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Art Is a Joke

‘[The Goldfinch] can strike the eye […] from afar [as a true-to-life image of a bird]. [But] Fabritius, he’s making a pun on the genre […]  a masterly riposte to the whole idea of trompe l’oeil […] because in other passages of the work – the head? the wing? – not creaturely or literal in the slightest, he takes the image apart very deliberately to show us how he painted it. Daubs and patches, very shaped and hand-worked, the neckline especially, a solid piece of paint, very abstract. […] There’s a doubleness. You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird. […]

‘It’s a joke, the Fabritius. It has a joke at its heart. And that’s what all the greatest masters do. Rembrandt. Velazquez. Late Titian. They make jokes. They amuse themselves. They build up the illusion, the trick – but, step closer? it falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly. A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether. The thing and yet not the thing.’

From a monologue by Horst, an art dealer (of sorts) in The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

LECTURE on CATHOLICISM & ART ~ DANIEL MITSUI

Ecce Quam Bonum, by Daniel Mitsui

Ecce Quam Bonum, by Daniel Mitsui
(from Psalm 133)

The gifted and industrious artist Daniel Mitsui, a great favorite here at Korrektiv, has released the text (and illustrations) of a lecture he delivered earlier this month. The subject: Catholic religious art, and Mitsui’s approach to it as student and draftsman. This presentation is thought-provoking, edifying, and a pleasure to read. Here’s a taste, from near the conclusion:

You have undoubtedly seen [medieval ‘drolleries’] in the margins of illuminated manuscripts: frolicking monkeys, marauding woodwoses, flirting peasants, anthropomorphized pigs playing bagpipes, funny monsters composed of various parts of men, birds, beasts and reptiles[…]. This grotesque, romantic, comical element is not limited to manuscript margins; it is found in almost every medium of medieval sacred art. […]

This same element can be encountered in the worship of the medieval Church: a Festival of the Donkey honored the beast that bore the Blessed Virgin on the Flight into Egypt; during the Mass, certain responses were brayed rather than chanted. […] Medieval sculptors and engineers introduced automation and puppetry into the church […]. [An] example is the Boxley Rood of Grace, a crucifix whose Christ moved his arms and eyes and mouth by means of wires operated by a hidden puppeteer. For all that the Middle Ages can truly be described as a time of liturgical solemnity, monastic discipline, personal piety, scholastic disputation, crusading zeal and fleshly mortification, the faithful of those ages never lost their sense of humor or their spirit of romance.

I tend to keep the company of other traditional Catholics, and their reactions when hearing about these practices diverge; some think they are wonderful. Others are horrified, and see in them only a precedent for current liturgical abuse and artistic gimmickry. To my mind, they are very different.

To learn why Mitsui thinks they are different — and to help yourself to much more food for thought — click here for the lecture.

[Lecture link via Mr Mitsui’s April 2013 newsletter, which is packed with art, including a commission for the American College of Surgeons; a preview of a forthcoming set of Stations of the Cross; and the Ecce Quam Bonum that illustrates this post.]

[For Korrektiv‘s previous coverage of medieval drolleries, click here.]

The Subtle Korrektiv

The painter Bryullov once made a correction [sic] on a student’s sketch. The pupil, looking at the transformed sketch, said: ‘You hardly at all touched my study, yet it has become entirely different.’ Bryullov answered: ‘Hardly-at-all is where art begins.’

Tolstoy, Leo. ‘How Minute Changes of Consciousness Caused Raskolnikov to Commit Murder’. Excerpt from ‘Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?’. Translated by George Gibian. In Crime and Punishment (a Norton Critical Edition, Third Edition), edited by George Gibian, 487. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989. Originally published as introductory essay to a book on drunkenness by P.S. Alexeev (1890).