The story of painted narrative 2

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), The Dance of Life (1899-1900), oil on canvas, 129 × 191 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article about narrative painting, I laid the ground by giving a simplified terminology of different methods for telling stories in visual art, and showed examples of each, drawn largely from before the nineteenth century. This article focusses on just one of those techniques, and looks at examples of its use since 1800.

Multiplex narrative painting is used to build two or more depictions of a story into a single integral image, so the whole painting can show two or more moments in time. Although it’s generally accepted that it was used in the Renaissance, it is supposed to have died out well before 1600, and to be too confusing for the modern artist or viewer.

Vision of Medea 1828 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Vision of Medea (1828), oil on canvas, 173.7 x 248.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. Image © and courtesy of The Tate Gallery,

JMW Turner’s Vision of Medea (1828) is perhaps his only use of multiplex narrative. He didn’t show this painting at the Royal Academy until 1831, where it was considered to be a wonderful “combination of colour”, but generally incomprehensible.

In the middle of the canvas, Medea is stood in the midst of her incantation to force Jason’s return. In the foreground are the materials which she is using to cast her spell: flowers, snakes, and other supplies of a sorceress. Seated by her are the Fates. In the upper right, Medea is shown again in a flash-forward to her fleeing Corinth in a chariot drawn by dragons, the bodies of her children thrown down after their deaths.

Five years after that was exhibited in London, and two hundred years after Poussin’s famously narrative Israelites Gathering the Manna in the Desert, the Father of Impressionism Camille Corot used blatantly multiplex narrative, in his Diana and Actaeon.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875), Diana and Actaeon (1836), oil on canvas, 156.5 × 112.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

At the centre of Corot’s painting, Diana and her attendant nymphs are bathing in a stream, and soaking up the sunshine. At the right, Actaeon with one of his hunting dogs is just about to run straight into them. Diana, appropriately crowned, stands pointing to the distant figure at the left – which is again Actaeon, antlers growing from his head as she transforms him into a stag.

Actaeon appears twice in spatially separate scenes, with Diana and her group being part of both. In the first, they are simply bathing and larking about, but in the second Diana stands, points, and transforms Actaeon.

My next example is a painting by one of the Pre-Raphaelites (although never a member of the short-lived Brotherhood itself), Ford Madox Brown. Towards the end of his life, he decided to complete a painting which he’d started in about 1856, which refers to a multi-image narrative originally painted by William Hogarth in 1751. Brown, though, opted to tell his story in a single image.

Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), Stages of Cruelty (1890), oil, dimensions not known, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Brown’s Stages of Cruelty from 1890 is very unusual among Pre-Raphaelite paintings for using multiplex narrative, in which the girl and the woman are the same figure, seen years apart.

In the lower left, Brown shows the woman as a girl, hitting her bloodhound with a bunch of flowers, appropriately known as Love-Lies-Bleeding. The dog, whose face shows signs of previous injury, holds up a paw in response. Behind, the woman shows that childhood cruelty grown into an adult, as she shuns the pleas of her lover, who is being rejected into the lilac bush.

Less than a decade later, Edvard Munch used multiplex narrative in his Saint Hans Night (1899-1900), also known as The Dance of Life.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), The Dance of Life (1899-1900), oil on canvas, 129 × 191 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

This shows the artist dancing with his lover ‘Mrs Heiberg’ (actually Millie Thaulow), who is depicted as a mature and passionate woman in red. To the right is a man engaged more passionately with his partner; this is thought to represent the writer Gunnar Heiberg. One woman, who lacks a partner, is shown twice, at the left and right edges: she is Tulla Larsen, Munch’s later lover. At the left, she reaches out towards the flower of love, which will not let itself be taken. At the right, her hands are clasped in front of her in acceptance of her rejection.

This therefore shows Munch’s two failed relationships in its single image: with Millie Thaulow, who rejected him, and with Tulla Larsen, whom he rejected.

Shortly before the Great War, the great German narrative artist Lovis Corinth painted his Ariadne on Naxos (1913), which was inspired by the first version of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos (1912).

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) Ariadne on Naxos (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Corinth combines passages from the whole of its story into a single image. Theseus (left) had promised Ariadne (naked on his thigh) that he would marry her after she helped him kill the Minotaur on Crete, but then sails away when she is still asleep, abandoning her on the island of Naxos. When he has gone, Bacchus arrives in his chariot (centre and right), falls in love with her and marries her.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) Ariadne on Naxos (detail) (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

At the left and in the foreground, Ariadne lies in erotic langour on Theseus’ left thigh. He wears an exuberant helmet, and appears to be shouting angrily and anxiously towards the other figures to the right.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) Ariadne on Naxos (detail) (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The group in the middle and right is centred on Dionysus (Bacchus), who clutches his characteristic staff in his left hand, and with his right hand holds the reins to a leopard and a tiger, which are drawing his chariot. Leading those animals is a small boy, and to the left of the chariot is a young bacchante. Behind them is an older couple of rather worn-out bacchantes. Crossing the sky in an arc are many putti, their hands linked together.

Corinth has combined two separate events in the story into a single image: Ariadne’s eventually broken relationship with Theseus, and her subsequently successful affair with Dionysus.

Aksel Waldemar Johannessen (1880–1922), Without Peace (1921-22), oil on canvas, 285 × 205 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Without Peace (1921-22) is Aksel Waldemar Johannessen’s late masterwork in which he tells his life story using multiplex narrative. He appears at the centre, cradling the body of his dead wife on his thighs. Above are three separate self-portraits of him undergoing earlier crises, and other figures from his past crowd much of the rest of this large canvas.

I’m aware of more recent paintings which use multiplex narrative to tell their story, but sadly there’s only one which I can show here, due to the restrictions imposed by copyright.

Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), Achelous and Hercules (1947), tempera and oil on canvas mounted on plywood, 159.7 × 671 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

At the centre of Thomas Hart Benton’s Achelous and Hercules from 1947 is Hercules, stripped to the waist and wearing denim jeans, who is about to grasp the horns of Achelous, shown in the form of a bull. Immediately to the right, Deianira is shown in contemporary American form, with a young woman next to her bearing a laurel crown and seated on the Horn of Plenty.

To the left of centre, Benton shows a second figure of Hercules holding a rope, part of a passage referring to ranching and cowboys, and further to the left to the grain harvest. To the right, the Horn of Plenty links into the cultivation of maize (corn), the other major crop from the area.

I hope that you agree that reading multiplex narrative is far from confusing or even difficult, and that rumours of its death are grossly exaggerated.