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The art of having a laugh

At some time, you might have found yourself at the wrong end of some vigorous finger-pointing, along with an old saying being directed at you, ‘There’s a time and place for everything!’ Whatever it was that you said or did, you had apparently broken a convention – or an ‘unwritten rule’ – concerning acceptable behaviour in a situation. As we come to learn, while conventions give moral permission or blessing to some behaviours, they can also express disapproval and impose constraints.

Conventions have long been in place in European art: it has not always been the case that ‘(almost) anything goes.’ Let’s consider the conventions around smiling and laughter in art. Pause for a moment and think if you can recall any classic sculpture or painting that depicts a person laughing or smiling while showing their teeth. Difficult, isn’t it?

That’s because for several centuries in Western art, the convention in sculpture and most especially in painting was that any person depicted smiling, laughing or even simply with their mouth open was assumed to be either drunk, insane, a glutton, a sleeping snorer, a low life, in terror, possessed or suffering pain. Combinations of these characteristics were considered as being unsuitable for the creation of great art. There are no laws controlling techniques in art: no-one would have been arrested for producing creating a sculpted head with a toothy grin. But it rarely ever happened, because conventional art lovers (and buyers) would have been repulsed.

Maurice-Quentin de la Tour

But artists are often contrarianed and from time to time they take the opportunity to challenge conventions – sometimes in strangely subversive ways. The French painter, Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, was a talented ‘court painter.’ Around the middle years of the 1700s, he made a comfortable living by painting lively though conventional portraits of the French aristocracy in and around Paris. His famous sitters included King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour and the philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau. With quite a few of them, La Tour managed to find a faint smile, although the lips were never parted.

La Tour himself was by all accounts a bit of an eccentric character with a madcap humorous streak in his personality. When it came to creating his self-portrait, he unleashed his sense of humour upon himself. In this case, he used pastels drawn on paper, mounted on canvas: for shorthand, we’ll call it a painting. His first subversion of convention began with the frame. As we can see, he is leaning out of an oeil-de-boeuf or bull’s eye window frame from which the glass has mysteriously vanished. He has thus provided himself with a painted circular frame inside the canvas, knowing that a squared-up wooden frame would be applied to the painting later. Hmm… perhaps a self-aware case of a being round peg in a square hole… or of providing a window into his odd personality.

Self-portraits are typically serious affairs, often being painted in a mirrored reflection with artists holding their own brushes. None of that for La Tour. His index finger is pointing literally out of the frame to a figure who is presumably himself, who is actually painting himself. At the same time, we can see that La Tour’s extended thumb is also pointing back at himself inside the picture, as if he is saying, ‘That’s me out there and that’s me in here, too.’ He seems to think this is a huge joke. La Tour is also pleased to show us that he has a well-worn face, complete with a bulbous nose, goggle eyes, a wart on his cheek, a ragged cap perched on his bald head and a seriously blistered bottom lip. To complete the joke (and the subversion of the convention) he has painted himself with a mischievous smile revealing his distinctly unglamorous teeth.

But this painting is not merely a subversive jest. La Tour was clearly a master of pastels and has created the most engagingly alive face and, even more impressively, a hand with stunningly successful perspective and subtle veins and skin creases. While this self-portrait might be a kind of self-referential joke, it’s a brilliantly told one – and along with the artist himself, we’re invited to have a laugh.

La Tour’s Autoportrait a l’oeil de boeuf ou a l’index or Self-portrait with Oeil-de-boeuf Window or with Index Finger can be viewed at the Musèe Louvre in Paris. You can see many of his spectacular pastels portraits in the Museum of Fine Arts, Saint-Quentin, Picardy.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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