Non-traditional art, about which a few words must be said here, embraces the classical art of antiquity and the Renaissance, and continues up to the nineteenth century which, reacting against academicism, gives rise to impressionism and analogous styles; this reaction rapidly decomposes into all sorts of perversities, either “abstract” or “surrealistic”: in any case, it is of “subrealism” that one ought to speak here. It goes without saying that worthwhile works are to be found incidentally both in impressionism and in classicism—in which we include romanticism, since its technical principles are the same—, for the cosmic qualities cannot but manifest themselves in this realm, and a given individual aptitude cannot but lend itself to this manifestation;1 but these exceptions, in which the positive elements succeed in neutralizing the erroneous or insufficient principles, are far from being able to compensate for the serious drawbacks of extra-traditional art, and we would gladly do without all its productions if it were possible to disencumber the world from the heavy mortgage of Western culturism, with its vices of impiety, dispersion, and poisonousness. The least that one can say is that it is not this kind of grandeur that brings us closer to Heaven.
This culturism is practically synonymous with civilizationism, and thus with implicit racism; according to this prejudice, Western humanity proves its superiority by the “Greek miracle” and all its consequences, and thus by the anthropolatry—it is not for nothing that one speaks of humanism—and cosmolatry which characterize or rather constitute the classicist mentality.
As we have mentioned on other occasions, what must be blamed in artistic naturalism is not its exact observation of nature, but the fact that this observation is not compensated and disciplined by an equivalent awareness of that which transcends nature, and so of the essences of things, as happens for example in Egyptian art; in all sacred arts it is the style which indicates a mode of inwardness and corrects such outwardness, contingency, and accidentality as the imitation of nature may involve; we would even say that an awareness of essences to a certain extent compromises or retards, if not a sufficient observation of outward things, at least their exact expression in graphic terms, although—and one must insist on this—there is no incompatibility in principle between exact draughtsmanship and contemplativity, the latter conferring on the former the imprint of inwardness and essentiality.
In conformity with the Platonic principle that like attracts like, Plotinus states that “it is always easy to attract the Universal Soul … by constructing an object capable of undergoing its influence and receiving its participation. The faithful representation of a thing is always capable of undergoing the influence of its model; it is like a mirror which is capable of grasping the thing’s appearance.”
This passage states the crucial principle of almost magical relationship between the conforming recipient and the predestined content or between the adequate symbol and the sacramental presence of the prototype. The ideas of Plotinus must be understood in the light of those of the “divine Plato”: the latter approved the fixed types of the sacred sculpture of Egypt, but he rejected the works of the Greek artists who imitated nature in its outward and insignificant accidentality, while following their individual imagination.
This principle does not prevent a heavenly influence manifesting itself incidentally or accidentally even in an image which is extremely imperfect—works of perversion and subversion being excluded—through pure mercy and by virtue of the “exception that proves the rule.”
A perfect equilibrium between a noble naturalness and an interiorizing and essentializing is a precarious, but always possible phenomenon. It goes without saying that essentiality or the “idea” takes precedence over observation and the imitation of nature. To each thing its rights, according to its place.
Stylization permits a maximum of naturalism where it is able to impose on it a maximum of essentiality; in other words, a summit of creative exteriorization calls for a summit of interiorizing power and consequently demands a mastery of the means whereby this power may be realized. In the majority of cases art stops half-way and there is nothing wrong in this, since concretely there is no reason why it should go further; traditional art perfectly fulfills its role; art is not everything, and its productions do not have to be absolute. But this is independent of the principle that sacred art must satisfy every sincere believer; it fails in its mission if its crudeness, or on the contrary its superficial virtuosity, leaves unsatisfied or even troubles believers of good will, namely those whom humility preserves from all intolerance and worldly acrimony.
We have already remarked that there is a relative but not irremediable incompatibility—an incompatibility of fact and not of principle—between the spiritual content or the radiance of a work of art and an implacable and virtuosic naturalism: it is as if the science of the mechanism of things killed their spirit, or at least ran the grave risk of killing it. On the one hand we have a treatment that is naïve, but charged with graces and diffusing an atmosphere of security, happiness, and holy childhood; while on the other hand—in classical antiquity and from the Cinquecento onwards—we have on the contrary a treatment that is scientifically executed but the content is human and not heavenly—or rather it is “humanistic”—and the work suggests, not a childhood still close to Heaven, but an adulthood fallen into disgrace and expelled from Paradise [see ills. 91 and 92].
Naturalism in art violates tradition because it is unaware that style is a providential discipline proceeding from a genius at once spiritual and ethnic and developing according to the laws of organic growth in an atmosphere of contemplative piety that has nothing individualistic or Promethean about it. It violates the nature of things because, in painting, it treats the plane surface as if it were three-dimensional space, and the immobility of the surface as if it could contain movement; and in sculpture, naturalism treats inert matter as if it were living flesh, and then as if it were engaged in motion, and it sometimes treats one material as if it were another, without regard for the soul of each substance, and so on.2 To paint is to re-create a vision by adapting it to the plane surface and, if there is movement, by reducing it to its essential type; to sculpture is to re-create a vision by adapting it to inanimate matter, or to a particular kind of matter, and likewise reducing it, if there is movement, to a particular phase that is as it were static. At the same time it consists in re-creating the object rather than copying it, or in copying it while re-creating it in accordance with an inner vision at once traditional and personal, or in accordance with the life that we project into it by virtue of our knowledge, or again, in accordance with the life that it projects into us by virtue of its ontological and Divine content.
Here it is important to point out that one of the major errors of modern art is its confusion of art materials: people no longer know how to distinguish the cosmic significance of stone, iron, or wood, just as they do not know the objective qualities of forms and colors. Stone has this in common with iron that it is cold and implacable, whereas wood is warm, live, and kindly; but, while the cold of stone is neutral and indifferent like that of eternity, iron is hostile, aggressive, and ill-natured, and this enables us to understand the significance of the invasion of the world by iron.3 The heavy and sinister nature of iron requires that in its use in handicrafts it should be treated lightly and with fantasy such as one sees for instance in old church screens which resemble lacework [see ill. 93]. The nature in iron ought to be neutralized by transparence in its treatment, for this does no violence to the nature of this metal but on the contrary confers legitimacy on its quality of hardness by thus turning it into account.
The reproach of “naturalism” cannot properly be leveled merely at a capacity to observe nature; it concerns rather the prejudice which would reduce art simply and solely to the imitation of nature. A more or less exact observation of nature may quite well coincide with art which is traditional, symbolical, and sacred, as is proved by the art of the Egypt of the Pharaohs or that of the Far East; it is then the result, not of a passionate and empty naturalism, but of an objectivity which is fundamentally intellectual. The spiritualized realism of Chinese landscape painters has nothing in common with worldly aestheticism.
As for simple lack of physical observation, which as such is independent of any symbolical intention, we would add that, where it is conditioned by the requirements of a particular collective soul, it is an integral part of a style and so of a language which is in itself intelligent and noble; this is something quite different from the technical clumsiness of some isolated artist. Complete naturalism, which reproduces the chance variations and accidental aspect of appearances, is truly an abuse of intelligence such as might be called “luciferian”:4 it could not, therefore, characterize traditional art.
The whole of the so-called “Greek miracle” amounts to a substitution of reason alone for intelligence as such; apart from the rationalism which inaugurated it, artistic naturalism would have been inconceivable. Extreme naturalism results from the cult of “form,” of form envisaged as something finite and not as “symbol”; reason indeed regulates the science of the finite, of limits, and of order, so that it is only logical that an art which is directed by reason should share with reason itself a flatness refractory to all mystery. The art of classical antiquity is often compared to the brightness of full daylight; it is forgotten that it also has the “outward” quality of daylight, which lacks any aspect of the secret and the infinite.
In the Middle Ages a religious man could pray in surroundings where everything testified to a homogeneous spirit and to an intelligence supernaturally inspired; he could also pray before a blank wall. He had a choice between the ever truthful language of precious forms and the silence of rough stones. Happily for him he had no other choice.
There is something in our intelligence which wants to live in repose, something in which the conscious and the unconscious meet in a kind of passive activity, and it is to this element that the lofty and easy language of art addresses itself. The language is lofty because of the spiritual symbolism of its forms and the nobility of its style; it is easy because of the aesthetic mode of assimilation. When this function of our spirit, this intuition which stands between the natural and the supernatural and produces incalculable vibrations, is systematically violated and led into error, the consequences will be extremely serious, if not for the individual, at all events for the civilization concerned.
Would a child want its mother to change countenance every day? Would a man want to rearrange his home every day? A sanctuary is like the outstretched arms of a mother and like the intimacy of a home, and the soul and the intelligence must be able to rest in it.
Nothing is more monotonous than the illusions of originality found in men who have been inculcated from childhood with an exaggerated respect for “creative genius.”
We must never lose sight of the fact that as soon as art ceases to be a pure and simple ideography—which is perfectly within its rights, for how should the decorative element of art be banned when it is everywhere in nature?—it has a mission from which nothing can make it deviate. This mission is to transmit spiritual values, whether these are saving truths or cosmic qualities, including human virtues.
Nothing can be better fitted to influence the deeper dispositions of the soul than sacred art. Profane art, on the contrary, even if it be of some psychological value in the case of souls of inferior intelligence, soon exhausts its means, by the very fact of their superficiality and vulgarity, after which it can only provoke reactions of contempt; these are only too common, and may be considered as a rebound of the contempt in which sacred art was held by profane art.
But let us return to the errors of naturalism. Art, as soon as it is no longer determined, illuminated, and guided by spirituality, lies at the mercy of the individual and purely psychic resources of the artist, and these resources must soon run out, if only because of the very platitude of the naturalistic principle that merely calls for a superficial copying of nature. Reaching the extreme limit of its own platitude, naturalism inevitably engendered the monstrosities of surrealism. The latter is but the decomposing body of an art and in any case should rather be called “infrarealism.”
The agreement of a picture with nature is legitimate only insofar as it does not abolish the separation between the work of art and its outward model; without such separation the former loses its sufficient reason, for its purpose is not merely to repeat what already exists; the exactness of its proportions must neither do violence to the material—the plane surface in the case of painting and the inert material in the case of sculpture—nor compromise the spiritual expression;5 if the correctness of the proportions is in accord with the material data of the particular art while also satisfying the spiritual intention of the work, it will add an expression of intelligence and so also of truth to the symbolism of the work. Authentic and normative art always tends to combine intelligent observation of nature with noble and profound stylizations in order, first, to assimilate the work to the model created by God in nature and, secondly, to separate it from physical contingency by giving it an imprint of pure spirit, of synthesis, of what is essential. It can definitely be said that naturalism is legitimate insofar as physical exactness is allied to a vision of the Platonic Idea, the qualitative archetype; hence, in such works, the predominance of the static, of symmetry, of the essential.6
As regards beauty in naturalistic art, it does not reside in the work as such, but solely in the object that it copies, whereas in symbolic and traditional art it is the work in itself that is beautiful, whether it be abstract or whether it borrow beauty in a greater or lesser degree from a natural model. It would be difficult to find a better illustration of this distinction than that afforded by a comparison between so-called classical Greek art and Egyptian art: the beauty of the latter does not, in fact, lie simply and solely in the object represented, but resides simultaneously and a fortiori in the work as such, that is to say, in the inward reality that the work makes manifest. The fact that naturalistic art has sometimes succeeded in expressing nobility of feeling or vigorous intelligence is not in question and may be explained by cosmological reasons that could not but exist [see ill. 102].
What is normal is that a human being should seek his center of inspiration beyond himself, beyond his sterility as a poor sinner: this will force him into making ceaseless corrections and a continuous adjustment in the face of an external norm, in short, into changes which will compensate for his ignorance and lack of universality. A normal artist touches up his work, not because he is dishonest, but because he takes account of his own imperfection; a good man corrects himself wherever he can.
The work of an artist is not a training in spontaneity—talent is not something that is acquired—but a humble and instructed search, either assiduous or joyously carefree, for perfection of form and expression according to sacred prototypes which are both heavenly and collective in their inspiration. Such inspiration in no wise excludes the inspiration of the individual but gives it its range of action and at the same time guarantees its spiritual value. The artist effaces and forgets himself; all the better if genius gives him wings. But before all else his work retraces that of the soul which transforms itself in conformity with a divine Model.
1 Apart from his sonnets the human greatness of Michelangelo appears chiefly in his sculpture, in works like the Moses and the Pietà, and that apart from any question of principles or style. In his painting and architecture this greatness is as if crushed by the errors of the period; it gets lost in heaviness and pathos or in the cold gigantism that also characterizes the statues and which is a dominant mark of the Renaissance. With the impressionists the academic spirit fell into discredit; one would gladly believe that this was due to a slightly deeper understanding, but such is not the case, for an unforeseeable change of fashion was enough to call everything once again into question; moreover the academical spirit has already been revived within surrealism, though always in the climate of the oppressive ugliness characteristic of that school.
2 In a stylized painting, an icon, for example, or a Vishnuite miniature, the absence of three-dimensional vision and of movement does not trouble us, for the painting presents itself as such and not as a substitute for the objective world; it is not merely this or that, it is above all a painting. In naturalistic art, on the contrary, the objective accuracy of the drawing and the subtlety of the shading intensify the absence of space and movement: the figures are as though congealed in an atmosphereless void. In statuary, where inert matter and immobility create an analogous impression, the contrast between model and copy becomes intolerable and confers something spectral upon the work. Naturalism partakes of the nature of delusion and magic, but the reaction against it, since it comes from below, gives rise to much worse and strictly perverted aberrations, with the exception of a few works, or categories of works, which however do not form a school.
3 The accumulation in Christian churches and places of pilgrimage of gross and harsh ironwork cannot but impede the radiation of spiritual forces. It always gives the impression that heaven is imprisoned.
4 This abuse of intelligence is extremely characteristic of modern civilization. Many things are taken to be superior—as indeed they are if considered in artificial isolation—which are in fact merely hypertrophic; artistic naturalism is just that, at any rate when taken as an end in itself and when it consequently expresses nothing more than the limitations of form and of the accidental.
5 The ostentatiously human perfection of classical or academic art has in reality nothing universally convincing about it: this was noticed long ago, but only in order to fall into the contrary excess, namely, the cult of ugliness and of the inhuman, despite a few intermediary oases, certain impressionists, for example. The classicism of a Canova or an Ingres no longer convinces anyone, but that is no reason for acknowledging only Melanesian fetishes.
6 In this connection Egyptian art is particularly instructive; other examples of this coincidence of “natural” and “essential” can be found in Far-Eastern art and also in the admirable bronze and pottery heads found among the Yorubas of Ife in West Africa which are among the most perfect works of art to be found anywhere [see ills. 97, 98, and 99].