Until the acceptance of anatomical dissection took place in the Renaissance the hand and foot were depicted in paintings and drawings was in an idealised or classical form. In other words, they were not a replica as seen but instead what the artist thought they should look like. This would prove very flattering to some of the models but became rather a frustration to the new Italian school of painters. Leonardo De Vinci was a keen anatomist and was one of the first to draw and paint with a firsthand knowledge of anatomy. Artists also have a strong sense of humour and would use their works to display secret messages. This was often done at their whim with the most famous example of this today is the fictional De Vinci Code. The artist’s folly usually took on less sinister meaning and was an innocent form of school boy humour. A large majority of popular artists’ works were commissioned by rich and affluent clients and to counterbalance the pomp and ceremony artists would lovingly paint either their patron’s face (or family - often the mistress) into the figures on the canvas. This was very flattering as well as potentially blasphemous. After all who would publicly want to donate their face to Judas?
From early Christian art feet and hands had become a convention and were often used as gender identity where an androgogenous figure was depicted. Small, curved and well formed with straight toes for women and strong and muscular for men. The well formed arch was common to both and depicted the “image of God.” There was a time in religious painting when women’s feet were hidden from view because of their erogenous association. The Virgin Mary and angels were rarely shown with feet or sandals. One theory suggests the long length of angel wings was deliberate and used to cover anything suggestive of sex. Later when feet were depicted artists often painted different toe lengths, (long first, second or third) to represent geographic stereotypes. This had been done in the sculptures of ancient Egypt where the long first toe (Roman), second (Greek) and third (Mesopotamian) and was used to celebrate other great cultures and trading partners. Sometimes the artist would paint some people with bunions, flat feet and curly toes. This may have been a truer reflection of the model’s anatomy but more than likely was an attempt by the artist to record moral judgment upon the character. As faces were borrowed, so too were hands and feet and the figure composition could consist of several people. Female models were frequently common prostitutes and to paraphrase Shakespeare lent more than their ears, but also their hands, knees and buttocks, to name but a few parts of their body.
The transformation of the pedestrian shoe into fine art took place in the eighteenth century with the popularity of portraits and the quaint fashion to depict ordinary people doing ordinary things. Shoes were designed to appease their eye rather than any functional purpose. The combination of design and craft caught the imagination caught the artist’s eye and appreciation of the aesthetic become one focus for their works.
It took until the turn of the 20th century before the symbolic significance and hidden depths of the shoe in art could be explored. General acceptance the foot and shoe have specific sexual and fetishistic aspects has been a theme used throughout Modern Art. Artists like Allen Jones, Antonio Lopex and Robert Mapplethorpe have all used shoes to good effect. Jones is well known as airbrush artist who enjoys translating the eroticism of the stiletto into art. Lopex is an illustrator and drew women metamorphosing into stiletto-heeled shoes. Photographer Mapplethorpe is perhaps the most controversial and enjoyed works featuring models eating their shoes.
As a theme shoes have proven to be an irresistible temptation for many artists, architects and designers. The late Andy Warhol started his career as a marketing artist selling shoes. and in recent years it is not uncommon to find internationally acclaimed industrial designers working on shoes.
Housed in the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto was an exhibition of shoe inspired pieces entitled Footwear Fantasia by Australian artist, Garry Greenwood. The Tasmanian artist developed a technique for molding wet leather into exquisite sculptures.
The Pendragon Boot Company are three Brisbane based cobblers who specialise in creating for fantasy footwear. Originally commissioned to make shoes for a medieval fair in 1987 their work has now become collectable art. Inspiration comes from many sources including historic, fantastic and often just the absurd. The shoes are made for all occasions including theme weddings, era re-enactments, stage productions, street performers and art exhibitions, but the majority of their work are directed at fashion conscious people, who just wishing to look different.
If you are interested in this subject then I would refer you to a fabby book entitled Cinderella's Revenge (Chronicle Books). It is a collection of over 250 shoes conceived by artists who were invited to create shoe inspired works of art. The author is Samuele Mazza, an Italian fashion designer and serious shoe collector. Mazza and his friends realised the fascination people had with shoes and invited some of the world's pre-eminent artists to contribute. Proceeds for the sale of the book went to Breast Cancer charity.
However I could not finish without mention of Mouth and Foot painters. Frenchman, Louis Joseph César Ducornet was probably the first toe painter to be recognised as an artist and was born at Lille in 1806. Born without arms and deformed feet. Fortunately his foot deformity allowed him to hold a paintbrush between his big toe and its partner. Consummate artist he completed an eleven foot high depiction of Mary Magdalene at the feet of Christ. The Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Worldwide (AMFPA) was founded in 1956 and with over 500 registered artists worldwide. For many artists, their personal circumstances prevent their works from reaching a broader audience but through AMFPA and other similar organisations many can maintain a greater degree of financial independence. There is only one gallery dedicated to the works of the mouth and foot painting and that is in England, at Selbourne, Hampshire but the works of these talented artists sell, worldwide.
People do take an interest in the past and in particular the history of shoes. According to Edward Maeder, curator of Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, the public are flocking to shoe exhibitions in their thousands. The fascination with all things feet and shoes is not a new phenomenon, and according to Joan Swann former curator of the Boot and Shoe Collection, Northampton Shoe Museum, this happens at the end of each century. One hundred years ago there was a fabulous shoe show held in London which was enormously successful. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has in the past held an excellent exhibition called Stepping Out: Three Centuries of Shoes . The exhibition traced the fine traditions, creativity and craft of shoe making through the 18th,19th and 29th centuries. A delightfully illustrated book*, written by Louis Mitchell curator of decorative arts and design, and co-curator Lindie Ward, accompanied the exhibition. Included within are historic references to the Australian shoe industry from early colonial times to the present day Australian designers Andrew McDonald and Donna May Bolinger. The Powerhouse Museum has a broad collecting scope which provides educational material to instruct and inspire national industry and commerce.
In 1939, responding to a request from the staff of the Boot and Shoe School at Sydney Technical College, the Joseph Box collection was purchased in London and transported to Australia in 1942. Joseph Box Ltd was a London company established by James Sly in 1808. The collection acquired by the museum was probably started by Robert Dixon Box in the second half of the 1800s. It includes remnants of leather shoes from the Middle Ages found in English archaeological sites, intact shoes from 1600 onwards, as well as foreign shoes collected as curiosities from around the world, and shoe buckles. The museum has continued to collect shoes and has many exhibits which represent styles of dress which have evolved independently of European fashion.
Apart from the obvious observance of the craft and its contribution to fashion shoes and feet can make solemn statements about the frailty of humanity. The most moving shoe exhibition in the world can be found in many Memorial Holocaust Museums around the world where a huge display of shoes belonging to victims of the Holocaust are piled thousands high. The unmistakable smell of leather and human beings leaves the visitor with a lasting impression of the magnitude of genocide.
At the Silent March protest against gun violence in the US thousands of shoes are used to symbolise Americans killed by guns in one year .
*Stepping out: Three centuries of shoes is available for $34.95 (Aus) through the Powerhouse Museum mail order