Metamorphosis in Willem de Kooning’s Angels

Metamorphosis and movement are imbedded in this strange painting by Willem de Kooning.

What are these things in the painting?  They move with agility like sharks swimming through the gold background.

Uncomfortably constructed from human parts they seem to stretch, break apart and reform on the golden surface.

Black charcoal lines incised over the oil paint separate the forms and define the space around them.

Pink Angels Willem de Kooning

The title of the work is ‘Pink Angels’  however, the painting is almost certainly inspired  by Titian’s painting ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (National Gallery).  Where Actaeon discovers the stunning, naked, Goddess Diana at her ‘toilette’.

Metamorphosis Diana and Actaeon Titian

Actaeon, a young prince, has finished a successful hunt in the forest when he wanders alone through the trees. He catches the sound of female laughter mingled with the tinkling of falling water. Drawn by an overwhelming sense of curiosity he struggles through the undergrowth. Pushing through ferns Actaeon catches sight of Diana’s immortal beauty, instantly insuring his hideous demise.

All the efforts of Diana’s nymphs to cover her nakedness are just too late. It’s done, he”s seen her!

In the next moment the goddess scoops up a handful of water from the stream that she’s bathing in and throws it over Acteon’s head.

”Tell, if you can, how you saw me naked!”

As the water seeps through his hair, panic flashes through to his body. Instantly a rack of antlers cracks from of Actaeon’s skull. His arms stretch and legs elongate into the long slender legs of a dear.  Actaeon rushes from the cave not sure where to go. With a mind that is still human he’s unsure what to do! Should he hide in the forest or rush back to the palace? As he dashes in terror through the forest, his dogs catch his animal scent. They descend upon him (not knowing it’s their master) and they tear him apart.

Willem de Kooning had had a formal art education in Holland before he famously stowed away on a ship bound for America. He was certainly aware of Titian’s painting. Pink Angels uses the left hand part of Titians work as a starting point. If you look closely at the de Kooning’s piece you can find two eyes in the bottom righthand corner, surely indicating Actaeon’s presence. This work hovers at the edges of abstraction, a metamorphosis that will gradually engulf Willem de Kooning along with the other Abstract Expressionists.

Pink Angels is at “Abstract Expressionism” at the Royal Academy till 2nd January 2017

 

 

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