Amusing, and perhaps instructive, to think of great paintings whose voyage into mystery and meaning seems to depend, in the first instance, on a technical trick: a separation of planes so that the head of the principal figure lives in a different world from that of the body, and the rest of the picture. Rembrandt's 'Polish Rider' travels serenely on a pantomime horse, deftly accoutred with his bowcase, his shapka, his shapely uniform of red and white. But the face is that of a beautiful woman, smiling quietly in some secret satisfaction, disembodied from the soldier's quest. Botticelli's Venus is a Peruginesque Madonna with no clothes, posed on a pagan shell. The formidable eyeballs of Piero's risen Christ, separated from the cornea in their upward gaze, forbid any offering from the spectator of devotion or reciprocity. The smile of Leonardo's famous portrait is wholly hermaphroditic. Most striking of all, the upside-down face of Marsyas, in his agony at the surgeon's hands of scientific Apollo, expresses a refined and sexless being lost on the solitary verge of pleasure, while Midas-Titian gazes tearfully not at him but at some other terror.
LRB 25 June 1987 | PDF Download