In Morte Sumus

I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write: From henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.

—Book of Common Prayer

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Souls Transformed into Birds (15th C.). Venetian manuscript illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Biblioteca Marciana, Venice.

Can we stay awhile with death? This is November, month of the Holy Souls. Poor Souls, in the wording of my childhood. It is the season to remember that “in the midst of life, we are in death.” The Church gives us a full month to consider what the culture around us strains to obscure. Let us not rush.

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Purgatory (15th C.), Lombard School. Manuscript illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Somber choruses to the Great Leveler, threnodies on the fragility of all earthly fame and favor—these are ancient themes common down ages and across cultures. In Day of the Dead , a garland of mortal reflections, Frank Gonzalez-Crussi recounts one of the less familiar aspects of Renaissance achievement: the spectacular memento mori . These were staged with all the macabre luxuriousness that mechanical ingenuity could provide:

In a carnival organized by Piero di Cosimo in 1551, a huge black cart, drawn by black bisons and crowded with human bones and white crosses, carried an enormous Death wielding a sickle and surrounded by tombs. At every station where the cart stopped, the tomb slabs parted, and the public could see frightening beings simulating decomposing cadavers emerging from the graves. There followed other terrible personages, or “death masks,” who carried torches and sang hymns to intensify the horror of the spectators.

This was a grandiose, theatrical exultation, a sophisticated mise en scène worthy of the Italian Renaissance, carefully calculated to excite collective shudders in crowds sensitized to the idea of death.

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Three Living and Three Dead (15th C.), woodcut. Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Gonzalez-Crussi compares the vivid European imagery of death—sobering variations on the danse macabre —with its rambunctious, non-menacing incarnation in Mexican folklore:

The Mexican skeleton . . . is no spook. It is a policeman, a city dandy, a hired ranch hand or a bar tender . . . . A calavera , though a skeleton, poses no threats.

It may be argued that all this is affectation and pose; that Mexicans disguise the universal fear of death under the trappings of hilarity. So be it; it is still necessary to acknowledge that the disguise works wonderfully well. The skeletons that populate Mexico in early November do not address us with pathetic appeals. They never adopt dramatic poses; nor can we hear them intoning mournful dirges. We hear from them no solemn injunctions to repent, no preaching, no somber reminders of our need for moral regeneration. Caustic wit, biting irony, and sarcasm are their only weapons. They nettle us, and the rest they leave to our discretion.

That is probably just as well, if not for the reason the author, a pathologist, prefers. (“Who knows, if the blessed souls took umbrage at our occupation, how dissectors might have fared today.”) To the degree that modern Day of the Dead festivity is legatee to ancient Mayan burial practices, jolly dead are easier to live with than the ghastly kind.

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Diego Rivera. Day of the Dead/City Fiesta (1923-24), mural. Secretaria de Education Publica, Mexico City.

Unlike most substantial cultures around the world, the Mayans did not have communal cemeteries. They buried their dead under the floor in their own homes. Sub-floor burial, common to families of all classes, extended into the sixteenth century. It was an intimate arrangement that might well have continued but for the zealous intervention of Franciscan friar and Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, who witnessed it. Archeologist Edwin Barnhart states sympathetically what the bishop saw as the work of the devil: 

For the Classic Maya a residence was both home and tomb. As a result, the houses filled from two directions. While the birth rate expanded the family inside, the death rate expanded the family underneath.

A people who lodge atop their dead dare not dwell on dust and worms. They know in their own bones the urgency of making friends with the departed; they grasp the utility of relieving death of its sting. The dead underfoot have to be mollified, soothed, sweetened with gifts. Unthinkable, the calamities that might attend the sacred souls’ resentment of their hushed estate! What peril, should they harbor animosity toward the clamorous lives lived over them? Or begin to hanker after the quick? Become jealous or vindictive?

Cajoling the dead is a pragmatic measure, pre-Christian counterpoint to a religious shudder. Yet it is not without a certain tenderness. It suffers an understanding that living and dead are bound together in defiance of extermination.

Christian trust in the communion of saints is a stream fed by more than one spring.

• • • • •

This Wednesday, November 6, at the Church of St. Agnes, near Grand Central, the Catholic Artists Society is sponsoring a Solemn Requiem Mass at 6:30 PM. Details here.

At Caramoor, Lincoln Center or any other listening hall, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor is a concert. Only in the liturgical setting for which it was written is it an act of prayer. If you are in or near New York, come and pray. It is meet and just to pray for the dead. And to them as well.

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William Blake. Dante and Virgil Approaching the Angel Who Guards the Entrance to Purgatory (1824-27). Illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Louvre, Paris

Roger de La Fresnaye, Neglected Knight

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Roger de La Fresnaye. Artillery (1911). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) painted strikingly personal, luminous, figure compositions between 1912 and his entry into the French army in 1914. They are among the grandest works of the generation of Picasso and Braque.

During the 1940s, Duncan Phillips called him a “legendary knight.” Neglected might have been the more accurate adjective, but the noun was apt. La Fresnaye fought on two fronts: in the trenches of World War I, and in the aesthetic battles preceding the war. By all personal accounts, he was a gentle man—a “verray parfit gentle knight.” And a stunning painter. Exhibiting with the Section d’Or, a showcase for that branch of the Cubist movement that valued the grand tradition, he never abandoned legibility, or the dance of color that linked him to Robert Delaunay’s Orphic variety of Cubism. His greatest work held true to visual as well as to tactile reality.

His Conquest of the Air, painted little more than a decade after the Wright brothers’ triumph at Kitty Hawk, is a glorious, mural-sized expression of exhilaration over the glistening new age of aviation. The figures at table are as bouyant as the air around them. What appears in this tiny reproduction as a yellow ball in the sky is a hot air balloon, reference to the first manned balloon flight launched over France by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783, a milestone in aviation history. Viva le tricolor !

The painting’s narrative—or literary—impulse has undeniable historic interest. But the splendor of it has nothing at all to do with subject matter that might constitute an essay. The splendor is all in the paint. Conquest of the Air is an astonishing act of painting. When it was on permanent view at the Modern, painters of all stripes stopped in to “make a visit,” as Catholics used to do when passing a church.

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Roger de La Fresnaye. The Conquest of the Air (1913). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

La Fresnaye’s too-short painting career ended sadly and in suffering. Just two months before the Armistice, he suffered lung haemorraghe while still in the trenches. The first was followed by a second so severe that he had to be evacuated to a temporary base hospital. Germaine Seligman remarked:

Though his death did not occur until 1925, the war cost him his life as surely as though he had fallen on the battlefield.

By 1922, La Fresnaye no longer had the stamina to work in oils. Standing at the easel for long periods was no longer possible; the sustained exertion required by large canvases had become too much. Works from the last three years of his life were smaller in size, created on paper with crayon, watercolor, or gouache. He was only forty when he died.

Four years at the front, followed by their legacy of lung infections, circumscribed his productivity. This, together with few earlier sales and the lack of any known patron of standing, hampered recognition. Not until 1950, a quarter century after his death, did France pay homage to one of its major painters with an extensive exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. Appreciation of his work was in its infancy when Seligman’s catalogue raisonné, published by the New York Graphic Society appeared in 1969. Beloved among painters, his work still waits to receive its due in public.

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Roger de La Fresnaye. The Conjugal Life (1912-13). Minneapolis Institute of Art.

The Conjugal Life is a delightful performance. Disengaging from the laws of perspective, La Fresnaye views the figures straight on, essentially at eye level. But everything behind them—the table tops, the books, the fruit plate—are viewed from above. The diagonals of the out-of-perspective table frame the figures, locking them together in a pictorial analogy to the doublet that is marriage. It is a marvelous, rhythmic performance that keeps the eye returning to the figures. The couple, tilted toward each other, never lose their intelligibility to Cubist planar structures. In compositional technique, the painting is clearly modern; its humanity and reticence are classical. (Evident in the clothed male together with the nude female viewed from her right side, and accompanied by the emblematic fruit platter, is an amiable, quotidian—that newspaper!— nod to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. )

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Roger de La Fresnaye. Marie Ressort (1912-13). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

Below, La Fresnaye’s vibrant rehearsal for the backdrop to The Conjugal Life . Curving, undulating forms relieve the austerity of hard-edged angles and straight lines. It is just this kind of linear call-and-response that makes a painting a composition rather than a snapshot in servitude to representation. Here, the tonal perfection and resonance of even subdued color lends drama to ordinary things. The spatial color—its suggestion of advance and retreat—is a grammar in itself. La Fresnaye had a genius for it.

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Roger de La Fresnaye. The Corner Table (1912). Study for The Conjugal Life. Private Collection.

My love of La Fresnaye is long-standing. I wanted to share it—share him—with you. Hard to explain just why. Perhaps simply to counter the poignance of discovering [those grim emails!] that, even now, there are Catholics who are proud to dismiss all of modern art not as a freeing gift but as bosh . And on no greater evidence than the words of a character in fiction.

Art, an Earthly Thing

Art is an eminently earthly thing.

—Pierre Revardy (1927)

Beautiful things are those which please when seen—and, of course, I mean mentally seen, and therefore pleasing to the mind . . . . Anything is beautiful if it be made in such a way as to give pleasure to the mind which perceives it, and the question as to what should or should not give pleasure to the mind is no more and no less difficult than the question as to what should or should not give annoyance.

–Eric Gill, letter to The Architects Journal (1931)

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Plate 1 of a folio edition of Hogarth’s treatise The Analysis of Beauty printed (1796-1806), It is set in a sculptor’s yard in London with copies of well-known classical sculptures including the Farnese Hercules, the Antinous, the Laocoon and the Medici Venus. The scene is framed by compartments with diagrams relating to the text and illustrating changes in fashion, from corsets to hair styles.

It is a melancholy discovery—readers who take as gospel words put into the fictional mouths of characters in novels. We are endeared to Waugh’s Cordelia Flyte for her abiding loyalty. That does not oblige us to embrace the character’s blanket dismissal of “Modern Art” (those capitals!) any more than her taste for meringue at The Ritz.

What appears in print is indelible, preserved on the page like a fly in amber. Living authors, however, can change their minds even about what they have previously written. Waugh did just that. Five years after Brideshead Revisited (1945) was published, Waugh confided in a letter to Graham Greene that, on re-reading his own novel, he “was appalled” by aspects of it. He introduced a later edition by admitting second thoughts. We are free to hope young Cordelia’s peremptory anathema was among the things retrospection deemed “distasteful” to him.

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William Hogarth. Time Smoking a Picture (1761). Guildhall Art Gallery, London. The allegorical figure of Time is faking the age of a painting. It is a satirical comment on Hogarth’s belief that connoisseurs valued art only for its age.

Etienne Gilson delivered the 1957 Mellon Lectures within the same decade as Waugh’s self-reassessment. Published as Painting and Reality in 1959, the lectures are a welcome testament to the fundamental differences between artists and philosophers and, by extension, between making art and—in today’s phrase—doing theology. Gilson opens with a re-evaluation of his own:

My first publication concerning the philosophy of art was written in November-December, 1915, and published the next year . . . under the title Art et métaphysique. That was forty years ago, and during this long space of time, many things have happened to art as well as to my own metaphysics.

Rather than dismiss modern art, Gilson retires the author of the 1915 tract and turns a receptive eye on the intentions of modern artists themselves:

In art, we have witnessed the boldest creative experiment ever attempted during the whole evolution of the art of painting. With admirable and penetrating lucidity, the artists themselves have done their utmost to explain to their public the meaning of initiatives by which, not feeling their inner necessity, even the onlookers of good will could not help being puzzled.

Subtle and suggestive, Painting and Reality is a welcome alternative to the willful myopia—not to say crudity—of “Modern Art is all bosh.” What was an entertaining line in the narrative context of a novel turns sour when it is brandished, more than a half century later, as a considered judgment on the entirety of modern production in the arts. Gilson did sometimes gild the lily in favor of art itself. Yet, overall, he is more compelling—certainly to me—than the oft-quoted Jacques Maritain who more frequently tilted, ponderously, toward art as a handmaiden to metaphysics. (Creative intuition, after all, is hardly located exclusively in the arts. There are instances where it even seems to abandon the arts altogether.) Gilson adhered to a conscientious decision to stay tethered to John Constable’s insistence that the world should “look to painters for information on painting.” That is quite enough.

Both scholars were advocates for the art of their time. Not all of it, to be sure. Still, they refused to look over their shoulder to an irretrievable past.

Gilson deserves the last word in his chapter “Painters and the Talking World”:

As to the never-ending flow of discourse about painting that springs from non-painters, perfectly legitimate in itself as it certainly is, the main question it raises is to know to what extent it truly is about painting.


I Do Not Like Thee . . .


I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,

The reason why I cannot tell;

But this I know, and know full well,

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.

—Nursery Rhyme, c. 1680

We are enjoined to love one another. Thankfully, we are not commanded to like each other. Loving and liking are quite different orders of response. One abides; the other shifts about, subject to the weather of our lives and changing as we change.

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Georgiana Berkeley. Watercolor added to portraits of Louisa and Cecilia Cavendish (c. 1860-70). Musee d’Orsay, Paris

It is only romance that is blind; love, not all. It is clear-eyed; it has tooth. Love does not blush to admit that among those we are called to love are a thumping number of unlikeables. But we are called to love our neighbor according to his needs, not our own. To the extent that we can, we seek his good. We ready ourselves to override our druthers on his behalf. We greet him and wish him well, the old goat. No ill should befall him on our account. We lend a hand, offer kindnesses when needed, do what neighborliness demands.

These are acts of will and courtesy, behaviors that create and sustain a community. If the concept of Christian love is not to dissolve—soggy, Oprahfied—into a sentimental ideology, we need reminders that our affections are as free as our imaginations. One of my favorites is “Commandments,” a late poem by D.H. Lawrence:

When Jesus commanded us to love our neighbour

he forced us either to live a great lie, or to disobey;

for we can’t love anybody, neighbour or no neighbour, to order,

and faked love has rotted our marrow.

Then there is my most cherished memorandum, the final lines of Ogden Nash’s “A Plea for Less Malice Toward None.” I keep it scotch-taped to a closet door where I can never miss it. After all, there are things worth hating:

. . . love is a drug on the mart.

Any kiddie in school can love like a fool,

But hating, my boy, is an art.

Theology geeks—you know who you are—can speculate over whether hell is filled or empty. The rest of us, if we are honest, keep a short list of names we think have earned a hot seat in Gehenna. For certain, charity forbids us from consigning any of our fellow creatures to the pit. But should we learn, by some mystic chance, that our chosen names are really and truly there . . . well, what to do but shrug?

Granted, it will never come to this for any reader of First Things. But, surely, you know the feeling:

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Playing card from the British card game “I Commit” (c.1950)

Simply to close on a high art note, there is this by Pierre Bonnard:

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Pierre Bonnard. Before Dinner (1924). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

We think of Bonnard as a celebrant supreme of domestic tranquility. This surprisingly tart image of familial alienation—passing or chronic?—is rarely reproduced. Neither is it a favorite for exhibition. Seen in the flesh, the paint dances as joyfully as all else in his work. As an object, it is radiant. The interpersonal tension implicit in the postures of the women contradicts the smiling aspects of Bonnard’s work that carries his popularity. The women are family; they live together. Doubtless, there is love of some degree between them. But at this particular moment, disaffection reigns. The seated woman turns her back to the other who waits for her to come to table. Let her wait. Love, too, can wait its turn. The moment will pass.

An Aesthetical Conundrum

Decadence was brought about by the easy way of producing works and laziness in doing it, by the surfeit of fine art and the love of the bizarre.

—Voltaire, The Princess of Babylon (1748)


Voltaire’s linkage of decadence to an overabundance of fine art earns consideration, perhaps now more than ever. Art stuffs pile up around us; and we live, increasingly, with an overemphasis on—even reverence for—aesthetics that is less a sign of refinement than a malaise. It is an unhealthy condition, all the more precarious for exalting aesthetics, a strutting Enlightenment product, up, up into the embrace of theology.

Designated carrier of the True and the Beautiful, art has a baneful way of veiling history. It works to displace it or render it inconsequential beside the sweeter fruits of historical inquiry. Traditional history might as well be bunk. Only art history is redemptive. It is salvation history brought up to date for an over-ripe culture with no taste for the character and complexities of its own past .

This occurs to me whenever I am at the Frick. The complex gives no hint of Henry Clay Frick’s provocative, iron-fisted role in the bloody strike at the Carnegie Steel plant
in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. A consequential setback to workers in dangerous heavy industries in the early days of the labor movement, it cries for acknowledgment. Yet nothing disturbs the patrician calm of the Gilded Age mansion that houses the Frick Collection. If anyone had occasion to benefit from the presumed moral powers of art, it was Frick himself. But that is another matter. What counts here is that he left us the glittering yield of his purchasing power. He had intended his collection to be his monument. And so it is.

 

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Illustration of the armed combat at the Carnegie Steel plant. Published by National Police Gazette in July, 1982.

 

Duveen , S.N. Behrman’s 1955 biography of Frick’s dealer, includes comments on the entrepreneurial prodigy who had vowed to become a millionaire by the age of thirty. The paragraph extends to nearly all standard commentary on Robber Baron collectors and their wares:

The article on Frick in the Encyclopedia Britannica runs to twenty three lines. Ten are devoted to his career as an industrialist, and thirteen to his collecting of art. In these thirteen lines, he mingles freely with Titian and Vermeer, with El Greco and Goya, with Gainsborough and Velásquez. Steel strikes and armed Pinkerton guards [300 of them] vanish, and he basks in another, more felicitous aura.


That leads us to the Garden Court, a grand Roman atrium added to the Frick mansion a tad more than a decade after the owner’s death. In a seamless act of aesthetic genius, architect John Russell Pope linked the original mansion to the posthumous extension by means of an atrium that filled what had been an alley for cars and carriages between 70th and 71st Street. [You can take a virtual tour of the dazzling Garden Court here .]

 

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  I love the Garden Court. I love to sit on the stone benches and listen to the measured gurgle of water spilling from the mouths of two bronze frogs at either end of the pool. It is a sound out of time, a lovely, liquid undersong that calms, consoles, and in some untellable way, transports. It is a place to brood on the voice Tennyson gave to a bubbling brook: “For men may come and men may go,/But I go on forever.” Within listening distance of those steadfast frogs, I can cruise to altitudes unattainable at home.

Days after my last visit to the Frick, I heard the identical sound again. There was no mistaking it. Trust me. There was the same aqueous fluency, flowing at the same pace and babbling at the same modulated decibel level. This time, though, I was home.

The toilet was running. A mundane, repellant little noise, it stirred ugly visions of dollar bills swirling down the drain to Bell Plumbing. I hated it.

But wait. The connoisseurship of the listening ear has standing, yes? Then why not just close my eyes and take pleasure in the sound until it is fixed? Why not extract something agreeable out this of damned nuisance? While I waited for a new flapper, rubber gasket, or spud washer for a tank manufactured in the same decade as the Garden Court, I should relax and let the sound conjure up another spot of poetry.

I tried to. I failed. But that is beside the point. What matters is the identical character of the sound, the chatter of the Frick’s fountain interchangeable with—indistinguishable from—that of my treacherous toilet. Surely the equivalence and my disparate responses to it signify something about that cagey pretender, the aesthetic sense.

John of Damascus defined s ense as “a faculty of the soul by which material things are perceived, or distinguished.” My hearing is fine. Could my soul, then, be at fault for cherishing the sound in one place and loathing it in another? Or does the aesthetic sense share something with real estate—a critical dependence on location, location, location?