Still Life by Gil Elvgren
Triple P was chatting to B in Germany on Skype earlier this evening. What a wonderful invention that is, in that it enables us to see her showing off her latest lingerie purchases. Even in stop/start, slightly green blur-o-vision it can be quite an enticing experience.
Anyway, B, recalling our recent visit to Turkey, suggested that we might put some harem-themed pictures on this blog. Not that we are short of themes but the more we thought about it the more we thought it was a splendid idea. The allure of the harem has held a fascination for Western artists for hundreds of years and their sometimes fevered imaginations have conjured up a whole host of exotic and erotic images based on a very loose idea of the reality of these places. Mostly their minds register a few key facts: single dominant male, multiple women sequesterd from the eyes of other men, therefore no need to overly protect their modesty with clothes, women as sexual playthings who need to channel this sexuality when not with the dominant male etc. Add to this exotic architecture, textiles, furniture and clothing and it is an artist's dream come true!
So to start us off we have a painting by pin-up artist supreme Gil Elvgren. This painting was sometimes known under the title Harem although it is, really, nothing of the kind. It's actual title is Still Life (Mr Elvgren evidently had a sense of humour) and is a very atypical painting. Although Elvgren painted nudes reasonably regularly they are not that large a part of his finished works. The contract he had with the Brown & Bigelow calendar company allowed for a maximum of one nude a year (out of twenty four he was required to paint). They had to meet contemporary standards of taste, of course, which meant no pubic hair.
Reclining Oriental Nude in Studio (1947)
Elvgren did occasionally paint some very fine nudes for his own amusement, of course, and one of these, Reclining Oriental Nude in Studio, he hung in his studio but there are very few of them.
Still Life, however, with it's graphic full frontal nudity, looks like an illustration rather than one of his fine art works. It isn't really a harem painting either but belongs to the white slave captured by Arab tribesmen in the desert sub-genre. This is an equally powerful Middle Eastern scenario of a sheikh and his captured western woman. In fact the sheikh doesn't look that Arabic and his harem girls are more Madison Avenue than Moroccan. The girl holding our naturally red-headed beauty is obviously, along with the inevitable Nubian guard, proclaiming the worth of their captive. The sheik's favourite, however, is looking at her in a "what do you want her for when you've got me?" sort of way. The sheihk seems delighted, however, with his pale-skinned prize, and can't take his eyes off that beautifully rendered ginger bush. The flame-haired woman, who has obviously been just unveiled with some flourish, can't bear to look as she contemplates a fate worse than death. At least she has managed to hold on to her high-heeled shoes!
There are some wonderful touches in this painting: from the beautifully done still life itself to the sense of heat and light outside conveyed just by two perfectly chosen colours representing the sky and sand, visible through the tent flap. But the focus is our captive beauty who, unlike the other figures, is carefully and tightly rendered, ensuring that her brightly lit body still manages to dominate a painting packed with blocks of strong colour.