“I have nothing to declare but my jokes!” (Dr Mark Stocker, shortly before being beaten up by customs officials)
In this latest episode, before you crack(er) up, I may need to provide a few hints to my many fans. One of the jokes will particularly amuse Elvis fans. Len Lye remains a bit of a cult figure but was an extraordinary film and kinetic sculpture maker – a bit of a pseud, maybe. The Prince Albert one is a variant on quite a famous joke, so bear with me there. Another avails itself of Cockney rhyming slang, and once they comprehend it, a few chaste maidens may blush…
What was Oliver Cromwell’s insouciant reaction to Puritan iconoclasm in one of Britain’s most beautiful cathedrals? “Well, well, Wells!“
What was the Herts Advertiser’s response to Edmund Beckett (Lord Grimthorpe)’s drastic Gothic Revival restoration of St Albans Abbey? “Murder in the Cathedral.”
Caption for Norman Rockwell’s Girl with a Black Eye: Art history student who was involved in a heated argument about the Assisi problem and knows she’s right.
A famous but sensitive Trecento painter had a studio accident, resulting in an altarpiece panel being irreparably ruined. His sweet little daughter comforted him: “You may have lost your tempera but don’t cry, Daddi!”
Alternative title to Herbert Draper’s Ulysses and the Sirens: Allegory of the patriarchy and the women’s art movement.
What did Roger Fry call his watch repair business? The Omega Workshops.
How did the Victorian painter/engraver W.P. Frith describe the threatening new medium?’ “Foe to graphic art!” (not original)
What was the punch-line of a famous royal photographer? Snowdon, never Beaton.
What was the nickname of a much-loved Victorian woman photographer? Julia Margaret Camera.
When an eminent Marxist art historian, Professor Joe N. Lye (cousin of Len) was asked about the influence of Jacques-Louis David on art history, he replied: “It’s too early to tell.”
A reactionary critical response to a realist masterpiece by Honoré Daumier: “Third-class, untrained painter, doesn’t know his station!”
What did the thief of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington brilliantly succeed in conveying? The significance of the negative space in art.
Prince Albert is re-landscaping Buckingham Palace, and it being the late 1840s, is keen to give work to the distressed Irish. Through his good friend Lord Kilburn he has found an admirable landscape architect, Seamus O’Connor. When the two meet, landscaping is in full flight and Seamus fulsomely sings his men’s praises…
‘”’ve got all the best Irish diggers, Sir – green side up, Paddy! All the best Irish shrubs and seedlings – green side up, Paddy! And my men will do you most beautiful Irish herbaceous borders, Sir – green…!”
“Sehr gut, Herr O’Connor, but why you ask the Paddy for the green side up?”
“Ah, Sir, he’s just laying down the lawn!”
I was shocked to see a conservator cleaning a dark old baroque painting with a toothbrush. I asked her “What’s the problem?” She replied: “Mola decay!”
What did the art historian say when he was told he’d won the Lotto? “Terrific! Is it an Annunciation?”
After the triumphant Gothic rebuild of St Denis, the holy anthem played to serenade the great Abbot was quite pointed: Suger, Suger (by the Archies).
What did Rossetti say when his fellow Pre-Raphaelite annoyed him? “You stupid Holman Hunt!”
Who was the eminent, high camp 18th century art connoisseur who uncannily anticipated Pop Art? Sir Horace Warhol.
What did the mugger say to James Tissot? “Watch out!”
The image shows, Austin Osman Spare and Witch, by Austin Osman Spare, painted in 1947.
It is indeed a high privilege to present this interview with Dr. Mark Stocker, the voraciously productive art historian. Readers of the Postil will know Dr. Stocker from the varied ramblings and amusements that he has been offering in these pages. Therefore, it is great delight to have him speak of his real work, his true métier, which is art. He is being interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski whom our readers also know well.Dr Stocker is the author of over 230 publications, including 10 books and edited books. His latest one, When Britain Went Decimal: the Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021. His extensive research interests include Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Mark did his History of Art degree many years ago at King’s College, Cambridge, but firmly denies being either a spy or even a King’s leftie.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): I would like to begin this conversation by reading to you an incident from Leszek Kolakowski’s “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie” (published in his My Correct Views on Everything, 2005).
“In 1950, in Leningrad, I visited the Hermitage in the company of a few Polish friends. We had a guide (a deputy director of the museum, as far as I remember) who was obviously a knowledgeable art historian. At a certain moment – no opportunity for ideological teaching must be lost – he told us: ‘We have in our cellars, comrades, a lot of corrupt, degenerate bourgeois paintings. We have never displayed them in the museum but perhaps one day we will show them so that Soviet people can see for themselves how deeply bourgeois art has sunk. Indeed, Comrade Stalin teaches us that we should not embellish history.’ I was in the Hermitage again, with other friends, in 1957, a time of relative ‘thaw,’ and the same man was assigned to guide us. We were led to rooms full of modern French paintings. Our guide told us: ‘Here you see the masterpieces of great French painters – Matisse, Cézanne, Braque, and others.’ And, he added (for no opportunity must be lost), ‘do you know that the bourgeois press accused us of refusing to display these paintings in the Hermitage? This was because at a certain moment some rooms in the museum were being redecorated and were temporarily closed, and a bourgeois journalist happened to be here at that moment and then made this ridiculous accusation. Ha, ha.’”
To someone who lives in the West – unless you happen to be a student of Communism or Russia – what Kolakowski says may sound surreal. But what is going on in the US – the destruction of monuments, removal of paintings and sculptures, suspension of purchases of European art by American museums, purchases of minority art, changing names of buildings and streets – is all too familiar and brings to mind the feeling of déja vu. What is your reaction to Kolakowski’s story; and do you see parallels between it and what is going on today?
Mark Stocker (MS): My reaction is to laugh in order not to cry. The 1950 response is chillingly reminiscent of the notorious Nazi ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition – this is of course one of many resemblances between different forms of totalitarianism. Not for the first time, I feel compelled to ask “What’s the difference?” The convenient change of party line by 1957 is a step in the right direction in at least having such art on display, but the same man is suffering from convenient memory loss.
Before I go on to answer your question, I would like nonetheless to put in a plea for not suppressing the “official art” of that time. In this period, art school training in Eastern European countries continued on precisely the traditional lines, valuing technique and crafting, that you and I both admire. I remember being quite moved by a collection presented to a New Zealand art gallery by the Soviet Institute of Cultural Affairs over 50 years ago. No, I am not a “useful idiot.” I believe that however admirable or repellent the regime, art has a life of its own and should not be lazily written off in a determinist way.
To answer your question, I think there is still a way to go before we reach the parlous and risible state of affairs in the Soviet Union of the 1950s. But we must be vigilant and vigorous in terms of arguing for a genuine diversity in what the public sees.
ZJ: Indeed, Kolakowski’s story may seem laughable. But to me, a former denizen of the “socialist paradise,” where I spent the first 25 years of my life, it is not. This is what “socialist realism” was like. In 2020, in the countries of liberal-democracies, we seem to be “back to the future,” in that what is shown in museums must reflect “approved” and “correct” ideology. Indeed, in a umber of museums in the US (and Europe), the purchase of Western art has been suspended; some museums are selling objects from their collections in order to buy more minority art.
Until relatively recently, museum and art-gallery collections were for the human gaze, for observing. This was the understood purpose of such institutions. This is not so today. Art galleries and museums are now at the forefront of the ideological battle. Several months ago, I wrote a piece “The Power of Beauty and the New Museum Barbarians.” In it I made a point which you also made in an official letter to an art institution – that the function of museums is not “raising social consciousness” but to guard artistic heritage. Do you see what some curators are now doing as a betrayal of their mission?
MS: Any “betrayal” probably happened 20 to 40 years ago. We’re too far down that trajectory to apply this term – younger curators in many cases simply don’t know any better. The prime aim of curators and art historians should be to focus on beauty, aesthetics, style, patronage and iconography. Raising social consciousness can be very worthwhile but, in my view, it comes second to these things.
I am very conservative about selling from collections – I wouldn’t want to leave my own art treasures to any state institution, if there was a real danger they would be deaccessioned. If, however, it’s a duplicate print and not in good condition, then it would be silly for the museum in question to be rigid about this. But hocking off anything that’s unfashionable is unforgivable. Why, why, why did the Met see fit to do this with Frank Salisbury’s superb portrait of The Sen Sisters which the artist generously presented to the Museum? He paid a terrible price for being unapologetically academic and a near contemporary of Picasso. An intelligent museum should have both artists represented.
ZJ: That’s the point – unfashionable! Would you apply this term to the Elgin Marbles, Rubens, Watteau, Rembrandt, Veronese, and a host of other greats? The situation in which we found ourselves in the 20th century is singular, I would say. Fashion became a criterion; so that art now is no longer valued for its intrinsic quality, its beauty, but some subjective feeling about “justice.” Of course, there is also the commercial aspect, in that a certain artist is worth investing in, as his work may go up in value. Thus artistic value cannot so easily be separated from profit.
MS: One of the problems that Modernism created was to open a kind of Pandora’s box. Subjectivity and relativism became all the thing, provided you heeded the elite critic’s or curator’s choice, in many ways a contradiction of that. Older, shared criteria of beauty and the concept of art as skill were thrown out the window.
An old friend of mine, now sadly dead, though a big fan of Modernism, said that in architecture, the classical language and Beaux-Arts training guaranteed a base level of consistency and decency, whereas Modernism rejected this. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dissing modernism – I very much admire Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, for example, and some of Picasso himself – but we sacrificed a great deal for it and people, even art professionals, are too ignorant to realise this.
ZJ: Do you see this problem as something that creates the danger of confounding artistic quality with the buyer’s inability to separate artistic beauty from monetary value in the art market?
MS: Modernism certainly made it much harder to judge.
ZJ: One can also say that this inability opens the gates for artistic charlatans who prefer to shock the audience with images, rather than enchant them with quiet spiritual elevation?
MS: Understated beauty has certainly been a victim of 20th century clamorousness. How many people today can judge the nuances of watercolour washes, as we can see in the work of my good friend Maurice Askew (who died recently aged 98); or, indeed, the deft inking and biting of an etcher’s plate, as in D.Y. Cameron’s sublime Winchester Cathedral?
I don’t totally believe in rejecting the “shock” factor, so long as it is underpinned by skill. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is a good case in point; an unforgettable, unavoidable work. But, as Bacon himself found, it was a damn hard act to follow, and his subsequent attempts to shock, certainly after the mid-1950s, just don’t do it for me. Bacon up to the 1960s cannot be fairly described as a charlatan – but I think he came perilously close to being one later in life, using the same painterly tricks and making people who should know better say “Wow!”
What he did become, as many an artist before and after Modernism, was formulaic. The charlatan charge is one that’s easy to level but is in danger of closing the arguments. Certainly the “de-skilling” of art that Modernism encouraged increased the charlatanry component. Damien Hirst – not a skilled painter at all but a brilliant project manager. Josef Beuys – arguably more of a charlatan than a shaman. Marcel Duchamp – he skirted very close to it and stole from others (a time-honoured practice); but he was, I have to concede for all the damage he did, bloody clever.
ZJ: I can’t really abide Duchamp, but let’s move the discussion back to when, earlier, you said, “Raising social consciousness can be very worthwhile but, in my view, it comes second to these things.” Here is my problem: who decides? The curators? Many of them have recently succumbed to social pressure and peddle ideology, sanctioned by state authority – as used to be the case under communism?
Secondly, I’m all for being directed by someone, advised by Dr. Stocker, when I decide what to buy; but social consciousness is a group phenomenon. This raises another question: what are we trying to achieve by raising consciousness? Aesthetic appreciation? Not really. It is a call to social action, an attempt to change society. If so, curators are revolutionaries.
This is not the same as teaching a book. When I say, “Read the Bible, I think you will find it interesting,” my intent is not to make readers into believers. I am leaving the judgment to the reader. It is a process of appreciation.
Richard Sharp, the author of The Engraved Record of the Jacobite Movement, once gave me some excellent advice: “The best way to learn how to distinguish good quality prints from average ones is to look at them; after some time, you will train your eye and you will be able to discern good from average prints.”
MS: Sharp is right. You see what you know, as Gombrich says. As for social consciousness, it can be a dangerous trap and shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the prime concerns of curatorship. It’s a cop-out, but I would leave it at the curator’s discretion as to how much or little a part it should play. But I would be worried if I had a curator colleague who let it loom too large.
There are aspects of social consciousness which I think could and should be raised and which I find interesting – when for example an artist is outstanding but is the victim of changed fashion or economic decline. The collapse of the printmaking market following the Wall Street Crash is tragic to behold and it would be callous to disregard it in any history, even if the intrinsic qualities of the prints are ultimately more relevant to “pure” art history. Geniuses like F.L. Griggs were ruined. In turn, without becoming a socialist, you can admire someone like William Morris whose conscience was stirred by ugliness, pollution and grinding poverty. His close friend Edward Burne-Jones, though less overtly politicised, wanted to bring beauty into ordinary people’s lives – and his excellent exhibition at Tate Britain a couple of years ago was a powerful vindication of that ideal.
ZJ: One term that is part of the liberal toolbox is “cultural appropriation.” It largely means that the artists has gobbled the best of minority culture and falsely presented it as his own. Recently, Elvis Presley was accused of cultural appropriation (he supposedly “stole” themes and music); Olga Tokarczuk, Polish Nobel Prize Laurate, was accused of cultural appropriation because she wears dreadlocks. In the past it was called fashion, a borrowing. Today it is called “cultural appropriation.”
No culture is entirely self-sufficient; we borrow elements of thought, visual representations from different places, and, by transforming them according to our own perception, create something new, something original. Picasso comes to mind, as does van Gogh, who had a considerable collection of Japanese prints, which inspired him. There is a difference between “appropriation” and “inspiration;” but today inspiration is called “appropriation,” a term frequently and easily interchanged with “theft.”
MS: It is a boring and unhelpful word and concept, and is used all too often by pompous and politically correct academics to close the argument. I would like to remind such people that Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Appropriation wasn’t always seen as a crime. The respected New Zealand Māori artist Selwyn Muru was asked many years ago who he thought the great Māori artists were. “Well, there’s Picasso!” he replied. As for musical appropriation, do Jamaican reggae lovers despise Led Zeppelin for their magnificently appropriated ‘D’yer Ma’ker’? (Get it?). I very much doubt it. They’d see it, surely, as a testament, a tribute, to their culture – attacking it would be a sign of vulnerability.
ZJ: I want to give you two examples: Rembrandt and Stefano della Bella (both 17th-century artists). Apparently, both were fascinated by the 17th-century Polish Sarmatian dresses. Rembrandt even painted his own self-portrait as Polish Nobleman; his student van Vliet made a print, after Rembrandt, of a Pole. Stefano della Bella did several engravings of Poles.
Is this “cultural appropriation?” In Britain, we see a similar fascination with other countries. In the 19th century, Orientalism was widespread. Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind.
MS: As I say, it isn’t a helpful concept. Weren’t the classicists “appropriating” the ancient Greeks? Did the Greeks complain? Get real.
Edward Said has a lot to answer for on that front. He essentialised Orientalism, and though he was a far cleverer and better-read person than me, his effect on countless admirers was to have ultimately trivialised it. Politically correct academics have continued to repeat his litany over the decades, blahblahblah. Full marks therefore to Robert Irwin for intelligently taking him on!
There is much, much more that of course could be said on this front. Sometimes ignorant appropriation can cause understandable offense. I was asked at one stage by Royal Doulton, if in all innocence they could use a Gottfried Lindauer portrait of a Māori chief as a character jug. I told them that this offended on almost every front – the head is tapu (taboo) in traditional Māori culture, and eating and drinking is governed by strict protocols – putting milk in the head jug – OMG – no! They heeded me, thank goodness. But this was an extreme case. Let me give a couple of more New Zealand examples – most people should get my drift.
The white New Zealand artist Gordon Walters received a lot of ill-informed, and I would say pretty offensive criticism in his brilliant use of the fern frond motif that you see in traditional Māori architectural decoration, such as roof beams. But this is by definition “low” ornament and you can’t very well claim he is appropriating your intellectual property.
So, inevitably the question of appropriation must be applied on a case by case basis. Oh – it can work in reverse – the Arawa people made the carving of Queen Victoria, that was presented to them, uniquely theirs – by erecting her on a traditionally carved post and protecting her with an elaborate canopy – Queen Victoria became Kuini Wikitoria – get it?! She was even told about it in the last few weeks of her life, and was genuinely moved by the loyalty of her subjects.
ZJ: As you say, the concept is not helpful in explaining the quality of art. But those who use it are not interested in art. They are in the business of fighting Western culture. By saying “appropriation,” they say there is nothing original in Western culture, and that the West is not a civilization that created great wonders, or liberated mankind from poverty and injustice – something the present day “reformers” claim to champion. Many years ago, Mary Lefkovitz wrote Not Out of Africa – a detailed analysis of the baselessness of the claim that the Greeks had “stolen” their philosophy from Africa – for which she was attacked on all fronts.
What underlies this reasoning is: if we cannot take down all the monuments, remove all paintings from the museums, let’s denigrate them, let’s show the Westerners – the Whites – those who defend Western tradition – that there is nothing special, unique or original in it. On the contrary, it is imperialistic, genocidal, unoriginal, and so on.
MS: Although you’re doing a bit of a reductio ad absurdum, I can’t deny a lot of what you say. I wish it wasn’t like that, but it is all too prevalent. Perhaps it was my luck as an academic that the majority of my colleagues were considerably more intellectually subtle – and in the best sense liberal – than your bleak picture suggests. The better academics put Lefkowitz on their reading lists; and to be fair, Bernal’s Black Athena was rapidly shot down.
ZJ: When you were a student at Cambridge, some 40 years ago, would you ever have thought or suspected that art and art criticism would be gone in the future, and that what you, and others, who had decided to study art, would be under attack?
MS: Perhaps I’m fortunate but my (almost) 30 years teaching at the academy were remarkable for not being attacked. Only once, many years ago, when I did a seminar defending (yet still criticizing) Camille Paglia, which was almost riotously well-received by most students and several staff present but not by a few angry left-wingers, was I reprimanded by my head of school. Call me cowardly, but out of self-preservation and a wish to advance my career, I took a deep breath, put the culture wars aside and settled down into writing a succession of entries for the Grove Dictionary of Art – on the patronage and artistic interests of Louis XV, Louix XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Louis-Philippe respectively. Perhaps this was a subtle form of subversion! So rather than buckle under any criticism, I’ve simply done my own thing, publishing a very large amount of what I hope is useful, factual research, often on no grants whatsoever, and enjoyed doing so in the process.
ZJ: I often wonder what Sir Kenneth Clark would say? What would his fabulous BBC program turned into a book – Civilization – look like in 2020?
MS: Well, they recently attempted to do a “Civilisation revisited” called Civilisations, with Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. It was well received, but got some criticism for focusing too much on class and oppression, and not enough on the core aspects of art that I identified above. Relativism replaced discerning aesthetic judgement and as for Clark’s beautiful language – creating art when talking about it, well, something surely was lost here. A few years ago, I published a blog-post whose sub-text was “Come back Kenneth Clark, all is forgiven!” My admirable Pacific colleague Sean said he enjoyed it and learnt from it – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
ZJ: Over the last several years, we have witnessed another phenomenon: tearing down and removing monuments. The first was done by hooligan demonstrators, the second by city officials, who often, as happened in Baltimore, removed monuments during the night, when the public was asleep. Many monuments were not just representations of someone others disapprove of, but pieces of art. Do you see any hope for saving public monuments?
MS: Actually, I see some hope from the British Tories (though I often disagree with them elsewhere) in the very latest news. They are planning legislation to take decisions away from councils and make statuary subject to the minister’s edict. So long as the government is sound here, that will make it very much harder to molest public monuments, and cathedral and church monuments in turn. I’ve recently come across a specific instance of this in regard to a taxpayer-funded academic research project on the Napoleonic tombs in St Paul’s Cathedral. The proposal read positively scarily: “Unlike the early- to mid-20thC monuments to Confederate soldiers, the St Paul’s Pantheon is unlikely to be removed in the long term.” You bet it won’t be, now that I alerted the Church Monuments Society and the London Times – I (indirectly) received a hurried reassurance to this effect just days ago. But the very fact that the project hinted otherwise, and got government funding, shows there is no cause for complacency on this front.
ZJ: What about selling them?
MS: I like your idea of selling monuments but I don’t think there would be a big market for them. With a couple of sculpture-nut friends, we’re currently trying to find a home for a HUGE relief of very fine quality, celebrating Africa but carved by a white British sculptor in the early 1960s and nobody wants to know – it’s all too “sensitive,” you see; well, my response is to say “Bah!” It’s a history lesson in stone, and fascinating for it. Somebody who should have known better described the sculpture as “patronizing.” If you could travel back in time and tell the artist this, he wouldn’t be offended so much as baffled and bewildered. The past is a foreign country – and imposing presentism on it in this way is quite simply bad history (and bad art history).
Art And The Public
ZJ: Recent events – destruction of monuments, changes in the museums’ policies – raise the very serious problem of “art ownership,” not ownership in the ordinary sense, where I own an antique-piece or a house. The question is – who is entitled to a work of someone who has been gone for centuries and whose work was created in a very different world-view. Do we – today – have the singular claim of deciding what the “proper” subject of art must be – or indeed what the artist should have thought and what he should represented in his art?
But today, if someone happens to disapprove of something, we destroy it or remove it.
MS: There’s a big risk of not wanting to look at the monument in its own terms, to neglect the history surrounding it and say our history must dominate – in other words presentism. If it’s a statue in a public place, it belongs to the people but is being held in trust/custody for them, and we disrespect this at our peril.
ZJ: In the early 1980s, the Greek government wanted Lord Elgin’s Parthenon marbles back, claiming they are part of Greek national heritage. This claim is not as strong as it appears to be. Modern Greece is not a continuation of ancient Greece. That cultural continuity had been broken many times, especially during the Ottoman rule. Secondly, the Greek heritage, because of the unique place of ancient Greece as cradle of Western civilization, is as much English and European as it is Greek. Finally, the place that deserves guardianship of ancient relics is that which can preserve best them.
MS: They still do. I could write 5000 words on this and I have. The arguments for and against are quite closely balanced. To me, bleeding heart liberal if you like, the unfair thing about them was that it was not a “level playing field” when Elgin brilliantly and opportunistically exploited the wording of the Ottoman Empire’s permit to remove them – a matter of 20 years or so before the Greek War of Independence. The Greeks had no say about them. Short term, they had everything to be grateful for in Elgin “rescuing” them from what could well have been fatal destruction. But for 150+ years they have been saying “We want them back, please!”
The question of modern Greece not being the same place is one of the strengths of NOT returning them; this must be conceded. But having them in the locality of where the whole great world of Western art – and democracy – started is an emotional one that many people find compelling. A good comparison would be if Paris or Munich owned Boadicea’s chariot!
ZJ: A critic can argue, however, that the best place for it is the original site. But, once again, one can counter-argue that the original site is not necessarily the safest. The prime example is the Roman city of Palmyra, vandalized and partly destroyed by ISIS a few years ago. By contrast, the Pergamon Altar was preserved because it was removed and beautifully preserved in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
MS: Or was till the anti-Satanist nutcases recently struck. In regard to the Parthenon marbles, Enoch Powell said clean up the Athens pollution and then put them back in situ. I got what he meant even if practicality (and emotions) meant that his typical intellectual logic was shouted down.
ZJ: True, the Elgin Marbles, the Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate were taken away; yet, were it not for the passion of those who carried out this “theft,” they might well be entirely destroyed now – their “theft” in turn preserved them. This also tells us that the heritage of civilization belongs to those who can secure its welfare the best.
MS: At the time, the 1810s, I think even the Greeks would have conceded that. What they argue is that they are now a liberal democracy, part of the European Union, which Britain was till so recently, that they have the means, facilities and expertise to house these treasures in a beautiful, accessible way, just metres from where it all began. My feeling is that the return of the Parthenon marbles is about 60% justified – quite narrow.
Where I am totally opposed to the restitution of art objects is when you cannot trust the government that wants them back. Some years ago, there was a genuine, albeit politically incorrect worry that the consequences of returning Benin bronzes to the government of their country of origin would be Lamborghinis and wives’ shopping sprees in Harrods and Aspreys! Any “returning” institution needs to be given a pretty copper-bottomed guarantee that their treasures will be beautifully housed, displayed and loved. If not, they should stay put.
ZJ: My second question is a variant of the previous one. Ever since the French, American and Russian Revolutions, we have to deal with a new concept that implicates art in a way it was created for, in that art is the property of the people. Hence all kinds of claim can be made. It is a people who are true owners, not individuals. The proper place for art is museums; and private collections, even if they legally belong to private citizens, cannot be taken out of the country, sold in other countries, because, the claim goes, it is part of “national heritage.” How strong is such a claim in your opinion?
MS: This is a long and complex one to answer. Obviously if you believe in liberal democracy, you believe in the rule of law and the sanctity of the ownership of property (statue-topplers take note). The last, however, needs to be balanced with caring for the national heritage.
In the absence of protective legislation or the purchase of masterpieces by the government and private donors to keep them in their country of origin or long-term custodianship, the consequences can be disastrous. The New Zealand Māori in the first instance and our culture in the second suffered from the despoiling of ghastly, latter-day grave robbers.
Even when the repatriation is legal, the consequences can be near tragic – Japan exported so many of its glorious colour woodblock prints, the country was effectively despoiled of them and any uninformed international tourists who went there to see them were disappointed.
Modern Art And Architecture
ZJ: I would like to move to modern or 20th-century art. It is the period which is very often criticized. As far as painting is concerned, this era is often appreciated by art critics more than the public. Ordinary people find modern art difficult to understand (especially abstract painting), lacking in immediate aesthetic appeal, sometimes even appalling. Similar criticism can be applied to architecture.
In its simple form, criticism of art and architecture can, in my view, be reduced to three claims: it is “ugly,” i.e., lacking in aesthetic dimension, like in “this building is ugly.”
Second, it is ugly because it has no relationship to tradition, surroundings, regional and national features (this is true of much of modern architecture). Such art and architecture follows abstract geometrical patterns rather than traditions; thus, the ornaments which beautify buildings are absent.
Thirdly, it is ugly or not appealing because the purpose of a painting or a sculpture is not to convey a sense of beauty but to embody a social message, which turns art into a vehicle of ideology. Of course, there can be an overlap, something can be both ugly, rootless and ideological; and so because it is rootless it is often ugly.
Which of these three assertions would you consider to be the greatest problem for modern art? I realize that not all three apply to the same degree to architecture, sculpture and painting.
MS: That’s a big question. I do think your approach to modernism is too broad-brushed. I genuinely think that a lot of it is a lot less elitist than when it first appeared. Look at the crowds of people looking at Rothko. My old house in Christchurch was a charming slightly Lego-like postmodern affair that showed an obvious awareness of Mondrian.
Let me say this about Modernist architecture: when built on a strict budget, housing or officing (new word) the masses, it can be little short of ghastly. That great old architectural reactionary Sir Reginald Blomfield was unfortunately spot on when he called early Modernist buildings packing-cases. However, when it is built on a big budget, sometimes – depending on the sensibility of the architect – Modernism can look genuinely impressive. There’s been a tendency towards a kind of neo-modernism since the end of the century which focusses on lightness, whiteness and airiness – and people really like it.
ZJ: Let me invoke Nikolaus Pevsner, author of several important books on art and architecture. According to him, England’s “contribution to Western art has been stronger in the practical art of building than in the more esoteric arts of painting and sculpture.” And, Pevsner also said, “English political strength” turned out “detrimental to art:” “…The democratic rule by committee and majority. Building today more than ever before is decided by committees. Committees can never be hoped to be the best judges in matters aesthetics. To demand or merely to license a bold building requires a bold man.”
MS: How prophetic – and we’ve had 65 years of committees ever since! He’s proved to be somewhat wrong about English sculpture (Henry Moore anyone? Barbara Hepworth? The excellent Elisabeth Frink?) and I think he still had some way to go in ever warming to Victorian painting, though he did so splendidly to architecture.
ZJ: These words, as you noticed, were written in 1955, and we are as far away from solving the problem as we were then. I just spoke with an architect, who, to my rather dreadful remark – which I made jokingly – as to what we should do with architects who litter our cities with buildings which are admired only by fellow-architects, said: it is the investor who is responsible; we do what investor wants. I find such an answer to be nothing other than a cop-out, an easy excuse that covers architects’ lack of talent; or worse, it’s a total disregard for “the public,” traditional surroundings, or national culture.
MS: As I said earlier, one of the tragedies of the 20th century was when capitalists realized that cheap Modernist architecture was the way to go! So, your friend does have a point. But architects also have themselves to blame – they are arrogant and self-referential. Look at architects like Morris Lapidus, who was brave enough to design for the people – despised by his profession, and in old age he destroyed his drawings and models – tragic.
ZJ: We have three choices, it seems: the committees, the public, or the bold man, who always realizes his own vision, not necessarily shared by the rest (as Pevsner suggested). Personally, I would go for the second, but would add that the committees offer us – the public – a range of, say, ten designs, submitted by architects, and have them displayed in a big public place, and let the people cast a vote. After all, it is the public and future generations who will live with it, not the architect, not the coterie of members of the committee. Which option do you think is the best?
MS: They all have their pros and cons. Going against my liberal instincts, I have a soft spot for the bold man – provided his taste doesn’t totally offend me. The people aren’t always right – they are often very conservative in turn. Sometimes they have to catch up with an artist and realize his or her validity. Henry Moore is a good example, even if a lot of his later corporate work, loved by committees, is boring.
But sometimes time cannot heal an “in your face” ugly work of art – Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc is a prime example, as is “Brutalist” architecture of the 1950s and 1960s – a fair bit of that probably remains in Poland in cheap public housing. My friend Amanda was very upset when I published a letter saying a whole lot of Brutalist flats weren’t worth keeping in Wellington, utterly lacking in the “period charm” of their Art Deco predecessors of 20-30 years earlier!
ZJ: Only yesterday I had a conversation with an architect who used the language of “experimentation” in art, saying that a piece of architecture “was an interesting idea.” My response was that there is no question that Centre Pompidou is “interesting” as an idea; it never occurred to anyone before to show the inside of a building. But it is ugly.
Here I would like to suggest a topic for reflection. The two towers of the World Trade Center in New York were, for decades, seen by the public as a symbol of New York itself, the New World. When the towers collapsed on September 11, the question became – should we rebuild them? But no one entertained this for long. Rebuilding certain architectural objects is not new; it says something about national spirit, attachment to history, tradition. An example is the old city of Warsaw, razed to the ground during WWII. It was rebuilt as exact copy of the city from before 1939.
Most recently we have the example of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was a heart-breaking sight to see it in flames. There was no question that it will be rebuilt as it was, perhaps with small details which will be modern.
The two objects – the Twin Towers and the Notre Dame – are good examples of where the problem lies: -beauty of a building, as opposed to “an interesting idea.” I doubt whether the same French public would ever entertain the idea of rebuilding the Centre Pompidou if anything were to happen to it.
MS: What you’re saying is that there is something humanist that is enshrined in old buildings, that the public love and which we badly miss when they are gone. I can’t argue with that even if some old buildings were or are no great shakes. There are open and shut cases of ugly buildings – often, but not exclusively, Modernist – which nobody mourns if they go. And I don’t think merely being there for 40 years or more can redeem them.
The “Brutalist” flats in Wellington I mentioned earlier, known as the “Gordon Wilson flats” after their architect, had a certain “to-hell-with-you” quality when they were erected, and they haven’t mellowed – they were ugly then and ugly now, which you can’t say for a lot of Victorian architecture. Frankly, I wouldn’t grieve to see them go. Any decision has to be on a case-by-case, empirical basis. Personally, I don’t agree with you about the Beaubourg – when I first saw it, and I was definitely a bit of a fogey – I was impressed by its quirky, funky qualities, and it was obvious that in the piazza in front of it, buskers, jugglers, tourists and Parisians, took to it like a duck to water.
ZJ:Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi. They are giants of 20th-century architecture. The first two were giants of the new 20th-century style; the other two are modern too, but they are steeped in tradition; their knowledge of history of architecture is undeniable. Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona is not a medieval cathedral, but only someone unfamiliar with history – Gothic architecture – could confuse it with something else. Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, his use of stained glass, wood, triangular roofs, bricks, in short, traditional material, make us feel “at home.” None of this is part of van der Rohe and Le Corbusier’s vision. It is pure geometry of new material, which makes us feel alienated from the environment and history. Such “creativity” is responsible for much of the problem with modern art.
What is your take on it?
MS: A lot of Le Corbusier’s theories were cranky and it grieves me that he had so much influence on generations of architecture students – to be terribly provocative I tell them they should have looked at Corb’s contemporary, Ernest Trobridge, architect of startling “ye olde” suburban houses in Greater London, instead. Le Corbusier’s architecture is, dare I say, hit and miss – the much-lauded Unité d’Habitation was a flop; I haven’ been to Ronchamp but I’m pretty certain I would admire it. Mies van der Rohe had a genuine sensibility towards proportions and materials – his actual buildings are rather great – the problem is that lacking that sensibility, lacking that big budget, being a second-rate Corb or Mies – is a recipe for aesthetic, social and political disaster.
ZJ: Let me approach the idea of conservatism in art. It is a category external to art. If it makes sense to talk about conservatism in art, it concerns national attitude, national characteristics rather than artistic qualities. Pevsner wrote an interesting book, The Englishness of English Art, in which he pointed to certain creative stubbornness, so to speak, of the English.
Christopher Wren, for example, had to redo the plan for St. Paul’s cathedral, because the clergy refused to accept such “un-English a shape.” Wren also suggested that completing Westminster Abbey in Gothic style was appropriate because “to deviate from the old Form, would be to run into disagreeable Mixture, which no Person of good Taste could relish.” (A point that is relevant in rebuilding the Notre Dame in Paris). Pevsner’s book abounds in examples of this kind. What we deal with is “Englishness,” if I may say so, or English conservative attitude in general.
This was all a long time ago; things changed! In the 1990s Prince Charles left the confines of his regal realm and made a name for himself by his criticism of English architecture. He even wrote a book,A Vision of Britain. Another critic of English architecture is Sir Roger Scruton – one of its most vocal critics, in fact. Can you explain this criticism?
MS: The architectural consequences of Prince Charles is an interesting topic and would really repay research – a book in itself. There are not a few examples of how late 20th- and early 21st-century architecture ‘kept in keeping’ with pre-existing structures – a really good example of this is Downing College, Cambridge, which is pretty awesome and which Scruton doubtless admired. And the model village of Poundbury where pundits’ opinions are divided but whose residents appear to love it.
Prince Charles himself influenced the admirable addition to the National Gallery – his critique of the original plans is where it all started. So, this kind of architecture happens – not as often as I would like because, I’m afraid, of the mania for change, cost effectiveness and architects’ egos – not least their over reverence for 20th-century heroes. Where a less admirable form of traditionalism continues to thrive is in the mania for period features in British domestic housing, especially neo-Georgian.
I generalize, but a lot of it is awful, tacky and pretentious. Cambourne, outside Cambridge, falls into this trap. It’s bad, but I laugh at it and don’t feel appalled by it – I can see it worming its way into my affections if I lived there myself. Indeed, I have a feeling that maybe in 50 years’ time, if it lasts that long, it will have accrued a period charm, as the much-mocked mock-Tudor with its painted “beams” and gables of the inter-war years has done.
ZJ: George Orwell, in his essay, “England Your England,” attempted to come to terms with Englishness, the English national character. The essay covers a lot of ground, but one thing that struck me was his claim that the English have no aesthetic taste; and, second, that England does not have great art, great painters. If one compares England with Italy, that is certainly true; but if we take Orwell’s claim at face value, every nation would lose to the Italians. Do you agree with Orwell?
MS: It’s a complicated question but he’s being unfair. The pioneering modernist critic Roger Fry said something on the lines of “the fact that our school may be a second division one does not prevent it from being intensely interesting.” But the ginormous elephant in the room when you make this generalization is the phenomenal, the beautiful, the remarkable English and to a lesser extent Scottish country house – and its garden. British art historians should be shouting from the rooftops about how its landscape architects made the paintings of Claude Lorrain (some of the most gorgeous in art history) three-dimensional reality. It worked better in the cooler, damper British climate than it would have ever done in Claude’s Roman Campagna.
And another major point: a lot of British painting from about 1750 is remarkable and too many critics remain obtusely patronizing about it. I love artists like Burne-Jones (as you’ve gathered), Leighton, and much admire Watts. And in the 20th century, we have Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud – and those godawful YBAs, yet who have a huge place in the world of contemporary art. I don’t think it’s profitable comparing Britain to France or Italy – and I think it’s stupid, as the Courtauld Institute did for far too long – to ignore what’s on your doorstep and only bother to look at France and Italy. Many people are snobs like that about cookery – oh they LOVE Italian food. Well, all I can say is that dining out in Rome in 2003, despite using the normally reliable Lonely Planet, was a terrible disappointment and the best Italian meal I had was in Los Angeles, but I digress.
ZJ: You mentioned English art around 1750. The painter of this period that comes to mind is Hogarth. Nikolaus Pevsner, praises Hogarth, who in his The Analysis of Beauty (published in 1753) speaks of “the line of Beauty.” Or, in Pevsner’s words, “a shallow, elegant, undulating double curve. Now the fondness for these double curves is actually, although Hogarth did not know that, a profound English tradition… one that runs from the style of 1300 to Blake and beyond. But it is also an international principle of the Late Baroque and Rococo, and it will be found without any effort in individual figures and whole compositions of Watteau in France, of Tiepolo in Venice, of Ignaz Günter… Hogarth’s Baroque modelling and brushwork and international quality created something in England that had not before existed within English possibilities, in the case of serpentine or zigzag compositions and attitudes, an English quality in Hogarth and an international quality of Hogarth’s age worked hand in hand.”
MS: Firstly, let me say how I deeply admire Pevsner. Initially a card-carrying Modernist on his arrival from Nazi persecution (and the poor man’s biography reveals how seriously – almost like Chamberlain – he underestimated their true evil), he got increasingly hooked on his country of adoption and his attitude to Victorian art and, particularly architecture, intelligently mellowed. I am dubious, however, about this “line” of generalization.
As Pevsner himself realizes, it wasn’t peculiar or particular to the English. And there are strongly linear artists who don’t necessarily go to town with the undulating double curve – Flaxman and Gill for example. If you’re looking for English characteristics, I’d say that the bleak, almost drab palette that is so long dominant in landscape painting – Pre-Raphaelites aside – would be an important one – it explains why watercolour is so strong and we see it in Spencer, Freud and the wonderful L.S. Lowry.
All this relates to Britain’s long, bleak autumns to springs and is almost hard-wired in the English – Scottish even more (look at Joan Eardley). The art historian John Onians – author of Neuroarthistory and a good friend – would certainly agree. By the way, note how many artists I mention are modern ones – I am not some fogey who believed that all was good in art predates 1837 or 1914.
ZJ: Point taken! Sometimes I worry about you being a little too trendy! Seriously, there are other names, Richard Wilson, a great Welsh/English painter, who even wrote about the superiority of English art, and, of course, Turner. I may be mistaken, but it is unlikely that an art historian writing the history of modern painting can bypass these three painters. Perhaps Fry’s criticism in his Reflections on British Painting, from which, I believe, the sentence you quoted comes from, does not do justice to English art?
MS: No. I’m quite a big admirer of Fry, for all my misgivings about Modernism. I can even understand his reaction against bourgeois Victorian conservatism and complacency, though art history has shown his denunciation of Alma-Tadema to be terribly wrong – Alma-Tad was a far better artist than almost all of Fry’s Bloomsbury cronies, as the late Quentin Bell, son of crony-in-chief Clive Bell, generously conceded to me. Fry was certainly beating the Modernist drum, which he understandably felt was all the more necessary in the context of British artistic conservatism. In the process, he gravely underrated Edwardian art, some of which looks superb over a century on, and overrated his Bloomsbury “luvvies.” But critics can, do and even should make mistakes. Fry’s liberalism in the best sense was shown in his admission that British art was “intensely interesting.” Roger, Roger!
Artists And Art Historians
ZJ: Much of how we look at art is influenced by art criticism – that is, what we read. Many ingenious insights, which we could not come up with, do come from reading books by experts. I want to throw at you a few random names of art historians: Nikolaus Pevsner, Richard Wollheim, Sir Banister Fletcher whose History of Architecture, even today, has no rival, Sir Kenneth Clark, Erwin Panofsky, and Ernst Gombrich. I skipped many names of outstanding people who made contributions to more narrow fields, or who wrote about individual artists or epochs. How do you like my list? Would you like to add a few names?
MS: They are the greats, though I always found Wollheim unintelligible and overrated – and he was more of a philosopher of art than an art historian. The art historians I would add are H.W. Janson (a Russian German in origin), Robert Rosenblum (the two authored a magisterial history of 19th-century art in the mid-1980s). Then there’s Hugh Honour – a great writer and scholar; and from a slightly younger generation, I have affection and respect for Frances Spalding who is still alive and kicking. Fiona McCarthy, with her biographies of Morris,Burne-Jones and Eric Gill, is damn good too! She died very recently.
An outstanding populist who never got the national honour he deserved is Edward Lucie-Smith. Though he was a critic more than he was an art historian, Robert Hughes was one of my heroes too – though personally a nasty piece of work. One of the most interesting and original art historians is John Onians, author of Neuroarthistory, who looks at the impact of the mind, childhood and environment on art history in pellucid prose and with convincing reasoning. John would love what I say about Claude Lorrain and country house gardens; he was also the genius behind the World Atlas of Art. By the way, Neuroarthistory was generally panned by the academic left, so it must be good!
Neil McGregor, formerly the director of the National Gallery and the British Museum, said about Clark: “[he] was the most brilliant cultural populist of the 20th century… Nobody can talk about pictures on the radio or on the television without knowing that Clark did it first and Clark did it better.”
Would you agree that “to come after Clark” is an unenviable situation for today’s art historians? Not being an art historian, each time I read him, I envy him – this man spent his entire life moving through a world that looked more like an enchanted garden, so different from the lives of ordinary people who live in a world of aesthetic poverty which then prevents them from escaping their social and economic realities.
MS: I couldn’t agree more. Clark is a wonderful man – that comes over in my blog. He was my hero when I was a teenager. He was also a war hero, bringing piano music free to all visitors to the National Gallery when all the paintings had to be removed for safekeeping. He inspired me – and I bet a fair few other people aged 60+ who won’t admit it – to become an art historian. “What do you want to be?” I was asked at my Cambridge interview. “Another Kenneth Clark!” was my modest reply. I didn’t quite make it but I certainly tried. I did so in the wide range of themes I have researched and published – one of the aims was to flummox and irritate other academics who remained stuck in the same groove.
Back to Clark – anyone who could write with authority on Rembrandt, Leonardo, the landscape, the nude and don’t let’s overlook the Gothic Revival, his first, underrated book, has got to be a good thing. The other thing that I admire in him is his beautiful and accessible writing. In everything I write, I ask, “Would Kenneth Clark approve of this?” I hope so: we ignore him at our peril, and the Stourton biography along with the Tate exhibition are both timely reminders of this.
ZJ: John Ruskin said that beauty was everyone’s birthright. This brings me to the question that should make people like you, art historians, very concerned. Art education is probably the most neglected discipline in popular education, in every country. For years I made the reading of a few pages from Clark’s The Nude part of my “Introduction to Philosophy” course, where I sent my students to a museum to write a very specific paper connected with what we had read.
This assignment was probably the most fruitful educational tool I possessed. Student reactions were comparable only to the reaction they had when we read Plato, Nietzsche or Dostoevsky.
You write a regular blog, something that has very limited readership. I sent your piece on Dürer to several of my former students. The reaction to it was probably more than you would expect. Given how people, particularly younger people, react to art, why is art history so marginalized in Western education? Can anything be done about this lack? Getting students on a mandatory trip to a local museum so that they can awaken to art?
MS: It’s a big problem. I wish my blogs had a bigger readership but unfortunately my attempts to publish them on a wider front were not supported by my former museum – partly issues of copyright unfortunately complicated matters. The paradox is that never have more people been going to museums, before 2020, and wanting to see the latest exhibitions; but never in the past 30 years have fewer people formally enrolled to study art at university – and it was even proposed to discontinue the British History of Art A-level. I have several answers to this: the punitive fee regime at university, with careers advisers and family members saying “What’s the relevance of art history?” And the corresponding incentive to study STEM subjects.
And here’s another answer: art history is an overwhelmingly female subject in terms of its students. This is for two or three reasons: firstly, I think men are usually slower in responding to aesthetic matters than women; and secondly, at the risk of being controversial, art historians are ultimately the “servants” of art (or should be); women, in their traditionally supporting roles, adapt to this more easily than hunting, gathering, stomping, blundering men. With the ever-greater gender equalities of the past 30-40 years, which I generally welcome, women have become more masculinized in the choice of what they study. Art history has been the unfortunate victim of this.
ZJ: In the last 30 years or so, leftist art critics – mainly academics – turned art into an ideological instrument. Enough to glance at The New York Times art section, which peddles ideology under the mask of art. By contrast, the WSJ’s art section is still traditional; informative; and reading it one gets the impression that not much has changed since the 1970s or the 1980s. After reading pieces on art in the WSJ, it makes you want to visit a museum.
A long time ago, Roger Kimball of The New Criterion wrote an important book which he titled, The Rape of the Masters. Kimball, who is not a scholar but an editor, a very able art critic and a true art lover, did a great service to the American public by pointing out what is wrong with what passes for art criticism today.
Let me quote what he said in an interview: “For what we see in the academic art historians I discuss – it is something you see in literary studies, too – is an effort to discount, to deny the essential reality of things in order to enlist them in an ideological war. A family portrait of four young girls is no longer a family portrait of four young girls but a florid allegory of sexual conflict and gender panic. And so on. If one had to sum up the essential purpose and direction of the new academic art historians, one might say that, notwithstanding the variety of their political commitments, they are all engaged in an attack on the idea of the intrinsic. They start from the contrary of Butler’s proposition: nothing is what it is, it is always something else – and, they might add, something worse than it seems.” Do you agree with Kimball?
MS: In a word, yes. Too many of the new academic art historians are a bit, let’s say, messed up in the head. They want to politicise bloody everything. Too many of them are scared of just looking. I wish there were more Kimballs in the university but their younger versions probably, sadly, realise that after their BA, certainly their MA, it is not the place for them.
Talking of the painting of girls, the funniest instance of this – oh how I wish I had kept it – was a po-faced feminist discussion of “agency” in Sofonisba Anguissola’s painting, The Chess Game, which referred to the three main participants as “women.” Sorry, but apart from the wary looking maid, all three, even the eldest (certainly at the time) are girls!
And while I’m at it, Sofonisba’s painting is somewhat provincial, even somewhat inept – she was 20 when she painted it and she made her heads look a bit like puddings – perhaps in a Ruskinian way I love the painting for its very awkwardness. I’m slightly digressing, but the feminist response was a classic case of somebody who reads too much and doesn’t look nearly enough.
As for art criticism, perhaps I’m a bit of an exception but I’ve written probably 100 reviews, including a fair few in the Burlington Magazine – there’s still scope for the art historian to be a critic though there is a strange lack of competition which enabled me to go to the top, so to speak, here.
Always, always, I try to summarise what the exhibition is about, what its aims are, how well it succeeds, and of course I try to appraise the quality of the works too and their impact on me. Sometimes I’m converted by an exhibition – I found myself admiring the British 20th-century painter William Coldstream.
More rarely I’m repelled, as with the Australian painter Rupert Bunny who deserved to be shot! At times I am necessarily political – as when I reviewed 20th-century Jewish art and more recently Pre-Raphaelite women – but it’s essential to keep a sense of balance and not neglect these other, core aspects. I hope to keep up this criticism for a fair while yet – pandemics permitting – as there’s so much great – and indeed “intensely interesting” art out there in the world – to experience and share.
Although he could be maddeningly contradictory, John Ruskin powerfully and beautifully stated how the primary aim of the artist should be art and nature, not changing the world: “Does a man die at your feet – your business is not to help him but to note the colour of his lips.”
ZJ: John Ruskin, I love you! Thank you, Dr. Stocker, for this delightful conversation!
In case you afeared that this month would pass witless, Dr. Mark Stocker offers these jocular japes that will leave you simpering behind your mask.
Who was the sculptor whose life-cast toppled over? Sir Antony Gormless.
What was William Morris’s response to Art Nouveau? What Liberty!
If Hogarth were alive today, what would his patriotic masterpiece depict? O the Chicken Tikka Masala of Old England.
How did a Marxist critic describe a sculpture of a small spider? Very petit Bourgeois!
When he was seated on his splendid new throne, the Emperor Charlemagne was asked by a thoughtful cleric if it was comfortable. “No, terrible!” he replied, “Aix all over!”
If a Golden Age Dutch artist had ever turned his hand to watercolour, critics would surely admire “de wet-on-wet of de Wet.”
And Now For Something Completely Different… Yes, Mother-in-law Jokes!
The wife: “Mother’s coming to stay next week; she’ll be sleeping upstairs.” Me: “Thank god we haven’t fixed that hole in the roof!”
The wife: “It’s Mother’s birthday very soon, she’ll want to dine out!” Me: “I’ll book her a table for one at McDonalds when they have the next free pensioners’ night!”
The mother-in-law and me gave each other books for Christmas. I gave her two crime novels, Strong Poison and The Beast Must Die. To her credit, and she’s a bit of an intellectual, like, she gave me Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
For my mother-in-law’s birthday, I gave her a framed reproduction of a fabulous Paulus Potter, so she can see herself in it.
For Christmas, she wanted something with cheery Santa red, so she got a nice reproduction of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
And Moving Right Along…
A disturbed gentleman, a certain Mr Stocker, visits the trick cyclist. He complains: “Doctor, people say I think I’m an animal – a dog to be precise. It’s true that I can’t stand that new postman.” “They no doubt think you’re barking mad. But we take this condition more seriously in the profession, Mr Stocker, and let me reassure you that it is amenable to treatment. Please sit yourself on the couch.” “I’m sorry, Doctor, but I’m not allowed on the couch.” [Thank you, Tommy Cooper!]
Art world figures and their favourite diners: The great Baroque exponent: Bernini Inn. The great Renaissance medallist: Pizzanello Hut. The great Marxist critic: Berger King.
Charlotte Corday was a frugal soul. What was on the other side of the note to Marat that the public never see? Apple [get it?], snails, frogs’ legs, 1 carton plonk, oven ready French fries, 1 kilo finely guillotined mince.
An optimist on board the Raft of the Medusa chirps: ‘Hey guys, thank god we’re not on a cruise ship in 2020!’
Dr Stocker was lecturing on Cézanne in Nelson, New Zealand: “You can see in these still life paintings how gravely he conveyed the quintessence of apples, the appleness of apples, as it were…” Nelson orchardist: “Yeah right. Are they Granny Smiths or Coxes, mate?”
What was the response of Sir Alfred Munnings to the nomination of Henry Moore to the Royal Academy? Na-aa-ay! (in a hoarse voice).
How could you best describe the influence of Moore and Hepworth on British sculpture? Holesome.
Who were William Morris’s greatest disciples? C.R. Ashbee, Ernest Gimson, C.F.A. Voysey and Laura Ashley. [That’s not a joke, it’s true!]
The image shows Two Women at a Window, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, painted ca. 1665-1670.
Dr. Mark Stocker continues his merriment this month, with just a few more arty(?), artsy(?) jokes. Here he is, then, thrumming his wit for Thalia…
What was Angelica Kauffmann’s advertising slogan?… Put the Madam into Adam!
Which fin-de-siècle German artist is especially admired for his tenacity?… Max Klinger.
What is the name of the lovely new bathroom in Wardour Castle designed by the son of Sir Terence Conran?… Jasper’s John.
What did the unemployed 19th century French art historian say when she landed a job at the zoo?… “Je suis pleine de Bonheur!”
Scene: The pearly gates of heaven… The late David Watkin: You’re a very fetching guardian angel, but I have to tell you I observe a solecism in that portico. Angel: Sorry Dave, our quota of architectural historians of the classical tradition is full. On yer bike!
Exhibition installer: I’m looking for a painter who will enhance the red tints of this wall. Curator: Use Henner!
A well-known and obliging late Victorian architect would tell his clients: “Shaw will do! But by George it won’t be bad. You could always go to the Webb site, and if you need an indoor pool, there’s obviously Waterhouse!”
What was John Bratby’s response to the impact of Abstract Expressionism?… A sinking feeling.
What is the name of the latest book on Bratby and the Kitchen Sinkers?… Life is a Lavatory, Old Chum.
John Bratby was a hugely popular artist throughout the UK, whose fame and acclaim stretched from Bogside, Londonderry to Looe, Cornwall.
In order to laugh even more uproariously at Dr Stocker’s jokes about John Bratby, find out more about this fascinating artist courtesy of the Daily Mail.
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 image shows La Clairvoyance, by René Magritte, painted in 1936.
Few academics write jokes about their discipline; their publication is not perhaps a certain pathway to tenure or promotion. It may even be worse than coming out as a conservative.
Art historian Dr. Mark Stocker decided, however, that enough was enough. He has written over 200 jokes and sought to publish them. After numerous rebuffs from newspapers, professional journals and even blogs, he has at last found a saviour in the Postil Magazine.
As too many jokes may be injurious to the health, he proposes drip-feeding five a month over the next few months – or if necessary years, as more may well be written. Should any readers outside the discipline find the jokes a touch esoteric, Dr Stocker is willing to explain them – with a smile on his face. He may be contacted through this magazine.
Who is the god-awful, deadly French theorist that hip art historians so liked to quote, c. 1980? … Bourdieu.
Which resort did an eminent, quirky Bauhaus painter like to go to for his holidays? …Kleethorpes.
Who was the boss of the aforementioned Bauhaus painter who got into trouble for inappropriate behaviour? … Walter Gropius.
What was Gertrude’s favourite drink in Parisian cafes, c. 1912? … Steinlager.
A philosophically contorted art historian was asked to give a lecture on Belgian Symbolist sculpture. He commenced his lecture thus: ‘What do I mean by Minne?’
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 image shows, “Youth Making A Face” by Adriaen Brouwer, painted ca. 1632–1635.
[This Ode was written by Victor Hugo when he was seventeen years of age, in 1819. It won the Golden Lily award from the Academy of Toulouse. It is a youthful work, but which nevertheless shows the literary direction of his mature years – history, and political and social commentary, as seen in such novels as The Notre Dame of Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Misérables, and The Man Who Laughs. Hugo is not known for his poetry in the English-speaking world, but in France he is held to be a better poet than novelist. The subject of this Ode is the installation of a new statue of Henry IV on the Pont Neuf, in Paris, in 1818. The original statue, which had stood there since 1614, was toppled and completely destroyed by revolutionary mobs in 1792].
Awarded the Prize of the Golden Lily, offered by the Academy, to Victor-Marie Hugo.
Ode on the Re-Installation of the Statue of Henry IV
Accingunt omnes operi, pedibusque rotarum Subjiciunt lapsus, et stuppea vincula collo Intendunt… Pueri innuptæque puellæ Sacra canunt, funemque manu contingere gaudent. (Then they all girded themselves for the work; and so, to its feet They fixed rolling wheels, and around its neck coarse flaxen lashings They tied… Young lads and also unwedded maidens Sang sacred songs, and gladly then their hands seized up the ropes). [Virgil, Aeneid, II. 235-237a; 238b-239].
I saw rising, in the far distance of ages, Great monuments – hope of a hundred gloried kings; Then I saw crumble, the fragile images Of all those fragile half-god kings. Alexander, a fisher by Piraeus’ shore Tramps upon your statue, ignored On cobbles of the Parthenon; And the very first rays of the nascent dayspring In vain, in the desert, continue questioning The mute, hushed debris of Memnon.
Did they imagine, in their minds superb and shrewd That inanimate bronze would make them immortal? Perchance tomorrow time will have hid ‘neath the sward Their high altars all notional. The outcast behindhand may replace the idol; Pedestals of the Capitol, Sylla dethroning Marius. The ravages of fate to those who oppose this! The sage, whose gaze made tremble Theodosius, Smiles along with Demetrius.
And yet, a hero’s image, august and dear, Derives respect which is given for his virtues; Trajan yet dominates the fields by the Tiber That now cover fallen temples. And when oft in horror of civil disorder Over the cities hung terror, Midst cries of people rebellious, A hero, in mute marble, who was yet breathing, Suddenly halted, with a gaze that was calming, The enraged, frightened and factious.
Are they so far gone, days of our history, That Paris, on its prince, would dare to raise its hand? That Henry’s visage, his virtues, his memory, Could not the ungrateful disband? What can I say? They destroyed his statue adored. Alas! That lost and wild-eyed horde Mutilated the fallen brass; And more, defiling the holy shrine to the dead, For clay, their sacrilegious hands then demanded, To smear his forehead, cold as ice!
Did they just want to have a portrait more faithful Of the hero, to whom their hatred gave avail? Did they want, heedless of fury most criminal, Just to make it more genial? No, for it was not enough to break his image; They came again, in their rage, To splinter his casket defiled. Just as, with a grim roar that vexes the wasteland, The tiger, in sport, seeks to gulp down the shadow Of the cadaver he just gnawed.
Sitting then by the Seine, in my bitter anguish, I said to myself: “The Seine yet waters Ivry, And, as in our fathers’ day, its waves still gush Whence was cast the face of Henry. Never again shall we see the image revered Of a king who to France aggrieved Brought succor at once, from demise; Ne’er saluting Henry, to battles we will go, And the stranger who comes to our walls arow Shall have no hero greet his eyes.”
Where do you run? What noise wakens, rises, resounds? Who carries these flags, of our kings, an emblem glad? God! In the distance, what great multitude abounds, Crushing the earth under its load? Speak, Heaven! It’s he! I see his face, the noblest. The people, proud of his conquest, Chant, in chorus, his name most sweet. O my lyre, be still amidst public ardor; What can your melodies be next to such rapture Of France below at Henry’s feet?
Dragged by a thousand arms, rolls the colossus stout. Ah! Let us fly, let us join this pious effort. What matter if my arm be lost in the turnout! Henry sees me from Heaven’s court. People, as one, give this bronze in your memory; O horseman, rival in glory To Bayard and to Duguesclin! Of love by the French take this noble proof aright. For we do owe your statue to the widow’s mite, And to the orphan’s obol-coin.
Doubt not! The appearance of this image august Will make sweet our happiness and lessen our gall; Frenchmen, praise God! Behold the king, righteous and just, A Frenchman among you withal. Henceforth, beneath his gaze, leaping forth to glory, We may come close to victory; Henry shall have our troth true; And when we shall speak of his virtues most worthy, Our children shan’t go to our fathers to query How well the good king smiled anew!
Young friends, dance now around this girdling enclosure; Mingle your joyous steps, mingle your cantillation. Henry, for his face shows his weal and demeanor, Blesses your touching elation; Close by the vain monuments by tyrants upraised, After long centuries is blazed The works of a people oppressed. How comely this brass of a tutelary king, That France likes to view and is a popular thing, To whose gaze all are accustomed.
That debased Persia’s conqueror proud and mighty, Wearied of leaving his features on frail metals, Threatens, in the grip of his enormous folly, To impose his form on Athos; That a cruel Pharaoh, in his lustrous frenzy Palls with an obelisk hefty The great nothingness of his grave; His name dies; and soon the shade of the Pyramid, For the stranger, lost in those plains vast and arid, Is sole favor Pharoah’s pride gave.
One day (but let us spurn such dire omens all), If years or the blows of fate may conquer again And this modest monument of our love fall, Henry, in our hearts you’ll reign; While the towering, lofty mountains of the Nile, So much dust of great kings ensile, A burden useless to the world, But sure testimony to time’s and death’s passage, And of those no more; thus, the calm gaze of the sage Sees a tomb into ruin hurled.
The image shows the statue for which this Ode was written.
The America of 2020 is a country in financial ruin. Its twenty-three trillion debt is the greatest of any country in history. Its political and social decline is obvious to anyone over fifty. Its universities, including the most distinguished ones, once the envy of the world, have been turned into meccas of ideological indoctrination.
Almost every aspect of America’s past greatness is gone. Until recently, one area of its cultural strength was unquestionable: Museum collections. American museums were once greatly admired by the curators of important European museums. But things are changing.
Some American museums embarked on a mission to suspend the purchase of European art, to sell items from their collections, or put them (temporarily) in storage rooms, in order to display the works of minority artists. In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Arts, sold seven artworks “to make way for pieces by contemporary artists of color and women.” Years ago, the Walters Museum, made the decision to acquire more “Black Art.” “The new acquisitions,” we read, “reflect the efforts of the museum, established at a time when the city was predominantly white, to evolve with the city, whose population now is predominantly black.” This year, the Walters suspended the purchase of European art. What is happening in Baltimore is a wider trend that is sweeping across America.
Last year, when I went on my monthly visit to Baltimore Museum of Arts, five of my favorite rooms, one containing Corot and Couture’s portrait of a woman with exposed breasts, were closed. What I found instead were mediocre contemporary paintings of Black slaves in chains by a local contemporary minority painter. To make sure that the visitor gets the message, the paintings were accompanied by very long statements by the painter, written in activist gobbledygook.
Contrasting what I saw with my previous experiences, the sense of quiet joy that a museum visit causes, I felt deeply irritated. I had a strong feeling that whoever responsible for the decision of taking down the great masters had robbed me of something that my soul longed to see. Instead of peacefully enjoying the beauty of the old artists, I was punched with a loud social message. It was consistent with the “1619 Project” of The New York Times. However, what is justified in the case of a politically engaged newspaper should have no place in art museums, for that is where we go to contemplate Beauty.
Clearly, beauty is of no interest to the new generation of curators, who believe that a social massage is more important than the intrinsic, artistic value of the old masters. They do not see themselves to be guardians of Beauty, and of the past that must be very carefully preserved. They see themselves as propagators of their ideological vision of America.
American museums are becoming ideological peddlers, and if they will follow in the footsteps of educational institutions, we can expect the same disastrous results. Old masters, like the classic writers, will be replaced by “underrepresented” minority artists, or sold off and forgotten by the public.
This is what happened under communism. The Stalinist curators would store old masters’ paintings in storage rooms and display Socialist Realist paintings, or they would sell them. Philadelphia Museum, for example, acquired a Poussin that Leningrad museum sold in the 1930s. But as Socialism is making inroads into American life, we should not be surprised at what is happening in our art institutions. “Art must be ‘engaged’” was the message of Socialist Realism.
Why that was so is easy to understand, if we turn to the writings of the Founding Father of the Socialist Idea. As Marx taught us, art is an expression of social consciousness, and as the latter changes so does art. Standard art history books written by Marxist art historians in the former countries of real socialism would tell you that the medieval mind was the prisoner of a religious Weltanschauung, and that the medieval paintings, saturated with the Biblical scenes, are expressions of it.
Renaissance art, on the other hand, represents a shift in social consciousness, and a step in the right direction: The painters broke with the medieval idea of anonymity, and the exclusively religious worldview made room for non-religious topics, marking the birth of the individual. The painter no longer saw himself as someone whose talent is to be devoted to the glory of God, but as an individual who expresses his own individuality.
We were told, for example, that the presentation of the human body, or the nude, was an affirmation of this world. Afterlife was pushed out by the beauty of earthly existence. Another shift can be observed in 17th-century Dutch painting. Thousands of portraits of rich merchants and important men of politics marks the birth of the bourgeoisie—the new social class oriented not toward the hereafter but earthly concerns: money and politics.
Even the poor shepherds are no longer presented as humble folk who made their way into paintings in the scenes of the manger with the baby Jesus and the Holy Family. They can be seen on green meadows attending their grazing animals.
The story of the development of social consciousness continued till it reached the peak in what came to be known as Socialist Realism. Its main heroes were the neglected and forgotten: the worker and the peasant. Former socialist underdogs are today’s American minorities. Their images can be seen everywhere on mural paintings.
How important is Marx’s insight for our understanding of art? It isn’t. It says something obvious. To be sure, one can trace the trajectory of changing social consciousness just by looking at the products of the past epochs: They tell us something about the people who made them, the ideas that motivated them, and how different they were from us.
But Marx’s theory of social consciousness tells us nothing about art’s aim — Beauty. In making us believe that what we see in paintings is social consciousness, Marx made us forget its most fundamental aspect: Beauty, the way it is presented, the changing technique. The theme is important but it cannot be more important than the artistic execution.
The paintings of Delacroix, for instance, have a political dimension, but if we admire them it is hardly because they carry a political message. Delacroix was simply a great painter.
This is what the new curators seem to forget, and they need to ask themselves a very simple question: Are the canvases they spend millions on art or ideological statements? And if they want to educate the public, they will not succeed by making the public look at bad art. They have to know what clear-cut criteria of aesthetic judgment are.
They may be unaware of it, but they are behaving like the followers of Marx for whom History is a battleground between the oppressors and the oppressed, and it unfolds itself through various historical stages. Therefore, what we see in art of the past epochs is the record of forms of oppression, the way in which oppression operated, from its cruelest forms to its most subtle expressions of submission, as John Stuart Mill taught us in The Subjection of Women. Art, according to this theory, is not about “perfecting Nature,” as Aristotle would have it.
At best, it is a means of plastic expression of a social message. The old idea that the artist is a creator who expresses eternal Beauty with his brush or chisel is long gone. He is an unconscious peddler of false or unliberated consciousness, expressing the social values of his epoch. He is like a bourgeois jurist, who, in designing laws, is building ever-newer punitive devices that protect the privileged classes against the oppressed, rather than being someone who wants to bring universal rules of justice to the City.
Similarly, a painter, who is painting, say, a naked woman, as we learn from feminist criticism, is objectifying women (according to the standards of his epoch). “Objectification,” even if it is a mental act, or assumes the form of a painting, is oppressive. This reasoning leads us straight to Marx’s idea that History is a struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed.
If you still wonder why a mediocre painting could replace a Corot or a Couture, the answer is simple: A mediocre painting of a slave, “a man objectified,” breaking chains, shows the viewer a fight against alienated consciousness, social injustice, whereas Couture’s painting of a blushing woman with exposed breasts is likely to be interpreted as female submissiveness.
Feminists have been unambiguous in their claim that the female nude is an expression of “the typical male attitude,” of seeing a woman as an object to own. Hundreds of 19th-century Academic and Orientalist paintings, showing naked women sold at slave markets in ancient Rome or the Middle East, is supposedly a testimony of such an attitude of the male painters. Jean-Léon Gérôme (“Roman Slave Market”), Remy Cogghe (“Female Slaves Presented to Octavian”), or Hermann Corrodi (“The Slave Market”) may be invoked here as illustrations.
In each painting, a beautiful naked woman is presented to the buyers by the sellers. Orientalist paintings are more likely to be a rendition of what 19th-century Arab countries were like than the imaginary constructions of the Academicians who conceived of Roman slave markets. However, the question is not about the accuracy of the actual practice of slave trade in Rome or Middle East, but intentionality of artistic presentation.
Among many 19th-century paintings presenting naked slave women for sale, one seems to stand out. It is Henryk Siemiradzki’s “The Vase or the Woman.” The painting received the gold medal at the 1878 World Fair in Paris, and the painter was awarded the French Legion of Honor. The painting was very much liked by the Dutch-English painter, Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema.
The painting presents an older Roman patrician and his son. The older man is sitting, looking at the vase, while his son is looking at the young beautiful woman. One of the traders is showing the vase to the patrician; the other, a very tall Black man, is pulling a white long cloth covering the woman’s body. In what appears a gesture of covering her shame, the half-naked woman is putting her hand on her face and eyes, as if she wants to defend herself against the shame of her nudity.
What makes Siemiradzki’s painting different from similar paintings is that the buyer must choose either the woman or the vase.
How can one equate a woman with a vase, one can exclaim, unless one reduces a woman to the level of an object. But to say that is to miss the point Siemiradzki makes here. The woman and the vase are on the same level, if – and only if – there is a common denominator between the two. This denominator is beauty.
However, once we recognize it, the only logical choice left is to choose the vase. Its beauty will outlast the beauty of the young female body. It will live for centuries, long after the beauty of the girl and the girl herself are gone.
As we look at the painting, we notice that the beautiful young woman is of greater interest to the patrician’s son, who is glaring at her, rather than his father—an older man, who seems to prefer the vase, which he is holding.
However compelling, logic can be complicated. The young man would choose the vase but only if he followed Plato’s advice from the Symposium: “He who aspires to love rightly should from his earliest youth seek intercourse with beautiful forms.” But youth has its own logic. Its interest is passion: intercourse with a bodily form; interest in the intercourse with Beauty itself, or beauty of art comes later, in older age, when “the devil” (sexual passion), as Socrates teaches us at the beginning of the Republic, is gone.
Looking at Siemiradzki’s painting, one learns an important lesson: Art is not about lessons in raising social consciousness, nor is it about politics, social justice, representation of minorities. It is about Beauty. Unless present-day museum curators learn this lesson, they will quickly fill our museums with “loads of rubbish,” as the British say. The old elites which feed themselves on Beauty will look at it with predictable scorn, and the minorities which are the intended target of “minority art” will conclude that there are better things to do. Alas, they are likely to be right
The Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions
was registered in 1870 and lasted until 1923. It was the first independent
exhibition association of Russian artists. Its first exhibition, with 16
participating artists, was held in 1871. In the years of its existence, the
society staged a total of 48 exhibitions, not just in Moscow and St.
Petersburg, but also in other cities within the Russian Empire.
One of the main reasons for the founding
of the society was the artists’ desire to acquire financial independence from
the Academy of Arts, which essentially had a monopoly on the sale of paintings
via its exhibitions. In turn, financial independence gave the artists the right
not just to earn an income by “cutting out the middleman”, but also to decide
on the subjects of their paintings themselves.
In the 19th century, the
Russian Academy of Arts was a conservative institution which prioritized the
portrayal of mythological, biblical and historical subjects. The young artists
wanted to show scenes from contemporary life and preferred “realism” to myths
The precursors of the Peredvizhniki(known in English as The Wanderers or The Itinerants) were artists from the St. Petersburg Artel [“Cooperative”] of Artists. In 1863, fourteen students from the Academy of Arts had submitted a petition demanding to independently choose the subjects for their diploma works. The petition was turned down by the academy’s authorities.
Subsequently, the students refused to take part in the annual gold medal competition and left the academy. The “rebels”, led by Ivan Kramskoi, set up an art artel along commune lines. From the new artel, participants – members of the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions – inherited a policy of independence and confrontation with the Academy of Arts.
Art critic Vladimir Stasov was the ideologist of the society. In 1882, he proclaimed that “nationalism and realism” were the group’s main principles. Stasov passionately opposed the provincial and imitative nature of Russian art of the first half of the 19th century and dreamed of Russian art occupying a worthy place alongside European art.
Stasov essentially formulated
the ideological platform of the new school of Russian art, urging artists to
turn to scenes from Russian contemporary life that often contained social
Enlightenment was another key goal pursued by the Peredvizhniki. Their exhibitions introduced the metropolitan and provincial public to the latest movements in art. According to the artist Nikolai Yaroshenko, the Peredvizhniki’s dream was “to take art out of the inaccessible palaces in which it was the domain of the few and make it the domain of all”.
One of the rules of the Peredvizhniki’s exhibitions,
which to a large extent ensured their success, was the requirement that artists
should exhibit only new paintings that had not been shown anywhere else before.
Essentially, the Peredvizhniki formed
the first private commercial art venture, independent of state patronage. The
artists’ income was determined by selling exhibitions organized in different
cities. The artists considerably expanded the market for their works by also
displaying them in provincial towns.
The sale of entrance tickets to
exhibitions was another considerable part of their income. Each artist donated
5 percent from the sale of their work to the society’s pooled funds, which were
used to cover the costs of mounting exhibitions.
Collector and philanthropist Pavel Tretyakov supported the society, not just by buying pictures for his gallery at itinerant exhibitions, but also by commissioning original work from artists.
In 1878, Ilya Repin joined the society. Exhibitions of his paintings were almost always accompanied by scandal. His work Religious Procession in Kursk Governorate was seen as a “squalid attack on all sections of Russian society”, They Did Not Expect Him was described as a “pseudo-liberal denunciation and protest” and in front of Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivanladies just fainted. The latter painting was banned from being exhibited by imperial decree – and because of Repin’s “gory” works, all art exhibitions in Russia were subject to censorship from 1885.
By 1923, the society ceased to exist. Over
the years of its existence, its members were often involved in conflicts with
one another. Ilya Repin, who twice left the group and then returned, accused
his associates of suffering from a bureaucratic mindset. Nikolai Ge, Arkhip
Kuindzhi and Viktor Vasnetsov all left the association. In 1901, 11 members
left, including Valentin Serov, Mikhail Nesterov and Victor Vasnetsov.
The society’s board eventually began to pursue a conservative policy, not really encouraging young artists to get involved, and, with many leading lights of the society having left the art scene, in the end the activities of the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions petered out.
High architecture, that of grand buildings, is a bridge between God and man, and a sinew binding state and people, the ruling class and the masses. Low architecture, that of daily living and daily use, is key to satisfaction in the life of a populace.
Thus, a coherent and uplifting architecture, high and low, is, and has always been, necessary for any successful society. I will return below to what architecture we should have, why, and what needs to be done to achieve it. Today, though, we most definitely don’t have a coherent and uplifting architecture, and Robert Stevens Curl, in Making Dystopia, explains what the abomination of Modernism is and why it utterly dominates our current architecture.
Curl’s aim is to prove that both architects and society have swallowed the most appalling lies, and been in thrall to the most stupid delusions, for many decades. And since architecture is not mere abstraction, but rather something that affects the lives of everyone, this is a societal disaster of the first order.
Built on propagandistic falsehoods designed to conceal the ideological nature of the project, Modernism is a cult, devoted to destroying opposition and both unwilling and unable to defend its myriad fatal debilities.
It has destroyed the urban fabric all over the globe, and thereby hugely harmed the social fabric. So-called post-modernist successors to Modernism, namely Deconstructivism and Parametricism, are little better. Curl offers no quarter; Modernism and all its works should be erased.
The author is a well-known British art historian, author of more than forty books. This book, written as an “exposé of the ideologies of those responsible for an environmental and cultural disaster on a massive scale,” with its great heft, thick paper, and numerous photographs, screams “expensive”—too expensive, in fact, for the casual reader, unfortunately.
Moreover, there is too much repetition and too much rantiness; the book could have done with less variation on the same prose points and more pictures to illustrate the innumerable references Curl makes in the text and the voluminous footnotes.
And Curl makes little or no effort to make his text accessible to someone who is a complete novice to architectural history (nor, for the same reason, is it possible for someone not well versed in architectural history, such as me, to wholly say how accurate the history Curl offers is).
The result is a book that is self-limiting. But I don’t think Curl wantedMaking Dystopia to be a best-seller. I think he’s aware of the book’s limitations. He is old, and most likely his target is not casual readers, but young architects—those who have been or are being brainwashed in the vast majority of architectural schools today (the sole exception he mentions, repeatedly, is the University of Notre Dame).
I suspect that he mostly hopes that select audience will read his book as part of their education, and that he will, after he is dead, thereby help to break the stranglehold of Modernism. He even offers the reader a drawing of himself, dead in a chair, with a personified “Death come as a friend to continue ringing the warning bell.” In this context, the book as written makes perfect sense.
Most of Making Dystopia is straight history of Modernism, focusing in turn on several different times and places, alternating (often on the same page) with hammer-and-tongs attacks on Modernism.
Since any style known as “modern” risks circular definition, Curl begins with classification. Namely, that Modernism in architecture and modern design is that style “opposed to academicism, historicism, and tradition, embracing that which is self-consciously new or fashionable, with pronounced tendencies toward abstraction.”
It originated, and the word first began to be used, in the 1920s, to describe “the new architecture from which all ornament, historical allusions, and traditional forms had been expunged.” Modernism, in its 1920s post-war context, made a certain type of sense as an experimental movement.
But for reasons Curl identifies, none of which are that “Modernism is better,” it swallowed the world, becoming the global compulsory style and destroying much of the world’s urban fabric with stale, ugly, unrealistic, short-lived, and expensive buildings that did not fit their environment and made no effort whatsoever to serve their actual primary purpose—to be places in which to live and work, or to make grand statements unifying the society in which they were built. Instead, Modernism created the inhuman, uncomfortable and divisive.
Modernism as a self-limited, organically-arising, change, where the style would have soon enough have passed on like Art Deco or Art Nouveau, might have made some sense. Change is in the nature of art, and while Modernism was a rupture, not normal organic change, it could perhaps have been accommodated as one of architectural history’s dead ends.
Some of the early Modernist architecture has a certain stark beauty, after all. But why should a few architects, standing in opposition to thousands of years of organic movement, have succeeded in destroying in the way they did?
Curl chalks it up to the general turn among the taste-making classes against tradition and in favor of anything cast as “original,” which while problematic in literature or food, was disastrous in architecture, a far more public form of art with far broader consequences than fads in more ephemeral areas.
Whereas prior to the 1920s even an average architect could create nice-looking buildings that fit their purpose, in the urban landscape and for the people who lived or worked there, simply by using pattern books, now a vulgar supposed originality was required.
Modernism aimed at Utopian social engineering totally unmoored from the past. And as with other similar twentieth-century ideologues, by convincing the right people, in this case the taste-making classes and, just as importantly, big business, Modernists were successful in their engineering efforts.
Still, they required a mythology, in the way of kings fashioning false genealogies. This was provided by Nikolaus Pevsner, who in 1936 published the still-influential Pioneers of the Modern Movement (republished as, Pioneers of Modern Design), an attempt to tie admired nineteenth-century styles such as Arts and Crafts to the modernism of men like Walter Gropius.
It was Pevsner who made silly claims, believed by nearly all today, such as that the Glasgow School of Art was a Modernist building, rather than “a brilliant eclectic design, drawing on Art Nouveau themes,” which was organically derived from other styles, instead of being a rupture with them.
Curl deconstructs Pevsner at some length, giving numerous textual and pictorial examples of his “selectivity and exaggerated claims,” propaganda “based on wishful thinking,” since proving that Modernism was a rupture is key to Curl’s criticism of it. Curl’s goal is to undercut this “Grand Narrative,” which is ubiquitous among architects today, and show that Modernism has no clothes.
The real origin of Modernism was sui generis, in Germany immediately after World War I. Everything was up in the air, so architecture was too, and all the visual arts. In 1919 the Bauhaus art school was formed by Walter Gropius under government aegis.
Nominally apolitical, the Bauhaus was in fact a den of radical politics (liberally larded with nuttiness), harshly opposed to all tradition, whose artists regarded art as a necessary herald and handmaiden of political change, and human life as meaningless without reference to politics.
Although architecture was not the main focus of the Bauhaus, in the ferment of the 1920s its principles rapidly infected German au courant architectural thinking, both in terms of design and in the rejection of the need for any underlying skills in craft.
German architects in the 1920s and 1930s not only embraced Modernism, they also embraced architecture as part of system building. As Thomas Hughes discusses in American Genesis, the 1920s were the time when technological inventions became servants to their own creations, large systems built around new technology.
Modernist architects embraced this as the wave of the future—that is, the future was technology and machines, and buildings, rather than reflecting human uses, should now reflect machine uses, from electricity to motor cars.
In architecture, the Bauhaus had ties to the Deutscher Werkbund of the previous decade, a group devoted to experimentation in architecture in pursuit of integrating modern mass production techniques into industrial design, and this type of system became part of the ground for further drastic change in architectural style.
Curl offers innumerable examples, in narrative and in picture, of different architects and architecture of this time. The most influential architect to emerge from the Bauhaus was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who over the period from 1910 to 1930 abandoned neo-Classicism for the so-called International Style of Modernism, much of which he originated.
Mies was a self-promoter eager to work for anyone in power; he was the last director of the Bauhaus, and having tried and failed to ingratiate himself with the National Socialists, he emigrated to the United States in 1937.
Many of the German avant-garde also emigrated; they later spun stories of their opposition to Hitler, some of which were true, but as Curl points out, the Nazis were not nearly as opposed to Modernist architecture as is often suggested—they were “ambivalent,” being most definitely not conservatives, but revolutionaries, and therefore attracted to certain of the ideological underpinnings of Modernist architecture. In particular, they “accepted Modernism for industrial architecture,” as well as for quite a bit of worker housing.
While some architects outside Germany expressed interest in Modernism, especially the long-lived and ever-varied Philip Johnson, making it a niche taste among the elite, it was only when many Bauhaus and Bauhaus-sympathetic architects emigrated from Germany (the “Bauhäusler”) that the International Style actually became international.
The Bauhäusler were eagerly promoted by ideological allies in the United States and Britain, and so rapidly became extremely influential, then dominant, then utterly dominant, in the Western architectural establishment, both among professional architects and among teachers.
It was not that a great deal of actually built architecture was modernist in the 1930s and 1940s; it was that all the taste-makers decided, nearly simultaneously, that the only type of architecture that was acceptable to the elite was Modernist. Architects who objected were pilloried, cast as bourgeois, marginalized, and sidelined.
The 1930s also saw the rise to international fame of the megalomaniac Frenchman Le Corbusier, that Rasputin, who became the most successful propagandist for Modernism, and established some of its most enduring dogmas, including divorcing all buildings from their context and siting, and pretending a house could be a “machine for living.”
This process continued, and even accelerated, after 1945, when actual construction of Modernist buildings began to dominate. For the next two decades, the cult resulted in the destruction of innumerable town centers and the construction of endless shoddy and ugly buildings totally unsuited for their claimed uses and unfitted for their sites, the very opposite of their claimed “functionalism.”
Modernism was never popular among people in general, but their betters told them what they needed. Without the eager cooperation of giant corporations, though, Modernism would never have succeeded in lasting as long or being as destructive.
Part of this was ideological (similar to “woke” corporate behavior today), through a successful propaganda campaign to cast Modernist architecture as representative of “progress” and “democracy, ” part of it was the desire to make profits by participating in industrial construction techniques (which, as Curl points out, were actually mostly more expensive than the classic techniques replaced, despite the claims of their proponents) and, as with General Motors, to destroy cities to make them better for cars.
(For that latter, Curl covers the famous revolt of Jane Jacobs against Robert Moses’s planned, and partly completed, destruction of New York). Anyone who disagreed was ignored or destroyed.
Curl also spends some time on post-Modernism, a varied set of styles, of which the two most prominent were, or are, Deconstructivism and Parametricism. The former, as its name implies, is deformations of Modernism, meant to provoke anxiety and unease among viewers and users.
The latter (of which London’s Shard is an example) is an attempt to use computer algorithms to construct non-linear buildings, mostly similarly disturbing but in a different way.
“Deconstructivism and Parametricism, by rejecting all that went before and failing to provide clear values as replacements, can be seen as intentional aggression on human senses, abusing perceptive mechanisms in order to generate unease, dislocation, and discomfort… Deconstructivism and Parametricism induce a sense of dislocation both within buildings and between buildings and their contexts. . . . By breaking continuity, disturbing relationships between interior and exterior, and fracturing connections between exterior and context, they undermine harmony, gravitational control, and perceived stability, [which is] crucial to any successful architecture.”
Now, I was curious what proponents of these post-modernist styles say about them. Maybe sense is coming back into fashion. So I went and read up what Patrik Schumacher, who named Parametricism in 2008 in a “Manifesto,” said. I knew we were in trouble when Schumacher called his own style “profound.”
Then he said tripe like “It cannot be dismissed as eccentric signature work that only fits high-brow cultural icons. Parametricism is able to deliver all the components for a high-performance contemporary life process. All moments of contemporary life become uniquely individuated within a continuous, ordered texture.”
Proponents of Deconstructivism say similar things. I wasn’t surprised, though I was disappointed. It’s obvious that both styles are merely the bastard children of Modernism, as can be seen by their use of the ancient technique of obfuscation through cant.
What does Curl want to happen? He calls for a reworking of both architectural education and the relationship of the public to architecture; the public should no longer allow itself to be treated as acolytes to the priests.
“Architecture is far too important to be entrusted to the products of talking-shops: as a public art, it matters hugely, and it cannot succeed unless it connects with the public in a positive way, conveys meanings, arouses resonances, reaches back to the past and forward to the future, and has the appearance of stability.”
Mostly, he wants a realization that Modernism is awful. He wants the spell to be broken; he offers less of a specific program than, like Puddleglum in C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, a stamping on the Witch’s enchanted fire and thereby recalling himself, and his friends, to what was actually real and beautiful, as opposed to the unreality the Witch was trying to sell them.
This is fine as far as it goes, but that’s not really far enough. We should ponder what is the purpose of architecture, of buildings. As Curl says, “Architecture is the one art form which plays an important role in everyday existence.”
It is frozen music. Destroy architecture and you destroy a key component in binding a society together, through its role in offering a common art and through that, a common culture.
“Without the ability to comprehend basic truths about morality and beauty . . . humans are truly lost, adrift in a sea polluted with the flotsam and jetsam of discarded toys promoted by fashion, with nothing to which they can hold fast. High culture has been suppressed, even superseded, by advertising and the mass media. . . .”
In other words, architecture is the art that binds a society together. It is an antidote to centrifugal forces, including those so common in the modern world, whose destructive force is ever-building, yet tamped down by promises of unbridled freedom and the fool’s gold of consumerism, for now.
Foundationalism, my own aborning political program, is really two things: the renewal of society, or the rebuilding of a crumbled society, and the long-term maintenance of that society, both along lines recognizing reality, with a strong bias toward traditional Western knowledge and modes of thought.
No society can long exist, much less be a strong society, without a unifying component of the spiritual, in a broader sense than simply religious. Because, as I say, a coherent and uplifting architecture is necessary for any successful society, architecture, the right architecture, is the second of the pillars of Foundationalism.
The goal of architecture under Foundationalism will be a form of emotional resonance, where all sectors and levels of society feel they have something in common that ties them together and which impels to virtue.
Since Foundationalism envisions a bound society, tied together by many threads and wholly opposed to atomistic individualism, binding forces are critical to its creation and maintenance.
In Foundationalism, architecture will not be a set of rigid beliefs, an aesthetic canon for the elite, as is Modernism; it will instead, like governance, be an organic new thing based on the wisdom of the past, intertwined with all the people, high and low.
Pushing art as part of Foundationalism may seem odd for me, since certainly I have little artistic or creative sense, and therefore cannot knowledgeably discuss architecture or any other type of art.
But I don’t need to—that’s the advantage of hewing to classic architecture traditions, that they can express any meaning desired, in a variety of languages, and offer beauty and continuity, along with enough originality to prevent seeming calcified. Foundationalism has no need to create anything that is new, though some organically developing novelty is to be expected.
Oh, I am sure there is a great deal more that someone knowledgeable can say about architecture as aesthetics, and how that matters to a society. Roger Scruton has written a whole book on it (The Aesthetics of Architecture) which I am sure it would be immensely profitable to read.
But a careful, philosophical parsing of architecture and society isn’t what I’m after. I oppose instrumentalism as the lens for viewing human beings; I am not so much opposed to instrumentalism in the works of men’s hands. What I care about is the function architecture will play under Foundationalism, and the implementation of that function.
The general type of high architecture necessary for this is entirely clear. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch said in Three New Deals, “Scholars gradually recognized neoclassical monumentalism—whether of the 1930s, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, or the Napoleonic empire—for what it is: the architectural style in which the state visually manifests power and authority.”
Neoclassical monumentalism, let’s be honest, impresses everybody. You are lying if you think Le Corbusier holds a candle to, say, the Jefferson Memorial. True, there are limits to this.
The monstrous proportions of buildings proposed, but never built, by Hitler and Stalin take this arc too far, becoming anti-human and enshrining the state as a false god (the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle portrays many of these buildings as if-built; this reality comes through clearly).
Any such program, especially one perceived as right-wing, therefore has an uphill battle, since the gut reaction is that here Albert Speer reborn. But monumental classicism has a long history apart from the regimes of the 1930s (which, as Curl points out, often approved of Modernism, especially Mussolini’s Italy).
And anyway, when my program is being put into place, those who would complain the loudest in that ideological vein will be picking sugar beets in Saskatchewan as part of my rustication and lustration program for those who did the most damage to our society.
Therefore, as far as high architecture controlled by the state, Foundationalism will kill two birds with one stone—every ugly government building built since the 1940s will be torn down, and to the extent new ones are needed, neoclassical buildings will go up. A lot fewer will go up than are torn down, since there will be far fewer government employees.
The extra land will be given over to parks, or perhaps public buildings tangential to government, such as libraries, which will also be done in classical style. Since we will not be exalting government as such, or government workers, we will not need giant new halls to act as the focus for our rulers; most new buildings will be actual monuments or multi-use, Roman Forum-type constructions.
(There will be, of course, government, and strong government. It will have limited ends, though, even if unlimited means, and will not aspire to order every aspect of daily life—far less than our current government does). And no private creation of any significant ugly building, Modernist or other, will be permitted. Those that exist already will be torn down as resources permit.
What of low architecture, that of daily life, of houses and workplaces? There, too, forms of classical architecture will be strongly encouraged, but the goal will be less monumentalism and more organic coherence with how people actually live and work, combined with beauty and the inspiration and joy in living that comes as a result.
The government will not mandate such architecture, as it will with high architecture, but rather encourage it, through education and subsidy. Such encouragement will take the form of only allowing government funding, and student loans (if those still exist) for architectural schools that, at a minimum, teach the execution of classic architecture as a priority.
All government contracts will only go to approved architecture, as will tax benefits for privately constructed buildings, which will, over time, ensure that architects tend to gravitate to where the money is.
The Foundationalist state will seek ways to ensure that honor and prestige, as well, accrue to architects of preferred styles. Moreover, given the well-known association of the Left with Modernism (something Curl spends a fair bit of time on, focusing on the nihilism and destructiveness common to both), since the Foundationalist state will, as its very first act, utterly and permanently break the power of the Left, that alone will clear the way for traditional architecture to rebound from the boot that Modernism has placed on it for so many decades.
Other aspects will have to be worked out; this is not an ideology, but a set of principles to use. (Prince Charles has recently put forth ten principles that are a good place to start, in a December 2014 article in The Architectural Review; he is pretty odious otherwise and not very bright, but he has always been sensible on architecture).
It is worth noting that Foundationalism does not idolize agrarianism. The rural life and culture has its place, and nature and its forms influence good architecture, but high culture, and the drive to create a successful society, always revolves around cities.
Foundationalism strives to offer a goal for, and outlet for, and inspiration for, human aspiration, and rural life does not build spaceports (aside from today not occupying the daily life of any significant percentage of the population).
And the Foundationalist state will take a similar approach to other art (though a more restrained one, since architecture is the most important art for the state), and we will return to the traditional approach where artists work in cooperation with the pillars of society, state and private, rather than being destructive agents of the Left as they mostly have been for the past century (a topic I intend to discuss the whys and wherefores of at some point, as it is not the natural order of things).
And, at that point, Making Dystopia will have accomplished the goals of its author, and be merely a chronicle of an overly long, and overly destructive, but fortunately vanished, period of architectural and societal distress.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows an Untitled piece by Zdzisław Beksiński.
Ever get the impression that the somber pictures of Munch are ready-made illustrations for the equally somber works of Dostoevsky? We do, and it turns out there’s more to this hunch than meets the eye.
In April, Russia’s first ever major exhibition of one of Norway’s most famous sons, Edvard Munch, opens at the Tretyakov Gallery after several years of negotiations with the Munch Museum in Oslo. Although relatively few of his paintings are known in Russia, Munch’s work has a greater connection with Russia than one might imagine. His idol and inspiration was Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the artist’s most famous piece The Scream looks as if it is possessed by one of Dostoevsky’s demons.
The director of the Tretyakov Gallery, Zelfira Tregulova, noted that Munch essentially did for art what Dostoevsky did for literature: “He turned the human soul inside out and peered into the abyss and the vortex of passions that rip people apart, revealing the complexity of human nature.”
The bohemian atmosphere of 1880s Oslo, of which the young Munch was part, consisted of creative anarchists who fed on the works of Dostoevsky, freshly translated into Norwegian.
“Will anyone ever be able to describe those times?” We need Dostoevsky, or at least a mixture of Krogh [an artist, Munch’s mentor], Jeager [a scandalous anarchist writer], and perhaps myself to describe the wretched existence in Christiania [the old name for Oslo] as convincingly as Dostoevsky’s depiction of a Siberian town—not only then, but now as well,” wrote Munch.
A little-known work of Dostoevsky (or at least overshadowed by the later novels), A Gentle Creature had a profound influence on Munch. It tells the story of the suicide of an unhappy girl who, out of poverty, marries a moneylender she despises.
Experts believe that one of Munch’s most famous self-portraits Between the Clock and the Bed, which shows a nude female figure, might easily be an illustration for A Gentle Creature.
Munch and Dostoevsky shared an artistic weakness for sick, poverty-stricken wenches. Another of Munch’s most famous paintings, The Sick Child, which prompted a hail of indignation from critics for its “incompleteness,” was a reflection of the artist’s grief over the death of his beloved sister from tuberculosis.
“I am not entirely sure why I became attached to her, perhaps because she was always ill… If she had been lame or hunchbacked as well, I think I would have loved her even more…” says Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.
Munch biographer Rolf Stenersen describes how the idiosyncratic artist considered his paintings to be his own children and showed tough love to those that didn’t turn out quite right. Such pictures he exhibited outside in rain, wind, and snow, and returned them indoors only after some time. It is known for a fact that this happened to the painting Separation, which suffered greatly as a consequence. Stains, smudges, and traces of bird droppings became part of the picture.
This strange method Munch called hestekur (translated as “horse treatment”). Experts believe it to be a reference to Raskolnikov’s dream, in which the protagonist, transported back to childhood, witnesses a peasant beating an old nag just because it is “mine.” Soon the crowd joins in with chants of “Flog it to death!”
Munch created what might these days be described as fan art—artwork created by fans of a particular work. In one of his numerous self-portraits, Munch depicts himself with a skeleton hand. This work is said to have been inspired by a portrait of Dostoevsky made using a similar technique by Swiss artist Felix Vallotton.
On display at the exhibition, there is a small volume that belonged to the artist. It is called Djasvlene, the Norwegian title of Dostoevsky’s novel, Demons. It was this book that Munch had on his bedside table on being found dead at his country estate, not far from Oslo, in 1944.