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Nostalgia for the Past
Nostalgia can take many forms, but can perhaps be summarized by the phrase 'appropriating selected aspects of the past for the use of the present'. It tends to involve an emotional or spiritual response to the past rather than a rationalizing one, and as a result is associated with the art of sentiment rather than of intellect. As we shall see, however, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists who made use of nostalgia were prepared to shape its appeal in intellectual as well as purely sentimental or aesthetic forms.
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was a passionately political artist, a proponent of history painting in its most elevated form and of the neoclassicist aesthetic. His 'The Oath of the Horatii' of 1784 (Louvre, Paris) depicts a scene from the Roman historian Livy: the three Horatii brothers pledge to fight the three Curiatii brothers in order to settle a dispute between their respective cities of Rome and Alba -- they do this despite the pleadings of their mother and their sisters, one of whom is betrothed to one of the Curiatii (while one of the Curiatii sisters is betrothed to one of the Horatii). The painting is an austere one, with the figures -- the Horatii on the left, the elder Horatius, their father, in the center, and the lamenting women on the right -- grouped against an almost abstract architectural setting of three bare, massive arches. This is not the kind of image that might come to mind when the term 'nostalgia' is used, but this is a deeply nostalgic image, looking back to the supposed virtues of Ancient Rome as a model through which the contemporary world can be renewed. The subject is one of unyielding honor and bravery, charged with fate and grief as well as nobility and self-sacrifice. The figures are heroic, with the three Horatii united in their oath, their taut strength, and the intensity with which they focus on the swords upheld in their father's hands; while the women are arranged in decorous hopeless grief on the right-hand side. All the figures are garbed with classical simplicity and are visually united by the color scheme of subdued greys and blues lit by glowing red and flesh tones. The implication here is of a cleaner, more honorable, more moral social order, in which the noble ideals of self-sacrifice, physical courage and spiritual virtue are upheld. The modern world, David implies, has fallen below this standard, but can redeem itself by seeking to emulate it. At a time of social and political revolution in France, this was a powerful visual message.
A very different message of social and political conservatism is embodied in the second picture to be considered, 'Merry Christmas in the Baron's Hall' (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) painted in 1838 by the Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806-70). This large panoramic picture shows a scene of Christmas merriment as the artist imagined it might have looked in the hall of a seventeenth-century baron. He is seen seated at the center of a raised dais, a canopy over his seat and a soldier standing guard at his side. Around his table are finely-dressed lords and ladies. In the foreground, the ceremonial bringing in of the boar's head is taking place, with servants, ceremonial pikemen and musicians accompanying the dish down the stairs into the hall. All around are scenes of merriment and jollity with men, women and children in fine clothes drinking, eating, joking and laughing. Father Christmas distributes gifts on the right; a young man plays flirtatious games with a group of young women on the left; a jester and a juggler entertain the party, and everywhere there is decoration, food and drink, enjoyment and plenty. This is a vision of 'Merrie England', an England without industrialization or great cities, or a hungry and discontented working class. Society here is clearly hierarchical -- the squire presiding over all from the high table as his people benefit from his generosity and paternalism -- but it is contented. At a time when the poor were hungry and were feared to be in revolutionary mood, with the period known as the 'hungry forties' just beginning, such imagery represented a desirable and reassuring use of the past for the purposes of the present.
Maclise's canvas is filled with people and activity; there is scarcely a square inch in which something exciting, lively and enjoyable is not going on. It is an intensely human scene of color, bustle and festivity. A very different spirit is to be found in 'The Gate of the Churchyard' (Kunsthalle, Bremen) painted in 1822 by the German romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). There are no people at all in this scene of a churchyard gate at evening, with the church itself visible beyond in the gentle sunlight. A worn path bordered by bare trees ascends from the bottom right of the canvas towards the church, on high ground to the left; a wall of old stone backs up against the path. Through the golden stone archway of the gate the graveyard can be glimpsed, with dark stone crosses visible on the bright green grass, outlined against the sunlit wall of the church beyond. The atmosphere is one of repose and meditative tranquillity. Yet this picture is similar to the Maclise in its nostalgic appeal to the values of a preceding age. For Friedrich the values he seeks to express are those of the Christian community of the pre-industrial, pre-urban, pre-revolutionary age. The ascending path represents the path of the soul, aspiring to salvation, represented by the church on the hill. The worn slabs and steps speak of the many feet that have trodden that path, the feet of the faithful of previous ages, and the church itself represents what their faith has built -- an enduring structure of piety and communal devotion to spiritual rather than earthly values. The bare trees speak, like the crosses of the graveyard, of death, but the sunlit scene through the arch conveys the hope of resurrection granted to the faithful. The picture appeals to the eternal values of a society of faith and urges the onlooker to recreate those values so that the souls of today may put out new leaves, just as the bare trees to either side of the path are doing. Thus, the David can be said to represent political nostalgia; the Maclise, cultural and social nostalgia; the Friedrich, spiritual nostalgia. All these images resurrect a vision of the past in order that it can teach the present a lesson.
The French realist painters of the later nineteenth century are not normally thought of as being infected with nostalgia, but many of the works of such artists as Jules Breton (1827-1906) and Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) have a message of nostalgia in what aspire to be straightforwardly naturalistic depictions of peasant life. Breton's 'The Calling in of the Gleaners' of 1859 (Musee d'Orsay, Paris) depicts the women and girls who have been gathering corn in the fields all day returning at evening carrying the fruits of their labours. Their tired faces bear witness to their hard work, but their figures and postures are idealized, suggesting the heroic qualities of the peasant life. The scene itself is a beautiful one, with the crescent moon just visible in the late summer evening, golden light on trees and fields, sheep grazing peacefully, and flowers visible among the corn-stalks. The nostalgic message here would have been clear to the bourgeois society of Second Empire France, a country reasserting itself after the revolution of 1848 and seeking to establish an image of stability and modernity; the true soul of the nation lay in the country, and in the healthy, virtuous people who won their living from the French soil, amid the fertile beauty of the French countryside -- fertile as the peasant women themselves as they carry their sheaves of wheat to be stored in the barn. A similar idealization of the peasantry is occurring in Millet's 'The Angelus' of 1857-9 (Musee d'Orsay, Paris), depicting a peasant couple pausing in their evening labor in the fields to pray in response to the bell of the angelus, ringing from the church visible in the background. In contrast to the almost pagan cult of natural fertility present in the Breton, this is a celebration of the spiritual virtue of the rural life, a nostalgic celebration of the true values of life -- with the implication that in the cities and the boulevards of bourgeois society, those values have been lost.
All the pictures discussed above seek to convey a message through their nostalgia, whether it be social, cultural, political or spiritual. The final example in this paper is of escapist nostalgia that is largely unburdened with such messages: 'The Mill' of 1882 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). It shows a riverside scene at evening, with a mill of archaic appearance backed by a sylvan landscape, and three young women…[continue]
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