Spirit Boys: the First Emojis

Wednesday 13th April, 2016

Below is the unedited version of a short text that I wrote publicizing the exhibition I recently curated for the Huntington Art Gallery. It appears in an abridged form here. All images belong to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.



Spirit Boys: Infant Gods and Putti on Paper (April 2-July 25, 2016, Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, CA)

‘I wish I was a little boy, with wings that I could fly, so I could find my true love.’—folk singer Sandy Denny, ‘Sweet Rosemary’, 1972

Wander through any historic collection of European art and you will find them in abundance. Travel to England, Germany, France, Spain or Italy and chances are that one will catch your eye. A winged head of curly hair with apple cheeks emerges, sculpted in relief, from the corner of a church interior. A swollen, undeveloped limb tumbles over the edge of a war monument. And it is not only within the European context that they can be glimpsed. These ornaments of human achievement are scattered across the globe. Indeed they are so familiar that we tend to take them entirely for granted. But what exactly are those little infant beings that adorn architecture, populate paintings, and swarm over heart-shaped chocolate boxes every February 14th?

‘That’s Cupid’, one might assume, or ‘a cherub’. The answer is actually more complex.  In literary terms the infant Cupid and Cherub originate from wholly separate traditions. When it comes to their visual representation however, they have evolved into sub-categories of a wider class of human form. From the Latin ‘puer’, the Italian word ‘putto’ means ‘boy’ (plural ‘putti’) and is used to describe the variety of naked children, almost always male, that proliferate in art. Whether cast as a Christian angel or embroiled in a pagan emblem, the figure is a spiritual being that traverses divine and earthly realms. It might be a demon, a genius, or a personification of the wind. Often they are purely decorative with no precise function at all. The putto is hybrid and unfixed, a synthesis of sacred and profane, high and low, ancient and modern. This small exhibition explores the evolution of this figure—the Spirit Boy—over time.

Inspired by the demonic infants on ancient Roman sarcophagi, artists of the Florentine Renaissance employed the putto as a decorative framing device that could help animate an artwork and steer the viewer toward its overarching significance. It is in this sense that the putto prefigures the emoji. In the same way that emojis are used to express our emotions and refine the meaning of text, putti visualised otherwise intangible feelings, usually those experienced by the main (adult) actors in a carved or painted work. Following the success of Donatello, one of the first artists to produce a free-standing statue of a putto, the figure soon took centre stage, as in an engraving after Raphael entitled Putti Playing.

Executed by the prolific 16th century printmaker known as ‘Master of the Die’, the work reproduces an unrealized design for Tapestries in the Vatican’s Sala di Constantino. The bodies of these boys, 8 in total, are adult in their muscularity. They enact an allegorical scene symbolizing the power of love.

By the 17th century putti were everywhere. As the figure became a staple of painting and sculpture, it took on a younger, chubbier appearance. Based in Rome for the majority of his career,  the Flemish sculptor Francois Duquesnoy was instrumental in propagating this shift and nurturing the popularity of the putto during the Baroque period and beyond. In keeping with the era’s appetite for Venetian painting, he imitated plump babies by Titian, creating a rounder, softer body type. The Huntington is home to a bronze statue by Duquesnoy, Mercury with Cupid. At the base of the statue a wingless infant gazes up at the lean messenger god.

In the 18th century the putto was caught up in the renewed interest in the simplicity of ancient art. With the excavations of the ancient sites Pompeii and Herculaneum, artists had a fresh vision of the classical world that challenged the extravagance of Baroque taste. A drawing by the Anglo-Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, Venus and Cupid, reverts back to the more mature type of putto drawn by Raphael and Michelangelo, old masters who were viewed as mediators between ancient and modern art. Venus’s pubic hair, however, goes against the grain of the classical ideal.  

Cupid was not the only god that could appear in infant form. Bacchus, god of wine and ecstatic visions, is another god that frequently appears in the guise of a putto or young child. Artists of the 19th century felt increased pressure to create works based on visible reality, something that would only increase with the invention of photography. The blonde boy in Infant Bacchus by Alfred Edward Chalon—an Anglo-Swiss painter of a different kind than Fuseli—appears more like the portrait of a Victorian toddler than an ancient deity.  

The early 20th century marked the official decline of traditional visual classicism. By 1920, antiquity no longer possessed an overarching authority among painters and sculptors. Classical forms, however, lived on in advertising, as indicated by our culture’s enduring fixation on images of ideal beauty. This chromolithograph advertises ‘Angel Brand’ oranges grown in Southern California during the turn of the century. Little boys orbit around a giant fruit, their association with European art infusing the commodity with old world glamour. The figures have more of an affinity with the fleshy Baroque putto than his slimmer counterpart. Still today, this type of putto remains visible in the postmodern iconography of Valentine’s day.