Sunday, August 25, 2013

Significant Form, a century later

Significant Form, a century later
(Kenneth Clark, b. 1903, was the youngest writer on art to embrace as a matter of course the formal assumptions thad had been new when he was a child, but the 1950s had the beautiful dust jackets).
A snapshot off the dust jacket of my 1951 favorite Kenneth Clark, of my favorite painter
A couple of weeks ago, in eMail, a follower of my blogs and I were discussing what Style means to us.  I suggested that, besides verbal and mathematical communication, both of which manifestly want specific innate gifts, so that the verbal requirement of Scientific American, for instance, makes for tormenting prose and, similarly, Brian Greene, to name one, is tempted to use inadequate and even misleading kinds of animation, in an effort to make quantum theory and its progeny intelligible to the innately non-mathematical.  Since I had to work hard just to pass secondary-school math courses, except for plane geometry, I am grateful, but their efforts just don't work ("slices of bread", indeed!).
But, regarding the mathematical as a language (forget the etymology, lingua), with it and verbal largely excluding each other, don't we have a third language, the aesthetic, by which (this time, mind the etymology rigorously, aisthanomai, covering knowledge by the senses), isn't what we know from music and the visual arts communicated and properly known thereby?  In subsequent eMail we agreed that they all required educating, but (it was I who insisted most, remembering my limitations when it came to quadratic equations, for example) we all are innately gifted differently.  At the same time as that correspondence occurred, I was working to understand Greek Revival in America, and scouring my bookcases to locate my books from the early paperback generation, the ones that had impressed me then, by Geoffrey Scott, Rudolf Wittkower, and Anthony Blunt, besides Erwin Panofsky.  Bernard Berenson could no more be avoided, either, any more than Trinity College and formative Bloomsbury (thank goodness for Leon Edel).  Soon I realized that I needed to write this Post before the architectural one and place it in the Opera Nobilia blog rather than the Essays, where I already have posted any number of houses.

Clive Bell (1881–1964)
It was not only that I had been told, too many times, that I must read Roger Fry, but I'd tried and I detested him, not because he was older (b. 1866) or that I disagreed with everything he said (not everything) but because he ranted, ranted terribly, and argued like a stuntman (in my opinion).  But Virginia Woolf mocked Clive Bell, and half a century ago I half believed her, though I knew that Lytton Strachey was to be read for his prose.  So, while I was in art school, I picked up the thin cream-and-turquoise Penguin PB of Clive Bell's Civilisation and loved it.  In fact, I read him before any of Virginia Woolf.  Yet she more than any of the others was the one who kept me from any more of his, and, not least, his early Art (1913 or 1914, depending on the edition).  So now Project Gutenberg supplies it in your choice of download formats, free of charge.  These data are important, for this is the pre-World War I book, the one (see the footnotes) that shows that Bell had seen only several early Cubist paintings in the second "Post Impressionism" exhibit in London yet even so instantly realized that original cubism, for all its unaccustomed appearance, possessed Significant Form, while the paintings by Cubist followers were as dead as any other derivative works.
Bell had worked closely with Fry on the catalogues for the two "Post Impressionism" exhibits at the Grafton Galleries, and it was he who suggested, faute de mieux on the catalogue the label "Post Impressionist", which has bedeviled us ever since, though the catalogue had to go to the printer, and no one else had thought of a preferable one.  More important, just after the second exhibition, he coined the term Significant Form, which caught on immediately, and, as my generation knows, did endure until, I would say, Pop Art and other post-Modern took over.  The first two chapters of Art are devoted to Significant Form, as such.  Note that I give it uppercase initials but not quotation marks; as a label it is itself significant, whereas "Post Impressionist" is not, and was never meant to be.
So it happened that today, nearly 80, I am reading the seminal work—that is, the first two of five parts are seminal; Part III is awfully Roger Fry-ish, and I have yet to read IV and V.  For the moment, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Introduction and I and II.  Everyone had to admire the serious logic and earnest integrity of this work.  As for that alarming part III, here I find all the wild biases that would have astonished Wölfflin as much as me, today.  I have scanned just enough of Roger Fry, now, to know that his was the virus.  It was Fry that made my most beloved professor teach us that we needn't trouble ourselves much about Praxiteles, for example.  But I have not the slightest trouble with the importance of Significant Form, and Bell, himself, repeatedly says that great artists are, singly, just as holy as those working in the times and places that he follows Fry in elevating.  I suppose we'd be just in regarding those Cambridge Trinitarians as we do any coterie of the young.  That doesn't make them altogether wrong, really; they just needed to get off their high horse, and we, for our part, are enlightened by reading what they actually thought a century ago.  They cannot be blamed for textbooks like Herbert Read's.
Why seriously defend Significant Form?  Because, like any verbal or mathematical sign, form does signify.  Because it is not the representation or the symbolic / allegorical or the moral or ethical, let alone political, reference but the Form that conveys Signification, just as in music.  If one musician, say André Rieu, evokes romantic sentiments and another with the same musical score evokes only what no picture or poem can convey (otherwise, why own several recordings of Debussy Preludes, for example, of which the best ones themselves differ but only in ways that only listening can perceive?  Why treasure dozens of Schubert Winterreise, all with the same notes and the same words, and not just for the human voices, though the voice may tell us more than anything else what the musicians' mind and soul understood in that performance of the song cycle?)—then it can only be that in each the Significant Form is the language that speaks to us, if we have learned that language well enough.  As early as the 1980s I began to hear, in reviews of Fine Arts students' work, complaints that the work was too "merely formal", as if Form were merely Basic Design, and ask the students why his work did not mean anything.  The teachers made clear that they sought a gender or political or religious or symbolic meaning, precisely what I'd been taught was extraneous, though not per se damning.  Also, I began to sense that by expressing oneself they meant something quite different from the self that Clive Bell (or Christmas Humphreys, for that matter, though Bell would not have followed Zen) meant.  In other words, it seemed that the urgent relevance of the heart and soul of modernism had evaporated, leaving hardly a residue, since Basic Design for advertising art just isn't the same thing at all.
That is why I pulled out my beloved 1951 Piero della Francesca by Kenneth Clark and consoled myself by re-reading it, and re-testing it (for it is remarkable how much one's mind can change in a half century).  He is still my favorite painter and this is still my favorite art history book.  He is everything that Part I and II and V, I hope, of Clive Bell's Art is about.
You do need to be careful, reading Art, to bear in mind that a boy of Clive Bell's generation, though he never intended to become a classical scholar, had had so much Greek and Latin that he never used words like emotion and significant as they are usually used today.  Emotion is especially difficult, and I could not myself find any substitute for it, so pay close attention to the context.  Religious emotion in this essay never means what happens at a Georgia Camp Meeting, for instance.  Henri Bremond's Prière et Poésie (1926) is more relevant.  And the fact that whether in a sonnet or a sonata or a statue, building, or painting it is the form that is transcendent, in all alike, more or less proves the point, that it is Form that is Significant.

This Post is for my friend and former student Melissa