Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Paintings I Like, pt. 13

Theodore Gericault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819. Oil on canvas, 16' 1" x 23' 6."

The Raft of the Medusa was completed by Gericault in 1819 after a year of exhaustive studies and research on the subject, and caused quite a sensation in the 1819 Salon. The massive canvas is based on an incident that was widely publicized (a new concept at the time: basing a painting on current events); a shipwreck after which the survivors floated on bits of the wreckage for over two weeks, eventually resorting to cannibalism to survive. The picture depicts the moment when the haggard sailors spot the Argus on the horizon, the ship that would rescue them a few hours later. There was a strong political aspect to the subject, because the captain of the doomed Medusa was an incompetent sailor, but a suitable anti-Bonapartist who received his naval commission for purely political reasons (sound familiar?).

As I mentioned in an earlier installment of "Paintings I Like," my two favorite pictures in the Louvre were this one and Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus. They're very different stylistically; the Delacroix uses a much looser brush stroke which predicts Impressionism and looks back on late-career Titian. The Gericault is painted with a stroke and modeling that was much more in keeping with the Neo-Classicists of the day (Ingres, David), but the lighting, composition, and the completely over-the-top drama place both paintings squarely in the Romantic era.

And it's this drama that I want to talk about. I recently read a paper that Michael Fried gave at Michigan University in 2001 as part of the Tanner Lecture Series about the formalist critic Roger Fry, who was one of the seminal figures in the development of purely formal criticism and aesthetics. As Fried points out, Fry insisted in his mature writing that subject matter was largely a matter of indifference to most painters (good ones, anyway), and that the emotional content in painting flowed out of the relationships of forms and colors. This hard-line formalist view left him with some explaining to do about his earlier writing, particularly his important 1901 paper on Giotto. In the essay, Fry talks of about the "chords of feeling" Giotto struck in the frescoes at the Arena Chapel in Padua:

"It is true that in speaking of these one is led inevitably to talk of elements in the work which modern criticism is apt to regard as lying outside the domain of pictorial art. It is customary to dismiss all that concerns the dramatic presentation of the subject as literature or illustration, which is to be sharply distinguished from the qualities of design. But can this clear distinction be drawn in fact? The imaginings of a playwright, a dramatic poet, and a dramatic painter have much in common, but they are never at any point identical. Let us suppose a story to be treated by all three: to each, as he dwells on the legend, the imagination will present a succession of images, but those images, even at their first formation, will be quite different in each case, they will be conditioned and coloured by the art which the creator practises, by his past observation of nature with a view to presentment in that particular art. The painter, like Giotto, therefore, actually imagines in terms of figures capable of pictorial presentment, he does not merely translate a poetically dramatic vision into pictorial terms."

When this essay was anthologized nearly 20 years later in Vision and Design, Fry adds a footnote which in large measure recants the preceding passage:

"I should be inclined to disagree wherever in this article there appears the assumption not only that the dramatic idea may have inspired the artist to the creation of his form, but that the value of the form for us is bound up with recognition of the dramatic idea. It now seems to me possible by a more searching analysis of our experience in front of a work of art to disentangle our reaction to pure form from our reaction to its implied associated ideas."

Fried uses this tension to advance ideas from his book Absorption and Theatricality (not uninteresting), but I think that Fry simply came across a fundamental problem in formalist criticism of pre-Impressionist painting - it's very nearly impossible to divorce narrative and psychology (and the resulting drama) from a picture that contains people. And this led Fry to another implicit conclusion: that if an artist's formal achievement were unable to overwhelm and eventually nullify the subject matter, then the work was pandering and rhetorical.

In writing about El Greco's The Agony in the Garden, Fry conjectures that "The artist, whose concern is ultimately and, I believe, exclusively with form, will no doubt be so carried away by the intensity and completeness of the design, that he will never even notice the melodramatic and sentimental content which shocks or delights the ordinary man." He contrasts this complete rapture and dedication with the work of Bernini, which, while equally ground-breaking in form as El Greco, is in Fry's opinion deeply compromised by Bernini's desire to be famous, which led him to the exploitation of devices which simply pandered to the tastes of popes and the crowd.

Back to the Gericault, which (like the Delacroix) is as sweeping and dramatic as any big-budget Hollywood period picture. Does this desire to make a painting that would appeal to the unwashed masses for completely extra-aesthetic reasons somehow discredit or diminish Gericault's achievement (in the same way that Fry discredits Bernini)? Obviously, I believe the short answer is no.

The somewhat longer answer is that Gericault's understanding of Venetian painting (witness the misty sea-air in the picture) and the Baroque (witness the Caravaggio-esque lighting), together with his easy command of heroic scale undeniably place him in the company of "real" masters, as opposed to those maligned panderers to which Fry refers. For an example of the latter, look at the meticulously crafted soft-porn of Bouguereau, a 19th century painter who enjoyed tremendous success in his own lifetime.

The Gericault is very nearly overwhelming as painting in the formal sense, but I would be lying if I told you that I found no appeal in the drama and subject. And I find no contradiction in this. This may seem like an unecessarily long way of saying that form and content are married seamlessly in the Gericault, and now that formalism is generally held in such low esteem, my argument may seem like a retro curiosity. But I have a larger point I'm sidling up to.

Formalism ultimately faltered under the weight of its demands for purity and distillation. Around the middle of the 20th century, some brilliant formal observations about paintings from the past became cumbersome demands for paintings yet to be made. Some dazzling work was completed during the swansong of this particular quest, but the ultimate conclusion (stated by Greenberg himself) was that the perfectly aesthetic, non-referential picture was not a possibility - everything refers to something.

I would like to see painting that is primarily visual make a big return to the spotlight in contemporary art, and I don't believe that absolute purity is necessary, or even desirable, to achieve that end (think of Matisse). It's important to remember that the opposite of a wrong is not necessarily a right. If a painting that espouses entertainment in the most naked sense is clearly moving in the wrong direction (it is), it does not follow that a painting which displays none of those qualities is the correct prescription. The Gericault sacrifices few of its credentials as painting in the pursuit of drama, and the ambitious modern abstract painter might want to take a minute to consider the implications of this.