British art historian Norman Rosenthal has a theory about Dionysian references in the history of art. Valérie Duponchelle spoke to him about it for an article (Sir Norman Rosenthal : «De Dionysos à Picasso», June 19) for Le Figaro (my translation):
LE FIGARO. - Art and wine, is it a long, loving marriage?Some modern artists, like Franz West or Damien Hirst, may drink heavily but, Rosenthal concludes, it has had little influence in their art, and he discussed only a couple examples that came to mind. His theory about women not being shown as heavy drinkers is interesting, since the primary worshippers of Dionysos were the Maenads, shown above in the amphora painted by the Amasis Painter in the 6th century B.C. The dithyramb, the frenzied choral piece sung and danced in honor of Dionysos, can be said to have influenced the development of music, dance, and theater, too.
Seated in my library, I see all my art history books which are filled with endless references to wine, from Dionysos and Homer to Velázquez and Picasso. Wine was cited abundantly in the Bible and the Gospels, which fed an entire pictorial tradition in the West. Veronese's Wedding at Cana, made in 1562 for the refectory of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice and conserved today in the Louvre, is a striking example of it. We could include literature, like Falstaff, the character created by Shakespeare in the Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor, whose pen described drunks wondrously. Jovial and red-faced, he is the perfect incarnation of the English attitude to drinking, consisting of exacerbated conviviality -- it's the pub culture! -- and different from the silent solitude of the French absinthe drinker painted by Manet, Degas, and the young Picasso at the very start of the 20th century in Paris.
What do Dionysos and Bacchus represent in art?
The pleasure of losing control, as illustrated by Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, a large oil painted in 1520 to 1523 for Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, by chance today one of the glories of the National Gallery in London. The way in which Bacchus, god of wine, descends from the chariot pulled by two panthers to go meet Ariadne, with whom he has fallen in love at first sight. The joyous nudity of his handsome body, barely covered by the pink drapery, his light and freeing movement posed at the very center of the large canvas (176.5 x 191 cm), his laughter and carefree attitude, make of this Titian one of the great representations of drunkenness. Of all the examples of drunkenness, that is. From 1470, Andrea Mantegna represented it in his engravings of mad bacchanals, expressing both a caricature and the eroticism of the Renaissance, as shown by the exposition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1992. This unrestrained world is very often masculine. Very few women have been immortalized as drunkards, or even as drinkers.