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IN THE MIRROR OF THE PAST
by Donald Kuspit
 
Writing about his contemporary Delacroix, whom he linked with Rubens, Raphael, Veronese, Lebrun and David -- "the rare elect" or "beacons" -- Baudelaire celebrated their "love of the great, the national, the immense and the universal -- a love which has always expressed itself in the kind of painting. . . known as great machines." "Many others. . . have painted great machines," Baudelaire adds, but those masters "painted them in the way most suited to leave an eternal trace upon the memory of mankind."(1) However different their means -- their stylistic rhetoric, as Baudelaire called it -- and the nations or societies in which they worked, they all expressed, with "immense passion" and a "formidable will," "the atmosphere of the human drama."

Like their paintings, those of Delacroix "summon to the memory the greatest number of poetic thoughts and sentiments which, although once known, one had believed to be forever buried in the dark night of the past." Similarly, while "the age of the Raphaels, the Michelangelos and the Leonardos. . . is already long past," Delacroix restored it, making paintings as broadly "educated" and "intellectual" -- as informed with "literature" and "philosophy" as well as "religion" and "science" -- as theirs. Even more tellingly, he made literary paintings: "Delacroix was the soul-stirring translator of Shakespeare, Dante, Byron and Ariosto." He was a "poet-painter" -- but a modern rather than traditional poet-painter, that is, a romantic rather than a classical poet-painter: for Baudelaire, to be modern was to be desperately romantic (not to say futilely passionate). Delacroix was the exemplary modern romantic painter: he was "passionately in love with passion." But even as he impulsively and heedlessly expressed it, in defiance of the "classical" rules of reason that regulated its appearance in traditional painting -- the mastery of the great traditional masters Baudelaire admired coincided with their mastery of their passion -- Delacroix was "coldly determined to seek the means of expressing it in the most visible manner," suggesting that he had a classical sensibility, if not classical restraint, signifying the ideal of complete self-control.

I want to say the same thing of the U.S. artist Daniel Ludwig: he is a modern romantic master using classical models to give visible form to the violent passions evident in the human dramas he depicts in such masterpieces as Deer Hunt, Disfruta, Passage and Raft (all 2009). Deer Hunt is grounded in the story of Diana and Actaeon; Disfruta deals with the expulsion of Adam and Eve into the wreckage of industrial society by a band of heavenly figures that allude to those surrounding God as he creates Adam in Michelangelo’s rendering (thumb down, not life-saving uplifted finger); Passage relates to Delacroix’s painting of Virgil and Dante in Hell (1821); and Raft is an eroticized, not to say lurid, re-make of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). Ludwig has restored the "great machine" -- and romantic literary painting -- to creative credibility. His paintings demonstrate the truth of the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s assertion that "originality is impossible except on the basis of tradition." Tradition is a facilitating environment so long as it does not demand blind compliance. It can be creatively apperceived -- one can attune to it without submitting to it. It need not be an oppressive superego but a foundational artistic ego. The great masters are great because they convey and evoke the primary creativity innate to everyone, however stifled by the need to socially conform -- although not socially conforming is not a guarantee of creativity in art or life -- which, as Winnicott writes, often involves the feeling that one is "living uncreatively. . . as if caught up in. . . a machine."(2) In a sense, they memorialize and apotheosize the primary creativity that tends to become forgotten or at best incidental -- something we make tentative contact with in our leisure-time hobbies (such as going to museums and art galleries, probably less creatively stimulating for most people than the pseudo-creative movies) -- to the seemingly more demanding, not to say necessary, business of materially surviving in society.

"Living creatively is a healthy state, and. . . compliance is a sick basis for life," and no doubt for art, which is why today mechanical compliance to modernism, which began in non-compliance to and dissatisfaction with established tradition but has now become a self-satisfied tradition in its own right -- not to say an oppressive, indeed, authoritarian and self-righteous (certainly unself-critical) establishment -- is a sick basis for making art. Creative apperception of tradition has become the healthy new basis for making art -- the healthy new non-compliance.

As Birth of Desire, Demoiselles, Psyche and Splash (all 2009) make clear, Ludwig is as passionately in love with passion as Delacroix -- and, even more than him, with sexual passion. Ludwig’s fascination with the female body never turns it into an abstract fantasy: his three standing Demoiselles are not Picasso’s repulsive monsters -- symbols of his own destructiveness -- but eloquent updates of the three graces. Ludwig restores the flattened bodies of Picasso’s demoiselles, along with the flattened drapery that frames them, to voluptuous fullness, making them somewhat more desirable. Ludwig has re-humanized and re-classicized Picasso’s somewhat de-humanized and de-classicized demoiselles. The bodies of Ludwig’s demoiselles are the same uncanny mix of the real and the ideal -- the sublimely perfect and the physically concrete -- as the most expressively and esthetically convincing classical nudes. Idealized reality and realized ideality are the trademarks of the best classicism, and Ludwig is among the best modern classicists -- not simply neo-classicists, repetitively using classical models and ideas with little of no imaginative transformation, but classicists who plumb the depths of romantic passion.

Even more than Delacroix did, I venture to say, or for that matter the Old Masters, however concerned with passion they undoubtedly were, as the Mannerists make clear: it is passion that twists the bodies of Michelangelo’s ignudi into their so-called serpentine shape. Ludwig’s bodies are even more twisted and dramatically at odds. His demoiselles are at odds and so are Cupid and Psyche. The copulating couple in Birth of Desire seem to be trying out all the positions in the Kama Sutra. Together they form a sort of hermaphroditic Indian deity. No wonder the grounded cupid looks somewhat puzzled. Ludwig’s males tend to have heroically muscular figures and his females tend to be full-breasted beauties. But however well-formed, they don’t seem well-matched, as the tension between them suggests. Indeed, in many works they are in direct conflict. Ludwig has the benefit of the modern insight into passion: it is always conflicted about its object, and with that conflicted in itself.

Ludwig’s works are psychodramatic, not simply dramatic: they’re narratives of subjective conflict objectified through old paradigms of art -- paradigms that are implicitly as age-old and universal, that is, innate modes of representation, as subjective and for that matter social conflict. Romantic art is nothing if not conflicted, and Ludwig’s ultra-romantic art makes the fundamental conflict between sex and suffering -- sexual suffering, one might say -- visible by dressing it in classical form, thus containing if not completely controlling it. (He would not be romantic if he could do so.) Using the ultra-romantic content of triumphant suffering -- the depth content acted out in modern art’s destructiveness and self-destructiveness, an ingrained morbid obsession with the negative that cuts across all styles and themes, the ranges from the anti-art of Duchamp to the non-art of Kaprow to the Neo-Expressionism of Baselitz and Kiefer, a persistent morbidity independent of the social excuses for and esthetic rationalizing of it -- Ludwig de-reifies the classical art of the past by dialectically informing it with passionate suffering, reminding us of its necessity as a steadying counterweight to the extremist tendencies of romantic modernism.

Baudelaire said that Delacroix "delights in the terrible," and Delacroix agreed. It must be terrible -- traumatizing (and experiencing trauma is the modern romantic way of getting in touch with one’s primary creativity, triggering creativity as a defensive fallback position against overwhelming suffering, not to say catastrophic conflict in oneself and with society -- to have grown up on the grounds of a mental hospital, as Ludwig did. How could he not help being aware of emotional suffering, and his own emotions -- his "grief and anger," as he says -- and make art that conveys the apocalyptic insanity and woundedness of it all. His dramatically erotic nudes are consoling bandages on his wounds, but they don’t seem to heal it, perhaps because they also caused him suffering. He needed the mirror of the past to reflect it, and keep it distant, but it resonates powerfully in his paintings, suggesting that he has not completely achieved the detachment he desperately desires.

"Daniel Ludwig: Paradigms Lost," Apr. 24-June 4, 2010, at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street, New York, N.Y. 10128.


DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.



 



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