Alfred Munnings, Andrew Wyeth, Animism, Baby Boomers, Bonaventure, Bridget Riley, Charlotte Corday, D.H. Lawrence, Ecology, Fall of the Bastille, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, J.H. Plumb, Jackson Pollock, Jacques-Louis David, Jr, Judeo-Christian, Louis XVI, Lynn White, Marat Assassinated, musique concrète, Napoleon, Neoclassicism, Op art, Picasso, Renaissance, Robert Rauschenberg, Robespierre, Romanticism, Seagram Building, St Francis of Assisi, Surrealists, teleology, The Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, Time Person of the Year, William Zinsser
In ‘David: The Napoleon of French Painting’, John Canaday writes about Jacques-Louis David, the painter who was equally admired by Louis XVI, Robespierre and Napoleon: ‘His heroic style, suppressing passion beneath a hard, chilly surface, made him the artistic dictator of France.’
Though tradition has made him the archetype of the classicist who reduced antiquity to a kind of sterile purity, David is really only a pseudoclassicist whose variation of the formula was dominated by a combination of staggering realism and true romanticism. In his most frigid paintings an obsessive sensuality lies just beneath the surface. His nudes are at once adaptations of the idealized bodies of antique sculpture, carefully analysed anatomical studies, and declarations of the allure of human nakedness that on occasion can amount to a revelation of concupiscence. David must have been a lustful man beneath his aesthetic puritanism, but he never thought of his idealized forms as a transmutation of sensual experience, as the original forms were with the Greeks. Only in an occasional portrait of a member of his family or a very close friend does he allow himself even a confession of tenderness. But his portraits are brilliant renderings of surface that become by second nature revelations of the personality of the sitter.
In ‘The Anarchy of Art’, part of his ‘In the Light of the Past’ series, J.H. Plumb looks at the state of visual arts in 1967 from the point of view of ‘a liberal-minded man of fifty.’ He remembers how in his youth, ‘we had our moment of excitement and protest. We were seized by bitter fury against the Establishment when the police seized D.H. Lawrence’s etiolated nudes. And how we laughed at the glossy horrors of Munnings…And what derision we felt for the heavy, momentous portraits of tycoons that littered the board rooms of London and New York.’ They ‘thronged’ to the Surrealists, ‘Picasso’s distorted females’ and Pollock’s ‘painting without language but decorative, memorable, at times haunting.’
But now, how does one find one’s way through the present anarchy of art, which ranges so widely from the meticulous studies of Wyeth to the cold remains of the postwar surrealism of Moore, to the near-abstractions of Sutherland, to the screaming, bleeding faces of Francis Bacon, to the cartoon horrors of Pop, to Bridget Riley’s literally painful Op, or to the junk and graffiti schools, the hard-edge types, or those anti-art artists who just paint shapeless boards one color and leave them lying on the floor or propped up against a wall? Must one turn one’s back on this, denounce it as infantile, regressive, anarchic, or mad – neither decorative nor meaningful? Has art, after living within one broad context for centuries, shattered into fragments? Is there anywhere to go?
…[A]bout most great ages of art there is a harmony between painting, sculpture, music, architecture and the decorative arts that is unmistakeable and clear….try as one might it is impossible to unite the elegance of the Seagram Building with the painted beds of Rauschenberg or the cacophonic horrors of musique concrète.
Looking back at the flowering of art in Renaissance Italy, seventeenth century Holland and Flanders, and nineteenth century France, he asks why it seems harder to find such genius in today’s ‘anarchy’:
One factor is time: each age makes it more difficult for the next. It was much easier to be Aristotle in fourth-century-BC Athens then it is in twentieth-century New York; easier to be Newton in seventeenth-century Cambridge than in twentieth-century Moscow…
And there is a further, more profound difficulty: originality is just as rare in painters and sculptors as in engineers or chess players. Yet the development of the past hundred years of art has been the creation of a cult of the artist as a wayward, misunderstood, yet dedicated genius – the man exiled from society by the originality of his ideas and techniques. Hence the endless pursuit of novelty in modern art. Much of its so-called originality, however, is flat-footed, dull, obvious, jejune…This kind of modern art is just as banal, just as empty of content, as the most tedious forms of salon painting.
…So one wanders, as along a seashore littered with debris; occasionally there are bits and pieces that delight the eye, more rarely a fragment of treasure, but the skies are gray, the wind coming in from the sea, very cold. There is nowhere to go but Coney Island.
In ‘Saint Francis and the Ecologic Backlash’ the mediaeval historian Lynn White, Jr writes about how Christian theology led man to exploit nature, and that he needed to listen to the ‘great heretic’ St Francis of Assisi before he destroys his earthly home. After considering the ‘hypothesis that [man’s] fire-drive method of hunting created the world’s great grasslands and helped to exterminate the monster mammals of the Pleistocene from much of the globe’, as well as the banks of the Lower Nile being ‘an artefact’ for the last six milleniums, and the Dutch ‘pushing back the North Sea’, he argues:
People, then, have often been a dynamic element in their own environment, but in the present state of historical scholarship we usually do not know precisely when, where, or with what effects man-induced changes came. As we enter the last third of the twentieth century, however, concern for the problem of ecologic backlash is mounting feverishly. Natural science, conceived as the effort to understand the nature of things, had flourished in several eras and among several peoples. Similarly there had been an age-old accumulation of technical skills, sometimes growing rapidly, sometimes slowly. But…[the] emergence in widespread practice of the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature can scarcely be dated before about 1850, except in the chemical industries, where it was anticipated in the eighteenth century.
…Our ecologic crisis is the product of an emerging, entirely novel, democratic culture. The issue is whether a democratized world can survive its own implications. Presumably it cannot unless we rethink our axioms.
He traces the beginning of Western technical and scientific world dominance to the Middle Ages: ‘we cannot understand their nature or their present impact upon ecology without examining fundamental mediaeval assumptions and developments.’ The development of ploughs for the wet and sticky soils of northern Europe which required eight oxen and ‘attacked the land with such violence’ led to ‘ruthlessness towards nature’ and an ‘exploitative attitude’. And belief in perpetual progress is ‘rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian teleology.’ God had planned all of creation ‘explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes…Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen…By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.’
Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. The prime miracle of Saint Francis is the fact that he did not end at the stake, as many of his left-wing followers did. He was so clearly heretical that a general of the Franciscan order, Saint Bonaventure, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism. The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility – not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his rule over creation and to set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.
…Since the roots of our trouble are so clearly religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint of ecologists.
This happened in 1979.