I went to see this show. It consisted of about 100 paintings, most from private collections (and therefore unlikely to be shown again anywhere soon, unless… they go auction – private pictures are often put in a show prior to sale, it helps prices). (Well, not quite: from Wroclaw the show goes to Paris, so you still have a chance).
I was not allowed to photograph any of the paintings, but the organizers put a few videos on youtube for you – every video on this page (except the first one) features a good painting in the exhibition – the best among the featured are without doubt this (Bird Trap by Pieter Brueghel, Jr) and this (Mountain Landscape with Travelers by Jan Bueghel Jr with Joost de Momper) with and this (Landscape with Ruins of a Temple, by Jan Brueghel Jr). (Bear with the lady talking in Polish, the camera soon enough switches to the piece at hand).
(Btw, there is a problem with attribution in the videos – they are not the same as in the show and catalog, I refer to them according to the catalog attributions).
The best paintings are, of course, not featured. They were four miniatures by Jan Brueghel Senior (one of them showing the same scene as The Bird Trap, above, but in summer) — all classic Jan Seniors: oil on copper plate (which preserves unusually vivid colors) done in that famous “velvet” or “feather” technique so smooth you could not tell a single brushstroke, even with a magnifying glass. I spent half my day going between these four; and a slightly damaged, beautiful Joost de Momper (not the one featured on the youtube video) which, because of the way it was hung and lit, could be seen up-close. (On the fruits of which momentarily). All of these paintings were features in the exhibition catalog but suffered from the usual reproduction problem: I won’t post photos of them here because they will only give you wrong impression of their absolutely amazing greatness.
Perhaps the biggest deal in the show were the two videos by Haltadefinizione – an Italian imagining outfit – of the two allegories by Jan Brueghel, Sr, in the possession of The Ambrosiana: this and this. Yes, I know, it is ridiculous, Ambrosiana’s pictures, like those of every other Italian museum, are NOT to be seen, NOT to be photographed, and NOT to be approached too closely when you actually go there to see them. (The reason why public collections acquire pictures is to make sure that nobody look at them, right?) Which means that the best place to see these two pictures was, this week, to see them by proxy — via video — in Wroclaw. The video was the view of an up-close camera gradually moving over the painting in an elliptical motion.
While this motion did not cover many of the features that I would love to have seen, it did cover some things I probably would not have looked at too carefully: ordinary “background” elements, such as soil, or the unclear jumble of lines and shadows inside shadowy thicket, or the texture of clouds. And this was a revelation: I realized that the Brueghels (from Pieter Sr to Jan Jr to Mompers, who was a distant relative and therefore also a member of the dynasty) painted this background detail with great attention, varied brush strokes, lots of lines, some in parallel, some intersecting, places where it seemed they used very thick paint and spread it using a wooden pin (perhaps the end of the brush-handle) and others where it seemed they perhaps smeared it with fingers. This texture makes for a fascinating, interesting picture with a profound sensation of depth and is missing from the mass-market production turned out by Jan Junior workshop for lesser/less important/less-well paying clients – which last line made up most of the show.
From the 4 or 5 good Jan Juniors at the show I was able to tell what I had never known before, btw: that he was not a lesser painter than his father, Jan Senior, as everyone seems to think, but that he ran, in parallel to his superb autograph line, a cheaper, mass-market line of products, and that these products are the ones most readily available in the public domain and from which art historians get their silly view of his artistic powers. All these mass market products feature well painted details – ducks, fish, pots, glasses, armor, etc. – but on a dull, workaday background with any depth; and are therefore… boring.
After I made this realization, I went back to look at the paintings and discovered, with my nose about 2 cm from the surface of the painting, that Momper painted in the same manner: vast swathes of what appears to be vaguely hazy sky – or just dull, dirty mud – are in fact immensely complex-textured work and this is perhaps the greatest pleasure one derives from looking at these paintings.
One last comment: art historians are by and large fools. One of the authors of the catalog claimed something along the lines that “the picture above introduces a sense of foreboding: here is a happy village, with everyone disporting themselves on ice and crows flying around happily unaware that they are about to be trapped”. The Polish art historian, closer in time to bad communist days of shortage, understands the painting better: it is winter, it is cold, and people are hungry. The trap is to capture some crow to make broth. “May you eat crow” is a familiar expression in English, but one no one seems to understand anymore. In short, the message (if there is a message at all) is this: winter sucks.
There are other Breughels in this room, they appear to absorb everyone’s attention: they feature peasant feasts, children’s games and Dutch proverbs. They are Renaissance man’s equivalent of shopping mall people watching. But to me, above all, Breughel is a brilliant landscapist, with a clearly identifiable, unique hand. It is almost as if Breughel served two patrons, one who was a People Person, and one – one a lot more like me.
At first, the Old Masters collection of Thyssen-Boremisza in Madrid disappoints. It can hardly do otherwise: the expectations set up by the famous pieces they hold — a Claude, two Bronzinos, a Velvet Breughel, a Carpaccio — are so very high. But the collection suffers from the “late-arrival” syndrome: by the time collection-gathering swung into full tilt, the best pieces had already been permanently taken off the market: as a result, with the exception of the handful famous pieces everyone already knows about, T-B is full of minor masters, and very minor works by the great masters, and even minorer ones only attributed to them — usually not very convincingly. (It’s supposed to have an important post 1900-collection, but how on earth would I know anything about that?)
The museum does contain a wonderful surprise, however: a large collection of late 19th century American academic landscapes — which are very good indeed. If it weren’t for the topics, you’d swear these were 17th century Dutch. This is perhaps the greatest pleasure one can experience in a museum: to discover something completely new and unheard of.
Thank you, Miss T.
PS. If, like me, you are new to this world, here are a few names for you: William Bradford , John Frederick Kensett , Frederic Edwin Church , Albert Bierstadt , William Trost Richards.
The Edirne’s Selimiye is Sinan’s most beautiful, most graceful construction. It also sports arguably the finest, best-painted, most beautiful Iznik tiles ever.
I take back what I said about Prado in connection with Mr Strobel. Here is a much larger version of it. And here you can view it in detail. Below are a few choice tidbits.
It’s rare at my age to discover a new, never-heard-of, good, major painter; it is all the more pleasure when the said painter turns out to be one’s countryman. Bartholomäus (in Poland we would say Bartłomiej) Strobel (1591–1647) hailed from Breslau, and worked chiefly for Ladislaus (Władysław) IV; he also did some work for the Hapsburgs, which is how one of his works found its way to El Prado, where it hangs — relegated to the inconsequence of an elevator lobby (while far inferior Rubenses and Zubarans take pride of place elsewhere): the amazing — and gigantic (it must easily be 3m x 10m) — Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. In keeping with the Torquemada tradition, Prado won’t let you photograph it; nor will they photograph it themselves; they do admit it is a good painting, and discuss it (in audio) on their website here (mas sólo en español) while providing you with an image the size of a largish post-stamp (!); the best reproduction of it I have been able to find anywhere is the ridiculously inadequate above. Unless you actually go to Prado you would never know about it; or the amazingly athletic Christ in Purgatory by Del Piombo (one of the best Venetian painters ever unduly forgotten in the shadow of Titian’s mediocrities); or the two portraits by Parmeggianino, radiant like the rest of his portraits. You would think El Greco and Goya is all they have there and, wrongly (though for good reasons) conclude the place isn’t worth a visit.
“She had tied the red obi around her waist with a simplicity which suggested a young girl’s indifference as to whether or not it enhanced her charms. Carrying an old fashioned taper in her hand, she had led me to the bathhouse now this way now that, around the bend after bend along what appeared to be passageways, and down flights of stairs. In front of me all the time were that same obi and that same taper, and it seemed as though we were going along the same passage and down the same staircase again and again. Already I had the feeling of being a painted figure moving along on a canvass.”
Natsume Soseki, Kusa Makura (The three-cornered world), III, 40-41
Kusa makura is an introspective novel. The first chapter is indicative of the rest: it starts with the sentence: “Going up a mountain track, I feel to thinking” and the rest are the hero’s thoughts. This is a very attractive structure for someone like me – more interested in the internal life of men than in what actually happened (the action is always the same – she wants him, but she does not want her back, or the other way around).
The thoughts themselves are rather disappointing: they illustrate the disarming lack of training in rigorous thinking rather typical of all exclusively humanist training; and even if the total lack of familiarity with recent advances in psychology and cognitive science are forgivable (after tall the book was written in 1906), the most serious problem with all these introspections is that the novel describes the internal life of a man of around 30. Think about it: when is the last time someone aged 30 has had anything interesting to say to you?
Yet, to me, reading Kusa Makura has been a remarkable experience — and this entirely on the strength of the passage I quote above. The hero arrives at a remote guesthouse in the mountains; it is night-time; and the maid – the sole person in the whole house as far as he can tell – is taking him to the mineral bath somewhere at the bottom of the house. This image – the red obi, the taper, the going down and down endless narrow passages and stairways in the moving globe of flickering light and the altered state of mind of having entered a painting. There is much reflection on painting in the book, but this is the only one that matters: yes, there is that state of mind one enters into when looking at paintings, a moment of endlessly suspended time.
It is almost as if the entire novel – all those pages, all those chapters – were needed only to provide the setting for that single image, like all that twisty metal which holds the one object of any worth, the jewel. Much art is that way: the slow, repetitive, mesmerizing overture is needed to put the audience in the mood, to sensitize them, so that they may be ready to receive what you have to tell them.
Which may well be a matter of a single image, a very few words.
This topic consists of three posts:
Not my favorite picture at Lisbon’s Museu de Arte Antiga, but certainly her greatest crowd-pleaser. It took a rare combo of consideration and pushiness to photograph this thing.
More concering the female ankle — or what Evolutionary Psychologists and Aesthetic Theorists could learn from Marketing Research
Part 2 of 3
[With Sir C’s forebearance]
This research paper says ankles are among the body features least paid attention to by potential sexual partners. Like all such papers by evolutionary psychologists, it fails to address the question no marketing researcher would ever overlook: does the aggregate data in fact obstruct the structure of the phenomenon (“market”)? That is to say, does aesthetic interest in ankles define a certain population — one among whom the ankle is a significant item? (Perhaps even “the most significant”?).
This writer’s self-observation suggests: yes.
If so, then comes the crunch question: if so, then what else is unique about this sub-group? Surely, they are not all balding six-foot-five, paper-skinned descendants of East European gentry with a strong interest in martial arts, European opera, glazed pottery, and Japanese classics? And if not — are there any features they share? And significantly: not just taste features — i.e. “all ankle lovers prefer blonds” (clearly not true)– but “do all ankle-lovers have ankles themselves?” or: “do all ankle-lovers happen to have an extra-long middle finger in the right hand?”) The marketer will also want to know — I should say chiefly want to know — how to reach them — what media they watch, what magazines they read, etc.
Can you see what I am driving at? Taste as a hidden structure of humanity!
In my view, Evolutionary Psychologists, like aestheticists (and all academics in general), would benefit greatly from a course or two in marketing research. For instance, publications of the World Coffee Council would teach them that:
a) the entire coffee-drinker population in the world can be divided into several very specific groups (fewer than ten) — with respect to the particular coffee flavor each group prefers;
b) that members of those groups are found all over the world — but not evenly; they are in fact spread lumpily: for instance, the preference for a coffee taste described by professional tasters as “burnt rubber” shows up all over the globe, even in (still) mostly coffee-less China, but is a significant plurality in only two nations on earth: Poland and the UK (strong stuff, eh?); not the majority, mind you, as in “50% +1”; but significant plurality, meaning the largest of the many minorities, one usually large enough to dictate its tastes to others (it determines what gets put on supermarket shelves);
c) each such group consists, in different proportions, of a hard-core (can’t sell them a milky cappucino if their life depended on it) ; and hangers on (can drink any coffee, generally prefer burnt rubber, but happy to try whatever everyone else is having at the moment); the hangers on can be sold a different product, the hard-core — only once;
d) the special gifts required to make a coffee-taster (a natural gift is required followed by intensive training) disqualify a person from telling you what they like: people who have tasted a great deal of coffee often can’t make up their mind and, in private, actually turn out to be tea- or juice-drinkers; or else consume such a wide variety of coffees that they do not fall into any of the broad categories themselves; in other words, the process of training an expert, both sharpens ones taste and, in a sense, ruins it.
It is my hunch, based on years of conducting marketing research, that not only does the taste in ankles, but the tastes in opera and painting and architecture run the same way: many islands of mutually incompatible, probably hard-wired taste-preferences (“Ankles!” “Boobs!”); and between them a sea of hangers on, who happen to say they like X because their mother did, or their girlfriend does, and have some familiarity with it and some sentiment for it, but who really don’t have anything that could be called taste of their own (“I used to like candy but now like booze”); and swimming within this sea: “experts” — near-omnivores, seeing everything, baffled by it all, and never understood by anyone else who cannot imagine what it is like to know more than they do.
Part 1 of 3
[Once again, we interrupt the usual programming, to bring you our recent reflections of the Sir-C-hates-to-read’em variety]
The sudden arrival of summer has caused the fair sex to drop excess clothing and appear before us (nearly) as nature has made them. And nature has made them, it would appear — incredibly! — without the — talocrural joint — sans the synovial hinge — sine angulus, in short — nature has made them — ankleless!
The aesthete’s eye is amazed to see that by and large the human female leg does not, after all, appear to sport the narrow waist of his imagination — as the divinely-shaped, and heavenly-delicious porcine trotter does; but instead the female foot appears to connect directly to the calf, without any attempt at defined ligature, or modulation; in the style of the Doric column, the Egyptian pylon, the pachyderm leg, or the modern parking-lot carrying support-column. Can this be possible? To explain his misconception, the aesthete has gone back to search the various Roman and Renaissance Venuses and to his surprise has discovered that among them, too, the ankle is — notably missing. (Unbelievable, but true). (See above).
Now, the aesthete knows form personal experience — observation of several significant others — that, in principle, the female ankle does exist; but he is now compelled to admit that it would appear to be a commodity in severe shortage.
His fetish — if that’s what it is — the aesthete does not spend excessive amounts of time slobbering over his significant other’s ankles; but he will generally and instantly lose interest in anyone shown to lack a well-turned one — isn’t his alone: he remembers others commenting on women’s ankles — fine-ankled Rajasthani upper-class women; deftly-brushed Edo-era floating-world habitues — and wonders why such an interest should exist. Clearly, fine ankles are far more rare than agreeable faces — could it be that a good ankle is harder to make? Is a fine ankle and indication of good carpentry — a better tool for running and jumping? (Desirable for one’s offspring). Or is it the opposite — that an unsightly ankle is an indication of bad health? (A swollen ankle is the one most obvious indication of circulation problems).
As many aesthetic preferences do, the ankle-interest appears to have speciating effects: those who pay attention to ankles appear to have good ankles themselves!
[Incidentally, while looking for an illustration for this post I discovered that the category of photo which could be described as “a female ankle unuglified by some sort of an ill-conceived tattoo” appears to have gone extinct; closer inspection revealed that all those photos sported non-ankles; presumably the tattoo was there as a form of disguise].
[It is hard to suspect Greek sculptors and Italian Renaissance painters of not having liked a good ankle; and therefore its general absence from the European cannon must be explained by the Annibale Carracci Phenomenon (ACP): among his early paintings there is an early ugly, chunky nymph, the sort amateur-porn websites call “amateur BBW” (big-beautiful-woman); “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” crowed one of the well-known art theorists about it – I can’t be bothered to remember which; and wrongly: the story of the painting, it turns out, was that young Annibale had neither the money nor the fame with which to attract a proper model; and the model for the painting was one of his cousins who agreed, reluctantly, to bare for free; in short, the artists do not paint what they think is beautiful; they paint what they can].
My favorite painting at Museu de Arte Antiga is this — as it has to be every Venetian’s: the Holy Family is seen flying to Egypt as any Ventian would: by boat.
Ca. 1765-1770, oil on wood, abou 60 cm high by 30 cm wide.
Unknown Netherlandish (Flemish) Master – Triptych of the Holy Family with Angels, Saint Barbara and Saint Cathrine – Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon
Not the museum’s most famous painting, but very possibly her best.
Possibly around 1520-25, oil on oak panel, previously at Palacio des Necessidades.
It is tiny: perhaps 45 cm high by 80 cm wide (all three panels — the central panel is no more than 35 cm wide).
Like the title say.
The expression Kinds of Minds appears frequently in this blog — usually in connection with aesthetic musings — reflections on the the subject of why some people like what others do not.
It is as frequently objected to by my readers who generously — and in keeping with their very good democratic instincts — object to the idea that human beings might somehow be born unequal.
My respect to them, and my assurance that I, too, share in their belief that all humans MUST BE EQUAL BEFORE THE LAW.
In other ways, of course, we are all profoundly unequal and all of us, the most committed democrats included, recognize this fact: we all know that some of us are born extro- and others introvert, some homo- and some hetero– ahem – vert, that some are thrill-seekers and others prefer afternoons at home with a book, etc. (And this is as it must be: if the human mind is a result of evolution and if evolution is still continuing then different kinds of minds — different genetic mutations in the structure of the brain — simply must be present in the population competing with each other — because this is the only way evolution can ever work).
In our everyday life, we all accept this as a simple fact of life without attaching any special ideological value judgment to it. Yet, somehow, when it comes to discussion of aesthetics — perhaps because to so many people it seems to lie so close to politics — many of us feel obliged to pretend that we are all equally free to like anything at all; that there is only one kind of human mind; and only one art to match it.
This ideological commitment to an obviously false theory of mind leads to a series of failures in theoretical consideration of art: theorists fail to see, for instance, that two different kinds of art may well have been designed to appeal to two different kinds of minds and that therefore they need not have anything in common at all. So, while — surely — it must be apparent that the sort of painting found at this show in Warsaw has — aesthetically speaking — practically nothing in common with the kind of painting found in this room, and that therefore any attempt to say something — anything — true about both kinds of painting simultaneously must end up in banalities (“painting is the application of pigment to a surface”) or gibberish (“painting is a way of being absorbing the universe and of being absorbed it”); yet such “theories of art” and “theories of painting” continue to be generated.
Predictably, we are drowned in theoretical banalities and nonsense.
It also leads to a false perception of history. And thus, for instance, the great change in European visual arts which took place in the early twentieth century, and which has been ceaselessly praised by some as revolutionary and equally ceaselessly derided by others as a perverse embrace of ugliness, is commonly interpreted by theorists as either a natural progression (e.g. “cubism” somehow — by some sort of inevitable law — follows from “expressionism”); or as reflecting ideological changes in the European society (e.g. “awareness of quantum mechanics causes cubism”); while the true cause for that change in art may simply have been demographic: the economic transformation of the West has brought to the fore new demographic groups which have heretofore not had the opportunity to engage in high art and have therefore not been seen in it.
Seen in this light, new taste is not the taste of the new age but the taste of new men.
Consider how much more sense this statement makes!
It’s all copies, of course; but it really isn’t bad at all. Besides, the Old Masters did a lot of copying — indeed, they mostly copied. (This is why Rembrandt got sent to Madrid in the first place). One copied and copied and copied and then, eventually, one painted something original, once, for kicks. And only then, if it worked, one tried more.
Sir G paid well over market price for these (300-400 euros) — but figured he was encouraging the men to stick with their job. Glad to report, it worked: both were still at it two years later and one even had a (part time) apprentice.
For your enjoyment, copies after: Mughal, Kangra, and Kotah schools. Enjoy.
[A show and tell]
The National Palace Museum in Taipei was built to house the art collection of the Emperors of China. This collection was carried off from Beijing by Chiang Kai Shek in 1947 when he fled from the mainland before the advancing communist armies. It was subsequently housed in a nuclear bomb shelter in deep shafts mined into the side of the mountain to prevent it being damaged in any Chinese attempted takeover of Taiwan.
Chinese art plays a special role in the China-Taiwan conflict. Chinese definition of China is not genetic but cultural: one is never born Chinese; one becomes Chinese by absorbing Chinese culture — one becomes cultured, or, in a Chinese expression, “cooked through”. For millenia China was threatened by northern barbarians who sometimes conquered her. China remained Chinese in the face of her conflict with uncultured barbarians by assiduously preserving and maintaining her culture; and, at times, by educating her barbarian conquerors into her cultural ways. The Chinese government’s function has always been to preserve and maintain culture (since its job is to protect the people’s livelihood and culture makes for a livable state); and a Chinese government is only legitimate to the extent that it preserves and maintains culture. Seizing the cultural treasures of China is a route to legitimacy; destroying them, as communists did during the Cultural Revolution, destroyslegitimacy. One could say, perhaps, that if the contents of the National Palace Museum were to be destroyed, China would cease to exist.
The collection, assembled over millenia, is vast: the museum features a small permanent collection and rotating displays changed every few weeks. On a strict rotation schedule, it would take fourteen years to show the entire collection. But some works are so precious (imagine fifth century AD ink and paper paintings) that they are hardly ever put on show.
When I lived here, I visited the museum every week in order to make sure that I miss nothing. And whenever I return, I make sure to go back there again. Every time I visit I leave deeply moved by something, usually something new. On my visit today I came across three new items never before seen.
1. A new (for me) painting by my personal hero, Wen Zhengming (Ming Dynasty, fifteenth century) — a long (11 meters) horizontal scroll called Guan Shan Ji Xue — “Mountain Passes in Gathering Snow”:
The size of the reproduction does no justice to the incredible detail of the painting (even though the scroll is only about 3 x larger than the reproduction): trees have detailed bark; empty surfaces (water and sky) are covered with an irregular, scored ink wash which suggests falling snow; in places, huts buried in show are conveyed with a combination of two thin strokes of the brush and a kind of brightening of the underlying wash; the figure of the lonely traveler in a red jacket on a black ass — which appears every foot or so as you view the scroll from right to left and eventually, about the middle of it, comes home (he is seen sitting in an open window) can barely be made out, while in the original it jumps at the eye like a raspberry in cream; above all, with the reproduction you cannot do what you can do in the museum: step about 5 feet back from the scroll and let your eye wonder over the undulating landscape: as you roll your eyes from right to left and then back again the effect is strangely musical: it is like gliding your gaze over a musical score: the peaks and valleys rise and fall rhythmically, with a slight, shimmering rubato.
You can see the full reproduction of the scroll here.
2. A vertical scroll which I had never seen by one of the greatest painters of the Song Dynasty (tenth century), Ma Yuan, entitled Xue Jing — Snow Landscape. Again, the reproduction (at the top of this post) fails: the painting is monumental – two and a half meters tall – and painted in fantastically powerful, confident, angular strokes, as if chiseled in ice and crystal. Yet, the mood it conveys is the opposite of hard: it uses an air perspective to suggest gentle mist in the air – a just above zero temperature and wet, melting snow. I kept returning to stand before Snow Landscape; and whenever I managed to peel myself off, reluctantly, to look at other paintings, or calligraphy, I could feel – my inner ear could hear – its tiny but insistent voice calling me back. I would return and stand before it again, glued to the glass, filled with intense longing. As Buddha would say, desire enters through the eye, but not consummation. Experience of rapture of art is a pointless stoking of suffering (i.e. unfulfilled desire) with no prospect of satisfaction; and museums are the worst place in the world for it of all: they close. See it above (at the top of this post) or here.
3. There was also a long fifteenth century scroll illustrating a second century BC poem about a Han Emperor’s hunting preserve (“Shangling Park”), a nice enough work, but to my mind fairly unremarkable — except perhaps for the fact that its painter had begun his career as a lacquerer, a fact clearly seen in the way he paints with sharply defined detail: in his painting even clouds and waves on the water have clear sharp edges; with – and this is the point — a very beautifully calligraphed text of the poem attached as a colophon. The calligraphy is fanciful: the same character is written in a number of different ways – especially when text calls for repeats — and some characters appear to be the writer’s own invention (look for one that looks like Macdonald’s Golden Arch) – which works when its meaning can be guessed from the context.
You can see the whole thing, painting and colophons, here.
4. Finally, I came upon an old friend, Xi Shan Mu Xue, “Snow at Dusk over mountains and streams”, by an anonymous Song Dynasty (tenth century) painter which I had first seen (and spend hours viewing on my knees) during the Da Guan show back in 2008. It had then occasioned the same kind of searing longing which Snow Landscape occasioned now; I knew to approach it gingerly. I was delighted to see it, but my desire remained focused on its rival and the old passion was not reawakened — I walked away without a heartbreak. I have sung the praises of this painting elsewhere; here suffice it to say: note the details of the fog in the middle of the painting – how the landscape incredibly, imperceptibly slips into and out of it.
Note how to the left, in the dense fog below the group of houses in the valley, a darker spot can be made out. What is it? Is it a stain – the painting is more than a thousand years old, its surface is uniformly darkened and may be discolored in places – or is that a clump of trees slinking in the fog? Much Chinese and Japanese ink painting employs this kind of suggestion: is there something there? Am I really making it out or is my mind playing tricks on me?
And while on the subject of Ma Yuan, it is never wrong to mention (and show) my favorite painting by him (favorite, that is, until I saw the Snow Landscape) – The Evening Banquet. Note how unevenly the dusk falls: quickly on the ground, more slowly up above, where the sky remains luminous and gradually fading for a quarter of an hour after sunset. Down at the bottom, in the darkness of the pavilion, someone is lighting a lamp.
Incidentally: all of these reproductions are tiny; in searching for a good one, I came across this, and it is worth seeing: it is an up-to-scale reproduction (my guess is that its scale is about 1:2) of a small section of a large vertical painting like most others several meters high. This tiny fragment gives you a sense of the texture of detail in these paintings: an important part of painting appreciation – East and West – is looking at the texture, at the individual strokes of the pen, at the ripples of paint and how it interacts with the underlying texture of the fabric; stepping back to see the overall impression, then coming back up close, nose nearly nudging the painting, looking at the details.
Do you know this lady? You should. She is Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of art and music — and therefore, in a way, the female Apollo. She is also the spirit of the invisible river which enters Ganga at the Yamuna — making the site into a sacred trifluence — a Triveni Sangama — and probably was the name of an actual river: it had once emptied into the Arabian Sea somewhere in Sindh and irrigated the Mohenjo Daro civilization. Her course was altered suddenly about 4,000 years ago, probably by an earthquake, leaving the civilization on its shores to parch and wither away. Which makes her a very special deity: while we are told gods routinely destroy whole civilizations, she is the only one known to have actually really done so.
You have been warned: Saraswati can just up walk away and when she does, we — vanish without a trace.
Think about it.
This rendition, in traditional Balinese style, is by Gusti Sundarma, a Balinese artist working in acrylic.
High and mighty
(A spot of talk-talk while I sort out the trouble with the carousel).
Much recent work in evolutionary psychology has been dedicated to heritable aspects of aesthetics. The basic theory is perfectly sensible: a good aesthetic sense allows us to choose wholesome food, safe environment, and good sexual partners. Controlled tests bear the theory out: preferences in the appearance of people, foods and locales are consistent with health and safety (clear skin indicates good health, good hair — good nutrition, resounding voice — few parasites, etc.). The girl above (Cecilia Gallerani, by Leonardo, once owned by family, now normally in a state museum in Kraków, today temporarily in London) ticks off all the boxes. One would expect therefore that pleasing art would share the abstract characteristics of this portrait: that it would be clear like her skin, shiny like her hair, balanced like her facial features, fine like her hands, calm like her mind.
Considered in this light, the aforementioned Warsaw exhibition of really ugly modern painting seems an aesthetic aberration: its images, surfaces and colors are of disease, death, and decay. My own reaction to it — revulsion — is perfectly in line with theory: theoretically speaking, no one should like it. Theoretically, the show is impossible.
But there is a wrinkle: humans are more complex than the theory suggests.
For instance, those knowledgeable in the matter (somehow, they usually happen to be women 50+) will tell you that so-so-looking, trashy-dressed girls have more admirers than well-groomed great beauties, and not because the former seem the more desirable breeding material, or because they seem safer as sexual partners — indeed, controlled tests tell us the opposite is the case — but because… they seem more accessible.
The simple truth is that average guys (and there are a lot of them) are obliged to be realistic and cannot afford to squander their resources on chimeric pursuits for (the very few) fantastic girls whom they can never hope to score. (Indeed, such girls attract verbal hostility, they are said to be “on a pedestal”, “high and mighty”, etc). For this reason, sexually most productive dressing strategy is abnegation: it does not matter whether the low-rider jeans reveal anything pretty, their purpose is to advertise readiness and, since readiness is generally taken to be counter-proportional to looks/worth, it is better if they do not actually reveal anything pretty! Ugly low-rider easily outscores prim beauty 10:1!
In short, evolutionary aesthetics theorists have missed the obvious fact that experimentally isolated aesthetic experiments are one thing, and actual tactical choices another: one’s actual aesthetic inclinations reflect one’s self-perception. Lodovico Sforza (the tyrant of Milan) liked Cecilia Gallerani (of above) because he could. Most men are not in his lucky position; they must like what they can.
I am not sure whether this explains why shows like the aforementioned Warsaw show take place, but it does explain why such shows offend me. And literally, they do: the show’s custodians, in showing me these works and expecting me to like them, make it plain that in their eyes I am not good enough to like/aim higher. They are saying, for the likes of you, this is sufficient. They are slighting me.
As if to illustrate my point about discourse in modern art, last night PR2 broadcast a report on a mammoth show of modern Polish painting in Warsaw. Its curator spoke long, fast, and using a lot of impressive jargon. Among the pearls of her delivery was a – er – defintion? description? – of painting which went:
“Painting is an means of reflecting on life, on materials in our life, substances which accompany our life; it is a way of ordering nature, understanding social interdependencies and personal relationships; it reflects individual consciousness; it is a reflection of self perception, a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it; one can say therefore that as a discipline, painting is communication-oriented, reality-identity-oriented; in fact one can say that painting is a tradition of constant repetition of the world.”
Now: note that – as per my 7th essay on Thai Matmee – among all the things that modern art critics tell us modern painting is, one thing painting is not is applying pigment to a surface in order to elicit aesthetic rapture.
Indeed, within the four lines of her – description? – the speaker, Mrs S (who was apparently quoting from a highly regarded book by a recently deceased leading Polish art critic, Janusz Jaremowicz) illustrated two other points which my 7th essay on Matmee has suggested about modern art discourse: 1) that it does not pick out the activity it pretends to define (painting is no more “ a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it” than eating bananas is); and that 2) it toys with jargon for the sake of toying with it (“painting is reality-identity-oriented” sounds great but means exactly nothing).
A less charitable commentator – say, Jacques Barzun – might make two further observations about Mrs S’s – expose? – : first that if the high-school pupil is not told that his teacher is outraged by nonsense, that pupil’s education will fail; and that (apparently) the best a renowned Polish modern art critic (e.g. the aforementioned Jaremowicz) can do is slavishly imitate the jargon emanating from America. Not only is Polish painting derivative (as the show illustrates), but so is Polish criticism of it.
Another commentator, perhaps one soaring over Poland like a great spy drone at several thousand meters, might comment further that the only valuable and interesting development in Polish cultural life of the moment is the movement to publish at last in the country the literary works of authors who had written in exile between1939 and 1981, men like Miłosz, Herling-Grudziński, Stempowski, Bobkowski: erudite and polished in the old way, eloquent, but above all autonomously, originally, clearly thinking men. The irony of this development is that these men, all of them born before 1920 and all of them now dead, appear to be just about the only original and interesting voices in Poland today. I am not sure what is more responsible for the devastation of Polish intellectual life: the various ethnic, class, Nazi and communist purges and brain washings over the last century; or the post-independence rush to copy wholesale the New Big Brother in all things. But a devastation it is.
Two words about the works displayed at the show: first, they are nearly every one of them depressingly derivative of their American models (it is not the case that, as the curator claims, X was responding to Y in some sort of creative dialogue; rather, the case is that X was simply knocking off American painter A while Y was knocking off American painter B; any apparent dialogue between X and Y is just that: apparent; a mere shadow of the interaction between A and B, if indeed there was any at all); and, second, that they are nearly all relentlessly ugly: they sport unbalanced compositions with scratchy, messy, unfinished surfaces in either depressingly dull or shocking colors intentionally selected to evoke associations of disease and decomposition. Where figurative elements appear, they seem to suggest physical deformity and/or mental disease. But not all: as if to illustrate how open-minded I am, there were two paintings there I was able to like. Not enough to want to hang them in my bedroom; or to make up for the profound psychological disturbance the visit to the show has caused me; but well enough to claim the point. Clearly, I am not disliking things merely because they are modern or because they are part of the show.
This presents me with a huge intellectual dilemma: is it really possible that the people who produce this stuff and the people who avidly collect it and show it in exhibitions actually like it? I suppose they must, because to assume otherwise would be to call them deluded (somewhat along the lines of The Emperor’s New Clothes). Such an interpretation would not necessarily be theoretically impossible (marketing studies of taste show that most consumers are not sufficiently in touch with their own perceptions to be able to say reliably what they like: this fact allows the 500 billion advertising industry to exist in the first place), but it would be… uncharitable. The charitable view, surely, is to assume that the educated and eloquent people who speak with such conviction (even if with so little purpose) about their likes do know their minds.
But if so, then I am unable to know them; their pleasure is wholly and entirely opaque to me, impenetrable like stone, and the only possible explanation for the gulf that separates their reactions from mine is that we somehow have radically different brains. Because, after all, I am a pretty open-minded fellow. I am neither racist nor agist; I am happy to let gays marry; and let murderers live forever on a life-sentence. My taste in food and clothing is eclectic and my cultural diet is rather more varied than most. Yet, no amount of staring at this stuff makes it more palatable to me; on the contrary, I only grow more uncomfortable with looking. The only explanation for my response I can think of is that I am constitutionally, congenitally prevented from appreciating colors and shapes reminiscent of physical deformity, disease, decay and death.
Which is of course precisely how brain mutations are expected to work: to produce brains which calculate in entirely different, mutually incomprehensible ways. One mutation might well produce a brain capable of understanding topology or the quantum effect; another – a brain which responds with gratifying emotions to the shapes and colors represented at the show in question. Normally, all these mutations would swim together in the population perfectly and imperceptibly intermingled; but apply an asymmetric shock and some might rise to the fore.