Monday, September 29, 2008

The Spirit of Our Age


I first became aware of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) about 20 years ago. A friend of mine, an artist, spoke highly of his work, but the reproductions I saw back then, all still lifes with a few objects, usually bottles or vases on a table top, did not grab me.

Enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is now featuring a large exhibition of the Morandi's works and, thus, an opportunity to judge an artist who, according to the Met's website, was by the early 1930s recognized as "perhaps the greatest living painter in his country."
 
At the Met show I did like some of Morandi's earliest works on view (from, say, 1914), in which the colors (particular in the terracotta range) and the compositions related them to earlier traditions of paintings.


Overall, however, my first opinion of Morandi still holds: I don't see why he is so important. The late works, in which the arrangement of objects has been pared down to a minimum, are repetitive to my eye and offer me little intellectual interest, despite the information on the labels, concerning Morandi's neoclassicism and paintings "composed with the intellectual rigor of a classicist." Charming, yes, but I find that Paul Klee, who also works in a minor key, is more interesting.

When you have to read labels to understand what the painter was up to (the same goes for poets or writers who explain their work to an audience that has come to hear them), then the work, in my opinion, is not successful.

(I was struck by the way Morandi resembles both James Joyce and Bertolt Brecht.)



















Despite my lack of enthusiasm for his paintings, I was intrigued that Morandi stuck with one subject throughout his life, investigating the possibilities with, indeed, "rigor." Something similar can be seen in the scholar whose works I have been studying recently, Fritz Strich, who wrote the first important book on Goethe and world literature, in 1946. From the 1920s until his death in 1963, he had one subject, "spirit" -- "Geist" in German.

Strich wrote in a way that is at odds with our postmodernist age: he spoke, for instance, of the Renaissance or of the Baroque period or of Romanticism as if there was a "spirit" that dominated the age and that was responsible for the way art and literature was expressed. Renaissance art, for instance, with its clarity of construction, its sense of proportion, and mostly with its central subject of "man," expressed the ideal that man, God, and the world existed in harmony. 
Baroque art, in contrast, with its restless, often colossal forms, spoke to an age that had discovered the immensity of the universe within which humans, reduced in stature, sought to break from the restrictive forms imposed by Renaissance harmony.

For Strich, the human spirit was polarized by two desires: one for the limits imposed by form; the other the desire to break free of limits. Cultural history, both art and literature, thus represented a succession of styles that expressed one of these two. Classicism, for instance, shows an age desiring the spirit of restraint, while Romanticism shows the same spirit suffering under restraint.

What is the spirit of our  age? I would say it is one of incoherence, which is reflected in our art and our literature. Other signs of our incoherence: we live in the most affluent time in history, yet we in the West are stressed out, feel a lack of control over our lives, think the government should save us if we get into debt, believe the metals in our cooking pans poison our food. Without coherence, without a firm anchor, we take seriously apocalyptic warnings from those whose mission it is to spread hysteria, whether it be about our planet, our financial system, our food. Please, won't someone take care of us, so that we don't have to take responsibility for ourselves!

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