Arabesque

Samarra stucco Style A (Abbasid era)

There is a curious parallel between the flowering of an art with geometrical motifs like interlacement, double spirals, triple vortices, continuous swastikas and so on in Northern Europe, and particularly in the British Isles, and the almost simultaneous appearance of these same forms in the nascent art of Islam. These two manifestations of art differ in only one respect: in northern countries, it is the stylized animals that seem somehow to be the first element of the ornamentation; they are entwined in spirals, fold into knots and form interlacements of facing pairs, whereas it is the stylized plant, in Islamic surroundings, from which most of the ornamental motifs are fashioned. The analogies are occasionally striking, as, for example, between one page of the Lindisfarne Gospel (698 A.D.) and a certain mosaic pavement in the Umayyad palace of Minya on Lake Tiberias (705 A.D.), but it would be pointless to attempt to explain everything by exchanges that might have taken place on the periphery of a Europe overwhelmed by barbarian invasions, between the Northern Isles and the Near East. The parallel in question is all part of a much vaster phenomenon, namely the emergence at the confines of the Graeco-Roman world of an archaic art whose elements, abstract, rather than descriptive, are linked to a universal and primordial symbolism: These elements lose their immediately symbolic character. on contact with the ‘civilized’ world or, more exactly, this character is suddenly obscured by the flowering of ornamental possibilities inherent in them. This metamorphosis is directly perceptible in the Christian art of Ireland, where it is calligraphy that lays hold of, and transforms most naturally, the ancient heritage of forms; but here, again, there is an analogy and a kind of anticipation of what was to come about in Muslim art.

Christian art in abstract forms was of only brief duration; its extraordinary genius crumbled as the northern islands gradually became reintegrated into the Latin world. The art of Islam, on the other hand, worked out a synthesis between the broad current of archaic forms, which flourish in popular art and that of the nomads, and the more rational requirements of urban art; it assimilates archaic motifs by reducing them to their most abstract, and and general formulae. In a certain way, therefore, it levels them out and, in so doing, takes away every magical quality; but, in compensation, it endows them with a new lucidity, almost, one could say, with spiritual elegance. Let us not forget that Islam is the religion of return to the beginning, and that this return shows itself as a restoration of all things to unity.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, 1976

Honey

Joseph Beuys

Glaucus, while still a child, was playing ball one day in the palace at Cnossus or, perhaps, chasing a mouse, when he suddenly disappeared. Minos and Pasiphaë searched high and low but, being unable to find him, had recourse to the Delphic Oracle. They were informed that whoever could give the best simile for a recent portentous birth in Crete would find what was lost. Minos made enquiries and learned that a heifer-calf had been born among his herds which changed its colour thrice a day – from white to red, and from red to black. He summoned his soothsayers to the palace, but none could think of a simile until Polyeidus the Argive, a descendant of Melampus, said: ‘This calf resembles nothing so much as a ripening blackberry [or mulberry].’ Minos at once commanded him to go in search of Glaucus.

Polyeidus wandered through the labyrinthine palace, until he came upon an owl sitting at the entrance to a cellar, frightening away a swarm of bees, and took this for an omen. Below in the cellar he found a great jar used for the storing of honey, and Glaucus drowned in it, head downwards. Minos, when this discovery was reported to him, consulted with the Curetes, and followed their advice by telling Polyeidus: ‘Now that you have found my son’s body, you must restore him to life!’ Polyeidus protested that, not being Asclepius, he was incapable of raising the dead. ‘Ah, I know better, replied Minos. ‘You will be locked in a tomb with Glaucus’s body and a sword, and there you will remain until my orders have been obeyed!’

When Polyeidus grew accustomed to the darkness of the tomb he saw a serpent approaching the boy’s corpse and, seizing his sword, killed it. Presently another serpent, gliding up, and finding that its mate was dead, retired, but came back shortly with a magic herb in its mouth, which it laid on the dead body. Slowly the serpent came to life again.

Polyeidus was astounded, but had the presence of mind to apply the same herb to the body of Glaucus, and with the same happy result. He and Glaucus then shouted loudly for help, until a passer-by heard them and ran to summon Minos, who was overjoyed when he opened the tomb and found his son alive. He loaded Polyeidus with gifts, but would not let him return to Argos until he had taught Glaucus the art of divination. Polyeidus unwillingly obeyed, and when he was about to sail home, told Glaucus: ‘Boy, spit into my open mouth!’ Glaucus did so, and immediately forgot all that he had learned.

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths,1955

Wilde’s Failings

Wilde and his school professed to stand as solitary artistic souls apart from the public. They professed to scorn the middle class, and declared that the artist must not work for the bourgeois. The truth is that no artist so really great ever worked so much for the bourgeois as Oscar Wilde. No man, so capable of thinking about truth and beauty, ever thought so constantly about his own effect on the middle classes. He studied them with exquisite attention, and knew exactly how to shock and how to please them. Mr. Shaw often gets above them in seraphic indignation, and often below them in sterile and materialistic explanations. He disgusts them with new truths or he bores them with old truths; but they are always living truths to Bernard Shaw. Wilde knew how to say the precise thing which, whether true or false, is irresistible. As, for example, “I can resist everything but temptation.”

But he sometimes sank lower. One might go through his swift and sparkling plays with a red and blue pencil marking two kinds of epigrams; the real epigram which he wrote to please his own wild intellect, and the sham epigram which he wrote to thrill the very tamest part of our tame civilization. This is what I mean by saying that he was strictly a charlatan – among other things. He descended below himself to be on top of others. He became purposely stupider than Oscar Wilde that he might seem cleverer than the nearest curate. He lowered himself to superiority; he stooped to conquer.

One might easily take examples of the phrase meant to lightly touch the truth and the phrase meant only to bluff the bourgeoisie. For instance, in “A Woman of No Importance,” he makes his chief philosopher say that all thought is immoral, being essentially destructive; “Nothing survives being thought of.” That is nonsense, but nonsense of the nobler sort; there is an idea in it. It is, like most professedly modern ideas, a death-dealing idea not a life-giving one; but it is an idea. There is truly a sense in which all definition is deletion. Turn a few pages of the same play and you will find somebody asking, “What is an immoral woman ?” The philosopher answers, “The kind of woman a man never gets tired of.” Now that is not nonsense, but rather rubbish. It is without value of any sort or kind. It is not symbolically true; it is not fantastically true; it is not true at all.

Anyone with the mildest knowledge of the world knows that nobody can be such a consuming bore as a certain kind of immoral woman. That vice never tires men, might be a tenable and entertaining lie; that the individual instrument of vice never tires them is not, even as a lie, tenable enough to be entertaining. Here the great wit was playing the cheap dandy to the incredibly innocent; as much as if he had put on paper cuffs and collars. He is simply shocking a tame curate; and he must be rather a specially tame curate even to be shocked. This irritating duplication of real brilliancy with snobbish bluff runs through all his three comedies. “Life is much too important to be taken seriously”; that is the true humorist. “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life”; that is the charlatan. “Man can believe the impossible, but man can never believe the improbable”; that is said by a fine philosopher. “Nothing is so fatal to a personality as the keeping of promises, unless it be telling the truth”; that is said by a tired quack. “A man can be happy with any woman so long as he does not love her”; that is wild truth. “Good intentions are invariably ungrammatical”; that is tame trash.

But while he had a strain of humbug in him, which there is not in the demagogues of wit like Bernard Shaw, he had, in his own strange way, a much deeper and more spiritual nature than they. Queerly enough, it was the very multitude of his falsities that prevented him from being entirely false. Like a many-coloured humming top, he was at once a bewilderment and a balance. He was so fond of being many-sided that among his sides he even admitted the right side. He loved so much to multiply his souls that he had among them one soul at least that was saved. He desired all beautiful things—even God.

G.K. Chesterton, “Oscar Wilde,” 1909

War Teaches Nothing

Francisco Goya

A number of people remarked at the time that Mother Courage learns nothing from her misery, that even at the end, she does not understand. Few realised that just this was the bitterest and most meaningful lesson of the play.

They did not see what the playwright was driving at: that war teaches people nothing.

Misfortune is itself a poor teacher. Its pupils learn hunger and thirst, but seldom hunger for truth or thirst for knowledge. Suffering does not transform a sick man into a physician. Neither what he sees from a distance, nor what he sees face to face is enough to turn an eyewitness into an expert.

Bertolt Brecht, “Misfortune in itself is a poor teacher,” 1949

Whirl

Alberto Giacometti

‘It’s a good thing for you to be a clergyman,’ he said at last. ‘People get ideas about a thing they call life. It sets them all wrong. I think it’s poets that are responsible chiefly. Shall I tell you about life?’

‘Yes, do,’ said Paul politely.

‘Well, it’s like the big wheel at Luna Park. Have you seen the big wheel?’

‘No, I’m afraid not.’

‘You pay five francs and go into a room with tiers of seats all round, and in the centre the floor is made of a great disc of polished wood that revolves quickly. At first you sit down and watch the others. They are all trying to sit in the wheel, and they keep getting flung off, and that makes them laugh, and you laugh too. It’s great fun.’

‘I don’t think that sounds very much like life,’ said Paul rather sadly.

‘Oh, but it is, though. You see, the nearer you can get to the hub of the wheel the slower it is moving and the easier it is to stay on. There’s generally someone in the centre who stands up and sometimes does a sort of dance. Often he’s paid by the management, though, or, at any rate, he’s allowed in free. Of course at the very centre there’s a point completely at rest, if one could only find it. I’m not sure I am not very near that point myself. Of course the professional men get in the way. Lots of people just enjoy scrambling on and being whisked off and scrambling on again. How they all shriek and giggle! Then there are others, like Margot, who sit as far out as they can and hold on for dear life and enjoy that. But the whole point about the wheel is that you needn’t get on it at all, if you don’t want to. People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they’ve got to join in the game, even if they don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t suit every one.

‘People don’t see that when they say “life” they mean two different things. They can mean simply existence, with its physiological implications of growth and organic change. They can’t escape that—even by death, but because that’s inevitable they think the other idea of life is too—the scrambling and excitement and bumps and the effort to get to the middle. And when we do get to the middle, it’s just as if we never started. It’s so odd.

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, 1928

Militarism

Captain Marvel

The evil of militarism is not that it shows certain men to be fierce and haughty and excessively warlike. The evil of militarism is that it shows most men to be tame and timid and excessively peaceable. The professional soldier gains more and more power as the general courage of a community declines. Thus the Pretorian guard became more and more important in Rome as Rome became more and more luxurious and feeble. The military man gains the civil power in proportion as the civilian loses the military virtues. And as it was in ancient Rome so it is in contemporary Europe. There never was a time when nations were more militarist. There never was a time when men were less brave. All ages and all epics have sung of arms and the man; but we have effected simultaneously the deterioration of the man and the fantastic perfection of the arms. Militarism demonstrated the decadence of Rome, and it demonstrates the decadence of Prussia.

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905

Dada

Dada left its traces in America, but never struck deep roots there. It never acquired the criticality, the indignation or the longing for social subversion that marked it in Europe. It devolved into amusing in-jokes and tended to preciosity and quirkiness. This grew out of the tiny clique of self-professed illuminati that sustained it. Its sense of humor never grew as robust as the work of the professional funny guys who helped inspire it, like Rube Goldberg or the Marx Brothers. In America the Dadas were plagued by the thought that American popular culture was more Dada than Dada could be. And in fact they were right.

Robert Hughes, “Days of Antic Weirdness,” 2001

Game

Frans Snyder

FAISANDAGE–The French term for red meat which is in the condition which, in England, is known as “high.” It is derived from faisan (pheasant).

When it is fresh, pheasant is tough and without much flavour. lt grows tender and its aroma develops after it has been hung for a longer or shorter time, depending upon the temperature. Nowadays, pheasant is no longer hung, as advocated by Montaigne, “until it develops a marked smell.”

In Brillat-Savarin’s time, pheasant was not considered fit for the gastronome’s table, except in a state of complete putrefaction. This authority recommends, in effect, that it should be kept, unplucked, until its breast turns green, so that it has to be held together for roasting on the spit by a slice of bread tied on with ribbon.

Grimod de La Reynière declared that it was ready when, being hung up by the tail, it fell down of its own accord. “Pheasant,” he says in a weighty phrase, “wishes to be waited for as a government pension is waited for by a man of letters who never learnt how to flatter anyone!” To make his meaning perfectly clear, he continues: “a pheasant killed on Shrove Tuesday will make perfect eating on Easter Day!”

Apart from a few sportsmen in love with tradition, most people have today abandoned these excesses. Winged game and ground game, when hung for a certain length of time, acquire a flavour similar to that of pheasant.

This habit of hanging meat until it is high, though approved of by a few connoisseurs, usually motivated by snobbery, is properly reprehended by those concerned with hygiene and also by the true gastronome.

Prosper Montagné, Larousse Gastronomique: The Encyclopedia of Food, Wine & Cookery, 1961

Wardrobe

The merchants of Cairo apparently emulated the dress codes of their rulers, the Fatimid caliphs (r.909-1171), whose splendid wardrobes outdid even those of the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. The Fatimid caliph al-Muizz (r.953-75), the first of his line to rule in Egypt, created an institution in the palace called the House of Clothing, where all kinds of garments and cloth used to be cut. Every winter and summer courtiers and servants, their wives, and their children were given new suits according to their rank, everything from turbans to trousers and handkerchiefs. At one such investiture, al-Muizz gave away cloth worth more than 600,000 dinars. The amirs got dabiqi garments and turbans with gold borders, these two items worth 500 dinars, and the highest ranking amirs received necklaces, bracelets and ornamented swords. When hungry troops looted the caliphal treasuries in 1067, one eyewitness recorded that the looters brought out more than 100,000 pieces of cloth from the storerooms. The value of what was sold in fifteen days, quite apart from what was plundered or stolen, came to 30 million dinars.

According to contemporary descriptions, the Fatimid caliphal treasuries also held stores of tents and upholstery and furnishing fabrics of unimaginable luxury and splendour. One tent was decorated with a picture of every beast in the world; it took 150 workers nine years to make and cost 30,000 dinars. There were elephant saddlecloths of red embroidered everywhere with gold except at the bottom where the elephants’ thighs protruded. The accompanying howdahs had matched sets of cushions, pillows, carpets, seats, curtains and spreads of silk brocade. The fabrics were decorated with designs of elephants, wild beasts, horses, peacocks, birds and even humans in all manner of striking and wonderful forms and shapes.

Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islamic Arts, 1997

Hope

Matthaeus Grünewald

In Italy, Germany, Flanders, especially the latter, these artists had revealed the unsullied self-sufficiency of pious souls; their subjects, caught in life-like postures amid entirely authentic settings, with not a detail out of place, were rendered with mesmerizing sureness; from these heads, many of them common enough in themselves, and these physiognomies, often ugly but powerfully evocative as a group, emanated celestial joy or acute anguish, spiritual calm or turmoil. The effect was somehow of matter transformed, whether by distention or compression, an incomprehensible flight into remote infinity.

Durtal had been introduced to this form of Naturalism the year before at a time when the ignominious spectacle of the fin de siècle could hardly have been further from his thoughts. It had occurred in Germany, before a crucifixion by Matthaeus Grünewald.

He shuddered in his armchair and closed his eyes as if in pain. He could revisualize the picture there before him with extraordinary lucidity; and here, in his study, he mentally repeated the gasp of admiration which had escaped him as he had entered the little room in the Cassel museum as the Christ rose before him, impressive, on a cross, the trunk crudely transversed by an untrimmed branch by way of arms, which bent like a bow under the weight of the body.

As taut as a spring, it was as if this merciful branch was ready to propel the suffering flesh, transfixed to the world by the great nails which pierced the feet, far away from this cruel, sinful planet.

Dislocated, almost ripped from their sockets, the arms of the Christ seemed bound their entire length in bulging cords of muscles; the tortured tendons of the armpits looked ready to snap; the hands, wide open, brandishing fingers contorted in a confused gesture of benediction and reproach; the trembling pectorals greasy with sweat; the rib-cage standing out of the torso like a row of staves; the flesh, swollen and bruised, speckled with flea-bites, pockmarked by the pinpricks left in the skin by the scourges. Purulence was setting in; the seeping wound in the side dripped thickly, inundating the thigh with blood that was like congealed blackberry juice; a milky pus tinged with a pinkish hue, similar to those grey Moselle wines, oozed down the chest and over the abdomen with its rumpled loin-cloth. The knees had been forced together, twisting the shins outwards over the feet which, stapled one on top of the other, had begun to putrefy and turn green beneath the seeping blood. These congealing, spongiform feet were terrible to behold; the flesh swelled over the head of the nail, while the toes, furiously clenched, with their blue, hook-like horns, contradicted the imploring gesture of the hands, turning benediction into a curse, as they frantically clawed at the ochre-coloured earth, as ferruginous as the purple soil of Thuringia.

Above this erupting cadaver rose the head, tumultuous and huge. Encircled by a ragged crown of thorns, it hung down lifeless, one lacklustre eye half-open in which a shudder of terror and sorrow could be detected; the face was furrowed, the brow craggy, the cheeks blanched; the features, crushed and defeated, weeping, while the sagging mouth, with its lower jaw racked by tetanic contractions, laughed atrociously. The torture had been unendurable, an agony which had forced the joking executioners to take to their heels.

Now, against a dark sky the colour of night, the cross seemed to descend until it barely hovered above the ground, while two figures, one on each side, kept watch over the Christ. One was the Virgin, wearing a blood-red hood cascading in tight waves over a blue robe with long pleats in it. Her face was rigid and pale, swollen with tears, like that of someone digging their nails deep into the palms of their hands. The other was Saint John, some species of vagabond, a sunburnt Swabian peasant, very tall, his beard crimped into little corkscrews, dressed in a garment that looked like it had been cut out of bark. Over this he wore a scarlet tunic with a mantle of yellow chamois, puckered at the sleeves to reveal a lining of feverish green like unripened lemons. Exhausted from weeping, but possessed of more endurance than Mary, who though broken and spent was still standing, he joined his hands and swept forward towards the corpse which he contemplated with filmy red eyes, and he sobbed and choked silently in his mute outrage.

How far removed one is when confronted by this bloody and tear-stained Calvary from those debonair Golgothas adopted by the Church ever since die Renaissance! This lockjawed Christ is no Christ of the rich, no Galilean Adonis, no dandified picture of health, no handsome youth with curly brown tresses, divided beard and insipid, equine features, such as the faithful have worshipped for the last four centuries. This is the Christ of Saint Justin, Saint Basil, Saint Cyril, Tertullian, the Christ of the early Christian Church, the common Christ, made ugly by the assumption of the whole burden of our sins and clothed, from humility, in the most abject manner. This is the Christ of the poor, the Christ who is one and the same with die most wretched of those He has come to save, the beggars and outcasts, all those whose indigence and helplessness redeem mankind’s cowardice; but it is also the most human of Christs, frail of flesh, abandoned by the Father until every torture has been exhausted; the Christ, like all those who are in agony, with no recourse except to His mother who, though heeding of His childish cries, is powerless to help.

In His infinite humility, He had agreed to suffer the Passion to the utmost extent of the human capacity to bear pain; and, in obedience to an order beyond our comprehension, He had cast off His divinity at the time of the scourging and the blows and the insults spat in His face, from those wanton preliminaries right through to the unspeakable torment of an endless agony. Nor did He spare himself, so that the fall might be the more complete, during this lingering death, a death such as a thief or a dog might suffer, so vile and base was it, even the final ignominies of pustulence and putrefaction.

Never, neither before nor since, had such a subject been broached from a Naturalist perspective; never before had a painter depicted the divine charnel-house so thoroughly, or dipped his brush so brutally in running sores and bleeding sockets. It was extreme and it was horrifying. Grünewald was the most uncompromising of realists; but to regard this Redeemer of the doss-house, this God of the morgue, was an inspirational experience. A gleam of light filtered from the ulcerated head; a superhuman expression illuminated the gangrened flesh and the convulsed features. This crucified corpse was truly that of a God, and, without aureole, without nimbus, with only the blood-sprinkled crown of thorns for accoutrement, Jesus appeared in His celestial Super-essence, between the grief-stricken Virgin, blinded with tears, and a Saint John whose burning eyes could shed no more tears. These faces, by nature vulgar and commonplace, were resplendent, transfigured by suffering. The common criminal, the beggar-woman and the peasant had vanished; these were now supraterrestial beings in the presence of their God.

Grünewald was the most uncompromising of idealists. Never before had an artist so magnificently captured such rapture, never before had an artist leapt with such determination from the topmost peak of the spirit into the very sphere of heaven. He had gone to the two extremes and he had, in the triumphant depths of squalor, extracted the very essence of charity and despair. In this canvas a masterpiece of the impossible was revealed, an art ordained to render the invisible and the tangible, to make manifest the lamentable impurity of the flesh, and to make sublime the infinite distress of the soul.

No, there was no equivalent in any language. In literature, some pages of Anne Emmerich on the Passion approached, though in an attenuated manner, this ideal of supernatural realism and documentary disclosure. Perhaps, too, certain effusions of Ruysbroeck, leaping forth in twin jets of black and white flame, were worthy of comparison with Grünewald’s divine abjection. Yet no, Grünewald’s masterpiece was unique, for it was at one and the same time totally out of reach yet entirely of the earth.

“But,” thought Durtal, rousing himself from his reverie, “if l am consistent, that means I shall have to embrace the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, a mystic Naturalism: that’s absurd, and yet, why not?”

J.-K. Huysmans, Là-Bas, 1891