Saturday, November 2, 2013

Dosso Dossi - the unlikely inspiration.

In the last month I have thought about Dosso Dossi more than I have in five years studying art history. Dosso Dossi is a Renaissance painter who was positioned in the court of Ferrara. Ferrara was one of the centres of Renaissance culture and was also home to the infamous Lucrezia Borgia (her third husband was the Duke of Ferrara). I also know Dosso as the owner of the coolest signature known to art history: the letter ‘D’ crossed with a bone (osso), together they are read as D-osso

Dosso Dossi, Saint Jerome, c.1519, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. (Detail)
Unfortunately art history does not remember his with the same excitement. In his day he was overshadowed by titans of Renaissance such as Titian, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael. Therefore it is no surprise that Vasari described him as second best in Lives of the Artists, unfortunately Vasari’s view was so authoritative that it was not questioned until recently. Despite this, Dosso Dossi’s work can be found in many major museums and the work that I cannot get out of my head hangs in the National Gallery in London, it is called 
Lamentation over the Body of Christ.

Dosso Dossi, Lamentation over the Body of Christ, 1510-1520, oil on wood, National Gallery, London.
The small image shows the dead body of the Christ lying on the ground after having been taken of the cross. The body is surrounded by three women. One is at his feet, the second is kneeling at his head, and the third stands behind his head staring into the sky and holding her head. The gestures of all three are theatrical and hyperbolised. What makes the works both awkward and striking is the distortion of the anatomical proportions of the figures. For example the kneeling down woman has an proportionately small head and large arms. The awkwardness, the clumsiness of big gestures and poses, the physical distortions all make this scene look like something Diane Arbus would have been interested in photographing especially as part of her later series.

Diane Arbus, Untitled (6), 1970-71; © The Estate of Diane Arbus
The reason why I became interested in the Lamentation over the Body of Christ is because two very different and two very surprising artists referenced him as an influence. The first of these is John Currin. Currin is a great contemporary artist who is well known for his oil paintings of young women. 
John Currin, Thanksgiving, 2003, oil on canvas, Tate, London.
I always thought that aesthetically Currin's work is somewhere between Balthus (sans the cats and the pedophilic vibe) and the 'girlishness' shown in the Sofia Coppola movies. 

Balthus, Thérèse dreaming, 1938, oil on canvas
The Virgin Suicides, 1999
As you have noticed, I used 20th century references to describe Currin's work, so it was a bit of a shock to find out that an obscure Renaissance artist is one of the influencers. I heard Currin talk about Dosso during one of the Frieze Masters talks last month. Currin explained that the great names of Renaissance always intimidated him, and he felt that he cannot learn from them. There is no point of copying Raphael, as no matter how good you are you are never going to be as good as Raphael. On the other hand, the ‘second tier’ artists were less intimidating, and one could actually approach their work and learn. And of course there is the quirkiness of the image, the distortions that make the image very compelling and accessible, it is less intimidating to approach it and to learn from it. (For the full talk visit
Interestingly, the second artist became interested in the painting also for its distortions. The second artist is Michael Landy a Young British Artist (YBA) who is more famous for destroying rather than creating. His most famous work to date is Break Down where over a few days he destroyed everything he owned including his birth certificate and passport. 

Michael Landy, Break Down, 2001, exhibition view.
A few years ago he took up residency in the National Gallery and during the early stages of his research and exploring the gallery he made copies of a few artworks one of them was Dosso’s Lamentation. The distortions were what interested Landy in this work and when he copied the work he also copied the defects acquired with age – the cracks in the paint. He also enlarged the work making it almost 2 meters high.

Michael Landy, Lamentation over the Body of Christ (after Dosso Dossi), 2011, watercolour pencil on paper, Duerckheim Collection.
I must admit that Dosso Dossi serving as a muse to two very different and very good artists makes me very happy as it shows that the Renaissance is still relevant and that it serves as an inspiration to today's artists. It shows that artists' are not afraid to venture outside the established canon, and that people who say that contemporary artists don't know anything about art are ill informed. 

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