Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
We who live in the Western world at the present time continue to suffer under the reign of a great tyranny — the tyranny of artistic modernism.
New English Review , August 2012
It gets tiring, this lingering need to swipe at modernism. To the extent a date applies, the waning of modernism hovers between the late 1930s and the end of the Second World War. Yet seven decades later, one Quixote or another still gallops forward to tilt at the carcass. Beating a horse in extremis is unseemly. And doltish. It keeps us from recognizing the singular achievements of this fluid and variegated offensive against Victorian-era academies.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, modernism’s heyday, biblical imagery still held purchase on Western culture. One stunning example of modernist reimagining of a traditional subject is Max Beckmann’s Deposition:
Beckmann reintroduced the sepulchral, nightmare quality that centuries of familiarity have drained from—to take the closest example—Gerard David’s Deposition :
David evokes the graveyard that was Golgotha—“place of the skull”—by scattering bones in the foreground. With that gesture he observed the customary iconography which separated skeletal remains from the corpus of Christ. Beckmann, steeped in death as a volunteer medical attendant on the Belgium front in the First World War, reversed David’s diagonal composition. He turned his eye, and ours, to the skull beneath the taut-drawn skin of the dead Christ. The corpus is distorted by rigor. Violent death reveals itself in tortured angularities: feet contorted upward to display wounds from the underside; arms stiffened into unsupported extension, locked in unnatural outreach. Emaciated shoulders and clavicle tell their own tale. Skeletonization has begun.
Julius Meier-Graefe, a modernist art historian—one of the few included by the Nazis in their attack on “Degenerate Art”—commented on the severity of Beckmann’s initial post-war work, so reminiscent of Gothic painting. Writing in 1919, he interpreted Beckmann’s Deposition as a collective indictment on their place and time:
These paintings are anything but decorative. Their disposition is much more violent. An almost mystical embitterment impels such forms. The voluptuousness of pain . . . A fleshless Grünewald—fleshless, not soulless. The details spell out the want of ardor of our machine age . . . Color, which could soften the factual details, is despised . . . The apparition stands with inexorable clarity. But it is nonetheless animated. These terrifying figures [indicate] a prodigious self-conceit . . . embraced by an entire nation, which sinned extravagantly and atones extravagantly, which by means of monstrous instruments of torture has its rotten flesh burned away so that its spirit might come to its senses.
The imitatio Dei is not a matter of copying. It is a matter, first, of comprehending; and, then, of seeking forms to render that comprehension. Modernism did not abandon form. Rather, it sought a means of creating fresh forms for interpreting the world—the world of our own time—not merely duplicating what greets our senses. Or repeating routinely what we love in the art of an earlier age.
The previous post ended with reference to what “the centuries have wrought.” A reader emailed me to askhopefullyif I was referring to modernism. No, not at all. In mind was the kind of emasculate anti-art rampant on plaques, statuary, prayer cards in funeral parlors, and too often in our own churches. Side altars, especially. Pictorially equivalent to sob songs, the stuff mimics Renaissance and Baroque painting but is sorely disconnected from the achievement of its prototypes.
Mass produced sentimentality has been the hallmark of Catholic art since the 1840s flooded the market with a cascade of devotional stuffs from French companies located around the church of Saint-Sulpice on the Left Bank. A taste for it lingers in much of the disdain directed at modernism in the arts. Particularly in relation to religious subjects, even sophisticated Catholics are prone to uncritical favor toward imitations of the premodern. Whatever comes closest to Renaissance realism or the Baroque figuration of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is considered more spiritual, more authentic, than anything that reveals twentieth century authorship.
Compare the gravity of Bramantino’s depiction of the risen Christ with the emotional tenor of the modern resurrection scene that follows it. Bramantino evokes the suffering of a man newly risen, in the flesh, from his descent into hell:
Simon Dewey, a popular contemporary painter of “Christ-centered art,” gives us a male model coming out of a bathhouse on Fire Island. We’ve seen that face before, but where? In GQ ? An old Marlboro ad?
Thomas Merton phrased things nicely: “If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His tolerance of the pictures that are painted of him.”
And of His mother, too. The pansied piety of Marian kitsch denatures the Theotokos . In the coronation scene, below, Mary is a fluff of cotton candy; the blond putti flutter over her like so much pastel confetti. Not least among the image’s offenses is the exaggerated refinement of the hand holding the ceremonial rod as if it were a teacup. A traditional symbol of authority, the mace dwindles here into something close to a gilded swizzle stick:
In the accustomed bloodless cliché, grace streams from Mary’s hands like gas from a stovetop jet. This manikin is not so much virginal as bleached, pasty, mincing. Here she steps on a skinny green snake that would barely threaten a frog. Not much as a symbol of a demonic force seeking the ruin of souls:
Miriam of Nazareth lived under Roman occupation. She likely witnessed other crucifixions before she endured the sight of her own son on the gibbet. She named her infant Yeshua , Aramaic for the name we call Joshua . Her boy was the namesake of a Jewish hero, a battlefield commander who brought down the walls of Jericho and conquered the Canaanites. In the minds of Jews of Miriam’s time, the image of Joshua was then what it remained for centuries after in biblical illustration:
That is not the choice of a girl without mettle. Mary, meek and mild? Only if we attend to the definition of meek offered by Fr. George Rutler in his May 12th sermon:
The spiritual “meek” are not milquetoasts, or spineless wimps. The Greek praus for “meek” means controlled strength, a suppleness like that of an athlete. Without praus , a surfer would stand stiff and soon fall off the surfboard, and a boxer would be knocked out with the first punch without agile footwork.
Art’s expressive power is not necessarily benign. Bad art has its own pernicious effect, working its way on religious sensibilities like corrosive salts on a fresco. Images resonate apart from their subject matter. They can mislead. An understanding of this led German writer Hermann Brocha convert to Catholicism and major figure among the early Moderniststo declare kitsch not only a perversion of taste but also “the element of evil in the value system of art.”
Granted, that might be going some. Nevertheless, it is worth asking ourselves to what extent simpering or banal religious art drains us of the force and fortitude faith requires in a faithless world. Or, more pointedly, a world with Islam rising. I sometimes wonder: if Miriam of Nazareth were to rechristen any one of us, what name would she pick?
Bernard Berenson called Piero della Francesca “the mighty Tuscan.” Among contemporary painters, he remains the best loved of Renaissance painters, influential to a range of modern artists whose debt to him might not be readily apparent. Nevertheless, renowned as he is among artists, he is not widely known to American audiences.
When a respondent to my previous post sent a link to Piero’s Madonna del Parto , it jolted me into contrition for having neglected to say a word about the gem of a Piero exhibition that opened at the Frick in February. This rare and marvelous opportunity ends this coming Saturday. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa . I have hogged it to myself, returning several times to bask in it. And, yes, pay homage to the enigmatic and majestic Piero.
Piero was better known in his own day as a mathematician, an authority on solid geometry and the author of a treatise on perspective. Little of his art survives, much of it having fallen victim to renovation fever over the centuries. Most of it was executed in fresco; fresco cycles do not travel. To boot, the Victorian era, smitten with Raphael, never gave Piero a nod. Hence, a current audience’s relative lack of acquaintance with an artist who, today, ranks with Leonardo as both artist and man of science. To see his work in its full splendor requires winding through small Tuscan villages—the Way of Piero—an itinerary that begins in Arezzo and Perugia, moves on to Monterchi, through Rimini to Urbino, and Sansepolchro, Piero’s home town.
Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels , owned by the Clark Institute, Massachusetts, is one of only three works by Piero in this country. An oil on panel, it is one of the uncommon transportable ones; yet this is only the second time in sixty years it has been visible in New York City. It is the heart of the Frick exhibition and a glorious initiation into Piero’s particular genius.
This Virgin, like all his Marys, has the impassive, thickset solidity of an Etruscan farm girl. Four angel sentinels stand sturdy and substantial. They bear wings, but more as emblems of station than locomotion; nothing ephemeral marks this watchful quartet. These seraphs are as firm-footed as Wim Wender’s angelic pair in Wings of Desire . A husky, self-contained toddler, Christ reaches for a pink carnation, foreshadow of the crucifixion, in Mary’s grasp. He puts out his hand without affect, composed, as inscrutable as his mother.
Roses, too closely identified with Venus and profane imagery, frequently gave way to the elusive charms of the carnation—more sharply defined than the rose—in fifteenth century painting. Piero blends them easily together. His Virgin’s throne, set under the open sky [beyond the frame of the detail here], is decorated with stylized rosettes. Living flowers repeat in the garland worn by the farther angel, symbol of paradisial rapture. “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds,” cry celebrants in the Book of Wisdom. When, for whatever reason, a Renaissance painter chose against the rose, he painted a carnation. A rosebud or a pink carnation—let us not fret the allegorical difference.
Plants, fruits and flowers came into full fashion as visual metaphors in the art of the Renaissance. They are the fragrant, unspoiled things—good gifts—loved by antiquity and, so, embraced by antiquity’s self-chosen heirs. In the hieratic serenity of Piero’s composition we find the interplay of symbolic motifs that have become part of the heraldry of the Church.
The freshness of Piero’s achievement has held for more than six hundred years. His work speaks today with a grace and power made ever more precious by what the centuries between us have wrought.
Pray for us O holy Mother of God,
that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Motherhood, as you understand and honor it, is passé. Outmoded. It has faded into a quant bit of Americana, an artifact of folklore like Johnny Appleseed or Aunt Jemima.
That is the undisquised message of the Museum of Motherhood (MOM), established this past January on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Following the lead of “museums” of contemporary art, MOM exists neither to preserve nor conserve an iota of cultural heritage. It obtains exclusively to promote a product. In this case, the article on display is a stake through the heart of our “cultural fairy tale” of what constitutes a family.
MOM’s website features a daily blog, Mamablogger365 , open to submissions on the subject of “reframing” motherhood. Kimberly Dark’s entry for May 5 th is a definitive decoction of this new and exciting project. Substance is all there in the title: “Queer ParentingCan We Stop Acting Like It Is Something New?”:
Even if we find the fairy tale [of traditional marriage and family] foolish and think there’s nothing wrong with non-adherence, this story is in our cultural consciousness.
Ms. Dark, aka Mommy Queerest, welcomes the MOMuseum’s mission to supplant the antiquated preachments of our false cultural consciousness:
Here’s the truth of it: Sometimes people meet and marry and have children. Often, people start having sex with one another before marriage and sometimes children result. Sometimes marriages involve sexual fidelity sometimes not. Sometimes multiple sexual partners are a planned part of loving relationships, sometimes not. And any combination of those people can create children, or not. Some people have children without marrying. Some people can’t have their own children because neither of them is able to give birth either because of their own fertility or because both of them are the same gender. Yes, sometimes people of the same gender have sex, and fall in love, and sometimes they even marry either because gay marriage is legal where they live or they gain state support by concealing or changing one of their genders in order to conform to cultural norms. All of this has been happening for all of recorded time. All of it. Families are complex and we construct them both in accordance with and in opposition to cultural norms and laws.
For all of recorded time . All of it . Ms. Dark, an LBGT performer and sociology professor, puts queer scholarship to work in the war against the intellect that has become the hallmark of popular culture.
Go to MOM’s website, follow the links, and weep. Under the gaudy banner of gay liberation and reproductive rights, women have succeeded in doing what Western patriarchy has not. They have maneuvered women to the status of brood mares. And proud of it.
Note: MOM is here . Kimberly Dark’s site is here . Joy Rose, foundress and executive director of MOM and The Motherhood Foundation, can be found here . The Foundation is a certified 501(c)(3), tax exempt contribution to the demotion of traditional concepts of marriage and family.
Here it comes.
Truth to tell, I do not like Mother’s Day. It is a mawkish, manufactured holidaya counterfeit tradition like Kwanza. But now that it is upon us, women might as well make the most of it. This is the day to milk what remains of filial guilt for all it is worth. Lay it on thick, sisters.
Get the jump on neglectful, inattentive offspring. Do not wait for your begets to send the usual Mother’s Day boilerplate from the greeting card industry. Plug the ooze of pastel, market-researched sentiments. Go on the offensive; upend protocol. Drop this in the mail to your slack brood:
If you prefer suggestive indirection, you can remind them of your tender, sheltering, watchful, supportive maternity with this:
Then there are our own mothers to be thought of. No problem. Ask the endearing Zeichen Press to run this off for you:
Anna Jarvis, unmarried and childless, founded Mother’s Day in honor of her own mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis. Mrs. Jarvis was a dynamic woman, an eloquent public speaker, organizer and true humanitarian in the Civil War era. She also knew her own worth and impressed it upon her daughter:
I hope that someone, sometime will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.
The eye never has enough of seeing.
What is the point of having a weblog if I can’t talk about things I like? One of them is the photography of William Meyers. He was my colleague on the culture desk of The New York Sun during its balmy years as a print publication . He writes on photography now for The Wall Street Journal. You might well have read his commentaries but you have not seen his own approach to the craft he observes. And celebrates.
Though he did not devote himself seriously to photography until the late ’90s when he was about 60, Meyers aligns himself with the generation of photographers who developed their visual language in the 1960s and ’70s. (He was born in 1938. Lee Friedlander was born in 1934, Joel Meyerowitz in 1938, William Eggleston in 1939). All were heirs of Garry Winograd, sophisticated documentarian of the 1960s’ social landscape. All shared a lively determination to seize small moments of humanity out of chance glimpses on the streets.
Let Bill explain himself:
Most of my pictures were taken on anonymous streets where the people of the place live and go about their business; they represent the quotidian, not the spectacular; they are the outer boroughs of the spirit as well as of the physical city. The work is not concerned with documentation, the way things look, but with . . . the feel of a place at a particular moment. Each image represents a certain time in a certain part of a certain city where, I have found, even in unlikely neighborhoods there are occasions for beauty.
. . . Rather than shoot intrinsically exciting sites like mid-town Manhattan, I sought out ones that would be considered uninteresting and tried to take compelling pictures of them.
His first solo exhibition opens this Tuesday at the Nailya Alexander Gallery, 41 E. 57th Street. If you are in Manhattan or passing through between then and June 8th, you might want to stop up to the gallery.
Modernism in the arts is an indefinite term. Like fascism , the word gets bandied about despite the absence of any firm idea of what it means. Even the editors of Modernism: 1890-1930 , a widely used text, fell back on this:
The name [i.e. modernism] is clear; the nature of the movement or movements … is much less so. And equally unclear is the status of the stylistic claim we are making. We have noted that few ages have been more multiple, more promiscuous in artistic style; to distil from the multiplicity an overall style or mannerism is a difficult, perhaps even an impossible task.
At about the same time, critic Monroe K. Spears echoed the sentiment when he prefaced an important book on the same subject by observing that “Modernism is, of course, an impossible subject.” That was the mid-1970s. Here we are thirty years later and head-long into post-Modernism, yet still with no definitive idea of precisely what we are post of.
So we have to be careful not to discard the achievements of modernism in the arts—the visual arts, my chief concern—on ideological ground that has more sand in it than we like to think.
Pius X’s condemnation of modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies” has reverberated in unsuspected ways. The shadow of heresy-by-association blankets the fragmentation and disjunctions of modern art (much of it a reaction to the horrors of war). Since modern art challenged the authority of preceding art, it was disdained as an expression of the same heretical impulse.
This over-simplification is far less interesting than the reality. The entire history of Western art has been a succession of challenges to previous art as well as a story of intricate branching and wandering, with many false starts along the way. People of faith, skeptical toward unnuanced Darwinian hypotheses about the origin of man, accept without question mainstream Darwinian views of art history. Following the received wisdom, they lend themselves to the myth of the supposedly organic structure of art history, imagining an unbroken line of progress from classical times to the Renaissance. (Some stretch it to the 1880’s and the beginnings of Impressionism, but no later.) After that, in the modern era, the presumed ladder of ascendancy collapses. Believers jump ship to take up the unsmiling game of modernist-spotting. The visual correlative of heresy-spotting.
And that is too bad. The volume and scope of art dismissed by this attitude is staggering. Stay awhile with Beckmann’s interpretation of the theme of the woman taken in adultery. There is great power in Christ’s gesture, staying the mob of accusers with one hand; with the other, making a gesture of acceptance toward the woman. While the crowd mocks, it is they who look grotesque, not Christ—self-assured and protective—and not the woman who places herself under his protection with closed eyes in trust.
And the paint! The beauty of it does not translate onto the screen. It is one of modernism’s great gifts.
Have you been following the annual World Naked Bike Ride? A moveable feast, it has been going for some years now in various cities around the fossil-fuel-consuming world. Morally sensitive bikers bare all in protest against Big Oil, the global injustices of energy dependence, the horrors of drilling, demon auto, bad driving and everything else that ravages our planet. At the same time, it strikes a blow for “body freedom” against the repressive forces of Big Clothing. Its motto: “Less gas, more ass.”
Portland’s edition of the Naked Bike Ride, now in its tenth year, is one of the largest in the world, and typically draws between 4,000-5,000 bicyclists in birthday suits. What makes 2013’s escapade notable is that the Portland Art Museum is sponsoring the ride this year. The museum invites buck naked cyclists to travel the blocks around its building on SW Park Avenue. Coincidentally, the museum plans to launch its new exhibition, “Cyclepedia: Iconic Bicycle Design” on the day of the ride, June 8th. Nice timing.
No doubt none of you are ready to drop your shmattes and hop a bike for the planet. Still, we have to admit there is a certain charm to the ride. Not to its politics, but its sense of theatre. Nakedness as a fey expression of reforming zeal has historic precedent. Lady Godiva, riding horseback in the eleventh century to protest taxation, comes straight to mind. Closer to our hearts is St. Francis. Il Poverello did not have a bike but he had a similar strain of exhibitionism. He stripped to his hair shirt to symbolize rejection of his father’s resources. He would depend on God alonesomething bikers do whenever they weave through heavy traffic or take country roads after dark. Biking in all kinds of weather instead of drivingVivaldi on the radio or an audio book in progressis one of the rare mortifications that recommend themselves to a secular culture.
All that remains to be seenother than the bikers themselvesis whether the Portland Art Museum will welcome unclad visitors inside as did the Leopold Museum, Vienna, during its February exhibition “Nude Men”. PAM’s patronage, a bald marketing strategy, goes some way toward illustrating Aldous Huxley’s reprove: “High art, low loins.”
Myth does not share the status of history. It is not a factual chronicle of primordial events but a poetic insight more profound than an account of incidences ab origine , lost to us in time. Its dignity lies in what Jacques Maritain called creative intuition: “that intercommunication between the inner being of things and the inner being of the human Self which is a kind of divination.” Poems originate in the individual self; myth commences in communal instinct, the collective Self. At the core of myth is man’s quest to apprehend the hidden truths of existence. The myth of Original Sin is one such truth.
That brings me to a broadcast letter from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in Yonkers. It came during Lent as part of the seminary’s annual Paschal Appeal. I have kept the letter for its quotation from Alexander Schmemann, theologian, liturgist, and establisher of an autonomous Orthodox Church in America. Father Schmemann finished writing a text on the eucharist shortly before he died in 1983. These words radiate the character of his theological reflection—on the eucharist and the myth of the Fall:
In our perspective, the original sin of man is not primarily that he disobeyed God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. The only real fall of man is his non-eucharistic life in a non-eucharistic world.
We rise from the pew to take the Eucharist easily. But what it means to live a eucharistic life has no ease about it. If we fully grasped what it signifies—if we are even capable of it—we would crawl to communion on our knees.