Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Women in Art / as window into the soul of a culture.

A few years back there was a jury which concluded that Matisse, Van Gogh and Hopper are exemplars of artists whose art approaches the objectively beautiful. A verdict which says far more about the jury, and the culture that jury is part of, than it says about the artists in question.

Compare these three artist's paintings of women :
Matisse’s “Carmelina 1903",
Van Gogh's Nude Woman on Bed
or Hopper’s “A Woman in the Sun”

With three other artist's paintings of women :
Leighton’s "The Fisherman and the Syren",
Waterhouse’s “Hylas and the Nymphs”
or Bouguereau’s “Nymphs and Satyre’s”.

Leighton, Waterhouse and Bouguereau all use women as visible images of an inward struggle in men against their soul's disordered passions. But yet all three in turn treat the figure of the women with dignity and grace and beauty according to her nature while using women as an image of disorder.

Leighton, for instance, uses the figure of a women as a outward sign of the inward struggle in the fisherman where the combat with corruption actually exists, but in so doing Leighton does not disfigure the women and by disfiguring reduce the natural dignity due to all women.

Similarly, Eve, the first femme fatale is both beautiful in her own right, but also a sign of fallen nature, but not the inward cause. That cause was solely Adam's fault.

In contrast, the women portrayed by Matisse, Van Gogh and Hopper are grotesque. The women are portrayed with all the dignity found in Degas’ L’Absinthe. And far more dignity than Van Gogh's Nude Woman Squatting Over a Basin.

Fornication is ‘ugly’ and well as ‘disordered’, and so while Leighton and co. could have reason to portray women as ugly as visible signs of sin, they don’t do so. While Matisse, Van Gogh and Hopper in contrast and without cause portray women as ugly where they would be expected to be portrayed as naturally beautiful.

Just as the eyes are the window to the soul of a man, so likewise is the portrayal of women in art the window to the soul of a culture, from which it follows in turn that Jury's choices of exemplars in art say much about the soul of their own culture.

If the classical period portrayed women’s platonic perfection, and medieval art portrayed women’s transcendent beauty, what do Matisse, Van Gogh and Hopper portray? Certainly not an objective good, but perhaps a disordered ugliness mistaken for objective goodness.
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Further related musings:

Just as nature acts for an end with each particular nature acting for what it sees as best for itself, so likewise does art act for a particular good, that is, art acts for the greatest good according to art qua art.

And with that in mind, the art of poetry is most perfectly directed to man’s incorporeal nature, as is signified in it use of signs which are intelligible only to the intellect. This incorporeal nature is directed to God as man’s proper end, as well as directs man’s life on this earth as is proper to man’s human nature of incorporeal soul informing matter.

In this above regard, the myths are a perfection of poetry because they symbolize the inner actions of man’s will in combat with his concupiscible appetite. As St. Paul implores us to run the good race, so does he in essence implore our will to overcome the concupiscible appetite. With the concupiscible appetite being to the earthly city, what the will is to the heavenly city.

The concupiscible appetite desires the particular material good, while the will desires that which is good for the whole man, with the final good of the whole man being unity of man with God in heaven. In mythology, the siren, the femme fatale, most perfectly symbolizes the concupscible appetite. The siren’s most voluptuous flesh presses itself against man, and with charming sweet nothings slowly and alluringly draws man below the surface of the water. The concupiscible appetite seeks the allure of fleshy matter, and in its fallen nature draws the will to forsake its final good and what is best for man. It causes man to will for a what is in effect, a bowl of pottage. Inheritance is sacrificed for a temporal material good.

Water, is the material sign in baptism, it signifies life, and cleansing. Through baptism man receives the breath of life, i.e. sanctifying grace and is brought into the visible body of the Church. And so just as water is a good when used properly according to its nature, so likewise is the concupiscible appetite a good in itself. But just as fallen nature has loosed the concupiscible appetite from control of the will, and in being loosed contrary to the proper ordering of man, so likewise can water also signify a disordering of man’s material life by strangulation of life giving breath when the lungs of a drowning man are filled with a more gros matter.. The will ceases to be filled by sanctifying grace, but is in turn filled with a lust according to the concupiscible appetite. And under the glistening surface of the water of the femme fatales supple alluring flesh lies the muck of decayed life which shall be the resting place of he who succumbs. He is drawn into the depthless warm water of the femme fatales flesh and passes into the cold depthless ice of Dante’s hell.

In the imitation of nature through the medium of the painted canvas, none surpasses Leighton’s The Fisherman and the Siren, ( a painting of Goethe’s ballad ), in signifying Man’s will in combat with his concupiscible appetite. The siren’s curved form unnaturally melds into the fisherman’s signifying the unnatural entangling of the concupiscible appetite into the proper desire of the will. The concupiscible appetite attempts to make the will it own by assimilation. The siren’s body rests in the fisherman, but also pulls with enveloping arms and downward pressing breasts. Just as gravity draws that which is most gross in linear motion towards the center of the earth where hell is most solidified and freezing blackness, so likewise does the siren press her weight against the fisherman drawing him from life giving breath into and below the surface of the disordered water from which she has come unwelcomed. Unwelcomed as signified by the fisherman’s open arms in juxtaposition to the siren’s enveloping form, just as the will does not welcome the entangling and alluring delights of the concupiscible appetite.

1 comment:

  1. +JMJ+

    I'm fascinated by the fisherman's Christ-like pose in Leighton's painting. It makes the nymph a Magdalene gone wrong.

    You should do more art posts, if this is typical of what you have to say on the matter.

    PS--I couldn't help thinking that Ayn Rand would say that the portrayal of men in art is the real window to the soul (or as she would say "style") of a culture. And sure enough, her novels are packed with homoerotic undertones.

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