Sunflowers with Tomato

The Climate religion already has its iconoclasts. Two planetary suffragettes attacked van Gogh’s Sunflowers, a painting at which they threw a Warholian can of tomato soup to the cry of “Why do you protect art and not the planet?” In this time of permanent performance, the two maenads of the Earth Goddess applied the only principle of their theology—ago quia ineptum est [I do what is stupid]—against a poor canvas whose relationship with the climatic apocalypse is more than doubtful. Given that, according to the most serious scientific hypotheses, it is the cows’ windy breath that is to blame for the agony of our atmosphere, wouldn’t it have been more purposeful, more dignified, more coherent to throw the red lump on some Paulus Potter, for example?

The very purpose of the action does not seem to have been the subject of long meditations, for neither is it very comprehensible that the preservation of art and the preservation of the planet are mutually exclusive ends. Burning five-pound bills at the door of the Bank of England or “tomatoing” Royal Dutch Shell executives, for example, would have had a greater cause-effect relationship, always within that complex system of sympathetic magic that is Woke activism. What does not seem very logical or symbolic is to attack in effigy some defenseless sunflowers, innocent children of Mother Earth. But coherence, logic, sensible analysis of the real and the adequacy of responses to disturbing facts are anathema to Woke subjectivity, macho qualities that surely offend the empowered Ojancanas of the climatic Moloch.

The action of these damsels is the necessary consequence of the kind of education given in Western schools, where instruction has long since become indoctrination, merit anathema, and seriousness and intellectual rigor crimes. Anyone who has had the dubious honor of contemplating the achievements of modern pedagogy knows that performance has become a daily liturgy, a curricular coven, a teaching jalogüín (Halloween) in all educational institutions, where earlier teachers, books, experience and reason explained the sciences and the arts to future professionals, scientists, humanists and technicians. But as now the institutes, lyceums and academies have as a fundamental purpose that the young people explore their trusses and not their brains, the stimuli of the active life are no longer in front of the weak but necessary barrier of the spirit, of the contemplative life, of the intellectual vocation. Therefore, what the iconoclasts of the National Gallery carried out was the application to external reality of what has been common practice in academic centers for decades: Dadaism.

The tomato wallops at van Gogh are the culmination of four decades of anti-elitist, anti-hierarchical, anti-class, anti-racist, anti-macho, avant-garde, inclusive, feminist, resilient, non-binary, trans-speciesist and other long etcetera of antis and -ists that the reader may wish to add. Anything but classical, humanist and scientific.

I have no doubt that these prophets of nihilism have far surpassed the great artist of our time, the woman who best represents the aspirations and achievements of contemporary man (with apologies): Marina Abramovic, who will have to invent something to surpass the two bacchantes of London. Only one superior sacrilege comes to mind: throwing tomato, or pineapple juice, or Coca-Cola or sulfuric acid on some “masterpiece” of Frida Kahlo, the best artist in history, eclipsed until our times by a phallocratic conspiracy of silence. It is true that van Gogh was a sort of hirsute, red-haired, disoriented and suicidal Frida, but with a better technique (which, on the other hand, was not very difficult, either). I think, moreover, that the tomato streaks should remain on the painting, as a sample of what we could call “Hysteric Art.” Worse things have been seen in many exhibitions and have been priced at gold-premium. The National Gallery must pay fair market value for their work to the two girls, since their “action painting,” in addition, has served to make their museum become a trending topic. And isn’t that the chief end of art?

What can bring a museum closer to the people than the opportunity to throw a tomato at the Mona Lisa? Wasn’t that what Duchamp, Jarry and Picabia advocated? Is there anything more interactive and inclusive, more accessible to everyone? Besides, the Planet will be grateful.

If there is one good thing about Woke “education” is that the most valued artists are Rothko, Pollock and Mondrian, not the devalued butches of Titian, Rubens or Rembrandt. Therefore, future tomatinas will not get to (in theory) the representatives of European pseudo art—Boucher, Renoir or Ingres who objectified the female body and who will soon be banished from museums for offending genderist curators as much as they used to offend the confessors of queens. It will be Juan Gris, Miró, Tàpies and other geniuses of our era who will receive the public tribute of the tomato-pelting. Besides, a crimson streak in their works will not be too noticeable, either: it will actually make them more material, more organic—authentic art of the masses, genuine aesthetics of democracy.


Sertorio lives, writes and thinks in Spain. this review comes through the kind courtesy of El Manifesto.

The Continuous Creativity of Western Visual Arts

The white students you have seen recently vandalizing cherished Western paintings likely never read a book about the history of Western art. In academia today, the West is rarely a subject of praise and almost always a subject of derision. Anyone who approaches the history of visual arts from an impartial perspective—concerned only with aesthetics, creativity, and originality—can’t help but realize, as I am about to explain in this article, that Western art stands on a league of its own. Making this claim goes against the relentless promotion of immigrant multiculturalism across the West today, which necessarily comes along with the notion that the art of the diverse peoples of the world is equally good.

Not long ago the celebrated historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto called Kenneth Clark’s judgement that Greek art undoubtedly “embodies a higher state of civilization” than African art a “warped perspective,” “a crude perversion of prejudice.” No civilization can be said to be “better,” Fernández-Armesto insisted, since each culture, from the most primitive to the most advanced, is adapted to a specific environment. We must abandon, in our increasingly diverse West, the “delusions of self-flattery” by Europeans. Charles Murray’s book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences 800 BC to 1950 (2003) has no such qualms: it enumerates the outstanding contributions of individuals to the arts and sciences of countries across the world from ancient times to the mid-twentieth century, by calculating the amount of space allocated to these individuals in reference works, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Murray concludes that “whether measured in people or events, 97 percent of accomplishments in the scientific inventories occurred in Europe and North America.” He estimates that the absolute number of great visual artists in the West is far higher than the combined number of the other civilizations: 479 for the West as compared to 192 for China and Japan combined (with no significant figures listed for India and the Arab World). Murray relies on the judgments of the knowledge community in his statistical inventories. He defines excellence in the sciences in a pragmatic and objective manner in relation to whether the scientific idea empirically reflects significant aspects of “reality” according to the methodologies now accepted cross-culturally in the world.

But what about excellence in the arts, where different peoples don’t rely on cross-culturally accepted standards? Murray defines “high aesthetic quality” differently. While acknowledging that it is difficult to apply a uniform standard of excellence, he adds that the ability to appreciate the quality of a work of art “varies with the level of knowledge that a person brings to it.” Those who know most about an artistic field have a deeper understanding of the intrinsic aesthetic qualities of the works produced. The consensus one finds among art critics, notwithstanding some variations in individual judgements, reflect qualities that are inherent in the work of art. There is a strong degree of consensus about the greatest paintings and painters. The compilation of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and reference books about the best art and artists reflects this consensus within each respective civilization.

My disagreement with Murray is that the numbers of 479 and 192 leave out a most peculiar characteristic of Western art: its exhibition of a continuous proliferation of highly original artists with new artistic styles, new ways of projecting images on a flat surface, new conceptions of light, new standards of excellence, and new conceptions about nature and man—in contrast to a nonwestern world where aesthetic norms barely changed or where artists were invariably inclined to follow an established convention without breaking new aesthetic paths. To appreciate the achievement of the West it is not enough to have separate lists comparing great artists across civilizations. Among the 479 great painters compiled for the West one will find a much higher number of original artists than among the 192 artists compiled for China and Japan.

I don’t need to be an expert to know this. Reading some of the best histories of art has been enough to convey to me this startling contrast between the West and the Rest. This article compares the artistic greatness of civilizations in painting by examining great books in the history of art. I have in mind four of the most widely read and authoritative books: H. W. Janson’s History of Art, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, Arnold Hauser’s four-volume book, The Social History of Art, and Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. I also examine the highly regarded book, The Arts of China, by Michael Sullivan, in partial combination with James Cahill’s Chinese Painting (1960), to get the perspective of admirers of Chinese art. The focus will be on whether China really saw new “isms” or merely continuous refinements and slight alterations within an unbroken tradition set in the past. For the purposes of this article, China is the one civilization that can be compared to the West in having exhibited the highest number of great painters as well as some noticeable changes in artistic styles. This article will then try to convey the novelties of Western art by citing the judgements of Gombrich, Clark and, to a lesser extent, Hauser. Unless one is very knowledgeable about the aesthetics of painting, it is very difficult to express exactly what makes a particular painting or painter truly great and original. Time consuming as it has been, I have thus decided to rely on the aesthetic judgments of these authors, citing their words regularly.

H.W. Janson

H.W. Janson’s History of Art, first published in 1962, with a sixteenth printing in 1971, which I am using, and numerous new editions thereafter, is an encyclopedic treatment of the history of art, with millions of copies sold in fifteen languages. Janson came from a Lutheran family of Baltic German stock. His criterion for choice of great art is “ORIGINALITY.” “Uniqueness, novelty, freshness” are the “yardstick of artistic greatness.” “An original work must not be a copy, reproduction, imitation, or translation.” But be careful: Janson warns against a flimsy understanding of what “originality” entails, making the key point that “without TRADITION…no originality would be possible.” Absorbing “the artistic tradition” of one’s time, learning the “established ways of drawing, painting, carving, designing” and the “established ways of seeing,” is a precondition for creativity (pp. 12-15) .

This criterion underpins Janson’s magisterial book. This book has three opening chapters on “The Art of Prehistoric Man,” “Egyptian Art,” and “The Ancient Near East.” The rest of the book, with the exception of a short chapter on “Islamic Art” and a short “Postscript” with the title “The Meeting of East and West,” is entirely about Western art. These traditions really interest him insofar as they “contributed to the growth of the Western artistic tradition” (p. 569). He ignored China, Japan, and India until the end because they were not a “vital source of inspiration for Western art” except in contemporary times. New styles of art, new techniques and schools, was a uniquely Western phenomenon. Short sections on Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Islamic art are sufficient to convey the aesthetic qualities of these traditions, with their ceremonial forms and eventual repetitiveness after a period of creativity. The East Asian tradition had a “refined style” characterized by “many centuries of continuous development” (p. 569).

It can’t be denied, however, that this marginal treatment of Chinese art is a limitation of Janson’s book. We will see that there were some variations in artistic styles in China, and truly great painters. But Janson had to make choices. It is a large size book of 600+ pages in small print because the originality of the West is persistently great. Conveying this originality required full separate chapters on Greek Art, Roman Art, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, Romanesque Art, Gothic Art, Late Gothic Painting and Sculpture, The Early Renaissance in Italy, The High Renaissance in Italy, Mannerism and Other Trends, The Renaissance in the North, The Baroque in Italy and Germany, The Baroque in Flanders, Holland, and Spain, The Baroque in France and England, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Twentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture. History of Art was determined to convey to students precisely what stood out about the Western tradition: its continuous freshness and ability to generate one artistic epoch after another, rather than a relatively continuous and monotonous tradition.

Arnold Hauser

Arnold Hauser (1892-1978) was a Hungarian Marxist with Jewish ancestry, an admirer of bourgeois norms and sensibilities, writing at a time when students were educated without diversity and equity mandates. The Social History of Art, first published in 1951, the product of thirty years of labor, opens with eight short chapters on prehistoric, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian art, covering less than fifty pages in a four-volume book that is close to 1000 pages long. This rightfully valued book argues that art became more realistic and naturalistic as Europe became less aristocratic and hierarchical, more bourgeois, urbane and cosmopolitan. A “naturalistic style” actually prevailed through to the end of the Paleolithic Age in the way animals were depicted in a realistic way, although the art was concerned as well with the performance of magical rituals. This naturalistic attitude, which was “open to the full range of experience,” gave way in the Neolithic Age to a “narrowly geometric stylization” in which the “artist tended to shut himself off from the wealth of empirical reality.” This “formalistic” and “ornamental style” persisted through the history of Egypt and Mesopotamia, with minor variations (Vol 1: pp. 8-21).

The profound changes that accompanied the rise of these civilizations did not occasion fundamental changes to the Neolithic geometrical and formalistic style other than the addition of a monumental quality. We should not “underestimate the spirit of conservatism” of Egyptian art. In Egyptian art, “the person of the artist himself disappeared almost entirely behind his work.” Painters and sculptors remained “anonymous” and “undistinguished” craftsmen, “in no way obtruding their own personalities” (Vol. 1: p. 27). The art of the early period of Egyptian history was “stereotyped” and “stylized” in the Middle Kingdom (2040 -1782 BC), characterized by “conservatism and conventionalism.” “Ancient-Oriental art…is an art which both demands and shows public respect. Its approach to the beholder is an act of reverence, of courtesy and etiquette” (Vol. 1: p. 31-35).

There was a bit of naturalism during the reign of Akhenaton (1351–1334 BC), known as the “first prophet” and the “discoverer of monotheism.” But while one sees representations of everyday scenes and some aversion from the old monumental style, the art remained “thoroughly ceremonial and formal.” The civilizations of Mesopotamia, Babylonian and Assyrian, despite their more dynamic trade, industry and finance, were “more rigidly disciplined, less changeable” in their art than Egypt. One would have expected the higher urbanity of the Babylonians to have encouraged less rigid forms of art, but Hauser infers that the persistency of despotic rule and “the more intolerant spirit of religion” likely countered any individualistic and naturalistic impulses (Vol. 1: pp. 42-43).

It is only in ancient Crete that Hauser finally encounters a “colorful, unrestrained, exuberant life” in art. Hauser’s argument is not that from this point on Western art is persistently creative, never rigid and traditionalist. New artistic epochs emerge (Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Classicism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Impressionism) in opposition to prevailing conventions with increasing acceleration from the Renaissance onwards, led by artists who purposely wanted to break away from the prejudices of their age, innovate and experiment, and demonstrate thereby their own artistic genius. Hauser’s heavy focus on social history and literature is the reason why I will be citing him less than Gombrich and Clark.

E.H. Gombrich

The Story of Art, originally published in 1950, is currently in its 16th edition. Wikipedia says that “over seven million copies” of this book “have been sold, making it the best-selling art book of all time.” It “has been translated into approximately 30 languages.” Unlike Hauser, who follows a Marxist conception of progress in the arts, Gombrich, born in Vienna into an assimilated family of Jewish origin, carefully rejects the idea of progress, believing that “each gain or progress in one direction entails a loss in another, and that this subjective progress, in spite of its importance, does not correspond to an objective increase in artistic value” (p. 3). Achieving originality in one age usually entails sacrificing aesthetic qualities emphasized by preceding generations. At the same time, Gombrich thinks it is possible, much like Charles Murray, to make judgements about the quality of art, as long as it is a critic with aesthetic sensibilities developed through years of education.

The Story of Art is a history of art from the beginnings to the present. Gombrich estimates that three chapters, out of twenty five, are enough to cover the achievements of primitive and nonwestern art. His reason for doing this is simple:

Western Europe always differed profoundly from the East. In the East [artistic] styles lasted for thousands of years, and there seemed no reason why they should ever change. The West never knew this immobility. It was always restless, groping for new solutions and new ideas (p. 131).

Among European painters there was an “urge to be different,” do something new, find a new way to enhance the aesthetic effect of the work, convey something different about the world, new life experiences along with permanent aspects of human nature. Using originality and restless creativity as his central criterion, Gombrich could not but pay far less attention to an Eastern artistic tradition that remained continuously the same through the centuries. He writes about Egypt’s “art of eternity.”

No one wanted anything different, no one asked him to be “original.” On the contrary, he was probably considered the best artist who could make his statues most like the admired monuments of the past. So it happened that in the course of three thousand years or more Egyptian art changed very little…True, new fashions appeared, and new subjects were demanded of the artists, but their mode of representing man and nature remained essentially the same (p. 42).

About Chinese and Japanese art, he observes:

The standards of painting remained very high…but art became more and more like a graceful and elaborate game which has lost much of its interest as so many of its moves are known. It was only after a new contact with the achievements of Western art in the eighteenth century that the Japanese dared to apply the Eastern methods to new subjects (p. 108).

Gombrich has a keen eye for what was distinctive about each epoch of Western art and what was original about each of the major painters. And so does Kenneth Clark. What I will do next is make a few introductory remarks about Clark’s book Civilisation, then write about the historical essentials of Chinese painting, before I return to what Gombrich, Clark, and Hauser say about Western originality.

Kenneth Clark

Clark’s book, as he says in the Foreword, “is made up of the scripts of a series of television programmes given in the spring of 1969.” The series, produced by the BBC under the same name as the book’s title, consisted of thirteen programmes, each fifty minutes long, singularly focused on European art from the end of the Dark Ages to the early twentieth century. Many were surprised by the “unprecedented viewing figures for a high art series: 2.5 million viewers in Britain and 5 million in the US.” Everyone was impressed. Civilisation was “the first magnum opus attempted and realised in terms of TV”—”setting the standard for later documentary series.”

But complaints were inevitable in the thoroughly multicultural and feminist Britain of recent times. Overtly the objections came down to Clark’s “all men” and “all European” cast of great painters. They were upset as well by Clark’s identification of the word “Civilisation” with the creation of great art, combined with his belief that the West produced the greatest art. This may explain why the BBC announced in 2015 a new ten-episode sequel to Clark’s series to be called Civilisations (plural), with three presenters: “the committed feminist and anti-racist” Mary Beard, the Nigerian immigrant David Olusoga, and the Jew Simon Schama. This new series would emphasize “non-European cultures” to “convey a message of globalism” by “revelling in the variety of our species’ ingenuity on an international scale.”

Couldn’t these resentful conformists produce a series with a different title on the artistic achievements of women and nonwhites? No. The aim of equity and inclusion is to undermine the greatness of European culture by mixing it up with other cultures. Although Clark does not compare Western to non-Western art, and starts with the Dark Ages rather than ancient Greece, the following words in the beginning of Civilisation would have disqualified him today from any public appearance:

Whatever its merits as a work of art, I don’t think there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of Civilisation than the mask. They both represent spirits, messengers from another world — that is to say, from a world of our own imagining. To the Negro imagination it is a world of fear and darkness, ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement of a taboo. To the Hellenistic imagination it is a world of light and confidence, in which the gods are like ourselves, only more beautiful, and descend to earth in order to teach men reason and the laws of harmony… There was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world. But, all the same, the contrast between these images means something. It means that at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself—body and spirit—which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection—reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium… Western Europe inherited such an ideal. It had been invented in ancient Greece in the fifth century before Christ and was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history, so complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye, that it lasted unchanged for six hundred years.

It is this conviction that Western art expresses the highest man has achieved in aesthetics that irks the new diversity-controlled Britain. Civilisation is a joy to read for its high minded learning and its enthusiastic appreciation of the sublime originality of Western art in its incessant striving for new forms of aesthetic perfection. Other civilizations remained content with reenacting the perfection they had achieved in the past. The West was different:

The great, indeed the unique, merit of European Civilisation has been that it has never ceased to develop and change. It has not been based on a stationary perfection, but on ideas and inspiration (p. 74).

What about Chinese Painting?

To assess Chinese painting I will rely on Michael Sullivan’s The Arts of China, a comprehensive study of Chinese art and a long standing text for university students, now in its sixth edition. I will make some references to James Cahill’s beautiful book, Chinese Painting (1960), with its numerous color transparencies of paintings in plates. I can’t disagree with Cahill that “the Chinese tradition of painting [is] the richest and most diversified in world art outside Europe” (p. 5). Sullivan is also a keen admirer of Chinese art. The claim that Chinese art was relatively observant of tradition, or attached to old ways, is an interpretation Sullivan would deny as a matter of principle. Cahill less so. Yet, the overall message I take from Sullivan’s The Arts of China is that this art was very traditional. Much of Chinese “art,” it should be said, consisted of bronze casting, ceramics, and jade carving. This “art” was highly sophisticated in technique and decoration, but I hesitate to call it art. It should be categorized as applied art, the work of highly skilled craftsmen. As H.W. Janson writes, “originality is what distinguishes art from craft.”

While paintings with human figures were common from the Han dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) until the end of the Tang (618 to 907), by the eleventh century landscape painting was the characteristic product until the end of dynastic rule in the twentieth century. Both the human figure and landscape painting operated within a stable craft-like tradition, occasionally exhibiting interesting variations, without epoch-making redirections. There is less individuality and self-consciousness in Chinese portraits. As Cahill observes about the painting below, which is a 12th century remake of an earlier 8th century original, the characters are conscious in their sidelong glances, their postures, the way the hands are poised and the heads tilted, but the picture “tells us nothing about the participants beyond defining their roles in this particular scene… nor is there any of the extraneous overlay—humor, drama, pathos, sentiment—that is so often present in Occidental genre art” (pp. 20-21).

Landscape painting occurred within a cultural matrix that encouraged standardization and regularity, rather than unpredictability and freshness. Sullivan tells us that the “Six principles of Chinese painting,” which the painter and art critic Xie He wrote in the 6th century, “remained the pivot around which all subsequent art criticism in China has resolved” (p. 95, my italics). These six elements were: “spirit harmony,” the way of using the brush, “fidelity to the object in portraying forms,” “conformity to kind in applying colors,” “proper planning in placing of elements,” and “transmission by copying.” The sixth principle “indicates reverence for the tradition itself, of which every painter felt himself to be a custodian” (p. 96). Overall this manual told prospective painters that:

Making exact copies of ancient, worn masterpieces was a way of preserving them, just as, at a later date, working “in the manner of” great painters of the past, while adding something of oneself, was a way of putting new life into the traditions (p. 96).

This passage sums up the underlying nature of Chinese creativity. New trends consisted in breaking from the regimented traditions of one’s age by reviving and putting new life into early traditions. Of course, within any tradition, painters were expected to add something of their own, otherwise they would have produced mere replicas. Not just in art but in philosophy, as I have argued elsewhere, every “new” philosophical outlook in China’s history occurred “within a revitalized Confucianism” or through different mixtures of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Sullivan mentions Daoist painters who deviated somewhat from “the rigidly traditional way of art and literature” and painters who were influenced by Buddhism late in the Tang dynasty (618 to 907), who nurtured a “new” tradition in Chinese sculpture that “contained a rich mixture of native and foreign elements” (133).

According to Sullivan, the “great masters of the tenth and eleventh centuries are sometimes called classical because they established an ideal in monumental landscape painting to which later painters were to return again and again for inspiration” (p. 169). Likewise, Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) “occupies a pivotal position in the history of Chinese landscape painting” because “he united a direct, spontaneous expression of feeling with a deep reverence for the antique” (203). He is said to have gone “beyond the orthodox Song styles” by rediscovering “the brushwork of the long neglected southern manner of [the painters] Dong Yuan and Juran” from the earlier Southern Tang dynasty (937–975). In doing this, Mengfu, “opened the way…for almost all subsequent scholarly landscape painting up to the present day” (203). The “urge to penetrate the unknown,” identified by H. W. Janson as a hallmark of Western originality, was lacking in Chinese painting.

Sullivan indeed tells us that “up until the Yuan, each painter had built upon the achievement of his predecessors in enriching his pictorial vocabulary and drawing closer to nature.” But after Mengfu this “succession was broken, as artists began to range back over the whole tradition, reviving, playing variations upon, and painting in the manner of the great masters, particularly those of the tenth and eleventh centuries” (207). Sullivan calls this “a new and indeed revolutionary attitude to painting”—yet it was just a return to an older tradition. Again, we observe this same type of “revolutionary attitude” in Chinese intellectual history: breaking from a stultified Neo-Confucian tradition by going back to the original Confucian tradition, or by integrating Daoist elements into the Confucian tradition.

With continuous generations perfecting landscape painting, refining and elaborating different variations, Chinese painting could not but be masterful. Since landscapes are inherently diverse, there was always room to paint different things, pictures of flowers, birds, insects and animals. We find Bian Wenjin (1400-1440) specializing in painting birds in fresh ways. Chinese painters also portrayed scholars seated on mountain ledges gazing at some landscape or meditating. All in all, however, these variations occurred within an established tradition. In his Qingbian Mountains of 1617, Dong Qichang affirmed his philosophy that “the great Southern tradition must be not only revived and preserved, but creatively reinterpreted, for only thus could it live” (p. 229). A new generation would go back to an older tradition to find ways to express it in new ways. Once the “new” way became a tradition, stultification would set in. “The most characteristic intellectual achievement of the Qing dynasty was, like of the Ming, not creative as much as synthetic.” The Qing age was “an antiquarian age,” and not just in painting but in its overall obsession with the collection of classic books as well as paintings, porcelain, and archaic bronzes” (246).

Western Originality: From Ancient to Gothic Times

If you asked someone what exactly makes Greek art great, what was original about the art of Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael, Velazquez, or Rembrandt, or what’s the difference between Renaissance and Baroque painting, or what’s new about Mannerism, Rococo, Naturalism, Impressionism, and Surrealism—you will invariably get answers full of generalities without proper distinctions. It is for this reason that I have decided to go through the very time-consuming task of distilling some of the best passages from Gombrich and Clark (and a few ones from Hauser) that, in my estimation, bring out what was novel and truly great about particular Western artists and particular works of art.

Gombrich sees a “great wakening” in Greece:

It was here, above all, that the greatest and most astonishing revolution in the whole history of art bore fruit…in the sixth century BC. We know that before that time the artists of the old Oriental empires had striven for a peculiar kind of perfection. They had tried to emulate the art of their forefathers as faithfully as possible, and to adhere strictly to the sacred rules they had learned…[With the Greeks] it was no longer a question of learning a ready-made formula for representing the human body. Every Greek sculptor wanted to know how he was to represent a particular body. (p. 52, his italics).

One of the greatest artistic accomplishments of the ancient Greeks was “the discovery of foreshortening,” which relates to the way we perceive an object in space depending on the angle from which we see it. It was in Greece that “artists dared for the first time in all history to paint a foot as seen from in front.” It may seem exaggerated to dwell for long on such a small detail, but it really meant that the old art was dead and buried. It meant that the artist no longer aimed at including everything in the picture in its most clearly visible form, but took account of the angle from which he saw an object (pp. 53-4).

Then came Hellenistic art with its realistic portrayals of particular characters.

It is a strange fact…that the Greek artists…avoided giving the faces a particular expression…Greek statues, of course, are not expressionless in the sense of looking dull and blank, but their faces never seem to betray any definite feeling…It was in the generation after Praxiteles, towards the end of the fourth century, that this further great discovery was made in art. By the time of Alexander the Great…the heads of the statues usually look much more animated and alive than the beautiful faces of earlier works. Together with this mastery of expression, artists also learned to seize the individual character of a physiognomy and to make portraits in our sense of the word. It was in the time of Alexander that people started to discuss this new art of portraiture (p. 72).
This was perhaps the greatest innovation of the Hellenistic period. Ancient Oriental art had no use for landscapes except as settings for their scenes of human life…For Greek art at the time of…Praxiteles, man remained the subject of the artist’s interest. In the Hellenistic period, the time when poets like Theocritus discovered the charm of simple life among shepherds, artists also tried to conjure up the pleasures of the countryside for sophisticated town-dwellers (p. 77).

One should not presume, however, that the creativity of Hellenistic art was bound to continue. “The Hellenistics,” as Arnold Hauser observes, eventually “reached a dead end and simply went on repeating worn-out formulas” (97). Similarly, after Byzantine art expressed its own original style in the fourth century AD, it became rigid and inflexible, and while it experienced a “second golden age” in the ninth and tenth centuries, with some magnificent mosaic paintings, it became “formally stereotyped again…so conservative in fact that in essentials the icons of the Greek Orthodox monasteries were still being painted in the same manner in the seventeenth as in the eleventh century” (p. 128).

Gombrich—who starts with ancient Greece, in contrast to Clark who starts with the “Dark Ages”—ignores the contributions of Roman art, particularly the way in which Roman portraitures raised to a higher level the portrayal of the “real” personality of individuals. But it can’t be denied that this art, too, became stereotyped and conventional, including Rome’s unique architectural forms of the arch, vault, and dome, although through the passage of time the potential of these forms were fully exploited in the construction of a wide range of engineering structures, theatres, aqueducts, bridges, circuses, and temples.

The term “Dark Ages” is restricted to the period from about AD 400 to AD 1000, rather than covering the full Middle Ages. The Germanic tribes, the Goths, the Vandals, the Franks, who brought Rome down, and later the Northmen or Vikings who raided and pillaged Christian villages and monasteries, included highly skilled craftsmen capable of finely wrought metalwork and excellent wood carvings with intricately beautiful patterns. At the court of Charlemagne the tradition of Roman architecture was resurrected in the Palatine Chapel built in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) around AD 800, a copy of the famous the Basilica of San Vitale that had been built in Ravenna 300 years before. The notion of creating something different or original was still absent. Gombrich senses, however, an emerging disposition among medieval Christian artists “to express” what they “felt, beyond the Egyptian predilection to express ceremonial and stereotypical images, and the Greek-Roman predilection for a style that alternately emphasized realistic and idealizing elements.” While the painter of the figure of St. Matthew writing the gospel (dated AD 800) expressed his talent by copying an original copy as “faithfully as possible,” the painter of the same figure (dated AD 830), Gombrich thinks, “must have aimed at a different interpretation.”

Perhaps he did not want to represent the evangelist like any serene scholar, sitting quietly in his study. To him St Matthew was an inspired man, writing down the Word of God. It was an immensely important and immensely exciting event in the history of mankind that he wanted to portray, and he succeeded in conveying something of his own sense of awe and excitement in this figure of a writing man (114-15).

The Romanesque period did not simply resurrect the Roman art of vaulting large heavy buildings but through the eleventh and twelfth centuries was characterized by “ceaseless experiment” and the realization that “it was not really necessary to make the whole roof so heavy.” It was possible to fill the intervals between a number of firm arches with lighter materials, “arches or ribs crosswise between the pillars.” This revolutionary idea in architecture can be traced as far back as the Norman cathedral of Durham (p. 123).

Among the great works of art Kenneth Clark includes from the Dark Ages is the Cross of Lothair (about AD 1000), “one of the most moving objects that has come down to us from the distant past… an image of worldly imperium at its most civilized” (p. 19). It was “about the year 1100” that western Europe saw “an extraordinary outpouring of energy, an intensification of existence” with the “triumph of the Church” playing a major role. The Chartres Cathedral was a “masterpiece of harmonious proportion.” The main portal of the Chartres “is one of the most beautiful congregations of carved figures in the world. The longer you look at it, the more moving incidents, the more vivid details you discover” (p. 55). “One must remember,” Clark continues, “that to medieval man geometry was a divine activity. The Chartres, indeed, “was the centre of a school of philosophy devoted to Plato, and in particular to his mysterious book called the Timaeus, from which it was thought that the whole universe could be interpreted in the form of measurable harmony” (p. 52). God created the universe after geometric and harmonic principles.

For Gombrich, the Gothic style further revolutionized the Romanesque vaulting method by means of crosswise arches “much more consistently and to much greater purpose.” For Clark, Gothic vaulting and the device known as flying buttresses “remains one of the most remarkable of human achievements.”

Since the first expression of civilised life in architecture, say the pyramid of Sakara, man had thought of buildings as a weight on the ground. He had accepted their material nature and although he had tried to make them transcend it by means of proportion or by the colors of precious marbles, he had always found himself limited by problems of stability and weight. In the end it kept him down to the earth. Now by the devices of the Gothic style…he could make stone seem weightless: the weightless expression of his spirit (59-60).

For Hauser, “the rise of Gothic style marks the most fundamental change in the history of modern art.”

The interior of the Romanesque church is a self-contained stationary space that permits the eye of the spectator to rest and remain in perfect passivity. A Gothic church, on the contrary, seems to be in process of development, as if it were rising up before our very eyes; it expresses a process, not a result (Vol. 1: pp. 175, 220).

The Gothic sculptor, writes Gombrich, “approached his task in a new spirit,” imbuing his statues with “an individual dignity” beyond portraying individuals as representatives of “sacred symbols” copied from religious texts. Gothic statues “look immensely energetic and vigorous.” Gothic “knowledge of the human body…was infinitely greater than that of the painter of the twelfth century miniature” (pp. 137, 139). Clark connects the Gothic world to a new world of chivalry, chastity, and courtly love.

Of the two or three faculties that have been added to the European mind since the Civilisation of Greece and Rome, none seems to me stranger and more inexplicable than the sentiment of ideal or courtly love. It was entirely unknown in antiquity. Passion, yes; desire, yes of course; steady affection, yes. But this state of utter subjection to the will of an almost unapproachable woman; this belief that no sacrifice was too great, that a whole lifetime might be spent paying court to some exacting lady or suffering on her behalf, this would seem to the Romans or to the Vikings not only absurd but unbelievable; and yet for hundreds of years it passed unquestioned. It inspired a vast literature—from Chrétien the Troyes to Shelley (p. 64).

The “cult of ideal love” found expression in the “ravishing beauty and delicacy that one finds in the madonnas of the thirteenth century” identified as “the Gothic Virgin and Child in ivory.” Clark notes that Gothic artists also took pleasure in leaves, flowers, and, most of all, birds in manuscript illustrations; “artists drew them with such obsessive accuracy, and I think the reason is that they had become symbols of freedom…Birds were cheerful, hopeful, impudent, and mobile.”

Gombrich says that the painting Faith (1306) by Giotto, born near Florence in about 1265,

gives the illusion of a statue in the round…[E]arly Christian art had reverted to the old Oriental idea that to tell a story clearly every figure had to be shown completely, almost as was done in Egyptian art. Giotto abandoned these ideas…He shows us so convincingly how each figure reflects the grief of the tragic scene…Giotto begins an entirely new chapter in the history of art. From this day onwards the history of art, first in Italy and then in other countries also, is the history of the great artists (pp. 144-148).

Clark thinks that before Giotto “Italian painting was really only a less polished form of Byzantine painting. It was flat, flowing linear style based on traditional concepts which had changed very little for five hundred years. For Giotto to break away from it and evolve this solid, space-conscious style was one of the feats of inspired originality that have occurred only two or three times in the history of art” (p. 80).

Italian Renaissance

What was new about the Italian Renaissance? According to Clark:

Medieval architects had designed on a mathematical basis, but it seems to have been of immense complexity, as elaborate as scholastic philosophy. The Renaissance architects used much simpler geometrical figures – the square, the circle, forms which they believed to have some ultimate perfection – and they entertained the idea that these forms must be applicable to the human body: that each, so to say, guaranteed the perfection of the other…The same approach was applied to painting, in the system known as perspective, by which it was through that with mathematical calculation one could render on a flat surface the precise position of a figure in space. This too seems to have been invented by Brunelleschi, but we can see it best in the works of this two friends, Ghiberti and Donatello…The belief that one could represent a man in a real setting and calculate his position and arrange figures in a demonstrably harmonious order, expressed symbolically a new idea about man’s place in the scheme of things and man’s control over his own destiny (p. 96-99).

Gombrich says that with Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)

we see at once that it [the Capella Pazzi) has little in common with any classical temple, but even less with the forms used by Gothic builders. Brunelleschi has combined columns, pilasters and arches in his own way to achieve an effect of lightness and grace which is different from anything that had gone before…To him, it seems, is due another momentous discovery in the field of art…that of perspective. We have seen that even the Greeks, who understood foreshortening, and the Hellenistic painters who were skilled in creating the illusion of depth, did not know the mathematical laws by which objects diminish in size as they recede into the background (pp. 163-5).

For Clark, “the invention of the individual” was the source of the Renaissance’s creativity. In medieval art, “people were presented to the eye as figures that symbolised their status” but in Renaissance portraits the personalities of individuals are revealed with details of their daily lives. Giorgione, “the passionate lover of physical beauty,” painted (1500-1510) a picture of an old woman with extreme realism, titled Col tempo, “with time,” of a woman who “must have once been a beauty,” her face ravaged by time.

Hauser makes an important observation about the “individualism” of the Renaissance: while “strong personalities already existed in the Middle Ages, yet to think and act individually is one thing and to be conscious of one’s individuality, to affirm and deliberately to intensify it, is another” (Vol. 2: p. 62). For Gombrich, it was Masaccio (1401-1428) who “brought about a complete revolution in painting.”

This revolution did not consist only in the technical trick of perspective painting…We can imagine how amazed the Florentine’s must have been when this wall painting was unveiled and seemed to have made a hole in the wall through which they could look into a new chapel in Brunelleschi’s modern style (p. 165).

There was something “entirely new” in the painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), says Gombrich.

He was the inventor of oil painting… What he achieved was a new preparation of paints before they were put on the panel… For the first time in history the artist became the perfect eye-witness in the truest sense of the term (pp. 170-4).

In Piero della Francesca, Gombrich continues, “light not only helps to model the forms of the figures, but is equal in importance to perspective in creating the illusion of depth” (p. 189). In the equestrian statue which Andrea del Verrocchio made in 1488 of the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni,

we see how minutely he studied the anatomy of the horse, and how clearly he observed the position of the muscles and veins. But most admirable of all is the posture of the horseman, who seems to be riding ahead of his troops with an expression of bold defiance (p. 213).

It is said that this statue was not a portrait of Colleoni but of the idea of a strong and ruthless military commander “bursting with titanic power and energy.”

In Leonardo da Vinci,

there was nothing in nature which did not arouse his curiosity and challenge his ingenuity. He explored the secrets of the human body by dissecting more than thirty corpses. He was one of the first to probe the mysteries of the growth of the child in the womb; he investigated the laws of waves and currents; he spent years observing and analysing the flight of insects and birds…Never before had the sacred episode [The Last Supper] appeared so close and so lifelike. (pp. 214, 216-17).

Clark believes that Leonardo “belongs to no epoch, he fits into no category, and the more you know about him, the more mysterious he becomes…he was the most relentlessly curious man in history…Reading the thousands of words in Leonardo’s note-books, one is absolutely worn out by this energy” (135). According to Gombrich, what stands out about Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in history,

is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive. She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own. Like a living being, she seems to change before our eyes and to look a little different every time we come back to her…Sometimes she seems to mock us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile. All this sounds rather mysterious, and so it is; that is the effect of every great work of art (p. 218-19).

No artist before Michelangelo, adds Gombrich

had even come near expressing the greatness of the mystery of creation with such simplicity and force…It is one of the greatest miracles in art how Michelangelo has contrived thus to make the touch of the Divine hand the centre and focus of the picture, and how he has made us see the idea of omnipotence by the ease and power of this gesture of creation (pp. 224-7).

In stark contrast to most current academics who agree with Fernández-Armesto’s dogma that survival and woke politics are the qualities that define a civilisation, Clark sees “the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man” for having extended in his art the “powers of mind and spirit to the utmost.” For Hauser,

Michelangelo rises to absolutely unprecedented heights…He is the first example of the modern, lonely, demonically impelled artist—the first to be completely possessed by his idea and for whom nothing exists but his idea—who feels a deep sense of responsibility towards his gift and sees a higher and superhuman power in his own artistic genius (Volume 2: p. 60).

Raphael, says Gombrich, possessed a unique artistic capacity to achieve

constant movement throughout the picture, without letting it become restless or unbalanced. It is for this supreme mastery of arranging his figures, this consummate skill in composition, that artists have admired Raphael ever since…Raphael was seen to have accomplished what the older generation had striven so hard to achieve: the perfect and harmonious composition of freely moving figures (p. 234).

Clark devotes considerable attention to Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) a “very strange character,” “intensively self-conscious and inordinately vain.” “No man has ever described natural objects, flowers and grasses and animals, more minutely; and yet, to my mind, something is missing – the inner life” (151).

But if Dürer did not try to peer so deeply into the inner life of nature, as Leonardo did, nor feel its appalling independence, he was deeply engaged by the mystery of the human psyche. His obsession with his own personality was part of a passionate interest in psychology in general, and this led him to produce one of the great prophetic documents of western man, the engraving he entitled Melancholia…The figure is humanity at its most evolved with wings to carry her upwards…holds in her hands the compasses, symbols of measurement by which science will conquer the world. Around her are all the emblems of constructive action: a saw, a plane, pincers, scales, a hammer, a melting pot, and two elements in solid geometry, a polyhedron and sphere. Yet all these aids to construction are discarded and she sits there brooding on the futility of human effort. Her obsessive stare reflects some deep psychic disturbance (152-55).

In The Holy Night (1530), says Gombrich, we can see how Correggio (1489-1534), more so than Titian,

exploited the discovery that colour and light can be used to balance forms and to direct our eyes along certain lines. It is we who rush to the scene with the shepherd and who are made to see what he sees — the miracle of the Light that shone in darkness of which the Gospel of St. John speaks (p. 247).

Catholic Baroque and Mannerism

As you read the following passages, think about Leonardo da Vinci’s remark about the indomitable desire of the “wretched pupil” to “surpass his master.” This attitude is singularly European, completely absent in China, where the aim was to imitate, reproduce the perfection already believed to have been attained in the past. Clark sees the Baroque as a product of the Catholic revival of the sixteenth century, the counter-Reformation movement that, in the realm of art, “gave ordinary people a means of satisfying, through ritual images and symbols, their deepest impulses, so that their minds were at peace.” The Catholic Church, in its portrayal of the Virgin, unlike the Protestant North, gave “the female principle of creation at least as much importance as the male.” It also had “another strength which one may say was part of the Mediterranean Civilisation—or at any rate a legacy from the pagan Renaissance: it was not afraid of the human body.”

Clark writes that “late Baroque artists delighted in emotive close-ups with open lips and glistening tears. The huge scale, the restless movement, the shifting lights and dissolves—all these devices were to be rediscovered in the movies. The extraordinary thing is that Baroque artists did it in bronze and marble, not on celluloid.” He says of Bernini that “was dazzlingly precocious,” “the work of Bernini is ideal and eternal… He not only gave Baroque Rome its character, but he was the chief source of an international style that spread all over Europe, as Gothic had done, and as the Renaissance style never did” (182). The Ecstasy of St. Teresa “is one of the most deeply moving works in European art. Bernini’s gift of sympathetic imagination…is used to convey the rarest and most precious of all emotional states, that of religious ecstasy” (191). Similarly, Gombrich judges that Bernini achieved an intensity of facial expression which until then was never attempted in art” (328).

There are so many great painters—Holbein, Tintoretto, Titian, Bosch, van Dyck, Grünewald—and countless works of art one could spend countless hours thinking about. Hauser groups “late Baroque” artists under the label “Mannerism,” which retained the “passionately expressionistic aims of baroque, while showing “bodies struggling to give expression to the mind…turning and twisting, bending and writhing under the pressure of the mind.” Within Mannerism, he sees “two opposed currents—the mystical spiritualism of El Greco and the pantheistic naturalism of Brueghel” (Vol. 2: p. 92).

Gombrich says that Caravaggio (1571-1610), whom Clark views as “the greatest Italian painter of the period,”

was of a wild and irascible temper, quick to take offence…He had no liking for classical models, nor any respect for ‘ideal beauty’. He wanted to do away with convention and to think about art afresh… Consider his painting of St. Thomas: the three apostles staring at Jesus, one of them poking with his finger into the wound in His side, look unconventional enough. One can imagine that such a painting struck devout people as being irreverent and even outrageous. They were accustomed to seeing the apostles as dignified figures draped in beautiful folds—here they looked like common labourers, with weathered faces and wrinkled brows. But, Caravaggio would have answered, they were old labourers, common people (pp. 290-292).

One drawback in Clark’s book is that he ignores Spanish painters including one of the greatest ever, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), about whom Gombrich says that he “devoted his art to the dispassionate observation of nature regardless of conventions.” Of The Water-seller of
Seville
, he says:

No one who stands before this picture feels inclined to ask whether the objects represented are beautiful or ugly, or whether it is important or trivial. Not even the colours are strictly beautiful by themselves. Brown, grey, greenish tones prevail. And yet, the whole is joined together in such a rich and mellow harmony that the picture remains unforgettable to anyone who has ever paused in front of it (306).

In Rubens’s Head of a Child, Gombrich says,

there are no tricks of composition here, no splendid robes or streams of light, but a simple en face portrait of a child. And yet it seems to breathe and palpitate like living flesh. Compared with this, the portraits of earlier centuries seem somehow remote and unreal — however great they may be as works of art […] joy in exuberant and almost boisterous life in all its manifestations saved Rubens (1577-1640) from becoming a mere virtuoso of his art. It turned his paintings from mere Baroque decorations of festive halls into masterpieces which retain their vitality within the chilling atmosphere of museums (pp. 299, 302).

Dutch “Bourgeois” Painting

The seventeenth century, according to Clark, “saw a revolutionary change in thought” most visibly in the Netherlands “that replaced Divine Authority by experience, experiment and observation” (p. 194). “Amsterdam was the first centre of bourgeois capitalism” with the “first visual evidence of bourgeois democracy.” Unlike the art produced in the past, which was feudal, aristocratic, and at the service of a Church that was rich and powerful, the “numerous group-portraits of early seventeenth-century Holland” are of individuals “who are prepared to join in a corporate effort for the public good” of their cities. While excessive capitalist wealth can produce a “defensive smugness and sentimentality” in art, it generated for some time a society in Holland were leading citizens came together to take “corporate responsibility” because they could “afford to do so” because they had “leisure” because they had “money in the bank.” Clark sees these new bourgeois individuals in such portraits as Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild (1662).

Clark believes that “almost everything of value which has happened in the world has been due to individuals” who are “to some extent a kind of summation of their times.” He includes Rembrandt among “the supremely great figures in history—Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe.” “Rembrandt was the great poet of that need for truth and that appeal to experience which had begun with the Reformation…Rembrandt, although in fact he was a profound student of the classical tradition, wanted to look at every episode [in the Bible] as if it had never been depicted before, and to try to find an equivalent for it in his own experience” (p. 203). Among the seven paintings he shows of Rembrandt is Bathsheba at her Bath (1654). He writes:

The psychological truth in Rembrandt’s paintings goes beyond that of any other artists who has ever lived. Of course they are masterpieces of sheer-picture making. In the Bathsheba he makes use of studies from nature and from antique reliefs to achieve a perfectly balanced design. We may think we admire it as pure painting, but in the end we come back to the head. Bathsheba’s thoughts and feelings as she ponder on David’s letter are rendered with a subtlety and a human sympathy which a great novelist could scarcely achieve in many pages (p. 205).

Gombrich agrees,

Rembrandt (1606-69)…one of the greatest painters who ever lived…Other portraits by great masters may look alive, they may reveal the character of their sitter through a characteristic expression or a striking attitude. Creations such as Mona Lisa…are convincing and impressive, but we feel that they can only represent one side of a complex human being. Not even Mona Lisa can always have smiled. But in Rembrandt’s portraits we feel fact to fact with real human beings with all their tragic failings and all their sufferings (p. 313, 315).

Included among other great Dutch painters are Frans Hals, Paulus Potter, who painted animals within landscapes with “uncanny realism,” Jacob van Ruisdael, “a master in the painting of dark and sombre clouds, of evening light when the shadows grow, of ruined castles and rushing brooks,” and Vermeer of Delft. “With Vermeer,” writes Gombrich,

genre painting has lost the last trace of humorous illustration. His paintings are really still lives with human beings. It is hard to argue the reasons that make such a simple and unassuming picture picture [The Milkmaid] one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. But few who have been lucky enough to see the original will disagree with me that it is something of a miracle (p. 324).

Clark prefers Vermeer’s landscape painting, “View of Delft,” about which he says:

His work is without a single parti pris, or a prejudice arising from knowledge, or the convenience of a style. It’s really quite a shock to see a picture that has so little stylistic artifice as his View of Delft. It looks like a coloured photograph, and yet we know that it is a work of extreme intellectual distinction. It not only shows the light of Holland, but what Descartes called “the natural light of mind” (209).

Rococo, Naturalism, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism

Rococo “represented a real gain in sensibility…and captured new and more delicate shades of feeling,” “an art of elegance rather than greatness,” writes Clark. For Gombrich, it reflected “the taste of the French aristocracy of the early eighteenth century…The fashion for dainty colours and delicate decoration…which expressed itself in gay frivolity.” The paintings of Watteau, a sick man who died of consumption at the age of 37, is seen as the best expression of this new style, with his “visions of a life divorced from hardship…a dream life of gay picnics in fairy parks where it never rains, of musical parties where all ladies are beautiful and all lovers graceful in which all are dressed in sparkling silk without looking showy,” in the words of Gombrich (341).

With Naturalism the painter “lost all consciousness of an independent self” by immersing himself into the totality of nature to gain “thereby a more intense consciousness of being,” writes Clark as he examines Rousseau, the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, and the painters Turner and Constable (272, 291). He admires Turner above everyone else.

He was a genius of the first order—far the greatest painter that England has ever produced… No one has ever known more about natural appearances, and he was able to fit into his encyclopedic knowledge memories of the most fleeting effects of light—sunrises, passing storms, dissolving mists, none of which had ever been seen on canvas before… [Turner’s] new approach to painting… consisted of transforming everything into pure colour, light rendered as colour, feelings about life rendered as colour. It’s quite difficult for us to realise what a revolutionary procedure this was. One must remember that for centuries objects were thought to be real because they were solid. You proved their reality by touching or tapping them…And all respectable art aimed at defining this solidity…Turner declared the independence of colour and thereby added a new faculty to the human mind (284-5).

To sustain their originality, and find new ways of conveying our perception of reality, and surpass Turner, the “three great lovers of nature” of the late nineteenth century, Monet, Cézanne, and van Gogh, “had to make a more radical transformation”—giving way to a new ism: Impressionism. “An impression of what?”—asks Clark. “Of light.” Monet, for Clark, was the “original unswerving Impressionist,” with his view that all a painting can do is give an impression of light. In Monet’s words: “light is the principal person in the picture.” He shows Monet’s Water Lilies, 1919, painted from his garden grounds.

Gombrich is fascinated by Impressionism. He believes it was Manet (with an “a”) and his followers who “brought about a revolution in the rendering of colours which is almost comparable with the revolution in the representation of forms brought about by the Greeks. They discovered that, if we look at nature in the open, we do not see individual objects each with its own colour but rather a bright medley of tones which blend in our eye or really in our mind” (p. 388). The painting The Balcony illustrates Manet’s intentions. Compared with earlier paintings, say Ruben’s Head of a Child, or Velazquez’s Infant Prince, “Manet’s heads look flat.” “But the fact is,” adds Gombrich, “that in the open air, and in the full light of day, round forms sometimes do look flat, like mere coloured patches. It was this effect which Manet wanted to explore. The consequence is that as we stand before one of his pictures it looks more immediately real than any old master” (388).

A novelty about Monet (with an “o) that Gombrich brings up is the “idea that all painting of nature must actually be finished ‘on the spot'” which “demanded a change of habits and a disregard of comfort.” “‘Nature’ or ‘the motif’ changes from minute to minute as a cloud passes over the sun or the wind breaks the reflection in the water. The painter who hopes to catch a characteristic aspect has no leisure to mix and match his colours…He must fix them straight on to his canvas in rapid strokes, caring less for detail than for the general effect of the whole” (392).

For Hauser, perspective painting reaches its culmination in Impressionism, in “the reproduction of the subjective act instead of the objective substratum of seeing.” “Everything stable and coherent is dissolved…and assumes the character of the unfinished and fragmentary.” Impressionism was indeed an “urban art,” a reaction to “external impressions with the overstrained nerves of modern technical man…it describes the always ephemeral impressions of city life…it implies an enormous expansion of sensual perception” (Vol. 4: p. 158).

[T]he quivering, trembling dots and the happy, loose and abrupt strokes of the brush, the whole improvised technique with its rapid and rough sketching, the fleeting, seemingly careless perception of the object, and the brilliant execution merely express…that feeling of a stirring, dynamic, constantly changing reality” (Vol. 4: p. 159-60).

Renoir’s A Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876, shows an open-air dance, which appears ‘sketchy’ and unfinished but the intention, according to Gombrich, was “to conjure up the gay medley of bright colours and to study the effect of sunlight on the whirling throng.” The figures remain the focus, however—how the “forms are increasingly dissolved in sunlight and air.” “We realize without difficulty that the apparent sketchiness has nothing whatever to do with carelessness but is the outcome of great artistic wisdom” (394-5).

Where do we fit Goya? As Gombrich writes:

The most striking fact about Goya’s prints is that they are not illustrations of any known subject, either biblical, historical, or genre. Most of them are fantastic visions of witches and uncanny apparitions. Some are meant as accusations against the powers of stupidity and reaction, of cruelty and oppression, which Goya had witnessed in Spain, others seem to just give shape to the artist’s nightmares (p. 366).

Clark seems to associate Goya with a new Romantic “pessimism” that emerge in the early 1800s, showing Goya’s famous painting of a firing squad called The Third of May 1808, and pointing to the poet Byron as the main spokesman of this new feeling, which he contrasts to the romantic naturalism or sentimentalism of Rousseau, his “belief in the beauty and innocence of nature,” and Wordsworth’s “daisies and daffodils,” found in such painters as Constable. Romantic pessimism eulogized the “great forces of nature,” the roaring of lions, cataracts, and colossal storms—with the sublime. “Consciousness of the sublime was a faculty that the Romantic movement added to the European imagination,” says Clark (307). He pays respect to Théodore Géricault, whose most famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, was of a disaster at sea he had read about in the newspapers, prompting him to study corpses from the local morgue.

Hauser, from a perspective that includes the study of literature, thinks that Romanticism “represented one of the most decisive turning points in the history of the European mind.” With Romanticism “all individual expression is unique, irreplaceable and bears its own laws and standards within itself.” The “intellectual atmosphere created by the [French] Revolution” nurtured an image of the artist as “the lonely human being…who feels himself to be different, either tragically or blessedly different, from his fellows” and the idea that art is “an activity of self-expression creating its own standards” (Vol. 3: p. 144). Were the Romantics, then, responsible for starting a dynamic that would eventually undermine (in the twentieth century) the standards of art, with their excessive subjectivism and preoccupation with their own feelings, with “everything dark and ambiguous, chaotic and ecstatic”? It has to be acknowledged that Romanticism was one of the most creative movements in Western history, combining the seemingly contradictory motivations of losing oneself in the unknown, the mysterious natural forces that overwhelm the confidence of the rational self, which Clark also saw in Naturalism, and an individual artist who feels, in the words of Hauser, that sincerity and creativity only comes through the creation of one’s standards “against the very principle of tradition, authority, and rule” (Vol. 3: p. 142).

Delacroix is the “pessimistic” painter Clark most admires. Delacroix “had the utmost contempt for the age in which he lived, for its crass materialism and complacent belief in progress; and his art is almost entirely an attempt to escape from it” (313). “The abyss did not horrify Delacroix: on the contrary, he gloried in it.” To escape from European Civilisation, he went to Morocco; and despite “many sordid and grotesque incidents in his life there,” he made us believe in the “nobility, dignity, and timelessness” of life in Morocco, with his painting, Women of Algiers in their Apartment.

After Delacroix, the one artist Clark holds in the highest esteem is the sculptor Rodin, “the last great Romantic artist,” with “abundant animal spirits, creator of the greatest piece of sculpture “since Michelangelo.” Before the Romantic pessimists, he mentions the French painter Jacques-Louis David, as an artist already living, in the midst of the Revolutionary Reign of Terror, at a time that would “darken the optimism of the early Romantics.” He shows his famous painting, La Mort de Marat, 1793. Marat was one of the leaders of the Montagnards, a radical faction during the Reign of Terror. “Few propaganda pictures made such an impact as a work of art” (300). What he says about David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps reveals much about what Clark really thinks about “Civilisation”:

With the appearance of General Bonaparte the liberated energies of the revolution take a new direction—the insatiable urge to conquer and explore. But what has this to do with Civilisation? War and imperialism, so long the most admired of human activities, have fallen into disrepute, and I am enough a child of my time to hate them both. But I recognize that, together with much that is destructive, they are symptoms of a life-giving force (300).

Ruskin’s sentence—”No great art ever yet rose on earth but among a nation of soldiers”—strikes Clark as “historically irrefutable.” He mentions a few more impressionists, Renoir, for painting “two of the most beautiful pictures of the period,” and, “the greatest of them,” Paul Cézanne, as well as van Gogh, showing a painting from each; and Georges Seurat for one of the “greatest pictures of the nineteenth century,” Baigneurs, “for the way it unites the monumental stillness of a Renaissance fresco with the vibrating light of the Impressionists” (341). He writes a bit about the “social realism” of Gustave Courbet and Jean Francois Millet, and says that Courbet’s Burial at Ornans is “an impressive example of sympathy with ordinary people…By abandoning all pictorial artifice, which must inevitably involve a certain amount of hierarchy and subordination, and standing his figures in a row, Courbet achieves a feeling of equality in the presence of death” (339).

Clearly, for Clark, artistic greatness and originality were still visible in some works of the nineteenth century, although the art of this century, he also says, can be written “in terms of tunnels, bridges, and other feats of engineering.” A new age of machines had arrived, dedicated to the “glory of mammon,” money and gain, to which was eventually added a humanitarian feeling, as industrialization brought increasing affluence. Humanitarianism was “one of the greatest civilizing achievements of the nineteenth century.” This feeling that “kindness matters most in human conduct” was unprecedented in history. Tragedy and lofty subjects for painting were gone. Clark recognizes that the post-WWII decades brought us a pleasant atmosphere of “well fed” people along with many public schools and universities producing a “well read” public, though “there has been a little flattening at the top.” Of great art there can be no more.

Gombrich takes his survey up to his own time, the first half of the twentieth century. The period of the “Great Revolution in France” of 1789 “put an end to so many assumptions that had been taken for granted” for centuries. Essentially, there was a decisive break with lofty, aristocratic, sublime subjects, leading to a focus on ordinary or everyday subjects. To be sure, in the past, painters like Chardin (1699-1779) had started “to look at the life of the ordinary men and women of their time” (353), and in the sixteenth century we already had the paintings of Brueghel depicting scenes from daily life, and in some paintings we have shown above. At the same time, while some painters like Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) continued to exhort artists “to strive after lofty and dignified subjects,” “grand and impressive” art, Goya examined the faces of the aristocracy “with a pitiless and searching eye, and revealed all their vanity and ugliness, their greed and emptiness” (365). Great paintings continued, but the “foundations on which art had rested throughout its existence” were being undermined at an accelerated speed as the Industrial Revolution was added to the French revolutionary destruction of monarchical rule, the authority of the Catholic Church—by a new middle class “which often lacked tradition” and viewed art as a “perfect means of expressing individuality against all the rules and conventions.”

The history of Western art has always been characterized by individual expression and the creation of new possibilities for art. The difference now was that artists had no ideals of perfection, no sense of loyalty to their ancestors, no traditions to limit their pursuit of the truth solely through their personalities. The purpose of art was merely to express one’s personality, leading to a state of “permanent revolution” as artists “contested with each other over who was the most “creative.” It is in the twentieth century, however, that Gombrich sees artists who “proposed to make a clear sweep of all conventions…which ultimately led them to a rejection of the whole Western tradition” (427).

We saw his admiration for Impressionists, who “did not differ in their aims from the traditions of art that had developed since the discovery of nature in the Renaissance…Their quarrel with the conservative masters was not so much over the aim as over the means of achieving it” (407). He values the originality of van Gogh, who “liked the technique of painting in dots and strokes of pure colour, but under his hands it became something different from what these Paris artists had meant it to be” (408).

Van Gogh liked to paint objects and scenes which gave this new means full scope — motifs in which he could draw as well as paint with his brush, and lay on the colour thick just as a writer who underlines his words. That is why he was the first painter to discover the beauty of stubbles, hedgerows and cornfields, of the gnarled branches of olive trees and the dark, flamelike shapes of the cypress (417).

He views Cézanne (1839-1906), like Clark, as one of the greatest of this period: “he was constantly engaged in a passionate struggle to achieve in his painting that ideal of artistic perfection after which he strove” (408); while adding that Cézanne “had decided to start from scratch as if no painting had been done before him. The Dutch master [Willem Kalf] had painted his still life to display his stupendous virtuosity.”

In his tremendous effort to achieve a sense of depth without sacrificing the brightness of colours, to achieve an orderly arrangement without sacrificing the sense of depth—in all these struggles and gropings there was one thing he was prepared to sacrifice if need be—the conventional ‘correctness’ of outline. He was not out to distort nature; but he did not mind very much if it became distorted in some minor detail provided this helped him to obtain the desired effect (413).

Seurat “studied the scientific theory of colour vision and decided to build up his pictures by means of small regular dabs of unbroken colour like a mosaic.”

This, he hoped, would lead to the colours blending in the eye (or rather in the mind) without their losing in intensity and luminosity. But this extreme technique which became known as pointillism, naturally endangered the legibility of his painting by avoiding all contours and breaking up every form into areas of multicolored dots (414).

Conclusion

It is in the “experimental art” of the 20th century—in the quick succession or simultaneous movements of Surrealism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Abstract Art—that Gombrich sees a complete break with the Western tradition. The sole task of the artist was now to create “something new.” Many relied on non-Western sources for inspiration, African primitivism, Zen Buddhism, Chinese calligraphy, or “Egyptian principles.” Abstract and cubist painters wanted “to become as little children” in order to revitalize a spontaneity threatened by mechanization, to reproduce “the memory of childish scrawls.” The disregard for harmony and beauty was justified on the grounds of “honesty” for the truth. I agree with Gombrich that there was still great talent. I would mention such painters as Edward Munch, Picasso, Matisse and Dali. Gombrich mentions Kokoschka’s Children Playing, 1909, as a painting that “looked at children with a deep sympathy and compassion. He has caught their witfulness and dreaminess, the awkwardness of their movements and the disharmonies of their growing bodies” (431-2). But he struggles to find real greatness, as he moves swiftly from one movement to the next, without persuading us that Nicolas de Stael’s painting, Plage à Agrigente consists of “simple yet subtle brush strokes [which] often give us a sense of light and distance without making us forget the quality of the paint” (460).

I believe that Western art was bound to decline partly for the reasons Clark gives. Fundamentally this decline was a product of the culmination of the Western individualism that nurtured this greatness in the first place until it ceased to be sustained by any traditions. H.W. Janson is correct: “without tradition” the “uniqueness, novelty, and freshness” of Western art would have been impossible. Modern artists came to the conclusion that standards cannot be set by prior generations but are the self-expression of individual artists who are in a war of liberation against the very principle of tradition, authority, and standards. This very attitude has now led to the denial that Western art was “better” than the art of any other culture. We can’t restore the world of the past with its standards and world views. As Spengler told us: “Of great paintings or great music there can no longer be, for Western people, any question.” We can at least, however, recognize the artistic greatness of the Western past, and teach our students about the history of painting, so they realize what a horrendous crime it is to destroy great art.


Ricardo Duchesne has written a number of articles on Western uniqueness. 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: “Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar,” by Willem Kalf; painted in 1669.

Memory and Glory—Soviet Art of the Great Patriotic War

The experience of the great patriotic war found a crucial place in the heritage of soviet-era art. as a theme that continues to stir strong feelings in Russian society to this day, its existential conflux of tragedy and triumph on a personal level overlapped with official interest in the subject, considered a crucial one for cultivating patriotism and political stability in soviet society. accordingly, war-themed art combined deeply personal motivations with levels of opportunistic ambition, something that determines both its variety and quality.

One factor that often contributes to the difference in quality is the date of the creation of a specific work—whether it was produced during or after the war matters a great deal. Another is whether the creator of a particular piece based it on his personal experience or not. However, there is a borderline between works created during and after the war, akin to the borderline between direct participation in an event and a later on-stage interpretation, between the real subject of the action and an impersonator of the drama. Personal involvement in any well-known historical drama, the fact of having lived through the same years, brings a unique content to any statement on the subject; understandably, impersonation sometimes can rise to a high level of mastery as well. This writer, aware of the dissimilarity between first- and second-hand knowledge, chooses in this article to focus mostly on works created between 1941 and 1945.

Contrary to the well-known maxim that the muses are silent when the guns roar, the voice of art did not fade at the start of the Great Patriotic War, although it certainly rang out quite differently from in the pre-war years. In the years immediately preceding the war, any sense of impending disaster was almost completely missing from Soviet art, although World War II had begun in 1939, and Hitler’s Germany was earnestly preparing for its attack on the USSR. Official Socialist Realist art of the second half of the 1930s trumpeted the achievements of the Soviet construction projects, praised Soviet leaders and eagerly flattered the “new Soviet man;” however, the exultant tonality of that art would have looked out of place on the morning of June 22 1941. Now no one wanted to, or for that matter could, create glamorized images; there were no moral, physical or material resources in place for that. The entire cultural environment was changing rapidly, following approximately the same pattern as had marked the beginning of the Civil War. There was an immediate and urgent demand for graphic pieces of two sorts: propagandistic political posters appealing to the population both in the unoccupied heartland and on the battlefields, and “quickie” pictures imaging all that the artist’s observing eye could capture—most of all, at the front.

The experience of the political poster in the early years after the Bolshevik revolution, and the “ROSTA Windows” (Russian Telegraph Agency), was adopted by the “TASS Windows” campaign of the official Soviet news agency, now published in Moscow; a team of artists “Boevoi Karandash” (Combatant Pencil) established itself along similar lines in Leningrad. Today many find the genre of the political poster lacking in appeal, given the bombast and affectation that nearly always marks it. However, the Soviet wartime poster will surprise the unbiased observer with its pinpoint precision in portraying the social energy that was at play in the struggle between Germany and the Soviet Union from the beginning to the end, as well as its capacity to stir, at any given moment, emotions that would encourage, and prove helpful for, victory.

During the first stage of the war the urgency of national mobilization for the fight against the foe was reflected in such posters as “The Motherland is Calling!” by Irakly Toidze, and “We’ll Stand Up for Moscow!” by Nikolai Zhukov and Viktor Klimashin. A photo collage poster by Viktor Koretsky “Soldier of the Red Army, Save Us!” engages the viewer directly, like the most famous placard by Dmitry Moor “Have You Joined the Volunteer Corps?” only featuring a far more heart-rending image—a red bayonet poised to rip into a baby’s body. It has been reported that Koretsky’s poster was well known across anti-Nazi Europe, especially in Great Britain. The period between the battle of Moscow and the victory at Stalingrad would be best linked to the images of bravery in Zhukov’s “Fight Them to the Death!” and Alexei Kokorekin’s “For the Motherland!” where the human figures are portrayed at a moment of utmost strain in action. 1942 also saw the creation of Nikolai Tyrsa’s lithograph “Alarm,” released by “Combatant Pencil” as a flyer: the majestic and rueful stillness of the northern capital during that winter under siege, and the beams from searchlights and explosions of anti-aircraft missiles in the black sky above St. Isaac’s cathedral proved that the battle line crossed the very heart of Russia’s cultural history.

Against such a background, one can better understand the venom of hatred spewed by the Kukryniksy artists in their “Transformations of the ‘Fritzes.'” The famed piece from “TASS Windows” depicts a rank of Nazi troops morphing gradually backwards into an endless field interspersed with tombstones. 1943 was the turning point in the war: Viktor Ivanov’s poster “To the West!” features a Soviet soldier knocking down with the butt of a gun a signpost “NACH OSTEN,” fastened to a birch tree by a German soldier a short while before. And Leonid Golovanov came up soon with an innovative poster “We’ll Make it to Berlin!” (1944), with the warrior, who was in the thick of action in the previous posters, replaced in this one by a smiling soldier. Seated in the shadow of a tree, he readjusts his boots before proceeding on his route march (this soldier strongly resembles the humorous and brave hero of Alexander Tvardovsky’s popular poem “Vasily Tyorkin”). Joseph Serebriany’s poster “Come On, Lend a Hand!” was marked by a novel theme as well—a young woman taking up a barrow full of bricks jovially addresses the viewer: it is time to rebuild everything that the war has destroyed and smashed. This array of posters is completed by Golovanov’s piece “Glory to the Red Army!” (1945), where the soldier previously featured on “We’ll Make it to Berlin!” beams with the joy of victory. Golovanov showed his older poster behind the soldier’s back—a most appropriate statement—while to his right, a bullet-ridden wall carries the inscription, “We’ve made it here!” Another smaller inscription reads “Berlin 2/ V 45,” and an even smaller one, white on grey, “Glory to the Russian people.”

In terms of style, the art of the Soviet poster falls well within the broadly conceived 20th-century international Neo-Classical canon (one, however, undeniably not without its own divisions and inner conflicts), that by and large was the lynchpin of Soviet art of the 193os-195os. The substantive aspects of the Soviet wartime poster, its overall thrust and pictorial techniques were largely warranted by the historical context and the existing challenges of social communications: it was a vital inspirational message addressed to millions. The same cannot always be said about many paintings or sculptures, much less about the monumental compositions in the vein of Stalin’s Socialist Realism.

Generally, at this early stage the large output of graphic artists was dominated by small-scale pictorial on-the-spot reports, pieces that mostly highlight the states of mind, actions and gestures of people at the front; sometimes these observational sketches were developed into fully-fledged visual narratives. However, both large-scale and small-scale wartime graphic works were stylistically different from the bulk of Soviet graphic art of the previous period, marked as it had been by the cultivation of quasi-Classicist academic trends which, in the guise of the “struggle against formalism,” superior craftsmanship and the “completeness” of Realist image, implied a highly negative stance towards any kind of live, uninhibited drawing. It turned out that neither the observational sketches from the battle field, nor the wartime graphic pieces were compatible with such requirements: the sort of art we are reviewing here was naturally dominated by a broadly conceived Realist style.

Certain recurrent symbolical motifs, common to all wartime art, appeared within this fairly spontaneous stream of images. Perhaps the most evocative among them was the motif of a front-line road, the upshot of the artists’ attempts to reflect on life in besieged Moscow during the early war years. In Alexei Laptev’s “Fortifications in Moscow,” or “‘Hedgehogs’ near Savelovsky Station,” we see not the dressed-up centre of Moscow, but a working-class, everyday Moscow—the way most of the city looked in the mid-20th century, which is almost nowhere to be found today. A street flanked with unprepossessing two- or three-storied houses, with the fire-wall of a lone apartment block suddenly visible; machinery plant workshops wedged into a residential neighbourhood; an old brick chimney. A streetcar track turns into one of the numerous side-streets; pieces of iron hardware block the way, and these “hedgehogs,” as well as the rail tracks and the wires above, seem to shrink the entire image, as the cold darkness of that winter in Moscow permeates every little hatch of the drawing. A group of black-silhouetted people are gathered near a store—most likely they wait for food to be “thrown their way.” The overall spectacle is imbued with pain, as well as the sense of an inflexible strength and steadfast determination to stick it out that motivated millions at that time.

The paintings created in late 1941-early 1942 are charged with similar emotions, as if adopted from the graphic observational pieces mentioned. One of the most prominent such works is Georgy Nissky’s “Leningrad Highway” – an endless procession of tanks which are set off by the omnipresent barrier obstructions made of rails welded together. Another equally important work is a well-known landscape by Alexander Deineka “The Outskirts of Moscow. November 1941,” showing the city bristled not only with anti-tank “hedgehogs” but also with the swirling frost of recently-fallen snow; the sharp rusty-grey colours of the urban buildings deeply planted into the hillock rise from the earth of Moscow in front of the viewers’ eyes—or maybe, in front of the eyes of the foes who are assaulting the capital city?

One of the main Russian artists, Konstantin Yuon, strove to convey in his painting “Parade on Red Square. November 7 1941” the same atmosphere of the city-cum-symbol—the city which appeared to have mustered all the courage of the unvanquished nation; the artist started working on the piece immediately after that singular parade, which took place at a moment when Nazi troops were only two or three dozen kilometers away from the Kremlin, and finished it soon after the end of the war.

Interestingly, addressing such themes, the graphic artists and painters usually avoided introducing into their compositions close-up images of valiant warriors, in contrast to the style of the 1930s, when Socialist Realist paintings for official exhibitions were nearly unthinkable without the trite image of a “positive character.” Encouraging artists to avoid bombast and histrionics, the war became for art a moral test. Whereas the posters continued to feature direct representation of the brave ones, the creators of easel pictures sought, successfully, to persuasively convey their desired message through the entire visual structure of the compositions, often favouring such genres as landscape—the space of nature, perceived through a certain lens, appeared to be absorbing scores of personal histories of the people drawn into a common drama.

Therefore, it was only logical that the “Road of Life” across Lake Ladoga became one of the landmark images capturing the experience of the existential endurance test that was the siege of Leningrad. 1942—Vladimir Bogatkin, Solomon Boim, Yevgeny Danilevsky, Joseph Serebriany… Again and again, the ice-bound lake, the snowy riverside swamps, the heavy clouds above, and in the centre, cars and groups of people taking cover from gun-fire while also trying to save the lorries with their precious loads. Strangely, such compositions bring to mind a favourite theme of the mid-19th-century Romanticists: a raft with people on it, or a boat on the raging sea. Perhaps not unlike the Romanticists before them, the Soviet artists focused not just on a group of humans that had to be arranged in a showy fashion, but on their stamina which challenged the ruthless assault of hostile and elemental forces.

The image of a battlefield road was another well-developed type. Nikolai Zhukov’s 1943 picture “Battlefield Road” conveys the message that all of the people were involved in the arduous and time-consuming toils of the war. The trucks, scores of which push their way towards the horizon, carry more soldiers than they can accommodate; their wheels get bogged down in the broken and water-filled tracks, melancholy fields on either side of the road seem lifeless, while torn wires hang loose on the poles, and the roar of the engines and the croaking of flustered crows are the only noises to be heard under the low smoking clouds. Against all the odds, they press ahead, onward towards a place from which this huge mass of people will plunge itself again into a new battle. Comparison of Zhukov’s picture with Valentin Kurdov’s “Guerilla Fighters on a March” is instructive, the latter with its long meandering procession of black figures slowly and steadily filing across the boundless snow-clad field.

Another Kurdov piece, “Death to the Fascist Occupiers,” offers a different take on the subject. In this piece, the road does not lead anywhere; running parallel to the plane of the sheet, it is made to look like a bottom line of sorts. Behind the road is a field after battle with “leftover” debris scattered around—obstructions of barbed wire, a forest with charred, broken trees; a silence seems to envelop everything we can see, as the fading smoke of a fire mingles with the beams of the slowly rising sun, and we notice in the foreground the abandoned body of an enemy soldier by the roadside. This practically uninhabited environment provokes an almost symphonically complex awareness of the finale of the war and the enormous, horrible price paid.

Evidence in the form of drawings helps us to understand what astonished the soldiers especially strongly when the last battle was over—the silence saturating the still air and the entire scenery; the view of sunrises and sunsets no longer shut out by shell bursts and the whiz of bullets. Scenes like these were captured by Vladimir Bogatkin in his unpretentious pieces quickly sketched in pencil, “This is the Tisza” and “Silence at the Spree.” Similar emotions underpin a big painting titled “Victory. Berlin,” created a little later—in 1947—by the artist Dmitry Mochalsky, who personally witnessed the events of those days.

Mochalsky’s picture may well be one of the most astute victory-themed works produced by a Soviet artist: it does more than tell the story of victory and the exultation of the winning soldiers. The victory-related images, such as the tank drivers raising their helmets and garrison caps to salute the red banner mounted on the Reichstag, and the groups of soldiers excitedly looking at the miracle of the fallen stronghold of the Reich, are positioned by the artist in the middle ground. The picture’s background, thoroughly detailed and delicately crafted with a brush, features the silent smoking colossus of the symbolic-looking edifice, presented in all the tragic grandeur of the historical moment. The picture is dominated by the image of the bright morning of the first day of peace, a morning that is savoured, unhurriedly and whole-heartedly, by two soldiers seated on their kit bags who are directly before the viewer. The conceptualization offered by Mochalsky contains both the cruel truth of past experiences and the profound joy of victory, and perhaps an anticipation of the hardships the victorious soldiers were to face after the war.

By way of a preliminary conclusion it can safely be said say that for those interested in art and Russian history, the Soviet graphic pieces of 1941-1945 serve, almost literally, as a guide to the roads of the Great Patriotic War. As the drama of the war unfolded, graphic artists became interested in producing more comprehensive, panorama-like images of the war’s events. Several experienced artists conceived of, and accomplished a variety of themed series of pictures. Such series of drawings include Dementy Shmarinov’s “We’ll Not Forget, We’ll Not Forgive,” Leonid Soifertis’ “Sevastopol Album,” and Alexei Pakhomov’s “Leningrad under Siege;” many of these series are veritable visual chronicles providing a multi-angled take on a certain chapter in the four-year history of the war.

The leading painters who by early 1942 had regained their former artistic skills, did not usually see their mission as chronicling developments on the battlefield and in the unoccupied heartland of the USSR. Gradually the genre of big easel painting returned—the recent mythology of Socialist Realism no longer at work, the painters aspired to reflect philosophically on the most important human collisions of the war in progress.

All this fully applies to Alexander Deineka, the creator of the painting “Defence of Sevastopol” (1942), a very expressive and dynamic work, like the famed pieces the artist had produced in his youth in the 1920s. The picture is impactful and showy, although the artist’s concept is hard to grasp without full use of both heart and mind. Probably the most important novelty of the piece is the new type of the model, who is strangely unlike the trademark models from the posters of the same period, those hard-boiled, mature, battle-tested soldiers. Deineka’s model is a young warrior, just as fearless and hot-blooded in the thick of a battle as his poster counterparts, and yet belonging to a different generation, made from a different mold.

The question begs itself: Whence did he come, and for what? The answer can be easily found if you consider the artist’s biography: Deineka’s new model naturally developed from the models the artist had painted and drawn throughout the preceding decade; this type of model also figured in some of the works created by artists from the Easel Artists’ Society (OST) in Moscow and “The Circle” in Leningrad. A sibling of the students of the Communist Party schools and the “young female shot-putters” from Alexander Samokhvalov’s pictures, the new soldier was a slightly older variation on the images of exercisers that Deineka, too, had produced in generous quantities. Perhaps the tragic ordeals befalling the younger Soviet generation in war were a matter of special concern for the painter, which inspired in him this pictorial requiem. Because Deineka’s painting, as if following the tradition of melodious pictures of this type, presents to the viewer a rich, complex panorama of feelings and emotions, the core theme of which is the doleful beauty of the feat of human self-sacrifice.

What makes the painting so memorable is the depiction of the utmost strain of the mortal combat between the white and the dark hosts—and the symbolic participation of elemental forces in this combat; thus a human tragedy reverberates and even continues in the actual space where the event occurs. The sky is spitting fire and smoke, and seems to be bleeding. A strip of the shore—the last stronghold of the light-hued people—towers under their feet like a stone platform for a future monument. And behind their backs, a black-green abyss of the sea is rippling like a symbol of all-consuming eternity. Deineka circumscribes the vigorous dynamics of a big multi-figure composition within a refined harmonious unity of all aspects of form and colour, and even lends a certain lyrical charm to his long-favoured models. The last rays of the sun hidden behind the backs of the “dark” ones mold the sailors’ figures, heads and fair hair, in a style similar to that often used by Soviet artists in the 1930s (especially in 1930-1935), when they strove to convey their elevated visions of the young model—the “person of the radiant future.”

Another twist was highly unusual for Soviet paintings focused on similar themes. The sailor in white fatigues holding a cluster of grenades, at the centre, and the dead German soldier in black, lying at his feet, have a similar build. At that time, such a juxtaposition could have called down on the artist the dreadful political accusation of a lack of patriotism. Not surprisingly, Deineka’s “Defence of Sevastopol” almost never received a word of praise from orthodox Soviet critics. The painting was ignored, and even much later it proved difficult to buy it for the Russian Museum in Leningrad. But one is led to think that the problem with this painting is more global than it seems. Sooner than many of his colleagues, Deineka came to think about historical injustice and the anti-human nature of armed conflicts, especially worldwide conflicts—and he managed to convey these reflections through visual images.

He did so more than once. The next year, in 1943, he created one of the grimmest Soviet paintings on the subject of war, “The Knocked-down Ace.” The Russian soil itself, scarred and desolate, seems to be on the verge of executing the German pilot—within a moment he is going to crash against the sharp rails sunk into the earth that holds out against the Fascist armada. And although the entire composition is arranged so that the death of the enemy seems inevitable, the falling figure in black seems to be frozen in the air. Retribution to the foe is turned into a perpetual edification of sorts. Deineka’s style in this picture is dangerously (by Soviet standards) close to Surrealism. However, the horrifying precision and the slow motion of the dreadful image afford the thoughtful viewer a chance to draw the important parallels himself. The allusions at work are related to the genesis of the pilot’s image, because in his appearance Deineka’s pilot undeniably resembles the figures from the “Defence of Sevastopol” and, again, the young people from the Soviet paintings of the 1930s.

It would be totally wrong to think that Deineka somehow wanted to pass judgment on one of the utopian ideas in circulation at the time when Soviet art was young. Whatever you might say, essentially that utopia was one of the sunniest fantasies in that new vision of the world the culture of the revolutionary nation tried to create; besides, Deineka whole-heartedly contributed much of his talent to this utopia’s artistic realm. Certainly Deineka was neither overtly nor covertly an anti-Soviet dissident and, besides, he was well aware of the potential for punishment of Stalin’s dictatorship. It should be noted that Deineka seemed to draw a line under his musings on the destinies of the younger generation involved in the drama of the war when, in 1944, he created a painting titled “Merriment.” Like some of his pre-war pictures, this one features Deineka’s favourite image: athletic-looking girls, after a swim, run up a high river bank, towards the wind and the sun. A very cheerful spectacle, indeed—however, all the young men remained in Deineka’s paintings dedicated to that war—on the boundary of violence and coercion that humankind had no right to transgress. So far as we can tell looking at the fairly complex fabric of the imagery of Deineka’s pieces, the master implied something more significant than a specific clash of political opponents.

No matter how ambiguous a relationship the artists under review may have had with the official doctrines, a conclusion suggests itself: during the war they mustered enough strength to cast aside many of the dogmas and stereotypes that had been deeply entrenched in the official art of the nation during the peak years of these cultural policies, i.e. in the late 1930s.

Arkady Plastov’s picture “After a Fascist Plane Flew By” (1942) seems to yield itself easily to interpretation. Its story is clear: a German pilot has shot at a flock of cattle in a village. The dead body of a shepherd boy lies in the grass, a couple of animals by his side… It is narrated in a purely Realist vein, but at the same time the artist succeeds in lifting the image to the level of a very poignant metaphor, and this combination has ensured the great popularity of the painting with many generations of Russians. Eschewing any superficial stylization, the picture appeals to the deepest layers of the national consciousness as well as strata of pre-revolutionary Russian culture that the Bolshevik ideologues had tried to erase from the memory of Soviet people. Since time immemorial, ordinary Russians believed that killing a child, ruining an innocent child’s soul, was the worst form of villainy. In addition, the image of a shepherd boy amidst quiet autumnal scenery could have brought to the viewers’ minds a most revered painting by the young Mikhail Nesterov “Vision of the Young Bartholomew.” Seemingly painted direct from nature, Plastov’s landscape featured paradigmatic imagery remembered and relished by many who saw it in the Russian paintings of the turn of the 20th century—a grove with golden birch trees quivering in the wind, a reddish brown autumn field—and thus revived the traditions of Nesterov, as well as Valentin Serov and Isaac Levitan; it seems as if working on the piece Plastov had his inner eye focused on such landscapes as “October in Domotkanovo” and “Golden Autumn”…

Not only did the theoreticians of Socialist Realism normally view landscape as a marginal genre (unless it depicted the colossal construction sites of Stalin’s five-year-plan periods), they also hypocritically criticized the Russian school of lyrical landscape painting for its alleged lack of political engagement and relaxing sentimentality. Nesterov’s religious art was particularly unacceptable to them. The state-sponsored critics worked to persuade the public that the old artist who was also the creator of popular Soviet portraits had completely given up the “wrong ideas” of his earlier years (indeed, in the 1920s-1930s Nesterov only rarely tackled religious themes). But Plastov’s piece was undeniably inspired by Nesterov’s early oeuvre. To sum it up, the war liberated Soviet art from Socialist Realist cliches and cleared the way for an authentic, vibrant realism, for the long-standing values of the national tradition. That was the source from which our people drew their spiritual strength to fight the great battle against the vicious invaders.

The masterpieces of Plastov’s mature period were conceived within this context. The old peasant in his “Harvesting” seems to be close kin to Surikov’s Streltsy with their silent unbending will power. His “Haymaking” (both pieces were created in 1945) shows a celebration of summer in the countryside unfolding after the disaster of the war. But this is a feast mixed with the hunger of the first months of peace and soaked in the bitter sweat of the peasants’ relentless toils. Here, too, Plastov seems more of an heir to the realism of the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) society and a precursor of our hard-boiled neo-nativist “village prose” writers (“derevenshchiki”) of the 1960s than, say, kin to Ivan Pyriev with his idealized “Cossacks of the Cuban”—the musical film that glamorized pre-war life under Stalin.

An equally topical and even more deeply-rooted cultural and historical retrospection characterizes the art of Pavel Korin. In 1942 he created a composition “Alexander Nevsky” overflowing with heroic patriotic fervour—it would become the mainstay of a big triptych including two other symbolical representations of Russia’s past, produced later, “Northern Ballad” and “Ancient Legend.” “Northern Ballad” depicts two statuesque figures—a man and a woman—who stand still near a magic lake contemplating the quiet morning; this image, too, evokes the landscapes of Mikhail Nesterov, Korin’s mentor and friend. The right section of the triptych, “Ancient Legend,” added after the war, shows an old woman storyteller and a brave fellow holding a club, against the backdrop of a fresco of St. Nicholas. Undoubtedly, the centrepiece is Prince Alexander Nevsky, the defeater of the Teutonic Knights: partially shutting out a view of a Novgorod church, he stands under a banner from which the ancient iconic image of the Saviour the Fiery Eye, borrowed from the icons of the 12th-13th centuries, stares at the spectator—an element that was something unheard of, and even barely contemplated, in official Soviet art.

Nonetheless, such historical references, as mentioned earlier, came naturally during the war, a period marked by an awakening of the national consciousness; without it, the people’s struggle against the enemy would have been pointless and even hopeless, something which even the Communist leaders of the nation pragmatically understood. Simultaneously with “Nevsky,” Korin conceived the idea of, and even started working on, another triptych, “Dmitry Donskoy,” but left it unfinished. Although the centrepiece of the former work met with quite a favourable reception and soon made its way into the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery, it appears that both triptychs caused much anxiety to Korin, because they somehow echoed the concept of his gigantic painting “Vanishing Rus,” the work which the painter was forced to abandon in the second half of the 1930s given that the authorities saw in it a “glorification of religion.”

The acclaimed portraits Korin created in the first half of the 1940s are marked by the same air of solemn heroism as “Rus” and the triptychs. The painter portrayed the pianist Konstantin Igumnov (from 1943) at a grand piano with an open top, performing one of Beethoven’s sonatas; the curtain behind the model seems to be scalding us with the icy heat of a flame. Arguably, the visualization of the curtain is highly appropriate for the wartime atmosphere. Korin also portrayed several Soviet army commanders, including Georgy Zhukov (the artist was sent to Berlin in early May 1945 especially for that assignment). It should be added that at that time references to the drama of the Patriotic War of 1812, too, met with appreciative responses in society. Evidence of this appears in Nikolai Ulyanov’s historical painting “Jacques de Lauriston at Kutuzov’s Headquarters” (1945), where the artist confidently applied the pictorial technique of his celebrated teacher Valentin Serov in conceptualizing the models in the mold of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

Joseph Stalin’s and Kliment Voroshilov’s favourite artist Alexander Gerasimov created in 1944 a fairly impressive piece marked by great craftsmanship (emulating the style of Repin), a painting which today appears as something of a paradox—it is a portrait of some artists whose creative careers started back in the late 19th century and carried on quite smoothly for decades in Soviet Russia. The group includes the graphic artist Ivan Pavlov and painters Vasily Baksheev, Vitold Byalynitsky-Birulya, and Vasily Meshkov. In this “Group Portrait…” Gerasimov was eager to impress on viewers that even at the time of the biggest calamity the nation had ever had to face, its cultural icons were receiving their due.

It is pointless to debate whether it was appropriate to support in every possible way the country’s cultural luminaries through those tough times. That said, this painting will hardly reveal to the viewer of the future its most intimate and probably most momentous aspect. The support given to many of our greatest cultural figures did not consist in the creature comforts reserved for them, in some instances at a period when the rest of the country was living in dire need. During the war, Stalin’s state had to loosen its suffocating grip on art, culture, intellectuals in general, to lift some of those infinite censorship restrictions, to stop the campaigns of lacerating criticism fanned by Party dogmatists—in short, to put on hold the machine that it had been rampantly winding up in the 1930s. Boris Pasternak, Dmitry Shostakovich and many others, when talking with intimate friends, said they did not believe the coercive practices against artists would be resumed after the war. It was amazing but true—during wartime art breathed more freely than before the war or during the final years of Stalin’s life. The hopes for the future cherished by those cultural figures were not to be realized. And yet the nation had a brief spell of political liberalization which left behind an impressive body of work as evidence. As for the visual arts, such achievements were mostly concentrated in the genre of the portrait.

Although one can detect little signs of greatness in Gerasimov’s group portrait, it should be noted that the period when “the portrait of the four elders” was created saw the appearance of deeper, even confessional works. Two outstanding masters responsible for the emergence of prominent innovative trends in Russian 20th-century painting deserve mention—Martiros Saryan, one of the founders of the “Blue Rose” group, and Pyotr Konchalovsky, a founder of another association, the “Jack of Diamonds.” It needs to be remembered that under Soviet rule both artists were forced, time and again, to speak out publicly about their contrition over their youthful “formalism,” modernism, and avant-gardism; until their deaths they remained the suspects of choice among orthodox “Marxist” critics.

In 1942 Saryan came up with a magnificent self-portrait, “Three Ages.” Its three self-representations have at their centre the image of the 60-year-old artist peering inquisitively and intently at the people, and into the life that was so breathtakingly unfolding before the very eyes and mind of the sage master; holding a pencil, his fingers are never parted from the sheet of paper. On the right and left, the old Saryan is flanked by two figures—an answer of sorts to those who wanted to force the artist to disown his credo and life-long experience. Without a shadow of doubt and fully equipped with his mature artistic temperament, Saryan offered a new take on his most famous self-portraits made in his youth and in the 1930s. We have every reason to view such consistent self-affirmation as a powerful artistic and, also, civic statement—an affirmation of the unity and the value of the cultures of the beginning and the middle of his lifetime, of all the spiritual riches of the disastrous 20th century, which were destroyed and dispersed by self-interested politicians and ideologues.

Saryan’s self-portrait begs to be placed beside one by Konchalovsky from 1943. In this piece the date of creation, too, can be easily inferred from the austere inner concentration distinguishing the artist holding his brush. Behind him, a small statue of the great artist Vasily Surikov sits on a small table. Konchalovsky’s father-in-law, Surikov forever remained for him an example of inspired and dauntless life-long dedication to Russian culture. Now, with the war in progress, the artist, already well advanced in his years, believed that an uninterrupted intense pursuit of art was his foremost obligation. The sharply highlighted contrasts between yellow and green in this piece fit in well with the portrayal of the painter’s keen scrutiny of his self and of his viewing public. At the same time, the carefully-arranged colour clash evokes the experiences of his youth in the “Jack of Diamonds” group, when Konchalovsky and his companions assailed the public with dozens of bold paintings marked by highly expressive colours and rhythms.

Here we have yet another eloquent confession of an unrepentant rebel. The level of its importance for the artist can be fathomed by the fact that in 1946, as if to mark his 70th birthday, he created pieces astonishing both for their unbridled painterly vigour and complete lack of conformity with the official rules of Soviet cultural life. The works concerned are “The Floor Polisher” and “The Golden Age.” Hardly any painting created by a Soviet artist at that period was marked by so conspicuous a defiance of Socialist Realist dogma: in the whole period from 1947 to the “thaw” at the turn of the 1960s, no Soviet painter created anything as artistically bold as these two pieces. To be sure, neither contains any reference to the war, yet they owe their very existence to the shifts that took place in the spiritual life of society during wartime and, apparently, to the overall atmosphere brought about by the great victory. During the last decade of his life Konchalovsky never accomplished anything similar, and he returned to his familiar track, working daily on still-lifes and portraits of his family and friends.

Looking at the array of wartime portraits, the viewer cannot but see that each has at the centre a formidable personality literally “hammered out” by history. This sort of individuality can be best explained by the great Soviet writer Andrei Platonov’s characterization of one of his heroes—a man who had fought in the war: Fomin, in his soul, was “pounding the stone of a grief.” This “pounding” implies a tremendous fortitude mixed with the pain of great bereavement. Both appeared to be conditions established by the reality of the national disaster for the people involved, both servicemen and civilians. And the artist’s individual sensitivity, meanwhile, revealed in each of his models the specific personal traits and peculiarities of his emotional make-up that helped the person to respond to the challenges of the time with dignity. This probably explains why the self-portraits of artists so dissimilar as Konchalovsky and Saryan have so much in common in terms of their mood. The academician Joseph Orbeli, director of the Hermitage museum who during the war took care of its priceless collections and saved them from destruction, was their peer in terms of personal qualities, as can be inferred from his small-size portrait from 1943, very emotional and expressive, by the same artist, Saryan. Pyotr Kotov, whose legacy includes a score of portraits of prominent military doctors and commanders, left behind a masterfully-crafted portrait of the illustrious surgeon Nikolai Burdenko, whose unique powerful personality is conveyed with dry precision and without any flourishes.

Highly noteworthy are the works of the sculptor Vera Mukhina, who in 1942 accomplished commissioned portraits of the first holders of the highest military decorations of the USSR Heroes of War, Colonels Ivan Khizhnyak and Bariy Yusupov. These images represent nothing more than life-size heads seated on modest black rock plinths. Mukhina determinedly eschewed all the accessories of a ceremonial portrait. The pieces are astonishingly believable images of individuals who have taken full charge of the toil of warfare; the expressive modeling of the material used (bronze) brings out on the men’s faces, with a pitiless objectivity, all the traumas caused by the war. The cruel truthfulness of their visages seems nearly scary, and yet the key characteristic of both portraits is a sound veracity of image whose moral base, for Mukhina, consists in stubborn will power stemming from deep commitment, which motivated the heroes of the Great Patriotic War.

It was a question of the individual’s unconditional choice. This writer believes that in Mukhina’s art the theme of such choice culminated in two pieces she made in 1942-1943. The first is a female “Guerilla Fighter,” an image seemingly out of place among other similar portrayals. In fact, the piece was inspired by the story of Zoya Kosmodemianskaya, who was executed by the Germans in a village near Moscow, a story which stirred the entire nation at that time; Mukhina lent to her image an even more symbolic meaning. Several other sculptors, such as Matvei Manizer and Yevgeny Vuchetich, dedicated works to Kosmodemianskaya, but only Mukhina wholly focused on the essence, eschewing descriptiveness and mundane characterization of any kind. Zoya’s head captivates at once with its powerfu l concentration of spirit and commitment to certain fundamental values, evoking the Classicism of the age of the French Revolution (similar characteristics distinguish the creations of Jacques-Louis David). With her good knowledge of the history of European culture, Mukhina seemed to be molding her image along similar lines. But she redirected the theme onto a female track, as was suggested by Russian and Soviet realities; Leo Tolstoy’s female characters volunteering as fighters in the national war against the French cannot be forgotten, either.

At the same time, the appearance of the “Guerilla Fighter” is completely within the range of 20th-century Russianness. This image slightly evokes that of Phaedra, as performed by the actress Alisa Koonen in Alexander Tairov’s theatre production, which Mukhina saw, and was well familiar with, in her youth. And besides, it obviously draws on the Soviet portrayals of young females from the pre-war decade—to name but one example out of many, Deineka’s women exercisers. Probably Mukhina also drew on the “Nude” (also titled, “Woman Exerciser”), a famous statue (1937) by her elder colleague, the sculptor Alexander Matveev. Yet, although Mukhina’s art has Classicist overtones, she never completely lapsed into academism—she was never one to opt for idealized, sterile, smooth forms.

Mukhina very persuasively showed such an approach in her sculpted bust of Nikolai Burdenko (reference has already been made to Pyotr Kotov’s portrait), which appears as important as Zoya’s portrait within the context under discussion. Mukhina’s treatment fascinates with its dynamic, expressive molding of the face, helping the sculptor to literally immerse the viewer into the boiling stream of emotions and ideas that was the characteristic of the Surgeon-in-Chief of the Soviet Army, who did so many good things for the military that he became a legend. However, in Burdenko’s warm-blooded personality, as in her other creations, Mukhina highlights the most essential: his awareness of his mission, and all-consuming dedication to it. This is what the national character, tempered in the crucible of war and leading the nation to victory, amounts to—Burdenko’s image is free of any trappings of his rank.

The last of Mukhina’s wartime portraits features a renowned nautical architect, the academician Alexei Krylov. This piece combines an individualized image of a compelling, singular personality and, as we can tell by Krylov’s overall mood, a retrospective look directed from the victory year of 1945 back to his wartime emotions and deeds. Interestingly, Krylov, with his focus on the past, resembles the peasant from Plastov’s “Harvesting,” especially considering that Mukhina used wood—one of the most natural materials to be found. Both Plastov’s and Mukhina’s Russian old men, alertly listening to the silence in the wake of the battle, “pound” in their souls much more than the simple lessons of Russian history…

A portrait bust of the poet Alexander Tvardovsky, created by Sarra Lebedeva (in gypsum in 1943, and in marble, 1950), stands in remarkable contrast to these works. In Soviet art of that period, Lebedeva’s piece was one of the few deeply insightful images of an individual who belonged to the younger Soviet generation whose destinies interested Deineka so much, but who, unlike Deineka’s models, had the good fortune of staying alive in the crucible of war. Admiring the youth and the allure of talent in her model, the sculptor perceptively captured in the eyes of this man, habitually dressed in a soldier’s shirt, a not-so-comfortable experience gained during these years of war. Hence the special bitter lyricism marking the concept of the portrait—a feature of the age as well as of Tvardovsky’s poetic gift, which the master no doubt wanted to record for posterity in white marble shortly after the war.

The last stage of the war and the first post-war years saw the appearance of many monumental paintings and sculptures dedicated to the epic historical events that were by then winding up, as statues of the war heroes and monumental memorials became the mainstay of the Soviet art of that time. A memorial in the Treptower Park in Berlin, completed by 1949 by the sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich and a group of architects headed by Yakov Belopolsky, is the most significant work accomplished then. The memorial is dominated by Vuchetich’s highly popular statue of the Soviet soldier (“The Warrior-Liberator”).

However, the erstwhile lavish official recognition of the large-size war-themed artwork should not prevent us from appreciating much more modest pieces that nonetheless often conveyed a priceless poetic truth about the impact of the victorious completion of the war, which included not only grand parades and commemorations involving hundreds and thousands of people, but also a radical turn-around in human existence—the return from the hell of the war to a peaceful life. The need to reflect on this change brought about lyrical, personalizing trends that accounted for many fine paintings that appeared in the mid-1940s, and were generally not welcomed by the corps of Party-affiliated critics. Still, both in the centre of the battle line and on its margins people remained people—they loved the beauty of their homeland’s natural scenery, trees and flowers, loved their habitual household objects and domestic animals.

It was at that period that Nikolai Romadin started out as a master of heartfelt lyrical pictures of Russian scenery. Magnificent images of nature and still-lifes with flowers, which put the viewer in a contemplative mood and seemed to promise a relaxation to the soul, time and again cropped up in the workshops of such notables as Sergei Gerasimov or Martiros Saryan. Importantly, these seemingly modest, intimate genres were used by both artists as the vehicle to convey to us the feelings overwhelming the people at the war’s end when the Nazis were practically routed. Gerasimov’s landscape “The Ice Is Gone” portrays, with a remarkable subtlety and dignified restraint, the quiet beauty and the pain of nature’s incipient awakening.

Such crystalline and straightforward personal statements recorded through the medium of visual art not only represented an important aspect of the self-discovery of the generations who lived through the war, but also formed the basis for the revival of art in the final decades of Soviet rule, after Stalin’s dictatorship was finally gone.


Alexander Morozov is at the State Tretyakov Gallery, through whose kind courtesy this article appears.


Featured: “Parade on Red Square. November 7 1941,” by Konstantin Yuon; painted in 1949.

Twelve things You Always Wanted To Know About The Colston Statue That The Guardian Never Tells You…

The recent trial of the so-called ‘Colston Four’, who were acquitted of causing criminal damage when the Edward Colston statue in Bristol was toppled, sent shock waves around the civilised world. As a former “classic liberal” Guardian reader and fan till not so long ago, Dr. Mark Stocker decided to pen this piece, originally for the History Reclaimed website. This is a revised and improved version. Mark acknowledges that the issue is a highly divisive one, but the toppling and subsequent trial only intensified his belief that “Retain and explain,” a now famous phrase that he coined, is the only way to go for the overwhelmingly majority of public statuary worldwide.


  1. The bleeding obvious: the statue, by being toppled and then thrown into the harbour, was subject to blatant criminal damage, hence the trial of identifiable participants. As far as I know, none of the Famous Four wrote to Bristol City Council beforehand seeking permission to topple it or even to have it peacefully relocated to a museum.
  2. The statue is a Grade II listed historical monument, subject to legal protection. The topplers, if they knew about this (which seems unlikely) disregarded it.
  3. Professor David Olusoga has several times pronounced on the statue’s supposed artistic mediocrity. What are his art historical credentials that qualify him to do so? The monument is a highly capable piece of Victorian portrait statuary by the Irish Catholic sculptor, John Cassidy, resident in England because he probably would have faced penury at home. Stylistically it combines sartorial realism with an attractive Art Nouveau pedestal. Edward Colston’s pensive stance and body language suggests a thoughtful man, the philanthropist that he manifestly was. The pose is influenced by such London statues as Sidney Herbert (sculpted by Cassidy’s fellow Irishman J.H. Foley) and General Gordon (by Hamo Thornycroft). As an art historian and retired curator, I believe society should care for art like this, not topple and deface it.
  4. Simply identifying Colston as a “slave trader” is a dead political giveaway, and is both lazy and misleading. Indeed, it is probably about as accurate as identifying Edward Heath as a musical conductor.
  5. Colston was no mass murderer, as Olusoga claims—something he didn’t say 18 months ago—even if many slaves tragically suffered when they were transported or subsequently worked to death on plantations. I certainly don’t believe in making light of Colston’s indirect involvement in such deaths but there seems to be a compulsion among his critics to denigrate him exponentially, so much so that at times he seemed to be posthumously on trial rather than the Famous Four. Is it naïve to suggest that Colston deserves at least partial redemption when he resigned from the Royal African Company and devoted his energies to the philanthropy that was central to all accounts of him up to the 1990s?
  6. We don’t even know how much Colston personally profited from the slave trade. Consider what the main historian in the area, Professor Kenneth Morgan, has to say in Edward Colston and Bristol (1999): “To what extent Colston received money from the sale of slaves in the New World is unknown. He was undoubtedly remunerated for his work on the committees of the Royal African Company, but whether his money was the basis of his fortune remains conjectural.” No new information has surfaced since Morgan’s publication, so the repeated assertions that Colston made his fortune that way remain mere conjecture. Morgan’s research suggests it was likely that Colston made more money as a merchant of textiles and sherry, and almost certainly far more as a shrewd moneylender.
  7. The topplers make an elementary error in their history. Write out 100 times: “That was then, this is now.” To quote what the historian Professor Trevor Burnard told me: “Everyone was invested in slavery in the late seventeenth century—Locke, for example, was a big supporter—and the monarchy was a supporter more than most.” The governor of the Royal African Company in Colston’s time was the King (Charles II, James II, William III), whereas Colston was deputy governor, not necessarily entitling him to the dirty monies of the slave trade. Obviously we all wish today that Colston had opposed slavery (just as one wishes he had supported Bristol Rovers), but what happened, happened.
  8. The estimated costs for the statue’s repair and restoration, £3750, are risibly and artificially low. This is because the threshold for a criminal damage trial in a magistrate’s court—where the Colston Four would have appeared had they not elected to go before a jury—is £5000. I know on good authority that the costs are probably closer to £20,000.
  9. The jury were subjected to irrational and emotional pleading, amounting to bullying and intimidation. As I’ve said, it sometimes seemed more of a trial of Colston (based on inadequate evidence) than of the Four. Among other things, the jury were told by the defence to make sure they were “on the right side of history.” Surely history should not have sides but facts? Regrettably, jury members could probably be recognised and would very likely have been subjected to intimidation (e.g. smashed windows, slashed tyres) by pro-toppling activists had they opted to convict.
  10. The prosecution didn’t seem to try very hard. They didn’t call on an expert witness to counter Olusoga and when I attempted to offer assistance, supplying a link to my History Reclaimed article, “The future will be grateful for thy eternal goodness,” which specifically addresses Colston, my email was ignored.
  11. A frequently repeated canard—or is it laziness?—repeated by the “liberal” press is that the anti-topplers are invariably Tory reactionaries. A YouGov poll did show more Labour voters agreed than disagreed with the acquittal of the Colston Four, but 53% were in the “disagree” or “don’t know” categories. Disagreement with the verdict was overwhelming among Tories and decisive among Liberal Democrats. I’m hoping against hope that one or two prominent and brave Labour and LD figures could stick their heads above the parapet and express their concerns about the verdict too. A great start would be the distinguished former Director of Public Prosecutions, one Sir Keir Starmer. Pigs can fly!
  12. A talking point. Aren’t there significant parallels between the acquittal of the Colston Four and that of Kyle Rittenhouse, involved in the Kenosha unrest shooting? Whatever we may think of the verdicts, the associated gloating coming from the left (Colston Four) and the right (Rittenhouse) is pretty sickening.

And a bonus on a more positive note: a dear friend, who happens to be a lifelong Labour Party supporter, wrote me this a couple of hours ago: “I agree with you about the futility and sadness of destroying the emblems of bygone years. There are numerous generals and dukes whose monuments seem unjustified today, but that isn’t their point. I wish we were as energetic in dealing with modern slavery as statues of men associated with oppression hundreds of years ago.” I couldn’t put it better.

Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.


Featured image: John Cassidy, Edward Colston, 1895. Formerly The Centre, Bristol.

On The Theology Of The Icon

Olivier Clément (1921-2009) was a French Orthodox theologian who actively engaged with modernity. This essay, which reviews a book about icons, was published in the journal Contacts in 1960. Contacts was founded by Clément in 1949. We are pleased to present the first English translation.


The Theology of the Icon (1960), by Leonid Uspensky, is a book that will be a milestone. On a hot topic and essential, because art becomes for many of our contemporaries a quest for the absolute, and because Christian art therefore directly questions our ability to confess and live our faith. Here is one of the first efforts at synthesis that is not primarily aesthetic, or philosophical, but fundamentally theological, in the full sense of the word that implies and requires contemplation. Moreover, it is the work not of a theorist but of one of the best iconographers of our time, who in collaboration with Fr. Gregory Croug, has just painted important frescoes, in the middle of Paris, in the new Cathédrale des Trois-Saints-Docteurs, Paris [5 rue Pétel, Paris (l5th arrondissement). I would simply like to take this work as a starting point to identify some fundamental themes in the theology of the icon.

The author reminds us first of all that the veneration of the holy images, the icons of Christ, the Virgin, the angels and the saints, is a dogma of the Christian faith, a dogma formulated by the 7th Ecumenical Council. The icon is therefore not a decorative element, nor even a simple illustration of Scripture. It is an integral part of the liturgy, it constitutes “a means of knowing God and uniting with him.” We know that the celebration of a feast requires that one exhibit in the middle of the nave the (transportable) icon that reveals, with the immediate evidence of vision, the meaning of the event that is being commemorated.

More widely, the whole church, with its architecture and its frescoes (or mosaics), represents in space what the liturgical unfolding represents in time: the reflection of the divine glory, the anticipation of the Messianic Realm. The liturgical word and the liturgical image form an indissociable whole—this medium of resonance, this “pneumatosphere” one could say, by which the Tradition makes present and alive the Good News. Thus, the icon corresponds to the Scripture not as an illustration, but in the same way that the liturgical texts correspond to it: “these texts do not limit themselves to reproducing the Scripture as such; they are as it were woven from it; by alternating and confronting its parts, they reveal its meaning, they indicate to us the means of living the evangelical preaching. The icon, by representing various moments of sacred history, visibly transmits their meaning and their vital significance. Thus, through the liturgy and through the icon, the Scripture lives in the Church and in each of its members” (pp. l64-l65).

The veneration of icons is thus an essential aspect of the liturgical experience, that is, of the contemplation of the Kingdom through the actions of the King. Although “veiled” and through faith, this contemplation is nevertheless lived by the whole being of man; it has the immediate character of sensation; it is a “sensation of divine things” realized by the total man. The Orthodox conception of the liturgy appears thus inseparable from the great certainties of the oriental asceticism on the transfiguration of the body begun here below, on the perception of the Taboric light by the spiritualized bodily senses; that is to say, not “dematerialized” but penetrated and metamorphosed by the Holy Spirit. The liturgy, in fact, sanctifying all the faculties of man, initiates the transfiguration of his senses, makes them capable of glimpsing the invisible through the visible, the Kingdom through the mystery.

The icon, stresses Leonid Ouspensky, sanctifies sight, and readily transforms it into a sense of vision: for God did not only make himself heard, he made himself seen; the glory of the Trinity was revealed through the flesh of the Son of Man. When we think of the importance of the sense of sight in modern man, how much he is torn apart, possessed, eroticized by the eyes, how much the flow of images of the big city makes him discontinuous, makes him a “man of nothingness,” one understands the importance of the icon, because the icon, systematically freed from any sensuality (unlike so many works, though admirable, of Western religious art), has for its goal to exorcise, to pacify, to illuminate our sight, to make us “fast with the eyes” according to the expression of Saint Dorotheus (quoted p. 2l0).

In our civilization of possession by the image, a Protestant friend wrote to me, the icon has become an emergency of the cure of souls. It was during the iconoclastic crisis, in the 8th and 9th centuries, that the Church had to clarify the meaning of the icon, and Leonid Ouspensky’s book is nourished by the doctrinal and conciliar texts of that time. Μonsieur Ouspensky devotes a brief chapter to iconoclasm, but it has the merit of going straight to what was essential for the antagonists: their religious motivations. Indeed, iconoclasm seems to be explained in depth by a violent surge of Semitic transcendentalism, by Jewish and Muslim influences that increased, in the Orthodox tradition, the sense of divine incognoscibility to the detriment of the sense of “Philanthropy” and of the Incarnation. “The argument of the iconoclasts about the impossibility of representing Christ was a pathetic attachment to the ineffable” (p. 152).

But iconoclasm was also a reaction against a sometimes-idolatrous cult of images, against the contamination of this cult by the magical οr theurgic notion (in the neo-Platonic sense of the word) which wanted the image to be more or less consubstantial with its model. Thus, the icon was confused with the Eucharist, and certain priests mixed with the holy gifts the pieces of particularly venerated icons. Thus were opposed in the Church the two great nοn-Christian conceptions of the divine that only the dogma of Chalcedon could reconcile: on the one hand, the God of a static Old Testament who would not be “evangelical preparation;” a personal God but enclosed in his transcendent Monad, a God whom οne cannot represent because οne cannot participate in His holiness. On the other hand, the divine as sacred nature; or, rather, as the sacredness of nature, the omnipresence of which all forms participate.

Orthodoxy overcame these two οpposed temptations by affirming the Christological foundation of the image and its strictly personal (and nοn-substantial) value.

It showed first of all that the image par excellence is Christ himself. In the Old Testament, God revealed himself through the Word; therefore, no one could have represented him without blasphemy. But the prohibition of Exodus (20:4) and Deuteronomy (5:12-19) constitutes a prefiguration “in depth” of the Incarnation—it sets aside the idol to make room for the face of God made man. For the unrepresentable Word became representable flesh: “when the Invisible One,” writes St. John Damascene, “having clothed himself in flesh, appeared visible, then represents the likeness of Him who showed himself…” (P.G. 94,1239). Christ is not only the Word of God but his Image. The Incarnation founds the icon and the icon proves the Incarnation.

For the Orthodox Church, the first and fundamental icon is therefore the face of Christ. As Leonid Ouspensky suggests, Christ is par excellence the image made by man—this is the deep meaning of the tradition taken up by the liturgy, according to which the Lord printed on a cloth his Holy Face. Ouspensky interprets in a literal way the liturgical texts telling of Christ’s sending to the king of Edessa a letter and the veil (mandilion) on which he imprinted his face. Would it not be better, since the letter to Agbar is obviously a forgery, to identify the symbolic meaning of this episode, as the Church has been able, for example, to authenticate the testimony, but not the historicity, of the Areopagitic writings?

Let us say then that the historical memory of the face of Jesus was preciously kept by the Church, first of all in the Holy Land and in the Semitic countries which surround it. It is a fact that all the icons of Christ give the impression of a fundamental resemblance. Not a photographic resemblance, but the presence of the same person, and of a divine Person who reveals himself to each one in a unique way (some Greek Fathers, starting from the evangelical accounts of the apparitions of the Risen One, have underlined this plurality, in the unity, of the aspects of the glorious Christ). The resemblance here is inseparable from an encounter, from a communion: there is only one Holy Face, whose historical memory the Church has preserved (renewed from generation to generation by the vision of the great spiritualists), and as many Holy Faces as there are iconographers (or even as many moments in the mystical life of an iconographer). The human face of God is inexhaustible, and keeps for us, as Denys underlined, an apophatic character: face of faces and face of the Inaccessible…

Ouspensky emphasizes, with a large number of beautiful reproductions, that the image has existed since the earliest times of Christianity, and that the art of the catacombs, which is an art of the sign, sometimes offers, alongside pure symbols and allegorical representations, an undeniable concern for personal likeness. However, sanctity is then designated by a conventional language rather than symbolized by the artistic expression itself: it was in the third and especially in the fourth century that this incorporation of content into form, characteristic of properly iconographic art, began.

ΙΙ would be fascinating, for a history of meanings, to study to what extent this evolution of Christian art coincided with the transformation of Hellenistic art into the “art of the eternal,” in the sense that Malraux gives to this expression, and to what extent it differed from it; for the “art of the eternal” impersonalizes while the icon personalizes… If therefore the image that belongs to the very nature of Christianity, and if the icon par excellence is that of Christ, Image of the Father, this one, inaccessible abyss, cannot be directly represented: He who has seen me has seen the Father,” said Jesus (John 14.9). The 7th Ecumenical Council and the Great Council of Moscow of 1666-1667 formally forbade the representation of God the Father. As for the Holy Spirit, He showed himself as a dove and tongues of fire; only in this way is He be painted. Couldn’t we also say that the presence of the Holy Spirit is symbolized by the very light of every icon? Let us recall, although Ouspensky does not mention it, probably reserving this theme for the second volume of his work, that the “rhythm” of the Trinity, its diversity as one, is expressed by the Philoxenia (hospitality) of Abraham receiving the three angels, these Three of whom Rublev knew how to paint, with colors that seem like a mother-of-pearl of eternity; the mysterious movement of love that identifies them without confusing them…

If the Old Testament prohibition was lifted by and for Christ, it was also lifted for his Mother, and for his friends, for the members of his Body, for all those who, in the Holy Spirit, participate in his deified flesh.

However, in order to cut-short the accusations and confusions of the iconoclasts, as well as the abuses of certain Orthodox, the Church has vigorously emphasized that the icon is not consubstantial with its prototype: the icon of Christ does not duplicate the Eucharist; it inaugurates the vision face to face. By representing the deified humanity of its prototype (which implies a transfigured but resembling “portrait” element), it is a person, not a substance that the icon brings forth. In an eschatological perspective, it suggests the true face of man; his face of eternity; this secret face that God contemplates in us and that our vocation consists in realizing.

If it is possible for human art to suggest the sanctified flesh of Christ and his people, it is because the very material used by the iconographer has been secretly sanctified by the Incarnation. The art of the icons uses and, in a certain way, manifests this sanctification of the material. “I do not adore matter,” wrote St. John Damascene, “but I adore the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake… and who, through matter, made my salvation” (P.G. 94, 1245).

Obviously, however, the representation of the light that transfigures a face can only be symbolic. But it is the irreducible originality of Christian art that the symbol is placed at the service of the human face and serves to express the fullness of personal existence.

The Hindu or Tibetan mandala, to take a theme made fashionable by depth psychology, is the geometrical symbol of a resorption in the center. What one might call an Orthodox mandala—for example a square nave surmounted by a dome- has for its center the Pantocrator, and unites us to a personal presence…

This is why Ouspensky cannot be praised enough for having highlighted the iconographic decisions of the Quinisext Council (692) which ordered to replace the symbols of the first Christian art—especially the Lamb—by the direct representation of what they prefigured: the human face transfigured by the divine energy, and first of all the face of Christ. The Quinisext Council triumphantly put an end to the prehistory of Christian art, a prehistory that revealed the Christ-like meaning of all the sacred symbols of humanity, “figures and shadows… sketches given in view of the Church.” The true symbolism of Christian art now appears as the way of representing the human person in the perspective of the Kingdom. This is why, as Ouspensky shows, the symbolism of the icon is based on the experience of Orthodox mysticism, as a personal “appropriation” of the glorious Body (appropriation by participated grace, that is to say, by de-appropriation of all egocentrism). The immense eyes, of a softness without brilliance, the reduced ears, as if interiorized, the fine and pure lips, the wisdom of the dilated forehead, everything indicates a being pacified, illuminated by grace. Let us mention in this connection a text by Palamas, recently translated by Jean Meyendorff. Ouspensky does not quote it, but he could without difficulty add it to his file of ascetic quotations: it is necessary, therefore, to offer to God the passionate part of the soul, living and acting, so that it may be a living sacrifice; the Apostle said this even of our bodies: I exhort you, he says in fact, by the mercy of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God (Rom. 12:Ι). How can our living body be offered as a sacrifice pleasing to God? When our eyes are gentle, as it is written, “He who is gentle will be forgiven” (Prov. 12:13); when they attract and transmit to us mercy from above; when our ears are attentive to the divine teachings, not only to hear them, but, as David says, “to remember the commandments of God in order to fulfill them” (Ps 102 (103), 18); when our tongue, our hands and our feet are at the service of the divine will (Triads Louvain 1959, p. 364). Ιt is a sacrifice of God (p. 364).

It would be particularly important to compare this iconographic expression of the transfiguration of the senses with the lakshanas of Buddhist art, which also designate through a distortion of the sense organs, the state of “deliverance.” An analysis of the similarities and differences would be very significant. Let us confine ourselves to a few suggestions: in the icon, the symbol is at the service of the face. It expresses the accomplishment of the human face through encounter and communion. It suggests an interiority where transcendence is given without ceasing to be inaccessible. In Buddhist art, the face is identified with the symbol; it abolishes itself as a human face by becoming a symbol of an interiority where there is neither self nor the Other but an unspeakable nothing. In both cases, the face is surrounded by a nimbus: but the Christian face is in the light like iron in the fire; the Buddhist face becomes spherical, dilates, identifies itself with the luminous sphere that the nimbus symbolizes. In the icon, the treatment of the senses suggests their transfiguration by grace. The lakshanas, on the other hand, symbolize powers of clairvoyance and clear hearing through the excessive enlargement of the sense organs, the ears for example. Finally, the Christian face looks on and welcomes, while the Buddhist non face, with closed eyes, meditates.

This Christian concern for welcome, for communion, explains why the saints, on the icons, are almost always represented from the front: open to the one who looks at them, they draw him into prayer, because they are themselves praying; and the icon shows this. Light and peace penetrate and order their attitudes, their clothes, the atmosphere that surrounds them. Around them animals, plants, rocks are stylized according to their paradisiacal essence. The architectures become a surrealist game, an evangelical challenge to the heavy seriousness of this world, to the false security of the architectures of the earth…

The word abstraction never emerges from the pen of Ouspensky; but one cannot help but think of it when he speaks of symbolism οr stylization. There is in the icon an abstraction which leads to a higher figuration, an abstraction which is dead to this world and which allows the inter-vision of the world to come. The icon abstracts according to the Logos creator and re-creator of the universe and not according to the individual, fallen, ultimately destructive logos… The abstraction of the icon is the cross of our carnal look. Its realism is Taboric and eschatological: it announces and already manifests the only definitive reality—that of the Kingdom.

The light of the icon symbolizes the divine light, and the theology of the icon appears inseparable from the distinction in God of essence and energies: it is the divine energy, the uncreated light that the icon suggests to us. In an icon, the light does not come from a precise focus, because the celestial Jerusalem, says the Apocalypse, “does not need the sun and the moon, it is the glory of God that illuminates it” (Rev. 21:23). It is everywhere, in everything, without casting a shadow: it shows us that in the Kingdom God himself becomes light for us. In fact, notes Ouspensky, it is the very background of the icon that iconographers call “light.”

The author has remarkable lines on the “reverse” or “inverted” perspective: in most icons, the lines do not converge towards a “vanishing point,” sign of the fallen space that separates and imprisons; they dilate in the light “from glory to glory.” Could we not speak here of iconographic epectasis, epectasis designating precisely, in St. Gregory of Nyssa, this infinite dilation in the light of the Kingdom? Οne understands that the exercise of such art constitutes a charismatic ministry. The Orthodox Church venerates “holy iconographers” whom Ouspensky brings closer to the “apostolic men” of whom Saint Symeon the New Theologian remains the main spokesman. The “apostolic man” is the one who receives the personal graces promised by Christ to the apostles: not only does he heal souls and bodies and discern spirits, but, like St. Paul, he hears ineffable words; like St. John he has the mission to tell what he has seen (Revelation, as we know, means Revelation). In the same way the “holy iconographer” really glimpses the Kingdom and paints what he has glimpsed. Every iconographer who paints “according to tradition” participates in this exceptional contemplation, both through the liturgical experience and through the communion of saints. This is why the icon painter does not paint in a subjective, individual psychological way, but according to tradition and vision. Painting is for him inseparable from faith, from life in the Church, from a personal ascetic effort.

The Fathers insisted a lot on the pedagogical value of the icon. In fact, as Ouspensky shows all the history of the dogma is registered in the iconography. However, the value of the icon is not only pedagogical, it is mysterious. The divine grace rests in the icon. It is there the essential point, the most mysterious also of its theology: the “resemblance” to the prototype and its “name” make the objective holiness of the image. The icon,” writes St. John Damascene, “is sanctified by the name of God and by the name of the friends of God, that is to say, the saints, and that is why it receives the grace of the divine Spirit” (P.G. 94,1300). Ouspensky limits himself to posing this essential affirmation; he does not seek—at least not yet—the foundations of it. Ιt is necessary to recall here, to take up a suggestion of Μonsieur Evdokimov, the whole biblical conception of the Name as a personal presence, a conception which is also implied in the Hesychast invocation of the Name of Jesus (let us think of the power of this Name in the Book of Acts). The icon names by form and by color; it is a represented name: this is why it makes present to us a prototype whose holiness is communion; that is to say, offered presence, interceding… Like the name, the icon is the means of an encounter that makes us participate in the holiness of the One we meet; that is to say, in the end, in the holiness of the “Only Holy One”.

Ouspensky also offers us an important chapter on the “symbolism of the church.” An entire church must be an icon of the Kingdom. According to the ancient Apostolic Institutions, it must be oriented (for the East symbolizes the eternal daybreak and the Christian, says St. Basil, must always, wherever he prays, turn towards the East); it must evoke a ship (for it is, on the waters of death, the ark of the Resurrection); it must have three doors to suggest the Trinity, the principle of all its life. The altar is located in the eastern apse, slightly elevated—symbol of the Holy Mountain, the Upper Room—and called par excellence, the “sanctuary.” The altar represents Christ himself (Dionysius the Areopagite), the “heart” of Christ whose body the church represents (Nicholas Cabasilas). Ιt is perhaps regrettable, in this connection, that Ouspensky did not use, in order to study the symbolism of the sanctuary, Cabasilas’ “Life in Christ,” and the corresponding studies of Madame Lot-Borodin… The altar is the heart of the whole building; it loves it and sanctifies it. The “sanctuary” that surrounds it, reserved for the clergy, is sometimes compared to the “holy of holies” of the Tabernacle and the Temple of the Old Covenant. It is the “heaven of heavens” (Saint Symeon of Thessalonica), “the place where Christ, King of all things, is enthroned with the apostles” (Saint Germain of Constantinople), as is, in his image, the bishop with his “presbyterium.”

An eschatological vessel, the “nave”, often surmounted by a dome, represents the new creation, the universe reunited in Christ with its creator, just as the nave is united to the sanctuary: “The sanctuary,” writes Saint Maximus the Confessor, “illuminates and directs the nave, and the latter thus becomes its visible expression. Such a relationship restores the normal order of the universe, overthrown by the fall of man; it therefore restores what was in Paradise and will be in the Kingdom of God” (P.G. 91-872). Οne might ask if the union of the dome and the square does not repeat, in a vertical mode, this descent of heaven to earth, this theandric mystery of the Church…

Ouspensky does not pose the problem of the iconostasis, no doubt reserving to return to it in the second, as yet unpublished, part of his work. We know that the sanctuary was separated from the nave, until the end of the Middle Ages only by a very low chancel, a kind of balustrade in the middle of which stood, preceding the altar, the triumphal arch, a true door of life before which the faithful receive communion (these are today our “royal doors”). But, from the 15th and 16th centuries, as Orthodoxy, in a secularized world, closed in on its sense of mystery, the chancel was replaced by a high partition covered with icons: the iconostasis. The paintings of the iconostasis represent the total Church, one through time as well as through spiritual spaces. The angels, the apostles, the martyrs, the Fathers and all the saints are arranged on either side of a central composition that surmounts the Royal Doors, the Deesis (intercession) representing the Virgin and the Baptist interceding on either side of Christ in majesty.

Frescoes and mosaics normally cover almost the entire interior of the church. If Ouspensky does not speak of the iconostasis, he lists the main themes of this wall decoration. One is struck by their theological depth which gives an organic character to the overall symbolism of the building. In the apse of the sanctuary, it is the whole mystery of the Eucharist, “sacrament of the sacraments”: below, the communion of the apostles which evokes the memorial; on the vault, the Pentecost, evoking the divine response to the epiclesis; between the two, the Virgin in prayer, figure of the Church (her arms are raised like those of the priest), pointing to Christ, our High Priest, himself a sacrifice and a sacrificer… The decoration of the nave recapitulates the theandric unity of the Church: in the center of the dome, the Pantocrator, source of the heaven of glory that descends to envelop all, bless all and transfigure all. He is surrounded by the prophets and apostles. At the four corners of the square bearing the dome, the four evangelists. On the columns, the column-men: martyrs, holy bishops, “apostolic men.” On the walls, the great moments of the Gospel.

Orthodox iconography has experienced a late but profound decadence, in Russia from the seventeenth century, in Greece in the nineteenth. Ouspensky vituperates, with a purifying violence, the jumble of mediocre images which too often clutter the Orthodox churches and most of which constitute, under the label of icons “of Italian taste,” distressing by-products of what is most questionable in the religious art of the modern West. (About this art, one could notice, not without malice, that Ouspensky has chosen as a counterpart to the icons he reproduces, the blandest productions of Italian and Spanish “mannerism.” It is perhaps a good pedagogy to bring out the specificity of Orthodox sacred art. It is certainly not a valid approach to evaluate from an Orthodox point of view Western art, sacred οr “profaned”—an urgent evaluation which has yet to be done).

The fact remains that it is not a question of taste but of faith. This is why we must thank Leonid Ouspensky for having so vigorously specified the theological and liturgical foundations of the Orthodox icon. This article would like to be nothing else than a testimony of gratitude and above all an invitation to the reader: whoever loves icons not as an aesthete but as a man of prayer, must read this book, which is a great book.


Featured image: “Theotokos Deesis,” Mount Athos, 14th century.

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.

A Dollop Of Delights

PREFACE

Sorry, fans, I’m being more taciturn and less loquacious this month. But every word counts and every poem and joke is paradigm shifting. Take the Andy Warhol joke below: it will surely make my many feminist readers question themselves, just as they question the patriarchy, male gaze n’ stuff, during most of their waking (or should I say woke?) hours.

My political acumen aside, let me tell you that hundreds of hours of poetic and comedic toil are involved behind the scenes to attain the right level of polish and wit in my contributions. In fact, I’m remarkably like another great poet, John Berryman, albeit marginally less agonised, but that’s quite enough self-analysis for now.

OVER TO THE EDITOR…

This month’s dollop of delights rounds off a year since Dr Stocker’s first hesitant and nervous contributions to the Postil Magazine.

In the interim period, thanks very largely to me, he has morphed from an awkward, pimply adolescent to a craggily handsome 65-year-old, as iconic as best period Eastwood (an excellent Republican, by the way). Not only does he promise another year of jokes and poetry, but he will follow you all the way home from the shopping mall declaiming them through his megaphone, and if you’re British, will irrepressibly continue with many more via the letter-box on your front door. There’s no escape!

This month’s selection involves both poetic elegance and a modicum of frankly rather laboured, groan-eliciting jokes, punctuated by the rapier-like wit of the final one.

In case you’re wondering, the editor wrote every word of this, Scout’s honour. And he’s one discerning fellow…


Two limericks On Antonio Canova

(Mario Praz was a celebrated Italian critic and man of letters. He was perhaps fortunate to have died before Damien Hirst came to fame).

A sculptor of genuine flair,
Praz nicknamed him “frigidaire.”
But his carving – all white –
Is no longer all right,
And scholars of colour despair!

Roll over, Canova, your white
Carving no longer looks right.
You’re effete and slack,
Not gifted and black,
A discredited aesthete’s delight.

Antonio Canova, The Three Graces.

A fine limerick from Dr. Stocker’s art historian friend, James, and his boorish riposte:

A high gothic statue at Rheims
Adopted a classical stance.
When they asked: “Are you gay?”
He replied, “Hell, no way,
I’m the straightest stone statue in France!”

Fastidious James, how he screams
When I dare pronounce Rheims as “Reems;”
And St Denis “Dennis,”
Compounds the menace.
Vulgarity rules, so it seems!

Smiling Angel, Reims Cathedral, ca. 1236-1245.

Les plaisanteries…

A gnome admirer of the late Donald Rumsfeld was ostracised when he claimed: “There are no gnomes!”

Excerpt from Dr Stocker’s 101 art history lecture on the great Andy: “Arguably Warhol took his flirtation with radical outsiders a trifle far when he was shot by one of them. His would-be assassin, feminist Valerie Solanas, was profoundly unappealing – indeed, one of the SCUM of the earth.”

Critic Mark Stocker’s opening words to his Damien Hirst review: “Hirst in a pickle:”

“I have little time for Damien Hirst. A confident artist, for sure, but too easily cowed. Hirst has powerful artworld allies and any critical reviewer senses he is circled by sharks. Yet Hirst’s talent blooms in his pretty flower pieces. They are not made by him, I will have you know, but they snatch victory from the jaws of defeat…”

The shark by Eddie Saunders that inspired Damien Hirst.

My trendy artworld sister refused to talk about the magnificent paintings by wildlife artist David Shepherd hanging on my walls. It was clearly the elephant in the room.

A typing error which unconsciously reveals a lot about the state of the world today: homophobiz.

A conservative art critic subjected the late work of Matisse to a cutting review.


The featured image shows, “The Merry Drinker,” by Judith Leyster, painted in 1630.

Limericks A Tad Quitain

Me, I’ve been a poet since the age of six or seven, when my mentor was the very great Spike Milligan. The following was my favourite “Uncle Spike,” and I somewhat fear, dear readers, that it isn’t especially woke:
“A thousand hairy savages/ Sitting down to lunch/ Gobble-gobble, glub-glub/ Munch, munch, munch!”

Not only did I admire its visceral intelligence, but for a six-year-old, being taught stuffy English middle-class manners and mores, it was irresistibly subversive. Under Spike’s influence, I penned the following couplet:

“My dear,” said I, “my bonnie lass.”
But she replied, “You silly ass!”

It would prove uncannily prophetic à propos my subsequent overtures to the fair sex. Though my creativity and quality have somewhat dimmed since, I now find the Muse hits me powerfully, and in my unbiased view, not unimpressively. Blame semi-retirement for that. So here, dear reader, find a number of art historical Limericks – these shouldn’t upset anyone fearing an abrupt transition from the genre of my jokes. Talking of which, one really good joke does accompany this selection.

Kasimir Malevich, Red Square, 1915.

In this preface – the editor considers my output here worthy of Dr Johnson on the Bard (and he’s spot-on, as usual) – I will refrain from providing any of the usual, tedious art historical summaries. Apart from the Kiwi-Croatian painter Milan Mrkusich (1925-2018), an abstract artist of singular intellect, rigour and impenetrability to fools who wish every picture to tell a story, my exemplars are all well-known figures, compatible with everybody’s cultural arsenal. “Bloody Arsenal!” protests one reader (the epithet was stronger), “What about Spurs?”

My good man, is my reply, pray what do you think you are doing, reading this erudite journal?

But first, some amuses-bouche…


A well-known writer, Marcus Stocker, had just written a novel which he was quite pleased with, but for reasons best known to himself, decided to change the name of his leading character from David to Geoff. The “find” and “replace” function did its bit. Rather too well, as Stocker only remembered when it was too late that he had referred to a famous statue by Michelangelo…

My friend Lisa, an attractive young woman with plucked eyebrows who has a lovely smile the rare moments she is serene, is nonetheless prone to whine and whinge. You qualify as an art historian if you can guess her nickname.

My Maori friend Tama is slightly affected, and has artistic aspirations. Hence, he named his beloved daughter Moana Lisa.
[pause for laughs]
Later on in life, Tama was prone to eloquence in praising Moana’s beauty: “Moana Lisa rocks; she’s older than the rocks among which she sits”, blahblahblah. Moana is a smart lass, and and her response is “Oh shut up, Pater!”

Right. Now on to the much-anticipated limericks…


Eat your poor heart out Yeats,
You’re no better than Stocker or Keats
There was once a time
You could make it rhyme
But now who admires your bleats?

An elderly painter named Milan
Said, “I’ve got this brilliant p-lan
I’ll paint a red square,
What it means I don’t care,
But critics will all praise my e-lan”

Rodin told Camille Claudel,
You really are my kind of gel,
You’re a real good looker
Ma petite French cooker,
Now, help with those damn Gates of Hell!’

The Thought (Camille Claudel) by Auguste Rodin, 1888-1889.

A very idiomatic translation of the above follows from Mark’s attractive friend, Antoinette. He asks, “Why do the French always end up going to bed when we’d rather play Scrabble™?” To which she replies, “Come with me, Dr Stocker, and find out!” But I digress!

Rodin dit à Camille:
T’es quand même une chic fille!
Tu excelles au ciseau
Presque autant qu’aux fourneaux.
Mais tu es, mon canard,
Encore mieux au plumard!

The heterosexual male
Will try but invariably fail
De ne jamais toucher
Le grand sexy Boucher;
He really is beyond the pale!

Mademoiselle O’Murphy by François Boucher, 1752.

Georg Baselitz leaped into fame
With paintings that all looked the same.
His figures – inverted –
Made us once disconcerted,
But he’s now at the top of his game!

Henry Moore said, “My sculpture is goals,
Organic and pierced with great holes.
This was Barbara’s idea,
Now it’s mine – the poor dear,
You women have second’ry roles!”

An erudite scholar of Mich-
elangelo, Klee and Van Dyck [not our Bard – Ed.]
Claimed, “For my part,
I know all about art,
But I’ve no idea what I like!”

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles
Insults sweet Avignon gels.
But he said, “I don’t care
If they’re cubic or square
So long as my masterpiece sells!”

David resolved for a laugh,
He’d paint old Marat’s last bath.
He paid for his error,
Supporting the Terror,
And did Charlotte hurt him? Not half!

Bernini, when sculpting Theresa,
Said, “I just know what will please her.
An angel – so fierce
Her body will pierce
As heavenly sentiments seize her!”

As an apt aside, here are some of my favourite artists… There’s Jackson, the painterly dripper, Fontana the loose canvas ripper, The pious Giotto, The decadent Watteau And Frith, the Ramsgate day tripper!


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, “Self-caricature in profile, standing,” a drawing by Edward Lear, October 1870.

The Wit Collection: Art History Jokes 8

Well, chaps, one or two of these are likely to be over the heads of the common herd, so I am assisting with a few select images. The first joke alludes to a famous Caspar Friedrich painting. Ernest Trobridge designed fantastic houses in unfashionable petit-bourgeois London suburbs like Kingsbury. Hands up who’d prefer to live in one of these rather than an overpraised Le Corbusier villa, baking in summer, freezing in winter, with a roof that constantly leaked?

Talking of over-praise, someone all of you will have heard of (and I bet you wish you hadn’t) is Patti Smith. Excellent LP in Horses, but she should have been confined to her stables these past 40 years. I have a good mind to start a campaign to get her expelled from the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. The juxtaposition of Alfred Stevens’s Valour and Cowardice and the endearing Oscar the Grouch (clearly inspired by Diogenes), is too irresistible not to reproduce. I wanted to include this reference in the entry I penned on Stevens for the Grove Dictionary of Art, but the editor said no, probably because many readers of the GDoA wouldn’t know their Sesame Street. But they do have a sense of humour, as attested by volume 19 of the series, “Leather to Macho.” Furthermore, at my insistence they included an entry on Maurice Sendak. Bless! I will squeeze in an extra joke in the hope that Nirmal won’t notice [Ed. he noticed!]. You didn’t know this but Maurice Sendak had aspirations as a songwriter as well as an illustrator. So he sent his idol, Elvis Presley, his new song. Unfortunately Elvis was distinctly unimpressed, and told Colonel Parker: “Return to Sendak!”


How might one best describe an unsuspecting student exposed to the New Art History in c. 1990? A Wanderer in the Sea of Fog.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818.

A great G.F. Watts painting fetched a record price at Sotheby’s yesterday. The Sun’s headline: “500,000 Watts!”

Exhibitions they would never dare put on:
Popular vs Art World Realism: W.P. Frith and Edouard Manet
Bastien-Lepage vs. The Impressionists
Battle of the Styles: Le Corbusier and Ernest Troubridge
Miami Baroque: The Architecture of Maurice Lapidus
Good and bad pottery: Alan Caiger-Smith and Grayson Perry
Prince Charles and the Architecture of Good Manners
Making Britain Great Again: The Margaret Thatcher Era (V&A)
Contrasted Bodies: Alberto Giacometti and Fernando Botero
(or maybe Ample Bodies: Gaston Lachaise and Fernando Botero)
The Male Gaze: Alberto Vargas and Mel Ramos.

Ernest Trobridge, Buck Lane, Kingsbury, London, ca. 1920s.

And major retrospectives of any of the following:
Félicien Rops; Frank Brangwyn (outside Brugge); Frank O. Salisbury; Rowland Hilder; Albert Speer; John Bratby; Rolf Harris; Beryl Cook; Thomas Kinkade; Margaret Keane.

And major exhibitions I hope will never be put on: Bob Dylan; George W. Bush; the watercolours of Prince Charles; Winston Churchill, painter; anything by or about Patti Smith or Derek Jarman.

Great art historical juxtapositions somehow avoided by curators:
William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat; Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram.
Edward Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs; Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica; Frank O. Salisbury, The Coronation of King George VI (both 1937).
Alfred Stevens, Valour and Cowardice; Sesame Street Workshop, Oscar the Grouch.

What did a French photographic connoisseur say when he was shown a Fox Talbot calotype? “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas Daguerre!”

What is Rodin’s yummiest sculpture? The Burgers of Calais.

Art to charm your vegan friends: The Butcher’s Shop (Annibale Carracci); almost anything by Snyders, Oudry or Damien Hirst; Carcass of Beef (Chaim Soutine); and of course, Figure with Meat (Francis Bacon).

Added Joke (Rather, Five Added Jokes! Ed.)

The singer Shirley Bassey had an intellectual side, little known to her many fans. She was an avid reader of British poetry of the 1930s. Hence her famous hit, “Hey, Big Spender!”

A Hitler witticism: “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Röhm was destroyed in a night!”

13th century political gossip: “My friend Lance is a bit of a leftie… Doesn’t believe those vilains are villains and he signed the Magna Carta, don’t you know!”

A famous politically correct Anglo-Saxon: Hereward the Woke.


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, “The Laughing Boy (Jopie van Slouten),” by Robert Henri; painted in 1910.

Birds in Palaeolithic Portable Art

Here is an excerpt from Richard Pope’s intriguing new book about man’s long fascination with birds and flight. It’s called, Flight from Grace, and the little sample that follows wonderfully demonstrates the genius of early man. The book takes wing immediately with little-known facts, supplemented by astonishing images of artifacts that stand testament to the human spirit.


Portable art, which includes carvings, figurines, and engravings on ivory, stone, bone, and antler, is found often, but not exclusively, in caves. Bird representations are not uncommon in this art, particularly in the Magdalenian period (15,000–10,000 BCE). In French Palaeolithic art alone, out of 121 possible bird representations, Dominique Buisson and Geneviève Pinçon accept 81 as certain. Of these 81 sure bird representations, 15 (19 per cent) are on cave walls and 67 (81 per cent) are portable. Birds are much more common in portable art everywhere during the Palaeolithic. It is also striking that of the 81 sure French birds, almost half of which are not identifiable to species (47.6 per cent), 37 per cent represent either web-footed birds like ducks, geese, and swans or crane-like waders, and 10 per cent are raptors. The popularity of these waterbirds and raptors is also attested throughout Palaeolithic bird art in general. R. Dale Guthrie is right to point out that not all of these representations are masterpieces. Often carved in difficult materials, they range from the relatively crude to the superb. The artistic quality of these birds would not, however, have affected their function as amulets, pendants, charms, and ex-votos.

Flying waterbird Hohle Fels Cave ca 28000 BC.

At the mention of mammoth-ivory sculpture of the Palaeolithic, one’s first thought is of the numerous figurines of plump females – the so-called Palaeolithic Venuses – found from Spain right across to Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. What is interesting for us, however, is the common association of these Venuses with carvings of birds. Although these early Venuses are never bird-headed, as they often are in the Neolithic, these cult objects are often found in association with bird figurines and pendants. The Palaeolithic Venuses are thought by many to be figures with cult significance, and I believe that the bird figurines generally reflect the same cult status and represent various early forms of bird worship.

Perhaps our oldest known bird sculpture, dating from at least 28,000 BCE, is a mammoth-ivory carving found in the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura mountain range in Germany – a charming representation of a flying waterbird, thought by some (not birders, I suspect) to be a cormorant but almost certainly some kind of duck. You can even see the feathers carved on the bird’s side. The only representation of a bird that is older is the Chauvet engraved owl and perhaps a partridge/quail engraving on a flint flake, discussed below.

Before considering this bird’s significance, it is interesting to note what else was found in the Hohle Fels Cave in the period dating from before or around 30,000 BCE. There is an ivory Löwenmensch similar to, although less exquisite and smaller than, the famous one found in the Stadel Cave, which is known to date from about 38,000 BCE. Significantly, these Löwenmensch figurines are not carvings of humans wearing lion masks but of human figures with lion heads. They are monstrous hybrids that could exist only in the human imagination but must have been part of the local belief structure, as we can deduce from the fact that we have two such figurines from two different caves in the Swabian Jura, where one of the earliest settlements of human beings in Europe took place. Our oldest Palaeolithic Venus, possibly a pendant, was unearthed here in 2008 and found to be at least 37,000 years old; fragments of a second one were discovered in 2015. Although it seems slightly younger, dating from about 26,000 BCE, we also have a carved stone phallus measuring nearly 8 inches (20 centimetres), almost certainly associated with some kind of ritual or ceremony concerning procreation and fertility, as are the Palaeolithic Venuses. A stunning find was a fivehole flute made from the wing bone of a griffon vulture dating from about 33,000 BCE – an object suggestive of the dance floor, which is so closely connected to the origins of the sacred. Lastly, dating from about 28,000 BCE, there is a carving of the head of a horse, notably not a major food item for these humans, that is reminiscent of the horses in cave wall art. Clearly, this cave was some kind of sanctuary where religious beliefs were manifested. So, although we can never know the meaning of any Palaeolithic work of art for certain, the fact that the bird carving was found in the same cave as carvings of naked women, a Löwenmensch, a phallus, a horse, and a flute suggests that something more than art classes was taking place in this early cave and that our bird very likely had some kind of cult importance in the belief structure of these early humans.

We also have a number of exquisite flying-bird pendants (and three that are not flying) from the incredible Mal’ta site in Siberia northwest of Lake Baikal, excavated by the Russian archaeologist Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov. Most of them were found in connection with hearths, and cult status is nearly certain. Several of them were found in the famous grave of a four-year-old child, the same child who clinched the genetic link between the Mal’ta-Buret’ people and North American Indigenous peoples. These mammoth-ivory flying-bird pendants were originally thought to date from 23,000–19,000 BCE, although more recent radiocarbon dating has suggested a somewhat later Magdalenian date around 15,000 BCE.

Mammoth-ivory flying-bird pendants, Mal’ta, ca. 15,000 BC.

Most of the Mal’ta bird figurines represent flying waterfowl, probably swans judging by the long necks. Thirteen of them are very similar in shape and are both phallic and snakelike in form, suggesting connections between the bird deity and two other potent symbols of the sacred.

In western Europe, echoing Mal’ta, we again find representations of waterfowl: a carving of waterfowl with young at the Mas d’Azil Cave, a swan engraved on stone at the Gourdan Cave and one at the Teyjat Cave, a duck/goose engraved on horn at Gourdan and one at the Caves of Nerja, and a duck engraved on stone at the Cave of Espélugues in Lourdes. Michèle Crémades and colleagues illustrate several ducks from the Parapalló and Escabasses Caves and geese from the Labastide and Gourdan Caves.

Waterbirds, such as grebes, loons, ducks, geese, and swans, were sacred to subsistence-hunting peoples in the Palaeolithic and still revered in the Neolithic and historic periods. Diving birds, like the zhingibis (grebe and the maang (loon), still play an important role to this day in Ojibwe trickster stories and creation legends, as well as in the Ojibwe clan system, where we find Crane, Loon, Black Duck, and Goose among the totems. You might well ask, why diving birds? But think about it: grebes, loons, and diving ducks are perhaps the only creatures that are at home in the murky depths of lakes and rivers, nest on dry land, and are at home in the sky, being strong migratory fliers. The ability to survive in all three elements makes them obvious candidates for magical status.

Duck/goose engraved on horn found in the Gourdan Cave, 17,000–10,000 BC.

Equally important, ducks, geese, swans, and cranes are markers of the retreat and reappearance of winter; they are among the last to leave in autumn and the first to arrive in spring. Migration must have been very mysterious and seemed magical, like eclipses and solstices; birds, the sun, and the seasons disappear and then, hopefully, reappear – a source of major anxiety. Wherever did these mysterious beings go? What if they did not reappear? Hence the reverence for waterbirds, the sun, and the spring, along with the need to devise rituals in order to ensure their return. And last but not least, ducks, geese, and swans were a crucial food source for the people who hunted them, collected their eggs, and reaped them in great numbers during the flightless period of the moult. It is natural to revere fellow creatures that you rely on for food. These are birds you would not want to offend lest they abandon you. Perhaps indicative of their power is the touching, late-Neolithic burial at Vedbaek in Denmark of a tiny baby boy next to its young mother, the baby cradled in a whooper swan’s wing. The swan may have been meant to escort the child to the other world.

It is interesting to note that this waterfowl cult persisted in various societies throughout the Neolithic until modern times. In Russia and Siberia, Margarita Aleksandrovna Kiriyak tells us, “[b]irds are a widespread subject of rock drawings in the Neolithic art of north Eurasian tribes. Both waterfowl and birds of prey are encountered among the images.” There are also many carvings. She provides us with a photograph of a beautifully carved, upright goose made of smoky obsidian that is sitting with its neck stretched up, found at the Neolithic Tytyl’ IV site in western Chukhotka. Joseph Campbell points out that “early Russian missionaries and voyagers in Siberia … found among the tribes numerous images of geese with extended wings.” Steven Mithin reminds us that, “[a]mong the nineteenth-century Saami people of northern Europe, swans and waterfowl were the messengers of the gods.” The Canadian High Arctic was peopled by immigrants from Siberia, so we are not surprised to find Palaeo-Eskimo carvings of birds, such as waterbirds, cranes, and falcons, like the carvings of the Dorset (Tuniit) culture (500 BCE–ca. 1200 CE), which long preceded the later Inuit culture. Coastal-dwelling peoples who made their living from the sea revered the seabirds, which were so crucial to their existence. Newfoundland’s Beothuks, for example, appear to have had such “birds at the centre of their belief system.” Beothuks were buried in seaside graves with the feet of actual birds – guillemots – attached to their leggings and with various carved and engraved ivory and bone pendants, of which over 400 have been found, all plausibly identified as representing seabirds’ feet, seabirds’ primary wing feathers, or the tails of Arctic terns in flight. Since one equips the dead with precisely those items needed for the journey to the afterlife, which in this case entailed flight over water to an island paradise, these birds were doubtless crucial helpers serving in their classic role as psychopomps.

In his Folklore of Birds (1958), Edward Armstrong devotes three whole chapters to the ubiquitous cult of waterfowl – geese, swans, and loons in particular – that survives in later, worldwide folklore. This was a tenacious tradition!

Among the long-legged waders, cranes are well attested in Palaeolithic art. Jean-Jacques Cleyet-Merle and Stéphane Madelaine, after careful study of a Magdalenian engraving on a perforated stick of reindeer antler from Laugerie-Basse in the Dordogne region, convincingly established that the engraved wader was a common crane by cleverly fitting two separate pieces back together. They say that there is a striking similarity between this bird and the two engraved on the piece of schist found in the Labastide Cave, which they take to be cranes as well. Crémades and colleagues illustrate a crane-like wader found in the Gargas Cave in the Pyrenees and add three recently discovered engraved cranes, one on a spear point, from Magdalenian sites in the Pyrenees. In the Belvis Cave, there is an engraving on bone of a very odd, horizontal wading bird – longnecked like a crane or heron. In the Morín Cave, there is an engraving on a rib fragment of what appear to be five overlapping bird heads; although Don Hitchcock thinks that they are ducks or swans, I think that they look more like large, long-billed waders – cranes or herons. In any case, this edible, upright, dancing bird, which marked off the seasons by its migration, was obviously very special for early modern humans. It is not surprising, then, that among the special dances performed in ancient Greek sanctuaries was the Crane Dance, performed “with tortuous, labyrinthian movements.”

After the owls in the Chauvet and Trois Fréres Caves, it will come as no surprise that owls figure in Palaeolithic portable art as well. We have at least four very old owl representations dating from about 25,000 BCE at the sites of Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov in Moravia in the Czech Republic. Two are owl pendants, which were probably worn either for clan reasons or as amulets offering protection by a deity, just as one might wear a Saint Christopher medal or a cross around one’s neck today or hang a Magnetic Mary in the car. The other two are baked-clay figurines of owls, neither of which are earless, making them perhaps Eurasian eagle-owls. There is also an Upper Palaeolithic owl carved from an animal tooth that was found in the Mas d’Azil Cave, which is quite similar to the Dolní Věstonice figurines. Lastly, we have a handle of some sort with a carved face of an owl found at the Russian site of Avdeevo dating from about 19,000–18,000 BCE.

Owl pendant found at Pavlov, ca. 25,000 BC.

Waterbirds and owls do not exhaust our list of birds in Palaeolithic portable art. In Mezin, a Magdalenian settlement near Kiev, six little mammoth-ivory figurines of birds were found dating from about 15,000– 13,000 BCE. They are beautifully and delicately carved with fat bodies and flat tails and incised with delicate patterns of lines presenting our earliest known example of the meander pattern. Some are flying birds and some are not, and none of them seem to be waterfowl. They appear to represent plump, edible birds, and judging by their fat bodies and longish, flat tails, my best guess is that they represent some kind of a grouse, partridge, or ptarmigan. They are linked to the goddess motif by the etched pubic triangles – vulva symbols – on their backs.

Ptarmigan will continue to be an important theme in art when we move into the Neolithic. In far northeastern Russia in Chukhotka, among the many small stone bird carvings, we find a number of ptarmigan.

Baked-clay figurine of an owl, Dolní Věstonice, ca. 25,000 BC.

It is noteworthy that grouse and ptarmigan were also revered in western Europe. There is a detailed carving of a grouse, with the head missing, on the end of an atlatl, or spear-thrower, made of antler that was found in Mas d’Azil. The Gönnersdorf Cave, an Upper Palaeolithic site on the Middle Rhine with over 150 engravings of animals on slate, also has a few lifelike bird engravings from around 15,000 BCE, one of which is a ptarmigan. A bird that Armstrong, probably rightly, takes to be a ptarmigan engraved on a reindeer antler was found in the Isturitz Cave. There is an engraving on a limestone pebble from Laugerie-Basse that is either a corvid – scavenging bird – or a capercaillie.

There is a bird engraved using the sunken relief method on a flint flake found at the open-air site Cantalouette II in the Dordogne region. It is interesting because of the sunken relief technique and its Aurignacian origins (33,000–29,000 BCE). It is one of our oldest pieces of Palaeolithic bird art – along with the Hohle Fels waterbird and the Chauvet owl – and it may be a grey partridge or a common quail.

The grouse/ptarmigan can hardly have been a fortuitous choice for carvers; to assume that it is just a pretty design is an anachronistic assumption. Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic artists did not work that way; this crucial winter food source was probably chosen for clan and totem reasons or because the carvings were seen as fetishes and carried with one to please and appease the grouse spirit. These carvings were not baubles.

There seem to be few Palaeolithic representations of birds other than waterbirds, birds of prey, namely owls, and birds of the grouse type in our early portable art. There is a bird pendant carved from a cave bear’s canine tooth that was found in the Solutrean layer (20,000–15,000 BCE) of the Buxu Cave in Spain. It is thought to be some kind of crake or other member of the Rallidae family, although that is doubtful. There are a few bustards, like the two from the Gourdan Cave, one from Laugerie-Basse, and one from Abri de la Madeleine, although they can be hard to tell from geese. There is a bird, together with a bison, engraved on sandstone in the Cave of Puy-de-Lacan, and it is usually thought to be a long-legged duck or goose, although it is much more likely a bustard. Apart from these edible birds, there are hardly any others.

Mammoth-ivory bird effigy, Mezin, 15,000–13,000 BC.

The great tradition of Palaeolithic art came to an end around 9500 BCE after at least 25,000 years, “perhaps the greatest art tradition humankind has ever known.” The uniformity of subjects and techniques over so long a period is astounding.

What we see in these bird drawings, figurines, pendants, and engravings is a 20,000-year continuum of representations of various birds that demonstrates the persistence of the bird as cult object and sacred amulet throughout the Palaeolithic. It is not accidental that birds, snakes, Venuses, and penises turn up so regularly in this animistic culture, where humans need all the help that they can get to survive. It will not be surprising if earlier finds from the Middle Palaeolithic (298,000–48,000 BCE) turn up, and if they do, we can bet that among them there will be birds.

As we prepare with regret to leave the Palaeolithic and enter the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (10,000–6500 BCE), what can we conclude about the role of birds in human eyes up to this time? Any thought that birds were just pretty or edible creatures that could serve as the subjects of objets d’art must be banished. As Armstrong puts it, “to man in the Old Stone Age [or Palaeolithic] birds were not merely acceptable as food but symbolized mysterious powers which pervaded the wilderness in which he hungered, hunted and wove strange dreams.” Birds, in various forms, from diving birds to owls and grouse, were sacred and thought to have spirits whose help was sought for coping with life and death. Birds were carved from mammoth ivory, bone, antler, and stone, depicted on atlatls, worn on the body as pendants, buried in the grave with children, carried as fetishes, or simply kept as cult representations deep in caves, where they were painted or etched on the walls of inner sanctum rooms in positions of honour that reflected the degree of sacredness imputed to these feathered deities. From our earliest Upper Palaeolithic finds at Hohle Fels and Chauvet to our youngest ones at Lascaux and Mas d’Azil, the importance of birds for humans remains paramount.


The featured image shows, “Margaret (‘Peg’) Woffington (the actress),” by Jean-Baptiste van Loo, painted ca. 1738.