Pollaiuolo, Antonio: Apollo and Daphne (1470-80)

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The Independent Culture

Seen any good jokes lately? Do paintings ever make you laugh? It sounds an odd kind of question. Humour in European art is not much appreciated, or much noticed. Very few of our famous pictures are famous for being funny.

With literature, the division into tragedy and comedy is ancient and fundamental. We recognise comic genres and comic effects. There are comic plays, comic poems, comic novels. There's a body of critical and theoretical writing about literary comedy. From time to time the old comedies even make us laugh.

With paintings, the matter is more obscure. Traditional art-writing borrowed many ideas from literature, but it never made much of comedy. Comic painting gets the occasional mention, and seems to be treated as a very minor sideline. Even today, when there are academic studies of everything, there is no art-historical study of comedy in Western painting.

Of course, you can guess what it might contain. There'd be some well-known and semi-well-known names, like Bruegel, Teniers, Steen, Longhi, Hogarth, Wilkie, Daumier. There'd be much broad comic business, scenes of pranks and roguery, sauce and randiness, voyeurism, gross-out, scoffing, stupidity, slob-bishness, social vanity. And there'd be stuff that our ancestors found funnier than we do: old age, ugliness, deformity, poverty, physical infirmity and cruelty.

If the study was honest, there'd be many borderline cases, too - pictures where a modern viewer can't tell whether laughs were meant or not. Maybe that's the trouble with the whole topic. There's nothing more elusive, nothing more specific to cultural texture, than a sense of humour. The comedy of the past is one of time's great casualties. Scholars can strive to recover the lost meanings of pictures, but the lost laughs they leave alone. The cause feels too hopeless.

But, more positively, there's the question of whether painting has its own kind of comedy. Beyond cartoons, with their funny captions and situations, and beyond caricature, with its funny faces, is there such a thing as pictorial humour? Well, there seem to be paintings that make pictorial jokes. It's not that their subject matter is inherently ludicrous. The comedy is in the way they put it. They are staged and shaped and arranged for comic effect. And even after centuries they can still raise a kind of laugh.

For example, there's a picture by Antonio Pollaiuolo of Apollo and Daphne. The story comes from Ovid's long poem Metamorphoses. The god Apollo is maddened with love for the virginal nymph Daphne, and runs after her. As he's about to seize her, she calls out to her father, a river god, to save her. At once she takes root, and is transformed into a laurel tree. In Ovid the incident isn't particularly funny (though some of his stories about people being turned into things do have a humorous slant). But in this little early Renaissance picture, it is.

The joke is in the extreme abruptness and incongruousness of the change. Unlike other images of the subject, and unlike the poem, the picture gives no impression of gradual, graceful, organic transformation. The fleeing nymph raises her arms in alarm and appeal, and they just go whomp!. tree! - with a flourish like a conjurer's bouquet. True, just by telling the story, you can see how Daphne's fate might have comic potential. A woman waving her arms in a gesture of "help!" is turned into a monstrous vegetable. But it takes Pollaiuolo's picturing to bring this potential out.

He makes the transition from woman to bush so awkward and disproportionate. The lifted limbs become growing branches, but the shapes of the vegetation don't suggest a natural flowering and ramification of the human frame. You just have these two enormous blocks of foliage, a pair of separate full-grown hedges, roughly symmetrical, each one as large as the rest of Daphne's body, sprouting straight out of her shoulders. It's a very undignified, top-heavy transformation. It's calculated to emphasise, not the strange likeness of human and plant anatomy, but the great difference between them. It's more of a splice than a metamorphosis, and it comes with a jolt. In mid-action the running, waving woman is massively encumbered and immobilised.

What's more, the shapes of these burgeoning bushes almost fill the whole top half of the image. This means that the tree/woman is further immobilised, held cramped within the picture's frame. In fact, stuck motion is the dominant trick here. The image evokes various kinds of movement - figures running and gesturing, branches rapidly growing - and then jams them. At one point it does this explicitly. See how the body of Daphne is literally divided between motion and stasis: one of her legs is on the wing, but the other is firmly planted in the ground. And Apollo, pursuing at speed, his cloak streaming in the air behind him, hits her as though she is a lamppost.

Was Pollaiuolo trying to be funny? Five hundred years on, you may feel unsure. Perhaps he was just trying to be startling. After all, old pictures are full of marvels, miracles, and martyrdoms which to us can look absurd, although they weren't meant to. They were simply meant to look extraordinary. On the other hand, it's not only viewers who make mistakes. Artists make them too. They can misjudge their flights of fancy, and tumble inadvertently into farce. Viewers may then mistake these mistakes for deliberate comedy.

The incongruity and the jammed motion in Pollaiuolo's painting must be deliberate devices. He's out to spring some kind of surprise on us. The story is about a bizarre transformation, and about a moving body getting stuck. He's trying to get that over. And if (hard to believe) his intentions are not specifically humorous, our impulse to laugh is only a slightly wrong turning. His picture has inherently comic structures. It certainly deserves a place in that great collection-in-waiting - the joke-book of Western art.

THE ARTIST

Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-1498) is a name with a tricky string of vowels. It means hen-coop-man, from his father, a goldsmith, who had also sold poultry. Working in Florence, often in collaboration with his brother Piero, Antonio was a painter, sculptor and engraver. He pioneered the Renaissance fascination with the human figure and may have been the first artist to study anatomy through the dissection of corpses. His best known images are small paintings on wooden panels showing the body going through its paces - fighting, wrestling, running, shooting. Pollaiuolo's great print, Battle of the Nudes, is a parade of action poses. He taught Botticelli.

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