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Saturday Art: The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Othon Friesz

The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Othon Friesz is currently hanging in the Amsterdam branch of the Hermitage Museum, as part of an exhibit on early 20th century painting. You can see the rest of the program for the exhibit here, please take a look.

We all know the story from Genesis, so we bring a lot to the painting. The garden is lush. A couple of animals watch the action, including a dog at Adam’s feet. In the upper left corner there are two white figures.

In the center we see Eve offering fruit to Adam. She is a bluish white, and there is a sharp look to her face and figure. She drapes an arm over his shoulder. Adam is a natural color; he reaches for the forbidden fruit, ignoring the permitted fruit at his feet.

The blue-black figure of the devil leans against the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in an unnatural pose. He might be hiding, but he looks like a satyr, humping the tree.

The main figure is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The trunk is twisted and bulging. The leaves are menacing. The whole thing looks like some primeval denizen of the sea, a giant crab maybe, painted in a shade of blue-green that no natural plan ever had. There is the suggestion of an eye at the top right-center. The fruit is bulbous and hangs from long curved stems.

The story of the Temptation has been a subject of artists for centuries. Here is a detail from the portal of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, probably dating around 1200-10. Here’s another, by Masolino, dated to 1424. Note that in both, the serpent has a woman’s head. Michelangelo did the same thing in the Sistine Chapel.

Religious stories dominated art for centuries, but by the time Friesz painted this Temptation, they were rare. That is a loss, because working with deeply implanted stories, and the emotions connected with them, gives an artist a great deal to work with.

This painting is a good example. Look again at the Tree of Knowledge. It is ugly and threatening. There is knowledge we have that is ugly and threatening, and the willingness of our ancestors to eat that fruit, to know that ugliness, has had terrible consequences, along side the good.

The entire painting is suffused with sexuality. Gardens can be pristine and orderly, as if we somehow tamed nature’s inherent sexuality, but plenty of artists see it for what it is. Here is a Mapplethorpe Orchid, and here are some lilies in someone’s garden. Stare at them, and tell me they are safe for work.

Now take another look at the Friesz. We see the devil, looking like a Satyr humping the tree, orgasmic with the success of his efforts. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil broods over the garden. Eve tempts Adam with its fruit, and with her upper body touching his. Knowledge of what? Adam and Eve are fabulous physical specimens, both chiseled figures, bursting with life. The Bible tells us that when they ate, they saw that they were naked and were ashamed. That shame appears in the two figures in the upper left corner. Does knowledge of sex makes us like gods, as the serpent promised? Or like furtive mice looking to hide?

[Image: The Temptation (Adam and Eve), ca. 1910 by Othon Friesz (credit: low-res version of original at The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia, used here under Fair Use for non-commercial education and commentary purposes.)]

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Saturday Art: The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Othon Friesz

The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Othon Friesz is currently hanging in the Amsterdam branch of the Hermitage Museum, as part of an exhibit on early 20th century painting. You can see the rest of the program for the exhibit here, please take a look.

We all know the story from Genesis, so we bring a lot to the painting. The garden is lush. A couple of animals watch the action, including a dog at Adam’s feet. In the upper left corner there are two white figures.

In the center we see Eve offering fruit to Adam. She is a bluish white, and there is a sharp look to her face and figure. She drapes an arm over his shoulder. Adam is a natural color; he reaches for the forbidden fruit, ignoring the permitted fruit at his feet.

The blue-black figure of the devil leans against the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in an unnatural pose. He might be hiding, but he looks like a satyr, humping the tree.

The main figure is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The trunk is twisted and bulging. The leaves are menacing. The whole thing looks like some primeval denizen of the sea, a giant crab maybe, painted in a shade of blue-green that no natural plan ever had. There is the suggestion of an eye at the top right-center. The fruit is bulbous and hangs from long curved stems.

The story of the Temptation has been a subject of artists for centuries. Here is a detail from the portal of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, probably dating around 1200-10. Here’s another, by Masolino, dated to 1424. Note that in both, the serpent has a woman’s head. Michelangelo did the same thing in the Sistine Chapel.

Religious stories dominated art for centuries, but by the time Friesz painted this Temptation, they were rare. That is a loss, because working with deeply implanted stories, and the emotions connected with them, gives an artist a great deal to work with.

This painting is a good example. Look again at the Tree of Knowledge. It is ugly and threatening. There is knowledge we have that is ugly and threatening, and the willingness of our ancestors to eat that fruit, to know that ugliness, has had terrible consequences, along side the good.

The entire painting is suffused with sexuality. Gardens can be pristine and orderly, as if we somehow tamed nature’s inherent sexuality, but plenty of artists see it for what it is. Here is a Mapplethorpe Orchid, and here are some lilies in someone’s garden. Stare at them, and tell me they are safe for work.

Now take another look at the Friesz. We see the devil, looking like a Satyr humping the tree, orgasmic with the success of his efforts. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil broods over the garden. Eve tempts Adam with its fruit, and with her upper body touching his. Knowledge of what? Adam and Eve are fabulous physical specimens, both chiseled figures, bursting with life. The Bible tells us that when they ate, they saw that they were naked and were ashamed. That shame appears in the two figures in the upper left corner. Does knowledge of sex makes us like gods, as the serpent promised? Or like furtive mice looking to hide?

[Image: The Temptation (Adam and Eve), ca. 1910 by Othon Friesz (credit: low-res version of original at The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia, used here under Fair Use for non-commercial education and commentary purposes.)]

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