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News from Nowhere

The Grand Eccentrics—Art News Annual XXXII

edited by Thomas B. Hess
Macmillan, 180 pp., $5.95

It is possible to sympathize with Mr. Hess’s complaint that journalists tend to impose a stifling categorization on the varied phenomena of modern art, while yet deploring the book (if that is the word: it is really a sort of bumper Sunday-paper color supplement) he has edited in an attempt to remedy this state of affairs. It is also possible to have the highest regard for some of the great authorities (such as Professors Chastel, Eitner, and others) whom he has been able to call upon, while yet feeling that their talents have hardly been put to the best possible use. The fault in any case is surely Mr. Hess’s. If this were intended to be merely a collection of strange illustrations accompanied by brief explanatory notes, it might serve some purpose—though admittedly it is not very easy to think what. But Mr. Hess’s Preface seems to demand that we treat it with some seriousness. “Labels,” he claims, “…seem to make easy perches upon which flocks of migratory artists can light. Nothing so necessary to a career as a label.” Over-simplified terminology, this presumably implies, encourages the promotion of indifferent art.

So the eccentric master becomes newly relevant and, perhaps for the first time, even exemplary [my italics], for he is, above all, the artist hostile to all categories, outside of the “historical necessities” of tradition. Self justified, he challenges all assumptions about what is possible, and exposes our timidities concerning the infinite capacities of man.

Perhaps—but this book will surely give active encouragement to the very tendencies he is trying to oppose. If this is eccentric art, we may well feel after browsing through its glossy pages, for God’s sake let us have some conformity. Or, even more likely, we will be tempted to try to establish a new category of eccentricity as rigid as any of the traditional concepts that Mr. Hess so rightly dislikes.

The infuriating thing is that Mr. Hess is obviously aware of both these dangers. He has many acute points to make; but he always seems to avoid following up their real implications. He admits that “each man’s oeuvre, indeed each single painting, lives primarily as it goes beyond the boundaries of a textbook tag,” but then decides to exclude “kinds of work which might ‘look’ eccentric, but which adhere to very different orientations,” for instance “the art of the supreme masters, such as Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya,” on the extraordinary grounds that “they produced deliriously eccentric works, but they produced every other kind of work too.” This reviewer is surely not alone in being interested to see a distinction drawn between Giotto’s “deliriously eccentric” and other kinds of work.

THE RESULT is a hotch-potch which includes artists of such infinitely varied quality and aims that it is doubtful whether anything useful can be said about them as a group. The pedantic historian is certainly wise to be cautious when faced with an anthology of this nature, which, however ill-informed, may yet prove fruitful to the practicing artist, whether poet or painter. One can think in this connection of certain Expressionist or Surrealist manifestoes which deliberately tried to encourage particular attitudes to the world by making an imaginative selection from the art of the past. But to be effective this sort of approach demands an exceptional sensibility responding to the material. This is quite lacking here, and one gets the impression (no doubt, quite false) that the serious scholars chosen have written sound, though brief, appraisals of Lequeu, Sir John Soane, Blake, Moreau, etc., without any real idea of the nature of the book to which they are contributing. The whole, in fact, adds up to considerably less than the parts. The juxtaposition, for instance, of Hercules Seghers and Thomas Cole tells us nothing of interest about the talents of either, or about the nature of “eccentric” art, however that term is defined. But it is on a level with the editor’s comment that “Edwin Dickinson’s beautiful Ruin at Daphne hangs in the Metropolitan Museum as serenely as any Chardin”—though, to be fair, he is in general commendably restrained in his appraisals of the artists he has chosen to write about.

There have been certain artists who have produced work which seems to bear almost no relation to that of their contemporaries and which, even with the advantage of hindsight, we find difficult, on stylistic grounds alone, to assign to any particular period. Such, for instance, are the etchings of mechanical, robot-like men made early in the seventeenth century by the Florentine Giovanni Battista Braccelli—not referred to here, perhaps because Mr. Hess claims that “eccentricity is unthinkable…in Medici piazzas.” But—as the individual authors invariably point out—this is not the case with the majority of painters, sculptors, and architects considered in this book. For anyone brought up on the Impressionists Odilon Redon was, of course, an eccentric in this sense of the word; but although I do not in any way wish to underestimate the real originality of his vision, the moment one studies him at all seriously it becomes apparent that he was only one among many artists and writers who were trying (with varying degrees of success) to tap an imaginative vein which had been neglected, as it seemed to them, by their crudely materialistic predecessors. Similarly the bizarre architectural fantasies devised by Jean-Jacques Lequeu at the end of the eighteenth century were only the result of carrying to the point of absurdity a number of widely held ideas about the possibilities of “moralized architecture.” Taken out of context, inserted between an article (the deficiencies of which have already been pointed out in these columns by Professor Gombrich) on Hienonymus Bosch and another on Messerschmidt and Romako, they become totally meaningless. The cult of the absurd should not be made in the name of sanity.

ART HISTORIANS and journalists are obsessed with labels, and the failure of this book is all the sadder because Mr. Hess appears, at one stage in his argument, to be hinting at a problem which is really worth investigating: how far does the determination to find some sort of pattern, whether in the past or the present, help or hinder the understanding and appreciation of individual genius—that genius which “lives primarily as it goes beyond the boundaries of a textbook tag.” Vasari held perfectly consistent and exceedingly influential views on the development of Italian art during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Step by step it was leading up to the culminating genius of Michelangelo. This meant that an artist such as Botticelli, who could not be fitted into the process, was inevitably somewhat devalued into an “eccentric.” But the “rediscovery” of Botticelli did not take place because of a sudden enthusiasm for the unconventional, and it was not until an alternative view of Italian art history was worked out during the early part of the nineteenth century that he came to occupy the place he now holds in critical and popular esteem. Reappraisal of the individual artist, in fact, only became possible after a scheme had been elaborated into which he could apparently be fitted. The case of El Greco is rather different, though it presents certain similarities. To the Romantics, who first began to look at him sympathetically, he too was an “eccentric” who had suffered “the final revenge which history takes on the artists who defy it” by being virtually forgotten. The dramatic elongation of his figures seemed to them to be totally extraordinary, however powerfully emotive, and a variant of this interpretation of the painter still lives on among those who try to indicate defective eyesight as the source of his style. A later generation, brought up on the Expressionists, saw in his evident irrationality the best possible reason for considering him to be the ancestor of the modern movement. But then art historians boringly began to point out that painters and sculptors all over Europe were elongating their figures during the second half of the sixteenth century, and that El Greco’s genius must be measured more by the use to which he put an expressive language common to others than by his own isolated “eccentricity.”

Such instances—and many others could be given—of that changing relationship between the individual and tradition which is constantly being worked out by historians and critics may seem to have little direct bearing on those problems of modern art which are of primary interest to Mr. Hess. In fact according to the evidence his theory that “nothing is so necessary to a career as a label” is much more likely to be true during those periods in history when the value of a monolithic tradition has been taken for granted rather than during those—such as the present—when the very presumption of such a tradition arouses suspicion. The pursuit of the eccentric may, in fact, be of real value at certain moments, while at others it may only open the door to much bad and clumsy painting. Is not Mr. Hess swimming with the current rather than battling valiantly against it? It doesn’t really matter much, but “exemplary” is a challenging word—which should be challenged.

Letters

Who’s Eccentric? May 18, 1967

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