How Classical Painting Liberates us from the Shackles of the Senses

An exploration of Schiller’s Aesthetics as it pertains to political revolutions past and future

By Matthew Ehret

This article is based on a lecture given on Feb. 11, 2019 in Montreal Canada.

German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote his twenty six Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man in 1794 in order to address this matter in the most poetic manner ever devised by a philosopher and his investigation into the nature and purpose of the Beautiful and Sublime today stand unparalleled in their organized rigor, commitment to truth and spontaneous creative love.

Schiller formulated a new standard of aesthetics which stands as a revolutionary document to this day. It is vital to keep in mind that he wrote these letters in the tragic wake of the Jacobin Terror that had annihilated all hopes for a new paradigm in Europe when the greatest republican figures of France lost their heads[1].

The failure of the French revolution to replicate the success of America’s revolution was diagnosed by Schiller to be located in a two-fold cultural dis-harmony which featured on the one side, an aristocratic cultural matrix that suffered from emotional atrophy and whose abstract-ridden intellectual class lost their capacity to love a subjugated people, while the people suffered from an intellectual/cultural atrophy and who thus were incapable of the intellectual rigor needed to properly carry out a republican revolution as the revolution’s original (soon decapitated) leadership desired. The peasant class was unfortunately guided by uneducated emotional impulses that could too easily be manipulated into the controlled anarchy that became the bloody terror. He wrote of the tragedy “the generous moment finds an unresponsive people.”

In his letters, Schiller realized that were the emotions of society not ennobled through the medium of great art then political freedom were impossible and no successful revolution could ever occur. Writing to a Danish Prince, Schiller stated this idea in Letter Two:

 “It would appear to be unseasonable to go in search of a code for the aesthetic world, when the moral world offers matter of so much higher interest, and when the spirit of philosophical inquiry is so stringently challenged by the circumstances of our times to occupy itself with the most perfect of all works of art—the establishment and structure of a true political freedom.”

By establishing true political freedom as the highest of the arts and the goal and purpose of all artistic creation, Schiller creates a standard for beauty co-equal with the universal idea of the wellbeing and happiness of all mankind, everywhere and for all time.

With such a lofty standard established, Schiller undertakes his work by recognizing that mankind as a species is distinguished by not one, but two contradictory natures. The first is our rational nature which seeks its pleasure in the pursuit of immaterial ideas such as Truth, Goodness, Justice and Beauty which exist outside of material space time. This is the domain of moral theory detached from action. The other is our sensual nature which finds its pleasure in the material domain where the five senses evolved and interact with the “objective” world outside of us. Once the dual nature of humanity is thus presented, a paradox quickly arises. Schiller writes:

“At first glance, nothing seems to be more contradictory than the tendencies of these two impulses, the one striving for change and the other for immutability. Nonetheless, it is these two impulses that exhaust the concept of humanity and a third basic impulse that could reconcile the two is quite simply unthinkable. How can we then restore the unity of human nature, which seems to have been shattered by this original and radical contradiction?”

It is here that Schiller the poet and playwrite steps into battle to address this paradox in a way that no social philosopher ever could: By introducing the role of culture- good vs bad culture. Many modern cultural relativists are quick to scream “fascism” upon hearing such an idea presented. Even in Schiller’s day the idea of “judging a good vs bad culture” was seen as heresy by some liberal circles. However Schiller makes no apologies, and while recognizing the danger of tyrants making use of culture to control a society, Schiller defines the idea of “good art and good passion” which must blossom in a society were true freedom to be effected: “The state is so jealous of the exclusive possession of its servants that it would prefer… for functionaries to show their powers with the Venus of Cytherea rather than the Uranian Venus.”

By introducing the Venus of Cytherea vs the Uranian Venus, Schiller is referring to two opposing identities of mankind. Where the Venus Cytherea refers to the passions for sensual pleasure and lust which oligarchical states strive to cultivate in the masses and managers, the idea of Uranian Venus refers to the notion of divine wisdom and agapic love which allows a cultured society to rise to a state of true freedom.

It is only in the domain of art that we find a power to inflame, subdue and educate our passions. Not only that but on a deeper analysis, Schiller makes the point that certain forms of art cater to our rational instincts while other forms cater to our sensual instincts, and although we can never have pure thought or pure matter isolated entirely from the other, it is possible to have imbalances which would lead a society to fall into the trap of being at odds with itself, and only a whole whose parts are in harmony with themselves could be said to be truly sovereign. What does it mean to be “at odds with oneself”? Merely think of the yearning to have your temperance while giving into lust, or to prize abstract ideas at the expense of empirical reality as so many statistical economists have done since the financial crisis of 2008.

Schiller states that any work of great art must not only take both characteristics (of infiniteness and finiteness) into consideration, but must strive to create the “unthinkable third impulse” which alone may harmonize the conflict of the two.

“The object of the sensuous instinct, expressed in a universal concept is LIFE in its broadest meaning; a concept which means all material being and everything immediately present in the senses. The object of the formal instinct, expressed in a universal concept, is FORM, not only in the figurative but also in the literal meaning; a concept which includes within itself all formal qualities of things and all relations of the same to the thinking powers. The object of the play instinct represented in a universal scheme, will therefore be able to be called LIVING FORM; a concept which serves to designate all aesthetical qualities of phenomena and, in a word, what one calls beauty in the BROADEST meaning”.

Thus the key is presented: LIVING FORM which takes the form of a playfulness which liberates humanity from the tyranny of the irrational senses and cold rationalisms that pervert our inner harmony.

But how does that living form express itself in art? Let us review some examples beginning with simple examples and moving through ever higher orders of complexity to the highest expression of the Sublime which Schiller makes the transformative goal of all art.

Figure 2- Byzantine era painting of Mary and Chirst
Figure 3 Mary and the Lamb of God, William Adolphe Bouguereau (1893)

Certainly, only the 1893 Bouguereau painting communicates a living form that one can identify with. Where is the natural motherly love and empathy in the byzantine rendition? The subject of Christ and his mother are far more distant from our hearts in the byzantine version than in the 19th century rendition.

In addressing why Rembrandt’s painting holds a greater power of transformation, the question must be asked: WHAT IS THE SUBJECT OF THE PAINTING?

Is the answer to be found in the literal subjects seen with the senses? Or is it in the act of learning? Or is there something more? Look at both paintings and do not read forward until you pose this question in both cases and think about the answer.

After spending a few minutes looking at both, it becomes clear that both a beautiful realism as well as a praise of learning is successfully demonstrated in both paintings. However, where the subject ends there with Eakins’ painting, the Rembrandt piece goes further as the audience discovers that several of the faces of students are looking neither at the corpse or Dr. Tulp, but rather at a presence which has just entered the operating room. Who is that presence which has caused the change of focus from the lecture to the new element? Of course! That new subject is the viewer! The subject of the “objective” painting on canvas is incredibly not an element of the canvas but rather the “subjective” element of the spectator who has caused the change of state of the attention of the figures in paint!

‘The Royal Family in 1846’ by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Let us now rise ourselves up to a yet higher level of power change by comparing two paintings of royal families. The first was from the brush of Franz Winterhalter in 1848 and features Queen Victoria, her consort and a handful of inbred royal children. The second painting is from the brush of the great humanist Diego Velázquez in 1656 who painted the royal Hapsburg couple and their daughter Marguerita along with an entourage. We will put both paintings to the test of asking “what is the subject” and does it have the effect of transforming an audience for the better?

Velázquez’s, “Las Meninas“ (1656)

Look as long as you may, and you will not discover anything more profound in the British painting than the forms that it contains. One sovereign majesty looking down upon the view and some cute inbred babies is the limit of this message. It is thus profoundly oligarchical and screams “know your role” to an emotionally enslaved audience. The Velázquez piece is very different and is ripe with singularities that provoke the mind to HYPOTHESIZE solution concepts on a variety of levels.

The first level is playfulness expresses itself in the answer to the question: What is the subject of Las Meninas? Is it the royal Infanta Marguerita? Certainly she seems to be the center of attention… but wait, is that Diego Velázquez himself featuring himself in the painting? Perhaps Velázquez is making himself the subject… but wait Diego, Marguerita and several of the figures in the court are looking at someone… perhaps that someone is the subject? But WHO is that someone?

Figure 8 La Meninas detail

It is not as simple as it was in the case of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. This painting actually features the royal couple Philip IV and his wife Marianna of Austria in the center of the composition. Where you ask? Look deeply into the back of the room and one is struck by a mirror reflecting the royal couple.

This puts the viewer into a very unique situation indeed. Not only is the viewer the subject of the painting, but the very question of “sovereignty” and the divinity of monarchical bloodlines is put into question! Every viewer now finds themselves in the shoes of the monarch of Spain! This is an incredible intervention into culture of the day, and one could say has more power to influence the thinking of society than thousands of pages of philosophical treaties on the equality of mankind.

The very playful ambiguity of the entire composition gave Velazquez, who remained the leading court painter of Spain, the necessary room for deniability when he encountered accusations which attempted to portray him as a revolutionary. Unfortunately, the King’s advisors were more astute than the dim-witted King who never grasped his favorite painter’s intention, and the painting was buried out of public view for nearly 200 years!

If there is any doubt over Velázquez’s stance on the issue of “divine right of kings” and oligarchism, a powerful clue is provided among the shadows wherein we find two paintings of Peter Paul Rubens placed on the back wall.

Peter Paul Rubens, Minerva Punishing Arachne and Apollo’s Victory over Marsyas

The two paintings chosen by Velázquez feature subjects that Rubens selected in order to expose the petty jealousy and arrogance of the Gods of Olympus who could not stand to be challenged by the superior creative powers of the “mortals”. While the painting of Minerva punishing Arachne features the story of the seamstress Arachne being punished by the goddess Minerva for having the hubris of producing a more beautiful tapestry than the goddess during a competition. In the second Rubens’ sketch we find the story of Apollo who had tortured the flutist Marsyas for having played his flute more beautifully than Apollo could play his lyre.

Now that we have explored several degrees of transformation which painting can create in a society, we are now prepared to leap into the still higher domain of the Sublime and the ennoblement of the emotions of mankind whereby our desires harmonize with our reason and our will and duty coincide in maturity. This is where Schiller situates the necessity of the highest form of beauty- not as either a function of thought or sensuality but rather a combination of both alongside something yet higher.

Schiller wrote in an essay called On the Sublime: “In the beautiful, reason and sensuousness harmonize, and only on account of this harmony does it have attractiveness for us. Through beauty alone would we therefore eternally never learn, that we are determined and able to prove ourselves as pure intelligences. In the sublime, on the contrary, reason and sensuousness do not harmonize, and precisely in this contradiction between both lies the charm wherewith it seizes our soul”

What is Schiller here saying? Can something higher than mere beauty exist wherein our reason and sensuousness do NOT harmonize with the effect of making us better people? It is easy to see how beauty by itself may run the risk of sucking people into a domain of sensualism which cripples their powers of reasoning, but how could a contradiction between the two aspects of sense and reason be used to awaken the third instinct of the sublime which mediates the rational and material worlds? Schiller explains (in total opposition to Emmanuel Kant) that for a person to become truly free, their emotional desires must align with their reason… but how often is it the case that we find ourselves trapped in a Kantian feeling of doing our duty but willing otherwise. We are told to forgive rather than revenge and though our minds often acknowledge the lesson to be valid, how often do our hearts pull in the opposite direction?

While all three of the paintings we will now explore tackle the issue of forgiveness, the first two portray the story of the Prodigal son returning to his father’s household from his vain sojourn of debauchery, while the third painting features our theme portrayed by a the greatest Russian artist of the 19th Century Ilya Repin. Repin was highly influenced by Rembrandt’s painting which he studied intensely at the Hermitage in St. Petersberg and with his 1885 masterpiece carried Rembrandt’s work to another level as we shall soon see.

Before reviewing Repin’s painting, let us first explore two renditions of the Return of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32; the first by Rembrandt van Rijn and the second by an anonymous 17th century painter:

Where the painting by Rembrandt communicates a warmth of genuine repentance from the son who has returned home after a period of foolish waste, gambling and debauchery, the other painting by an un-named 17th century artist, communicates only a son who wants to have a warm bed and food. The forgiveness expressed by the father of Rembrandt’s piece is also pure, and genuine while the face of the father in the second painting seems to be more saddened and disappointed to see his failure of a son. A believable forgiveness and joyfulness at his lost son’s return is not to be found. While it is inarguably beautiful in form, it fails to achieve Schiller’s ideal.

Rather than abide by the “natural” instinct to react in shame, disappointment and anger we are brought to find ourselves in admiration of the father’s capacity to transcend to a higher domain of love via Rembrandt’s portrayal of the subject matter.

Let us now go one step deeper to a much more complex state of the sublime which expresses Schiller’s concept in the most challenging, terrifying and beautiful ways imaginable. Elaborating on his notion of the sublime, Schiller writes:

“The feeling of the sublime is a mixed feeling. It is a combination of woefulness, which expresses itself in its highest degree as a shudder, and of joyfulness, which can rise up to enrapture and, although it is not properly pleasure, is yet widely preferred to every pleasure by fine souls. The union of two contradictory sentiments in a single feeling proves our moral independence in an irrefutable manner. For as it is absolutely impossible that the same object stand in two opposite relations to us, so does it follow therefrom, that we ourselves stand in two different relations to the object, so that consequently two opposite natures must be united in us, which are interested in the conception of the same in completely opposite ways. We therefore experience through the feeling of the sublime that the state of our mind does not necessarily conform to the state of the senses, that the laws of nature are not necessarily also those of ours and that we have in us an independent principle, which is independent of all sensuous emotions.”

On the surface this description appears highly paradoxical. How can the opposing sentiments of woefulness and joy coexist? How can such a thing be preferred to all pleasure by fine souls? How can a painting demonstrate this to us?

Let us now permit the great Russian painter Ilya Repin to light a the pathway to a resolution to this paradoxical matter by reviewing his 1885 painting “Ivan the Terrible and his Son”. This famous work, painted in homage to assassinated Czar Alexander II featured the image of Russia’s Tsar Ivan the Terrible holding the gushing head of his son, the Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich. As legend has it, after confronting his father’s mistreatment of his pregnant wife (who had suffered a miscarriage after the Czar punched her), the Tsarevich found himself fatally struck in the head with a scepter by his jealous and rageful father.

Ilya Repin, Ivan the Terrible and his son, 1885

While it may be argued whether or not this event took place as the painting conveys, the sentiment of the sublime as described by Schiller in the last quote is perfectly conveyed by Repin’s masterpiece.

Where is the beauty in this scene of horror? Where is that “enjoyment preferred to all pleasure by fine souls” to be located in such a terrifying image? Where can the sentiments be ennobled and a society be made more fit to attain wisdom and political freedom by having experienced such a painting? Certainly, if the mere bloodbath and unjust killing were the sole subjects of the painting, then it would have failed to attain Schiller’s ideal. But this painting is a total success since there is something more.

Detail: Ivan the Terrible and his Son

Had the son expressed the “natural” sentiments of grief over his too early demise at the hands of his own father, or even anger that his life was cut short, then we could not say that this painting would convey anything other than a horror show. However, the sickening feeling of horror and remorse on the Czar’s face contrasted with the transcendent look of solemn forgiveness on the face of his son who appears to be comforting his deranged father carries with it one of the most ennobled sentiments imaginable.

Describing those moral and intellectual standards which Repin held himself to as an artist, he himself once wrote: “Beauty is a matter of taste; for me she is to be found in truth. I can’t ridicule lightly, nor can I give myself to spontaneous art. To paint carpets which caress the eye, to weave lace, to busy oneself with fashion, in one word, in various ways to mix God’s gifts with scrambled eggs, to adapt oneself to the new spirit of the times”

I hope that it has been clearly shown that great art has never been simply a praise of sensual beauty, nor could it ever be “moralizing/didactic” or a display of mere emotional expression (art for art’s sake) as is so commonly believed today.

Great art is rather vitally necessary for the ennoblement of society and a precondition for any successful revolution.  The aesthetics of the Cold War which so polarized humanity against itself in a hellish aesthetical poison that paralleled the dichotomized French culture in 1789 should give the thoughtful world citizen a moment to pause and consider the importance of beauty and aesthetical judgement both within themselves and their society at large. What great works and acts can awaken the passion for God and Mankind so necessary for great works of art, drama, poetry, and music to be embraced and perfected as we embark upon the third millennia?

Let us end with Schiller’s hopes for a future founded upon a balance of “limiting” reason which seeks unity from infinite complexity and the infinite potential of creative thought: “The aesthetic state alone can make it real, because it carries out the will of all through the nature of the individual. If necessity alone forces man to enter into society, and if his reason engraves on his soul social principles, it is beauty only that can give him a social character; taste alone brings harmony into society, because it creates harmony in the individual. All other forms of perception divide the man, because they are based exclusively either in the sensuous or in the spiritual part of his being. It is only the perception of beauty that makes of him an entirety, because it demands the co-operation of his two natures… Beauty alone confers happiness on all, and under its influence every being forgets that he is limited.”

Bibliography

Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man, Friedrich Schiller (1794)

On the Sublime by Friedrich Schiller (1801)

Ilya Repin: The Tear Drop of Forgiveness by Pierre Beaudry (2015)

Ilya Repin and the Ironic Range of the Noosphere by Pierre Beaudry (2009)

Velazquez’s Las Meninas: the Creative Principle vs the Oligarchical Principle by Pierre Beaudry (2011)

Politics as Art by Lyndon LaRouche (2000)


[1] It is an incredible irony that many of the greatest leaders of the French revolution who initiated the Tennis Court Oath and the Declaration of the Rights of Man included such scientists and statesmen as the Marquis Lafayette, Scientist Antoine Lavoisier and Astronomer/politician Jean-Sylvain Bailly. These figures and many others were instrumental in effecting the American Revolution in 1776 and the majority of this network were either exiled or decapitated after the British Foreign Office-instigated storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. With the loss of qualified leadership, power vacuums and chaos reigned supreme.

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