Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

“The Europeans” by Orlando Figes

There’s something about the mid-19th century that fascinates me. Or rather, to be more precise, there’s something about the arts and the culture of the western world of the mid-19th century that fascinates me. But that’s too cumbersome for an opening line.

Pick just about any decade or two any time in history, and it would be easy to reel off the great writers, painters and composers who were active at the time, and the great works that were produced; and the mid-19th century is no exception in that regard. But what makes this period exceptional for me is that there were so many works of that era that mean so much to me personally. Let us, for instance, consider the single decade, the 1860s. It was Dickens’ last decade, and saw the publication of his last two complete novels – Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend; George Eliot weighed in with The Mill on the Floss, Lewis Carroll published the first of his two Alice novels, Robert Browning published Dramatis Personae and The Ring and the Book, while Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last poems were published posthumously after her death in 1861; Tennyson wrote Enoch Arden, and Trollope … well, a quick glance at the reference books indicates that he was, as usual, scribbling away like no man’s business. Across the channel, there was the publication of the final edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Flaubert published Salammbô  and L’Education Sentimentale, and Zola made his mark with the wonderfully lurid Thérèse Raquin. From Russia, we have Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, while Dostoevsky was keeping himself busy with From the House of the Dead, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot. Tolstoy only wrote one major work in that decade, but that major work was War and Peace. And in the meantime, Ibsen, after many years churning out plays that are now only remembered because he went on to write better stuff, got off the mark as an artist with Brand and Peer Gynt, possibly the last great plays written in verse. And all this time, across the Atlantic, the two great American poets of the 19th century, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, were writing some of their finest works.

And this is just literature. There were revolutions happening in the other arts too. Music could not be the same again after Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: composers who came afterwards were either influenced by Wagner, or reacted against him, but they could not ignore him. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was also composed in that decade, as were Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos, some of the later works of Berlioz and some of the earlier works of Brahms … and so on, and so forth.

Meanwhile, in the visual arts, the two giant canvases exhibited by Manet – Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe – were arguably as revolutionary in painting as Tristan und Isolde was in music. The artists now known collectively as the Impressionists (rather misleadingly, since they were all very different from each other) – Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir – were all establishing their distinctive styles and artistic visions.

Even acknowledging that we can find significant artistic activity in just about any decade we may care to look at, this seems to me quite exceptional. And if we look at the decades before and after the 1860s (don’t worry – I won’t be providing more boring lists!) we can find similar flowerings of artistry, in all areas. It could well be that I find this era particularly fascinating merely because I am personally attached to so many of its artistic creations, but I do find it hard to escape the conclusion that there was something in the air – something special was happening. But it’s hard to put one’s finger on it without making crude generalisations.

It seems to me that, around the mid-century – 1850, say – Europe, culturally, was between, as it were, two “-isms”. Romanticism wasn’t quite dead – indeed, I don’t think it ever died – but the writers who flourished in the latter half of the century cannot really be described as “Romantic”: indeed, many, such as, say, Flaubert, may rightly be described as rebelling against Romanticism. Similarly in art: the label “Romantic” may easily be applied to Turner, say, or to Delacroix, but not to the artists now known as the Impressionists, nor to the next generation who are labelled (not too imaginatively) as the post-Impressionists. Like the writers of that era, they were neither Romantic, nor Modernist. The composers who flourished in the latter part of the century are still known as Romantic – Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. – but many of the earlier generation of romantics (Mendelssohn, Weber, Chopin) were already dead by 1850, and Schumann died shortly afterwards in 1856 (although his productivity had been tragically cut off towards the end by severe mental illness). Although some of the old-timers did continue into the latter half of the century (Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi), styles, inevitably, had moved on from the early days of Romanticism: Berlioz had already done much of his best work (Les Troyens excepted), while the best work of Wagner and of Verdi was yet to come. In short, whether they had labels or not, artists of the later half of the 19th century, despite the lack of an “-ism” to characterise them, were, I think, producing works that were significantly different from what had come before. And it is this period – this “inbetweenism”, in between the first wave of Romanticism and the emergence of modernism – that fascinates me. While there are, of course, many artists from outside this era whom I revere – Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven, and various others who carry that terrible stigma of being “dead white men” – it is this in-between era to which I most feel drawn.

And so, when a trusted friend recommended me to read The Europeans by Orlando Figes, I had little hesitation. It is, ostensibly, the story of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, and the somewhat curious ménage à trois he had with famous opera singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot, and her husband, the art critic and translator Louis Viardot; but Figes hangs on this narrative line a fascinating cultural history of Europe in that period. He considers all kinds of factors that shaped the direction of the arts – political, economic, social, technological, even legal: the establishment of copyright laws, for instance, and the various bilateral agreements between nations, transformed the direction not only of literature, but also of music publishing. The greater ease of transport not only made travelling between countries easier, it increased the catchment areas of opera houses, and an increased potential pool for their audience meant a decreased requirement for a constant supply of new works. And so on. Within a few decades, the world changed in all sorts of very important ways, and the arts, to survive, and, quite often, to flourish, had to adapt and change along the way.

The narrative of Figes’ book begins in 1843, when Turgenev and Pauline Viardot first met, and continues till 1883, with the deaths of Louis Viardot and of Turgenev. An early chapter fills us in on the events before, and a concluding chapter on events afterwards – focussing, naturally, on Pauline Viardot who lost the two men in her life within a few months of each other. Their story, fascinating in itself (all three were remarkable figures) is particularly appropriate for a book that is essentially about European culture, since they were the most cosmopolitan of people. Turgenev was Russian, Louis Viardot was French, and Pauline Garcia was Spanish, but they all seemed most at home in Germany, and travelled and lived extensively around Europe. Pauline Garcia wasn’t, to judge from her portraits, particularly beautiful, but she possessed, apparently, an extraordinary personal charisma, and her singing was, from all accounts, mesmeric. At one point, we are told of Turgenev observing Dickens in the stalls, listening to Pauline singing Orfeo in a revival of Gluck’s opera (the revival was organised by some chap called Hector Berlioz) with tears streaming down his eyes. Turgenev met briefly with Dickens on the way out, and Dickens was sufficiently moved by the performance to write what is effectively a fan letter to Pauline Garcia-Viardot.

Throughout, one gets what could be called “cultural name-dropping”: there goes Manet, there’s Wagner, there’s Tolstoy – and look over there! – there’s Brahms, there’s Flaubert. The entire book, apart from anything else, is a veritable Who’s Who of major cultural figures of the time. There are some, admittedly, who remain on the fringes: Turgenev appears never to have met with Verdi, for instance, despite Verdi’s immense stature, even at the time. Although we are told Pauline Viardot had performed in Verdi’s Macbeth and Il Trovatore, we are also told of her antipathy to Verdi’s music; and Turgenev himself had been a bit rude about La Traviata in his novel On the Eve. The tastes of Turgenev and of the Viardots tended to run more towards the Germanic rather than the Italianate: Pauline Viardot was, like many others, entranced by the music of Wagner, though she was (much to her credit) outraged when Wagner reprinted his notorious pamphlet “Judaism in Music”. Another of my great cultural heroes of that era, Ibsen, doesn’t really get much of a look in either, despite having spent most of his best productive years in Europe.

The two events that most shook the lives  of Turgenev and the Viardots were the revolutions of 1848, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. (The unification of Italy doesn’t appear to have touched them much, as their focus was more on the north than on the south.) For the latter Turgenev and the Viardots sided strongly with the Prussians, despite Louis Viardot’s French nationality: this was partly because they were living in Baden at the time, but also because they felt this war would help bring down the hated monarchy of Napoleon III.

Interestingly, Verdi, another great artist with liberal leanings, sided with France in this conflict, saying in a private letter that whatever the Italians knew about freedom and liberty, “we have learnt from the French”, and expressing great unease about growing Germanic nationalism. It has long seemed quite curious to me that, despite his own position as a sort of cultural representative of Italian nationalism, he chose for his next opera, Aida, a storyline that was very explicitly anti-nationalist. It is of course wishful thinking on my part that so great a cultural hero of mine should share my own political biases, and I think I should read up a bit more to see if this was indeed the case. But I continue to think it remarkable, nonetheless, that at a time when various types of nationalism around Europe were on the rise, Verdi should compose a work that so eloquently depicts human love overcoming the barriers of nationhood that separate and divide us.

For, while this era was an era of greater cosmopolitanism, it was an era also of increased nationalism: perhaps one cannot have one without the other. People became increasingly worried that with nations coming closer together, local traditions would be erased, and all different cultures homogenised. Perhaps the most notorious expression of this was the monologue Hans Sachs is given towards the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, where German artists are encouraged to keep German art “pure”. This feeling was echoed by all other nationalities – the Czechs, the Russians, and the citizens of the newly united Italy. (Even Verdi urged that Italian composers should be true to the spirit and the traditions of Italian music.) There seemed to be a genuine fear that individual national characteristics will be swallowed up by the international whole – a fear that is still, incidentally, very much with us. This feeling was particularly acute in Russia, where Slavophiles and those who looked to western liberalism were virtually at each other’s throats. This conflict was very apparent in relations between Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. They met when Dostoyevsky, in Baden, visited Turgenev: he had not wanted to, but the two had met accidentally in the street, and, since Dostoyevsky owed Turgenev money, he did not want Turgenev to think that he was deliberately avoiding his creditor. There are conflicting reports on what exactly passed between the two men, but it was certainly most acrimonious, with Dostoyevsky angrily denouncing Turgenev’s last novel Smoke, and Turgenev (according to Dostoyevsky) claiming that he was proud to regard himself as a German rather than as a Russian. Turgenev later denied he had ever said such a thing. And Dostoyevsky’s debt to Turgenev never did get paid.

Like many others at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Turgenev and the Viardots found themselves refugees in England, and the picture that emerges of England at the time reads almost like a catalogue of every single stereotype about the coutry: bad food, a highly polluted foggy and dismal London, and the like. Prices in England were much higher than elsewhere in Europe: despite the shocking levels of poverty, there was clearly much more money circulating in England than there was elsewhere in the continent. (Although Figes doesn’t mention it, one suspects that the rather extensive British Empire may have had something to do with that.) And there was the cultural insularity. The British book trade depended far less on translations than did the book trades of other countries, and when Turgenev spent a few days as a guest of Tennyson’s (yes, he pops up as well), he was surprised to find that not only did this eminent man of letters know nothing of any literature written in any of the countries across the channel, he wasn’t much interested in finding out about it either.

Turgenev had his personal flaws, as does anyone, but he does emerge as a very kind and decent person. So, indeed, does Louis Viardot. Pauline Viardot, in many ways, does appear to be a stereotypically temperamental prima donna, but Figes captures the immense personal charisma that drew so many people to her. Both Louis Viardot and Ivan Turgenev died in 1884: Viardot was some twenty years older, so his demise was perhaps not so unexpected; Turgenev died after a very painful and distressing illness. Among other things, he wrote on his deathbed a touching reconciliatory letter to Tolstoy (with whom he hadn’t always been on good terms), telling him that he considered it a privilege to have lived at the same time. Turgenev, his great friend Flaubert, Wagner, Distoyevsky, Manet and Liszt all died within about five years of each other: culturally, it did seem like the end of an era. And of course, a new one was just around the corner. But what an extraordinary few decades these were! We could see this era, of course, as a sort of bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, but really, beyond a point, labels are pretty meaningless: they may help us see patterns amid all the chaos, but sometimes, these labels create patterns don’t really exist. This Inbetweenism that existed in the years covered by this book – roughly, 1843 to 1874 – remains, for me, one of the most wonderful periods of artistic and cultural activity, and The Europeans I found a quite enthralling guide. Among other things, it makes me want to revisit the works of Turgenev (“the novelist’s novelist” according to Henry James), and of his friend Flaubert. On the whole, this is the cultural era in which I feel most at home.

Impressions of Florence, and of Michelangelo

It is difficult to be in Florence and not have one’s head full of lofty thoughts: it’s the city of Dante and Michelangelo, after all. And it is equally difficult to be in Florence and not get fleeced, for it is also, traditionally, a banking city, a city for making money. You have paid to see the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo? Yes, of course you have. You don’t come all the way to Florence without seeing some of Michelangelo’s most astounding sculptures. But if you think that ticket entitles you to walk into the basilica, then think again. Well, I thought again, and, since I was there, I figured I might as well pay a bit more to enter the basilica. That library in the San Lorenzo is of Michelangelo’s design, and is reputed to be very beautiful, and naturally, I was keen to see that. So I bought my ticket, and headed for the library. But no – my ticket is for the basilica only: you need to get another ticket for the library, sir. And so on.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to carp about the money. Although, I do admit I couldn’t help thinking of Rome which we had visited about three years ago, and where entry to all the various churches, even the St Peter’s, was actually free. Admittedly, you paid to see the Sistine Chapel, but if you wanted to see Michelangelo’s Pietà, say, or the great Caravaggio paintings in the San Luigi dei Francesi, you just walked in. Perhaps I should be praising Roman generosity rather than moaning about Florentine commerce. For, after all, those extra euros did not inhibit the loftiness of thought to which the rightly fabled Florentine art all too easily gives rise. Well, perhaps they did a little, but only a little: I like to think, at least, that I am not as mean and as petty as my opening paragraph may perhaps have suggested.

Michelangelo-David

For how can one stand before Michelangelo’s statue of David, graceful and noble and suffused with what I can only describe as a sort of radiance, and not have Hamlet’s paean to mankind going round one’s head? What a piece of work is Man, indeed! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, and all the rest of it. In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a God. But then, afterwards, intoxicated with such lofty thoughts, I find myself in one of the many tourist tat shops (which, despite my loftiness, I love), and spy a postcard picturing a close-up of the genitals of this same noble David, with dark glasses sketched in at the base of the penis, and the upturned mouth of a smiley face drawn across the scrotum. I doubt that even as a sniggering dirty-minded schoolboy I would have found this particularly funny. All that loftiness seemed suddenly deflated, and not in a manner I found myself comfortable with – although, I suppose, those of a more cynical frame of mind than mine may perhaps differ on this point. How was it Hamlet’s speech ended again? Ah yes – Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.

That afternoon, I was sitting outside a café, reading a book. (Yes, it was Dante, since you ask.) A middle-aged man and an elderly lady walked up to the café, and he asked her, in English, if she would like to sit outside. “No,” I heard her reply, “it smells too much of people.” I am sure I didn’t mishear her. There was no reason to think the remark was directed specifically at me: I was not the only one sitting outside, and neither was I the one nearest them, so there was no reason to take offence personally. Naturally, I tried to construct a story to go with this lady’s rather extraordinary comment. Of course, she could simply have been very eccentric and very rude. But I pictured to myself a much younger lady, with a formidable mind and a keen aesthetic sense; she had loved art, and had always promised herself a visit to Italy, to see some of the great masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance; but the years passed by, as they do, and now, in what is merely early old age – her mid-sixties, perhaps, only a few years older than I am now – she has been diagnosed with an early onset of dementia. And, in the shadow of this impending tragedy, her dutiful son is fulfilling her lifetime’s dream, showing her around Florence while her weakening mind is still capable of taking it in.

Of course, I could have got a few details wrong. Indeed, my entire story could be utter nonsense. I do not insist on it. But I was, I admit, rather moved by my own construction. And that strange line she spoke – “it smells too much of people” – kept resonating in my mind. Let me kiss that hand: let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality.

MediciMadonna

The next day, we were at the Medici Chapel. I wasn’t thinking about the expense, honestly: I was grateful just to be there. At the altar of this chapel was a Madonna and child, with the upper part of the child’s torso turned towards the Madonna – contrapposto, as I believe such twisting of the body is known – and the Madonna herself wearing an expression of infinite sadness. This Madonna seems already to be anticipating her part in the Pietà, when the twisting baby now upon her knee would become so cruelly transformed. Of course, foreknowledge of tragedy in depictions of Madonna and child is fairly commonplace, but this sculpture seems drenched in a sorrow that appears to overwhelm everything else. To my eyes, anyway. But maybe that lady I had encountered the previous day was still in my mind.

On two opposite walls of the chapel, facing each other, are the two Medici tombs, for Lorenzo and Giuliano, two relatively minor figures (historically speaking, that is) of that famous family. In niches on the wall above the two tombs are highly stylised and idealised sculptures of Lorenzo and Giuliano. But it’s the monumental figures immediately on top of the tombs that take one’s breath away. On Giuliano’s tomb, there are figures representing Night and Day; on Lorenzo’s, there are similarly two figures, this time representing Dawn and Dusk. Four times of the day, four phases of our existence: birth, life, old age, death. There is about Michelangelo’s work an intense ingrained seriousness. In his younger days, he had sculpted a Bacchus (now in the Bargello Museum in Florence), depicting a young man holding a cup of wine, with a glazed, vacant expression on his face, and, quite clearly, unsteady on his feet. It remains a quite delightful celebration of inebriation, one with which, I admit, I can readily identify. But such youthful frivolity was far behind Michelangelo now (as I fear it also is with me): his mind had now moved on to other regions – regions that ordinary mortals such as I cannot perhaps inhabit too long without feeling a bit giddy.

Michelangelo-night

Night is a sleeping woman – but whether she is sleeping serenely or uneasily, it is hard to say. On the one hand, she leans her head rather precariously upon her hand; but then again, the expression on her face appears undisturbed. Her body is not that of the fresh and young maiden: this is the body of someone who has borne children. And yet, there is also a certain beauty to the body – not the untouched beauty of youth and its vacancy of expectation, but the beauty of one who has lived, of one who has experienced life’s fitful fever.

michelangelo-day

Day is frankly terrifying. He is a giant, titanic in strength. The legs are crossed, the upper part of his torso turned away from us towards his left, and the head turned back again to his right over his shoulder – the entire form twisted in a sort of double contrapposto. (I don’t know if that is a proper term, but since I have now written it, it might as well stay.) The head is unfinished, whether deliberately or otherwise I do not know, and its rough, inchoate texture seems to heighten a sense of menace. And throughout that body, the muscles are taut, tense, stretched to the utmost, straining at the very limits of what is possible. His left arm is folded behind his back, with veins on his forearm bulging prominently. There is nothing here of the grace and the radiance of David: what we have instead is a sense of raw concentrated strength, and also, I think, a fury – a fury at having reached the limits of the physical, and of striving vainly but defiantly to transcend them.

michelangelo_dusk

All passion seems spent in Dusk. This is a man who had once been as strong and as powerful as Day, but those muscles are now sagging. As with Day, the legs are crossed, but now, there is a sense of resignation in the posture. His flaccid penis lies almost apologetically upon his thigh, and the head, also in a somewhat unfinished state, seems held up with effort. The battle has been fought and lost, and there is little dignity in defeat, except, perhaps, what dignity there is in a weary acceptance.

Michelangelo-Dawn

And there’s Dawn, a nude woman, graceful in posture, but with an expression of intense sorrow upon her hauntingly beautiful face, recalling the sorrow on the face of the Madonna with the infant Christ upon her knee. This is Dawn born with the foreknowledge of what is to come: vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose – themes of an embittered heart, or so it seems.

But I don’t know that Michelangelo’s heart was embittered, as such. Certainly the Michelangelo who sculpted these figures was a very different Michelangelo from the young man who had sculpted David, and who, in the Vatican Pietà, had found a transcendent beauty even in death and in grief. These astounding figures in the Medici Chapel seem to me the work of a deeply troubled man, a man disturbed by the smell of mortality, but not a man who turns away from that smell in disgust.

In his old age, Michelangelo turned back to the theme of his first great triumph – the Pietà. There are three late Pietàs, all unfinished, one disfigured (by himself, in a fit of divine dissatisfaction), and another of doubtful provenance. This last, known as The Palestrina Pietà, is in the Accademia in Florence, and, whoever the sculptor may have been, it is a moving work: in contrast to the youthful Pietà in the Vatican, Christ’s body here is vertical, and Mary, standing behind him, is striving  to hold up the weighty, inert mass. The very last Pietà, known as The Rondanini Pietà, is in Milan, and I have only seen it in reproduction: once again, the thrust is vertical, with Mary standing behind Christ, striving to hold up the body. But individual features are removed, and the two bodies seem almost to merge into one. Michelangelo here seems intent upon removing anything that is not essential, leaving behind only the essence, a sort of abstraction, of those themes of death and of grief that appear to have haunted him so.  Seemingly, he was working on this right up to the day of his death, aged 89.

Michelangelo Pietà Bandini

And there is a there is a third unfinished Pietà, known as The Bandini Pietà, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo in Florence. Michelangelo had worked on this for some eight years in his 70s, but, for reasons still subject to scholarly debate, in 1555, aged 80, he took a hammer to it. Much of it has been reconstructed from the broken fragments, but Christ’s left leg, presumably beyond repair, is missing. And the figure of the Magdalene, under Christ’s right arm, was finished by another hand. It shows: competent though the Magdalene is, compared to the intense expressivity of the rest of the group, it is, frankly, rather bland.

Here, once again, the figure of Christ is vertical, and Mary, here crouching, is trying desperately to hold up the inert mass of his body. Her face is close to his, and the propinquity is more than merely physical. Christ’s right leg zigzags across the lower part of the group, while his left arm, reconstructed from the broken fragments, hangs loose and twisted, its once powerful muscles now incapable. Above these two figures is the hooded figure of Nicodemus (possibly a self-portrait of the artist), leaning forward, and looking down upon this desolate scene with the utmost compassion. I do not think I have seen a visual depiction of mortality and of mourning that is quite so powerfully affecting as this.

One cannot, as I say, remain on these heights for any length of time without beginning to feel giddy. This may have been an emotional world that Michelangelo no doubt inhabited every day, but ordinary mortals like myself need to climb down after a while to the lower slopes. Maybe go into a café, and not mind that it smells too much of people.

Of course, there is much, much more to see in Florence. We were there for five days, but that’s hardly adequate. Merely looking at a painting or a sculpture for a few seconds, or even for a minute or two, and then passing on, is like listening to music in the background while doing something else: it’s not quite taking it in. One really needs a lifetime to truly absorb all the riches. But we all have our lives to get on with: one takes in what one can in the time one has, and is grateful for the opportunity of doing so. Yes, I had my head filled with lofty thoughts; and some very troubling ones too.  But then, I need that glass of Chianti. And – I won’t hide it – something a bit lighter, perhaps, than Dante.

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.

fridgemagnets

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.

Prado-titian

“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.

Pradovelazquez

“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. …)

PradoZurbaran

“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.

PradoWeyden_Deposition

“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.

Aparajito 5

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.

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.