The Problem with Romanticism?

Anthony Tomassini discusses the great Romantic composers at the NYT. He’s putting together a list of the top 10 composers, and like us, he’s having a bit of hard time coming to terms with these artists. “For better or worse, their works still dominate the standard repertory. Yet their music is so personal and idiosyncratic that it is hard to assess it in terms of greatness…The Romantic movement emerged from the Classical heritage, in which composers expressed themselves through large, formal structures: symphony, sonata, string quartet, concerto. But the Romantic aesthetic emboldened composers to be more passionate, rhapsodic and personal. Formal structures were loosened, as music became a channel for strongly individual, often quirky, even eccentric expression. Literature, nature and history were favorite sources of inspiration.”

Why is this so difficult for us, confronting Romanticism? I’ve been doing a lot of reading around the subject and have come across a fantastic book that discusses in depth the changes to our studio lives and our artistic lives entitled “Machine in the Studio” by the brilliant Caroline A. Jones. Michael Zahn recommended the book to me a few weeks ago as I began this endeavor and it has been extremely helpful in mooring some aspects of my thinking about the POMO problems that we are facing. The discussion about Frank Stella is absolutely on point and her thinking about the consequences of Frank Stella’s aesthetic and studio life is breathtaking. I highly recommend the book to all who are interested in learning more about our Postmodern lives in the studio.

I have to say that my own studio has been a work in progress. I began to set things up very differently years ago when I realized that the art life I was leading was not of my own design, that I had somehow inherited many outdated and outworn preconceptions from the 1960s about how a studio should work, how it should feel, what I should be doing there, and how I should go about making my work. I can honestly say that today it’s a very different experience for me. But again that brings us back to the Romantics and the comments by Tomassini – “quirky,” “individual,” “eccentric” and even the most dreaded term to the Professional Artist – “expression.”

SO what do these terms mean to us today? What does it mean to be quirky or individual? Where is the locus of personality or thought in our work and how do we differentiate it from the past? How do we “express” these things in new ways? I’m still working through it trying to clarify as much as possible my answer to the conundrum. De Kooning Part III will be the next step so check back. IN the meantime I’d like to read your thoughts about our problems with Romanticism, Modernism and Postmodernism…

PS: Our good friend Hans Heiner Buhr has returned from a trip into Central Asia. Check out his magnificent pictures!

Romanticism in America – Part II

“I have heard what the talkers were talking . . . . the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance . . . . Always substance and increase,
Always a knit of identity . . . . always distinction . . . . always a breed of life.”

Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass” 1855 edition, page 14.

Beginning or End

Our hero is still clad in the same costume, this time poised on the edge of painterly greatness. Years have passed since the jaunty studio photo in our last post. He is older, hopefully wiser, maybe a bit less callow, a little less cocky, but still Romantic in the best sense. You can see that time has taken a toll, the challenge willingly taken has burnished his features and fixed his intentions. The paintings behind him are different, the work has changed dramatically compared to the “classical” portrait of the late 20s. It’s become more abstract, the figure more primitive, the “Expressionism” more visible, the physical act of painting more available. And if you catch it, there over his shoulder, he is no longer alone.

American Type painting was forcing its way to the very surface of the picture plane, moving the paint straight into a confrontation with consciousness. American painters had accepted the idea that abstraction was the new visual language of the 20th Century and they were starting to form new ways to express that language. These painters were relying on the well established precedent in American history of the desire to make something out of nothing, raising oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Americans had honed this “can do” mythology since the establishment of the Republic – the innovator, the inventor and the self made man were all archetypes for practical advancement. In the case of abstract painters let’s call these artists practical aesthetes. They were workers one and all, using workers’ tools, paints and attitudes to fashion an aesthetic experience, or something more, a transcendant moment.

Heaven or Hell

The legacy left to us by the American Romantics has always been tied up with a sense of non-place – the craving for the openness of endless spaces and vast stretches of empty (meaning unsettled) primordial land. Nothing was to be “done,” nothing was to be built in this primeval world. Everything was to remain in flux. The Americans rushed across the continent in search of yet another sea, another vast stretch of surface. Rather than becoming part of the land or actually settling into the land, Americans chose to fetishize an “idea of the land.” There is no permanence, no “civilization” for the American – we erase our histories, we slip in and out of our existences and we slide easily into the ground that we call “America,” a ground made up of corporate enterprises and Hollywood mythologies.

It began with the “pioneers” who made way stations on the road to the sea. Then we developed a network of railways, followed by highways and automobiles. Today, we have fly-overs with a series of landing strips proliferated across this vast space. Our economy, once long ago, man made, has virtually disappeared into the bits and bytes of cyberspace. Our cities and suburbs constantly eradicate themselves creating stretches of endless junk space – the forgotten spaces between points of convergence. And it’s those forgotten spaces that allow us to submerge into the vast ground, a constantly morphing non-space. It has made our contemporary experience of America nothing but a surface of unseen, unexperienced virtual civilization usually encountered from lofty or unexpected vantage points. Even our architecture is an illusion of physical history. It’s designed outside of human perspectives. Americans don’t have, have never had, a father/motherland – we have never come FROM the land, in fact nothing about America comes from the land. We emerge from the staging ground of the Overland – we are a society that exists in the flyover, the crossover, the stopover, the look-over and the holdover. We are never at one with the land, never part of the particulars of a landscape, we never get stuck in so to speak. Rather, Americans have always lived with, on, in and through our vehicles. We are constantly being transported somewhere else.

The Procreant Urge

American Romantics were always after something a bit different than their European counterparts. For the American Romantic, dislocated and disassociated, the continual eradication of self was the preferred endgame that must never be consumated, the conundrum of the rising subject that must never be solved. This is one of the reasons that the finish of an event, the outcome of the moment had become the endless worry of so much painterly work. WHEN something was finished, or rather “unfinished,” had become the focus point for these new painters – work too much and you loose the freshness of the event, work too little and the event never comes together. The painting had to remain open ended so that the interpretation of the event, the endgame, would be continued by the “seekers” that came after – the event of the painting would by our guide. For American Romantics secular religiousity was always the thick pumping bass line keeping time to the drumbeat of salvation. Painting was no different, and it assumed a high stakes game of chance, a concentration of supreme effort, a manifestation of internal belief, an affair of the heart, a seduction of spirit, a confrontation of will, and a pathway to understanding, but it would never, ever promise passionate fulfillment – only the desire to set consciousness free of physical limitations. Abstract Expressionism would become an endless, breathless, fleshless physicality aimed at an optical release of spirit. This idea is, at base, what the Romantic encounter for American painters was shaping up to look like.

In this sort of confrontation one is not looking outward like the European Romantic, one is always looking inward. Americans were not painting what they were seeing, rather they were painting what they were feeling, they were translating their inner yearnings for release into shows of color, form and material. You weren’t supposed to see so much as experience. And so you get the direction by both Rothko and Newman that you are to stand about a foot and a half away from their work in order to understand. You are to be engulfed – the distance required to see and comprehend is to be eradicated. You are to feel not see. Modernism was far too European – too connected to physical vision. European Modernists would not let go, could not let go of the visual past because they were too wrapped up in defining their outward looking freedom. American painters turned the entire enterprise of Modernism inward and they would manifest their interior conflicts through the physical world, through action painting, through materials. The focus was not on the subject, but on the ground. They were trying to make “visual” what was unseen and they were trying to define that place of transference in the ever expanding surface. It’s a step away from Modernism and the beginning of a kind of philosophical dance deconstructing the history of Western vision itself. What does my inner world look like, how can I recreate something EXPERIENCED and not SEEN for someone else? By stripping content down to consciousness, by refashioning the ground as subject somehow, the American Romantic finished the Master Slave dialectic. The other, the rising subject no longer existed and painting for the first time in its long history was busy removing the “artist” from the visual equation.

“Painting could now be reduced to that equipment which the artist needed for an activity that would be an alternative to both utility and idleness. Guided by visual and somatic memories of painting he had seen or made—memories which he did his best to keep from intruding into his consciousness—he gesticulated upon the canvas and watched for what each novelty would declare him and his art to be.
Based on the phenomenon of conversion the new movement is, with the majority of the painters, essentially a religious movement. In almost every case, however, the conversion has been experienced in secular terms. The result has been the creation of private myths.
The tension of the private myth is the content of every painting of this vanguard. The act on the canvas springs from an attempt to resurrect the saving moment in his “story” when the painter first felt himself released from Value—myth of past self-recognition. Or it attempts to initiate a new moment in which the painter will realize his total personality—myth of future self-recognition.” Harold Rosenberg “The American Action Painters

IN the end I have to acknowledge that the connection between Romanticism and Freedom always becomes evident – especially in painting. The Romantic seeks Freedom at any and all costs, and for the American Romantic, that freedom was connected to the idea of and the yearning for transcendence. Willem, however, could not let go entirely of his European self. There is no transcending the limits of his own human nature. There is even less religiousity in his work. Instead he developed a new kind of hand made primitivism which began to take hold in his figures, his work and his life. He remained connected to the culture and life around him. Bits of magazines and newspapers showed up collaged into his work. Places, landscapes and people were all there to grapple with his consciousness. He is the most fleshy of the AbEx painters, and he is always insistently earth bound.

Romanticism continues….

Romanticism in America

Sith thou misdeem’st so much of things in sight?
What though the sea with waues continuall
Doe eate the earth, it is no more at all:
Ne is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought,
For whatsoeuer from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide vnto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.
Edmund Spencer The Faerie Queene: Book 5 Canto 2

We begin to search for our Romantics with a bit of history…
When De Kooning jumped ship in 1926 into the land of opportunity there was little thought about the baggage that he was bringing with him. There was only the thought of finding something new, something bigger and brighter in a new country. Most immigrants that came to the United States had similar hopes and dreams – a fresh start, a new chance at life, a do-over. But the real truth is that one can never truly leave oneself behind. Caravaggio ran, Gauguin fled and De Kooning jumped, but their histories and their memories persisted. It comes out in the work…always. At the time America was a cultural backwater. There were a few Modernists, progressive bohemians, political left-leaning firebrands and free-love experimentalists roaming Greenwich Village to be sure. Art for that small group was a cultural imperative, a lubricant for social intercourse. But America, that America that stretched beyond NYC, was an unforgiving, suspicious and provincial world. Foreigners were not liked, and as many foreigners came to understand, they also were not welcome. There was a price to pay in the land of opportunity. Three years after De Kooning made himself “illegal” the stock market would crash and nearly one quarter of the population would become unemployed, hungry and angry. After that punishing decade of economic hardship the European fascist dystopia began to burn down the world. The hopes and dreams of America’s new immigrants would have to be put on hold.


I really enjoy looking at this picture of the young De Kooning in his studio. It’s like seeing an old friend full of naivety and bluster. The photo is actually a double self portrait. If you compare the face in the painting and De Kooning’s own you can see a distinct similarity. But if you contrast the staid, “classical” pose portrayed in that painting with the artist’s own jaunty stance you begin to see something else happening. Hands in pocket – check! Shirt open at the neck – check! Smirk on face – check! For me that painting of the “hero” and that pictured “hero” don’t match up. The Romantic is way ahead of the painting on view. We all know the history. The work to be done and the promise of the ambition in Willem’s stance would only be realized after a long, hard slog in crap studios, endless dark nights of the soul, difficult love affairs and toiling hand to mouth survival. De Kooning, whether knowingly or not, was declaring his intention to assume the mantle of a Romantic artist. And like many American artists of the time he was looking to European traditions as his guide – Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Manet – the list is long. Today, the institutional Postmodern machine has changed the nature of this artists’ “guide”. What I mean is that in this photo Willem wasn’t applying for a job, angling for an exhibition, or marketing a publicity moment in the way that we Postmoderns go about promoting our productions with videos, jpegs, blogs and web pages. No, our hero was making a statement of fact about his intentions as a painter, and in an even deeper way, as an avant garde artist. It was a statement of purpose, an inelegant boast, an acceptance of a challenge, a true Romantic gesture of rebellion.

Times of Grousing and Ferment

IN the early years of the 20th Century rich American collectors were buying up the work of European Modernists and Masters on the cheap, assembling large holdings of the School of Paris. There was absolutely no market for contemporary art made by home grown artists and that was like nails on a chalk board to ambitious painters. It felt as if American artists didn’t have the “stuff” to make great art, that America would remain a shallow circus populated by unsophisticated rubes. Most of the 57th Street Galleries, where money actually changed hands for art were slanted toward the School of Paris, European Modernism and the new Surrealists. Sure there was the 291 crowd and they got reviewed, sold their work now and again, but for the most part progressive artists could forget about making a living from their work. As you can imagine it was hardly a welcoming place for new ideas or new artists. However, in the 1930s government sponsored work programs began employing loads of these hungry, unemployed artists. They were tasked with helping to build and decorate the new public buildings going up across the country. Inadvertantly, the US Government had funded the basis for a new community of artist painters. Hell, it wasn’t the left bank or Montmartre, it certainly wasn’t professional in the sense we’ve come to expect, but it provided some economic relief, vital friendships and artistic possibilities for a struggling community of ambitious artists.

“Many of the painters were “Marxists” (WPA unions, artists’ congresses); they had been trying to paint Society. Others had been trying to paint Art (Cubism, Post-Impressionism) – it amounts to the same thing. The big moment came when it was decided to paint… just TO PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value – political, esthetic, moral.”
Harold Rosenberg “The American Action Painters”

The days of the Great Depression were also the beginning days of Expressionism, to be more precise, Abstract Expressionism as it came to be called. This crafty moniker would later be used to separate new American painting from its historic European antecedents and lay the groundwork for an entirely new way to make and sell art. How? In two ways – one economic, the other aesthetic.

The first huge problem confronting American Painters was entrenched American Provincialism. Our populace always had, and for that matter, still has, a suspicious and problematic relationship with ANY intellectual ferment that does not reaffirm and reassure the selective historical memory of the American people. In the 20th Century if that intellectual ferment was perceived as being pink, or worse, red in color and flavor, there was no hope of it passing into the larger culture. And at that time of Depression, Labor Rebellion and World War, most artists in America were considered at least shocking pink with many of the more vocal ones heating up into a bright fiery shade of scarlet. For those of you that don’t happen to have the United States Color Chart of American Political Affiliations (or the USCCAPA) – Pinks are socialists and Reds are outright commie bastards – it actually states that on the bottom left legend of the chart. God forbid that any American Artist should espouse European political or intellectual doctrines – particularly any that actually leaned Marxist, or worse, Leninist. (Many artists found out about the fear engendered by these sorts of affiliations after the war when McCarthy came calling.) It was clear that artists would have to find a new way to an art market. Industry is what America is comfortable with and our art – the production of it, the promotion of it and the enjoyment of it – would have to emulate the economic processes of our capitalist comfortable culture. This new fine art industry would have to be as All-American as GM, Ford, and US Steel. Abstract Expressionism as a “new” art movement in America would have NO overt political connections and its content would avoid any outright political catechisms. In that way a new class of corporate collector could feel comfortable displaying these works in the institutions and offices proliferating all throughout the United States. These were American Artists, goddammit, and they made shiny, beautiful art about and for Americans.

“The aesthetic effect of extensiveness is also entirely different from that of particular shapes. Some things appeal to us by their surfaces, others by the lines that limit those surfaces. And this effect of surface is not necessarily an effect of material or colour; the evenness, monotony, and vastness of a great curtain of colour produce an effect which is that of the extreme of uniformity in the extreme of multiplicity; the eye wanders over a fluid infinity of unrecognizable positions, and the sense of their numberlessness and continuity is precisely the source of the emotion of extent. The emotion is primary and has undoubtedly a physiological ground, while the idea of size is secondary and involves associations and inferences…The value of size becomes immediate only when we are at close quarters with the object; then the surfaces really subtend a large angle in the field of vision, and the sense of vastness establishes its standard, which can afterwards be applied to other objects by analogy and contrast. There is also, to be sure, a moral and practical import in the known size of objects, which, by association, determines their dignity; but the pure sense of extension, based upon the attack of the object upon the apperceptive resources of the eye, is the truly aesthetic value which it concerns us to point out here, as the most rudimentary example of form.”
George Santayana The Sense of Beauty 1896

The second and more vital part in breaking with Europe involved throwing over the harder and deeper tradition fueling Modernism itself – changing the focus of the Romantic visual tradition. The art and criticism of ABEX, at first, leaned heavily on the European Romantic tradition, especially on the idea of the confrontation with the Sublime. This appropriation would be used as a springboard to break with Europe and define a new American visual canon underwritten by process, materials, production, and mostly, by a specific, personal experience directed at the viewer. The idea of the sublime, especially in American traditions, is about power and the terrible beauty of an overwhelming force. It is part and parcel of our American mythology. This myth is, even today, ubiquitous in the American vernacular, in American legend, and it STILL informs the desires, fears and expectations of our society. From “Mushroom Clouds” to “End Times” to “Shock and Awe” you can see our incessant preoccupation with apocalyptic overpowering forces eradicating our existence, our history, our memory. Behind much of this Sturm und Drang, whether whipped up for political, economic or cultural ends, is the simple idea of transformative annihilation, and that idea would fuel much of the “subject matter” in the work of the Abstract Expressionists. What we’re talking about is a kind of work designed to create a confrontation between an overwhelming visual presence and a singular consciousness, the eradication of the visual Self. For me it’s the first instance where an all encompassing ground begins to define and direct visual experience. It is also the birth of a new kind of Romantic engagement, one that would be quickly deconstructed and discarded with the inception of Postmodernism. You all know the history and the aesthetic success of the ABEX painters and we’ll discuss these ideas further in another part of this series. But unlike the other American painters, our hero De Kooning, the naturalized American, always remained tied to the European visual tradition, to the life around him and the confrontation with the rising subject in ways that the other ABEXers did not. Because of these things our hero was decidedly Un-American. And that will be of interest to us as well….

In this new series we’ll follow De Kooning, who was an embodiment of both the European Romantic and the new American Romantic and we’ll see where he leads us. We’ll also find ourselves confronting the beginnings of Corporate Art, contemporary Postmodernism and finally our own studio lives here in the 21st Century….

Hashing It Out…

Over the last few weeks I’ve been throwing ideas around with friends about Romanticism, American painting vs European Painting, and the changes that have taken place in our studios and/or our perceptions of what a studio is or does. Dennis Bellone, the marvelous painter and theorist, sent on a few observations and I’ve posted them here. Henri will also have much more to say about these things in the coming days so check back…

Thoughts on Romanticism-

First I want to thank Henri blog for their gracious consideration of my work and allowing for my input.

Notes takes over drinks- hence increasingly fragmented.

Courbet to me, is not a Romantic. Romanticism is for me a description given to a certain historical period of painters and paintings ranging from Caspar David Friedrich to Delacroix. Courbet bridges the gap from Romanticism to Realism. His early self portraits that date from the 1840’s fall more inline with the Romantic tradition but by the mid 50’s he is one of the beacons leading to a new development in painting hence forth called Realism.

What is Romanticism? Aren’t all artists despite their self definitions ‘romantic’? This desire or pursuit to create objects like paintings to express anything seems so fatalistically childish and rife with impotence that it seems it could be nothing more than ‘romantic’ and yet we persist.

The danger in the term Romanticism for me is as follows:

The necessity or imperative in itself of creation requires a certain sobriety and clarity of thought that is in contrast to “Romanticism” in its layman or undergrad art school awareness, an awarness which is guilty of a self-indulgence and self-mythologizing that for me, personally, is distasteful. This kind of Romanticism is ego driven and the territory of the artiste, the art made to congratulate the self and reinforce the notion of self in the world. What comes to my mind is the work of the BerlinArt show that MoMA had back in 88 with neo expressionism and artists like Salomé, Rainer Fetting and Luciano Castelli or others like Sandro Chia or Francesco Clemente.

I am more interested in the destruction of the self, the loss of self, the annihilation of the self or the realization that the contemporary idealization of self is a fiction.

Using Michael Fried’s concept of absorption and theatricality via Diderot as my starting point, and not necessarily true to his function but from my own reading or interpretation (or miss) but is as follows; theatricality happens when you are aware of yourself as viewer, ‘absorption’ into the moment of looking is loss of self, loss of self identification.

In my own words, art that only reaffirms your already known values and concepts is pornography, art that destroys your preconceptions is where it is at.

This might be artistic hyperbole on my part but Courbet’s paintings are about Courbet, Corot does not paint about himself, Millet’s heroic aggrandizement of the pauper is about Millet’s ideas and too theatrical. Monet does not paint about himself, Degas the same. Picasso does and doesn’t but always seems to transcend. Manet constantly hits me like a hammer to the anvil. Great work, real art, ART in its purest form does this, it defies you. But then this is my taste or predilection, my DNA as it were.

Historically, the viewing non art public likes ‘porn’ because it is comfortable and reaffirms their values, reaffirms their bourgeois world. Contemporary art of the current art industrial complex reaffirms the status quo of consumerism and artist as celebrity. Nothing new here, move along. Yesterday it was Cabanel at the Salon, today it is the stuff you see in galleries and the museums of the most recent…..

My point is that I have a semantic disagreement with the word Romanticism as it is too heavily freighted with historical baggage and misunderstandings. But that said, what I feel Henriblog is striving towards is a theory of engagement. Engagement that is simultaneously intelligent, highly critical and yet bound intricately with an experiential aspect that questions or at least one hopes artists do, question the current personal and historical state we live in, who we are, where are we going and what is this imperative or necessity to raise a voice, sometimes or too often as if we are in the wilderness and hence seems superficially to be a romantic view, given that we live in a world increasingly dehumanized, disengaged and far too often entertained to distraction about the real theft of our lives not only in the future but in our own present.

Whereas I might not personally get excited looking at Courbet or Delacroix I do understand and appreciate that they are the real thing in comparison to Delaroche or Cabanel, the things that get me are Ingres or Degas, Manet, etc., and they feed me in a way that the others don’t. To each their own.

With that said though I’ll close with a Percy Bysshe Shelly poem, which doesn’t get much more ‘romantic,’ but does hold true to my feelings. Damn, I just might be a romantic in classical garb.

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number-
Shake your chains to earth like
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many-they are few.”

from the Masque of Anarchy, written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester.

Further Notes on Romanticism

I am an unabashed fan of many OTT things. And as I continue to ply through material and look at paintings for the new series on Romanticism I find that I’m running across many really fantastic moments and amazing paintings. I’ve been discussing with friends and colleagues ideas about Romanticism, and once we’re able to get past the facile understanding of the concept, we begin to see deeper, more involving ideas. Right now we’re struggling to define the differences in European and American Romantics – especially in the 19th century and the mid 20th century – how Romanticism fueled Expressionism and what about that ideal, idea, had to be changed in order to make it part of the American Avant Guard and the larger American culture. In either case it didn’t last long and that too is part of the American Character. We chose Hollywood over Walden, or more specifically, we chose the Hollywood version of Walden.

We are still arguing and ruminating and I’ve begun to wonder if I’ve started this series far too soon. The directions are many and the decisions are few. Anyway, part of the research involved has to do with how we process our thoughts and emotions – how those things are aligned to individuality and choice, because for the Romantic – choice is everything and it defines the individual, it frees the individual and it begets the moral struggle within the individual. The Romantic, contrary to popular culture, is not necessarily about love, though that may be a part of the choice. No, the deeper struggle is against predetermination, structure and heirarchies – God, the State, the institution, the academy, the a priori principle, the learned and received aesthetic. It is about the morals and ethics of individual choice and the prices paid for that involvement. It is about Free Will. This will play directly in our discussion of aesthetics and in our critique of the Postmodern.

But for now I’ve embedded Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes for one specific reason. You’ll see it at the end of the sequence – after the exposition, the theatricality of the moment and the explanation. (Nevermind that this entire scene is about visual thought, about connections, conjectures and understanding brought about by seeing and observation.) For the European Romantic there is the presentation of understanding of the moral choice made in one’s life. We see it in Delacroix and Gericault, in Courbet, in Manet, Matisse and Picasso as well. But for now we deal with a popular literary character and the enormity of Holmes’ world, his raison d’etre, his choice, as it’s laid bare with a compliment. “We’re not jealous of you. We’re proud of you.” What Jeremy Brett does is amazing to behold. It is an actor who is connected to a deeper understanding of the enormity of his own life and how that has been bound up with the character he is portraying. The waves of emotion, of life, choice, individuality, and morality play all over his face and we’re not quite sure any longer if it’s Holmes or Brett that we are seeing. WE don’t experience it, the character does and the actor, in this case, the Romantic who embodies it, allows us to see just that. We are presented the understanding of the moral choice and it is through our empathy, our connection to those choices that we begin to understand something deeper within our own individuality as well. For me this is a guiding principle of the European Romantic.

In America we do this differently, and we’ll discuss that in another post. For now you’ll just have to do with a few notes….

Notes on Romanticism

Getting this new series together is proving to be a giant pain in the ass. OK, maybe that’s too much information, but I’m going to tell you what’s what. I’ve never run into so many rolled eyes in all my life. “Why are you doing this?” “This is so over.” Well not in my mind. My thought begins with 1960. It’s a real demarcation point in painting and visual culture – I mean, it’s a real easy point of reference to see the beginnings of Postmodernism in art, artists and the larger media culture. (We’ve discussed some of these ideas in a series already.) This was also the point at which America was settling into the lead of Art history, installing its capitalist ideas of supply side economics into the studios and cultural constructs of the Art World. Artists began to see themselves as part of institutional corporate structures and began to fashion themselves as businessmen – “…Business is the best art,” said Andy. But the main point of reference for me is that the beginning of this new POMO Empire ended two essential things that had driven innovation in painting and art for 150 years. The first endpoint came with the dismantling of the contrarian avant garde. The second deeper, more affecting endpoint was the finish of Romanticism as a force behind innovation.

Getting back to my stated pain in my lower quadrants… a lot of artists will NOT talk about Romaticism in any serious way. If you look back at the avant garde, the challenges and changes that took place since the 19th century, nearly all of it was fueled by the theoretics of Romanticism. These days we don’t want to hear about it. You can clear a room with just a mention of the R-word. In our POMO inflected world we are cool and comfortable – the idea that vision could or would heat up again makes the academically coddled professional artists sweaty and itchy. But here’s the rub – contemporary artists, especially painters, want to feel that they are living Romantics, and by this I mean that they enjoy the idea that they are the Rock ‘n’ Roller, the celluloid rebel, the steely eyed outsider. And these cliched avatars very well may be a part of an ironic form of “Romanticism” in the POMO sense, but the deeper more thoughtful and affecting part of the rebellion of historic Romanticism is missing from our very DNA. We wouldn’t know real rebellion if it came up and kicked us in our already painful lower quadrants.

The man who thinks for himself learns the authorities for his opinions only later on, when they serve merely to strengthen both them and himself; while the bookphilosopher starts from the authorities and other people’s opinions, therefrom constructing a whole for himself; so that he resembles an automaton, whose composition we do not understand. The other man, the man who thinks for himself, on the other hand, is like a living man as made by nature. His mind is impregnated from without, which then bears and brings forth its child. Truth that has been merely learned adheres to us like an artificial limb, a false tooth, a waxen nose, or at best like one made out of another’s flesh; truth which is acquired by thinking for oneself is like a natural member: it alone really belongs to us. Here we touch upon the difference between the thinking man and the mere man of learning. Therefore the intellectual acquirements of the man who thinks for himself are like a fine painting that stands out full of life, that has its light and shade correct, the tone sustained, and perfect harmony of colour. The intellectual attainments of the merely learned man, on the contrary, resemble a big palette covered with every colour, at most systematically arranged, but without harmony, relation, and meaning. Schopenhauer “Thinking for One-Self”

Now when Courbet painted this huge ocean liner of painting he was making the kind of meaningful statement that we don’t quite understand these days. He was speaking not only of his own ambitions and narcisisms, but of a grander ambition for painting itself. If you’ll allow me – this amazing painting visually folds over itself in 3 ways in order to expand the playing/painting field for Courbet and for us. He is introducing a different sort of realism into the historic mix of the cooler David and Ingres and the firebrands Gericault and Delacroix. He depicted the world around him rather than the stage sets and set pieces of the academy. This painting lays out his beliefs in no uncertain terms.

The first part is the portrait of the artist in the studio which is usually depicted as a lonely experience. But our Courbet has an audience, and he is performing for it. The strange part is he’s working on a landscape, a large one at that, but one not as large as this very large painting. Behind that stretcher if you look closely is a studio set up of a naked man posing with a skull. The allusion is to work to be done, work that will be fraught with classical inference and deeper resonance. It is also an allusion to the academy, to the studio life that might have been. Behind Courbet is beauty, Venus, wife, mother and Muse, the brightest and most alluring thing in this dark painting – she stands in a spotlight, her silk clothes on the floor and of no importance. This is all about promise, all about the future paintings, the future ideas of our hero as he works. How do we know for sure? Well, the child, the next generation, watches patiently, looking adoringly, expectantly at the artist and his work.

The second is the depiction of the people in the studio. They aren’t really there are they? They’re living, working, playing music, talking, eating, selling things, reading, making love. This is the life outside the studio, the life that’s lived, the life that determines the realities on the canvas, both in the painting and in the painting of the painting. The patrons, the learned, the viewers are on the right, the life, the reality on the left. Both swirl about the artist defining his genius, exciting his muse and creating the world of his studio. This reality intrudes, becomes a part of the experience of the painting itself. The artist is reaching for a deeper inference, a deeper expression of physical involvement in his everyday life and in his art. And that will come from life itself – from the world outside.

And finally, the vastness of this visual world can not be emphasized enough. Here the Romantic impluse runs wild pushing the reality of vision and paint into something new. We have the illusion of the inside, the mind, the creative impulse coming out of the studio. The larger illusions and constructs of the outside world are encapsulated into that studio through the artist’s creativity. These realities are then folded again into the will (that’s right, WILL – as in Schopenhauer once again) of the Romantic temperament. The artist means us to realize that this grand vision in his studio can actually melt the walls of that very studio, pushing that reality back into the umbers and blacks of temporality. Those walls begin to fade under his brush revealing the very landscape that he is painting for us. It brings to mind that famous tract written by Foucault on the Velzaquez “Las Meninas” where the visual puns keep on unraveling in the looking. Back in the day we all thought that essay was very clever. But Courbet understood what Velazquez actually meant in the paint and took it to heart. Everything he describes in this vision keeps folding back into itself – revealing and unraveling the illusions until there is only the truth of the artist there in the middle of the world of illusions. He is not simply creating clever visual puns, but painting his feelings about that reality within his head, out on the street, and there on that very huge canvas. You can feel him squeezing every drop of life from the world around him, from his own memory and his own genius. He pushes us to accept his wonky visual grip on the unreality of his sensuality. The entire painting is made up from both inside and outside of his own mind and it’s shot through with a brazen new visual boldness. This is Romanticism at its height, and when you stand before this painting and really look at it – it will take your breath away with its daring.

Of course I’m interested in the formalism of the work, the hue and value, the light and shade. I’m also interested in the historic context of it, why it happened when it did. But what really involves me, what really brings me in is the quality of the visual poetry, the connection to other great painters and the individual vision of the artist. And all of those things are Romantic qualities. That’s a singular drive to get at a deeper experience of vision and emotion. For the last 50 years the Art World has been a very chilly place to look at paintings. Ok I’ll give you the Neo-Expressionists, but their success was more about marketing than actual aesthetic challenge. The artists that flourished in those years and the subsequent repudiation of their art may very well have been about “expression” and “emotion,” but most all of the work that survived and that we esteem was focused through POMO theoretics. It had very little to do with an actual Romantic engagement (no pun intended.) Koons’ recent show of his so-called “porn paintings” is a great example of the frosty POMO chill blowing through our Corporate Media Era. These infamous photographs have often been described as strangely devoid of any salacious intent. Courbet’s later infamous work “Origin of the World” burns hotter than any money shot that Koons may have had laser jetted on canvas. Courbet’s work is about passion, Koons’, well, its about theater. What we are going to discuss in this series is – hotness. Can visual work, especially painting, heat up in our current optically chilly aesthetic climate? And what would it take to do so? What new ways of looking and thinking can we describe? We’ll have many more questions like these in the coming posts.

Welcome to Romanticism…