Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bad boys of art.

"Bad, bad, bad boys, make me feel so good..."
I have to admit I don't know a great deal about the personal lives of famous masters of art, except for a couple of the bad boys.  I was only interested in art-works and technique - from which I learned more about art than knowing the intimate details of an artist's life.  A well known artist in Boston once told me, "Follow the brush strokes - they will teach you everything."  He himself said he learned more by closely studying a painting of the early masters than by anything he learned in art school.
I've been pondering the idea of the necessity of being in the state of grace to paint worthily images of the saints and heavenly things.  Most people know of Fra Angelico, whose name in religion is Fra Giovanni da Fiesole of the Dominican Order, who left a great treasure trove of work to the Roman Church.  Ven. John Paul II declared him blessed supposedly explaining his body of work was miracle enough to warrant the beatification - thus confirming why the friar came to be known as 'Angelic'.  His work is truly amazing in it's vivid, nearly heavenly colors, his figures chaste and beautiful, his angels awesome, his composition simple and without sentimentality - full of truth and beauty.  One could go on and on.  Being a friar in a convent must have been a great support to his life of holiness and 'ecstatic' painting.
However, monastic life didn't help Fra Lippi much.  It is said he was more or less coerced into becoming a Carmelite when he was sixteen or so, wherein he learned to paint and accomplished fame.  As chaplain to the Margherita in Prato he seduced one of the nuns who posed for him, took her home and kept her.  (Artists love to collect pretty things.)  The Medici's arranged the necessary laicizations and the couple married and had a son.  It all sounds rather modern, doesn't it.  Lippi produced a son, who also became a well known painter by the name of Lippi - Filippino, or 'little Philip' - a much more sentimental painter, like Boticelli, who seems to me the Nicole Kidman of artists.  (Sentimental, cosmetically beautified, mythologized and over-romanced.)
Lorenzo Monaco - which translates Lawrence the Monk, since the artist lived for a time as a Camaldolese, wasn't probably such a bad boy - although he left the monastery - again, a fairly modern experience.  His real name is Piero di Giovanni.  I prefer his work to that of Fra Angelico.
I suppose the award for the worst bad boy has to go to Caravaggio.  Hot tempered, kind of a drunk, disrespectful, promiscuous, he even killed someone I think.  He fled the authorities, was bailed out by the pope, but died in poverty.  He was a rough guy.  His work startled his contemporaries, many of whom felt they were immoral and reflected his own immorality.  Today we call them masterpieces.
Now days much ado is made about iconographers fasting and praying before and during their icon 'writing'.  Some people think only monks or nuns can 'write' an icon.  The rules set forth can sound almost cultish the way some folks explain it.  Truth be told, icons have always been painted by men (more recently women) very similar in character to the great (or not so great) Western artists.  Today, as in days past, many 'real' icons are produced in workshops, and not by monks or nuns.  The human tendency is to place our heroes or models - in this case, iconographers, on pedestals.  Truth is, only artists can do that with the proper perspective, that is, they pose their subject to match an ideal of perfection - and quite often their interior life may not be as good as their work.  (Note: My 'schism' comment removed because it was dumb.)
I think the reason so many Latin rite faithful have fallen in love with Orthodox icons is due to the fact the Western Church went through a severe period of iconoclasm shortly after the Council.  The faithful longed for truth and beauty, and they were forced to seek it elsewhere.
Art:  Lorenzo Monaco: The Meeting between Saint James the Major and Hermogenes.  If people are going to be beatified based on their portfolio, I would think Monaco could be.

Oh.  Did you know Andy Warhol went to Mass almost every day?


  1. Terry,

    Do you have any thoughts on Van Gogh?

  2. Personally, I think he was a genius - if that means madness, I don't care. I think he was very close to God.

  3. "Oh. Did you know Andy Warhol went to Mass almost every day?"

    Yes. I believe he was Eastern Catholic.

  4. He was Ruthenian.

  5. ... that last image. Terry, there is (was, don't know if he still has a gallery), a older gent I came to know who was an accomplished artist himself, but owned a gallery that specialized in early 1920'-30's artworks, including jewelry and silver pieces from France. It was always a delightful adventure to explore his shop.

    Well, early on in our introduction to each other, he warned me never to utter "A.W." name in his shop (along with a few other names), for he didn't consider him a true artist. Had to share, given the image.

    I have read essays that pondered on Warhol's wrestle with the faith.

  6. I can sometimes understand the Orthodox begrudging the Latin rite Catholics using icons. The "cultishness" springs from us westerns; the wearying, constant need to explicate about meanings and what certain colours represent; everything that is basically implied and inherently understood by the Orthodox, tends to become in our hands a tool for cult status, some kind of "specialness" that turns me off. One can smell it once in a while; what seems a kind of false traditionalism.

    Or maybe I'm just imagining it. But I agree the Western Church's love of icons has to do with the recent period of iconoclasm, the "smaller" iconoclastic period.

    Re: Caravaggio. Some find his work inspiring. Some only see meat.

  7. Paul - I agree completely. Thanks.

  8. Austringer4:12 PM

    Terry, a few thoughts (from a fellow artist):

    1. There is a modern tendency to pay more attention to the artist than is healthy, in my opinion. The work ought to speak for itself. I think this tendency arose from the utter crapola that relativism and a loss of the teaching traditions plunged the vast majority of the art world into: since we tossed out the standards by which art could be judged, we were left to look to the "artist" for distinctiveness.

    2. I agree with your reason for why Latin rite Catholics have fallen in love with Orthodox icons -- the West dumped beauty and nearly destroyed the teaching methods that had been used to train painters for centuries. I would add, though, that this penchant for ugliness predated Vatican ll. I also think that because the teaching methods of Western art were very nearly destroyed, icons are more popular for religious painters because, frankly, it is easier (from a technical point of view) to paint a face in that manner (simplified; very little modeling) than to paint a skilled representational face. Not many can do it, as to do it well requires training the natural gifts one has been given by God.

    3. Van Gogh may have been a genius, but he suffered from two serious drawbacks: one, he matured during a time in which the teaching methods were being destroyed, so his talents were not as fully developed as they could have been; and two, he was nuts. Why this is a badge of honor for an artist is beyond me. I can't think of any other profession where being crazy is considered a mark of genius. So, we've all been schooled to know who Van Gogh is and to asmore his work, but though it does show natural talent and is also appealing, I would contend that without the brainwashing that is art education, we wouldn't ascribe such merit to his work.

  9. Austringer4:14 PM

    Sorry -- there's a typo in that least sentence that is not necessarily decipherable! I meant to type "admire", not "asmore".

  10. Austringer - excellent points! I appreciate it. I too think the exagerated emphasis upon the artist is misplaced. Van may have been mad... but... until the invention of acid no one really saw what he saw. ;) My humor. I'll never forget one 'trip' to the Chicago museum and seeing his work for the first time in person. Years ago of course.

  11. Austringer7:46 PM

    Terry, I will recommend book that every artist ought to read: "The Twilight of Painting" by R. H. Ives Gammell. It's out of print, but you can find old copies at Amazon. I think he explores the breakdown in the visual arts better than anyone else -- and, he was a painter to boot, so actually knew his subject fromm within (unlike art critics, those modern parasites). If you can't find a copy, heck, I'll lend you mine!

  12. A - I'll look for it - as it is you are making important contributions here! Thanks. BTW - you are a real artist - I just paint.

  13. Austringer9:30 PM

    Terry, you're too kind -- and I mean that. Mostly I've spent my years wasting the talent God gave me -- I cringe when I think about my particular Day of Reckoning.

  14. Paul - I read your profile - a perfect beer is Trappist Quadrupple. Can you imagine the monks drink that in winter?

  15. Hmm, is this post directed to my comments? Because ya know, most of my exposure to icons is through the Byzantine church, which is not schismatic.

    Anyhoo, it was a Byz priest who explained to me the tradition. I was especially struck by the fact that the process of producing icons was not about artistic expression at all. In fact the way he explained it, in the Eastern tradition, the true icons do not allow much deviation at all from the precise rules in which it is to be laid out. And as he explained, this is because the icon is not about the artist at all -- it is the icon itself, the end product of the whole process, which is a visual, lasting prayer.

    Oh and at the parish church of this particular priest, the icons which are on the walls were done by a lay woman. Those are my first exposure to true icons, so I surely had no preconceived misconceptions about monks or nuns. :)

  16. Gette - No, no, no, no. This is my typical shpiel on icons and all the rules. I forget we have uniate Orthodox. I think I better quit blogging - better yet - I will stop having an opinion about anything. I'll schedule a labotomy.

  17. Terry, LOL!! don't do that! Where will I go for all these great discussions on art and radical Catholics?

    Love ya darlin!

  18. Austringer, I completely agree with your point number 3. There truly is brainwashing that goes on! When I was in Architecture school, Modernism was the religion and Gropius, Le Corbusier and F.L. Wright were the gods. Today, I can appreciate Wright, especially experiencing his spaces in person, and somewhat for Corbu, as well. But Gropius? Bauhaus is just plain god-awful and was the beginning of so many of the disasters we know today as architectural design.

    I studied my bit of Art, as well, and I gotta say I do like the French Impressionists, though. Especially Degas and Monet. But in my old age, I have come to really be attached to the Pre-Raphaelites (in England) and the simultaneous school in Paris (forget the name of it -- old age, you see), of which Bouguereau is the Master.

    I know that the Art History professors I had in college would cringe at Bouguereau. But he's gorgeous! (his work I mean). It just touches my soul. That's the real point of it, isn't it?

  19. Austringer11:27 PM

    Georgette, you mentioned artistic expression as not being the purpose of icons. Though I don't pretend to know a lot on the subject of icons, I can see that that is the case. Certainly there is a certain sameness in icons...

    It might interest you to know that "artistic expression" was NOT the main purpose of Western painters for most of history: the artist attempted to do the best job at hand (depict an idea; create a good portrait likeness; render the beauty of nature; etc). Self expresssion, or artistic expression, was a natural by-product (because the artist is an individual and thus individually selects pictorial elements or is moved by what he sees), not the main purpose. That understanding, of course, has been lost. And how convenient it is! Now, one no longer has to draw well and produce intelligible work -- if it's all about artistic self-expression, no standards can apply. No talent bums can become as profound, intellectual giants -- as long as no one dares to say the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

  20. Austringer11:36 PM


    The reason your Art History profs would cringe at Bouguereau is that it is easier to sneer at beauty and great workmanship than it is to engage the philosophical premises and existence of standards that such work illustrates. In other words, it's an ad hominem argument.

    My theory is that the capacity for Beauty is like the conscience: it can be corrupted. Normally, one has to be educated right out of one's ordinary common sense, which is why I would never recommend college art courses to anyone who loves art or who wishes to develop their talent. (Though actually the brainwashing starts at a very young age in school...even Catholic ones.)

    It's also anti-God: since Beauty is a path to God, rejecting it is, at some unconscious level, a rejection of the good and the ultimate Good, God.

    I could write about this for pages, but I'm past my bedtime!

  21. Thanks Gette - I love you too - I depend on at least a few people to get me, and you are one of them. Thanks.

  22. Terry, thanks for the beer recommendation! Quadrupple sounds hefty - just the I just need to find it where I am. The stores around here are somewhat lacking. I don't think I'm about ready yet to join the Trappists for just the beer, but I think access to the beer definitely would be taken into consideration as one of the positive points if I ever considered becoming a Trappist.

    Of course, not that that is what you were recommending.

    Austringer, you said:

    "It might interest you to know that "artistic expression" was NOT the main purpose of Western painters for most of history: the artist attempted to do the best job at hand (depict an idea; create a good portrait likeness; render the beauty of nature; etc). Self expresssion, or artistic expression, was a natural by-product (because the artist is an individual and thus individually selects pictorial elements or is moved by what he sees), not the main purpose."

    Amen! I've had quite enough of the patronizing attitudes toward the real renaissance that has been masked by art history's false renaissance (the Enlightenment) from people who like to remind us that yes, the renaissance too, can also be utilized for God's glory. Well, you don't say!

  23. Terry: I agree with you and yet, I do think that the moral lives of artists/writers/theologians do make a difference.
    The one thing I would say is that someone can be a sinner (and an impulsive/compulsive one at that!) and still hold to the Church's teachings. I believe Eric Gill (the sculptor) is an example of this.
    But one can also try to rationalize one's sinful life (because it is just too darned difficult to reconcile the sin with the moral aspects) and thus change or allow it to change one (Picasso comes to mind here).
    E. Michael Jones has written extensively on this. Whether or not you agree with all he has to say, it is worth pondering.
    Art must always portray reality; evil, good, holiness, sin, whatever. But is must always be true, good, and beautiful (and that is not necessarily in the eye of the beholder, but in the Eye of God.)
    Just some random thoughts.
    Thanks for this very excellent post!

  24. Thank you Father for your thoughts - I actually think we all understand one another here which almost seems groundbreaking for my blog. This is great to have such a civil discussion.

  25. Father, you said, "The one thing I would say is that someone can be a sinner (and an impulsive/compulsive one at that!) and still hold to the Church's teachings."

    I agree completely.

  26. Terry, uniate is a pejorative term. Byzantine Catholic or Orthodox in Communion with Rome are better.

    My grandfather thanks you.

  27. My pleasure, dear one!

    And I agree, Terry. Great discussion here. Excellent points made by all.

  28. Austringer8:06 PM

    Father, I wanted to get your thoughts and insights on a conversation I had with another artist some weeks ago. We got to talking about the state of the art world and how so many ordinary individuals seem to disbelieve the evidence of their eyes and accept trash as art (the Emperor is beautifully dressed!! Oh yes!!). I posited my theory, which is that the appreciation of beauty (specifically here in the visual arts, though it would apply to music as well)is very much like the conscience: it can be corrupted. Told often enough that ugly is beautiful, and not wishing to appear ignorant, many people can, essentially, corrupt their ability to recognize talent, workmanship, order, beauty -- so eventually people actualy begin to believe that anti-art is art. Their "artistic conscience" has been corrupted. Eventually they will not only see ugliness and meaninglessness as beautiful and profound, they will develop a loathing for intelligible work that actually does display beauty, order, and workmanship. My friend surprised me by responding that, in his opinion, the recognition of beauty isn't just like the conscience; it IS the conscience (or at least a part of it). I thought that was interesting, and worthy of more consideration. What do you, as a priest, think about those ideas?

  29. Austringer: I do agree.
    This may be controversial, and I add this only as an illustration.
    Picasso was, in his early years, a very classical, excellent artist.
    But with the "deforming" of his conscience (not just sinning, but calling evil good), his artwork became more and more schizophrenic (if you will) or more and more the representation of his disordered desires, rather than the reflection of "reality"...truth, goodness, beauty.
    Mozart was not the most moral person in the world; in fact, he may have been (don't know this for a fact) involved in Masonry in Austria.
    But his Catholic sensibility and his faithfulness to reality (in the order and design of his music) reflects, perhaps, some of the highest achievements of Catholic music (according to von Balthsar; maybe Pope Benedict, who loves his music and plays it when he can).
    We are complicated and complex creatures; the important thing is to know the truth and make every attempt to live it. Whether or not we succeed is another matter. But art must always reflect God's absolute holiness; and sinners (from the biblical testimony and the history of the Church) are always the "actors" in this drama.
    So, yes, I do believe conscience and the ability to recognize beauty (in the Catholic, classical understanding of something that conforms to reality) is the same thing, more or less. (I'd have to do some philosophical research here to absolutely confirm this, but I think it is correct.)

  30. Austringer9:18 AM

    Thanks, Father, for your thoughts.

    I would voice one quibble: it is often said of Picasso that in his early years that he was an excellent, classical artist. Well, I've looked at his early work, and though it does indeed show talent (and even a degree of sensitivity) it is NOT that good! It's OK, but simply is not on a par with the student work of great artists just decades ago before him (Laurens, Bouguereau, Leighton, Paxton, Sargent, etc.) People have been told over and over how amazingly great that early work is, but -- what is that work being compared to? It's good, but not great.
    But anyway, I appreciate your insights about the relationship between his life and his work...I think you're correct. I also wonder if the surrounding Catholic culture and sensibilities (not yet destroyed by relativism) "preserved", so to speak, the quality of a Mozart or other great but flawed individuals, thus keeping them from straying too far, whereas the culture surrounding Picasso contributed to his corruption.
    Father, do you have an e-mail or other place where we can discuss these sorts of things (if you wish)
    without "using" Terry's site?
    Certainly this makes me wonder more about the conscience -- what sorts of things are "part" of it (though, philosophically speaking, maybe it's wrong to think of it of consisting of "parts").


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