I love to read because the power of language to convey thoughts and ideas is compelling and seductive. I’m putty in the hands of an excellently crafted sentence. I copy them into my journal. In this blog I want to share the writing of another, Edwin M Todd MD, JD, PhD. Yep, my Dad. At the age of 66, while still a practicing neurosurgeon, Dad published a book of essays, Reflections Through A Murky Crystal. Here’s one that demonstrate the vast range of his interest and knowledge. Enjoy.
WHILE CONTEMPLATING A PAINTING
From Reflections Through a Murky Crystal
By Edwin M Todd, MD, JD, PhD
It was spring and Paris was wearing her brightest garments that lovely morning in 1965 as I made my way to the Louvre. My step was light and lingering echoes of the lofty language of tragedy were reverberating through my temporal lobes from reading Racine’s Phaedra the previous evening. I was savoring little tidbits of the French playwright’s decorous elegance when I encountered The Rape of the Sabine Women. The overwhelming dominance of French literature in Continental Neoclassicism had somehow obscured the contribution of the other genre from my vantage point. I had been taught that the dominance in literature was only weakly reiterated in art.
Contemplating the serene, precise, spaciously dimensioned and beautifully consolidated art of Nicolas Poussin compelled a reassessment of values. A restatement of my own premature impressions was certainly in order. Almost at once it became more clear to me why Poussin (1593-1665) rightly qualifies for a position of eminence in the cultural structure of his age on a par with the great literary figures. Later study and reflection revealed to me how a lifetime of scholarly research and scrupulous application to mastery of order, reason and truth had able Poussin to capture a spirit of antiquity uniquely expressed in his works and seldom equaled. Whether true or not, some critics have asserted that all that was original and enduring in French Neoclassical painting lived and died with this master. Sadly, for his contemporaries, the inspiration he provided for great artists of the future was stifled in his own time by the very idolatry of the French Academy, which imposed his free principles on its members as a rigid code to be devotedly imitated.
As I sat before the painting, it seemed fitting and ideally suitable to the occasion to attempt a comparison of the two outstanding French neoclassical works so fresh in my mind, incongruity of the disciplines notwithstanding. Within the confines of meticulous composition and careful modeling, Poussin’s art appeared quite as lofty and highly stylized as the graceful poetic evocations of Jean Racine (1639-1699), and curiously, the same seething passion could be distinguished. Poussin captures the blood and guts with his brush that Racine eloquently portrays with his pen, while both adhere strictly to established rules of execution with methodic perfection. The same violent images fermenting under polished surfaces strike different chords in the mind of the perceiver, for their efforts must be interpreted in the context of what or how one feels about the motivations of the respective artist. Beneath his erudite conditioning Poussin was basically a humble, self-effacing man of the country. He never tried to hide his peasant origins or his simple tastes. His scenes of raw action, blood and violence were meant to recall the vital traditions of Classicism to which, increasingly, he had dedicated all his energies in relentless scholarship. Whereas, in Racine, a worldly man of the theater acutely aware of his own time, one gets the impressions that the underlying currents of sex, blood and violence are a more personal obsession, perhaps a little contrived at times in deference to contemporary sensitivities, but no less authentic in their classical derivations.
As an innovator, there is less compulsion in Poussin to strive to conform to the pat art recipes of his age, and in fact his work marks a departure from provincial versions of Renaissance painting to a new epoch in French art. The decorous elegance of his Neoclassical painting was to be revered and imitated by countless painters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Poussin’s style is painstakingly developed within tightly self-prescribed principles of order and dignity, with high moral tone. He strove to perpetuate the grandeur and glory of Greece and Rome as ardently and as sincerely as any artist who ever lived. This is quite evident in The Rape of the Sabine Women. Racine was no less appreciative of classical dictates in form and composition, but with his ear attuned to the times he was more concerned with fitting the substance of his vehicle to popular tastes. There is no Christian conscience in The Rape of the Sabine Women. Poussin’s actors go about the pagan business of carrying away Sabine women to populate their new city with Roman precision and efficiency. The leaders stand poised above the well-balanced action with a noble detachment that intensifies the bedlam below. Curiously, the lingering impression from the picture is one of essences and even the plural title lacks concrete reality or personal inference.
A proper comparison of these great masterpieces from different media within the Neoclassical culture can only reflect the bias of the critic. The universal language of Art presents no limitation to a full appreciation of the splendor and circumstance of antiquity as revealed in the careful drawing and exquisite geometric composition of Poussin; whereas, the lofty language of Greek tragedy expressed in superbly wrought Alexandrine verse requires a linguistic capacity to trace the melodic perfection. Even so, the spirit of Racine is a common legacy through the translations of Robert Lovell and others with the broader insights and deeper sentiments largely retained.
Standing below the painting of The Rape of the Sabine Women with memories so fresh from Phaedra, the mixed images and audible echoes of ancient cultures resurrected for a few moments in the quiet chambers of a receptive mind.
Act III, Scene II
O you, who see the shame into which I fall,
Implacable Venus, am I sufficiently in thrall?
You could take your cruelty no further though.
Your triumph’s complete: your arrows all strike home.
Yet cruel one, if you still seek fresh glory
Attack some more rebellious enemy.
Hippolytus flees you, who, braving your anger,
Has never bowed his knees before your altar.
Your name seems to offend those proud ears of his.
Goddess, take vengeance! We share the same cause.
If only he loves. But already you return,
Oenone? He detests me: he will not listen.