The Saint Louis Art Museum holds a large and varied collection of prints, ranging from silvery late medieval woodcuts, through instantly recognizable Andy Warhol screen prints, to contemporary American impressions created in St Louis. The promised gift of the Phoebe Dent Weil and Mark S. Weil Collection, a collection of Renaissance and Baroque masterworks now on view in the exhibition Learning To See, will complement the Museum’s holdings with impressions by European Old Masters, including works by German artist Albrecht Dürer.
The collection, ranging over centuries of artistic expression, demonstrates shifting modes of visual representation—from naturalistic to abstracted, bold to delicate—all reflecting art contemporary to one time period or another. A survey of the Museum’s print study room, accessible to the public through appointment, is an interesting study of artistic movements reflecting changes in social attitudes.
Two such prints reflect a Western approach to depicting the female body. These prints are perhaps not so different after all, in spite of the four-century gap between them. Representing two mythological women, Nemesis by Albrecht Dürer and Nave Nave Fenua by Paul Gauguin can be placed in dialogue to reveal previously undiscovered commonalities.
I spent a semester studying one of these works during a seminar for Washington University students taught at the Museum, the engraving Nemesis completed by Dürer in 1504. The print, a depiction of a fully nude middle aged woman, struck me as idiosyncratic in a variety of ways. While unique among Western female nudes, Nemesis shares some thematic resonances with another unusual print in the Museum’s collection: Nave Nave Fenua, an 1894 woodcut by French post-Impressionist artist Gauguin.
Nemesis depicts the Greek goddess of fate. The nude figure of a winged middle-aged woman dominates the composition, occupying two-thirds of the image. The figure carries a harness and goblet, which represent the goddess’s chastening and rewarding role, according to the description of the goddess found in the poem “Manto” by humanist poet Angelo Poliziano. We see the “goddess suspended on high” who “suppresses immoderate hopes and fiercely menaces the proud”. The figure appears too weighty to fly, perched as she is atop a comically small globe. The cloudbank framing the goddess dips dramatically beneath her feet as though weighed down by her stoutness. The intricately rendered city nestled in the valley at her feet has been identified as Klausen, an alpine town Dürer would have passed through on his travels.
Nave Nave Fenua depicts another mythical figure: the Biblical Eve, portrayed as a Tahitian woman. Gauguin emphasizes the curve of Eve’s hips and thighs, which recall prehistoric images of fertility goddesses. Eve’s face is turned away from the viewer, cast in dark shadow. Behind her, we see a lush tropical landscape. Flowers grow upwards from her feet. In the middle ground, a sinuous river cuts horizontally across the composition. Placed above the river, a flowering tree occupies the upper half of the image, its branches coiling towards the edge of the picture plane. Perched in the tree, we see a
dark lizard—a Tahitian version of the Biblical snake—poised as if to whisper in Eve’s ear. A decorative band runs vertically down the left side of the composition. The band bears abstracted forms loosely inspired by the tapa, or bark-cloth designs Gauguin would have encountered in Tahiti.
In both prints, we find a woman enshrined within the composition.
In Nemesis, the goddess is silhouetted against a completely blank ream of clouds, yet nevertheless she interacts with the image’s other compositional elements as she appears to weigh down the cloudbank beneath her. Her wings, and the drapery trailing behind, her mirror the diagonal line of the clouds, further integrating the figure into the image. Though the goddess reflects visual characteristics of the skyscape behind her, the image’s discordant compositional elements do not fully incorporate the mythological woman into the world of the print.
Unlike Nemesis, Nave Nave Fenua shows a woman who is completely part of the landscape surrounding her. While both women hold court over their respective images, the two women’s bodies act differently within their respective works. The goddess Nemesis is portrayed in perfect profile. Her body stands out from the blank background behind her, appearing heavy and corporeal. The figure, in near-perfect profile, does not invite the viewer’s gaze. Unlike Dürer’s image, Gauguin’s Eve is on display, her hips and thighs turned towards the viewer. In contrast to the goddess Nemesis as a monumental nude, Eve blends into the Tahitian Eden that surrounds her.
As I studied Dürer’s Nemesis, my thoughts returned again and again to the Eve of Nave Nave Fenua. While the works share visual similarities, Eve plays a much more conventional role within her image. Though at first glance Gauguin’s woodcut appears to be far more avant-garde than Dürer’s traditional engraving, his Eve is representative of the Western tradition of the female nude. Gauguin’s figure exists to be seen, her body welcoming the viewer’s gaze. In contrast, Nemesis is turned away from the viewer, her body position uninviting. Where Nemesis reigns over a landscape that does not seem to contain her, Gauguin’s Eve carries an earthier power, embedded in the voluptuous landscape that engulfs her form.