Seeing What Jonathan Sees
Looking at a work of art with Jonathan Bober is like putting on night-vision goggles: You use your eyes in a whole new way, seeing things you never imagined you could. Bober can identify everything -- everything! -- that is artistically significant in a print or painting and point it out in such a way that it's apparent to your eye as well. Then he uses that visual detail as a doorway to lead you into a deeper appreciation of the art: of the technique used to create it, of the artist's life and culture, of its place in history, and of its place in our lives. Here's a sample, recorded as we toured the first show of prints from the Steinberg Collection. We stopped before an engraving of Antonio Fantuzzi's Jupiter and Antiope, a 16th-century Italian print currently hanging beside two 16th-century French prints, Juste de Juste's Male Nude Seated on a Pedastal and Léon Davent's Jupiter and Antiope. -- Robert Faires
"These are the kinds of prints that in 1961, 1962, when Leo got these, practically no one would look at. One turn-of-the-century Frenchman had done a catalog résumé of Fontainebleau etchings -- Juste de Juste and Fantuzzi and Devant -- and no one had revisited them. Pre-Sixties, these were thought the most odd, prurient, and therefore decadent prints. Now we see these as magnificently personal and erotic and charming and witty.
"These I adore specially because they are extraordinarily rare, they are extraordinarily elegant, and they are extraordinarily erotic. If you can find me one passage in this whole exhibition -- or frankly, in this whole city, right now -- that equals the sensuality of that satyr's arm and the thigh giving around him as he lifts it, I'll trade. Or something that is as witty about anatomy, and that's as far as I'll go, with this gap. [He points to the triangular opening in the draperies.] This is intended, and that is exactly why it has this charge. Their faces! This is the oblique eroticism of pre-1960s; their faces are opaque. You don't even have the smirk on the satyr's mouth; that's lost behind his shoulder. It's antique, so it's a sleeping Aphrodite type, but she's being brought to life. In case you miss anything that subtle, there's that [triangular] shape, and of course, ripe fruit spilling everywhere."
Following a comment about Antiope's toe barely touching the satyr's hoof: "That is an element that Leo loves. This is not supermarket-checkout-counter eroticism. I walk into the Fresh Plus, and there is Britney Spears' cleavage. That's rude. No, the gentleness and humor and elegance ... there is grace and eroticism. They're not in opposition. We tend to see these things in post-Victorian terms still. He's pulling back, the legs start to part and ... this is what these things are about.
"It's part of Leo's genius to have understood these subtleties early on before these were on the map. Now, these are among the most coveted prints in the world. The Met[ropolitan Museum of Art] coveted the hell out of this, because it is the greatest impression in existence. These Fontainebleu etchings wear very quickly; they were shallow, single bites of the copper plate, so the image tends to be a little more grayed and patchy. This is a brilliant impression and typical of Fantuzzi's subtlety."