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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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Gombrich: The Quest for Spirituality

Gombrich: - The Quest for Spirituality

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

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

Rogier Van Der Weyden, Adoration from the Columba Altarpiece, 1460

Chapter Four is more about writers than painters, and 'spirituality' as a topic for secular philosophy rather than theology.

According to Gombrich, in the early 19th there were those "who alleged that indulgence in sensual pleasure was a direct consequence of loss of spirituality........and imported this concern with the spirit into the historty of art.  To find the origin of this preoccupation we are not likely to go wrong if we look to the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel"

And so we begin with  Hegel's lectures on aesthetics (1818-1829) - though more concerning his taste rather than his philosophy.

Here is what he had to say about the Dukes of Bergundy, as depicted above in the role of Magi:

In these figures we see that they are something else beyond praying and that they have other business. It is as if they go to Mass only or Sundays or early in the morning, while in the rest of the week, or the day, they pursue their other concerns. Especially in Flemish or German pictures those who commissioned them appear as pious knights, or God-fearing housewives, with their sons and daughters. They are like Martha who goes about the house, careful and troubled about many things external and mundane, and not like Mary who chose the better part.Their piety does not lack heart and spiritual depth, but what constitutes their whole nature is not the song of love which should have been their whole life, as it is the nightingale’s, and not merely an elevation, a prayer or thanks for a mercy received.

These figures, including the Duke, page, and onlooker, do feel anxiety ridden,
and not especially pious

Jan Van Eyck, "Madonna of Chancellor Rolin", 1435

Nor does Chancellor Rolin feel like he is overwhelmed by divine love.
It feels like he could leave the divine presence, walk over to his office, and immediately negotiate rents on a ducal property.

Fra Angelico, San Marco Altarpiece, 1440, detail

As opposed to this contrite donor,  depicted by an Italian painter at about the same time.

Concerning such Italian painters, Hegel  had this to say:

Italian painting did not arrive at the standard of perfection from the outset; to reach it it had to travel a long road.  True, the pure and innocent piety, the grand sense of the whole conception and the unselfconscious beauty of forms and soulful inwardness are frequently most manifest in the works of early Italian masters, despite all their technical imperfections. In the last century  these early masters were not much appreciated, but rejected as awkward, dry, and poor.  Only in recent times have they been rescued from oblivion  by scholars and artists, only to be admired and copied with an exaggerated bias that wanted to deny that further steps were subsequently taken towards more perfect conceptions and representations, ant this was bound to lad to opposite errors.

I wonder why donors were depicted so differently in Burgundy than they were in Florence -- and why this depiction was so problematic to Hegel.

Gombrich does not offer  much else about his aesthetics.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us he believed that:

The principal aim of art ... is to allow us to contemplate and enjoy created images of our own spiritual freedom—images that are beautiful precisely because they give expression to our freedom. Art's purpose, in other words, is to enable us to bring to mind the truth about ourselves, and so to become aware of who we truly are.

It feels to me that  Rogier and Jan were depicting the Dukes of Burgundy as real men of their status might be -- while weaving those depictions into  breath-taking-beautiful visions. .  So the Dukes might not be experiencing divine love, but we can experience it when looking at them. Would that  meet the above requirement ?

Correggio, Madonna of St. Jerome, 1528

Here's a direct quote from the translation offered here

Still greater were Correggio in the magical wizardry of chiaroscuro, in the soulful delicacy and gracefulness of heart, forms, movement, and grouping, and Titian in the wealth of natural life, and the illuminating shading, glow, warmth, and power of colouring. There is nothing more attractive than the naïveté, in Correggio, of a grace not natural but religious and spiritual, nothing sweeter than his smiling unselfconscious beauty and innocence.

The perfection of painting in these great masters is a peak of art which can be ascended only once by one people in the course of history’s development.

Correggio,"Madonna with St. Jerome", 1523

Correggio,"Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine", 1526

Hegel does not mention of any specific paintings in his discussion of  Italian painting, but I assume the above would fit the bill, and perhaps he saw the second one when he visited Paris.

I am bothered by  a feeling of cuteness-smallness-sweetness-brokenness in Corregio's paintings. They seem to be half-way between Leonardo Da Vinci and the sentimental, collectible plates from the Franklin Mint.   Perhaps that's because the ones in American museums are inferior.  But still I'm doubting that Hegel had a taste for the kind of pictorial power that distinguishes Titian, Tintoretto, and Tiepolo -- as well as so many leading painters of the 19th and 20th centuries.

And ideas of 'perfection' and 'history's development' seem outside the unique  individuality of both making and experiencing a painting.

But since it appears that his aesthetics emphasize beauty in the human form -- I'll have to return to his lectures at some later date.

Fra Angelico, from the "Annunciation", 1437-46

Gombrich then introduces us to Alexis-Francois Rio (1797-1874, a devout Roman Catholic who became an enthusiastic writer about  religious art from the Italian Quattrocento.

At this point the competence of those who are  vulgarly called "connoisseurs" comes to an end.  The particular organ needed for the appreciation  of the kind of works of which we want to speak  is not the same as that which is able to judge ordinary works of art.  Mysticism is to painting what ecstasy is to psychology.... only those who have a strong and profound sympathy with certain religious ideas are able to understand mystical paintings..... Francois Rio, "L'Art Chrétien", 1861-7

Beyond the details of his personal life, and an error in his chronology of painters, we're not told much else about Rio except that he adored Fra Angelico and preferred the painters of Sienna and Umbria to those corrupt pagans of Florence.  He extolled the efforts of Savonarola to "stem the tide of sensuality and worldliness""--presumably including his persuasion of Botticelli to burn many of his paintings.

I'm not sure that Rio deserves the contempt that Gombrich hardly conceals for one who wrote about art history as an enthusiast instead of as a professional historian.  (his income was earned on the marriage bed rather than in a university classroom).  Can he be credited with  introducing 15th C. Italian painters to many art lovers in northern Europe ?  Did he make astute observations concerning  specific paintings?

Then we meet a Protestant writer, Lord Lindsay (1812 -1880) who had this to say about the age of Giotto - or what he called "The Age of Youth":

There is in truth a holy purity,  an innocent naivete, a child—like grace and simplicity a freshness, a fearlessness, an utter freedom from affectation, a yearning after all things truthful, lovely and of good report, in the productions of this early time, which invests them with a charm peculiar in its kind, and which few even of the most perfect works of the maturer era can boast of and hence the risk and danger (which I thus warn you of at the outset) of becoming too passionately attached to them, of losing the power of discrimination, of admiring and imitating their defects as well as their beauties, of running into affectation in seeking after simplicity and into exaggeration in our efforts to be in earnest in a word, of forgetting that in art, as in human nature, it is the balance, harmony and coequal development of Sense, Intellect and Spirit, which constitutes perfection. ...Alexander  Lindsay, from "Sketches of Christian Art", 1847

Gombrich notes the ambivalence here.  Cherishing, on the one hand, the "innocent naivete"  - but critiquing, on the other hand, the "defects".

Unfortunately we're not shown any specifics about those 'defects' -- and I wonder where Lindsay found them.

Filippo Lippi, St. Stephen's funeral, 1453-61

Continuing on the theme of medieval Christian purity versus pagan sensuality,
Gombrich then excerpts these lines from Robert Browning's poem, "Fra Lippo Lippi" (1855):

The Prior and the learned pulled a face
And stopped all that in no time. "How? what's here?
Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
Faces, arms, legs and bodies like the true
As much as pea and pea! it's devil's-game!
Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,              
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men — 
Man's soul, and it's a fire, smoke . . .

For whatever reasons,  piety-versus-sensuality is no longer a burning  issue in the discussion of 15th C. Italian painting.

John Ruskin, portrait of Rose La Touche, 1960

Gombrich then introduces John Ruskin, who critiqued Lord Lindsay's book, and even his piety-versus-naturalism controversy is no longer debated. It had not occurred to me how conflicted he was on this issue.  On the one hand, as with  "Stones of Venice", he was nostalgic for  faith driven art.  But on the other hand, he was still committed to  truth to nature. Above he achieves a compromise not far removed from Filippo Lippi.

Paolo Veronese, "Solomon and Sheba", 1580 (detail)

Above is a fragment from the painting before which Ruskin suddenly realized that he was no longer a Christian.

"the painter saw that sensual passion in man was, not only a fact, but a Divine fact; the human creature, though the highest of the animals, was, nevertheless, a perfect animal, and his happiness, health, and nobleness depended on the due power of every animal passion, as well as the cultivation of every spiritual tendency"

Which is a curious choice -- because I doubt that anyone would select it as Veronese's  most gorgeous work. (a full color reproduction can still not be found on the internet). Perhaps it was just  the final feather that tipped the balance.

Edwin Landseer, "The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner", 1837

And here's another piece which Ruskin greatly admired-- probably not so much because he loved dogs, but  because of its sincerity - a quality which he thought was absent from so much art after the 15th C.

In the first decades of the 15th  Century a new spirit entered Western painting. Remaining in the service of the Church, painting still was to develop principles which stood in no relation to the tasks set by the Church. In one respect the work of art now offers more than what is demanded by the Church; apart from the religious meaning it now offers an image of the real world; the artist becomes engrossed in the study and rendering of the outward appearance of things ... Beauty hitherto striven for and also frequently achieved as the highest attribute of holiness, now gives way to significant characterization ... but where it still breaks through it is a newborn sensual beauty which must have its full share in the earthly and the real since it would not find a place otherwise within the world of art.

In this respect the work of art now offers less than the Church demands or might demand. The religious content cannot thrive without claiming exclusive dominance, and that for a simple reason which is not always clearly admitted: it is that this content is essentially of a negative kind and consists in excluding anything reminiscent of worldly life. As soon as this life is deliberately drawn into the sphere of art as happened at that time the picture will no longer look devout. It is worth reflecting how few are the means by which art can directly arouse devotion; it can depict exalted calm and grace, it can express dedication, longing, humility and grief in heads and gestures, but these are all elements which are part of general humanity and are not limited to Christian emotions......Jacob Burkhardt, 1855

Gombrich  shared the above quote to exemplify the "Progressive Bias" that ran counter to the "taste for the primitive"

Above it, I've posted  a fragment once attached to Rheims Cathedral to exemplify   non-devout Christian art from an earlier century.  So I'm not buying Burkhardt's argument that a heightened concern for the "outward appearance of things" stood "in no relation to the tasks set by the church" -- though maybe that statement would be better applied  before the 12th Century.

Fra Angelico, detail for Orvieto Cathedral, 1447

But like Lindsay and Ruskin, Burkhardt was ambivalent about the older, Gothic style of painting.

"Anyone who is altogether repelled by Fra Angelico is unlikely to have a true understanding of ancient art"

He noted the "Celestial purity, intense devotional feeling"

And he singled out the above depiction of prophets asking " whether any work on art on earth, Raphael not excepted, could so represent silent devout adoration"

The tenderness, the humility, the haunted reveries of his pensive Virgins"...Hippolyte Taine

The noted literary critic, Hyppolyte Taine, is introduced as an anti-clerical proponent of 'immature' sensuality of Botticelli. (note: Burckhardt describes a painting in the Uffizi,  similar to the above, as Botticelli's most beautiful - though, in general, he "never quite achieved what a strove for. He desired to express life an emotin in violent movement, and frequently merely represented uncouth haste" )

The mysticism of the cloister and the philosophy of the schools have peopled the heads of these master with abstracted formulas and exalted emotions... the physical shape hardly interests them... Hippolyte Taine

I can't imagine a more blindly ideological response to pre-Renaissance painting -- but it seems to have become canonical within that progressive narrative of art history that eventually leads to the liberation achieved in the 20th C..

Botticelli, "The Birth of Venus", 1486

Unlike Leonardo's "Leda" or Raphael's 'Galatea"  Botticelli's type seemed virginal, indeed somewhat gawky, and all the more seductive for appearing to be innocent.  Spirituality is, after all, only one ideal with which to oppose sensuality, innocence is another.

Botticelli’s apotheosis came a mere four years after the publication of Taine’s assessment, in the famous essay which Walter Pater devoted to his art in The Renaissance, published in 1873. Pater, too, identified the Renaissance with ‘the outbreak of the human spirit’, its ‘care for physical beauty, the worship of the body, the breaking down of those limits which the religious system of the Middle Ages imposed on the heart and the imagination’.

We need not follow Pater into his dreams of what these Madonnas are feeling, nor need we quote the whole of his appreciation of Botticelli’s Venus, where again he stresses the ‘quaintness of design’ which he considers ‘a more direct inlet into the Greek temper than the works of the Greeks themselves ... Botticelli meant all this imagery to be altogether pleasurable; and it was partly an incompleteness of resources, inseparable from the art of that time, that subdued and chilled it ..

The complete text of Pater's critique of Botticelli can be found here - and it comes off as much more thoughtful than Gombrich's excerpts might suggest.

I do wonder just what pieces of Greek art Botticellil might have seen in 16th C. Florence - but how else might one account for the remarkable difference between Botticelli's Venus and those nudes by Raphael and Leonardo?   It's just so weird to have the Goddess of Erotic Love appear to be innocent of it -- even if she's just been born -  although I wouldn't  impute that innocence to the artist himself.  Haven't men, worldwide, always been willing to pay extra for the services of a virgin ?

And it is surprising that even Pater feels that Botticelli is lacking something in comparison with Leonardo and Michelangelo -- and feels that he may sometimes offer a " naive carelessness of pictorial propriety" and may have been handicapped by " an incompleteness of resources, inseparable from the art of that time

Then we're introduced to another literary critic, and sometime poet and Gay activist, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) who wrote a 7-volume history of the Italian Renaissance.  As Gombrich notes, he reprises the Hegelian approach with:

 ‘The first step in the emancipation of the modern mind was taken thus by art, proclaiming to men the glad tidings of their goodliness and greatness in a world of manifold enjoyment created for their use. Whatever painting touched, became by that touch human; piety, at the lure of art, folded her soaring wings and rested on the genial earth. This the Church had not foreseen’.

Likewise, he cannot imagine piety, Christian or otherwise, being anything but opposed to the sensual -- and judges that Botticelli somehow comes up short : "The very imperfection of these pictures lends a value to them in the eyes of the student, by helping him to comprehend exactly how the revelations of the humanists affected the artistic sense of Italy"

Botticelli, "Venus and Mars", 1483

Here's what Symonds  had to say about this painting:

This combination or confusion of artistic impulses in Botticelli, this treatment of pagan themes in the spirit of mediæval mysticism, sometimes ended in grotesqueness. It might suffice to cite the pregnant "Aphrodite" in the National Gallery, if the "Mars and Venus" in the same collection were not even a more striking instance. Mars is a young Florentine, whose throat and chest are beautifully studied from the life, but whose legs and belly, belonging no doubt to the same model, fall far short of heroic form. He lies fast asleep with the corners of his mouth drawn down, as though he were about to snore. Opposite there sits a woman, weary and wan, draped from neck to foot in the thin raiment Botticelli loved. Four little goat-footed Cupids playing with the armour of the sleeping lad complete the composition. These wanton loves are admirably conceived and exquisitely drawn; nor indeed can any drawing exceed in beauty the line that leads from the flank along the ribs and arm of Mars up to his lifted elbow. The whole design, like one of Piero di Cosimo's pictures in another key, leaves a strong impression on the mind, due partly to the oddity of treatment, partly to the careful work displayed, and partly to the individuality of the artist. It gives us keen pleasure to feel exactly how a painter like Botticelli applied the dry naturalism of the early Florentine Renaissance, as well as his own original imagination, to a subject he imperfectly realised. Yet are we right in assuming that he meant the female figure in this group for Aphrodite, the sleeping man for Ares? A Greek or a Roman would have rejected this picture as false to the mythus of Mars and Venus; and whether Botticelli wished to be less descriptive than emblematic, might be fairly questioned. The face and attitude of that unseductive Venus, wide awake and melancholy, opposite her snoring lover, seems to symbolise the indignities which women may have to endure from insolent and sottish boys with only youth to recommend them. This interpretation, however, sounds like satire. We are left to conjecture whether Botticelli designed his composition for an allegory of intemperance, the so-called Venus typifying some moral quality.

It's interesting to note that this painting had only entered the National Gallery in 1874, while Symonds' book was written between 1875 and 1886.

Regarding this painting's interpretation, I would go with satire, given it's supposed original placement as the headboard of a bed.  This is gentle  bedroom humor. The gallant young man who would play the role of Mars except that he's been exhausted on the battlefield of Love -- and the patient, alluring young woman who's waiting for him to yet again wield his mighty lance -- while the little putti try to recall him to  duty.

Only a Victorian would speculate that Venus was typifying "some moral quality", and that the image was "grotesque"

Aby Warburg

This chapter ends with the arrival of Aby Warburg (1866-19269) who was typically , as shown above,  more interested in the written record of cultural history than in looking at paintings.

The Warburg Institute

The heir of a wealthy German-Jewish  banking family, he founded a library, the Warburg Institute, that eventually relocated to London and was directed by Gombrich himself from 1959-1976.

As a young exile in Florence he had plenty of opportunities to listen to the reactions of enthusiastic travelers to the art of his favorite masters, Botticelli an Ghirlandaio, and he filled his notebook with expressions of disgust. What enraged him was the conviction that the work of these masters represented an attitude of innocence, an expression of naive enjoyment, which many found irresistible.

Warburg's predecessors might be accused of projecting their own issues of spirituality/sensuality onto paintings as they experienced them. Whereas this website tells us that:

Only by referring to a variety of sources, like classic literature, contemporary coins and medals or medieval wallpaintings, Warburg can trace down the hidden meaning of the painting’s elements and solve the riddle. This is what turns the complexity of Botticelli’s paintings, though strange in their composition and simple in their overall object (the admiration of a woman), into high art worthy of a noble patron. Warburg’s study on Poliziano as the „programmer“ in Lorenzo’s service and Botticelli as his servant was in itself a concept and an idea that required a different type of a library and should survive in an independent institution"

And so  Warburg collected books instead of paintings - and is much closer to being a 20th C. professional art historian than those enthusiastic aesthetes of the 19th Century.

I care less about whether "The Birth of Venus" was programmed by Poliziano - than I do about  how various  widely experienced and articulate  art  lovers have responded to the painting itself.

But I do wish that Burkhardt, Pater, Symonds etc had been more cautious when moving from writing about art  to writing about whoever made it.

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