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Beauty and Ugliness

from the magazine

Beauty and Ugliness

On the deformation of art Winter 2016
Arts and Culture

London is among the best cities in the world for art exhibitions, and whenever I go there, which is rarely, I try to see as many as time and energy will permit. Recently, for example, I saw two in a single day, the contrast between which seemed to cast a light on the soul of modern humanity, or at least of that part of it that concerns itself with art and aesthetics.

The first, in the Wallace Collection, was called Sir Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint; the second, across the city, was called Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden. Reynolds, the most famous British artist of his day, was born in 1723 and died in 1792; Dumas was born in South Africa in 1953 and has worked in the Netherlands since 1976.

The Wallace Collection was once my favorite London gallery. My father had his office, where I worked during my school holidays, around the corner from it; I spent many a lunch hour in the collection, the run of which I often had almost to myself in those days. The courtyard had not yet been made into a restaurant, a transformation that altered the atmosphere of the collection profoundly. Nowadays, it seems almost like a restaurant with Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velázquez attached.

It was in the Wallace Collection that I first tried (without success, which eludes me to this day) to work out why some art was better than other art, why some pictures moved me while others did not. The picture to which I always returned, and that I never miss a chance to view even today, was Woman Peeling Apples, by the Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch. This small painting of a Dutch interior shows a seated woman peeling apples for her small daughter, who stands by her. The daughter is not beautiful—indeed, one could describe her as almost plain—yet the picture never failed to move me, however many times and for however long I looked at it.

Why was this the case? Was it the obvious technical mastery, the pleasing composition (the main figures to the right of center of the picture), the exquisite taste of the coloration, the evident love of the mother for her child, the sense of quietude and contentment conveyed, the celebration of the glory of existence in itself that the choice of so ordinary a subject implies? Was the intensity of my response affected by my personal biography, by the lack of tenderness in my own early life?

I came to the conclusion that while no definitive criteria could be given to distinguish good art from bad (and every gradation in between), neither was it impossible to say something about the basis—or rather, the bases—of artistic judgment.

The Reynolds exhibition was small, designed (among other things) to show the artist almost as a scientific experimenter with the materials with which he painted. His experiments were by no means always successful: his paintings were known sometimes—but fortunately, not always—to fade before they left his studio.

Reynolds worked principally in portraiture, a division of the art of painting that he regarded as inferior to others. Doctor Johnson said of Reynolds that so equable was his temper that he was the most invulnerable man he knew because it was impossible to find anything with which to reproach him. Yet Reynolds was suspected of being an opportunist toady, a flatterer of the rich, famous, and powerful, whom, by and large, he painted—in the process becoming rich, famous, and powerful himself. Though Reynolds was undoubtedly both keen on money and disagreeably penny-pinching toward relatives and assistants, no man who became a close friend of Doctor Johnson, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and Edward Gibbon could have been a nonentity with merely a talent for flattery. Boswell tells the story of how Johnson and Reynolds became friends:

When Johnson lived in Castle Street . . . he used frequently to visit two ladies who lived opposite him, Miss Cotterells, daughters of Admiral Cotterell. Reynolds used also to visit there, and thus they met. . . . Sir Joshua, indeed, was lucky enough at their very first meeting to make a remark which was so much above the commonplace style of conversation, that Johnson at once perceived that Reynolds had the habit of thinking for himself. The ladies were regretting the death of a friend to whom they owed great obligations; upon which Reynolds observed, “You have, however, the comfort of being relieved from a burden of gratitude.” They were shocked a little at this alleviating suggestion . . . but Johnson defended it in his clear and forcible manner and was much pleased with the mind, the clear view of human nature, which it exhibited.

Johnson and Reynolds were close friends ever after, and Boswell dedicated his great Life to the painter. Reynolds’s “clear view of human nature” is evident in his best portraits, which penetrate the character of his sitters, while also remaining surface likenesses. The fact that he painted several people serially suggests that he was more than just a society portraitist (though he was that as well). The several portraits of Doctor Johnson, for example, do not make out that the great writer was a handsome or an elegant man and do not in the slightest seek to lessen his peculiarities—but the force of his character, the intensity of his thought, and the profundity of his religious and emotional struggles are conveyed with extraordinary clarity. Though Reynolds’s veneration of Johnson could not have been greater (it was, unusually for a relationship of veneration, entirely mutual), Reynolds did not think of Johnson as a saint; far from it. In the character sketch that Reynolds provided for Boswell when he was writing Life, the painter said:

The drawback to his character is entertaining prejudices on very slight foundation, giving an opinion perhaps first at random, but from its being contradicted he thinks himself always obliged stubbornly to support. . . . He thought it necessary never to be worsted in argument, though this disposition he spoke of as very weak; “as if,” says he, “the character depended on one evening.” He thus seemed to be schooling himself, but he never learned the thing.

Reynolds continued: “You will wonder to hear a person who loved him so sincerely speak thus freely of his friend, but you must recollect I am not writing his panegyric, but as if on oath not only to give the truth but the whole truth.” Here, then, was a man who could revere without blindness, who understood that even the greatest were not without flaws, but that the flaws did not obviate the greatness. There was no moral obligation to dwell on the worst. Reynolds was no mere flatterer; when an aristocrat condescendingly asked him how long it took him to paint a portrait, he replied, “All my life, my Lord.”

The best paintings in the small exhibition were of women and children. We know that when Reynolds painted beauty, he knew that he was not painting perfection but that imperfection did not render beauty inexistent. He thus felt free to portray beauty without feeling that he was thereby betraying reality or avoiding the unpleasant in a cowardly fashion.

Three of the women in the exhibition, all of whom Reynolds personally befriended (rumors circulated that he might have been the lover of two), were either courtesans or of morally dubious pasts. The actress Mrs. Abington, for example, portrayed by Reynolds in her role as Prue, the sexually inquiring country girl in Congreve’s play Love for Love, grew up in a slum and was widely thought to have been a prostitute before becoming the greatest comic actress of her day. She sits astride a Chippendale chair in an elegant pink silk gown with lace frills, staring straight ahead with her left hand raised to her mouth, her thumb resting on her lower lip. In Reynolds’s portrait, she is deeply alluring without vulgarity, a woman of outstanding beauty and also of intelligence and an inner core of goodness. We love her as Reynolds obviously loved her. He painted her at least three other times, suggesting a more than merely commercial commitment: each time differently but, on every occasion, to show her at her considerable best.

So it is with Kitty Fisher and Nelly O’Brien, two famous courtesans. There were two portraits of O’Brien in the exhibition: one formal, in which she is fully dressed; and the other showing her relatively dishabille. She is not only beautiful but also charming, refined, and intelligent; the fact that she is a courtesan and that, in the abstract, we do not approve of the métier fades into insignificance compared with her beauty—both outward and inward. The depiction of that beauty is unapologetic and, in a sense, unself-conscious: for the celebration and creation of beauty, including moral beauty, was self-evidently the task of art in Reynolds’s worldview, which was clearly a tolerant one.

Crossing London to see the exhibition of Marlene Dumas’s work was like traveling to another continent. Her art is figurative and, if I had to put a label on it, expressionist. She unquestionably is an artist of great talent and, interestingly, of academic training. One of the few advantages of South African backwardness in the early 1970s was that its art schools (she attended Cape Town University’s) had not yet abandoned formal instruction in technical artistic skills. This stood Dumas in good stead when she began to strike out on her own and convey her view of the world in her work.

It is an extraordinary view, its impact all the greater when you have just come from immersing yourself in Reynolds’s. There can be no doubt about Dumas’s power to disturb, brilliantly displayed in the Tate’s large spaces. That her work should disturb can hardly have been far from the artist’s mind and intention. Each and every room in the exhibition induced a state, at least in me, of anxiety—an anxiety not related to any particular aspect of existence but relating to existence as such.

Dumas’s subject is humans, hundreds of them, painted, as she herself says, from photographs, in the process transforming them into what she thinks they really are—apparently, pre-corpses. In some of her pictures, it is not certain whether the figures are alive or dead, and certainly they are never straightforwardly beautiful, à la Reynolds’s. Their blemishes, their defects, their deformities, and their expressions of despair or terror are constitutive, or what they are truly. The pictures show no laughter or unequivocal pleasure; the world is terrible, and ugliness is the new beauty.

It is instructive to compare Reynolds’s and Dumas’s view of children and childhood. Reynolds loved painting children, and the Wallace Collection exhibition includes his Miss Jane Bowles—a picture of a pretty little girl, sitting on the ground in the country, clutching her black-and-white dog to her, both of them facing the viewer. Miss Bowles is wide-eyed, depicted with just a hint of a smile on her otherwise serious face; the love and trust between the child and dog are evident.

To get Miss Bowles to sit for him, Reynolds invited her and her father, who had commissioned the picture, to come to dinner the night before. Reynolds charmed and delighted Miss Bowles by performing little tricks, such as removing her plate from the table and returning it without letting her see how he had done it. She was so delighted that the next day, when she was to sit for her picture, she was eager to do so. It is difficult not to believe from this anecdote that Reynolds was as delighted with Miss Bowles as she was with him; his painting exudes a tenderness that is not cloying because it is real and unaffected. It avoids sentimentality because it represents not the whole of reality but of an undoubted aspect of reality—which delights us unless we are wholly soured by life, for children really do have soft skin, bright eyes, a trusting manner, and pleasure in life—but also because the sensitive viewer is only too aware that what is depicted is but fleeting, that Miss Bowles will grow up and face many sorrows, that the dog will age and cease to be so important to her, and that she will never again be so charmingly innocent: “Ay, in the very temple of delight/Veil’d melancholy has her sovereign shrine.” Our delight is thus tempered by an awareness that, like all delight, hers must decay.

By contrast, Marlene Dumas’s children are not sweet or innocent, but knowing and scheming. They look as if they are pre-murderers, at best; she sheds upon them a cold, unsparing light, that of the extreme Calvinist preacher who demands a never-to-be-forgotten awareness of original sin, precluding the most momentary innocence. As her other paintings make clear, all pleasure is illicit, either sadistic or masochistic in nature, and only leads to trouble—to the mortuary table, in the end.

The picture that adorns the cover of the Dumas exhibition catalog is titled The Painter. It is of a naked girl, a little older than Miss Bowles, who stands up straight, facing the viewer. Her expression is of a defiant scowl, almost menacing. Her dark, deep-set, intense but indistinct eyes seem to express hatred, not of a particular object but of the world itself (inclusive of the viewer). Most of her torso is covered in light blue paint; far more disturbing, her hands, which hang by her side, are covered in paint: the right hand the color of dark, venous blood and the left hand the color of bright, arterial blood. One gets the impression that she has just come from the postmortem room or has perhaps murdered her mother. One is never too young to be a psychopath.

It is an extremely disturbing image, painted with talent. You are not likely to pass it by or to forget it. When I showed it to friends, not artistically inclined and unfamiliar with the notion of transgression as the highest good, they shuddered and said that it was sick and that it displayed a diseased imagination. Some will retort that outraged bourgeois have often reacted in this way to new art that subsequent generations took in stride and perhaps considered great. But it does not follow from the fact that a great work once caused outrage that a work that causes outrage is great. For myself, I have no difficulty in both admiring and disliking Dumas’s art.

What most interests me is the change in sensibility between Reynolds and Dumas: a change that I recognize even in myself, in that I think that any modern attempt to reproduce Reynolds-like tenderness toward childhood would end up as kitsch, to which the harshness of Dumas (manifest even in her pictures of her daughter) would be artistically preferable.

This profound change in sensibility cannot be a reflection only of a change in the world. It is true that the dress of the eighteenth century, at least of the upper classes, was vastly more elegant and gorgeous (but also more uncomfortable) than anything we wear now; the interiors of houses—again, of the upper classes—were of an elegance now vanished unless specifically preserved; and towns were infinitely more graceful than they are now. But up close, they would have appalled us: the smell, dirt, and destitution would have been greater than anything of which we had the remotest experience. In the London in which Reynolds spent most of his career, 50 percent of children died before the age of five.

So it is not that the world has become “objectively” worse in the interval between Reynolds and Dumas. In many respects, precisely the reverse is true, though many terrible things were done in that interval. Childhood is not less childhood than it was; children are not physically the uglier. Nor is it that we have become more intellectually sophisticated in the meantime, such that we have a better understanding of what human life is about and how it should be lived, or of the true wellsprings of human action. Reynolds painted for a society in which rising men aspired to join the ranks of the aristocracy, whose tastes they imitated wherever possible; but Dumas paints for a clientele just as restricted, economically and culturally.

As it happens, both Reynolds and Dumas are writers as well as painters, and the difference between their literary styles is as great as that between their respective painterly sensibilities. Reynolds’s most famous work is his Discourses on Art, a series of lectures delivered to the students of the Royal Academy of Arts, of which he was the founding president. In these lectures, Reynolds attempts to lay down the rules of art, unsuccessfully and often with self-contradiction, in my view, because the task was impossible and also because he often shows errors of judgment. Nevertheless, he expresses himself with elegance and has many still-valuable things to say (which, perhaps, is why the Discourses lectures remain in print, two centuries after they first appeared). Indeed, some of his remarks have become more pertinent with the passage of time and the deterioration of our art schools. Reynolds says, in the Sixth Discourse: “Those who have undertaken to write about our art, and have represented it as a kind of inspiration, as a gift bestowed upon peculiar favourites at their birth, seem to insure a much more favourable disposition from their readers, and have a much more captivating and liberal air, than he who attempts to examine, coldly, whether there are any means by which this art may be acquired.”

Reynolds adds: “Invention is one of the great marks of genius; but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the invention of others, that we learn to invent.” Finally, he observes: “The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on its own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will soon be reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what has often been repeated.”

In modern art schools, it is as if they have taken the Sixth Discourse as a blueprint of what not to do or to teach, so that students come to believe that art, like sex, began in 1963 (at the earliest). Marlene Dumas was indeed fortunate that, having attended art school in Cape Town, she was saved from the kind of provincialism now rampant in London, Paris, and New York. Her writing, collected in a volume titled Sweet Nothings (a title intended, one suspects, to ward off serious criticism), has an apodictic, take-it-or-leave-it quality: “Art is a low-risk, high-reward crime.” Or: “Now that we know that images can mean whatever, whoever wants them to mean, we don’t trust anybody anymore, especially ourselves.” This is a world without enchantment. The following words are revealing:

My generation cherishes loneliness
prizing it even above sex.
They are so sensitive,
they are allergic to each other.

One cannot help but suspect that there is bad faith in all this, that this is not so much how people feel as how they feel they ought to feel in order not to appear naïve. Dumas quotes a man called Kellendonk (I assume the Dutch writer of that name, who died in 1990): “Kellendonk makes a distinction between aesthetic emotion and ordinary every-day emotions. He said he could cope with seeing blood in every-day life but not on film or television.” I find this obviously insincere and exhibitionistic: the kind of self-promoting flatulence that Reynolds, no stranger to personal ambition, would have disdained as dishonest.

While some would no doubt accuse Reynolds of having avoided the less refined aspects of his society (a charge that could be levied against hundreds or thousands of artists), Dumas is guilty of a much greater evasion, caused by a fear of beauty. In a perceptive note in the catalog of her exhibition, by the critic Wendy Simon, we learn of this fear. Simon draws attention to “the extreme ambivalence we now feel towards beauty both within and outside art,” and continues: “We distrust it; we fear its power; we associate it with compulsion and uncontrollable desire of a sexual fetish. Embarrassed by our yearning for beauty, we demean it as something tawdry, self-indulgent, or sentimental.”

All that is necessary for ugliness to prosper is for artists to reject beauty.

Lenin abjured music, to which he was sensitive, because it made him feel well-disposed to the people around him, and he thought it would be necessary to kill so many of them. Theodor Adorno said that there could be no more poetry after Auschwitz. Our view of the world has become so politicized that we think that the unembarrassed celebration of beauty is a sign of insensibility to suffering and that exclusively to focus on the world’s deformations, its horrors, is in itself a sign of compassion. Reynolds was not tortured by such considerations.

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