Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Tradition Changes

Above is Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' entry into the Salon of 1827, The Apotheosis of Homer.  The Blind Bard sits enthroned before his temple, personifications of the Iliad and the Odyssey at his feet.  He is surrounded by an adoring crowd of poets and other culture heroes from a variety of ages.  If you look carefully, you can see everyone from Anacreon to Moliere in here.  It was inspired by Raphael's famous School of Athens in the Vatican in Rome.

The comparison between these 2 pictures is very instructive.  The big difference between the two for me is the noise level.  Raphael's picture is full of noise, people talking and arguing everywhere.  The center of the whole picture is an argument between Plato and Aristotle.  The whole picture is an expansion of their argument with the statue of Apollo presiding over all those philosophers on Plato's side.  These are the thinkers like Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Avicenna who speculate on the fundamental nature of reality.  On Aristotle's side, presided over by the statue of Minerva, are the thinkers like Euclid and Ptolemy who apply rational thought to the understanding of phenomena, the scientists.  The whole argument takes place in a vast, but unfinished, building.  Ultimately, the argument between Plato and Aristotle is unresolved.
By contrast, in Ingres' picture, the temple behind Homer is complete.  Silence reigns.  Everyone agrees.  This whole painting looks in adoring silence toward its prototype in Raphael's great picture.  Everything is resolved.

Ingres would see a lot of change over the course of his long life.  He was born in 1780 just before the French Revolution.  He would live to see (and work for) Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, Louis Phillipe, and Louis Napoleon.  When he was born, Paris was still a city of dark winding medieval alleys.  When he died in 1867, the city was opened by Baron Hausmann's broad boulevards and linked to the whole of Europe by railroads.  So much changed so drastically and so fast.  It was more than thought and imagination could assimilate.

Ingres' picture embodies a new modern concept of tradition.  Raphael's painting is about an older idea of tradition, that it is an ongoing project, never finished, to which each generation makes its contribution.  The new concept of tradition is built around a sense that things are changing too fast and too ruthlessly.  What is good and worthwhile, the very inheritance of the past is threatened.  Ingres himself was very clear about this:
We must ever turn to the past.  Let me hear no more of that absurd maxim, "We need the new, we must follow our century, everything changes, everything is changed."  Sophistry -- all of that!  Does nature change, do the light and the air change, have all the passions of the human heart changed since the time of Homer?  "We must follow our century":  but suppose my century is wrong
And yet, when we compare Ingres' picture to its prototype by Raphael, it is clear that so much has changed.  This picture is just as much at home in the 19th century as an early railroad locomotive.  It is as time-bound as the innovation he protests.  Ingres set himself up as the paragon of artistic conservatism (never mind that he was the darling of later radicals like Degas and Picasso).  He saw himself as a guardian of the Classical inheritance.  That the Classical inheritance needed guarding would never have occurred to Raphael, or to anyone else in Rome in 1510.  The very idea of tradition changed with the advent of modernity.

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