Monday, July 30, 2018

TWELVE: Goya and some other painters

Earlier we examined one major precursor of Symbolism, Caspar David Friedrich. Yet Friedrich began to be forgotten already in the 1830s, during his own lifetime. The affinity with the Symbolists was discovered only much later. 

Not so Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828). While the great majority of his almost 700 oil paintings have remained in Spain, his prints enjoyed wide circulation. Restrikes were even made after the artist’s death, and copies appeared in periodicals. Goya’s skill in this field was generally admired during the great mid-century revival of French printmaking. Preeminent among them are the 80 in his Caprichos, widely esteemed (and sometimes denounced) by 19th-century French connoisseurs. Their replicability and portability were of course major advantages. (The term capriccio is originally Italian, and serves to designate a genre in which the artist is free to allow his fantasy to roam.)

Modern scholarship has determined that Goya was in close contact with Spanish intellectuals who were influenced by the French Enlightenment. Many of his works, especially the Caprichos, have veiled political meanings. 

The signature piece, “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos,” lends itself to this reading. The key idea seems to be that if we allow our reason to be lulled into slumber, it will cease to be vigilant against all the chimeras that trouble mankind. However, the word sueño means both “sleep” and “dream.” In fact, the connotation “fantasy, illusion” has a history going back to 17th-century Spanish literature. In this sense the print could be read in a different way, as suggesting that, from time to time, the faculty of reason must suspend itself so as to allow room for the imagination. The imagination may take us into uncharted waters, but that is its nature.

At all events 19th-century perceptions of Goya differed from those held nowadays

The first thing to consider is the image of the Spanish national character, almost entirely created by foreigners. A prominent example is Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, and the opera Georges Bizet derived from it. A different twist appears in Washington Irving’s Tales from the Alhambra. Note also Rimsky-Korsakov, Capriccio Espagnol. Manet executed several paintings on Spanish themes. 

During the 19th century Spain was viewed as land apart, firmly separated from the true Europe by the Pyrenees. There is a grain of truth in this stereotype, in that Spain had separated itself, first by the expulsion of the Jews and Moors, which suppressed diversity, and secondly by the combined repression of throne and altar under the Counterref0rmation. Faulty economic policies, relying on the gold and silver from the Americas, prevented the formation of native industry. The result was that Spain was (in contemporary terms a third-world country, a picturesque place to visit but also an object of pity. (Needless to say, these stereotypes have nothing to do with the Spain of today, which is one of the most prosperous and progressive countries on earth. It even has gay marriage!)

In this light foreigners were likely to emphasize the exotic character of the Spanish people, who ostensibly retained quaint customs that had vanished in the rest of Europe. These foreign stereotypes had one point of contact with Spanish literature in the 19th century, and that was the costumbrismo trend. The costumbrista writers paid close attention to regional pecularities of the various parts of Spain, seeking to record them as carefully as possible. An example is Serafín Estebánez Calderón, whose Escenas andaluces (1846) captures the distinctive qualities of southern Spain.

Some confusion stems from overattention to the gypsy element. However, the gypsies (or Roma) have probably made more contributions to Spain than to any other country. This is seen in flamenco performances and, above all, in the paralanguage known as Caló.

Examination of individual caprichos reveals considerable complexity. “Watch Out for the Bogeyman” shows an ambiguous relation between the mother and the mysterious stranger. “Where is Mamma Going?” presents an obese witch and her associates who attempt aerial flight. 

Like the costumbristas Goya drew upon a large store of folklore and custom. However, he felt no need to record and present this material objectively. Instead, he freely mixed the themes with his own fantasy. In later terms, he was drawing upon his own subconscious. Mérimée did not think much of the Caprichos, claiming that he was half-mad when he did them. This goes too far, but it does point to the subjective, imaginative element in these enigmatic works. In this way they are pointers to Symbolism, because they acknowledge that in any deep perception there are things we understand and things we do not.

A brief examination of works by Félicien Rops, a minor Belgian Symbolist, suggests one path that understanding (or misunderstanding) of Goya could take. His “Atheist’s Repast” resonates with Huysmans’ quest to understand diabolism in Là-bas, but in an unsubtle way that approximates to soft porn. Rops’ version of “The Temptation of St. Anthony” is particularly lurid, combining misogyny with blasphemy.

As a first approach to the matter of Symbolist themes, we return briefly to the matter of decadence. The primary reference point was the later phase of the Roman Empire, or (as it is now termed) late antiquity. Academic paintings, as by Couture and Gérôme, illustrate the prevailing concept (and were picked up by Hollywood). Yet they show no comprehension of the kind of art produced in late antiquity. Most observes thought that the question was meaningless, as the era in fact produced no art worthy of the name. 

Yet connoisseurs and adventurous travelers were to prove this assertion mistaken. A case in point is the wall frieze of the Virgins from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (ca. 549). This impressive composition shows two types of stylization. One stems from the staccato rhythm of the figures, whose swaying bodies are similar, but not identical. The other pattern is produced by the thousands of tiny cubes in glass and metal (tesserae), which produce a grid-like effect, not unlike the Divisionism of some neo-Impressionists. Another example is the bust of the Emperor Licinius, where the artist employs distortion in order to convey the charisma of the sitter. The effect anticipates Expressionism.

Even more unexpected was the abstract jewelry of the Migration peoples. The splendid technique fibula we examined shows an affinity with art nouveau jewelry. One of the byproducts of the rediscovery of late antique art was a reinforcement of the new standing of the so-called applied arts. The theory of this stylized and abstract art was first expounded in a monograph of 1901 by the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl.

As the last in this group we examined a small reliquary of St. Demetrius, an exquisite example of Byzantine cloisonné enamel. 

The last piece stems from the world of Eastern Orthodoxy. The new science of comparative religion fostered analysis of difference within religions (though this is still neglected today, as some claim to be the sole representatives of the true version of their religion.

Traditionally, the imagery of religion and mythology was limited to two great repertoires, the classical and the Biblical (or Judeo-Christian). However, the new approaches added Indian, Germanic, and Celtic mythology. Odilon Redon paid homage to the last in his “Druidess,” whom he may have perceived as an avatar of “roots” in the sense of “nos ancêtres les Gaulois.”

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 Greek classical times the circle was associated with perfection, as seen in the circular plan of the ideal capital of Plato’s Atlantis. Because of practical problems, cities are rarely laid out this way. Historically, however, a number of Islamic cities, including Baghdad at the time of its founding by al-Mansur, had a circular layout.

While there are a few square haloes, generally for living people, the Western convention is for the halos of saints to be round.

That our associations with the circle are not universal is shown by the Japanese ensō, the product of the stylization of the image of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect. The ensō is generally slightly irregular, showing the join where the brush began and where it ended, thus preserving a human touch.

During the Renaissance the circle generally connoted ideal 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, as in San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, have a similar effect. For centuries, as assumed in the Robert Fludd diagram, 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. (Fludd’s illustrator may be claimed as the first to produce an all-black image, in the first of his Creation series.)

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 (not shown in class). The image of Lust by Pieter Brueghel the Elder shows a negative image of a circular building. 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.

Two prominent circles, both truncated, dominate the background of the signature work of Fernand Khnopff, “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 the use of circles in paintings by Kupka.

The art glass from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Coonley Playhouse features a number of circles, as do some paintings in the later, hardedge oeuvre of Vassily Kandinsky. .

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.

Roman wall paintings from Pompeii and Boscoreale show an interesting series of variations on the fictive windows. It may be also that the simulated easel paintings in that context were regarded as having a window-like quality.

Caspar David Friedrich used windows in several different contexts.

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. As noted above, 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.

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.

Marcel Duchamp created a “real” French door.


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