Tangled Questions in British Art

Yesterday a good friend and fellow blogger sent me an article from The Daily Mail, which details an interesting but unscientific experiment conducted recently at Tate Britain in London. Four works by deceased, well-regarded artists of the preceding centuries were contrasted with the works of four British contemporary artists, based on observations of how long people stopped to look at each of the works of art, and providing anecdotal evidence of the comments of visitors about the pieces they looked at. The results, so far as they go, are interesting but not surprising: people generally like to look at attractive images. Unfortunately, the article is fatally flawed in that it demonstrates a poor grasp of art history, its methodology is suspect, and it fails to ask the right questions.

To begin with, the article refers to the deceased artists in this experiment as “the great masters”. However, this is not really a precise or useful term, and somewhat slapdash-shorthand. One can be a “great master” of just about anything – a great master cabinetmaker, for example, or a great master chef. If we are going to use a term for purposes of comparison, then we need to be a bit more careful about what we mean.

The term “Old Masters”, for example, which may be what the article intended to reference, can be generally defined as European painters working between the dawn of the Renaissance and the end of the 18th century, though the endpoint is somewhat imprecise. Of the now-dead artists whose works were selected for this experiment – William Hogarth, John Millais, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeil Whistler – only the 18th century satirical illustrator Hogarth may technically fall into the time frame for Old Master painters, though personally I would hesitate to include him as a member of that body of artists. The English painter Millais was a member of the mid-19th century Pre-Raphaelite movement, and therefore not an Old Master. Sargent and Whistler, two American painters working from the mid-19th into the early 20th century, are definitely not Old Master painters either.

Another flaw in the experiment is that not only are the “great master” works selected for the purpose of comparison all paintings, but as evidenced above they are all in completely different styles. Of the four works by contemporary British artists selected – Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst (two works), and Rachel Whiteread – only one is a painting. The remaining three are, respectively, a photograph, an installation piece, and a sculpture, leaving us with something of an apples and oranges situation. Had the article compared Whiteread’s sculpture to one by, say, Flaxman, then we might be getting somewhere, although even this would be a problematic comparison for various reasons.

We must also consider the issue of how both art criticism and general popularity can change over time. The article describes how popular Millais’ famous “Ophelia” from the Royal Academy exhibition of 1852 was with the visitors observed for the experiment, and recounts the positive comments of the painter’s lush treatment of the landscape and the costume of the figure. Yet this painting, beloved as it is today, was ridiculed by many when it was first exhibited.

John Ruskin, possibly the most influential art historian-critic of the 19th century, castigated Millais for having painted a “rascally wirefenced garden-rolled-nursery-maid’s paradise” in this picture. The contemporary Atheneum magazine, in its critique of the painting, thought the figure of Ophelia herself was terrible:

The open mouth is somewhat gaping and gabyish,–the expression is in no way suggestive of her past tale. There is no pathos, no melancholy, no brightening up, no last lucid interval. If she dies swan-like with a song, there is no sound or melody, no poetry in this strain.

The point is not to suggest that future generations will view the work of Emin, Hirst, and others in a rosier light; in fact one hopes that this will not be the case but that sense will finally prevail. Rather, it is further evidence, if it was needed, that this article is not only poorly-informed but fails to ask the right questions. As amusing as it is, the experiment is of little practical use in the consideration of contemporary British art.

The amount of time one spends in looking at a work of art in a museum can certainly be an indicator of its attractiveness, but it is not necessarily an indicator of whether or not that work of art is any good. Beauty is an important consideration when considering the worth of a work of art, but not when placed in a vacuum. What turns many people off to contemporary art is its profound ugliness; there is an embrace of the unpleasant image in a way which could not, at first glance, seem to be more distant from the slick and sensuous portraits of Sargent, for example.

Yet attractiveness can just easily become a fetish, as Roger Kimball points out, if it is disconnected from life. There are plenty of paintings that are admittedly unpleasant to look at – Goya’s “Black Paintings” for example, or the horrifically hellish torture scenes of Hieronymous Bosch, or the crucifixions of Matthias Grünewald, and so on – but which nevertheless are very great works of art. The decoupling of long-held Western ideals of civilization from practical, technical achievement in the plastic arts is what has led, in large part, to the mess that we see in contemporary art today.

While arguably well-intentioned, this experiment at Tate Britain fails because it does not actually tell us anything that we do not already know. It also engages in what has always been, in art history terms, a problematic exercise, i.e. using popularity as the best gauge of whether or not something is a work of art, instead of questioning whether the art is good, and if not why not. Indeed, the article might have been more cogent if it questioned how contemporary Britain sees itself, as reflected in the art it puts on display in a museum dedicated specially to British art. These are the types of questions that need answering, and remain unanswered in this piece.

If we are to go down the road of popularity being tantamount to artistic achievement, then the National Gallery will be filled with Norman Rockwells, still life bowls of fruit, and dogs playing poker. That would be a very bad result indeed. There is certainly an enormous problem in the fact that our culture has gone down another, rather tritely passé-Marxist and nihilistic road, which is reflected in the art it places on its plinths. But while popular opinion can be instructive in common-sense terms, if it is considered as dispositive in and of itself of the relative worth of a work of art outside of any deeper contextual analysis it is, in its way, just as superficial a consideration as the art at issue.

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais (1852)
Tate Britain, London
About these ads

Review: Séraphine

The great pleasure and responsibility of having received an education, at least when it is properly instilled, is the realization that there is so much to learn, and so much personal ignorance to attempt to overcome. Even if one is knowledgeable about history, literature, and the arts, the more one learns the more there is to learn. Cultural education should not end when you receive a slip of paper saying you have fulfilled a certain number of arbitrary, quantifiable measures. The educated man, if he is fulfilling his duty, is always coming across interesting information that was previously unknown to him, even if already well-known to others. Thus the work of Giovanni Segantini, which was new to me, became something I wanted to share with the readers of these pages.

So it is that another strange artist has come onto my radar screen, this time the French painter known as Séraphine de Senlis, born Séraphine Louis (1864-1942), whose biography was made into a 2009 French film called “Séraphine”. The artist lived in rural France her entire life, often in grinding poverty, spending her days cleaning people’s houses and washing their linens, while at night painting extraordinary pictures in a highly idiosyncratic style. Séraphine was a deeply devout Catholic, but she was also mentally ill; she was eventually diagnosed as suffering from a chronic psychosis, which ended her artistic career and led to her being permanently institutionalized. Fortunately, unlike some of her contemporaries in Germany, she managed to avoid being shipped off to a concentration camp where she would have faced certain death.

The important modern art dealer Wilhelm Uhde came across her when she worked as a cleaner in the country house he rented. He initially encouraged her work, but had to flee France when World War I broke out; before leaving, he told her to keep developing her skills as a painter. This she did and, upon his return to France years later, Uhde came across her again, finding that her work had matured, as he had hoped. This time he provided her with the tools to make her painterly fantasies a reality, and she produced works of breathtaking complexity, as shown below.

Séraphine’s mature work in particular is absolutely unforgettable once you have seen it and, I must admit, quite literally brought me to tears – something which does not happen often, at least for me, in the art world. Just LOOK at it. There is clearly evidence of an obsessive madness, but there is also a profound level of deep analysis, almost like a snapshot of what a microbiologist sees in looking at a microscope slide. And there is a sense of rich color and rhythmic complexity of pattern that puts one in mind of the intricate stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations of the Middle Ages.

The film “Séraphine” won numerous awards last year, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and five other prizes, at the César Awards – France’s equivalent of the Oscars. This in combination with the fascinating life of its subject matter would seem to be as strong an endorsement as one could wish for when considering whether to put a movie on the Netflix queue. It is a pity therefore that the film itself should prove to be so disappointing on first viewing, though it improves in the mind after having stepped away from it to reflect upon it further.

This is not to say that director Martin Provost takes too many liberties with the facts, or that Yolande Moreau does a poor job at playing the title character. What is unfortunate is that this languidly-paced movie seems at odds with the passions of Séraphine herself, and leaves many unanswered questions about the characters’ motivations. Of course, one could claim that trying to find rationality in the world of Séraphine is an exercise in futility, yet even the mad have their methods.

One important aspect of the title character’s motivations is her religious faith. Séraphine makes repeated gestures of piety throughout the film that Catholics will recognize. For example, before she starts to paint, she sings “Veni Creator Spiritus”, asking for the grace of the Holy Spirit to guide her brush; she continues to chant and sing hymns while she is working. As her landlady points out to a neighbor, when they go to Séraphine’s flat to find out if she is all right, something has been wrong for days because there has been no singing; Séraphine refuses to open the door and tells them she is painting, a statement which the landlady maintains is a lie. “She can’t be working right if she’s not singing.”

At the beginning, at least, there is in Séraphine more than a little of the “fool for Christ” character which we do not see much of in American film or fiction. Perhaps the best treatment I have seen in recent years is that of Father Anatoly in the profound Russian film “Ostrov”, which I have written about previously. In that film, Father Anatoly is cursed by a sense of unending guilt and shame because of his past; at the same time his deep faith allows him to quite literally work wonders on God’s behalf and to God’s glory, even while he thinks of himself as utterly unworthy scum.

Yet there is a great deal of difference between a monk withdrawn from the world, and an artist who may have seemingly monastic tendencies due to mental illness and poverty. Séraphine’s religious motives in her painting are called into question by the film as she begins to receive more attention and more money, and she grows increasingly materialistic and increasingly disturbed at the same time. Outwardly she remains a devout peasant Catholic, but inwardly she is beginning to see herself as more than just God’s servant, but some sort of a catalyst.

At one point for example, despite her devotion to the Virgin Mary, it is implied that Séraphine has defaced a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in the local church. In another scene, the Mother Superior of the convent where Séraphine used to work comes to see her gigantic, 6-foot tall canvases, and tellingly asks Séraphine whether it is still her guardian angel who is guiding her work. Séraphine responds that the angels are talking to her more loudly than ever, and that something big is about to happen for her. By having the Church ask this question through the Mother Superior, Provost not only puts the motivation of Séraphine’s faith in doubt, bot also prepares us for what is about to happen when Séraphine has her final mental breakdown as a result of her plans being thwarted.

Unlike Father Anatoly in “Ostrov”, Séraphine has, from the beginning and all the way through the film, always had a high opinion of herself. For example, she never thanks others for their charity except on one occasion when she is told that she ought to say, “Thank you”; when this happens she only acquiesces very curtly. She also puts out the votive candles and steals their wax from the altar of Our Lady in her parish church, when no one is looking. In an early exchange with Uhde, Séraphine openly accuses him of thinking he is better than she is because she has to clean houses for a living, a claim which he himself repeatedly denies.

Over the course of the film we come to appreciate that better living conditions, attention, and funds do not make Séraphine better: they in fact make her worse. One thinks of the old adage regarding giving a man a fish vs. teaching him how to fish, but here neither option is a good one. The supposedly humble Séraphine, it turns out, wants to become famous. When Uhde gives her a monthly stipend so she can paint and not have to clean houses or do laundry, she thinks nothing of sending him lavish bills for the purchase of sterling silver tableware, signing a purchase agreement for a mansion (bill to Mr. Uhde, natch), and asking what kind of luxury car he drives so that she can get one for herself.

Unfortunately Provost does not give us a fully satisfactory reckoning as to what happens next. In a sequence late in the film between Uhde, his sister, and Séraphine, for example, regarding Séraphine’s problematic spending habits and the crash of the financial (and thereby art) market in 1929, we await a confrontation which is never fully realized, and which seems out of keeping with the kindness and frankness that had characterized the relationship between these three characters in the scenes leading up to it. Uhde upbraids his discovery for her spendthrift habits, but does a terrible job explaining why he cannot continue to maintain her, despite the aforementioned frankness which has characterized their relationship up to this point. It is a false note and leaves the viewer utterly confused.

When Séraphine finally goes off the deep end, her doctor advises Uhde that the best he can do for her is not to see her, but to try to make her life more comfortable. Yet as we have been shown, the more comfortable Séraphine became, the worse she became, and in the context of what has happened in the film by this point such advice seems a gaping hole in the plot. Provost leaves us in a kind of ambiguous, valium-clouded state, where the tormented artist is at last, seemingly at peace, but can no longer paint nor pray – she even ignores the crucifix over her bed.

In the end “Séraphine” as a film raises more questions than it answers, and though it is decidedly American and old-fashioned of me to state as much, I find it dissatisfying. That being said, it is a film to debate and discuss – if you are fortunate enough to have a group of friends willing to sit through the often torporific pacing – not only from a Catholic perspective but also as an exercise in understanding human motivations. Yet most importantly of all, the film is an introduction of the work of an extraordinary artist to a much wider audience: an artist whose staggering paintings are some of the best pictures to come out of the Modern Primitives.

The Tree of Life by Séraphine de Senlis
Musée Senlis

The Weird World of Giovanni Segantini

The Swiss are generally not considered to be particularly strange with respect to their personality traits. If we are to come up with something approaching an acceptable stereotype, it would likely be one of an industrious, methodical people, living in an environment where basic survival is not easy. With plenty of time on their hands due to long periods of winter, notwithstanding Harry Lime’s insult in “The Third Man”, over the centuries have managed to come up with some pretty remarkable things, including complex and beautiful watches, sophisticated banking methods, and rich chocolates and cheeses.

So it is something of a surprise that a man who can only be described as very, very strange indeed would have found himself at home in their environment. The 19th century painter Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899) has been claimed by many countries as a native son, though because of the shifting map of Europe even in his own lifetime and with subsequent redrawing of that map as a result of World War I and World War II, the best that we can do is say that ethnically he was an Italian. However Segantini was not an Italian from the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, but rather one from the Alps, where the Germanic influence held greater sway.

As an artist, Segantini found the climate and inspiration of the Swiss Alps to be where he and his increasingly bizarre but captivating art often seemed most at home. An exhibition presently underway at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, which runs through April 25th, examines the artist in juxtaposition with the work of his contemporaries. For those of my readers who should happen to find themselves in Switzerland it would seem worth the trip to view the work of this fascinating figure.

Segantini’s work is just as difficult to categorize as his citizenship. We can see affinities in his work with artists as diverse as Millais, Seurat, Millet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and even Klimt. Yet his work is none of these, and even art experts do not seem to agree on what to call his style of painting. Sometimes he is called a “Divisionist” painter, other times a “Pointillist”, and still others consider him a “Symbolist”. His later paintings often feature a truly peculiar iconography that set them apart. On this latter point in particular it would not be too much of a stretch to say that, in his later paintings, Segantini in his subject matter in some respect prefigured the work of Frida Kahlo.

As a result of his having grown up in a Catholic peasant environment, Catholicism continued to inform Segatini’s work throughout his life, although he himself was not a practicing Catholic. He had four children by his mistress, whom he never married, and studied the works of Nietzsche and Zola in a kind of awkward tandem with mystical monastic texts of the Middle Ages. His perpetually frail physical health, the death of his mother when he was a small child, and the subsequent problems he experienced with being shifted from household to household by his father and other relatives in what today we would probably consider some sort of child neglect, was a very recognizable formula for the creation of a clinical condition, perhaps an anxiety disorder or manic depression.

Not being a psychiatrist or psychologist, it is a bit unfair of me to try to diagnose Segantini of course, but even a basic understanding of psychology and family history will help us to understand some of his paintings which, without that context, would probably remain completely inscrutable. For example, towards the end of his life Segantini painted a series of works sometimes collectively referred to as the “Evil Mothers” series. One of these, “The Punishment of Lust” painted in 1891 and now in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, shows dead women who either had abortions or neglected their children, being blown about by the wind in a frigid and barren Alpine landscape. Another, “Unnatural Mothers”, exists in several variations painted at different times, and shows women who again, have either directly or indirectly killed their children. The children have been turned into trees; the women are then forced to go out looking for their dead babies, are caught up by the trees, and forced to suckle their children since they neglected to do so in life. Not exactly light-hearted stuff.

Yet weirdness aside, Segantini was capable of truly beautiful images. His best pictures of peasants with their livestock, and the landscapes in which they lived and worked, are feasts of light and color for the eye. For example, his “Girl Knitting in Savognin” of 1888, now in the collection of the Kunsthaus Zürich, features jewel-like colors and a gorgeous pastoral-village landscape. His “Afternoon in the Alps” of 1892, presently in a private collection, is in a similar vein, with a young lady enjoying the warm sunshine and green grass, surrounded by her flock of very friendly sheep.

Even in a near-monochromatic painting like “Return from the Woods” shown below, there is a wonderful sense of light. The woman has no doubt had a long, hard afternoon cutting wood, but as she approaches her village with its pretty church spire, there is a golden glow of lights in the homes of her neighbors. The fact that the snow is very thin on the ground but the days are getting longer means that spring is arriving soon.

While he is perhaps not a household name today around the world, in his day Segantini was celebrated throughout Europe. Despite his increasing ill health and isolation higher and higher up in the Alps with his family, his work led to his being garlanded with praise and awards. At the time of his death, it is fitting that his final words were that “I want to see my mountains.” We are fortunate that he managed to preserve his view of those mountains in such a remarkable collection of works.

Return from the Woods by Giovanni Segantini (1890)
Segantini Museum, St. Mortiz