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From Courbet to Che

Social Radicalism and the Arts: Western Europe

by Donald Drew Egbert
Knopf, 928 pp., $15.00

Professor Egbert’s enormously long book refers to the opinions on art of almost every left-wing writer (in the loosest sense of the term) in Western Europe from Saint-Simon and Fourier to Mr. John Berger. Though in his Preface he is careful to disassociate himself from most of these opinions, he is fair and dispassionate throughout, and his volume can be recommended as an invaluable source of facts for those teachers trying to cope with the “Che Guevara and Art” kind of lecture now in demand. It also deserves to be looked at (though hardly read through) with some attention by anyone interested in the wider relationships between art and society. For Professor Egbert has read prodigiously, has brought together a great deal of material which is not easily accessible, and has provided footnotes which will constitute a very useful bibliography—though unfortunately their arrangement makes it difficult for the reader to refer to them as such.

But, after having been enticed by the publisher’s claim that “this brilliantly innovative and exhaustive work…is a comprehensive portrayal of the artistic, literary, musical, architectural—and philosophical—environment of Europe in the past two centuries,” one is disappointed to have to point out that the book is in fact unsatisfactory on virtually every count except as a very thorough compilation of facts.

The reasons for this failure vary. Some of them are trivial, though they irritate and indicate more basic reasons for complaint. Again and again Professor Egbert carries scholarly caution to the verge of parody. Within a few pages he tells us that Diderot “is often called the first art critic in the modern sense of the term,” that Voltaire “is often called the first modern historian,” that Babeuf “is often called the first modern communist,” and that Morelly is “said to have been the first writer to establish an aesthetic based on the sensualist philosophy.” Many other instances could be quoted.

Much more serious than this—and than the pedestrian tone of the writing generally—is the extraordinary lack of balance that he shows whenever he comes to discuss individual thinkers. Bakunin, included apparently on the strength of his fondness for Beethoven and for having influenced Kropotkin, who in turn influenced some of the French neo-impressionists, is discussed at length; whereas the critic Théophile Thore, who really did have some interesting comments to make on the relations between social commitment and painting, is given only three cursory pages; and Gustave Geffroy, the left-wing theorist and champion of all the best modern art during the last years of the nineteenth century, is not even mentioned.

As a result, important issues are trivialized and trivial incidents are treated with the solemn reverence of a gossip columnist. This reaches a climax in his account of the English scene during the last thirty or forty years, and may be illustrated by one characteristic sentence: “Another [exhibition] on ‘The Popular Art of the Picture Postcard,’ which was organized by Richard Carline, then a member of the A.I.A.’s Central Committee, was visited by Bernard Shaw and E. M. Forster.”

Sometimes (as in this case) the lack of discrimination is of no consequence, but at others it leads Professor Egbert to concentrate on the banal at the expense of the significant in a manner which is seriously disturbing. Thus in referring to the late Frederick Antal’s Florentine Painting and Its Social Background, which for all its limitations remains one of the most consistent and impressive examples of Marxist art history, he tells us more about whom the author thanked in his Preface than about the contents of the book. In commenting on the fact that Mr. Berger and Bernard Berenson admired each other’s writings, he comes to the hardly very startling conclusion that this “shows that it is entirely possible for critics as well as artists to admire each other’s works in spite of opposing social doctrines.” And is it really of any conceivable interest to know that in 1938 the American Daily Worker published an article entitled “Millet, ‘Painter of Peasants’; Famous Artist made Unique Contribution to French Painting”? Professor Egbert’s card-indexing has obviously been very efficient, but the results of his industry have all but obliterated what could have been a very interesting discussion.

It has often been repeated that the worst kind of reviewing is that which concentrates not on the book which the critic has in front of him but on the one which he thinks ought to have been written instead. Nonetheless it does seem legitimate to suggest that the volume conceived by Professor Egbert was doomed to sterility almost from the start. For from the moment that he decided to omit “explicit evaluations of artistic merit deriving from formal qualities of specific works,” he threw out the central problem of his whole thesis. Expressed like this his formula sounds innocuous enough; in fact it leads Professor Egbert to be so reluctant to pass any judgment at all on either the ideas or the art under consideration that the issue of any kind of quality, formal or otherwise, is virtually ignored.

Many of the most sensitive and cultivated artists of the nineteenth century strongly disliked the social system under which they lived, and yet, with the best will in the world, one would find it impossible to claim that Social Radicalism gave birth to an art of much coherence, merit, or significance. Christianity, Stoicism, military glory, sexual passion—all these, and many other themes, have proved capable throughout the ages of inspiring pictures of the very highest quality. Why then would the heart of even the boldest revolutionary sink at the prospect of an exhibition of Revolutionary paintings?

One obvious answer can be given at once. Painting and sculpture have always depended on some form of patronage for support, and in Western Europe, during the last 150 years, power and money have scarcely ever been controlled for long by revolutionary organizations. Delacroix’s Liberty on the Barricades, painted to celebrate the overthrow of the Bourbons in 1830, soon had to be concealed as inflammatory by the government of Louis Philippe. Commissions to artists handed out by the Second Republic in 1848 had hardly begun to operate before the political climate changed and they were abandoned: one ingenious painter discarded the symbolical ballot box from his allegory of Le Suffrage universel of 1849 and submitted the same picture a few years later as La Puissance de l’homme. And the Communards of 1871 were too busy in other ways to be able to devote much time to the arts.

For this reason most of the finest left-wing art of the nineteenth century took the form of newspaper cartoons which, by appealing to a much wider section of the public, were able to break through the limitations of conventional patronage. Even in this field, however, as Philippon, Daumier, and others well knew, censorship constituted an effective brake.

But there is more to the problem than this, for it touches on one of the fundamental issues of nineteenth-century art—an issue which can barely be alluded to here, though space might have been found for it in the 928 pages of Professor Egbert’s book. On a famous occasion Degas once complained to Mallarmé about the difficulties he was having in finishing a sonnet. “It isn’t ideas I’m short of…. I’m full of them…. I’ve got too many.” To which Mallarmé answered with the brilliant half-truth: “But you can’t make a poem with ideas. You make it with words.” Similarly paintings are—or were—made with images, and it is surely the lack of adequate imagery that has been responsible for the failure of most ideological art to carry much conviction over the last 150 years.

Pagan mythology, ancient history, and Christianity had for centuries provided artists with a repertoire of themes which were capable of expressing a wide variety of responses to the human condition. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, partly under the impact of Napoleonic pressures, this continuity was broken and traditional imagery began to seem antiquated and irrelevant to most of the more enterprising artists of the day. Indeed, the very notion of antiquity came to carry with it a suggestion of conservatism, so that had some artist in about 1830 exhibited a picture, in neoclassical style, of Spartacus urging the slaves of Rome to revolt, it is likely that the revolutionary message would have been neutralized by the medium and he would have been welcomed into the Academy.

For a short period the place of classicism, as a repository of themes carrying universal application, was taken by scenes from more recent European history and literature. Though the absence of any standardized and long established treatment for images from these sources naturally made their manipulation far more personal and arbitrary, they were nonetheless frequently used to allude to current affairs of general interest. Thus when at the Salon of 1831 Heine saw Delaroche’s once celebrated picture of Cromwell gazing into the coffin of Charles I, he quickly understood that it was referring by analogy to Louis Philippe’s usurpation of power from the legitimate Bourbons, for had not the new king’s father voted for the execution of Louis XVI?

A large proportion of the so-called troubadour and anecdotal pictures of the first half of the nineteenth century carried topical allusions of this kind, and it is perfectly possible to imagine that, had the patronage been available, the Revolution of 1789 might itself have provided left-wing artists with a wide repertoire of themes. How easy it is to conceive of pictures such as Danton voting for the execution of Louis XVI or Robespierre at the Committee of Public Safety! And indeed very occasionally, when the circumstances were favorable, pictures of this kind were actually painted. And yet it soon became apparent that this was not the answer.

After 1830, especially, a great deal of thought was given to the problem of how a feeling for social issues might be conveyed through the visual arts, and no wholly adequate answer was provided, for no language of form and content could be discovered as rich in allusion as allegory, classicism, or Christianity had once been. This sounds like a paradox, for it might be supposed that the introduction into European art, during the 1840s and 1850s, of the relatively new convention of realism ought to have offered just those opportunities that painters and left-wing critics were seeking.

For a time this seemed true. The first large-scale pictures of Millet and Courbet did arouse intense hostility in conservative circles, but—with few exceptions—they never really satisfied the radicals either. The trouble centered on the problem of idealization: if the poor were shown to be miserable, they might arouse pity but they could not convey any indication of their potential for enforcing change or at least offering a more desirable alternative to existing society. If—as many radical critics wanted—they were idealized, they tended to conform to the all too acceptable pattern of the merry or virtuous peasant. In the end a sort of compromise was worked out in the shape of what may be called The Muscular Workman, and this (apart from variations on Delacroix’s Barricades) is indeed almost the only image—occasionally satisfying, but more often degraded into a vulgar cliché—that committed left-wing art has been able to give to the world.

It is in the context of these crucial debates in the middle years of the last century (when problems which are still of such importance were being thrashed out) that the reader especially misses any serious discussion by Professor Egbert of the writings of so interesting, sensitive, and intelligent a critic as Théophile Thoré. It would surely have been more valuable to hear his views on the subject that was dearest to him than to learn that “Marx and Engels referred to Raphael more often than to any other artist” and chose “the statues of Thorwaldsen as illustrating how the human hand is not merely an organ of labor, but has achieved high perfection as the product of human labor.”

Like everyone else who has ever thought at all seriously about these problems, Thore became involved in some confusion, for he appreciated the complexity of what was required. Nonetheless his constant musings on the relationship between style, subject matter, and a new social order provide a rich quarry of ideas which would well repay exploration. For a time he, like many thinkers before 1848, toyed with the prospect of a sort of new religion of humanity, and thought that some kind of adaptation of traditional Christian iconography—giving a greater place to the Father figure—might be used by artists to convey the good news. Later he reluctantly conceded the case for a less esoteric art, but he could never bring himself to admit that Courbet and Millet belonged to the highest class of artists, largely because he felt that realism in all its forms lacked the fire which had invigorated Delacroix and romanticism.

Later artists also showed themselves dissatisfied with realism on the grounds that it was soulless and incapable of conveying emotion, though the anarchist Pissarro continued to maintain that his beliefs could only be expressed in this form.* On the whole, however, during the last years of the nineteenth century, painters had come to the view that stylistic innovation could represent as great a challenge to existing society as the formulation of a new range of imagery. In a curious article in La Révolte, written in 1891, Signac claimed that the new techniques of the neo-impressionists rendered them unacceptable to the bourgeoisie and thereby fulfilled some sort of revolutionary role. This was true enough to a certain extent—though whether divisionism advanced the cause of the working classes is another matter.

The trouble is that innovations, whether of style or of subject matter, have, almost of necessity, proved extraordinarily short-lived as vehicles for left-wing thought. The atheist who admires an Annunciation by Fra Angelico does at least realize, if only dimly, some of the implications behind it. To what extent is this true of the socially radical art discussed in this book?0

  1. *

    One of the few gaps in Professor Egbert’s bibliography is a reference to Benedict Nicolson’s perceptive and stimulating article on “The Anarchism of Camille Pissarro” in the second issue, undated, of a short-lived journal The Arts published in England soon after the war.

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