the relevance of evanescence

A tale of two exhibitions

Neo Rauch and Antoine Watteau  -- one wouldn’t ever  dream of mentioning those two artists together.  But what with the programming quirks of the Brussels Palais des Beaux Arts (1),  their respective works filled neighbouring exhibition rooms for a couple of months.  Dutiful art-critics visiting both exhibits then did  their redoubtable 'compare and contrast' job...

briefly introducing both artists:

Neo Rauch  
late 20th - early  21st Century artist from the former DDR.  Known for his post-social-realistic paintings showing a nightmarish jumble of images of warfare and industry, of science and art.  His paintings are populated by a disquieting species of humans, sometimes victims, sometimes perpetrators,  often dressed  in historical military uniforms.  The paintings are full of disjointed action - unity of space and time has exploded and there’s no single narrative. Yet it all looks vaguely familiar, like a feverish dream weaved of images  from our collective memory of centuries filled with fateful strife & enterprise.  As to the aesthetic aspects: saturated, sometimes glowing  colours; clear contours, figures & props a disconctering mix of social-realistic types and the kind of drawing you find in 50s american comic-SF books. 

Political relevance: high
Post-modern quotient : high
Early 18th Century French artist.  Best known for his “fêtes galantes”  which are defined by  Wikipedia as  “scenes of bucolic and idyllic charm, suffused with an air of theatricality. Some of his best known subjects were drawn from the world of Italian comedy and ballet”.  At first sight his paintings depict frivolous pleasures in dreamy park-like settings.   But from the 19th Century onwards connoisseurs have become keenly  sensitive to the pervasive tone of melancholy and regret.  The notions of Pleasure and Melancholy are brilliantly reconciled in Kenneth Clark’s appraisal :   “a feeling of the transitoriness and, thus, the seriousness of pleasure.”  As to the aesthetic aspects: dimly shimmering, evanescent colours (those silky textures ...) , elegant silhouettes & postures, full of elements of theatre and music.  

Political relevance: ranging from ‘highly suspect’ to ‘not-applicable’
Post-modern quotient : ‘not-applicable’

Scorching criticism of “the minor painter” Watteau

One particular art critic reviewing the Rauch and Watteau exhibitions could barely contain his contempt  dismissing Watteau in just a couple of scorching lines: a minor painter always chewing on the same sentimental clichés, of no enduring significance whatsoever - as opposed to the "contemporary relevance" of a Neo Rauch.   This critic seemed truly  offended by the Watteau paintings,  even angry about the waste of time.  Having myself fallen under the spell of the  musical murmurs of Watteau's fragile universe,  I was taken aback and rather puzzled by the sheer vehemence of this critic’s  attack.  Especially since this was a well-regarded,  thoughtful critic, versed in both ancient and contemporary art.  So what was going on?

Watteau found guilty by association?

 Watteau died in 1721, barely 37 years old.  He was the son of a roofer, born and raised in Valenciennes (a former Flemish province, having become French territory only since 1678 ).   His native artistic heritage thus was Nordic, the heritage of a robust Flemish artisan rather than that of the sophisticated French artist he later came to be seen as.  He died even before the era of Louis XV got underway.   And yet,  in many minds he remains associated with all the excesses of refinement of the Louis XV style.  
Watteau's paintings shimmer with the complexities of doubt and regret (2)  and yet he is associated with some of the most grossly sentimental or plainly soft-erotic works of the French Rococo.  He has definitely been ill-served by the superficial similarities his paintings bear with a a fluffy decorative tradition featuring frolicking shepherds & shepherdesses.
But then again, maybe it were indeed those immediately pleasing aspects of his work  which made him popular amongst 18th Century bourgeois art buyers ... and perhaps only later generations came to appreciate the melancholy complexities of his work...  (3)

Taking sides in an age-old dispute  in the visual  arts?

It has of course been of all ages to dictate the norms to which "relevant art" should conform.  A recurring dispute revolves around "history painting" with its grand subjects versus the so-called “minor” art of  genre and landscape paintings.  In  modern terms this dispute often pitches politically relevant art versus a more vaguely personal or poetic art.  Our Watteau-bashing art critic is then clearly in the  “history-painting” camp (though obviously in the contemporary, wizened up,  post-revolutional, history- painting camp)

Another, related, dispute is more of an aesthetic order:  clearly delineated  forms versus  coloristic evocation.   The former usually characterizes history-painting (and its latter day, postmodern  representative,  Neo Rauch).   

At the apex of the artistic pecking order established art criticism would traditionally put paintings with “Monumental drama enacted by heroic protagonists [...].  All forms [...] seen with equal clarity and intensity existing in a vacuum bereft of any atmosphere” (7) . Think of central Italian art (Michelangelo, Raphael) or of later neo-classical French art. 

The colouristic & contemplative Venetian tradition

Luckily for the richness of sensibilities expressed  by art,  there were the 16th century Venetians who introduced  “colour & light as vehicles of meaning” (7) .  Significance was no longer confined to monumental heroic action solidified in wiry forms.   
At last time and atmosphere entered art.  
Lots of Venetian art still was action-filled for sure – only think of the famous Tiziano (whose colouristic ways were eagerly emulated by Rubens).   While masterfully suggesting light and atmosphere, Tiziano’s paintings are far from meditative– he painted mythological & religious high drama, he painted power& authority, he painted lust (or rather  the objects thereof:  attractive women in various states of undress,  bereft of any agency or psychological depth).  There’s of course the sombre, more reflective, late Tiziano , with paintings almost fading out in shimmering sfumato – but even then, it’s more about agonized cries than about melancholy whispers. (5)

Amongst the famous Venetians there’ s also the inscrutable, poetic Giorgione whose paintings are suffused with luminous atmosphere and erotically tinged mystery
And then, going back to the roots of the Venetian tradition,  there’s Bellini, the sublime Giovanni Bellini ..., the arch-father of Venetian painting and the most meditative of all. His painted universe is infused with sacred resonance; light and atmosphere generate meaning, suggest transcendence.   Tone, color and surface combine to create an atmosphere of luminosity and stillness, a contemplative, sacred world” .    “Their real meaning may reside more in the  evocation of a mood rather than a specific temporal narrative” (Bruce Cole).(4)  In his "Sacra Conversazione" , saints and Madonna alike are absorbed in “a meditative tranquillity”, sometimes accompanied by a music making angel.     

Enduring fondness for the elusive painter Watteau

So what does all this has to do with Watteau? 
Watteau is a clear descendant of the Venetian colouristic tradition as exemplified by Tiziano, not directly perhaps, but via Rubens (4) , who transmitted an ebullient, sensualistic, baroque form of it.  
However, despite the  colouristic and formal similarities, Watteau’s tone is radically different from the triumphant,  lust-filled world of a Rubens or a Tiziano (6) .    As Bruce Cole puts it (7) :  “But while not forgetting his distinguished artistic heritage, Watteau has changed the tenor of the subject from a sensualistic revel to a more complex interplay of transitory human emotions traced with sorrow and regret. In contrast to Titian and Rubens, on whose foundation Watteau built, his narrative is less robust and more tinged with the complexities of love and its loss. "

Reflective and shimmering with doubt, Watteau’s universe resonates perhaps most with the poetic mode introduced by Bellini and Giorgione.  And where Giorgione’s paintings are infused with erotic mystery and  Bellini’s with scared resonance, Watteau initiates a particular, melancholy style hovering in between the real and the theatrical.  (8)

Yes, Watteau is Venetian, but in a highly personal idiosyncratic way.  He’s not religious as Bellini is, his is a profane world.  His world is full of sentiment and longing, perhaps erotic longing, but not in the tradition established by Tiziano and Giorgione, who  present a beautiful female body to a savouring male gaze.  Watteau’s ways are so much more subtle and hesitant ...the liaisons between men and women so tentative, his Pierrot so clumsy, his dandy-esk men so diffident for all the finery of their clothes. 

So perhaps his  “fêtes galantes”  are a specific, profane  variant of  Bellini’s “sacra conversazione” – they are conversations,  not with saints, but with ultimately isolated humans meditating on love (and its loss) , accompanied by music making comedians instead of angels.   There’s no sacred meaning, no transcendence – there’s touching transience, hesitation, murmurs.  There’s neither worldly triumph nor religious redemption, only the redeeming harmony of colour & melody. 

A tale of two exhibitions –reconsidered

Watteau’s paintings may have once pleased the superficial tastes of petty (and other suspect categories of ) bourgeois buyers – they really are too hesitant and ambiguous to be considered as propaganda for the rich & powerful.   
Also, part of rich tradition in painting, Watteau’s paintings have added such a subtle range of hues and tones as well as a dose of previously unknown self-doubting reflectiveness,  that they can hardly  be dismissed as irrelevant shepherds&shepherdesses kitsch.   There’s his draughtsmanship, too,  to admire, the sheer elegance and presence of individual postures – be it of dancers or of  soldiers.

Of soldiers, yes!  I bet our unforgiving critic did not take into account Watteau’s military paintings ...  Not paintings  of military successes and boastful generals, no -  but rather sombre paintings showing the hardships of war  , or those  intermittent pauses in warfare when tired, dishevelled soldiers rest idly in-between battles. 

And though of different era's, and representative of opposed aesthetics, one may wonder whether Rauch and Watteau do not share a certain sensibility.  Rauch too has painted a Harlequin; Rauch too evokes vanity,  of culture & painting.  Are they not both showing an indeterminate  world with isolated individuals who are disenchanted with revolutions and great deeds , a world where theatre has replaced  transcendent ideals.   The transience of all history... the transitoriness of pleasure, the relevance of evanescence.  

Quiet conversations of notes

(1)    Bozar 2013 Feb-May exhibitions program – contemporary art  Neo Rauch - The Obsession of the Demiurge   Antoine Watteau – The Music Lesson

(2)    Catalogue, Florence Raymond : « Antoine Watteau -  La Leçon de musique » ; Essay de Jean-Pierre Changeux : « Mais ces fêtes galantes ne sont-elles pas bien plus sérieuses que des divertissements, une méditation grave sur la précarité de la vie et sa solitude ? »
Charles de Tolnay : « l’image d’un songe éveillé, la nostalgie d’un artiste malade et solitaire pour l’inaccessible paradis du bonheur »
Interview avec William Christie : « [c’est] un art plus confidentiel, [qui plaît] à une autre sensibilité » 
(3)    Ibidem; Interview de Pierre Rosenberg: «L’on ne sait pas très bien comment les contemporains de Watteau lisaient ces tableaux » .

(4)    " Bruce Cole : Titian and Venetian painting 1450-1590
“The sort of hedonistic dreamland of the Departure from the Isle of Cythera was first conceptualised and depicted by Titian, and then adopted by Rubens, who effectively transmitted it to Watteau. The barely defined, atmospheric landscape with its distant mountains all but dissolved in mist is dependent on Titian’s “rape of Europa”, via Rubens (who copied it in Spain), as are the feathery trees, luminous water, general sense of atomized light and colour, and the glazing technique

(5)  Tiziano’s late painting are  well beyond any sense of triumph (be it triumphs of power or of lust)  - they are grave evocations of cruelty and suffering.

(6)  "Guillaume Glorieux, " Watteau": “Rubens fut son ‘véritable modèle’ [...] Quoi de plus éloigné, pourtant, que le monde de Watteau, introverti et en sourdine, et l’univers extraverti, bruyant et véhément de Rubens. »

(8)    Catalogue, Florence Raymond : "Antoine Watteau - La Leçon de Musique",  Interview avec  Pierre Rosenberg : « Est-ce que c’est de la musique ? Est-ce que c’est de la poésie ? On ne sait pas, mais l’on perçoit un murmure. Il y a un peu de cette ambiguïté entre réalité et théâtre qui d’ailleurs fait aussi le génie de Mozart. On ne sait jamais non plus très bien, chez Mozart, quand s’arrête le jeu et commence le véritable sentiment. »[…] « Ce sentiment d’absorption et de concentration chez Watteau est très important. Cet oubli du monde extérieur » . 


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and well-written reflection on a wonderful artist.

Swann Ffflaneur said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Swann Ffflaneur said...

thanks for your visit, tigerloaf

Loved the Baudelaire quote on Watteau on your blog.