I have a book which was first published in 1932 called Through the Eyes of the Masters. It was written by David Anrias which is the pen name of someone called Brian Ross, and it purports to be telepathically received communications from the Theosophical Masters on various subjects. It's an intriguing book but I'm not convinced any more than I am convinced by the Theosophical Masters themselves though I do find Theosophical teachings interesting albeit with quite a few reservations, the chief of which, of course, being the diminishment of Christ.
Anyway, one of these communications is from someone known as the Venetian Master who, we are told, was the painter Paolo Veronese in a previous life. Maybe. But he says something about Renaissance art which came to my mind recently and I will quote it here. He says that "the religious element was imposed upon the consciousness of the painter by extraneous conditions rather than arising from real spiritual experience. Such religious scenes and emotions as he attempted to convey were usually conventional and stereotyped though exquisitely painted in the tradition of the period."
I was reminded of this because on Monday I went to the National Gallery in London to see the current exhibition on Raphael. It was far too hot for such an escapade which involved me walking a couple of miles in the midday sun with temperatures of 31 degrees (87 in old money) but that's another story. The point I wish to make is that I found the paintings in the exhibition, against expectations, rather dull. I went through the whole exhibition in about 15 minutes before cheering myself up with some 17th century Dutch landscapes in the main gallery which were more to my taste.
What's the problem here? For me it is captured by the quote above. The paintings were mostly of religious subjects and they were indeed exquisitely painted. But I found them quite uninspiring to look at. The faces were bland and conventional and the general depiction of the subject had no depth or feeling. I was surprised because I thought I liked Raphael. There was a reproduction of The School of Athens there and that was impressive but the great majority of pictures had nothing to say (in my view). I'm sure they are technical masterpieces but that is not enough if they don't use that mastery to offer something more, and for me they just don't.
When I was young and more interested in art than I am now I appreciated the pre-Raphaelites. I couldn't remember what it was they didn't like about Raphael so I looked it up. Wikipedia tells me that they believed the "classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael were a corrupting influence" on art. I suppose this means he favoured style over substance and that is more or less what I felt on my visit.
I may just have been in the wrong frame of mind. It was very hot and shortly before my visit I had eaten a stale croissant washed down with an over-priced cup of bad coffee. But that's not all there was to it. I enjoyed the Dutch landscapes and still lifes (lives?) I saw afterwards. These seemed to have a lot more depth to them and really capture something of the inner truth of the subject. Raphael's art has a certain serenity and is undoubtedly exquisite but that word implies a surface level bland beauty and that is what I saw in his work. Perhaps the problem was the lack of variety when so many are seen together and he might be better appreciated if one just saw one or two paintings in which case the smooth perfection might not pall.
|The Madonna of the Pinks. A beautiful painting but could it also be rather bland?|
The Renaissance was a restoration of Classical humanism. When it treated religious subjects it played down the hieratic quality you find in medieval art. It brought them closer to the everyday human but by removing distance it also lost the sense of the sacred. I don't feel about Raphael as I feel about Leonardo but nor do I feel his painting has any of the spiritual intensity of, say, Albrecht Durer to take an almost exact contemporary, and as far as the pictures in the exhibition go he well illustrates the spiritual loss incurred by Renaissance humanism.