Geraniums and the River

Nicholas Penny

  • The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers by T.J. Clark
    Thames and Hudson, 338 pp, £18.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 500 23417 5
  • Cellini by John Pope-Hennessy
    Macmillan, 324 pp, £85.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 333 40485 8
  • Alessandro Algardi by Jennifer Montagu
    Yale in association with the J. Paul Getty Trust, 487 pp, £65.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 300 03173 4

‘Impressionism became very quickly the house style of the haute bourgeoisie,’ T.J. Clark observes at the close of The Painting of Modern Life. Few seem to have resisted the invitations of Madame Verdurin or to have hesitated to adopt the pseudo-Rococo frame with whitened gilding. Renoir, in particular, who had begun his career decorating porcelain, ended it providing upper-class wall-ornaments. Clark perhaps has him chiefly in mind when he sternly (but cryptically) declares that there are ‘ways’ in which the ‘dissolution’ of Impressionism ‘into the decor of Palm Springs and Park Avenue is well deserved’. The paintings upon which he prefers to concentrate his attention and which seem to win his approval are by Monet, Degas, Seurat and Manet – especially those works by Manet which puzzled or offended.

Clark made his reputation a dozen years ago with a pair of books, The Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois, which investigated French paintings of a dozen or more years before those examined in his new book. In place of the way in which Delacroix, Daumier, Millet and Courbet represented the barricades, the proletariat or the peasantry we now watch how Manet and ‘his followers’ reacted to the more or less peaceful – if drastic – transformation of Paris and its environs. A few ‘discourses’ and ‘signifiers’ survive as relics of the affair with literary theory which intellectuals these dozen years have been obliged to undergo, but The Painting of Modern Life is for the most part written in the same manner as its predecessors. All three books present new material won by hard labour from French archives and libraries – secret police reports, forgotten vaudeville jokes, the clichés of low journalism – and subject it, together with some of the more and less familiar fine writing of the time, to a brisk but fierce examination. Similarly, newspaper cartoons and forgotten Salon pictures are juxtaposed with the works of Courbet or Manet.

At the end of The Painting of Modern Life we are left in no doubt as to how modern were boat trips on the Seine, or the popular singers in the cafés on the new boulevards – and how worrying they could be as well. Clark also makes the point that prostitution was regarded as a specially modern problem and that the new city presented itself – and was perceived as – a dazzling but disorientating spectacle. Readers of Balzac will feel that Clark overestimates the novelty here: but so did contemporary commentators.

Describing the book in this way makes it seem that Clark is a social historian more interested in the subject-matter of the Impressionists than in the manner in which they painted. That is what simple-minded right-wing American academics and critics wish to believe. The New Criterion greeted this book with a pious funeral address by Hilton Kramer on the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University where Clark works. The Fogg, according to Kramer, once enjoyed a ‘high reputation among the cognoscenti of the art world as a citadel of humanistic scholarship and aesthetic connoisseurship’ which apparently encouraged the ‘close, comparative study of individual art objects’, whereas ‘Professor Clark’, the foreign Marxist rashly admitted to the citadel, reads works of art as ‘sociological reports’, and is obsessed by the ‘mythic phenomenon’ of class-conflict.

Consider, however, the way in which, according to Clark, Monet’s paintings of the early 1870s comment on the leisure industry on the river at Argenteuil – it is not explicit, and it is a matter of style:

Monet is often at his strongest when he spells out the encroachment of pleasure on the countryside, but insists, in the way he handles it, that the scene has lost none of its unity and charm. Pleasure of this kind is natural, these pictures seem to imply: it gives access to nature, whatever the ironists say. No doubt there was something abrupt and superficial about the boaters’ encounter with the Bezons shore, but speed and superficiality were not qualities necessarily to be despised in one’s dealings with nature. Did not Monet’s own painting, in the 1870s, experiment with ways to make such qualities part of its repertoire?

I am unaware of any writing on art that came out of the citadel of connoisseurs which equals in intensity and in imaginative sympathy Clark’s account of Manet’s Exposition Universelle de 1867:

The sketch may be improbably big and overfull of matter, but it pretends all the same to be not quite a picture, not quite finished. The paint is put on in discriminate, sparse patches which show off their abbreviation – puffs of smoke eat into the dome of Les Invalides, streamers and flags blend with the foliage, the shape of a dog is left shadowed and blurred, water hisses from the gardener’s hosepipe in neat, dry strokes of colour (as if the hose were the handle of a giant paintbrush), and the hooves of the Amazon’s horse are moving just too fast for us to see them. There is even a passage at the left-hand side, between the geraniums and the river, where abbreviation frankly becomes absence of sense, and a sequence of scratchy blue-grey strokes on primed canvas fails to become an image, however hard the viewer tries to make it one.

Clark makes us feel that we are examining the picture for the first time and have never seen anything like it before.

The purpose of this dangerous Marxist professor is less to persuade us that a certain interpretation of Monet or Manet is correct than to question contemporary assumptions about these paintings and to suggest alternative ways of thinking about them, partly by looking hard at them, partly through a reconstruction of the original perplexed response to them. His prose is at times as dense, elliptic and metaphorical as the passages of Mallarmé or Laforgue which he quotes. His argument can be inconclusive as well as complex: he is partial to rhetorical questions and liable to confess that he hasn’t any ‘very clear answers’ to the questions he has raised. No wonder he is attracted by paintings which are disjointed and uneasy.

In The Image of the People Clark tended to give excessive significance to the disjointed in Courbet’s paintings. Courbet was averse to fluent compositions just as he was to smooth handling, and the power of The Burial at Ornans and the Stonebreakers, which Clark admirably analysed, depended upon this. In the Ladies of the Village Courbet did not, however, intend to make the dog and the cattle appear so oddly close to each other in size: he simply could not do better. Similar failures to organise the middle distance in the paintings in which he attempts to portray people in a landscape – especially his hunting scenes – suggest that the clumsy man with a pig in the foreground of the Peasants of Flagey returning from the Fair was devised to mask the path and procession of animals that simply wouldn’t recede. Yet for Clark the Peasants of Flagey is ‘deliberately misshapen’, the man is meant to be seen as an ‘intruder’.

In his new book Clark is surely right to find something uneasy about Argenteuil, les Canotiers, Manet’s painting of a couple boating of 1874. Having discussed the impossibility of responding to the face of the woman who confronts us, he describes the formal ‘irresolutions’ of the painting: ‘the flattened body; the mast which never quite manages to be modelled; the dense, opaque blue of the water and the floating, tilted, improbable woman’s hat’. He concludes that a sort of ‘uneasiness’ was the ‘ultimate point of the picture’s formal language. It fits its figures and landscape together, it marks out relations between them ... but the edges and links are mostly implausible, and surely meant to be so.’ We may agree with all this, and yet still hesitate to accept the ‘hypothesis’ on which ‘the book as a whole is based’ – and which is declared near the end, in the discussion of Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère.

This hypothesis is that ‘inconsistencies so carefully contrived must have been felt to be somehow appropriate to the social forms the painter had chosen to show.’ (This was also, more or less, his hypothesis concerning Courbet’s Peasants of Flagey, where the foreground man was compositionally uncomfortable, according to Clark, because he represented an uncomfortable social reality.) It would have been fairer to readers of The Painting of Modern Life if they had been encouraged to bear in mind how selective Clark’s treatment is. The summary representation of view and viewers Clark describes so brilliantly in Manet’s Exposition Universelle may be related to the conversion of Paris into a flimsy spectacle, but the no less remarkable treatment of eels or peonies in Manet’s still-lives (which are not discussed here) cannot be so explained. More important, in the Luncheon in the Studio, an ambitious figure-painting which is not mentioned by Clark, we find the same ‘implausible’, ‘irresolute’, ‘inconsistent’ features as in Argenteuil, les Canotiers, but in this case it is hard to guess what troubling aspect of modern life, what ‘social form’, might have prompted them.

There is an alternative hypothesis to Clark’s: it is that Manet wanted, or needed, to insist on the artifice of painting, and thus to discourage – or at least diminish – certain types of traditional engagement and gratification in the beholder. Women looking appealingly out of the painting, narrative interest, the fiction of pictorial space: it is these that Manet’s blank expressions, compositional disconnections and flatness defy. An hypothesis of this kind would not surprise Clark. He writes in the introductory chapter of ‘a kind of scepticism, or at least unsureness, as to the nature of representation in art’ which emerged in European painting with Manet, and he dwells on Mallarmé’s suggestion (which frustratingly survives only in an English translation) that Manet’s aim was for painting to be ‘steeped in its cause’ – i.e. to be about the way painting is made. This hypothesis, in modified form, could perhaps be reconciled with Clark’s: but the reconciliation has not been achieved.

What about Impressionist paintings which are neither disjointed nor uneasy? That they should be neglected by the critics (as poems which failed to be full of ambiguity and irony have been) is tolerable, but Clark hints that they are to be disdained. Monet’s window views of the Boulevard des Capucines reveal a ‘meretricious delight in the modern’, and provide ‘a kind of touristic entertainment’. He adds that ‘where Monet went, Renoir inevitably followed: his image of the grands boulevards in 1875 is untroubled by its subject’s meaning.’ Is this so very grave? Why should artists be troubled by their subjects?

The explicitly censorious ‘meretricious’ and ‘touristic’ are unusual, but note how the author stiffens as he refuses to enter that place where so many revolutions have been lost: the happy family home with its garden, to which Monet retreated after he had painted leisure, and even once or twice labour, on the river and in the suburbs. ‘The house would have a garden, with high hedges and borders and permanent profusion. The painter would make his own landscape there, in a place he could fill with intimate things, hoops, hats, coffee, children, wives, maids. It would be an interior, a fiction, a hortus conclusus.’ The hyperbole of plural wives, listed with maids after other ‘things’, is very deft.

What would Clark make of Renoir’s Mademoiselle Lacaux or the Young Girl at the Piano (to cite two of his most exquisite paintings, one lent by Cleveland and the other by Chicago to the recent Hayward Gallery exhibition)? The handmade dress which is a foil for the clean and well-bred mademoiselle, and the mahogany piano, doubtless recently polished by a maid, on which the nubile girl’s expensively-tutored sensibility is exhibited, should perhaps trouble us. In fact, they delight not only the residents of Palm Springs and Park Avenue but also, and no less, people of the sort whose great-grandparents went for river outings – which Clark is careful not to despise. He may regard this as a fate, but I consider it a fortune, which such pictures well deserve. Of course there are hundreds of Renoirs, and Monets, which do not deserve their fame, but they would not have been better had the artists been more troubled about the new boulevards or less happy at home.

John Pope-Hennessy retells in gracious English the tales of stabbing and intrigue which Benvenuto Cellini himself told in vigorous Italian. He adds some facts about sodomy in 16th-century Italy. And he provides an appreciative commentary on such sensational masterpieces as Cellini’s gold and enamel salt cellar made for Francis the First or his bronze Perseus with the decapitated Medusa (spurting stiff curls of blood) which has always stood in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. His book is sumptuously produced and (for the most part) superbly illustrated. But the publishers have estimated that the people able to afford it will wish to make their acquisition conspicuous and, consequently, it is so large that it is troublesome to handle. This would be more of a pity if the text were better.

Pope-Hennessy naively takes as his ‘premise’ a conviction that ‘almost every direct statement’ in Cellini’s autobiography is ‘correct’. In fact, Cellini not only reads like a hyperbolic writer, but can without difficulty be proved to have been one. He claimed that 200 pieces of pewter were added in an emergency to the bronze melted for the casting of Perseus, but in the expenses which he submitted to the court he only listed 22 pieces. There is also a hollow ring to all his reported speech. Pope-Hennessy is deaf to this and assures us that Cellini ‘had a tape-recorder built into his personality’.

We can test Cellini’s reliability from two accounts of the reception given by the French court to the display of his silver Jupiter: Cellini’s own version in his autobiography and another (possibly also, in origin, Cellini’s) reported soon after the event to the Duke of Ferrara by his ambassador, Alvarotti. Pope-Hennessy assures us that ‘the sense of the two accounts is identical, though there are slight differences in the dialogue reported in them.’ But consider the ‘slight differences’. In both accounts it is emphasised that Cellini had mounted the Jupiter so that it could easily be moved, but in one version the king specifically asks in advance to see it move and in the other Cellini has it moved so that it astonishes the unprepared king as soon as he enters the gallery. Accused by Madame d’Étampes of covering the statue with a veil in order to conceal its faults, Cellini removes the veil, exposing the divine genitals. Cellini’s own tape recorder has him furiously ripping the veil and the king forbidding him to speak. Cellini’s friend has him coolly inquiring whether the king’s mistress found everything to be as it should be, while the king bursts into laughter.

Perhaps Pope-Hennessy’s approach to Cellini’s obviously unreliable testimony is so credulous because of the affinity he feels with the vanity which so often inspired it. Readers of the New York Review of Books will be aware that, at the slightest hint of deficient adulation or of trespass into his ‘field’, Pope-Hennessy spits abuse at his fellow professors, describing one as a ‘truck-driver’ and another as a ‘garrulous old carpenter’. This is very much Cellini’s style with his rivals, and it is no wonder that Pope-Hennessy does not consider Cellini’s judgments of fellow artists to have been unbalanced.

Not content to repeat Cellini’s tirades against the unfortunate sculptor Bandinelli, Pope-Hennessy adds some lordly insults of his own: ‘Bandinelli, as he himself admits in his Memoriale, was ill-educated; he spoke Latin mediocremente, read little Greek, and knew Spanish and qualche principio della franzese. Did he not tell us this in writing, we might guess it from his work. He was capable of carving straightforward allegorical statues and reliefs, but he approached antiquity in the prosaic spirit of an illiterate.’ No doubt Pope-Hennessy reads a lot of Greek, but it is hard to see how this entitles him to regard Bandinelli as illiterate. The assumption that poetic interpretations of antiquity are a consequence of higher education is a curious one. I would recommend Pope-Hennessy to consider the plays of Shakespeare or the paintings of Titian. This passage on Bandinelli arises out of a discussion of Cellini’s marble Ganymede. Pope-Hennessy reviews other 16th-century representations of the myth, including the famous finished drawing given by Michelangelo to Tommaso Cavalieri. Unfortunately, the drawing which Pope-Hennessy describes and illustrates represents Tityus. The ‘illiterate’ Bandinelli – indeed many truck-drivers and carpenters – would have been able to tell Pope-Hennessy that Ganymede was not chained by his admirer to a rock.

It is fair to add that Pope-Hennessy’s comparisons between Cellini’s sculpture and the art of his contemporaries are often revealing. And Pope-Hennessy’s ability to spot neglected quality is not in dispute. Knowing that in 1548 Cellini made a small horse for an antique statuette of a riding warrior, Pope-Hennessy has visited the Museo Archeologico in Florence and discovered a very fine modern bronze mount with a Roman bronze warrior on it. This, he announces, is the horse Cellini made. It isn’t a bad idea, but considering the absence of any of that typically sharp, ornamental pattern beloved by Cellini in the treatment of base, tail, saddlecloth, mane or topknot, it would have been wiser to propose the attribution more modestly.

There is an additional reason to doubt the attribution. Pope-Hennessy has not recognised that the horse is closely modelled on one of the celebrated antique horses of Monte Cavallo in Rome. It would have been quite out of character for Cellini to imitate an ancient work as closely as this. He always thought of himself as being in competition with the antique. Although Pope-Hennessy in his account of the reception of the silver Jupiter neglects to mention the fact, Cellini’s chief concern on this occasion was that his statue should outshine the bronze copies after the antique which, he claimed, were arranged in the same gallery. His Jupiter and the copies may, in fact, never have been displayed together, Alvarotti makes no mention of them – another one of the ‘slight’ differences between his account and Cellini’s. In any case, Cellini was desperate to convince posterity that the great match did take place. Pope-Hennessy dismisses the copies as being of no quality but Cellini, like everyone else, considered them very accomplished.

Pope-Hennessy’s lack of interest in the antique limits the value of this book at several points. It is impossible, for example, to appreciate the significance of the satyrs which Cellini made for the Porte Dorée at Fontainebleau if you do not know that the Della Valle Satyrs, then among the most celebrated antiquities in Rome, were being cast in bronze and used for a similar architectural purpose at the same date and in the same place. When Pope Clement VII saw his portrait medal with the allegory of Peace on its reverse he is supposed to have said that it surpassed the work of the ancients. Pope-Hennessy does not illustrate or discuss the Roman coins which Clement had in mind and which would enable us to assess the originality of the action, the attributes, and the diaphanous drapery of this beautiful figure.

This particular medal by Cellini at least is reproduced at its actual size. For the most part the coins and medals reproduced in this book are so greatly enlarged that their flaws are grossly magnified and all sense of their fine design is destroyed. Pope-Hennessy’s argument that such works were ‘customarily designed on a considerably larger scale than that on which they were executed’ is highly misleading and in any case is no excuse for not reproducing them actual size as well. On technique generally, about which Cellini himself provides so much information, Pope-Hennessy is inadequate. He frequently hints, but often fails to make clear, how Cellini’s methods and materials are reflected in the completed work of art. Discussion of Cellini’s methods of striking medals is confined to the notes and not related to the appearance of the medals which resulted. We are told that the patination of the bust of Bindo Altoviti is original, but not how we know this vitally important fact.

Finally, it must be said that Pope-Hennessy’s characterisation and interpretation of Cellini’s art is seldom acute and sometimes perverse. He particularly admires the nude figures on top of the salt cellar. The male Ocean, holding his trident and some seaweed and perched on wriggling hippocamps, confronts, as if on a seesaw, the female Earth, who is seated on the head of an elephant which is largely submerged in fruit and vegetables. The legs of the two figures were originally intended to be interlaced to suggest promontories and inlets – a literary conceit worthy of Crashaw. For Pope-Hennessy the arrangement is an ‘allegory of consummate naturalness’, and he discerns a ‘psychological connection’ between the figures which he likens to that between Venus and Jupiter as frescoed by Raphael’s school on the vault of the Villa Farnesina – a masterly and humorous depiction of human emotions and intelligence, indeed of dialogue, of precisely the kind Cellini could not appropriately attempt here. And what is an ‘allegory of consummate naturalness’, anyway?

Pope-Hennessy’s reputation as a scholar was founded on his work on the Early Renaissance, but he has long been attracted by Cellini and has published a group of lectures on Raphael. His valuable three-volume Introduction to Italian Sculpture (still in print) even extends to the age of Bernini. It gains drastically in over-confidence as it does so. The dismissal of Alessandro Algardi’s tomb of Pope Leo XI in St Peter’s as ‘sadly uninventive’ and ‘academic’ when compared with the work of Bernini, seems particularly glib, especially now that we have a monograph on Algardi by Jennifer Montagu which provides, together with an excellent and comprehensive catalogue, and as many plates as one could wish, an account of his achievement which is written with elegance and profound learning. In Montagu’s company we will not be distracted by the more declamatory style, the more original ideas and the more versatile genius of Bernini, from appreciating the pathos and beauty of the tomb of Pope Leo, past which Pope-Hennessy blindly struts. We will be touched by the personal benediction which the seated pontiff bestows, by the ‘shrewd and compassionate’ expression on his aged face and by the sympathetic regard of the allegories flanking him. The gracefulness with which the figures and the architecture are related will grow on us and we will appreciate, in particular, the way in which the figure of Liberality ‘flows around’ the ‘irregular outline’ of the tomb-chest – a compositional subtlety unequalled anywhere in Bernini’s work. We will be struck by the contrast between the ‘contemplative sobriety and stillness of the three great statues’ and the narratives carved on the tomb-chest which are ‘full of the active life of high politics’ and in which every detail has been chiselled into vibrant life. Moreover, Montagu, unlike earlier commentators, is able to explain exactly what events are depicted.

The complete range of Algardi’s activity, from the routine repairs of garden sculpture and designs for furniture, to commissions for Papal tombs and bust portraits of cardinals, is described with equal penetration. The depth of Montagu’s scholarly investigations is matched, as in no other monograph of this kind, by a wide variety of approach. She brings Algardi’s patrons to life and speculates brilliantly on the contributions they made. She has had special photographs made on unchased portions of a bronze sculpture. She reconstructs the economic and artistic relations between artists and craftsmen. She also alerts us to the dispute over the number of nails by which Christ’s feet were fixed to the cross and to the number of times the head of St Paul bounced after it had been cut off. She examines with both caution and imagination Algardi’s own putative pronouncements on art and the language in which his circle discussed it. In short, she is a remarkable archivist, connoisseur and iconographer, with a particular interest in the artist’s technique, and a deep concern with art theory and art-historical method. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the book is its rejection of those orthodox oppositions, Baroque v. Mannerism and Classicism v. Baroque, which have made it so hard to assess the genius of an artist like Algardi and on which Pope-Hennessy, among others, has depended so much.