Feral Venus: F. Scott Hess and Giorgione

"The Colonel's Daughter" by F. Scott Hess is an Allegory of Beauty Gone Wild

F. Scott Hess (b.1955)
The Colonel's Daughter, 2006
Oil on Canvas, 32 x 40 inches
Currently available at Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Los Angeles

Dear Reader,

If you can be very, very patient, this essay is eventually going to be about the painting "The Colonel's Daughter" by F. Scott Hess. Stay with me, and I will get around to it.

- John Seed

"The Reclining Nude," published in 2002 by Thames and Hudson, is a coffee table book devoted to a delectable topic. Co-authored by Lidia Guibert Ferrara, a Milanese graphic designer, and art historian Frances Borzello, the book is an attempt to create a visual survey of the vast range of forms and meanings that painters have given to the female nude in repose. Starting with the period of the Italian Renaissance, the book opens with sumptuous color plates of canvasses by the elusive Venetian Giorgione and his randy student Titian. As the book goes on to demonstrate, nearly every major male figure painter for the next 500 years found a way to subject the supine female figure to his own particular aesthetic and erotic fantasies.

The last pages of the book feature a kinky Balthus canvas and the "brutalist" nudes of Stanley Spencer and Lucien Freud, one of the only living artists to be included. Also at the tail end of the tradition is "The Open Window" by F. Scott Hess, a Los Angeles artist who is very much alive, even after a leaky appendix scared the beJesus out of him last year. Scott has been laying the nude down quite a bit since his work took a new direction after a 1994 trip to Iran. Called a "Humanist Mannerist" by critic Donald Kuspit, Hess has one foot in the Old Master camp, and while his other stands in the muck of Post Modernism. To put it another way, his recent paintings are grounded in traditional technique, but their meanings are ambiguous and elusive.

It is, in fact, the air of ambiguity, that links Hess full-circle to Giorgione.

Speaking of Giorgione, it isn't surprising that a book compiled by a pair of Italians begins begins with his majestic "Sleeping Venus," considered to be the first notable reclining nude in Western painting. Giorgione's Venus evokes a dream woman who is herself dreaming. Her power comes from her creamy beauty, tinged with erotic suggestion, and also from her personification of classicism.

Giorgione (landscape completed by Titian)

"Sleeping Venus," c. 1510
42.7 x 69 inches
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Keep in mind that it had only been 75 years since the female nude had re-appeared in Western art. She came in the form of Massacio's Eve, a grieving exile, ashamed of her nakedness, chased from paradise by a sword waving angel. More naked than nude, Massacio's Eve is a pathetic figure who hopes we will avert our eyes. Even knowing that the damned snake tricked her, we feel just terrible for her and recognize her nakedness as a badge of shame.

A Detail of Eve from Massacio's "Expulsion" c. 1425

By contrast, Giorgione's Venus is a nude. Just what makes a "nude" figure different from a naked one? In the words of Sir Kenneth Clark, the nude presents a "balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed."

The "Sleeping Venus" is more than just re-formed: she is perfection. Most men will want her, and those who don't will at least want to plan her wardrobe.

It is not known if Giorgione painted her for himself or a client, and the image was unfinished when the artist died at the tender age of 33. Whoever it was meant for, "Sleeping Venus" would have hung very nicely in the alabaster pleasure chamber of the Duke of Ferrara, or in the palazzo of any other rake of the period. The "Sleeping Venus" may at some point have been covered with a velvet curtain meant to be drawn after dinner over cigars. When the curtains were drawn, any prudes in the room would find that their objections to the position of the hand of Venus would have been reminded that only a Humanist would collect images of a nude goddess. Scholarship, it seems, has always been the Trojan Horse that hides prurience.

Of course she isn't just meant as an erotic fantasy: the "Sleeping Venus" is also allegorical. She embodies the idealized virtues of the Republic of Venice, a city which liked to think of itself as a serenely beautiful woman. That of course was a distracting fantasy for Venetians to indulge in. The real city of Venice was an expensive theater set that had been built over a fetid lagoon by slaves who drove pine trees into mud. Like the other Italian city states it was a patriarchy, but with no Pope nearby things got a little out of hand and the city employed thousands of prostitutes including high end courtesans.

An allegorical image of Venus like Giorgione's was a civilizing image: a bud of the Renaissance about to wake up into full bloom. She provided a kind of aesthetic perfume that masked the stench of a vital city. Being horizontal and vulnerable, men liked her much more than her iconographic cousin, the vertical and unassailable Virgin Mary. It is no wonder that after the "Sleeping Venus" Venetian art and culture was inspired to reach new heights. Twenty eight years after Giorgione's death Titian brought Venus indoors, woke her up, domesticated her, and placed a sleeping dog at her feet (Fido) to suggest fidelity and marriageability. Progress, of a sort, was being made.


"Venus of Urbino," c. 1538

47 x 65 inches

The Uffizi, Florence

The nude looked so fresh in the early 16th century: she had been gone from culture for a long time. This is definitely not the case in twenty-first century Los Angeles. From the fifties on Hugh Hefner made sure that American men faced a glut of horizontal fantasy women and gradually dispensed with the twin veneers of culture and art. The nude had moved from the private space of the palazzo to the public art gallery to the men's magazine and finally to the internet. In a culture where any latchkey kid can google up images that would have made Giorgione's hair stand what is left to say with and about the nude?

That is where Scott Hess comes into the picture. Like many of his artists in his circle, Hess believes that the human figure, both nude and clothed, still has plenty to say. The issue is that his emotionally fraught images like the "Colonel's Daughter" argue that if female beauty still has a place in our culture it is in a fragile, beleaguered position.

Giorgione and Hess: side by side comparison

In the early stages of developing his image Hess "wanted a nude sucking her thumb, under a slip or nightgown, and plunked down in the middle of thorny raspberry bushes." His model, Laura, whose father actually is a Colonel, let him sketch a number of poses before assuming a final posture that the artist describes as a "cross between the infantile and the erotic." With her knees bent, she is a restless, insomniac figure who fills the foreground of the final painting.

Donald Kuspit says that "Hess doesn’t have to be literally present to make his emotional conflicts and strong presence felt." In the "Colonel's Daughter" his male presence is implied not just by the foregrounding of the model, but also by proxy. The three men who appear in the background are involved in some kind of search. They may be hostile, they may be rescuers (who knows) or perhaps they are wondering if beauty has jumped off the cliff of culture.

A detail of "The Colonel's Daughter"

They men in the background of "The Colonel's Daughter" don't have to worry that beauty has committed suicide: not yet at least. She is still with us, but in very fragile shape, reverting to infancy and returning to mother earth to ask "Is there any chance I can just go back to Eden and start over?" Giorgione and Titian tried to bring Venus, the serene goddess of love back into the sphere of culture, and this is the result. Once again she is naked, not nude. As you have noticed, I see "The Colonel's Daughter" as a troubled heir to the tradition Giorgione invented, a "Feral Venus."

Hess lets us know that after 500 years in public the female nude has had a nervous collapse. What has Venus been through? A bad relationship? Sexual abuse? A career in entertainment? Hess leaves that open and we can decide as individuals what we think has gone on.

A "Girl Gone Wild" as cautionary tale she still gives off an erotic charge, but only a brute would act on that. Amazingly the "Colonel's Daughter" is a civilizing image, just like the "Sleeping Venus," but she makes us better by making us question our fantasies rather than letting us indulge in them.

500 years ago, beauty slept calmly in our presence, waiting to wake up and console us. If Hess has it right, she is worn out now and wants to go back to Mother Earth, the ex-wife of Culture, who has issues of her own. If you are a man, and if you should happen to find her, please be kind. Gently, ask her to put her robe back on and respect that she may be skittish about accepting masculine help.

F. Scott Hess, the father of two daughters must be thinking about this. Since I am raising three daughters, I will be too.

Written for OpenMuseum.org in April 2010