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Matter of Taste

"Raphael: From Urbino to Rome" is now on exhibition at the National Gallery in London. It is a show I truly long to see not only because there are so few Raphaels in America that it is difficult to experience firsthand the oft-described transcendent force of "the immortal Raphael," as Vasari called him, but also because for a number of years now I have been working on a book in which the place of Raphael in the aesthetic imagination has become a central concern of my story. From the Renaissance until the nineteenth century, the name of Raphael was worshipped as the touchstone of ideal beauty, and it immediately conjured such miracles of artistic perfection as the Madonna della Sedia, the Sistine Madonna, the Transfiguration, and the frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura at the Vatican. Over the course of four centuries, these celebrated masterpieces were emblematic of the noble genius of Raphael in the same way that the Mona Lisa has, in our own time, become emblematic of Leonardo and the David of Michelangelo. That most art lovers today draw a blank when it comes to Raphael, except for vague impressions of virgins and cherubim, represents one of the most astonishing shifts that has ever occurred in the long history of taste and sensibility.

So it was with some interest that I turned to a recent article in The New York Times by its chief art critic, Michael Kimmelman, that began: "The big, much praised show of the fall season here, 'Raphael' at the National Gallery, is drawing admiring mobs of right-thinking people to ogle works by this prodigious giant. I joined them, uneasily." After quoting Delacroix--"The older I grow, the more certain I become in my own mind that truth is the rarest and most beautiful of all qualities"--Kimmelman, taking a deep theatrical breath, confesses: "Right. So here's the truth. I have never entirely got Raphael." This insensibility before Raphael, however, is not a new thing in the history of appreciation of the Renaissance master. Upon reading Kimmelman, the words of another aesthete untouched by Raphael, the German expressionist Emil Nolde, came back to me in all their radicality: "We do not care for Raphael." I couldn't recall his declaration in full so I went to my bookshelf and read: "We do not care for Raphael, and the sculptures of the so-called classic periods leave us cool. The ideals of our predecessors are no longer ours."

In contrast to Kimmelman's proud assertion of his up-to-date taste--in this case, his incapacity to feel the grace and majesty of Raphael, which, for over four centuries, had exemplified the very essence of art and aesthetic experience--Nolde's studied indifference came in defense of "the art of primitive peoples": "There is enough art around that is over-bred, pale, and decadent. This may be why young artists have taken their cues from the aborigines." Nolde's contempt for predecessors has, of course, become a programmatic stance of the avant-garde, but when he wrote these provocative words in 1912 they represented a startling, unforeseen expansion in sensibility--the taste for "the primitive," which in its first incarnation meant the freshness, purity, and innocence of early Italian painting, literally painting before Raphael, the period that was worshipped by the English painters who called themselves "Pre-Raphaelites." In letters describing his travels in Italy, the young Henry James expressed this new sensibility when he wrote that he found Raphael "undecided, slack and unconvinced," and his works "vitiated by their affected classicism--their elegance and coldness." In a travel essay entitled "The Autumn in Florence" published in The Nation in 1874, American readers were no doubt surprised by James's decidedly unorthodox view of the master:

     If it came to a question of keeping or losing between
     half-a-dozen Raphaels and half-a-dozen things it
     would be a joy to pick out at the Academy [e.g.,
     Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli], I
     fear that, for myself, the memory of the Transfiguration,
     or indeed of the other Roman relics of the painter,
     wouldn't save the Raphaels.

     And when he visited the Pitti Palace and saw the "lovely"
     Madonna della Seddia, which had long been treated
     "as a semi-sacred, an almost miraculous, manifestation,"
     James could not resist adding, "My companion ... has a phrase
     that he 'doesn't care for Raphael,' but confesses, when pressed,
     that he was a most remarkable young man."

When James, James's companion, or Nolde said, "I don't care for Raphael," the world shook, and this is because Raphael and the classical vision that he perfected were, well into the nineteenth century, the very foundations of Western culture. When Kimmelman says he doesn't "get" Raphael, there is hardly a ripple (except for the irritation felt by those who are tired of critics who try to say shocking things), and this is because Kimmelman's sensibility is representative of "advanced" taste today. Ordinary people--those whom Kimmelman calls "admiring mobs of right-thinking people"--might still na?vely "make the pilgrimage" to art museums in search of beauty, but the revolution in seeing inaugurated by the taste for early Italian primitives has made it increasingly difficult for insiders like Kimmelman to experience beauty as anything other than that which, as he put it, "expunges all traces of the real, of the impetuous, of ugliness and doubt."

Of the three masters of the High Renaissance, Raphael, who had long stood supreme, has become the most alien to the modern eye. In contrast, Leonardo and Michelangelo, in Kimmelman's estimation, "seem more like one of us." And what is it like to be "one of us"? "Leonardo was all about ambiguity and difficulty, about celebrating a restless, messy mind." As for Michelangelo, "it's all flesh and sex." His range of aesthetic feeling thus constricted by all the commonplaces of our particular moment, Kimmelman confidently identifies the root of Raphael's shortcomings: "Raphael, as a young painter of Madonnas, clearly suppressed what was his true response to women and dutifully replaced sex with sweet piety. He became the ultimate red state painter." Instead of wondering what earlier art-lovers saw that we no longer see--Vasari, for instance, apprehended in Raphael that "art, coloring, and invention" had been "harmonized and brought to a pitch of perfection as could scarcely be hoped for" nor ever surpassed--Kimmelman, the sophisticated everyman, assumes there is nothing worth seeing if he cannot take it in at first glance.

As I turned these matters over in my mind, I thought of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy, and, not surprisingly, a self-avowed worshipper of Raphael. In "Discourse V," delivered before the Royal Academy in 1772, Reynolds enumerated his master's virtues: "The excellency of this extraordinary man lay in the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his characters, the judicious contrivance of his composition, his correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and skilful accommodation of other men's conception to his own purpose." Twenty years earlier, however, the young Reynolds, who the moment he arrived in Rome made his way to the Vatican to behold the "divine" frescoes of Raphael, found himself deeply disappointed by what he saw. Years later, the mature Sir Joshua, recalled:

     I did not for a moment conceive or suppose that the
     name of Raffaelle, and those admirable paintings in
     particular, owed their reputation to the ignorance and
     prejudice of mankind; on the contrary, my not relishing
     them as I was conscious I ought to have done, was one
     of the most humiliating circumstances that ever happened
     to me.

The fledgling painter experienced his response not as a sign of independent taste--as we moderns habitually interpret our insensibility before long-venerated masterpieces--but rather as a humbling want of cultivation: "I found myself in the midst of works executed upon principles with which I was unacquainted. I felt my ignorance, and stood abashed." Reynolds was ill-prepared to recognize Raphael's grandeur because he had brought with him from England "indigested; notions of paintings," as English art was "in the lowest state it had ever been in (it could not indeed be lower)."

Reynolds also recalled his relief at hearing that other artists whom he respected did not warm to Raphael on first acquaintance. Upon further inquiry, he discovered that only those who, "from natural imbecility, appeared to be incapable of ever relishing those divine performances, made pretensions to instantaneous raptures on first beholding them." Reynolds was to learn, after spending many long hours during his two-year stay in Rome studying and copying the Vatican frescoes, that he had "originally formed a false opinion of the perfection of art." "The truth is," he continued, "that if these works had really been what I had expected, they would have contained beauties superficial and alluring, but by no means such as would have entitled them to the great reputation which they have so long and so justly obtained." To be alive to what Reynolds called "the higher excellencies of art" exemplified by Raphael, the viewer had to be capable of moving beyond uninformed first impressions, beyond the confines of his or her prejudices and personal preoccupations, for "the excellence of Raphael's style is not on the surface, but lies deep, and at the first view is seen but mistily."

But the desire to make such strenuous efforts, as Kimmelman's account of what he saw in Raphael makes clear, is precisely what has been lost with the ascendance of the modern cult of immediacy. Reynolds complained that "it is the florid style which strikes at once, and captivates the eye for a time, without ever satisfying the judgment." In our time, it is the sensational style, typically prurient or violent, which strikes at once and captivates the eye, now thoroughly jaded. In consequence, slow contemplation has all but given way to immediate sensate excitement; Kimmelman's descriptions of "admiring mobs of right-thinking people [who] ogle [Raphael's] works" and of Michelangelo's staggeringly original drawings of figures as "flesh and sex" unwittingly reveal that today's art experience resembles nothing so much as voyeurism. And so long as the sensibility of art lovers, sophisticated and ordinary alike, is keyed exclusively to hyper-sensation, the only occasion for attending to the slower, more serene aesthetic pleasures of Raphael will--ironically--be publicity-grabbing events like the exhibition now on view at the National Gallery in London. In the meantime, the extraordinarily beautiful Madonna and Child with Saint John (Alba Madonna), along with the four other lovely Raphaels that we are fortunate to have at our own National Gallery in Washington, will continue to languish unvisited.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein