Transcript of a Live Radio Interview with Georgie Hahn on June 1st, 2021.
[Every Breath You Take - The Police]
G: Hello Lamby Listeners, this is Georgie, You’re listening to the Lamby Hour, I’m so excited to have a guest call in again today on the Lamby Hour. Katherine Verdickt is basically a sister to me/family member, but she’s also a fine artist, a really, really good one! She studied at Rhode Island School of Design, and School of Visual Arts in New York, and is currently doing an Art History program at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And I invited her on the show because, well, I love her, but also because she painted the most amazing Master Copy of a Giorgione painting and I thought it would be great to talk to her about the process and what it means to be a woman painting a beautiful naked woman! What a treat! So, welcome Katherine.
K: Thank you for having me on the show, it's really exciting to talk about this. I've been really immersed in this Renaissance culture and studying Giorgione so much lately that he feels like a friend of mine, so I'm excited to share it with the listeners.
G: And it's been in your dreams, has that been happening?
K: Yeah! I've had many, many dreams about this. The first night that I was painting this enormous painting which is 6 long almost, and almost 4 feet high, I had a dream that Titian came to me in the form of his old man self-portrait when he was in his late seventies or early eighties, and I felt reassured, because I was a little bit concerned about the amount of fumes coming off of this painting, since it's an oil painting, and I just didn't know if my body could handle painting on such a large scale. But I realized that Titian, who was also an oil painter of the time, lived very happily and successfully until old age, and I probably would, too.
G: Please! I hope you paint forever! So how did you decide to embark on this project, because you come from more of the Dutch tradition which is a Northern Renaissance world of painting and you weren't really familiar, as familiar, with the Italian Renaissance. I mean studying art for many, many years of course you have some familiarity with the Italian Renaissance, but how did you decide to go on this journey through Venice, and time, and paint, and oil, and material?
K: Right! So I did study Dutch Golden Age Art for most of my adult career and those [paintings] tend to be smaller scale for the most part. Very delicate layers of glazes, applied and dried, and it's a very picky process I guess. I've always avoided a little bit the Italian Renaissance section of museums but recently I've gotten into it, and those tend to be larger paintings, and especially in Venice, these beautiful, amazing mixtures of oil color onto the canvas, directly onto the canvas, and it seemed like they had no rules. They started painting on canvas because Venice was known for shipbuilding, and they had an abundance of canvas for the sails, and they didn't have very much wood for panels like they did in the North, in the Northern Renaissance like I studied, so they started painting on canvas. They were mixing and drawing right onto the canvas in oil, and it was a really crazy process for me, it was like learning how to paint again. I did this because I was really interested in the subject of the male gaze for the past year-and-a-half, and one of the most, I’d say, relevant topics is the reclining female nude in Western Art History so I traced that back to the first [painted] reclining nude in history, which was Giorgione's Sleeping Venus.
G: Wow! And from there, did you look at other contemporary nudes in paintings, how is the Giorgione different, other than just being the first?
K: It's different because before the Renaissance most art was just religious in nature in Italy. There were a few exceptions: there were erotic images in the marriage trunks of recently wedded brides. They were trunks with lids, and the outside was always painted with appropriate history paintings and continuous narratives, and then the inside of the trunk sometimes had a reclining female nude. It was meant for the bedroom, it was meant to spark some sexuality between the newlyweds and produce beautiful children. What Giorgione did was take this reclining nude and make it into a big wall piece. So it sort of started this tradition of large scale, painted women, lying down, completely naked. And that is obviously interrelated with the male gaze, which means that these were women, painted by men, for a male commissioner, and for a male audience. And because of that relationship, the women are sort of objectified, they're objects on display for men.
G: Do you feel like you painting a woman took ownership of that? Like, took something back, like that gaze? What was it like having your gaze on a gaze, you know, like that layered [effect]?
K: Well, it was really interesting, and a lot of people have approached this with a feminist understanding. So, to be a woman painting this reclining nude definitely took back a little bit of the power of it. I would say that it made me feel a little more confident in my body. I haven't really described the painting yet, but what Sleeping Venus is, is a six foot painting of a (probably) five foot two or five foot three woman, about a hundred and forty pounds, I would say, sleeping in a landscape with her bed sheets all around her, so it's actually a really surreal, dreamy painting. She has one hand propping up her head because she's sleeping. She seems very relaxed, she has her legs crossed at the ankles, and she has her hand over her genitals. This refers back to the pudica pose. This was something that was in classical Roman and Greek statues, where the hands were either over the breasts and genitals as a sign of modesty, but also art historians wonder if they were actually pointing at the immodest parts. So this is the painting: a naked woman in a landscape, and the most interesting part of it, I think, is that there are claims that she is actually masturbating, and that is because it was a medical fact that women needed to do that to achieve orgasm to have children. It was a medical fact that that was the case. So this is a Venus demonstrating how to be a good wife to the newlyweds.
G: Wow, I mean, it's crazy to think how much that perception has changed, how much women have had to fight for the orgasm in recent years. I feel like that’s finally something that is coming into the discourse about sex, with all the reckoning that's happened this year, so I'm curious, how this image from so long ago influence your own body perception, or like, do things feel different or okay after spending a lot of time with this painting, like what shifted for you?
K: That’s a great question. I think what shifted was to take back this image from the male gaze that it turned into over the next few centuries. Especially the Impressionists, I mean they were always painting nude women who were just on view, but this specific action that I just described, to me it is a symbol of autonomy and self fulfillment. That was definitely empowering to paint, and to portray, and to bring back into [contemporary] culture and explain exactly what was going on. Whereas, even though she's passive because she's asleep, there is a power to her, and she is being instructional. So, yeah! I think that it was actually a really great experience to paint this for that reason!
G: Wow, great! Should we listen to Venus As A Boy?
[Venus As A Boy - Björk]
G: So we’re talking to Katherine Verdickt, fine artist, who made a master copy, and Katherine did so much research for the project. It was really amazing what she uncovered in X-rays, and in fact, in a X-ray, you discovered a Cupid and decided to include it, and I'd love to hear about discovering that, your decision to include it, and what the Cupid represents and does for the painting, making it some sort of intellectual thing… so go off on the Cupid!
K: So the painting as we know it today, it’s been through a lot. It’s about 500 years old at this point, it has been transferred to a new canvas, it's had weird anonymous additions to it, somebody decided to make it look more Neoclassical at one point. There have also been parts that have just been removed from the painting all together, and one of those is a Cupid. There was originally a Cupid at the feet of Venus. Why? I think because the person who commissioned this painting was anxious about just having a large naked woman as a painting. So, in order to make it this high-minded, noble subject matter, he probably asked last minute to add a Cupid into the scene, to identify her as Venus. Now, Cupid and Venus were inseparable in the myths going around Renaissance Italy at the time, so he just really needed to make sure that this was identifiably Venus. I think that the Cupid, because of its situation on the canvas, like the placement of it, it's kind of jammed into the corner, right up against the edge of the canvas, I think it was added last minute as a request. Because in oil painting, if you paint something lean over fat, which means that you have less oil and more solvent, then the paint doesn't hold up. The Cupid probably was added last-minute, painted improperly, and flaked off or started to flake off. There's evidence that [the Cupid] was repainted at one point. When it reached the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, Germany, there was no Cupid. It was just covered up in grass. But of course the restorers saw it, and they saw that this mismatched grass must have been concealing something. So after a week of careful removal of the grass, they found fragments of this Cupid, but it was in such bad condition that they just considered it a loss and covered it up again. So the missing cupid is problematic because we know this painting now as this Venus with a giant patch of weirdly painted grass at her feet. But, I decided to include the Cupid in my Master Copy because what I really was trying to do is make this painting look as if it were 1510, fresh off the easel, as it would have looked before the yellowing varnishes, the alterations, and the missing Cupid.
G: Wow, and you got really into the chemical experience of the painting as well. Like you mentioned the fumes and the cover-ups. Because this was a different method [of painting] for you, was it trippy or strange, to be doing [these alternate] methods? The way you stretched the canvas, and the way you used the paints, did you kind of feel like you were embodying the artist himself? What was the material experience of painting this?
K: Yeah! That was a large component of it, was to make a direct connection between my hand and the artists’ hands who painted this. I wasn't just looking at the form of Venus, I was actually feeling it with my hand as I repainted it. I did everything as close as possible to how it was originally made, including the frame for the canvas, how I scratched the canvas, and definitely the materials I used. There is a Venetian medium that contains turpentine, a little bit of wax, and ground glass. Venice has an amazing glass industry, it’s been a part of their culture forever.
G: Murano, yeah!
K: Yeah! The island of Murano. They had to segregate that glassblowing community to the island because of the risk of fires. The ground glass is a siccative, which means it makes the paint dry faster, and also it adds this crazy luminosity to the paint because you're really seeing this reflective ground glass in there. It’s terribly toxic, I started getting migraines when I was working with it, and I ended up working with a respirator halfway through, and then I just started painting outside.
G: I’m also interested, you said that you'd also been recently considering the male gaze over the past year and a half. What started that, and why has it been on your mind, do you think?
K: Well, I mean, how could it not be on my mind? As a female artist and art historian, it's a weird and almost painful part of Art History, right? That women are objects, and, for example, a sculpture of a nude woman is actually an object, right? So this has always been an uncomfortable topic, and I wanted to explore it more. The real reason that I got into it was because I was on the internet, and I was on some forum like reddit or whatever, and I saw a stock photo of ‘female bullying’ -
G: OH YEAH!
K: but the caption was, “This looks like a Renaissance painting, or the start of a porn”. It's a bunch of girls ‘bullying’ another girl, but, I mean, I can see it both ways. I basically did a copy of that stock photo thinking that maybe if I translated it into the world of Fine Art, maybe it would get a different reception than photograph, because photography and pornography are more closely linked. So even the photographer who took a photo of my drawing was like, “Wow it looks like they're about to rip her clothes off!” I love the photographer, but yeah, he was kind of right! So anyway, I reposted that drawing of the stock photo that looked like the start of the porn back onto the internet, and said, “What do you think of my drawing”, no context or anything. And what’s amazing was that the comments on my drawing were so similar to the original photo and I think we're just, we, all of us, no matter what your gender, we're programmed to see women in art as objects of sexual desire.
G: Yeah, and it's crazy how that has been internalized I think, in the way that you, I don't know, present yourself as a young woman in a way, because you know you can choose to not be attractive or you or you just are biologically, but then having that power back can be empowering but also frightening, like, there's something frightening about the male gaze I feel like, just inherently the power dynamics that go along with it. Did any kind of intense understandings about that arise, or new thoughts about that arise as you were doing your painting?
K: Yeah, a little bit. I mean, I don't have the answers to this. What it really did was lead to more questions. One thing that I thought about with the male gaze, with this project, is that Art is the responsibility of the person viewing it and interpreting it as much as it is of the artists creating it. So, I think it's important when we look at this kind of work, or if you walk into a museum, into the European Wing, and you see all of this naked flesh, how are you, as a viewer, responding to it? What feelings is a causing? Is it inspiring feelings of erotic pleasure or desire? And if so, monitor that. Don't repress it, and own it, don't pretend like you're just some elite art viewer-
G: Or asexual being.
K: Exactly, or asexual being. I think that these paintings should celebrate sexuality. We can’t undo them at this point, but what we can do is change the way that we engage with them. Also, to recognize that these Venus types and water nymphs and all of these sexy babes throughout Art History are a very specific time. They’re feminine, and they have a particular kind of body, and they’re young. And I think we need to make room for more than just that one specific type. It’s time. And it’s happening. And that's what I want to do next. For example, I have a modeling session with a beautiful trans person this summer, and I plan to do a reclining nude with that kind of body.
G: Oh, that’s awesome. Because I don't feel like we get many examples, of depictions, of beings, of bodies, that are…we only get heteronormative, we almost only get young women, and so it's like, what about all the other bodies? How do you think depicting trans or other bodies with a Fine Art gaze can sort of shift the dial? Is that a goal of yours and your work to do that?
K: Definitely. I'm not there yet, I definitely needed to explore the history first and try to understand it a little bit better in order to make some changes within myself, and the tropes of Art History.
G: What are some of those changes within yourself that you observed or felt unraveling with this project?
K: Well, I think for sure in Western culture that there’s still a very specific type of body shape that I was trying to fit into, for a long time. And, it just wasn’t me. And, recognizing myself as a very sexually desirable person, even though I didn’t necessarily fit into all of these stereotypes, was, um…I guess, just realizing that individuality in a world of….so this is really getting into the therapy side of things…just, in a world of types and um, like one type of body to strive for, especially when I was growing up, I’m glad that things are changing a little bit now…I just want to progress with the world with this.
G: Yeah, totally. It’s something I still struggle with too. Having similar environments in which we grew up. Thinness, and conventional beauty, and clear skin, and soft hair, I mean, I still think about trying to fit into those norms, as Thanksgiving’s approaching. Or as these kind of moments where we’re asked to present as women, and what could it mean if we just showed up as we are? And really trying to do that, it's so hard -
K: Without being apologetic. That actually reminds me, I wanted to mention that there was a really amazing female artist, which was totally against the grain of the time, in the 16th century, in the Italian Baroque period, Artemisia Gentileschi. And she was a female artist who painted women in these strong and sometimes suffering roles. And if you did want to see the alternate to what I've been talking about, of male painters painting female bodies, she has an amazing collection of female subjects. One topic that she explored over and over, or, at least three times that I know of, was Susanna and The Elders, which is a rape story. The woman in that painting, in all three of those paintings, is terrified, and that offers a different perspective for once, in that era. And it’s also a segue into how do I, as a woman, represent women in the context of reclining nudes and the male gaze.
G: Right, because we can't escape it, so it's almost like, how can you own it? I think what you said about needing to do the research and understanding the context before you endeavor to change things is our mission as artists. To understand the cannon and then the most radical change can come from a lifetime of cultural filtering. And having that background is so powerful.
K: I agree.
G: Cool. So let's listen to Venus in Blue Jeans!
[Venus in Blue Jeans - Jimmy Clanton]
G: You’re listening to the Lamby Hour, my guest today is artist Katherine Verdickt, a fine artist who just did a stunning Master Copy of a Giorgione painting, Sleeping Venus. And in that painting, through her research, she discovered a Cupid. We kind of touched on discovering that, but I want to get more into how the Cupid almost validated the painting itself, that it was okay to have an erotic nude image…I mean, is it erotic?
K: It’s erotic.
G: OK! [laughter] So having that Cupid sort of changed - it put the painting into highbrow, connoisseur territory, not porn. So, what do you think is the difference between porn and erotica versus something that can be considered ‘capital A Art’, as you said. What does the connection to the Venus story allow for this painting?
K: So, this is the question, right? What is the difference between Art and porn? I’m not sure if I have the answer, I guess it depends on your definition of pornography? If you look at Gustave Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World, it is basically just a cropped painting of a female vagina. But, it hangs in a museum and it’s in the Art History books. Maybe it's the title? Maybe it's the fact that Fine Art has titles, and the titles elevate the subject matter? Maybe it's because of the virtuosity of the painter, because it's amazing that a painter could pull off such a feat, to create lifelike human flesh? And maybe it's because it can fall into a category of mythological painting, history painting, and then just throw in a woman with her shirt off, or whatever. So it’s a very, very blurred line. And the defining line there is what we were just talking about during the song break, which is that sexual desire was a sin in the Catholic Church. And, we’re talking about Renaissance Italy here, so yeah, sexual desire was sinful. I just heard an anecdote about Saint Sebastian portrayed in artwork. He’s become this gay icon in artwork. He’s always this super sexy man being tortured with arrows. An image of Saint Sebastian was put in a church in the Italian Renaissance, and suddenly more women were showing up! He was’t just a gay icon, he was a subject of heterosexual fantasy, too. And then these women started going to confession, confessing about their sinful thoughts about this rendition of Saint Sebastian! So the female nude, and just nude flesh in general, causes a lot of anxiety in the viewers because, what are these erotic feelings? Is it undermining elite art appreciation? Are you being dragged down to the base level of the common herd? There’s the difference between nude and naked, nude being reserved for the people in paintings and naked being you and me without our clothes on. So it’s this basic, sexual thing, but nude is more of this highbrow subject, as you said.
G:Yeah I wonder why desire is considered cheap, or why the most human…you know sexual desire is so powerful and beautiful as well because it's a very human feeling. I wonder why there's been this want to sterilize that from…whether it be intellectual discourse or religion or society…there's this weird push/pull between being sexy and also not being too aroused.
K: Right. Because you don't want to be lecherous, right? You don’t want to be a creep.
G: Or salacious.
K: Even undergrad, I did some drawings and I took a printmaking class, and decided to dedicate the semester to doing fine art based on pornography stills. And it was not well received! Even in a very liberal, Fine Arts school, with a bunch of other young, progressive artists, in - I graduated in 2009, there was so much push back. People thought that my work was disgusting, they thought that it was awful to women, because I was referencing the porn industry, which does have a reputation. So yeah, it's still complicated, it’s not just the Renaissance, it definitely transcends into work today, and there’s still this debate about Art or porn?
G: Yeah and I think it's like, there was a ruling, I think in the sixties, it was like “you know when you know”, or “you know when it is”, and it’s like, “well…I guess…?” If you're going to get super graphic, in one respect, in film then it gets even more complicated because all TV has so many sex scenes -
K: Right and film is the preferred genre for pornography! So where do you draw the line there, like what's tasteful and what's not?
G: Yeah and I think it's tricky too, because, as you're saying, wanting to expand sexuality and sexual representations, someone with more of a conservative [viewpoint] or whatever could quickly denounce something as being perverse.
K: Because it doesn't fit into this subject matter of the reclining nude exactly as people are used to seeing it.
G: Right, and how radical to put a different body in that and celebrate it and show something else.
K: One of the scandals though - I mean it's not a hundred percent like we should condemn prudes. Because there was one situation recently where John William Waterhouse, who was a Victorian artist, had a painting in a museum, from 1896. And it's some predatory water nymphs, and these water nymphs are luring a man into the water. And what’s uncomfortable about this painting is the age of the water nymphs. They’re really young. And they’re meant to be this enticing, sexually alluring group of water nymphs with their breasts out. So this was actually taken down, and the museum offered sticky notes to the visitors and they would write their response to this painting being taken down. And a lot of people didn’t like it. They like Waterhouse’s paintings, they thought it was crazy to censor Art, they were comparing it to Hitler, and what he thought was fine art or not, and yeah, it was a huge scandal, actually. Anyway, it’s back up now. There are some moments, like, do we change the artwork in museums because it’s just not cool anymore? Or do we leave it there and be like, “The past was the past!”
G: Or, do we leave it there and then have some kind of discourse? Do you think that’s effective? Or do you think things should be censored?
K: Well, this is a big problem. We've only talked about sexuality, but we can talk about race a little bit. There are so many uncomfortable, cringey portraits of African women from the French Impressionist era that are eroticized. And they're all called like, La Négresse or something like that. Do you retitle an artwork? Do you put it elsewhere in a museum? How is this supposed to be treated now?
G: It's a big question, yeah! I don't know.
K: I don't know either. I’ve talked about it with some of my Art History classmates and nobody knows. So if anybody knows, get in touch!
G: Yeah hit us up! 575-742-8632! Seriously, it’s tricky. Cool. Well, let's put in Rob’s song cuz it's really good and then maybe we'll have a little more chat. Let’s play female of the species which is such a good song I really like the intro.
[Female of the Species - Space]
G: Thank you for tuning into the Lamby Hour. In this hour I’ve been speaking to artist Katherine Verdickt on an amazing copy of her Giorgione painting. So I'm curious as we close out thinking about the male gaze and what that implies, if there's any examples of subverting that gaze earlier in history or times when people have realized how ridiculous it is?
K: Yes! There is a painting by Johann Zoffany, it's in Windsor Castle now, and it was painted in the second half of the 18th century. And what this artist has done is portray a bunch of male tourists, British guys who have gone on their tour to Italy to become cultured, and they’re standing in the Tribuna of the Uffizi Gallery, looking at all the artwork that's there. And there's a lot of naked women. And there's only men who are studying this, but they're studying with great attention. One is actually looking at a female butt with a magnifying glass! There's a character who was a well-known guy at the time, in England, and I guess he was homosexual, and he's pointing at this sculpture of two men wrestling. And then there's another guy, who’s rubbing up on a younger guy's butt, while the younger guy is looking at another guy drawing the anatomy of a female sculpture. So there’s all this sexual tension under the guise of being art appreciators, and it’s a hilarious painting. John Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, and it actually has Titian’s Venus of Urbino repainted within it. It's a wild painting. I recommend it to everybody, it’s hilarious! And it was meant to sort of mock this whole male gaze thing. And that was back in the 18th century. So this isn’t a new problem. It’s been happening for a while. So yeah, that’s a fun note to end this interview on!
G: It’s been so much fun. I think it's amazing what you’re doing and I’m a bit envious of your ability to really sink into one project and really explore that world and what it means to you. Congrats!
K: If you have an obsessive personality, just try to channel it in the right direction.