Saturday, March 28, 2009


[James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, ca. 1875]

The opening stage direction of Beckett's Happy Days specifies that the backdrop behind Winnie, representing "unbroken plain and sky receding to meet in far distance," is a "very pompier trompe-l'oeil backcloth." Pompier? I muttered to myself like Krapp, then like Krapp scuttled off to the dictionary. Pompier is of course French for "fireman." L'art pompier, surely what Beckett means, is a derisive term for 19th-century academic art, salon art, art that puts a high premium on a certain notion of realism, and on a high degree of "finish." "Fireman's art."
John Ruskin saw Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold in June 1877 at The Grosvenor Gallery, & it so troubled him that he wrote about it in Fors Clavigera, the number dated 18 June:
I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.
There followed one of the best-known dramas of art history: Whistler sued Ruskin for libel; Ruskin, when the case went to court the following year, was incapacitated, or he would have given some doubtlessly memorable speeches. His attorney, cross-examining Whistler, elicited the following memorable exchange:
Attorney: Can you tell me how long it took to knock off that Nocturne?
Whistler: Two days.
A: The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
W: No; I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.
As Tim Hilton points out in the second volume of his monumental John Ruskin, the "only aesthetic issue of the trial," it emerged, was that of artistic "finish," the degree to which the artist worked over the objects represented on the canvas, removing the marks of his own hand – the rough brushstrokes, the paint-spatters, the hasty blocking-in of colors fields – until the canvas became a "window" to a represented world. Ruskin's old associate the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones testified against Whistler, as the Times reported:
Mr Edward Burne-Jones said that he had been a painter for twenty years, and during the last two or three years his works ahd become known to the public. Complete finish ought to be the standard of painting, and artist ought not to fall short of what for ages had been acknowledged as essential to a perfect work. The "Nocturne" in blue and silver representing Battersea reach was a work of art, but very incomplete... Its merits lay only in colour. Neither in composition, nor in detail, nor in form had it any quality whatsoever...
The trial's outcome was grim: the jury found for Whistler, but awarded him an ironical farthing of damages – and no costs. Ruskin's lawyer fees (£400) were paid by his many admirers; Whistler jauntily wore his farthing at the end of his watch-chain, but was bankrupted by his own legal fees.

Clearly Ruskin was on the wrong side of history on this one: the future would belong to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and so forth, & highly "finished" art – whether pre-Raphaelite or otherwise – would become the province of Socialist Realism and Norman Rockwell, both complex & highly interesting traditions universally poo-poo'd by art criticism.

But I still find myself fascinated by, even hankering for, high "finish" in artworks, even in artworks that are strictly speaking non-representational, "abstract." Not sure I buy the old epic narrative of abstract expressionism baring the souls, the psyches, the unconsciouses of its practitioners. Or that I'm interested in it. I'm interested in the evidences of painstaking craft, toil, reworking – even if that toil is paradoxically in the service of effacing itself & producing a "casual" surface. Maybe I have a kitsch streak: I prefer Puvis to Monet, Tom Phillips to Jackson Pollack.

Allen Ginbsberg: "First thought best thought."
Me, to workshop: "First thought (usually) crap."
My student Michael: "First thought lunch; second thought crap."
Just finished Tim Hilton's John Ruskin: The Later Years (Yale, 2000), an enormous brick of a book that just gets sadder & sadder as it nears its inevitable (it's a biography, after all) end.


Vance Maverick said...

The finish in Dali and Magritte is pretty high. (This doesn't come across in reproductions of Magritte, but it was one of the big surprises of seeing a good exhibition.)

There was a serious wave of reevaluation for Rockwell not long ago. I'm not persuaded, but in any case I don't think it's true to say that in high quarters his work has simply been pooh-poohed.

Then there are a number of modern/contemporary painters whose work has a very careful finish, manifesting much skill (if not necessarily very much time), but not necessarily resembling the finish of Ingres. Richter and Johns are two easy examples.

B-J certainly put his finger on the issue. I wonder whether the outbreaks of roughness in earlier ages -- say Rembrandt -- were out of favor at the time.

Mark Scroggins said...

You're probably right on Rockwell -- maybe "universally poo-poo'd by the hipnoscenti."

I believe Ruskin -- my memory may be playing me false -- had no liking for Rembrant.

See what happens when I blog about something I know little about? wanderings in overstatement-land.

Vance Maverick said...

Hey, I'm an amateur too (the difference being that there's no field in which I'm an expert). This is an interesting issue for me.

About Magritte -- I mean that, looking at the ubiquitous reproductions, you can see that the finish is smooth: what you find in front of the originals is that that smoothness is beautiful and crafty close up.

How do you think about finish in music? Anarchy suggests some commitment to a music that brandished its un-finish. (Me, my first musical commitment was to modernism in "classical" music -- which was radical in some ways but also maintained or evolved high standards of finish.)

Vance Maverick said...

Here's a rote, crabby version of the same comment (from a reviewer ordinarily more broadminded than this). He doesn't engage (indeed, at such short bloggy length oughtn't to be expected to engage) the question of the influence of public taste and demand on the craftiness of art. Obviously enough, if everyone wants the same thing, only finer than the version his neighbor has, that will elicit different work from craftsmen and artists than if everyone expects the revaluation of all values with every new purchase.

(Captcha: aikenest, presumably meaning the most pedestrian art, alla Conrad Aiken.)

Ray Davis said...
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Ray Davis said...

Repeating myself (a bad habit shared with Ruskin), what surprised me most about reading that famous insult in context was how little it should have counted for anything. It wasn't the point of the self-published magazine at all; it was just one stray spittle drop from a monstrously continuous spew. Better understanding left me far more miserable about the incident: an up-and-coming jerk from what I considered "the right side" drawing unnecessary attention to the deteriorated state of a well-intentioned collapsing mind. But I guess that's what better understanding is for.

Of course, one of the oddities of all this is that Ruskin was largely responsible for pushing connoisseur attention back from the high gloss of the late Renaissance to the "more spiritual" simplicity of the early, and was also an early defender of less glossy English painters. "Their faults are, so far as I can see, inherent in them as the shadow of their virtues;-- not consequent on any error which we should be wise in regretting, or just in reproving. With men of consummately powerful imagination, the question is always, between finishing one conception, or partly seizing and suggesting three or four: and among all the great inventors, Botticelli is the only one who never allowed conception to interfere with completion. All the others,-- Giotto, Masaccio, Luini, Tintoret, and Turner, permit themselves continually in slightness; and the resulting conditions of execution ought, I think, in every case to be received as the best possible, under the given conditions of imaginative force. To require that any one of these Days of Creation should have been finished as Bellini or Carpaccio would have finished it, is simply to require that the other Days should not have been begun."

His dislike for Whistler's work seems to have been based on the painter's apparent willful and self-promoting eccentricity: it was bad that he didn't care enough to "finish" the painting, but it was worse that he had no reason to start it.

Around our household, we call him "Poor old Rusky-Busky." TMI?

Ray Davis said...

Ruskin is both a source of and an incentive to vast quantities of prose. (Speaking of which, congratulations on the groaning shelves!) Two more comments:

* The trial would've focused more than Ruskin on the question of finish, since most people find it easier to connect price to quantity (hours worked; square-footage) than to spiritual import.

* Probably the most important thing left out of the standard pro-Modernist accounts is that Ruskin's insult occurred not in a review but in a zine. It's like suing John Latta instead of Michiko Kakutani.

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