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Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Airbrushed from Art History? (9)

So far this series of posts has summarised the first circle of artistic influence to come out of the French Catholic Revival; the circle of artists which formed around Maurice Denis and which, having been influenced by Bernard and Gauguin via Sérusier, was itself influential through the Nabis, Symbolism, and the Ateliers de l’Art Sacré.

The second of the four circles of influence that came out of the French Catholic Revival, as noted in my post summarizing where this part of the series is going, was that which surrounded the philosopher Jacques Maritain.

Jean-Luc Barré writes in Jacques and Raïssa Maritain: Beggars for Heaven of how poets, painters and musicians began gravitating around the Maritains, “most of whom they met in the company of Léon Bloy.” There was firstly their discovery of Georges Rouault, “then of Pierre van der Meer de Valcheren, a Dutch novelist who was presented to them in 1911, two days after his own conversion … Then, during the war, they met the young seventeen-year-old composer, Georges Auric, soon a frequent visitor at Versailles …”

Barré goes on to describe how these friendships led to the formation of Thomistic study circles at the Maritain’s home in Meuden “where close friends of the couple came together – Abbé Lallement, Roland Dalbiez, Doctor Pichet, Noële Denis, the eldest daughter of the painter Maurice Denis, Vitia Rosenblum, the brother-in-law of Stanislas Fumet.” Barré continues, “The year 1921 would see the first circle grow larger: a Romanian prince converted to Catholicism, Vladimir Ghika, a young orientalist eager to bring together the Muslim and Christian worlds, Louis Massignon, the philosopher Henri Gouhier, the writer Henri Ghéon, the future Abbé Altermann, among others, joined the study group.

In The Maritain Factor: Taking Religion into Interwar Modernism Rajesh Heynickx and Jan De Maeyer note that:

“the French poet, writer, and surrealist filmmaker Jean Cocteau converted under the influence of Maritain. For the painters Gino Severini, a pioneer of Futurism, and Otto Van Rees, one of the first Dadaists-both converts - Maritain played the role of spiritual counselor. And when the promoter of abstract art Michel Seuphor embraced Catholic faith in the 1930s, he, too, had extensive contact with Maritain. For all of them, the dictum of the Irish poet Brian Coffey, once a doctoral student under Maritain, applied: modern art needs a Thomist conceptual framework.”

This journey of significant influence began for the Maritain’s with Léon Bloy. The reading of Bloy’s novel Le Femme pauvre led on to their meeting with the man himself. A period of examination by the maritains of “the life, the doctrines, and the sources of Catholicism” ensued before, on 5th April 1906, “the couple, at the end of “long conversations” confided to Bloy their desire to become Catholics.” Rouault made a similar journey to that of the Maritains, first reading Le Femme pauvre before meeting Bloy. Barré writes that Rouault “seems to have come to the home of this prophet of malediction seeking for other reasons, and always more painful ones, to question himself and to set out towards the unknown.”

William Dryness writes in Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation that, “Jacques and Raïssa Maritain met Rouault for the first time in November of 1905, and Raïssa recalls evenings when she and her husband would sit and listen to Rouault and Bloy discuss “every important question about art.”” Rouault was, for the Maritains, “the first revelation of a truly great painter” and it was in him that they perceived “the nature of art, its imperious necessities, its antinomies and the conflict of very real demands, sometimes tragic, which made up perhaps the theatre of the artist’s mind.”

Their initial approach, Barré writes,“to this “true and great artist” in his imperious confrontation with the first demands of the creative act … then took form and developed into a reflection which ended with the publication in 1920 of Art et Scolastique.” Art and Scholasticism:

“set itself to demonstrate the autonomy of the creative act, the particular responsibility that falls to artists. Directed to beauty as to its very own absolute … art has “an end and a set of rules and values, which are not those of men, but of the work of art to be produced.” … Nor does the nature of art consist in imitating the real, but rather in “composing or constructing” by delving into the “immense treasure of created things, from sensible nature as from the world of souls.” In this way the creator becomes “an associate of God in the making of beautiful works.” … In praise of pure art, Art et Scolastique can be read as the manifesto of a new classicism, founded on “the simplicity and purity of means,” aspiring to nothing more than the veracity of the work itself. In modern art Maritain disclosed the first steps of search in this direction and noticed in cubism “the infancy, still toddling and screaming, of an art that is once again pure.” … it contained a kind of call, inviting philosophers and artists to enter into a “conversation” that would lead to an escape from “the immense intellectual disarray inherited from the nineteenth century.””

As Barré notes the book “was closer to Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie than to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas” and, as a result, in the 1920s and 1930s, Maritain’s cultural criticism (Antimodern, 1922, Religion et Culture, 1930) and his reflections on aesthetics in Art and Scholasticism enjoyed wide interest in artistic and intellectual circles.

One example of this response can be found in Gino Severini’s The Life of a Painter. Severini writes of his encounter with Maritain as marking an important point in his life, in part because Maritain loaned him money to set up his own art school. During his initial meeting with Maritain it was clear to him that he was being submitted to a thorough examination on the part of those present (which included Ghéon, as well as the Maritains) and that his every word was significant to them. As he left, Maritain put a book into his hands, “saying: “Take a look at it when you have the time.”” On the electric train back to Paris, Severini discovered that he had been given a first edition of Art and Scholasticism and “was amazed at the extent to which it agreed with the most modern goals, and at the profound sense of freedom, from what supreme heights of intelligence, the author could observe, put in order, and clarify, everything related to art.”

Severini continues:

“… what a great sense of joy I felt upon discovering, in Maritain, the confirmation of certain thought patterns, certain ways of clarifying these to myself and to others, and, what I considered most important, of discovering a friendship and human comprehension of the most profound sort. Later the formidable significance of Art et Scolastique became clear to everyone, as did the caliber of the author, the transparency and clarity of whose soul recalls the purest of rock crystals.”

It was at Maritain’s prompting, via Alexandre Cingria, that Severini began working on Church commissions eventually becoming in the words of Denis, “the most famous decorator of Swiss churches.”

Severini writes that Jean Cocteau was chief among the “somewhat atheist poets” that Maritain transformed into Christian artists but notes too that this period “was all too brief.” Similarly, Rowan Williams considers in Grace and Necessity that “Maritain’s relations with Cocteau … constituted an important if inconclusive episode in the lives of both.”

Although Cocteau’s subsequent life seemed, from the perspective of Maritain, to be “going deeper “into the caves of death” and to be dealing with the “powers of darkness”, the influence that Maritain and Catholicism had had on Cocteau was not altogether lost. Something of this can be sensed in the church decorations that Cocteau undertook.

In 1960 he painted murals in one of the chapels of Notre Dame de France, London. According to eye witnesses, he always began by lighting a candle before the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and spoke to his characters while he worked on the mural. For instance, he is reported as telling the virgin of the Annunciation, “O you, most beautiful of women, loveliest of God’s creatures, you were the best loved. So I want you to be my best piece of work too… I am drawing you with light strokes… You are the yet unfinished work of Grace.” Cocteau is buried at the chapel of Saint-Blaise-des-Simples, where he had also painted decorations. Before his death, he had also been making sketches to paint a chapel in Frejus which was actually decorated, after his death, by the gardener that Cocteau had trained as an artist shortly before he died.

The failure of Maritain's relationship with Cocteau came at a time in which more than one of those whose conversions he had won wandered away from their regained faith and in which he became suspect in the eyes of Catholics in general. He questioned whether he had been wrong and mistaken to bother himself with all these literary people. Reflecting these new problems confronting him, Barré writes that new and different friendships formed around him with his network becoming “more open to philosophers, professors, French and foreign religious.”

Maritain’s greatest influence on an artist was perhaps not on one of those that was a part of his immediate circle. Art and Scholasticism was important, as Jonathan Miles and Derek Shiel write in The Maker Unmade, to the thinking in Eric Gill’s establishments at Ditchling, Capel-y-ffin and Pigotts as well as to David Jones’s thinking about art. Rowan Williams writes in Grace and Necessity that:

“Jones’ exposure to Maritain came through his participation in Gill’s project. After demobilization in 1919, Jones studied first at the Westminster School of Art, where it appears that a catholic friend introduced him to Fr. John O’Connor. He became a Roman Catholic in 1921 and, prompted by O’Connor, joined Gill at Ditchling later that year … Thus, he was alongside Gill and Gill’s colleagues … during the crucial period during which they were all reading Maritain; and it is very clear that for Jones … this made sense of what he had assimilated at the Westminster School of Art.”

As Rene Hague later wrote, ‘the Post-Impressionist attitude to the arts fitted in very well with Maritain’ and ‘Thomism’.

Miles and Shiel write that:

“The philosophy of Maritain explored two related questions that are of importance for David Jones: signification and epiphany. By rigorous habit, the artist would not only be able to reveal this or that object under the form of paint but also make an epiphany, make the universal shine out from the particular. Thus, what is re-presented also becomes a sign of something else and if that something else is significant of something divine, then the art can claim to have a sacred character or function, a sacramental vitality.”

Similarly, Williams argues that what preoccupies Jones from the beginning is “precisely what so concerns Maritain, the showing of the excess that pervades appearances.” As his work develops, Jones comes to see that you paint ‘excess’ by:

“the delicate superimposing of nets of visual material in a way that teases constantly by simultaneously refusing a third dimension and insisting that there is no way of reading the one surface at once. As in the Byzantine icon, visual depth gives way to the time taken to ‘read’ a surface: you cannot construct a single consistent illusion of depth as you look, and so you are obliged to trace and re-trace the intersecting linear patterns.”

Williams notes that in several respects Jones takes Maritain a stage further. Firstly, in that “the half-apprehended consonances of impressions out of which an artwork grows has to be realized in the process of actually creating significant forms which, in the process of their embodiment, in stone, words, or pigment, uncover other resonances, so that what finally emerges is more than just a setting down of what was first grasped.”

Secondly, in “the way in which a life may become a significant form – as, decisively and uniquely; in the life of Christ.” He:

“illustrates a point Maritain does not quite get to. Jones implies that the life of ‘prudence’, a life lived in a consciously moral context, however exactly understood, is itself an act of gratuitous sign-making; moral behavior is the construction of a life that can be ‘read’, that reveals something in the world and uncovers mystery.”

Both are exemplified by Jones’ life and practice as he turns away “from one mode of representation in which he excelled in order to include more and more of the interwoven simultaneous lines of signification and allusion” in “an attempt to embody a more radical love in what he produces, a love that attends to all the boundary-crossing echoes that characterize the real, which is also the good.”

In doing so, he embodies in his art Maritain’s view that “the joy or delight of a work of art is in proportion to its powers of signification”:

“the more there is of knowledge, or of things presented to the understanding, the vaster will be the possibility of joy; this is why Art, in so far as ordered to Beauty, does not, at least when its object permits, stop at forms or at colours, nor at sounds, nor at words taken in themselves and as things, but it takes them also as making known other things than themselves, that is to say as signs. And the thing signified may itself be a sign in turn, and the more the work of art is laden with significance … the vaster and the richer and the higher will be the possibility of joy and beauty”.


Peter Case - Who's Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile.

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