Costa Blanca Arts Update – Suite Havana, Paintings by Anthony Miró in Palau Altea

Suite Havana is a newly inaugurated exhibition of paintings by Anthony Miró, hung in Palau Altea on Spain’s Costa Blanca. It complements and amplifies an existing show of the artist’s sculpture, an exhibition entitled de mar a mar, throughout the town. Altea is a long-established artists’ town, a white town whose appearance might suggest its location on a map might have slipped north from Andalusia by a couple of hundred kilometres. But this is Valencia and Altea is a Valencian town hosting Anthony Miró, very much a Valencian artist.

But despite its homegrown nature, the exhibition Suite Havana, like the sculptures of de mar a mar have done for several months, will provoke controversy and calls for its removal amongst that segment of the town’s population for whom sexual taboos retain their significance. For, like his sculptures, the subject matter of the paintings in Suite Havana is sensuality, sexuality and sex, three different facets of the same taboo. But whereas the three-dimensional bronzes portray both positive and negative images of various sexual acts, the paintings in Suite Havana portray only naked or near-naked Cuban women. And they are all beautiful women, all desirable, all at first sight arguably ideals of their type. This, in itself, does not separate them from the Greek pottery or poetry-inspired images of the sculpture, since ancient Greece was not noted for the realism of its own depiction of the human form. But the gender specificity does.

Whether Western art of the Christian era portrayed sensuality as it’s prime message before Titian’s Venus of Urbino is a matter for the art historian, which I am not. But for me that particular painting is representative of a turning point in the history of art. Titian’s Venus is naked. Her left hand cups her pubic area, conveniently hiding its detail. There is nothing new either in art or life. But what is immediately different about the Venus of Urbino is that she engages the viewer. And she smiles. There is an engagement in her expression, almost a recognition, indeed a recognition that may even be personal, but equally it could be contractual. We could be her friend or her lover, but we could equally be her customer, with a hand to reveal its detail only after a contracted payment is made. The taboo here may go well beyond mere sex and sexuality. It may indeed extend as far as prostitution, deception and even might reach as far as a notion of pleasure, even worse, pleasure for its own sake. It’s an image whose public display would be controversial today, let alone in mid-sixteenth century Venice.

A century or so later, Rembrandt was painting his canvases that glowed with the human reality. He produced images of ordinary people powerful enough to provoke even today’s observer with feelings of recognition, sensations of association, and the desire to greet by name, a need almost to renew an acquaintance. As observers, we cannot fail to feel the humanity, the proximity to our own experience, an empathy with what we assume are the subject’s concerns. But is this quality diminished, enhanced or unchanged by our knowledge that, largely still hidden from public view, there are hundreds of drawings and sketches by Rembrandt the depict the erotic, the sex act, the aroused genitalia and expressions of sexual ecstasy? Do we find humanity to an equal degree in such images? Does our knowledge of this side of Rembrandt´s interests change the way we view his ability to penetrate the human psyche?

And, as a third observation on the theme that is in danger of overstatement, how do we personally react to Courbet’s Origin of the World? Courbet – we now assume – was of the realist school, the group that grew out of the Brabizon painters of the early 19th century, where the everyday was both subject and object of interest. For those who do not know this particular work, it’s in the Musée d’Orsay and depicts, no more and no less than, a close-up of the hirsute genitalia of an unnamed, unknown and an identifiable woman, a viewpoint of a torso that might be achieved just before oral sex. After many years of not seeing light of day, the work is now in the gallery for all to see. It stays the right side of voyeurism, opinion has it, but why, how or in whose opinion is rarely possible to define.

There exist other examples, of course. Velasquez’s Venus was painted some years after that of Rubens. In both paintings a voluptuous back view is presented and in both the viewer is engaged via a mirror held by Cupid. Goya’s unclothed Maya stares at her viewer and she incurred the wrath of the Inquisition. Manet’s Olympia caused a scandal as late as the mid-nineteenth century in Paris, of all places, where brothels were an accepted part of commercial life, where there were at least 150,000 registered prostitutes and where the state took fifty per cent of the transactions in taxes. And it was a woman, Mary Richardson, who attacked the Velasquez in London in 1914. She later said she did not like the way men gaped at the picture, though the initial motive was to protest against the arrest of a suffragette leader.

It has often been said that female nudes in painting exist for the eyes of men. The women depicted, the nostrum has it, are always ideal types, worthy of voyeuristic scrutiny, of elevation to the status of the pornographic. The twentieth century did challenge that notion, especially via the work of artists such as Lucian Freud or Tracy Emin, both of whom have their own complex relationships with sexuality. Indeed, at the opening of Suite Havana in Palau Altea, a companion of mine stated that in her opinion these seemed to be works painted for men.

It is time to describe the work themselves, lest the critique take centre-stage over the content. Suite Havana is a collection of 50 or so naked or near-naked Cuban women. Each painting features one or sometimes two models. Most paintings feature a named individual and she is often returning the gaze of the viewer, just as Titian’s Venus does. Facial expressions vary from neutral to inviting, from distance to ecstasy. Some works concentrate on particular parts of the body and some subjects are wearing pants or a bikini. All the women are beautiful.

The paintings are mainly acrylic on canvas. There are a few abstract prints, but the style is predominantly what might be called photorealism. These are named, identifiable women, posing naked for us to look at. And, because of the realism of the style, the viewer must get very close to these images to appreciate how they differ from photographs. There are outlines here and there, sometimes in black or blue or white. There are added lines that accentuates something extended from the image itself, for example a lengthened lock of hair, a circle accentuating the buttocks. And most of the women are lying on beds. Just like the one-dimensional imagery of Courbet’s Origin of the World, these subjects are in your face. And clearly intentionally so.

But let’s suppose they were all wearing enough scanty clothing to be socially decent, to break no taboos, and let’s introduce a product of consumer capitalism into the fray. The smiling woman then becomes an enticement to buy, to consume, to associate the perhaps subliminal pleasure the image creates with the featured product, without ever wanting explicitly to suggest that the woman is part of the product being sold. Suppose we remove the woman’s name from each title and replace it with that of the product. I use only generics as examples: toothpaste, 4 x 4 gas guzzler, washing powder, fast food outlet, dishwasher. We all know this is a woman. We all know that women have breasts and genitalia. We all know that these are being offered alongside the commercial product. Why is it seen as taboo if these qualities, these realities, which we all know exist, are revealed? Does our collective problem lie in the suggestion that these women might just be selling themselves? I wish I could answer the question, but asking it is the important act.

I now read that the artist’s Instagram account has been threatened with closure because he has promoted his exhibition with some of its publicly displayed images. Suite Havana and work like it always asks the same question. The medieval European mind was clear at least institutionally that nakedness was a matter of shame. The Renaissance forced a reassessment of this attitude, and it is a reassessment that is still underway, despite Titian’s, Rembrandt’s, Courbet’s and other artists’ contributions.

The images themselves are pleasing, in their provocative, arousing and challenging way. They might promise ecstasy, but sometimes the detail differs, such as in the canvas where across the woman’s lower abdomen there is a scar of a Caesarian or a hysterectomy, with a strange, almost umbilical cord of thread trailing towards it from the navel. My friend pointed at the woman’s labia and declared she thought it looked like a wound. I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s feminist work, The Gash.

Suite Havana is a collection that would cause some people offense. My advice to such people is, “Don’t go there”. But, as ever in art, the questions are always more interesting than the answers. The beauty of these images and their capacity to move anyone who does seek the experience is indisputable.