Railing Against It: Art about Waiting. Veronese, the Darius Family and the Fluorescent Stripe.
On the Railway Platform, Afternoon
Opposite me, on the up platform, a man in blue overalls drinks a can of diet coke and eats a giant Mars bar. There are three fluorescent stripes on each of his trouser legs; a man of equivalent importance to his (substantial) poundage. Is it logical to assume that stripes, placed on clothing in certain positions in certain ways, denote importance?
The Fluorescent Tabard: the New Cloak of Invisibility.
The number of fluorescent stripes on orange or yellow tabards, on sleeves or trouser legs of workmen/ firemen etc. should tell us their rank. In fact the opposite seems to be true, the yellow tabard is the new cloak of invisibility, and the poor souls you see working at night (repairing roads perhaps) despite entire officer classes of stripes, seem to be at the bottom of any class structure.
Where else does this reversal work? The scruffier the schoolchild, the greater their importance in their peer hierarchy? I once went to a History of Art conference at the incredibly grand Westminster School, next to Westminster Abbey. As I walked through the porters gate, a vast black car deposited the filthiest school boy I have seen for a very long time. In other contexts he would have been of great interest to the social services, yet he was a boy of some importance, greeted by the porter no less, as his chauffeur drove the enormous black conveyance away.
Princes as Beggars?
We are not talking about disguise here, the Shakespearian complexities of the beggar revealed as the prince. All concerned in this reversal know who they are. Neither is it a form and function debate, the dissonance between occupation (function) and formally considered outward appearance (form) is clearly deliberate. Are the abundance of fluorescent stripes merely someone, as it were, using existing cultural signifiers to ‘talk up’ their status.
“Good Morning. This is the Guard speaking, would any passengers requiring the purchasing of tickets for their onward journey this morning please make themselves known to myself as I pass back down through the train this morning”
Sometimes we genuinely mistake a person’s status, function, rank through their clothing, Veronese’s ‘The Family of Darius’ plays on this. Although I first came across it as an example of an artist exploiting the power of the colour red, and that perhaps is the clue.
Can one ever take the violent artificial virulence of fluorescent orange or worse, yellow, as indicator of gravitas? If you want power from that end of the colour spectrum, look at the red of the central standing figure who waves his left hand.
He is painted in red lake (derived from crushed cochineal beetles) his companion in yellow and orange is painted in orpiment and realgar. Realgar is a relatively rare, and powerfully poisonous, arsenic containing mineral, you can also see it in fellow Venetian, Titian’s, painting of the Bachante’s drapery.
The yellow leg of Veronese’s figure is painted in orpiment, a similar mineral to realgar, This characteristic Venetian use of these two pigments, doesn’t spread to the rest of Europe till later centuries. In the same period the English apparently used realgar to kill rats.
The same system (strong, expensive pigments for important figures) works in the rest of the painting,
for example the deep ultramarine blue of Sisigambis the kneeling queen, plumb centre, topped by ermine the fur of rulers. Ultramarine, the most expensive colour, deepest blue, painted in thick sweeping strokes. Unlike, for example, the blue of the lesser princess (daughter) behind her where the ultramarine is far less and the under-painting of azurite (cheaper pigment) more visible. The sky by the way is painted in smalt (a mix of powdered glass and cobalt, much cheaper than the ultramarine pigment made from Lapis Lazuli, a mineral taken all the way from mines in Afghanistan).
So, how does this tell the story?
Alexander, the Macedonian/ Greek had beaten the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 330 BC; the clash between West and East we are still familiar with. After the victory, Alexander visited the defeated family. Darius’ mother, Sisigambis, pleads for her life and that of her family, grandson, two granddaughters and Darius’ sister, also his queen. Traditionally they, the girls especially, would have been raped, slaughtered or enslaved. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong man to plead to, directing herself to Hephaestion, Alexander’s close friend and companion, not the man himself.
Who is Who?
This brings us to the central debate about the painting, and one that Veronese himself set up by his manipulation of our ideas about colour: which figure is Alexander and which Hephaestion?
The figure in red with the hand gesture is the most powerful Sisgambis directs herself to him, but he gestures to his companion who is, notice, closer to attributes that represent Alexander, ie the great horse Bucephalus and shield.
Opinion is varied on this point, Goethe by the way was insistent that Hephaestion was the figure in the rose cloak, whereas Nicholas Penny in the National Gallery Catalogue to the Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings is insistent that it is the other way round. That gesturing figure wears armour based on antique sculpture and has a page holding up his long red cloak, you can just see the boys head between the two men.
Whereas the darker figure wears armour contemporary to the period in which the painting was made. Does this help us? Not much. What gives the clue I think, is the small boy clinging to Sisigambis, he is painted in red, but in the shadow.
Traditionally shadows would have been much darker, to create depth. The red boy is described either as a page boy, or more credibly as the younger son of Darius, hence his proximity to the Queen. Veronese uses red to denote a key player in the story, but hides him behind his grandmother who pleads for his life. Now you can either say that Veronese will paint all his kings in red, or that Sisgambis expects all kings to be dressed in red and behaves accordingly. But Alexander, who does things differently, e.g. not mistreating his captives, wears orange and red and stands close to his horse; which is it?
On This Side of the Picture Plane…
Meanwhile, on my train into work, we pass through a small town station. A bearded man stands, confidently on the platform. He wears a red top hat, his suit is lime green and close fitting, his tie matches this virulence, as does a lemon yellow shirt. His shoes though are brown, long red clown shoes would have made the get up and its function clear. This mismatch is unsettling.