Hero Worship is Passé

Falcon Hunting in Algeria, Fromentin

Eugene Fromentin‘s The Old Masters of Belgium and Holland sounds more like a textbook than memoirs of an artist’s 1875 trip to Holland to see Dutch paintings, which is why I borrowed it from the library. I quickly discovered my mistake. It might sound charming, but this book is actually full of long-winded, vague descriptions and similarly long, vague rhapsodies over the genius of Rubens and Rembrandt. (With some sleights to the new Impressionist school in France.)

Fair enough, you might say. Rubens and Rembrandt are generally thought to be great and important painters. But when I say rhapsodies I mean full-blown, adulatory praises ala:

that morose and witty dreamer, who without living apart had no relation with any of them; who seemed to be painting his epoch, his country, his friends and himself, but who at bottom painted only one of the unknown recesses of the human soul. I speak, as you must know, of Rembrandt.

[Rubens] fills the last division of the gallery, and there sheds abroad the restrained brilliancy, and that soft and powerful radiance which are the grace of his genius. There is no pedantry, no affectation of vain grandeur or of offensive pride, but he is naturally imposing.

Hero worship of this sort if dead. In every artistic field, we practice new forms of criticism that analyze structure or context or socio-political aims. Anything but pure, old fashioned worship. We use more naunced words that genius, and we certainly don’t assume the great art stems from souls of great moral worth, as Fromentin does. He sees valour and searching wit and genorosity of spirit in the lines of Rembrandt’s drawings. I see lines–and maybe it is my loss.

Arabs, Fromentin
Fromentin was no great critic, not like Matthew Arnold or Baudelaire who practised and preached. But when it the last time you read a review that put the artist on a pedestal? We treat artists as cultural specimens to be dissected. The only critic not afraid of the term genius is annoying Harold Bloom, and I suspect that’s only because he wants to be able to include himself in his self-defined pantheon. I wouldn’t mind hearing a little simple admiration. I don’t mind the damming reviews, as they tend be better written and more intersting. Yet with all the snark floating about, earnestness can seem almost too exposed, too simple.

Maybe more appreciation would be appropriate. That is what moves us to write about and talk about these things in the first place.

5 thoughts on “Hero Worship is Passé

  1. Those quotes are fabulous relics; they seem so distant from our modern idea of criticism. I wonder along with you if the pendulum may have swung in the direction of smugness of the part of the critic. I sometimes can’t decide if the criticism concerns the art, audience or the critic.

  2. This is very interesting, so thanks for writing about it.

    I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Appreciationist myself, but it’s hard for me to see how Fromentin’s gush helps me actually see the art.

    John Ruskin, who indulges in plenty of hero-worship (of Turner, for example), also spends an enormous amount of his energy on specific paintings – on specific trees and clouds and rocks in paintings.

  3. Bill, isn’t it amazing how things change?

    Amateur, I couldn’t do Fromentin the justice (or the reader the injustice) of sharing his descriptions of many works, which are long and detailed, albeit in an emotive, imaginative way. From the preface I gather that at least a basic description was necessary, as images of these painting weren’t widely spread at the time.

    Glad you like it–I’m interested yet impatient with 338 pages of that kind of prose

  4. Ah, hero worship… an interesting use of the phrase, when referring to ARTISTS!

    Hero worship, historically, was the thing that pagan/polytheists did, and then later the Roman Catholics (though they play it down today).

    Calling an artist a hero… I could work with that! You’re right, plain ol’ adulation has slipped from the critic’s vernacular. It’s always so-what and what-if and maybe-he-could’ve… But then again, the definition of ‘art’ has changed too, no?

    Pure beauty still exists, but there’s also a lot of ‘interpretive art’ too, muddying the field. Surely it’s easier to worship Michelangelo’s David than it is some piece of modern possibly-art?

    Perhaps critics have just been worn down by enough possibly-arts that they’re a little more tentative before throwing out the mighty accolade of ‘genius’!

Leave a Reply