Art Canon. An Amateur’s Attempt.

(Edited, because I misspelled “amateur”. TWICE. I’m an idiot.)

Ok, here we go. My art canon. This one has been really tough, because I’m not half as well versed in the world of art as Anna is in the world of literature (or as Anna is in the world of art, but let’s not even go there!). So I haven’t expanded my list to 15 works, as Anna did with her literary canon. Also, I have decided to exhibit my amateurism within this field by elaborating on my motivation behind choosing the works I have chosen. I hope the result isn’t too cringe-worthy. 

 1. Bernini – Pluto and Proserpine 1621-22. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

When Anna told me she was going to make her original art canon, I eyelash-battingly asked her if she was going to put Bernini’s sculpture of Pluto and Proserpina in it. She did, but naturally I want to include it in my own canon, too. I absolutely adore this sculpture. I love sculptures in general (as this canon will show…), and generally relate a lot better to sculptures than to paintings, but this one is probably my favourite among sculptures.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the roughness and the delicacy of the two sexes depicted so well as in this sculpture, nor have I have ever seen the solidity of stone so effectively defied by an artist. The organic yielding of Propserpine’s thigh as Pluto’s fingers dig into it is almost unnerving. How can this not be flesh? But it isn’t; it’s mineral and inorganic, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s one of those sublime works of art that makes you think that anything is possible to man, that we could fly, that we could raise the dead from the graves. And what could be more appropriate for a sculpture that depicts the struggle between two eternal opposites? 

I saw the sculpture when Anna and I went to the Borghese gallery last year. “She’s going to get bruises.” Anna noted, looking at Pluto’s brutal grasp at the young girl. Indeed she is.

Pluto and ProserpinaPluto and Prosperpine - closeup

2. Henri Matisse: Laurette in a green robe, 1916. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Matisse is probably my favourite painter. Incidentally, I’ve learned to love him via literature, more specifically through A.S. Byatt’s  “The Chinese Lobster” from Matisse Stories. I don’t remember if this particular painting, Laurette in a green robe, was mentioned in the short story, but whenever I think of the story, this is the painting I think of. In the story, which deals with the existential question of enduring the pain of Life or submitting to peace of Death, Matisse’s use of the colour black played an important part. Matisse’s black is the colour of life, the story proposed, because it sets off and condenses all the other colours. To surrender to the peace of Death would be as easy as leaving the canvas white and letting all the colours fade into this whiteness. That is why I love this picture so much. The greens, the pinks, and the yellows, which tenderly depict the form of the woman, have such a life-affirming brightness to them, and the thick blackness behind the resting girl is so full of possibilities. Anything might emerge from this blackness, and that’s an unsettling thought, but also a really appealing one. 

Laurette in a green robe

3. The Dying Gallic Trumpeter (Originally bronze, from Pergamon. Marble copy recovered from Rome).

Dying is an art like anything else, and this man does it exceptionally well. Life is ebbing out of him, and he just wants to live, despite the humiliation of the situation and that blasted, dehumanizing ring around his neck.

There is a copy of this sculpture in the H. C. Ørsted Park in Copenhagen, and I always feel a pang of grief when I pass it.

the dying gallic the dying Gallic - closeup

 4. Suste Bonnén – Agnete and the Merman (“Agnete og Havmanden”) – 1992. The canal by Højbro Square, Copenhagen.

According to a Danish folk legend, Agnete was a young peasant girl who was walking by the shore as a merman emerged from the waves and offered her his hand. Agnete fell in love with him immediately and went to the bottom of the sea with him, where she gave birth to his seven sons. After eight years, however, as she was sitting by the crib of her youngest son, Agnete heard the sound of churchbells ringing from her old village, and she felt homesick. She got permission from the merman to go to church, on the one condition that she would come back to him after mass. But of course, once on land again, Agnete found that she missed the church and her family too much, and she wouldn’t return. 

In Suste Bonnén’s sculpture, the merman and his seven sons are pleading for Agnete to return to them, stretching out their arms towards her. Bonnén made the brilliant move of placing her sculpture under water, in a Copenhagen canal, where the merman and his sons seem obscure and distant and never fully visible, as fairy tale-creatures ought to be. Also, she has neglected to make a sculptural representation of Agnete, thus seemingly making the spectator the object of the merman’s attention, and emphasising the spectator’s potential identification with the capricious girl.

I first saw this sculpture as a child during a school trip, shortly after the sculpture’s unveiling, and it made a huge impact on me. I still consider it to be a brilliant piece within the category of “site-specific art” –  and a marvellous representation of all the murkiness, the disorder, the pain, and the impossibility of love.

Agnete and the Merman

(I regret that the quality of the photograph is so poor – it’s one of those sculptures that you really have to see in person.) 

5. Caspar David Friedrich Monk by the Sea (“Mönch am Meer”) 1809-10. Alte Nationalgallerie, Berlin.

Once when Anna was explaining to me about The Sublime in art history, I interrupted her, exclaiming: “Mönch am Meer!”, and Anna looked at me, slightly puzzled. Well, this was what I meant, Anna! 🙂 I think Caspar David Friedrich tends to be a little… much, but I love this painting. The man in the picture looks so small in comparison to the vast sea, and of course the fact that he is a monk adds a whole extra dimension to the existential anxiety this painting inspires. The motif reminds me a great deal of the ending of Joyce’s The Dead, with the sea playing the same part as the faintly falling snow: Nature as a menacing force, something all-consuming that we cannot conquer, and thus a reminder of the terminality of our lives. Beautiful.

I first saw this at the national gallery in Berlin a couple of years ago and fell in love with it. I think it’s one of those pictures to which photographs don’t really do justice, but here it is:

Mönch am Meer

6. Edvard Munch The Voice 1893. The Munch Museum, Oslo.

…Moving on, from Mönch to Munch. This is a favourite painting of mine. Munch has really captured that pale blue shade of the Scandinavian light summer nights, and along with it an atmosphere of youthful recklessness and exaltation. The young woman in the painting embodies (to me, anyway…) a kind of just-barely self-assured sexuality with her erect posture and the provocative exposure of her body (hands behind her back), contrasted by the almost menacingly lurking brightness of the rising sun (reflected in the lake in the background), as well as the girl’s strangely hollow death-like eyes. I first saw this picture as a defiant 17-year-old and identified with it immensely, and it was one of those works of art that I thought I’d outgrow, but its eerie atmosphere still effects me deeply. 

The Voice

7. Matthias Grünewald – The Cruxifiction (the Isenheim Altarpiece) – 1515. Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar. 

I happen to know that Anna wanted to include this in her canon, but then she thought that between that and her two (no less!) paintings depicting beheading, that the canon might be getting a little too gory, so she chose the resurrection instead :D. Well, I’m going to include it in my canon, then, even though I suspect the readers may be growing a little uneasy of me now, since most of the works I’ve chosen deal with subjects such as “abduction” (see no 1), “death” (see no. 3), “child abuse” (see no. 10), and now… torture. I’ll just have to live with that, because I want the Grünewald cruxifiction in this canon! It’s so wonderfully gruesome. All those little thorns all over the body of Christ, and his hands writhing in pain… Ugh. It’s an outstanding celebration of the sacrifice God made to mankind.

My parents took me to Colmar to see this when I was a grumpy teen, and I was completely taken aback by Grünewald’s work, in spite of myself. And that says a lot, since this was a time when I was happiest when left alone in the backseat of my parents’ car with the earplugs of my discman planted solidly in my ears.

Matthias Grünewald - cruxifiction

8. Michelangelo Buonarroti: Pietá, 1499. Marble. St Peter’s, Rome.

Since we’re on the subject of the sufferings of Christ; what kind of a sculpture-lover would I be if I didn’t include the Pietá? A sculpture-lover who needed to get my priorities straight, that’s for sure! Anyway, I feel awkward trying to express my love for such a well-loved work of art. So I’m going to quote this art historian I know who once wrote a very nice first-person narrative description of The Pietá. It goes as follows: “Look how young she is, even though her grown-up son is in her arms. It’s almost as if we are back at the moment when she had just given birth to him. And look how peaceful they both are. All pain is gone, and mother and son have stepped out of time and space. We are not blamed for anything, we, the spectators.”

I saw this, too, in Rome last year. I stood there for the longest time, just contemplating it. It’s amazingly beautiful.


9. Giacomo Balla – Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash. 1912. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

This canon was getting a wee bit angsty, so I thought I’d include a more light and joyous work, too. To be honest, I had no idea until just now what the title for this work was, or who its artist was. I actually had to google the words “dog on leash leg movements” in order to find it. Even so the painting is special to me. As the first two items in my literary canon will betray, I’m all about the stream-of-consciousness, and actually, whenever I hear that term, “stream of consciousness” this painting comes to my mind. It’s this wish to show the diversity of life in even the shortest of its moment I find that the likes of Balla has in common with writers like Joyce or Woolf. Possibly one of my professors during my 1st-year History of Modern Culture class pointed out the similarities, and that’s why I make the connection…

In any case, I really like Balla’s painting. A delightful depiction of life in one of the smallest and most insignificant of its forms. (Plus, you know, puppy with floppy ears! Neat!)

Dynamism of Dog on a Leash

10. Anders Bundgaard – The Gefion Fountain. 1908. Amaliegade, Copenhagen.

Like Agnete and the Merman this is a little-know Danish sculpture, and this, like AatM, is based on an old Danish legend. According to the legend, the Swedish king Gylfe had a Norse goddess by the name of Gefion as his mistress, and he told her that she could have all the land that she could plow out of Sweden in one night as her own. Gefion promptly turned her four sons into bulls and plowed until dawn. The result of all this plowing (and borderline child-abuse…) was Zeeland, which is the island where Copenhagen is, and where we, the Confidential Attachées, both live. Anders Bundgaard’s statue is awesome, in the original sense of the word. Awe-inspiring. There is such a force in the sculpture; in the violent motion of Gefion’s arm as she whips her bull-sons, the reluctance of the crouching masculine beasts, the explosive gushing of the fountain-water – brrr! I guess it might be seen as a monument celebrating Zeeland, but mainly it makes me think of the power of ambition. And then it’s the best artistic use of a fountain I know of, which is another reason why I wanted to include it in my canon. It makes perfect sense – Zeeland emerging from the sea – brilliant!

I was almost a baby when I first saw this sculpture, and it scared me half to death. It still makes me a little nervous – but in a good way ;).

gefion fountain



November 8, 2006. Art, Lists.


  1. confidentialattachees replied:

    Oh, how beautifully written, Marie.
    Great works too.
    Incidentially I just saw Mönch am Meer yesterday in Berlin. It is indeed a marvelous painting. It was included in an exhibition last year in Paris (and Berlin I think) called Mélancholie. Of course this painting fitted perfectly for such a show but unlike many of its fellow pieces this one is remarkably non pathetic in all its pathos. My hat is off to Friedrich!
    Balla’s dog didn’t make it in my selection but it was a close race. So glad it made it in yours.

  2. Idetrorce replied:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

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