Some of the previous posts in this series focused on artists of Japanese origin, looking specifically at those in the Ukiyo-e style.  Here we look at Erte (Romain de Tirtoff — his pseudonym was Erte) born in Russia, died in France.  In some ways he’s similar to the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (who we’ll look at later), but for now… let’s take a look at one of his paintings entitled “Love”

Considering it’s somewhat cool/blue tones, it is a strangely comforting picture.  It has a haunting almost dream like quality.  While some might argue that is true of almost all works done in the Art Deco style, I would say that’s particularly true here.   Art Deco and Art Nouveau, are both styles of art that attempt to capture the essence of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt.  There’s a hint of something pagan about it — something that invites the viewer to look at it and think of magic.  Regarding Erte as an artist, it should come as no surprise if his picture invokes feelings of antiquity — especially when one discovers that he helped design movie sets for the likes of films like Ben Hur.

As for Erte’s “Love” this feeling of ‘magic’ is particularly evident.   Let’s analyze the work to discover why.

For starters, circles in general offer the viewer a feeling of completeness as well as the implication of a cycle.  Think of a compass and how there seems to be an innate “magic” to how it always points North.  Also, circles lack sharp edges and thus imply softness — and with softness there is the inference of sleep.  When you consider the starry night sky along with the figure’s closed eye, that might be enough for the viewer to say “Okay, that’s where the dream like quality comes from.”  You consider the use of blues, evocative of electricity and the sky, and for a moment it might seem like that’s where the magic of this picture lies.   But, there’s actually much more to it than that.

There’s the large crescent moon partially obscured by the figure’s soft dress (the moon going through a cycle of its own), and there’s also the ‘strings of pearls’ (almost a mesh) that are part of the figure’s dress, but painted in the same color tones as the stars.  By incorporating the starry night into the foreground by making it a matter of costume, the figure becomes an incarnation of distant night.

But, perhaps the single thing that makes this artwork most evocative of night and dreamscapes is the positioning of the figure herself.  If you were to superimpose the hands of an analog clock, it would probably be 12:30 AM — the torso and head being the short “hour” hand and the legs being the long minute hand.  Considering that the crescent moon could’ve been placed just about anywhere, it’s interesting that it would correspond pretty closely to the 9:00 mark.  As for the limp hand with the mesh of pearls — considered in the context of a clock… one almost feels as if this could symbolize the ticking of the “seconds hand”; the “seconds hand” always being in motion with the mesh of pearls evoking a feeling of motion.

As for one hand perpendicular and the other (the one with the mesh pearls) angled slightly down… my gut feeling is that the artist would’ve known that putting both hands perpendicular would’ve evoked too much Church symbolism for a non-religious painting while simultaneously overshadowing the “midnight clock” effect.  It’s also worth noting that Christian symbolism may have been on the artist’s mind though, especially when you look at the position of the figures feet.

It may be a stretch, but it’s also worth pointing out that the entire composition could be considered evocative of a cat’s pupil/eye.  In terms of this picture entitled “Love” … I’d say it’s possible that the artist considered Love to be something a bit like a dream, something distant, infinite, and ideal, but also part of a cycle.

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