Vulgar or just New?

Medieval times were dark and depressing, rife with disease and poverty leaving a meager life expectancy not exceeding forty. For numerous reasons, none less noble than offering hope to the people living in these dark times, Abbot Suger, planned to incorporate light into the choir of Saint-Denis Basilica. His plan was to build a “kingdom of God on earth” by filling the interior with light, a distinct parting from the preceding Romanesque style. To allow such a radical transformation, features such as pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses were incorporated which subsequently became synonymous with the Gothic style.

Amiens Cathedral France

Amiens Cathedral, France

Ironically, although these architectural feats produced a skeletal structure that allowed window expansion and therefore more interior light, the term Gothic, used in hindsight well after the period had ended, was associated with dark, horror and a tribe of barbarous Germans.

On the contrary, considering how pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses collectively afforded greater height and more light, Gothic architecture was revolutionary.

Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were once accused of ‘firing their paint at the canvas with pistols’.  Despite the rejection from the art world in the 1860’s, Monet and Renoir persisted in what they believed in.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les Grands Boulevards (1875)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les Grands Boulevards (1875)

Even my beloved Degas had his work described as ‘coarse, vulgar, brutal’ who in reality, was the ‘most refined in vision, in intellect, in execution’.

Edgar Degas, Dona al Bany 1886

Edgar Degas, Dona al Bany 1886

Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) shocked the art world in 1863, both by his choice of subject and by the unfinished manner in which he painted it.

Edouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, 1863

Edouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), 1863

It was believed by the critics that Manet had in fact crafted ‘brutalities’.

Despite the rejection received from the Salon, this painting, along with Olympia are believed to have paved the path to what eventually became known as Modernism.

Creativity, genius and beauty look different depending on the distance between you and the new. These artworks and architecture progressed too rapidly rendering their final works ‘too different’ as to be ugly, careless, unfinished, brutal and even vulgar.

Makes it hard to know when you are onto a good thing doesn’t it?

Kleiner, Fred S. 2013. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 14th Edition. Boston: Wadsworth.
Hale, Philip L. 1906. “Degas”. The Collector and Art Critic 5 (1) 11-17.
Murray, Stephen. 1998. “Notre-Dame of Paris and the Anticipation of Gothic.” The Art Bulletin 80 (2) 229-253.
Murray, Stephen. 2008. “The Study of Gothic Architecture.” In A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe, edited by. C. Rudolph, 382-402. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.  First published 2006 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Scott, Robert. 2011. The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Trachtenberg, Marvin. 2000. “Suger’s Miracles, Branner’s Bourges: Reflections on ‘Gothic Architecture’ as Medieval Moderism.” Gesta 39 (2) 183-205.


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