Charles Chaplin (1825 – 1891) was a French painter who is best known for his elegant images of young women. Chaplin was a peer of Bouguereau (they were both born in 1825) yet the hazy backgrounds of Chaplin’s paintings reflected the style of Rococo. Chaplin held art classes just for women at his studio. The important Impressionist Mary Cassatt was among his students. He was one of the most famous painters in France but like Bouguereau his work was neglected in the 20th century. In 1922, one of his paintings was sold at an auction in Paris. The panting achieved an unexpectedly high price because the most of the bidders believe the painting was the work of the famous actor Charlie Chaplin. The New York Times reported the sale, “The disappointment of the ultimate buyer may be imagined when it was discovered that the picture was by an almost forgotten artist …”
Even today, I find that real understanding and appreciation for Chaplin is sadly lacking. Here is a perfect an example: The Art Renewal Center is a rather well-known establishment website that features the work of artists in the order of what the editors believe to be the artist’s best work. The site’s listing features A Song Silenced on Chaplin’s last page, I think this choice to be one reflecting poor judgment, since I consider it to be Chaplin’s best painting if not one of the most important paintings of the period.
The young maiden of A Song Silenced appears to troubled, she seems to be only about fourteen. The strings on the lyre are loose, indeed; they are broken. This evokes the story of a Zen priest who cut the strings of his harp when his friend died. Cupid rests his head on her arm weeping. Why’s Cupid crying?
I noticed when I was shopping last week that full cases of Valentine’s Day Card boxes for children on clearance. It seemed hardly any cards were sold. Out of curiosity, I did a google search and discovered that Valentine’s Day is actually banned in many schools. Most of the articles claimed that is due to the fact that Moslems are offended by the holiday, but I believe that is clever excuse for those governed by a utilitarian ideology to suppress an important ritual. It reflects the temperament which charged a six-year-old boy who kissed a lovely classmate with the charge of “sexual harassment.”
I suspect that Chaplin and some of his peers were aware of the traumatic shifts in culture which were caused by the industrial revolution, at least on a subconscious level. So A Song Silenced may not be just a poetic image of the lost love of one girl but rather a metaphor for the suppression of romantic love which began in the 19th century. The view of romantic love changed as a result of social need, with the industrial revolution the Western world became more complex, demanding more skilled and trained men for professions. Until the 18th century, the average age of marriage for a girl was about 14, to presume this is a form of domination only reflects an acceptance of the grand cultural imperative of technocracy, which isolates and exploits individuals for the economy while actually suppressing the deepest human needs by trivializing romantic love, and the ideals of human fidelity and affection. Life has been subordinated to the needs of the techno-economy, so ethics become confused with the new scientific ideology, which serves technocracy. Theodore Roszak wrote:
“It is not of supreme importance that human being should be a good scientist, a good scholar, a good administrator, a good expert; it is not of supreme importance that he should be right, rational, knowledgeable, or even creatively productive of brilliantly finished objects as often as possible. Life is not what we are in our various professional capacities or in the practice of some special skill. What is of supreme importance is that each of us should become a person, a whole and integrated person in whom there is manifested a sense of the human variety genuinely experienced, a sense of having come to terms with reality that is awesomely vast.”
I would rather not bring up these social political issues and simply admire Chaplin’s work but unfortunately there is a whole culture which has been dogmatized to assume Chaplin’s charming paintings are some form of “oppression.” The current economically driven culture is cold indeed: openly hostile to the artistic expression of love warmly shared between the sexes, and views classic traditions of romance like fidelity, beauty, and innocence, as a demoted rival to the new paradigm: the Love of Money. Everyone is expected to be so independent in the modern world with a focus on being a “good expert” that other areas of experience are marginalized. Chaplin’s work reflects a deep human need, love is part the vast reality Roszak spoke of, for only a true experiencing and understanding of love; built on a solid foundation of mutual respect and trust between men and women, shows this basic realization of our own nature is necessary for any individual to become an actual compassionate and ultimately caring person.