This painting is about nakedness and materiality. The passage that this painting references—a mere two verses in Isaiah’s 20th chapter—is so obviously disparate from what might be expected in the biography of a prophet. While nudity is oftentimes associated with sexuality or sensuality, Isaiah’s nakedness renders him exposed and humbled. His nakedness is a shock to the Israelites, who remark to each other with disapproval, questioning, and alarm. Brandishing a hand of condemnation, Isaiah’s nakedness sends a visual message to a people who need to be reprimanded for putting their faith in an idolatrous country.
This triptych melds Classical and Modernist painting methods, combining flat planes of solid color with a representational rendering of the anatomy of the figure and the landscape they inhabit. Isaiah’s body was rendered to evoke the organic and earthly. There’s a solidity and heaviness to his body that stand in contrast to the more transcendent rendering of the figures in Resurrection. Yet his body isn’t entirely naturalistic; his figure is so heavy it is almost carved out of stone; the paint quality makes his skin look like craggy rock. Isaiah’s figure lacks the conventional attractiveness of youth, yet certain elements remain idealized, particularly in the way his body’s simplified forms create a sense of unity and solidity. This classical idealization emphasizes the splendor of the human figure. Isaiah’s nakedness symbolizes vulnerability and humiliation, yet we see the beauty and power inherently possessed in the casting away of material security.
The technical narrative, or the story told by the paint quality, is conveyed primarily through rough impasto, those areas of raised, scraped paint. This type of texture covers the majority of the canvas, and calls attention to the paint itself. This is a modernist approach to painting, as the Modern artists sought to point to the materials involved with painting—the paint itself and the surface of the painting. This attention to the material on the canvas connects the event depicted in the painting to the viewer, as well as the hand of the painter to the viewer.
The figures in Man and Woman with Infant and A Discussion have a similar flesh texture, but their clothing is composed of flat planes of solid color. This use of simplifying forms is another way to point to the surface of the canvas. Their bright-colored clothing stands in poignant contrast to Isaiah’s flesh-colored and naked figure; in this way, the abstracted clothes are symbolic and significant markers of Isaiah’s set-apart-ness in this scene, contrasting him with his materialist onlookers. The simplistic color technique used to describe these clothes in contrast to the more modeled, yet more “earthy” pallet of the figures’ flesh harkens back to altarpieces from the middle ages. By including Modern use of paint that references medieval religious artwork, this triptych blurs the lines between sacred and secular art.
Written by Brie Stoltzfus