Friday, January 9, 2015


The artists at Charlie Hebdo may have drawn coarse provocative cartoons, but they were artists, and their murders remind us all of the value of that democratic liberalism so many now profess to despise.
Their killers were fanatics inspired by holy men who have more in common with Charles Manson than they do with the Prophet Muhammad.  Those holy men are predators exploiting lost uprooted immigrant youth in a hostile Europe, using their need to belong to goad them into doing unspeakable evil.  The mores of the terrorist cell are not so much those of a religious order than those of a criminal gang or a cult.

Two pictures are much on my mind these days, and have been for awhile.

The first is an old favorite of mine, Nicholas Poussin's painting usually called "The Inspiration of the Epic Poet."  It shows a poet at the moment of inspiration on the right, when the idea, the concept of a great poem first enters his mind.  Apollo in the center bids him to write.  Behind Apollo is a Muse, perhaps Calliope or Clio.  There are 2 putti.  One on the left of center holds an old book and a laurel wreath.  Another flies over the poet and holds 2 laurel wreaths, one over the poet's head, and the other over the work he starts.  Apollo's right foot rests upon a stack of very old and worn books.
The poet probably does not see any of these figures.  His gaze is upward, and yet he is so absorbed in his vision that he seems to look inward.  With his foot resting upon the honored works of the great poets of the past, Apollo bids the poet to add to their ranks to make something worthy of their work.  He bids the poet to do as they did, to memorably and eloquently sing of great deeds of great men and women of old.  Apollo points to the poet's page at the very moment he takes up his pen.  Putti carry laurel wreaths associated with triumph and with Apollo.  They hold them close to the old volumes of the great poets, over the head of the living poet, and over his work.  They serve as Apollo's acolytes bidding the poet to win glory and honor for himself and his work, and to add to the glory of his predecessors.  The figures all sit together in a laurel grove lit by the setting sun at twilight, the most evocative time of the day, the time when people sit together to remember and to tell stories.

I've always loved and admired this painting by Poussin, probably a work of his early maturity from around 1630 or so.  All the figures are splendid, but the most beautiful of all is the Muse on the left, perhaps a portrait of his wife Anna Dughet.  The painting has that quality of concentrated grandeur and the momentous that we associate with the best Classical art.  This picture still has some of the intense feeling that we associate with Poussin's early work.  Poussin made this composition of 5 figures with a kind of b-a-b-a-b rhythm perhaps calling to mind the quantitative meter of ancient Classical poetry, or even something like the iambic pentameter of early English poetry.  The contour of the flying putto on the right beautifully echoes the contour of Apollo's left leg forming a kind of parentheses around the central action of the picture.  I can understand more and more why Cezanne so admired Poussin's work.  It has that perfectly complete and integrated pictorial architecture that is like a great Classical temple; nothing more can be added to it, and nothing can be taken away.  It is whole as our bodies are whole.  The colors combine to create the soft golden tonality of early twilight.

Here is my very bad photo of the original in the Louvre in Paris.  The reproduction above is from Wikipedia.

Here is another very different image of inspiration.

This is a print by Francisco Goya, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" from a suite of prints published in 1799 called Los Caprichos or The Caprices.

It shows Goya himself asleep at his desk in the middle of the night.  A swarm of owls and bats with a cat appear out of the darkness behind him.  The title of the print is inscribed on the desk.  Owls, bats, and cats are creatures long associated with the night and with witchcraft, with everything that the late 18th century would dismiss as just so much superstition.  And yet these Halloween cliches in Goya's print have a power and vitality which is still very unsettling.  Witchcraft and superstition come from parts of the human mind that are far outside the bounds of reason as the 18th century understood it.  They come from the depths of what the 20th century would describe as the unconscious mind, the realm of animal instinct that dwells in us all.
To the left of Goya an owl perches on the desk next to him and holds up one of his drawing pens, bidding the artist to wake up and to work.  Contrary to the exhortations of the 18th century Enlightenment and of the NeoClassical aesthetic, the vast darkness of unreason is perhaps the more genuine source of the artist's inspiration than any light of reason and virtue.

The textbooks all put Goya under the heading of Romanticism, and yet Goya had no contact with the great French Romantics or with any other such artists.  Goya would not have endorsed the Romantic rejection of reason for instinct and feeling.  He certainly would not have endorsed Romantic ideas of the sublime; seeing the beauty and thrill in extreme and even deadly spectacles.  Goya meant for his horrific spectacles to be frightening, not sublime.
I think it is much too simplistic to describe Goya as an outraged liberal, but he wrote in his journals repeatedly "Voltaire is immortal."  Like Voltaire, Goya believed that it was our duty to be reasonable.  Unlike Voltaire and the rest of the 18th century, Goya had no illusions about all-powerful reason dispelling superstition as the sun dispels darkness with its light.  Goya would have agreed with William Blake when he said that "Reason is but the outward bound and circumference of Energy."  He would not have agreed with Blake that "Energy is eternal delight."  Goya saw with great insight for our own day that people are primarily driven by their passions whether of love or hate; that fear and desire far more than reason and virtue drive so much human enterprise.  The dark forces of unreason, far from being weak, are very powerful and we ignore them at our peril.


Kittredge Cherry said...

I'm REALLY glad you claimed the name "artists" for those victims who are almost always called "cartoonists" in the news media. I found it demeaning. Likewise, they almost never call "Charlie Hebdo" a "newspaper," they have to qualify it as a "satirical newspaper," as if that somehow makes the attack on it less heinous.

JCF said...

Is it just me, or does "the Epic Poet" of Poussin resemble a woman (perhaps a middle-aged lesbian, rocking a mullet! Yes, perhaps it IS just me. ;-p~~~)

Yet Another Example of Goya creeping me out...