August 20, 2014

A Matter of Taste

Criticism would perhaps be simplified if, before setting forth an opinion, one avowed one's tastes; for every work of art contains within itself a particular quality stemming from the person of the artist, which, quite apart from execution, charms us or irritates us. Hence only those works which satisfy both our temperaments and our minds arouse our unqualified admiratiion. The failure to make this fundamental distinction is a great cause of injustice.
––Preface to Dernieres Chansons by Louis Bouilhet

Louis Bouilhet was a great friend of Gustave Flaubert. Mario Vargas Llosa opens his marvelous book, The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, with this quotation as a way of beginning a conversation on why he has been so in love with Emma Bovary, and the book she inhabits. The title of Vargas Llosa's book comes from an 1858 letter by Flaubert: 
The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy. 
It's the question of taste that I began thinking about after reading the Bouilhet quote. Wouldn't it be interesting if, after the critic's name, there was a short statement (ah-hah! a critic's statement; how about that along with the constantly demanded artist's statement?) setting out their ideas of what makes good art: cutting edge; traditional; political; formal; especially interested in gay/women's/outsider etc art. Vargas Llosa sets out very clearly what his likes are in literature, and why Madame Bovary satisfies them so abundantly. So I thought I should try to articulate my taste in painting; why is it that I love certain artists and loathe others? The following is a brief description, though I must state beforehand that categories are not hard and fast; sometimes I like something that surprises me because I shouldn't. 

Fra Angelico, The Decapitation of Saints Cosmas and Damian, ca 1440-42; tempera on panel; 14 11/16 x 18 1/8 inches.

I love the paintings of the early Renaissance, the 14th and 15th centuries. I believe that I am essentially a classicist. On its classicism page, Wikipedia describes it as "formal and restrained". Even though the story Fra Angelico depicts is one of horror, the clarity and balance of the forms and composition allow us to enter the picture and move through it calmly; like life, the painting contains both beauty and cruelty.

Matthias Grünewald, Visit of St. Anthony to St. Paul and Temptation of St. Anthony, c.1515
image courtesy Wikiart

Is expressionism the oppositie of classicism? If so, it makes perfect sense that I can't stand the work of Grünewald, a German Renaissance painter. It is overwrought to my eye, excessive in its writhing forms and copious details. Then why do I love Brueghel? I believe it's because his form and composition are essentially classical in nature; though crowded, his paintings are clearly ordered.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818
image courtesy Wikipedia

Then we come to Romanticism, which I generally despise. In my work I want to take a backseat to the thing described, not to call attention to myself as the maker. I want to see the world plain, without the heightened emotions that are called for with a romantic attitude. But here I'll be a little confusing, because I do like the work of Friedrich, although he is certainly a romantic. It is because the form and space in his paintings are clear and defined and the emotion isn't overdone. A painting like Wanderer is a little schmaltzy, but not over the top....

Philipp Otto Runge, The Morning, 1808
image courtesy Wikipedia

...while this Runge is most positively so, as corny as it gets. Not quite a fair comparison, because this painting is so silly, but other romantics "irritate" me.

Samuel Palmer, Garden in Shoreham, 1820s or early 1830s; opaque watercolor and gouache, 
11 x 8 1/2 in.

William Blake, Albion Rose, 1794-5
image courtesy Wikipedia

Samuel Palmer was a student/acolyte of William Blake. I adore Palmer's work and can't bear to look at Blake's. Palmer's small paintings of the area around Shoreham show a great love for a place, an attentive approach to his subjects. Blake is a great romantic, and his grandiose visions are completely foreign to my temperament.

Franz Kline, Mahoning, 1956; oil and paper collage on canvas, 80 x 100 in.

When it comes to the Abstract Expressionists, why do I not discard the entire bunch? why do I love de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Newman, Mitchell? It's because the "expressionism" in the catch-all name does not mean that the work is full of excessive emotion. The brush may move with energy, but there is structure guiding it. I remember going to a Franz Kline retrospective at the Whitney many years ago and being startled to see small studies for large paintings that were exactly the same composition; the paintings were carefully planned, not frenzied expressions.

Clyfford Still, Untitled, 1951-52
image courtesy SFMOMA

Here is where taste becomes unreasoning: though Still's paintings seem to have much in common with those I mentioned above as loving, I really hate his paintings. To me they are overlarge canvases covered with mush, with no reason for being other than the artist's ego. If I try to be rational about why I dislike his work so much, I would have to say that it has to do with the romantic aspects of it, untempered by a structural rationality, or any sense of humility.

So, if I were a critic, I think you now might have a sense of my likes and dislikes, though again I'll state that my opinions are not fixed. I do have a sensibility, which I believe we all have, that colors how we look at art. I imagine you can come up with your own categories of love and hate, as much as we all try to be open and welcoming to all art.


  1. How do you feel about Thomas Moran, Frederic Church et al?

  2. Taste is an area in which reason tends to fail, I think. It's where "I know what I like" butts up against "I have analyzed and understood the aspects of this work that are aesthetically pleasing to me."
    Fascinating to see what your personal taste is and hear how your work is derived from or influenced by your own aesthetics!

  3. Annemichael, I agree that sometimes reason fails when it comes to taste; we want to just say "I hate it" without having to justify our response in a reasonable way. But we all can be lazy that way.

    Linda, I like Frederic Church's work, especially his small studies from nature. For me, Moran and Bierdstadt are too romantic with their grand visions. Church grounds his landscapes in fine observations.

  4. I am so stupid.
    I like it all.

  5. Replies
    1. JBS, not stupid, blessed with openness.
      I love Turner's work; though seemingly romantic, his late paintings are brilliant studies of light, and way ahead of their time.

    2. Thank you for your kindness and gentle is most attractive.
      The Franz Kline, Mahoning has a 3-dimensional structure which invites me to climb-in.
      The Palmer is like a Burchfield, a painting of sound and fragrance.

    3. I'm so glad, JBS, that you think of Burchfield's paintings as having sound; I've always thought that many of them were sound made visible. And the Palmer does have some similarity with Burchfield's way of approaching nature.