Tuesday, April 28, 2015
I offer here Jan Vermeer's The Geographer, painted in Holland in 1668-69, as an iconographic image of religious naturalism, particularly that with a Roman Catholic flavor. (Click to enlarge.)
But first, a few words of context.
In the academic year 1968-69, a National Science Foundation grant enabled me to study history of science at Imperial College, London, with A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall. Few scholars know as much about the foundations of modern science, and especially about the beginnings of the Royal Society, established in 1662, the first scientific society. While with the Halls, I had the opportunity to read widely in the early Transactions of the Royal Society, and in the communications of Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Society. What comes across in these documents is an insatiable curiosity about every aspect of the natural world. It is almost like the excitement that attended the discovery and exploration of the transAtlantic New World in the previous two centuries, but this time the "new world" is that in which we live our daily lives, revealed in its depths and dimensions for the first time by telescope and microscope -- and by awakened attention.
Oldenburg was in communication with Vermeer's exact contemporary and fellow citizen of Delft, Anthony van Leewenhoek, the famed microscopist, whose simple instrument revealed an unexplored universe of the very small. Many scholars believe that Leewenhoek my have been the model for The Geographer, and might even have commissioned the work. If so, here we have art and science converging in the lives and works of two remarkable men.
The Geographer is surrounded by the implements of the new secular quest for reliable public knowledge: maps, charts, globes, dividers, square, cross-staff. It is clear that Vermeer shared a respect, even affection, for these objects. His painting offers unmistakable homage to the scientific enterprise.
But more, the painting invites us into the interior thoughts of the Geographer. He is caught in a moment of private reflection, when public and personal knowledge flow and ebb together like a tide on a shore. What is he thinking? What meaning does he glimpse?
Vermeer converted to Catholicism at age 20, probably as a condition for marriage to his Catholic betrothed. But there is no reason to doubt that his conversion was sincere. The scholar Daniel Arasse has suggested that Vermeer's "religion of painting" drew him to, and was reinforced by, the Catholic "dogma of the mysterious union of the visible and the invisible, along with a faith in the power of the image to incorporate a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable." If Arasse is correct, in the distracted gaze of the Geographer we encounter the Catholic sacramental tradition, in which the sensate world of color and materiality invites us to participate, even as spectators of the painting, in an intuited world of inexpressible Mystery.
Friday, April 24, 2015
A few more thoughts on those Wayne Thiebaud landscapes I shared the day before yesterday. I suggested that the terrestrial environment is inevitably going to be a human artifact, that we might as well make that artifact a work of art, and that artists as well as scientific ecologists might lead he way.
Whenever I hang out with my nature writing pals, they cringe when I mention artifact. They have another notion of what the environment should be, something wild and beautiful and untrammeled by humans. Their notion of what we should strive for is rather more Bierstadt than Thiebaud.
Albert Bierstadt was a 19th-century German-born artist who made his reputation with large, romantic paintings of the American West as it was -- or was imagined to be -- before the coming of those defiling white folks from the East (click to enlarge). Oh, there were humans in Bierstadt's nature, native Americans, but they were imagined to be as seamlessly a part of the natural world as eagles and deer.
Bierstadt's landscapes are no less idealized than Thiebaud's. It is a different esthetic at work -- the esthetic of an unspoiled Eden -- but what you see on the canvas is what you want to see, not what is actually there. If pre-Columbian Americans had a lighter touch on the land it was only because they had less advanced technologies. It is possible that they were implicated in one of the most extensive mass extinctions in recent Earth history (the demise of large North American mammals at the end of the most recent Ice Age). They were certainly engaged in almost constant warfare among themselves. Give Bierstadt's "noble savage" a gun and a steel plow and there goes whatever untrammeled nature you might find in his paintings.
Which is not to say that we might not have much to learn from native Americans about the kind of landscapes we want to create, or that in managing the Yosemite Valley, say, we might not have more to learn from Bierstadt than from Thiebaud. What is important is that we recognize our responsibility toward the future Earth, decide upon a spiritually-nourishing esthetic, and then use the surface of the Earth as an artist might use a canvas.
Two things will work against us: greed and the idealization of the wild. We either create a work of human art, or concede the environment to the exploiters.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Paul's "Use it or lose it" applies most of all to me. And I've resigned myself to losing it. Mind you, I miss it. Ten years of daily habit. And as I approach 80, I need that stimulation most of all. I miss too the friendship of all of you whom I only know through Comments, some going all the way back to 2004. You've been remarkably stimulating, steadfast and civil porch mates.
But the shakes make writing more pain than pleasure.
In the meantime, I've been trolling through art-inspired posts from the past, and here's another.
I'm still thinking about our walk along England's Ridgeway, the splendid landscapes. Nature,yes. But human cunning too. Careful planning. An ethic of neatness. Respect for the past. Landscape as a work of art.
And I think of the landscape paintings of the California artist Wayne Thiebaud, the ones he did in the 1990s. Thiebaud is perhaps best known for his pop-arty cupcakes and gumball machines. Those pretty confections do nothing for me. But the landscapes! The landscapes stick in my mind like glue.
By all accounts, Thiebaud is an affable fellow. That he has a sense of humor is evident from his paintings. Even his cupcakes exude a genial kindness. Critics talk about the relationship to de Kooning, but for me the spiritual affinity is with Saul Steinberg. And the landscapes! Let's put Thiebaud in charge of the countryside.
The paintings are inspired by the waterways and agriculture fields around Thiebaud's home in the Sacramento Valley, but the viewpoint is clearly some airy place in the artist's imagination. Light, pattern, color, perspective. Wit and ease. An affable grace. Nature, yes. But human cunning too. The cunning of the horticulturist, the animal husbandman, the orchardist, the arborist, the hydrologist. And the cunning of the artist, who informs our vision of what a landscape might be.
Thiebaud's work is all about the sources of our happiness. Cupcakes. Gumball machines. Water making its way to the sea through fields of shimmering color. So fragile, and because they are fragile they are shadowed with the possibility of loss. Nowhere is that loss more tragic than in the uglification of the land itself.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
The American artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is perhaps best known for his paintings of rowers on Philadelphia's rivers, but two of his major works are interesting documents in the history of scientific medicine.
The Gross Clinic (1875) is a huge painting, 96 by 78 inches, and took a year to execute (click to enlarge). It shows Dr. Samuel Gross and his surgical team removing infected bone from the thigh of an adolescent boy (or possibly girl) before an audience of students in the amphitheater of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. We see little of the patient but the exposed thigh and buttocks. The patient's mother (presumably) cringes nearby. A clerk make notes of the proceedings.
Ether and chloroform had been in use for surgery since the middle of the 19th century, and Dr. Gross's patient is presumably feeling no pain. Surely, few discoveries have more radically transformed medicine than the use of effective anesthetics. By 1875, Joseph Lister in England had pioneered the idea of sterile surgery, including the sterilization of surgical instruments with carbolic acid, greatly reducing deaths by post-operative infections. Gross was defiantly behind the curve in this regard, in spite of his lofty reputation.
A second painting on the same theme, The Agnew Clinic, followed in 1889, depicting Dr. David Hayes Agnew and assistants performing a partial mastectomy at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. Everyday frock coats have been replaced with clean, white over-garments, hands are washed, instruments are sterilized, and a nurse (a woman!) is in attendance. As in the earlier painting, the artist has placed himself in the audience; that's him at furthest right. The other spectators are doctors associated with the school, individually recognizable.
In my opinion, The Gross Clinic is far superior as a work of art. The composition forcefully draws the viewer into the scene. The lighting focuses our attention on the brow of the surgeon and the patient's incision. The audience is in semi-darkness. Blood is in evidence, especially on the scalpel in the surgeon's hand. Everything is contrived for dramatic effect. The viewer might as well be there leaning over the patient with instrument in hand, or shrinking like the woman from participation. It is impossible to be emotionally uninvolved.
The Agnew Clinic, on the other hand, is not only biologically sterile; it is emotionally aseptic too, as represented by the apparently bored attitudes of the audience. Only Dr. Agnew's open right hand suggests a hint of passion. This, of course, is what we have come to expect of scientific medicine: cool dispassion and sterile scrubs.
Sunday, April 05, 2015
Wednesday, April 01, 2015
We've seen this painting here before, William Merritt Chase's Ringtoss (1896). Well, no, we haven't. But it is certainly evocative of Charles Singer Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit that I commented on earlier this year. The resemblance may not be accidental; Chase may have been influenced by the Sargent painting, which was made about four years earlier. (Click to enlarge.)
Right now I want to contrast the Chase painting with John George Brown's The Card Trick, from about the same era. The two paintings were part of an exhibition last year at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, called American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915.
They could not be further apart in style and subject.
There can be no question about which painting I like best. Ringtoss works in a number of ways. The composition is riveting. The contrast of the crisp peg and quoits in the foreground with the more impressionistic young ladies sends the eye spiraling through the air along with the quoits. The coloring is exquisite. The black toe touching the chalk line on the hardwood floor draws the viewer inexorably into the scene.
The Card Trick is pure kitsch, although impressive in its photorealism.
In Ringtoss we see the rather aristocratic daughters of the aristocratic painter, trying to entertain themselves in their splendid isolation. In The Card Trick we have four street urchins -- bootblacks -- engaging in streetwise smarts.
Drawing room elitism versus curbside democracy. Nineteenth-century European class-consciousness versus the American melting pot.
In an essay on culture in poetry, former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky draws our attention to some observations of Alexis de Tocqueville earlier in the 19th century. "Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests -- in one word, so anti-poetic -- as the life of man in the United States," wrote the aristocratic Frenchman in Democracy in America. The arts in Europe drew upon a rich classical tradition, legends of gods and heroes, larger-than-life themes that lifted men up and out of the ordinary. What, Tocqueville wondered, would inspire poetry "when skepticism had depopulated heaven, and the progress of equality had reduced each individual to smaller and better-known proportions"?
Was Tocqueville's initial diagnosis correct? Is art in a democracy doomed to kitsch? The Card Trick has a democratic sweetness about it, and Brown's paintings of street urchins were popular with the masses, but by the general consensus of critics they never rose to high art. Are the critics snobs, cultural aristocrats? Or, to succeed, do artists necessarily have to remove themselves from the hoi polloi, not necessarily into a Sargent-Chase upper-class drawing room, but at least into a bohemian aloofness?
In spite of his doubts, Tocqueville held out hope for the arts in America: "Among a democratic people poetry will not be fed with legends or the memorials of old traditions…All these resources fail him; but Man remains, and the poet needs no more…[Man himself], with his passions, his doubts, his rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness, will become the chief, if not the sole, theme of poetry among these [democratic] nations."
Art in a democracy, and especially in America, I would suggest, derives its unique energy from a negotiation between high academic art and street kitsch, finding a home somewhere between William Merritt Chase and John George Brown -- that is to say, somewhere between Chase's matchless aristocratic taste and Brown's redeeming eye for "rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness" -- a political negotiation that gave us such quintessentially American artists as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth.