Toulouse-Lautrec: A Tradition Considered

Anyone who’s ever yearned to visit Paris will feel right at home in The Phillips Collection’s latest special exhibition, showcasing the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) because his work is literally the stuff that populates dreams of the Cit’s of Lights. In a relatively brief life, Toulouse-Lautrec documented and defined French popular culture in a way that still affects us today. It’s impossible to visit any of DC’s universities without running into the famed “Chat Noire” on a freshman’s wall.

The galleries and living rooms of Northwest frequently boast the artist’s work; his posters, once quotidian, now fall under the “vinatage” genre, a point of pride to collectors. Beginning to understand this artist, reflecting on his work has been an eye
-opening experience for me in several levels.

Each of Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints captures some facet of belle-epoque Paris. Author Charles Hiatt put it this way,

“For his posters are at once realistic and grotesque; they are delineations of life as seen by a man who, possessing the most acute powers of observation, is poignantly impressed by the incongruities of modern life.”

Personally impressed, Toulouse-Lautrec then pressed his perceptions indelibly into the modern medium of printing: preserving and diffusing far-and-wide a vibrant record of his age. In this, modern as he may have been, Toulouse-Lautrec was a man of tradition: he handed on what he had received. And not only from his own era. From time to time, he would borrow or carry over motifs from earlier prints (17-18th centuries), updating them for his day. This understanding of tradition, so critical to the Christian faith may be what’s so endearing to me about Toulouse-Lautrec’s work.

This image from “l’Artisan Moderne” is based on a 17th century print

What a wonder, to have all the world agree that in a few brush-strokes on paper you have captured the multifaceted living breathing reality of an entire society! And what a society!

Here we move beyond Degas’ dancers or Parisian women ironing. Toulouse-Lautrec descends from the wrought iron balconies of the Champs Elysees into the dirt and grit of Paris’ late nineteenth century demi-monde. Here we meet celebrated poets, clowns, dancers, and even prostitutes of the day.

They drew artists and tourists alike to the city Haussmann built… so strong was the attraction that even the Franco-Prussian war could not long slow Paris’ growth nor dim its glow.

This praise must be matched, however, with a certain mourning. If Toulouse-Lautrec’s capacity to preserve and hand on the Paris of his day is a joy to behold, the content of that day is certainly a cause for weeping. …and that’s no prudish judgment on my part. Look carefully at each of the exhibit’s posters. Do you see any happy people?

Is anyone thrilled or even positive about the glories of the belle epoch? The artist indeed captures incongruity: a society famed for joy and celebration seems absolutely dour… a people famed for their dedication to freedom seem trapped in sadness. They hold up a fetid bourgeois feast as the god of their idolatry, but what is there to praise. Elsewhere in the Phillips Collection you’ll always be able to find Renoir’s “Boating Party,” another iconic snapshot of belle epoch France. I’ll never forget my freshman art appreciation professor’s essay question “Are the characters happy?”

Often, Toulouse-Lautrec’s figures practically drip. In some cases their features almost resemble wax melting off a candle… a sign of the excess of the age. In other works, the artist’s reductionist approach yields lumpy broad-angled bodies.

No time, no care has been taken to move the figures beyond sketch-status. Is this a commentary on the regard in which people held each other? It would certainly fit wider themes of the Industrial Age from which atheist Marxism rose, reducing all people to angled cogs in the great machine. It’s telling that one of his last works was a print of model/actress Jane Avril, a representative woman of her time coiled in a serpent’s embrace.  “And his heart was moved with pity for them.” (Mt 9:36)

Reflecting on tis exhibition, questions naturally arise: how does this relate to life today? Are we, the great-grandchildren of the belle epoch, different? Better? Worse? I’m not sure… and there’s really no time for me to dive into it here and now, but the estimable work of this artist certainly lends credibility and merit to the questions… questions to be carefully examined with eyes of faith.

Eyes of Faith Goes to the Hirshorn!

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd -Mk. 6:34

It’s been there for years… staring at me, taunting me, a self-confident concrete donut complacent on the Mall: the Hirshorn Museum.  I give in… I confess, since my arrival in the city (1999) I’ve never thought any good could come from a place that flies so obviously in the face of classical culture.  Recently, however, my conscience got the better of me, “If you really believe in looking for Christ in all things, you have to seek him at the Hirshorn too!”  So I did.  Admittedly, my first thought was, “That’s not a museum it’s a space station!” but I have to say the contemporary art collections at the Hirshorn led to some fruitful meditations.

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The Hirshorn Museum seen from the Mall

The most striking part of the Hirshorn immediately formed a key for my understanding of it.  The museum is a concrete circle.  Other than its third-floor balcony, which offers stunning panoramic views of the entire Mall, there are no windows on the outer ring.  Inside, however, all eyes look to the circular courtyard and its centerpiece fountain.

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Calm pervades the inner court.  Taking in the geometry of the place, there’s a sense of earth being lifted heavenward as the squares (earthly symbols) are elevated into the perfect [heavenly] circle of the structure.  It’s a dynamic similar to the National Gallery’s rotunda: a perfect cube base containing a perfect sphere (i.e. the dome).

Circles and squares, heaven and earth, inward-facing windows… add to this the subjectivity of modern art: It exists to (a) reveal the inner thoughts of the artist and (b) invite a subjective analysis by the viewer.  The Hirshorn is a place of deep introspection.

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Ron Mueck, “Big Man”

Entering the museum itself, my initial sense was “infinite.”  Looking down each corridor, I could never see the “end” of the circle.  It was comforting at first, the concept of having all the time in the world to explore art, both on the walls and in the human heart.

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Further examination of the art brought changing thoughts, sadder thoughts.

Works by artists like Lucian Freud, Willem de Koonig, and Alberto Giacometti were among the most expressive to me because they directly represented and expressed the human form.

Lucian Freud, "Nude with Leg Up" (1992)
Lucian Freud, “Nude with Leg Up” (1992)

The humanity explored by these artists is broken, deeply wounded.  A form without nobility, confused, frustrated, sorrowful.  Consider Freud’s “Nude with Leg Up.”  The stripped subject reclines next to a stripped bed, collapsed, as it were, on his crumpled linens.  The subject’s upraised leg gives sense of having fallen out of bed.  All representations of humanity necessarily show humanity’s fragility… we are, after all, fragile fallen creatures, but this art shows no indications of redemption or even the hope of it.  The Hirshorn’s circle was changing from an orbit of infinite possibilities into a self-enclosed loop of futility.

Giacometti, "Diego" (bust) de Koonig, "Woman" (Painting)
Giacometti, “Diego” (bust)
de Koonig, “Woman” (Painting)

Giacometti’s sculptures and de Koonig’s paintings are indicative.  Both artists made their careers in post-war Europe.  The destruction and broken hopes endemic of the time is obvious in their works.  Giacometti’s busts of his brother Diego are described by curators as rough and naturalistic.  I suppose there’s something to be said for roughness as a style, but as to the message conveyed I see only sad incomplete man, frozen in abstraction perpetually incomplete.  Likewise, de Koonig’s studies of the female form which, we are told, were a search for the true identity of “woman.”

Giacometti, "Diego" (bust) de Koonig, "Woman" (painting)
Giacometti, “Diego” (bust)
de Koonig, “Woman” (painting)

Two other works summed up and, really, confirmed my sense of loss, of mourning for the human condition portrayed by contemporary art.  The first is “Untitled,” by Jannis Kounellis (1980), in which a series of classical sculptures are unceremoniously piled into a closet-like space.  The broken shelves of the space intensify the sense that not only has form been passed by, but that it has been actively shunted onto the ash heap of history.

Jannis Kounellis, "Untitled" (1980)
Jannis Kounellis, “Untitled” (1980)

Finally, Hector Zamora’s video work, O Abuso da Historia shows a traditional courtyard in Brazil, into which dozens of potted palms are thrown crashing from the upper stories of the structure.  A throwing out of history?  It felt to me as if the whole structure was being prepared for demolition, destruction, fall.

O Abuso da História from Hector Zamora on Vimeo.

Leaving the Hirshorn, sad as my impressions were, I was so glad I had encountered the art and the building.  I offer no judgment against contemporary art.  It is only a record of what people are feeling.  It is data.  Reflecting on my experience, I felt as if I’d just finished listening to the stories of a grieving family preparing for a funeral, but the family is my society, my neighbors, the men and women who’s culture has given rise to the art.

If we want the Church to be a place of encounter, if we want to go out “ad extra” as Pope Francis encourages us, modern art can give us a prescient snapshot of just how much work, how much love and hope we need to bring to bear upon our world.  I’m glad I went to the Hirshorn, and I highly encourage the faithful to do likewise.  It won’t be easy, but it’s important.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd Mk. 6:34

 

Hubert Robert and Inspiring Imagination

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H. Robert, “Discovery of Antiquities”

It’s been a while since I last paid vows in that awe-filled agora of the aesthetic, the National Gallery of Art.  So I was thrilled to find on exhibit the works of Hubert Robert (1733-1808).  This French luminary was known in his time not only for his mastery of architectural painting and classical history, but also for his identity as something of a bon vivant in Parisian and Roman society… quite an achievement given the French Revolution consumed many of his working years.

Detail: H. Robert, "Maderno's Portico of S. Pietro"
Detail: H. Robert, “Maderno’s Portico of S. Pietro”

Robert’s particular genius was to evoke the grandeur of ancient Rome.  His nick name, “Robert of the Ruins” comes from his love for depicting the remains of the imperial city.  Often, he would combine various monuments into what is known as a capriccio, “trick,” depicting scenes that never actually existed.  Looking at Hubert Robert’s work through eyes of faith, what can we see?

Like most who’ve tried to capture “ROME” in stone or on canvas, Robert conveys three sensations: warmth, la vita, and greatness.

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H. Robert, “Hermit Praying”

Located as it is in central Italy, Rome has always been a warm city.  Snow is so rare that when it fell on the Esquiline Hill, Pope Liberius dedicated the Basilica of Mary Major on the spot!  This gave rise to the Roman saying, “when it snows, we build churches…” but I digress.  Looking out over Rome on any given afternoon there is a sense of haze… sometimes that of modern smog, but more often a glow of sorts; perhaps the result of the city’s stones radiating the day’s heat back into the atmosphere.  It slows down life.  Roman’s walk slower, take their time at meals and are rarely in a rush to work.  Romantics suggest this is a nod to the city’s eternity… a state in which rushing is pointless… I like that idea well enough, but practical experience taught me, things are slow because it’s just plane hot.  Robert captures this warmth in his paintings, and perhaps especially in the hazy strokes of his favorite medium, red chalk.

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H. Robert, “Archaeologists”

La Vita is a concept characteristic of Italians.  It’s their sense that life will be what it will be and we have very little control over it.  Consequently life should be enjoyed.  Historians and commentators suggest that La vita rises from centuries of conquest as foreign powers literally marched all over the peninsula.

Detail: H. Robert, "Maderno's Portico of S. Pietro"
Detail: H. Robert, “Maderno’s Portico of S. Pietro”

This sense of la vita is typified most eloquently by the Italians’ use of a joyfully sardonic or ironic humor throughout their literature.  Robert captures la vita by juxtaposing monumental architecture with the realities of peasant living; it’s subjects pulsing with triumph, tragedy and a healthy does of groundling laughter throughout.

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H. Robert, “Architectural Capriccio” of the Pantheon and Porta della Ripetta

Finally – and most important for us – Hubert Robert’s Rome is a GRAND vision.  Think for a moment, have you ever seen a “humble” vision of Rome?  No.  Everything from Ben-Hur to Gladiator to the works at the Gallery show Rome as mighty.  To be sure, when one walks the via Sacra in the Roman forum, it is impressive.  The fact that at it’s height the city was home to well over one million people… two thousand years ago… is astounding.  And yet… our images of Rome are often even greater than her reality.  One sees this on display in Rome today.  The Victor Emmanuel II Monument (the famed “Birthday Cake”) was built to show Rome’s resurrection under the Kingdom of Italy (1870), but – with the exception of the Colosseum – it dwarfs all of the monuments that once stood in the forum… which is one reason that modern Italians generally consider the monument to be garish in its disproportion.  Nonetheless, behold the power of imagination.

H. Robert, "Architectural Fantasy"
H. Robert, “Architectural Fantasy”

Imagination has a vital role to play in our lives and should be exercised often.  St. Thomas Aquinas spoke frequently about the role of imagination in prayer, in dialogue with the Lord, and generally in transcending this world.  St. Ignatius Loyola gave great practical advice in this regard, by tracing out the concept of “Imaginative Prayer” as part of his Spiritual Exercises.  In a hyper-empirical age, Robert’s outsized image of Rome could be criticized as “inaccurate,” but it was ideas fit to those mythic proportions that inspired people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; ideas like “Republic,” “Equal Justice Under the Law,” “Freedom from tyranny”… all of which found their origins in Roman government.  That same dream of Rome is at the core of our city: the Capitol is spelled with an “o” as a reference to Capitoline Hill in the Forum… which, by the way, is reflected in the National Mall… Even Constitution Avenue, used to be a canal running through the capitol… a canal called, “Tiber.”  Maybe, even in a scientific post-modern age, a little imagination has a useful role to play in building up our own city on a hill and bringing us all to the heavenly city one day.

H. Robert, "Stair and Fountain"
H. Robert, “Stair and Fountain”

The Beauty of Mary Magdalene

“While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us,so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” (From II Cor 5)

Donatello, Mary Magdalene
Donatello, Mary Magdalene

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  A few years ago, the National Gallery hosted an exhibition, “The Sacred Made Real,” displaying a series of sculptures carved to make people’s favorite paintings in 3-D.  It was the 17th century version of 3-D experience.  One such statue was of today’s saint, Mary Magdalene.  Mary is depicted nude, clothed only with her long hair.  It’s actually an iconic way of portraying the saint who tradition assumes is the “woman caught in adultery.” (Jn 8)  The imagery is shocking, one sees the Magdalene humbled, almost haggard in her nakedness… and yet… This is Mary at her best.  Brought before the Lord, she does not deny her sins, and in that nakedness, in that emptiness she is completely filled by Jesus: Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”  “No, Lord,” she said.  And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”  She does not clothe herself in defense, in pride.  Sitting in the nakedness of truth, she is lifted from the ground and clothed in new life by Chirst.  In a way, she undoes the dynamic of Eden.  No fig leaf for Mary; whatever shame it may cost in the eyes of men, she is loved by her God, and that becomes enough for her.  At the end of the Gospel (Jn 20:11-18) Mary is again completely empty.  Jesus has been taken from her.  Going to his tomb she weeps and once again he appears, Resurrected, to give her new life.  At this point Mary becomes the apostle to the Apostles, running to deliver the Good News to Peter and the others.

Lavinia Fontana, Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Lavinia Fontana, Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

Speaking of Peter, he demonstrates a marked contrast to Mary.  A few nights before (Jn. 18) Mary’s garden encounter with Jesus, afraid, vulnerable, weak, as Christ was being arrested, how does Peter respond?  He slices off the ear of the High Priest’s servant.  Clothed in earthly strength, Peter sets himself up for the biggest fall of all, the triple-denial of Christ later that night.  Like Mary, Peter’s restoration comes days later when in the triple confession of his love for Jesus, his humility gives Christ space to forgive him and restore him as the chief pastor of the Flock.  “Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21)

Sometimes penance comes involuntarily, as it did for Mary when she first met Jesus.  If in those moments we accept our penances we demonstrate wisdom.  Sometimes penance comes… or needs to come… voluntarily, chosen as an exercise to help us grown in wisdom and grace.  We can do this by fasting, praying, giving to the poor or some other form of appropriate self-denial, to – again – make a space our heart for Jesus.  Such is the beauty of Mary Magdalene and the beauty, really, of penance.  It makes a new space in our hearts for Christ and for new life.

“While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us,so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” (From II Cor 5)

Art and the Illuminative Way

The Madonna and Child w/ Saints (Beato Fra Angelico)
The Madonna and Child w/ Saints (Beato Fra Angelico)

Thus far, meditating on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s First Phase of Holiness we’ve touched on some significant themes: 

  • That the first stage is illuminative, a burning bush moment when God reaches into our existence to lead us by a better more meaningful way.
  • That the first stage is ethical, inviting our humanity to grow and exercise itself for the sake of virtue
  • That the first stage is sensory, lived our preeminently through relationships of deep friendship (i.e. Sts. Paul, Timothy and Titus)

Today we consider another sensory dimension of the Illuminative Phase: ART

The reflection could not be more timely.  Just yesterday President Rouhani of Iran visited Rome.  Italians were shocked to find that their own Capitoline Museum had literally boxed off nude statues in deference to the Iranian president’s religious concerns during his tour.  Personal aside: As a lover of Roman/Art and a former resident of the Eternal City, I was deeply hurt by this decision on the part of the Italian authorities.  Perhaps if Italian President Mattarella ever visits Iran, the authorities their will consider our religious/cultural beliefs by unveiling their female citizens and serving a pork roast with a robust chianti for the state dinner.

Covered Nudes in the Capitoline Museum 1/26/16 (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP) ITALY OUT
Covered Nudes in the Capitoline Museum 1/26/16 (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP) 
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Greek Bronze Bust currently on view at the NGA’s “Power and Pathos” Exhibit

Art has been an illuminative part of human history from the beginning.  Our earliest ancestors recorded… and in some ways extended… the reach of their lives in cave paintings (for example).  Classical Western civilization had a love affair with art, to be sure.  Evidence of this is currently on display at the National Gallery’s exquisite exhibit of Greek bronzes, “Power and Pathos”   And of course Christian civilization inherited and extended this appreciation for art as God became visible entering into his own Creation, the revealed, incarnate image of the Father.  Art illumines the way to God and can play a significant role in the first stage of holiness.

The Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC
The Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC

All that said, the relationship between the West and art has not been without its critics.  Recognizing arts power for good and for evil, Plato recommended banishing certain artists from his ideal Republic.  The Byzantine Empire once tried to destroy all Christian art, latching on to the idea that art was idolatrous.  This iconoclasm was ended by the Church, which, without denying that one could sin by making an idol out of art, discerned that the holy goods that art could inspire were well worth the risk.  Later, proponents of the protestant reformation banished art from many of their communities for similar reasons.

How can we concisely describe the incredible illuminative power of art?  Regarding ethics (again, part of the illuminative way): what is it’s relationship with art?  Donald Beebe, in an insightful exploration of Florentine aesthetics at the time of the reformation had this to say,

“Art functions properly when it leads the beholder to worship and to emulate correct behavior.  It functions inappropriately when it exists for its own sake, when its didactic message goes unheeded or is the occasion of heterodoxy or sin.”  Beebe goes on, “As God’s creation, nature is the artist’s teacher.  In the same way, a sudden learns to draw by copying drawings produced by the master’s intellect.  Little by little, the student learns the style of the master, as the master learned to cry creation that in turn originated by the ingenio of God.”
(-Beebe, Donald.  Savonarolan Aesthetics and their Implementation in the Graphic Arts.  In: In No
Strange Land
, By: Jonathan Robinson, CO.  Angelico Press, 2015. pg.115)

Whether or not one subscribes to such an ethically-oriented sense of art is another conversation, but for our purposes, exploring the illuminative way, I think Beebe’s words are a great guide.  Along those lines, as a very practical resource, I highly recommend reading The Beauty of Holiness: Sacred Art and the New Evangelization by Jem Sullivan, PhD.  A local DC luminary in her own right, Dr. Sullivan offers a great review of the role art can play in spirituality, especially in terms of using art as a source of meditation (lectio divina).  It’s a useful essay to have in mind as you walk the streets of DC admiring our public art and architecture, hopefully drawing from it an inspiration to holiness.

For further rumination on the role of art as it inspires ethics and illumination, consider two secular reflections:

PBS’ American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station
and
Cinque Henderson’s article posted this morning on The New Yorker, “Anthem of Freedom: How Whitney Houston remade ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ ” 

 

Perspectives on Epiphany

On this Solemnity of the Epiphany, a few perspectives on the events of the day:

Biblical Reading: Mt. 2:1-12

Local Cultural Recommendations: Visit the National Gallery of Art to see the artwork below.  Also stop in at Epiphany Parish in Georgetown… a gem of a parish with a growing parish life… a wonderful quiet place to pray during the day.

Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi
Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi

They came from “the East.”  The arrival of the magi in Bethlehem is one of the most touching moments in the Gospel.  One of the deep roots of our joy on this feast is locked up in that very general phrase, “the East.”  The magi – whose number, by the way, is never limited to three though only three types of gifts were brought – represent the every man.  They are the first of the gentiles to worship Christ.  To quote, Pope St. Leo the Great, “they are the first harvest of the gentiles,” and the fulfillment of God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations.  Yes, with the arrival of the magi, hope is offered to all the nations.  Because they came from everywhere, no kingdom is excluded from God’s Kingdom.  Because they came from every circumstance, no circumstance is excluded from God’s sympathy.  Because they were sinners, no sin is excluded from his mercy.  …And as a result of all this expansive welcoming of the nations, I have hope because it means I am not excluded from God’s love either.

They were guided by a star… these magi were astronomers, observers of the natural world.  Careful study of the natural world, careful use of human reason led them to the divine.  For God is the Father of all Creation.  The magi remind us that we need not fear responsible science, because it will lead us to a better comprehension of Christ in the end.

The magi were intimidated by Herod.  When he tells them to bring back news of Jesus, you can almost imagine him using air quotes around the phrase, “that I too might do him homage.”  Political intrigue hanging over them, the magi continued on their journey to proclaim Christ.  Leaving by “another way,” their lives would never be the same, and neither would those who received the Good News from the magi in their homelands.  Has my life been changed by Christ in concrete, observable ways?  Can I overcome the discomfort of speaking about Jesus with others?  If I perceive a threat hanging over me as a result of my Christian faith, do I pray for courage?

Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, The Adoration of the Magi, Italian, c. 1395 - 1455, c. 1440/1460, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection
Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, The Adoration of the Magi

The answer to some of these questions, and really an encapsulating moment for this entire reflection, must be the moment of encounter between the magi and Mary.  For weeks we’ve heard how Mary “kept all these things in he heart.”  She is the first Christian contemplative.  And while it’s not explicitly outlined in the Gospel, I’d like to think that like most mother’s, Mary shared something of her maternal experience with those who had come to meet  Christ.  While showing these scientists from the East how to hold the child, “aways support the neck,” did she share with them the fruits of her contemplation?  I’d like to think so.  Learning from her who loved Christ perfectly and shared him perfectly, we can do likewise in our own lives.

 

What Guides the Law

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The bronze above is a beautiful piece on display at the Freer Gallery on the National Mall.  Cast by Augustus Saint-Gaudens its title is “Law Supported by Strength and Love.”  Saint-Gardens was an American sculptor of the 19th century who engaged in serious study in Paris before returning to the U.S. to memorialize great achievements of the Civil War.  He was part of an entire American movement to bring knowledge of the arts and sciences from Paris to our still-new Republic (see David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey”) .  Over the course of the late 18th-19th centuries, both the U.S. and France underwent revolutionary changes that were taken by the rest of the western world to be shining lights of what government of, by and for the people could achieve.  Neither experiment was perfect.  But at their best these two newly democratic states discovered important truths. One of them is above.  “Law Supported by Strength and Love” shows a critical part of democratic government.  Most people can deduce that the coercive power of strength is essential to governance… but just as necessary, especially in a democratic system, is LOVE.

The concept isn’t new… it dates back to the earliest recollection of the Romans.  In his History of the Republic, Titus Livius (Livy) describes the camaraderie of the early settlers of Rome, their concern for each other overthrew the Tarquinian monarchy to establish the Republic.  It was founded on a love of country, concern for neighbor, service of family and piety before heaven.  The Romans discovered that such love is the basis of the self-regulating civil society essential to the functioning of a republic.  Why?  Because citizens inevitably tire of and rebel against coercive power.  States shouldn’t be in the business of intimidating their people, but rather inspiring them.  Likewise, citizens shouldn’t have to call on the power of the state to regulate their relations with each other, but rather they should serve each other.  Love has the power to move a nation without whipping it into submission.

This great advance in political thinking was not however the unique preserve of enlightenment philosophers.  In fact many of them would’ve readily discounted such a sentimental approach to democracy (Hobbs, Hume, even our own Alexander Hamilton, for example).  Nonetheless, mutual respect for human dignity became the basis of western democratic thought.  How?  Here we have to look with eyes of faith.  Faithful people (at that time of an almost entirely Christian background) exercising their religions brought New Testament LOVE and compassion to the nascent French and American democracies.  As a result the greatest achievements of those democracies (the American Constitution / Bill of Rights and the post-Napoleonic French Republic) liberated both countries’ citizens for the pursuit of happiness.

Stop in at the Freer and visit Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture in the central court.  It’ll make you think… it might even inspire you to love your neighbor… for his good, for your own, and for the good of our country.

Prints: Bringing the Beautiful into Daily Life

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A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art is quite the gem.  Recent Acquisitions of Italian Renaissance Prints: Ideas Made Flesh focuses on a medium that’s actually been getting quite a bit of attention in the Gallery’s downstairs exhibition space this year: Printing.

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The Martyrdom of St. Paul

In high school we all learn about the importance the printing press for producing the Gutenberg Bible, revolutionary political tracts and other texts… but the Press was also used to great effect in diffusing the beauty of images.  For the first time hundreds of copies of original masterpieces could be made and sold to patrons rich and poor… spreading not only the fame of the artist, but also people’s sense that they could touch the sacred through beauty.  Brining the sacred and the beautiful ever more into daily life is a priority of the New Evangelization… Consider visiting the exhibit.  It may spark some ideas!

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The death of St. Peter Martyr
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Detail: the Death of Peter Martyr… with his last breath he writes his testimony, “Credo.” “I believe…”

 

On Memory and Continuity

Continuing on the them of memory from my last post… Some thoughts about the National Mall.

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I was riding my bike earlier this week and snapped a few quick shots of buildings along our very own Forum Americanum,  The National Mall.  At first I was playing a game of “Which of these ones is not like the other one.  Taking in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was a little startling to say the least.

(Disclaimer: I have no problem with dedicating a museum on the Mall to the history of any particular culture .  Admittedly I wish we Italian-Americans had gotten a prime spot, but that’s neither here nor
there.)

The museum’s jagged motif and bronze coloring  are startling in the midst of the classical splendor that characterizes the Mall.  The shock value of the building inspired me to do some research.  The NMAAHC’s design is drawn from a traditional three-part column characteristic of the Yoruban culture of Africa, as well as the motif of a crown.  For more details on the building philosophy, see this LINK for the Architect’s vision.  Unto itself, I’m actually somewhat impressed with the museum’s design concept.  So why do I still recoil?

Natural History Museum
Natural History Museum

Relative to it’s neighbors the NMAAHC doesn’t seem to match… but riding along further I was reminded that other structures on the Mall also don’t seem to fit.  The Air and Space Museum, East Wing of the National Gallery, the Hirshorn, American Indian Museum and even the Smithsonian Castle.  Under closer examination I realized that MUCH of the National Mall doesn’t match DC’s general Greco-Roman theme.  So what does pull the Mall together?

I.M. Pei’s  East Wing of the NGA is built along the angles characteristic of DC’s squares and traffic circles.  An unorthodox structure perhaps, but thoroughly Washingtonian even if only subconsciously.  Also it’s facing stones match the white-gray color scheme of classical architecture.   The building is part of who we have been.

The Air And Space Museum
The Air And Space Museum

Color and general shape links the air and Space Museum to the rest of the Mall as well.  It’s proportions and building materials help it blend in.  As to it’s actual design, simplistic and brutalist architecture represent a major movement in post-WWII western art, which fled from the ornament of previous ages for a highly utilitarian (if not exactly exciting) design.  Similar principles inspired the Hirshorn Gallery’s geometric purism.  Both buildings are thus part of who we have been.

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American Indian Museum

The American Indian Museum is clearly drawn from the native cliff dwellings of the pre-colonial southwest.  It is a part of what America was long before it was America.

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The Smithsonian Castle looks NOTHING like the Mall today… but the Mall once looked much more like the Smithsonian Castle.  It’s a leftover from the Victorian-age of red brick neo-gothic architecture (still with us in the turrets and brick faces of our townhouses).  Like Augustus in Rome, FDR found Washington a city of brick and left it a city of Marble. The Castle is certainly part of who we have been.

In the end, the unifying principle behind today’s National Mall seems to be a memory of who we have been.  My anxiety, I think, springs from the past tense of that sentiment: who we HAVE been… because putting it in the past tense leave open the question: Who are we today?  and  Who will we be?

As Catholics we believe in a hermeneutic of continuity guiding us as a Church.  There’s no rule binding DC or even the US to a hermeneutic of neo-classical continuity… but the questions remain, “Do we know who we are anymore?” “Are we running toward a positive new identity, or just fleeing from an old one?” I don’t have answers but I think these are  all questions worthy of examination through eyes of faith.