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The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Urbanities

Theodore Dalrymple
A Lost Art
Spring 2001

Recently, a short stroll between two New York art galleries offered a textbook demonstration of the revolution that transformed aesthetic sensibility in the twentieth century. On view at the Adelson Galleries on East 77th Street were prints and drawings by Mary Cassatt, part of a hitherto-unexhibited cache from her own studio. Two blocks away, hanging at the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries on East 79th Street, were 16 of Joan Miró's "later masterworks" from the Fundacio Pilar I Joan Miró in Majorca. Produced only 80 years after the Cassatt works, the Miró paintings seemed artifacts from an entirely different universe. Seeing the two shows on the same day, I couldn't but wonder whether the upheaval in sensibility really was inevitable. As to whether it was desirable—that is an easier question.

Miró was one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century, a man of the most prodigious talent, so my first thought was that perhaps the descent into chaos and anarchy these late works represent was just a failing of old age. All these paintings date from 1973, when he was 80, or later. But after all, such artists as Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, and Chardin painted brilliantly into old age; and there is no evidence that Miró was anything other than extremely fit and alert when he painted his "late masterworks." The aesthetic impoverishment of these canvases, the degeneration they manifest, was not that of an individual alone but of an artistic epoch.

Miró was born in 1893, 31 years before Mary Cassatt's death in 1924. Though by the time Miró started to paint, blindness had forced Mary Cassatt into retirement, it is nevertheless a mark of the speed and suddenness of the destruction of an immemorial tradition that the lives of these two artists should have overlapped by so many years. While Cassatt's pictures demonstrate an intense, constructive love of the world, Miró's "late masterworks" demonstrate a strangely adolescent, deeply destructive attitude toward it.

Everyone knows Mary Cassatt as an artist of mothers and children: the first book about her, published in 1913, bore the unsurprising subtitle Un peintre des enfants et des mères. But it would be quite wrong to conclude from her subject matter that she was a soft-centered, weak sentimentalist. The difference between her and Miró was certainly not a matter of personal moral courage, for such courage Mary Cassatt had in full.

She defied the wishes of her upper-middle-class American parents in becoming a painter at all. To be sure, girls of her class were expected to paint and draw, but as a social accomplishment, not a life's passion; and they were certainly not expected to go off to Paris on their own, as she did, to sit at the feet of the morally dubious master painters of that city. She reminds me of a British contemporary, Mary Kingsley, who nursed her dear father until he died and then went off to the rivers, creeks, and mangrove swamps of West Africa to deal in trade goods and eventually to write a charming, informative, and still-classic account of her tropical activities. No one could accuse such women of unthinking conformity.

Nor was Cassatt a conformist in politics. She was a firm believer in women's suffrage, and the exhibition of her work in New York in 1915 staged by her friend and collector, Louisine Havermeyer, was explicitly planned to raise funds for the suffragette cause.

But Cassatt's attitude toward the past was not that of the vandal (her study of the art of her predecessors was thorough and profound), nor did she see innovation as a virtue in itself. The idea that originality, divorced from any other quality or purpose, might be praiseworthy in itself would have been utterly alien to her. It would have struck her—rightly—as uncivilized.

Her quiet pictures of mothers and children, or of women alone in the privacy of their rooms, are deeply moving. They have that strange elusive quality of a Schubert song or a Vermeer painting, of capturing precisely the bittersweet fleeting moment that makes life, for all its disappointments, travails, and hardships, so worth living. Such moments are melancholy as well as joyful precisely because they are fleeting: transcendently beautiful but so brief as to be immeasurable. When we look at the milkmaid pouring milk in Vermeer's painting in the Rijksmuseum, we see—as for the first time—how beautiful is a humble stream of milk that pours from a jug, how supremely elegant is its trajectory, how subtle is the play of light upon it; but we understand simultaneously that the moment cannot last, indeed that part of its beauty is its very transience. Though not for long, perfection is indeed of this world. And this perception reconciles us to our existence, full of ugliness as it might otherwise be. If there are Vermeerian moments in our life—as there will be, if only we pay close enough attention—we shall reach serenity, at least intermittently. And that is enough.

Mary Cassatt is the Vermeer of mother and child. She depicts—even better in her prints than in her oils—the precise moment at which a mother's tenderness for her child is most poignant, in an elegant visual language. There is nothing sentimental or prettifying about this: it is perfectly realistic. Mothers, after all, really do love their children tenderly; and with a few very simple lines (the result of much practice, study, and weariness of flesh, one suspects), Cassatt conveys the physical gestures that express the emotional bond. She observed mothers' hands, for example, with a closeness usually reserved for the face, so that in her depiction of them, which is scrupulously accurate, one sees the physical correlate of fathomless love. She does not subscribe to the doctrine that only the ugly is truly real, and that all else in life is illusion.

Cassatt innovated, and yet her subject matter was not unprecedented, except perhaps in the degree of her concentration upon it. There is no doubt that she reacted strongly against much that was dreadful in Victorian painting, especially in its depiction of childhood: its falsity and sentimentality, its Little-Nellism, so to speak. Well into her career, painters like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Léon Frédéric were still churning out the most dreadful pictures of childhood. Such artists strained after emotions, not that they felt, but that they felt they ought to feel. This, of course, is one of the sources of sentimentality: it is the tribute that vanity pays to compassion. And thus Alma-Tadema and Frédéric could paint nothing that was truthful either to the world or to themselves.

Cassatt's repudiation of such painters was as much a return to tradition as a break with it. As I looked at her prints in the Adelson, I recalled a painting that I have loved ever since I first saw it over 40 years ago, and that I revisit whenever I can. It was painted more than two centuries before Cassatt's work by Pieter de Hooch, who was second only to Vermeer in his ability to make us see beauty in the ordinary. The painting, A Woman Peeling Apples for Her Daughter, hangs in the Wallace Collection in London. A seated woman in a Dutch interior peels an apple for her solemn child, who is standing before her, with intense concentration on what her mother is doing. Neither mother nor daughter is beautiful in the conventional sense: in fact, both are decidedly plain. The beauty is in the moment and in the relationship between mother and daughter, not in the purely physical features of their faces. In this undramatic scene, we see not merely a moment of an era gone by, but the expression of a much deeper, enduring human verity that lies beyond appearance.

Stylistically, Mary Cassatt was strongly influenced by Japanese printmakers, whose work, widely exhibited in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century, impressed so many painters of the period. The shades of color she used, the tone of flesh, the sharp graphic outlines, the very dimensions of the prints, register her creative response to Japanese art. Some of Cassatt's figures of women on their own—for example, The Coiffure or Woman Bathing—could almost have been by the eighteenth-century Japanese artist Utamaro Kitagawa.

Curiously, after Mary Cassatt's time, Western and Japanese art went in widely divergent directions. Never again did Western artists—at least, those who wanted to be considered serious—express the kind of straightforward, unaffected tenderness toward the world and human life that is expressed, say, in her drypoint etching, Feeding the Ducks, where we see two women in a rowboat solicitously supervising a young child engaged in the solemn delight of throwing bread to a duck. After Mary Cassatt, a disenchantment with the world, real or assumed, seems to have overcome Western artists, so that they would have considered a subject like feeding the ducks inherently sentimentalizing, trivial, and unworthy of their attention. By contrast, the Japanese printmakers—the early-twentieth-century Hasui Kawase and Yoshida Hiroshi, for example—continued unselfconsciously to portray and celebrate the beauty of the world. Only after 1945 did Japanese artists undergo the disenchantment that led them to fear direct portrayals of beauty.

The contrast is instructive. The fact that Japanese artists felt able to continue and develop their tradition of woodblock printing—they were followers of their great forebears, not mere imitators of them—suggests that the change in sensibility that occurred among Western artists and eventually among the Japanese as well wasn't merely an aesthetic matter. It didn't take place because artists ran out of ideas and techniques for depicting the beauty of the world and the grandeur or tenderness of life. The reasons for the transformation lay elsewhere.

This isn't to say that the artists who broke with their immemorial tradition did so all at once, or that, having done so, they created nothing beautiful. Not at all: Miró himself was an artist whose utterly distinctive early work had great beauty of form and color, and whose fecund imagery delights and amuses. In his Peinture of June 1933, for example, now in the Kunstmuseum of Bern, the background's brilliant colors shimmer and change as in a tropical sunset, while before them takes place an absorbing drama of infinitely suggestive and elegantly drawn forms, one of them insistently female, whose black-booted or stockinged white leg stretches out almost in a goosestep. Miró was never quite figurative (at least, after his artistic adolescence) or quite abstract. His 1935 Portrait of a Young Girl, for example, manages to convey, with astonishing economy, all the dizzy frivolity and vanity of youth, with uncensorious affection for it into the bargain.

Nevertheless, talented and brilliant men such as Miró started a downward spiral that ended in artistic anarchy. The Duchamp of the famous urinal was himself a considerable draughtsman; but before long, unsurprisingly, we got the urinals without the draughtsmanship. Miró's talent, his sense of form and color, are still just visible in the "late masterworks" at the Salander-O'Reilly show, but his method of hurling paint at the canvas and letting it drip indicates a loss of faith in the value or purpose of artistic control. From now on, anything would go. He wanted chance to do his work for him. He burned holes in canvas, in the hope that pleasing shapes might emerge; but only a predictable aesthetic and symbolic impoverishment resulted. The logic of an arms race came to rule in art: and legions of untalented hacks who came after Miró devoted themselves to thinking about what had never been done before rather than about what they wanted to express. Miró's later work is an assault on the very possibility of artistic meaning: if chance and destruction are as good as, or better than, direction and control, what sense can there be in sense itself?

This unfolding anarchism in Western art has two sources. First, a new sensibility became dominant among the artistic and intellectual elite after World War I. How was it possible to depict the world lyrically after that great cataclysm? To have done so would have been frivolous and unfeeling: or so it appeared to intellectuals, amongst whom the need to feel things more deeply and earnestly than others is an occupational hazard. (The Japanese, less involved than the Europeans in the First World War, had to wait for the Second World War for the cataclysm that delegitimated their traditional lyricism.)

The social and cultural critic Theodor Adorno eloquently voiced this cast of mind when he proclaimed the final death of art after the Second World War. After Auschwitz, he said, it was no longer possible to produce fine art. The world had become too horrible. "There is nothing innocuous left," he declared. "The little pleasures, expressions of life that seemed exempt from the responsibilities of thought, not only have an element of defiant silliness, of callous refusal to see, but directly serve their diametrical opposite. Even the blossoming of a tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror; even the innocent 'How lovely!' becomes an excuse for an existence outrageously unlovely, and there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror. . . ."

As it happens, there is a kind of sour consolation in thinking that we live in the worst of times, that the horrors we have endured—or at least have heard and read about—are of a nature unprecedented in human history. But is it really true that the two world wars, the terror-famines, the Gulag, and the extermination camps of the twentieth century were of an order so completely different from all other horrors in history that they made traditional artistic endeavor not merely redundant but a positive betrayal of humanity? Should we not remember that Vermeer was born less than halfway through the Thirty Years' War, a war that resulted in the death of a third of the population of Germany, when corpses rotted by the roadside, fields were abandoned, villages destroyed, whole towns put to the sword, and looting was the only form of accumulation? Should we not remember that the treaty that ended this terrible war was signed but a relative handful of miles from where he was living? Does the Thirty Years' War mean that Vermeer was guilty of a callous refusal to see? And did the Great War really mean that henceforth mothers would love their children less than they did in Cassatt's prewar France?

Let us grant, however, that there was something peculiarly dreadful about the cataclysms of the twentieth century. They were appalling in themselves, of course: but an additional source of despair lay in the disjunction between what was technically possible—a decent living for the majority of mankind, for the first time in history—and the uses to which those technical possibilities were actually put. Man had finally freed himself from the burden of religious and other superstitions in order to reach the sunny uplands of rational thought and organization, only to discover the heart of his own darkness, the allegorical truth of the doctrine of original sin.

But does it follow from the special dreadfulness of the events of the twentieth century that the blossoming of a tree can no longer be seen by a decent, sensitive person without the shadow of terror falling upon it? Some of my patients say that they would never hit a woman because they saw their father hit their mother, while others say that they hit women because they saw their father hit their mother. In like fashion, it could just as well be argued that, in the face of catastrophe, the lyrical appreciation of the beauty of life becomes even more important. Sir Ernst Gombrich, the art historian, tells the story of some friends of his in his native Vienna who, after the Anschluss, expected to be arrested immediately by the Gestapo. They spent what they thought would be their last hours of freedom together, and possibly their last hours alive, playing late Beethoven quartets.

The idea that, after an event such as the Great War, an artistic celebration of the world is no longer possible is nonsense, compounded of strangely twisted romanticism and inverted sentimentality. The artist strikes an Adorno-like pose to establish that he feels the events more deeply than other people, so deeply that the tree in blossom is no longer for him just the tree in blossom, but the hangman's tree in blossom, or the tree soon to be blasted to a charred skeleton of a tree in a nuclear explosion. What counts is depth of feeling. But this is simply a pose: supposing an Adorno-like figure had said, "After the war, sexual pleasure is no longer possible" or "Good cuisine is no longer possible"—the humbug of it all would have stood immediately revealed. Art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcends, his own limitations and flaws. Without art—or the arts—there is only flux.

Miró's writings and pronouncements are, in fact, a mine of sentimental humbug. It is, perhaps, unfair to stress too much what an artist says—he is, after all, an artist rather than an author or a journalist—and there can be no doubt of Miró's devotion to his artistic calling. But what he said must have had some connection with his practice, and—like so many intellectuals of his era—he was profoundly dishonest in his views.

I take his use of two words—"bourgeois" and "revolutionary"—as symptomatic. There are no prizes for guessing what value he places on each: bourgeois is always a term of abuse, revolutionary almost always a term of approbation. By bourgeois he always meant a fat, complacent, bellicose, porcine quality: a kind of Der Sturmer view of the class, with the anti-Semitism removed. By revolutionary, he meant something thrusting, inventive, and tending to ultimate justice and freedom, bringing about peace by the forcible abolition of everything that prevented peace.

To whom, then, did he actually sell his paintings? Again, no prizes for guessing. It turned out that no one appreciated his "slaps in the face of the bourgeois," as he called them, as much as the rich bourgeois himself. As to real revolutions, there is no evidence that Miró ever considered very deeply their effects upon the lives of artists or upon the freedom of artistic endeavor that he so strenuously demanded.

The second great cause of the ultimate dissolution of the artistic tradition is closely allied to the kind of political humbug Miró affected: the romantic cult of the original artist, divorced from his predecessors, "like stout Cortez . . . with eagle eyes . . . Silent, upon a peak in Darien." Since it was progressively more difficult to say anything new within a realist tradition, the tradition had to be abandoned.

Or worse than abandoned. Here are the first words of the director of the Fundacio Pilar I Joan Miró in the catalog of Miró's "late masterworks": "Miró, who from the very beginning understood creation as an act which destroyed everything that came before, brought this attitude to its ultimate conclusion when, aging in body but young in spirit, he attacked his own pictorial universe. He returned to painting naïve paintings and collages, flinging paint on the canvas, which he tore and burned, possessed by a fit of creative destructiveness. This attitude was the consummation of his old desire to 'assassinate painting,' so that, following the same law that governs nature itself, new life, new and vibrant forms could be born out of destruction."

Could one imagine anyone saying that of Mary Cassatt, for all her radicalism? Indeed, could anyone, other than a brute, mean those words sincerely, in any literal sense? Who but a barbarian could fail to believe that a man cannot stand alone if he wishes to create, that tradition is actually the precondition of creation, not its antithesis? The problem with uttering such high-sounding rubbish is that a thousand—no, a million—fools can always be found to believe it.

Miró did indeed say that he wished to "assassinate painting" (whatever that might mean) and to strip it of all representational elements. In 1924, he wrote, "I am moving away from all pictorial conventions (that poison!)." In an interview in Ahora in 1931, he said, "The only thing that's clear to me is that I intend to destroy, destroy everything that exists in painting. I have an utter contempt for painting. . . . Painting revolts me." Nearly half a century later, an interviewer fromthe Parisian magazine L'Express said of his art that its "audience laughs, and sometimes gives the impression of having been hit in the face." Miró replied, "So much the better! You should hit hard. Violence is liberating."

This is no better than, and not much different from, the fascist General Millan Astray's famous outburst in his dispute with Miguel de Unamuno in 1936 at the University of Salamanca: "Muera la inteligencia! Viva la muerte!" (Death to intelligence! Long live death!) And so a sensibility that starts out so horrified by modern warfare that it revolts against the lyrical depiction of the external world ends up by endorsing the worldview of the Baader-Meinhof gang, with its abolition of pity, mercy, and ordinary human affection. One is reminded of Lenin, who denied himself the pleasures of listening to Beethoven because it so reconciled him to the world that he wanted afterward to pat children on the head: a terrible weakness in a man who wanted to hit hard, who believed in the liberating powers of violence.

Miró also subscribed to the view—a natural enough corollary of the artist as lone creator—that change was progress. Probably he was dazzled, as many artists were, by the scientific and technological progress of his time. But just as the analogy between the laws of nature and the laws of artistic creation (an analogy drawn in the catalog of the exhibition of his "late masterworks" by the director of his foundation) is false, so the analogy between progress in the sciences and progress in the arts is false. Art, in its highest expression, explains our existence to us, both the particularities of the artist's own time and the universals of all time, or at least of all human history. It transcends transience and therefore reconciles us to the most fundamental condition of our existence. In the history of art, unlike that of science, what comes after is not necessarily better than what came before.

Miró's "late masterworks" lost almost all contact with human existence, not succeeding even as decoration, a failure all the more evident by comparison with the nearby works of Cassatt. In the transition of late Cassatt to late Miró, one sees the slide from the universally human to the merely egotistical.

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