01 juin 2020

The role of women in the oeuvre of Swiss painter Johann Heinrich Füssli is controversially discussed. One of the paintings giving rise to this debate is part of the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel.

In Johann Heinrich Füssli's paintings and especially in his private drawings we encounter very different types of women. From well-behaved ladies and desperate souls to rulers, seductresses and courtesans, everything is present. The role of women in Füssli's work has therefore been the subject of controversial debate among researchers. In the Kunstmuseum Basel there is a painting that seems to depict two different types of women and allows for various reflections on the interpretation of the scene: Resting female nude and piano player.

The model for this composition was Titian's Venus with the organist, from which Füssli, however, greatly differs. In particular, he changes the way the two figures look at each other, and the male organist becomes a young woman playing on a modern fortepiano. Immersed in her music, she looks at a sheet of music and not at the reclining one. The latter has turned towards the musician and seems to tap the rhythm of the melody on the pad with her right hand.

The two women seem very different at first. The upright sitting, concentrated piano player with an elegant dress and artfully piled up hairstyle contrasts with the exposed reclining woman, her open flowing hair and relaxed posture. They seem to embody two different types: spirituality versus physicality, sophistication versus naturalness. This contrasting pair of figures could be conclusively explained with the thesis of sublimation of instinct. It describes the effort to transform the drive energy into artistic-creative or intellectual actions and interests in order to change the focus. The instinctive bodily instinct is thereby refined, it is elevated to a spiritual, higher valued dimension – in this case represented by concentrated music-making. In contrast, the reclining naked woman, with her relaxed posture and playful tipping of her fingers, gives free rein to her erotic sensuality. In the unequal couple, one could thus recognize two possibilities in dealing with the instinctive: the casual and the sublimating.

Just as the two women are different from each other, they also have something crucial in common for the effect of the picture: they both play with the senses - one with the sense of hearing, the other with the sense of sight. Taking into account that playing a musical instrument can traditionally be associated with love and eroticism, the piano player also contributes to the sensual atmosphere of the scene. Seen in this light, she is not a model for the sublimation of desire, but the theme of seduction is just as inherent in her as in the recumbent act. Accordingly, the two women support and potentiate each other in their on the one hand visible, on the other hand audible sensuality and despite their differences they are in an atmospheric harmony.

Depending on the point of view, what is seen can be understood differently. The constant discourse and reconsideration keeps the art alive.

Written by: Seraina Werthemann, art historian and art mediator