Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Hating Renoir, the Western Canon Rightly Understood, and R.E.M.’s Early Years

Also: A clear-eyed book about teaching in the public school system, and more.

Note: I’ll be on vacation next week at an undisclosed location deep in the Appalachians. I won’t be wearing a “Report for America” pin and certainly won’t be writing about our struggling small towns and their mysterious inhabitants, but if you happen to see a guy in a cycling kit touching off a few fireworks while holding a can of Coors Light, that may or may not be me. I’ll be back on Monday, July 8th.

Let’s kick things off this morning with a few pieces on minor but influential art world figures from times past. First, there is Roderick Conway Morris on the Grimani sculptures, which have been returned to their original settings after 400 years: “In 1499 Antonio Grimani, as Admiral of the Venetian fleet, presided over its disastrous defeat at the hands of the Ottomans off the south-western coast of the Peloponnese at the battle of Zonchio. The Venetian maritime strongholds of Modon, Coron and Lepanto were lost. Grimani was conveyed back to the lagoon in leg-irons and condemned to perpetual exile on the Dalmatian island of Cherso. But he escaped to Rome, where, in 1493, he had paid Rodrigo Borgia an enormous sum to have his son Domenico made a cardinal; ten years later, in one of the greatest comebacks in Venetian history, Antonio was not only allowed to return home but elected Doge in 1521 . . . Numerous ancient sculptures were unearthed on the Grimani Roman estate on the Quirinale Hill. Domenico, a cultivated humanist, meanwhile amassed one of the finest libraries of the early Renaissance, collected gemstones, medals, and Italian and Northern artworks, including paintings by Raphael and Heironymus Bosch.”

Stephen Schmalhofer writes about the life and work of Egisto Paolo Fabbri, Jr. at The New Criterion: “Raised Episcopalian in affluent comfort, his childhood loneliness matured into Franciscan detachment—altissima povertade—and pulled him back to the art and faith of the old country . . . Egisto as a young dandy is best seen in a painted group portrait by Michele Gordigiani of his son Edoardo with young Egisto holding a lit cigarette while studying their friend Alfredo Müller’s canvas. He reinforced his good looks with a charming and unforgettable personality that made him dangerously attractive to women and gave his friendships a touch of glamour. When his uncle retired to Italy, the extended family lived together in patriarchal fashion. Young Egisto studied painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze and under J. Alden Weir at The Art Students League of New York. He rented a studio in Paris up six flights of stairs in Montmartre. At this stage, he risks becoming a cliché—the trust-funded aspiring artist with a waifish model girlfriend—until his generous and gentle soul shines light on our doubts. His portrait of his amour Stephanie shows a beautiful young Parisienne who must have stopped every party as her lithe frame entered holding Egisto’s arm. When he completed her black-and-white portrait in 1910, her weakened posture and alluring but exhausted eyes already showed signs of the tuberculosis that would later claim her life. Egisto risked his own health to comfort her until she died in 1913. When the art critic Walter Pach visited Egisto’s studio, he found the artist at his easel under a skylight. Modesty compelled Egisto to hide his canvas. He often destroyed his own works. For his visitor, he brought out his collection of Cézannes.”

In other news: Did you know that R. E. M. was named after the Kentucky photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard? Mark Hemingway reviews an excellent book on the band’s early years.

Hating Renoir: For many critics, the artist “is awful. Hideous. Beyond the pale. Asked for her take on Renoir, a discerning friend replied that his works provoked ‘visceral disgust.’ His canvases, she said, were ‘like a painted version of Sweet’N Low’. . . The problem with hating Renoir is simply this: Why, if he was so terrible, did Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Pierre Bonnard revere him? Why was Renoir so admired by Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne? Why did his obituary in the Guardian conclude that ‘probably it will be the verdict of posterity that Renoir was the greatest painter of the nude of his time.’ And why did Matisse describe them as ‘the loveliest nudes ever painted: no one has done better — no one.’ To suggest Matisse didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to the nude is like saying Einstein had a flimsy grasp of physics. So, what gives? Hating Renoir (if you do) is more than an aesthetic judgment. It is a neurotic affliction. I know, because I have suffered from it. It is rooted, I think, in a justifiable instinct: the feeling that a modern nude should express some convincing quotient of reality, be it psychological, social or simply physical. Renoir’s nudes don’t really do this.”

A posthumous novel by Stan Lee to be published this fall: “A Trick of the Light, co-written by Kat Rosenfield, tells of the friendship between Cameron, who has the ability to manipulate technology with his mind after a freak accident, and the mysterious hacker and coding genius Nia. When physical and online forces threaten the annihilation of the human race, they must combine their powers to save the world. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which will publish the book on 17 September, said the book was Lee’s ‘first novel for adult readers’, and that it had been ‘years in the making’.” I’m not sure what the publisher means by “for adult readers.” Anyway, the audio version of the book is out tomorrow.

If you teach (or are planning to teach) in the public school system, you should read 13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: “We expect too much of schools in poor communities. The book shows how we attempt through education to replace communities and save children from poverty. The worse off the community, the likelier that the schools have to teach everything about being an adult to children, rather than focusing on academics. Schools have few punitive powers, and the worse off the kids are, the higher the chances they don’t even have a father. What does authority mean then, if anything? Equality and excellence are different things, always pulling education in different directions. Worse, the book shows, equality itself separates into different things, friendship and authority, so that the wisest way to educate children is not self-evident, despite the therapeutic pieties of our times.”

Essay of the Day:

The establishment of a canon of literary texts in English is relatively new. It remains a useful tool, Barry Spurr argues in Quadrant:

“The idea of the ‘canon’ (from Greek, meaning a ‘rule’ or ‘measuring stick’) derives principally from Christianity’s listing of the approved sacred books of the Bible, of the Old and New Testaments, which was generally established by the fifth century AD. These form the required reading and study of the faithful, and are understood to be inspired by God and as expressive of the authoritative history of the relationship between God and his people. There are significant variations among the Christian denominations about the canonical or non-canonical status of various historical texts. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, for example, has a broad canon, with as many as seventy different writings considered to be authoritative.

“So the first important point that needs to be made about the idea of a canon is that, even in its original biblical manifestation, while there is a generally-agreed list of books, there is also an emphasis on what is widely, but not exclusively accepted. There is much evidence of variations, as well as acknowledgment of the value and significance of non-canonical texts, such as the Apocrypha.

“With regard to the study of English literature, the appropriation (in much more recent times) of the concept of the ‘canonical’ has revealed even more flexibility over the mere century or so of the discipline’s development as a university subject. The first Professor of English at Oxford, Sir Walter Raleigh, was not appointed until 1904; the first at Cambridge, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, not until 1912, and it was only in the years after the Great War that English as a respected and increasingly popular university discipline got into its stride, in both the Old and New Worlds.

“In our time, the common argument proposed by the formidable forces in the universities who have been very successful in destroying the discipline of English—and, in the process, the concept of the canon of texts that had been developing in the first half-century of the subject’s progress—was the fiction that this was a rigidly-conceived and enforced imposition of mandatory study. Accordingly, it had to be disposed of in the liberating name of various contemporary cultural and sociological shibboleths, which have come to be far more forcibly imposed than any proponent of canonical study would demand.

“The essential idea of a canonical text in literature in English is that it should have the status of widespread, time-honoured acclaim and be of a sufficient linguistic and literary standard, complexity, and depth and range of interest to warrant students’ and scholars’ detailed and sustained study, discussion and debate. Nursery rhymes, limericks, hymns, songs and doggerel verse, fables and fairy tales (for example) have been much loved and widely known through the centuries, and in specialist study can yield some interesting insights into language use and popular culture, but it would be perverse to elevate these to the status of canonical texts, as ‘must-reads’ of foundational and seminal significance, for undergraduates in the discipline.”

Read the rest. 

Photo: Poncho

Poem: Damian Balassone, “The Girl Who Hugs Dogs”

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