Timeless Painting and “Contemporary Art”

1. Artistic quality and apparent novelty

 

At the present time, in relation to “contemporary art”, it may be thought naive to speak of artistic beauty, to accept as a given that the aesthetic ideas which have prevailed for centuries will be accepted today, or to suppose that works of art created now (and imbued with such beauty) will be recognized and appreciated for this.

Many are convinced that, while the search for beauty may have been the goal of art in past times, “contemporary art” is something altogether different. Those who think this way want, rather than beauty, change (and this is just what fashion does: in the words of Gustave Thibon, it “flatters our most vulgar instincts for change”1), novelty, extravagance, provocation, subversion, a break with tradition… An example may serve as orientation here: supposedly, the world’s richest “artist” is a certain Hirst, whose great achievement is to have sealed in transparent formaldehyde-filled cases the carcasses of a shark, a baby zebra, a calf and so on.

When presented with a skillful portrait, from which the very soul of a human being seems to emerge, these same “modernists” dismiss it as “conventional” and hold it in contempt, as what is important nowadays are new forms. The “modern” portraits of Picasso satisfy such tastes; in them we find an array of whimsical, even shocking deformations (e.g. both eyes on the same side of the nose), but these portraits are soul-less; indeed, where is there any trace of the subject’s spirit in the “portraits” of Warhol? It is simply not there: “The arts of the 20th and early 21st centuries have stopped viewing man as a being with a spiritual dimension, and have thus transformed him into a simple visual object” (José Jiménez Lozano, winner of the 2002 Cervantes Prize). This quotation should perhaps always be written with some type of highlighting –in bold, italics or capital letters–, as it summarizes to perfection what has happened and what is happening still.

For this reason, www.jrtrigo.es offers to the reader the following paragraphs (they can also be found below, to the right of More info and Links, one or the other depending on the page).

«The mediocre painters of Velázquez’s time, boiling with envy (that infirmity which is always malnourished because, wrote Quevedo, it “bites, but doesn’t eat”), complained to the king that his court painter only knew how to paint human faces. “Is that true?” the king asked Velázquez. “I know of no one who can really paint human faces,” was the response. “That is the most difficult of all”» 2.

These words can only be understood if one does not ignore the spiritual dimension of the human being.

The “modern” attitude of our own contemporaries, in any case, has historical precedents. With the www.jrtrigo.es website I have endeavoured, principally in the texts My Painting and Possible Causes of the Present Situation, to question the fashion-based trends of the 20th- and early 21st-century art world, and perhaps re-direct this situation to some extent.
The following extracts are taken from My Painting:

Bach’s widow, Ana Magdalena left us these words: “I know that nowadays there are new musical trends, and that the young follow, as they always do, all that is new; but when they grow older, if they are true musicians, they will return to Sebastian. Drawing an abstraction from the fact that I am his wife, or rather –alas!— his widow, I understand music well enough to know that this is what will happen, even if now, only a few years after his death, his works are nearly forgotten and the compositions of his sons, Friedemann and Manuel, are preferred to his own” 3. Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms –all felt this interest for the music of J. S. Bach; they were not old men, but indeed were true musicians.

By contrast, let us turn now to quite another sort of example. As either an experiment or a joke, one of the ARCO contemporary art fairs which are held every year in Madrid recently included a painting done haphazardly in a few minutes by various pre-school children. Visitors to the fair took this painting to be merely one of so many others on display there. Can you imagine the result if this same experiment had been carried out at the Prado? It is obvious that the joke would have fallen flat, that no one would have been taken in by it.

This example is illustrative of the artistic impoverishment to which the current thirst for novelty and extravagance has brought us, and with relative assiduity. It likewise exposes another problem of our times: that certain persons confuse the appearance of modernity with artistic quality. This is but another consequence of the pursuit of novelty and the fact that the condition stipulated in the earlier quote by Ana Magdalena Bach is lacking: “…if they are true musicians, they will return to Sebastian” 4 (i.e. to the music of J. S. Bach). In parody of those words, we might say: if they are true painters, if they truly love and understand art, they will once again appreciate artistic quality over what merely appears to be new.

 

2. The path of artistic beauty and its substitution by surrogates and falsifications

 

If we were to contrast authentic artistic beauty with these contemporary trends in “art”, we would  see the difference immediately. The first places man in harmony with all of Creation; it does not distance him from reality, but moves the human being with a healthy “shake” (in Plato’s words) that brings him out of himself; it tears him out of the accommodating daily routine, so dull and predictable, and re-opens the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings and lifting him upwards, towards the mystery itself –blissful encounter with the ineffable!–; it places before him treasures perceptible to the spirit and now adorned with words, colours, diverse forms and, finally, accessiblity.

In contrast, contemporary  trends in “art” generally resort to “low blows”, to crude, illegitimate means of catching the viewer’s attention: subversion, provocation, extravagance, obscenity…; they enslave man, to whom they seem to deny a spiritual dimension; they reduce the horizons of his existence to the merely material, to a vision which is limited and banal; they grasp and restrain him through extra-artistic tactics, which include an orchestrated propaganda in which the mass media act as accomplices in this deception. Deception? Yes, remember Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes: the wily tailors… and the naked king! This second path of “art”, then, consists of a flight towards the irrational, or in a mere aestheticism which manages, on occasion, to achieve decorative results. At the level of appearance, the decorative fulfils a function identical to the artistic, much as two books might equally decorate a bookshelf, but with the essential difference of their content…: one might be mere banal entertainment and the other a text of grace and depth. In what does the charm of the decorative consist? In that it has, at the end of the day, a few small drops of the artistic elixir!

One of the signs of irrationality in our time is that works which are simply decorative, the contemplation of which is exhausted in three minutes, are acclaimed as paradigms of modernity and valued as much or more than the masterworks of world painting. This weakness of our age for the showy but superficial is a reflection of those who have these type of shallow preferences. It is something akin to esteeming a comic strip or a sports article ―aimed at nothing more than entertainment or distraction― over the literature of timeless values.

The writer Juan Manuel de Prada has addressed this question in two of his journalistic pieces:
“The barbarous iconoclasm of the Islamists, at the end of the day, is not so different from the ever-so refined iconoclasm of the neo-pagan West, which for centuries has been destroying art under a diversity of aesthetic, ideological, philanthropic and even religious banners, self-righteous guises which cloak a hatred of Beauty and, by extension, of its Creator, and sow this seed in our souls.

“Think of the entire evolution of ‘contemporary art’, whose purpose in reality is none other than to vituperate, spit on, defecate on Beauty, to the point of erasing all trace of it from our souls, fulfilling the desideratum of Ivywood, protagonist of The Flying Inn [a novel by G. K. Chesterton], who preached that art must ‘break down all barriers’, no longer present recognizable forms, melt into pure nothingness, until we are buried in its vomit, so as to more completely deny the work of the Creator.

“So that the entertainment of the neo-pagan West does not decline (and it is well-known that decadent tastes demand variety), the followers of the Islamic State have now filmed themselves pulling the Assyrian statues in the museum of Mosul from their pedestals and then furiously hammering them to bits. A dazed spectator might well confuse this video with an imbecilic performance piece by Joseph Beuys, or any other of the charlatans who display their rubbish in that circus of refuse known as ARCO, to the acclaim of neurotics and snobs”.5

“Moratinos […] thinks that the globs of paint that the artist Barceló has sprayed onto the ceiling of the bell-like Sala de Derechos Humanos y la Alianza de Civilizaciones are ‘the Sistine Chapel of the 21st century’. Such an affirmation may at first sight appear a hyperbole spoken by an idiot; but it becomes an unmistakeable and deeply profound truth if we reflect even a little upon the nature of contemporary art.

“What, in fact, did Michelangelo do in painting the Sistine Chapel? What he did was to reflect with his brushes the idea of a Creator God who made man in His own image and likeness; a God who was, therefore, a figurative artist; in other words, a reactionary and a fascist. And what does contemporary art do? What contemporary art does is to reflect its aversion to the idea of a Creator God, by presenting a universe that rejects the model of His creation; a universe governed by laws determined by the artist himself and which, through his own conceit, become a total absence of laws, a fatuous, agnostic lawlessness resolved by spraying paint with a hose. The artist Barceló is, in effect, the Michelangelo of the 21st century; and the Alianza de las Civilizaciones is a creation tailor-made for contemporary art: senseless gimmickry in the image and likeness of an empty-headed demi-god who funds his personal whims by fleecing the lackeys who have contributed to his own exaltation”. 6

And this is the testimony of Balthus: “If we are indeed surrounded by so many beautiful things, then why do we try so hard to avoid them? […] The only aim of painting is beauty. The plucked flesh of some contemporary painters transforms painting into a work of ‘the fall’. Luciferian. When it is a really a question of attaining divine beauty. Or at least its reflection”.7 “Because, as I see it, God, who made the world and could not have made it ugly or incomprehensible, has left us the immense field of beauty that a painter must have. How can one create ugliness with such riches? I have always felt myself to be a keeper of these gifts, responsible for them. You have to overcome your weariness, your suffering, your doubts, in order to dedicate yourself to this enormous task, to the baptism that is painting, that immersion in the beauty of God”. 8

“The horror of the Same Old Thing,” ironically says the tempter in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, “is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart ―an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship”…and of pointless changes in art, one might add.

 

3. The totalitarian imposition of the taste for novelty and appearance

 

Currently, in “artistic” spheres, an injustice is allowed and a tyranny imposed which are analogous, albeit in a reverse sense, to that practised in the 19th century when the French academic establishment systemically barred from its exhibitions the works of the Impressionists, who in fact were injecting new life and the vigor of inspiration into the fossilized norms defended by those same academicians. Now, those who march in lockstep with the fashion for apparent novelty proscribe and denigrate the works of non-conformists like myself, who are working to keep alive the flame of artistic beauty and who long for the victory of permanent values in the world of painting.

The dictatorship of our time, which exalts the new, perhaps the ephemeral, over the classic and permanent, also bears a resemblance to the decadence of ancient Greece; indeed, in the 1st century A.D., “…all of the Athenians and foreigners residing there are concerned with nothing else but saying and hearing the latest novelty” (Acts 17:21); “…some of the Athenians favoured these new discourses, but they did not follow them nor concern themselves for their content: their only interest was in having something new to talk about” (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 39). The search for truth (in philosophy the equivalent to the search for beauty in art; both are transcendentals of being) that characterized the thought of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, at the maximum splendour of Greek culture, had been replaced by a search for change and novelty, and thus by much inferior modes of thinking: the Epicurian, the Stoic.

“In medio virtus” 9, virtue lying between two extremes of vice, proclaimed the sages of the classical antiquity. If one such vice was the fossilization of the 19th century academists, who rejected any innovation which might enrich artistic creation, another is certainly the fad for novelty, extravagance and strangeness of our own time. In reacting against the former we have indeed gone “over the top”. Childish, immature works, lacking all evidence of training or mastery of visual media, with little or nothing to say regarding the great mystery at the heart  of human life and all known reality…; works of mere appearance —like cars with elaborate chassis but no motors— whose artistic substance is minimal or wholly absent; stupidities acclaimed by the extremist defenders of “the new” (Kazemir Malevich’s White on White, Black on Black; Marcel Duchamp’s urinal…) have robbed art of its good name; the galleries of our museums are on occasion filled with such intruders (I heard one university professor remark that, of the works on display in museums of “contemporary art”, the most beautiful are often the fire extinguishers hanging on the walls). “The naked emperor” of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale has become incarnate in our own time. The proclamation “I’m an artist, and this is art because I say it is” has the arrogant tone of all totalitarian impositions, and the attitude which dominates the art world of the 20th and early 21st century is of the same style.

 

4. Confusion and the inversion of values in the modern world

 

Throughout history, cultural epochs of diverse and even opposing characteristics have succeeded each other; not lacking among these have been those which exacerbate the irrational (not exactly mankind’s greatest virtue). In this category is the present fashion for novelty and extravagance which, despite its eagerness to spark originality, merely recycles in new forms past behaviours more fitting to a time when human beings seemed less sane.

“If I were asked what is the greatest defect of our time, I would respond without any hesitation that it is the confusion and the inversion of values” (Gustave Thibon)10.

“When vices are in fashion, they even pass for virtues” (Molière).

“They begin to see that, as the eighteenth century thought itself the age of reason, and the nineteenth century thought itself the age of common sense, the twentieth century cannot as yet even manage to think itself anything but the age of uncommon nonsense” (Gilbert Keith Chesterton).

 

5. Let us not confuse artistic quality with fame

 

It is not uncommon nowadays to find people in charge of  artistic institutions who simply follow accepted formulas of thought and value works solely on the basis of their notoriety.

The current controllers of the world’s exhibition halls are proud to present works by famous names such as Lichtenstein, whose creations (in reality simple comic strips blown up to great proportions), taken all together, possess less art than a few centimetres of one truly great painting.

Jumping onto the bandwagon of valuing only what is preceded by fame may seem a safe road to take. However, those who take it lead one to suppose that, if they had been contemporaries of artists whose works, though now history’s most revered, were at the time appreciated only by a few, today’s trend-followers would no doubt form part of the amorphous mass that originally ignored or censured those classic works.

Nor is there any shortage of examples, in the various arts, of how works which enjoyed both official favour and generalized acclaim when their creators were alive passed from there into oblivion or to a second or third plane of consideration.

The works which Rembrandt painted after his fall into disgrace and, thus, into misery, were ignored by his contemporaries. They are, however, among the most astonishing and profound of the Dutch painter’s career and of all world painting.

During his lifetime, many of Schubert’s sublime creations were not heard outside a small circle of his friends, nor were his final —and perhaps most important—symphonies performed until after his death.

Likewise, the debut of the opera Carmen met with failure and its composer, Bizet, died without ever knowing the success it would enjoy in later years. Brahms, however, would sing its praises, while Tchaikovsky predicted it would be the most popular opera of all time, as it is in fact proving to be.

«An especially bitter experience for Vincent Van Gogh was the occasion of his farewell to Doctor Rey, to whom he gave one of his landscapes as a gift. Fearing that it would be ridiculed by his family, the doctor refused it, offering it instead to a young hospital orderly who happened to be passing by. “What am I going to with that rubbish?” asked the orderly, to the great disconcertion of Van Gogh, who thought that simple, uneducated folk would intuitively understand his painting» 11. Lamentably, this accurate assessment on the part of the unfortunate Van Gogh would not be borne out until a century later.
“If I prettified my work like Bouguereau…” 12 These words of Van Gogh’s convey an implicit rejection of the other’s art, fruit of the academicist tastes which so predominated in those years.
Earlier, the same protagonists had had this exchange:
«Doctor Félix Rey accepted a portrait from Van Gogh, and his family had not liked it either. It ended up in an attic and was later used to stop up a draught in the kitchen. Then, in 1900 (eleven years after Van Gogh’s death), a painter friend advised Dr. Rey of its possible worth. He didn’t believe it, but “just in case” had it cleaned and brought back to the attic. Informed by the painter, the shrewd art dealer Ambroise Vollard, a mutual friend of both, offered Rey 50 francs for the painting. The doctor’s father thought it shameful to accept so much money for such “rubbish”, but Dr. Rey took a more realistic attitude and asked 150 francs, which to the family’s astonishment was agreed to immediately. The portrait now hangs in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum»13.

In the 19th century, the paintings of the Impressionists were in fact systematically excluded from the exhibitions of the official Salons. However, the works favoured at the time now generate little interest in comparison to the great esteem in which the Impressionists’ paintings are held today. Why not compare them? The painters then in vogue were Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bonnat, Carolus-Duran, Bouguereau, Falguière… (How many of these are remembered today?); meanwhile, the painters banned by the official salons, and upon whom would rain the sarcasms of a more than a few critics, included Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Degas, Toulouse Lautrec and Van Gogh (is there anyone who does not know them now?).

Let us go back now to the years 1790 and 1791. «Mozart would die in December of that year, although naturally he was unaware of this; it was then that he agreed to collaborate on The Magic Flute. Why did he accept? The reasons are many; the first being that he had no choice but to cling to such a commission as to a life raft».
«Mozart, that unequalled genius, was at the time sunk in penury after a devastating string of failures».
«At the beginning of the year he was forced to advertise (unsuccessfully) for students, as he had only two left».
«When, in September of 1790, King Ferdinand of Naples was received in Vienna and invited a number of musicians to visit his kingdom, Mozart was excluded from this offer, despite pleas by the ever-loyal Haydn, who had turned down his own invitation in order to accept a journey to London, but could not arrange for Mozart to take his place. Some time before this, the Prague Opera had commissioned Haydn to compose an opera buffa, and he responded: “How can they offer this to me, when they have that wonder, Mozart!”»
«At the end of 1790, the musicians of Vienna would be presented with yet another opportunity: the coronation of Leopold II in Frankfurt. For the festivities, many of them were hired to accompany the court. On this occasion, Mozart was also excluded in the most humiliating fashion»14.

Although Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is considered one of the greatest composers in history, in the 1950s it was rare that an orchestra conductor would dare to present an entire symphony of Mahler’s, for fear that the audience might walk out of the hall.

Despite the enthusiasm of violinists for the Concerto for violin and orchestra of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), the work was slow in gaining wider acceptance, as were the composer’s other works.

Social recognition does not always accompany a work of art. Cultural trends and advertising campaigns can distort the assessment of an artistic creation, relegating to oblivion works of great artistic value and promoting works that are irrelevant. Furthermore, the recognition of what is profound requires from the viewer an attitude which is alert and contemplative; in contrast, to recognize what is light and superficial one needs only a perception at the sensory, emotive level; indeed, the public fills our football stadiums to capacity, while this is not so often the case of museums, libraries, or concert halls dedicated to serious classical music. In the first class of an Introduction to Classical Music course, an instructor warned his young students: “This is music for the head, not the feet!” (i.e. not for tapping one’s toes or “shaking one’s frame”, but directed principally toward the mind and heart, toward thinking).

A child chooses a simple rattle –with showy colours and a pleasing sound– over a cheque for a million euros or dollars… How easily are human beings –both young and old– deceived by appearances which are sensorily striking but of very meagre spiritual value! True art is not that which is circumscribed by appearance (think here of so many noisy “concerts”, of works of “art” designed to impress by their enormous size or an aggressive appearance of novelty); true art is an irrefutable proof of the spiritual dimension of man… that man is much more than a simple evolved animal.

Nowadays, one has the impression that quite a number of people have stopped seeing with their own eyes, to judge by their understanding, and are satisfied to value an artistic production simply by what others say, or to take as incontestable facts the results of marketing campaigns that apply the logic of Goebbels: “a lie repeated a thousand times becomes truth”…. All of this is what we are brought to ―or taken to― by relativism.

 

6. The inability to contemplate is a sign of decadence

 

There is currently an inflated use of the term “genius”, in which media fame is confused with its authentic spiritual dimension. The word is thus thrown about liberally by many an exhibition organizer in reference to works that would seem to have been done by a student taking his first steps into the world of painting. At the same time and in consequence of this, we are witness to a ridiculous “cult of personality that the modern world imposes upon artists; the art market is infected by this gangrene, and the sacrosanct signature of the painter is worth much more than the painting itself. Modern painting will not understand that the sublime and ultimate goal of painting is to find a tool, a path for responding to the world’s great questions, which are still undeciphered, still only partially read. The Great Book of the Universe remains impenetrable, and painting may be one of the keys for unlocking it”15.

Everyone knows the music of the Beatles, but few, very few, the work of Elgar. Elgar? Who’s that? The name doesn’t even ring a bell. But, while quality does not lend itself so easily to measurement as quantity, by way of orientation we might observe that one single movement of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto contains more music than the entire output of the Beatles; and, following along this same line, that a single movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (other examples would be equally valid) is musically richer than all of the popular music of the 20th century. Many young people today have no time for a classic film in black and white, even if it is a genuine masterpiece; it bores them, all they want are “action” and “special effects”. Or they are unable to enjoy ―yes, enjoy!― reading a novel as colossal, as entertaining and as profound as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The “literature” of gossip and curiosity, centred on the shallow behaviour of celebrities (at times, true “anti-models”), line the shelves of our news-stands… and ―sadly― the minds of many people nowadays. Alexander Solzhenitsyn put his finger on these and other vices ―all too frequent― of Western society… with its “myopia” and “smugness” (see A portrait of Western society, at www.jrtrigo.es).

If we wish to rise from the spiritual decadence into which our society is sunk, what is needed is a change in habits: from dispersion to concentration; from banality to transcendence; from frivolity to contemplation. How many young people ―and those not so young― have ever stopped to listen toTchaikovsky’s ballet suites The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake or The Nutcracker; Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 for Piano; the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony; Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings ; Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with Ravel’s splendid orchestration; Debussy’s La mer; the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra of Sibelius; El amor brujo or Noches en los jardines de España of Falla; the Iberia suite or the two Spanish Suites (Op. 47 and Op. 97) of Isaac Albéniz, in both their original versions for piano and the very beautiful transcriptions (some attributed to Francisco Tárrega) for guitar; Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez or his Fantasía para un gentilhombre….? We could go on: How many have had the occasion to hear, even once, Pachabel’s Canon; Albinoni’s Adagio; the Overture from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser; Beethoven’s Archduke Trio; Schumann’s Piano Quintet…? These are indeed works of musical genius, of a beauty not limited to the merely sensorial and superficial, to simply producing a pleasing first impression; it is, rather, a sublime beauty, one that transcends the immediacy of sound and carries us on toward truth and goodness. The knowledge of such works ―as I have referred to here― may well help many to enter a world they little expected was there, in the wondrous interior of reality, accessible only to the contemplative spirit. This is precisely what art with a spiritual dimension has to offer mankind. How great it would be if we did not have to say of our contemporaries what the poet Antonio Machado said of his, that they “hated what they were ignorant of”!

I will turn now to my own country. Among young people, there is an added difficulty in entering into the world of art, in consequence of the education contaminated with subjectivism that they have received.  How does it seem to you? What do you think about this?… They have been required to judge everything from their own particular points of view, before acquiring even a minimal foundation in the material at hand. And so they have developed a predisposition to accept or reject ―“I like it” or “I don’t like it― based solely on first impressions; they lack the habit of wanting to understand things objectively, what they are like in reality, rather than in one’s own narrow vision. Before a materpiece, one may experience a personal incapacity or limitation for understanding, but with a reaction of: “I will try harder, study more, until I understand it better”. Much as someone who finds himself at sea might think: “I will reach the shore by rowing or by swimming”. Young people tend to react quite differently (again, according to “I like it” or “I don’t like it”): “Let the port come to me, because I’m not moving from here!”

While still young man, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) carved in marble a prodigious group of sculptures on a mythological theme: Apollo and Daphne. Apollo pursues the nymph Daphne, but at the moment he touches her she is transformed into a laurel tree… This is the frustration of those who, reducing woman to no more than a body, as hard as they may try to retain her, see that the mystery of this person, the true reality of the human being whose affection they hope to attain, has escaped them. A similar frustration is experienced by those who, in the grip of the consumerist fever, seek to possess more and more goods… If one does not perceive in all of God’s creatures a call to transcendence, the sense of a natural order, if one does not feel a rising sense of admiration and gratitude, mere material possession may leave them equally empty within: they will have captured only the “husks”, while the mystery of the cosmos evades them… Someone has said that we are “noise-sick”. Those with eyes glued to their “mobiles” as they send and receive their messages, or whose attention is saturated with the noisy, pounding “music” blasting from their headphones, are missing the best… the charm of natural sounds like the murmur of the sea and the wind, the warbling of songbirds… the spectacle of a sunrise or a sunset, when the elements are merged in harmony, the slow explosion of new leaves in the spring… and so many other ordinary, day-to-day joys, like the silent fulfilment of one’s duty or one’s participation in the creative power of work; the responsible exercise of freedom, ordered according to the accomplishment of what is good; the unfolding of spiritual paternity, the sign of maturity in a man; the blessing of having a family and savouring, multiplied, the gift of How wonderful it is that you exist!, with the inestimable pleasure of serving and sharing tasks, schedules, enthusiasms, experiences… with those who love you and are loved by you…; the permanent novelty of living without myopia, aware of this gift: What a wealth of natural and artificial means converge in me! What endless benefits stem from life lived in society!… These simple, natural experiences speak to the spirit of man and awaken in him profound existential questions. Technological advances and an artificial, comfortable life seem to deaden and, in many, to drown their capacity to be interested in truth, goodness or beauty. The “weak thinking” of our times is characterized by replacing the great questions of human existence with questions like: “What are you doing tonight?” or “Who won the World Cup?”… It is like going through life driving a car with only the dim lights lit… and very dim they are.

“Unless we can bring men back to enjoying the daily life that moderns call a dull life, our whole civilization will be in ruins in about fifteen years. […] Unless we can make daybreak and daily bread and the creative secrets of labour interesting in themselves, there will fall on all our civilisation a fatigue which is the one disease from which civilisations do not recover. So died the great Pagan Civilisation; of bread and circuses and forgetfulness of the household gods.” (G. K. Chesterton, from an article published in The Listener in 1934. Note that the Second World War would begin five years later.)

Academic programs designed recently tend to eliminate or reduce to the minimum the presence of the “humanities” or humanistic subjects: religion, philosophy, history, the arts… The thinking behind this is that the technological and practical man being trained needs only the tools of modern technology in order to dominate the world. The mere dominion of the Earth has not brought with it the development of his spiritual dimension; contemporary man lacks the harmonious growth of all of his faculties. If he has no “inner light” (that is to say, “that possibility of experiencing wonder and union with the world in which we live” 16), he will not be able to discover the greatness and depth of truth, goodness and beauty; of these he will perhaps perceive only their most superficial and immediate aspects ―little more than would an irrational animal―, and will not grasp their fullness and universality, something which is only reached through culture (i.e. by those who cultivate the spirit). Thus, the “humanities” and a cultivation of the spirit are urgently needed to rectify the individual and social deficiencies of modern man.

Many of the paintings on view at www.jrtrigo.es are accompanied by brief commentaries and geometrical analyses designed to help introduce the viewer or visitor to the site to the essential elements of a given work in a matter of minutes. In our time, many are those who rush excessively through life, without pausing to reflect and contemplate… or who lack the cultural training that would enable them to penetrate to an artistic beauty beyond the immediate perception of visual effects.

 

7. Let us not confuse artistic progress with noise

 

One commentary included at www.jrtrigo.es, accompanying the painting The Dissolution of the Figure (I), is more extensive than the rest and touches on another aspect of the current craze for novelty: the frenetic stampede of nearly all “artists” toward the abstract. Representational art —which evokes, recreates and immortalizes reality, familiar or imagined— “is no longer modern, no longer serves our purposes; it must be replaced by something new”. The dehumanization of art is implicit in this exodus. The paragraphs cited earlier, by José Jiménez Lozano and on Velázquez as court painter, cast a clarifying light on this point.

The reproductions of portraits on display at www.jrtrigo.es are a partial sample of my work, but show that I have not turned my back to the great challenges of nature.“Many are the things which are mysterious, but none as mysterious as man” (Sophocles).
Take only the human eye as an example… It is a great challenge to the opthalmologist, but for the artist as well. And a smile? Someone crying?
In contemporary painting, it is not often that man is treated with respect, without deformations or disfigurements which make shreds of his dignity and reduce the human being to a mere visual object. Perhaps in this respect, it may seem to some that my work is an oasis in the midst of a vast desert.

“A falling tree makes more noise that a growing forest”. Similarly, breaking with tradition is a great deal noisier than nurturing its development; more racket is made by extravagance and extra-artistic provocation than by the beauty which inspires admiration and brings the viewer face-to-face with the mystery; more quickly does one destroy, raising a great cloud of smoke and desconstructing the cultural heritage built by the human spirit over the centuries, than advance slowly but surely toward the conquest of perfection and discovery…

 

8. Fashionable or not, artistic quality has its followers

 

The case of Sorolla may prove illuminating here. His work was until recently disdained by certain “contemporary” critics for its remaining aloof from the avant-garde movements in painting. The public, however, free from the prejudices of modernism (the craze for novelty and extravagance) which those critics have sought to impose, have turned out in masses to showings of Sorolla’s work, and have made him one of the best-loved and most universal artists in the history of Spanish painting.

And so it is useful to note here a paradox: works which are by definition “contemporary” (i.e. conceived to surprise through a novel or shocking appearance, or by their extravagances) are quite frequently simple in execution, done usually by “painters” with little skill, and difficult both to understand and to enjoy. By contrast, the paintings of Sorolla are works which show a considerable difficulty of execution, achievable only by a painter with a great mastery of pictorial technique, but at the same time are easily enjoyed by the viewer; in great part, his art is both classical and popular, timeless and appealing to nearly all tastes.

 

9. The conventionalisms of our time

 

What would happen if, in the same gallery, we were to hang some of Andy Warhol’s portraits together with works by a sampling of artists from Spain’s Renaissance and Baroque periods (the canvases of the “divine” Morales; the sculpture of Damián Forment; works by Alonso de Berruguete, Gregorio Hernández, Juan Martínez Montañés, Alonso Cano, Pedro de Mena, Francisco Salzillo…)? The contrast would indeed be striking: the former, world-famous; the latter, only modestly known (that is, little known internationally). The former, lacking both complexity and mystery, with no mastery of visual media and —consequently— incapable of transmitting anything of the human spirit; the latter, complex works of ineffable expressiveness, of unsurpassable craftsmanship and skill, which plumb the most profound depths of the human soul; the former, banal as a mere advertising image made to be seen and then forgotten; the latter, deeply moving, of a beauty that transcends the ephemeral and approaches perfection itself… Yes, what would happen if the two were placed face to face like this? Would the former, so rich in fame, not blush in shame in the presence of the latter, so modest but at the same time so marvellous? How questionable are some of our modern conventionalisms! (And I have here purposely omitted the religious paintings of El Greco, Ribera, Zurbarán, Velázquez, Murillo and Goya so as not to go beyond these more “modest” names).

 

10. The timelessness of artistic beauty

 

The thirst for novelty is exclusive, while beauty includes the “old” as well as the “new”, so as to give these a timelessness. In other words, beauty comprises that which is denominated “old” along with the so-called “new” and makes them both perennially new, timeless.

Homer is new this morning, and perhaps nothing is as old as today’s newspaper (Charles Péguy).

In the final years of J. S. Bach, the fugue as a musical form was considered worn out, antiquated, moribund. More than two centuries later, in the 21st century, the art of Bach’s music —his fugues as well— remains vital and sublime.

“In the music of J. S. Bach, the past, present and future are admirably married”. 17

“When listening to the music of Bach, I have the sensation that the eternal harmony is in dialogue with itself, as must have happened in the mind of God just before the creation of the world” (Johann Wolfgang Goethe).

“To strip human nature until its divine attributes are made clear, to inform ordinary activities with spiritual fervor, to give wings of eternity to that which is most ephemeral; to make divine things human and human things divine; such is Bach, the greatest and purest moment in music of all time” (Pablo Casals).  

 

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1,  10  Gustave Thibon, L’équilibre et l’harmonie.

José Antonio Jáuregui, La identidad humana.

3,  4  Esther Meynell, The Little Chronicle of Ana Magdalena Bach.

Juan Manuel de Prada, Iconoclastas (article in ABC, 28-2-2015)

Juan Manuel de Prada, Chorros para una chorrada (article in ABC, 8-11-2008)

7,  8,  15  Alain Vircondelet, Mémoires de Balthus, chapters 71, 61 and 57.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.6

11,  12,  13,  14 Juan Antonio Vallejo-Nájera, Locos egregios.

16 Emilio Lledó, “2015 Princess of Asturias Prize Acceptance Speech”

17 Alexandro Delgado, A propósito da Música, Antena 2 RTP

     

 

 

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