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Art Faddism and Art Heresy 27/02/2011

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c. 1910

Florence is the favorite haunt of the faddist. And the art faddist is the most freakish of them all. There are art amateurs there – the genuine and the sham. And many of those who talk most glibly about the Cinquecento and that sort of thing strike me as being sham. As for the Cinquecento, no one can deny the leadership of the Florentines in the Renaissance movement. Among the Florentine artists of that epoch are some of the greatest names in Italy. But they do not leaven the whole lump. There were inferior men among them, and many mediocrities. But the faddists will not admit that. They insist that the whole Cinquecento is flawless; that every stone-cutter was a Michael Angelo and every dauber a Raphael. This fifteenth-century faddishness strikes me as being nineteenth-century nonsense. My sense of humor is often aroused by hearing long disquisitions on art from ingenuous maidens who have spent a fortnight in Florence. After much talk about the Pitti and Uffizi galleries, they invariably get around to Botticelli.

In Florence it is a curious study to stand before some famous Botticelli and note the crowd of adoring Uffizi-gallery, greenery-yallery maidens clustered at the master’s shrine. They are limp and they cling. They sigh ecstatically. They exchange humid glances from tear-wet eyes for a moment, and hastily look back at the magic canvas. If one can secure an iconoclastic artist with whom to shock such a circle, it is a keen delight to pitch into Botticelli. And how amusing to note the expressions on the faces around! First of contempt, as implying: ‘These men are Yahoos’. Then of disgust, as meaning: ‘They are only barbarians’. Then of pain, as concluding: ‘They are heretics’. And finally of horror and of fear, as who should say: ‘They talk the talkytalky of the inner circle! They have been of the soul-soulful! They were once Botticellians! They must be backsliders!’ And they turn and flee.

The art patter, the studio slang, the faddist’s jargon are easily picked up. An adroit use of it will impress the listener with the belief that the speaker knows what he is talking about. But what matters it whether he does or not? The faddists have a right to their opinion. I have a right to mine. I dislike the work of Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Fra Lippo Lippi, and their imitators. The Florentine faddists like it. Why, I do not know. But I know quite well why I do not like it. It strikes me as being false, flat, untrue to nature, and ridiculous.

There is a famous picture by Fra Lippo Lippi representing the Virgin and Child. It is an interior, in which there are a number of other figures. The perspective is so crude that a woman in the background looks as if she were stepping on the Virgin’s shoulder. The figures in the foreground, middle distance, and background have so absurd a perspective that they look like paper dolls of different sizes, cut out with scissors and gummed upon a background. The drawing is so extraordinary that it suggests a Chinese screen. As for the chief figures, the Madonna is grotesque and the infant Jesus preposterous. He has the face of a fat and flabby middle-aged man; the right hand is near the nose, with the fingers crooked in the gesture of benediction; he inevitably suggests an elderly person taking snuff. The picture, as a whole, always reminds me of Hogarth’s cartoon of false perspective.

Another side-splitting picture which the Botticellans love is ‘Calumny’. This also is an interior. The two leading figures, a lady and gentleman with nothing on, are before a seated Rhadamanthus. Into the judge’s ears busy tongues pour calumnies. Between the erect figure of the naked lady and the recumbent figure of the naked gentleman – who occupies a most ungraceful semi-seated posture on the floor, hairhauled to the judge’s feet – there stands a figure like the Witch of Endor. The naked lady is shaped like the letter S. It is difficult to gaze upon this extraordinary composition without roaring with laughter. Its perspective, like Fra Lippo Lippi’s, is childish, is Chinese, is aboriginal.

I am aware that the retort of the Botticelli faddist would be something like this: that in Botticelli’s day painting followed the rules of basso-relievo; that, therefore, perspective did not count; that he was a great colorist; and that I don’t know what I am talking about. To which I would reply that a painter who could not paint perspective ought, instead of painting pictures, to have painted signs; that as for basso-relievo, Lorenzo Ghiberti wrought with a chisel in bronze, and in that stubborn metal accomplished distance-effects, depth, and almost an atmospheric perspective which would put Botticelli to shame.

The painter’s apologists plead for his flatness the rules of another art. But a master of that art accomplished with his chisel what Botticelli failed to accomplish with his brush. It may be said that the Botticelli faddists have as much right to their belief as I to mine.

Granted. I do not quarrel with them because they think him great, but they quarrel with me because I think him funny. In the Louvre there is a famous nameless Botticelli. It is a picture of a long, lank lady in a reclining posture. She might be called ‘the telescopic lady’, because she looks as if her lower limbs had been elongated by the cherub at her feet. I respect honest convictions, but I very much doubt at times the sincerity of the Botticellians. Many of them are young women with half-formed ideas, and most of their ideas seem to me to be second-hand. Their ideas are other people’s ideas. They think other people’s thoughts. They admire to order. They read Ruskin and rave Ruskinese. From my attempts to read Ruskin I always believed that his mind was affected. My belief was verified when, some years ago, he went crazy and remained so till his death.

The crude realism of artists of this school seems to me almost like Indian picture-writing. In the monastery of San Marco in Florence there are a number of wall-pictures by Fra Angelico. In one cell there is a picture of the scene in the stable in Bethlehem. The Virgin and two saints are kneeling in an adoring attitude, gazing at the infant Jesus lying on the ground. The figures are all ridiculous, and that of the infant Jesus is the most ridiculous of all. But as if to give the finishing touch to this study of the religio-ludicrous, the heads of an intelligent ox and of an intelligent ass are protruded from a box-stall at the back of the stable.

Fra Angelico was doubtless a pious and ladylike monk, but he was no Bonheur. His study of animals’ heads must make animal-painters mourn. How gross and earthy is this monkish mediaeval art! It is so crude that it is within the scope of the most humble wielders of the brush. I once saw on the ceiling of a California Mission chapel a picture of the scene from Revelation, where God upon his great white throne is surrounded by four-and-twenty elders crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, night and day. Some unskilled monk with his crude pigments had painted the picture for the simple Indian neophytes of Spanish California. So naive was its realism that, in addition to depicting the Creator as an elderly man with a long white beard, the artist had painted scrolls issuing from the mouths of the four-and-twenty elders on which was the legend ‘Santo, Santo, Santo’.

The effect of the mediaeval realism of Beato Angelico and his school upon our Florentine faddists of today is very much like the effect produced by the monkish Mission artist on the minds of the simple aborigines dwelling on California’s hills. If any Florentine faddist should fall foul of me for these remarks and accuse me of ignorance of the canons of art criticism, I will admit it. I will go further, and will admit that I am ignorant that there are any canons of art criticism. There may be canons of art – there are no canons of art criticism. This fact is proved every day. That Ruskin for a third of a century poured forth a stream of art-gabble; that he was believed by the faddists to be an art prophet; that he was regarded as one inspired; and that, finally, it was discovered that the man was moon-blind and mad, and probably had been mad for many decades of moons – is not this a biting commentary on the value of art criticism? What is art criticism? What are its canons?

It changes with the advent of a new sovereign, and it varies with the passing of a Pope. A Borghese Pope would drive out the art-followers of a Medicean Pope as Christ drove out the money-changers from the temple. Art criticism changes like the fashions of skirts and bonnets, coats and trousers.

A century ago Bernini was considered great. Now he is called rococo. Even Michael Angelo’s fame seems in this our day to be dimmed, for sculptors claim that the head of his famous Moses is entirely out of proportion to torso and limbs. They also say that in his still more famous ‘Pieta’, the dead Christ is a pigmy and the mother is a giantess. Furthermore, they prove these charges by rule and line. So absurd are the so-called canons of art criticism that scarcely a year passes without a change in the labels on the pictures in the European art galleries. One year a picture will be labeled painted by Raphael. Newspaper art critics attack its pedigree. The gallery art critics defend it. But they yield, and the label is changed to ‘school of Raphael’. After another year it becomes ‘manner of Raphael’. In the fourth or fifth years Raphael’s name disappears, and that of some obscure contemporary artist is substituted.

If gross blunders are perpetrated by professional art critics and curators of galleries, what shall the layman do? If he will take my advice, he will do what he pleases and admire that which pleases him. There is no canon of art criticism which will make me admire things to order or affect to admire that which in reality leaves me unmoved. I have a great contempt for sham, and for the sham art amateur most of all. The kind of creature who professes to admire immensely a picture by Raphael; who modifies his or her judgment when told that it is by one of Raphael’s pupils; who turns in indifference from the picture when told later that it is a ‘forgery’ – what kind of a thinking creature is that? If the picture was a beautiful one before the discovery, why is it not a beautiful one after the discovery?

Some years ago a Swiss-Italian art critic, one Morelli, wrote a series of letters in German reviews over the signature ‘Ivan Lerminoff’, attacking the ‘authenticity’’ of famous pictures in the Italian galleries. The letters caused a sensation. Morelli’s identity was at last revealed, and he was bitterly assailed. But his attacks resulted in a great changing of labels. For example, there is in the Doria gallery in Rome a beautiful portrait of Queen Joan of Aragon. It was believed to be a copy of Raphael’s portrait made by Leonardo da Vinci. But the attacks on its pedigree showed that it was not by Da Vinci, but by an obscure Dutch artist. A few years ago you would find crowds ever around the portrait of Queen Joan. Now there is none so poor to do it reverence. Why? Is it any the less a fine picture than it was before Morelli wrote? These candid remarks are not to be understood as meaning that I do not admire ‘old masters’, for I do – some of them, that is. But I refuse to aflfect to admire old masters or any other masters unless I genuinely feel an admiration for their work. I am not particularly fond of holy families. But I can not gaze upon Raphael’s or Murillo’s Madonnas without being impressed by their womanly dignity, their purity, their super-humanism; and I am always moved by the gigantic genius of Michael Angelo.

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