In my fine arts course this week, we did a unit on the myth of Danaë, which is admittedly only briefly mentioned in Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphosis but has exercised a durable fascination on painters. It’s a strange scene to picture: Danaë is locked away in a futile attempt to avert prophecy, and Zeus impregnates her in the form of a shower of gold. I showed them several of Titian’s varied responses to the theme, along with paintings by Corregio, Rembrandt, Klimt, and Picasso, so we had a good balance between seeing an individual artist’s evolving responses as well as the ongoing dialogue among artists about the significance of this bizarre story.
The Titian above is a relatively restrained version. Danaë appears virginal in her pure white sheets, and indeed she even clutches at her sheet — a gesture that will be further elaborated. The presence of the figure of Eros suggests some kind of participation or complicity on Danaë’s part, some sense that this is an erotic event for her. Yet Eros’s back is turned to Danaë and he is looking at the cloud that represents Zeus, so we could read him as indicating Zeus’s trademark unilateral approach to love. In other versions, that suggestion becomes almost heavy handed. Take this one, which can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago:
Yesterday I asked Twitter for recommendations of paintings on the subject of The Temptation of St. Anthony, and Brad shared this very comprehensive blog post. They’re all worth investigating, but for me the prize definitely goes to Joos van Craesbeeck, who conceived of this work of absolute genius:
Yesterday, The Girlfriend and I went to the special exhibit on Magritte at the Art Institute. During our trip to Brussels, we had visited the Magritte Museum there, which unfortunately seemed to be a holding place for second-tier pieces and first drafts that other museums didn’t want. The quality of the exhibit in Chicago was much higher, but what it really brought home to me was the inherent limits to what Magritte is trying to do.
First of all, Magritte is technically proficient but indifferent as a painter. However interesting his pieces are as images, they are rarely interesting as paintings — it’s as though he chose painting as a medium simply for convenience. Once you get what he’s trying to do, which is often to make the very simplistic point that words and images are not the things themselves, there’s very little to hold one’s attention. I’m also not sure that the sheer existence of repeated motifs (such as the bowler cap) automatically makes them interesting or productive.
In the end, the only pieces that wound up really compelling me were the ones that were elaborate meta-commentaries on the act of painting itself. The Human Condition and Attempting the Impossible were two of my favorites, but for me the best was La Clairvoyance (also pictured above). I was already very familiar with this piece, as a former roommate had a print of it, but beyond the initial visual gag, I noticed a detail I had previously overlooked — the colors on the palette don’t match the black-and-white painting of the bird, but the colors of the surrounding painting itself.
The exhibition space itself was often awkward and unwieldy. Sometimes it seemed purposeful, above all in the room filled with displays of Magritte’s advertising and print work or the seemingly endless sequence of paintings hung on isolated partial walls, but often it just made it difficult to navigate and get a good look at the paintings. And to me, some of the literature surrounding it was patronizing and embarrassing — filled with quotes about how awesome it is that there’s “no right answer” when it comes to interpreting a Magritte painting.
If only it were so! But sadly, for a good 80% of the paintings on display, the “right answer” was immediately evident, and if you didn’t get it, it was pedantically repeated in five other canvases in the same room. I know that Magritte is a crowd-pleaser, but he’s also one of the roots of the contemporary “concept-heavy” art that middle-class audiences, bored with needing to read the description cards before responding, instinctively regard with such scorn.
In this era of increasingly accurate 3D computer imagery, animators have come up against a problem known as the “uncanny valley” — after a certain point, the closer to accurate 3D imagery is, the creepier it becomes. The reason that it’s a “valley” is that it’s assumed that once we hit on absolute accuracy, it will no longer be creepy. I believe that assumption is unfounded. If we hit absolute accuracy, we would also hit the level of absolute creepiness. Human culture may never recover.
Humanity was in danger of hitting this uncanny point of horror at once before, during the Renaissance. At that time, painters and sculptors strove for the greatest possible accuracy, and the results are often startling, especially in the case of sculpture. Close-ups of familiar pieces like Michelangelo’s David reveal detail that is almost literally unbelievable.
Now for contemporary viewers, it’s the most natural thing in the world that all those sculptures are unpainted. Yet it’s now known that the reason for this is a historical accident. The Greeks and Romans painted their sculptures, but after many centuries, there was no apparent evidence of this fact. The Renaissance sculptors, in their passion to imitate classical models, thus left their sculptures unpainted.
There’s a certain irony in this fact, but there is also a saving grace — for imagine what would have happened if the Renaissance artists, with their passion for absolute imitation of nature, had actually combined sculpture and painting. A version of Michelangelo’s David that was painted as accurately as it is sculpted would, I submit, be utterly unbearable to look at. It would be too real. Only the abstraction of color allows the accuracy of the sculpture to provoke wonder rather than horror.
My proof for this is Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina, where the absolute accuracy of the form is so extreme that it can, at least for some viewers, overwhelm the abstraction from color and cross deeply into the uncanny valley. Where Pluto’s fingers touch her thigh, we believe we see real flesh, and the effect can either be appreciative disbelief — or revulsion.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the classical pieces that is most familiar to me. Ever since my high school marching band did a show based on it, it has been a constant companion, at least in the version orchestrated by Ravel. More recently, however, I have been spending a lot of time with the original piano version, in part out of simple curiosity, but more directly because I plan to use it in my fine arts course — not only because of its unique status as a piece of music “about” visual art, but also to highlight how orchestration affects our reception of a piece of music.
For those who are familiar with the orchestrated version, it can be difficult to believe that Mussorgsky ever intended it as a solo piano piece to begin with. Leaving aside its unwieldy length, some segments seem to be screaming out for full orchestral treatment — most notably the majestic horns of “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The orchestrated version is so much better known, in fact, that the original can seem like a work of subtraction or abstraction, taking away the variety of a full orchestra. In a way, though, it also adds an element. The dissonances are much harsher and stand out more clearly when they’re not spread across a variety of sections, so that some of the segments (like “The Gnome”) can even sound like precursors to atonality.
The question that has returned to me again and again, though, is why exactly Mussorgsky would have started out with a piano version in the first place. It seems so counterintuitive in so many ways, and it’s not as though he lacked the ability to write for a full orchestra. If we take seriously the notion that this is meant to somehow resonate with the effect of an art exhibition, though, I think it makes more sense. Contemplating art is, after all, a very solitary and cerebral pursuit in most cases — hence why a solo instrument could seem more appropriate. In the piano version, the one aspect that struck me as manifestly more convincing are the recurring “Promenade” interludes, which when performed on the solo piano seem much more evocative of the act of reflection while walking between two canvases.
Further, the very inadequacy of the piano (most striking, perhaps, in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle”), the manifest limits the performer (even a very gifted performer like Evgeny Kissin, whose recording on Spotify I recommend highly) strains against, seem to speak to the difficulties of responding to art, the sense that there’s “something more” that one can’t quite capture. With the full arsenal of the orchestra, it’s almost too easy, and this very perfection betrays the experience that it’s meant to recreate.
This weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the big Veronese exhibit at the National Gallery in London, the largest collection of Veronese’s paintings ever assembled outside Italy. For this unique occasion, I did something I normally don’t — I shelled out for the audio guide. It was generally serviceable, and even if the content could’ve been conveyed just as easily in writing, I saw the advantage of being able to look at the painting at the same time as I listened (rather than having to go back and forth from the text on the wall). I felt a strange dissatisfaction, however, which was encapsulated in the fact that only on the commentary for the second to last painting did they mention brushstrokes. We were to understand that Veronese’s technique had changed in some way, and yet our attention had never been drawn to his technique previously (aside from his preference for certain characteristic colors and his skill in portraying elaborate fabrics).
I don’t want to single out this audio guide, because it’s a pervasive problem: the guidance provided for the general public in art museums relatively rarely directs our attention to the actual artwork itself. We learn a great deal about the artist’s life, about the circumstances of the work’s composition, about the representative content of the work, about the various schools or movements it may belong to. What I came here to see is the artwork, and I’m bombarded by facts about everything but the artwork.
The situation is similar when one goes to the symphony — your average program notes will contain 90% biographical information and 10% description of the musical content you’re about to hear. For instance, I once went to a concert featuring Walton’s first symphony, a relatively unknown work. The program notes told me all about how much he procrastinated on it and how it was apparently inspired by a turbulent love affair. I’ve listened to the piece many times, and I can assure you that you cannot hear anything about a love affair in it. What you hear is a bunch of music. Indeed, that’s why I came to the symphony, to hear music — and so why can’t the program notes help me to listen more intelligently to it?
The motivation behind these kinds of supplemental materials is to make art and music more relatable or accessible, but in practice, they cut off our access and fail to train us in how to actually talk with one another about what we’re seeing and hearing. We know all about van Gogh’s tortured life and can discuss that, but then we already knew how to talk about biography and suffering — what we probably don’t know is how to talk about the actual painting in front of us. Everyone knows that Beethoven went deaf, but when we venture to talk about it, it seems as though we’re deaf to the actual music he’s given us.
I don’t think it’s a matter of giving us access to technical terminology, because we all know what a line and a color is, and the majority of technical terminology for music consists in the Italian terms for fairly straightforward concepts (louder, softer, slowing down, etc.). Nor do I want to disallow biographical, historical, or representational information. Nor, most of all, do I want to leave people to wallow in the solipsism of their “personal experience” of the artwork — what I want is to provide tools that will allow people to actually talk about the artwork with one another, to draw one another’s attention to its features and effects so that we can all help each other to see and hear better.
What are we to make of the fact that Leonardo da Vinci and his students detected a certain kinship between John the Baptist and Dionysus? The two figures seemingly could not be more different — the grim ascetic preaching repentance and the god of revelry. One could perhaps forgive Donatello his “fabulous,” sassy David, given that David was, after all, a young man whose appearance had drawn God’s eye. (In this case, the stranger choice is Bernini’s older David, captured mid-throw.) How could John the Baptist be portrayed as an androgynous, sensual figure? Did Leonardo simply mix him up with John the Beloved Disciple?
We see this strange sexuality of John the Baptist emerge again in Strauss’s Salome. Here, though, it is a mark of perversion and decadence as Salome incomprehensibly takes John as a sexual object and, after being rejected, willingly collaborates with her mother in his beheading out of vengeance. This strange attraction culminates in a disturbing scene where Salome kisses and carresses the Baptist’s disembodied head. This is very different from Leonardo’s straightforward presentation — where Strauss plays on the very unthinkability of John’s sexuality, Leonardo is able to present it as a simple fact, as almost self-evident.
Nietzsche might see here an acknowledgment of the inherent sensuality of asceticism, the erotic charge of denial. How much greater, how much more durable and even unlimited is the jouissance derived directly from the refusal of jouissance — excessive piety is the greatest of festivals, the carnival that never has to end because it has finally become life rather than the exception or relief from life. If only the ascetic has truly experienced jouissance, then what better figure to serve as the Christian answer to Dionysus than John the Baptist, who is in fact the very threshold of the Christian dispensation itself?