The human dimension
By David Pryce-Jones
My family shares a house in Florence, the city of the high art of the Italian Renaissance. To go into the museums and churches there is to be in touch with the Old Masters, and the experience has the effect of making you sense that there is more to life than you thought.
And that, I take it, is the purpose of all art. Writing novels as I do, I have learned that no matter whether the theme is positive or negative, success depends on being able to create this mysterious sense inherent in good art that life would offer more if only you reached out for it.
CUBISM SQUAREDRead Sidney Alexander’s poem, “Portrait of the Artist’s Child ina Predicament,” published in The New Yorker, here.The Old Masters had an advantage: They were religious, or at least worked in an atmosphere of religious faith. Over a period of four or five hundred years, the core subject of painting was the fate of every human being after his or her death, either salvation or damnation. Angels and beauty on one side of the picture or fresco, demons and ugliness on the other side. Put another way, art used to be akin to worship, a paying of respects to whoever or whatever gave the artist his gifts. Like the huge majority of people today, I am an agnostic, which means a lot of hard work to find in today’s art the moral equivalent of faith.
A great friend in Florence was Sidney Alexander, alas, no longer with us. A big man in every sense, also shambling and shambolic, he had fought in the U.S. infantry in Italy during the war, and stayed on afterwards on the scheme organized by Senator Fulbright to pay the university education of every ex-serviceman who wanted it. A man of the widest culture, Sidney played the flute and gave concerts, learned Latin in addition to Italian and created impeccable translations of the Odes of Horace and the classic work of the Renaissance historian Francesco Guicciardini that have both been published by a university press. He also wrote the biography of Marc Chagall. His special study, however, was Michelangelo, about whom he published several books. One day, he agreed to guide me on an explanatory tour of the works of Michelangelo that are to be seen around Florence. Standing in front of the famous statue of the young biblical David sizing up the shot that will kill Goliath, he quoted some lines from a poem by Michelangelo to the effect that a “Yes” and a “No” moved him equally. Sidney was saying that Michelangelo’s greatness lay in his understanding that the difference between the good and the bad is an issue for human beings, not God.
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The Guggenheim Bilbao, universally acclaimed as one of the contemporary art world’s great museums, strikes some visitors as Modernism on a dehumanizing scale