Portraits of Artists and Friends
National Portrait Gallery
12 February-25 May
Admission £14.50, concessions available
If John Singer Sargent were a novelist, he would fall between Henry James (middle period) and E.F. Benson. He had terrific facility and was immensely fashionable but what did he do with his talent? This show makes an attempt to present him as an artist at the forefront of his age. And it is true he was a friend of Monet. It may also be true he was the most advanced landscape painter in England in the 1880s. But who remembers any English landscape painter in the 1880s? — there is none of the first or even the second rank. And it is embarrassing to compare Sargents pictures of artists and ladies sketching with the painting of modern life by the Impressionists. No factories, no artisans, no common people enjoying themselves in a vulgar sort of way. No experiments with colour or light. Nothing like the grit and experimentation of contemporaries like Sickert.
And yet, there was something there. The standout pictures in this show are not the fashionable portraits but two small pictures of Robert Louis Stevenson. In one the skinny author nervously stalks the room while his wife in Indian costume curls up on the sofa. In the other the author sits in a cane chair informally talking to the viewer as if to an old friend. This is someone we would like to meet.
Among other good pictures there is the early portrait of his teacher Carolus-Duran where the technique slips down like an oyster and Carolus-Duran’s force and ésprit energizes the canvas. The twin portrait Portraits de ME,P et de Mile L,P is another extraordinary picture. These children — Sargent is generally very sympathetic to children pose with the precocity which comes from a privileged and bohemian background. If they were Londoners they would be pure Hampstead or Dulwich.
Those children’s aloofness from the common herd is a theme in many of these portraits. Time and again the head is raised and the eyes look down over sharp cheekbones, challenging the onlooker. This assumption of superiority, the triumph of the thespian will, becomes tiresome when it does not end in farce Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, all lurid greens and hammy histrionics, is simply misjudged. Or is it just of its time, the pictorial representation of the style of aging we see in silent films?
A similar suspension of judgement is needed for Asher Wertheimer, a leading art dealer and friend of Sargent’s. Is it anti-Semitic? a caricature of the rich, clever, ugly, almost devilish Jew? Wertheimer didn’t think so he went on to commission eleven family portraits from Sargent — but you couldn’t paint it nowadays.
Too often Sargent just didn’t get further into the character of his sitters than they or Society wanted. He was more of a Van Dyck than a Rembrandt. But he was always good at soft fabrics. The classic of the genre, W. Graham Robertson, was, as Sargent pointed out, primarily the picture of an overcoat, though the jade topped cane is good too.
Almost as good though much fussier in design is the first picture in the show, Madame Ramon Subercaseaux. This was Sargents breakthrough into the Salon and he does the beautiful, sexy woman, her silks and fashionable surroundings with the same verve as a Mario Testino. Indeed Testino might even be working in a tradition begun by Sargent. Some of his Princess Dianas in black and white hint strongly at Sargent’s notorious Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau). Sadly that picture does not qualify for the exhibition since Madame was a beauty rather than an artist or a friend. And Sargent didn’t paint any other pictures with showed the extreme décolletage of a woman who owed her place in Society to her sexuality. He wasn’t an artist to get ahead of his times.
In the end this show is frustrating. It is well presented, if a little over eager. The ticketing is, not for the first time at the NPG, a nightmare, with too few staff and an unnecessarily complex pricing structure. But the real frustration is Sargent. So often he holds something back or chooses not to go deeper. In the manner of Charles Ryder, his art succumbs to its own charm. But when he lets go he is joyous.
BEAUTY – SPIRIT – MATTER
Icons in the Modern World
Gracewing, 288pp + 32 colourplates,pbk
978 0852447826, £14.99
This excellent book is very difficult to categorise — Natural theology, ecclesiology, worship, history art and science all sit comfortably side by side — as the quotation from Stratford Caldecott’s review says, the author has revived a sensitivity for Gods presence in all things — God, one of whose names is Beauty’.
Although the work of a single author, the form of this book is essay style and so it is a mistake to look for progression or development from chapter to chapter, but each chapter is a well-ordered and consistent work. The overarching unity is provided by the title — beauty spirit, matter.
Chapter 1— the Theology of the Icon — is a tour de force as an apologia for the use of icons, for an historical panorama of the history of the iconoclast controversies and a cogent argument in their favour as a defence of the doctrine of the Incarnation. Here we are introduced to a vast array of the sayings of the Church Fathers and the acts of the councils. Naturally for the author the Seventh Ecumenical Council is pivotal: ‘For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented Of this Hart says: `The iconodules [icon worshippers] asserted that an image does not attempt to reproduce the nature of the person depicted but does represent their person. The attention of the people when they are venerating an icon is not the image itself but the person depicted thereon’.
Most of the book is not easy or light. It doesn’t read like a thriller but it is a weighty treasury of the reflections of orthodox theology on the relationship of beauty and matter to the Divine. So we look at icons and (almost incidentally) at other art. While the author pays due respect to the works of Rothko and other modern artists, it is hard to believe that he takes western art seriously as a vehicle of approach to the Divine. That said, what we have is an approach to the Incarnation that allows the worshipper to feel the intimacy that should exist between this realm and that of the Divine. Jesus is the primary icon —Divine Word beheld in matter. Whoever sees Jesus has seen the Father also. He is the image of the invisible God and because he lived as a man that image can be portrayed. Icons, like hymns, enable the heart as well as the mind to be involved in worship.
As Christ’s Incarnation inaugurated the work of salvation for the whole cosmos, so icons bring an appreciation of matter. Christ takes up the material world in his body and the icon allows the material world to play its part in honouring the Son of God. As the introduction puts it: ‘because icons are physical objects that partake in the spiritual life, this book is more broadly about the role that the material world plays in our relationship with our creator and our neighbour, and that our body plays in our fulfilment as human beings’.
The book is attractively produced on quality paper with a fine selection of illustrations (the majority being the work of the author) and is very good value at £ 14.99.
John Gribben cR
MORAL PSYCHOLOGY & HUMAN AGENCY
Edited by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson
OUP, 290pp, hbk
978 0198717812, £40
Moral psychology is the discipline best known, in popular books, for proving that we do not reach our moral conclusions by the rational means we generally claim, but by alarm-like emotional responses or evolution-based instincts. We think we have reasons for doing what we do, but really these are no more than rationalizations devised after the event. There is no doubt that this pessimism, or cynicism, about human conduct has been highly influential and made a great deal of money for a number of popular authors: if you are stuck in an airport, you will easily find a handful of such books to while away the time.
In the academic world, you might hope that this empirical investigation of moral decision-making would be more sober in its judgement and offer a useful link to the more traditional area of moral philosophy. If so, your hopes will be largely disappointed. Partly, this is because moral psychology is about how we make, or claim to make, our moral decisions; while moral philosophy is about the nature of good and bad, and what we mean by right and wrong. The latter asks moral questions, the former does not. To make matters worse, many of the practitioners of empirical psychology (and sociology) are so taken with their success that they virtually dismiss the philosophical questions. Ethics, good and bad, right and wrong, just is what we end up doing.
These essays are an attempt to ask philosophical questions about the observations and experiments in moral psychology, and in most cases to reassert the importance of those philosophical questions. The most common conclusion these scholars share is that too much of the scientific work, or rather the writing based on that scientific work, is unjustifiably simplistic. Absolutely right. Ironically, the papers are so technical, so interwoven with the papers they are refuting, that few outside a philosophy faculty would be helped by them. The first and last essays, in particular, are both excellently written philosophical demolitions; but the very fact they have to do it in such precise and technical language only shows how far scientism’s malign influence has spread.
So is moral psychology a waste of time? Certainly not. It does have much to teach us. The most vivid paper is entitled `Remnants of Character’ in which David Shoemaker considers the moral accountability of dementia sufferers, and how we should respond: a genuine concern. While victims of Alzheimer’s maybe exempt from moral responsibility it would be wrong, the evidence suggests, to deny them all share in the world of moral actions. To be exempt from accountability is one thing; to be removed entirely from the humanizing realm of responsibility is quite another. The moral life of the sufferer is evidently much impaired, but if we analyse the impairment, as for example in memory or communication, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the nature of that impairment.
There are no grand conclusions from this paper, but there is great deal of sensitivity. He argues for moral traits, such as kindness, as being the result of what he calls `clusters of cares and commitments’, built up through a long life. What dementia may do in some cases, through the loss of effective memory, is virtually to remove the more abstract elements of that cluster, such as religion and morality, leaving only disconnected strands, which may then manifest themselves in quite contrary behaviour. It is not that the sufferer is now manifesting a completely new character trait of vicious meanness, but rather (now dysfunctional) remnants of that character.
Such an investigation should make us more sensitive to dementia sufferers. More significant, and the challenge it posed to me, is: what does this say about my own moral life as old age approaches? As one who has long enjoyed a considerable level of abstraction in both my moral and my religious life, I do feel worried. I shall not set the abstraction aside (or why would I be reading books like this?) but I shall seek to deepen my personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. What faith will remain when my intellect has vanished?
THE PROMISES OF GOD
de Gruyter, 320pp, hbk
978 3110375077, €120
Paul as theologian is characterized by his presentation of the New Covenant, both in continuity and in contrast to the revelation of the Old Covenant. Both features are vividly and forcefully proclaimed in his letters. Under the influence of commentators, no doubt, I have too often understood this energetic contradiction in terms of Paul’s own personality. I confess that I have allowed myself to fall too often, when faced with this apparent rhetorical exaggeration, into the disparaging response: `Oh, its only Paul being typically Paul’
What this careful study shows is that he is much more of the deliberate scholar than we often suppose. If he had had a word-processor, he would surely have come up with multiple volumes of careful exposition; which would certainly have been more coherent, but no doubt less convincing.
Conway’s thesis is this. When speaking about the divine pledge, revealed in the pages of the Jewish Scriptures, Paul rejects the terms used in the Septuagint and contemporary writers in Greek, for the much narrower word group epangelia. On the face of it, this is a most odd thing to do, when commending his teaching to his fellow-Jews. This choice, of a word group not used by others, has two marked effects. First, it focuses on the promise to Abraham, which then becomes the paradigm for the whole of the Lord’s pledge, promise and covenant with his people. Second, it links immediately to the technical term and word group he inherited from the early Church and his fellow apostles, namely euangetion.
Promise and Gospel, epangetia and euangelion, become the terms that express the continuity and fulfilment of God’s purpose, that link the promise to Abraham specifically to his seed’ (singular), namely Jesus, that explain why this original promise was first proclaimed to his direct descendants, and that allow the original Promise/Gospel to be opened out the Gentiles as well as God’s chosen people. Consider Galatians 3.8, `The Scriptures preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham; or again Romans 1.2, the Gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures: As Conway puts it, `Paul stands alone among New Testament writers in his exclusive use of epangelia for God’s promise to Abraham that is so closely identified with Paul’s euangelion of salvation in Christ:
Paul has carefully and deliberately linked two linguistically similar terms to convey the central continuity and contrast of God’s revelation. It means that the bulk of this book is a detailed and exhaustive analysis of the use of epangelia in the Greek Scriptures and their commentators, as well as contemporary Jewish and non-Jewish authors, followed by the same detailed analysis of Paul’s undisputed writings, followed by the disputed epistles and the rest of the New Testament: all this is for university students only. I think you are better off not reading his analysis too closely, for the evidence is not quite as clear as one would like (we are dealing with relatively few texts after all).
Worst of all, in his conclusion, Conway can write such phrases as, `In sum, Paul is rather unique among non-Jewish, Jewish, and even Christian NT Greek writers, both prior to and nearly contemporary with himself, in his exclusive use of the epangelia word group for the divine promise’ Did none of the good people whom he thanks in his acknowledgements shriek with horror when they proofread this abject sentence? Presumably not. Fascinating, isn’t it? When I read this, three pages from the end, it seemed I was being laughed at for wasting my time on so demanding but inconsequential a study. In a sense, maybe, this book is a waste of paper.
If, however, one ignores his wretched word counts and concentrates on his central thesis, it is a simple and exciting idea, that any of us can use when reading the epistles. We are also given an interesting picture of Paul as careful, scholarly theologian; who seems (thats good enough for me) to have deliberately picked his own technical term for the Old Testament divine pledge, in order to bring out more clearly and memorably his presentation of both the uniqueness and the continuity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
POPE FRANCIS; LIFE AND REVOLUTION
A Biography of Jorge Bergoglio Elisabetta Piqué
DLT, 328pp, pbk
978 0232531640, £9.99
The reviewer picks up the book and begins to read. He is struck at once by the fact that Elisabetta Piqué’s biography of Pope Francis is written in the present tense, even though chronologically we jump about a bit. It is, he thinks, like reading Wolf Hall all over again. This creates, he realizes, an effect which is unusual in reading biography. He, the reviewer, cannot help but think that it is not wholly satisfactory. And yet he continues to read, for the story told within the pages is indeed a powerful one. And since the parts of this book that he, the reviewer, enjoys most are those which deal with curial intrigue and Vatican back-stabbing, the comparison with Wolf Hall is not entirely an idle one. He would not be entirely surprised to find Cardinal Wolsey suddenly lurking in these pages.
A little later he, the reviewer, pauses as he realizes that the descriptions of Rome, stylish and evocative if present tense narrative is one’s thing, remind him of the descriptions of Venice in Thomas Harris Hannibal. He finds the thought unsettling.
He is equally unsettled when, for a brief moment, Elisabetta Piqué leaves the continuous present behind — only to revert to it a few pages later. Whether this is a quirk of the translation, it is impossible for an English speaker to know. What is clear is that Piqué is a journalist, and she writes like one. Whether or not this book finds favour with the reader will therefore depend on whether or not he enjoys reading a text that is effectively a book-length version of a Sunday colour supplement article.
It has to be said that there are strengths to this approach. Piqué is at her best when dealing with back-stage machinations, and when revealing the little aspects of Pope Francis’ life and daily routine which, while hardly illuminating the great themes of his Pontificate and his preceding ministry, nonetheless do illustrate the type of man he is and the type of life he leads. Thus
we learn that `Padre Jorge’ is polite to hotel staff; that he wears the same mitre now as when he was first ordained bishop; that he rises at 4.15am to say his prayers; that he does not use a computer or a mobile phone; that he likes a nice pudding (`he loves sweets but controls himself’); that he does not wear white trousers under his white cassock, and so on.
As well as her own experiences with Pope Francis (he is rarely off the phone to her), Piqué’s main sources are interviews with journalists and priests. For chatty information (gossip?) about his personal life, and indeed for the ins and outs of Vatican intrigue, this is just fine. For example, her clandestine meeting with `a Bishop of the conservative anti-Bergoglio group’, which concludes with said bishop warning that `it would really be a pity if my permanent accreditation to the Vatican Press Office were to be taken away; reads like the stuff of which thrillers are made.
At other times, Piqué’s penchant for tabloidese somewhat gets the better of her. As she receives Holy Communion from Cardinal Scherer of Brazil on the eve of the Conclave which elects Bergoglio, `something inside me tells me that he will not be the next Pope’. The weather during the Mass which initiates the conclave is terrible: `Outside, the storm still rages; there is even hail. Is it the wrath of God?’ Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Interestingly, the (in)famous remark of the new Pope that the carnival is over’ is here relayed in the rather more polite and prosaic form, its not carnival time’, as he declines the red mozzetta.
The appreciation — or otherwise — of much of this will genuinely be down to personal style. Where it does let the reader — and the subject matter — down is in the books discussion of Bergoglio’s more distant past. Here, the present tense grates, the chat-show style reporting seems less adequate, and the anecdotal tone is not weighty enough to make convincingly the points that Piqué wishes to get across. Piqué’s conversational style simply is not strong enough to be helpful in dealing with Bergoglio’s unpopularity in some quarters of the Jesuit order, and in disproving the old allegations about his supposed collaboration with the Argentinian dictatorship. This reviewer does not doubt that Piqué’s assertion of the Pope’s innocence is correct: he merely asserts that her style is not the most helpful in this weighty arena.
Nor is Piqué an independent or dispassionate commentator. She believes that Padre Jorge is a kind of super-hero’; and while she is never openly critical of Benedict XVI, by implication and comparison he does not come out of this account well. Piqué places great weight on the present Pope’s choice of name — Francis, who heard the call from God, go repair my house, which is in ruins’. The taking of this name, she asserts, `makes prelates all over the world tremble’.
Piqué ends on more solid ground: with a discussion of the early days and months of Francis’ pontificate, his insistence on reforming the Curia, and his first journeys abroad as Pope. In this context, her Sunday supplement style becomes more suitable again, and the reader is swept along on what is undoubtedly a whirlwind journey.
The reviewer finishes the book. He concludes that a number of paradoxes emerge. The priest from the end of the world who comes to occupy the Chair of Peter. The otherworldly prelate who nevertheless knows precisely what he wants and how to achieve it. The humble Pope who ruthlessly exercises power in the pursuit of his goals. He, the reviewer, is uncertain where this story will finish. But, he concludes, there will be worse narrators as it unfolds than Elisabetta Piqué.
FOOTSTEPS OF JESUS
A pilgrim traveller’s guide to the Holy Land
BRF, 232pp, pbk
978 0857463456, £10.99
Christianity has no equivalent of the Hajj. There is no central or obligatory pilgrimage which forms a part of the common experience of Christianity. And yet, as the author of this accessible and interesting guide puts it succinctly in the introduction to this volume, `within a relatively small and easily navigated part of the world, there is every opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jesus himself’. When such an opportunity is so readily available, it is a great sadness that more Christians do not avail themselves of it — and that of those that do, so many choose to stay confined within the rigid and narrow parameters set down by the big tour companies for their own convenience.
That is the gist of the journalist and travel writer Perry Bucks motivation for writing this book, and the result is a pleasing one on every level. Buck is adamant that the Holy Land is — with one or two exceptions which he signposts very clearly — a safe, secure place to visit. And so he offers this small volume as a combination of tourist guidebook and pilgrimage manual. By and large, he steers clear of the complicated political situation in the region, beyond noting its existence. The exceptions to this are his criticisms of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and his insistence that as Christians we should both visit the West Bank and support our brothers and sisters in Christ who live there.
Buck is an astute guide to the practicalities of travelling around the Holy Land, reserving most of his scepticism for the commercial tour companies rather than local businesses and individuals. He is clear that for many people, travelling round the Holy Land on your own with the aid of public transport and hire cars is not only safe but a fantastic way to see the region. And for those who would feel more comfortable being part of a more structured visit, he is quick to suggest that you should not be afraid to use your tourist muscle to get the trip you want rather than the run-of-the-mill trip that the tour operator may be keen to sell you’
The book is divided into geographical chapters, which conclude with a brief chapter on Egypt and Jordan. The text is interspersed with `footsteps’ Bucks personal recollections of his own experiences as pilgrim and traveller in the Holy Land. Quotations from relevant Bible passages help to set the scene, and in a table at the start of the book events from the life of Christ are matched up to the pages that deal with those places here. Black and white maps and a number of colour photographs complete this all’ active volume.
Footsteps of Jesus will be of value to all with an interest in the lands whereJesus walked; it will be of practical help to those planning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, individually or as part of a large group. It will also serve as a helpful memento for those who have been to the Holy Land before and wish to recall the experience in the hands of an experienced and capable guide. That is, broadly speaking, my own experience. Having been to the Holy Land just once, as part of a tour party, I wouldlove to go back in a much smaller group, and explore the riches of the area independently. This book is an inspiration, and may one day be a practical tool, in helping me to do just that.