Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

A Visit to the Prado, or, What I did on my Holidays

There are, next to each other, two fridge magnets, on our fridge (as one might expect), of Rembrandt’s painting “The Jewish Bride”, and of Velazquez’ painting “Las Meninas”. And I used to say that one was the greatest painting I have seen, and the other the greatest painting I haven’t. Well, I have finally remedied that. Heaven knows why it has taken so long. We finally made that trip to Madrid, and spent a day at the Prado – one day was never going to be enough, but it will have to do for now – and so, yes, I have now seen “Las Meninas” as well.

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Visiting the Prado is a dizzying experience. There is far too much to take in in a single visit. After a while, one finds oneself walking past paintings one knows to be masterpieces, but feeling too saturated with what one has already seen to try to absorb anything more. And what about all those other paintings that deserve the time I did not have, and the attention that had already drained away? Well, another visit, perhaps, some other time. Maybe a longer stay in Madrid, and more than a mere day. My mind these days is too small to absorb too many things within so short a space of time. (This, incidentally, applies to my reading also, but let us not get side-tracked.)

Not that I responded to everything. I can make nothing at all of Hieronymus Bosch for instance, and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, so often cited as one of the gallery’s highlights, left me cold. And what is one to make of Rubens? Now, there are a great many paintings by Rubens that I admire – some immensely – but he did churn them out, didn’t he? And yes, I love flamboyance: if anything, my tastes run towards the flamboyant rather than towards the restrained. But there were times I stood in front of some of those canvases, and thought to myself, “This is just silly!” Standing in front of “The Adoration of the Magi”, I actually found myself laughing: not quite, perhaps, the most appropriate response. And yes, this is a comment on me, not on Rubens. But, much though I love the dramatic and the colourful, certain things are beyond even my threshold.

And El Greco. There was a strange one. There was a time when the paintings of El Greco fascinated me, with those colours, at once vibrant and austere, and those forms curiously elongated, but I can see little in them these days except a sort of mystic terror. I don’t think I am so earthbound as to reject anything that may be termed “spiritual” (I use inverted commas there as an admission of defeat: “spiritual” seems far too vague a term to describe what I would like to convey, but neither can I think of a suitable alternative). But, whatever “spirituality” I may profess, an artistic vision that appears to me to offer little other than terror is not one that speaks to me. Not these days, at least: perhaps my receptivity had been broader in my younger days.

But let us not dwell on all that I failed to respond to. What is the point, when there was so much that transported me? Merely to list all the paintings that I loved would be tedious, certainly for myself, and even more certainly, I think, for the reader. So let me highlight just a few paintings that made a particular impression on me. Please indulge me as I choose my personal choices – five paintings that I would take with me from this gallery for my own imaginary private collection.

But choosing merely a few highlights is not very easy in a gallery such as this, where, after having been held transfixed for God knows how long by Velazquez’ “Las Meninas”, I turned round to see through an open doorway Titian’s magnificent equestrian portrait of Carlos V. And this would be my first choice.

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“Carlos V” by Titian, courtesy Prado Museum

Of course, I suppose I should pick “Las Meninas” too – perhaps the most famous painting in a gallery bursting at the seams with famous paintings. But no – for Velazquez, I will pick his portrait of Sebastian de Morra. He was a dwarf, and was in the court merely to amuse the courtiers with his short stature. But Velazquez paints him as a he would an emperor. He doesn’t hide his physique – quite the opposite – but gives this man, the purpose of whose very existence was merely to provoke mirth, a dignity and a nobility that is nothing short of majestic.

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“Sebastian de Morra” by Velazquez, courtesy Prado Museum

My next choice is not so well-known. It is a still life by Francisco de Zurbarán, and at first glance, it is simplicity itself: four vessels, one of metal, the other three of earthenware, arranged in a straight line parallel to the plane of vision, none of them touching or overlapping with each other. Other than these vessels, and the ledge on which they are placed, all is dark. What could be simpler, or, one might think, less remarkable? And yet, the painting projects a sense of stillness, of utter silence, that seems almost sacred. I had said earlier that I do not reject the “spiritual”, and, given my sensibilities, I must say that I find greater spirituality here than in all the mystic visions of El Greco. (Once again, this is not a comment on El Greco … etc. etc. …)

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“Four Vessels” by Zurbaran, courtesy Prado Museum

It was towards the end of my visit of the gallery, after many hours’ wandering, and as I was nearing the end of my attention span, that I found myself face to face with Rogier van der Weiden’s “Descent from the Cross”. And it’s one of those occasions where I wish I were more skilled at this ekpharsis business. I wish I could explain why it is that I find myself so unutterably moved by the fact of Christ’s right hand and the Virgin’s left hand being parallel to each other. But I can’t. I can’t explain anything at all about this wondrous painting. Perhaps I had best resort to that old cliché of certain matters transcending analysis, and leave it there.

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“Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weiden, courtesy Prado Museum

My last choice is a Goya. Not one of those horrific “black paintings” – but one he painted at the end of that series: “The Milkmaid of Bordeaux”. I may be completely wrong in this, but standing in front of that painting, I get a sense of serenity. Through that web of silvers and blues and greens, there seems, to me at least, a sense of having, as it were, come through: after all the horrors, after a journey through Hell itself, Goya presents us with a vision of radiance in a simple figure of a milkmaid. But it is also the vision of someone who knows what he has gone through, and hasn’t forgotten. It is a vision of serenity despite all the terrors. All this is no doubt very fanciful, and I do not possess the skill to explain why I feel this way. I can only report on that fact that I do.

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“The Milkmaid” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

Another trip beckons. I don’t know when: it has taken many, many years just to make my first visit. But I know I have to return. I can’t just leave it here.

 

“Spontaneous overflow”

About a year or so ago, after visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris – a gallery crammed to the brim with masterpieces – I found myself writing, despite my lack of anything resembling qualification or expertise on the matter, on Manet’s L’Olympia. The post turned out to be quite a jokey one. There was another post I wanted to write on another of the masterpieces in that gallery, but, after the first few drafts, I gave up on it: the nature of this painting is such that it demands from the viewer, and from the commentator, a serious engagement with the deepest and the most unvarnished of human emotions, and I felt I wasn’t up to it. Jokey posts are fairly easy to write, but serious writing on intense, naked emotions I find far more difficult: when I read over my early drafts, they appeared to me merely mawkish, and insincere. However, a year later, I thought it was time for another attempt. So if this post too, dear reader, appears mawkish or insincere, do please put it down to my lack of skill as a writer, and to nothing else.

The painting in question is Monet’s painting of his wife, Camille, on her deathbed. It was painted in 1879, when he was 39, and his dying wife merely 32. Monet painted it even as his beloved wife lay there, breathing her last. Many years later, Monet himself had wondered how he could have done it. How could he have been so callous? How could he have focussed on colours, on light, on composition, on brush-strokes, on all those things that artists concern themselves with, when his beloved wife was dying right in front of him?

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“Camille Monet on her deathbed”, by Claude Monet, 1879, courtesy Musée d’Orsay in Paris

And yet he wasn’t callous. For people like me, lacking all artistic talent, it is impossible to know just what goes on in those minds possessed not merely of talent, but of genius. But I would hazard a guess that Monet painted his dying wife because he had to. It is merely the dilettante who first feels, and then sets out to give expression to what they had felt: for someone like Monet, I’d conjecture that the distance between the feeling and the expression of that feeling is much shorter: possibly, it doesn’t exist at all.

There are other examples of this sort of thing – the sort of thing that to the rest of us may well appear callous and unfeeling. Bach, I gather, composed the aria “Schlummert Ein” (from the cantata Ich Habe Genug) while the corpse of his son was lying cold in the next room. Janáček, who has claims to being the finest composer of operas of the 20th century, was fascinated by speech patterns and intonations, and had developed his own means of notating these; and, when his beloved daughter was dying, he found himself at her bedside, notating her groans and her cries of pain. All these examples sound callous, but I wonder whether they are. I have heard it said, for instance, that Tchaikovsky couldn’t have been tearing his hair out when he composed his emotionally distraught 6th symphony, as he wouldn’t be able to work out the harmonies and the counterpoint while tearing his hair out; but maybe, just maybe, working out these harmonies and counterpoint was his way of tearing his hair out. And so, Bach’s aria, Janáček’s notations, Monet’s painting, are not, for these artists, expressions of their grief so much as the thing itself: this is how these people tore their hair out.

All this is, I appreciate, conjecture. I will never be privileged enough to know what it is exactly that goes on in the mind of a genius.

Monet’s painting of his dying wife, even if we did not know the circumstances in which it was painted, is heart-rending. It is a painting of a parting, a final parting. The face, now seemingly unaware even of the presence of the viewer, seems already beyond human reach, disappearing fast into an ever-thickening, impenetrable mist. “Il y a un moment, dans les séparations, où la personne aimée n’est déjà plus avec nous,” Flaubert had written in L’Education Sentimentale (“There comes a moment in parting when the person we love is no longer with us”). Monet has captured here this very moment. The face is becoming at this moment a mere lifeless object, like the pillow upon which her head rests, and which Monet has painted as if it were a snow-covered hill.

This is certainly not the “emotion recollected in tranquillity” of Wordsworth’s formulation. It is, however, worth considering these well-known words in their proper context:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on…

  • William Wordsworth, from the preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth is clearly not suggesting that poetry should be created while in a state of tranquillity: quite the contrary – he says that it should be created when the poet in an emotional state similar to (“kindred to”) the emotions being depicted. The point of recollecting “in tranquillity” is to produce again in the poet’s mind emotions similar to those the poet is setting out to depict.  For only then can the overflow of powerful feelings, which Wordsworth contends is the very essence of poetry, be spontaneous. So if Tchaikovsky, say, is depicting emotional states of mind that are tormented and turbulent, he must, even while composing it, even while working out the harmonies and the counterpoint, be feeling something that is at least kindred to that torment and that turbulence. Otherwise, how can that overflow of powerful feelings be spontaneous?

Wordsworth does, however, qualify his formulation with the word “generally”: “In this mood successful composition generally begins…” (my italics). And I wonder, in view of Bach’s aria, in view of Monet’s painting, whether, in some cases, that spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings can occur not as a consequence of recollecting afterwards in tranquillity emotions previously felt, but even at the very moment the artist is feeling these emotions for the first time.

I don’t know. These are merely conjectures on my part, as the workings of creative minds remain a mystery to me. But, given that Monet himself had wondered how he could have painted his dying wife even as she lay dying, it could be that these things are mysteries to artists also.

Some agnostic musings on Good Friday

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Michelangelo’s Pieta, courtesy of the Duomo Museum Florence

Even those who claim not to be Christian, or not to be religious, often find themselves listening to Bach’s passion music on Good Friday. And, further, find themselves moved by it. I am among them. I do not profess to be religious; I do not identify myself by any religious affiliation; and indeed, I was not even born into a Christian family (my parents were Hindus, though not practising Hindus). And yet, I shall shortly be putting on CDs of Bach’s Matthew Passion, and fully expect to be in tears by the end.

I make shamefaced excuses for this. It’s the quality of the music, I say. Well, yes, it is. But it is not entirely the abstract nature of the music that moves me so. It is the story itself that the music narrates

This, for many, is what is known as a “gotcha!” moment. “Gotcha!” they say. “So you are religious after all! And a sentimentalist to boot!” And sometimes I think, well, maybe I am. But so what? And then, I think a bit more and realise that I find myself moved by Othello and King Lear also, and don’t for a minute believe in the literal truth of Desdemona or of Cordelia. So my militant agnostic status, I submit m’lud, remains on solid ground.

Of course, in speaking of the undoubted sublimity of the story of the Passion, we shouldn’t overlook its occasionally less savoury aspects. A Jewish friend of mine jokes that, much though he loves Bach, every time the Evangelist sings of “Das Juden”, he can’t help thinking to himself “‘Ere, ‘old on, mate! It warn’t me wot killed yer Messiah!” But even he concedes the power of the story.

Artists, composers, and poets have all been drawn to this story – not necessarily because the churches were among the major patrons of the arts and demanded works on religious themes, but because they found in this story a focus for some of their most profound thoughts and feelings about everything that matters most – betrayal, guilt, atonement, evil, cruelty, suffering, grief, love, compassion, and, of course, death. And, for the believers, resurrection. Or, even for those of us who do not believe, that tantalising promise. In the final scene of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare dramatises this promise of the Resurrection, and I have never been quite able to work out quite why, despite my not believing, I find that scene so ineffably moving.

But I am not speculating on the matter any further: I am quite happy leaving my unanswerable questions unanswered. It is true I was born into an Indian Hindu family, but Christianity is so deeply imbued into Western culture that it is simply not possible to absorb one without also absorbing the other.

Nearly thirty years ago now, when I knew so little of Renaissance art (even less than I do now), I remember standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà that is now in the Cathedral Museum in Florence, and I gasped. I felt that same sense of solemn wonder as I do when faced with the mystery that is Bach’s Matthew Passion. This Pietà is a late work: Michelangelo had been working on it till the very end of his long life. He had left it in a vandalised state: in some divine fit of dissatisfaction, he had taken a hammer to it, and had smashed Christ’s left arm, and his left leg. (The arm has been reconstructed from the fragments, but the left leg is still missing.) The sculpture is also unfinished: the figure under Christ’s right arm was sculpted after Michelangelo’s death, and it shows. Though undoubtedly competent, it’s the only part of the entire group that, as even my inexpert eyes could tell, is lacking in expression. And this figure throws into relief the almost unbearably intense and profound expression of the rest of the group.

There is much that may legitimately be said against religious belief. And yes, I know well the vast sufferings that have been caused, and continue to be caused, in the name of religion. But I must confess I find it hard to regret a culture that has given us a meditation so profound as this on suffering, on death, on grief and on compassion, and on love. On everything, in short, that most matters.

 

Goya and Dr Arrieta

It is hardly indicative of any great insight or perspicacity to describe Goya’s paintings as “disturbing”. It is hard to think of any other artist with a darker, more harrowing vision.

Sadly, I have not yet visited Madrid, and have yet to see most of Goya’s output, but what I have seen in reproduction is striking enough. And, about two years ago, I saw an exhibition in the National Gallery, London, of Goya’s portraits. And in that exhibition there was this quite extraordinary self-portrait, loaned from the Minneapolis Institute of Art where it normally hangs.

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Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta by Francisco Goya, courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art

Goya presents himself here as severely ill, somewhere close to that vague borderline between this world and the next, his head rolled back, clutching on to his bedsheets as if for his very life. By his side is Dr Arietta, to whom Goya presented this painting in gratitude. Dr Arrieta is shown here as a reassuring presence, holding up his patient gently but firmly, and urging him to drink from his glass of medicine – urging him, indeed, to return, as it were, to life itself.

It is a striking image, but what fascinates me most are the other faces on the canvas – shadowy faces, as if vaguely glimpsed, behind the dominating figures of the doctor and his patient. Who are they? The Wikipedia article on this painting suggests they are “perhaps [Goya’s] servants and a priest”. Well, yes: perhaps. The article goes on to further suggest, I think plausibly, that they may be “portents of doom”. I remember standing in front of this canvas, looking at those faces looming menacingly in the murk, and experiencing a certain frisson, a vague sense of something fearful. These figures, lurking in the dark, the level of their heads considerably lower than that either of the doctor or of Goya, may indeed be real people – servants and a priest, as the Wikipedia article suggests. But – and maybe this reflects only on my own cast of mind, and nothing else – I could not help sensing something demonic about them. Like some horrific spirits glimpsed in the throes of a vivid nightmare – or, perhaps, sensed in the delirious wanderings of a sick mind dangerously close to death.

If we do indeed accept these faces as demons, we could certainly interpret them as but demons of the mind, of Goya’s sick mind, false creations proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain; and that Dr Arrieta, a man of science, as the representative of Enlightenment rationality, banishing these creatures of the dark.

But there is, it seems to me, another possible explanation: it could be that though our rationality refuses to admit their reality, these demons are real enough, and that not all our science and reason could ever drive these monsters out from our minds.

The Apu Trilogy Revisited

The Apu Trilogy, directed by Satyajit Ray, consists of the films Pather Panchali (a.k.a. The Song of the Road, 1955), Aparajito (a.k.a. The Unvanquished, 1956),  and Apur Sansar (a.k.a. The World of Apu, 1959)

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It’s always difficult writing about things you feel personally close to. For one thing, it becomes virtually impossible to keep an objective distance, or even the pretence of one, and the whole thing ends up being the kind of gushing that puts off the very readers one wishes to enthuse. And for another thing, it becomes very difficult to keep autobiography out of it.

Looking back on what I had previously written in this blog on these three films, I see I hadn’t quite managed to keep autobiography out of it. But it was not as bad as I had feared. I see also that while I had focussed on the themes of the work, I had spoken also on what happens – i.e. the plot. But that previous post had been written over six years ago. I try not to say much about plot in my posts these days, since, in any major work of art – whether a film, or a novel, or a play, or an opera, or whatever – the plot is usually the least interesting aspect, and doesn’t, I think, merit much discussion. And after all, a summary of the plot is always a bit boring: if you know the work in question, it becomes merely an account of what you already know; and I fail to see what possible interest it can have for those who don’t know the work. So, I promise, in this post at least, to keep off the plot as far as I can. I promise also not to get autobiographical.

(No, on second thoughts, I retract that second promise, for once I start talking about these films, who knows where my ramblings may lead me! The first promise, though I intend to keep.)

But I do feel I need to talk about these films again. (And here I make another promise: I shall do my utmost best not to repeat anything I had said in my previous post.) This last Sunday, I was at the British Film Institute on the South Bank in London, seeing all three films one after the other, on the big screen, in newly restored prints; and, since then, I am finding it difficult to think about anything else.

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I have known these films since my teenage days, and have seen them heaven knows how many times over the years – first on VHS tape, later on DVD, and, occasionally, in the cinema. For reasons given above, I’ll resist the temptation to gush about them, and overload this piece with superlatives: let me just restrict myself to saying that what I experienced at the BFI on Sunday, I feel I need to share.

First of all, the restorations themselves. I didn’t think they would make much difference – after all, how could I love those films even more than I already did? – but they do. Those passages where I remember the picture shaking now emerge as they were meant to be seen; and the extraordinary beauty Ray and his cameraman Subrata Mitra capture – in the Bengali countryside, in the faces of people, even in the scenes of urban squalor – emerges as if freshly minted. I realised, as I frankly hadn’t done before, just how visually gorgeous these films are.

And the soundtrack too has been restored. The music for Pather Panchali was composed by a then relatively unknown Ravi Shankar during a single session on a single day (Ravi Shankar later composed the music for the other two films also), and it emerges here resplendent. And what music! With the restoration of the soundtrack to such pristine quality, I realised all the better how much thought Ray had put into the placing of the music. There are musical themes – leitmotifs, I suppose I should call them – associated with certain dramatic themes, with certain characters, and with certain dramatic situations; and their reprises, often in subtly altered form, tell us much about the nature of the drama. For instance, in Apur Sansar, the third of these films, we hear, on the night of Apu’s bizarre wedding, the soulful strains of the boatman’s bhatiali song; we hear this music again much later when Apu returns, and sees his son for the first time. The effect of linking those two scenes together with this music is heart-rending. And we get this kind of thing throughout – scenes and situations linked together, often unexpectedly, by the music. For this trilogy of films seems to me a musical as well as a dramatic masterpiece.

Most striking of all, for me, was the return at the very end of the last film of that hysterical death music we had heard near the end of Pather Panchali. I never quite understood why the reprise of this music at this particular moment should be so striking. I suppose an explanation of sorts can be offered: at its first appearance, a father loses a child; at its reprise, a father reclaims his child. The wheel has, in a sense, come round full circle. But this is a contrived explanation, and it doesn’t really satisfy. In the end, one has to put it down – as with so much in these three films – as one of those pieces of magic that defy rational analysis. It works, it resonates, it takes our minds and our souls to some rarefied plane to which only the greatest of art can take us: we might as well just leave it there, and not even try to account for it.

When I try to convey my overall impressions of these films, I often find myself speaking of its emotional intensity, and I think I give the impression of a tearful wallow, a weepie. I suppose this is, in a sense, inevitable. Everyone I know, or know of, who has responded to these films, speaks of its very direct – often disconcertingly direct – emotional impact. Saul Bellow, in Herzog, describes his titular character watching Pather Panchali in a New York cinema, and weeping with the mother when the hysterical death music begins. Indeed, only now, writing that last sentence, do I realise that the words “hysterical death music” that I have used both in this paragraph and in the previous are taken from Bellow’s novel. In the previous paragraph, the borrowing had been unconscious: Bellow’s words had obviously lodged in my mind, and they had surfaced unbidden. But since I have already written it, it might as well stay: Bellow’s words do, after all, describe the nature of the music, the expressive ardour and ferocity of which convey more powerfully than any other music I am aware of an utterly uninhibited abandon in the face of that greatest and most devastatingly final of all losses.

In my earlier years, I remember, I used to try my best not to weep as Moses Herzog had done in that New York cinema. For I was a man. A young man at that. And men don’t cry. At the end of the film, I would try to compose myself as best I could before walking out of the cinema. What’s that in my eye? Yes, that’s right, something had gone into my eye, and I was just scratching it, that’s all. But this time, my worry was quite the opposite: I was afraid that, as Hopkins puts it, “as the heart grows older, it will come to such sights colder”:  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be so emotionally affected by these scenes; that, with age, my heart, along with my arteries, will have hardened. And I am genuinely happy to report that such was not the case. I was as emotionally affected as ever I have been.

But although there is much loss in the course of these three films, loss is not the central theme. Rather, at the centre of these films is the ability to grow with experience, to engage with the world and all that it has to offer. In this, I think, Ray’s trilogy is somewhat different from those two magnificent novels by Bibhuti Bhushan Banerji (Pather Panchali and Aparajito) on which they are based. Bibhuti Bhushan (it is customary in Bengali to refer to people by their forenames rather than by their surnames) had been primarily interested, it seems to me, on the continuity between past and present – on those events of childhood, apparently trivial though many may be, which shape the person that is to emerge; and also on the re-creation through memory of the past that helps nourish the present. But Satyajit had picked up, I think, on another aspect of Bibhuti Bhushan’s novels, and this is Apu’s desire, his hunger, to engage with the world, and all that it has to offer.  And to do this, he has to live through loss. He has to learn – not so much to overcome grief (for such grief cannot be overcome), but to live with the grief, and not turn away. But turning away, despite all, is precisely what he does in Apur Sansar: here, even Apu buckles, and chooses to turn his back on life, and live instead with the memory of the dead. Only in the final section of the film does he re-emerge; or, rather, it is only in the final section that he begins to re-emerge: there is no closure, no finality, for such things cannot exist while we go on living. But even in this beginning to re-emerge, there is joy. For all the pain and grief that run through these three films, ultimately, what is conveyed is a sense of joy – a joy that is all the more precious for being so precarious, and for having been so painfully won.

ApurSansar

I suppose this is the point, as I am approaching the end of this post, where I should recap and summarise, but I must be careful once again not to appear gushing. Before I went to the British Film Institute last Sunday, I was wondering whether I could take so long an emotional marathon. And it’s fair to say, I think, that the six or so hours I experienced was not exactly light entertainment. But I am glad I went. Sometimes, one feels one knows certain works so well, that one doesn’t bother revisiting them: they’re in one’s mind anyway, so what’s the point? But even when something is imprinted in one’s mind as firmly as these three films are in mine, it is worthwhile revisiting them. Especially when, as in this instance, they have been returned to their pristine glory by such loving and meticulous restoration.

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?”

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.