photography, the modern world no longer required it. Nevertheless, like Memling, Picasso knew that conventional perception is subjective and delusory. That means Picasso’s long-lasting habit of combining the frontal and profile views of a face is a direct continuation of Renaissance tradition. If you know that, you will never take any portrait by a great artist at face value again. 

For more examples by Holbein and Ingres, see "Flat Noses on a Frontal Face".

 

Notes

1. Walter Pater, The Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1980, pp. 98-99. Originally published 1893. Pater argued that the Mona Lisa contained "the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the Middle Age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.."

2. Lorne Campbell has pointed out that Memling did not portray faces in correct proportions: "There is a family resemblance among Memling's portraits, for he tends always to enlarge eyes and mouths, to elongate noses and to smooth away angularities of contour." He went on to say: “Memling usually diminishes the far eye, enlarges the near eye and increases the space between the eyes, which is even wider than the near eye.” Lorne Campbell, “Memling and the Netherlandish Portrait Tradition” in Memling and the Art of Portraiture (New York: Phaidon) 2005, pp. 57-8

3. See Abrahams, "Cubism Explained"

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