Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pictures, forms, families (3): the threatened child

I can't find Pompeo Batoni's moving, formal picture on the web. The couple in it were married in 1739, had one legitimate child Barbara, who died in 1749. Hoping perhaps to get over the loss they set out on a European tour. In Rome, as the catalogue note has it 'they commissioned Pompeo Batoni to paint this portrait of them watching over their dead daughter, united in their sorrow.' They had taken a miniature of her for the painter to work from.

The girl in the picture looks delightful. The painting is loaded with symbols of mourning. It is without mawkishness or melodrama. The couple contemplate the child who is more clearly defined than they are.

It is however a difficult and horrible subject. We have Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, what Toby Litt renamed as Deadkidsongs - infant mortality was common enough in the nineteenth and early twentieth century - but it's too much, too overwhelmingly much heartbreak. I can hardly bear to listen to the Mahler and I haven't yet opened up my copy of the Litt. Even here I prefer to illustrate this with a life-giving Picasso (life-giving is Picasso's great gift) rather than with a number of available Victorian deathbed scenes because Picasso always sees bigger and beyond to ever greater energy and restlessness.

The poem for the Castle Museum is divided into three parts, Death, Survival and Perseverance. The Batoni is sumptuous in its way, tragedy as a set piece with cello. Mortality with posies. What is love if not fear of losing? Love is in fact mortality, so mortality lies at the bottom of the family, as it did for mine when I was a child.

The next post will contain the poem.

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