Affirmation and denial

I was moved by a story I read recently of a terminally ill lady who had wished, before she died, to see for one last time her favourite painting by Rembrandt. A photograph showed this lady, still in the bed that she presumably could no longer leave, in front of a late Rembrandt self-portrait; and the sense of reverence – for I know no other word more suitable in this context – that I felt on seeing this picture seemed to go even beyond the respect that is due to those of us facing the fact of our transience.


Now, to admit to such feelings is to risk being labelled “sentimental”, but I have long found that a troublesome word. The “sentimental” is usually defined as that which exhibits “false emotion”, but I don’t know if that will do: for how can one be sure that any emotion displayed is necessarily false? Most of us do not have the ability to express adequately what we feel most deeply, and when we try, what comes out, all too often, is merely vapid, but this vapidity does not in itself necessarily betoken falseness at the source, where the emotion is felt. And in any case, we don’t really deem anything as “sentimental” on the basis of what we think was intended, but, rather, on the impression it makes on us, and this, inevitably, is to a great extent subjective. However, try as I might, I cannot come up with an alternative definition that is independent of the subjective reactions of the viewer. None of this to say that sentimentality does not exist – not everything that exists can be adequately defined, after all: but it does mean, I think, that we should be careful about bandying that term around too freely. And if my being moved by the picture of the ill lady in front of the Rembrandt painting does indeed appear “sentimental”, I can only appeal to the reader’s generosity in this matter: whatever falseness of emotion the reader may detect is in the inadequacy of my expression, rather than in the sincerity of my feeling.

And somehow, the picture this lady asked to see just had to be a Rembrandt. Now, I do not claim to be any great expert on the visual arts, and my lack of knowledge possibly reflects my relative lack of perception: I have long felt that I am less keenly receptive to the visual arts than I am to literature or to music. Nonetheless, if there is any artist whose work looks unblinkingly at life, that refuses to shirk anything that may be deemed unpleasant or unattractive, and yet affirms what it sees, that artist would be Rembrandt.


“The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I have stood in front of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, currently hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in a state of inarticulate wonder. It depicts two figures, a man and a woman, surrounded by darkness. He is looking at her, his left hand placed upon her shoulder, and his right hand upon her breast – not lewdly, nor roughly, but with the utmost gentleness: how Rembrandt could depict the tender softness of a touch merely with paint I do not know, but there it is: the miracle is there for all to see. She acknowledges his touch by laying her hand, equally softly and gently, upon his. And she gazes, not at him, but into the distance: whatever vision it is she sees there, we do not know. The strength of the emotions felt by these two people is reflected in the richness of the paints: not even the finest reproduction can convey the thick, opulent impasto (I believe that’s the correct term, but would be happy to be corrected if it isn’t) which Rembrandt’s applies to the man’s sleeve; or that deepest hue of red that Rembrandt uses for the woman’s dress – a red that is neither shocking nor garish, but is, somehow, utterly consonant with the still serenity of the composition. What we see in this painting is an earthly love, a human love, not transformed into something other than what it is, nor even perhaps transcending what it is, but as it is, where it is, justifying itself merely by being, and defying with its presence the surrounding darkness.


Detail from “The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. “The miracle is there for all to see…”

More than this I fear to say, for fear, once again, of appearing sentimental. So afraid are we of this terrible charge, we prefer to present ourselves as hard-bitten cynics, as sceptics and detractors, and misanthropes and sneerers, rather than try to express, however inadequately, what we sometimes most long to say. But this lady whose last wish it was to see her favourite Rembrandt painting was, presumably, beyond all this. She did not have to say anything, of course, but she knew that what Rembrandt conveyed was more than just a momentary diversion, more than just a fashionable currency of lifestyle. For this is what a great artistic vision can come to mean: it justifies itself merely by being. And if that sounds sentimental, I have to ask, as ever, what precisely we mean by the term.

However, even while I was moved by the lady’s dying wish, I could not help wondering whether the affirmative nature of Rembrandt’s vision is among the principal factors – or, indeed, whether it is a factor at all – in determining the immensity of his artistic vision. For not all works affirm. Many, indeed, deny. I do not necessarily mean tragic works, for it is a commonly acknowledged truth that even the most despairing of tragedies can affirm. And conversely, there are comedies that can deny: what better than the comic mode, after all, to deflate, to reveal our aspirations as mere affectations, our beliefs as delusions, and to tell us that there is nothing serious in mortality? The dichotomy that increasingly seems to me more important than that of the tragic and the comic is that of affirmation and of denial. The self-portrait that the lady so wanted to see in her dying days is, in many ways, a tragic work: Rembrandt paints his failing flesh as it is, with no attempt to hide the nearness of his own extinction; and yet, despite the tragic foreboding, it affirms: even when that extinction comes, even if there is no afterlife that is promised us by religion, the very existence of that flesh, failing though it is, is, in Rembrandt’s vision, its own justification. This painting, however tragic we may take it to be, is a defiant affirmation of the significance of life. But there is another kind of art that does quite the opposite – that denies; and I am not sure that this art is any lesser. At least, not for this particular reason.

We may find in literature also this dichotomy between affirmation and denial. Tolstoy, in War and Peace, wrote, effectively, a hymn to life; Flaubert, on the other hand, saw all human activity as futile. (Except for his recording of that futility: that, if nothing else, was important.) But does that difference alone make Tolstoy a greater artist than Flaubert? I don’t think so. And this leaves us with a conundrum: it is easy to understand, or even feel, reverence for works that affirm; one may understand why it may be one’s dying wish to experience again, for one last time, such works of art. But can any reverence be felt at all for the naysayers? And if so, why?

I have puzzled over this for many years now, and, not having come across any answer yet that satisfies me, have convinced myself that there is no answer. However, I was fascinated by a characteristically thoughtful essay I came across recently by Theodore Dalrymple that seemed to me to touch on these very themes. In the course of this essay, he compares a charming painting by Joshua Reynolds of a child, her arms around her beloved pet dog, smiling at the viewer, with the extremely disturbing images of contemporary artist Marlene Dumas. Dalrymple is, I think it fair to say, a cultural conservative, but the essay is far from an easy and predictable praise of the past and condemnation of the present: or, at least, if that was what Dalrymple had intended, he doesn’t make things easy for himself. The painting he has chosen from the past is one that many nowadays may describe as “twee” or – that word again – “sentimental”; and the contemporary artist whose work he has chosen is, in Dalrymple’s own words, “unquestionably … an artist of great talent”. He refuses, however, to see tweeness or sentimentality in Reynolds’ painting – and rightly so, I think: the charms and the delights of childhood, the uncomplicated happiness and innocence of one who has yet to experience much that disturbs either, are aspects of human life that are every bit as important as are the darker elements, and every bit as worthy of the artist’s attention. But it is when we come to the works of Marlene Dumas that the whole issue becomes considerably more complex, because her images of childhood seem drenched in a pervasive sense of evil. Dalrymple describes these images eloquently, and, following the link he provides, I was reminded as nothing so much as Dickens’ horrific and horrified description in A Christmas Carol of a similar evil lurking in the forms of children:

Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Dalrymple pays generous tribute to the power of Dumas’ art, but questions the value of presenting in one’s art such unremitting horror and ugliness. While I am broadly in sympathy with him on this matter, it does seem to me that Dumas’ art, for all its ugliness, has an important place. After all, presentation of such horror and ugliness is nothing new in art: as we have seen, Dickens himself – that epitome of all that is warm and jovial – was no stranger to it; and neither, of course, was Goya, whose “Black Paintings”, and series of prints The Disasters of War, take us into a physical and spiritual hell in which, to judge from the stories still dominating our news headlines, we remain still mired. To insist that artists must turn away from such ugliness and horror is no better than the insistence that Reynolds’ painting, focussing solely as it does on beauty and charm, is somehow “sentimental”.

Of course, Dalrymple does not insist on this at all: he is too sophisticated a writer for that. But his questioning of what value there can there be in an art that only denies is, I think, entirely legitimate. Is it possible, after all, to imagine anyone close to death wishing to see for one last time Marlene Dumas’ art – or, for that matter, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son? No, I don’t think so. But that does not make it inferior art. Goya’s denial has, it seems to me, as much a claim to artistic greatness as does Rembrandt’s affirmation. But why this should be, I do not know. It is possible, I think, to understand why even the darkest of tragedies may inspire in us the reverence that is due to the greatest works of art; but why any reverence should be due at all to that which denies, remains, for me at least, a mystery.


“Saturn Devouring his Son” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

It is the conclusion to Dalrymple’s essay that I fiund particularly striking:

While some would no doubt accuse Reynolds of having avoided the less refined aspects of his society (a charge that could be levied against hundreds or thousands of artists), Dumas is guilty of a much greater evasion, caused by a fear of beauty. In a perceptive note in the catalog of her exhibition, by the critic Wendy Simon, we learn of this fear. Simon draws attention to “the extreme ambivalence we now feel towards beauty both within and outside art,” and continues: “We distrust it; we fear its power; we associate it with compulsion and uncontrollable desire of a sexual fetish. Embarrassed by our yearning for beauty, we demean it as something tawdry, self-indulgent, or sentimental.”

Is it true that we nowadays fear “beauty”, that we have “rejected” it? We still, after all, swoon to colourful sunsets; many are prepared to travel half way around the world to see the Taj Mahal. But in art that we produce? After all, no serious artist would paint like Reynolds nowadays. I do not mean this merely in terms of style: styles, of course, can and must change. What I mean is that no serious artist would nowadays depict the uncomplicated innocence and charm that Reynolds depicted, without even the slightest hint of the shadows that lie in wait. I am, of course, far from being an expert in modern art, and would be happy to be corrected on this point, but, when I consider all the various branches of the arts, it strikes me that there has been very little produced within, say, my own lifetime, the last half-century and more, that could rightly be called “affirmative”. It is not denial per se that perturbs me: for whatever reason, denial has its rightful place, in even the very greatest of the arts, and is nothing new. What perturbs me more (and I think it perturbs Dalrymple also) is our shutting out of affirmation.

It seems to me very much the case that when it comes to our artistic endeavours, we are, in critic Wendy Simon’s words (quoted by Dalrymple in his essay), “embarrassed by our yearning for beauty”. Indeed, it seems to me to me that, in many cases, we take a delight in ugliness, as if mocking this yearning for beauty that so embarrasses us. And should any of us dissent from this unremitting denial, there is that term that always shuts us up, that accusation to which there is no answer: sentimental. Even when trying to express what we feel about something as ineffable as Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, we find ourselves compelled to use the word “unsentimental”, as if pre-empting the criticism we know is bound to crop up.

Some readers may be wondering at this point why I am so glibly conflating beauty with affirmation, and ugliness with denial. It is a fair point. Beauty does not, of course, always equate to affirmation: after all, Flaubert’s great novels of denial are undoubtedly “beautiful”, however we may define that term. But ugliness, it seems to me, can be nothing other than a denial. Of course, much depends upon our definitions, but since even the finest of philosophical minds have struggled in defining these terms, I don’t know that I would like foolishly to rush in here. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that anything that affirms is, inevitably, beautiful: it is beautiful precisely because it does affirm. The couple in Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride are not particularly beautiful as people: neither has what we may call “film star looks”. Of course, there’s beauty in the composition, the colours, the handling of the paint, and so on: without Rembrandt’s genius in such matters, the painting would merely be an attempt at affirmation rather than the real thing. But Goya, too, displayed the very finest of genius in all of these areas, and yet I don’t think anyone could ever describe his “Black Paintings” as beautiful without stretching the definition of the word to something beyond everyday recognition. If we can think of The Jewish Bride as “beautiful” and withhold that term when describing Saturn Devouring his Son, the reason is purely in terms of the respective visions these two paintings convey: the affirmation in one case is “beautiful”, but the denial in the other isn’t, cannot be. The relations between affirmation and beauty, on the one hand, and between ugliness and denial on the other, are complex, and while the correlation may not be perfect, it does, I think, exist. The embarrassment that Wendy Simon had noted about our yearning for beauty seems to me to be an embarrassment for the very concept of affirmation itself.

Dalrymple further says:

Our view of the world has become so politicized that we think that the unembarrassed celebration of beauty is a sign of insensibility to suffering and that exclusively to focus on the world’s deformations, its horrors, is in itself a sign of compassion.

Indeed. And the “celebration of beauty” that seems to us a “sign of insensibility to suffering” seems to me identical to the affirmation that, when it comes to the arts at least, we seem no longer able to believe in.

In the introduction to the old Penguin Classics edition of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, translator Robert Baldick tells a revealing anecdote. Once, when approached by an admirer of that novel, Flaubert, though pleasantly surprised by the admiration, expressed his feeling that his novel would never be widely liked. What people expect from art, he said, is this – and he brought together the fingertips of both his hands to form a peak; “but I,” he continued, “gave them this” – and he turned his fingers downwards to indicate a bottomless chasm. Flaubert, I think, was wrong on this point: we are all children of Flaubert nowadays, and that bottomless chasm, the denial, is what strikes us now as the only truth: everything else is merely sentimental.

But this is not, I think, the whole story. Even the greatest of naysayers can, if they are sufficiently great artists, affirm. Even Dickens, having presented to us children in whom angels may have sat enthroned but in whom devils lurk, could end that same novel with untrammelled joy. I, for one, cannot deny him that joy (though many do) because it has been hard won: Dickens had looked unblinkingly into the abyss before he could reach this point. Goya too, perhaps the greatest naysayer in all art, painted towards the very end of his life The Milkmaid, a work that seems to radiate a beatific and visionary light. I have only seen this painting in reproduction, but, sentimental old fool that I no doubt am, even reproductions can move me beyond words. In his “Black Paintings”, in The Disasters of War, Goya had travelled through Hell itself: we cannot now deny him this hard won joy. And if we can respond still to such joy, if some of us can still as our last wish ask to see again a painting of Rembrandt’s, then, it seems to me, there is still room even in our modern world for art that affirms. We need that affirmation now as much as we ever did – not the easy affirmation of the feelgood movie, which is as insubstantial as the easy denial that is so often mistaken for the truth – but an affirmation that is deeply felt, and hard won.


“The Milkmaid” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

22 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jonathan on March 27, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Great post. Sometimes when I use the term ‘sentimental’ I realise that it will be taken as criticism but I don’t necessarily mean it as such. I tend to use ‘mawkish’ to refer to something sickly or falsely sentimental.

    I enjoy both ‘light’ and ‘dark’ art and I wonder if sometimes people become overwhelmed by either the gloominess or sentimentality of a work. For example, I will often read a ‘dark’ book that others have described as depressing or gloomy and yet I will find patches of humour and joy that, to me, seem to be more effective than being buried in a sea of joy….and vice versa.

    A little while ago I was going to do a post of some of my favourite short stories but realised that most of them could be described as sentimental, or worse!…hopeful. I may get round to it though.


    • Posted by blatantnotlatent on March 27, 2016 at 2:24 pm

      This is a truly wonderful essay. And I wonder if sentimentality (as a response) is also seen as a weakness… particularly in men? I often write quite openly – as do you – about my emotional responses to music, theatre, literature, etc.; but must admit that, initially, I was somewhat scared to do so. (I appreciate that emotion and sentiment may be two different aspects of the same subjective response: but I feel that both can be perceived as character flaws amongst those less enlightened…!) However, the extremely positive comments on my ramblings has confirmed to me that no art is truly art (sucks teeth) unless it provokes such an emotional response; connects with you. Mawkishness is entirely different, I think: and has direct links to kitsch….

      However, Rembrandt (the apogee of artists!?) will always move me to tears: both in the beauty he captures, as well as by his ineffable technique. I therefore truly understand the motivation to see one of his creations before death. I, however, would choose one of his etchings (and, again, a self-portrait): having spent an afternoon, a dozen or so years ago, in Vancouver, staring into the darkness of some of his incredible miniscule prints, revelling in the glorious masochistic pain they provoked.

      I encounter so many people who either see plays or concerts purely as entertainment – and I feel sorry that they either are afraid to give voice to an emotional reaction, or do not even have one. I also struggle to comprehend, therefore, why they are there… – but each to his own, etc.. I will never get used, though, to the opposite: the looks of explicit pity I receive when the lights go up, and these same audience members see what appears to be an old cripple, silently sobbing, turning to mush before their very eyes.

      They may think me overly sentimental; or simply someone with no self-control. I simply no longer care. I go to be challenged, to be moved, to have my soul interrogated. This strengthens me….

      There is so much more I could write, in response to your thoughtful article. I may not have been as lucid or cohesive as I would have wished (or as you have been); but I hope you see that I was, at least, trying to agree with you! Thank you!


      • Hello,

        I too find that the works that mean most to me most are those works that engage my emotions. But of course, it is entirely legitimate to look for other things. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest, say, does not engage the emotions at all, except for mirth: it is certainly not possible to be moved by this play. And yet, it is a very elegant work, and is witty, and enchanting, and engaging. In certain frames of mind, I’d rather see The Importance of being Earnest than, say, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And I can imagine there will be those who would prefer Wilde’s play to O’Neill’s. Is that necessarily a wrong choice?

        But temperamentally, I think, on the whole, I’m with you. In the immortal words of Boney M, “show me emotion, tra-la-la-la-la”. 🙂

  2. Your post reminds me that I have a problem with beauty and what it is. Is it inherent in the object or is it created by our response to it. When Keats says that Truth is Beauty he means (to me) that the beauty of the figures on the urn speaks of a truth which is more than the figures themselves, so beauty leads to truth. But in the Goya painting — which I admire but always makes me shiver — true? And is it a truth that we find beautiful?

    If you can lead me out of this quandary, I would be very grateful.


    • Oh dear, Nancy, you’re going way above my head with something like that!

      I generally think, pace Keats, that beauty is morally neutral. We expect goodness and beauty to go together, and subverting that expectation is one of the great attractions of film noir – with the beautiful but evil femme fatale. Oh, how I longed in my younger days to be seduced by such a femme fatale, and led down the paths of darkness and lust and murder … OK, maybe not the murder bit …

      But to be serious, your question is way beyond anything I could reasonably come up with. I do find myself fascinated by the topic of aesthetics, and really should read up on it. Something else to do once I am retired ane less tired than I get these days!

      All the best, Himadri


  3. Wendy Simon’s “we” is likely “the art world,” not a more universal we. And in that sense she is completely correct.

    The film world and the music world, classical, jazz, and more popular, are fine with beauty.

    What’s being affirmed and denied in your argument?


    • Yes, I think you’re right: Wendy Simon was referring specifically to the visual arts.But it struck a chord in me nonetheless: it seems to me particularly difficult to be celebratory, affirmative, in any branch of the arts!

      I don’t mean of course that there is nothing that is affirmative. But it is impossible to imagine any music composed nowadays that conveys the fresh sense of joy and of delight that the music of Haydn does; that communicates the joyous ecstasy of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Even allowing for different compositional styles, such evocations of joy would be likely to strike us as naive.

      I was listening lately to Carl Nielsen’s 6th symphony, which starts with a theme of Haydnesque simplicity: it seems to convey a sense of a childlike delight in life, and in the world. And yet, for the very reason that it does so, we are suspicious of it: immediately, we think Nielsen is being ironic. So when the joyful innocence starts beings subverted, we aren’t really surprised. But why is this, I wonder? The world has not become a worse place since Haydn’s time: in many respects, the world is much better. So why can we not bring ourselves to express the childlike sense of joy and of wonder that came so naturally to Haydn? (Indeed, we call it “childlike” from our modern perspective: Haydn wouldn’t have done.) Why is it so impossible for a serious artist these days to give us a picture of unclouded joy such as that n the Reynolds painting?

      I am afraid my essay above is not really a finished record of my thoughts, because my thoughts are still pretty inchoate. I really just started running with some ideas to see where they’ll lead. Jazz music I am afraid I cannot really comment on, since, apart from a few “greatest hits”, I am not very knowledgeable about it. (Yes, I know, it is a huge gap in my education.) But in music in the classical traditions, or in literature, it does seem to me increasingly difficult to celebrate, to affirm, than it is to deny, to present life as dark and painful and ultimately meaningless. And I think this is what I mean by “affirmation” and “denial”: to affirm is to say that despite everything, life is a beautiful thing, and it is worth living; but denial seems to come far more easily. And I am not sure why.


      • Posted by blatantnotlatent on March 30, 2016 at 2:46 pm

        I’m replying to two of your comments, really. But I have in my hands a new work for orchestra and choir by a young European composer: celebrating Shakespeare, his words and his life. I find it – just from reading it – both immensely beautiful and affirmative (as is the composer’s own attitude to music – although she has also written works of great, yearning depth, despair, and dark beauty…). I know, that when it is performed, in a few weeks, it will stun those who have actually gone to listen to the Vaughan Williams works (including The Lark Ascending…) that surround it. (My hope, indeed, is that they go for the RVW, and stay for the sorry-I-can’t-give-you-her-name…!)

        Perhaps go and listen to some Howard Skempton; or even a selected chunk of Maxwell Davies. There are composers out there who believe there is meaning to life – and that it’s not all angst. Even, maybe, some of Stephen Hough’s own compositions for piano?

        [Off out to enjoy early Mozart, Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile. I may be argumentative, too; but I am also deeply immersed in a world of Romanticism…!]

    • Okay, “childhood sense of joy and wonder” and “life is a beautiful thing” are much narrower answers than I was expecting.

      I don’t know what nightmarish horrors they play on BBC Radio – “impossible to imagine”! – but contemporary classical music in the US does not spend much time presenting life as dark and painful. There is no “increasing difficulty.” Except in funding and performance; now that’s dark and painful.

      As for art, search for Maman. Impossible!

      As for literature, it sounds like you need some quality time with Nicholas Sparks.


      • Okay, “childhood sense of joy and wonder” and “life is a beautiful thing” are much narrower answers than I was expecting.

        They are narrower than I had intended as well. So let me have another go.

        To affirm is to express a love for life, and find in it meaning and significance. To deny is to declare its pointlessness, and lack of meaning.

        It may well be that I have been spending too much time with the wrong kind of composers and writers.

      • I know you don’t like this kind of stuff, but: John Cage, Terry Riley, Robert Ashley, John Luther Adams – there’s a lot of love and joy in that music, some of it even childlike, some of it deliberately childlike.

        Although Sparks was suggested as a joke, an example of godawful kitsch (as you pursue these ideas, you will surely want to deal with godawful kitsch – there is no way you’ll want to keep “anything that affirms is, inevitably, beautiful”), the contemporary literary world is so enormous that we can find anything we want. Plenty of love for life. Plenty of everything.

      • …there is no way you’ll want to keep “anything that affirms is, inevitably, beautiful”

        I could reply that if it isn’t beautiful, it can’t affirm, and that “If Not B then Not A” implies “If A then B”.

        But you’d only say I was begging the question…

        I thought you’d suggested Sparks as a joke, and decided not to rise to that one! 🙂

        But yes, I need to run with my thoughts a bit longe. Affirmation does seem to me more difficult in an age where so many seem to insist that we are nothing more than programmable sacks of meat, but yes, it is true, I am only really acquainted with a tiny fraction of all that is available. As for me, I still long for the world of Pickwick Papers (the first half or so, before the tone darkens in the Marshalsea chapters), or of Verdi’s Falstaff

      • “Kitsch”: that’s another term I have trouble with. I know what I thunk is “kitsch”, but can’t seem to define it. Any definition I come up with includes Puccini’s operas, which I love. So my working definition of “kitsch” will have to include the clause “…except for works that I personally love”.

        It’s all very awkward…

  4. Posted by alan on March 28, 2016 at 12:19 am

    One of your best essays.
    I’m troubled by the word ‘sentimental’ as well. Perhaps I see sentimentality as a loss of artistic control, the artist being speechless, giving up and saying ‘I can do no more’, ceasing to be artful.
    Maybe that works if the artist has already done more than anyone else reasonably could have done.
    Definitions of sentimentality can end up covering both the mawkish and the sublime – it’s a knife edge. If you overreach yourself and try something difficult but seem pretentious instead then you open yourself up to a lot of criticism. To try something difficult and get it right is probably so unusual that that words like sublime are not out of place.
    The problem of course is “what is getting it right?”. Do people have to suffer pain and loss in order to either appreciate or produce great art about pain and loss? To say that this is the case would diminish the ability of great art to communicate universally and undermine the capacity of human imagination and empathy.

    Reading back over what I’ve just written I can see that I’ve lost the plot. So, swiftly changing the subject, Jonathan Jones in “The Guardian” recently described this painting by Giorgione as “shocking”.

    I can’t see its shocking nature myself, or agree with the several of the other assertions that he makes. However, I suspect that Mr Jones feels he needs to communicate in a journalese that provokes, perhaps otherwise he thinks that nobody will pay any attention. I suspect that his view of beauty is not at all conventional and feels he needs to present it as a great discovery so that his readership will think it ‘edgy’ rather than elitist.


    • I think I can actually see why Jones sees the painting as “shocking”: it shocks because it confounds expectations. As Jones says, the pose, the lighting, the composition, would all lead us to expect the painting of a beautiful young lady: but the overturning of that expectation can indeed appear shocking. Rembrandt’s paintings of old age don’t, however, shock: it’s hard to put into words exactly what they do, but he didn’t set out, I think, to shock.


  5. You say Goya painted towards the very end of his life “The Milkmaid”, a work that seems to radiate a beatific and visionary light. Light is radiated but what of the foreboding shades of grey, which make me shiver. “The Parasol”, an early work, seems more straightforward.


    • Posted by alan on March 30, 2016 at 7:20 am

      “The Milkmaid” seems slightly unhinged to me, or at least her mind seems to be elsewhere. I agree about the shiver.


    • Yes, I agree – Goya’s early paintings, such as “The Parasol”, are more straightforward.But it’s those shades of grey that makes “The Milkmaid” so fascinating. Rightly or wrongly, I can’t help seeing this as a sort of postlude to the series of dark works: there’s a sense here of having come through, of emerging once again into the light. But the darkness that has been traversed cannot be forgotten: it leaves its mark even here.

      It reminds me – mainly because i have been immersed in late Shakespeare lately – of the ending of The Winter’s Tale (which I last wrote about here). This play, too, journeys through moral and spiritual darkness, but ends in a serene reconciliation. However, the terrors that have been passed through continue to cast their shadows even at the end: their memories cannot be banished.

      No doubt we all see these great works in different ways, but for me, “The Milkmaid” is still a work of luminous serenity, and those shades of grey are memories of what has been passed through, rather than what is still to come. Which, I suppose, marks me out as an incorrigible optimist. But that so luminous a vision is still possible even after what has been experienced makes the painting, for me, all the more moving. But I agree, however you look at it, it is far from Straightforward.


  6. All right, I am doing my homework – I have even looked at the score – and have one more question. How are you getting “dark and painful and ultimately meaningless” from the last three movement’s of Nielson’s 6th symphny? The third movement especially seems unusually beautiful.


    • Sorry about the delay in responding – I have been a bit out of action for various reasons, and wasn’t up to posting anything save a few Twitter posts!

      Back in the early 70s, the BBC broadcast a rather good adaptation of Jude the Obscure with Robert Powell as Jude. I remember the opening title sequence distinctly: there was a close-up of a chisel striking a stone, and the music on the soundtrack was- as I later discovered – the slow movement of Nielsen’s 6th symphony. For that reason, I’ll always associate the symphony with Hardy’s tragic novel. But that is not why I think the symphony to be tragic.

      Indeed, I don’t think the symphony to be tragic at all. It is, as you say, a beautiful symphony, although beauty does not preclude the tragic, or, indeed, denial. Nielsen’s 6th is one of those late works for which the terms “elusive” or “enigmatic” come easily to mind. That first movement starts with the most innocent of themes: it seems to me very clearly to evoke the world of Haydn, with its innocent, carefree sense of happiness. And yet, perhaps for this very reason, we know that this is not what is intended. Not that it’s ironic, as such, but this Haydnesque theme is stated as if in quotation marks – a reminder of something we can no longer believe in. And yes, the music moves into strange areas before long: that peaceful opening moves into areas of deep unrest. And we knew from the start that it would. Then there are those two very disturbing outbursts. The movement closes quietly, but it’s tonally unsettled, and, for the listener, unsettling.

      The third movement is indeed beautiful, but- maybe its’s just me – the deep sense of unease lasts throughout the symphony. The last movement is a set of variations, and the minor key variation sounds to my ears like a lament. The next variation, the 9th, was described by Robert Simpson in his superb book on the Nielsen symphonies as like a “grinning skeleton”. A bit fanciful, perhaps, but I get the same feeling. And the entire work closes on that low note on the bassoons, a sort of raspberry – and I really don’t know what to make of that. Elusive, enigmatic … those words again!

      For me, this symphony is a great masterpiece (as are the other 5 by Nielsen). But I can’t see it as a work of affirmation. The 4th is: I’ll certainly grant that – the 4th is triumphant. And the 5th seems to me to represent collapse – complete and utter collapse – followed by a dogged defiance. But the 6th – I love the work, but I am not sure what to make of it. What I know is that it isn’t a happy, affirmative work. And I mentioned this precisely because that Haydnesque opening offers us a view of something that we know cannot hold. But why do we know that? What has changed in our perceptions since Haydn’s days?

      I realise that much of what I say here is very subjective. I take your point also that there is much that is affirmative still, if one looks for it. But a Haydnesque symphony cannot, I think, be written any more: if a composer presents us with a theme of unclouded Haydnesque happiness and contentment, we can be sure that it’s there only to be undermined.

      But yes, there are many exceptions. Britten’s Albert Herring seems to me to capture the joyous feel of Verdi’s Falstaff; Nielsen’s 4th symphony, as I said, is a work of triumph – albeit a triumph that is only attained through heroic striving – and is exhilarating. But the 6th? I’m not entirely sure what I see there, but it’s not affirmation.


  7. Posted by Avi on March 31, 2016 at 10:44 pm

    Apparently Robert Hughes, when he was close to death after a car crash, felt tormented by Goya, so much so that he felt impelled to complete his book on him when he recovered. Not sure what the point of my anecdote us, except that the proximity of death can lead one close to all sorts if art. By the way, before it was painted over, Goya’s Saturn was enjoying an erection as he bit the head off his child. Charming! I can’t help wonder get though whether there isn’t a double negative in that painting; we don’t only see the horror of the act, but also Saturn’s horror of it. So are affirmation and denial watertight compartments for such works?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: