Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Delacroix and Romanticism

"Delacroix's art speaks of extravagance, passion, violence, excess; yet his life was that of a self-defended man who feared passion and valued above all tranquillity, hoping and believing that man was 'destined one day to find out that calm stands above all else.' He qualified as a dandy, not by outer garb but by inner superiority of spirit . . . He was the most glamorous artistic personality since Rubens but he was also of a fastidious and somewhat miserly temperament, and recluse and an ascetic in everything but his pictorial imagination. . . . He also disliked the way those took his side 'enlisted me, whether I would or no, in the romantic coterie'. . .  He judged man an 'ignoble and horrible animal,' whose natural condition was mediocrity. He thought truth existed only among superior individuals, not among the masses." (From Julian Barnes, "Cold Courtesies," TLS, May 7, 2010)

The huge popularity of the Raft of Medusa (1819) by his friend Gericault, showed him, Delacroix, which way the cultural wind was blowing: what the monied classes of the upper bourgeoisie wanted was passion, action, color, flesh, nudity, in exotic settings if possible, death and sex. And that's what he, Delacroix, and others, would give them.

It may be useful to think of romanticism as a product deliberately served up to satisfy the appetites and longings of a new bourgeois audience, sufficiently well educated and well-to-do, to buy books and pictures, or copies of pictures, and attend exhibitions. The artists, as they always have, more or less despised their patrons. And so it became fashionable, in literary and intellectual circles to despise the bourgeoisie who tended to be politically reactionary and religiously conservative. And there was a lot to fight about: the political feuds and vendettas inspired or released by the Revolution, and Bonaparte, and defeat, kept the political pot boiling not only in France but the rest of Europe, throughout the 19th century.

Works of pure (and impure) art have a way leaking into the attitudes, expectations and feelings that people have about life—their own and those of others. Romantic attitudes and expectations are almost by definition unrealistic, fantasies. That's what the medieval romances were all about. (Whatever happened to the wretched survivors of the Medusa, clinging to their raft, they didn't look like the people in Gericault's fantasy.) Don Quixote is the first novel about a man who confuses fiction and reality; Madame Bovary is the second. Don Quixote's fantasies ennoble him, raising him above the gross realities of ordinary life, for the books he reads so avidly contain and impose on him a high, chivalrous calling; the trashy novels that Emma Bovary secretly devours at the convent where she is supposedly being educated almost literally demoralize her. She is the first casualty, perhaps, of the modern mass media: poisoned by clich├ęs.