The art of love: James Barry

An embrace without passion
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James Barry: 'Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida', c1800, Sheffield City Art Galleries



The bad relationship; marital bondage; sexual hatred: you mightn't expect to find that kind of complicated stuff in a painting. But under the respectable guise of the classics, that's just what you find in Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida by the Irish artist James Barry. It's a portrait of a marriage, and the marriage has gone dreadfully wrong.

Never mind who they are. Just look at this terrible embracing pair. They are cramped, at shoulder and head, by the picture's rectangle, and everything within conspires to make their intimacy as clammy and uncomfortable as possible. It's a clinch between two soft, heavy bodies. As their clothes fall off them, their separate body parts are hard to distinguish as his or hers. They seem to sink into one another. Their hands rove all over the place. Desire has taken them over.

But a loving kiss is emphatically avoided. Their mouths don't meet. Their hard overlapping profiles pass one behind the other. Yet in holding apart, the image locks them visually together. The tip of Jupiter's nose seems to stick in Juno's upper lip. Their hairs fuse in a single mass. Their unmeeting gazes, glazed and glaring, are fixed eyeballing each other. No escape and no comparable example in art of such a scene of oppressive, amorous malevolence.

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