Saturday 24 February 2018

What Lies Beneath: The Artist's Foot

The Artist's Foot by Adolph von Menzel, Oil on wood; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Artist's Foot by Adolph von Menzel
The Artist's Foot by Adolph von Menzel

Niall MacMonagle

Perfect: A new-born baby's little feet. And is there a child who hasn't had This Little Piggy played out on its toes?

Toe-sucking comes later. Remember Fergie and her friend, American financial advisor John Bryan?

And later still there's the chiropodist and Foot Solutions.

German artist Adolph von Menzel, known for beautiful, light-filled interiors, portraits, crowd scenes, public celebrations, social occasions and historical events, painted his 61-one-year-old foot in 1876.

A little larger than life-size, here's a foot that has walked the walk. That oddly raised flexible big toe, the heavy veins, the mottled flesh, do not make for a pretty picture. The nails are trimmed but that big toe is not for sucking. Put on your socks.

Menzel - the von came later - was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1815 and lived in Berlin for most of his life.

His father ran a lithographic workshop, and when he died, the young Adolph, aged 18, took over the business, attended the Berlin Academy of Art briefly, became a well-known illustrator and then, mainly self-taught, he began to paint.

Though awkward and shy - he was only 4ft 6in with a head too large for his body - he produced extraordinary works, including The Coronation of William I, A Flute Concert with Frederick the Great, Jesus in the Temple, Clara Schumann playing the piano.

There's a drawing of Prince Otto von Bismarck, an admirer, and von Menzel's work was used by Adolf Hitler for electioneering purposes.

But by then von Menzel was dead: when he died, in 1905, aged 90, the Kaiser walked behind the coffin. Von Menzel now rests beneath an impressive tomb.

The many honours bestowed on him included the Order of the Black Eagle, the first painter so honoured, allowing him to add the distinguished "von" to his name.

In his last will and testament, a contemplative von Menzel wrote: "Not only have I remained unmarried, throughout my life I have renounced all relations... there is a lack of any kind of self-made bond between me and the outside world."

And yet he was never stuck for subject matter. Even here, where he's really put his foot in it.

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