Falcon Hunting in Algeria, 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.
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.