I have a great liking for the sculptures of Canova, that Italian who straddled the last half of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th, and specialized in Popes and nudes. He built the monument to Pope Clement XIV, which is a splendid jewelcase, and he was made curator of the Vatican Museum by Pope Pius VII and was sent by him after Waterloo to fetch back from Paris the works of art Napoleon had stolen from Rome.
He also made the famous nude statue of Napoleon's sister Pauline, who was said to be a nymphomaniac (but what weight does that carry? "Nymphomaniac" is a word coined by men to describe women who behave as they do themselves). It has occurred to me that perhaps Canova induced Pauline to sit for him in nakedness in order to insult in her person the womenfolk of an enemy of his country, but if he did he failed. For whenever he sculptured a nude woman he lifted her right out of reality. She ceased to be among the womenfolk of any man, enemy or friend, she became a child begotten on a wedding-cake by a moonbeam, without past and with a future, which is simply the perpetuation of an eventless present, flawless, isolated, not dead, but not alive.
This curious quality, which is not exactly unearthly, rather experienceless, sometimes makes hay of his subject. He produced a Penitent Magdalen who is obviously regretting not her sins but her inability either to remember the complained-of incidents, or to understand why they caused this agitation, while most anxious to smooth everything over as pleasantly as possible. (Which is how she got into trouble in the first place.)
Canova also illustrated a legend contrariwise in his Cupid and Psyche. There is no question but that nature had taken its course with the god and the girl in that story; Apuleius would no more have had it otherwise than would, say, Kenneth Tynan or Henry Miller. But in Canova's delicious sculpture it is just impossible that these lovers should have even embraced. Anything more than the most rarefied ecstasy would shatter the two fragile vessels. This work of art is utterly outside life, it has a blatant air of being removed from reality; it is not important in its abstract forms, which are tied too closely to the physical forms it over-prettifies; but one would really have to be an irredeemable prig not to adore it.
Canova was a conspicuous fantasist, but it is not his peculiar failing. The art of sculpture does not show great competence in dealing with women, it has not provided the information about them which it has collected concerning men. I often think that when I start talking back on the Day of Judgment, and point out that the faults have not all been on one side, I shall be sure to mention, among the little things which would have given me pleasure but which were not forthcoming, though well within the resources of Providence, and doing nobody any harm, is a gallery about 200 yards long, with a sculptor's masterpiece set one to every four yards on each side, in perfect lighting. It would be a feast of beauty, and it would teach anyone who wanted to understand men quite a lot they ought to know. Only about men. I would have no marble women in my gallery.
I would pick my marble men from all over time and space. I would certainly have the Colleoni equestrian statue by Verrocchio from Venice; and how it would repay the study of a woman who was thinking of marrying a man of action. Colleoni was one of the good soldiers and sportsmen who live so close to their dogs and horses that the animals take on human characteristics. Colleoni's dandified horse might be telling him a rumour he had heard from a mare.
But if one put as many fine sculptures of women in a gallery, men would learn very little from them, for the information disclosed would be, for the most part, that women have faces and bosoms and bottoms, and we do not need the art of sculpture to tell us this. There seems to be a limiting factor on the representation of women by sculptors which can be seen very clearly in the history of the portrait-bust. The golden age of that artform was the 15th century, which produced masterpiece after masterpiece in which human beings were preserved in marble for ever. My favourite is the old physician Chellini, whom the skill of Bendetto da Majano has let us know as we know our own doctors. There he is in the Bargello, giving us his prescription, telling us to cultivate cynicism to the last degree possible before it begins to damage our fundamental faith in the universe, and always watch the dose.
But there are almost no portrait busts of women in this period. There is just one of the first order by Desiderio da Settignano which shows a long-necked girl with a look of speed about her head that one sees in a racehorse or a whippet; one can imagine her legging it away from violence in that violent age, dodging the dungeons and the inheritance-hunting abductors. For the rest, Laurana made a regrettable bust of Isabella Sforza which is like the retouched photograph of a bride in a glossy magazine, and Verrocchio committed another of epic insignificance representing a woman clasping a bunch of primroses, the bossy President of a Quattrocento Garden Club. The male portrait busts give every trait of the sitters; they have the double function of presenting the total truth about an individual and a universal type. "An ideal type" is not quite the same as a universal type. It makes a vague allusion to some feminine activity of which men have heard and approve. But how vague.
Think of the report a social worker would have turned in on the Virgin Mary. It would surely have conveyed that from an early age Mary had known trouble, and from the strange beginning to the bitter end had shown courage and resourcefulness. But nearly all sculptors (and many painters) represent her, even at the Crucifixion, without a line on her face, and often not even any impression, and no look of intelligence or liveliness or love. All one can say of some Virgins is that they are not actually dropping the Holy Child. And pagan deities fare no better if they are female. The goddesses are often just big girls, standing about. Pallas Athena is a large woman with a fancy for wearing a fireman's helmet, Diana does not look as if she had sense enough to train hounds, Venus looks as if she wanted nothing in particular out of life, which was not the case.
The saints are just as deficient in psychological meat. Donatello's Judith, pausing in the middle of decapitating Holofernes, looks in front of her like a housewife, who, halfway through preparing a dish, has forgotten the recipe. The most positive saints have negative faces. What we are all missing by this pretence that nothing is going on inside women is brought home to us by the exceptional sculpture, rarer than rare, which is on too high a level to make pretence: the queens on the porch at Chartres, who show that experience is a great teacher when it finds great pupils, and that the school where it teaches is co-educational.
And how gracefully he reminds us that the war of the sexes has a redeeming feature in the frequency and intensity of the armistices.