Sunday, May 26, 2024

Anguish by August Friedrich Schenck

Written By Anushvi Sharma (Grade 12)

I first discovered this painting by accident. I was looking at the Google images of the National Gallery of Victoria, and so many art pieces captured the eye, but none like Anguish. There was a softness to the painting despite the black-and-white contrast. It had a morose and hazy aura to it, and as I looked I found that the tragedy of it was deeper than the lifeless image of the innocent lamb. Just as one cannot look away until the tragedy is complete, until Juliet has stabbed herself with her dagger, I kept going back to this painting and noticing more and more.

The first thing I noticed as I squinted at my screen, was the anguished motherly sheep. The way her body stood over her little lamb as if to protect. The stance, her feet buried in snow as if to never move from that position, as if she never intended to leave. The way she wailed, was almost tangible in the air with a puff of her warm breath, while from her lifeless lamb’s mouth, only blood trickled down. The way the snow held on her thick coat, the way she stood so brave even in her despair, trying to fight the natural elements. The way scene was so strongly reminiscent of a pietà, of Mary mourning the death of her son, of Jesus Christ, not as his follower, not as a devotee, but simply as his mother.

I thought about the lamb when I was supposed to be studying. I wondered about the way the innocence of a fledgling is easiest to portray. The colour of the snow, pure and unyielding tarnished by the blood of the ingénue. Red against white, and the immediate resulting sorrow. The realisation that the dewy eyes of the youth should never close in eternal sleep before the elderly, the idea that the simple and naïve are the first to experience the cruelty of the world, staggered me. The way the snow lay disturbed around her feet suggested to me the lamb had struggled, had felt pain and worry, before passing away.

I went to sleep thinking about the large brushstrokes of it: the murder of crows. I thought about the menacing grey of the clouds and the way the scavengers surrounded the grief, ready to take advantage of a sorrowful scene. How the lone crow stood, greedy and uncaring of the ewe’s despair, and how the crowd seemed almost alive. The painting managed to portray the restlessness of the crows, with ruffling wings and loud impatient cawing. The crows, even as more flew towards the scent of food, shifted forward, ready to tear apart the little one’s body and fulfil their appetite.

But even as I wondered, I noticed that no crow had its beak open in a caw. And suddenly, the scene shifted. It was almost like a eulogy, where the mother sang her agony and the crows listened, respectfully and quietly. It was like a service, where they carried on the funeral when she no longer could. It was a promise that her lamb would rest, and would complete one last rite before its last goodnight. The aura of hopelessness is not diminished; the ewe still wails, the lamb lays limp, and the silent, almost eerie murder of crows simply waits. It contributes to the idea that one’s grief cannot stall the movement of the world. All things pass.

At the time of its making, it was considered an overly emotional work, with the dull tones and the grey of the clouds drawing the viewers into a certain mood. The crows offered a metaphor for the suffocating hold of not only the heartbreak itself but the idea that one must move on. The space between the crows indulged the viewer as a part of the watching, waiting crowd. The open mouth of the mother tilted toward the skies, like a devotee asking for divine intervention, is contrasted with the silence of the lamb and the crows.

The labour of the author to suggest that sheep felt the same distress humans has been noted to be a recurring motif, one that can be seen in the alternate situation of Anguish, where the frail lamb presses against the body of her dead mother, fearful and anxious, even as a cohort of crows silently watches.

Schenck, the artist, settled in Paris to study at the renowned École des Beaux-Arts. He specialised in painting animals in distress, often interpreted as a metaphor for society and human relationships. At the time of his paintings, which were extremely successful, death was spoken of and discussed at length, and the idea that animals felt the same pain as humans did had recently been published in a study by none other than Charles Darwin himself.

Anguish has repeatedly been considered a masterpiece, and has been housed at the National Gallery of Victoria since 1880. It has been voted as the most popular work of the museum twice, 100 years apart in 1906 and again in 2011. Schenk was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for his contributions to art.

Featured Image Courtesy – Daily Art Magazine


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