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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Anthony Christian

Draped Nude with Dancer, Anthony Christian
--one of the few figural paintings I can display here.
Self-portrait with a Beret,
Anthony Christian. Even some of
his self-portraits are quite explicit.
How do you write about an artist when much of his work, indeed, much of his best work is too erotic to depict? Actually, the work of British artist, Anthony Christian, challenges the border between the simply erotic and the obscene. When does the erotic cross that border into pornography? It's a very old question, dating back at least to the Renaissance, and one which has never been adequately answered. Indeed, the answer keeps changing. The problem is that, like the proverbial "beauty," the erotic, the obscene, the pornographic, are all in the eye of the beholder. Some would consider any nude figure to be erotic. Can an artist openly depict female genitalia and erect penises without his or her work being deemed pornographic? Does one draw the line between such depictions and those of openly explicit acts of sexual activity? What if that work is obviously based upon classical masterpieces? What if the work is of such technical virtuosity as to stand equal to those of artists such as Ingres, Renoir, Picasso, and many others, all of whom painted nudes, even what we might term "suggestive" works? Anthony Christian is a hard nut to crack (no sexual innuendo intended).

A Cavalry Battle in Front of an Old Mill, 1660, Phillip Wouwerman.
Anthony Christian was born in London, about a month after I was born--1945--like myself one of the first of the "baby boom." There, any similarities cease. Young Anthony was a child prodigy. At the age of ten, his technical prowess with a brush was such that he was allowed the privilege of studying art by painting copies of works by the old masters in London's National Gallery (bottom). Moreover, it wasn't just the usual portraits, landscapes, still-lifes and the like he chose to copy and study, but a painting which no artist had ever sought to emulate, A Cavalry Battle in Front of a Burning Mill (above, 1660), by Phillip Wouwerman--an enormous, and enormously complex scene thought to be well beyond his youthful talents. Completing the work took six years, during which time the budding teenager also studied and copied works by Rubens, Rembrandt, and several other painting masters. His studies of the classics can easily be seen in virtually all his adult works. His style has often been compared to that of Leonardo da Vinci. That's setting the bar about as high as it'll go.

The Broken Marriage, Anthony Christian, from his "Love and Marriage" series.
Studies of Kim, 1983, Anthony Christian
As Anthony Christian moved from a painting prodigy to a prodigious painter, he quickly became collectible, his work snapped up by such private collectors as Gore Vidal, Baroness Marie-Helene de Rothschild, Mrs. H.J. Heinz, Bill Blass, Herbie Hancock, even HM Queen Elizabeth II. The press adoration he'd attracted as a little boy painting in a big-boy museum easily translated into celebrity status in the art world. Portrait commissions rolled in from the rich and famous, allowing him to travel all over the real world. However, Christian wanted to be more than just a Renaissance style portrait artist. He wanted a distinct style of his own. Leaving the mainstream market, he moved first to Bali (Indonesia) in 1988, then to India in 1994. There he painted his touching "Love and Marriage" series.

Orchid Still-life, Anthony Christian 
War and Peace, 1991,
Anthony Christian
As a still-life artist, Anthony Christian has few equals. His Orchid Still-life (above) is tasteful, insightful, exquisitely rendered, and could not possibly offend anyone. However, there is no escaping the strong presence of female nude figures in his work. Nearly all of them go well beyond any classical, or "sanitized" academic nudity, or even the rather dry, dispassionate "nakedness" of artist from just a single generation earlier. Even so, some of his figures are not nude, as seen in his War and Peace (right). Even when not depicting explicit nudity or overt sexual activity, Christian's more traditional nudes are hardly devoid of less than subtle sexual content as seen in his Ruby and the Rhino (below) from 1998.

Ruby and the Rhino, 1998, Anthony Christian

The Artist's Thoughts Manifesting
whilst Painting the Trees at
Parlington, Anthony Christian
The fundamental question in exploring the art of Anthony Christian is: Does this artist lift erotica to the level of high art, or does he descend into the gutter to wallow in the slime of pornography? Any number of major artists from the annuls of art history have produced erotic art. Rembrandt had quite an "under the counter" business trafficking his rather salacious prints (for their time) of sexual activity. Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Rubens, Courbet, Dali, and quite a number of others have all produced such work. With a few exceptions, Anthony Christian's work is more sexually explicit than that of any of these. The painting at left I've deliberately shown quite small. The trees are literally decorated with every possible combination of copulating couples. Perhaps such extremes are to be expected in that Christian paints in today's world, not theirs. There are legal definitions, of course, which are vague, not to mention open to what seems to be almost yearly reinterpretations. Most artists today would consider that they have little value in answering such a basic questions involving erotica versus pornography. (Gallery owners might have a somewhat different opinion).


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