gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the tag “Isabel Shaw Lowell”

painters praised

The jacket of Michael Murray’s biography of Jacques Barzun happily presents in color a Cleve Gray post-Cubist portrait from 1950.  The contents of the sitter’s clipboard appear on another plane –  inside the volume – pages 139 recto and 140 verso.  Barzun’s offhand notes start with his low mood at that moment, mention his trusty “large green pen,” and record how literary reflection restores his spirits and then serves his criticism.  (Having completed the monumental labor of Berlioz and the Romantic Century, JB may have been experiencing the letdown he elsewhere describes as common among authors following completion of a major work.)  Barzun’s praise of Gray had inspired his mother-in-law, Isabel Shaw Lowell, to commission the portrait.
Mrs. Lowell then loaned the Barzun portrait to the Jacques Seligmann Galleries for Cleve Gray’s “Youth and Age” exhibition (30 October–18 November 1950). Barzun no doubt visited the New York gallery and appears again in the catalogue. His “Purpose in Paint” first describes contemporary painting’s divided camp:
“The confused subject of modernism in art might perhaps shed a little of its confusion if it were once agreed that the painters of our century fall naturally into two classes—those whose work plays in our culture the role of satirist, sapper, destroyer; and those whose work reasserts the right to build among the ruins. The terms of this distinction should of course be taken in the broadest sense, and with no moral or artistic superiority attached to either category. Both types of artists necessarily ‘construct’ their works, or they would not be deemed artists; both have produced and will produce masterpieces. But one group seems bent on deriding and liquidating the present; the other group, on the contrary, tries to make us see the strength and solidity of things.
“This difference is not to be found purely or even mainly in subject matter. It comes from temperament and conception and it is visible in the plastic forms. The ‘liquidation’ I speak of appears as a direct sense impression from the liquefaction of the line, the disarticulation of the planes, the sought-after disharmony of colors. These manifestations are in fact not limited to painting nor to the graphic arts; they belong to the Spirit of the Age—or rather to his darker half.”
Next Barzun places Gray:
“Now Cleve Gray unmistakably belongs to the constructors, which is to say that he belongs to the lineage of the Cubists. One may verify this from external sources, but this corroboration is needless. All one has to do to see the Cubist inspiration—modified by the passage of time and divers artists’ sensibility, yet lively after forty years—is to look at Cleve Gray’s canvases. Whatever his subject matter, his work proceeds from an analysis of the solids which compose the subject to a reconstruction that proves them solid indeed—real, working, not disintegrating.”
Barzun then praises particulars in the paintings exhibited:
“[O]ne can see not only that the parts hang together, but that they would preserve their relations even if moved. The canvas is not merely decorated with harmonious patches of color but brought to life. … The colors, too, that Cleve Gray uses are evidently chosen in the belief that the world is young, bright, immediately beautiful. The resulting work of art is beautiful also, and for different reasons, but it resembles the world in not requiring us to grant it a technical victory, ‘on points,’ like a cautious boxer; nor—to vary the image—does it win us by appealing to sentimental associations…. [H]ere we have the delicacy of strength rather than of fashionable sensibility.”

Decades later, as he approached age 90, Barzun still had the strength to praise delicacy.  Raymond Han’s “Still Lifes” exhibition at the Hackett-Freedman Gallery in San Francisco (June 1997) included JB’s appreciation in the catalogue:
“The work of Raymond Han attracts by its delicacy.  It enchants by its serenity.  This quality resides in the twilight tones and the placid objects which, although natively disparate, develop a subtle kinship on being brought together.  The variety that Mr. Han achieves by adopting this program shows that a painter’s imagination can manifest itself otherwise than by setting the environment on fire.
“But isn’t it the duty of the artist to ‘reflect his times,’ to ‘criticize society,’ at whatever cost to his feelings and those of his viewer?  Well, to be calm and contemplative these days is criticism itself.  Indeed, it has always been so.  Still-life and genre painting, the scenes of Vermeer and Chardin, the flowers of Fantin-Latour and the apples of Cézanne make up a tradition that runs steadily through troubled times and dispute their primacy by showing the girl sewing, the student reading, while the flowers and fruit also ignore the daily news.  The life of the still life is still Life.”
The painter’s style, selection of objects, and silence regarding theory win Barzun’s praise for the next three paragraphs as he challenges “accepted ideas” of the modern artist’s role.  He then concludes:
“Only when a technique is extraordinary, not to be expected, may the critic draw attention to it at the expense of the whole.  In the duly spacious and beautifully linear works of Raymond Han one might venture to remark on the magic by which his objects are at once transparent and solid.  And one should add: This is the source of our conviction that his delicacy is strong and his serenity anchored deep.”

Barzun on Whitehead

Jacques Barzun refers to conversations he had with the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in A Stroll with William James (1983).  Ten years after that masterpiece was published I finally found the courage to send a letter to the great man.  I was amazed that Barzun replied, and even answered several questions.  He described his first encounters with works by William James, and then added something unexpected:  “At the same time I ran into Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World by doing some hackwork for Keller’s Digest of Books.  The two great men together effected my immunization against the chief errors of our time.”

The single paragraph format of The Reader’s Digest of Books allows precious little room for more than a synopsis, but Barzun stretches his paragraph on Whitehead’s 1927 work to a page-and-a-half.  Whitehead and James had launched Barzun’s lifelong campaign against mechanistic materialism.  His knowledge of Whitehead’s work must have brightened the conversation when they met less than a decade later in the home of Isabel Shaw Lowell, the widowed mother of Jacques’ wife Mariana.

Fortunately, we need not rely on Keller’s Digest for Barzun’s view of Whitehead.  The University of Chicago Press published a small booklet in 1980 “as a keepsake for friends of the Press” that begins with Barzun’s foreword, “Whitehead on ‘Life’,” and reprints Whitehead’s 1934 essay “Nature and Life.”  Barzun’s familiarity with the man as well as his philosophy allowed a recollection from their talks in the Lowell family’s Nine Acre Corner home in Concord:  “As Whitehead once remarked in my presence, the spectacle of scientists going every morning to their laboratories for the purpose of demonstrating the purposelessness of the universe is a piece of high comedy.”

Barzun sets the stage for Whitehead’s philosophical entrance by briskly marking the outlines of science and philosophy’s progress up to Science and the Modern World.  Barzun describes the philosopher’s concept of “mutual immanence” and then takes stock again:  “How does Whitehead’s act of fusion between Life and Nature leave science?  Just as powerful and admirable as before, but possibly less imperialistic.”  Barzun notes the influence that James had on Whitehead and provides an example of their way of thinking:  “Consciousness is not a thing like a photographic plate; it is a function like walking, in which the muscles, the ground, friction, fatigue, gravity, forward motion (and much else) form one whole.”

Barzun accomplishes much in less than eight pages, and his deft touches along the way are a pity to overlook.  The concluding paragraph, however, may entice others to seek out his witty supporting arguments before the pages fade to illegibility (like the Cheshire Cat “Publisher’s Note” vanishing in my copy):

“Actually, Whitehead’s metaphysics is no farther from the experience we all live out than science is from common sense.  For when we scan that experience rigorously we see how far common sense departs from it.  Once again, go back to James’s Psychology and discover the ways in which our familiar ideas distort sensation and go beyond the data—for good reasons, like those of science.  All thought is purposive in that same way and is justified so long as we do not confuse different purposes or mistake as if for as is.  When we do, it is the duty of philosophy, incarnated in James, in Whitehead, to make us face again the living experience we deny at our peril.”

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