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Posts Tagged ‘Caravaggio’

The Wreck of Western Culture by John CarrollThe Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

I hadn’t heard of John Carroll before I picked up this book, but I felt as though I’d read him before. The Wreck of Western Culture reminded me strongly of John Gray. But it’s much longer than Gray’s recent books and discusses art, music and film, not just literature. I also think Carroll is a deeper thinker and better writer. He’s an Australian professor of sociology, not an English philosopher, but his very clever and compelling analysis of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) isn’t marred by jargon or pretension. Anyone who has looked at the painting and noticed the distorted skull hanging at the feet of the two ambassadors must have wondered why the skull is there.

Carroll supplies a convincing answer:

Death is the master, and there is no other. These eminences of the Renaissance have failed to find a place on which to stand. Their inner eye stares into the face of their Medusa, into nothingness, and they are stricken, blind, rooted to the spot. (ch. 3, “Ambassadors of Death: Holbein and Hamlet”, pg. 32)

Humanism, the attempt to make man the measure of all things, was a grand experiment that failed. Or so Carroll claims. His own response to the failure seems to be a suggestion that we make God the measure of all things again. He certainly doesn’t accept the strictures of perhaps his greatest predecessor in the study of nihilism: “What is so admirable about Nietzsche is that he saw clearly what was at stake, and refused to give up the hopeless struggle” (Prologue, pg. 5).

The Ambassadors (1533) Hans Holbein the Younge

The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein the Younger


But the suggestion of a return to God is never fully explicit: he says at the very beginning that this book is about diagnosis, not prescription:

Doctors cannot recommend a cure if they are blind to the disease. I have begun the subsequent task – of ‘Where to now?’ – in later work, principally Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning (HarperCollins, 1998) and The Western Dreaming (HarperCollins, 2001). (Preface, pg. viii)

Does he recommend a return to God there? I’ll be interested to find out, but I think I’ll re-read this book first. His analyses of paintings, books and films may be mistaken, but they are profound and wide-ranging, conveying a strong sense of the richness of the art and culture he is discussing. But, like John Gray and many others, he betrays one great weakness in his analyses: he doesn’t seem to know much about science and statistics. History and culture are not simply about minds and ideas, but about biology and genetics too. Carroll is constantly discussing geniuses – Holbein, Caravaggio, Bach, Nietzsche – but he never discusses genius and its biological foundations. Ideas both shape human biology and are shaped by it. European history and European genius are distinct in part for biological reasons.

Like Gray, Carroll doesn’t acknowledge this. I suspect that he believes that the human race is one and indivisible. It isn’t. Science needs philosophical foundations, but philosophy benefits from scientific guidance. Carroll writes a lot about Protestantism and its proponents Luther and Calvin. But Protestantism had biological aspects, because Europeans aren’t one and indivisible either. Science may be contributing to the wreck of Western culture, but without it we will never understand the roots of that culture. You should bear that in mind if you try this clever and stimulating book.

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A Face to the World by Laura Cumming
A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

An interesting, erudite and enlightening book. And I didn’t come to it hoping for the best: Laura Cumming “has been the art critic of The Observer since 1999”. The Observer is the Guardian-on-Sunday, and is more of the same. Only more so: it’s even more pretentious and more politically correct than its weekday partner. And sure enough, Cumming uses that special dialect of English known as Guardianese:

Jan Van Eyck was here. It is not strictly accurate in terms of tense, of course, for Van Eyck has to be right here now as he paints his story on the wall. (ch. 1, “Secrets”, pg. 20)


But it’s endurable Guardianese and I managed to read the whole text as I looked at all the pictures, which ranged from the heights of genius, like Van Eyck, Dürer and Caravaggio, to the depths of dreck, like Philip Guston, Wyndham Lewis and Egon Schiele. I don’t think much of Van Gogh or Artemisia Gentileschi either. Gentileschi led a more interesting life than other female self-portraitists like Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) and Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842), but she didn’t paint as well.

And though I like Velázquez, I don’t like Las Meninas (c. 1656), his study of a moment of life in the Spanish court, with the painter himself included. But Cumming has some interesting things to say about it, setting it into its historical, cultural and biographical context. And you’ll see Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (c. 1602) in a new way when you learn that the figure on the right holding up a lantern is Caravaggio himself:

He is on the very outskirts of the picture, struggling to see and make the gospel story visible, this artist evangelist. But his light also aids the soldiers he appears to accompany. Is he not in some sense their accomplice? (ch. 4, “Motive, Means and Opportunity”, pp. 65-6)

Caravaggio, Cattura di Cristo (1602)

Caravaggio, Cattura di Cristo (1602)


Careful thought goes into great art and it takes an intelligent critic to draw it out. Cumming does so with skill and subtlety and sets a good example for people with lazy eyes like me. I found myself looking ahead in the book, trying to understand the pictures better before I read what she had to say about them. I didn’t do it very well, but I’ve learnt the error of my ways. I just wish she would learn the error of her ways in terms of “in terms of” and other items of Guardianese, because it would make the text worthier of its subjects. And the text didn’t convert me to the greatness of Rembrandt and Goya. Their genius remains veiled: I just don’t like them. Not so for Van Eyck, Dürer and Caravaggio. I thought they were geniuses before I read this book and I understand them better now that I have.
Philip Guston, The Studio (1969)

Philip Guston, The Studio (1969)

But to understand them even better, we’ll have to use science and genetics. White European males have supplied a disproportionate share of greatness to art, just as they have to literature, science and mathematics. There’s something to explain there, though I’m sure that Cumming would be horrified at the suggestion of male and European superiority. She certainly doesn’t hint at it here, but her choices speak for themselves: Frida Kahlo is one of the rare exceptions to the white-male-European rule. And I don’t think she was a good artist, though she was a powerful one. Self-portraits have a special power and this book helps you understand it better.
Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck (1433)

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (1433)

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