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…

6 thoughts on “Notes on Romanticism

  1. What about “warmness?” Could we not hot things up, but just warm them to a decent temp?

    Looking forward to what comes next — your take on Courbet felt just right.

  2. Hi Mark, I am a huge fan of Courbet for many years. Do you know Rainer Fetting from the Neuen Wilden ? His works are fascinating !

    Courbet is especially fascinating because of his abstract qualities. Fried discusses the above work very detailed in his book, you know it probably, , but somehow, the work itself fails to convince me, I saw the original, maybe it is to huge, maybe the patchwork of stories and meanings too many.. I find other Courbet’s better. Do you think, Courbet intended Romantic here ?

  3. I think you’re right Hans, Courbet was an unabashed Romantic, which is part of the reason that many of us here in NYC have a hard time relating to his work. The fairly recent retrospective of his work at the Met got middling reviews – partly because many of the works were “pret a porter” landscapes made to keep food on the table and partly because Romanticism demands a certain involvement by both the maker and viewer or else the whole enterprise winds up looking a bit ridiculous. We POMOs want the work to bend to our rules – not the other way around. But it is just that willingness to tempt the boundaries of institutional ideas that I find fascinating. So, it’s very easy to get under the skin of a Postmodernist and one of the quickest ways and most devastating ways to challenge their thinking is to use the method of the great Modernists – do it with feeling, with emotion.
    I was bowled over by the studio painting. It was what I needed to see at this particular moment. You’re right the painting does have many allusions and stories, but if you stay with it long enough it all comes together as a manifesto of the importance of both the inner and outer world of the artist. I was fascinated.

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