Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Middle Kingdom exalted

Yesterday I took in the wonderful exhibition Ancient Egypt Transformed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Aimed mainly at true connoisseurs, the show is unlikely to rank as a blockbuster event, though one never knows.

The exhibition has two major strengths. The first consists of small, delicate panels and figurines with their modest accounts of daily life in the period.

Soaring over all, however, are the extraordinary portraits of the pharaohs of the twelfth and thirteenth dynasties. While the Middle Kingdom liked to regard itself as simply a restoration of the glories of the Old Kingdom - a typical neoclassical posture - it achieved a decisive advance in these portraits.

While Old Kingdom portraits show some individuality, their idealist treatment precluded full embrace of the inherent, and sometimes tragic potential of portraiture as we have come to know it. The faces of the Middle Kingdom works are simply amazing, recasting the human visage as it were as the record of one's lifelong battle for integrity and wholeness - a battle that inevitably none of us can really win. As such they are existentialist portrayals. Not until the time of Rembrandt was this model recaptured and surpassed, if then.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Pablo Neruda

Recently I participated in a brief discussion concerning the poetic status of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, winner of a Nobel Prize in literature and acclaimed by at least one critic as the "greatest poet of the 20th century."
While I am not an expert on poetry, inclined as I am to the belief that we live in a post-poetic age, I am fluent in Spanish. So I went back to my copy of Neruda's magnum opus, the Canto General, a kind of segmental epic on the Americas in 15,000 lines. The loose-ranging prosody derives from Walt Whitman, a choice that seems perfectly valid. Not so much the story line.
The narrative starts with an idealized portrait of Amerindian cultures before the arrival of the conquistadores, who spoiled everything in Neruda's view. Right at the start, then, we have a conflict between indigenismo, the idealization of the original inhabitants of our continents, and hispanidad, the cherishing of the Spanish heritage and language.
Later, the poem declines into what can only be termed a series of rants against gringos and their corrupt allies in Latin America. All this is colored by Neruda's lifelong Stalinism. Yet for many admirers this far-left commitment is almost a plus, showing a "progressive" tendency.
I have never understood why fascism should be condemned - as it certainly should be - while Marxist totalitarianism is let off the hook. Yet this dichotomy is common in some bien-pensant circles.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Christianity and me

Some may ask what credentials I possess for commenting on religion. After all I was brought up in a decidedly secular home, as my parents adhered to a far-left political sect. When I opened the Bible for the first time at the age of twenty, I was struck by how many quotations it contained, from "giants in the earth" to "turning the other cheek."
Yet I did not long remain in this state of bemused perplexity. Grad school (art history) gave me a new purchase on these matters.
When in the early sixties I commenced work on the illuminated Stavelot Bible (with copies of the diss. still bouncing around here and there), I only partially understood how to proceed. I knew that the MS was a product, art historically speaking, of the Mosan Romanesque. Obviously, there was a major theological background. I understood that the Libri Carolini were still authoritative in 1097, offering a bulwark against the rigors of iconoclasm.
So far so good. In addition, a flyleaf in the Bible contained a catalogue of the abbey library at Stavelot, featuring major works by Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great (who turned out to be most relevant for my research). I also boned up on modern critical research on the text of the Bible, as well as on such theologians as Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. The latter pair are old hat now, but they remain formidable intellects. Thus while I was not a fan of Benedict 16, I recognized that he had a deep knowledge of contemporary theology, especially in the so-called Resourcement trend.