When Experts Fail: The Sacred and Profane in Art

An article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding some important frescoes in Rome piqued my interest, and at the same time made me raise an eyebrow as I did further reading.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit, gentle reader, about why too often the media and even supposed art experts themselves, are sources whose pronouncements need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  Too often such sources do not really seem to understand how a supposedly profane work of Christian art is, in fact, actually representing a very sacred concept.

We do need to be a little bit careful about using the term “profane” in this context.  By “profane”, we don’t mean something irreverent or scandalous, as we would when using the word, “profanity”.  Rather, in the study of art history there is a general delineation between sacred art, which deals with religious subjects, and profane art, which deals with secular subjects.   It can get confusing however, when something which at first glance might seem to fall into one category is, in fact, of the other.

Take for example Raphael’s magnificent 16th century portrait of Pope Leo X flanked by two of his cardinals, now in the Uffizi in Florence.  This is a secular work of art, even though it portrays a religious figure.  The intent of the painting is not to glorify God, but rather the sitter.  Being a Medici, Leo had excellent taste, but as was generally true of his family he was also rather prone to indulge in greed and excess.  Since this was definitely not one of the saintly popes, this was not an image designed to lead the viewer into some contemplation of things beyond the material world.

On the other hand, something which seems to be a work of art depicting secular subject matter may, in fact, have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  It’s here where oftentimes the present-day art community gets things terribly wrong.  If you have ever suffered through the exasperation of an art museum tour of Catholic art with a docent who is clearly not a Catholic, let alone a Christian, who authoritatively and incorrectly describes various aspects of theology or Church history, then you know what I mean.

Thus, the aforementioned article, about the restoration of a decorated 13th century hall in the Santi Quattro Coronati convent in Rome, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  The headline declares that this is the most important “profane” medieval fresco cycle in Italy.  The problem is, we are looking at a 13th century work of art with 21st century eyes, when we call this decoration “profane”.

If we think of the people of the Middle Ages as somehow being in the dark, “Dark Ages”, then we simply do not understand the era in which they lived.  Around the time that these frescoes were painted, the city of Paris had seen the dedication of the glorious, light-filled Sainte-Chapelle, a marvel of structural engineering even to this day, and nearby St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert Magnus were teaching philosophy and writing books which we still study, over seven centuries later.  Elsewhere, Jordanus de Nemore was publishing his hugely influential findings on a variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, from the study of weights, gravity, and forces, to treatises on advanced algebra, geometry, and the measurement of spheres.  There was a far more sophisticated, thoughtful, and innovative civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages, than is often recognized today.

This fresco cycle then, while seemingly profane, is in fact full of sophisticated allegories and important lessons about living the Christian life.  In portraying people engaged in work during different months of the year for example, accompanied by the respective Zodiac symbol for each month, the message was easily understandable by the people for whom these frescoes were painted.  The importance of trying one’s best to follow the Divine Order of things was encapsulated in this general type of art, typically referred to as “The Labor of the Hours”. It was a popular theme during the Middle Ages, from paintings to sculpture to book illustrations.

In some sense, a fresco cycle such as this is an embodiment of the concept of the relationship between God and Man contained in the familiar verses of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes.  Man must recognize that God is God, and that Man is not God, but rather a created being – even if a beloved one.  All of Creation exists and is sustained through God’s Will, and it is the duty of Man to seek God’s Will and carry it out, wherever he may find himself in life: young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant.

Someone who does not understand this particular concept, put even more succinctly by Christ in his command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not going to get why these images, which seem to be profane, are, in fact, sacred.  In a way, such persons are rather like the pagans of the early days of Christianity, who would think nothing upon seeing the image of a fish scrawled on the ground, passing by unaware that it was a symbol for Christ.  Unfortunately, too often those who do not really understand sacred concepts, or have their own socio-political agendas which they are seeking to push, look at art like this and simply interpret it for an unsuspecting public however they like, sometimes to the point of laughability.

That’s why it’s important to bring examples of bad reporting like this to your attention.  Here, where the art is clearly sacred rather than profane in nature, we have a good example of why questioning the source is, as always, hugely important.  If we do so, then we can not only better understand our Western heritage, abut we can also make our way down the road toward reclaiming it, from those who, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are trying to turn it into something it is not.

Detail of "October" by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250) Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Detail of “October” by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250)
Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

 

 

Goya and the Spanish Love of Hate

Today is the birthday of the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), and it gives me the opportunity to draw the attention of my readers to a rather nightmarish but deeply affecting work from his brush. Two men wielding cudgels are rushing at each other in a landscape, about to beat each other’s brains in. Are they fighting over a woman? Was there some insult, or act of theft? No one knows. And yet it is quite possibly the best representation, in a single image, of the history of Spain presently in existence.

Though older by a generation, in both sympathy and in a wider European context Goya can be viewed as a kindred spirit to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Both men lived through incredibly tumultuous times, from the downfall of the Ancien Régime to the Napoleonic Wars and the unsettled politics which followed. Both were passionate, tortured geniuses whose work, as they aged and as their respective maladies overtook them – including shared deafness – distanced them more and more from the frothy, light-hearted places from which each of them began.

Goya should not properly be considered an Old Master painter, though I have seen him erroneously included in such lists on numerous occasions. As I have written about previously, the designation “Old Master” is, admittedly, to some extent dependent on an arbitrary cut-off date of 1800. Artists like Goya and J.M. W. Turner, whose work straddled the turn of the 19th century, are often segregated by more sensitive minds into a category known as the “Romantic” painters. This leaves us with a critical problem however, since much of the Rococo art which Goya himself produced early in his career, such as in his cartoons for the Royal Tapestries in Madrid, is an echo of the work of artists a generation older than he who are definitely Old Masters, such as Tiepolo.

But it is not on this lighter work that today’s spotlight falls, but rather a picture from Goya’s so-called “Black Paintings”. Painted between 1819 and 1823, these works are the ravings, in paint, of a very troubled mind. By this time Goya had already been exploring the violent and the macabre for some years, though his earlier efforts pale in comparison to these later nightmares.

In 1793 Goya went deaf following a lengthy, serious illness, and the painter whose wit and connections had made him a popular society figure – in part due to his alleged affair with the Duchess of Alba – started to turn in on himself and away from the world. He began to produce strange little paintings aside from his commissioned work, and published etchings of nightmarish scenes criticizing the follies of contemporary society, in a series known as the “Caprices”. These were followed by the “Disasters of War”, in which Goya chronicled the death and destruction wrought by Napoleon and the Peninsular Campaigns in both paint and engraving.

Yet by comparison the subsequent “Black Paintings” overwhelm these earlier works, not only because they are, nearly a century before the tortured explorations of the psyche by Symbolist and Expressionist painters such as Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele, astoundingly innovative, but also because they were private. Goya’s “Caprices” and “Disasters of War” were created for public consumption; the “Black Paintings” were not. The 14 images, some of them quite enormous, were painted directly onto the plaster walls of his house in Madrid. They were never exhibited to the public during his time there, and Goya fled to France in 1823, leaving them unfinished.

Of course there was no intent to “finish” them, per se, because they were not meant to be shown. They are, in paint, the thoughts of a man who has done and suffered much, and is haunted by what he as seen. In its way Goya’s bizarre home decorating project reminds me of a similar project by one of my Catalan ancestors, the last direct male heir in his line, who spent his declining years in the 16th century carving his name followed by the words, “a sinner”, into the walls of the now-ruined castle in which his family had lived since the days of Charlemagne.

Although today each of the “Black Paintings” has a name, so far as we know Goya himself never titled these works. The sobriquets that have subsequently been assigned to them over the course of time by art historians or the Prado Museum, where they are now housed, try to give them descriptions so that we can understand them better. Yet if Goya had been working in the 20th century or today, like many modern and contemporary artists I suspect he would not have found it necessary to actually give names to his work: the choice of “Untitled” by an artist, whether directly or through a refusal to name his piece, is a deliberately enigmatic act.

The fresco of two men about to brain each other – variously titled “A Fight to the Death with Clubs”, “Duel with Cudgels”, etc., – is one of these legendary “Black Paintings”. There is a universal aspect to it in Goya’s recognition of man’s tendency, since the time of Cain and Abel, toward violence against our brother, despite our intellect and ability to reason. From all he had seen and experienced, Goya recognized that the line between civilization and savagery is a very fine line indeed. Greed, lust, anger, and all of the other deadly sins which have accompanied us since Adam and Eve decided to play Johnny Appleseed can cause us to do unspeakable things to one another. Yet on a more personal level, this work is affecting for anyone who knows the history of Spain.

Spain can be categorized in part as an historic construct based on geographic limitations. There has existed a politically united Spain for only just over 500 years, with some interruptions, and during those centuries the peoples who inhabit the Iberian Peninsula, from Basques and Catalans to Galicians and Castilians, have been fairly constant in going about fighting with each other. On top of this, there is a never-ending battle between rich and poor, Catholic and anti-clerical, intellectual and philistine, that has led to a recognition of blood and violence as a permanent aspect of the culture. It is folly for contemporary Spain, as more and more people seek to ban bullfighting, to think that the bloodlust so much a part of the country’s character has disappeared merely because everyone now has televisions and microwave ovens.

For this reason Goya’s painting is a far more powerful mirror of the horror that is often the experience of Spain than is Picasso’s more famous “Guernica”, which seems to be the de rigeur image chosen for the dust jacket of any contemporary work on Spanish history published over the last 30 years or so. Picasso condemns the horrors of violence, yes, but his condemnation is one-sided: it is the forces of General Franco who are doing the killing, and the Leftists who are doing the dying. It is a painting which is completely unbalanced in its representation not only of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, but also in its understanding of the Spanish psyche.

What Picasso’s masterpiece fails to show, and where Goya’s is immeasurably more successful, is a reality which Spain does not like to admit but which is inherent to understanding Spain as a whole: Spaniards hate one another, equally, regardless of what side they happen to be on in an argument. They are not a gentle, loving people with one another nor, as a result, are they particularly good at organizing themselves into a nation. Insult and put-down is a skill practiced and honed from a Spanish child’s earliest days, and the class structure, while not as grossly apparent as in Britain, still informs how people treat one another in ways which in the U.S. would seem almost unimaginable. The history of Spain since 1492 is not one of a peaceful, prosperous people united by a common language and culture, but one of unabashed and often violent tribalism which has never really gone away, but merely taken on different forms.

It is in this deceptively simple yet deeply profound painting that we get a glimpse of the true character of Spain, whatever Spain actually is outside of demarcations on a map. Beyond the vibrant spectacle of flamenco dancing, glorious octopus-predicted soccer victories, and PBS’ José Andrés happily pretending that he knows how to cook, there is a very dark nature to the Spanish character which Goya understood and appreciated better than any other Spanish painter before or since. In this single image he encapsulates everything that you need to know about Spain, and he does so unflinchingly, which in itself is a supremely Spanish thing to do.

“A Fight to the Death with Clubs” by Francisco de Goya (c. 1820-1823)
Prado Museum, Madrid

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