Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland
an exhibition at the Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth, TX. June 28, 2015 – Sept. 20, 2015 (now finished)
Of what is great one must either be silent or speak with greatness.
In the following observations, I have failed to obey either of Nietzsche’s prescriptions. My hope was to see some themes, more elaborately developed elsewhere, emerge in these works. That is still my hope: everything here is being revised. I will keep rewriting until this is perfect.
My clunky thoughts, at times, try to grasp this thing called “nature.” That already sounds too arrogant, granted. To be sure, the idea behind trying to think through it was simple enough. In Plato and Aristotle, the word is everywhere. It shows up, weighty and convincing, in a number of later authors. I could go read a bunch of scholarly papers with titles like “Aristotle’s Conception of Nature in De Anima,” or try and find out for myself what makes the term so intriguing, why an author would ever employ it. On the one hand, it speaks to the unity of all things, one which may be apprehended by human reason. The natural world, its beauty, laws, agency, all beg to be understood. Begin to understand one object and you’re much better about finding parallels and relevance in others. On the other hand, it speaks to us, directly. We have natures. Is our social life a necessary deformation of who we are?
Botticelli seems a far cry from all that. His graceful lines give figures suppleness, strength, removing them from my anxious questioning. Here, he indulges the supernatural. Contrived, iconic, contemplative, this painting boasts a young, blonde Madonna praying over a Christ child. He naps separately from her, resting only on her robes. No human family keeps such distance: there is no physical contact between mother and child. Exquisite and decorative, it abounds with mystical symbolism. His fitful sleep and the stone structure in the background suggest His passion and death. Pink flowers without thorns symbolize the Immaculate Conception. She wears pink, and the shape her garments form feels loose, natural, flowery. This contrasts with the lace of her veil, the subtly wrought halos, the gold thread of the garments.
The contrast enables a sharp distinction. Her robes are really the opposite of more delicate designs, even though they complement each other. Those delicate designs bear the mark of a creator. The robes fall because of gravity, because of laws that define the universe itself. In a similar vein: Does nature simply symbolize the details of eternal mysteries, or does it have a weight of its own? The Madonna demonstrates piety but no particular passion, as she seems genuinely innocent of all that is about her.
Somehow, I kept a rough version of that question with me as I walked through the gallery. It was a crowded day, and I was fighting through couples and old people pretending to be cultured. I thought myself making no such pretense. T-shirt, jeans, sad. It would have been nice to start blathering about a painting, make up some crap, find someone else who wants to make up crap, get a phone number. It would have felt affirming, maybe even helped me heal. Maybe I would have found myself able to join the art around me.
Two paintings, Titian’s “Venus Anadyomene” (c. 1520) and Veronese’s “Mars and Venus and Cupid with a Dog” (c. 1580) bring the gods to our level. Yes, Titian’s has a striking classical pose, one which seems to remove her from the everyday. Wringing seawater out of her hair is a detail one Apelles once painted: Is hers the truest, oldest beauty? The paradigm for all others? Still, the shell beside her does not necessarily make a goddess, no matter how divine her beauty seems. Venus in Veronese could be any woman smitten with a man in uniform. Cupid’s wings are almost invisible. An unholy family, the most natural thing; idealized beauty, I’m not sure. Art is a strange contrivance, and artists are fully aware of what they’re doing. The realism which impresses us bourgeois means nothing to someone concerned about how we see, how we can see. Velazquez’s “An Old Woman Cooking Eggs” uses tight brushwork to render objects lustrous and precise; it won Velazquez fame for his eye and technique. Yet Velazquez loosens his brushwork considerably not so much later. Others with a parallel change, shifting their style entirely: Monet, Picasso.
It’s strange, thinking about the supernatural as a construct. I can’t help but feel like I’m condemned to superficiality. I probably should read those scholarly papers with titles like “Aristotle’s Conception of Nature in De Anima” and stay quiet. If I simply track what I saw and felt, then I saw Christian symbolism and pagan gods reduced to most natural elements. But it didn’t end there: the divine didn’t just become the human. Since many artists know what they’re doing, some create images knowingly, winking at us and wondering with us. They’re offering up idols for our consumption. It’s like this can’t be escaped, and I still don’t have a phone number.
Rembrandt’s “A Woman in Bed” (c. 1646) at first indulges our want of luxury. Bright gold jewelry, elaborate thread on a pillow’s edge, carved woodframe, and a red-gold drape. A very healthy, handsome woman in bed pushes the drape aside, staring out at something. Maybe she’s Sarah, from the book of Tobit, looking on as her bridegroom chases away a demon. Maybe that can explain the look on her face of exhaustion, concern, hope.
The beauty of art is a prelude. But to what? I’m ready to put aside the supernatural entirely, despite how it lingers over the Rembrandt. He doesn’t need to show a man fighting a demon to show a story that matters. Still, contrasting the natural with the supernatural alone doesn’t yield a coherent account of the former.
I am puzzled by what I think natural in the Rembrandt, the facial expression, as art need not directly point to the natural. Obviously, it can be lost in its own craftiness, toying with divine things, roaming between representation and making. Sometimes what one needs is a punch in the gut, and I don’t know “natural” is an appropriate term for what results. Picasso’s “Mother and Child” (c. 1902), from his Blue Period, features the unmistakable shape of a woman cradling a bald, brown lump. Her back is turned to us; in the corner, a pathetic basket with swaddling clothes. Picasso made this while visiting a women’s prison regularly. If to be a social, talking animal is natural, then what of being broken? Is it not natural to suffer, to feel the weight of one’s own expectations crush one? Do these questions make any sense?
In the end, the only plausible course is to continue attempting to track the natural, aware of perspective. Beauty itself becomes the question. Not “Why do we want it?”, but rather why I ever wanted it. Finding my own nature is the problem. Degas’ “Diego Martelli” (c. 1879), on this count, makes me wonder about who I want to be, the compliments I’ve received that I cannot possibly live up to. I need not mention the failures. Degas’ portrait of an immensely talented critic and friend is taken from exactly the right perspective: above him, angled down. Rumpled, surrounded by books, looking like he’s gathering thoughts and keeping himself from speaking, he looms that much larger in his thoughtfulness. Small wonder both artist and subject fought over who should keep the painting. – I am so jealous. –
Again, I’ve been lucky to receive enormously beautiful compliments, but when all is said and done, this life has been a failure so far. All I have are a few pretentious, egotistical ramblings and no practical skills. Maybe, at the heart of art, is what we love. Singer Sargent’s “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (c. 1892) gives us a great beauty in her prime. Relaxed and confident, she’s completely in control of the viewer. The flowery chair, the lavender dress, the silver ornament all mean nothing compared to her gaze. She’s looking up at us and will not take no for an answer. Her portrait made her a social sensation while building Sargent’s own reputation. The price of having an image alone dictate your life is rather steep, I should say. Lady Agnew eventually sold her own portrait late in life to keep her status afloat. It could be that I’m lucky to love and not possess.