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Thursday, May 04, 2006

More Housepainting


Here's another housepainter of note. John Singer Sargent. The "house" is the magnificent Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. John Singer Sargent is the Greatest. Painter. Ever.

Of course art is not a competition, or shouldn't be. American Idol and throwing people off an island one by one is about the process, not the end result, after all. The world is no smaller or crabbier if I tell you I saw Michaelangelo's and DaVinci's and Sargent's daubs, a foot from my face, and it's Sargent hands down for me. The rest don't go on the bonfire after such a statement, I just look at them in a different order. Picasso shows up later on that same list, right after all of my children's efforts, and several of my dropcloths.

Anyway, Sargent, like many of his brethren, got the urge to eschew the canvas altogether, and just start painting on the walls behind them. It's a different animal, and he approached it differently than his other work. He painted this, on a tympanum above a doorway at the MFA, around 1920. It's marvelous.

Well, AIN'T IT?

Sorry. You're entitled to your own opinion about it, of course. It's just that, if it differs from mine I don't want to hear it.

Lots of people didn't like this particularly when he painted it, along with a few acres of additional plaster at the MFA. They all sound like stooges now; Sargent sleeps serene.

It's in what would be called Neo-Classical form, and some called Neo-Wedgewood eclectic, because of the chaste color schemes and themes, no doubt. It's a testament to the train wreck in the art world that was going on at the time that those were hurled at him like epithets.

The Danaides is the theme. They are a Greek allegory, whose story is variously told. They were the fifty daughters of a king, ordered to marry the fifty sons of the king's brother. Woody Allen doesn't have anything on the ancient Greeks, does he? At any rate, they agreed to wed their cousins, while conspiring to murder them on their marriage bed. Only one of the brides declined to kill her spouse, as he was the only one to decline his marriage prerogatives.

The Danaides were consigned to Hades, and as their punishment, they were made to try to fill a vessel with water, but the vessel had holes in the bottom, and their chore could never be completed. The thankless task is a recurring theme with those crazy Pelopponesians, isn't it?

Sargent knew what he was doing. That which we call art, or sophistication, or civilization, is the continous attempt to fill a bottomless well. You must strive always, or the urn will be quickly emptied. This artist is acknowledging perhaps that his work, no matter how famous or well regarded, is ephemeral; and that the process of trying to capture the beautiful, or the important, or the sublime, and hold it up like a roadmap -- or better, a mirror -- must always press forward, lest we slide backwards. There is no point of stability between barbarism or civilization; it's just a matter of which way we are heading.

Sargent was cursed to pour it, over and over again, into our urn. We are grateful for the water, for as long as it lasts.

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