Blovito, ergo sum. I say one should never let a good thing go to waste. Since the blogito made the lead quote yesterday on Andrew Sullivans Dish, I have become a household name to millions of persons dispersed throughout the world, from humble shepherds in their huts in Burkina Faso to swinging fashion designers in the swankiest pads of Notting Hill. In a nano-second, I have become better known than Rene Descartes.
So I cant stop now. One prerogative of blogging is to write ever so knowingly on matters about which one possesses no expertise, a practice otherwise known as bloviating. A patina of postmodernism can be added by connecting seemingly disparate items — from art, politics, film, and travel — in a pastiche that demonstrates that there is no inherent structure to things, that we can make and un-make reality according to the different frameworks that we elect to adopt. The pomo critics I have so much admired, like Jean Beaudrillard and the irrepressible BHL (Bernard-Henri Levy), have been the great masters of this technique.
Yesterday I was in Chicago for a meeting (thats a travel reference) and having the morning free, I made my way to the Art Institute. Quite unlike Ferris Bueller (thats a film reference) who had a fairly conventional preference for — anyone, anyone? — the impressionists, I headed straight to gallery 202 to see some works from the real masters of a different sort, the so-called Flemish primitives who really invented modern western art at the beginning of the fifteenth century. In this group were Robert Campin, Jan Van Eyck, Rogier Van der Weyden, and Van der Weydens acolyte, Hans Memling. Van der Weyden and Memling are both represented in gallery 202. It greatness is found in beginnings, Van der Weyden is rightly counted as one the most creative painters who ever lived. With the others, he began to paint not just religious figures and a spiritualized world, but also human beings as seen by an observer — the artist — who has his own subjective impression of other ordinary mortals. While their religious art is sublime, their portraits, sometimes of their benefactors, are magnificent, too. It would go too far yet to say that man was the measure of all things, but the basic principle could now be seen. I am especially drawn to the portraits of Memling, already a little bit more stylized than Van der Weydens, but strikingly beautiful. The renaissance had its start there, not on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, but in the Flemish towns of Bruges, Gent, Antwerp and Brussels. Albrecht Durer and the Italians came here to learn both the new techniques and the new focus.
I spent some time last month visiting the museums in these towns, where much of the art of the primitives can be found. I was a visiting professor at the Institute of Political Science at Lilles, and good fortune had it that the students at the time were barricading the university, protesting something or other about the injustices of modern life. This gave me a couple more days to visit parts of the region.
One cannot, of course, visit the Art Institute without paying homage to the work of an artist I like to think of as a modern primitive: Edward Hopper. The museum houses what many consider the greatest single American painting, Hoppers Nighthawks. This work, which I hadnt seen in many years, was even better than I had remembered it or as it appears in all the reproductions, and all the more so as I came upon it when no one else was in the room. I had fully ten minutes of private time with Americas master. I was struck this time by the left part of the painting as you face it, which is more of it than one usually thinks and in which there is so to speak nothing, conspicuously so. This adds even more to the feeling of isolation and emptiness that pervades the work. It is a painting that forces us, the observers, to raise a spiritual question precisely because there is absolutely no element of spirituality in the persons or in the ambiance within the painting. In our response to seeing emptiness, we are forced to wonder whether man in fact can be the measure of all things. I like a formulation of Tocqueville: Man shows a natural disgust for existence and an immense desire to exit: he scorns life and fears nothingness.
Nighthawks, oddly, stands isolated as the only Hopper in the museum. If you are searching for troves of Hoppers, you will have to go to New York, Washington, or New Haven. But for those looking for a nice way to spend some vacation time, you can do no better than to get in your car and start driving through Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Nebraska in search of the museums where a Hopper or two can be found. I know of nothing more thrilling than to turn a corner in one of these museums, when few visitors may be present, and to spot one of the stunning works of this American master. I recall such an experience in a second floor in Terre Haute, in a museum with a surprisingly wonderful collection. Its somehow thrilling to view these American paintings outside the orbit of the great cities with their sophisticated postmodern clientele, where the museum coffee shops still proudly feature Maxwell House. And its so good to the last drop, too.