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Lucas Cranach the Elder's Adam and Eve

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Lucas Cranach the Elder's Adam and Eve Empty Lucas Cranach the Elder's Adam and Eve

Post  eddie Fri Oct 14, 2011 2:29 pm

Geoff Dyer on Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Geoff Dyer sees the miracle of naked existence in Cranach the Elder's garden of Eden, Friday 30 September 2011 22.56 BST

Lucas Cranach the Elder's Adam and Eve Detail-from-Adam-and-Eve--007
Apples and snakes: detail from Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve. Photograph: ©The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

To see Cranach's Adam and Eve afresh – in the raw, as it were – try to forget everything you learned from Kenneth Clark's The Nude and everything about the pictorial conventions of the time (in fact best try to forget the date of the painting entirely). In other words, please refrain from plucking the familiar fruit from the tree of art historical knowledge as though it were a book to be taken from a shelf. If we can do that, if we can get rid of the filters that make it easier to function in a routinely un-noticing way, then we might be able to replicate what Aldous Huxley famously claimed were the effects of mescalin: "Seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence."

Naked existence, in this case, in all its ghastliness. Frankly, it gives me the willies, this painting. For a start there's the horrible combination of snake and nudity. Bad enough to encounter a snake when you're fully clothed, booted and safari-suited, but the idea that a snake might slither down from a tree when you are naked and barefoot … Isn't that like a scene from two nightmares stitched nightmarishly together? Again we see the usefulness of trying to de-familiarise ourselves: we're so used to this story of the fall that we don't experience the horror of the literal truth of the version of our origins that was handed down to many of us from about the age of five onwards. Christianity: it starts with this and climaxes with that other much-painted gore-fest, the crucifixion.

It could be a nice picture – if the wily serpent and the people were removed. The artist Pavel Maria Smejkal did something like this in his series Fatescapes, digitally erasing the defining events from famous photographs by Capa and others so that there was just the innocent background. Do that here and we get a kind of flash-forward to the way that Eden will look after A and E have been shown the door.

For the moment though, they are inescapably there – and they are very naked. Let's look at them individually. First, there is the disconcerting realisation that Adam bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Sebastian Faulks, author of Birdsong. But that beard also makes someone of my generation think of him as the ancestor of the guy in those pencil drawings from Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex in the 1970s. The sex thing in this painting is pronounced in a way that is palpable and, at the same time, somewhat unreal. This, I think, has to do with the woman's absolute hairlessness – except for her quite implausible hairstyle. She is as waxed, shaved and depilated as a malnourished porn star.

No one has brought out the sexual component of the fall more powerfully than John Milton. Eve hands Adam the apple, they munch it and are turned on (in both the Timothy Leary and the sexual senses). "Carnal desire inflaming, he on Eve / Began to cast lascivious eyes, she him / As wantonly repaid …"

It's as if the apple has been spiked with meow-meow. Another artist expressed her feelings about encounters with public nudity in terms similarly suggestive of an entheogenic precedent: "It's like walking into a hallucination without being quite sure whose it is." That was Diane Arbus, who took photographs in a nudist camp in 1963 (the year, if the gospel according to Larkin is to be believed, when sexual intercourse began) and captured something of the same weirdly heightened, mythic and ghastly ordinariness of the experience. In historical time, Cranach and Arbus are separated by about four and a half centuries and thousands of other images but in art-time their works also exist in mutually illuminating adjacency, as part of a single story. Disturbed, in the camp, by evidence of litter, by the way "the outhouse smells, [and] the woods look mangy", Arbus comes up with her own sequel to the moment depicted by Cranach: "It is as if way back in the Garden of Eden, after the fall, Adam and Eve had begged the Lord to forgive them; and God, in his boundless exasperation, had said, 'All right, then. STAY. Stay in the Garden. Get civilised. Procreate. Muck it up.' And they did."

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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