Monday, August 16, 2010

Butterfly Hunting for the Soul

Now, this is one proud monk! This miniature (the whole thing's maybe 8 inches tall) resides in the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH. It's one of my favorite paintings in the entire collection. A monk in vibrant red robes stands grinning at his catch - savoring the moment 0f triumph during the proud interval between removing the butterfly from his net and stashing it in the leather collecting kit slung over the armrest of the bench. Close inspection reveals a comical gap between two of the upper teeth in the monk's unguarded grin.

Leo Hermann (French, 1853-1927) exhibited genre paintings (scenes from life) such as the above at the Paris Salon from 1875. He made a tidy living as a commcercial artist and became very well known for his portrayals of French Catholic clergy, often in gently humorous scenarios that charmingly reveal their protagonists' flawed humanity. One websource notes that "his work is as sought after today as it was in his own lifetime," and it's not too hard to see why.

We're struck by the sumptuous red of that robe! Web photos do NOT do ANY paintings justice, so you'll have to take my word about how brilliantly the crimson, set off by its surrounding pillow of complementary greens and green-grays, leaps from the frame.

How do we read the painting from there? First, let's deal with that ridiculous gaptooth grin. However holy the monk, the man is still human. Hermann used this device often in this series. Other gaptoothed monks in red can be found gossiping and playing cards. Paintings such as these don't make any huge claims, they just exists as delightful objects in themselves.

A lot of this painting's success involves the way the figure's big and unselfconscious, earthly joy eclipses the sly, symbolic, under-the-surface contradictions: the spiritual and the earthly, man, nature and God off their guard, the soul (symbolized by the butterfly) captured instead of released, the habitually serious caught in boyish play, the holy man of God ensnared in the net of humanity.