Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

A confrontation with Manet’s Olympia

Manet’s Olympia predictably scandalised the public when it was first exhibited in 1863, and it’s not hard to see why. Even now, in our more enlightened times, there’s something about that painting I find curiously disconcerting. I always find myself uncomfortable standing before it, or even when I see it in reproduction. And, when I stood before it again last week at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I found myself disconcerted all over again.

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“Olympia” by Edouard Manet, courtesy Musée d’Orsay, Paris

 

It is not the nudity that is disconcerting. Art lovers are hardly unused to nudity: they were familiar with it even in the mid nineteenth century. The same year that Manet exhibited Olympia, Alexandre Cabanel, a respected and respectable artist, exhibited The Birth of Venus, in which Venus is forced into a tortuous pose so as to reveal as much of her nude female form as is possible. It is a painting that seems almost to salivate over the female form in a most lascivious manner. And yet, it created no shock, no scandal: indeed the painting was actually bought by Napoleon III himself. And yet, the same society that had no difficulty with the flagrant titillation of Cabanel’s painting found itself shocked by Manet’s. Whatever the reason for the shock, it was not the nudity.

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“The Birth of Venus” by Alexandre Cabanel, courtesy Musée de Louvre, Paris

 

Of course, as any basic primer will tell you, Manet and various other artists of his generation, known collectively (though not really very helpfully) as the “Impressionists”, rebelled against the accepted norms of the time, and changed the face of Western art. (Or something like that.) It is also fairly well-known that these artists only challenged the norms of the time, but were fully aware of, and, indeed, respected, the older traditions of Western art. Manet’s outrageous Olympia, for instance, clearly references Titian’s Venus of Urbino, in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the comparisons between the two masterpieces are fascinating.

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“Venus of Urbino” by Titian, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

 

The title of Titian’s painting refers to the goddess Venus, but the person we see is clearly a courtesan. Or, more plainly, a prostitute, though, admittedly, a high-class one. The two ladies adopt almost an identical pose, but with some significant variations. While Titian’s courtesan slightly inclines her head, Manet’s holds her head up straight. They both look directly at the viewer, but the expression on the face of Titian’s courtesan is gentle, and welcoming: the expression in Manet’s painting is bold, direct, even, perhaps, confrontational. The flower in the hair and the ribbon round the neck are clearly intended to be seductive, but there’s nothing seductive about the utterly unembarrassed and challenging look she directs at the viewer. If anything, it is we who wither in the spotlight of her gaze. (Cabanel’s Venus, in contrast, does not show her face at all: she is merely a body, and nothing more.)

And the left hand. Titian’s courtesan places her left hand gently upon her pudenda, pretending coyly to hide the very part of her body she is drawing attention to. In Manet’s painting, the left hand is placed upon her privates palm downwards, as if it has been slapped down. Titian’s courtesan is long-limbed and graceful: Manet’s is short-limbed; indeed, were it not for the fully developed breasts, she could easily be mistaken for a child.

It is no wonder Manet’s painting shocked. And I find myself shocked still. Well, if not perhaps shocked – for it is very bad form these days to admit to being shocked by mere works of art – I find myself feeling very uncomfortable. For Manet’s painting does, indeed, speak to me. That brazen figure, so unashamed of her nudity, is saying something. And what she seems to be saying is:

“Have you paid yet?”

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On reverence

Many people have a very strict definition of reality: only that which exists as a physical entity in the real world may be considered real. Turgenev’s Bazarov may have agreed: twice two is four, and everything else is nonsense, he gleefully proclaimed, though it may be worth asking the Bazarovs of this world (and there are many) if, given that definition, “two” and “four” can themselves be considered real, given that, when not attached to objects – e.g. “two trees” or “four cars” – numbers do not have a physical presence either. But if this is indeed an adequate definition of reality, what are we to make of our emotions – those things we all feel, such as fear, anger, joy, contentment, anxiety, apprehension, delight, and so on? I’m sure that the definition of reality is a complex philosophical issue, and one that I, as a layman, am not qualified to comment upon, but if our definition of reality does not accommodate our emotions, then, it seems to me, such a definition doesn’t come close to describing our real lives as we live them.

So let us grant that, however we choose to define reality, our emotions are “real”. Let us, for convenience if nothing else, cut through the various philosophical subtleties and complexities, and proclaim that what we feel must be real. For, without such an assumption, our thoughts, our actions, our very lives, would be based merely upon illusions.

We may describe most of our emotions by ascribing to them labels: we may label certain emotions as “anger”, or as “fear”, or as “contentment”, and be confident of being understood when we use these terms, since these emotions have been felt, we can be fairly certain, by most, if not all, other humans. There’s no point trying to formulate definitions when a general understanding already exists.

But what about those emotions that one has felt for which there is no handy label, no descriptive term or word? And which we cannot even be sure have been universally experienced? I mean those experiences that, for want of universally understood terms, we tend to refer to as “spiritual”, or as “transcendental”, or something similarly vague. Those experiences that, in Wordsworth’s words, give us a “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. Such emotions may be straying too close for comfort to religious experience, but even diehard atheists often admit to having felt this kind of thing. We may feel these things in the presence of a resplendent sunset, say; or on viewing some majestic vista from atop a mountain; or on viewing the glory of a star-emblazoned sky on a clear and cloudless night.

We may, indeed, describe the experience of these emotions as “sacred”, but here we run into difficulties: the sacred is usually defined as that which is related to divinity; however, though belief in divinity has declined sharply over the last few decades (at least, in the western world), our capacity to experience those feelings that we may describe as “sacred” hasn’t. And neither, I’d argue, has our need to experience them. So, if the concept of the “sacred” continues to hold meaning for us even if we have stopped believing in God, or even if, like myself, we’re agnostic, we must question whether the “sacred” need necessarily be tied to religion. But how can we define “sacred” otherwise? If we decouple the “sacred” from religious experience, and describe it in more secular terms as anything to which we feel we owe reverence, then the concept of the “sacred” loses all objectivity, and, can, indeed, be anything. To Félicité in Flaubert’s story “Un Coeur Simple”, even a stuffed parrot becomes “sacred”.

However, if what may be deemed “sacred” is not purely objective, it is not, I think, purely subjective either. For what gives rise to these feelings are generally not stuffed parrots, but, rather, resplendent sunsets and mountain-top vistas and the like. And, also, certain works of art. This last I know for a fact, because I have felt this emotion myself when I have come into contact with certain music, certain poems, certain paintings. And, if we deem emotions to be real, then this emotion, too, must be real.

And these emotions are, I’d argue, very precious emotions, whether we feel them in the presence of starry skies, of Michelangelo’s Pietà, or even, for that matter, of stuffed parrots. Towards the end of Flaubert’s story, Félicité, her mind never too strong to begin with and now further weakened by age, as she breathes her last, has a resplendent vision of a gigantic parrot hovering above her. It is utterly absurd, yes, but at the same time, this passage has about it a sense of gravity, of solemnity, that, given the ludicrous nature of the image, is hard to account for. I find it hard to tell whether Flaubert intended to debunk the very idea of religious experience, or to elevate Félicité’s absurd vision into something significant, something that gives a meaning to her otherwise meaningless life. Perhaps there are elements of both: literature can signify many things, even contradictory things, simultaneously. But either way, the sense of rapture Félicité feels is real, even if the gigantic parrot hovering above her isn’t. That sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused exists even here, and is precious, even though there is nothing here interfused, far more deeply or otherwise.

I think this accounts for the often quasi-religious zeal many of us feel for the arts: the arts provide, or, at least, are capable of providing, experiences generally considered to belong to the realms of religion. The idea that art can, or should, give rise to such feelings remains, however, hotly disputed. There are those who insist, often quite aggressively, that the arts exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to give pleasure. The arts, we are told, traditionally existed for no other reason, and that we only started to become precious about it in more recent times. For instance, Alan Bissett, in the article linked to above, solemnly tells us:

Stretching back to oral folk culture, stories were democratic in their nature, bonding communities in a shared experience. Everyone had a tale to tell around the fire; the audience could decide for themselves if it was good or not.

Tempting though it may be to picture our distant forefathers seated around a communal fire and entertaining themselves, purely for pleasure, with recitations from The Book of Job, it doesn’t seem to me an image that rings particularly true. From even the earliest of our surviving literature, it is obvious that the creators, even when they set out to entertain, had set out also to achieve more.

Bissett starts his piece by telling us that there is “art appreciation” and “art worship”, and while he allows the former to be acceptable, the latter he doesn’t. Which would be fine if he could at least explain to us what the difference is between the two, but he doesn’t. And since he doesn’t, I can only guess at what he means: I’d guess that what Bissett refers to as “art worship” is the reverence that some of us may feel for a work of art. And that, according to Bissett, is a Bad Thing. For the purpose of art, he solemnly informs us with all the earnestness of a conscientious hedonist, is to provide pleasure. Nothing more.

The claim that there can be no other point to art than to entertain and to provide pleasure, and that, by implication, anyone who claims to have obtained from art anything other than that must either be fooling themselves or are lying, strikes me as, frankly, gratuitously insulting. Even if one does not feel certain things in the presence of art, the contention that no-one else can or should feel these things either, is presumptuous, to say the least. It also strikes me as boorish and ill-mannered.

The idea that the arts can give rise to certain feelings that are close to religious emotions has long, I think, been acknowledged. Religion itself has recognised this: various religious institutions have either outlawed the arts from the act of worship, considering the quasi-religious feelings derived from art as unwanted rivals to true religious feelings; others have done the opposite, and have incorporated the arts into the act of worship, welcoming the quasi-religious as a legitimate means of approaching the religious. And in recent times, with religious beliefs receding in the West, the arts have in many cases become a sort of secular religion in themselves – a replacement for religion, providing experiences that we can no longer obtain from religion, but which we nonetheless require to prevent our lives from sinking into triviality. For a mortality in which there is nothing serious, in which all is but toys, is, we instinctively realise, a sort of hell.

Yet this hell of triviality is what many seem to recommend to us. Here, for instance, is pianist Charlie Albright, who tells us in a well-meaning article that to bring audiences back to classical concerts again, we must make it fun, and take the seriousness out of it.

Breaking down such “classical” rules will kill “classical” music — and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting … It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert.

But could it not be the case, I wonder, that the “seriousness” of classical music may well be the very reason why so many of us are drawn to it in the first place? Albright is not gratuitously offensive, as Bissett is, but interestingly, he too conjures up a picture of music once being fun, until we unnecessarily burdened it with all our deplorable seriousness. But once again, this does not ring true. The oldest music I know is the choral music of medieval composers such as Josquin des Prez, or Hildegard of Bingen, and I can’t say it is music that makes me want to get up and boogie. Beethoven wrote above the score of Missa Solemnis “From the heart – may it go to the heart”; the piece itself is eighty minutes of very knotty and immensely demanding music. Some may disagree, but I do not get the impression from this that Ludwig had set out to give his audience a bit of fun. What the music does give us, however, is something I do not have the words to describe, and for which I need once again to borrow from Wordsworth – that “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. I feel, indeed, a reverence. And if anyone tells me that I am but fooling myself, and only imagining that I feel this; or even that I shouldn’t feel this; then, frankly,I don’t know that we need take this person too seriously.

I do not know how to describe these emotions, but since I can feel them, they are real. If these emotions I feel aren’t real, then no other emotion I feel can be real either. And yes, the music – or the painting, or the poem – that can give rise to such emotions is indeed something to which we owe reverence. And if that is a definition of the sacred, then yes, it is sacred, and will continue being so, no matter how many Bazarovs there may be in our world telling us that twice two is four, and all else merely nonsense.

The ecstasies of Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Rome can sometimes seem – to the tourist, at least – as a vast museum and art gallery. Look over there – there’s a Raphael. And a few Caravaggios over here. There goes Michelangelo. And if you blink, you’ll miss that church designed by Bramante. Even on the way to the hotel, in the Piazza Barberini, on a traffic island, with all the cars and buses driving indifferently past it, there was a fabulous fountain sculpted by Bernini – a Triton, his head flamboyantly thrown back as he blows into his conch shell.

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“Triton” by Bernini at Piazza Barberini, Rome

I spent a few days in Rome recently. And yes, I took in as much as I could of the Bramantes and the Borrominis, the Michelangelos and the Raphaels, and the various Caravaggios that are dotted around the city. And yes, they are all every bit as wonderful as I had expected them to be. Even with the vast sea of people teeming inside the Sistine Chapel, I was enthralled: it was magnificent. Some complain about all those people ruining their view, but, as one of those people myself, no doubt ruining someone else’s view, I didn’t feel in a position to make such a complaint: I was grateful simply to be there.

I had expected Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio to make a big impression: and they did – no doubt about that. Less expected, perhaps, was the impression made by Bernini, who seems omnipresent in Rome. From that very first glimpse of the Triton on the way to the hotel, his works impressed themselves upon my imagination. As he had no doubt intended: all that Baroque flamboyance – some may say “exhibitionism” – is designed, after all, to impress. There may or may not be depth in these works, but it hardly matters when one is so blown away by the surface brilliance.

There is a tremendous sensuality to these sculptures, and it is difficult not to respond to it. In a small, unassuming church near my hotel, is the very famous sculpture of “St Teresa in Ecstasy”. The ecstasy is presumably religious in nature, but, in St Teresa’s own description of her vision, in which an angel stabs an arrow repeatedly into her heart, the sexual imagery can hardly be missed:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

(This excerpt is taken from an article in Wikipedia, and the translator is not identified.)

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“St Teresa in Ecstasy” by Bernini, courtesy of Santa Maria delle Vittoria, Rome

And the sexual ecstasy seems to me very obvious also in Bernini’s interpretation – the eyes closed, the head thrown back, the disordered creases of St Teresa’s gown more than suggesting a wild and uncontrolled sexual delirium. I do not know what those of a more religious temperament than mine would make of this blurring of the religious and the sexual: I wouldn’t be surprised if some were to find it disturbing.

What I find more disturbing is the sensuality of two sculptures in the Galleria Borghese, both based on episodes from classical mythology. The first concerns Apollo’s attempted rape of Daphne. In this story, the god Apollo takes rather a fancy to Daphne, and, as gods do, attempts to rape her. And, to save her from this fate, she is metamorphosed into a laurel tree. Thus, Apollo is thwarted, but at a not inconsiderable cost, one imagines, to his intended victim. In Metamorphoses, Ovid narrates this story, as he does all others, without taking a moral stance on the matter, and Bernini does the same. And he goes further: he renders the scene as a moment of great beauty, and of wonder. And I can’t help asking myself whether either is appropriate in a depiction of what is, after all, a scene of attempted rape.

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“Daphne and Apollo” by Bernini, Courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome

Even more disturbing is his sculpture of the Rape of Prosperine. This time, it’s the god Pluto who takes a fancy to Prosperine, and this time, the rape is successful. Bernini depicts the violence of the act, with Prosperine desperately trying to push away the divine rapist. But there’s also a sensuality about the sculpture that I can’t help but find disturbing. It could be claimed that Bernini was doing no more than depicting: Prosperine is undoubtedly beautiful, and, indeed, desirable, so why should Bernini not depict her as such? It is hard, indeed, not to respond to her beauty and her desirability. The detail of Pluto’s fingers pressing into the soft flesh of Prosperine’s thigh seems little short of miraculous: never has marble seemed more like a living being of flesh and blood. In art, one tends often to take the artist’s technique for granted, and to focus on the artistic end to which the technique is deployed; but Bernini is asking us here to admire the technique for its own sake, and it is well nigh impossible not to do so. But when I consider the ends to which this technique is deployed, I can’t help but feel somewhat disturbed: can it be morally acceptable to depict such grotesque violation of a human being with such loving sensuality? I do not know. But it just feels wrong.

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Detail from “The Rape of Prosperine” by Bernini, courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome

On my last day in Rome, I went to the Trastavere, on the west side of the Tiber, south of the Vatican. There were those wonderful frescoes by Raphael in the Villa Farnesina, and, further south, a delightful complex of piazzas, restaurants, and churches: even at the height of the tourist season, there was about the place a sense of stillness and quiet. My aim was the church of San Francesco a Ripa, which contained, so my guide book informed me, a late Bernini, created when he was in his seventies – a funerary sculpture of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. Although not far – certainly within walking distance – from the crowded centre of Rome, the church was deserted: I was the only one there. The atmosphere was still and solemn, and, one might reasonably expect, a funerary sculpture, created when the sculptor was himself in his old age, and, no doubt, contemplating the stillness and the silence of eternity, would share something of the sombre and pensive qualities of the surroundings. What I saw was rather different.

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“Beata Ludovico Albertoni” by Bernini, cortesy San Francesco a Ripa, Rome

Once again, Bernini seems to see no division between religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy. While this may well have been justified in the case of St Teresa, there seems little justification of it here: it is almost as if Bernini is incapable of seeing anything, no matter how profane or sacred, in anything other than purely sensual terms. The Blessed Ludovica, like St Teresa, has her head thrown back; her right hand is pressed close to her soft breast, while her left hand clutches frantically at her midriff; her thigh is at an angle to her torso, her knees bent, her entire body electrified in an orgasmic moment of sheer sensual ecstasy. I, certainly, have never seen a funerary sculpture anything like this.

What do those of a more religious temperament than mine make of this, I wonder? Are they as disturbed by this as I am by the Rape of Prosperine? Are some, perhaps, shocked? And if so, did Bernini intend to shock? Perhaps not. I know little of Bernini the man, but, observing his works, I get the impression of someone who saw everything – the sacred and the profane, this world, the other world, all that is, and all that could be – in the most unashamedly sensual and erotic of terms. And even in old age, when the heyday in the blood is tame, humble, and waits on judgement, Bernini’s throbbed as voluptuously as it ever had done. And if this disturbs puritans such as myself, well, perhaps we deserve sometimes to be disturbed.

This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?

In Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata – a very favourite film of mine, and which I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog – the character Bhupati, immersed in politics, isn’t too impressed by the arts. At one point, he tells his more artistically inclined cousin of the dire poverty into which so many of their countrymen have been plunged as a consequence of British policies in India; and he then asks rhetorically: “Which is the greater tragedy? This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?” It is a question worth asking: why seek out tragic works in art when there is no shortage of real-life tragedy all around us? Or, to spread the net even wider, why look to art at all when we have real life? Plato posed this very same question in The Republic: the arts can but be at best an imitation of real life, and no imitation can be as valuable as that which it imitates.

So, in Bhupati’s world, it is foolish to grieve over the fictional Romeo and Juliet when there is so much happening to real people all around us that is far more worthy of our tears. And, presumably, it is equally foolish looking at painted faces created by Rembrandt when real faces created by God are even more remarkable; or experiencing bucolic joys at merely second hand through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, when one can experience them at first hand simply by going to the countryside.

Anyone who cares anything at all for the arts may feel instinctively that Bhupati’s worldview is wrong, that it must be wrong, but it is not easy to pinpoint why. Let us not cast our nets too far here: let us, for the moment, focus on tragic art: is it not monstrous that we find ourselves emotionally moved by an Ophelia or a Cordelia, and shed for them tears that we withhold from the deaths of real people?

I do not know the answer to this, but I do know that those who are deeply and genuinely moved by tragic art, but feel little more than a passing sadness at the news of some person unknown to them dying in an accident, say, and not necessarily monsters. Every second of every day, there is some horrendous tragedy somewhere in the world: the better we know the people involved, the closer they are to us, the more deeply we feel it; but it is not possible to feel equally deeply all the terrible, heart-rending sorrows of real life. I’d conjecture that the greatest works of tragic art focus these feelings. If the sorrows of all the world are too vast for us to take on, then the sorrow we feel for a Romeo and a Juliet, an Ophelia and a Cordelia, seems, as it were, representative of all those sorrows we know we should feel for the wider world, but cannot. When Lear enters in the final scene with the dead Cordelia in his arms, I don’t know that we are weeping specifically for Lear and Cordelia: we know these are fictional characters, after all, played merely by actors. But these figures have taken on, by some mysterious process that I cannot even begin to understand, a universal aspect. The sorrow we cannot feel for tragedies in real life, because real life is too vast and too diffuse for our individual consciousness to encompass, we can feel when presented in a more focussed form. And somehow, this is something that happens in all major works of art: the specific becomes the universal; or, rather, the universal is focussed in the specific.

Some years ago, in a fascinating article in the arts pages of the Guardian, Tchaikovsky scholar Marina Frolova-Walker deplored a book in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were interpreted as but the passionate outpourings of a man tormented by his sexuality. Now, it may well be that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies did indeed have their source in the complex and turbulent emotions occasioned by his gayness, living as he did in a society that refused to tolerate it: it is impossible to say. But even if this were to be the case, to see his symphonies in such terms – to see them, as some still do, as, essentially, confessional outpourings of a man at war with his sexuality – is surely to diminish them. Once the specific has been transformed through art into the universal, it’s the latter that commands our attention. What should it matter to us whether or not these symphonies have their source in the composer’s sexuality? Even if we were to know this to be a fact (and we don’t), why should it matter? When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, I am moved: I am moved not by specific thoughts of the composer struggling with his sexuality, but by the most intense expression of the deepest anguish it is possible for any human mind to feel. It is, in short, its universal aspect of this work that moves me – its depiction of an immense tragedy, not of a single individual – earth-shattering though it may be for that individual – but one in which the whole of humanity is involved.

So that would be my answer to Bhupati: the tragedy of Romeo and of Juliet is not merely the tragedy of two individual fictional characters, but is representative of that immense tragedy in which all of us, as humans, are involved. I suspect, though, that Bhupati’s reaction to such an answer would merely be an impatient and disdainful “Pah!” And he may well be right.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

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“The Milkmaid” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

Putting a bit of passion into the arts

In an age where the arts are largely regarded as no more than signifiers of lifestyle choices, it is good to see some evidence of passion. The last time I wrote here about a protest at an art gallery, the protest was nothing whatever to do with art, but, rather, some infantile nonsense about wearing a kimono. But this protest actually is about art: people are protesting against the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (an institution that must surely be tired to death by now of protests) exhibiting paintings by Renoir on the grounds that … well, on the grounds that “Renoir sucks at painting”, and that exhibiting his works is nothing less than “aesthetic terrorism”.

I’m not really a fan of Renoir myself – I find his paintings too saccharine, too chocolate-boxy – but I’ve always put that down to personal taste. I have never doubted his technical mastery (but then again, what do I know?), and there have even been occasions when I have put all my reservations behind me, and found in some of his works elegance and charm – qualities that, I realise, mean more to me now than they used to in my younger years. I continue to have reservations about Renoir, but I must confess I have never thought of protesting on this matter.

“Les Parapluies” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, courtesy of National Gallery, London

I’d guess this is intended to be funny. Or, perhaps, as a friend suggested, this may be some sort of “performance art”. For surely to God no-one in their right minds can carry banners saying “God Hates Renoir”, and mean it seriously! I mean, they wouldn’t … would they?

So what else could we be protesting about? There’s little point protesting outside bookshops about their selling Dan Brown books – that would merely be stating the obvious, as no-one thinks of Dan Brown as a quality writer in the first place. It would be like saying Plan 9 from Outer Space is a crap film – we all know it’s crap, and indeed, its very crappiness is its attraction. Best to pick on a writer who is admired and acclaimed – Dostoyevsky, say, or Woolf. Wouldn’t it be great to launch a protest outside a bookshop demanding that, on purely aesthetic grounds, they stop selling Crime and Punishment immediately? Or to gather outside an art cinema demanding that they stop showing films by Jean-Luc Godard?

Let’s go for it! Let’s inject some seriousness and passion back into the arts!

Appropriating culture

Recently, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in front of one of the exhibits – a charming painting by Claude Monet of his wife dressed in a red kimono – visitors were invited to try on a similar kimono. I wasn’t entirely sure what the purpose of this was: it seemed, to say the least, a somewhat unorthodox approach to art appreciation. But since it seemed harmless enough, I didn’t think too much of it – although I couldn’t help reflecting that if the gallery were to adopt a similar approach to appreciating Rubens’ nudes, say, they may possibly be overstepping the mark. Beyond that, I didn’t really have any great thoughts on the matter.

However, I was surprised to find that this seemingly trivial matter had led to angry protests. It seemed to me a bit of an over-reaction, frankly: sure, trivialisation of arts seems constantly to be happening around us, and is something to be deplored, but, while one may approve of passion being displayed on behalf of the arts, it did seem to me too minor a matter to protest about. But I was very badly mistaken: the passions aroused had nothing to do with trivialisation of the arts, because, as we all know or should know by now, the arts are a trivial matter anyway, as they are really nothing more than signifiers of lifestyle choices. No – the passion was all about something called “cultural appropriation”. As one of the placards held by the protestors said: “It’s not racist if you looks cute & exotic in it besides the MFA supports this!” This may or may not be making a case against “cultural appropriation” – I wouldn’t presume to judge – but at least it does make the case – very eloquently, I think – for the importance of teaching grammar in schools.

Now, if I were indeed the cultural elitist I have frequently been accused of being, I would have dismissed all this with a derisive snort. However, my curiosity was aroused, and I made some effort to find out just what “cultural appropriation” is, and why it should be deemed so reprehensible. Seemingly, “cultural appropriation” is the adoption of elements from other cultures: that bit I am sure of. What I am not so sure of is why it should be considered reprehensible: in some of the sites I found in the course of my internet searches, this adoption is in and of itself a Bad Thing; in some other sites, it is considered bad because those elements of other cultures that are being adopted are being trivialised. But these objections to trivialisation were all, as far as I could see, in the context of popular celebrity culture, in which most things are pretty trivial anyway: I can’t say I understood this objection very well. If trivialisation is what is being objected to, then one might as well turn one’s guns on the entire edifice of popular celebrity culture! But that is clearly not feasible: quite apart from anything else, were it not for this culture, what would the Guardian newspaper fill its Arts pages with? As it is, they can’t even run a feature on Titian, and make the unexceptionable though obvious point that our modern concepts of feminine beauty are very different from what they used to be, without talking at length about Kim Kardashian’s arse.

The other element that recurred in the course of my admittedly not very exhaustive researches on this matter is what I suppose I should call – simply because everyone else is – “cultural hegemony”. It is seemingly wrong to adopt any aspect of a culture of people who are, or have been, or are perceived to be, oppressed. I couldn’t find any coherent justification of why this, in particular, should be wrong: it seems to be regarded as something so self-evident as to be axiomatic. Maybe if I had persevered a bit more I would have found a coherent argument on this matter, but, to be honest, I didn’t feel up to persevering, as much I had read in the course of my researches into this matter I could not really understand. Now, I like to flatter myself that I have, in my time, read, and what’s more, taken in some often very difficult prose – the late Henry James, for instance, or Virginia Woolf, or James Joyce; but something like this frankly defeats me. I grant it’s all my fault, and that if I were to persevere, I would be able to absorb and no doubt enrich my mind with all sorts of new ideas; but, having read this piece over a few times, and finding myself none the wiser and not even better informed, it seemed best simply to acknowledge my own limitations: some things are obviously just not for me.

Not having absorbed all that has been said and argued about “cultural appropriation”, what I am about to say may well be very naïve, but I’ll say it anyway as it is something I fervently believe. And it is this: cultures thrive by interacting with each other. Look back on any period in history, and we’ll find the same story: we can see how cross-currents between different cultures have enriched us all; we can see how medieval trade routes spanning China, India, Persia, the Arab world, and Europe, had resulted in intellectual and cultural exchanges to the immense benefit of all concerned; we can see how Indian cultures were sparked back into life after long stagnation by contact with the West; how van Gogh incorporated what he had learnt from Japanese prints into his own artistic vision, and how Picasso’s was shaped by what he saw of African masks; how Debussy and Britten had made use of Balinese gamelan music; how Gustav Holst had set to music hymns from the Rig Veda translated into English, and how Indian actors perform on Indian stages Shakespeare’s plays translated into Indian languages; and so on, and so forth. The entire cultural history of mankind is the story of cultures interacting with each other, borrowing from each other, or, if you like, appropriating from each other, and enriching each other in the process. Far from decrying this, it is all to be welcomed, and celebrated.

But all this does seem to me to be swimming against the tide: the contention that “cultural appropriation” is a Bad Thing – an entirely unexamined and unargued contention, as far as I can see – appears to be regarded as self-evident, and I suppose it’s only a matter of time before courses are offered at our universities on Cultural Appropriation Studies. Well, why not? We already have faculties of Gender and Media Studies, where it is seemingly possible to obtain a master’s degree by “perform[ing] Foucauldian readings of Japanese anime porn”.

In the meantime, I think it’s best for me to return to my library, and pull up the drawbridge. It’s not that I don’t want to interrogate and discourse with the outside world, but neither seems possible when there doesn’t exist at least some common ground.