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.
Before bishops take possession of their dioceses they are to take an oath of fealty either to the Reich Representative of the State concerned, or to the President of the Reich, according to the following formula: “Before God and on the Holy Gospels I swear and promise as becomes a bishop, loyalty to the German Reich . . . . In the performance of my spiritual office and in my solicitude for the welfare and the interests of the German Reich, I will endeavor to avoid all detrimental acts which might endanger it.”
Article 16, Reich Concordat, 1933
Two books hold pride of place on my shelves. They stand next to each other, never separated in my possession or my thoughts. One is Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness: the Life and Death of Franz Jäggersttäter. Its twin is The Prison Meditations of Father Delp, with an introduction by Thomas Merton.
Fr. Delp, on trial at Gestapo headquarters.
Jägerstätter, a farmer and married father of four, resisted the advice of his own bishop in defying the Third Reich. Delp, a Jesuit and editor of Stimmen der Zeit, was associated with the Kreisau Circle dedicated to re-Christianizing society upon the collapse of Hitler’s regime. For challenging the collective delusion of their era, Jägerstätter was beheaded in Brandenburg prison in 1943; Delp was hanged two years later at Plötzensee.
Both were cremated by official order, their ashes broadcast on the wind. The Reich took care to leave no martyr’s relic to venerate, no burial place to mark. Jägerstätter was beatified in Linz in 2007; Delp, not so. (John Paul II passed over him for the more prominent Rupert Mayer, S.J., when he beatified Edith Stein in 1997.)
For the moment, stay with Fr. Delp. We are in Advent now. And no one has written about the liturgical season as powerfully as he, a man who came to see life itself as a continuous Advent. Manacled in his cell, he could write only when his fetters were secretly unlocked or loosely fastened. Awaiting death, he had time only for the essentials: the question of man and the renunciations that awaken him to his true purpose. In God alone does man become fully man and find his End:
Advent is the time for rousing. Man is shaken to the very depths, so that he may wake to the truth of himself. . . . The kind of awakening that literally shocks man’s whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea. . . . Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken.
The gallows at Plötzensee. Photographed in 2011, this is where Fr. Delp was hanged.
Delp reflects on three symbols bearing the Advent message: the voice crying in the wilderness, the herald angel, and Mary. Here, the herald angel:
Never have I entered on Advent so vitally and intensely alert as I am now. When I pace my cell, up an down, three paces one way and three the other, my hands manacled, an unknown fate in front of me, then the tidings of our Lord’s coming to redeem the world and deliver it have quite a different and much more vivid meaning. And my mind keeps going back to the angel someone gave me during Advent two or three years ago. It bore the inscription: “Be of good cheer. The Lord is near.” A bomb destroyed it. The same bomb killed the donor . . . It would be impossible to endure the horror of these timeslike the horror of life itself, could we only see it clearly enoughif there were not this other knowledge which constantly buoys us up and gives us strength: the knowledge of the promises that have been given and fulfilled. . . .
The angels of Advent are not the bright jubilant beings who trumpet the tidings of fulfillment to a waiting world. Quiet and unseen they enter our shabby rooms and our hearts as they did of old. In the silence of the night they pose God’s questions and proclaim the wonders of him with whom all things are possible.
In the mounting loneliness of his cell, Delp addresses himself to you and me (“if ever these pages find you”):
Let us kneel and pray for clear vision, that we may recognize God’s messenger when he comes, and willing hearts to understand the words of warning. The world is greater than the burden it bears, and life is more than the sum-total of its grey days. . . . We must be our own comforters. The man who promises hope is himself a man of promise, of whom much may be expected.
Offered a reprieve if he resigned from the Jesuits, Delp refused. Instead, he held hopeeven into his last hoursthan the Russians would advance on Berlin in time to release him. “Can’t history come a little faster?” he asked the prison chaplain. On his way to the scaffold, Delp told him: “In half an hour, I’ll know more than you.”
In the shadow of execution, Delp kept a steady eye on the way spiritual questions masquerade as cultural or political ones. And he spoke down the decades to what lies concealed in our own Advent, caught in history’s labyrinth of cause and effect:
Among all the protagonists in the tragic drama of the modern world there is not one who fundamentally cares in the least what the Church says or does. We over-rated the Church’s political machine and let it run on long after its essential driving power had ceased to function. It makes absolutely no difference, so far the beneficial influence of the Church is concerned, whether a state maintains diplomatic relation with the Vatican or not. The only thing that really matters is the inherent power of the Church as a religious force in the countries concerned.
The guillotine was a fixture in Reich prisons. This, in Plötzensee, was identical to Brandenburg’s.
As Merton reminded, Delp died for his Church, obedient unto death. For that reason, we approach his words with heightened attention and deep respect. And the words are sober, unsentimental. These are among the hardest:
A Church that makes demands in the name of a peremptory God no longer carries weight in a world of changing values. The new generation is separated from the clear conclusions of traditional theology by a great mountain of boredom and disillusion thrown up by past experience. We have destroyed man’s confidence in us by the way we live. We cannot expect two thousand years of history to be an unmixed blessing and recommendation. History can be a handicap too. . . . At some future date the honest historian will have some bitter things to say about the contribution of the Churches to the creation of the mass mind, of collectivism, dictatorships and so on.
Six months of beatings, hunger, and solitary confinement stripped him of patience with facile pieties and the shelter of easy gestures. He read a little Eckhart every day, advancing alone into what Johannes Metz termed a mysticism of open eyes.
Seven decades separate Delp’s Advent from ours. His era is over. Yet its desolations, presumptions, and perils survive in other guises. His legacy is a living thing that cries to be heeded. On Christmas Eve, 1944, he scratched into the wall with shackled hands: Trust life. We do not live it alone. God lives it with us.
The hand is the window on to the mind.
Early man is our brother, body and soul. We beckon to him down the void of time, craving a glimpse of that epochal moment the human creature confessed, in his being, the image and likeness of God. A Paleolithic premise of ourselves, he gestures back; he signs to us with the work of his hands. Whatever meaningspart discovery, part projectionwe pull from his works, one thing is indisputable: Our brother was gifted with an aesthetic sense. And grace of hand was well within his capacities.
Panel of horses facing each other. Chauvet Cave.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams for the second time. I immersed myself in it to erase from mind, if only for an hour or two, the squalor of Ferguson and a power-and-race crazed president.
Filmed in 2010, the documentary is an enraptured tour of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in southern France. Discovered twenty years ago, the cave is twice as old as the famed caves at Lascaux and Altamira. Chauvet’s wall drawings are about thirty five thousand years old in radiocarbon years. A smaller, second wave of activity followed some five thousand years later.
Cave is a glorious movie. I am glad not to have seen it in its original 3-D version. The impact of these Stone Age images is stunning enough without inflating the element of spectacle that, invariably, becomes an end in itself. My laptop condenses the poetry of Herzog’s camera. It mutes the opera of big-screen entertainment to penetrate the obscurity of our beginnings with a suitable hush.
Lions chasing bison. Chauvet Cave.
Hibernating bears used this cave for thousands of years before man put his mark on it. A primeval landslide sealed those marks in a long, solitary slumber. The beauty of these drawings, their elegant lines and careful shadings, chastens that strain of our own contemporary art trumpeted for its presumed revival of the vitality of primitive forms. Those Paleolithic cave drawings available to us testify to an inherent love of workmanship independent of whatever function they might have served when they were made.
Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled (1981). ADAGP Image Bank.
The word function is key. The Wagnerian sweep of Herzog’s own artistry is in service to what he calls “ecstatic truth.” But what truths these drawings reveal is open to debate. Herzog acknowledges their ambiguity with a typically modern question: “Will we ever be able to understand the vision of the artist over the abyss of time?”
Substituting vision for function, the filmmaker bestows on the makers of these works a self-consciously expressive, individualistic component. Ahistorical, that ingredient is the modified fruit of modernity and leisure. It is an unlikely factor in the precarious lives of ambush hunters and food gatherers during harsh centuries of glacialization. But what function did they serve? E. H. Gombrich asserted the prevailing opinion seven decades ago in The Story of Art:
Among these primitives, there is no difference between building and image-making as far as usefulness is concerned. . . . Images are made to protect them against other powers which are, to them, as real as the forces of nature. Pictures and statues, in other words, are used to work magic.
It is easy to patronize rude ancestors who cannot testify with up-to-date eloquence. It is harder to remember that man’s primordial sense of enchantmentthat same intuition of the numinous we bring to the sacramentscoexisted with his rationality. It did not displace it; if it had, we would not be here. It is hard to know that, though, from popular enthusiasm for retrospective condescension. One introduction to Chauvet describes the natural bridge over the Ardèche River, running close to the cave, as something that was likely considered a “symbolic animal” by Paleolithic passersby. Maybe. But it could as easily have been considered a handy way across the gorge. Another modern voice-over chirps that the bridge “would have been an impressive sight to Paleolithic residents.” It still is.
Herzog’s seductive presentation of the cave as a “lost cathedral” gilds the accepted interpretation. But before surrendering altogether, it is beguilingin its own wayto keep in mind Josh Billings’s old caution: “Why is it that so much of what everybody knows just ain’t so?”
Without denying received wisdom, we can still ask whether more than a single motive was in play in Paleolithic art. The dynamism of the Chauvet images upends any exclusively magical or runic one. These are not static symbols but life-like animals in motion. Horses gallop. Two rhinos butt heads. Lions stalk prey. A bear bends his head to the ground, as if foraging. Why such rambunctious emphasis on movement? Chauvet’s compositions delight in clamor and tumult. They evidence no interest in stylization. Only an inexplicable panel of red ochre palm prints suggests ritual purpose or the sensibilities of priestcraft. Its cavalcade of species conveys the zest of the pursuer together with the admiration of wary cohabitants.
I love this bear. It was drawn with regard, even tenderness. Snuffling for berries or tubers, it does not display the posture of an object of veneration. Whatever else it might have represented in the day of its making, it comes to us as mortal, eking livelihood from a hardscrabble world:
Head of a bear. Chauvet Cave.
Our early brothers had the same need we have to instruct the young. How did they do it? Even if we grant them language, did they have syntax? We can guess but all we know for sure is they had pictures. And pictures are instructive.
It is not just whimsy that makes me wonder if prehistoric drawing had a possible tutorial function, among others. Chauvet, with its chambers, fireplaces, andso crucialsolid roof, would have served beautifully as a classroom. We moderns project PowerPoint presentations onto walls or proxies for them. Aboriginal instructors had no screens, no blackboard. They worked straight on the wall. Imagine a huddle of little boys being initiated into the hunt before joining adults on the risky business of a kill. (A young boy’s footprint survives on the floor of Chauvet.)
Rhinoceroses in combat. Chauvet Cave.
A fantasy, perhaps. But I am fond of it. One reason it appeals to me is that it offsets, without evicting, unquestioned insistence on religious function alone. Dominant association of the primitive with the religious yokes the two together in facile accommodation to secular self-congratulation. Religion is for cavemen. We are past all that now, thank God.
Herzog made an appearance in last year’s The Unbelievers, a talking-head paean to biologist Richard Dawkins, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and the New Atheism in toto. His interview lent celebrity support to celebrity detractors of religious belief. Watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams again, this time in the wake of that interview, Herzog’s euphoric embrace of the cave-as-cathedral leaves behind the scent of atheism-for-aesthetes. Atheists, too, bow to beauty where they find it.
Transparency is more appealing in concept than in practiceat least as it applies to backstage doings at the Sheen Center.
Judging from email responses, the Sheen is a great yawn to readers of First Things. No grand Truth is at risk in the matter. No heady policy positions. The only truths in play are those gnarled and spotted ones of human designs. Besides, mention of co-founder and erstwhile director Michael Hull points to disagreeable details better left in the dark. Do we need another scandal? Let’s not feed anti-Catholicism. Please, can’t we all just stick to the smiling aspect of things?
Scene from The Way of the World (1901). Museum of the City of New York.
Yes, of course we can. And we do. The genteel tradition persists bi-weekly in Catholic New York. House organ of the New York Archdiocese, the sheet is an amiable blend of public relations and parlor talk. Reading it reminds me of Sinclair Lewis’ description of William Dean Howells: “He had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage.” If Catholic New York were really a newspaper, it would lift the fog of picturesque edifications long enough to inquire into the Sheen’s costs andmost interestingits original intentions.
Apparently, Cardinal Dolan inherited the Sheen project from his predecessor. Cardinal Egan and his protégé Msgr. Hull purportedly collaborated on the original concept, with the chancery in the loop. If what I am told is accurate, plans initially included a permanent space for the Gianna Center for Women’s Health and Fertility.
A pro-life clinic founded in 2009 by family physician Anne Nolte, the Gianna opened under the sponsorship of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Its prenatal care programs provide medical support to the region’s crisis pregnancy centers. As its name suggests, it also aids women seeking to conceive or to practice Church-approved family planning methods..
When St. Vincent’s declared bankruptcy in 2010 the Gianna lost its angel and needed lower cost space than it already occupied in mid-town. The Sheen, still taking shape, was a likely place to house the sponsorless Gianna. No such accommodation happened.
Illustration for Theatre World (September 1927) by Bovey.
Hosting the Gianna would have been an inspired use of archdiocesan property. Why? Because the Sheen, at 18 Bleecker Street, is next door to the Margaret Sanger Center, a prominent Planned Parenthood division at 26 Bleecker.
What happened to that reputed first intention? Are reports of it accurate? Or does the truth lie in claims that the Sheen meant only to provide temporary housing for the Gianna Center? Or maybe not at all? The story gets murky. All that is clear is that the Sheen arrived strictly devoted to the performing arts. And Gianna, committed to live performances of another kind, has found a new sponsor in St. Peter’s University Hospital, New Brunswick, and is again operating at its initial location on 40th Street just off Fifth Avenue.
This past January, Cardinal Dolan appointed Dr. Nolte to his Pro-Life Committee. Was the appointment a consolation prize of sorts? Last week, the cardinal presided over a fundraising gala at the New York Athletic Club to kick-start the Gianna’s regeneration uptown.
Illustration for Theatre World (January 1926) by Bovey.
Lord Acton was as hostile to secrecy-on-high as to the corrupting influence of power. Addressing his cautions to the Church, he descried bureaucratic secretiveness on grounds that it degenerates keepers of the secret: “Nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.” Good willwhat Santayana called “the great American virtue”is not enough.
At stake in the evolution of the Sheen Center is the way the chancery oversees and uses the monies it solicits from you and me. The archdiocese is obliged to account for its management of parishioner donations. Disclosure to donors is a moral obligation that is especially keen while parishes are being closed or merged. At the same time, transparency would help distinguish between the demands of evangelization and the ambitions of men seeking a stage.
I am caught here in futile wondering about the road not taken. Gianna’s presence within the Sheen could have placed a damper on the Sheen’s rental income. It might also have saved lives. Saved some, touched or unsettled others. It would have witnessedin stoneto alternatives to the abortion “services” offered by the friendly, caring staff next door. (The Margaret Sanger Center has recently expanded its hours. The Sheen, meanwhile, set about re-renovating its theater space as soon as it opened.)
Transparency is its own justification. The men who instruct us in Truth cannot be slippery about lesser truths on which so much depends. Credibility is the linchpin of evangelization, now as ever. There is nothing new about it.
Here in my email this morning is an unhappy note from a Carmelite priest serving in a suburb of Dublin. He is terse. “Hatred of the Church in Ireland” is his only comment. No more words are needed given the accompanying article by Tim O’Brien that appeared yesterday in The Irish Times. It reports on the recent cutting down of a high steel cross erected some four decades ago on Carrountoolhil, County Kerry’s highest mountain. It had taken some one hundred people to put it in place in 1976 and had been televised as a major event at the time. Razed with an angle grinder, it was discovered recently by mountain climbers.
The destruction is not being minimized as an random act of vandalism. It is understood as a sign of growing hostility toward the Church in Ireland.
Kerry county councillor John Joe Culloty who earlier this year proposed a crucifix be hung in the council chamber in Killarney, said the cutting of the cross was a further step in the move towards “a Godless society”.
Mr. Culloty sees Ireland moving away from its constitutionally affirmed Christian ethos in its effort to become secular:
He said he saw the removal of the cross as part of a drive to “allow what is not normal and to become normal”. He said he meant abortion, gay marriage and “assisted dying” as issues which were not normal.
Mr Culloty said it was his job to promote his faith “in a respectful way” and the special place of Christianity and Catholicism would not be removed from Irish life until the people of Ireland ever choose to change the constitution and honour “the Koran” or any other religious symbol in place of the cross.
Read the entire article here.
It has been ten years since The Onion published its spoof of controversies over NEA-funded antics. By the time it appeared in 2004, audiences were pretty well accustomed to what Hilton Kramer once termed “a jolly rape of public sensibilities.” Writing in 1996, Kramer declared it almost went without saying that the “America-as-merde” tenor of so much recognized art arrives supported by NEA grants.
That was also the year a professor at Bates College, William Pope, received a $20.000 grant for two performance pieces: In one, he would chain himself to an ATM machine in his underwear. In the second, according to news accounts, he planned to walk around New York City wearing a six-foot long white tube as a mammoth codpiece. This, you recall, followed on the heals Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ of blessed memory and preceded the foofaraw over Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum.
Whatever your position on the benefits of a federal hand in the artsparticularly to individual artistsThe Onion piece is an evergreen. It is still fun to read after so many years, so many assaults brought to us with taxpayer dollars.
KANSAS CITY, MORepublican lawmakers and conservative religious groups blasted the National Endowment For The Arts & Crafts Tuesday, claiming that the organization has allocated federal funds for “obscene crafts.
The $15,000 grant in question was awarded last October to Detroit arts & craftsman Albert Kahle, 39, for a nine-foot macramé penis titled “Father (By Mother),” which is currently part of the Macramazement! exhibit at the prestigious National Gallery Of Arts & Crafts in Kansas City, MO.
“‘Father (By Mother)’ is neither art nor craft,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) said. “It’s trash. The fact that American taxpayers are paying for this kind of lewd handiwork is outrageous.”
The macramé-work phallus comprises three discrete elements: testicles, shaft, and head. The testicles are knotted in Double Alternating Lark’s Head style and decorated with black maple beads. The shaft of the penis, knotted of Tammy’s Hemp Cord in flesh tone, is embellished with subtle strands of Half-Knot sinnet cord in light blue and Amy’s Cord in pale lavender. The head, the most detailed portion of the work, is embellished with a spray of silver glitter.
The Onion’s burlesque description of the art work is a pitch-perfect rendition of what art criticism has been reduced to. When grounds for judgment have disappeared or are dismissed, detailed description is all that is left. Reportage continues:
When expressing the human condition through craft, the craftsman is responsible only to himself,” Sirota [fictional NEAC spokesman] said. “It takes great courage to pick up those popsicle sticks and empty dishwashing-soap bottles and bring something forth out of the ether. The creative space is outside Congress’ jurisdiction.”
The macramé penis is Kahle’s first phallic work of art & craft to receive media attention. His other major works include a shoebox diorama titled “Abe Lincoln In The Bathtub,” a 13-foot-tall newspaper and poster-paint papier-mâché penis titled “What’s Black And White And Red All Over?,” and “Pin(whee)ls,” a collection of 200 pinwheels made of construction paper, pencils, and clippings from pornographic magazines.
“If people took the time to explore ‘Father (By Mother),’ there would be no controversy,” Kahle said. “The piece is not prurient. The true meaning of the piece is located on its head, where glitter was applied with Elmer’s Glue. Every speck of glitter is a tiny mirror reflecting the observer. At end, this piece is about love, sex, birth: what we came from.”
Lurking beneath the satire, is a serious comment on the pretensions of art and the cultural exhaustion they represent. Read the entire piece here. First have fun. Then weep.
Now is it official. There is no need for more speculation about the whereabouts of Michael Hull, the disappearing pastor of Manhattan’s Guardian Angel parish and director of the Sheen Center.
Charles II (Charles the Bad) Preaching to Clerics (14th C.). Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.
The Scottish Episcopal Church has announced the appointment of Dr. Hull as its Director of Studies. He is currently living out his baptismal call by Skype at the Mercer School of Theology on Long Island. The former monsignor conducts classes through the ether from his conjugal home in northern Italy. Now an Episcopalian, he will assume his post in Scotland this January, after semester end at Mercer. This appears on the Church’s website:
The Rev Anne Tomlinson, Principal of SEI said “Dr Hull’s scholarship, experience, pedagogic skills and humanity will bring much to the SEI staff team as together we seek to form people as competent and confident authorized public ministers for the Church of God. I look forward enormously to welcoming him into the SEI community, to working with him and learning from him.”
The Rt Rev Kevin Pearson, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles and Convener of the Institute Council said “This is an exciting time in the development of the Scottish Episcopal Institute. Dr Hull brings a remarkable range of skills to the staff team and to the Scottish Episcopal Church.”
Dr Hull says “I am delighted for the opportunity to serve as the Director of Studies! The optimism of the Scottish Episcopal Church in its missional orientation is palpable. The chance to participate in the formation of women and men for authorised ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Institute and to share in the Church’s mission is thrilling. It is with great joy that I look forward to praying, working and growing with everyone in the SEC and SEI as we strive together to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
We know what Rev. Tomlinson means by the word humanity.
The Scottish Episcopal Church, a proud celebrant of diversity, seems tailor-made for this new member of the Anglican communion. It describes itself as a denomination that “delights in its non-established status.” And its liturgies were made in heaven for an ex-priest who not long ago described himself as a card-carrying member of MoMA:
Its patterns of worship are full of drama and colour which link together the experimental and the intellectual.
In the end, Michael Hull has his Sheen Center. (The irony of it! The Center, rumored to have cost at least $20 million, no longer has him.) The only thing left to wonder about is whether Hull came to his new position with a recommendation from the New York Archdiocese. Could any of our episcopate have been that cynical or cavalier? Let us hope not.
No one begrudges Hull his ability to make a living or to continue teaching. But Director of Studies in yet another seminary? An authority intimately involved in the “formation of women and men for authorised ministry”?
Priestly formation takes place within a context of great moral seriousness. It is not the place for a man who brings to the job a middle-aged susceptibility to much younger women. And a taste for lavish digs. (It is still not known where funds came from for the high-end renovation of the Guardian Angel rectory which Hull abandoned shortly after completion.) Both inclinations are askance of the pastoral requirements incumbent on candidates for the ministerial priesthood. So is the chutzpah of a man who apparently feels no need to keep his head down after embarrassing the Church he was committed to serving.
What ever happened to the Scots’ reputation for canniness?
Since social propriety demands that wives wear mourning for their husbands, it is fair that they be reimbursed for their mourning clothes . . . . Since she is legally required to wear mourning but not pay for its cost, it the responsibility of the husband’s heir to provide her with mourning. From a lawsuit, 1757. Quoted by Philippe Aries, The Hour of Our Death.
My mourning has been quite an inconvenience to me this summer. I had just spent all the money I could afford for my summer clothes, and was forced to spend $30 more for black dresses. Julia Ward Howe to Louisa Terry, 1846.
Only recently has society undone it historic role and dismantled the protocols of mourning which it had designed and imposed until the twentieth century. Mourning rituals are not addressed to the dead, but to each other. They are a conversation among ourselvesan exchange between the mourner and the community from which the dead have been evacuated.
Young widow with friend at the end of the First World War (c.1918). Postcard
But community in the traditional sense has largely faded. In its place are fluid alliances of atomized individuals clustered, often in the abstract, as interest groups. Members are kin by dint of condition, practice or purpose e.g. the handicapped, transgender, and hedge fund communities. (Or, as I heard on the news some days ago in what has to be the ultimate corruption of the word: “the terrorist community.”) The gathering of witnesses toward whom the conventions of mourning are directed have dispersed. Or gone to the gym to put mortality at bay.
How, then, does a contemporary museum approach the sensibilities of a century in which death was a constant companion? One chastened by an acutely higher mortality rate and lower life expectancy than our own? Should the Metropolitan Museum of Art present mourning costumes as revelatory items of social history, tribal marks that acknowledge the scandal of death? Or can it take the Anna-Wintour-devil-wears-Prada route, and beat the drum for widow’s weeds as chic?
Fashion Plate (1824). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Reference Library.
Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire at the Met’s Costume Institute takes the gauzier route. The tenor of things is all there in the wording. “Death becomes her” is another, somewhat waspish, way of saying, “She looks good in black.” It is a calculated segue into the mentalité of vintage Vogue. On show is the vanity of melancholy, and its use as a screen between death and the living.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition features mourning dress from 1815 to 1915. Since most men of the time wore black anyway, the evolution of mourning garb concentrates on women’s clothing and accessories. Color and fabric follow the prescribed progression from the total black of early grief to the gradual introduction of grays and mauves that signaled a period of half-mourning. It is a compelling subject that angles into history through dress. Going by the posted blurbs, however, fashion trumps the history it embodies.
Gallery view ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Unquestionably, garments on display offer compelling testimony to the beauty and craftsmanship of the needle arts. With the single exception of what is deemed a homemade dress, every outfit is an exquisite work from talented, high-end dressmakers or from newly emergent vendors specializing in funeral wear. (Intimate with ever-present death, the 1800s and early 1900s created a busy market for bereavement apparel analogous to today’s bridal trade.)
It is impossible to look at the cut, construction and detailing of these dresses and refuse honor to the artistry of their making. Hold for another day the debate over whether fashion is art. Here, it simply enough to recognize needlework as inherently worthy of the aesthetic attention given to what we flatter with the term fine art. In the medium of fabric, this is abstract art applied to the human figure instead of a canvas.
Detail of mourning dress (1902-04). ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Where the show stumbles is in its staging. There is a campiness to the presentation that undercuts the larger cultural value of its own subject and sets entertainment over history. The exhibit opened the last week in October. Halloween hangs over it like Casper the ghost. A-haunting we will go with projected wall texts that fade in and out, wraithlike. A shadow glides across the words for a few disconsolate seconds before one spectral quotation dissolves into another.
In the main, texts posture for audience effect. A sardonic note slips into the printed materials as if to taunt the objects they escort:
Black is becoming; and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing. Robert De Valcourt, The Illustrated Manners Book (1855).
When we see young ladies persist in wearing sable, we are reminded of the reply a young widow made to her mother: “Don’t you see,” said she, “it saves me the expense of advertising for a husband.” D.C. Colesworth, Hints of Common Politeness (1867).
The Scots shut themselves up in total darkness, wear veils, I know not how many folds, but so black that sitting beside them you could not tell whether it is a broomstick dressed up or what it is. Elizabeth Stuart to Mary Baker, 1856.
Charles Henry Dana. Illustration (1900). Metropolitan Museum of Art.
On Halloween night, the Costume Institute celebrated with an invitation to museum-users “to chart their own path through the galleries and join drop-in, interactive experiences with art.” (Not sure what those drop-in experiences entailed; very likely, playing dead was not one of them.)
The doleful sound of Hildur Guonadadóttir’s cello accompanies the display. The sound track irritated me. Plaintive Icelandic hymns about death suppress recollection of the reasons mourning costumes were in such demand in the hundred years featured here. The nineteenth century was a river of blood. Europe convulsed in revolutions, wars of independence or unification. Americans suffered a Civil War that slaughtered a generation of men. Bereavement came blood-stained; widowhood, rampant.
Ms. Guonadadóttir’s contemporary cello loops aestheticize death. They insure a detached, secular response to the crisis of mortality which required these ritual clothes in the first place. Any number of appropriate musical alternatives come to the historically minded. For starters: A Mighty Fortress is Our God or The Strife is Over. Brahms’ How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place would do nicely, as would any arrangement of the Twenty Third Psalm. So would Julia Ward Howe’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is more fitting to the time frame of this exhibition than her tart quotation on the wall.
Queen Victoria, a musician herself, loved John Henry Newman’s Lead Kindly Light. Her dress is here; her favorite hymn is not.
Currier & Ives. Departed Worth (19th C.). Museum of the City of New York.
One text makes reference to the agony of the age. But even that skips quickly to cost:
No, I do not dress in mourning. It is seldom worn now; there are so many deaths. But few put it on even when the nearest and dearest relatives die. There is probably another reason for not donning mourning; it is very expensive now. Dress goods, especially imported, are very dear. Annie Fahs, in a letter written in 1863, during the Civil War.
Trembling at the core of respect for the dead is deference toward death itself. In the end, it is ourselves we mourn for. But Ash Wednesday dampens box office.
Every so often some wit writes to advise me of the exquisite consonance between my postings and my last name. So indulge me for a bit while I take a quick run through a complex etymology. Leave out the Gaels; pass over the Normans who anglicized Gaelic names within the Pale. I do not need too much. Just enough to illustrate how beautiful this ancient clan name appears in Gaelic: Ó Maelearchaidh. Phonetically, the Old Irish spelling is identical to the modern variant, Mullarkey. But you must pronounce it with a lilt. Do your best. Listen as you say it. The music of it fills me with regret that my husband had no interest in reclaiming the historic form of his patronymic surname.
To paraphrase Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: “I could have been a Maelearchaidh.”
Banquet of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Hotel Astor. Museum of the City of New York, NYC.
The anglicized version, Mullarkey, appears on British records in Ulster in the 1600’s. Family tradition has it that the Mullarkeys were among the Irish Catholics cleansed from Ulster by Cromwell’s 1652 Act of Settlement. The Act confiscated Catholic-owned properties and sent native Irish east of the Shannon into exile. Dispossessed, the clan was driven onto the poorer soil of Connacht and Clare. Some dispersed to the hard landscape of Mayo, where my husband’s people farmed as best they could amid rock and peat.
Charles Muller. Exile of Irish Catholic Youth (1655). Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon.
Early on in my professional life, I was encouraged to shed my married name. My maiden name was pretty; it had a sturdy British ring to it. No popular banality attached to it. Besides, women were increasingly accustomed to keeping the name they were born with. But I had not chosen my birth name nor the male line that gave it to me. I did choose my husband. I took his name as I took him, a gift. I understood it not an erasure of identityas feminist thinking had itbut as a sign of the perfection of it.
We were very youngtoo young to know that the answer to the question What’s in a name? is: More than you think.
Conservatives whaled me for “degrading” America, purists for representing things, and the radicals were mad because I didn’t put in Nikolai Lenin as an American prophet.
Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America, 1983
If it’s not art, it’s at least history.
Thomas Hart Benton, New York Times, 1968
But it is art. Incontestably and splendidly so. With the politics and dogmatic arguments of American modernism behind us, Benton’s first mural commission can be seen for the glory that it is. His ten-panel cross-section of American life, America Todaydonated to the Metropolitan Museum and on display until next Aprilis an epic kaleidoscope that embodies the intimacy between visual art and United States social history in the first third of the twentieth century. Here is the restless pulse of the Jazz Age, painted just before an intoxicated nation sobered in realization of the full effects of the 1929 stock market crash. This is the mural series credited with prompting the federal mural project of the WPA in the 1930s. And it put Benton on the cover of Time, 1934.
Thomas Hart Benton, City Activities with Dance Hall (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
A bastion of progressive adult education, the New School for Social Research commissioned the mural series for its board room in 1930. José Clemente Orozco had just received a commission to paint murals for the school’s public dining room and student lounge. Uninterested in the pure fresco Orozco practiced, Benton was eager to experiment with mural techniques on large panels to be installed upon completion. So eager was he that he took no fee for the commission, asking only to be compensated for materials. (“I’ll paint you a picture in tempera if you finance the eggs.”) He was ambitious for stature; America Today achieved it.
It seemed an inspired paring, Benton and Orozco. Both artists were committed to grand themes imbued with social significance. Both counted themselves on the left. Both were the nation’s most prominent spokesmen for mural painting as the premier medium for public architecture. Their work was complementary in intention and technique. Yet Orozco’s New School murals have not aged well while Benton’s retain their persuasive power.
José Clemente Orozco. Struggle in the Orient: Slavery, Imperialism & Gandhi (1930). New School, NYC.
The Mexican painter’s sententious fresco cycle lingers as a visual correlative to the rhetoric of social revolution promoted in the 1920s by editorials in New Masses. Popular in their time, today his murals carry the weight of a blunt instrument. I cannot look at his fervid assertions of the brotherhood of man without thinking of heavy machinery and the Red Army. The sensibility inherent in them hintsdespite self-conscious commiseration, devoid of warmth, with the wretched of the earthat the inhumanity at the heart of the millenarian ideology that inflected Orozco’s art.
By contrast, Benton’s dynamic Instruments of Power, the central panel of America Today, is animated by the ebullience of a decade that witnessed the flight of Charles Lindbergh and the passenger-carrying Graf Zeppelin. Benton understood the motive sources of industrial powerwater, steam, electricity, the internal combustion engineto be, also, the prime movers of an industrial democracy. The Machine Age had no lovelier apotheosis than this.
Thomas Hart Benton. Instruments of Power (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
While not a member of the Communist party, Benton was a Marxist himself in the early Twenties. His disenchantment with orthodox Marxism came later, as it did to his friends Max Eastman and Sidney Hook. Still, he remained a populist, his cultural leftism refined by a pragmatism that led him to tell the socially-conscious Survey in 1930:
I realized that the supposed and much-harped-upon standardization of America was a neat descriptive formula which bore only a surface relation to fact. My experience had brought out infinite varieties of ways of living and doing which the formula did not fit.
The hero of America Today is the working man: the farmer, steel worker, construction worker, coal miner. But Benton’s enthusiasm for technology and American vitality was not naive. Coal, below, is an exquisitely rendered depiction of a bleak, back-breaking industry. The panel, aflame with social protest, is the single work that comes close to unrelieved pessimism. The stooped miners, the slag heaps, the shanties on a hillall in service to a giant electrical plant belching smoke. The artist’s personal ambivalence toward a troubled industry in the Twenties is conveyed through formal means that maintain their aesthetic appeal even while withholding assent from their subject. It is a commanding performance that has few equals in modern painting.
Thomas Hart Benton. Coal (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
Benton’s preparatory drawings for the murals are exhibited in a room adjoining the reconstructed board room setting. These are a feast in themselves. He had a firm hand, drawing with force and expressive intensity. Master of the classical essentiallinehe brought to it a bold confidence that endowed with life every form he modeled, from machine parts to the human figure. His drawings obey William Morris Hunt’s dictum: “Draw firm! And be jolly!” Spend time with them. They tell us why Ingres referred to drawing as “the probity of art.”
Thomas Hart Benton. Dancer (1930). Whitney Museum, NYC.
Balmoral Castle, 1874. It was a Halloween to remember. Queen Victoria planned an elaborate party, taking charge of designing every element of the night herself. Something in the incongruity of that touches me. Victoria, living with the ghost of Prince Albert, sought to stave off the monstrous with a Halloween bash.
W.S. Stacey. Queen Victoria’s Halloween. From The Life and Times of Queen Victoria, 1897.
Diana Millay’s The Power of Halloween, is a witch-friendly potboiler that you need not bother reading. But even a bad book can have something worth plucking:
The Queen’s lavish preparations and attention to detail may have run a close second to her coronation. Masked balls were nothing new to her. Nor were holidays which she believed she was born to celebrate.
The Queen invited not only friends and royal relatives, but also her tenant farmers and castle servants to join in a torch light procession around the palace grounds. They walked while she rode in a four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage. With a fiery torch in every hand (including the Queen’s), this strange but exotic procession was only the beginning. How cleverly she had set the stage for her indoor celebration: Balmoral by candlelight. It must have been hard to tell the ghosts from the guests.
That last sentence is a bit breathy but it suits the day. More precisely, it is of a piece with what the day has become. I prefer real ghosts to the cheesy inflatable ghouls that sway on every front lawn between here and the Henry Hudson Bridge. Even the citythe Upper West Side, for heaven’s sake!has its growing share of orange lights and fake cobwebs. The campiness of it all irks me. I prefer a good fright. Something to curdle the blood.
Eugene Grasset. Three Women & Three Wolves (c.1900). Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.
Either that, or bring me some sign of genial accommodation with the dead. Each of us lives with ghosts. We call them saints to console ourselves for the mystery of their whereabouts. There is solace in the word saint. It deflects dread but does not erase it. Some humor brought to the unseen, to all that is concealed and goes unnamed, complements the hope we have for ourselves and for our dead.
Contemporary Halloween aims at nothing more than mocking the death-conjuring unease inherent in mortality. There is no humor in our Halloween stuffs, only inanity.
George Cruikshank. The Ghost of Mrs. Leckie (1830).