Complex and multifaceted, the emotion of love is at the centre of an upcoming NGV exhibition Love: Art of Emotion 1400-1800 opening in March 2017.
Researched and curated by Faculty of Arts alumna Dr Angela Hesson (PhD Art History and Literature, 2012) the exhibition has been produced in collaboration with The University of Melbourne, The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and the National Gallery of Victoria.
It might be love in 2017 or 1400 but it's always complicated. With adoration comes anguish and as the collection of work demonstrates the more challenging states of love like jealousy, regret and longing are often the principal motivators of artistic creation.
How do we define love?
Love is a challenging emotion to define, as Dr. Hesson explains:
In researching the exhibition it became apparent that love - the way it is defined and the way it is understood - is very fluid and flexible. It's not a single emotion. It's a collection of feelings. Love can encompass joy and excitement and pleasure but it can also be yearning and pain and jealousy and regret.
It's not all love letters, declarations of passion, hearts and roses.
In terms of the feelings represented by the different works, you might assume that this exhibition would have a prevailing sense of optimism and warmth, but the truth is that while there are many moments of that, there is more art devoted to difficult or complex emotion - to longing, for example, than there is to simple pleasure or to halcyon days.
Our understanding of emotions is malleable, especially over time. Today we might privilege romantic love, passion and desire but in the early modernist period explored in the exhibition ideas of devotion and faith were the pinnacle of love. Dr Hesson explored the social construct of emotion during her research.
Working on this exhibition has really reinforced for me how socially and culturally constructed ideas of emotion are. One might assume that when someone talks about love, that we all understand the same thing by the term, but the meaning of that word and our understanding of it has changed substantially. Contemporary ideas of love tend to privilege concepts of passion and romantic love - we have a hierarchy, reinforced by popular culture, that positions these as the pinnacle of love.
For the period we are looking at though, ideas of duty and self-sacrifice and faith - ideas that don't inspire us as much today - are considered the most worthy, most elevated forms of love. Relationships at this time were overwhelmingly guided by these values rather than passion or romance.
With previous experience as the curator of the Johnson Collection, Dr Hesson describes the opportunity to collaborate with three large institutions - the University, the CHE and the NGV - as a rare and wonderful experience.
I had been employed as a lecturer at the University for several years before this appointment, so I was fortunate to already have a wonderful network of academic colleagues to draw upon, and in joining the CHE, I have met and been able to collaborate with outstanding scholars across several disciplines. The expertise of the NGV curators, conservators and designers has also been amazing - their knowledge of their collections is remarkable, as is their practical expertise in what makes an effective exhibition.
Love: Art of Emotion encourages visitors to think about emotion and value. Finding artwork and objects to strike a balance between the ostentatious and the modest, the private and the public was key from the outset, as Dr Hesson reflects:
One of the key things that I thought about when I was conceptualising the exhibition was not just including depictions of love stories, but also objects that might be understood as infused with emotion. I wanted to think about the ways in which non-representational, sometimes unexpected things can contain and communicate feeling.
Hesitant to choose a favourite artwork Dr Hesson instead highlights tokens of love uncovered in the process of curating the exhibition.
I've become very interested in mourning jewellery of which the NGV has a great collection. It emerges partly out of the tradition of the memento mori. In the 16th and 17th centuries, people commonly wore emblems of death as a reminder of mortality and the imperative to live virtuously. People wear memento mori now as a reminder to live in the moment. When you consider the histories of emotion and the very high mortality rates throughout this period, if you have familiar rituals and objects around death it arguably becomes less frightening. It gives structure to your feeling. They are very beautiful things.
Love is not always beautiful and a hitherto rarely seen statue of Venus is another interesting discovery. Says Dr Hesson:
It's definitely not the most beautiful thing in the exhibition - she's looking a little rough.
The bottom section of the statue is a second century depiction of Aphrodite featuring the classical expressions of femininity, full hips and narrow torso. In the 18th and 19th centuries there was a great interest in the romantic cult of ruins and often classical fragments were refashioned into a whole. This particular Venus was remodelled and in the process lost her classical silhouette.
It's a fascinating example of the changing standards of beauty, and what people want the goddess of love to look like.
Join Dr Angela Hesson for Melbourne Masterclass: Objects, Sounds and Stories of Love
This masterclass series will be a blend of lectures and discussions by some of the University's most celebrated scholars and musicians. There will also be exclusive exhibition viewing for the first two sessions.