The Sustained Creativity of European Furniture Design

Chairs and benches are for sitting, beds and couches for sleeping and resting, chests and wardrobes for storage. Furniture may also be thought of as an indicator of social status. The chair has long been used symbolically to express authority and rank. Commoners were expected to sit on stools. But while standard histories of furniture emphasize the utilitarian and hierarchical nature of furniture, including changes in building techniques, they recognize that furniture provides a mirror into the aesthetic standards and cultural creativity of different societies, in different times.

Edward Lucie-Smith’s Furniture: A Concise History (1979) agrees with this basic way of examining furniture, while also trying “to show how furniture is related to the general development of society, and to the psychology of the individual” (12). But other than showing how a more urbane bourgeois life promoted modern attitudes towards furniture design, leading to a greater emphasis on comfort, away from the “stiff style” of the royal courts and aristocracies of Europe, and to new types of furniture constructed with industrial materials and technology, Lucie-Smith fails to apprehend how his emphasis on “the general development of society” is itself a unique product of the very European culture his book is almost entirely about. Apart from dedicating half a chapter to “Ancient Egypt” and “Western Asia”—along with Greece and Rome—the next eight chapters of his book are singularly about Europe. Why?

If pressed today, Lucie-Smith would apologize for his “Eurocentrism.” He can be faulted, to be sure, for ignoring such major civilizations as China, Japan, and India. Yet even more recent books that try to meet multicultural standards dedicate most of their chapters to European furniture.

Judith Miller’s Furniture: World Styles from Classical to Contemporary (2010), which covers more than 3000 years of furniture design in over 500 pages, packed with illustrations, dedicates a few pages to “Ancient Egypt” and “Ancient China,” with a few additional pages to India, Japan and China in the nineteenth century. Miller recognizes the aesthetics of furniture-making in these cultures, while implicitly noticing that once these civilizations created certain ideals in furniture design and decoration, these types remained in “continuous use” for centuries with slight variations until the West impacted them in the nineteenth century. She observes that the “golden age” of furniture production that was witnessed in the Ming era (1368-1644), with its ideal of “simple furniture with clean lines and sparse decoration limited to lattice work and relief carving,” would “remain entrenched” through to the entire Qing era (1644-1912), except that furniture pieces became larger and heavier (pp 24-5).

One gets the impression that the authors of furniture histories, and the related subject of interior design, believe it is only natural to focus primarily on Europe—because the historical reality, the images, drawings, and documentary evidence we have, demonstrate that Europe saw a continuous sequence of changing styles. A proper aesthetic assessment of these styles requires separate chapters and explanations. Authors don’t feel they have to justify their implicit Eurocentrism. It comes naturally to them, on the strength of Europe’s creativity. Conversely, they feel that the persistence of similar styles in the nonwestern world, or the prevalence of one model of aesthetics, justifies giving these civilizations less attention. One of the best books on this subject, History of Interior Design & Furniture: From Ancient Egypt to Nineteenth-Century Europe, by Robbie G. Blakemore, opens with a chapter on Egypt, and then, without any hesitation, as a matter of fact and reasonableness, dedicates the next 400 pages solely to European interior design of floors, walls, ceilings, chimneys, decorative materials, tables, chairs, windows, doors, beds, storage pieces, and stairways.

I have noticed the same Eurocentric tendencies in the popular subject of architecture. A World History of Architecture by Michael Fazio, Marian Moffett, Lawrence Wodehouse (2004) informs us that their book offers a “diverse sampling” of the world’s architecture, with one chapter assigned to “The Beginnings of Architecture” in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, another chapter to “Ancient India and Southeast Asia,” one to “China and Japan,” one to “Islamic Architecture,” and one to the Pre-Columbian Americas. Eleven chapters, however, are reserved exclusively for Europe or the West generally. Similarly, Architecture: A World History, by Daniel Borden, et al., is mostly a chronology about European architecture, once it covers the stereotypical models of ancient civilizations in the opening chapters.

But we can’t underestimate the pressures of multicultural politics in the West, the lucrative incentives provided to academics who follow the official university values of “diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.” Books are increasingly coming out purposely twisting and obfuscating the history of architecture, so the European legacy stands as one among many “equally sophisticated” legacies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. This is what A Global History of Architecture (2017), by Ching, Jarzombek, and Prakash, is about. These authors “organized the book by time slots,” according to a chronology dictated by the impact of “global events” on architecture, rather than by changing architectural styles. In this way, the authors happily give the same attention to multiple cultures in the modern era that were equally impacted by “global connections,” regardless of whether any significantly new styles emerged. What matters, the authors declare, is to see architecture from a “global perspective” at all times, the relationship of architecture to global events, including European imperialism and colonialism—”rather than viewing the history of architecture as driven by traditions and essences” (p. xii). Very clever: emphasize European global imperialism in the modern era, its effects on the nonwestern world, and thereby include this world in the modern era, and forget the reality that nonwestern architecture was indeed driven by unchanging stylistic essences.

Let’s cut to the chase. The one architect outside the West who can be named in a list of the 100 greatest architects in history (before Western culture impacted the rest of the world in the 20th century) is the Ottoman Mimar Sinan. The civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas saw “monumental” stone buildings, pyramids and temples, constructed at the behest of state officials, but these architectural attainments were a one-time affair in their originality, deserving only one chapter or section in a world history survey.

Maya Postclassic period architecture (ca. 950–1539 AD).

The architecture of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia is more impressive but not on the same aesthetic and geometrical level of harmony as the ancient Greek Parthenon of Athens, built in the mid-5th century BC, the Doric Temple of Zeus at Olympia (460 BC), or the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion (440 BC). It is certainly below the level of proficiency and beauty attained by the ancient Romans. Once these ancient monuments were created, less originality followed thereafter: no new epochs in aesthetics, no major architects we can identify. The same continuity we see in these civilizations in other fields—science, historical writing, philosophy, painting, mathematics, technology—is apparent in architecture.

What about Chinese architecture? It is worth quoting what Nancy Steinhardt, a major expert, tells us about architects in Chinese Architecture: A History (2019).

Most of them were officials whose service at court included directing imperial-sponsored projects, perhaps occasionally even designing, and writing about construction. The classical Chinese language has no word for “architect,” only one for a person who engages in the craft of building. Instead, from as early as written records can confirm, the final millennium BCE, in every branch of Chinese construction—public or private, imperial or vernacular, religious or secular—principles and standards established centuries earlier dictated building practices. The standards were sanctioned and guarded by the Chinese court, and the government was the sponsor of all major manuals that dealt with official architecture. Craftsmen were not required to be literate, only to follow prescribed modules and methods so as to ensure that court dictums were followed. The treatises expound a standardized system of construction that is maintained not just in imperial buildings of life and death and a towering religious monument, but in temples hidden in the mountains, houses, and shrines, and in paintings and relief sculpture of architecture through the ages (Introduction, pp. 1-7).

All the popular talk about “Chinese Garden Architecture,” “Chinese Buddhist Architecture,” “Chinese Taoist Architecture,” or “Chinese Confucian Architecture,” cannot hide the standardized, bureaucratic reality of China. As a huge country with many different ecosystems and historical settings, different stereo-typified styles emerged in different regions. I say “stereo-typified” because once these styles were established, they became ready-made models for hundreds of years.

Confucian Temple, Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644.

Only Europe sees a “developmental” history. The one memorable “architectural treatise” from China was the Yingzao Fashi, published in 1103, during China’s Song Dynasty. We are told that this work (entitled “Treatise on Architectural Methods or State Building Standards”) was written by Li Jie (1065–1110), the Directorate of Buildings and Construction. He was a bureaucrat in charge of continuing the standardized pattern of construction, not an “architect” with the cultural opportunity to challenge existing aesthetic models. We learn from Fu Xinian, considered to be the world’s leading historian of Chinese architecture today, that architecture as an academic discussion only entered China in the late 1930s, through the pioneering studies of Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), educated in the West and awarded an honorary doctoral degree in 1947 by Princeton University.

The conclusion cannot be avoided that Europeans originated a continuous sequence of major architectural stylistic periods (within which there were other national styles), each deserving a chapter in a fair-minded world history.

  • Classical (850 BC to 476 AD)
  • Romanesque (900 to 1200 AD)
  • Gothic (12th through to 16th century)
  • Renaissance (14th through the 17th century)
  • Baroque (late 1500s until late 1600s)
  • Rococo (1700 – 1760)
  • Neoclassicism (1760-1830 )
  • Victorian-Eclecticism-Restoration (1815-1900)
  • Art Nouveau (from 1890 to 1910)
  • Art Deco (from 1915 to 1930)
  • Modernism (early 20th century to the 1980s)

Furniture Making and Interior Design

Let’s get back to the main subject of this article: furniture design and interior architecture. I am no expert on this subject, but drawing my extensive research on Western civilization from a comparative historical perspective, I will surmise the following four interconnected key traits about Western interior design and furniture:

  • It exhibits the greatest variety within each kind of furniture; for example, in the variety of chairs, beds, and tables, including a variety of ceiling configurations (flat, coved, or vaulted, for example), chimney pieces, stairways, and spatial relationships.
  • Its artistic inspiration, creativity and originality, was driven by a Faustian will for recognition on the part of the artists, pursuit of individual renown, and a will to surpass prior accomplishments.
  • Close to 100% of pre-20th century treatises (fully articulated arguments) on the principles of furniture-making, architecture, the geometric shapes and patterns of room/spaces, height and configuration of ceilings, internal arrangement of stairways, chimneypieces, were written by Europeans.
  • The Platonic striving for perfection, the highest in beauty, the discovery of a “blueprint” of perfection, has been a very powerful motivation, notwithstanding the pursuit by each individual artist of his own style, and the subsequent powerful influence of technology, new materials, and mass consumerism in the twentieth century.

The epoch of continuous creativity in interior design and furniture making in Europe began in the Renaissance around the mid-fifteenth century. The Greeks built some of the finest architectural monuments in history, such as temples, theatres, and stadia, with their sophisticated geometrical proportions, perfectly straight lines and harmonious spatial configurations. The Romans mastered the Greek arch and vault as well as the use of domes to cover large areas with no internal support.

Interior of the Pantheon (120 AD).

The Romanesque and Gothic periods in the Middle Ages were likewise very significant, but it was only in the modern era that Gothic motifs would come to play a role in furniture making and interior design. There is, of course, a strong relationship between furniture/interior design and architecture. To this extent we must mention architectural accomplishments, insofar as they had a direct impact on the history of furniture making and interior decoration of ceilings and floors, chimneys and stairways.

Renaissance

Italy was the springboard for the Renaissance in furniture making and architecture beginning in the 1400s. A critical factor was the “rediscovery” of the legacy of classical antiquity, including a treatise written by the Roman Marcus Vitrivius Pollio (80–70–15 BC), a multi-volume work entitled De architectura. This work was very influential in launching the Renaissance style, with its idea that buildings should have “strength,” “utility,” and “beauty” or perfect proportions. It inspired Battista Alberti (1404-72) to write the first architectural treatise of the Renaissance, emphasizing the layout of the interior of buildings.

Vitrivius, De architectura.

Bear in mind that we are speaking about treatises—not mere descriptive guidelines—but systematic, extensively argued discourses, in which the principles of a particular subject are discussed and explained. Alberti influenced the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), recognized for developing linear perspective in art and for designing buildings heavily dependent on mirrors and geometry, to express the highest perfection in Christian spirituality.

Antonio Averlino’s (1400-69) 21 book-treatise on architecture, and Sebastiano Serlio’s illustrated book on architecture, published in 1537-5, were both influenced by Alberti. The foremost architect of the 16th century, Andrea Palladio (1508-80), author of The Four Books of Architecture, was particularly interested in conceptualizing the function of each part of the interior of buildings in terms of their geometric form, and delineating thereby a hierarchy wherein a larger interior order would override a lesser order: the divine and perfect world of faith over the earthly world of humans.

At the same time, we should keep in mind the humanism that permeated the Renaissance, about the earthly world of humans with its emphasis on man as the highest form of creation. The Renaissance preoccupation with symmetry and horizontality, the idea that beauty was enhanced by calculating mathematical ratios, was indeed based on the measure, and actual potentiality, of the human body as a system of proportional relationships. The Renaissance employment of exact perspective to create optical illusion of three-dimensional spaces, depth and distance, played a very significant role in the unprecedented variety of decorative treatment of walls that characterized Italian interiors during the 15th and 16th centuries.

This period witnessed an unprecedented variety of wall decorations, ornately treated door refinement with classic elements, stop-fluted pilasters, pedestals, entablature. Flat, vaulted, and coved ceilings were prevalent forms with surfaces of every description. While chairs in the medieval period were rare status symbols, the Renaissance saw new types of chairs, including the sgabello, an armless back stool; the cassapanca, a multi-seat unit, which also served as a chest; the credenza, a cupboard with great variety in design; dining tables (rectangular, long, and narrow) were also introduced. And since Europe is made up of distinctive national peoples, there would be a French Renaissance with its own variations, for example, in types of materials used for floors: stone, marble, tile, brick, and wood.

Chimney, Château de Fontainebleau.

The number and size of windows increased substantially in the early years of the French Renaissance; and highly ornamented chimney pieces (such as the one at Château de Fontainebleau) became the focal point of the room, with a wide variety of decorated panels, carved relief designs, and freestanding statues. The caquetoire chair was introduced around the mid-16th century, a lightly scale wooden chair with a tall, narrow paneled back attached to the trapezoid seat; with storage pieces (called a buffet, armoire, dressoir, or a cupboard) becoming more architectural in the use of columns or pilasters carved with fluting.

The English version, 1500-1660, of the Italian Renaissance was influenced by German and Flemish pattern books, such as the 1577 book Architectura by Johannes de Vries, and the translation into English of a work by Sebastiano Serlio by Robert Peake published in 1611 under the title The First Book of Architecture. The English would soon write their own books, first a treatise by John Shute, entitled Chief Groundes of Architecture (1563), which set down the requirements for the “perfecte architecte;” and then a practical building guide by Sir Henry Wooton, entitled Elements of Architecture (1624). New to the English Renaissance was the use of stairways as a processional route to the high great chamber, upholstered pieces of furniture, with further improvements in board and trestle dining tables, and a new gateleg table which allowed the drop leaf of the table to be raised, thereby enlarging the tabletop surface.

Baroque

Italy remained dominant in ceiling decoration during the Baroque period, 1600-1700, a highly opulent, large scale designing style, involving incredibly intricate details, high contrasting colors, and elements of surprise through the use of light, preference for curves over straight lines, painted and vaulted ceilings, columns, arches, niches, fountains. The materials used were stucco, paint, and fresco, as well as an illusionistic perspective through the use of quadratura, which dramatically extended the vertical dimensions of interior spaces. A new chair with lower backs was designed, with boldly treated curves, detailed carvings on the legs. The storage pieces included the cassone, the credenza, the armoire, the cabinet, and the chest of drawers characterized by intricate moldings, and sometimes flanked by marble columns.

The French Baroque, 1600-1715, found its most creative culmination in the reign of Louis XIV, with France becoming the major source of artistic inspiration to other countries in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The most prominent architect was François Mansart (1598–1666), credited for works “renowned for their high degree of refinement, subtlety, and elegance;” the encouragement of vistas through the use of the enfilade in the arrangement of rooms, vistas from the main suites to the landscaped garden; and vertical perspectives through the dramatic use of light and dark contrasts in the staircase. Jean Barbet’s book Livre d’architecture (1632-41) and Jean Le Pautre’s Cheminées à la moderne (1661) were very influential in the design of highly complex, massive and sculptural chimney pieces with a variety of motifs: swags, scrolls, cartouches, pilasters, entablatures, pediments. The commode, a chest of drawers, was introduced, with some pieces ornamented with ebony veneer using marquetry of tortoiseshell and brass. André-Charles Boulle (1642–1732) was “the most remarkable of all French cabinetmakers.”

Boulle, commode.

The English Baroque was a modification of ideas from France and the Netherlands. The premier British architects were Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Vanbrugh, William Talman, and Thomas Archer. A spectrum of wall surfaces was used, wood paneling, mirrors, tapestries, textiles, leather, paintings. After the chimney piece, the most decorated feature of a room was the ceiling, deeply compartmentalised; with the most impressive houses using wrought or cast-iron balustrades for their stairways. The primary influence in the making of these stairways was the French smith Jean Tijou and his book, A New Book on Drawings (1693). Increasing importance was attached to the drapery of beds (patterned velvets, silk damask, chintz, and brocade) absorbing most of the costs.

King’s staircase, Hampton Court Palace.

Rococo

France was the setting for the next major epoch in interior and furniture design, which came along with a new emphasis on relaxation and pleasure, with furniture becoming more comfortable, designed for conversation, and chairs more graceful and informal, less stiff than in the Louis XIV period. This was a reflection of both the Enlightened court aristocracy and the nouveaux riche financial bourgeoisie. Rococo was a highly ornate, theatrical, over-the-top style developed as a reaction to the strictness of Baroque. It was a flamboyant, freer, more lighthearted style, with decorative elements that often emulated the look of shells, pebbles, flowers, birds, vines, and leaves.

The foremost French Rococo architect were Robert de Cotte (1656-1735) and Gilles-Marie Oppenhord (1672-1742), as well as the goldsmith and decorator Juste Aurele Meissonier (1695-1750), who published a book, entitled Livre d’ornements. Two types of chair became common, the fauteuil and the bergère, with floral carving, tapestry upholstery, with separate cushion, with emphasis on informality. Many kinds of tables were introduced, some multifunctional, while others for specific functions, such as gaming tables, work tables, serving tables, and coffee tables. Beds were of several types.

In England the style of the period 1715-1760 was “Georgian” rather than Rococo. The Georgian style is a unique combination of Classical and Baroque stylistic features. It is interesting that Lord Shaftesbury, who lived from 1671 to 1713, just before this style emerged in England, one of the most important philosophers of his day, insisted that “a man of breeding and politeness is careful to form his judgments of arts and sciences upon the right models of perfection” (Blakemore, p. 247).

The models of this time emphasized the architectural principles of classicism, the ideas articulated by Andrea Palladio, an expert on Roman architecture. Palladio saw perfection in the classical concept of harmonic proportion based on mathematical ratios. In 1715-1725, Colen Campbell published Vitruvius Britannicus, a survey of English Classical architecture of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Richard Boyle made a grand tour in 1714-15 through France, northern Italy and Rome, where he studied the works of Palladio. James Gibbs also visited Rome and Palladio’s buildings, publishing in 1728 the Book of Architecture and the Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture (1732). Gibb’s influence is visible in the design of the White House, which employed both Classical as well as the Baroque features of floating pediments, scrolled shoulders and oeil-de-boeuf windows.

However, by the mid-18th century, Rococo became influential in England, with detailing of delicate linear motifs, undulating lines, and natural forms making their way into decorations and buildings. Isaac Ware’s book, A Complete Body of Architecture, published in 1756, emphasized the use of stucco ornamental material (lime, sand, plaster) for grand rooms. There was indeed a lot of variety in styles, combinations of Classical, Baroque, and Rococo motifs. Geometric patterns in floor design were emphasized in Batty Lagley’s The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs (1739) and John Carwitham’s Kind of Floor Decorations Represented Both in Plano and Perspective (1739). Casement windows were commonly used while the double-hung window became standard in upper class houses. Windows were often rectangular but some had flattened, arched heads, while some were doubled lancets, representing the Gothic influence during the Rococo phase of the Georgian period. Some windows were more Classical or Palladian, characterized by an arrangement of three openings, with the central window being widest and having a round, arched opening, and the two outer windows flat cornices.

Two cabinet makers, William Ince and John Mayhew, published The Universal System of Household Furniture (1763), a collection of over 300 finely engraved designs in the English rococo style for parlor chairs, claw tables, sideboards, desks, ladies’ secretaries, bookcases, writing tables, candle stands, couches, draperies, girandoles, and more.

The most influential book on furniture was Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (1754-62), an encyclopedic book offering a broad range of furniture designs with 160 plates covering a wide range of different styles, from a simple, undecorated clothing press to a highly adorned library cabinet with rococo ornaments. Among the wide variety of tables designed during the Chippendale period were the tea table, toilet table, sideboard table for use in the dining room, and a variety of gaming tables for backgammon, cards, and chess. The chest-on-chest (or tallboy) and bachelor chest became typical.

Chippendale, commode.

Neoclassic

The Neoclassic style began in France around the 1740s, in reaction to the “excesses, asymmetry, and perceived disorderliness” of Rococo. It came on the heels of major excavations of ancient cities and the emerging study of archeological artifacts and buildings. Jacques Blondel’s four volume work, Architecture françoise (1756), was instrumental in consolidating the French Neoclassic movement. While Renaissance architecture and Baroque architecture already represented partial revivals of the Classical architecture of ancient Rome, the Neoclassical movement was aimed directly against the decorative excesses and ritualistic arrangements of the Late Baroque, and the naturalistic ornament of Rococo, in favor of a purer and more authentic Classical style, adapted to the modern Enlightenment world, characterized by reserve, restraint, and self-command.

Walls were characterized by symmetrical features and rectilinear treatments. Embellishment was reminiscent of the Rococo style, but there was greater discipline and balance. Circular spaces for stairways were frequently used, along with rectilinearity and straight flights of stairs. Various shapes were used for the backs of seat furniture, including medallion, trapezoid, rectangle, and rectangle with a flattened arched cresting. Commodes were very common in many shapes and sizes; a new type was the demilune commode, which was semicircular in shape and featured two drawers in the front and a curved door on each side. Jean-Henri Riesener (1774–1792) was the foremost Neoclassic cabinet-maker in France with a style that was “pure Louis XVI” with its rectilinear side view and harmonious ornamentation.

Riesener, commode.

The English Neoclassic period, 1770-1810, also had a predilection for the linear and symmetrical. One of the most influential members of this movement was the architect and furniture designer Robert Adam (1728-92), author of The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (1773). Adam actually rejected the Palladian style for what he thought was a more archaeologically accurate Neoclassic style. He emphasized the principle of “movement” that has “the same effect in architecture” as in a landscape, “to produce an agreeable and diversified contour, that groups and contrasts like a picture, and creates variety of light and shade, which gives spirit, beauty and effect to the composition” (Julian Small, The Architecture of Robert Adam). Among his many works are included the ceiling of the Red Drawing Room in Hopetoun House, with its dainty Rococo details composed of foliage, shells, and scrolls in an asymmetrical arrangement, but with some classical motifs. In his furniture designs, Adam also combined some Rococo details but in a more classical direction, as evidenced in his design of chairs with their thin, tapering, fluted legs; and in his lightly scaled and rectangular or semioval tables with their round or square sectioned legs. George Hepplewhite, author of The Cabinet Makers & Upholsterer’s Guide (1788), was enormously influential as far as the construction of Neoclassic furniture was concerned.

Robert Adam, chair.

Another great furniture designer was Thomas Sheraton, author of Cabinet-Maker’s Dictionary (1803), which included sixty-nine designs for furniture; he strove for lightness through reduction in the width and taller proportions; some characterized his style as feminine in refinement. Sheraton is generally identified with the “late Neoclassic” style, or the “Regency style” of the period 1810-1830, which was more eclectic in absorbing a wider diversity of styles in combination, Greek, Roman, Gothic, Egyptian, Tudor, etc. This eclecticism is apparent in the architect John Nash (1752-1835), who consciously combined discordant styles. The furniture designs of the cabinet maker George Smith, who published A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1808) with 150 colored plates, showed Gothic, Chinese, Egyptian, Roman, and Greek influences.

Some say that Smith copied Thomas Hope’s designs. Hope, author of Household Furniture (1807), was inspired in the designs of his Regency interiors and furniture by his travels in Europe, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. It needs to be said that these were not “borrowings” of architectural styles from the East, but reinterpretations of these styles according to European conceptual principles. Europeans freely borrowed certain non-Western motifs and then integrated them within a European tradition, always searching for new ways while striving for aesthetic perfection. Hope’s influence extended beyond the Regency period, into the Regency Revival of the 1920s and 1930s, and even Art Deco design. Hope aimed to express three qualities in his furniture designs: character, beauty and what he called “appropriate meaning.”

Revival Styles in France and England (1830-1901)

Lucie-Smith thinks that the period between 1800 and 1850 saw more fundamental changes in furniture design than the preceding 200 years. It certainly becomes rather complicated to find clearly demarcated styles due to the combination (and revival) of different styles from Europe’s past and from other cultures, coupled with the persistent creativity and novelties introduced by new generations of gifted designers.

The French Revival was a continuation and further development of tendencies already visible during the Napoleonic Empire period (1805-1815), with its monumentality, the grand scale, and stateliness. The typical furniture pieces of this Empire period were heavy, severe, with sharp corners and little moldings, imposing, with uninterrupted flat surfaces, heavy bases for cabinet pieces, and symmetry. During the reign of Louis Philippe, 1815-30, the Napoleonic style remained paramount through to the Second Empire, 1850-70, with its most successful architect, Charles Gamier, combining the Baroque, Renaissance, and Rococo styles. In both England and France, the impact of the industrial revolution was felt as machine processes began to replace craftsmen, though high-style furniture continued to emphasize high quality skill work. There was a lot of variety in the treatment of chair backs, “upholstered, straight, backward scroll, rounded top, openwork centered with cross bars, arcade revealing Gothic influence with crocketed finials” (Blakemore, p. 383). Lavish display of upholstery was common, and multiple-seat units were produced; the tops of tables were round, oval, octagonal, square, or rectangular; and the legs were carved in the form of colonnettes, chimeras, sphinxes, lions, human figures.

The historical setting of the English Revival Style was the industrial transformation, the material prosperity achieved by the middle classes, and the opening of international markets with the spread of railway lines across the world. The word “eclecticism” is commonly used to describe this Victorian era because more than ever designers combined a variety of past styles adapted to contemporary uses. This was expressed in books, such as Henry Shaw’s Specimens of Ancient Architecture (1836), Robert Bridgens, Furniture with Candelabra and Interior Decoration (1838), which displayed Grecian Gothic, and Elizabethan designs. A. W. N. Pugin (1812-52) was a keen advocate of Gothic revival, publishing the pattern book Gothic Furniture in the Style of the Fifteenth Century, as well as Bruce James Talbert, author of Gothic Forms Applied to Furniture (1867). Belvoir Castle, completed in 1825, was a mixture of Gothic, Baroque, and Rococo, Norman and Classical. The style of chimneys reflected this eclecticism, which came in different combinations; the chimney of the Drawing Room in the Carlton Towers (1873-77) reflected Gothic, Elizabethan, Adam, Georgian Revival, Rococo, and other styles. This variety of styles was reflected as well in furniture pieces.

Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernism

Art Nouveau (1890-1914), Art Deco (1910-1945), and Modernism (1940s-late 20th Century) are difficult to compartmentalize into clear time periods and cultural movements because they evolved from combinations of intersecting artistic currents in different national European cultures with their own flavors and motifs, beyond buildings and furniture, with the latter two movements influencing the design of multiple industrial consumer items, cars and locomotives, radios and vacuum cleaners. Modernism alone includes many different styles, such as the Bauhaus school, Expressionism, Constructivism, Brutalism, Metabolism, and even Postmodernism.

Art Nouveau aimed at modernizing design and escaping the increasingly eclectic and historically oriented Neoclassic and Revivalist styles. It was modern in its rejection of the traditional hierarchy of the arts, the aristocratic elevation of painting, sculpture, and architecture over the craft-based decorative arts. We can say that it was “democratic” in its insistence that art should become part of the everyday life of citizens, not only the “high” arts, but ceramics, metalwork, fashion, middle class furniture and interior design, with a view to enhancing the aesthetic sensibilities of the wider public. But we can say that it was not “democratic” in its emphasis on high quality crafts and its criticism of the repetitive designs of mass-produced industrial furniture and decoration. It certainly remained aristocratic in its commitment to “Aestheticism,” the pursuit of “art for art’s sake,” exaltation of beauty and individual self-expression over the “restrictive conformity” and moralism of Victorian Revivalism. Shapes and lines (smooth curves, graceful bends and dancing lines) were very significant, sometimes combined with bright colors, from burnt oranges and mustard yellows, to olive greens and soft blues. There is no space to list the numerous artists from all over Europe associated with Art Nouveau. I will mention the Belgium architect and furniture designer Victor Horta (1861-1947), and Louis Majorelle (1859-1926) who are said to have contributed the most to Art Nouveau furniture.

Majorelle, bedroom.

Art Deco, possibly the most talked about movement in history, is a product of the European modern aesthetic imagination, as well as the first truly international style in art, influencing the architecture of buildings around the world. It was a popular style that influenced not only buildings and furniture, but also jewelry, graphic arts, fashion, cars, gas pumps, trains, ocean liners, and everyday personal objects, such as radios and vacuum cleaners. It seems simple to identify with its sleek, streamlined features, vertical lines, zigzagged patterns and rectilinear shapes. But it is a complex movement influenced by divergent artistic currents, including the bold geometric forms of Cubism, the bright colors of Fauvism, Russian Constructivism, Italian Futurism, and Modernism generally.

While Art Deco was influenced by archeological discoveries in Egypt, and the growing globalization of the European mind and ethnographic interest in the Orient and in African art, it was a movement that looked to the future, not to the past. Art Deco’s appearance is overwhelmingly reflective of the invention of industrial machines by Europeans and Americans, their advancements in the use of new materials, such as aluminum, stainless steel, glass and plastic, and their aesthetic imagination to create art out of the aerodynamic principles of motion originated by Western scientists. This futuristic orientation was evident in the Streamline Moderne version of Deco, which took off during the 1930s, featuring curving shapes, smooth surfaces, and long horizontal lines, in the industrial design of both moving objects, such cars, trains, ships, and of everyday consumer items, such as kitchen appliances, telephones, giving these products the impression of sleekness, motion and speed.

Mercury train, Chicago, 1936.

But if Art Deco was characterized by clean lines and smooth surfaces, and no decoration on the facades of buildings, it also saw an explosion of colors, bright and contrasting hues, in furniture upholstery, carpets, screens, wallpaper and fabrics. While Art Deco, similarly to Art Nouveau, emphasized the uniqueness and originality of handmade objects, Deco took the incipient anti-aristocratic impulses of Art Nouveau in a more democratic or consumer-oriented direction. Its aim was less to focus on art for art’s sake than to make machine-made objects aesthetically appealing to the increasingly affluent masses of the “roaring 1920s”: lamps, clocks, ashtrays, bicycles, and movies in Deco theatres. However, Art Deco did not promote cheaply made products; it certainly used very expensive materials to decorate the first-class salons of ocean liners, deluxe trains, and the lobbies of skyscrapers, though after the Great Depression the items infused with Deco motifs became less conspicuous consumer items.

There are too many names associated with Art Deco, if only because of the multiple ways it found expression in ornamental crafts, industrial designs, and consumer products. In furniture design some of the main names are the cabinet maker Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), a pure Frenchman, Maurice Dufrène (1876-1955), Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), and Paul Follot (1877-1941).

Ruhlmann, commode.

We can date the beginnings of modernism with Le Corbusier’s book, L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui, published in 1925, a polemical treatise against Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and in favor of the idea that furniture, buildings, and objects intended for practical uses should be devoid of any decoration and aesthetic motifs. “Modern decoration has no decoration,” declared Le Corbusier. A house was simply “a machine to live in.”

Writing about the deliberately functional, anonymous, and repetitive buildings of modernism may not be a good way to end an article focused on the unsurpassed aesthetic creativity of Europeans. It should be noted, however, that modernism was the one European movement that not only spread everywhere in the world, but encouraged nonwestern architects to make a contribution to this movement, with its principle that function, not aesthetics, is what matters.

Modernism was a by-product of the inherent nature of mass industrial societies to value anonymous practicality, culturally neutral technological efficiency, and the power of modernity. Its anonymous, impersonal character, is congenial to the belief that the West = Modernization = Globalism. Nevertheless, the best architects of the twentieth century were Western: Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Raymond Hood, Cass Gilbert, Hugh Ferriss, Le Corbusier, William Van Alen, John Mead Howells, Renzo Piano, Adrian D. Smith, John Burgee, John C. Portman, William Le Baron Jenney.

John Hancock Center, 1969.

We should avoid negative blanket reactions against modernism. It was a realistic expression of an emerging new world of mass industrial society with huge cities necessitating practical high rises for millions of inhabitants without the means to pay rent in high quality architectural buildings. We can’t ignore either the reaction against Modernism in the 1970 and 1980s, starting with the groundbreaking 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, by Robert Venturi. This book, and Postmodernism generally, agreed that in our mass societies many buildings must serve a function, be practical and efficient in use of energy and materials; however, it rejected the functional purism of Modernism, and called instead for creative mixtures of historic styles from the past, for buildings to be in tune with their environmental settings and in honor of local history and traditions.


Ricardo Duchesne has also written on the creation of the university. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “The Front Parlor,” by Walter Gay; painted in 1909.

Roman Joy

We will never tire of Rome. There is an ever-present joy in descending from the Quirinale, where the lies the mummy, Draghi, and entering the Field of Mars. A first love glows every time. You spend your day crisscrossing this heavy city, crushed under the domes, sedimented under the layers of time and ruins. Rome resembles a scraped and re-scratched palimpsest. On a speech by Cicero is inscribed a sermon by Augustine; on an elegiac poem, a lustful sonnet by Pietro Bembo. The precept of Lavoisier in chemistry becomes a rule: Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.

The Sol Invictus, luminous and virile divinity, was adored by the military and by Aurelian. According to Paul Valéry, this glaring fault holds within it the power of creation, the drive of life, good health. In its wake, Saint Faith of Rome, a martyr of the second century, daughter of Sophia, sister of Elpis and Agape. Hadrian arrested them, was captivated by their beauty and piety, but decided to put them to death. Faith was stripped, tortured; from the torn off breasts flowed milk. Supported by her mother in her ordeal, her head was cut off.

In Via Veneto there is the Martini sign, fizzing in the night, red-orange, like a new sun; a huge invitation to party – new rites and mysteries of a modern temple: Consumption. Rome is the concrete idea of permanence.

Visiting Rome over the years consists of constantly sifting through treasures with your eyes. First, thinking about the elementary things and then ending up moving for a painting by a 16th century painter in a church that opens only one day a week. And so begins the Roman adventure. What one has visited, one must see again. The traveler must, like a Sisyphean task, revisit what he has seen, revisit what he believes he has seen and what he would like to see again. On the next trip, everything will have to start again. A perpetuum mobile. The mystery of Rome is the closed palaces, full of beautiful things; the lit rooms that you can see from the street at night and to which you have no access; the doors of monasteries and convents that close onto rose gardens and palm trees. The city nurtures the desire, the lack and the urge always to go and see, further.

The Romans play a worldly carnival all year round. In the center, near the Palazzo Madama, a broom of officials and non-officials, carefully tied, brushes through the streets; priests from all over the world, old and western, young and Asian, flood in. The cassock is forbidden. You can still find journalists and intellectuals from the 1970s, with their unattractive physique as in Ettore Scola’s The Terrace. These shirt-wearing commies, with windshields as glasses, still take methodical routes through the city, a gazette under their arm, a pipe in their mouth. Here, a beautiful mother, there, a former TV presenter finished off by the scalpel. Roman nobility rubs shoulders with the marginalized; Russian fortune tellers, bums, obese people on Vespas in vest, a cigarette butt between lips. Rome answers to the celestial and terrestrial Venus, to the great beauty, and to the Fellinian vrenzole. It is torn between total luminosity and the most obvious vulgarity.

However, three Roman figures seem to me incredible in their taste of the beautiful, the good and the true.

Lucius Licinius Lucullus, after having known successes and political failures, withdrew from public life, retired, and settled in his properties to live the high life. His name remains attached to the splendid gardens at the site of the Villa Medici. It is necessary to imagine a vast plain above the city, excellent orchards with numerous citrus fruits, peaches, apricots. Lucullus had the taste for fountains, porches in the shade, thermal baths lined with exquisite mosaics, deep in perspective, powerful of face. In Tusculum, above Frascati, he had planted the first cherry trees of Europe. Lucullus also excelled in the art of the table, cultivated the great refinements; what Plutarch noted with severity by recalling this anecdote. When his cook brought him only one dish, he retorted: “This evening, Lucullus dines with Lucullus.” The cook thereafter made sure to always plan a banquet when Lucullus dined alone, with many dishes, bottles, and the desserts.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, Scipione Borghese was the great cardinal of pleasures. Between the nymph and the gladiator, his eminence showed himself as a great builder, restoring churches, building the great villa to which he gave his name. There he collected paintings and priceless works: a Hermaphrodite from the second century, as revealing of his penchant for men as for women; paintings by Caravaggio, and those of the Cavalier d’Arpin and Raphael. He was also the patron of Bernini, whose art culminates in Daphnis and Chloe, a masterpiece of life and death frozen in fingers that transform; a body that molds itself into bark, hair that passes branches.

Mario Praz, in the twentieth century, chose modest elegance. An art critic, he lived in seclusion in a Roman palace where he collected twelve hundred objects – paintings, drawings, furniture, sculptures from the last century; Napoleonic works but also neoclassical English paintings; conversation pieces; some wax bas-reliefs. The House of Life is his masterpiece, in which he speaks of his life and his work, as if they were the rooms of a house.

Rome is conducive to drunkenness and good food. Happiness is everywhere, desire flows, with all its variety – the lively joy in the sun, the relaxation in the afternoon, the light madness in the evening. What joy it was for me to befriend Julien Rochedy. How we feasted at Al Moro, a landmark for ministers of the regime, on seppioline with artichokes, gamberi al pomodoro, and spaghetti alle vongole. Familiar delicacies take on a double flavor in Rome. Try Giolitti’s ice cream, with almond and hazelnut, topped with panna montata. Genius. The Judeo-Roman cuisine is also excellent. In the street that leads to the theater of Marcellus, admirable as a set of legos among the columns, the Oratorio Venditorum Piscium, the apartments embedded in the heavy stone, you will find the Jewish kitchens, with their oriental air. Moshe will serve you fried artichokes as an appetizer, salted, crunchy to the tooth, fried brains, stew or a piquant and fragrant cod couscous.

The streets of Rome are characters. Via Giulia behind the Campo dei Fiori looks like a dowager alternating knitting and rosary beads. It is straight, austere, gray on one side, held together by official and severe buildings. A bridge crosses the street, covered with ivy, like a dark mantilla of a woman in mourning.

Via dei Coronari is a kind of woman of the century, one foot in the old world, the other in modernity. The antique stores are full of preciosities, trinkets and relics in silver and gold, official portraits of popes, swords, furniture, massive candlesticks. Proof of this strange feminine paradox, the conversation and the permeability to progress; a store sells plastic ducks dressed as the Queen of England, Michael Jackson, Trump; next to it another one sells only lead figurines of the Napoleonic empire.

Via Margutta, on the other hand, is the most sensual; kind of feline, playful, whimsical, sparkling. Its walls are warm, yellow, ochre, saffron, taupe, sometimes washed out; ivy climbs up the walls, pearl-like roses. It is a young socialite, home to gallery owners, jewelers and artists. In its streets that go up and down, André Suarès, even at noon, this great madman, roamed the city in search of the terrible absolute of the beautiful, the good and the true. In the evening, a French bribe-taker coming out of a cantina would fight with a cursed painter with a rapier. In the morning, the writer of the Jet-set, Jep Gambardella returns home, after a party; no more drinks, no more contact lenses, smoking, and finding on the Aventine, a monk come out of the monastery to say a final goodbye to his sweetheart.

The statues in Rome also live. In the church of San Francesco a Ripa, which gave the title to a short story by Stendhal, Blessed Ludovica Albertoni is in ecstasy. She holds her chest, ready to leave it. Here, there is no fourth wall of the theater of which Henri Beyle speaks, no spectators as in the Cornaro Chapel where Saint Theresa is ecstatic at the other end of the city. The layout is more sober, the line more sure, more incisive in the last productions of the artist. The dress is agitated, swollen by the waves of love, while her face remains virginal. Her body betrays terrible convulsions while her gaze carries the delicate vision of paradise.

In Sant’Andrea del Quirinale is the most successful work of Pierre Le Gros the Younger, a French student of Bernini. One reaches the camera del polacco. What is it? It is a room where is the recumbent Stanislaus Kotzka, a young Polish Jesuit, who passed through Vienna, and died when he came of age in 1568. It is a baroque pearl. The young man sleeps, dressed in a black marble that contrasts with his white porcelain skin. The success of the statue lies in the way the rigid cassock is rendered as if it were encased in cuttlefish ink colored marble. His face is soft but his feet are icy.

What can you say about Michelangelo’s Christ in the Basilica in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva! It is a mass, a rock, extra pure. It is the Redeemer who manifests himself to us as a truth that takes up all the space in a life. Christ poses, swayed-hip, naked. The knees are so delicate that Sebastiano del Piombo said they were worth all of Rome.

But finally, Pasquino, does he have something to begrudge these sculptures, the darling of the people? It is a statue from the third century. In 1501, a hand placed a pamphlet on it predicting the death of Alexander VI Borgia. The term pasquinade was then derived, referring to an anonymous pamphlet often written in Roman dialect. With time, Pasquino became the first talking statue of the city, bearing popular reactions, the bloodshed and the acid laughter of the Romans. There are still salacious messages, claims and heart-felt messages: “Berlusconi, figlio di Minghia,” “Nun si necessità sesso, er governo fa er culo ogni giorno!” “er Premier è un vampiro, certo, ma li Italiani nun hanno piu sangue, dispiacce!”

It is more than natural, it is said, according to the custom of tourists, to sigh with admiration before the supreme beauty of the Sistine Chapel. For once, let us leave these marshmallows chewed up into liquid, sky-blue sky dishes and let us admire the Christian mosaics of the first centuries. Let’s start with the mosaics of the Basilica of Saints Como and Damian. After passing the courtyard and the fountain with dog heads covered with moss, you open the door and what jumps at you is a cobalt blue sky, marked by red clouds, under the feet of Christ, who descends from the sky in front of Peter, Paul, Como and Damian. The vision stops you dead in your tracks and grabs you.

Not far away is the Basilica of St. Clement. The mosaics are more careful and finer. We see on the apse deer drinking from a spring that feeds a kind of bush, representing a forest, from which grow branches, woods, trees that take up all the space and shelter monks, hermits, shepherds. The cross in the center is represented as the arbor vitae. In this religious jungle, you can see Saint Gregory and Saint Ambrose. Above the cross, in the sky, the only hand of God sends his son for the salvation of the world.

In the Rione dei Monti, there is the Basilica of Santa Prassede. You have to go to the left chapel, put a coin in the machine to turn on the light. Illumination! Largesse! The Chapel of Saint Zeno is illuminated. It looks like the miniature of a Greek Convent of Meteora. A kind of gold coin box. You have never been so close to the quivering mosaics, glittering like yellow, golden and blue fish scales. You have to see this simple and sober Christ supported by four angels. The faces are pretty, little sketched, almost naive, but the whole of it enfolds you with a warm joy. You even forget that Bernini delivered his first youthful work right next door.


Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef. Translation from the French by N. Dass.


The featured image shows the mosaic of the vault of the Chapel of Saint Zeno, from the 9th century.

The Wit Collection: Art History Jokes 5

One or two of the jokes that follow may be a little esoteric, so here are a few hints for readers who are not necessarily versed in the British world of art history. Hans Coper was a remarkable, modern ceramicist, whose Brancusian bowls would not have met with the approval of arch(itecture) traditionalist, the late Dr. David Watkin, who was one of this gag-writer’s mentors when he studied History of Art at Cambridge. Lastly, the Rossetti joke presupposes a knowledge of Cockney rhyming slang, e.g., “What a load of Jackson Pollocks” (i.e., rubbish) and “Brahms and Liszt” (inebriated). Any further explanations would seem otiose.

****

A celebrated Anglo-German studio potter was showing off a lovely vase to a customer when – no! – he dropped it on the floor.
Beholding the smithereens, the customer said “That’s shattering!”
But the potter’s reaction was perfectly calm, even smiling: “Stay cool! I’m a Coper!”

Hans Coper, Bottle, ca. 1958.

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What did her great friend say to comfort Lucie Rie when she had just smashed a vase in the studio?
“You need Hans!” [Her reply: “Max Bygraves? No thanks!”]

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Which French 19th century sculptor had a notoriously bad temper?
David d’Angers, who sometimes veered on Rude.

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What did a Royalist critic say of the Marseillaise?
Very Rude – she shouldn’t be pointing!

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Visitor to the 1844 Royal Academy: “Ah, it’s called Rain, Steam and Speed! What a brilliant Turner phrase!”

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What did Rossetti say when his fellow Pre-Raphaelite annoyed him?
“You stupid Holman Hunt!”

Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini, 1850.

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Who was the eminent, high camp 18th century art connoisseur who uncannily anticipated Pop Art?
Sir Horace Warhol.

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What did the mugger say to James Tissot?
“Watch out!”

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Edwin Landseer was a mental wreck. He told his shrink in a horse voice: “Oh deer! I’ve been dogged by the cattiness of pig-headed critics!”

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What did David Watkin scathingly call Pevsner?
Sir Knickerless.

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How did Sir Nikolaus Pevsner summarise a High Victorian Gothic railway station he intensely disliked?
Cancer of the Pancras. Terminal.

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What was Sir Herbert Read’s intellectual response towards a Merz installation by Kurt Schwitters?
What a load of rubbish!

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Q. What do you think of the Guggenheim building?
A. All Wright I suppose, but it cuts corners…

Dr Mark Stocker is a former academic and art curator who lives in New Zealand. Besides his jokes, he has 230 marginally more serious publications, many of which are on Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. His book When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021.

The featured image shows, “Three Men with a Woman Holding a Cat,” attributed to Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, ca. 16th century.

“The Future Will Be Grateful For Thy Universal Goodness:” Talking Points About Public Statuary Now

In November 2020, I helped to organise the Burlington Magazine/ Public Statues and Sculpture Association (PSSA) Webinar on “Toppling Statues.” It was a massive success, with speakers of a multiplicity of political views, representing multiple nationalities and ethnicities, multiple professions from curators to politicians to artists, with anything from Confederate monuments to Rhodes and Colston in Britain to the contemporary Philippines covered in the papers. I am publishing my own paper here and am most grateful to Nirmal Dass and the Postil Magazine for making this possible.

1. The Rule Of Law

Kudos to Sir Keir Starmer, the British Labour Party’s best leader for 25 years, for saying that Black Lives Matter protestors were “completely wrong” to pull down Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, and if they advocated this, due process should have been followed. I was forcibly reminded of W.B. Yeats’s famous quotation: “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” These were the parting words of my teenage hero Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, reflecting on its fragility.

Had I been present at the scene, I too would have remonstrated with the protesters, demanding: “Don’t you know your Locke? ‘Where there is no law, there is tyranny.’” I rest my case, even if the likely rejoinder would be a word half-rhyming with Locke. Another important Lockean precept is the sanctity of public and private property in civil society. Colston was not the crowd’s to wrench off its base and toss into the water. “The law of nature hath obliged all human beings not to harm the life, liberty, health, limb or goods of another,” here the people of Bristol and their statue.

Edward Colston resurfaces, 2020 (Bristol City Council).
John Cassidy, Edward Colston, 1895, formerly The Centre, Bristol.

2. Have We Got Colston Wrong?

According to an eminent British historian who must remain anonymous, as opinions are so charged and friendships can be lost – yes, we have. They say this:

“Colston is less culpable than his public reputation has made out. Commentators on both sides describe him on the news as a ‘seventeenth-century slave trader’ pure and simple. He was not: he never ran a slave trading business himself and never made major investments into the trade or drew a steady income – even a minor one – from it. Instead, he made a fortune from trading in other commodities, though twice in his life he became a lesser shareholder in slave-trading voyages launched by others. This was – for whatever reason – not an attractive experience for him because he did not continue it. Instead he became the greatest philanthropist in Bristol’s history, the merchant who did most to help his fellow humans. In particular he ploughed back his huge fortune into three enterprises. One was a school where poor children could receive a free education good enough to enable them to rise in society. Another was a hospital, where those who could not afford medical fees would be treated for no payment. The third was a set of almshouses where elderly poor people were given comfortable retirement homes, each with their own flat. All three survive to the present day. I presume that the school was initially just for boys, but it has long taken girls as well, and all three institutions have lately benefited people from all ethnic groups. The late Victorians – themselves much concerned with finding ways of attaining better social justice – gave him a statue in gratitude for them. I myself think that his contribution to human misery, by those ill-chosen investments, is balanced by his efforts to relieve it in other ways.”

So, even an offending statue demonstrably has a far more complex sub-text once we’ve done our homework. Don’t let your opinions gallop ahead of your knowledge. Be a curious and respectful “pastist,” not a judgemental “presentist” – and remember that was then, this is now. I’ll return to this shortly.

3. Do We Ignorantly Bad-Mouth The Victorians? Are We Willfully Ignorant About Statuemania?

Yes and yes. Remember that not just Rembrandt or Andy Warhol but public statuary is art too, art which excels both in quantity and often quality. Before modernism did so much to de-skill art, if you had the standard training through a sculptor’s studio, art school or a large firm like Farmer & Brindley, your work attained a remarkably proficient technical level. Your attitude to imperialism was immaterial. Harry Bates, a working class, arts and crafts trained sculptor, could make a number of rather fine imperialist monuments.

Harry Bates, Lord Roberts, 1896, London.

What mattered was whether you could literally hack it. Very few of the myriad Victorian and Edwardian public monuments could be called inept. What has this got to do with toppling statues? Lots. Scratch a toppler and you’ll find they are with few exceptions ignorant of, or hostile to, Victorian art, whatever the quality. Professor David Olusoga has many interesting things to say about the politics of imperialist statuary but reveals disappointingly little art historical knowledge of, still less aesthetic responsiveness to, the works in question. Remember we’re dealing with art here, not disembodied political texts.

Talking of great Victorian art, earlier this year, I pointedly refused to sign an open letter organised by Australian academics, curators and cultural commentators, demanding the relocation of Captain James Cook’s memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney to a museum. Perusing the signatories, almost without exception, they were modernists or contemporary buffs; the number who knew anything about Cook’s sculptor, Thomas Woolner, and Victorian statuary was perhaps two or three, and they probably cared even less.

Thomas Woolner, Captain James Cook, 1874-1878, Sydney.

4. Beware Of Presentism!

Historically, topplers are deeply into presentism, which is worse than the Whiggery from which it derives. Presentism involves the wholesale application of present-day values, e.g., deploring slavery and racism, to a very different and often resistant past – a foreign country. Imagine if we could travel back in time in the Tardis just 60 years to Gilbert Ledward and his immense – and rather beautiful – Africa Awakening relief for Barclay’s Bank and confront him with a criticism made by a South African friend who should have known better, that it was “patronising.” Ledward would not have been offended, so much as completely baffled and bewildered. We have a nerve to assume we know far better than our equivalents in 1960 or 1860. What will they be saying about us in 2060? The Ledward relief badly needs a new home, but sadly is suffering for its – and his – whiteness.

Gilbert Ledward, Africa Awakening, 1960.

5. How About A New Empire/Colonial Museum?

A possible new home for relevant statuary could be a UK Empire Museum, a museum of Imperialism if you like. Formerly there was one in Bristol (the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum), but the director’s conduct 10 years ago led to his dismissal and the subsequent liquidation of the museum; that’s another story. I was saddened at the time that they threw out the baby with the bathwater.

William Dalrymple is a prominent advocate of such a museum and I agree with him in principle. My main reservation about both Dalrymple and the prevalent political climate is that if established today, the museum would almost certainly be instantly dominated by decolonising “woke” forces, the Edward Saids of this world rather than the Robert Irwins (or Mark Stockers!). Politics – and Britain’s dire economy – conspire to put such a putative museum on hold, but let’s not lose sight of it. The museum could indeed serve as some kind of repository for victims of statue toppling or shifting.

The former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (2002-2013), Bristol.

6. Problems With Museums

Should offending monuments go to museums, as sometimes relative moderates in this debate argue? To contradict my previous point, mostly the answer is, No. How come?

Firstly, the basics – museums worldwide are critically short of storage space and offering them a 3-metre-high statue plus pedestal would exasperate any reasonable collection manager.

Secondly, Colston aside, and even Colston before June 2020, Robert Musil’s famous dictum that there is “nothing in the world quite as invisible as a public monument” held good and perhaps should still do so. It’s not as if a monument’s offensiveness will suddenly be dispelled by its more prominent location and visibility within a museum. The arguments against it won’t miraculously stop – or still more miraculously become more intelligent.

Thirdly, having a Victorian worthy or three in your atrium would almost certainly clash aesthetically with any desired installation of art after c. 1920.

Fourthly, which explains why any proposed relocation of Cook to a museum is crass, how can you possibly do justice to the modelling, the aspect, the halation, the everything really, of a colossal four-metre-high statue on a seven metre columnar base? It would dwarf its new setting, whereas its original location, carefully envisaged by Woolner, is ironically too commandingly successful and dramatic. Cook pays the price in today’s fraught political climate.

Yet a museum just might be a suitable location for a work like Francis Williamson’s statue of Sir George Grey in Auckland. Despite its te reo Maori pedestal inscription translating as “The Future will be grateful for thy universal goodness,” it wasn’t. Grey was decapitated by activists in 1987, while in recent months his replacement head, together with fingers, have been vandalised and his body daubed with paint, in obviously crude copycat actions. Marble is particularly vulnerable, Grey with his fairly recent head still more so, and in the absence of alternative measures a museum could provide an appropriate refuge when out there in Albert Park he’s too much of a risk to society.

Sir George Grey.
Sir George Grey, 2020.

7. Copycat Activism

I take a dim view of copycat attacks or calls to defund the police. Just as statuary needs to be appraised on a case-by-case basis, so do the historical records of respective nation states. New Zealand’s colonial past rendered deep injustices to Māori, but these should not be equated with the US’s brutal past. I said this in response to the New Zealand historian Professor Tony Ballantyne when he advocated removal to museums of figures “who propelled colonialism and whose values and actions are now fundamentally at odds with those of our contemporary communities.” I demanded to know “which statues does he mean?” and Tony didn’t answer me. The great white Empress Queen Victoria obviously upheld the Empire but was not racist, and her carving at Ohinemutu was honoured and indeed appropriated by the Ngāti Whakaue sub-tribe, placed on a splendid post and sheltered by a canopy. In Canterbury province, J.R. Godley established a colony which deliberately sought to avoid conflict with Maori and is immortalised in another outstanding statue by Woolner.

Thomas Woolner, John Robert Godley, 1862-65, Christchurch.

Sir George Grey’s role is highly equivocal, reviled in his lifetime by some Maori, eulogised by others; working closely with his friend Te Rangikaheke, he recorded Maori legends, traditions and customs, doing much more here than most academics today. The list goes on, and I concluded: “We should think twice before we violate our legally protected heritage.” Famous last words – but heated discussion has definitely died down locally.

8. Not Everyone Has It In For Statues

The art critic and cultural commentator Alexander Adams has noted the merciful immunity from iconoclasm in the European continent, which views woke excesses with intelligent scepticism, and the perceived heritage value of its historical monuments prevails over politics. President Emmanuel Macron has explicitly stated that France won’t indulge in tearing-down operations, while Ian Morley’s paper has just explored the refreshingly different attitude in the Philippines. Perhaps this is yet another unfortunate instance where the exceptionalist British world, as seen in Brexit, sets itself apart and tears itself apart.

An irony of the peaceful BLM demonstration in Wellington was the crowd gathering under the watchful eye of Thomas Brock’s parliamentary statue of R.J. Seddon, New Zealand premier from 1893 to 1906. While his relations with Maori were benign, Seddon’s racism towards New Zealand Chinese today appears disgusting: he denied them state pensions, imposed stiff poll taxes on them and called them racial “pollutants.”

I asked a good friend who is a Professor of Chinese if Seddon should go. She replied: “I’m probably more conservative than you on this issue. For me, we should leave the statues alone and they are only and can only be partial representations of history. Destroying statues doesn’t destroy historical injustice or biased historical narratives. Besides, historical fashions come and go. The Russians and the Chinese have destroyed enough statues but failed to rectify any historical wrongs. So, for me, debate historical figures and events as much as one likes but leave material historical remnants alone. I guess that also answers your question about Seddon. The statue can also enable a conversation about racism in NZ.”

Wise words, don’t you think?

Thomas Brock, Richard Seddon, 1911-1914, Wellington.

Conclusion

Statues and monuments are art, they are heritage – and sorry, Professor Richard Evans, as a historian you need to realise they are also fascinating and insightful, highly charged historical documents. And unless they are Gilbert & George, statues can’t answer back when abused by the crowd. What we should do with them will be addressed by subsequent speakers, but I personally advocate additional plaques or virtual ones through QR codes and apps to spell out the case for people’s perceptions today. Conciliation not confrontation, love not war, and thank you Church Monuments Society, don’t expunge, explain. And, last but not least, heed the watchword of the PSSA, “retain and explain.”

Dr. Mark Stocker is an art historian and art curator who lives in New Zealand. His publications are on Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. His recent book, When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971, will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021.

The image shows, “Pulling Down the Statue of George III in New York City,” by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, painted in 1859.

Art And The Beauty Of The World: A Conversation With Mark Stocker

It is indeed a high privilege to present this interview with Dr. Mark Stocker, the voraciously productive art historian. Readers of the Postil will know Dr. Stocker from the varied ramblings and amusements that he has been offering in these pages. Therefore, it is great delight to have him speak of his real work, his true métier, which is art. He is being interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski whom our readers also know well. Dr Stocker is the author of over 230 publications, including 10 books and edited books. His latest one, When Britain Went Decimal: the Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021. His extensive research interests include Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Mark did his History of Art degree many years ago at King’s College, Cambridge, but firmly denies being either a spy or even a King’s leftie.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): I would like to begin this conversation by reading to you an incident from Leszek Kolakowski’s “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie” (published in his My Correct Views on Everything, 2005).

“In 1950, in Leningrad, I visited the Hermitage in the company of a few Polish friends. We had a guide (a deputy director of the museum, as far as I remember) who was obviously a knowledgeable art historian. At a certain moment – no opportunity for ideological teaching must be lost – he told us: ‘We have in our cellars, comrades, a lot of corrupt, degenerate bourgeois paintings. We have never displayed them in the museum but perhaps one day we will show them so that Soviet people can see for themselves how deeply bourgeois art has sunk. Indeed, Comrade Stalin teaches us that we should not embellish history.’ I was in the Hermitage again, with other friends, in 1957, a time of relative ‘thaw,’ and the same man was assigned to guide us. We were led to rooms full of modern French paintings. Our guide told us: ‘Here you see the masterpieces of great French painters – Matisse, Cézanne, Braque, and others.’ And, he added (for no opportunity must be lost), ‘do you know that the bourgeois press accused us of refusing to display these paintings in the Hermitage? This was because at a certain moment some rooms in the museum were being redecorated and were temporarily closed, and a bourgeois journalist happened to be here at that moment and then made this ridiculous accusation. Ha, ha.’”

To someone who lives in the West – unless you happen to be a student of Communism or Russia – what Kolakowski says may sound surreal. But what is going on in the US – the destruction of monuments, removal of paintings and sculptures, suspension of purchases of European art by American museums, purchases of minority art, changing names of buildings and streets – is all too familiar and brings to mind the feeling of déja vu. What is your reaction to Kolakowski’s story; and do you see parallels between it and what is going on today?

Mark Stocker (MS): My reaction is to laugh in order not to cry. The 1950 response is chillingly reminiscent of the notorious Nazi ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition – this is of course one of many resemblances between different forms of totalitarianism. Not for the first time, I feel compelled to ask “What’s the difference?” The convenient change of party line by 1957 is a step in the right direction in at least having such art on display, but the same man is suffering from convenient memory loss.

Before I go on to answer your question, I would like nonetheless to put in a plea for not suppressing the “official art” of that time. In this period, art school training in Eastern European countries continued on precisely the traditional lines, valuing technique and crafting, that you and I both admire. I remember being quite moved by a collection presented to a New Zealand art gallery by the Soviet Institute of Cultural Affairs over 50 years ago. No, I am not a “useful idiot.” I believe that however admirable or repellent the regime, art has a life of its own and should not be lazily written off in a determinist way.

To answer your question, I think there is still a way to go before we reach the parlous and risible state of affairs in the Soviet Union of the 1950s. But we must be vigilant and vigorous in terms of arguing for a genuine diversity in what the public sees.

Maurice Askew, Landscape with a circle of ancient standing stones. (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu).

ZJ: Indeed, Kolakowski’s story may seem laughable. But to me, a former denizen of the “socialist paradise,” where I spent the first 25 years of my life, it is not. This is what “socialist realism” was like. In 2020, in the countries of liberal-democracies, we seem to be “back to the future,” in that what is shown in museums must reflect “approved” and “correct” ideology. Indeed, in a umber of museums in the US (and Europe), the purchase of Western art has been suspended; some museums are selling objects from their collections in order to buy more minority art.

Until relatively recently, museum and art-gallery collections were for the human gaze, for observing. This was the understood purpose of such institutions. This is not so today. Art galleries and museums are now at the forefront of the ideological battle. Several months ago, I wrote a piece “The Power of Beauty and the New Museum Barbarians.” In it I made a point which you also made in an official letter to an art institution – that the function of museums is not “raising social consciousness” but to guard artistic heritage. Do you see what some curators are now doing as a betrayal of their mission?

MS: Any “betrayal” probably happened 20 to 40 years ago. We’re too far down that trajectory to apply this term – younger curators in many cases simply don’t know any better. The prime aim of curators and art historians should be to focus on beauty, aesthetics, style, patronage and iconography. Raising social consciousness can be very worthwhile but, in my view, it comes second to these things.

I am very conservative about selling from collections – I wouldn’t want to leave my own art treasures to any state institution, if there was a real danger they would be deaccessioned. If, however, it’s a duplicate print and not in good condition, then it would be silly for the museum in question to be rigid about this. But hocking off anything that’s unfashionable is unforgivable. Why, why, why did the Met see fit to do this with Frank Salisbury’s superb portrait of The Sen Sisters which the artist generously presented to the Museum? He paid a terrible price for being unapologetically academic and a near contemporary of Picasso. An intelligent museum should have both artists represented.

Frank O. Salisbury, The Sen Sisters, ca., 1928

ZJ: That’s the point – unfashionable! Would you apply this term to the Elgin Marbles, Rubens, Watteau, Rembrandt, Veronese, and a host of other greats? The situation in which we found ourselves in the 20th century is singular, I would say. Fashion became a criterion; so that art now is no longer valued for its intrinsic quality, its beauty, but some subjective feeling about “justice.” Of course, there is also the commercial aspect, in that a certain artist is worth investing in, as his work may go up in value. Thus artistic value cannot so easily be separated from profit.

MS: One of the problems that Modernism created was to open a kind of Pandora’s box. Subjectivity and relativism became all the thing, provided you heeded the elite critic’s or curator’s choice, in many ways a contradiction of that. Older, shared criteria of beauty and the concept of art as skill were thrown out the window.

An old friend of mine, now sadly dead, though a big fan of Modernism, said that in architecture, the classical language and Beaux-Arts training guaranteed a base level of consistency and decency, whereas Modernism rejected this. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dissing modernism – I very much admire Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, for example, and some of Picasso himself – but we sacrificed a great deal for it and people, even art professionals, are too ignorant to realise this.

ZJ: Do you see this problem as something that creates the danger of confounding artistic quality with the buyer’s inability to separate artistic beauty from monetary value in the art market?

MS: Modernism certainly made it much harder to judge.

ZJ: One can also say that this inability opens the gates for artistic charlatans who prefer to shock the audience with images, rather than enchant them with quiet spiritual elevation?

MS: Understated beauty has certainly been a victim of 20th century clamorousness. How many people today can judge the nuances of watercolour washes, as we can see in the work of my good friend Maurice Askew (who died recently aged 98); or, indeed, the deft inking and biting of an etcher’s plate, as in D.Y. Cameron’s sublime Winchester Cathedral?

D.Y. Cameron, Winchester Cathedral, 1925.

I don’t totally believe in rejecting the “shock” factor, so long as it is underpinned by skill. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is a good case in point; an unforgettable, unavoidable work. But, as Bacon himself found, it was a damn hard act to follow, and his subsequent attempts to shock, certainly after the mid-1950s, just don’t do it for me. Bacon up to the 1960s cannot be fairly described as a charlatan – but I think he came perilously close to being one later in life, using the same painterly tricks and making people who should know better say “Wow!”

What he did become, as many an artist before and after Modernism, was formulaic. The charlatan charge is one that’s easy to level but is in danger of closing the arguments. Certainly the “de-skilling” of art that Modernism encouraged increased the charlatanry component. Damien Hirst – not a skilled painter at all but a brilliant project manager. Josef Beuys – arguably more of a charlatan than a shaman. Marcel Duchamp – he skirted very close to it and stole from others (a time-honoured practice); but he was, I have to concede for all the damage he did, bloody clever.

ZJ: I can’t really abide Duchamp, but let’s move the discussion back to when, earlier, you said, “Raising social consciousness can be very worthwhile but, in my view, it comes second to these things.” Here is my problem: who decides? The curators? Many of them have recently succumbed to social pressure and peddle ideology, sanctioned by state authority – as used to be the case under communism?

Secondly, I’m all for being directed by someone, advised by Dr. Stocker, when I decide what to buy; but social consciousness is a group phenomenon. This raises another question: what are we trying to achieve by raising consciousness? Aesthetic appreciation? Not really. It is a call to social action, an attempt to change society. If so, curators are revolutionaries.

This is not the same as teaching a book. When I say, “Read the Bible, I think you will find it interesting,” my intent is not to make readers into believers. I am leaving the judgment to the reader. It is a process of appreciation.

Richard Sharp, the author of The Engraved Record of the Jacobite Movement, once gave me some excellent advice: “The best way to learn how to distinguish good quality prints from average ones is to look at them; after some time, you will train your eye and you will be able to discern good from average prints.”

MS: Sharp is right. You see what you know, as Gombrich says. As for social consciousness, it can be a dangerous trap and shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the prime concerns of curatorship. It’s a cop-out, but I would leave it at the curator’s discretion as to how much or little a part it should play. But I would be worried if I had a curator colleague who let it loom too large.

There are aspects of social consciousness which I think could and should be raised and which I find interesting – when for example an artist is outstanding but is the victim of changed fashion or economic decline. The collapse of the printmaking market following the Wall Street Crash is tragic to behold and it would be callous to disregard it in any history, even if the intrinsic qualities of the prints are ultimately more relevant to “pure” art history. Geniuses like F.L. Griggs were ruined. In turn, without becoming a socialist, you can admire someone like William Morris whose conscience was stirred by ugliness, pollution and grinding poverty. His close friend Edward Burne-Jones, though less overtly politicised, wanted to bring beauty into ordinary people’s lives – and his excellent exhibition at Tate Britain a couple of years ago was a powerful vindication of that ideal.

Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris, 1873-1875.

ZJ: One term that is part of the liberal toolbox is “cultural appropriation.” It largely means that the artists has gobbled the best of minority culture and falsely presented it as his own. Recently, Elvis Presley was accused of cultural appropriation (he supposedly “stole” themes and music); Olga Tokarczuk, Polish Nobel Prize Laurate, was accused of cultural appropriation because she wears dreadlocks. In the past it was called fashion, a borrowing. Today it is called “cultural appropriation.”

No culture is entirely self-sufficient; we borrow elements of thought, visual representations from different places, and, by transforming them according to our own perception, create something new, something original. Picasso comes to mind, as does van Gogh, who had a considerable collection of Japanese prints, which inspired him. There is a difference between “appropriation” and “inspiration;” but today inspiration is called “appropriation,” a term frequently and easily interchanged with “theft.”

MS: It is a boring and unhelpful word and concept, and is used all too often by pompous and politically correct academics to close the argument. I would like to remind such people that Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Appropriation wasn’t always seen as a crime. The respected New Zealand Māori artist Selwyn Muru was asked many years ago who he thought the great Māori artists were. “Well, there’s Picasso!” he replied. As for musical appropriation, do Jamaican reggae lovers despise Led Zeppelin for their magnificently appropriated ‘D’yer Ma’ker’? (Get it?). I very much doubt it. They’d see it, surely, as a testament, a tribute, to their culture – attacking it would be a sign of vulnerability.

ZJ: I want to give you two examples: Rembrandt and Stefano della Bella (both 17th-century artists). Apparently, both were fascinated by the 17th-century Polish Sarmatian dresses. Rembrandt even painted his own self-portrait as Polish Nobleman; his student van Vliet made a print, after Rembrandt, of a Pole. Stefano della Bella did several engravings of Poles.

Rembrandt, Jan van Vliet, Stefano della Bella, Polish Noblemen

Is this “cultural appropriation?” In Britain, we see a similar fascination with other countries. In the 19th century, Orientalism was widespread. Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind.

MS: As I say, it isn’t a helpful concept. Weren’t the classicists “appropriating” the ancient Greeks? Did the Greeks complain? Get real.

Edward Said has a lot to answer for on that front. He essentialised Orientalism, and though he was a far cleverer and better-read person than me, his effect on countless admirers was to have ultimately trivialised it. Politically correct academics have continued to repeat his litany over the decades, blahblahblah. Full marks therefore to Robert Irwin for intelligently taking him on!

There is much, much more that of course could be said on this front. Sometimes ignorant appropriation can cause understandable offense. I was asked at one stage by Royal Doulton, if in all innocence they could use a Gottfried Lindauer portrait of a Māori chief as a character jug. I told them that this offended on almost every front – the head is tapu (taboo) in traditional Māori culture, and eating and drinking is governed by strict protocols – putting milk in the head jug – OMG – no! They heeded me, thank goodness. But this was an extreme case. Let me give a couple of more New Zealand examples – most people should get my drift.

The white New Zealand artist Gordon Walters received a lot of ill-informed, and I would say pretty offensive criticism in his brilliant use of the fern frond motif that you see in traditional Māori architectural decoration, such as roof beams. But this is by definition “low” ornament and you can’t very well claim he is appropriating your intellectual property.

So, inevitably the question of appropriation must be applied on a case by case basis. Oh – it can work in reverse – the Arawa people made the carving of Queen Victoria, that was presented to them, uniquely theirs – by erecting her on a traditionally carved post and protecting her with an elaborate canopy – Queen Victoria became Kuini Wikitoria – get it?! She was even told about it in the last few weeks of her life, and was genuinely moved by the loyalty of her subjects.

Bust of Queen Victoria, Ohinemutu, Rotorua, ca., 1908 (National Library of New Zealand).

ZJ: As you say, the concept is not helpful in explaining the quality of art. But those who use it are not interested in art. They are in the business of fighting Western culture. By saying “appropriation,” they say there is nothing original in Western culture, and that the West is not a civilization that created great wonders, or liberated mankind from poverty and injustice – something the present day “reformers” claim to champion.
Many years ago, Mary Lefkovitz wrote Not Out of Africa – a detailed analysis of the baselessness of the claim that the Greeks had “stolen” their philosophy from Africa – for which she was attacked on all fronts.

What underlies this reasoning is: if we cannot take down all the monuments, remove all paintings from the museums, let’s denigrate them, let’s show the Westerners – the Whites – those who defend Western tradition – that there is nothing special, unique or original in it. On the contrary, it is imperialistic, genocidal, unoriginal, and so on.

MS: Although you’re doing a bit of a reductio ad absurdum, I can’t deny a lot of what you say. I wish it wasn’t like that, but it is all too prevalent. Perhaps it was my luck as an academic that the majority of my colleagues were considerably more intellectually subtle – and in the best sense liberal – than your bleak picture suggests. The better academics put Lefkowitz on their reading lists; and to be fair, Bernal’s Black Athena was rapidly shot down.

ZJ: When you were a student at Cambridge, some 40 years ago, would you ever have thought or suspected that art and art criticism would be gone in the future, and that what you, and others, who had decided to study art, would be under attack?

MS: Perhaps I’m fortunate but my (almost) 30 years teaching at the academy were remarkable for not being attacked. Only once, many years ago, when I did a seminar defending (yet still criticizing) Camille Paglia, which was almost riotously well-received by most students and several staff present but not by a few angry left-wingers, was I reprimanded by my head of school. Call me cowardly, but out of self-preservation and a wish to advance my career, I took a deep breath, put the culture wars aside and settled down into writing a succession of entries for the Grove Dictionary of Art – on the patronage and artistic interests of Louis XV, Louix XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Louis-Philippe respectively. Perhaps this was a subtle form of subversion! So rather than buckle under any criticism, I’ve simply done my own thing, publishing a very large amount of what I hope is useful, factual research, often on no grants whatsoever, and enjoyed doing so in the process.

ZJ: I often wonder what Sir Kenneth Clark would say? What would his fabulous BBC program turned into a book – Civilization – look like in 2020?

MS: Well, they recently attempted to do a “Civilisation revisited” called Civilisations, with Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. It was well received, but got some criticism for focusing too much on class and oppression, and not enough on the core aspects of art that I identified above. Relativism replaced discerning aesthetic judgement and as for Clark’s beautiful language – creating art when talking about it, well, something surely was lost here. A few years ago, I published a blog-post whose sub-text was “Come back Kenneth Clark, all is forgiven!” My admirable Pacific colleague Sean said he enjoyed it and learnt from it – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Kenneth Clark in front of Notre-Dame de Paris, 1969.

ZJ: Over the last several years, we have witnessed another phenomenon: tearing down and removing monuments. The first was done by hooligan demonstrators, the second by city officials, who often, as happened in Baltimore, removed monuments during the night, when the public was asleep. Many monuments were not just representations of someone others disapprove of, but pieces of art. Do you see any hope for saving public monuments?

MS:  Actually, I see some hope from the British Tories (though I often disagree with them elsewhere) in the very latest news. They are planning legislation to take decisions away from councils and make statuary subject to the minister’s edict. So long as the government is sound here, that will make it very much harder to molest public monuments, and cathedral and church monuments in turn. I’ve recently come across a specific instance of this in regard to a taxpayer-funded academic research project on the Napoleonic tombs in St Paul’s Cathedral. The proposal read positively scarily: “Unlike the early- to mid-20thC monuments to Confederate soldiers, the St Paul’s Pantheon is unlikely to be removed in the long term.” You bet it won’t be, now that I alerted the Church Monuments Society and the London Times – I (indirectly) received a hurried reassurance to this effect just days ago. But the very fact that the project hinted otherwise, and got government funding, shows there is no cause for complacency on this front.

ZJ: What about selling them?

MS: I like your idea of selling monuments but I don’t think there would be a big market for them. With a couple of sculpture-nut friends, we’re currently trying to find a home for a HUGE relief of very fine quality, celebrating Africa but carved by a white British sculptor in the early 1960s and nobody wants to know – it’s all too “sensitive,” you see; well, my response is to say “Bah!” It’s a history lesson in stone, and fascinating for it. Somebody who should have known better described the sculpture as “patronizing.” If you could travel back in time and tell the artist this, he wouldn’t be offended so much as baffled and bewildered. The past is a foreign country – and imposing presentism on it in this way is quite simply bad history (and bad art history).

Gilbert Ledward, Africa in Travail: Africa Awakening (Bronze).

Art And The Public

ZJ: Recent events – destruction of monuments, changes in the museums’ policies – raise the very serious problem of “art ownership,” not ownership in the ordinary sense, where I own an antique-piece or a house. The question is – who is entitled to a work of someone who has been gone for centuries and whose work was created in a very different world-view. Do we – today – have the singular claim of deciding what the “proper” subject of art must be – or indeed what the artist should have thought and what he should represented in his art?

But today, if someone happens to disapprove of something, we destroy it or remove it.

MS: There’s a big risk of not wanting to look at the monument in its own terms, to neglect the history surrounding it and say our history must dominate – in other words presentism. If it’s a statue in a public place, it belongs to the people but is being held in trust/custody for them, and we disrespect this at our peril.

ZJ: In the early 1980s, the Greek government wanted Lord Elgin’s Parthenon marbles back, claiming they are part of Greek national heritage. This claim is not as strong as it appears to be. Modern Greece is not a continuation of ancient Greece. That cultural continuity had been broken many times, especially during the Ottoman rule. Secondly, the Greek heritage, because of the unique place of ancient Greece as cradle of Western civilization, is as much English and European as it is Greek. Finally, the place that deserves guardianship of ancient relics is that which can preserve best them. 

MS: They still do. I could write 5000 words on this and I have. The arguments for and against are quite closely balanced. To me, bleeding heart liberal if you like, the unfair thing about them was that it was not a “level playing field” when Elgin brilliantly and opportunistically exploited the wording of the Ottoman Empire’s permit to remove them – a matter of 20 years or so before the Greek War of Independence. The Greeks had no say about them. Short term, they had everything to be grateful for in Elgin “rescuing” them from what could well have been fatal destruction. But for 150+ years they have been saying “We want them back, please!”

The question of modern Greece not being the same place is one of the strengths of NOT returning them; this must be conceded. But having them in the locality of where the whole great world of Western art – and democracy – started is an emotional one that many people find compelling. A good comparison would be if Paris or Munich owned Boadicea’s chariot!

Parthenon Marbles, Three Goddesses, East Pediment

ZJ: A critic can argue, however, that the best place for it is the original site. But, once again, one can counter-argue that the original site is not necessarily the safest. The prime example is the Roman city of Palmyra, vandalized and partly destroyed by ISIS a few years ago. By contrast, the Pergamon Altar was preserved because it was removed and beautifully preserved in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

MS: Or was till the anti-Satanist nutcases recently struck. In regard to the Parthenon marbles, Enoch Powell said clean up the Athens pollution and then put them back in situ. I got what he meant even if practicality (and emotions) meant that his typical intellectual logic was shouted down.

ZJ: True, the Elgin Marbles, the Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate were taken away; yet, were it not for the passion of those who carried out this “theft,” they might well be entirely destroyed now – their “theft” in turn preserved them. This also tells us that the heritage of civilization belongs to those who can secure its welfare the best.

MS: At the time, the 1810s, I think even the Greeks would have conceded that. What they argue is that they are now a liberal democracy, part of the European Union, which Britain was till so recently, that they have the means, facilities and expertise to house these treasures in a beautiful, accessible way, just metres from where it all began. My feeling is that the return of the Parthenon marbles is about 60% justified – quite narrow.

Where I am totally opposed to the restitution of art objects is when you cannot trust the government that wants them back. Some years ago, there was a genuine, albeit politically incorrect worry that the consequences of returning Benin bronzes to the government of their country of origin would be Lamborghinis and wives’ shopping sprees in Harrods and Aspreys! Any “returning” institution needs to be given a pretty copper-bottomed guarantee that their treasures will be beautifully housed, displayed and loved. If not, they should stay put.

ZJ: My second question is a variant of the previous one. Ever since the French, American and Russian Revolutions, we have to deal with a new concept that implicates art in a way it was created for, in that art is the property of the people. Hence all kinds of claim can be made. It is a people who are true owners, not individuals. The proper place for art is museums; and private collections, even if they legally belong to private citizens, cannot be taken out of the country, sold in other countries, because, the claim goes, it is part of “national heritage.” How strong is such a claim in your opinion?

MS: This is a long and complex one to answer. Obviously if you believe in liberal democracy, you believe in the rule of law and the sanctity of the ownership of property (statue-topplers take note). The last, however, needs to be balanced with caring for the national heritage.

In the absence of protective legislation or the purchase of masterpieces by the government and private donors to keep them in their country of origin or long-term custodianship, the consequences can be disastrous. The New Zealand Māori in the first instance and our culture in the second suffered from the despoiling of ghastly, latter-day grave robbers.

Even when the repatriation is legal, the consequences can be near tragic – Japan exported so many of its glorious colour woodblock prints, the country was effectively despoiled of them and any uninformed international tourists who went there to see them were disappointed.

Modern Art And Architecture

ZJ: I would like to move to modern or 20th-century art. It is the period which is very often criticized. As far as painting is concerned, this era is often appreciated by art critics more than the public. Ordinary people find modern art difficult to understand (especially abstract painting), lacking in immediate aesthetic appeal, sometimes even appalling. Similar criticism can be applied to architecture.

In its simple form, criticism of art and architecture can, in my view, be reduced to three claims: it is “ugly,” i.e., lacking in aesthetic dimension, like in “this building is ugly.”

Second, it is ugly because it has no relationship to tradition, surroundings, regional and national features (this is true of much of modern architecture). Such art and architecture follows abstract geometrical patterns rather than traditions; thus, the ornaments which beautify buildings are absent.

Thirdly, it is ugly or not appealing because the purpose of a painting or a sculpture is not to convey a sense of beauty but to embody a social message, which turns art into a vehicle of ideology. Of course, there can be an overlap, something can be both ugly, rootless and ideological; and so because it is rootless it is often ugly.

Which of these three assertions would you consider to be the greatest problem for modern art? I realize that not all three apply to the same degree to architecture, sculpture and painting.

MS: That’s a big question. I do think your approach to modernism is too broad-brushed. I genuinely think that a lot of it is a lot less elitist than when it first appeared. Look at the crowds of people looking at Rothko. My old house in Christchurch was a charming slightly Lego-like postmodern affair that showed an obvious awareness of Mondrian.

Let me say this about Modernist architecture: when built on a strict budget, housing or officing (new word) the masses, it can be little short of ghastly. That great old architectural reactionary Sir Reginald Blomfield was unfortunately spot on when he called early Modernist buildings packing-cases. However, when it is built on a big budget, sometimes – depending on the sensibility of the architect – Modernism can look genuinely impressive. There’s been a tendency towards a kind of neo-modernism since the end of the century which focusses on lightness, whiteness and airiness – and people really like it.

ZJ: Let me invoke Nikolaus Pevsner, author of several important books on art and architecture. According to him, England’s “contribution to Western art has been stronger in the practical art of building than in the more esoteric arts of painting and sculpture.” And, Pevsner also said, “English political strength” turned out “detrimental to art:” “…The democratic rule by committee and majority. Building today more than ever before is decided by committees. Committees can never be hoped to be the best judges in matters aesthetics. To demand or merely to license a bold building requires a bold man.”

MS: How prophetic – and we’ve had 65 years of committees ever since! He’s proved to be somewhat wrong about English sculpture (Henry Moore anyone? Barbara Hepworth? The excellent Elisabeth Frink?) and I think he still had some way to go in ever warming to Victorian painting, though he did so splendidly to architecture.

ZJ: These words, as you noticed, were written in 1955, and we are as far away from solving the problem as we were then. I just spoke with an architect, who, to my rather dreadful remark – which I made jokingly – as to what we should do with architects who litter our cities with buildings which are admired only by fellow-architects, said: it is the investor who is responsible; we do what investor wants. I find such an answer to be nothing other than a cop-out, an easy excuse that covers architects’ lack of talent; or worse, it’s a total disregard for “the public,” traditional surroundings, or national culture.

MS: As I said earlier, one of the tragedies of the 20th century was when capitalists realized that cheap Modernist architecture was the way to go! So, your friend does have a point. But architects also have themselves to blame – they are arrogant and self-referential. Look at architects like Morris Lapidus, who was brave enough to design for the people – despised by his profession, and in old age he destroyed his drawings and models – tragic.

Morris Lapidus, Fontainebleau Hotel, Miami, 1952.

ZJ: We have three choices, it seems: the committees, the public, or the bold man, who always realizes his own vision, not necessarily shared by the rest (as Pevsner suggested). Personally, I would go for the second, but would add that the committees offer us – the public – a range of, say, ten designs, submitted by architects, and have them displayed in a big public place, and let the people cast a vote. After all, it is the public and future generations who will live with it, not the architect, not the coterie of members of the committee. Which option do you think is the best?

MS: They all have their pros and cons. Going against my liberal instincts, I have a soft spot for the bold man – provided his taste doesn’t totally offend me. The people aren’t always right – they are often very conservative in turn. Sometimes they have to catch up with an artist and realize his or her validity. Henry Moore is a good example, even if a lot of his later corporate work, loved by committees, is boring.

But sometimes time cannot heal an “in your face” ugly work of art – Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc is a prime example, as is “Brutalist” architecture of the 1950s and 1960s – a fair bit of that probably remains in Poland in cheap public housing. My friend Amanda was very upset when I published a letter saying a whole lot of Brutalist flats weren’t worth keeping in Wellington, utterly lacking in the “period charm” of their Art Deco predecessors of 20-30 years earlier!

ZJ: Only yesterday I had a conversation with an architect who used the language of “experimentation” in art, saying that a piece of architecture “was an interesting idea.” My response was that there is no question that Centre Pompidou is “interesting” as an idea; it never occurred to anyone before to show the inside of a building. But it is ugly.

Here I would like to suggest a topic for reflection. The two towers of the World Trade Center in New York were, for decades, seen by the public as a symbol of New York itself, the New World. When the towers collapsed on September 11, the question became – should we rebuild them? But no one entertained this for long. Rebuilding certain architectural objects is not new; it says something about national spirit, attachment to history, tradition. An example is the old city of Warsaw, razed to the ground during WWII. It was rebuilt as exact copy of the city from before 1939.

Most recently we have the example of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was a heart-breaking sight to see it in flames. There was no question that it will be rebuilt as it was, perhaps with small details which will be modern.

The two objects – the Twin Towers and the Notre Dame – are good examples of where the problem lies: -beauty of a building, as opposed to “an interesting idea.” I doubt whether the same French public would ever entertain the idea of rebuilding the Centre Pompidou if anything were to happen to it.

MS: What you’re saying is that there is something humanist that is enshrined in old buildings, that the public love and which we badly miss when they are gone. I can’t argue with that even if some old buildings were or are no great shakes. There are open and shut cases of ugly buildings – often, but not exclusively, Modernist – which nobody mourns if they go. And I don’t think merely being there for 40 years or more can redeem them.

The “Brutalist” flats in Wellington I mentioned earlier, known as the “Gordon Wilson flats” after their architect, had a certain “to-hell-with-you” quality when they were erected, and they haven’t mellowed – they were ugly then and ugly now, which you can’t say for a lot of Victorian architecture. Frankly, I wouldn’t grieve to see them go. Any decision has to be on a case-by-case, empirical basis. Personally, I don’t agree with you about the Beaubourg – when I first saw it, and I was definitely a bit of a fogey – I was impressed by its quirky, funky qualities, and it was obvious that in the piazza in front of it, buskers, jugglers, tourists and Parisians, took to it like a duck to water.

Gordon Wilson Flats, Wellington, 1959.

ZJ: Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi. They are giants of 20th-century architecture. The first two were giants of the new 20th-century style; the other two are modern too, but they are steeped in tradition; their knowledge of history of architecture is undeniable. Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona is not a medieval cathedral, but only someone unfamiliar with history – Gothic architecture – could confuse it with something else. Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, his use of stained glass, wood, triangular roofs, bricks, in short, traditional material, make us feel “at home.” None of this is part of van der Rohe and Le Corbusier’s vision. It is pure geometry of new material, which makes us feel alienated from the environment and history. Such “creativity” is responsible for much of the problem with modern art.

What is your take on it?

MS: A lot of Le Corbusier’s theories were cranky and it grieves me that he had so much influence on generations of architecture students – to be terribly provocative I tell them they should have looked at Corb’s contemporary, Ernest Trobridge, architect of startling “ye olde” suburban houses in Greater London, instead. Le Corbusier’s architecture is, dare I say, hit and miss – the much-lauded Unité d’Habitation was a flop; I haven’ been to Ronchamp but I’m pretty certain I would admire it. Mies van der Rohe had a genuine sensibility towards proportions and materials – his actual buildings are rather great – the problem is that lacking that sensibility, lacking that big budget, being a second-rate Corb or Mies – is a recipe for aesthetic, social and political disaster.

Ernest Trobridge, House at Chaldon, Surrey, 1920.

ZJ: Let me approach the idea of conservatism in art. It is a category external to art. If it makes sense to talk about conservatism in art, it concerns national attitude, national characteristics rather than artistic qualities. Pevsner wrote an interesting book, The Englishness of English Art, in which he pointed to certain creative stubbornness, so to speak, of the English.

Christopher Wren, for example, had to redo the plan for St. Paul’s cathedral, because the clergy refused to accept such “un-English a shape.” Wren also suggested that completing Westminster Abbey in Gothic style was appropriate because “to deviate from the old Form, would be to run into disagreeable Mixture, which no Person of good Taste could relish.” (A point that is relevant in rebuilding the Notre Dame in Paris). Pevsner’s book abounds in examples of this kind. What we deal with is “Englishness,” if I may say so, or English conservative attitude in general.

This was all a long time ago; things changed! In the 1990s Prince Charles left the confines of his regal realm and made a name for himself by his criticism of English architecture. He even wrote a book, A Vision of Britain. Another critic of English architecture is Sir Roger Scruton – one of its most vocal critics, in fact. Can you explain this criticism?

MS: The architectural consequences of Prince Charles is an interesting topic and would really repay research – a book in itself. There are not a few examples of how late 20th- and early 21st-century architecture ‘kept in keeping’ with pre-existing structures – a really good example of this is Downing College, Cambridge, which is pretty awesome and which Scruton doubtless admired. And the model village of Poundbury where pundits’ opinions are divided but whose residents appear to love it.

Prince Charles himself influenced the admirable addition to the National Gallery – his critique of the original plans is where it all started. So, this kind of architecture happens – not as often as I would like because, I’m afraid, of the mania for change, cost effectiveness and architects’ egos – not least their over reverence for 20th-century heroes. Where a less admirable form of traditionalism continues to thrive is in the mania for period features in British domestic housing, especially neo-Georgian.

I generalize, but a lot of it is awful, tacky and pretentious. Cambourne, outside Cambridge, falls into this trap. It’s bad, but I laugh at it and don’t feel appalled by it – I can see it worming its way into my affections if I lived there myself. Indeed, I have a feeling that maybe in 50 years’ time, if it lasts that long, it will have accrued a period charm, as the much-mocked mock-Tudor with its painted “beams” and gables of the inter-war years has done.

ZJ: George Orwell, in his essay, “England Your England,” attempted to come to terms with Englishness, the English national character. The essay covers a lot of ground, but one thing that struck me was his claim that the English have no aesthetic taste; and, second, that England does not have great art, great painters. If one compares England with Italy, that is certainly true; but if we take Orwell’s claim at face value, every nation would lose to the Italians. Do you agree with Orwell?

MS: It’s a complicated question but he’s being unfair. The pioneering modernist critic Roger Fry said something on the lines of “the fact that our school may be a second division one does not prevent it from being intensely interesting.” But the ginormous elephant in the room when you make this generalization is the phenomenal, the beautiful, the remarkable English and to a lesser extent Scottish country house – and its garden. British art historians should be shouting from the rooftops about how its landscape architects made the paintings of Claude Lorrain (some of the most gorgeous in art history) three-dimensional reality. It worked better in the cooler, damper British climate than it would have ever done in Claude’s Roman Campagna.

And another major point: a lot of British painting from about 1750 is remarkable and too many critics remain obtusely patronizing about it. I love artists like Burne-Jones (as you’ve gathered), Leighton, and much admire Watts. And in the 20th century, we have Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud – and those godawful YBAs, yet who have a huge place in the world of contemporary art. I don’t think it’s profitable comparing Britain to France or Italy – and I think it’s stupid, as the Courtauld Institute did for far too long – to ignore what’s on your doorstep and only bother to look at France and Italy. Many people are snobs like that about cookery – oh they LOVE Italian food. Well, all I can say is that dining out in Rome in 2003, despite using the normally reliable Lonely Planet, was a terrible disappointment and the best Italian meal I had was in Los Angeles, but I digress.

ZJ: You mentioned English art around 1750. The painter of this period that comes to mind is Hogarth. Nikolaus Pevsner, praises Hogarth, who in his The Analysis of Beauty (published in 1753) speaks of “the line of Beauty.” Or, in Pevsner’s words, “a shallow, elegant, undulating double curve. Now the fondness for these double curves is actually, although Hogarth did not know that, a profound English tradition… one that runs from the style of 1300 to Blake and beyond. But it is also an international principle of the Late Baroque and Rococo, and it will be found without any effort in individual figures and whole compositions of Watteau in France, of Tiepolo in Venice, of Ignaz Günter… Hogarth’s Baroque modelling and brushwork and international quality created something in England that had not before existed within English possibilities, in the case of serpentine or zigzag compositions and attitudes, an English quality in Hogarth and an international quality of Hogarth’s age worked hand in hand.”

MS: Firstly, let me say how I deeply admire Pevsner. Initially a card-carrying Modernist on his arrival from Nazi persecution (and the poor man’s biography reveals how seriously – almost like Chamberlain – he underestimated their true evil), he got increasingly hooked on his country of adoption and his attitude to Victorian art and, particularly architecture, intelligently mellowed. I am dubious, however, about this “line” of generalization.

As Pevsner himself realizes, it wasn’t peculiar or particular to the English. And there are strongly linear artists who don’t necessarily go to town with the undulating double curve – Flaxman and Gill for example. If you’re looking for English characteristics, I’d say that the bleak, almost drab palette that is so long dominant in landscape painting – Pre-Raphaelites aside – would be an important one – it explains why watercolour is so strong and we see it in Spencer, Freud and the wonderful L.S. Lowry.

All this relates to Britain’s long, bleak autumns to springs and is almost hard-wired in the English – Scottish even more (look at Joan Eardley). The art historian John Onians – author of Neuroarthistory and a good friend – would certainly agree. By the way, note how many artists I mention are modern ones – I am not some fogey who believed that all was good in art predates 1837 or 1914.

Eric Gill, Self-Portrait, 1927.

ZJ: Point taken! Sometimes I worry about you being a little too trendy! Seriously, there are other names, Richard Wilson, a great Welsh/English painter, who even wrote about the superiority of English art, and, of course, Turner. I may be mistaken, but it is unlikely that an art historian writing the history of modern painting can bypass these three painters. Perhaps Fry’s criticism in his Reflections on British Painting, from which, I believe, the sentence you quoted comes from, does not do justice to English art?

MS: No. I’m quite a big admirer of Fry, for all my misgivings about Modernism. I can even understand his reaction against bourgeois Victorian conservatism and complacency, though art history has shown his denunciation of Alma-Tadema to be terribly wrong – Alma-Tad was a far better artist than almost all of Fry’s Bloomsbury cronies, as the late Quentin Bell, son of crony-in-chief Clive Bell, generously conceded to me. Fry was certainly beating the Modernist drum, which he understandably felt was all the more necessary in the context of British artistic conservatism. In the process, he gravely underrated Edwardian art, some of which looks superb over a century on, and overrated his Bloomsbury “luvvies.” But critics can, do and even should make mistakes. Fry’s liberalism in the best sense was shown in his admission that British art was “intensely interesting.” Roger, Roger!

William Strang, Bank Holiday, 1912.

Artists And Art Historians

ZJ: Much of how we look at art is influenced by art criticism – that is, what we read. Many ingenious insights, which we could not come up with, do come from reading books by experts. I want to throw at you a few random names of art historians: Nikolaus Pevsner, Richard Wollheim, Sir Banister Fletcher whose History of Architecture, even today, has no rival, Sir Kenneth Clark, Erwin Panofsky, and Ernst Gombrich. I skipped many names of outstanding people who made contributions to more narrow fields, or who wrote about individual artists or epochs. How do you like my list? Would you like to add a few names?

MS: They are the greats, though I always found Wollheim unintelligible and overrated – and he was more of a philosopher of art than an art historian. The art historians I would add are H.W. Janson (a Russian German in origin), Robert Rosenblum (the two authored a magisterial history of 19th-century art in the mid-1980s). Then there’s Hugh Honour – a great writer and scholar; and from a slightly younger generation, I have affection and respect for Frances Spalding who is still alive and kicking. Fiona McCarthy, with her biographies of Morris, Burne-Jones and Eric Gill, is damn good too! She died very recently.

An outstanding populist who never got the national honour he deserved is Edward Lucie-Smith. Though he was a critic more than he was an art historian, Robert Hughes was one of my heroes too – though personally a nasty piece of work. One of the most interesting and original art historians is John Onians, author of Neuroarthistory, who looks at the impact of the mind, childhood and environment on art history in pellucid prose and with convincing reasoning. John would love what I say about Claude Lorrain and country house gardens; he was also the genius behind the World Atlas of Art. By the way, Neuroarthistory was generally panned by the academic left, so it must be good!

ZJ: Let me return to Sir Kenneth Clark, whose biography by James Stourton, Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilization, appeared in 2016, and which makes Sir Kenneth a real 20th-century art history hero.

Neil McGregor, formerly the director of the National Gallery and the British Museum, said about Clark: “[he] was the most brilliant cultural populist of the 20th century… Nobody can talk about pictures on the radio or on the television without knowing that Clark did it first and Clark did it better.”

Would you agree that “to come after Clark” is an unenviable situation for today’s art historians? Not being an art historian, each time I read him, I envy him – this man spent his entire life moving through a world that looked more like an enchanted garden, so different from the lives of ordinary people who live in a world of aesthetic poverty which then prevents them from escaping their social and economic realities.

MS: I couldn’t agree more. Clark is a wonderful man – that comes over in my blog. He was my hero when I was a teenager. He was also a war hero, bringing piano music free to all visitors to the National Gallery when all the paintings had to be removed for safekeeping. He inspired me – and I bet a fair few other people aged 60+ who won’t admit it – to become an art historian. “What do you want to be?” I was asked at my Cambridge interview. “Another Kenneth Clark!” was my modest reply. I didn’t quite make it but I certainly tried. I did so in the wide range of themes I have researched and published – one of the aims was to flummox and irritate other academics who remained stuck in the same groove.

Back to Clark – anyone who could write with authority on Rembrandt, Leonardo, the landscape, the nude and don’t let’s overlook the Gothic Revival, his first, underrated book, has got to be a good thing. The other thing that I admire in him is his beautiful and accessible writing. In everything I write, I ask, “Would Kenneth Clark approve of this?” I hope so: we ignore him at our peril, and the Stourton biography along with the Tate exhibition are both timely reminders of this.

ZJ: John Ruskin said that beauty was everyone’s birthright. This brings me to the question that should make people like you, art historians, very concerned. Art education is probably the most neglected discipline in popular education, in every country. For years I made the reading of a few pages from Clark’s The Nude part of my “Introduction to Philosophy” course, where I sent my students to a museum to write a very specific paper connected with what we had read.

This assignment was probably the most fruitful educational tool I possessed. Student reactions were comparable only to the reaction they had when we read Plato, Nietzsche or Dostoevsky.

You write a regular blog, something that has very limited readership. I sent your piece on Dürer to several of my former students. The reaction to it was probably more than you would expect. Given how people, particularly younger people, react to art, why is art history so marginalized in Western education? Can anything be done about this lack? Getting students on a mandatory trip to a local museum so that they can awaken to art?

MS: It’s a big problem. I wish my blogs had a bigger readership but unfortunately my attempts to publish them on a wider front were not supported by my former museum – partly issues of copyright unfortunately complicated matters. The paradox is that never have more people been going to museums, before 2020, and wanting to see the latest exhibitions; but never in the past 30 years have fewer people formally enrolled to study art at university – and it was even proposed to discontinue the British History of Art A-level. I have several answers to this: the punitive fee regime at university, with careers advisers and family members saying “What’s the relevance of art history?” And the corresponding incentive to study STEM subjects.

And here’s another answer: art history is an overwhelmingly female subject in terms of its students. This is for two or three reasons: firstly, I think men are usually slower in responding to aesthetic matters than women; and secondly, at the risk of being controversial, art historians are ultimately the “servants” of art (or should be); women, in their traditionally supporting roles, adapt to this more easily than hunting, gathering, stomping, blundering men. With the ever-greater gender equalities of the past 30-40 years, which I generally welcome, women have become more masculinized in the choice of what they study. Art history has been the unfortunate victim of this.

ZJ: In the last 30 years or so, leftist art critics – mainly academics – turned art into an ideological instrument. Enough to glance at The New York Times art section, which peddles ideology under the mask of art. By contrast, the WSJ’s art section is still traditional; informative; and reading it one gets the impression that not much has changed since the 1970s or the 1980s. After reading pieces on art in the WSJ, it makes you want to visit a museum.

A long time ago, Roger Kimball of The New Criterion wrote an important book which he titled, The Rape of the Masters. Kimball, who is not a scholar but an editor, a very able art critic and a true art lover, did a great service to the American public by pointing out what is wrong with what passes for art criticism today.

Let me quote what he said in an interview: “For what we see in the academic art historians I discuss – it is something you see in literary studies, too – is an effort to discount, to deny the essential reality of things in order to enlist them in an ideological war. A family portrait of four young girls is no longer a family portrait of four young girls but a florid allegory of sexual conflict and gender panic. And so on. If one had to sum up the essential purpose and direction of the new academic art historians, one might say that, notwithstanding the variety of their political commitments, they are all engaged in an attack on the idea of the intrinsic. They start from the contrary of Butler’s proposition: nothing is what it is, it is always something else – and, they might add, something worse than it seems.” Do you agree with Kimball?

MS: In a word, yes. Too many of the new academic art historians are a bit, let’s say, messed up in the head. They want to politicise bloody everything. Too many of them are scared of just looking. I wish there were more Kimballs in the university but their younger versions probably, sadly, realise that after their BA, certainly their MA, it is not the place for them.

Talking of the painting of girls, the funniest instance of this – oh how I wish I had kept it – was a po-faced feminist discussion of “agency” in Sofonisba Anguissola’s painting, The Chess Game, which referred to the three main participants as “women.” Sorry, but apart from the wary looking maid, all three, even the eldest (certainly at the time) are girls!

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game, 1555.

And while I’m at it, Sofonisba’s painting is somewhat provincial, even somewhat inept – she was 20 when she painted it and she made her heads look a bit like puddings – perhaps in a Ruskinian way I love the painting for its very awkwardness. I’m slightly digressing, but the feminist response was a classic case of somebody who reads too much and doesn’t look nearly enough.

As for art criticism, perhaps I’m a bit of an exception but I’ve written probably 100 reviews, including a fair few in the Burlington Magazine – there’s still scope for the art historian to be a critic though there is a strange lack of competition which enabled me to go to the top, so to speak, here.

Always, always, I try to summarise what the exhibition is about, what its aims are, how well it succeeds, and of course I try to appraise the quality of the works too and their impact on me. Sometimes I’m converted by an exhibition – I found myself admiring the British 20th-century painter William Coldstream.

More rarely I’m repelled, as with the Australian painter Rupert Bunny who deserved to be shot! At times I am necessarily political – as when I reviewed 20th-century Jewish art and more recently Pre-Raphaelite women – but it’s essential to keep a sense of balance and not neglect these other, core aspects. I hope to keep up this criticism for a fair while yet – pandemics permitting – as there’s so much great – and indeed “intensely interesting” art out there in the world – to experience and share.

Although he could be maddeningly contradictory, John Ruskin powerfully and beautifully stated how the primary aim of the artist should be art and nature, not changing the world: “Does a man die at your feet – your business is not to help him but to note the colour of his lips.”

ZJ: John Ruskin, I love you! Thank you, Dr. Stocker, for this delightful conversation!

Zbigniew Janowski is the author of Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes’ Quest for Certitude, Index Augustino-Cartésien, Agamemnon’s Tomb: Polish Oresteia (with Catherine O’Neil), How To Read Descartes’ Meditations. He also is the editor of Leszek Kolakowski’s My Correct Views on Everything, The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers, John Stuart Mill: On Democracy, Freedom and Government & Other Selected Writings. His new book, Homo Americanus: Rise of Democratic Totalitarianism in America, will be published in 2021.

The image shows,”Ruins in Rome – Colosseum, Italy,” by Joachim von Sandrart. Print from 1676.

Should Faith Just Be Private?

Culture in the broadest sense can be defined as a way of life. The great historian Christopher Dawson created an entire corpus focused on the intersection of religion and culture. He claimed that four central pillars form the foundation of culture: people, environment, work, and thought. He describes how “the formation of culture is due to the interaction of all these factors; it is a four-fold community—for it involves in varying degrees a community of work and a community of thought as well as a community of place and a community of blood.”

When Dawson refers to the importance of thought, he means especially religious thought, which provides the inner form for the material organization of society. He describes how “every social culture is at once a material way of life and a spiritual order,” because “it is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture.”

Although Dawson recognizes that we live in the first secular culture in human history, he also rightly claims that the modern world has its own spiritual ideas, or pseudo-religions, that guide how we organize the material world: ideas of inevitable social progress, extreme individual liberty, the primacy of material prosperity, and the dominance of empirical science. These ideas have created a spiritual imbalance, which made Dawson aware that “the real evil lies deeper—in the breach that has taken place between the technical development of our civilization and its spiritual life.”

Dawson not only recognizes the problem, but also offers a solution: “The recovery of our civilization is therefore above all a question of restoring the balance between its inner and outer life. The unlimited material expansion of our civilization has weakened it by making it superficial, and the time has come for a movement in the reverse direction—a movement of concentration to recover its inner strength and unity.”

Our culture has displaced faith from its central role, relegating it to the private sphere. Dawson recognizes that this has created a deep spiritual crisis within the individual, with material needs satisfied in abundance, but deeper, spiritual ones neglected. Christians play into this crisis by accepting the divide between the interior and exterior elements of life – communicating only spiritual ideas, while leaving them divorced from their social and cultural context.

The crisis can be resolved by placing religion back at the heart of culture, for “it is only through the medium of culture that the Faith can penetrate civilization and transform the thought and ideology of modern culture.” And he continues: “A Christian cul­ture is a culture which is oriented to supernatural ends and spiritual reality, just as a secularized culture is one which is oriented to mate­rial reality and to the satisfaction of man’s material needs.” And for Dawson, only the faith is strong enough to penetrate and transform the depth of the crisis facing the West.

The Church has increasingly recognized the importance of culture and has given it a central role within her efforts of evangelization. The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes provides the Church’s first extended treatment of culture, stating that “man comes to a true and full humanity only through culture” (§53).

Ten years later in 1975, Paul VI emphasized the importance of culture for evangelization in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, teaching that “the split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time . . . Therefore every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of culture, or more correctly of cultures. They have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel” (§20).

John Paul II strengthened this focus on culture by stating that “creating a new culture of love and of hope inspired by the truth that frees us in Christ Jesus . . . is the priority for the new evangelization.” He explains this priority further in Christifidelis Laici: “Therefore, I have maintained that a faith that does not affect a person’s culture is a faith ‘not fully embraced, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived’” (§59). Faith must be lived out as a way of life and cannot remain simply an interior belief; it must shape and guide all that we do.

Building upon these insights from Dawson and the directives of the Magisterium, I propose to address how our efforts at rebuilding a Christian culture should begin with the family. First, I will look generally at how family life relates to culture and culture and then propose four points to give direction for our catechetical efforts to help families live the faith as a way of life.

Culture, Catechesis, And The Family

Building upon the principle that the family forms the foundation of society, Pope John Paul II stated prophetically: “The future humanity passes by way of the family.” In light of the deep crisis we face in family life, it is imperative that we increase our efforts to support the family. Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that “the evangelization of the family is a pastoral priority.” When faith enters the family, it naturally forms culture, for “Christianity is a creator of culture in its very foundation.”

He also said in an address to the members of the Roman clergy on March 2, 2006: “Only faith in Christ and only sharing the faith of the Church saves the family; and on the other hand, only if the family is saved can the Church also survive. For the time being, I do not have an effective recipe for this, but it seems to me that we should always bear it in mind.” We have to help come up with this recipe. Catechesis plays an important role in forming the members of the family in faith, but it must also assist them to connect their faith to life as a whole.

Catechesis aims at deepening one’s faith: The General Directory for Catechesis (1998) states: “Catechesis is nothing other than the process of transmitting the Gospel, as the Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it in many ways” (§105).

In relation to the family, its goal should be to strengthen the belief and practice of the faith in its domestic life. Family catechesis constitutes an urgent task, for as Pope Benedict affirmed, “only if the family is saved can the Church also survive . . . We must therefore do all that favors the family: family circles, family catechesis, and we must teach prayer in the family.”

With this focus, catechesis forms habits of faith. Family catechesis requires that families receive the message of evangelization and the content of catechesis, but the effort to form family culture through catechesis looks to the next step of how to apply and live that message or content. The goal of family ministry cannot focus on content alone, but should look to the incarnation or inculturation of faith in daily life, translating patterns of belief into a hostile surrounding culture.

In Catechesi Tradendae, §20, John Paul speaks of “the specific aim of catechesis,” which is to enact change in how one thinks and lives. He describes this aim as the development of faith, “which he explains is “a matter of giving growth, at the level of knowledge and in life, to the seed of faith sown by the Holy Spirit with the initial proclamation and effectively transmitted by Baptism. Catechesis aims therefore at developing understanding of the mystery of Christ in the light of God’s word, so that the whole of a person’s humanity is impregnated by that word. Changed by the working of grace into a new creature, the Christian thus sets himself to follow Christ and learns more and more within the Church to think like Him, to judge like Him, to act in conformity with His commandments, and to hope as He invites us to.”

This catechetical approach points to the family as the means for translating faith into the concrete expressions of daily life. The General Directory of Catechesis makes clear that “the care of the family always remains central, since it is the primary agent of an incarnate transmission of the faith” (§207). Faith meets culture primarily within the family. John Paul taught that “God’s plan for marriage and the family touches men and women in the concreteness of their daily existence in specific social and cultural situations.” The family constitutes the domestic church, where the faith of the parish and school meets the outside world, where the work of inculturation happens (or does not happen) in one’s life.

The family should be recognized as a cultural unit and producer of culture. John Paul proposed that “it is necessary to demand a healthy primacy of the family in the overall work of educating man to real humanity,” because it is the “fundamental creative environment of culture.” The basic cultural task of the family is to transmit culture by initiating children into a way of life. “The family transmits cultural heritage. It is in the bosom of the family that culture is passed on ‘as a specific way of man’s ‘existing’ and ‘being.’” We all enter into a specific way of life through our family.

Creating a Christian culture occurs simply “when the truths of the Faith are applied by the laity in their daily lives.” The Catechism speaks of “creating a home,” where children receive an “education in the virtues,” learn how to “subordinate ‘the material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones,’” are shown a “good example” or witness of the Christian life, and receive discipline (§2223). The home is a locus of Christian culture, as it should embody the spiritual realities of the faith concretely in the many small ways of interaction, instruction, rejoicing, and even correction. The home should be a sacrament of the Church’s broader life.

We generally design catechesis narrowly in relation to sacramental preparation for children or adult faith formation. These tasks flow from the mission of the parish, but as parents are the primary educators of the faith (See: Gravissimum Educationis §3), catechesis for the family should assist the family in recognizing and fulfilling its distinct, catechetical role.

In his Letter to Families, John Paul situates religious education within the domestic church, stating that this role should “make the family a true subject of evangelization and the apostolate within the Church.” Catechesis makes the family the subject not just the object of imparting the faith, enabling the family to fulfill its own unique ministry. This mission “builds up the Kingdom of God in history through the everyday realities that concern and distinguish its state of life,” creating conditions which “foster . . . a living faith and remain a support for it throughout one’s life.” This makes clear that the role of religious education does not consist in a function, but in the creation of a family environment that conduces to faith. The creation of a culture, that is, a way of life, in which faith can grow organically in the fertile soil of family life.

Forming Culture Tn The Family

he constituent elements of family culture relate to the four general pillars proposed by Dawson. First, its foundation consists in a particular bond between people, particularly the members of the family but also the broader community. Second, the locus of culture or the family’s environment, found primarily in the home, but also the parish and places of work. Third, the function or mission of the family, its work and social life, which includes education. Finally, we have Dawson’s notion of thought, which includes the religious beliefs and practices of the family.

Pope Francis, in his long series of Wednesday audiences on the family, stretching from December 2014 to September 2015, affirms these key elements that form the rhythm of the family’s way of life: “celebration, work, prayer.” In addition, in this same group of audiences, he addresses the topics of education, evangelization and community. These six topics provide the central themes for a catechetical revitalization of family. I will address them as follows: Prayer and celebration first; then education through the lens of imagination; followed by work; and finally, community. All of these themes relate to the overarching goal of the evangelization and catechesis of the family.

Prayer As A Way Of Life

Just as religion stands at the heart of culture, so faith should provide the center of the family’s way of life. There can be no Christian culture unless a supernatural, grace-filled, relationship with God animates the life of the family. The supernatural life comes to us from the sacraments, which we receive in the parish. It from the domestic church, however, that we enter parish life and we live out the sacramental life within the home. As Pope Benedict noted: “The family . . . is the fundamental school of Christian formation on the supernatural level.”

The family will become a school of the Christian life primarily through prayer. Prayer is the font of Christian culture. If this is true, then the first and most significant priority of our catechetical efforts consists in teaching families how to pray. Prayer should set the rhythm of life in a fundamental way, as we “redeem the time” (Ephesians 5:16) or as Pope Francis said, give “time back to God.” The liturgy shapes time by creating a rhythm for the day, by praying in the morning and evening, for the week, by keeping the Lord’s day, and for the year, by celebrating the seasons and feasts of the Church. The supernatural life of the family springs from its “worship in church . . . and as its prolongation in the home” through family prayer.

Ordering the life of the family through prayer constitutes no small task. The domestic church may find inspiration from the monastery, with its daily rhythm of prayer and work within the stability of the monastic family: “Just as the monastery’s life is ordered toward God, so must the family home be.” Ordering life through prayer must be taught, and in this endeavor another religious community, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, provides helpful advice: “Please remember that merely saying the prayers is not the goal. The goal is praying: personally encountering the Lord, listening to Him, and giving Him your heart.” We may be tempted to focus simply on outward rituals with children, but the heart of the family community, like the religious life, is a search for God (quaerere Deum), meeting God in silent prayer.

Interior silence, though, progresses to outward celebration, arising naturally from the festivity built into the Catholic cycle of the liturgy. Sofia Cavaletti speaks of “celebration [as] a universal expression; it is not restricted to the religious world. Rather, it corresponds to the need of human beings to periodically experience basic realities of daily life in a particularly intense and focused way.” She says further that liturgical celebrations help us to live our biblical history: “Liturgical celebration is an essential instrument in rendering past events concrete and powerful in the lives of believers.”

The liturgical seasons provide opportunities to celebrate God’s goodness and the blessings he has bestowed upon the family. Echoing the thought of Josef Pieper, Pope Francis describe the nature of this affirmation: “Celebration is first and foremost a loving and grateful look at work well done . . . It’s time to look at our home, our friends we host, the community that surrounds us, and to think: what a good thing! God did this when he created the world. And he does so again and again, because God is always creating, even at this moment!” Pieper also affirms that “to celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.”

Sunday is a moment each week to stop and to make this affirmation with rest and the enjoyment of family life.

Enlivening The Imagination

Although it may not be obvious, focusing on the imagination relates to prayer. Prayer builds upon our experience of reality, as the soil from which it draws life. Msgr. Timothy Verdun describes how the family cultivates the foundation for prayer by imparting language and by stimulating the mind through experience: “There is in fact an art of prayer that can be transmitted from masters to disciples as from parents to children. The places designated for its transmission are indeed, first, the family, where children initially learn words and gestures with which to enter into relation with God, and then the community of other believes.” He continues, speaking of the lex orandi, lex credendi, as “a rule in the service of creativity, for faith and prayer in effect are creative responses.” In the “long history of the Church, the ‘art of prayer’—the system of words and gestures with which believers turn to God—in fact has often been transmitted through the visual arts and architecture.”

What does this mean concretely for the family? The family’s mission of education must compensate for the poverty of schooling today and overcome obstacles, such as technology, which impede the development of the imagination. I think of the immense importance Pope Benedict XVI ascribed to listening to Mozart as a family when he was young: “You might say that there Mozart thoroughly penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me very deeply, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep.”

Contrast this experience with the normal child today, deprived of beauty and immersed in distraction. The basic education parents can give their children, essential for any schooling, career, and even prayer, should focus on learning to listen (no small task today), to understand, and to communicate. We can no longer take these foundational points for granted. In terms of the imagination, we have to teach children how to see, to appreciate, and to discern the worth of things.

Pope Benedict reflects on the need for “the formation of children to respond appropriately to the media . . . Within this framework, training in the proper use of the media is essential for the cultural, moral and spiritual development of children.” Interestingly, he continues by insisting that we introduce our children “to what is aesthetically and morally excellent,” such as “children’s classics in literature, to the fine arts and to uplifting music.”

Without this formation in beauty, in a cultural patrimony, we experience a breakdown in identity: “The crisis of a society begins when it no longer knows how to hand down its cultural patrimony and its fundamental values to the new generations.”

Catechetically speaking, we have to impart a Catholic identity through the imagination, so that the family’s way of thinking and values reflect the Gospel. Cardinal Francis Arinze challenges us to consider the effectiveness our catechesis in this regard: “The Church in every country can ask herself what image of the Gospel is present in the mass media and in cultural thought patterns in the country in question . . . How much are they contributing to cultural patterns in their society? . . . What are the laity contributing to the fabric of society so that life in society will be as near as possible to the Gospel ideal?” We cannot bring the Gospel to the world, if it has not penetrated our own minds and habits.

Family Work

Unlike immersion in the digital world, we form imagination most profoundly through a direct experience of reality. This experience in turn draws us naturally to work, our creative encounter with the physical world. Many thinkers have described the crisis of the family in modern culture as arising in large part due to a lack of common work, common purposes that hold family members together.

This element of family formation consists literally in helping families to form culture, that is, to learn to make things, to shape their home environment, and to become co-creators with God. John Paul exhorts us: “family, become what you are” and the Church needs to help families achieve this even in a natural sense.

John Paul describes what he means by this phrase: “Accordingly, the family must go back to the “beginning” of God’s creative act, if it is to attain self-knowledge and self-realization in accordance with the inner truth not only of what it is but also of what it does in history.” Pope Francis describes this looking back to the beginning for families as well: ““The family that responds to the call of Jesus consigns the stewardship of the world back to the covenant of man and woman with God. Let us imagine that the helm of history is entrusted entrusted—finally!—to the covenant of man and woman. . . . The themes of earth and home, of the economy and work, would sing a very different tune.”

Pope Francis affirms that work must be taught in the family for the “family is a great workbench.” Teaching work is not drudgery, but emphasizes the need for creative expression in the formation of Christian culture. David Clayton notes that we have been “good at forming consumers of Catholic culture, but not good at forming creators.” We need to learn “the practice of beauty-in-the-making. We are incarnational and learn by imitation and doing, and ultimately, as this progresses, by the creation of new works.” Teaching work as a cultural expression elicits the creative potential of each child. Clayton continues: “Each of us is called to be creative in a special way and to contribute to the culture. Our formation also, therefore, ought to involve a process of discovery of personal vocation.”

Work is also good for the family, drawing the members of the family together in a common effort, rather than allowing work and school to isolate members of the family in their own individual activities.

James Stenson, in his essay “On Fatherhood,” looks back to past home dynamics: “The home was a place of social and intellectual activity; people talked, read, played, worked, and prayed together.” Now, however, “the home itself has become a place of play rather than work,” even to the point that for our children, “life is play.”

Stenson also gives a description of how fathers should teach their children about hard work and the right use of material things: “Successful fathers . . . work alongside their children at home, teaching the relationship between effort and results, along with the satisfaction of personal accomplishment. They are sparing in allowances. They make the children wait for things, and if possible, earn them. They give generously of time and money to the needy, and they encourage (but don’t force) the children to do the same. They don’t fill the home with expensive gadgets and amusements. They budget and save for the future, and thus teach the children an important lesson: Money is an instrument, a resource for the service of our loved ones and those in need. And that’s all it is.”

Work is a key element of culture and families will have to rediscover its value as something that gives life and creativity to the home. Catechesis does not teach this work in itself, but rather helps families to understand the role of work in human development and its importance for family life and culture.

Forming Intentional Family Community

Families must overcome what has become a key characteristic of modern culture, isolation. The restoration of culture will not occur as long as this isolation remains, especially within families. The culture they form does not exist for themselves alone, but for the world more broadly. Families also need support for their efforts, as children see the values of the family reinforced by other adults and peers.

Pope Francis has urged us to recognize that “strengthening the bond between the family and the Christian community today is indispensable and urgent.”

Providing an example, Rod Dreher quotes Marco Sermarini, the founder of a community of families, the Tipi Loschi in Italy: “It’s becoming clear, Sermarini says, that Christian families have to start linking themselves decisively with other families. ‘If we don’t move in this direction, we will face more and more crises.’”

The mission of culture-building necessarily includes community, as culture itself, as a common way of life, unites people to accomplish a common vision. Therefore, “true Christian communities and culture at large, then, arise from the association of Catholic families that take it upon themselves to enculturate the Faith.”

Dilsaver continues: “For the formation of communities is but the extension of the formation of families.” Pope Francis also emphasized that the building of community by the family should have a broader impact: “The family and the parish must work the miracle of a more communal life for the whole of society.”

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Ireland has taken this principle farther, in looking at the future of parish life: “The parishes of tomorrow will be “communities of intentional disciples” sustained by committed and formed lay people. The key to this will be the formation of cells, or smaller gatherings of committed people who meet and pray and develop together their understanding of faith, and who find there the courage to engage in mission and outreach.”

The family must counteract the individuality that fragments modern culture, reversing “the community desertification of the modern city.” Intentional and committed fellowships of families will recreate a sense of belonging, stability, and support so lacking in our parishes and families today. John Paul has called for a “special solidarity among families” and an “apostolate of families to one another.” The more families embrace their mission to form culture in the home, the more this culture will spread to other families throughout the Church and society.

Families also have a gift to offer others in opening their homes for this fellowship and to those especially without a sense of belonging. Familiaris Consortio notes that we should recognize an “ever greater importance in our society of hospitality in all its forms”

Hospitality indicates that a family does not simply exist for its self, but to serve by opening the life of the family to others. This points to a mission the family exercises in sharing the culture it forms without even leaving the home. Christian culture overcomes isolation in that it exists not for its own sake, but as a service for the good of humanity.

We should focus our catechetical efforts on helping families to live their Catholic faith, both within the home and in conjunction with other families. I call this effort the creation of an “open source movement.” It is a “movement” in that it encourages particular, spiritual practices. It is “open source” in that it inspires families with a vision, assisting them to form the culture with, in, and through the parish. This approaches makes the family central, relying on their own initiative, rather than on an office or program (although they will need inspiration to begin this process). This entails a movement from the family as object to the family as subject of catechesis.

The final consideration, and one that requires further elaboration, consists in how to bring about this new approach to family catechesis. We have relied traditionally on classroom settings to impart the content of faith. This will need to continue, but the task of forming culture focuses rather on establishing practices and habits to change family life. Therefore, it is necessary to model Christian culture to families. This can be done through retreats, small group mentorship, and parish missions. Any such event must include the formation of relationships and family communities so that families receive support in following through with their new practices.

John Paul affirmed that faith requires culture to be true to itself and complete (see, Christifidelis Laici, §59). Families need Christian culture to be faithful to their mission to live and communicate their faith in the modern world. In light of the general crisis of culture, catechesis cannot remain focused solely on imparting the content of faith, but must embrace the work of rebuilding Christian culture.

Families, as the foundation of society, are the ideal place to begin this slow, but necessary, work. Family catechesis ordered toward imparting a Christian way of life provides our best opportunity to begin the renewal of public Catholic culture.

R. Jared Staudt, PhD, works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver and serves as Visiting Associate Professor at the Augustine Institute. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN) and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate. This article appears courtesy of Church Life Journal.

The image shows, “A Girl Praying,” by Roberto Ferruzzi (1853-1934).

Building Dystopia

High architecture, that of grand buildings, is a bridge between God and man, and a sinew binding state and people, the ruling class and the masses. Low architecture, that of daily living and daily use, is key to satisfaction in the life of a populace.

Thus, a coherent and uplifting architecture, high and low, is, and has always been, necessary for any successful society. I will return below to what architecture we should have, why, and what needs to be done to achieve it. Today, though, we most definitely don’t have a coherent and uplifting architecture, and Robert Stevens Curl, in Making Dystopia, explains what the abomination of Modernism is and why it utterly dominates our current architecture.

Curl’s aim is to prove that both architects and society have swallowed the most appalling lies, and been in thrall to the most stupid delusions, for many decades. And since architecture is not mere abstraction, but rather something that affects the lives of everyone, this is a societal disaster of the first order.

Built on propagandistic falsehoods designed to conceal the ideological nature of the project, Modernism is a cult, devoted to destroying opposition and both unwilling and unable to defend its myriad fatal debilities.

It has destroyed the urban fabric all over the globe, and thereby hugely harmed the social fabric. So-called post-modernist successors to Modernism, namely Deconstructivism and Parametricism, are little better. Curl offers no quarter; Modernism and all its works should be erased.

The author is a well-known British art historian, author of more than forty books. This book, written as an “exposé of the ideologies of those responsible for an environmental and cultural disaster on a massive scale,” with its great heft, thick paper, and numerous photographs, screams “expensive”—too expensive, in fact, for the casual reader, unfortunately.

Moreover, there is too much repetition and too much rantiness; the book could have done with less variation on the same prose points and more pictures to illustrate the innumerable references Curl makes in the text and the voluminous footnotes.

And Curl makes little or no effort to make his text accessible to someone who is a complete novice to architectural history (nor, for the same reason, is it possible for someone not well versed in architectural history, such as me, to wholly say how accurate the history Curl offers is).

The result is a book that is self-limiting. But I don’t think Curl wanted Making Dystopia to be a best-seller. I think he’s aware of the book’s limitations. He is old, and most likely his target is not casual readers, but young architects—those who have been or are being brainwashed in the vast majority of architectural schools today (the sole exception he mentions, repeatedly, is the University of Notre Dame).

I suspect that he mostly hopes that select audience will read his book as part of their education, and that he will, after he is dead, thereby help to break the stranglehold of Modernism. He even offers the reader a drawing of himself, dead in a chair, with a personified “Death come as a friend to continue ringing the warning bell.” In this context, the book as written makes perfect sense.

Most of Making Dystopia is straight history of Modernism, focusing in turn on several different times and places, alternating (often on the same page) with hammer-and-tongs attacks on Modernism.

Since any style known as “modern” risks circular definition, Curl begins with classification. Namely, that Modernism in architecture and modern design is that style “opposed to academicism, historicism, and tradition, embracing that which is self-consciously new or fashionable, with pronounced tendencies toward abstraction.”

It originated, and the word first began to be used, in the 1920s, to describe “the new architecture from which all ornament, historical allusions, and traditional forms had been expunged.” Modernism, in its 1920s post-war context, made a certain type of sense as an experimental movement.

But for reasons Curl identifies, none of which are that “Modernism is better,” it swallowed the world, becoming the global compulsory style and destroying much of the world’s urban fabric with stale, ugly, unrealistic, short-lived, and expensive buildings that did not fit their environment and made no effort whatsoever to serve their actual primary purpose—to be places in which to live and work, or to make grand statements unifying the society in which they were built. Instead, Modernism created the inhuman, uncomfortable and divisive.

Modernism as a self-limited, organically-arising, change, where the style would have soon enough have passed on like Art Deco or Art Nouveau, might have made some sense. Change is in the nature of art, and while Modernism was a rupture, not normal organic change, it could perhaps have been accommodated as one of architectural history’s dead ends.

Some of the early Modernist architecture has a certain stark beauty, after all. But why should a few architects, standing in opposition to thousands of years of organic movement, have succeeded in destroying in the way they did?

Curl chalks it up to the general turn among the taste-making classes against tradition and in favor of anything cast as “original,” which while problematic in literature or food, was disastrous in architecture, a far more public form of art with far broader consequences than fads in more ephemeral areas.

Whereas prior to the 1920s even an average architect could create nice-looking buildings that fit their purpose, in the urban landscape and for the people who lived or worked there, simply by using pattern books, now a vulgar supposed originality was required.

Modernism aimed at Utopian social engineering totally unmoored from the past. And as with other similar twentieth-century ideologues, by convincing the right people, in this case the taste-making classes and, just as importantly, big business, Modernists were successful in their engineering efforts.

Still, they required a mythology, in the way of kings fashioning false genealogies. This was provided by Nikolaus Pevsner, who in 1936 published the still-influential Pioneers of the Modern Movement (republished as, Pioneers of Modern Design), an attempt to tie admired nineteenth-century styles such as Arts and Crafts to the modernism of men like Walter Gropius.

It was Pevsner who made silly claims, believed by nearly all today, such as that the Glasgow School of Art was a Modernist building, rather than “a brilliant eclectic design, drawing on Art Nouveau themes,” which was organically derived from other styles, instead of being a rupture with them.

Curl deconstructs Pevsner at some length, giving numerous textual and pictorial examples of his “selectivity and exaggerated claims,” propaganda “based on wishful thinking,” since proving that Modernism was a rupture is key to Curl’s criticism of it. Curl’s goal is to undercut this “Grand Narrative,” which is ubiquitous among architects today, and show that Modernism has no clothes.

The real origin of Modernism was sui generis, in Germany immediately after World War I. Everything was up in the air, so architecture was too, and all the visual arts. In 1919 the Bauhaus art school was formed by Walter Gropius under government aegis.

Nominally apolitical, the Bauhaus was in fact a den of radical politics (liberally larded with nuttiness), harshly opposed to all tradition, whose artists regarded art as a necessary herald and handmaiden of political change, and human life as meaningless without reference to politics.

Although architecture was not the main focus of the Bauhaus, in the ferment of the 1920s its principles rapidly infected German au courant architectural thinking, both in terms of design and in the rejection of the need for any underlying skills in craft.

German architects in the 1920s and 1930s not only embraced Modernism, they also embraced architecture as part of system building. As Thomas Hughes discusses in American Genesis, the 1920s were the time when technological inventions became servants to their own creations, large systems built around new technology.

Modernist architects embraced this as the wave of the future—that is, the future was technology and machines, and buildings, rather than reflecting human uses, should now reflect machine uses, from electricity to motor cars.

In architecture, the Bauhaus had ties to the Deutscher Werkbund of the previous decade, a group devoted to experimentation in architecture in pursuit of integrating modern mass production techniques into industrial design, and this type of system became part of the ground for further drastic change in architectural style.

Curl offers innumerable examples, in narrative and in picture, of different architects and architecture of this time. The most influential architect to emerge from the Bauhaus was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who over the period from 1910 to 1930 abandoned neo-Classicism for the so-called International Style of Modernism, much of which he originated.

Mies was a self-promoter eager to work for anyone in power; he was the last director of the Bauhaus, and having tried and failed to ingratiate himself with the National Socialists, he emigrated to the United States in 1937.

Many of the German avant-garde also emigrated; they later spun stories of their opposition to Hitler, some of which were true, but as Curl points out, the Nazis were not nearly as opposed to Modernist architecture as is often suggested—they were “ambivalent,” being most definitely not conservatives, but revolutionaries, and therefore attracted to certain of the ideological underpinnings of Modernist architecture. In particular, they “accepted Modernism for industrial architecture,” as well as for quite a bit of worker housing.

While some architects outside Germany expressed interest in Modernism, especially the long-lived and ever-varied Philip Johnson, making it a niche taste among the elite, it was only when many Bauhaus and Bauhaus-sympathetic architects emigrated from Germany (the “Bauhäusler”) that the International Style actually became international.

The Bauhäusler were eagerly promoted by ideological allies in the United States and Britain, and so rapidly became extremely influential, then dominant, then utterly dominant, in the Western architectural establishment, both among professional architects and among teachers.

It was not that a great deal of actually built architecture was modernist in the 1930s and 1940s; it was that all the taste-makers decided, nearly simultaneously, that the only type of architecture that was acceptable to the elite was Modernist. Architects who objected were pilloried, cast as bourgeois, marginalized, and sidelined.

The 1930s also saw the rise to international fame of the megalomaniac Frenchman Le Corbusier, that Rasputin, who became the most successful propagandist for Modernism, and established some of its most enduring dogmas, including divorcing all buildings from their context and siting, and pretending a house could be a “machine for living.”

This process continued, and even accelerated, after 1945, when actual construction of Modernist buildings began to dominate. For the next two decades, the cult resulted in the destruction of innumerable town centers and the construction of endless shoddy and ugly buildings totally unsuited for their claimed uses and unfitted for their sites, the very opposite of their claimed “functionalism.”

Modernism was never popular among people in general, but their betters told them what they needed. Without the eager cooperation of giant corporations, though, Modernism would never have succeeded in lasting as long or being as destructive.

Part of this was ideological (similar to “woke” corporate behavior today), through a successful propaganda campaign to cast Modernist architecture as representative of “progress” and “democracy, ” part of it was the desire to make profits by participating in industrial construction techniques (which, as Curl points out, were actually mostly more expensive than the classic techniques replaced, despite the claims of their proponents) and, as with General Motors, to destroy cities to make them better for cars.

(For that latter, Curl covers the famous revolt of Jane Jacobs against Robert Moses’s planned, and partly completed, destruction of New York). Anyone who disagreed was ignored or destroyed.

Curl also spends some time on post-Modernism, a varied set of styles, of which the two most prominent were, or are, Deconstructivism and Parametricism. The former, as its name implies, is deformations of Modernism, meant to provoke anxiety and unease among viewers and users.

The latter (of which London’s Shard is an example) is an attempt to use computer algorithms to construct non-linear buildings, mostly similarly disturbing but in a different way.

“Deconstructivism and Parametricism, by rejecting all that went before and failing to provide clear values as replacements, can be seen as intentional aggression on human senses, abusing perceptive mechanisms in order to generate unease, dislocation, and discomfort… Deconstructivism and Parametricism induce a sense of dislocation both within buildings and between buildings and their contexts. . . . By breaking continuity, disturbing relationships between interior and exterior, and fracturing connections between exterior and context, they undermine harmony, gravitational control, and perceived stability, [which is] crucial to any successful architecture.”

Now, I was curious what proponents of these post-modernist styles say about them. Maybe sense is coming back into fashion. So I went and read up what Patrik Schumacher, who named Parametricism in 2008 in a “Manifesto,” said. I knew we were in trouble when Schumacher called his own style “profound.”

Then he said tripe like “It cannot be dismissed as eccentric signature work that only fits high-brow cultural icons. Parametricism is able to deliver all the components for a high-performance contemporary life process. All moments of contemporary life become uniquely individuated within a continuous, ordered texture.”

Proponents of Deconstructivism say similar things. I wasn’t surprised, though I was disappointed. It’s obvious that both styles are merely the bastard children of Modernism, as can be seen by their use of the ancient technique of obfuscation through cant.

What does Curl want to happen? He calls for a reworking of both architectural education and the relationship of the public to architecture; the public should no longer allow itself to be treated as acolytes to the priests.

“Architecture is far too important to be entrusted to the products of talking-shops: as a public art, it matters hugely, and it cannot succeed unless it connects with the public in a positive way, conveys meanings, arouses resonances, reaches back to the past and forward to the future, and has the appearance of stability.”

Mostly, he wants a realization that Modernism is awful. He wants the spell to be broken; he offers less of a specific program than, like Puddleglum in C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, a stamping on the Witch’s enchanted fire and thereby recalling himself, and his friends, to what was actually real and beautiful, as opposed to the unreality the Witch was trying to sell them.

This is fine as far as it goes, but that’s not really far enough. We should ponder what is the purpose of architecture, of buildings. As Curl says, “Architecture is the one art form which plays an important role in everyday existence.”

It is frozen music. Destroy architecture and you destroy a key component in binding a society together, through its role in offering a common art and through that, a common culture.

“Without the ability to comprehend basic truths about morality and beauty . . . humans are truly lost, adrift in a sea polluted with the flotsam and jetsam of discarded toys promoted by fashion, with nothing to which they can hold fast. High culture has been suppressed, even superseded, by advertising and the mass media. . . .”

In other words, architecture is the art that binds a society together. It is an antidote to centrifugal forces, including those so common in the modern world, whose destructive force is ever-building, yet tamped down by promises of unbridled freedom and the fool’s gold of consumerism, for now.

Foundationalism, my own aborning political program, is really two things: the renewal of society, or the rebuilding of a crumbled society, and the long-term maintenance of that society, both along lines recognizing reality, with a strong bias toward traditional Western knowledge and modes of thought.

No society can long exist, much less be a strong society, without a unifying component of the spiritual, in a broader sense than simply religious. Because, as I say, a coherent and uplifting architecture is necessary for any successful society, architecture, the right architecture, is the second of the pillars of Foundationalism.

The goal of architecture under Foundationalism will be a form of emotional resonance, where all sectors and levels of society feel they have something in common that ties them together and which impels to virtue.

Since Foundationalism envisions a bound society, tied together by many threads and wholly opposed to atomistic individualism, binding forces are critical to its creation and maintenance.

In Foundationalism, architecture will not be a set of rigid beliefs, an aesthetic canon for the elite, as is Modernism; it will instead, like governance, be an organic new thing based on the wisdom of the past, intertwined with all the people, high and low.

Pushing art as part of Foundationalism may seem odd for me, since certainly I have little artistic or creative sense, and therefore cannot knowledgeably discuss architecture or any other type of art.

But I don’t need to—that’s the advantage of hewing to classic architecture traditions, that they can express any meaning desired, in a variety of languages, and offer beauty and continuity, along with enough originality to prevent seeming calcified. Foundationalism has no need to create anything that is new, though some organically developing novelty is to be expected.

Oh, I am sure there is a great deal more that someone knowledgeable can say about architecture as aesthetics, and how that matters to a society. Roger Scruton has written a whole book on it (The Aesthetics of Architecture) which I am sure it would be immensely profitable to read.

But a careful, philosophical parsing of architecture and society isn’t what I’m after. I oppose instrumentalism as the lens for viewing human beings; I am not so much opposed to instrumentalism in the works of men’s hands. What I care about is the function architecture will play under Foundationalism, and the implementation of that function.

The general type of high architecture necessary for this is entirely clear. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch said in Three New Deals, “Scholars gradually recognized neoclassical monumentalism—whether of the 1930s, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, or the Napoleonic empire—for what it is: the architectural style in which the state visually manifests power and authority.”

Neoclassical monumentalism, let’s be honest, impresses everybody. You are lying if you think Le Corbusier holds a candle to, say, the Jefferson Memorial. True, there are limits to this.

The monstrous proportions of buildings proposed, but never built, by Hitler and Stalin take this arc too far, becoming anti-human and enshrining the state as a false god (the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle portrays many of these buildings as if-built; this reality comes through clearly).

Any such program, especially one perceived as right-wing, therefore has an uphill battle, since the gut reaction is that here Albert Speer reborn. But monumental classicism has a long history apart from the regimes of the 1930s (which, as Curl points out, often approved of Modernism, especially Mussolini’s Italy).

And anyway, when my program is being put into place, those who would complain the loudest in that ideological vein will be picking sugar beets in Saskatchewan as part of my rustication and lustration program for those who did the most damage to our society.

Therefore, as far as high architecture controlled by the state, Foundationalism will kill two birds with one stone—every ugly government building built since the 1940s will be torn down, and to the extent new ones are needed, neoclassical buildings will go up. A lot fewer will go up than are torn down, since there will be far fewer government employees.

The extra land will be given over to parks, or perhaps public buildings tangential to government, such as libraries, which will also be done in classical style. Since we will not be exalting government as such, or government workers, we will not need giant new halls to act as the focus for our rulers; most new buildings will be actual monuments or multi-use, Roman Forum-type constructions.

(There will be, of course, government, and strong government. It will have limited ends, though, even if unlimited means, and will not aspire to order every aspect of daily life—far less than our current government does). And no private creation of any significant ugly building, Modernist or other, will be permitted. Those that exist already will be torn down as resources permit.

What of low architecture, that of daily life, of houses and workplaces? There, too, forms of classical architecture will be strongly encouraged, but the goal will be less monumentalism and more organic coherence with how people actually live and work, combined with beauty and the inspiration and joy in living that comes as a result.

The government will not mandate such architecture, as it will with high architecture, but rather encourage it, through education and subsidy. Such encouragement will take the form of only allowing government funding, and student loans (if those still exist) for architectural schools that, at a minimum, teach the execution of classic architecture as a priority.

All government contracts will only go to approved architecture, as will tax benefits for privately constructed buildings, which will, over time, ensure that architects tend to gravitate to where the money is.

The Foundationalist state will seek ways to ensure that honor and prestige, as well, accrue to architects of preferred styles. Moreover, given the well-known association of the Left with Modernism (something Curl spends a fair bit of time on, focusing on the nihilism and destructiveness common to both), since the Foundationalist state will, as its very first act, utterly and permanently break the power of the Left, that alone will clear the way for traditional architecture to rebound from the boot that Modernism has placed on it for so many decades.

Other aspects will have to be worked out; this is not an ideology, but a set of principles to use. (Prince Charles has recently put forth ten principles that are a good place to start, in a December 2014 article in The Architectural Review; he is pretty odious otherwise and not very bright, but he has always been sensible on architecture).

It is worth noting that Foundationalism does not idolize agrarianism. The rural life and culture has its place, and nature and its forms influence good architecture, but high culture, and the drive to create a successful society, always revolves around cities.

Foundationalism strives to offer a goal for, and outlet for, and inspiration for, human aspiration, and rural life does not build spaceports (aside from today not occupying the daily life of any significant percentage of the population).

And the Foundationalist state will take a similar approach to other art (though a more restrained one, since architecture is the most important art for the state), and we will return to the traditional approach where artists work in cooperation with the pillars of society, state and private, rather than being destructive agents of the Left as they mostly have been for the past century (a topic I intend to discuss the whys and wherefores of at some point, as it is not the natural order of things).

And, at that point, Making Dystopia will have accomplished the goals of its author, and be merely a chronicle of an overly long, and overly destructive, but fortunately vanished, period of architectural and societal distress.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows an Untitled piece by Zdzisław Beksiński.

The Politics Of Structure

I have always found structural engineering fascinating, though I’m a consumer of the results, not a producer like Roma Agrawal. No doubt the life of a structural engineer is number crunching, not glamour. But the result is something useful to mankind, and even sometimes beautiful, so it must be satisfying for an engineer to see what he creates. Both facets of the engineering life come through in Agrawal’s book, Built, an upbeat look at engineering through the lens of her career, though the book is marred by some ideologically driven fictions.

Agrawal is based in London, but grew up in India, and spent a few years in her childhood in New York. This has given her a breadth of vision that informs her book. Her claim to fame, if she makes one, is that she worked as part of the team that did the engineering for the Shard, a London landmark completed in 2012, which is still the tallest building in the United Kingdom. Built weaves together engineering principles well explained to the layman, Agrawal’s personal experiences, and examples of implementation of engineering, all to create an interesting, readable package. You may like it more if your interests run to How It’s Made rather than Jane Austen, but you’d have to be pretty dull yourself to find it totally uninteresting.

We cover ancient times and modern times. We cover construction and collapse. We cover solutions for earthquake zones and for tall buildings in wind. We cover bricks and concrete, steel and glass. We cover force and torsion, underground and aboveground, bridges and tunnels.

The book offers a judicious combination of history and science, and comparing and contrasting along both axes. Scattered throughout are many very well-done drawings (apparently done by the author), along with some black-and-white photographs, which are unfortunately mostly terrible, since you can’t see the details that are being highlighted.

The piece I found most interesting was on the stabilization of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Mexico City, built by the conquistadors on the site of a leveled Aztec human sacrifice pyramid, using stones from the destroyed temple of the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli (that’s awesome). Mexico City’s soil is a soup, since much of it was formed by dumping dirt into the lake on which the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was built.

The Spanish were perfectly well aware of the engineering challenges, and cleverly built a raft foundation, with an overlaying raised foundation floor designed to sink. But it sank unevenly, so four hundred years later, one corner was eight feet higher than the other. Basically, this was like fixing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, on a far grander scale.

The solution was digging large cylindrical access shafts down through the foundation, thirty-two of them, and then digging at right angles 1,500 holes, removing the dirt in a pattern calculated to gradually lower the high points. The work was finished in 1998, but the system remains in place, covered up, so it can be reactivated if future problems (carefully monitored by lasers) show up.

To her credit, Agrawal does not spend any relevant time in the text trying to make political points about women in engineering. That’s not how the book is sold, however—the blurb in the book is full of cant about “underrepresented groups such as women” and Agrawal’s supposed “tireless efforts” on their behalf.

There are very good, indisputable, and insurmountable reasons both why there are few women in science and engineering, and why the top accomplishments in those fields are almost always those of men.

But aside from that, two sections of this book shows how falsehoods become embedded in the public consciousness, because they are useful lies to advance an ideological agenda, in this case a tale of supposed oppression of women (and implicit denial of the real reasons why there are few women in science and engineering).

This type of ideologically-driven falsehood spreads like an oil slick because nobody dares to contradict such untruths, knowing if they speak truth they will be attacked without mercy as sexist, racist, and so forth. As a result, more and more lies become embedded in the public mind as truth.

The most egregious example in recent years is the fantasy that Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer, which you hear everywhere, even though it’s equivalent in truth to saying she was the first Egyptian pharaoh. But there are many, many, others, being piled up to the sky.

In Built, we can observe the creation of such a new myth from whole cloth, and the extension of another. Marc Brunel and his son, the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built the Thames Tunnel in the early nineteenth century, a fantastic engineering marvel using many techniques created by the father-son team. Agrawal describes their accomplishments in great detail.

But then we are treated to this parenthetical: “Sophia, [Marc] Brunel’s elder daughter, was nicknamed ‘Brunel in petticoats’ by the industrialist Lord Armstrong because Marc Brunel, unconventionally, taught his daughter about engineering. When they were children, Sophia showed more aptitude than her brother [Isambard] in all things mathematical and technical—and in engineering—but it was her misfortune to be born at a time when women had no such career possibilities. She is the great engineer we never had.”

Now, this sounded interesting, but also forced and reaching. No source was offered, so I went looking. Sophia appears to be totally obscure; she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia squib about her, much less a biography. (Her mother, also Sophia, gets considerably more mention).

No mention other than one noting her existence is made in the Wikipedia article about Marc Brunel, or the one of Isambard Brunel, and you can be certain that if it were commonly held that Sophia was a proto-feminist genius/martyr she would have a large section devoted to her in both articles, as well as her own article.

However, I did manage to find the phrase attributed to Lord Armstrong, “Brunel in petticoats.” It comes from a 1937 biography of the father and son, by Celia Noble, and is quoted in Angus Buchanan’s 2003 biography of Isambard, where the context is clear. Namely, that Sophia “understood her father’s and brother’s plans.” No mention is made of her aptitude, much less her superior aptitude, or her supposed education, in either book, and Buchanan is somewhat mystified about the claim, since Armstrong only knew Sophia when she was in middle age. Buchanan makes no other mention of Sophia in his lengthy book.

The logical next question is whether some other source fills in the gap. The only relevant mention online of the phrase “Brunel in petticoats,” out of a total of ten results in Google (including two to this book), is a pamphlet from the Brunel Museum, which looks like an intern wrote it, and which attributes the quote, without sourcing, to Lord North. Nothing is said about aptitude or training. I could find no other mention of any such thing, or any mention of the younger Sophia Brunel at all, anywhere, other than of her existence in the context of her father and brother. I ordered two books on the Brunel family, along with what could be found on Google Books, and found nothing inside any them.

What appears to have happened is that Agrawal heard an urban legend circulated among female engineers, told to each other to further the myth of persecuted talent, probably based on the Armstrong quote taken out of context, and on her own initiative embellished it with falsehoods that sounded good.

But I can assure you, that in ten years we will frequently, in the engineering context, hear as fact that Marc Brunel and Isambard Brunel were decent engineers, if toxically masculine, but the real hero was their oppressed daughter and sister, who would have been certain to spin straw into gold, if the patriarchy had not put its boot on her.

Probably new falsehoods will be added: I predict one will be that much of Isambard’s work was actually done by Sophia. Any academic or engineer who points out none of this is true will find his career immediately over. Thus, as in Communist societies, are lies woven into the fabric of reality.

Once might be an accident, but twice is a pattern. We can prove definitively that Agrawal modifies the truth by examining her discussion of the Brooklyn Bridge. She discusses the Bridge, built by Washington Roebling, at length. The giant supporting towers were built using caissons, excavated reinforced holes, held under high air pressure.

As a result, the men doing the work, including Roebling, got “caisson disease”—i.e., the bends. Since her husband was debilitated, Emily took over as the frontman, dealing with the press, politicians, and the investors, shielding her husband from having to have direct contact, and acting as his intermediary and, to a degree, project manager. Such a central role is not uncommon for strong women married to strong men, even when they are not debilitated; it is true that behind every great man is usually a great woman.

But Agrawal strongly implies, and clearly believes, that Emily replaced Washington entirely. “With unwavering focus, she started to study complex mathematics and material engineering, learning about steel strength, cable analysis and construction; calculating catenary curves, and gaining a thorough grasp of the technical aspects of the project.” She concludes that everyone knew that Emily was really doing the engineering, from such evidence as occasional addressing of letters to her instead of her husband.

We are meant to conclude this is another example of a woman whose true contributions have been ignored; the bridge did not demonstrate the power of man, as contemporaneous speeches said, but “the power of woman.” She “excelled and triumphed” “even [though] she was not a qualified engineer.” In some, accurate sources (not specified) “she is highlighted as the true force behind the project. In other sources, there is absolutely no mention of her at all.”

Most of what Agrawal says about Emily Roebling is obviously cribbed from David McCullough, in his comprehensive 2012 edition of The Great Bridge (the only book on the topic listed in the bibliography, and all the other facts Agrawal adduces are taken directly from there). But McCullough directly contradicts Agrawal. It is evident, reading the source, that Agrawal deliberately distorted the truth.

What McCullough actually says is that while Emily Roebling necessarily acquired “a thorough grasp of the engineering involved,” as she needed in order to speak competently to her various audiences she expertly juggled, “She did not, however, secretly take over as engineer of the bridge, as some accounts suggest and as was the gossip at the time.”

“Some accounts,” of course, mean modern ideological distortions like Agrawal, which embellishes the truth nearly beyond recognition. Still, again, I am sure that any mention you hear of this topic in the future, or any future history of the bridge itself, will embed a fictional treatment of Emily Roebling, even more embellished, and thus will another folktale turn into historical fact.

Why should we care? Aren’t these tales just nice, feel-good stories that make everyone happy? Don’t I need to prove I’m not a misogynist? (No, I don’t.) We should care because it is a corruption of reality, and there is far too much corruption of reality in the modern world. Sex differences, their immutability and their very existence, are regularly denied as equivalent to believing in the Little People, only with supposedly worse consequences.

A toxic blend of demands for emancipation from fictitious oppression, past and present, with the modern Left vision of all human relations as power relations, means that we are force fed lies, day and night.

The goal is not just the destruction of reality, but the inversion of the masculine and feminine, with women adopting masculine traits, and men becoming unnecessary, often buffoons, such that the feminine traits are lost entirely. (This pattern of propaganda is ubiquitous in modern movies, as Jonathan Pageau has shown, from the recent Star Wars movies to Incredibles 2).

Destroying those who would destroy human flourishing, that is, those pushing these ideological lies (of which those about sex differences are only one manifestation) begins with declaring that Reality Is, and shattering our enemies is made possible by forging an axe from that Reality. Like Truth, Reality will always out, but let’s help it along. Live not by lies, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said.

Aside from false history, we are treated by Agrawal to occasional carping about how women are treated differently in her profession. Here more unreality crops up. “I’ve heard stories from other women in the industry about how they’ve been (illegally) asked in job interviews when they plan to get married and have children.” Illegally, perhaps, but totally rationally. The reality is that women, far more than men, choose to leave their careers, or not achieve maximum competence in them, in order to have children.

They always have, and they always will. That’s a good thing, as it happens, and wholly natural given the biological differences between men and women. A society that deludes itself into thinking that men and women should both share equally in providing and caregiving is a society going nowhere but down. (Along these same lines, I increasingly think that some men, such as those with families, should be formally privileged over women by employers and society in certain jobs).

That doesn’t mean women shouldn’t work in some circumstances, but the baseline assumption should be that men should be, whenever possible, the main providers for a family, both because it is economically rational for companies, and, far more importantly, probably critical to a decent society. But that is a longer discussion.)

For example, in my former profession, law, you often hear whining that while a majority of new associate hires are women, relatively few big firm partners are, and this is necessarily attributed to some kind of discrimination, though what that is nobody can seem to determine, or bothers to guess. In fact, it is men who are massively discriminated against at law firms. Law firms are slaveringly desperate to keep female lawyers, both because of their own ideology and because of (illegal) demands placed on them by woke corporate clients.

No law firm would ever criticize, much less discipline, or (horrors!) fire, a woman for failings that would instantly get a male associate instantly bounced. For the same reason, law firms offer many months of paid leave to pregnant associates, hoping they will return when they have a child, sweetening the pot by promising reduced work loads and no movement off the partner track (that is, illegally discriminating against those who produce more, mostly men, by shifting the competition in favor of women). In the majority, perhaps the great majority, of cases, the woman takes the money, has the child, and says sayonara.

The exceptions are women who need the money, and a handful of women who really like the job (which is rare—almost nobody, male or female, really likes the job, so certainly the woman’s choice to leave is wholly rational). But that professional firms should ignore these truths is asking them to stick their head in the sand—again, with the denials of reality. We should not permit it.

Oh, none of this means you shouldn’t read this book. But forewarned is forearmed; don’t let the lies sink into your brain.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “La Danse” by Jean Dupas, a drawing from the 1920s.

The Lattice Towers of Vladimir Shukhov

Believe it or not, but the inspiration for this highly unusual engineering structure came from Russian wicker baskets. Despite being made of brittle twigs, they are able to withstand considerable weight. It is commonly known that a large wicker basket turned upside down can readily support the weight of a person, thanks to the interlaced weaving.

The first Shukhov tower was publicly unveiled at the All-Russian Industrial and Art Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod in 1896, where visitors were shown some of the most interesting and advanced engineering inventions of the day.

The tower was no mere curiosity. It was there on duty, serving as a water tower and supplying water for the entire exhibition. What’s more, a viewing platform was installed above the water tank for all exhibition guests to come up and enjoy.

Shukhov’s tower was not the only construction he presented at the Nizhny Novgorod exhibition. Another was an oval-shaped pavilion with a hanging steel-mesh cover. Soon afterwards, Russia adopted Shukhov’s pioneering technique for installing overhead covers on buildings, a prime example of which can be seen atop Moscow’s GUM department store.

The world’s first Shukhov tower immediately found an owner in the shape of Russian aristocrat, industrialist, and philanthropist Yuri Nechaev-Maltsov, whose place in Russian history is ensured as one of the founders of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.

Nechaev-Maltsov purchased the tower in Nizhny Novgorod and had it transported to his estate at Polibino, where it was used as a water tower and viewing platform. Writer Leo Tolstoy, poet Anna Akhmatova, and Russian academic and cultural figure Ivan Tsvetaev (father of poet Marina Tsvetaeva) are all said to have climbed the tower at various times.

Today, the Nechaev-Maltsov estate is located in Lipetsk Region. The first Shukhov tower was preserved at Polibino, where it stands behind the main manor house. The tower almost perished in Soviet times, but was miraculously saved by the local history society. The tower has since been restored, and tourists can climb up to the viewing platform once more, as happened more than a century ago.

There are other Shukhov towers in Russia, of course. The most famous are surely the former TV tower at Shabolovka in Moscow and the world’s only hyperboloid multisectional transmission tower, which stands on the banks of the Oka River not far from the city of Dzerzhinsk.

Shukhov towers and other structures conceived by the great Russian engineer are found across the globe. The TV towers in Sydney and Guangzhou, Aspire Tower in Doha, and Kobe Port Tower in Japan (destroyed during the 1995 earthquake, but since reconstructed) all sprang up thanks to Shukhov’s genius.

Shukhov’s techniques are widely used in modern Russian engineering projects, not least in the construction of the Moscow International Business Center (aka Moskva-City), a major high-rise commercial development that dominates the capital’s skyline.

Vadim Razumov writes fro Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a Constructionist work, entitled, “Space Force,” by Lyubov Popova, 1921.

Bauhaus – An Introduction

Contemporary German architecture set its main trends in the first thirty years of the 20th century. The strongest influences came from Weimar and Dessau, where the Bauhaus school was founded in 1919.

Under the leadership of Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), the Bauhaus style spread to the far corners of the earth. Today masterpieces of its synthesis of architecture, technology and functionality can be found all over the world.

One of the main goals of Bauhaus was to renew architecture. The leaders of Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, were architects.

The origins of Bauhaus were far from the earlier methods of education in industrial art, art proper and architecture. Its program was based on the newest knowledge in pedagogy.

The idealistic basis of Bauhaus was a socially orientated program, wherein an artist must be conscious of his social responsibility to the community, while the community has to accept the artist and support him. The word, “Bauhaus” is from two German words, Bau, or “building” (from the verb, bauen, “to build”), and Haus, or “house.” The literal meaning is, “architecture house.”

But above all the intention of Bauhaus was to develop creative minds for architecture and industry and thus influence them so that they would be able to produce artistically, technically and practically balanced utensils.

The institute included workshops for making models of type houses and all kinds of utensils, and departments of advertising art, stage planning, photography, and typography. The neoplastic and constructive movements of art to a great extent steered the form lines of Bauhaus. Teachers were such masters of modern art as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

To better understand the aims of the Bauhaus school, one has to read the following extracts from Walter Gropius’ Manifesto: “The ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building! The decoration of buildings was once the noblest function of fine arts, and fine arts were indispensable to great architecture.

Today they exist in complacent isolation, and can only be rescued by the conscious co-operation and collaboration of all craftsmen. Architects, painters, and sculptors must once again come to know and comprehend the composite character of a building, both as an entity and in terms of its various parts. Then their work will be filled with that true architectonic spirit which, as “salon art”, it has lost.” … “Architects, painters, sculptors, we must all return to crafts! For there is no such thing as “professional art”.

There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman.” … “Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form.”

Often associated with being anti-industrial, the Arts and Crafts Movement had dominated the field before the start of the Bauhaus in 1919. The Bauhaus’ focus was to merge design with industry, providing well designed products for the many.

The basic idea of the Bauhaus teaching concept was the unity of artistic and practical tuition. Every student had to complete a compulsory preliminary course, after which he or she had to enter a workshop of his or her choice. There were several types of workshops available: metal, wood sculpture, glass painting, weaving, pottery, furniture, cabinet making, three-dimensional work, typography, wall painting, and some others.

It was not easy to get general allowances for the new type of art education. A political pressure was felt from the beginning. In 1925 the Thueringer government withdrew its economic support from the education. Bauhaus found a new location in Dessau. The city gave Gropius building projects: a school, workshop and atelier building (1925-1926) has remained in history by the name ‘Bauhaus Dessau’.

In October 1926, the school was officially accredited by the government of the Land, and the masters were promoted to professors. Hence, the Bauhaus obtained the subtitle “School of Design”.

The training course from then on corresponded to university studies and led to a Bauhaus Diploma. Later this year, because of some political and financial difficulties, the Bauhaus center could no longer remain in Weimar and was closed. In April 1925, Bauhaus resumed its work in Dessau.

Personal relations in Bauhaus were not as harmonious as they may seem now, half a century later. The Swiss painter Johannes Itten and the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who taught the Preliminary Course, left after strong disagreements in 1928, Paul Klee – in 1931. Some, for instance Kandinsky and Albers, stayed loyal until the closing of Bauhaus in 1933.

In spite of the success, Gropius left the Bauhaus leadership in 1928. His successor was the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer. He promoted the scientific development of the design training with vigor. However, Meyer failed as leader due to political disagreement inside Bauhaus. He was dismissed in 1930.

The German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was invited as director. He was compelled to cut down on the educational program. Practical work was reduced. Bauhaus approached a type of ‘vocational university’. It began to loose the splendid universality that had made it so excellent. Training of vocational subjects started to dominate the initial steps of education. As a matter of fact this tendency became stronger after Mies van der Rohe had transformed the school into a private institute in Berlin in 1932.

The Nazi majority of Dessau suspended the seat of learning. Paul Schultze-Naumburg was the architect that they sent into the school to re-establish pure German art instead of the “cosmopolitan rubbish” the Bauhaus artists were doing. He described Bauhaus furniture as Kisten, or boxes.

Bauhaus was even as private institution so much hated by the National Socialist government that the police closed it up on 11th April, 1933. By September 1932, the Nazis had won a majority in Dessau, and cut off all financial support to the Bauhaus. The school was forced to move to Berlin, where it survived without any public funding for a brief time. On April 11 1933, the Berlin police, acting on the orders of the new Nazi government finally closed it.

The Nazi’s “degenerate art” exhibition in 1937 featured works by several former Bauhaus teachers. The Nazis failed in their efforts to completely erase the Bauhaus.

Its forced closure and the subsequent emigration of many of its former staff and students, ensured that it would become famous and influential throughout the world, especially in the United States, where a Bauhaus school was established in Chicago in 1937. The Bauhaus had a lasting impact on art education and in architecture.

The New Bauhaus, founded in 1937 in Chicago, was the immediate successor to the Bauhaus dissolved in 1933 under National Socialist pressure.

Bauhaus ideology had a strong impact throughout America, but it was only at the New Bauhaus that the complete curriculum as developed under Walter Gropius in Weimar and Dessau was adopted and further developed.

The former Bauhaus master Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was founding director of the New Bauhaus. The focus on natural and human sciences was increased, and photography grew to play a more prominent role at the school in Chicago than it had done in Germany. Training in mechanical techniques was more sophisticated than it had been in Germany.

The method and aim of the school were likewise adapted to American requirements. Moholy-Nagy’s successor at the head of the Institute of Design, Serge Chermayeff, however, remained still quite true to the original Bauhaus.

In the 1950s the New Bauhaus merged with the Illinois Institute of Technology. The Institute of Design is even now still part of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, and rates as a respected and professionally oriented school of design.

Courtesy of German Culture.

The photo shows, “The Red Balloon,” by Paul Klee, painted in 1922.