Sunday, August 27, 2006

Decadence

A biological metaphor sustains the idea of decadence. In this view civilizations are born, enter into a lusty adolescence and a confident maturity, only to sink into a feeble old age. The process is inevitable and irreversible. If we find ourselves living in a decadent age, we must make the best of it.

The great historical exemplar, discussed by Montesquieu and Gibbon, was the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. This debacle was seen as the inevitable conclusion of the great cycle of classical civilization. A visual landmark attesting this belief is Thomas Couture’s huge canvas.“The Romans of the Decadence,” the sensation of the Salon of 1847. Later, under the Symbolist writers and artists, the figure of Salome gained prominence. In addition to suggesting that the social milieu in which she lived was decadent (contrasting with the purity and asceticism of her prey, John the Baptist), this legendary woman signified the femme fatale and illicit love (necrophilia).

Historians tended to focus on the spectacle of the decline of a single civilization, that of ancient Rome. Others observers went further, advancing the view that historical patterns repeat themselves. Thus one could pinpoint the decadence of pharaonic Egypt and ot imperial China under the Manchus. One must even confront the dreaded possibility that we ourselves are living in an era of decadence.

What is the “we”? Some countries, it seemed, were declining faster than others. As early as 1850 Charles-Marie Radot had written a book titled De la decadence de la France. Many pointed to the country’s declining birthrate as a definitive (and alarming) proof of this decline. Others spoke of “la decadence latine,” the decline of all of Southern Europe. This was contrasted with the ebullience of “young” peoples like the Germans and the Americans.

Conservatives seized upon the concept of decadence as a stick to beat the present with. Everything had been better, as they liked to think, in the “good old days.” Today this vein of thinking is evident in those who decry the prevalence of rock-and-roll, the decline of marriage, and the drug culture. In former times these ills did not exist. Tolerance of them can only be a sign of the decline of civilization.

In short the original concept of decadence was an overwhelmingly negative one. It was left to the poet Charles Baudelaire to present a positive alternative in remarks he made about Edgar Allen Poe in 1857 (I translate freely). “At its zenith the sun shown pitilessly, crushing everything with its harsh, white light. But before long it will illuminate the Western horizon with its gorgeous colors. In these effecs produced by the dying sun some poets find delightful novelties. They discover astonishing colonnades, cascades of dark metal, fiery paradises, in short a melancholy splendor, the pleasure of remorse, all the majesty of the dream, the memory of opium.” (Note the evocation of hard drugs, used by many creative persons in the first half of the nineteenth century.)

In effect Baudelaire tamed the concept of decadence, paving the way for more positive versions. During the 1880s the term was adopted as a talisman by a number of writers, above all Paul Verlaine. Others held that the negative connotations could not be completely bleached out; hence Moréas’ rebranding (“Symbolisme”) in his 1886 Manifesto.

As an aside it is worth recalling some other attempts at defanging negative expressions. Some did not catch on. The Marquis de Sade was an early practitioner of this device. For the term “contre-nature” (against nature) he proposed antiphysique. Even in French this term remains rare. Interestingly, he termed masturbation, which he praised, pollution. Recent decades provide a number of salient examples. In my view the jury is still out on “queer.”

We often forget that a number of now-standard terms for artistic styles began as terms of opprobrium The word baroque, for example, was shunned by many leading artists and critics of the era because it connoted irregularity and excess. Fauve means “wild beast.”

Moreas’ new label attracted many new followers, attracted by the positive aura of the word Symbolism. Yet some stubbornly clung to the term decadence. Anatole Baju conducted a magazine entitled La décadence littéraire et artistique (1886-89). Paul Verlaine remained fond of the term-—which did in fact fit the squalid circumstances of his personal life. In a series of critical pieces Verlaine introduced another expression that was to enjoy some popularity: les poètes maudits, the accursed poets.

The older term continued to enjoy some favor abroad. In November 1893 the Englishman Arthur Symonds published a critical article entitled “The Decadent Movement in Literature” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. At the turn of the century, though, after the Wilde scandals had subsided, he published an enlarged version in book form. The new study bore the title The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Decadence was dead, or so it seemed, while Symbolism had entered into a dignified old age.

The writings and works of art that have been identified over the years as decadent are exceedingly various. It would seem vain to attempt any general set of characteristics that would govern a posited “decadent style.” Yet some have made the attempt. Early on, Paul Bourget perceived a general tendency to disorganization in which the creator of a decadent work deliberately decomposed it into parts. Detail triumphs over the whole. This idea is certainly suggestive. On the one hand, it helps in the appreciation of certain works of the Roman “decadence,” such as the relief carvings of the Arch of Constantine (CE 315). On the other hand, the criterion may help to understand the break-up of neo-impressionist works into a sea of little dots, though these are supposed to fuse visually for the observer who stands at a proper distance from the canvas. In Cubism, the fragmentation becomes blatant.

Another hallmark of decadence is artifice. The elaborate and highly wrought are preferred over the simple and natural. Some have been impelled to defend cosmetics, others lying (Oscar Wilde). An interesting twist on this idea is Huysmans’ take on two powerful locomotives. Are not such means of transportation (not to speak of the automobile, which arrived five years after Against Nature) artificial and indeed unnatural? Indeed with television, the computer, and cell-phones we could be said to be living today in a hyperdecadent world, in which artifice ever triumphs over nature. It is only when we take that long-postponed trek to the wilds of Alaska that we put such indulgences behind us.

See also Nietzsche and Symbolism, below.

REFERENCES. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, New Haven, 1990; Louis Marquèze-Pouey, Le Movement décadent en France, Paris, 1986; Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, Chicago, 1981; John R. Reed, Decadent Style, Athens, OH, 1985; David Weir, Decadence and the Making of Modernism, Amherst, MA, 1995. On England, see Ian Fletcher, ed., Decadence and the 1890s, London, 1979.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reading Huysmans (assigned)

JORIS-KARL HUYSMANS, Against Nature/ A Rebours (required; any edition)

[Some biographical details: Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans (February 5, 1848–May 12, 1907) was a French novelist and bureaucrat born in Paris to a Dutch father, Godfried Huysmans, who was a lithographer by trade, and a French mother who had been a schoolteacher. He published his works as Joris-Karl Huysmans, using an approximation of the Dutch version of his given names to emphasize his roots.

For thirty-two years, he followed the precept “keep the day job,” faithfully toiling as a civil servant for the French Ministry of the Interior. His first major publication was a collection of prose poems, heavily influenced by Baudelaire and called Le drageoir à épices (1874). They attracted little attention, and the writer turned to writing novels, adhering to the Naturalist current championed by Emile Zola. Marthe, Histoire d'une fille (1876) is story of a young prostitute. This early period climaxed with À vau-l'eau (Downstream or With the Flow), a grim account of a downtrodden clerk, Monsieur Folantin, and his quest for a decent meal.

Then Huysmans decided to reinvent himself as a novelist, publishing his “decadent” masterpiece, À rebours (Against Nature) in 1884. This book led to an inevitable break with Zola, who was appalled at the defection of his erstwhile acolyte. Moving away from the Naturalists, Huysmans found new friends among the Symbolist and Catholic writers whose work he had praised in À rebours, including Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, Villiers de L'Isle Adam and Léon Bloy. Stéphane Mallarmé, then little known, was so pleased with the publicity his verse had received from the novel that he dedicated one of his poems, "Prose pour des Esseintes" to its hero.

In 1891, with the publication of Là-Bas (Down There), Huysmans turned to Satanism.

Then, in a final reinvention, he converted to Catholicism. En Route depicts the central character’s spiritual struggle during his stay at a Trappist monastery. La Cathédrale finds the protagonist at the Cathedral Chartres. This novel has long passages expounding symbolism in the traditional sense-—the figures of the saints and theological concepts expressed in medieval art.

Huysmans was also known for his art criticism. He was an early advocate of Impressionism, as well as an admirer of such Symbolists as Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon. During his last, religious phase he rediscovered the great German artist Grünewald.]



Sometimes termed “the breviary of decadence,” A Rebours is both more and less than that. Jean Floressas des Esseintes is the effete scion of a noble French family; he devotes himself mainly to eccentric pursuits in the suburban house that he treats as a kind of sanctuary. Through the prism of his antihero Des Esseintes, Huysmans presents a number of facets of an ultrarefined sensibility. While the concept of decadence is never stated overtly, it does undergird many themes of the novel.

[The usual English translation “Against Nature” is not quite right—or rather it goes a little farther than Huysmans would seem to be going. “Against the grain” is a little closer to the French. Literally, the expression à rebours means “in reverse; backwards.” There is also a connotative aura, for since the Middle Ages the expression has served to suggest sexual irregularity--not unlike the later term “inversion.” (There is a surfer adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Perhaps a surfer version of Huysmans’ novel would be called “Ass-backwards.”)]

As has been noted, Des Esseintes is the last, degenerate specimen of an ancient family of French aristocrats. With his death the family will be extinct. Des Esseintes embodies not only individual degeneration, with its characteristic ill health and neurasthenia, but also the melancholy sense that France itself is in decline. The degenerate microcosm and the degenerate macrocosm are in synch.

Still, there is a silver lining, for Huysmans offers many indications of the exquisite aesthetic perceptions that, paradoxically, illuminate this sad state. “A song at twilight” might be another possible rendering of the book’s theme.

Chapter Five shows Des Esseintes’ preferences in painting. He has a particular predilection for Gustave Moreau (whom Huysmans had praised in print as early as 1880. He is also fond of Odilon Redon and, precociously, El Greco (“Theotocopouli"). The lengthy account of the two works owned by the hero reveals Huysmans’ obsession with Moreau, who (to judge by a critical piece) had first come to his attention in 1880, four years before the appearance of the novel.

As we learn in Chapter Three, the hero’s favorite reading comes from the late Roman Empire and the earlier part of the Middle Ages, typical decadent eras. His favorites among modern writers are few, but he does like Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Symbolists all. See Chapters Twelve and Fourteen. In Chapter Fifteen the composer Richard Wagner makes a de rigueur appearance, somewhat anomalously in view of Des Esseintes’ other tastes.

Apart from reading he spends his time with such toys as the liquor organ and cultivating perverse flowers. Increasingly reclusive, he has given up his dinner parties. We learn of a notable occasion in Chapter One, the Black Dinner. All the cuisine and liquor are of a dark hue. Naked black women serve the guests, while a hidden orchestra discretely plays funeral music. This chapter also contains an account of Des Esseintes’ color preferences. All these preoccupations are laden with synaesthesia, owing something to Baudelaire’s influential sonnet “Correspondences” (reproduced with commentary in Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories).

A misanthrope, Des Esseintes tends to avoid human contact, so that the servants must be invisible to him. He ventures into Paris mainly for his jaded sexual couplings. Sadistically inclined, he delights in spoiling the lives of others, as in Chapter Six, where he encourages a friend to wed, only to sabotage the marriage, and where he corrupts a teenage boy.

A Rebours appeared two years before Moréas’ Symbolist manifesto. Accordingly, many of its Symbolist features are still couched in terms of decadence. Implicitly, Huysmans made the comparison between Symbolist art and Symbolist literature.

See the entry on “Decadence.”

Reading Mallarme' (assigned)

STEPHANE MALLARME. Required. The edition that must be used is Collected Poems and Other Verse, eds., E.H. and A. M. Blackmore (Oxford University Press paperback).


Coming to terms with Mallarmé is one of the hardest tasks in the whole history of Western literature. He is a supremely “difficult” poet. Sometimes, in my frustration with him, I have thought that I had rather succumb to a lifethreatening disease than to have to confront those darned poems one more time. All the same, he is the indispensable linchpin of the Symbolist Movement. A lion in the path, there is no way getting around him.

At first the compression of his corpus seems a help. He was surely the least productive of all major poets. The oeuvre that he approved for collection amounts to a scarcely more than 100 pages. Scholars have augmented this total several times with other poems, published and unpublished, and juvenilia. The results of this harvest are far from vast.

As one might expect, a horde of scholarship has accumulated to decode the work. Some hold that this endeavor goes contrary to Mallarmé’s intention, which was to create “open” works that defy any complete resolution. Their inderminacy is deliberate an inexpugnable. At all events, it is imperative to look at his work in French (with the helpful crib afforded by the bilingual Oxford volume), for much turns upon relations of sound and sense integral to that language. But take heart: someone remarked that it would have been better if Mallarmé had written his poems in German!

As the Blackmores remark, [f]or him … the vital role of poetry was to purge language of its everyday setting.” In this he indicated one of the main paths of defamiliarization or estrangement, that deliberate departure from everything ordinary, indeed everything that we normally expect, that is characteristic of the most challenging twentieth-century poets, such as Eliot and Pound, George and Rilke. In Mallarmé’s case, the achievement is all the more remarkable in that he keeps to standard verse forms. The subversion of language—which the poet would call a return to its true nature—takes place on the deepest level

The high priest of modern poetry, Mallarmé seems formidable for the reasons stated. However, he had a lighter side: he even edited a ladies’ fashion magazine for eleven months. Much of his work is also occasional, and therefore more approachable. In the end, though, one comes back the fearsome, hermetic Scriptures of modern poetry—-the core oeuvre.

Here are some hints to assist in your reading.

Examine the Introduction to the Oxford volume for discussion of the poet’s commitment to suggestion, nuance, and the thing not said. In a famous sentence Mallarmé formulated the 25/75 rule. Mere statement or “naming” affords only one-quarter—25%--of the value of a poem. By contrast, the other 75% provides the true measure of the enjoyment and appreciation of the poem. In that 75%, or so it seems to me, lies the essence of the Symbolist quest. Its exact content, of course, Mallarmé does not divulge. “Those who say, don’t know; those who know, don’t say.”

Examine the poems for references to decadence (esp. pp.83-85) and nothingness (le néant; cf. p. 20). How is the latter connected to theme of impotence (pp. 14, 20)?

What is Mallarmé’s take on the Salome-Herodias theme, as part of the larger issue of the femme fatale?

“The Windows” p. 10-13, offers parallels with Symbolist paintings.

What color words does the poet use?

In “The Demon of Analogy” (p. 88ff.) Mallarmé defends “accidental” relations of words. In his view, these links are not accidental at all, but take us into the realm of the essences of words. The poet preferred traditional verse forms, but in his affirmation of the “secret” links of words, he was farseeing. He implicitly posited the concept of the poem as an artifact, not dependent on relations with the outside world.

Note his reference to Puvis de Chavannes (pp. 208) and various other painters, many his friends (217 ff.). Famous for his defence of Manet, the poet cultivated a long friendship with the American James Whistler. Edgar Allen Poe was another major American influence.

What is the role of the blank spaces in the revolutionary concrete poem “Un coup de dés“?

Reading Stein (assigned)

GERTRUDE STEIN, Tender Buttons (required; any convenient edition).

Three Lives (1909), Stein’s first published book, was begun in 1905, before she had absorbed the full lesson of Picasso and the Cubists. Easily accessible and full of human interest, Three Lives, as an early work, does not provide an adequate measure of Stein’s capacity for innovation. Tender Buttons, published in 1914, accomplishes tnis. The little book is a landmark, since it is one of the first literary works in any language to provide a plausible counterpart for Abstraction. (The most attractive edition is the Dover one, but you can get Tender Buttons together with Three Lives in a cheap Mentor paperback.)

In writing the book she said she “needed to completely face the difficulty of how to include what is seen with hearing and listening.” Note the synaesthetic motif. Elaborating on this point Stein noted that it was her “first conscious struggle with the problem of correlating sight, sound and sense and eliminating rhythm.” The last phrase seems to men that she renounced poetry in all of its forms, as prose was challenging enough.

As a first approach, it is best to read Tender Buttons in small sections. Nonetheless, it has a tripartite structure: objects, food, and room. Together these themes evoke Stein’s coupled, domestic life with Alice B. Toklas. More generally, they pertain to “woman’s sphere,” as conceived of a hundred years ago. (Some readers have detected sexual themes here and there, with hidden anatomical references.)

Broadly speaking, the book may be said to be about similarity and nonsimilarity, and about causation and noncausation. The first is shown in the unusual juxtapositions, possibly following Lautréamont’s talisman: “Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine on an operating table.”

Several stylistic devices put causality into question. The frequent use of the word “and” implies contiguity but not necessarily anything more. And the omission of question marks in sentences that seem to be questions, elides these sentences into a uniform whole. Declarative sentences and questions are all one thing. The suppression of the difference implies the zetematic (questioning) apprehension of reality.

Do what extent does Stein’s disjunctive technique resemble the compositional procedures of the analytic Cubist works of Gris and Picasso?

Observe her repeated citations of the colors red and white.





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Friday, August 18, 2006

Circles and spheres

Research has shown that a particular gesture may have one meaning in one culture, while it possesses a different, perhaps opposite meaning in another culture. In Italy for example the gesture corresponding to the Anglo-American one signifying “come here” (that is, one hand placed in the air with the fingers retreating back to the body) in fact means “good-bye.”

The meaning of gestures may even vary within cultures. Take for example the circle formed by the thumb and forefinger of one hand. This may either mean something like “A-OK,” that isn’t all is well, or it may be a goose egg, an indicator of nullity. Thus when a student emerges after an examination flashing this gesture, the student’s friends can only interpret it by the supplementary information supplied by the examinee's face. Accompanied by a big smile, it means, “I aced it.” Accompanied by a frown, it indicates failure.

During the Renaissance the circle generally conveyed the first meaning, that of perfection. A Renaissance tondo, such as the one comprising Raphael’s "Madonna della Sedia," seems to complement the holiness of the figures. The domes of central plan buildings have a similar effect. For centuries it was assumed that the planets must move in circular orbits. It was only Johannes Kepler in the seventeenth century who proved that their orbits are parabolic ellipses.

Yet the other meaning hovered in the background, attested by the version of Arabic numerals adopted in Western Europe in which the circular figure represents zero.

We turn now to the sphere. During the Middle Ages a special sphere, the orb, was an item of imperial regalia, signifying universal domination.

An early enigmatic version of the sphere appears in Dürer’s “Melancholia I “ of 1514. In Jacques De Gheyn’s “Vanitas” (Lucie-Smith, Symbolist Art, pl. 11), the bubbles rising on the left signify transience. Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s bubbles provide a more playful version.

Ambiguity inheres in the circles and spheres found in Symbolist paintings. In the work of Odilon Redon circles appear in various guises: a well, the sun, a bull’s eye window. Circles, some elongated into ovals, sometimes constitute a kind of simulated opening in the surface out of which enigmatic heads project or peer out. Redon’s spheres are generally mysterious. In some instances he qualifies them to produce eyeballs or balloons. Elongated they form egg-like shapes, and these can be modified with human features so as to produce severed heads.

A prominent circle dominates the background of the signature work of Fernand Khnopf, “I Lock My Door Upon Myself.”

Turning to abstract work, circles, either complete or segments of them are major features of the Orphic work of Robert Delaunay. A connection with scientific theory is implied by “Disks of Newton” (1911-12), an important painting by Kupka. The later, hard-edge work of Vassily Kandinsky is replete with circles.

The window theme

Windows constitute an essential feature of dwellings and public buildings. Or at least they should. It is to be hoped that the depressing practice of erecting school buildings without windows, common some years ago, has been abandoned. By contrast some modern buildings are sheathed completely in glass, and thus “all windows.” In these structures the glass is usually transparent on the inside and opaque to the outside. Few of us would like to live in a building in which our windows were always open to the prying eyes of others. That, interestingly enough, is the premise of Evgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We (1919), where the dictator requires that the activities of all the residents of his ideal city be seen at windows at all times (except for brief periods when sexual activity is permitted).

In our culture the idea of the window has taken on significant metaphorical functions. Thus we may speak of the eyes as “windows of the soul” and a “window into the mind of Shakespeare.” The window represents liminality, a passage from one realm to another. We may think of this window as either transparent or opaque.

In actual buildings the stained-glass windows of medieval cathedrals are spectacular examples. They host a variety of fascinating colored lights, while barring any detailed access to the outside. They are translucent not transparent, so that only the light tells us that there is something beyond the glassy surface. Instead of views, we get images of Christ, the Virgin, the Apocalypse and the saints. The stained-glass windows thus present immediate renderings of things that spiritually they “open out to.”

This medieval concept of the window has appealed to a number of modern artists. Odilon Redon produced a number of pastels exploiting the rich colorism of the windows, while veiling the subject matter. Together with other followers of William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones produced an important series of designs for actual stained-glass windows. The abstract artist František Kupka derived some interesting paintings from his inspection of the stained-glass windows of the Cathedral of Chartres.

Some background will be useful. The illusionistic frescoes of Pompeii, whether large architectural vistas or simulated easel paintings, presuppose a notion of the transparency of the wall, which becomes a membrane through which one views figures and landscapes. Unaware of this precedent but knowledgeable about similar practices in his own time, Leon Battista Alberti formulated the equation of the picture with the window in his De pictura of 1435. During the baroque period this idea was expanded to devote whole ceilings to heavenly vistas (as in the church of Il Gesu in Rome).

Some artists of the nineteenth century challenged this concept of the smooth, “invisible” membrane by deliberately enlivening the picture plane with visible brushwork and rough surfaces. In this way they blocked the illusionistic effect. An interesting device, common in the late nineteenth century and continued in the early abstract work of Kandinsky, is to paint the frame. In this way the dichotomy between frame and the illusion it surrounds is elided.

Windows were important in the work of the proto-Symbolist Caspar David Friedrich, who depicted views from the window of his river-bank studio in Dresden.

An early poem by Mallarmé is “The Windows” of 1863. This Symbolist writer occasionally evokes them in other works.

During the early ‘teens of the twentieth century one of the major themes of the Orphist Robert Delaunay was the view from his window in Paris. Some show the Eiffel Tower, to which he devoted a number of independent works.

Particularly striking are two examples of windows by Henri Matisse done during his summer vacations at Collioure in the South of France. In the first, from 1905, the large French windows open to reveal a pleasant jangle of Fauve colors. In 1914 he returned to the theme. Now, however, the view from the window is a great block of black pigment. Perhaps significantly, this work was created at the very end of the Belle Epoque, the year of the outbreak of World War I.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Comeraderie of writers and artists

Everyone will recall the opening situation of Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème. The curtain arises to reveal a bare attic occupied by a quartet of Bohemians, a poet, an artist, a musician, and a philosopher. The cold is so intense that they burn the manuscript of the poet’s drama to warm their frozen fingers. And so forth.

The opera is based on a set of stories written half a century before, the Scènes de la Vie Bohémienne by Henri Murger (1822-1861), first published as a series in 1847-49. Murger, who lived in poverty and suffered from poor health, based the character of the poet on himself.

While Murger and Puccini’s works are fiction, they reflect an authentic social reality of nineteenth-century cities in which rundown quarters of the inner city (“Bohemias”) attracted impoverished, but ambitious creative people. This residential proximity naturally led to a comradeship of writers, artists, and musicians.

These creative types often shared a commitment to the avant-garde in their respective fields. It was natural, therefore, that Charles Baudelaire, Emile Zola, Jules Laforgue would defend their artist friends in print. Beginning in 1873 Stéphane Mallarmé made almost daily visits to the studio of his friend Edouard Manet. While the poet was not a prolific art critic, these visits did result in memorable writing about the painter’s work. For his part, Manet produced a memorable oil portrait of his writer friend, as well as illustrations for his translation of “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. Later Mallarmé kept up a long friendship with the painter James Whistler.

As the nineteenth turned into the twentieth century these alliances proved particularly crucial. This is true especially of such poets as Pound, Pessoa, Marinetti, Apollinaire, Kruchonykh, Khlebnikov. One thing that is noteworthy of them is nomadism. Ezra Pound, for example, was born in Idaho, raised in Philadelphia, made a name for himself in London, went through a Paris phase, and finally settled in Italy (a stay interrupted by twelve years in a Washington, DC insane asylum). Paradoxically, this expatriation seems to have induced both cosmopolitanism and a renewed (sometimes-odd) sense of national identity and attachment.

What drew these writers to the visual arts, especially at this time? One answer is comradeship: they wanted to help their artist friends. Also, a few bucks from art criticism relieved their strained financial circumstances. At a deeper level, they came to see mutual benefit from cross-fertilization between the two media. There was also perhaps a shrewd calculation: artists may have had their troubles obtaining publicity, but these were nothing compared to the situation of poets.

Let us glance by comparison at the present situation, which features poetry readings, poetry in the subway, a Poet Laureate, and so forth. But these signs of activity cannot conceal the truth: today, when all is said and done, poets are marooned, and no rescue parties are being sent out. Other poets are virtually the only consumers of a poet’s work. Today the near vanishing of the art of poetry is a major cultural tragedy.

The poets themselves bear some responsibility for the neglect in which they find themselves. There is the blight of the notorious obscurity of modern poetry. Modern poetry seems hermetic, replete with recondite allusions, quotations in foreign languages, and suppression of normal syntactic connections. Compared with work of the past, poetry has suffered the loss of some major functions, including mnemonics (“Thirty Days Hath September”) and patriotism (“America the Beautiful”). What is left is individual sensibility, which is often not enough.

By contrast, exhibitions of modern painting, even difficult work, just pack them in. During the Belle Epoque too, people flocked to the big events, such as the great exhibition of Postimpressionist painting in London, 1911, and the Armory Show in New York, 1913. Perhaps poets saw that, in the words of Emerson, they could hitch their wagon to a star. Painting was getting the attention, and they too could bask in this by coming forward as prominent supporters of the new art.

REFERENCES. D. B. Balken, ed., “Interactions between Artists and Writers,” Art Journal (Winter 1993), 52:4 (special issue); P. Collins and R. Lethbridge, eds., Artistic Relations: Literature and the Visual Arts in Nineteenth-Century France, New Haven, 1994; U. Finke, ed., French 19th Century Painting and Literature: With Special Reference to the Relevance of Literary Subject-Matter to French Painting, New York, 1972.

Line and color

An old adage has it that there are no lines in nature. This generalization may not be literally true—-think of the veins in leaves and the brief trajectory of a shooting star as it passes in the heavens—-but line are nonetheless vastly more common in art than they are in the world around us. The prominence of lines is therefore a token of the imposition of culture on nature’s flux.

Around 1800 linear approaches became prominent in the art of John Flaxman and others. This approach received a major push from the study of newly excavated Greek vases, which rely on lines for contours and for internal divisions of figures. The approach became part of the armory of neo-classical art in general. J. A. D. Ingres produced many bravura examples in his drawings, using a technique emulated by Pablo Picasso in the twentieth century.

Implicitly, the use of lines takes one away from simple imitation of nature, because the lines impose boundaries that are not there, at least not clearly so, in the motifs. In abstraction lines are particularly significant in the work of the De Stijl group, who produced work generally emblematic of the hard edge approach.

Sixteenth-century Italy saw the contest of disegno and colore. The word disegno, which means both drawing and design, may be said to represent the linear element in art. Color was long regarded as a secondary, even subversive aspect of art; it was even connected with prostitutes. Many recognized, sometimes grudgingly that the Venetian school owed its special excellence to the subtle use of color, though it was not generally considered as belonging to the same rank as the Florentine and Roman schools, which relied on disegno, or drawing.

In the wake of this theorizing for a long time disegno ranked as superior. In the late seventeenth century, however, supporters of Peter Paul Rubens counterattacked, asserting the importance, even superiority of color. After the neo-Classic interlude, color returned in triumph with Delacroix, and this tradition passed on to the Impressionists. In a different, sometimes more somber way, the coloristic trend appears in the work of Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, two arch-Symbolists. Effusive color returned with the Fauves and the Orphic painters, headed by Robert Delaunay.

In looking back over this history, the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin and others have regarded the shift to painterly art in the seventeenth century as crucial. Even those with little concern with theory have noted that Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez excelled in "brushy" art. The daub-like disorder the surfaces present on close inspection fuses at a distance into a shimmering vision of reality. Such effects may occur even when colors are not particularly bright.

Edouard Manet and others resuscitated this trend in the middle of the nineteenth century. But it was left to later critics to apply these insights into a program for avant-garde art itself. In order to promote advanced art Julius Meier-Graefe (1867-1935) created the journal Pan. Deeply impressed by the personality of Toulouse-Lautrec, he settled in Paris, where he was active as a journalist and dealer, joining forces with the Japanophile Samuel Bing, who also became identified with the art nouveau. Meier-Graefe began to seek more and more the sources of this art in a tradition that led him through Delacroix back to Rubens and Titian. A series of papers concentrating on nineteenth-century art coalesced into his major survey, Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst (Stuttgart: Julius Hoffmann, 1904), the history of the development of modern art. Basically, he traces modern art to the tradition of color with its fountainhead in Venice, as against Florentine disegno. In this work he saw the flat color of Manet as the decisive turning point, initiating the still-prevalent idea of that artist as the pivotal modern figure.

In the work of the old masters brushy effects are more likely to be salient in sketches, rather than finished works. The oil sketches of Peter Paul Rubens are even more painterly than his full-scale works. For this reason the interest in painterly effects mingles with the aesthetics of the sketch.

Immanuel Kant's observations about art in the Critique of Judgment (1790), mix traditional views with startling flashes of innovative insight. On the one hand, the "formative arts" of architecture, painting, and sculpture are, unsurprisingly, dominated by the element of design. Yet in a different category he posited a kind of pure art of color alongside music. Perhaps the German philosopher had in mind something like the color organs that existed in his own time. If so, he would have anticipated something like abstract painting, a phenomenon which (significantly) he links to music.

At all events with the emergence of the Romantic movement much of the stigma formerly attaching to color dissipated. Still, it was held, color is a potentially subversive element if used without restraint; to function properly, it had to be subjugated to the discipline of a system. John Gage has traced much of the proliferation of theories of color harmony in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Among the most assiduous of these theoreticians was Vassily Kandinsky. His early abstractions are the starting point of the whole twentieth-century gestural trend.

REFERENCES. John Gage, Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction, Boston: Bulfinch, 1993; idem, Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999; C. L. Hardin and Luisa Maffi, eds, Color Categories in Thought and Language, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997; Jacqueline Lichtenstein, The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993; Heinrich Wölfflin, The Principles of Art History, London: Bell, 1932 (first published in German, 1915).

Flatness, design reform, and the Carpet Paradigm

Art instruction has always been implicitly concerned with the way marks on a flat surface, known as the picture plane, correlate to make up a composition. To be sure, since the Renaissance it has been assumed that this concern must work in tandem with the procedures of illusionism, especially chiaroscuro and perspective, to create a convincing idea of depth. There was thus a tension between picture plane and its use to create a sense of space.

What happens when the first element, the picture plane, becomes dominant over the illusionistic effects laid upon it? The result is flatness, for which many analogies were found in medieval and non-Western art.

As such, the foregoing account is too schematic. The turn towards flatness as an ideal is first observable in Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century. The 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London was the first world’s fair. It assembled craft products from many countries. In the view of some influential observers the quality of the works shown was all too often pretentious and kitschy. Standards were low. How could they be improved? One criterion that emerged was appropriateness. While creation of the illusion of depth was appropriate for an easel painting, it was not for a piece of silverwork or a carpet. In these media a more limited depth should be presented, something in fact approaching to flatness.

The new aesthetic appears in an episode near the start of Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times (1854). Thomas Gradgrind, a martinet teacher whose gospel is facts and only facts, has a special guest in his class. This guest is a government official who proceeds to offer a disquisition on Taste in interior decoration. First, there must be no depictions of horses on walls because “horses do not walk up and down the sides of rooms in reality. Similarly, carpets must not display flowers because we do not walk on flower beds. Finally, crockery must not bear images of exotic birds and butterflies because we would not allow their presence in reality.

The unnamed government official was actually Henry Cole, one of the organizers of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and head of the Department of Practical Art, where he argued against excessive and inappropriate decoration. In retrospect we can see that Cole’s ideas were not only opposed to illusionism in decoration, but heralded the aesthetic watchword of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more.” In Victorian England William Morris sought to put these principles into practice with a profusion of designs for mass-produced furniture, weaving and wallpaper.

Joseph Masheck has identified the Carpet Paradigm as a key element in this aesthetic. While the elucidation of the principle is new to the era we have been discussing, it rests on a millennial experience of the human crafts. The invention of textiles stems from some 8000 (or more) years ago, during the Neolithic era. Together with plowing patterns and coiling of pottery, it ranks as one the key cultural innovations of that era. All of these innovations, reflect in one way or another the introduction of agriculture, with its regular patterns imposed on the environment.

The European Middle Ages excelled in the making of tapestries. Yet carpets were commonly imported from Arabic lands because of their superior quality. Because of the Islamic tendency to eschew images, these carpets were often abstract, dominated by geometric patterns and arabesques derived from vegetable ornaments. Sometimes the carpets are depicted as objects in Renaissance paintings (as by Jan van Eyck and Hans Holbein). But while the paintings include visual renderings of carpets, their principles of organization did not provide the basis for the compositions as a whole, which remained stoutly European in affiliation.

At the end of the nineteenth century the Austrian theoretician Alois Riegl, who had directed a carpet museum in Vienna, sought to work out the principles of arabesque designs in his book Stilfragen (1893). This achievement was part of a general reevaluation and upgrading of the so-called minor arts.

In 1910 a great exhibition of Islamic art was held in Munich, influencing Henri Matisse and other avant-garde artists. In the same year Paul Klee and August Macke traveled to Tunisia where they viewed characteristic Islamic designs, including carpets.

REFERENCES. Joseph Masheck, "The Carpet Paradigm: Critical Prolegomena to a Theory of Flatness," Arts Magazine, 61 (Sept. 1976), 82-109; Hans-Günther Schwarz, Orient-Okzident: Der orientalische Teppich in der westlichen Literatur, Ästhetik und Kunst, Munich: Iudicium Verlag, 1990.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Western art: Two grand narratives

Viewed in the broadest possible terms, the story of Western art since the end of the Middle Ages reveals two grand narratives. The first is naturalistic, the second antinaturalistic.

It is generally accepted that the Renaissance is marked by a series of devices that made depictions more lifelike. For the relatively flat, unmodulated presentations typical of medieval art, the new artists substituted a series of technical devices that created greater verisimilitude. Among these are linear perspective and aerial perspective, achieving a successful simulation of depth, and chiaroscuro, which served to model figures in the round.

Masters of the seventeenth century, preeminently Caravaggio and Velázquez, Hals, and Rembrandt, achieved a fuller presentation of light and shade, capturing the complexity inherent in many varied scenes.

In the view of E. H. Gombrich, author of Art and Illusion (1960), the most sustained analysis of the development, the final achievement occurred in the art of John Constable. That painter developed a technique of recording light that revealed showed the English countryside with a new and convincing verisimilitude.

Others would say that Constable did not go far enough, and that the full potential of light in nature was not captured until the work of the French impressionists. Here, though, there is a paradox, for while the Impressionist technique of plein-air painting did capture the effect of light with new vividness, the division of the brushstrokes brought a new sense of art as artifice. By directing our attention to what was happening in the picture plane Impressionist practice opened the way for the second great narrative. Unlike the first, this was antinaturalistic. Its final goal, some came to believe in the early years of the twentieth century, was abstraction.

The Impressionist enlivenment of the surface was to be continued by most other movements of advanced art. It contrasted with the established academic practice of the glassy, “licked” surface, which created the effect of looking through a window at reality. With the new brushwork the window itself became the theme.

In his “Little Fifer” Edouard Manet had shown that it was possible to break the unity of figure and ground, as his figure floats almost effortlessly against a neutral background.

Paul Gauguin and especially the Fauve artists coming after him used color for its own sake, feeling free to use colors that did not naturally occur in the motif.

Paul Cézanne began to depart the accepted norms of perspective, though in a subtle way. His example was the basis for the much more radical experiments in spatial fragmentation.

These changes coming-—so it seemed—-pell-mell constituted the second great narrative, which in effect repealed the results of the first. They signified that a painting was not a window into reality but an artifact the essence of which lay in its physical being.

The Sublime

The Sublime is an eighteenth-century idea that engendered a major shift in taste. Formerly the Beautiful had reigned supreme, the unique standard of aesthetic value. Henceforth, though, it was compelled share the stage with its nemesis, the Sublime. Jointly, and also competetively, the two constituted the poles of aesthetic response.

The spread of the concept of the Sublime prepared the way for the Romantic Movement. Through this channel the concept ultimately had an effect on the Symbolists.

While the idea was adumbrated by a number of English writers, it received its definitive formulation at the hands of the Irish polymath and politician Edmund Burke, whose book Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful was published in 1757. Burke held that "terror is in all cases whatsoever . . . the ruling principle of the sublime" and, in keeping with his conception of a violently emotional sublime, his idea of astonishment was more violent than that of his predecessors: "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other."

Burke ascribed the opposition of beauty and sublimity to a physiological substratum. He made the opposition of pleasure and pain the source of the two aesthetic categories, deriving beauty from pleasure and sublimity from pain. According to Burke, the pleasure of beauty has a relaxing effect on the fibers of the body, whereas sublimity, in contrast, tightens these fibers. This ingenious theory underlay his opposition of the beautiful and sublime: "The ideas of the sublime and the beautiful stand on foundations so different, that it is hard, I had almost said impossible, to think of reconciling them in the same subject, without considerably lessening the effect of the one or the other upon the passions.”

Burke's recourse to this physiological theory of beauty and sublimity makes him the first English writer to offer a properly aesthetic explanation of these effects. Burke was the first to explain beauty and sublimity purely in terms of the process of perception and its effect upon the perceiver. Most crucially, Burke posited that our aesthetic standards are not unitary but binary: a different approach is needed depending upon whether one is attuned to the Beautiful mode or the Sublime mode. By positing a polarity between the beautiful and the sublime, aestheticians prepared the way for a more pluralistic understanding of art---including the art of the middle ages, much of which was rehabilitated under the rubric of the Sublime

With further elaboration, Immanuel Kant incorporated the idea into his system of aesthetics.

Neither Burke nor Kant possessed any extensive knowledge of the visual arts. For this reason they seem to have thought in the first instance of the sublime as a property of nature—or rather, one way in which we may perceive nature. In a landscape, for example, we surrender ourselves to wild, jagged forms in which the immensity of the natural features dwarfs the individual human being. In due course a number of artists made use of the ideas, J. M. W. Turner most grandly.

The contrast between the sublime and the beautiful has many affinities, including the polarity of the classical and the romantic. Some have perceived Nietzsche’s opposition of the Apollinian and Dionysian as another version of this theme. For abstract art the most important polarity is the one posited by the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer in his 1908 book Abstraction and Empathy.

The concept of the sublime resurfaced as a talisman for abstract art after World War II, as seen in the title of Barnett Newman's 1950 painting "Vir Heroicus Sublimis." In an The influential 1961 article, Robert Rosenblum compared nineteenth-century American landscapes, generally regarded as sublime, with major canvases of the Abstract Expressionist group, suggesting a continuous lineage.

At the end of the twentieth century some art critics sought to refashion the concept of the sublime as a way of understanding contemporary works; the success of this gambit remains uncertain.

REFERENCES. Andrew Ashfield and Peter de Bolla, The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory, Cambridge: CUP, 1996; Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, New York: Alworth Press, 1999; S. T. Monk, The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in Eighteenth-Century England, London, 1935; Robert Rosenblum, "The Abstract Sublime," Art News, 59:10 (Feb. 1961).

Interanimation of the arts: music and synaesthesia

Ordinary speech recognizes analogous effects among the different categories of sensory experience. Colors may be described as “loud,” even though colors are incapable of emitting sounds. We may characterize a person as a “smooth” talker, even though talk does not have the smoothness of surfaces available to the touch. Some choose to dress in fashions that are “hot” (or “cool”) even though clothing and accessories do not operate like stoves or air-conditioners.

Among sophisticated thinkers the idea that the arts make up a set was already current in classical antiquity. Yet only in the Renaissance, as Paul Oskar Kristeller has shown, was a system correlating the arts created.

Within the concert of the arts particular alliances seemed inviting. From the Renaissance through the eighteenth century, the Horatian tag "ut pictura poesis" (poetry is like painting) tended to suggest that painting was about the imitation of reality and narrative. In his "Laocoon" essay of 1766, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing presented serious arguments against this pairing. Once this divorce had been achieved, two paths opened as they do in human marriages: living alone, or remarriage. The first path hews to a strict sense of the distinctiveness of the arts according to media (as emphasized in the later criticism of Clement Greenberg), while the second proposes various alliances of the arts.

During the middle years of the nineteenth century poets began to reemphasize a range of comparisons among the arts. The title of Théophile Gautier’s 1852 collection of lyrics is Emaux et camées, enamels and cameos, suggesting that the French writer wished to emulated the miniaturized precision of those two techniques. One of the poems included is called “Symphonie en blanc majeur.” James Abbott McNeill Whistler painted his first “Symphony in White” (Also known as “The White Girl”) in 1862. He also produced a number of Nocturnes, evoking the musical form created by John Field. Whistler’s Arrangements are also probably meant as musical analogies, though flower groupings could also be meant. These practices adumbrated Vassily Kandinsky’s naming of “Improvisations” and “Compositions,” as noted below.

During the course of the nineteenth century the prestige of music increased enormously. There were a number of reasons for this eminence, including the excellence of particular composers, especially Beethoven, Wagner, and Brahms; the close link with the ideals of the romantic movement; and the sense that music, perhaps alone among the arts, offered an immediate rendering of deep feeling without the interference of imitative effects.

Abstract art has been typically linked to music. In 1909 Kandinsky painted the first of his series of relatively informal works, called “Improvisations.” By 1914 there were 35 of them. Of the larger, more elaboration “Compositions” he produced only ten, placing them strategically across most of his career as an abstract artist (1910-39). More generally, the numbering of some artists' works, as "Painting No. 12" and the like, recalls the opus numbers used to designate the individual pieces produced by composers. The work of Mondrian offers good examples.

To some extent, composers were to return the favor with their tone poems (or symphonic poems). Most of these have a general character, evoking historical or legendary figures, or scenes, as in Debussy’s “La Mer.” Yet a few aspired to achieve a translation of specific paintings. Modest Mussorgsky composed “Pictures at an Exhibition (1874); the pieces pay homage to canvases by his friend Victor A. Hartmann. Originally written for piano, the work was memorably orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. In 1909 Sergei Rachmaninov limned Arnold Böcklin’s symbolist “Isle of the Dead” for orchestra.

For a time Kandinsky was in close contact with the innovative composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). As a secondary activity Schoenberg executed paintings in an expressionist style; in 1910 the Heller Gallery in Vienna held an exhibition of them, while musicians performed two of his string quartets. During the winter of 2003-04 New York’s Jewish museum highlighted Schoenberg’s paintings and music, affording a comparison also with works by his friend and comrade in arms, Vassily Kandinsky.

Schoenberg's earlier masterpieces, such as "Verklärte Nacht" (1899)and "Gurrelieder" (1901), derive from the late romanticism of Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. As his musical thinking advanced, Schoenberg came to the conclusion that the Western tradition of tonality, which had prevailed since the Renaissance, must be abandoned. This led to the condition of atonality, dethroning the Western system of major and minor chords and creating a king of democracy of notes in which none was superior to another. This revolutionary reform affords a comparison, somewhat remote to be sure, with the downgrading of perspective and figuration (two hierarchy-creating deviced in painting. Some date this musical breakthrough as early as 1908.

The shift turned out to be only the first stage of an evolution, leading ultimately to the emergence of the mature twelve-tone system, probably in 1924. In its turn, the twelve-tone system, also known as serialism, bears a number of interesting resemblances to abstraction. As noted with atonality, like abstraction the new musical system presents itself as a radical rejection of norms hitherto broadly accepted. Perhaps the closest visual parallel with twelve-tone music is the Neo-plasticism of Mondrian (and not the work of Kandinsky). Like Neo-Plasticism, twelve-tone music presents itself as ruthlessly logical, for it is based on a system of permutations of the twelve tones of the series. Departures from the rigor of the system were sternly forbidden. Both systems claimed to be the ultimate form of their art in the twentieth century, superseding any other.

Time has not been kind to either of these exclusivist assertions. Overlooking the perhaps grandiose claims made both for Neo-Plasticism and twelve-tone music, the credos maintained by the developers of these systems resulted in a number of major works.

Just prior to Schoenberg's time, critics had evolved the concept of absolute music. Absolute music, essentially instrumental, stressed the autonomy of music based on soundscape, much as abstract art was later to do with colors and forms.

For a variety of reasons, then, the analogy with music was central to the apologetics of abstract painting. Yet music had an older partner. In his Philosophie der Kunst (1802-03) the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling had proclaimed “Architecture in general is frozen music.” Indeed, the analyses of architecture and music share some common terms, including rhythm, composition, and proportion. Many, however, have felt that there was a deeper affinity. For this reason, the affinity between painting and music became in a sense a triad: painting, music, and architecture.

While some secondary features of architecture (such as Corinthian acanthus leaves and caryatids) are representational, on the whole architecture is not. It is a craft in which considerations of structural integrity and practical utility loom large. Because it is so different from painting and architecture, some have concluded that it architecture not a fine art at all. Still, others regard it as the dominant art, one which provides shelter for sculptural adornment and for painted altarpieces as subordinate parts However this may be, architectural analysis has often invited concentration on proportion, scale, aptness of form, and functionality, rather than of representation. Significantly, the influential Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, later noted for his formalist analyses of painting and sculpture, chose to write his 1886 dissertation on Roman triumphal arches, which require careful attention to geometry, rhythm, scale, and proportion.

A significant turning point occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century, when many critics disparaged fussy, overdecorated buildings in the academic taste. But what to adopt instead? A prominent counter-example was the Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park in London for the Great Exhibition (the first World’s Fair). The architect Joseph Paxton, whose background was in greenhouse construction, created a simple but grand design using iron and glass. While the term was not used at the time, this building ranks as an early example of functionalist simplicity in architecture. The American architecture Louis Sullivan popularized the idea in his watchword “Form Follows Function.”

The most thoroughgoing early advocate of such simplification was the Austrian avant-garde architect Adolf Loos, whose trenchant 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” virtually equated the two Several buildings created at this time show his radical flensing principle in which all superfluous ornament was omitted.

In the early 1920s the International Style emerged in architecture. A noted center was the Bauhaus in Dessau, which also welcomed abstract artists, such as Kandinsky and Joseph Albers.

In France Le Corbusier created highly simplified (though not nonobjective) paintings in his “Purist” mode. As an architect Le Corbusier is famous for his statement that “a house is a machine for living.” Indeed, the machine aesthetic played an important role in both architecture and painting during the first half of the twentieth century. Yet there is more to Le Corbusier’s aesthetic. “Architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders, or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage.” In this way the architect arranges forms in a way similar to the painter. In fact, Le Corbusier pronounced that “Today painting has outsped the other arts,” pointing the way to progress on a broader front.

In the Netherlands architecture was an important component of the De Stijl trend, and such figures as Gerrit Rietberg and Theo van Doesburg produced designs for buildings utilizing forms that recalled those in the paintings of the group.

Many found the analogies among the arts compelling for another reason. When Kandinsky wrote stage works such as "Yellow Sound" he was invoking established doctrines of synaesthesia.

During the nineteenth century scientists began to study subjects who experienced involuntarily two sensations simultaneously as the result of single stimulus. This is the physiological definition of synaesthesia. Apparently rare, the faculty can be stimulated in artists--perhaps in alliance with "thinking with the right brain."

As noted at the outset, the parallel in experience has long been recognized in linguistic metaphors, when we speak of "loud colors," "soft sounds," or even "music that stinks" (as one nineteenth-century critic expressed his dislike of Tchaikovsky).

Baudelaire attempted a theoretical grounding of these analogies in his doctrine of correspondences. Rimbaud illustrated the idea with his sonnet of the Vowels, which opens with the line: "A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu."

Sometimes artists have sought to create technology that would achieve such affects, as in the "clavecin oculaire" of Louis-Bertrand Castel (mid 18th century), in which the performer produces colors by touching a keyboard. The symbolist writer Joris-Karl Huysmans imagined a sybaritic equivalent, in which a device would drip various liqueurs on the countenance of a diner, combining the effects of taste and odor.

During the Belle Epoque that saw the breakthrough of abstract artists, some poets were taken with the idea of introducing abstraction into literature. As in art, forerunners have surfaced, in this instance in the poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne and Stéphane Mallarmé, where the attenuation of meaning served to evoke nuances and moods.

The most striking effects were found in Russian Futurism, where poets created works in pure sound. F. T. Marinetti, the Italian theorist of Futurism, had tried out various forms of arrangements of words so as to produce visual poetry. In this he was followed by the Russians, who achieved notable effects. Some of these recurred in the poster art of the Russian Revolution.

During World War I the Dadaist Hugo Ball arranged public presentations of sound poems in Zurich. The rhythms of these performances were influenced by the chants of the Eastern Orthodox church. Ball's heir in this sphere was Kurt Schwitters, best known as a collagist. Schwitters' "Ursonate" (Primal Sonata) of 1921-32 is probably the masterpiece of the genre; it is available on a CD recording.

Addendum: Here is the French text of Rimbaud's famous poem.

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu : voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

Golfes d’ombres ; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’ombrelles ;
I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes ;

U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides
Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands front studieux ;

O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges :
- O l’Omega, rayon violet de Ses yeux !


REFERENCES. Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, London, 1960; Simon Baron-Cohen and John E. Harrison, eds., Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997; Carl Dallhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989; Kevin C. Dann, Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999; Gerald Janecek, The Look of Russian Literature: Avant-Garde Visual Experiments, 1900-1930, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984; Edward Lockspeiser, Music and Painting: A Study in Comparative Ideas from Turner to Schoenberg, New York: Harper, 1973; Karin von Maur, ed., Vom Klang der Bilder: Die Musik in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, Munich: Prestel, 1985; James F. O’Gorman, ABC of Architecture, Philadelphia, 1998. William Thomson, Schoenberg's Error, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Abstract art "about nothing"

A number of critics, including Rosalind E. Krauss and T. J. Clark, have suggested that abstract painting represents an effort to create art works that are "about Nothing." Krauss has claimed that "the twentieth century's first wave of pure abstraction was based on the goal ... to make a work about Nothing. The upper-case n in Nothing is the marker of this absolute seriousness ... to paint Nothing, which is to say, all being once it has been stripped of every quality that would materialize or limit it in any way. So purified, this Being is identical with Nothing."

Inspection of the works shows this explanation to be rhetorical and inadequate. If Nothing is the goal, why do abstract works belong to radically different styles? Why does an "unmeaningful" Mondrian look different from an "unmeaningful" Kandinsky.

As an overall explanation, Krauss's gambit is insufficient. Reflection indicates, however, that pursued less dogmatically and exclusively the idea is suggestive, leading to other paths that may be rewarding.

The first attempts to grapple with the idea of "nothing" stem not from the visual arts, but from philosophy, religion, and literature.

A discussion of nothing may fruitfully begin with the pre-Socratic philosophers of archaic Greece who, combining an interest in the cosmos and language, seemed fated to stumble on the matter. But as in the case of infinity, they concluded that the subject of "not-being" (me on) must be handled in a gingerly manner, lest the theme lead to extreme skepticism and paradox. In his dialogues “Parmenides” and “The Sophist,” Plato took up these discussions, with a circumspection bordering on terminal obscurity. Still, the idea of nothing as something got discussed; it appeared in texts that formed part of the Western canon of philosophy.

Socrates was famous for saying that he knew nothing, but this seems to have been false modesty. At Athens St. Paul encountered a dedication "To the Unknown God" (Acts 17:23). The idea, usually found in the plural, agnostoi theoi, probably stems from the ancient Near East, with its idea of the remote otherness of the gods. Be that as it may, the idea has continued to resonate, especially among mystics.

In Judeo-Christian thought, out of nothing God made something (the cosmos); this would seem to settle the matter, once there was nothing, but by divine fiat it yielded to the cosmos. This reflection did not stop Christian mystics from contemplating the matter, and it is in mysticism that the idea found its most fruitful territory.

In addition to nothing, there was an ideal of reduced being, or emptying (kenosis). This ideal gained force by being attributed to Christ himself--his "humanation" was a kind of willed self-belittling. (see Philippians 2:7 in the New Testament). In Christian theology kenosis is used both as an explanation of the Incarnation and an indication of the nature of God's voluntary self-limiting, undertaken for the benefit of humanity.

A natural dilemma arises when Christian theology posits a God outside of time and space, who enters into our realm to become human incarnate. The doctrine of kenosis attempts to explain what God chose to give up in terms of his divine attributes in order to assume human nature. Since the incarnate Jesus is simultaneously fully human and fully divine, kenotic thinking holds that these changes were temporarily assumed by God in his incarnation, and that when Jesus ascended back into heaven following the Resurrection, God fully reassumed all of his original attributes.
More broadly, the idea is that God is self-emptying. He poured out himself to create the cosmos and the universe, and everything within it. Therefore, it is our duty to pour out ourselves. (One may recall C.S. Lewis's statement in Mere Christianity that a painter pours his ideas out in his work, and yet remains a particular being distinct from his painting.) In so doing, some hold, we become deified like God. Another term for this process is theosis. However, theosis carries no implication of becoming like God in nature or essence, which is pantheism; instead, it concerns becoming united to God through his Energies, one example of which being the Uncreated Energy of grace.

Some literary critics hold that kenosis is the affect (or feeling) experienced by the reader of lyric or poetry forms. It is the experience of the emptying of the ego-personality of the reader into the immediate sensory manipulation of poetics. In this sense, kenosis inflicts an experience of timelessness upon the reader.

What we experience may not be literally emptying, but a sense of being unable to express our deepest perceptions and feeling. Here we enter the realm of negative or apophatic theology. One of the first to articulate the theology in was the Apostle whose mention of an unknown god in the book of Acts 17:23 is the foundation of the exposition of Dionysius the Areopagite (ca. 500 CE). Advocates of the via negativa, the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century said that they believed in God, but they did not believe that God exists. In contrast, making positive statements about the nature of God, which occurs in most other forms of Christian theology, is sometimes called cataphatic theology. Adherents of the contrasting apophatic tradition hold that God is beyond the limits of what humans can understand, and that one should not seek God by means of intellectual understanding, but through a direct experience of the love (in Western Christianity) or the Energies (in Eastern Christianity) of God. Apophatic statements are central to much theology in Orthodox Christianity.

Analogies present themselves in Byzantine art, notable in the stylization of the figures and their almost weightless appearance against a uniform gold ground. It is as if these holy figures did not want to assert too much materiality. Opponents of images were to carry this reticence to an ultimate, undesirable extreme. In fact, iconoclasm represents the most radical "emptying": outright erasure of works of art.

Kenotic emptying is not the same as absence of meaning: it may even enhance meaning--though in ways that resist verbalization. Christian mystics produced many variations on emptying. In the fifteenth century Nicholas of Cusa wrote a treatise "Of Learned Ignorance" in which he daringly posited that in fact nothing can be equated with God. "For that reason Dionysius the Areopagite says that an understanding of God is not so much an approach toward something as toward nothing; and sacred ignorance teaches me that what seems nothing to the intellect is the incomprehensible Maximum." Nicholas also affirmed, perhaps following St. Bonaventure, that "the nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere."

Perhaps the most widespread use of Negative theology occurs in the Hindu scriptures, mainly the Upanishads, where Vedantic theologians speak of the nature of Brahman, the Supreme Cosmic Spirit as beyond human comprehension. The Taittiriya hymn speak of Brahman as “one where the mind does not reach.” Yet the scriptures themselves speak of Brahman's positive aspect also, in such statements as "Brahman is Bliss.”
The most famous expression of Negative theology in the Upanishads is found in the chant neti neti, meaning "not this, not this," or "neither this, nor that." In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is questioned by his students on the nature of God. He responds, "It is not this and it is not that" (neti, neti). God is not real as we are real, nor is He unreal. He is not living in the sense humans live, nor is he dead. He is not compassionate (in our sense of the term), nor is he uncompassionate. And so forth. We can never truly define God in words. All we can do is say, it isn't this, but also, it isn't that either.
There is a striking similarity between the western concept of negative theology, and Buddhist thought concerning Nirvana, which is also unconfined to time, space, or even existence and non-existence. In the Tipitika, the early Buddhist canon of scriptures, Gautama Buddha is recorded as describing Nirvana in terms of what it is not: "There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated." (Udana VIII.3).
Shunyata is a key Buddhist philosophical term, especially in the Mahayana or Northern School, which includes the Chan variety, better known in its Japanese spelling as Zen. It is not the extinction of nirvana, but a pregnant potentiality of the "ground of being" or, more accurately, becoming. It is usually translated as "voidness" or "emptiness". In its prime philosophical sense it was defined by the famous philosopher Nagarjuna as denoting the lack of fixed essence which he found in all phenomena. As all things are compounded of various dharmas (elements, phenomena), and eventually decay back into their constituents, Nagarjuna argues that we cannot point to any true essence of the compound; its essential nature, he says, is shunya, void. This is also a denial of all permanent identity, and the concept of self or soul. This doctrine goes back to roots associated with the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, and the term is found in the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. Two exceptions, that is, uncompounded phenomena, are admitted: space (akasa) and nirvana. The exception for space may be significant in terms of art. The void contains within itself all possibilities, so the term "empty" is rather misleading. The void later is seen as devoid of limits, of boundaries, of fixed forms, and especially in Chan/Zen, of conceptual structures. In all likelihood, the concept of shunyata had major influence on Chinese painting, fitting in nicely with the previously influential concept of the formless Tao (Dao), and may be seen in the mistiness, clouds, and abysms of Chinese landscape painting, but this is my own speculation. In the Chan tradition, the void became a major subject of meditative contemplation or immersion, pointing back towards nirvana (or satori), and that must have influenced whatever art was created under Chan/Zen auspices; it also developed numinosity and became an object of worship in other Mahayana schools.

The theme of emptiness recurs frequently in the writings of the great Japanese Buddhist priest Kukai (774-835). He even distinguishes five types of emptiness.

While emptiness or the void is an important aspect of Buddhism, the faith must not be equated with nothingness itself. That is a Western simplication.

An interesting theme in later Japanese Buddhist art is the successive stylizations of the seated form of Bodhidarma, the zen Patriarch, a sequence concluding in a free-form circle (enso).

Another visualization is the cosmic diagrams known as mandalas. The most impressive examples are probably those of Tibet and Nepal, many of which have been acquired by Western collectors. In the 1920s, mandalas attracted the interest of Carl Gustav Jung, who detected striking similarities with products of the "outsider art" of mental patients. From such parallels he formed the hypothesis that they might reflect primordial contents of the collective unconscious. While this idea remains controversial, it has helped some Western artists to appropriate the forms.

Buddhist ideas, especially Chan/Zen ones, were reinforced by the indigenous Chinese tradition of Taoism, as embodied in the classic Tao te-ching ("The Way and Its Power"). This short but potent text is traditionally ascribed to Lao-tse, writing in approximately the third century BCE. The author laments the decadence of his age with its oversophistication. The only solution is to return to the simplicity of the untutored peasant. Indeed something even more radical is needed. This insight leads to the central taoist doctrine, wu-wei or inaction. A difficult concept, it is perhaps best expressed aphoristically: "Act without acting; find flavor where there is no flavor," and "If you wish to shrink it, you must certainly stretch it." Such precepts are neither logical or illogical, but perhaps simply alogical. Or to use the vocabulary of the Russian futurists, they are neither rational nor irrational, but transrational (zaum).

These ideas underwent a sea-change when presented to Western audiences. Our commonly accepted views often need correction or supplementation. It is also necessary to document at which point in time the Eastern ideas made themselves felt in the West. Michael Sullivan's studies of the meeting of East and West in art, excellent as far as they go, do not deal with pottery and the tea ceremony, popularized in the West by Kazuo Okakura just after the turn of the century.

Japanese pottery is often the vehicle for the aesthetic of the wabi-sabi (cultivated poverty or simplicity), featuring effects of the irregular, the unexpected, the accidental, and even the deformed. In some ways recalling the quasiminimalist affinities of our Shaker furniture, the wabi-sabi taste differs from it in being deliberately unpristine, for it embraces what might be termed the perfection of the imperfect. A somewhat similar idea occurs in the Japanese poetic form known as the haiku. In this genre the poet must condense his or her thoughts into a mere 17 syllables. Moreover, the imagery typically runs to events of seemingly little significance, as the falling of cherry blossoms or the jumping of a frog into a pond.

Since the so-called "opening" of the country in the mid-nineteenth century, Japanese culture has attracted many admirers in the West. Frank Lloyd Wright was impressed by Japanese art at the World's Columbian Exhibition in 1893.

A fascination with Japan often led to the source of many of the ideas in China. After the turn of the century Wright became interested in the Tao Te-ching, the fountainhead of the Taoist tradition. In that work the American architect appreciated the definition of a house as a "useful void." In 1910 he visited Europe, where he encountered works that flowed together with these Eastern lessons. At the Coonley Playhouse in the Chicago suburbs he created abstract stained glass (1912).

The tremendous range and quality of Chinese ceramics has seduced generations of Western collectors. Many have been drawn to the pictorialism and narrative of Ming and Qing wares. Others, however, who regard themselves as having the most refined taste, gravitate to Song ceramics, which are often nonfigural. In these consummate pieces the connoisseur is restricted to appreciating the shape, the texture, and the subtleties of the colored glazes. Such a taste is clearly similar to the love for abstract painting.

In Post-Carolingian Europe, the tenth and most of the eleventh century was a true dark age--a "nothing." Out of this void arose the first vernacular literature that through its sophistication and formal complexity ranks as the first chapter of the literature of Europe, the provencal poetry of the troubadours, The first major figure was William IX (1071-1126), who has no known significant forerunners. Coming from the void so to speak it was appropriate that he should write a poem on the void, or more specifically on "nothing" (nien, cognate with modern French néant, of Jean-Paul Sartre fame).

I will make a poem of exactly nothing [dreyt nien];
There'll be nothing in it of me or anyone else,
Nothing about love or youth
Or anything else.

The boast seems to be a variation on the perennial gambit of the adunaton: "I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles."

Renaissance authors, eager to show their skill with words, sometimes venture into special realms of playfulness and paradoxes. The theme of nothing proved attractive to them. The theme is sounded in a Latin poem of Jean Passerat (mid 16th cent), which notes that "nothing is richer than precious stones"; "nothing is higher than heaven"; "nothing is lower than hell," "more glorious than virtue" and so forth. In an anonymous English poem of a slightly later period, "On the letter O," the ideas of cosmic perfection stemming from circularity and of totality (the Latin word omnis) link up with the concept of zero, which the letter also expresses. However (it is worth remarking parenthetically), In the original Arabic numbers, as still today, zero is represented by a dot, the smallest representable entity that is still an entity. Historically some numbers originally represented things: Roman V was a hand; X, two hands. Nowadays we generally fail to notice this origin. V and X are a kind of abstraction from, starting with stylized representation and moving towards obscuring this.

The common French word for nothing, rien, expresses it's own paradox since etymologically it was "something" (the Latin rem, "thing").

In art, the Renaissance first grappled with the problem of cast shadows, which did not appear in the Middle Ages. The shadow, especially if seen alone, is an apt metaphor for diminished existence, a "something" to be sure, but one that only hints at full being.

The concept of nothing has also engaged the modern world. A number of currents flow through the works of Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), a writer whose achievement was widely influential, both within and outside of France.

Flaubert's earlier novels focus on the elements of characterization, milieu, and plot that were integral to the narrative tradition. Madame Bovary is unforgettable not only for its title character, but also for also the author's mordant portrayal of the provincial setting that sealed her fate. However, Flaubert was also concerned with literary craft, finding the right words and rhythms--a search which required immense amounts of time and effort.

Flaubert's later works are characterized by an odd sense of detachment, from the reader and from the author. The occurrences have a sense of unreality; they may or may not have occurred.

These concerns came to be seen as the literary version of formalism. They seemed particularly striking in a genre that has always honored mimesis, the imitation of reality.

Flaubert's almost monastic life as a dedicated, and very slow writer in his Norman country house evoked from him a sense that so little happened he was living in the void (le néant).

Among the writers influenced by Flaubert was Mallarmé, who pushed formalism further. However, his story belongs mainly to Symbolism.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries philosophers on the European continent have been drawn to the idea of nothingness. This reflects their interest in the concept of being, of which nothingness is the dialectical opposite. These interests were reinforced by reading the ancient Greek philosophical texts, where (as noted above) the concept was treated with circumspection and a certain amount of obscurity, the latter being a problem that also afflicts latter-day speculators in the realm.

Anglo-American thinkers have been unenthusiastic. "Nothing is an awe inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of a mystical or existentialist tendency, but by most others regarded with anxiety, nausea, or panic." [P.L. Heath, in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.]

The theme has been particularly popular among Existentialists, who enjoyed a remarkable vogue in the middle years of the twentieth century. The title of the masterwork of Jean-Paul Sartre is Being and Nothingness (L'Etre et le néant; 1943). Sartrean existentialism enjoyed considerable prestige among American artists of the Abstract Expressionist phase--though some have questioned how deep the commitment was. Currently enjoying a major revival, Martin Heidegger held that life's meaning is that it is a journey towards death--in personal terms the essence of nothingness. Earlier the poet Walt Whitman had expressed the insight that the invisible world of spirit is also the universe of death. In our own day, some have understood the luminous paintings of Mark Rothko as a replication of this experience of near death.

This long trajectory shows that simply to invoke that abstract art is about nothing is not in itself helpful. However, if the idea is understood in a broader sense---that in certain developments, abstract art is "nothing-like," that it confronts us with the void--it may be of value.

REFERENCES. Robert Martin Adams, Nil: Episodes of the Literary Conquest of the Void During the 19th Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1966; David J. Clarke, The Influence of Oriental Thought on Postwar American Painting and Sculpture, New York: Garland, 1988; Rosalie L. Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966 (esp. chs. 7-8, pp. 219-72); Roger-Pol Droit, Le culte du néant: Les philosophes et le Bouddha, Paris: Seuil, 1997.

Gender and eros

The Women’s Movement began with a historic gathering at Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. At first its main strength was found in English-speaking countries, but gradually the movement became influential on the Continent as well. While women’s suffrage was rightly viewed as the central issue, admission to higher education was the key to moving into the professions. Here again, the US led the way. In Central Europe women had to wait until the end of the century to be admitted to universities. But admitted they were. It is this background that must be assessed in reckoning with the contribution of women artists to the avant-garde, including such figures as Paula Modersohn-Becker, Gabriele Münter, Sonia (Terk) Delaunay, and Natalia Goncharova.

Not surprisingly women’s advances engendered various types of backlash. Arguably the upsurge in misogyny evident at the turn of the century is part of this trend. A less sinister version is the idea of separate spheres. Just as the upper middle-class man was expected to go off to the office, where his executive talents were fully engaged, so the wife would take charge of the household. Upper middle-class wives were expected to arrange the shopping, manage the servant staff, and arrange for the home to be tastefully furnished. The large department stores that sprang up in the closing decades of the nineteenth century catered to this discerning female clientele. In the interests of furnishing their homes in the latest fashions, these privileged women became experts in the fields of textiles, wallpaper, and furniture. Must of this work displayed traits of perennial abstraction. Such concerns lie behind the large contribution of women to the Arts and Crafts Movement, and later to the Wiener Werkstätte and even the Bauhaus.

We turn now to a less decorous subject. The nineteenth century discovered sex. Even though he died in 1814, the shadow of the Marquis de Sade extended over the entire nineteenth century and beyond. Interest in Sade showed a continuing ambivalence, and he elicited both prudish condemnation and guilty fascination.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of the discipline of sex research or sexology. Its first classic was Pathologia sexualis by the German physician Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902). By a curious serendipity, this book appeared in 1886, the same year as the Symbolist Manifesto. Intended as a forensic reference for doctors and judges, the book assumes a high academic tone. (The “money shots” appear in Latin dress). In the introduction Krafft-Ebing noted that he had "deliberately chosen a scientific term for the name of the book to discourage lay readers." Despite such gestures at deterrence, the volume became a best seller, enjoying many printings and translations.

Krafft-Ebing divided sexual deviance into four categories: paradoxia, sexual desire at the wrong time of life, i.e. childhood or old age; anesthesia, insufficient desire; hyperesthesia, excessive desire; and paraesthesia, sexual desire for the wrong goal or object. The last category included homosexuality (or "contrary sexual feeling"), sexual fetishism, sadism, masochism, and so on. Later the writer revised his negative views about homosexuality.

Following a traditional stance, Krafft-Ebing portrayed women as passive. Popular sentiment, however, contradicted this view. The theme of the femme fatale, powerful but dangerous, permeated art and literature. More positive was the image of the New Woman, personified by Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” (1879), in which the heroine broke out of her domestic confinement to find her own way.

While the term “fetishism” goes back to the eighteenth century, it was Krafft-Ebing who popularized it in the sexual sense. Fetishism is what we would now term a paraphilia, that is, something ancillary to the “main event” in sexual relations. Some of the objects involved--shoes, uniforms, umbrellas and the like--also appeared in art works, though not necessarily bearing a fetishistic charge. The German novelist Leopold von Sacher Masoch (1836-1895) described what came to be known as masochism. The scholars Henry Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfeld, Albert Moll, and Marc-André Raffalovich issued major publications on homosexuality. In England, Edward Carpenter, who had elected to lead an openly homosexual lifestyle, combined enthusiasm for Walt Whitman with a somewhat vague credo of the "New Life." Others focused on androgyny and hermaphroditism. These concerns reached a broader public through literary treatments by such authors as Jean Lorrain, Marcel Proust, Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery), Frank Wedekind, and Oscar Wilde

During the nineteenth century respectable society sought to draw a bright line between “normal sexuality” and “perversion.” However, curiosity about the latter could not be stopped. Indeed, the more such “immorality” was denounced, the more interest in it grew.

Almost by definition, the decadent movement involved all sorts of sexual heterodoxy. Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours (“Against Nature”) hints at various unnatural acts committed by its hero Des Esseintes, though the text is not very detailed. By contrast the homosexual liaison between Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud became a public scandal. Both poets wrote explicit verse about male-male sexual relations. During the 1890s the trials of Oscar Wilde made his name synonymous with homosexuality.

In the 1890s the artist Aubrey Beardsley became notorious for his erotic frankness, especially in his illustrations for Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Wilde's Salome. Both sets of illustrations belong to the vein of the femme fatale, the powerful, but perverse woman. His works radiate a kind of generalized sentiment of the polymorphous perverse. Necrophilia is the theme of the Salome works by Beardsley, Moreau, and others.

Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s novel L’Eve future is about a man who has an android created for him to simulate his ideal love—a kind of desiring machine.

In 1830 Honoré de Balzac had published a story entitled “Passion in the Desert” about a soldier who has a kind of affair with a lioness. This animal theme was picked up by Fernand Khnopf in his “Caresses of the Sphinx” of 1898. Several years earlier, in fact, Franz von Stuck had produced a “Kiss of the Sphinx.”

Eventually viewers began to look for sexual titillation everywhere. Thus the whiplash lines and luxuriant tendrils of art nouveau decoration came to be regarded as subversively erotic.

In truth these themes show a fascinating and varied panorama of erotic diversity. By the end of the century, though, the trend had run its course, not fully to revive again until the 1960s. After 1900 there was a tendency to marginalize these preoccupations, relegating them to the level of pornography. This reaction stemmed in part from the highly publicized Oscar Wilde trials, but probably represented a broader sea change. Reformers drew attention to the ravages of venereal disease, as well as to the scandal of the so-called “white-slave trade,” which involved luring young women into brothels. (Sadly, this horror has revived in Eastern Europe today.) There was a general shift away from "decadence" and “perversity” towards the affirmation of “normality” and "health."

Despite this change in atmosphere, production of pornographic literature continued unabated, much of it written by hack writers and distributed clandestinely. Of exceptional quality are two landmark works by Guillaume Apollinaire, a major poet and articulate supporter of advanced artists. Les onze mille verges (1907) is a bravura performance, running the gamut—heterosexuality, lesbianism, and male homosexuality, as well as scat and sadism. By comparison Apollinaire’s second porno book, Les exploits d’un jeune Don Juan (1911), is more ordinary, though still a page-turner.

In the twentieth century, painterly stylization and abstractionism offered more discreet vehicles for exploring erotic issues. Henri Matisse’s “Joie de Vivre” (1906) showed nudes in a sensual encounter with a lush natural setting, though without explicit sexuality. Others went further. Through veiled forms one could achieve a dignified, nonpornographic rendering of feelings that, expressed baldly, might excite the world's scorn. An example is Vassily Kandinsky's "Garden of Love" (Metropolitan Museum), which glorifies his adulterous relationship with Gabriele Münter. A number of Marsden Hartley's Berlin abstractions represent an abstract version of uniform fetishism in relation to his homosexual love for a Prussian officer. One might think also, a few years earlier, of the colored plates in the Besant-Leadbeater Thought-Forms (1901) illustrating various types of affection. For example, "vague pure affection" assumes a cloud-like form, reddish in the center and pink around the edges. There are also renderings of "vague selfish affection," "definite affection," and "radiating affection." (Charles Webster Leadbeater was homosexual.)

Sex-variant individuals also became significant as critics and patrons of avant-garde art. The most influential of these was the Paris-based Gertrude Stein, an important art collector and a major writer. In such works as Tender Buttons she achieved a literary stylization that compares with painterly abstraction. Her way of writing also allowed her to allude in a veiled manner to her love for other women.

REFERENCES. Vern L. Bullough, Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research, New York, 1994; Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin de Siècle Culture, New York, 1988; Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, Oxford, 1951; Rose-Carol Washton Long, "Kandinsky's Vision of Utopia as a Garden of Love," Art Journal (Spring 1983), 50-66.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Perennial abstraction

The term perennial abstraction denotes a worldwide tendency to geometric or other stylized forms, in which reference to the external world is either attenuated or absent altogether. This realm is incredibly vast, appearing in such contexts as basketwork, textiles, pottery and what may be generically described as earth art(petroglyphs and geoglyphs). Many media that were the vehicles of perennial abstraction are perishable, so that one must make allowance for what is lost. A full record would be many times larger than what has survived.

As we ascend the genealogical tree of art, traveling backwards in time, it would seem that renderings become ever more stylized, ever more schematic. Much of the earlier art revealed to us by archaeology seems to be a kind of hieroglyphics, a pictorial language for which we do not have the key. Or perhaps there was no key in the sense of a single meaning that can be attached to each glyph.

However, matters are not so simple. European Palaeolithic paintings reveal a strong naturalistic current, especially in the vivid depictions of animals. The cave paintings of Lascaux are justly celebrated. Yet even here we find occasional subsidiary elements that seem to be linear abstractions. These are the so-called tectiform or lattice motifs.

By contrast with the Palaeolithic it is with the Neolithic that perennial abstraction came into its own. This era saw the introduction of agriculture, largely replacing hunting and gathering as the source of human sustenance. Agriculture requires adherence to regular patterns of plowing, sowing, and field distribution. These activities made patterns on the land, which would have inevitably suggested motifs for art. And so indeed we do find parallel and converging lines, checkerboard patterns, spirals, and lozenges.

The Neolithic period also saw the introduction of pottery. Prior to the invention of the potter’s wheel, the substance of the vessel was created by the coiling method. Coiling produces a three-dimensional spiral. It is also possible to impress the body of the pot with linear designs by applying a cord prior to firing. Then the introduction of glazes made possible various color changes. In Chinese ceramics of the Tang period the characteristic three colors (red, green, and yellow) are splashed on in a way that tends to be independent of the shape of the vessel. Ceramics of the following Sung period show subtle changes of color inherent in the glazes. However, much of the decoration of pottery is incised or painted. Circles and especially spirals are common, the latter almost a universal motif. There are also grids and checkerboard patterns. And finally one should note the blocky forms known as metopes and meanders.

Among the most impressive products of prehistoric art megaliths such as Stonehenge and the other henge monuments in Britain, the alignments of Britanny and the decorated menhirs. Concentric circles such as Stonehenge have been plausibly interpreted as calendrical or cosmic devices. There are also underground sanctuaries such as Newgrange in Ireland with its spirals and other linear motifs.

We turn now to two other major categories, petroglyphs and geoglyphs.

A petroglyph is a visual configuration recorded on stone, usually by prehistoric peoples, by means of carving, pecking or otherwise incised on natural rock surfaces. They are commonly associated with the Neolithic phase of human cultural evolution. They constituted a dominant form or pre-writing symbols used for communication from approximately 10,000 BCE to 5,000 BCE.

The term “petroglyph” should not be confused with either the term “pictograph,” a more advanced type of symbolic configuration, which uses the images to tell the chronological story spanning through time. Petroglyphs are also different from cave painting, in as much as petroglyphs are carved or engraved, while cave paintings are the images painted on walls, generally hidden deep within the earth.

The oldest petroglyphs stem from the border times between the Neolithic and late Upper Palaeolithic eras. Some primitive societies have been using petroglyphs much longer, some even until they made contact with Western culture in recent times. Petroglyphs have been found on all continents except Antarctica. In Asia notable examples have been found at Bhimbetka in India, at Angono in the Philippines and several sites within the territory of Hong Kong. In South America they have been found at Cumbe Mayo in Peru. Europe presents noteworthy examples in Ireland, England, Norway, and France. In North America they have been found in West Virginia, Arkansas, parts of Canada and the far Western United States.

The Southwestern region of the US is particularly rich in petroglyphs. The zone of efflorescence stretches from California and Nevada, across Arizona and Utah to New Mexico and Colorado—in short our great arid region. This art was produced by Amerindians in prehistoric times, from ca. 700 until ca. 1400 CE, when there was a great decline. The decline is hard to explain since it preceded the destructive advance of Europeans. After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, there was a crystallization of present-day peoples--Zuni, Hopi, Navajo--who have little demonstrable connection with the creators of the prehistoric rock art, despite claims to the contrary. The most notable rock monuments stem from cultural groupings, such as the Anasazi and Hohokam. (names given by archaeologists).

In terms of survival paintings (pictographs) are rare because of fragility. Common instead are petroglyphs. First, there was a selection of rock surface that is considered important and possesses the additional advantage of a varnish or patination. The artists then pecked or scraped away the place for the glyph so that it appears as a negative image..

Typical motifs include crawly creatures (snakes, lizards, frogs), quadrupeds (felines, sheep, deer, antelope), “anthropomorphs” (often stick figures), geometrical forms (circles, squares, zigzags, grids, possible maps).

A model survey has been made at South Mountain, part of the city of Phoenix in Arizona. The simplistic notion that the petroglyphs arise from doodling is excluded, because of stability of patterns. Some have said that shamanism lies behind this production. Others see clan markers (especially animals). There is some indication of grouping into sequences, as in the frieze from the Petrified Forest. Some speak of “newspaper” walls.” Are they a prototypical form of writing? What we can acknowledge is our fascination with such forms, even though we cannot say precisely what they mean.

It has been argued that these images had deep cultural and religious significance for the societies that created them. Many petroglyphs are thought to represent some kind of not yet fully understood symbolic or ritual language. The later carvings from the Nordic Bronze Age in Scandinavia seems to indicate some form of territorial boundaries between tribes. There appear to be "dialects" between neighborhood and contemporary petroglyphs. The Siberian inscriptions recall some early form of runes, although there is no well established relationship.

Geoglyphs are large-scale markings on the earth. There are also huge geoglyphs in Egypt, Malta, Britain, the United States (Mississippi and California), Chile, Bolivia and in other countries. However, the Nazca lines in southern Peru are the most famous examples of prehistoric geoglyphs.

The Nazca Lines are an enigma. Setting aside fantastic explanations of visitations by alien beings, scholars put their creation between 200 BCE and 600 CE. In all likelihood they were used for rituals and processions related to astronomy.

The Nazca Lines are located in the Nazca Desert, a high arid plateau that stretches between the towns of Nazca and Palpa on the pampa (a large flat area of southern Peru). The desolate plain of the Peruvian coast which comprises the Pampas of San Jose (Jumana), San José, El Ingenio, and others in the province of Nasca, is some 250 miles. South of Lima, covering nearly 400 square miles of sandy desert as well as the slopes of the contours of the Andes.

The Nazca plain is virtually unique for its ability to preserve the markings upon it, due to the combination of the climate (one of the driest on Earth, with only twenty minutes of rainfall per year) and the flat, stony ground which minimises the effect of the wind at ground level. With no dust or sand to cover the plain, and little rain or wind to erode it, lines drawn here tend to stay drawn. These factors, combined with the existence of a lighter-colored subsoil beneath the desert crust, provide a vast writing pad that is ideally suited to a people seeking to leave their mark for eternity.

There are various representational designs consisting of figures of animals, flowers and plants, objects, and anthropomorphic figures of colossal proportions made with well-defined lines. However, the majority of the designs are geometric and abstract. Many consist of straight lines, sometimes stretching for miles before converging. Others are spirals, some of them connected with the figures.

An ancient art of decoration is tattooing, which is undergoing a major revival. Spirals and sequences of bars are among the abstract devices used.

How did scholars first become aware of these phenomena? In the nineteenth century the tempo of archaeology increased. Excavations were no longer focused primarily on classic sites of Greece and Rome. An important achievement was the recovery of Mycenean art and culture. This in turn led to the recognition of a whole world of spirals in the Balkans and Greece. Somehow this profusion seems to be related to the motifs on early Chinese bronzes. There is also a distant connection with European labyrinths and mazes of the historic period.

The attraction to the archaic is related to the interest in the prehistoric. At the same time it is also distinct from it, as archaic phases usually occur at the boundary between the prehistoric and the historic, or as an early phase of the latter. During the 1880s archaeologists working on the Athenian Acropolis found substantial numbers of sculptures that were preclassical, enlarging our sense of the scope of Greek art. The concept of the archaic (with a lower-case “a”) lends itself to many cultures which have a distinguished record of achievement, even though they eschew or de-emphasize the human figure so cherished by classical art. While no bright line can be drawn between so-called primitive societies and archaic ones, a working definition is literacy. Archaic societies have generally been literate, however remote and strange they may seem, as distinct from prehistoric and primitive cultures that do not possess writing. These cultures would include the Migrations art of northern Europe (including Celtic and Anglo-Saxon), early Chinese art, and the high arts of the pre-Columbian Americas.

While Egyptologists might quibble, the art of Egypt of the pharaohs may arguably be termed archaic. The carefully controlled script, known as hieroglyphics, evolved from a set of pictures, eventually creating forms better described as ideographic, visual renderings of an idea. The ideographic principle is one of the major forerunners of abstract art. And what could be a better standard-bearer of minimalist abstraction than the pyramid, that perfect five-faced form? During the eighteenth dynasty, under the reign of Akhenaten, the pure disk of Aten became prominent as a symbol of divinity. The monotheism introduced by Akhenaten for the first time into human culture, rejected the concept of the gods in the form of living beings. Arguably, monotheism is a religious precursor of abstraction (note the Abrahamic theme, above).

The modern fascination with the archaic is a puzzle, since its cultural products derive from economies and societies very different from out own. Perhaps this admiration reflects an unconscious realization of what we owe to these remote forebears.

We tend to think of the realm of perennial abstraction as limited to the worlds of prehistory, early cultures, and tribal peoples. However, there are remarkable occurrences in high cultures as well. The folio volume of Owen Jones (Grammar of Ornament, London, 1856) represents the first important attempt to capture this range of material. Jones was guided by the Victorian movement to reform design as well as (indirectly) by burgeoning European, especially British imperialism, which had the side effect of bringing samples of this material back to the homeland..

Preeminent among the high cultures that have produced abstraction is Islam. While the ban on images was never absolute, they were enveloped in a certain atmosphere of suspicion. This occultation tended to stimulate the creation of nonfigural forms. Any visit to Islamic lands or to a museum with significant holdings in this field, will disclose the importance of ornament. Elaborate designs are laid over various types of surfaces, such as walls, boxes, pots, and metal objects, so as to form a kind of garment. They readily adapt themselves to various curved shapes.

There are two major categories of ornamental motifs. The first exploit vegetal forms. Preeminent among these is the arabesque. Scholars have established the derivation of this characteristic Islamic device from classical plant forms, such as the acanthus and the vine scroll or rinceaux. Gradually, however, the origins of the forms in nature became obscured, and later arabesque becomes almost wholly abstract, a kind of intricate ballet of interlacing forms. The second main type is geometrical, consisting of squares and lozenges; polygons and star patterns; and stalactites (muqarnas). The latter are architectural, but are sometimes used in the minor arts as well. All these forms lend themselves to a potentially endless continuation and repetition, in a type of design known as overall patterning.

In addition to the two characteristic types, the curvilinear or vegetal, and the geometric, Islamic craftspeople excelled at various types of writing. There are two main categories: the monumental or epigraphic, and the calligraphic. Some epigraphic examples are so stylized as to be virtually unreadable; they are mainly enjoyed for their patterning, and hence produce an abstract effect. To anyone unfamiliar with the Arabic script this effect is general, as seen in the admiration of Renaissance connoisseurs in Europe for “kufic” and other designs, which they sometimes imitated without understanding.

REFERENCES. Barbara Braun, Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient Sources of Modern Art, New York, 1993; César Paternosto, ed., Abstraction: The Amerindian Paradigm, Brussels (Palais des Beaux-Arts), 2001. See also the many volumes on Neolithic art throughout the world, as well as books on Egyptology.