Monday, April 01, 2013

Thus Speaks the Art Magisterium

So once again a rare opportunity opens up for the Washingtonian to see some of the great Pre-Raphaelite paintings in person, and the mandarins at the New York Times feel the need to tell everyone to stay home. Well, actually they suggest that the visitor to the National Gallery of Art skip this exhibit and step around the corner to look at the Impressionists instead. OK, well, I suppose it might not occur to the New Yorkers among us that any Washingtonian with any interest at all in painting has already seen the Cezannes and Manets and Monets and Cassatts, or the big Renoir at the Phillips. And I've seen all the Flemish and Italians, too, as well as the huge Morse over at the Corcoran, or the various Peales (painted by various Peales at that, and occasionally featuring other Peales) scattered about the various museums.

But the NYT point here isn't advice, but snobbery. It's deliciously ironic to see the Times's reviewer bring up Jackson Pollock, because the first picture I inevitably think of when it comes to this phase of the culture wars is Norman Rockwell's witty spoof. The mandarins at the NYT need High Art to lead inevitably to abstract expressionism and thence to the current po-mo cesspool of gallery and public place stunt art. But the truth is that it didn't go that way, as the review kind of admits. Our reviewer sneers at Thomas Kinkade, but his blurry hyper-"realism" owes little or nothing to the Pre-Raphaelites or their principles, and indeed could just as well be laid on Impressionist shoulders.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - ProserpineI haven't been to the exhibit yet, but I find it striking that of the nine works the Times shows in its slide show, four are by Holman Hunt. Also, the only late works shown are one of the Hunts and a Burne-Jones tapestry. Perhaps the show includes some of Rosetti's "stunners" (e.g. Proserpine, seen at right) but Fanny Cornforth as Lady Lilith is the closest we come to that. The busy symbolism of the early paintings had largely been abandoned by everyone but Hunt by the time he painted his version of The Lady of Shalott (and anyway, a turbulent busy-ness is kind of the point in that canvas). But somehow, I don't get the message that the aesthetics are where things go wrong here.

It is extremely telling that their slideshow includes two of the most religiously controversial paintings by the P-Rs. Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents was wildly condemned in its day (remembering that this was one of the first paintings the group exhibited) for its depiction of the Holy Family as people rather than as icons. It is sentimental, in a way, but that wasn't what set people on edge. Another painting, The Light of the World by Holman Hunt, was on the contrary wildly acclaimed in its day, becoming one of the most widely reproduced paintings of the time; but these days its elaborate and earnest symbolism is disdained, loudly. And of course, both are religious subjects, as was very often the case. The Victorian Age, at least in Britain and the USA, was an intensely religious period; the Pre-Raphaelites were tightly coupled to the Gothic revival and the Oxford Movement. All of this backward-looking reformation counts as sin, in the reviewer's eye.

But the worse sin is this: that they are the forefathers of Norman Rockwell. There's a curious admission in the review that there's a lot more love (outside the High Art hothouse of the New York art world) for the successors of the Pre-Raphaelites than for those approved of by the art establishment. The great American illustrator school may not have been directly inspired by these Englishmen, but for instance N. C. Wyeth's mural at the National Cathedral could just have well been painted within the movement. But one can condemn the artistic enormities of Kinkade's saccharine landscapes without signing up for the immense fraud that is the mainstream of modernist high art. The terrible truth is that the heritage of the Armory Show is not only a lot of really dull and manifestly ugly art, but a tedious posturing pretension on the part of the kind of people who show up for openings at New York galleries and make cutting remarks about bourgeois taste. The fact that most 20th century art is with-malice-aforethought crap goes a lot farther in explaining why most people have no use for it than their blighted taste. Anyway, there's no real sentimental difference between Rockwell's domestic scenes and the flowery scenes which are at the heart of Impressionism, save that, perhaps, it's easier for people in a certain social class to see themselves in a garden party in Central Park than in a diner or a back alley or in any town smaller than Manhattan (which as everyone a couple of hundred miles from it realizes is a very small town indeed).

And by the way, if the reviewer would like to see the full flower of Victorian sentimentality, I would invite him to look at a late Millais such as Cherry Ripe. If the reviewer cannot see the difference between this and the beauty of the great P-R paintings, then I would suggest that she get out of the city for some serious taste-broadening.

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