California Literary Review

The Power of Art by Simon Schama

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June 10th, 2007 at 7:27 pm

The Power of Art
by Simon Schama
Ecco, 448 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Bold Masters

“An artist is not paid for his labor,” proclaimed the 19th century painter,” James McNeil Whistler, “but for his vision.”

After reading Simon Schama’s, The Power of Art, it is disturbing to reflect that scorn and incomprehension are often the only payment that visionary artists ever receive, at least during their lifetimes.

Schama’s recent book is the companion volume to the BBC television series of the same title. He chronicles the struggles of eight artists – Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko – by focusing upon a key work of art by each of these embattled old masters. The deciding factor in selecting these seminal works is what Schama terms the “conversionary” power of their art.

Rather that picking the most picturesque or technically innovative masterpiece, Schama emphasizes the insights and impact of these artists on the societies in which they lived and worked. Their themes, according to Schama’s narrative, were not matters of aesthetics but rather of “salvation, freedom, mortality, transgression, the state of the world, the state of our souls.”

Schama finds the ideal protagonist in his opening chapter on the tortured genius of Baroque Italy, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Street brawler, libertine, fugitive from justice, Caravaggio’s credentials for “transgression” were impeccable. But then, so were his manifest abilities to depict scenes from Biblical history and the providential infusion of God’s grace through such events. For the Pope and cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, these were priceless assets worthy of their patronage.

When Caravaggio first came to Rome from Northern Italy in 1592, the Catholic hierarchy was attempting to put into practice the long list of reforms approved at the Council of Trent. These had two objectives: to counter the spread of the Protestant denominations founded by Martin Luther and John Calvin and to impress upon the Catholic faithful the need to pattern their lives on those of the saints. However, the dominant school of art of the late 1500’s, Mannerism was ill-suited to give visual expression to either of these goals.

For all of his own moral blemishes, Caravaggio knew exactly how to please the princes of the Catholic Church. He completely rejected the pretentious intellectualism and coy erotic themes that had preoccupied the Mannerist painters. The backgrounds of his oil paintings were blacked-out, with the action placed so close to the foreground of the canvas that the subjects seem ready to tumble out of the picture plane and spring to life at the feet of the beholder. When Caravaggio depicts St. Paul falling from his horse on the road to Damascus, the reaction of the viewer is to reach out and help the stricken saint. Caravaggio had succeeded in capturing the immediacy of religious experience, precisely the state of mind and soul that the Catholic Church was attempting to propagate.

Caravaggio placed the subjects and the viewers of his paintings in the “here and now.” Significantly, he also placed himself in a number of his works. In the painting selected by Schama as the centerpiece for the chapter on Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, painted around 1605, the face of the painter appears twice, as both victor and vanquished.

The countenance of the youthful David is that of the young Caravaggio, from the days of his successes of a decade earlier. The young hero looks pensively at the severed head he is holding, the decapitated head of both Goliath and of Caravaggio himself, now a dissipated wreck of a man, soon to be fleeing a charge of murder from a drunken sword fight near the tennis courts of Rome in 1606.

Why did Caravaggio succumb to incessant drunkenness and violence? Like most artists, he endured carping criticism of his work. The grittiness of the detail offended some of the Catholic hierarchy who thought that saints should be depicted with more respect, as indeed they insisted that they be treated themselves. Yet, Caravaggio did not lack for patrons. The same was true of the 17th century sculptor, Gianlorennzo Bernini, the subject of Schama’s second chapter. The darling of popes and cardinals, Bernini lashed out, as Caravaggio had done, attacking his own brother and arranging for his mistress to be maimed after he discovered that they had been having an affair.

Schama surprisingly does not probe for the source of the inner demons of Caravaggio and Bernini. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her recent study of ritual celebration, Dancing in the Streets, notes that around 1600, Europe was stricken by an “epidemic of melancholy.” While Ehrenreich centers her attention on the psychological depression affecting intellectuals in Protestant nations like England, she notes its affect on Catholic Spain and Italy ,as well. With the early promise of the Renaissance fading, there was a lot to be melancholy about. Even cultural giants like Caravaggio and Bernini had to conform to the moral codes instituted by their patrons, or risk, like Goliath, loosing their heads.

Patronage is a two-edged sword. It can be dangerous to both artists to whom it is granted, as well as those who are rejected or ignored. Schama addresses this in his later chapters on Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Even artists who achieve success in their lifetimes run grave risks to their creativity and personal safety by joining the art establishment of their era, as did Jacques David during the French Revolution.

To fly in the face of the prevailing world view is both a curse and a call to greatness. The genius of visionary artists flows from their unique insights, not from a shopping list to satisfy the appetites of would-be buyers. At some point, a clash with dictatorial patrons or a fickle art public is inevitable, for as Ernst Gombrich writes in his The Story of Art, “Most people like to see in pictures what they like to see in reality.”

What J.M.W. Turner presented to Victorian Britain in 1840 with his epic painting, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On, was not an image which most of their contemporaries cared to remember. The chained hands of slaves tossed into the sea from a British ship challenged the self-congratulatory mood in Great Britain following the emancipation of slavery throughout the British Empire two years earlier. Many critics responded to the visceral effect of Turner’s use of glowing gold and fiery red in his depiction of callous cruelty by treating him as if he had taken leave of his senses.

It was more than Turner’s treatment of atmospheric effects, however, that made him a target of the increasingly self-satisfied British establishment. Schama notes that another great work, Disaster at Sea- ­ the Wreck of the Amphitrite (1835), which depicts the shipwreck and death of women and children bound for the prison colony of New South Wales, remained unfinished. Given Turner’s extraordinary ability to complete paintings before the astonished gaze of fellow painters and patrons on the varnishing days held at the Royal Academy, it is highly improbable that he failed to finish this extraordinary canvas for lack of time or application. A much more likely explanation stems from the fact that the Amphitrite incident was a recent event. To have exhibited a work critical of the contemporary British Empire at the Royal Academy would have provoked a storm of outrage in high places that even Turner could not have weathered.

With Slavers, he was on safer ground. The event he depicted took place in 1781, when the captain of the Zong had hurled living slaves into the sea during a storm. This was one of incidents that Abolitionist leaders had used to stir public opposition against the slave trade. Turner’s Slavers could be interpreted, therefore, as a visual record of the workings of British justice. Disaster at Sea, however, could never be viewed as anything less than an indictment of British policy since the Amphitrite’s captain had refused to land the women and children prisoners on the coast of France despite ample opportunity. The fact that Turner was never knighted, despite his earlier patriotic paintings during the Napoleonic Wars, shows that British officialdom was well aware of the criticism implicit in his searing seascape.

A century and half later, Picasso’s Guernica was at the center of another political storm. Painted in 1937 to popularize the Spanish Republic’s resistance to the Fascist coup of Francisco Franco, Picasso’s subject was the aerial attack by dive bombers of Hitler’s Condor Legion on the Basque city of Guernica in Northern Spain. Painted in gray, black and white, Guernica deliberately echoed newspaper photos and newsreel film. Picasso, however, rejected a realist approach to convey the horror of the attack. Guernica combined elements from his earlier symbolist and surrealist periods, with an evocation of the outstretched arms of the martyred Spanish patriots in Francisco Goya’s Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, May 3, 1808.

Picasso declared that paintings like Guernica were “weapons of war.” Despite some polite praise in liberal circles, the vast painting initially was something of a dud shell. Surreal depictions of destruction had little appeal to Western audiences, still scarred by the “Great War” of 1914-1918, who were hoping that Hitler’s onslaught might be halted by appeasement and conciliation.

Eventually, as the clouds of total war could no longer be ignored, Guernica, safely on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, became a revered talisman of the war against totalitarian aggression. And there the story might well have ended happily, with Guernica repatriated to Spain after Franco’s death, and the world firmly committed to a policy of “never again.”

In the spring of 2003, as Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State, tried to build a case for war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Guernica once again raised its ugly head. Powell’s speech was set to take place in a room at the United Nations graced by a tapestry rendition of Guernica. In what Schama calls “the ultimate backhanded compliment to the power of art,” the tapestry was covered over. Powell gave his speech. And war came.

On the surface of things, the logic of power had once again trumped the idealism of art. Religious conformism in Caravaggio’s day, colonialism in Turner’s era, blitzkrieg in the time of Picasso – such were the realities against which these great artists struggled seemingly in vain. Yet the truths they upheld in their mighty works of imagination have only gained in strength. These works of art are part of the cultural heritage of all humankind, testaments of who we humans really are.

Take down the curtain of propaganda and the power of art is what you see.

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