“Something for the Weekend”: Love and Passion at the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge)


On thursday, I went  to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge with my dear friend Alison to have a look on an exciting exhibition on Love and Passion in Japanese Art. Our perambulation through the museum, including a quick peek to my favorite paintings, had LOVE as the underlying theme.  As a very diverse feeling, it is possible to talk about sensual love; sacred love; or love of nature… all topics that each of us may have felt in our lives.

The first type of love is represented by one of my favorite paintings at the Museum, a small canvas titled “Studio Under the Eaves”, by Henri Matisse. It depicts a dark attic, only illuminated by a window with a view over the red roofs and courtyards. The date of the painting (c.1903) refers to the time that he spent in the city of Bonhain, where his parents lived.  According to the comprehensive biography by Hilary Spurling, Matisse came back to live with his parents after a number of unfortunate events in his life. His parents in law had to file for bankruptcy and the growing hat-business of his wife, Amelie, was lost. It was not a happy moment for the young family, a poignant situation where the old opposition of his father against Henri Matisse to become an artist would be a silent accusation. His love for painting was a constant in his life,  indeed, when the young painter proposed to Amélie Parayre, he was very clear: “I love you dearly, mademoiselle; but I shall always love painting more.” 

But as all of us know, the gods of love can be whimsical and naughty: they like playing games with our hearts and passions. Henri Matisse’ love for painting would be a permanent feeling on a ever-changing world. Even when his work was bitterly criticised by his contemporaries, using pejorative adjectives as “bestial” (or fauve as this first generation of expressionism would be known); “decorative”; “non-political”, etc., he kept on believing on his love of painting and what he was doing. In the “Studio under the eaves” we feel a sombre atmosphere: the humid studio in the cramped attic, yet outside, beyond the immediate present there is light and colour,  a window of hope. Where there is love there is hope and that’s precisely the message that I get from this painting: there are moments of doubt, difficulties and oppositions,  where it seems that one had “got back”, and yet, there is always a window of light, fuelled by love and faith,  beyond the darkness of uncertainty.


Studio Under the Eaves (The Attic Studio) Henri Matisse. Oil on Canvas. c.1903

Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge)

In front of this beautiful painting, there is another  that makes me sigh always! It is a love story between a man and a mountain. The English painter, James Dickson Innes was influenced by fauvism (also related to Matisse’ use of colour, raw and expressive), but instead, he turned to nature as a source of inspiration. His short life, however, is a testimony of this relation with colour and the story goes that although he was advised to live in more temperate climates, he visited Wales following his friendship with the painter Augustus John. Thanks to this association, around 1908 he started painting the majestic mountains of Snowdonia. There he fell in love with Arenig Fawr, the highest mountains on this part of the British islands. He painted it in all weathers, in the incessant rain, the promising spring, the windy autumn and the bridal winter… He wrote love letters and he buried them in a silver chest in his beloved mountain…

Arenig Fawr James Dickson Innes

Arenig Fawr, North Wales. James Dickson Innes. Oil on Canvas (c.1908)

Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge)

The main purpose of this visit is the exhibition of Japanese Erotic Art titled The Night of Longing (October/2013-12 January 2014), a complementary exhibition to the British Museum exhibition on “Shunga: Sex and Humour in Japanese Art “(1600-1900).  This exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum is secluded in a small room decorated in grey colours and it includes a collection of around 40 prints and books by artists such as  Harunobu, Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshi. Apart of the prints, the exhibition includes pillow books and pop up books that show the attitude of Japanese people toward sex and passion. In contrast to prohibitive attitude to sex in the West, the Japanese prints are intended to be educational, inspirational and sometimes also amusing. They are also important social documents of the floating world during the period 1600-1900, specially in the Edo period, when pleasures and hedonism flourish in the arts, the trade and the social relations.

The Japanese printings insinuate rather than show, for instance in this print, the lovers are not even presented; instead we see only their traces: clothes and pins scattered on the floor, where a silent cat contemplates the landscape while, one imagines, the lovers embrace.

Japanese Prints

Asakusa rice fields during the Festival of the Cock, Utagawa Hiroshige 1857.

Fitzwilliam Museum

It pains me to think that in our contemporary society love and sensuality are exclusively channeled through pornography. It would be really a tragedy if YouPorn is the only source of sexual education for young people! The narrative of passion and the lover’s discourse is so rich and diverse, and needs to be formed through different mediums (books, educations, novels, literature, art), but most importantly, through a cultural network of meanings and symbols in which joy and respect are enshrined.

For example, the title of the exhibition is intriguing when we stop to think “what is passion?”: it is the longing and waiting, or the moment itself… its all about desire, want and wait? For Barthes, in his Lover’s Discourse, the language of love is an ongoing re-signification of ancient feelings: yearning, hope, anticipation, imagination, ecstasy! The prints present the wide variety of feelings: a woman writes to his lover; a husband yearns for his lovely wife; a geisha implores her lover to stay just a little bit longer; a young bride floats in the blue moon, waiting, the flowers of desire (passiflora) surrounding her almost transparent aura. I firmly believe that art definitively contribute to the “aesthetic education of men and women” (Schiller), as different attitudes to Love and Passion are being represented in these examples at the Fitzwilliam Museum.  The fact that these exhibitions are being staged in traditional museums and galleries also evidences the growing necessity of contesting current narratives of ( potentially damaging) internet sex.

I would like to finish this post with “something for the weekend”, dedicated those who are happily in a relationship and also for those who still believe and do not give up on love:

Longing for you on the
sleepless rocky waves of the bed
where once we loved and slept –
I stare pensively at the long rains
soaking my sleeves with tears.
– Fujiwara no Takamitsu’s wife to her
absent husband, 10th century.

photo (2)

Fitzwilliam Museum


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