This is Chapter Six of E.H. Gombrich's "Preference for the Primitive"
Quoted text is in YELLOW. Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN *************************************************************************** ****************************************************************************
William Rubin asks the question: ‘what happened, within the evolution of modern art, that suddenly in 1906—7 led artists to be receptive to tribal art? No doubt’, he continues, ‘there is more than one right answer, but the most important reason, I am convinced, had to do with a fundamental shift in the nature of most vanguard art from styles rooted in visual perception to others based on conceptualization’.
Admitting that such contrasts must always be relative, the author rightly stresses the concentration of the Impressionists — and indeed, of Cezanne — on the minutiae of visual sensation. In the author’s view ‘it was Gauguin ... who took the first step towards a conceptual, and thus more “synthetic”, more highly “stylized” art’, blending the realism of the Impressionists with ‘flat decorative effects and stylized forms’ derived from ‘non—illusionistic arts as diverse as Egyptian, Medieval, Persian, Peruvian and Breton (folk) painting and decorative arts ... and Cambodian,Javanese and Polynesian sculpture’
The author concedes that this shift from the perceptual to the conceptual had already been ‘signalled by Manet and reflected in the “Japonisme” that took hold in the l860s’
William Rubin was the Chief Curator (and then Director) of Painting and Sculpture at MOMA from 1968-1988, and he organized the 1984 exhibit "Primitivism in the 20th Century" that Gombrich first mentioned in the introduction.
According to his NYT obituary:
Some art critics complained that this show, pairing works by modern masters with examples of the African and Oceanic art that had influenced them, took a purely formalist approach that stripped the non-Western works of their original contexts, meanings and purposes.
Wouldn't such a pairing do the same for the Modern art as well?
Though, putting tribal/Modern side-by-side does allow the viewer to see their differences as well as similarities -- and to me, they look quite different, suggesting very different "contexts, meanings, purposes".
So I really don't see why the critic, Thomas McEvilley, was so upset.
Regarding the "shift in the nature of most vanguard art from styles rooted in visual perception to others based on conceptualization" - Gombrich "can only endorse his verdict"
Rubin led MOMA when the New York contemporary artworld was making that shift - but I wouldn't say that an artist like Picasso had done so.
William Bouguereau, "The Birth of Venus", 1879
I proposed at least a partial explanation of the primitive revolution in a lecture I gave as long ago as November 1953, one which ultimately expanded into the present study... In that lecture I confronted a painting of the Birth of Venus by Bouguereau — a typical Salon painting — with the first monumental work of art that embodied reminiscences of tribal masks: Picasso’s Dernoiselles d’Avignon — a juxtaposition that implied that, without the first, the second might never have been painted. In other words, I saw in twentieth- century painting a reaction against the meretricious art of successful virtuosos.
Pablo Picasso, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", 1907
Ironically, "meretricious" is a word derived from "meretrix", the Latin word for "whore" , which is exactly what Picasso was depicting in the above painting. According to Richardson, that was his life style at the time.
He may not have admired them , but would he have really said that about the paintings of Bougereau ?
Gombrich then restates the theme of this book -- that, as noted first by Cicero, artists often react against work that is too sensuous by offering deliberate harshness, austerity, and simplicity.
But those qualities can be found in many paintings that are far less appealing and attractive than the above composition. As audiences for Picasso's sometime collaborator, Igor Stravinsky, eventually learned: even discordance can be made beautifully -- just as music can be painfully annoying even if it's sweet and soothing. (or, at least, that's my response to 'smooth jazz')
For the public, and I do not use the word in the derogatory sense — for the public a work of art, a picture, is an agreeable thing which moves the heart to delight or to horror; it is a massacre where the gasping victims whimper and drag themselves beneath the guns which threaten them; or else it is a delightful young girl all in snowy white who dreams in the moonlight, leaning on a broken column. I mean to say that most people see in a canvas only a subject ... and they demand nothing further of the artist than a tear or a smile.
I don’t ask that the artist give me tender visions or horrible nightmares, I ask him to give himself, heart and body ... In a word, I have the most profound disdain for the little tricks, for the scheming flatteries, for that which can be learned at school. It is no longer a question here, therefore, of pleasing or of not pleasing, it is a question of being oneself, of baring one’s breast
I am not for any one school ... The word ‘art’ displeases me. It contains, I do not know what, in the way of ideas of necessary compromises, of absolute ideals ... that which I seek above all in a painting is a man, and not a picture. For it is another good joke to believe that there is, where artistic beauty is concerned, an absolute and eternal truth. ... Like everything else, art is a human product, a human secretion; it is our body which sweats out the beauty of our works. Our body changes according to the climate and customs, and, therefore, its secretions change also.
That is to say that the work of tomorrow cannot be that of today; you can neither formulate a rule nor give it a precept ... you must abandon yourself bravely to your nature and not seek to deny it.....Emile Zola, writing about Manet's Olympia, 1866
Quite a contrast to the quote from Goethe that was posted earlier:
"every work of art must announce itself as such, which can only be done by what we call sensual beauty and grace.”
But even if the above must be considered a "secretion", at least Zola considers it special because it is a beautiful one - which sets it apart from all the others. So Goethe has not really been contradicted - and I don't think that either he or Aristotle would object to the depiction of a little strumpet if it were truthful.
(what kind of woman was Clytemnestra as depicted by Aeschylus ?)
Gombrich considers those words of Zola to be one of the "formative documents of Modern Art" - as it distniguished the modernist attitude from those who valued "the subject matter of a painting and the emotional response to it which the artist achieved"
But Manet can be said to be offering the same kind of thing -- just with a different kind of subject matter and emotional response.
Gombrich offers this discussion under the heading of "the bifurcation of 19th Century art" - but hasn't there always been a popular taste for that which feels small, sweet, and cloying. Judging by its rarity - the taste for fierce or profoundly powerful visions has always been in the minority.
Henceforth the world of art was divided between the traditionalists , whose work pleased the public, and the avant garde who looked for success among the elite.
Certainly our 21st C. American artworld is still so divided -- with some galleries, magazines, and art fairs devoted to the avant garde and others serving the ongoing taste for "Western art" and Impressionism. But the middle ground may be growing as the polar opposites are maturing. The anti-art of Dada has been identified with the avant garde for almost a hundred years now. Can't it finally be considered an established tradition ? While the pretty pictures of beautiful landscapes and sweet children are often done by artists trained in modernist approaches.
At this point Gombrich returns to M.H. Abrams. His essay "Art-as-such" attached that 18th century notion, so triumphantly promulgated by Kant, to the emergence of connoiseurship as a distinct activity of the leisure class. His book "The Mirror and Lamp" noted the historic shift in the Romantic era from the objective depiction of passion to the sincere expression of personal feeling. Now at the age of 101, his career is probaby over -- so it will be up to his followers to record the shift from personal to institutional validation, and from the expression of personal feeling to the accretion of diverse cognitive data.
Daumier, "Past, Present,Future", 1834
Under the topic "The License of Humor", Gombrich notes that in 1813. J.P. Malcolm wrote the first book about charactature, letting us the ponder the difference between an intentional distorion, as shown above, versus the tribals arts of the South Seas as recently brought to Europe by Captain Cook.
Hawaiian (?) artifact from the James Cook collection at the Australian MuseumMalcolm asserted that:
"the first native conceptions of genius at all times and all places are a confused chaos, which may be compared to the frightful dreams hat sometimes torture our minds when the body is at rest; in both cases phantoms float before the perception, ghastly and terrible to the imagination... the unfortunate savage,or half-civilized sculptor or carver, appears to act under some powerful impulse, and perpetuates his waking dreams."
Gombrich contrasts Malcolm's response to tribal art - quite clearly designated as 'primitive' - to Zola's defense of Manet and others in the Salon des Refuses when they were greeted with 'salvos of laughter' as works of "self deluded bunglers and unintentional caricatures" -- and he calls them "two contrasting mental sets"
Gombrich then provides an example: our divergent interpretation of the letter "O" from the number "0" is the result of "different mental sets"
But in the above quote, Malcolm was not deriding the 'savages' as bunglers. Indeed, he seemed to have had some compassion for the "powerful impulses" under which they were driven to act. Was his cognition of these pieces really so different from those who seek the expression of powerful impulses - and perhaps Malcolm himself enjoyed and collected tribal art as well.
Vincent Van Gogh, Potato Eaters, 1885
There is a remarkable letter by van Gogh written during the Summer of 1885, in which he refers to criticism a certain Serret had made of his Potato Eaters :
‘Tell Serret that I should he desperate jf my figures were correct, tell him that I do not want them to be academically correct, tell him I mean: if one photographs a digger he certainly would not be digging then ... Tell him that my great longing is to learn to make these very incorrectnesses, remodellings, changes in reality, so that they may become, yes, lies if you like — but truer than the literal truth.’.. Van Gogh, 1885
I've never seen the actual painting -- and some paintings, especially those with heavy impasto, like Van Gogh's , look much, much different in person.
But "The Potato Eaters" looks like a bungled disaster to me. All those exaggerated, expressive faces just do not fit that, or maybe any, shadow-defined interior space -- and I don't recall that Van Gogh attempted a similar design in the five years that he had left to live.
What a remarkable five years those were.
Self Portrait, 1887
‘I exaggerate the fair colour of the hair, I take orange, chrome, lemon colour, and behind the head I do not paint the trivial wall of the room but the Infinite. I make a simple background out of the most intense and richest blue the palette will yield.The blond luminous head stands out against this strong blue background mysteriously hke a star in the azure. Alas my dear friend, the public will see nothing but caricature in this exaggeration, but what does this matter to us?’.. Van Gogh (I can't find a date)
Gombrich shares the above quote to exemplify defiance against the public's taste for a different kind of mimesis.
Gauguin, Self Portrait with Yellow Christ, 1890
We had to think in terms of a total liberation ... of smashing windows even if it meant cutting our fingers, leaving the next generation free and unfettered to find its own solution. Not a definitive solution, mind you. for we are talking about an infinite art, rich in all manner of techniques, I fit to express everything that is in nature and in man
To do this we had to hurl ourselves body and soul into the fray, taking on all the schools without distinction. Rather than run them down we would confront them: not just officialdom but Impressionists, NeoImpressionists, and the public, old and new. Let our wives and children disown us. Never mind the insults, Never mind poverty. That was so far as a man’s conduct was concerned.
As for his work, a method of contradiction if you like ... To relearn, and once learnt, to learn again. To conquer all inhibitions even in the face of ridicule.
Before his easel the painter is slave neither to the past, to the present, to nature, nor to his neighbor. He is himself, himself again, and forever himself... Gauguin
(Note: Gombrich does not provide any source for this quote -- beyond it's appearance in a book by H.R. Rookmaaker -- who wrote another book, "Modern Art and the Death of a Culture", that offered a dismaying account of Modernism as it appears to an Evangelical Christian. I'm sure that this dedication to "himself, himself, forever himself" fell hard upon the ears of one who would rather have artists dedicated to Christ )
‘To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling — this is the activity of art. Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them....Leo Tolstoy
It is this conviction that leads Tolstoy towards his version of primitivism, closely connected with his cult of the Russian peasant, and the new appreciation of folk art:
People think that if there are no special art schools the technique of art will deteriorate. Undoubtedly, if by technique we understand those complications of art which are considered an excellence, it will deteriorate; but if by technique is understood clearness, beauty, simplicity, and compression in works of art, then, even if the elements of drawing and music were not to be taught in the national schools, the technique will not only not deteriorate but, as is shown by all peasant art, will be a hundred times better
.It will be improved, because all the artists of genius now hidden among the masses will become producers of art...‘It is impossible for us, with our culture, to return to a primitive state,’ say the artists of our time, ‘It is impossible for us now to write such stories as that of Joseph or the Odyssey, to produce such statues as the Venus de Milo, or to compose such music as the folk songs.’ And indeed, for the artists of our society and day it is impossible, but not for the future artist who will be free from all the perversion of technical improvements hiding the absence of subject-matter, and who, not being a professional artist and receiving no payment for his activity, will only produce art when he feels impelled to do so by an irresistible inner impulse.
The art of the future will thus be completely distinct, both in subject matter and in form, from what is now called art. The only subject- matter of the art of the future will be either feelings drawing men toward union, or such as already unite them; and the forms of art will be such as will be open to everyone. And therefore, the ideal of excellence in the future will not be the exclusiveness of feeling, accessible only to some, but, on the contrary, its universality; And not bulkiness, obscurity, and complexity of form, as is now esteemed, but, on the contrary, brevity; clearness, and simplicity of expression. Only when art has attained to that, will art neither divert nor deprave men as it does now; calling on them to expend their best strength on it, but be what it should be — a vehicle wherewith to transmit religious, Christian perception from the realm of reason and intellect into that of feeling, and really drawing people in actual life nearer to that perfection and unity indicated to them by their religious perception.
... from "What is Art?", Leo Tolstoy, 1897
You can really feel the looming Russian Revolution here, can't you? It's difficult to share that kind of idealism after all the worldwide catastrophes of the 20th C. that followed in its wake.
I wonder which paintings he actually liked - and which paintings he thought made people depraved.
Did he collect anything?
This emphatic rejection of acquired skills in favour of expression helped to pave the way to a new cult of subjectivity which Tolstoy would never have countenanced. In the context of the radical subjectivism preached by Zola and Gauguin ‘expressive’ was readily interpreted as self—expression, the defiance of tradition in order to shock, or at least to make an impact by doing the unexpected. Understandably the group of young artists who pursued this aim were dubbed ‘the wild beasts’ — les Fauves — though their leader Henri Matisse certainly did not fit the label. Commenting on their aims, Matisse emphasized that the starting point of Fauvism had been the courage to recover the purity of means. By purity he was alluding to the expressiveness of pure, luminous colour, undimmed by the normal practice of shading to suggest volume. This, no doubt, they had discovered in Japanese and Islamic art, no less than from Gauguin.
What would Tolstoy have thought about the above painting ? Would he have considered it depraved
or exemplary of the happy future of art?
I have absolutely no idea.
And yes, I agree with Gombrich -- Mattisse could hardly be considered a "beast" ---- or even any kind of primitive. He celebrated the pleasures of modern, upscale, bourgeois life - just as David Hockney , following his footsteps, does today -- or as Japanese printmakers did in the 19th Century or Persian painters did in the 16th.
Fang Masks (the first page of a Google Image Search)
It was finally Picasso’s use of these masks in his Les Demoisdlles d’Aviçnon that proved the effectiveness of those forms.
Characteristically, however, Picasso himself is on record as having violently denied that he had resorted to this borrowing for formal reasons. He had clearly longed to escape his own insinuating style of the ‘blue’ period, which was not free from a touch of sentimentality, and he found this escape during a visit to the Ethnological section of the Trocadéro — at any rate Rubin is inclined to accept the account given to Malraux as authentic: ‘When I went to the Trocadéro, it was revolting. A flea market! The smell! I was all alone. I wanted to get out. I didn’t. I stayed there. I knew that it was vitally important: something was happening to me, was it not? ... All alone in that ghastly museum, with those masks, the red— skinned dolls, the dust-covered dummies. The Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but certainly not on account of the forms: because this was my first canvas of exorcism, yes indeed!
What was Picasso taking from African masks ? Was it a feeling of "mysterious menace or magic power" (far removed from the academic painting of his father, the art teacher) --- or was it "because of the forms" ?
Using the above quote as evidence, Gombrich asserts that it was the former -- rather than something more like Roger Fry's response to an exhibition of African scupture:
... some of these things are great sculpture..these African artists really conceive form in three dimensions
... the Negro scores heavily by his willingness to reduce the limbs to a succession of ovoid masses, sometimes scarcely longer than they are broad ... his plastic sense leads him to give its utmost amplitude and relief to all protuberant parts of the body and to get thereby an extraordinarily emphatic sequence of planes.. .....Roger Fry, "Vision and Design", 1923
The above does seem to suggest that, rather than trying to produce some emotional or magical effect, the African mask-makers were just following their "plastic sense" -- which seems no more credible than Karl Woermann’s characterization of African sculpture:
‘The imagination of the laughter-loving Negroes tends toward the grotesque, the comic, the weird, Their sculpture accordingly inclines to caricature, emphasizing the ugly, the abnormal, the indecent. Where wholly fantastic human images are created the intention to frighten, to create nightmares, no doubt also plays its role"
... Karl Woermann, 1915
Both Fry and Woermann are projecting their own reactions to artifacts upon the people who made them -- but what else could they have done? It's even problematic to assert the motivations of a contemporary European artist like Picasso.
Gombrich suggests that Picasso was reacting against the smooth, perfect, rational, sensuality of academic painters like Bouguereau -- something like a prodigal son rebelling against his father -- provoking a " a radical revolt, a deep-going revolution destined to change the mental set with which art was intended to be perceived"
Door panels from San Zeno, Verona, 11th C.
As further examples of this new "mental set" that "makes allowances for distortion and looks for positive value", Gombrich offers three scholarly responses to the San Zeno door panels:
"Here, for a fact, we are confronted, with the extremes of shapelessness and ugliness. What one might take to be the repulsive toys of vulgar boys or idols of some barbaric tribe from the North Pole, if we did not spot the well-known sacred subjects. Even the assumption that the sculptor intended to arouse terror by these extremes of ugliness — the misshapen, dwarfish bodies and the enormous heads, the gaping mouths and staring eyes — is an insufficient explanation ... it is wholly inconceivable that a man who was charged with such a commission could lack all feehng, not only for beauty, but even for decency" ... Karl Schnaase, 1871
Note that mimesis is not the primary issue here -- it's "beauty" and "decency"
"An entirely novel conception has broken with the vague existence of an ideal of beauty. The impact of the images is entirely due to the intensity of a vision divorced from any spatial framework... Max Hauttmann, 1926(?)
There's not much about Hauttmann on the internet (at least in English) -- and he seems determined to discuss artifacts from his own POV --- i.e. this conception may not have been "entirely novel' in the 11th C., and since the sculptors involved were never married to the "spatial framework" familiar to Hauttmann, they could hardly have been divorced from it.
A more objective appreciation was published by Albert Boeckler in his monograph Die Fruhmittelalterlichen Bronzetüren (1931), who is aware of the negative opinion of the nineteenth century, but is out to stress the subtlety of psychological observations in the narrative scenes:
‘The artist shows a remarkable ability to visualize the scenes and enrich the account of the Bible with added details.’ He instances the man who, in his interpretation, ‘turns in distaste from the scene of the flagellation ... moreover the master had a particularly sure instinct for the expressive value of a gesture.
Whether or not we share the author’s opinion, it surely exemplifies the change of mental set, a new willingness to make allowances for distortions and to look for their positive value.
Unfortunately, none of these three quotes specifies which panels are being discussed -- and it's apparent that several different artists worked on them over about a hundred years.
Even if they all qualify as "distorted", they differ in other aesthetic qualities.
The selective attitude that had largely determined the purchases of museums and the routes of travellers was bound to disappear with this transformation of the mental set. Now distortion was seen as the result of expressive intention. Indeed, it was the absence of such distortion, the ‘photographic’ rendering of nature, which appeared to be devoid of ‘all artistic value. Even historians of art who chronicled the fact that mimesis had been the aim of certain traditions pleaded for a revision of the history of art to take account of alternative aims. Objective standards were now thrown to the winds in favour of the rejection of mimesis.
Perhaps the most influential of art historians to propagate this bias was the German, Wilhelm Worringer
I wonder what "objective standards" ever had been applied by collection builders-- just as I wonder what image is not distorted in some way.
Lindisfarne Gospels (detail), c 700
Unfortunately, Worringer's first book, 'Abstraction and Empathy' (1908) is still popular enough to remain in print -- so it's text has not been published on the internet.
Here are some quotes lifted from Wikipedia:
"We sense ourselves in the forms of a work of art"
"The aesthetic sense is an objectivized sense of the self."
"Just as the desire for empathy as the basis for aesthetic experience finds satisfaction in organic beauty, so the desire for abstraction finds its beauty in the life-renouncing inorganic, in the crystalline, in a word, in all abstract regularity and necessity.
Gombrich summarizes and then quotes him as follows:
the striving for mimesis, far from being the norm, was a very exceptional aim in world art. The pursuit of this aim that the Greeks had set to artists presupposed a civilization that was basically at peace with the phenomenal world. ‘Primitive’ man, so Worringer thought, was not granted this inner peace. He had learnt from Darwin that, for early man, reality must have been full of terror because what happened in the external world was wholly unintelligible to him. Hence what we call the ‘imitation of nature’ could not be the aim of their art — on the contrary, the signs and patterns which primitive man created were the result of his longing for permanence in the menacing flux of events
‘The pleasure they looked for in art was not that of contemplating the objects of the world but to prise them out of their apparent arbitrariness, to eternalize them by assimilating them to aesthetic shapes in order thus to find a still centre in the welter of appearances: We might say, to cast a spell on them, to render them innocuous.
Worringer's texts are especially important to Gombrich's "preference for the primitive" thesis - and Gombrich takes a few swipes at him -- noting that his prose was "turgid" and that he far preferred generalizations to a discussion of specifics.
In Worringer's second book, "Problems of Gothic form", he expanded the category of "primitive" from tribal artifacts to German Medieval, characterized as the intricate interlace of mythical creatures in the art of the migration period ,and he characterized the expression by the 'Nordic man' as follows:
When we take a pencil and scribble lines on paper, we can soon notice the difference between a kind of expression depending on us and the independent expressive character of lines ... If we feel a violent inner tension which we are only able to express on paper ... the pencil will mark the paper wildly and violently, and instead of the fine, rounded organically tempered curves, a rigid, angular, often interrupted harsh line, with the strongest expressive impact will result ... This difference between the beauty of expression and the power of expressiveness can be effortlessly applied to the contrast between classical and Gothic art
Gombrich notes that marks made "wildly and violently" are hard to find in Medieval art, especially in that "intricate interlace of mythical creatures" found in the Lindisfarne Gospels.
And I'd have to agree -- I can't think of any Medieval art that resemble wild and violent marking.
Tilman Riemenschneider, Marienaltar, Detwang, 1505-8
Worringer saw the tendency for "linear tangles" continuing in the angular folds found in Late Gothic sculpture - Gombrich has offered the Marienaltar at Detwang as an example.
It's a wonderful piece -- but I'm less willing than Gombrich to speculate on examples for an art historian who chose not to offer any.
Given the arbitrariness of this equation it is all the more remarkable to what extent Worringer’s book succeeded in projecting a mental set on the study of medieval art which excludes comparison with nature and concentrates on expressive features as a symptom of emotional tension and religious ecstasy.
Yes, I also think it's whacky to "exclude comparison with nature" from any and all Medieval art -- but since Worringer abhors examples, he might as well just say anything.
Emil Nolde, "Dance Around the Golden Calf", 1910
Gombrich notes that there were "ingredients of chauvinism and racism" in Worringer's work, as well as in the following declaration by the German Expressionist, Emil Nolde:
1. The most perfect art is found in classical Greece. Raphael is the greatest of all painters. This is what every art teacher told us twenty or thirty years ago.
2. Many things have changed since that time.We do not care for Raphael, and the sculptures of the so—called classical periods leave us cool. The ideals of our predecessors are no longer ours.We are most fond of works which for centuries have been identified with the names of great masters. Artists wise in the ways of their times created sculptures and paintings for palaces and Popes.Today, we admire and love the simple, monumental sculptures in the cathedrals of Naumburg, Magdeburg, or Bamberg, carved by self-sufficient people working in their own stone yards, people of whose lives we know little, whose very names have not survived
4. Not too long ago, the art of only a few periods was deemed worthy of representation in museums. Then others were added. Coptic and Early Christian art, Greek terracotta and vases, Persian and Islamic art
swelled the ranks. Why then are Indian, Chinese and Javanese art still considered the province of science and ethnology? And why does the art of primitive peoples as such receive no appreciation at all?
5. Why is it that we artists love to see the unsophisticated artifacts of the primitives?
6. It is a sign of our times that every piece of pottery or dress or jewelry, every tool for living has to start with a blueprint. Primitive people begin making things with their fingers, with material in their hands.Their work expresses the pleasure of making.What we enjoy, probably, is the intense and often grotesque expression of energy, of life.
These sentences reach into the present, and perhaps even beyond it. The fundamental sense of identity, the plastic-colourful ornamental pleasure shown by ‘primitives’ for their weapons and their objects of sacred or daily uses are surely often more beautiful than the saccharinely tasteful decorations on the objects displayed in the show cases of our salons and in the museums of arts and crafts.
There is enough art around that is over-bred, pale and decadent.
This may be why young artists have taken their cues from the aborigines.
..Emile Nolde, 1912
But I find none of those attitudes in the above declaration -- and I'm puzzled where Gombrich found it.
In article 4, Nolde seems to call for non-European art to enter the art museum instead of the rooms of ethnic artifacts in a museum of natural history.
August Macke, "Woman with the Yellow Dress", 1913
‘To hear the thunder means to feel its mystery. To understand the language of forms means: to be closer to their mystery, to live. Are not children creators who create directly out of the mystery of their emotions — more so, than the imitators of Greek forms — are not the savages artists who have their own forms, powerful like the sound of thunder, thunder like every flower, every force is expressed in form?’.. August Macke, 1912 (from Der Blaue Reiter)
As far as this means anything, it appears to say that what counts for the Expressionist in forms - natural or created ones - is their effect on him. The very comparison Macke uses excludes any rational idea of communication and , as we have seen, the elimination of intention also marginalizes the traditional notion of skill.
Gombrich's response is straight out of Vasari. He expects visual artists to focus their achievement on the imitation of nature. If they don't, they are irrational and self-centered. But one might note that Macke did not use the first-person pronoun even once. He was assuming that the rest of us could also "hear the thunder and feel the mystery" -- and regarding his painting shown above -- I do.
‘We took our divining rod through the arts of the past and of the present. We only showed what was alive, what was untouched by the tyranny of convention. We surrendered lovingly to every kind of art that arises out of itself ... that can dispense with the crutch of habit ... we opposed whole centuries with a “No!”
... Franz Marc, from "Der Blaue Reiter"
I guess that makes me a Blaue Reiter -- because that's how I respond to the great variety of world art across the millennia - except that I'm wondering which "whole centuries" he was opposed to.
What Marc calls his ‘divining rod’ is precisely what we wish to describe as a novel mental set that looked at the whole of mankind’s artistic heritage in search of intense expressiveness.
Except that I don't think this "mental set" is all that novel.
Why was it, for example, that four centuries of art lovers and collectors have set Rembrandt so far above his talented colleague, Jan Lievens ? I don't think that imitation of nature was the deciding issue.
When Hans Tietze reviewed this publication, he singled out this tendency for critical comment. He regarded the search for allies from the past as proof that this movement did not really aim at something radically new, but continued the threads ‘that lead back to the darkest depths of mankind, exotic works of genuine savages, the intense devotion of Gothic sculpture, the mystical art of El Greco, and in particular, the products of all kinds of folk art, which must testify to the fact that illusion was not always the aim ... that it had been the purpose of art before, and beside, to aid the manifestation of that mysterious power which rules our human emotions’ .
Though Tietze had a good deal of sympathy for the Expressionist movement, he rightly objected to this invention of ancestors. But he admits that the very possibility of interpreting works of the past in this way demonstrates ‘that there are treasures there which we have neglected so far, and that the new movement restores values which have been so thoroughly forgotten that they must first be won back again’
I agree with Tietze - who, BTW, was depicted in a double portrait with his wife by Kokoshka (the image is shown above - and discussed earlier on this blog )
Except that the "invention of ancestors" is only a serious crime if art is mostly seen as a genealogy of styles - which is exactly how German academics, beginning with Hegel, thought about it. As Gombrich quoted Tietzle from 1954 : "To identify connoisseurship with art history would be like confusing detection with jurisprudence"
The head of the Agias from Delphi - from different angles and lighting
Yet another, more recent version
The technique pioneered by the Blaue Reiter almanach of juxtaposing a motley selection of exotic and primitive images next to the recent creations of Expressionist artists proved immensely effective as a means of propaganda. Its potentialities were soon discovered by the producers of art books, which came into vogue in the inter-war period. Technical improvements in the reproduction of photographs had added to their popularity, and it was in the illustration of expressive details that the real or pretended kinship of the moderns and the ancients was presented to the public. In a book on the expression of emotion in ancient sculpture, the great archaeologist Waldemar Deonna demonstrated to what extent the photographer is able to manipulate and modify this expression simply by changing the angle and lighting.
Yes, sculptural expression depends on lighting and angle of view.
But that applies to viewing the piece directly.. as well as from photographs.
The viewer, curator, and photographer have to select whatever looks best -- or perhaps most like the original intention.
In the example to the right of Deonna's pair, a strong light washes out the basic forms of the jaw,brow, and cheek -- so I would throw that photo out.
Apparently, Deonna went ahead and finished his book, despite this problem.
"Jonah", Bamberg Cathedral, 1200-1210,
image from Max Dvorak's "Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte" (1924)
Here's another example of the "way illustrations were enabled to match the singularly ecstatic texts of the propaganda of Expressionists"
It shows the head of the prophet Jonas, from Bamberg cathedral, with a hypnotic stare that much impressed me when I first read the book. I confess that when I later visited the cathedral I was disappointed to see that that view was impossible to obtain from the ground . In fact I still wonder how the photographej squeezed his camera to the side to achieve this transformation.
I see Gombrich's point -- but shouldn't advocates of a particular kind of sculpture show the kind of photographs that they find the most compelling ? Even if they have to hang off the edge of a ladder and hold the camera in places where human eyes could not go ? Clearly the sculptor himself once looked at this piece from that angle - or he would have left the back side of the head uncarved.
The techniques used in Wilhelm Hausenstein’s book "Barbaren und Klassiker: ein Buch von der Bildnerei exotischer Völker" of 1923 are less extreme, but the effect of his mixture of examples ranging from an African mask to a torso from Ecuador is again that of wrenching these works out of their cultural context in the interest of approximating them to the creations of twentieth-century art.
Gombrich is less convincing in his comments of the above photographs. How could the photographer possibly have wrenched them any less from their original cultural context ? Or is Gombrich just being critical of the written text that accompanied the photos ?
Continuing his rant against the publication of photographs of artifacts from ancient or non-European cultures, Gombrich mentions publishers like Goldscheider (Phaidon books) and Zervos. But like the examples shown above, the photographs don't seem to be distorted so much as aestheticized. Presumably Gombrich wanted them to look clinical and accompanied by an ethnography instead of art appreciation. But that's also a context that is far removed from the original -- maybe even farther.
sculpture made by an unidentified blind person
Another problem with identifying sculptural expression is that sculpture made by blind people can feel very expressive -- or, at least, resemble sculpture that's called expressionist.
Among the factors that caused my disillusionment was the publication, during my university years, of a book by Victor Löwenfeld and Ludwig Münz on The Sculpture of the Blind. The plates of this striking publication showed extremely expressive heads and figures modelled by blind artists out of plasticine (shown above)
But the critical viewer was bound to ask himself to what extent the response of a sighted beholder corresponded to the intention of the blind artist. Once the question was raised it would not go away so easily. For could it not be generalized and applied to the shapes and colours that attract us in the products of exotic craftsmen or those of children? It was a doubt that struck at the very foundation of the Expressionist creed, for ultimately the creed postulated the equation of expression with communication.
Another fine example would be those Chinese "scholar rocks" that look so much like abstract expressionist sculpture - but were not shaped by human minds.
.. or the polished slabs of marble that can look so much like a landscape painting
Such things may bear some resemblance to expressive art -- but what are the qualities of those expressions?
Do they belong in the highly select, relatively small group of items that we want to cherish, collect, and put on display as important art ?
Shaun Greenhalgn, "Faun" (in the style of Gauguin), 1995
That's not the kind of question that art historians, or art museum curators, are trained to answer based on an aesthetic judgment.
So the Art Institute of Chicago paid an undisclosed high sum (estimate: $125,000) for the above ceramic when it was identified as a "primitive" figure by Gauguin, his very first ceramic, and subsequently wanted their money back when one Mr. Greenhalgn confessed that he made it.
A museum curator (now the Director) was impressed by "the absence of the often flaunted sign of a faun’s virility, resulting in an aura of impotence" -- but I don't think he was any more involved with the expressive qualities of form than Gombrich.
(BTW - I saw the piece back before it was banished to the basement - and was thoroughly dismayed - not that I suspected forgery, but that it was so wretchedly made)
Romanesque sculpture from Payerne Abbey and Poitiers church, images from Malraux's "Voices of Silence"
Nobody understood the problematic fascination of this new genre (printed photographs of ancient sculpture) better than André Malraux, who yet used it to create his Musée imaginaire — witness two plates from the book which transform the rather crude handiwork of medieval stonemasons into images of astounding modernity. As I have shown elsewhere ("Meditations on a Hobby Horse"), Malraux knew precisely what he was doing. He deliberately replaced the past by what he called a ‘myth’ — indeed he went further, and claimed that the myth is all we can ever know of the past. Considering the period in which Malraux wrote we must not interpret the term ‘myth’ which he uses as meaning simply an untruth: Expressionism has surrounded this term with a special awe — what A.O. Lovejoy so fittingly described as ‘metaphysical pathos’. Myth was close to mystery and mysticism, a hinting at a profound truth inaccessible to mere rational discourse. As we have seen, the same can be said about the term ‘art’, which was all but identified with a numinous voice from the depths, even if what it revealed was — a myth.
All of these rants have been leading up to an attack on Gombrich's bete noire, Andre Malraux.
Malraux stands accused of incorporating historical artifacts into a myth of his own creation - so he stands outside Gombrich's German academic world, whose narratives are allegedly more historical than mythical. The above, highly dramatic, photographs demonstrate how he transformed Romanesque art into Modern art.
Or.. at least that's how Gombrich sees it -- and it does seem, at least to me, that the photographer has transformed the ruined carving on the right into a pretty good, early 20th C. avant garde image.
The image on the left is less dominated by dramatic lighting - but still does not give any sense of the piece's architectonic function within its original setting (it was carved on the capital of a column).
And yet -- original intentions are so difficult to pin down. Aren't people likely to have different intentions at different times regarding the same work-in-progress, and aren't several people(sculptors, architect, contractors, patrons, priests, advisers) usually involved in the creation of a public work ?
Myth was close to mystery and mysticism, a hinting at a profound truth inaccessible to mere rational discourse. As we have seen, the same can be said about the term ‘art’, which was all but identified with a numinous voice from the depths, even if what it revealed was — a myth.
The Lure of Regression - 1
Picasso, sketch for Guernica, 1937
In the enormous corpus of Picasso’s drawings there is perhaps only one that genuinely resembles a drawing by a child (shown above). It occurs among the sketches for the mural of Guernica he composed in 1937 for the Spanish Government Pavilion of the International Exhibition in Paris, when the wanton destruction of the small Basque town by German bombers was still in everybody’s mind. Tracing the growth of his thought through many of his dated sketches has become a favourite exercise of art historians.
His first idea, not surprisingly, harked back to a number of anti-Franco prints he had made earlier in the year His mural was to symbolize the Civil War in the fairly obvious emblem of a bullfight, something a newspaper cartoonist might also have done.
The ultimate triumph of Good over Evil was to be symbolized by the soul of the gored horse, which escaped on its wings
... and which, in another rapid sketch, can be seen to perch on the back of its assailant
Picasso had often painted and drawn bullfights before, and he had the theme of the dying horse at his fingertips. Some of these compositions reach an intensity and poignancy in the image of the rearing creature in its death-agony that shows how much this theme must have meant to the artist.
He clearly wanted to use this invention again, as is shown in another sketch for Guernica , but he must have discarded it in exasperation. What he drew then was really a childish scrawl of a horse. It became the starting point at first for an even wilder distortion, which appears as an utter rejection of the skill that had crystallized in the earlier images.
I hope I am not over—interpreting if I suggest that Picasso tried to revert to primitive elementals precisely because he found his skill obtrusive. He wanted to get away from what threatened to become a somewhat facile stereotype — he wanted to learn from the methods of the child. His fury and grief at the violation of his country may have demanded from him something more genuine, more intense, than the repetition of a symbol, however moving.
He returned from this effort with a new image of the dying horse, more naturalistic than the childlike scrawl though less so than the earlier version. It is not the least moving aspect of this search for an expressive symbol to communicate his grief and anger that in the end Picasso reverted to his earlier invention. He must have felt that he could not better it, and that the painting as such had meanwhile become so charged with strong and elemental emotions that he could afford this self-quotation.
But what if these sketches were studies for the mood or energy in areas of design - not just studies of horses?
In the "child like" version, shown at the top, the artist seems to have gone to his most peaceful -- and then taken the final painting exactly the other direction into a kind of explosive turmoil.
And no, I don't think the "child like" version "genuinely resembles a drawing by a child". You can feel a master cutting, arranging, and balancing space -- not the impetuous stumbling of what kids do. But this is the kind of distinction that Gombrich and other professional art historians have not been trained to make.
The subtitle for this section of the chapter is "The Lure of Regression".
It's understandable why Gombrich would focus this topic on Picasso, since he is quoted as saying
"When I was a child I drew like Raphael... I have been trying to draw like these children ever since"
But based on the evidence, we can dispute both of those assertions as comic exaggerations.
Rodolphe Topffer, from "Dr. Festus", 1828
And speaking of comic exaggerations.....or the "rise of nonsense imagery" .. Gombrich then points our attention to the drawings of Rodolphe Topffer, credited as one of the inventors of the comic book.
Topffer was a literary scholar who amused himself, and then others, by making funny cartoons - and then theorized on the process.
Rodolphe Topffer, from "Essai de Physiognomonie", 1845For Hogarth caricature was beyond the pale of art precisely because it achieved its aim unintentionally. The theoretical discussion of unintentional effect had to wait for the nineteenth century. I am referring once more to Rodoiphe Topffer, whose Essai de physiognomie shows for the first time what the unintended image could teach the artist. Let him scrawl a face in any way and he will find he has created an expressive physiognomy to which he will respond as to a living character
I can believe that these images began with an unintended line -- but only one.
Then it was Topffer's graphic experience that added other lines to express some kind of comic personality -- within a style all his own.
If that exemplifies "the lure of regression", I'm wondering what has ever been created without it.
Rodolphe Topffer, from " Histoire de M. Vieux Bois", 1831
As Wikipedia tells us:
Töpffer wrote two chapters on child art and child creativity in his book Reflections et menus propos d'un peintre genevois (1848), which was published after his death. He wrote that children often displayed greater creativity than trained artists, whose creativity was often overshadowed by their technical skill.
Monsieur Vieux Bois has been reborn in our time as Mr. Bean , described by its creator as "a child in a grown man's body". I find both the television program and the above cartoon to be hilarious -- but both are clearly the work of a skilled adult, not a child.
Frontispiece, "Gargantua", 1532
Other than stringing sequential images together with text, what was Topffer doing different from whatever artist provided the above illustration ?
Obviously, Gombrich really enjoyed this artist -- he shows us many images and went into some detail relating the fanciful narratives.
Topffer was quite a story teller.
I love the sequence including two above, where the forelorn lover had attempted to hang himself from a rafter, which then broke off and dangled behind him as he chased after the fleeing beloved.
(above - the rafter has been caught between two tree trunks)
The full illustrated text can be found here
Then Gombrich shows us the "proto-surrealist" lithographs of J.J. Grandville - especially his imaginative masterpiece: Un Autre Monde (1844)
The title may remind us of that ancient nonsense motif, the world-turned-upside-down, but some of the illustrations show a remarkable insight into the mechanisms of the dream, that source of all nonsense imagery My late friend, Ernst Kris, who combined the study of psychoanalysis with the study of art, was delighted by an image of the dream: the metamorphoses of a night-light into a cupid’s bow and a bird, above, and beneath, into a vase-and-flower, which turns into a woman, whose form finally trails off into that of a serpent
Rapidly looking through the volume, we discover that metamorphosis is indeed the keynote of Grandville’s invention: there is the ghost-like scene of a ballet danced by crabs and insects.
.. and a second act where hands without bodies — partly lobster claws or paws — furnish the applause
Hieronymous Bosch, "Garden of Earthy Delights" (detail) 1503-4
To me, Grandville's works feel like collections of ideas without much visual sensitivity - and makes me long for Bosch and Breughel - who created worlds that were as beautiful as they were strange.
But why is he included in a book about "the preference for the primitive" anyway ?
George Cruikshank, from "Scraps and Sketches Part 3", 1831
Grandville may have been the leading proto-surrealist, but he was by no means the only one. It is likely that he knew Topffer, as we might infer from his versions of aerial travel, but most of all he must be seen in conjunction with the mainstream of graphic humour, that is, with the arts in England.
I am thinking in particular of England’s leading graphic humorist of the early nineteenth century George Cruikshank. Cruikshank never reached the high level of achievement that Grandville did in some of his works. Indeed, his sketches are likely to come as an anticlimax after the impact of Un autre monde, but I would argue that he inhabited the same world.
... A page from the album of Scraps and Sketches, dating from 1831, shows him playing the game of animation with that old-fashioned instrument of the English fireplace, the bellows.
An illustration from Un antic monde by Grandville, dating from thirteen years later, is not the only one which suggests that Grandvillc had looked to his English counterpart, but here Cruikshank is decidedly wittier and more imaginative. In the eight or nine variations on his simple theme, the bellows consults the doctor because it feels so puffed up, finds a rival in the tea-kettle who sings better and applauds it rapturously is turned into a guitar and takes part in drunken revels. A faint sketch, below the picture of the medical consultation, shows how to compose a woman from four pairs of bellows.
Gombrich shows us more of Cruikshank's work (he was quite prolific - over 10,000 prints) - including the above which shows what a staunch teetotaler thinks about demon rum.
The previous example shows us how "nonsense had become an acknowledged category of harmless fun" -- but I still don't see how this fits into the history of "a preference for the primitive"
It would better fit "a preference for the irrational" --- but then, that would include all of the religious art ever made.
Then we're taken to one William Doyle -- who actually wrote a book called "A Book of Nonsense" (1842)
Gombrich finds it difficult to interpret some of his images -- and "some of his sadistic and erotic fantasies went a little too far to be accepted" -- until, of course, the 20th Century, which is where Gombrich is leading us
Doyle also drew an 1844 cover for the satirical magazine, Punch, and designed its masthead.
All of which is interesting -- but seems ever further removed from the "primitive"
Edward Lear, from "Book of Nonsense", 1846
"There was an old man who said well
will somebody answer this bell"
The full transition from dream-like regression to imagery still required the sanction of a literary text, but only just, for I need hardly remind the reader of Edward Lear — the painter of birds and topographical landscapes — whose Book of Nonsense, published in 1846, was written for the children of his patron. Lear knew how to combine his childlike scrawls with his limericks, which made children laugh, though the sophisticated adult may discover the sadness beneath the surface.
Gombrich may call the above a "childlike scrawl", but it hardly resembles the work of a child.
Historians of twentieth-century art are familiar with the process which I have here described as the move of nonsense imagery from the margin to the centre. Examples of the stages leading from the whimsicalities of Paul Klee to the deliberately outrageous titles of Dada and Surrealism should really find their place here, except, perhaps, that I have given such examples in my lecture on ‘Image and Word in Twentieth Century Art’ ..........The historian must seek to maintain a balance between the portentous and the light-hearted, nonsense as revelation and nonsense as fun. I believe there is one current of the latter tradition which is hard to chronicle, but still vital to our understanding: I mean the atmosphere of the Bohème, the life of the community of artists, with their feasts and mock rituals.
Coincidentally, the scrap book of my own Chicago art club, The Palette and Chisel, records many such Bohemian shenanigans in the early 20th C. (and I wonder if he would call the above sketches 'primitive' or 'regressive' )
As a cultural historian, Gombrich is not just attending to art and criticism . He's also something of a sociologist -- is concerned with what's in the center, what is at the margins --- how things move inward or outward-- and what is the role of "the sanction of literary text"
Gauguin, "Be Mysterious", 1890
What favored the increasing attention to nonsense and its elevation to the status of art was the disillusionment with nineteenth—century rationality that was so widespread among artists and intellectuals of the fin de siècle. ‘Be mysterious’ — Gauguin’s appeal to his disciples — found a widespread echo among artists who flirted with all kinds of occult and mystical sects
As we read in the commentary from the Musee D'Orsay ,Gauguin sculpted this before he ever went to the south seas, and he inserted various world art symbols around the piece - much to the chagrin of the critics when it was shown in the1891 Salon Des XX in Brussels.
It does seem to fit the inserted motto -- promoting mystery for its own sake -- rather than as the consequence of a profound truth beyond easy understanding.
(the D'Ordsay also tells us that it shows "one of the most beautiful backs in sculpture" -- but I'm not inclined to agree)
I have suggested in these pages and elsewhere that certain developments in the history of art, and in other fields, can best be seen as the results of competition, with rivals outbidding each other, leading to the dominance of given aspects and the neglect of others. The preference for the primitive as manifested in the cult of regression is such an issue, which gives coherence to the most conspicuous trends in twentieth-century art.
Finally, we have reached Gombrich's controversial conclusion: A competitive "preference for the primitive...gives coherence to the most conspicuous trends in 20th C. Art"
That sounds rather disparaging.
Gombrich has shown us a notion of 'primitive' that encompasses just about everything people have ever made in the world with the exception of some European painters from the 16th through 18th centuries.
But still these "conspicuous trends of the 20th C." are being defined by something lacking rather than something being discovered or achieved. (BTW -- several trends of 20th art have not been included: Social realism, Art Deco, Bauhaus, and Modern Classicism)
And it gets worse.
August Natterer (an artist featured in "Artistry of the Mentally Ill")
Gombrich has the psychiatrist, Hans Prinzhorn, define "the resonance theory of expression" in his 1922 book, "The Artistry of the Mentally Ill", a foundational text for the world of 'outsider art':
Only a fool could think that what is personal in the tone of a violinist could be established by measuring the soundwaves and the harmonic range, or that the expressive content of a late Rembrandt could be examined through comparison with a colour chart.
We sum up by contrasting the sphere of measurable facts with the realm of expressive facts in which the psychic contents appear immediately and are grasped without the intermediary of an intellectual apparatus. All expressive movements serve no other aim than this: to incorporate the spiritual and so build a bridge from the I to the thou ... We find the roots of this in quite simple circumstances: with the child, who in the course of play invents a cheerful dance or makes a scribble, whose expressive value speaks clearly to the initiate; or with the primitive, who in his dancing mask somehow expresses his world view imbued with magic and demonic ideas
Then Gombrich dismisses it with: "As a general proposition this notion of expression can certainly not stand the test of reason." (asserting, in the footnotes, that it was dis-proven by the artist/writer Julian Bell in his 1999 book, "What is painting") -- then adding:
But it would not have had such a long run if it did not contain an element of truth, and this element is closely related to the phenomenon of regression. Regressive behaviour can indeed prove contagious.We need only think of an excited mob, of revelling drunkards or other manifestations of crowd behaviour which Freud analysed in his study of mass psychology and the analysis of the ego. Here the manifestations of primitive emotion serve indeed as a bridge between individuals
Can the feelings shared between artist and viewer be compared to interactions within a drunken mob?
I suppose so -- as we note that in the above quote, Prinzhorn did not qualify "expressive movements" -- so one might ask: why would you want to view a painting by a randomly selected mentally ill person any more than you would want to sit across a table from him ?
Prinzhorn featured several mentally ill artists in his book --- but only some pieces by Natterer (shown above) appealed to me.
I don't know whether the above image appeared in his book - but below is one that did - accompanied by Prinzhorn's text:
As soon as the first startling reaction is overcome which made us ask whether the work is not simply the outcome of childlike incompetence, the impression of the enigmatic increasingly fascinates the beholder. Though the creation obviously resembles a cow only very remotely, we still get the compelling impression that the creature is not just a possible breed but a wholly convincing one. Beyond the impression of a quite particular animal we also experience something anthropomorphic in the gaze and posture, to which the kneeling position of the forelegs also contributes, which we would interpret in vain rationally as a kneeling
movement prior to lying down. Speaking still more generally there emanates from this work a breath of that simplicity that makes us fall silent wherever we encounter it, be it in the eyes of an animal or a child. A sensation which is more frequent in front of the works of primitive and early cultures than in those of recent times, and more frequent in the East than in Europe.
The problem is that the quality of the above reproduction is so minimal.
The link between Prinzhorn’s response to primitive art and a preference for the primitive could not be more clearly documented. What matters in particular is the fact that, to this approach, a lack of manual skill no longer presents an obstacle to the values of a work of art.
But the "lack of manual skill" is noted by Gombrich, not Prinzhorn.
Prinzhorn found the image "wholly convincing" -- even if it does not resemble the kind of cow we have ever seen.
And finally, as I predicted in comments about the last chapter -- Gombrich culminates the "preference for the primitive" in the above "artist's secretion"
You are deaf to what I utter
To your meanings I am blind;
Only meeting in the gutter
can we read each other's mind
..Heinrich Heine, 1820