It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Gombrich: Ascendency of the Sublime

Gombrich: - Ascendency of the Sublime

This is Chapter two of E.H. Gombrich's "Preference for the Primitive"

Quoted text is in YELLOW. Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN *************************************************************************** ****************************************************************************

Carle Van Loo, "Resting from the Hunt", 1737

Chapter two takes us to the aesthetic controversies of the 18th C.-- florid opulence vs classical austerity, climaxing with the rather humorous story of one Maurice Quays (1779-1804), a painter who is only remembered in Wikipedia for having coined the derogatory term 'Rococo', and whose existence is only known through the journal of a student of Jacques Louis-David, Etienne-Jean Del├ęcluze. (though Webster's online tells us that the word  'Rococo' was used 40 years before Quays was born)

Dressing up like an ancient Greek, not cutting his hair, and spouting radical theories, Quays seems like a caricature of an art school bohemian. Delecluze tells us that "the young man's eccentricities, becoming increasingly exaggerated and confused, had carried him ultimately into madness"

By making this clown the mouthpiece for the 'primitifs' of that period, it's rather clear what Gombrich thinks about them - without having to say it directly.

Gombrich is sneering.

Jacques-Louis David, "Rape of the Sabine Women", 1799

Quays and his fellow Primatifs are quoted by Delecluze as expressing disappointment with the above painting by the hero of austere Classicism  for having "no grandeur, no simplicity, in short nothing primatif" -- and so it deserved all of the contempt they felt towards the "Van Loo, Pompadour, Rococo" painting shown at the top of this post.

Carle Van Loo, detail

Gombrich leaves us to speculate on what they thought the two paintings had in common.

One difference is, of course, the costumes.  Van Loo dresses his figures to the hilt - befitting their noble status.

Jacques Louis David, detail

While David dresses his heroine in the simple white gown that had become fashionable in Revolutionary Paris

- while the soldiers don't have any clothes at all, apparently to the dismay of moralists who eventually prevailed upon the artist to cover up the genitals of the standing male on the left.

Here are some details from another Van Loo painting - showing his careful attention to fine fabrics.

 Poussin, "Rape of the Sabine Women" , 1634-35

Poussin, "Rape of the Sabine Women" , 1636-37

Or perhaps the young Primatifs were objecting to the less martial treatment of the subject matter, compared with the earlier versions by Poussin where the women were being carried off instead of trying to make peace, suggesting, perhaps, that it was time for the new French Republic to stop waging war.  (the other title used for David's version is "The Intervention of the Sabine Women")

But I'm afraid that the only reason Gombrich presented this comparison is that it was accompanied by the word 'primatif', though Gombrich concludes the chapter by declaring "we can appreciate the relevance of this episode in which so many of the tendencies of the 18th C. came to fruition."

BTW - the more stark contrast between the paintings of the early and late 18th C. France is found in the portraiture.

Here's the rest of that Van Loo portrait shown earlier

Here's a David portrait from 1804,
plain background, no jewelry,
and dressed in all black and white
with only a hint of colored finery.

She looks like a girl 
who might volunteer
at an army field hospital.

But the word 'primitive'
would not apply, would it ?

while Van Loo's aristocrat would be more likely to 
utter a clever bon mot.

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