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.
Beauty will save the worlda mantra among contemporary Christians issuing from the mouth of a character in nineteenth century Russian fiction.
Susan Walp. Small Red Apples in a Berry Box (2011).
Augustine’s Beauty has already saved the world. Our ransom has been paid. What matters now is whether the world cooperates with its redemption or flouts it. History will tell in the end. The arts of the beautiful are weightless in the balance. They can only scratch at the surfaceif thatof moral beauty.
But moral beauty is not the artist’s province. The artist as artist has command of sensible beauty alone. The delight of it is a good to those who recognize it. But it saves no one.
Susan Walp. Late Winter Beet and Spring-Dug Burdock (2010).
Artists who set out to turn beauty on its head do so in the high-minded conviction that material beauty serves the enemy. Delectation, the spiritual weapon of a dying class, distracts from the artist’s presumed role to change the world. Conscientious objection to society’s unruly way of things has been a prime motivator in the arts since the early decades of the twentieth century. Art, the imagined locus of progressive revelation, must stride forward to correct those conditions of civilized life that mask the rot at the core. Among these righteous refusers, social justice is the beauty that redeems and regenerates. The rest is for lounge lizards.
Ghana Think Tank, a portable work station rolling through Queens, NY.
Presented by Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art.
Paladins of beauty on the right, partisans of art-as-social-action on the leftquixotic world improvers in both camps. They are mirror images of one another.
Tikkun olam. Both sides view art as an act of repair, a means to something otherlargerthan itself. Both make of the artist a scold, a moralist on the barricades. Each thinks lofty thoughts of itself. Each seizes upon art to display stirring vistas from the piazza of its own sensibility.
Caitlin Caudwell, BFA candidate. “Never Settled” (2013).
Department of Visual Studies, SUNY at Buffalo.
Christ figures have peopled literature for centuries: Don Quixote, Dickens’ Sydney Carton and his far, far, better self-oblation, Melville’s Billy Budd, Graham Greene’s “whisky priest,” Faulkner’s impaired Benjy, on down to Frodo Baggins. The list is long. Longer still if we add film: Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada , Babette and her agape meal in Babette’s Feast , the mysterious stranger in Shane ; Father Barry in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. We could go on listing.
Dostoevsky’s idiot, Prince Myshkin, is a creation of inimitable genius. All the more pressing, then, to be careful of what we make of it.
Interpreting The Idiot in 1919, shortly after the word Bolshevik had come into use, Hermann Hesse advanced a Christ figure that came to rancid flower in the 1960s:
The fact that this foe of order, this frightful destroyer, appears not as a criminal but as a shy, endearing person full of childlikeness and charm, a good-hearted, self-less, benevolent man, this is the secret of this terrifying book . . . .
The future is uncertain, but the road that is shown here is unambiguous. It means spiritual revaluation. It leads through Myshkin and calls for “magical thinking,” the acceptance of chaos. Return to the incoherent, to the unconscious, to the formless, to the animal, and far beyond the animal to the beginning of all things.
Every literary Christ figure is an artifact of language, a trope. However exalted the language, it remains what it is: an extended metaphor. In other words: art.
How privileged we are to have the leisure and resources that permit us to criss-cross the boundaries between art and life. And how precarious the crossing.
Yip Chen. Inside the Cage on Black Friday (2008). Vermont College of Fine Arts.
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 mana “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 narrativeor literaryimpulse 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.
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.
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 themthe table tops, the books, the fruit plateare 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, quotidianthat newspaper! nod to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. )
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 colorits suggestion of advance and retreatis a grammar in itself. La Fresnaye had a genius for it.
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 itshare himwith 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.
The feeling for things in themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures.
Vincent Van Gogh
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.
Mike Walsh, MM. The Hudson Dragon (2013). Looking west across the Hudson at serpentine clouds that spread like a Chinese dragon over the highlands.
I love the words of that psalm. They repeat in my heart like a mantra. This is the day not just today, October 10; not yesterday or tomorrow but the entire span of our days. And the times in which our days are lived. We cannot embrace one in separation from the other, however much we might wish to.
How the psalmist’s lovely proclamation applies to the way we think about art had been the intended springboard for this morning’s post. As luck would have it, a reader got there ahead of me with his response in the comment section to the previous post. Here it is in full, from Richard T.:
Like all human activity, art suffers from cycles of good and bad. Yet even in those cycles, the opposite exists. In the worst of times, good exists. And in the best of times, bad also exists.
I have often wondered how much bad art existed, say 500 years ago. My guess is that there was plenty of bad art, but it was so bad that it ended up in with the garbage. Good art was more likely protected, because it was obviously valuable. Thus it survived.
What distinguishes our current “bad” era is not so much a lack of good art (there is plenty, if one looks for it) but that bad art is the most popular and highly praised. I have faith that some day, many decades from now, we will come to our senses and give good art the praise and attention it deserves.
The comment that there is plenty of good art is spot on. And, yes, one has to search it out, beat the bushes, only because we live under such an avalanche of art stuffs. By a peculiar kind of Gresham’s law, the volume of banal or just plain bad art drives the good out of view. There are reasons for this and I want to talk about them in the by-and-by. But first, it is crucial to consider that it is quite likely that there is no less gracious art being produced today than there ever was. It is not commissioned by princes or cardinals. It is not distinctly religious in character. It has available to it a widened range of materials. But it is real, it is good, and it is ours. Let us be glad.
Art is an eminently earthly thing.
Pierre Revardy (1927)
Beautiful things are those which please when seenand, 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)
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 discoveryreaders 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.
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 andin today’s phrasedoing 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 myopianot to say crudityof “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 compellingcertainly to methan 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.
“Charles,” said Cordelia, “Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it.”
“Oh, I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try to criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist, and snubs to her.”
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Robert Ohnigian’s studio table and works in progress.
Just because Waugh wrote it does not make it true. All the same, it is hard to blame him, writing as he was in the wake of Dada’s aggressive anti-art impulse. Dada delighted in sticking a finger in the eye of what it considered the rancid bourgeoisie. (Their delectations, Dadaists reasonably assumed, had been rendered sterile in the face of the butcheries of the Great War). Waugh held to the belief that art should please. Doubtless, we are all with him on that.
We just need to remember that the terms of pleasure have to be negotiated, recalibrated, from one age to the next. We are called to live into leaventhe age in which we find ourselves. Nostalgia is a dead end, associated with senescence for a reason. Modernity is not about to be rolled back. That it can be is a melancholy quixoticism that robs us of what is realizable in the times allotted to us. As Gregory Wolfe emphasized recently to the Catholic Artists Society, the Middle Ages are over. So is the Renaissance.
Keep in mind the price Orpheus paid for looking back. Lot’s wife, the same.
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s declaration“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it”is an imperious assertion blind to the spiritual quest that attended the birth of modernism. Beauty, like grace, is all around us; it has been all along. We need only the will to see it. In the visual arts, that often means looking past brand names and the trademark culture too often taken for culture itself.
Robert Ohnigian. Catalonia (2013); paper collage on antique book cover, 5 1/8 x 8 1/4 inches. Davis & Langdale Company, New York City.
Robert Ohnigian’s Lilliputian capriccioinvented landscapeis one of eighteen recent collages executed in the past year. They are up already at Davis & Langdale in New York City. Between now and November 9th, anyone in Manhattan or passing through owes it to Beautyas Platonic as it getsto stop in. This is transporting work. I do not know Ohnigian; have never met him. But the Blakeian quality of his work (“the world in a grain of sand”), together with the poignant loveliness of materials that carry their own historynineteenth century books with their steel engravingshas entranced me since I first saw it.
His pieces are so small, so intimate, that they do not reproduce well in jpg. format. The stains and mottling of aged papers, the subtle shift of tone from one book paper to another, the allure of paper quality and its historicity, the visual witlittle of this translates on the web. For that reason only one piece is soloed above. You really cannot see them except up close and in the flesh. All the grace notes of texture and tone disappear in reproduction.
In a culture dominated by celebrity, the scale and calm of Robert Ohnigian’s quiet collages is counter-cultural in the most gracious sense of the word.
Alexandra Athanassiades. Horse LVIII (2005).
Pleasure of another kind is on show at Kouros Gallery Sculpture Center, Ridgefield. Manhattan lost a major sculpture gallery when Kouros closed its doors in May, 2012, after thirty one years on 73rd and Madison. Exhibitions continue, however, at the Center and in the home of Kouros’ owners, Angelos Camillos and actress Charlotte Hampden. It is a delightful way to view art, the very best. Art is meant to be lived without on the grass, in your housenot worshipped.
The current exhibition, opening this Sunday, observes the range of styles and periods that has been Kouros’ hallmark. The work of internationally exhibited sculptors keeps company with historic pieces and contemporary paintings and drawings. Included are a ninth century Cypriot terracotta, an eighteenth century map of Thermopyle, abstract painting of the Greek landscape by the legendary Aristodimus Kaldis (d.1979), and so much more. Among my long-time favorites have been the horses and torsosvariations on the Trojan horse and warrior chest platesbuilt up from driftwood and metal scraps by Alexandra Athanassiades. These are haunting transfigurations of neglected and homely materials into objects of abiding beauty.
John Atkin. Sentinel (2013). Marble.
This exhibition “Warriors” has two opening dates: October 6 and October 13, 2 to 6 PM. If you want to attend, RSVP your preference! Exhibition will continue through November.
Kouros Sculpture Center, 150 Mopus Bridge Road, Ridgefield, CT 06877. Tel: 203.438.7636 or Email: email@example.com.
What is beauty ? The question is better left to philosophers. It is a bootless one for artists to brood over. It does nothing to enhance the work of an artist’s hand. It is the experience of beautysensory, emotional, psychologicalnot any definition that makes an artist’s work intelligible to himself. Herself. Creators of the greatest beauty possess it by instinct. Yet, the question has become a species of branding device among Christian, particularly Catholic, artists. It is the asking that matters more than the answer.
Hand-colored illustration of a peach and its flower from a German garden magazine (1809). It appears online at www.kulterbe.niedersachsen.de.
The ultimate, if cloaked, purpose of the question is to indicate a well-stocked mind. It leads inescapably to referencescarried casually like a vintage purseto what the Scholastics understood as an attribute of God. Curtsying to beauty’s acquired status as a transcendental has become a credential, a certificate, in its way, of one’s Thomist pedigree. No small degree of intellectual vanity inhabits the inquiry. It offers itself as evidence that artists, too, can get past the goalie in the gray cell department.
But once there, what then? Sensuous beauty as a herald of moral beauty, followed by the equivalence of moral beauty with goodness, takes us past Augustine, past Cicero and the Stoics, back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. (“The beautiful is that which is desirable for its own sake, and pleasant, or that which, being good, is pleasurable because it is good.”)
The Goodso pure, simple in upper case; messy and misleading in lower. Whose good? (Catch the golden showers scene in Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette, a benchmark in the pantheon of queer cinema, before you answer.) The Ethical Fallacygood men build good buildings, et ceteralurks below the surface of much Christian discussion of beauty in the arts.
Paul Cézanne. The Card Players (1890-90). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
What is beauty? When I hear the question, my mind goes straight to Cézanne for two reasons. The first might sound silly but I do not mind: Imagine a card game where one of the players cannot make a move until he rises to reflectout loud, eyes off his cardson the meaning of chance.
Sit down, Jack. Keep quiet and play your hand.
My second reason is more sober. Though Cézanne was a believing Catholic, his greatness as a painter had nothing to do with his faith. Deduction can coax no hint of his Catholicism out of his painting. (John Rewald cites 1891 as the year Cézanne, in his early fifties, embraced his natal tradition and turned devout.) In his work, Cézanne built upon his precedents, not metaphysical musings. And despite his brilliance as a painter, his Catholicism put him on the wrongreactionaryside of the Dreyfus affair. (His allegiance to the largely Catholic anti-Dreyfusards cost him his life-long friendship with Émile Zola.)
Georges de la Tour. The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds (1635). Musée de Louvre, Paris.
Gregory Wolfe, founder and publisher of Image Journal , recently gave the inaugural lecture to the newly formed Catholic Artists Society. He spoke eloquently on behalf of the freedom of the arts despite his own felt constraints in speaking under the auspices of the Thomistic Institute. The talk he gave was very good. The talk he really wanted to give would have been even better. The one he strained at the bit to deliver was epitomized in the anecdote he related about Flannery O’Connor. As Wolfe tells it, O’Connor, on the stump as a writer, suffered the usual question from a member of the audience: “Why do you write?” Without a second’s hesitation, O’Connor shot back: “Because I am good at it.”
Wonderful! O’Connor’s reply assents, in spirit, to Dorothy Sayers’ insistence that the only Christian art is good art. Both observations should be tacked to artists’ studio walls. Certainly, the particular awareness and challenges of novelists are different from those of visual artists. So, too, is the nature of their materialswords. Nevertheless, both O’Connor and Sayers grasped that at the heart of any artistic endeavor is talent and commitment to craft. For the Christian, that implies the humility to view clearly the character and dimensions of one’s own gift.
Acknowledgment is ensnared in a thousand seductions. Humility is hard to acquire and rocky to sustain in any life. It becomes all the harder for artists when voices within the Church, the very guardian of that virtue, insist on flattering them as keepers of a special kind of metaphysics.
Note: I had identified My Beautiful Laundrette as a Wim Wenders film. Not so. It was directed by Stephen Frears. All fixed above.
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.
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 dissolvesoggy, Oprahfiedinto 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 geeksyou know who you arecan 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:
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:
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 alienationpassing 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.
VII. Tu belleza se llamará también misericordia, y consolará el corazón de los hombres.
Gabriela Mistral, Decálogo del Artista
The beauty that you create shall also be called compassion, and shall console the hearts of men. I painted that seventh commandment of Gabriela’s “Decalogue of the Artist” across the old built-in china cabinets that line one dining room wall. I sketched it first in pencil to get the spacing right, then brushed over the sketch with ivory black in a version of chancery hand. The quotation spans the wall in the original Spanish because the poetrythe musicof the words resides in her own language.
I seized that single commandment for myself but let drop the de los hombres. The phrase was too grand, too sweeping in its embrace. The consolation any one of us can offer is singular, individual. Even at that, it extends only to those few with the intuition to meet and greet it.
Studio artists have to tread carefully through claims for the redemptive powers of beauty. Reading Gabriela’s “Decalogue,” it is critical to keep in mind what she meant by the work artist. She was addressing herself to other writers, to keepers of the word who grasped the tragic dimensions of life.
Antonio Frasconi. The Sheep. Illustration from Frasconi’s book “The World Upside Down” (1953). Here, a sheep herds a flock of humans.
Petrograd, 1919: From the villages in the north of Russia came several thousands of peasants, some hundreds of whom were housed in the Winter Palace of the Romanovs. When the congress was over, and these people had gone away, it appeared that not only all the baths of the palace, but also a great number of priceless Sevres, Saxon, and oriental vases had been befouled by them for lavatory use. It was not necessary to do this since the lavatories of the palace were in good order and the water system working. No, this vandalism was an expression of the desire to sully and debase things of beauty. Two revolutions and a war have supplied me with hundreds of cases of this lurking, vindictive tendency in people, to smash, deform, ridicule, and defame the beautiful .
Maxim Gorki, Days with Lenin
Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was the first Latin American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. That was in 1945, thirty one years after a young, unknown Chilean schoolteacher, Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, won first prize in a national poetry contest with “Los Sonetos de la Muerte” (“Sonnets of Death”). She wrote under the pen name of Gabriela Mistral. An evocative pseudonym, it honored the archangel Gabriel together with the relentless mistral wind that blows over the south of France. Gabriela’s literary fame began with that prize, awarded in 1914. Sixteen-year-old Pablo Neruda lived in the town in which she served as principal of the local liceo . He was an early admirer, an avid reader of her poetry.
Announcement of the 1945 Nobel Prize to Gabriela Mistral surprised many literate Americans who had never heard her name despite great popularity in the Spanish-speaking world. She was recognized at home as not only a vital and original lyric force but also a moral force. Always a teacher first, only secondarily a poet, she considered teaching a spiritual maternity. In her verse portrait of a rural teacher, she stressed the virtue of purity: A teacher must be pure so that she can guard the purity of her charges, the children of Jesus.
Margaret Bates’ 1946 address to Trinity College undergraduates describes her this way:
She is profound, for the springs of her inspiration go deep. Her roots are nourished by the first waters of the Hispanic tradition, el pueblo , by the Bible, and by the classics of her language. Her patria is that great spiritual fatherland which speaks the language of Saint Teresa, [Luis de] Góngora, and Azorín.
Doris Dana, translator of Gabriela’s poetry into English, found among thousands of pages of manuscript left behind one small fragment: They shall not die. No, no one dies except he who has never lived.
Gabriela Mistral’s “Decalogue,” appears in Desolación ( Desolation ), published in 1922. It is readily available online but best read in a dual-language edition. The loveliest of these is Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral , a 1971 edition by Johns Hopkins Press, illustrated with the woodcuts of Antonio Frasconi. Born in Argentina and raised in Uruguay, Frasconi lived and worked in the United States until his death earlier this year. A renowned practitioner of woodcut, he was given a last tribute in his obituary in the New York Times. It included this:
Mr. Frasconi did not reach this pinnacle by adhering to orthodoxies. . . . He decried art education, saying the average student does not learn the pertinent questions, much less the answers. He abhorred art that dwelt on aesthetics at the expense of social problems. He repeatedly addressed war, racism and poverty, and devoted a decade to completing a series of woodcut portraits of people who were tortured and killed under a rightist military dictatorship in his home country, Uruguay, from 1973 to 1985.
He was a fitting choice to illustrate Gabriela’s work. In his own, he observed her ninth commandment:
IX. Beauty shall not be an opiate that puts you to sleep but a strong wine that fires you to action, for if you fail to be a true man or a true woman, you will fail to be an artist
Antonio Frasconi. After the Rain (1969).
What appears below is not what I had planned for today’s posting. The press release came through email as I was pouring my second cup of Barry’s Irish tea. Broadcast by the San Francisco MOMA. it is worth a look for a specific purpose. Beauty has become a seductive catchword among Christian artists. But. like any seduction, it obscures as much as it displays. Beauty is truth? Not necessarily; not here on the ground where Platonic categories smother in the earthbound air. In our quotidian world, beauty can serve false promises, an enticement to ends with no good in them. Certainly not as Christian devotees of beauty define the good.
Zanele Muholi. Caitlin and I, Boston (2009). Collection of Christopher Meany. Promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Born in South Africa, the photographer uses her work as a tool to promote acceptance of lesbianism. Wikipedia, the go-to site for the digital generation, explains with characteristic eloquence: “Her work is mostly about bringing visibility of queers in the black community.”
And she does it well. Viewed strictly from the standpoint of technique and composition, Caitlin and I, Boston, is a fine photograph. The figure of Caitlin is beautiful; she reclines with the same languid grace of Antonio Canova’s marble Naiad.
In concert with each other, the two figures convey less overt sexuality than Canova’s celebrated Cupid and Psyche. It is the insinuation of lesbianism into the composition that sets it apart from neoclassical prototypes. The controlled, lissome ease of the pair accomplishes its intention: to erase any suggestion of the grotesque from lesbian sexuality. Beauty is used here for social ends. For as long as there is contention over what those ends should be, beautylike art itselfcan serve any doctrine or ideology. It can sell any product or, as we like to say, lifestyle.
Hugh Hamilton. Canova in his studio with Henry Tresham viewing a plaster model for Canova’s “Cupid and Psyche” (1788-89)
Sidney Finkelstein, American Marxist and lover of the beautiful, understood the social function of art as something which brings to the fore of social consciousness “a changed view of reality that has already been prepared for by the collective operations of society.”
The nature of beauty is a problem for philosophers, not artists. Marx’s own comment has some bearing here:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
We cannot assume that devotion to beauty will change it in a way consistent with Judeo-Christian expectations.
Within a year of Matt Talbot’s death, the first biography of his life appeared. Written so soon after death, the author, Sir Joseph Glynn, had access to people who knew him. Publication of that first brief version triggered immediate and wide-spread devotion. Matt’s pauper’s gravesince movedbecame an urgent pilgrimage site. As early as 1931 the Archbishop of Dublin initiated formal inquiries into his sanctity and asked that any “favors” received through his intercession be reported to him.
But how are such favors recognized? How are the rhythms of cure measured when the pathology is alcoholism or drug addiction? How do the Church’s saint-makers determine that any former alcoholic or addict owes sobriety to a particular Servant of God, or to none at all despite claims to prayer? How long does sobriety have to last? If relapse occurs, is that a strike against the saint’s performance?
Doctors cannot verify a cure when the affliction does not not reside in an organ or limb. Miracles of the moral life go undetected by PET scans. The will to stay sober is hidden from quantitative means, batteries of diagnostic tests, and imaging systems. In 2002 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Cause of Saints rejected Matt Talbot’s. The canonical demand for an incontrovertible miracle was deemed unmet. In the words of a respondent to the previous post:
He’s the perfect patron for alcoholics. . . . Yet, until he restores someone’s eyesight or heals the lame, the cause for which it seems he was made will go without its saint.
Class and politicscall it pastoral perspectiveinsinuate themselves into formal procedures sensitive to the diplomatic and communal dimensions of a candidacy. Viewed from the corridors of Vatican City, Matt Talbot was a man of no consequence whose demon was personal. Edith Stein, by contrast, was a well-placed scholar and an intellectual, at once a Carmelite nun and a German Jewish convert. Murdered in the demonic sweep of twentieth century history, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross could be situated in the ancient tradition of virgin martyrs. A candidacy such as hers brings with it opportunities for institutional distinctionat an historic momentabsent from Talbot’s. Drunks are an undistinguished constituency.
The parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15), radiant with promise of redemption, took on flesh in the life of this inconspicuous man. In his modesty and simplicity of heart, honed by austerities modeled on the ascetic practices of Irish monasticism, he achieved a holiness that has moved countless others. Halfway houses, hostels, and residences for homeless men are named in his honor from Dublin and Glasgow to San Francisco, and beyond to Australia and Tasmania. A hospital for recovering alcoholics opened in Krakow in 2000. The Matt Talbot retreat movement has spread through Canada, the United States and Mexico. There is even a Yahoo group, the Matt Talbot Way of Recovery, for Catholics struggling with addiction of one kind or another. The group claims him as a model who lived the Twelve Steps before they were even formulated.
The life of an ordinary laborer, who slept in a narrow tenement room after a ten-hour day in a dockside lumber yard, is luminous with meaning for untold lives in a racked world. Rejection of Talbot’s cause for lack of a definitive miracle reminds mehard to explain just whyof John XXIII’s lament that Vatican City is the hardest place on earth to remain a Christian.
If your Uncle Marty achieves sobriety, will it be because Aunt Mary implored Matt Talbot? Or because Marty’s mother went straight to a long-standing heavy hitter like St. Jude? How to write up the score?
I understand why miracles are sought by the credentialing folk. Still, are proofs of sanctity truly essential? Open to wonderment, we are called to trust. Reliance on stamped, counter-signed affidavits of what remains, ultimately, beyond the realm of verification seems discourteous to the absolute mystery at the heart of things. After the careful, prayerful work of designating a venerable, why not let be? Matt’s heroic virtue had already been affirmed outside the theater of certified marvels.
Written in expectation of canonization, Fr. Dolan’s 1947 pamphlet was directed toward alcoholics and with express generosity toward Alcoholics Anonymous (“that splendid organization”):
The recommendations of Alcoholics Anonymous, in turn, are modern adaptations of the rules for temperance taught for centuries by the Church . . . sympathetic assistance to other inebriates . . . is a form of Christian charity practiced by the St. Vincent de Paul Society but not so successfully or universally as by A.A.
And the ground of that success? It was already shifting when Fr. Dolan was writing:
What is the motive that will establish the will not to drink? The conviction that intemperance is a sin, an offense against God, a sin that . . . also injures the alcoholic and his family, a sin that involves injustice and uncharitableness to all concerned.
Talbot’s hard road to recovery began with guilt, a sense forged in the Catholic culture of Ireland in his day. Dolan reflects on the more recent understanding of alcoholism as an illness. He grants it limited creditand lists those creditsbut also warns against the danger of exaggerating it:
To summarize, it does not matter whether the alcoholic needs or does not need to begin with hospitalization and medication, for once this treatment has been given, the campaign against relapse must be planned as Matt Talbot planned, and for the same motives and by the same means.
Prayer. And fellowship.
What, precisely, are we doing when we call upon the saints? He Whose eye is on the sparrow knew our needs and undisclosed desires before we felt them. And we stand warned against hunger for signs and wonders. To seek them seems . . . how to put it? . . . impertinent, even ungrateful. The miraculous is all around us. We are bound by miracle; we inhabit it. Our very being is a miracle to set the cosmos aflame. How much spectacle, then, do we need? It takes cheek, I think, to requisition temporal feats from the holy dead.
Matt Talbot battled to sanctify his ordinariness. He made of it a gift to the self-giving God. That is miracle enough. Perhaps the mostand the bestwe can ask of any saint is to breathe a hint of divine warmth into the heart of an anguished beloved. And into our own.
All praise to you, Matt Talbot.//
Note: Those interested in Talbot’s life should look for the expanded 1942 edition of Joseph Glynn’s The Life of Matt Talbot (the basis of all subsequent bios) and two by Mary Purcell: Matt Talbot and His Times (1977, American Edition) and her Remembering Matt Talbot (1990). Purcell’s biographies, first published in 1954, benefited from the two official enquiries into Matt Talbot’s holiness, first in 1931 and again in 1948.