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28 November 2015

The Triumph of Hope Over Experience


The Triumph of Hope Over Experience, oil on canvas, MMXI 

Recently I gave a talk in Washington at a roundtable discussion about the World War I Memorial competition. I framed the memorial discussion as a choice between three types of memorials: the therapeutic, the documentary, and the rhetorical. Perhaps needless to say, I was advocating for the rhetorical, which is the classical mode operating at its most articulate. The rhetorical approach to the arts is arguably what defined the Renaissance tradition, and as I argued in a recent talk in Spain about humanism in architecture (you can see the video here) the Renaissance effectively invented the classical language of architecture qua language. In the arts—and I fancy myself a painter as much as an architect (something my painter friends have a hard time understanding)—there is a rampant rebirth of realism, but very little of what I would call classical painting. Now, there are many who throw the moniker Classical Realism around, and I have argued elsewhere that that is a contradiction in terms. But lest the impression be given that all I do is argue, what I really do is hope, against all the evidence to the contrary.

I paint en plein air, I’m not a bad portraitist, and I occasionally do still life. But where my heart lies is allegorical and narrative painting. And yet I know there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for that kind of painting, at least by the evidence of gallery representation; I’d be happy to show and sell my plein airs, etc., and have done and continue to do so. But I continue to hope against experience for an audience for the rhetorical work. So when I heard recently about an art representative looking for work for an art fair in Padova, my first instinct was to provide her some plein air work: low-hanging fruit, so to speak. Likeable, accessible stuff. But I then thought, why not show her something of the allegorical? At our place in Italy I had a composition I’d done a few years ago, The Triumph of Hope Over Experience. This is a theme that sounds like a Baroque allegory, but as far as I can tell it’s not often, if ever, been painted. I sometimes do these allegories to deal with my current concerns, like Diogenes and Alexander (speaking truth to power). The Triumph of Hope is about my own hope in the face of experience—of the waning of whatever there was of a classical movement in architecture, of the aversion to allegorical and mythological painting, of our general comfort as a culture with mediocrity—because I know the great traditions of the Renaissance and Baroque still attract millions of visitors to Europe, even if those same people can’t imagine realizing such things today.

In fact, the art rep liked the allegory, put it in the show, was optimistic about its chances for an award, even a sale, and wanted more. Ah, hope! The allegory was becoming reality, I thought.

The experience, instead, was of the ordinary kind—no sale, no prize, no press. But, like the painting (and a new one, slightly more sanguine, is in the works) I pour water on seemingly exhausted plants, and light fires in the dark; small leaves sprout from dead branches, ancient altars glow again. Ah, Hope! She’s her own justification. And not a bad theme for a painting.