Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928) was American Symbolist artist, who enjoyed great success in his lifetime. In 1924, the art collector Duncan Phillips, founder of Washington’s Phillips Collection, wrote, “Arthur B. Davies is already recognized, not only in this country but in Europe, as one of the few men of original and authentic genius among the painters of our contemporary world.” However, like many artists featured on Celestial Venus, his work is not well-known today. He is mainly remembered for organizing the Armory Show which introduced modern European painting styles into early 20th Century America. Davies was working during a drastic turning point in culture, for those who are not so thrilled about the current culture’s skepticism and vulgarity, this piece is revealing in how culture came to be what it is today.
Davies’ work reflects a love of fantasy which is rather rare in American art, which was due to European influences. Davies made regular trips to study the work of European masters, he was inspired by the Barbizon School artists, Corot and Millet. Davies’ early paintings were atmospheric landscapes painted in the Barbizon manner. After 1900, the mood of his work changed, he began to include allegorical figures in his paintings. Corot occasionally included mythological figures in his paintings, but Davies’ paintings are much more whimsical than any of the paintings of the Barbizon School.
Of Davies’ works, Unicorns: Legend, Sea Calm, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, seems to be the only work known to the public. Davies was not interested in any subject mater that was available to paint, he had an inner vision that I find to be much more evocative than a banal recording of reality. He had more in common with the European Symbolists Puvis de Chavannes, Arnold Bocklin and Ferdinand Hodler than he had with his American peers.
Davies was a member of the Eight, a group of painters who in 1908 organized an exhibit at the Macbeth Galleries in New York as a protest against the conservative exhibition practices of the National Academy of Design. To compare Davies’ work to the rest of the work of the Eight is a bit like comparing Lord of the Rings to a book report on Thomas Jefferson, Davies’ paintings are an enchanted world in contrast to paintings that are just boring. The work of Robert Henri (1865-1929) is characteristic of the group. According to Robert Hughes, Henri “wanted art to be akin to journalism… he wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter.”
Henri’s painting Salome (which as interesting as the Eight could get) and Hodler’s painting Dialogue with Nature reflect contrasting views of desire. According to Mark 6:17-29 and Matthew 14:3-11, of the New Testament, the daughter of Herodias danced before Herod and a party on the occasion of his birthday. Although the New Testament accounts do not mention a name for the girl, the daughter of Herodias is identified as Salome. After Salome had danced, Herod was pleased and offered to give anything she could wish for. She asked her mother, who bore a grudge against John for stating that Herod’s marriage to her was unlawful; she encouraged her daughter to demand that John be executed. Salome has been represented as a wicked, dangerous seductress, but is her reputation as a seductress deserved? Since Salome was likely very young when she danced.* Henri’s painting is colored by the puritanical view of desire, for many Americans in Henri’s time as well as today, desire is equated with sin. although Henri’s painting is a transgressive response to the puritanical view, Henri never the less accepts it; desire is bad.
In contrast, Hodler’s Dialogue with Nature is colored by the thought of the Renaissance. Prior to the Renaissance, there was an overwhelming emphasis on the things of heaven with little interest in nature. Thomas Aquinas, under the influence of Greek philosophy, introduced a respect for nature which contributed to the birth of the Renaissance. Francis Schaeffer reflected on the benefits of Renaissance thought, he writes, “From a biblical viewpoint nature is important because it has been created by God, and is not to be despised. The things of the body are not to be despised when compared with the soul. The things of beauty are important. Sexual things are not evil of themselves. All these things are involved in the fact that in nature God has given us a good gift, and the man who regards them with contempt is really despising God’s creation. As such he is despising, in a sense, God Himself, for he has contempt for what God has made.” When Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed “God is dead” in the 19th century, some artists turned to nature to rekindle the mystical flame. Hodler painted several pictures of nude figures gazing into the distance with the expression of yearning. It seems that Hodler’s paintings may reflect C.S. Lewis’ concept of Joy.
C.S. Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy and his allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress, give an account of how a distinct desire influenced his pilgrimage to Christianity. Early in his childhood, Lewis had brief sensations of desire that would come over him. The experiences were caused occasionally by natural beauty, literature and art. Lewis described it as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from happiness and from pleasure.” When Lewis in school, he had a great love for northern myths and sagas which stirred this longing, at the same time his education had destroyed his faith in God. The inconsolable longing stirred by art contradicted the atheism and materialism that his intellect embraced. Lewis illustrated the two hemispheres of his mind in turbulent conflict:”On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth: on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’
A rational existence can not fulfill the desire of the soul. The popularity of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars is due to in part to this craving for the mystical. But the over exposure of images from those myths has a deadening effect. Paintings of figures like Davies seem to be the only thing (besides great music) that I find Joy in, since they represent the beautiful truth that lies outside the rational production. For Lewis the source of the Joy was the desire for heaven, which is “the secret signature of each soul’. Some of Davies paintings, such as Morning Glories have effected me with an inconsolable tranquility with their unspoiled beauty.
The Protestant Reformation brought a disenchantment of nature, under Catholicism, artists were allowed to represent heaven but the Protestants rejected holy images which were based on nature as idolatry. This led to the development of great music, J.S. Bach and Handel transformed the vision of heaven into music but even this was rejected by some puritan denominations as too excessive. Ironically this view of nature led to the “rock bottom realism” of the Eight and finally wide-spread atheism. Since the rational mind would not accept any images of heaven, this led to lack of faith in heaven. I believe that C.S. Lewis’ reflections on Joy to be as significant as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, it could transform culture. Conservatives often criticize postmodernists for being irrational but the contemporary distrust of tradition is due to a state of over-selfconsciousness. For postmodern culture is the manifestation of anti-Joy which has its roots in the puritanical view of desire.
Lewis, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien, held a view of pagan myths which corresponds to the view before the Reformation, rather than see the pagan myths to be in conflict with Christianity, the myths were seen to foreshadow it. Much of the great art of Europe was drawn from Greek and Roman mythology, very often the figures in the art were nude. Rather than see the figures as just an object of lust, very often the figures reflected a desire for the prelapsarian state. In Transposition and Other Addresses, Lewis wrote: “We do not want merely to see beauty… We want something else which can hardly be put into words, to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves.”
In the early 20th century, I believe there was a cultural tug of war going on between American and European culture, a conflict of interests between the American patrons and the creative direction of the European artists. I’ll put it this way, the nude was essentially nonexistent in American art while it was a primary subject of European art. Are we to believe the account given to us, the reason why beauty therefore the nude was rejected by modern artists was due to the fact that modern artists were reading the philosophy of ivory tower eggheads like Kant? I think it makes more sense to look at the circumstances, by the early 20th century the US had become one of the wealthiest nations in the world, modernists like Duchamp were not really innovators, they just sold out to the wealth in the US which had a puritanical background and therefore a negative view of nudity. Of course of European culture influenced American culture as well, which what we find in the lovely work of Davies and in the work of the illustrator Maxfield Parrish. But unfortunately the American perspective won in the end which held a negative view of desire.
Kenneth Clark in his classic study The Nude (1953) recognized, “The dwindling appreciation of antique art during the last fifty years greatly impoverished our understanding of art in general; and professional writers on classic archeology, microscopically re-examining their scanty evidence, have not helped us understand why it was that four hundred years artists and amateurs shed tears of admiration before works that arouse no tremor of emotion in us.” Read that again, Clark said that artists and ordinary people shed tears before nudes, this is something most people can not understand today but would have been understood by Lewis. It not understood today due to a one-sided incomplete view of desire, which has its origin in the puritanical view of man. Men are regarded today as trousered apes, an interest in human beauty is assumed to be only an interest in sex. This is what we find in the psychology of Freud, everything is a disguise for sexual drives. This of course denies the complexity of human beings, one could shed tears before a nude due to Joy.
The view of humanity as a sexually driven trousered ape is what we generally find in Feminist Marxist theory and postmodern art. Although feminist texts on art are highly elaborate they fail to account for complexity of human relations: traditional works of art are created for the “male gaze” and females are represented as sex objects. Feminists should be embarrassed by the fact that their one-sided view has its origins in puritanism: an interest in beauty is sin. Although mass culture is saturated with sexual imagery, it is a mistake to assume this “culture” reflects the actually desire of the heart. Unfortunately, most postmodernists take commodity culture as truth without understanding the possible dimensions of culture. The vulgarity and transgression of postmodern culture actually has its roots in puritanism.
The work of Veronika Bromova is an example of what is often found in a contemporary gallery today. Bromova’s installation Effect Defect seems to represent a complete apathy for life. Three dummies bear cheerful expressions across their chests that are obviously intended to be cynical.
Below the dummies, lies a pile of empty bottles and snack bags. On a wall across from the dummies a large photograph of an apparently nude young girl, who is surrounded by the same pile of trash as are the dummies. The installation betokens an underlying lack of belief in the dignity, complexity and freedom of the person.
In contrast, much of the art of the early 20th century challenged the punitive rationalism. Davies’ paintings reflect a rare innocence. The crudeness of his painting technique of some of his paintings actually give his work a charm. His painting On the Banks of the Arethusa, seems reflect a longing for what has been lost.
Once art reflected the desire for transcendental beauty, which is not just a Eurocentric concept. In the Taoist thought of China, the purpose of artistic beauty in its highest form was more than “aesthetic pleasure”, it was the shen-yun, the “divine resonance.” Since western religion forgot its mystical flame and attempts to fill the void with rational dogma, western culture fell into skepticism, transgression and vulgarity. It seems that Lewis did not realize how profound his reflections on Joy were. For there to be a true renewal of the arts, it would involve more than skill and technique, but also the embrace of Joy.