French or German, Pick One

Robert Benchley, of Algonquin Round Table fame, once claimed that there are two kinds of people in the world–those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t. In the spirit of Mr. Benchley’s dichotomous claim, here’s one from Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review of the Boston Symphony:

The composer Ned Rorem maintains that everything and everyone falls into either French or German aesthetic camps. The French aesthetic favors lightness, texture and surface beauty; the German is concerned with rigor, depth and structure.

This is provocative to consider this in regard to the visual arts as well. Matisse is definitely French. Jackson Pollock too. But what about Rothko? Richter? Marden?

3 Replies to “French or German, Pick One”

  1. Well, Daniel Richter is also “German”, in my opinion, as is Gerhard Richter.
    Marden I consider French, insofar as my limited appreciation of him goes.
    But Rothko for sure is definitely rigorous in terms of his exploration, and also demands a rigorous approach from the viewer, a sort of emptying out of the self so that the paintings may do their work – to me this puts him in the Germanic camp.
    By token of this sorting into opposing camps Kara Walker is French, but so is Ryan McGuinness – but where would you slot Marlene Dumas?

  2. Elatia Harris says:

    The distinction between art that on first encounter possesses an experiential, spontaneous quality (Matisse, Gorky, Pollock) and art that looks thought out, as if it existed in the artist’s mind before he began to paint (Malevich, Cezanne, Magritte) probably goes back to the rival camps in 17th century painting: the Rubenistes, who followed Rubens and the Poussinistes, who followed Poussin. The soft edge, the shimmer, the appeal to the tactile sense vs. form, color, and light in no uncertain or too brushy terms. Perhaps it goes back even further, to the contrast between the Venetian Renaissance (Titian) and the Tuscan Renaissance (Piero della Francesca.) To quote someone very learned whose name I can’t recall, Florentine painting gives you the feeling that if you turned off the lights, it could go on happening in the dark, while Venetian painting would totally disappear. Sometimes when I wonder what kind of art I’m looking at — and the French and German poles of Rorem’s opposing esthetic camps are useful ideas for this — I try to consider what kind of reality the work would have if I flipped a switch to darken the room.

  3. I really like this way of describing the difference between Venetian and Florentine art–makes complete sense. Thank you for sharing this from your vast trove of vignettes.

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