Variations on the Birth of Venus

     A myth is a narrative whose origins lie in doubt and whose retellings can never complete it. For an artist or poet the challenge is to retain the mystery of the doubt while opening and sustaining a revision of the myth. Walter Bachinski’s triptych The Birth of Venus, with three separately framed panels, presents three wholly distinct responses to the myth that are yet complexly interwoven. This, in itself, reflects the essential aspect of Venus as the goddess who is continuously reborn.

     The Venus myth is so deeply embedded into our thinking that it is a signal of cultural evolution. We know, of course, that the Roman Venus referred to the Greek Aphrodite, but there was also the Etruscan Turan and the Egyptian goddess Hathor, Phoenician and Sumerian goddesses andmore distant predecessors in societies to the east. In Western culture the Venus/Aphrodite myth was embedded into a variety of religious cults and in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod. There are two principle and wholly distinct versions of the Birth of Venus. In the one Kronos, a son of Ouranos and Gaia (sky and earth), castrates his father at the urging of his mother. He threw the genitals into the sea and Aphrodite emerged out of the foam (Aphros is the Greek word for sea foam.) In theother version Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione. Such goings-on were not only possible but actively developed in the telling and retelling of the myths. These two forms of her birth gave rise to a heavenly and an earthly Venus, and in spiritual and physical versions gave her reign over all aspects of love.

     Although there are ancient literary descriptions of images of the Birth of Venus, particularly that of Apelles, the definitive historical precedent is the Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c.1482) made for Lorenzo de’ Medici and now in the Uffizi. Endlessly reproduced, often copied and sometimes satirized, it is difficult – perhaps even perverse – for a contemporary artist to approach the subject without casting a visual and art historical glance at Botticelli’s curious painting. But in place of Botticelli’s wan adolescent, Bachinski presents us with a triad of distinct Venuses woven together with a complex visual web and underpinned (I believe) by three distinct stories.

     In the left hand panel, Venus is in a state of emergence, her pose, perhaps a reference to the popular artistic subject in the 19th and early 20th centuries of the odalisque (a sort of apprentice concubine slave of the Turkish empire) – an exotic subject for art and therefore acceptable in the publically prurient west. Her pose combines both an attitude of revealing with a sense that she is still in the process of formation with her arms and head partially in shadow.

     The emerging figure on the left becomes a more complex image in the central panel. Here, the Venus holds her hair, a reference to wringing the water from her hair, a gesture that other artists had incorporated. The presentation of the figure is enigmatic combining innocence and knowing. The monumental, sculptural pose is given a deft sense of movement by the lines that outline the figure. These reinforce a sense of confidence, Venus approaches us. But in other ways that confidence is questioned. Her face is sharply divided between light and shadow and her right hand is in a provocative gesture, between uncertainty and desire. The fan of schematized flowers and the fresh green leaves are attributes of Venus. We could think too that the fruit piled besides her right shoulder could be a reference foretelling her winning Eris’s golden apple, the Apple of Discordance, in the contest The Judgement of Paris.

     The emergent and tentative aspects of Venus in the first two panels are powerfully dismissed in the right hand panel. Here a black figure, dynamically posed, holds a golden lyre, and a serpent-like form at her feet suggests the temptation of Eve. There is, I believe, another literary reference here. The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote a series of poems to his Black Venus in his book Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire’s Black Venus was his mistress Jeanne Duval. I do not know of a reference to Venus playing a lyre but the lyre was used in Ancient Greece to accompany the readings of poets. Here, the Black Venus is the muse of the poet, embracing the lyre like a lover – and with the neat conceit that the hand that actually plays the instrument is white, the hand, perhaps, of Baudelaire.

     The complex interweaving of references to the even more complex history and references to the Venus myth are matched, in the work, by the harmonies and the disjunctures as we scan from panel to panel. And in this another level of reference emerges in the way that Bachinski interprets the art to which he is heir, in particular Picasso and Matisse whose work is filled with radical disjunctures and yet unified by drawing. Paul Ricoeur expressed this relationship of substance and expression well (as he expressed so much well).

     “Poetry and myth are not just nostalgia for some forgotten world. They constitute a disclosure of unprecedented worlds, an opening on to other possible worlds which transcend the established limits of our actual world.” (i)

     Bachinski returns to the Venus theme in two other works in this exhibition, a single figure shown from behind as if we are the Zephyrs blowing her towards the shore. She approaches a figure on horseback, at this instant appearing to call and yet unaware of the figure that will wholly change the direction of mythology. The third picture takes the central theme of the second but expands it with two other figures that show aspects of the myth of her birth. The richness of the myth opens for Bachinski a range of pictorial possibilities. The hard-edged forms and – for the most part – flat planes of colour of the large triptych are changed into softly nuanced shapes, effects that he achieves even as he switches from pastel in the three figure painting to oil on canvas in the Vertical Birth of Venus.

     In the same way that Bachinski has returned many times to the Venus theme, reinterpreting its rich potential, so also he has been drawn often over the years to the theme of the circus, or rather to circus performers. The origins and some of the stock figures, such as Harlequin and Pierrot, originate from the Commedia dell’arte in the 16th century. Harlequin with his bright costume was known for his acrobatic skills that were not, however, matched by an agile mind. His love for Columbina brought him into conflict with Pierrot whose sadness was associated with his failure to have Columbina requite his love. George Sand and Chopin were among a number of artists involved in a revival of commedia dell’arte and Daumier in several works emphasized the ironic tragedy of the performers’ lives. There was a further revival of the themes at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, notably with Leoncavallo’s opera Pagiacci in 1892 and Louis Ganne’s Les Saltimbanques of 1899. In 1904-05 Picasso frequented the circus and came to know the performers and their families. This lead to his series of circus performers works of 1905, culminating in the large scale Les Saltimbanques (The Acrobats). Bachinski refers to this tradition in a number of ways, emphasizing the ironic contrast between the playfulness of the performers with their brilliant costumes with the reality of the darker side.

     In Bouquet of Flowers Bachinski brings together two common themes of his work, the circus family and flower still life. There is a powerful dissonance between the two elements of the pictures, an irony in the display of nature and the life-draining display of the clown. These two pictures reflect the openness with which Bachinski can approach the subjects. In the first he deliberately attaches himself to a particular tradition of the circus that had attracted, among others, Picasso but that he can reapproach the subject and transform it into a study on the vulnerability of adolescence.

     Although he works from time to time in oil on canvas, Bachinski has long concentrated on pastel. Pastel comprises pure ground pigments combined with a neutral binder. The contrasting range in the medium is made very clear by comparing the large Birth of Venus triptych with the two smaller versions of the theme. In the first, Bachinski wanted to maintain sharp divisions among the forms, strong, clear linear effects and relatively little blending of colours. In the second he uses the softest effects of pastel, blending colours and getting the most intense colour values and presenting a hazy atmosphere. This contrast of approaches reflects a range similar to Matisse who through much of his career moved freely between paintings of intense colour, filling every space with an extravagance of shapes and contrasting, even conflicting colours and drawings of the finest simplicity.

     Throughout his career, Bachinski has moved effortlessly from pastel and oil paintings, to drawings to sculpture. The contrast between pastel and sculpture, in particular, appears extreme (Edgar Degas’ work presents, perhaps, the best known precedent). For Bachinski (and he is, of course by no means alone) the radical creativity of Matisse and Picasso opened possibilities (the ‘possible worlds of poetry’) in the making of art that are, at least as far as we know, inexhaustible.


David Burnett