Art for an Abecedarian*

In my last article for LRC I wrote about literature from the perspective of a somewhat educated abecedarian. I take solace that my opinions are not totally ridiculous by comparing my view of Madame Bovary (first developed about 25 years ago when I read the book) with that of George Sand (that I only recently read). Quoting myself, “In Madame Bovary on the other hand, Emma’s passions make her almost an evil person.  In fact almost every character is nasty.  The basic theme being that below the facade of bourgeois respectability lurks great evil.  Thus in the end Emma kills herself and everyone is miserable.” Here is what Sand wrote to Flaubert (CCCII. To Gustave Flaubert, in Paris Nohant, 12th January, 1876) about the realism of his writing.

That desire to depict things as they are, the adventures of life as they present themselves to the eye, is not well thought out, in my opinion. Depict inert things as a realist, as a poet, it’s all the same to me, but, when one touches on the emotions of the human heart, it is another thing. You cannot abstract yourself from this contemplation; for man, that is yourself, and men, that is the reader. Whatever you do, your tale is a conversation between you and the reader. If you show him the evil coldly, without ever showing him the good he is angry. He wonders if it is he that is bad, or if it is you. You work, however, to rouse him and to interest him; you will never succeed if you are not roused yourself, or if you hide it so well that he thinks you indifferent. He is right: supreme impartiality is an anti-human thing, and a novel ought to be human above everything. If it is not, the public is not pleased in its being well written, well composed and conscientious in every detail. The essential quality is not there: interest. The reader breaks away likewise from a book where all the characters are good without distinctions and without weaknesses; he sees clearly that that is not human either.

Thus, with this confirmation of my opinion of a great piece of literature I feel emboldened to discuss art. I have not always been interested in art, but I have always recognized my profound lack of artistic talent.  This lack in my own ability has instilled in me great respect for those with talent. Considering my lack of talent, my crude definition of art is that if I could create it, it is not art.  I feel that art is made up of craftsmanship and inspiration.  Modern artists seem to have abandoned all notion of craftsmanship and simply rely on artistic inspiration.

One of the leaders of this movement was Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). One is his major works is a signed urinal.  In contrast, several years ago I visited the National Gallery in London.  I enjoyed Canaletto’s (1697-1768) grand depictions of Venice, Pissarro’s (1830-1903) reality through the lens of his impressionism, and Van Gogh’s (1853-1890) eerie use of wavy lines and glowing colors.  The featured exhibition was a study of Seurat’s (1859-1891) “Bathers at Asnieres.”  I was gratified by the pedagogical value of the exhibition. The London exhibition showed how Seurat was trained in classical techniques, how he used classical forms, how he incorporated new techniques, how he was influenced by his peers, and especially the detailed preliminary work that was required to create a piece like the Bathers.


Bathers at Asnieres

On another European trip I visited two wonderful art museums in Madrid: the world famous El Prado and the home of the little known artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastide (1863-1923).  At the Prado was an exhibit of Dutch interiors that included several paintings by Vermeer (1632-1675).  Of the regular exhibits, the Prado is known for its collection of paintings by Velazquez (1599-1660).  In my opinion Vermeer and Velazquez are two of the greatest painters.  What makes them great?  Certainly both have incredible technique.  For example, consider Vermeer’s  “The Girl with the Red Hat” (on loan from the National Gallery in Washington).  This is one of my favorite paintings.  The light illuminating the delicate feathers of the hat is amazing.  They both attempted to achieve what Hans Holbein (1497-1543) implied by the inscription on his portrait of a merchant: “Add but the voice and you have his whole self, that you may doubt whether the painter or the father had made him.”  That is, the ability to create 3-D reality in two-dimensions with paint.  But there is something much more than simply technique that makes these painters great.  Obviously one could take issue with Holbein.  Is this truly reality?  Can you smell the person or hear them?  Is this just how they looked to you and not to others?  What Vermeer and Velazquez attempted and achieved was much more.  They captured the personality or soul of the person in paint.  Their work was germinated in the Christian concept of the uniqueness of the individual.  Look at the “Philip IV” of Velazquez.  His patron is great, but he is pompous and a bit of a fool.  The enigmatic “Meninas” has many figures to contemplate.  It is typical of Velazquez to depict a dwarf.  Her body is malformed but her soul is worthy and unique.  Velazquez found ways to shape a hand or make a background that gives meaning to the subject.  Even the dog seems to have a unique personality.  Sorolla has become another one of my favorites.  He achieves the same type of results as Vermeer and Velazquez but with different techniques.  Looking at his painting closely there does not seem to be any form to his work.  But as the eye moves away the images become dazzling.  That is, much of his work is in the classic impressionist style.  And I would rank him at the head of this class even though now he is unknown to the general public, though during his lifetime he was very famous.  An example of his work that is in New York (go to the wonderful Hispanic Society of America museum in Harlem, but it is closed for renovation until 2019) is “After the Bath.”  The light filtering through the delicate, wet fabric is spectacular.  Even more amazing is how he paints wet skin.  It is a specialty of his that is unmatched.  Also obvious is the tenderness that the man has for the woman, which is matched by the tenderness Sorolla has for his subjects.  In contrast consider a typical work by Picasso, “Maya With a Doll.”  I agree Picasso was a genius with a tremendous amount of talent, but I think it was wasted.  Maya has no more body, and no more personality than the doll.  This painting shows more of the mind of Picasso than any trait of the subject.

The Girl With the Red Hat

Las Meninas

Philip IV

After the Bath

Maya With a Doll

The cultural historian Christopher Dawson has made the point that for all cultures “A purely utilitarian magic [culture] is incapable of producing a great art-in fact, among the principle people, even more than elsewhere, a great art requires a strong religious impulse to bring it to being.”  So what has happened to art and culture in general? I think Picasso was a post-Christian artist as his intent is to deny the subject’s personality for his own.  Simone Weil, writing during the horror and tragedy of WWII anticipated the dangers of postmodernism (what is left after modernism destroyed the Christian culture of Europe), “I believe in the responsibility of the writers of recent years for the disaster of our time.  By that I don’t mean only the defeat of France; the disaster of our time extends much farther.  It extends to the whole world, that is to say, to Europe, to America, and to the other continents in so far as Western influence has penetrated them.”  Weil’s point as described by a biographer is that “the dadaists and surrealists [for example], by lending their voices to the `drunkenness of license,’ … offer no criteria for distinguishing good from evil, are, she thinks, more harmful than cocaine.”

Since these trips I was very pleased to come across The Art Renewal Center website as it seemed to confirm most of my reactionary views on art and is worthy of support. The Art Renewal Center is devoted to the following principles and beliefs:

  • To promote a return of skill-based training, standards and excellence in the visual arts. The rich artistic heritage of 2,500 years of accumulated knowledge in creating traditional, realistic images touching upon universal and timeless themes.
  • To promote visual literacy in public and private school classrooms and to the public at large.
  • To unite the realist art movement into a synergistic community of like-minded organizations and individuals.
  • To provide responsible views opposing those of the Modernist art establishment when warranted, especially as expressed in aesthetic philosophy and to rebut the idea that development in art requires destruction of boundaries and standards or pointless emphasis on ‘newness’.
  • To advance the understanding that great art begins with great themes, expressing them poetically through mastery of all aspects of technique.
  • To provide a forum for dialogue and exchange of expert information among educators, scholars, curators, collectors and artists.
  • To promote scholarship and research on the artists of the past and the rediscovery and preservation of their techniques and methods.
  • To create the largest reference database on the Internet for realistic art, including an online museum with thousands of high quality images of works by the greatest painters and sculptors in human history, alongside an encyclopedic online art reference library of historical texts, essays, biographies and articles, providing a technical and historical resource for artistic information.

Perhaps the concept of renewal is important for more than just art.

*A new word I just learned; Abecedarian: 2. a beginner in any field of learning.