I recently came across a painting of a woman’s face in a newspaper that was strangely voided or blacked out. I recognized it as a detail from Pietro Longhi’s The rhinoceros also known as Clara the rhinoceros (1751). It is an intriguing painting which hangs in the National Gallery in London. Coincidentally I happened to be in London and spent some time in the National Gallery studying the painting and trying to explore why I find this particular painting uncanny. The detail of the painting is strange in itself but I find the entire painting uncanny. I propose that there is an unexpected and unintentional uncanny-ness in Clara that emerges through the formal elements of the painting combined with its subject matter.
As a genre painter Longhi depicts contemporary life in Venice in the mid-eighteenth century. He often painted people during carnival in Venice where the public display of masks was part of the ritual to hide one’s identity. Longhi made this painting to show the sense of awe and wonder at a strange animal shown to the public, an animal that they would never have seen before. As contemporary viewers we understand why he has done this painting, to show something wondrous, but we no longer share that sense of wonder, we no longer gasp in awe because we are familiar with that sight. What we don’t understand so much is why the woman’s face is blacked out and what this, if anything, has to do with the rhinoceros. I don’t believe that the uncanny has arisen from either motif in themselves. I propose that there is something in the juxta-postioning of these two elements; the rhinoceros and the voided face of the woman that creates a strange unsettling feeling.
Albrech Durer’s earlier drawing and subsequent woodcut of a rhinoceros is strange but not for me, uncanny. Similarly other paintings of Longhi’s which depict masked women don’t have the same uncanny charge. So what is it about the composition that is strange?
Firstly, the classical triangular composition places the masked woman right at the pinnacle of the pyramid, like a fairy on a Christmas tree. Secondly her blacked out face is the focal point rather than the rhinoceros itself, she is picked out at the point of the highest tonal contrast in the painting, the black of her face and whiteness of her skin and then of her dress. At this centre then is a void, a nothingness that the eyes float in. It is not that her face is masked so much as it appears to be voided. This void has an uncanny anachronistic feeling for an eighteenth century painting. It doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ with the style of what one expects in a painting of this genre. The unexpected void looks either primitive or contemporary postmodern. The eyes that float in the void equally seem either primitive or contemporary.
Is there something unsaid in her gaze that seems relevant now to us the contemporary viewer? Is she speaking across the centuries directly to us, telling us something that might be relevant to us?
Is she a harbinger?
Does she foretell something of death?
Unlike the other figures in the painting who tell us something of life in eighteenth century Venice, does she speak more of the commonality of death? She appears to float above the scene, she doesn’t interact with the scene but stares out from it. Her eyes connect with me in a way the other eyes that look from the scene don’t. It is strangely inexplicable. The compelling thing for me about this picture is how the uncanny has changed focus over the centuries. What was strange then for viewers, the sight of the rhinoceros, is no longer strange now. The strangeness comes from the empty mask and the eyes that seem to echo the lines of Clarence in Shakespeare’s Richard The Third “What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!” Above all, she seems to be very ‘other worldly’. She hovers in a symbolic space as well as literal space whereas the rhinoceros seems very much of this world, residing in a pit with her own excrement, she appears visceral and ‘real’.
Reader, is it not the unintentional uncanny that occurs in this painting that is most compelling or affecting?
Posted by Alison Pilkington, PhD researcher Painting Dept., NCAD