“Don’t talk to me about those idiots, cluttering the fields with their easels. Had I the authority of a tyrant, I’d order the police to shoot them all down.”
This was Edgar Degas, speaking less about the then-contemporary rage for landscape painting than about the ideals of the Impressionists. He was, to understate the case, unimpressed with, for example, Claude Monet’s blathering about “sincerity” and “spontaneity.” To Degas is attributed: “A picture is something that requires as much knavery, trickery, and deceit as the perpetration of a crime.”
“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”
I have been rediscovering this simple fact of life over the last couple of years, as I have resumed the sin of watercolor painting, abandoned in early life after an amusing trauma (a fight with an art instructor who was, quite literally, one-eyed). I took it up again, not from any ambition to become a great painter, but rather to do something that has nothing to do with words — as pure escape from my day job.
Now, Degas would have had no objection to people like me, even if I do clutter a field occasionally. This greatest of traditionalists and reactionaries in modern art was concerned instead with the works of the ambitious. Though outwardly not especially religious, he was, through his art, profoundly Catholic, and profoundly loyal to the grand tradition in Western art.
My own current interests are in landscape and botanicals, because I can’t draw to save my life. Should I suddenly learn, my interests would cast wider. I have been teaching myself more to see than to draw, and learning much about color in the process, through the typical amateur’s mistake of playing with too many pigments. Though on days when I am feeling serious, I work only with a “holy trinity” — yellow ochre, burnt sienna for my red, and ultramarine for my blue.
God made man out of the earth, and out of the manipulation of the earth’s pigments we represent His flesh. And it is out of a meditation on what I can’t do — can’t come near to doing — that I have learned to appreciate the condemnations of Edgar Degas.
Let me put this in plain words.
At the centre of Catholic art is the human figure. This is extremely bold, and marks us off from all other religious and cultural inheritances. The contempt felt today among the halbbildungen for the “Old Masters,” and for the idealists of “the beautiful,” is not for their art but for their Catholicism.
Item: This sculptural focus upon the figure — Christ, saints, Madonnas, etc. — is what makes mediaeval and renaissance art all of one piece.
Item: Protestants progressively abandoned the whole figure for bourgeois facial portraiture. This had little to do with “puritanism.” It was more like the invention of television.
Item: The nude, presented in art, is a peculiarly Catholic invention. It is inconceivable under any other regime. And in painting, it required both a precision of line and of color shading that took Western art technically beyond what any other civilization had achieved. All this to put man, and through him the Christ, philosophically, morally, and visually at the center of God’s creation.
Item: The Mall Culture today still loves the Impressionists, as it loves chocolates and, ultimately, as it loves abortions. It is their idea of freedom. Degas grasped that Monet and Co. were trashing the masters of the past; that they had chosen landscape in order to run away from the exacting discipline of the human figure — and from everything else in the Catholic tradition.
Yet Degas, and to a lesser extent Edouard Manet and some others, hated the academic establishment of their era with a passion beyond anything in the Impressionist rebellion. This is because they knew the tradition had been betrayed by its rule-bound, official protectors. What makes Degas appear modern is his fanatic determination to revive that tradition, to make it breathe again in his dancers and horsemen and baigneuses — and thus to realize once again a beauty that is at the opposite extreme from mere prettiness, surface eroticism, and the orgy of bright colors.
The beautiful — on a plane of worth with the good, and the true — is what we must ourselves struggle fanatically to restore, first in the Mass, and then in our world.