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13 September 2014

A More Nuanced View of the Enlightenment

Ottobeuren Abbey church, architect J. M. Fischer, stuccoes by 
J. M. Feichtmayr, frescoes by J. J. Zeiller

Since reading Joseph Rykwert’s The First Moderns: The Architects of the Eighteenth Century (MIT) roughly three decades ago, I have largely accepted his reading of the eighteenth century’s trajectory toward the roots of Modernism, dominated by neo-classicists, the Goût grec, early Romanticism, Encyclopedic rationalism and proto-structuralism. And, naturally, rejecting Modernism, I was inclined to reject much that went along with the Enlightenment that seemed to have produced it. Not the Enlightenment of scientific advance and human rights, but the not-so-enlightened purism that rejected everything about the culture that had preceded it.

Maria Steinbach pilgrimage church, architect J. G. Fischer, stuccoes by
J. G. Übelherr, frescoes by F. G. Hermann 
Of course, that’s a diagram of history, not its fullness. Before my Germanic Late-Baroque tour, I was already reading a number of recent histories that rendered more complex that pivotal century. Nigel Aston’s Art and Religion in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Reaktion) introduces the many ways in which religion didn’t disappear in the eighteenth century; rather, between Protestant and Catholic cultures there was an intricate rebalancing of perceptions and priorities, the former becoming increasingly more accustomed to, and desirous of, Catholic religious painting, and the latter applying increasingly rigorous standards to the purging of the fabulous (unhistorical) from its iconography. And, as Aston shows, there was simply an enormous quantity of religious art produced in the eighteenth century, most of it remarkably beautiful, that has been too easily ignored.

The architectural historian Heather Hyde Minor, in The Culture of Architecture in Enlightenment Rome (Penn State), tracks a number of ways Enlightenment ideas shaped the building of Rome by church patrons in the first half of the eighteenth century. References to church history and scholarly debates about it, connoisseurship of the antique, an interest in lightness as intellectual metaphor, informed the building of churches, museums, and palaces in the papal city.

St. Martin, Marktoberdorf , architect J. G. Fischer, stuccoes by
A. Bader, frescoes by F. G. Hermann
More apropos the buildings that have filled my senses over the last week, Ottobeuren, Maria Steinbach, and St. Martin in Marktoberdorf, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s Painterly Enlightenment: The Art of Franz Anton Maulbertsch 1724-1796 (North Carolina) describes the career of a painter of spectacular ecclesiastical frescoes who was gainfully employed, with only modest changes to his style, by enlightened patrons almost right up to the end of the century. The church at Ottobeuren received its final interior touches only just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But when one considers the composers working at that same time, like J. J. Quantz, C. H. Graun, or the slightly earlier J. J. Fux, the grace and elegance, formal richness and simultaneous clarity of that gallant music reverberates through these spaces, so clear in formal structure and so rich in ornament.

07 September 2014

If It Ain’t Baroque

Don’t Visit

At the beginning of a Baroque odyssey, of a compact smattering of sites treated in Henry Russell Hitchcock’s Rococo Architecture in Southern Germany (OK, I call it Baroque, he calls it Rococo, but then the pearl is born in the shell; not to mention that so far I’m in Switzerland, and will eventually wind up in Austria), I thought I would post some images from two spectacular, and related, monasteries: Einsiedeln and St. Gallen. For those who lament the loss of medieval St. Gall, read no further. I am besotted by these two places, so filled are they with joy, exuberance, and sheer love of beauty (if those are qualities one doesn’t associate these days with Switzerland, well, that’s a study for a sociologist; come to think of it, The Sociology of Modernism would be a worthwhile study for someone to do). I’m researching topics for my forthcoming book on Invention, but let me just point out one particular from St. Gallen that speaks to the wonderfully rich, and fundamentally human, culture that informed these two monastic complexes. The strength, to me at least, of the St. Gallen church’s decorative program is the figurative reliefs (the decorative rococo ornament work is spectacular as well, if hard to separate from its coloristic role). And here I just want to zoom in to one detail, which for me sums up the supreme humanity in the otherwise overwhelmingly artistic milieu.

Two monks offer bread to a poor woman with her child, and a grizzled old beggar man. He would be only a type if it weren’t for the fact of his peg leg, thrust out into space over the rococo ornament below (becoming the kind of diagonal accent that Alpers and Baxandall describe in Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence), so poignantly pulls us into the message of the relief. This genre detail, even if compositionally useful, is fundamentally human, even sadly so. What can get lost in the place’s wealth of detail—not to mention incredible artistic accomplishment, which so harshly illumines our contemporary mediocrity—is the sense of the corporal, the capacity of these rarified Benedictines to fulfill their mission of hospitality, and indeed compassion, as the inscription proclaims: VISCERA MISERICORDIAE.

Mercy from the gut. The flowering of brilliance in European culture in the first half of the eighteenth century—the like of which we haven’t seen since—was not divorced from the human, the real, the necessary. At Einsiedeln the beautifully ordered monastic complex abuts a hillside where their horses still graze, serenaded in the morning by alpine horns; the earthy, natural side of life fits seamlessly with the refined and spiritual sides. Would that we could recover that balance, although where it hasn’t been destroyed it lives still.

16 August 2014

Emulation and the “Grand Manner”

Or, Why Realism Isn’t the Only (or Best) Way To Be “Classical”

I Quattro Compagni Martiri, S. Cresci in Valcava, Borgo S. Lorenzo, FI

I recently had the pleasure of painting a modest fresco for a rural church in Tuscany, a place where I’ve painted several others over the last decade and a half. While the actual painting process was rocky—from a first giornata that went from bad to worse, to a second (and ultimately only) giornata in a raging wind and rain storm—the reception two weeks later was lovely. Indeed, the communal dinner al fresco on 20 July was Italy at its best, from the community pitching in for everything from food to table setup (and cleanup), to the local priest singing vespers with harpsichord accompaniment, then to his blessing of the fresco, to his de-vesting for the subsequent concert of 18th century music where he played a fine violin duet with the harpsichordist. Beautiful, tasteful, exuberant, faithful, this is the Italy I romance and remind myself of constantly when I’m otherwise made aware of all her problems. Despite what some might say, the problem isn’t the Italians, it’s Italy (whatever that “geographical expression” means).

But since my stormy giornata resulted in a particularly painterly exercise in compressing four heads into one niche, I feel compelled to say something about the painterly, the Grand Manner, and the classical. And first I must acknowledge the truly remarkable flowering of realist technique happening mostly in America. It suits our “know-how,” “git-‘er-done”, demystification-of-everything mentality, recently in evidence in the frankly weird film Tim’s Vermeer. But it has almost nothing to do with what was understood as classical painting from the dawn of the Renaissance until perhaps J-L David at the end of the 18th century. While realism had a place in that tradition, a better word for what was valued was naturalism, the sense that what was represented appeared credible, natural. This was because most of what was painted, apart from portraiture, was actually invented—there was nothing in fact “real” about Correggio’s ceiling frescoes or Titian’s monumental canvases. They were, first of all, paintings, and secondly they were of scenes that had to be imagined, since they came from the Bible, or the lives of saints long gone, and not ordinary life out in the street. What mattered was that the paintings were beautiful (reality often is not), that they were iconographically decorous, and that they fit their architectural context.

The reason so few today think in these terms (I can’t even count on one hand the artists who think like I do) is that success is much more nebulous, and risky, when one privileges the act of painting instead of depicting follicle by follicle the hair on the head of a portrait from life. But, I’m sorry to say, that is rendering, not painting. One has only to get up close to a great Italian Baroque fresco to see the artist’s hand at work, creating from a distance the illusion of form but up close reveling in the act of painting itself. I suspect the reason so few artists today care to work that way is that so few connoisseurs are out there, unlike three hundred years ago, who can appreciate the art of it. Instead, most customers for realism want what the painters offer, something tending toward the photograph, but with just enough paint to suggest a human being made this: but not too much of that hand at the expense of counting the hairs on the figure’s head; or too much rhetoric to get in the way of a kind of quasi-puritanical minimalism.

Instead, my heroes are those titans of three hundred years ago who were in demand all over Europe—Baccicio, Giaquinto, Ricci, Pittoni, Tiepolo. Their work still impresses for its verisimilitude, but not its veracity. They were painters, and even the harbinger of doom for the Grand Manner and its regime of taste, Denis Diderot, said about painting:
"The value of creating resemblance is passing; it is that of the brush[stroke] which causes us to marvel in the moment, and then renders the work eternal."
—Denis Diderot, "Salon de 1763"
(Le merite de ressembler est passager; c'est celui du pinceau qui emerveille dans le moment et qui eternise l'ouvrage.)

Forthcoming: The Power of Images: The Iconography of the S. Cresci Frescoes

16 July 2014

Emulation and Invention

Disruption and the Can(n)on

A bit of filler blog until I have some art to post…

From The New Yorker recently, which, like a stopped clock, is occasionally correct:

Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readers—obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors.

Forget rules, obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal. If you start a business and it succeeds, Linkner advises, sell it and take the cash. Don’t look back. Never pause. Disrupt or be disrupted.

“The Disruption Machine
What The Gospel Of Innovation Gets Wrong.”
by Jill Lepore
The New Yorker
June 23, 2014

Here's Harper’s, less recently, and slightly less often wrong:

In a word, Marcus and Sollors are wrong. “Literary” does not refer to “what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form,” and literature does not encompass every book that comes down the pike, however smart or well-made. At the risk of waxing metaphysical, one might argue that literature, like any artifact, has both a Platonic form and an Aristotelian concreteness. Although examples of imaginative writing arrive in all sizes and degrees of proficiency, literature with a capital L, even as its meaning swims in and out of focus, is absolutist in the sense that all serious writers aspire to it. Although writers may be good or bad, literature itself is always good, if not necessarily perfect. Bad literature is, in effect, a contradiction. One can have flawed literature but not bad literature; one can have something “like literature” or even “literature on a humble but not ignoble level,” as Edmund Wilson characterized the Sherlock Holmes stories, but one can’t have dumb or mediocre literature.

“What Is Literature?
In Defense Of The Canon”
By Arthur Krystal
Harper’s Magazine
from the March 2014 issue

And from The Atlantic, some wrong-headed analysis of truisms about the modern mind:

When Joseph Schildkraut, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, studied a group of 15 abstract-expressionist painters in the mid-20th century, he found that half of them had some form of mental illness, mostly depression or bipolar disorder; nearly half of these artists failed to live past age 60.

“Secrets of the Creative Brain”
Nancy Andreasen
The Atlantic
June 25, 2014

To put it in perspective, how many artists committed suicide before the nineteenth century?

Finally, did you know that Leonardo was a loser? Never mind that the filmmakers use Michelangelo’s Last Judgment to illustrate a piece on Leonardo:

Allora, tutto chiaro?