100 Works of Art: (Visual) The Sluggard, Frederic, Lord Leighton

The 100 Works of Art series is a string of babbles about art in relationship to my experience of it rather than any kind of sensible or essay-worthy approach. Sorry! Why not start with the first post?

22. The Sluggard, Frederic, Lord Leighton (1885)

This post is standing in for another: I love this statue, but 22 on my list was originally reserved for an equally-loved work, a photograph (a medium which is underrepresented on this list) by Bettina Rheims. Unfortunately this work, a picture of St John in the Wilderness, is absolutely impossible to find online, and I don’t possess the book I found it in (INRI, Bettina Rheims) to scan it. Without the picture the assessment is meaningless, and I can’t share the art with you. Sad especially because the photograph was a haunting glance between worlds and a key moment in the development of an adolescent persona, but not too sad because really, who doesn’t want to hear me rambling excitedly about semi-erotic statues of mostly naked men?

The Sluggard, Frederic, Lord Leighton, 1885

I first stumbled over this on my first trip to the Tate Britain, which would have been some time in late 2000, with school. I can confidently suppose I wasn’t in the best shape to appreciate art at the time as I had a beast of a hangover and couldn’t make the floor stop moving up and down, but such handicaps are as naught in the face of elegant bronze buttocks and I remember this having an arresting affect. I doubt it terminated my nausea, but it did sear itself on my retinas indelibly enough that my all-too-infrequent returns to the Millbank site have been characterised by going in search of it every time.

It is at this point that I would like to point out that the catalogue copy for this statue on the Tate’s website claims: “The fig leaf that hides the penis was a convention intended to neutralise any sexual appeal while the sculpture was on public display.” FAILURE THERE, LEIGHTON.

In fact this statue’s inclusion into the roster of works in this blog series helped to solidify the unifying feature of the other statues I’ve included, and it is a bit embarrassing. I’ve talked about the memento mori nature of works like The Dying Slave and St Sebastian, and the conversely life-celebrating and Epicurean sentiments of the Barberini Faun, but there’s a unifying element in the statuary which is aesthetic rather than conceptual. It’s not the style, as while Giorgetti, Michelangelo, and the unknown sculptor of the faun are all Mediterranean they’re all from differing eras, and all work in a different medium to Lord Leighton and his bronze: the latter is described as “[…] modern in the way it seizes on a momentary and languid pose, and yet artificial in the way the muscles are emphasised and all personal individuality suppressed.”, which is somewhat in keeping with even the named St Sebastian.

I shan’t besmirch my pseudo-academic burbling about art to use the exact words the discovery was made with while talking to friend, irritant, and art historian Liza Gustin, but an approximation would begin with the word languid up there. There is a similar angling of the torso and uneven lifting of the arms across the board, even in our reclining and expiring Sebastian.

The Sluggard, in common with the other statue that caught my attention on that first trip (Sir Hamo Thornycroft’s Teucer, which I don’t think demonstrates as nice lines), strikes me as a brilliantly self-indulgent study of the male form and musculature under the pretext of capturing a moment. It does a sterling job of moment-capturing – the very lifelike lazy bugger it depicts might as well have had liquid bronze poured over him on the moment of stretching – but there’s a fantastic blend of the anatomical precision and sensualised if not sexualised form. The fig leaf is an act of misdirection as it supposes that the only potential for the sexualisation of the statue lies in his penis, as opposed to the liquid grace and well-displayed human form.

Then again perhaps that’s entirely the point of it.

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