Georges de La Tour’s Mary Magdalene has not yet arrived at an ecstasy of repentance (Angela Carter)

a

Mary Magdalene, the Venus in sackcloth. Georges de La Tour’s picture does not show a woman in sackcloth, but her chemise is coarse and simple enough to be a penitential garment, or, at least, the kind of garment that shows you were not thinking of personal adornment when you put it on. Even though the chemise is deeply open on the bosom, it does not seem to disclose flesh as such, but a flesh that has more akin to the wax of the burning candle, to the way the wax candle is irradiated by its own flame, and glows. So you could say that, from the waist up, this Mary Magdalene is on the high road to penitence, but, from the waist down, which is always the more problematic part, there is the question of her long, red skirt.

b

Left-over finery? Was it the only frock she had, the frock she went whoring in, then repented in, then set sail in? Did she walk all the way to the Sainte-Baume in this red skirt? It doesn’t look travel-stained or worn or torn. It is a luxurious, even scandalous skirt. A scarlet dress for a scarlet woman. …

c

Georges de La Tour’s Mary Magdalene has not yet arrived at an ecstasy of repentance, evidently. Perhaps, indeed, he has pictured her as she is just about to repent — before her sea voyage in fact, although I would prefer to think that this bare, bleak space, furnished only with the mirror, is that of her cave in the woods. But this is a woman who is still taking care of herself. Her long, black hair, sleek as that of a Japanese woman on a painted scroll — she must just have finished brushing it, reminding us that she is the patron saint of hairdressers. Her hair is the product of culture, not left as nature intended. Her hair shows she has just used the mirror as an instrument of worldly vanity. Her hair shows that, even as she meditates upon the candle flame, this world still has a claim upon her.

Unless we are actually watching her as her soul is drawn out into the candle flame.

From Angela Carter’s short story “Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalene.”

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Let us admit that there is no hope of ever rivalling the dead

One can’t study the masters too much—I mean, from the amateur’s view-point; in the case of an artist it depends on the receptivity of his temperament. Velasquez didn’t like Raphael, and it was Boucher who warned Fragonard, when he went to Rome, not to take the Italian painters too seriously. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it sometimes stifles individuality. I think it is probably the belief that never again will this planet have another golden age of painting and sculpture that arouses in me the melancholy I mention. Music has passed its prime and is now entering the twilight of perfections past for ever. So is it with the Seven Arts. Nevertheless, there is no need of pessimism. Even if we could, it would not be well to repeat the formulas of art accomplished, born as they were of certain conditions, social as well as technical. Other days, other plays. And that is the blight on all academic art. “Traditional art,” says Frank Rutter, “is the art of respectable plagiarism,” a slight variation on Paul Gauguin’s more revolutionary axiom. No fear of any artist being too original. “There is no isolated truth,” exclaimed Millet; but Constable wrote: “A good thing is never done twice.” Best of all, it was R. A. M. Stevenson who said in effect that after studying Velasquez at the Prado he had modified his opinions as to the originality of modern art. Let us admit that there is no hope of ever rivalling the dead; yet a new beauty may be born, a new vision, and with it necessarily new technical procedures. When I say “new,” I mean a new variation on the past. To-day the Chinese and Assyrian are revived. It is the denial of these very obvious truths that makes academic critics slightly ridiculous. They obstinately refuse to see the sunlight on the canvases of the Impressionists just as they deny the sincerity and power of the so-called post-Impressionists. The transvaluation of critical values must follow in the trail of revolutions.

From James Huneker’s “The Melancholy of Masterpieces.” Collected in Ivory, Apes and Peacocks (1915).

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Portrait of Sebastián de Morra, Diego Velázquez

 

Why melancholy?

Possibly it is a purely subjective impression, but I seldom face a masterpiece in art without suffering a slight melancholy, and this feeling is never influenced by the subject. The pastoral peace that hovers like a golden benison about Giorgione’s Concert at the Louvre, the slow, widowed smile of the Mona Lisa, the cross-rhythms of Las Lanzas, most magnificent of battle-pieces, in the Velasquez Sala at the Prado, even the processional poplars of Hobbema at the National Gallery, or the clear cool daylight which filters through the window of the Dresden Vermeer—these and others do not always give me the buoyant sense of self-liberation which great art should. It is not because I have seen too often the bride Saskia and her young husband Rembrandt, in Dresden, that in their presence a tinge of sadness colours my thoughts. I have endeavoured to analyse this feeling. Why melancholy? Is great art always slightly morbid? Is it because of their isolation in the stone jails we call museums? Or that their immortality yields inch by inch to the treacherous and resistless pressure of the years? Or else because their hopeless perfection induces a species of exalted envy? And isn’t it simply the incommensurable emotion evoked by the genius of the painter or sculptor? One need not be hyperæsthetic to experience something akin to muffled pain when listening to certain pages of Tristan and Isolde, or while submitting to the mystic ecstasy of Jan Van Eyck at Ghent. The exquisite grace of the Praxiteles Hermes or the sweetness of life we recognise in Donatello may invade the soul with messages of melancholy, and not come as ministers of joy.

From James Huneker’s “The Melancholy of Masterpieces.” Collected in Ivory, Apes and Peacocks (1915).

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Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer

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