Emulsion, Emotion: Exegesis.

Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations (10, Avante-Garde and Kitsch). – Clement Greenberg,  Art and Culture: Critical Essays.


Ilia Efimovich Repin, portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin.

If art proves anything, surely it must be that the quiddity of humanity is universal. Yes, within parameters each individual’s perspective informs their reactions, and yet, it seems to me, there are, importantly – parameters. It is an obvious observation to make that we agree far more often then we disagree about what constitutes good or successful art. Perhaps it is because art ultimately surpasses exercises in explanation: good art simply rushes in.

It is not enough today, in a country like ours, to have an inclination towards the latter [true culture]; one must have a true passion for it that will give him the power to resist the faked article that surrounds and presses in on him from the moment he is old enough to look at the funny papers (11).

Where else but the blogosphere can one have  a lively discussion about art, love, and authenticity, with perfect strangers? I was directed to Greenberg’s essay by a fellow blogger, and read it, as well as other essays in the book, with much interest.  Fellow blogger, Mr. Johnson does a very good job of discussing the essay’s heart, so I won’t reiterate the salient points regarding the mercenary nature of modern art and kitsch. Nor could I as, after reading the essay,  my heart ran aground in Ilya Efimovich Repin’s portrait of M. Gershin.

That avant-garde culture is the imitation of imitating–the fact itself–calls for neither approval nor disapproval. It is true that this culture contains within itself some of the very Alexandrianism it seeks to overcome […]. But there is one most important difference: the avant-garde moves, while Alexandrianism stands still (8).

Greenberg’s discussion about the difference between avant-garde and kitsch is very compelling. So much so in fact, that half way through the essay, I was driven to seek out the work of Repin based on Greenberg’s referencing him, (and his battle-scene paintings which appealed so embarrassingly, apparently,  to the proletariat) as an example of cheap and easy kitsch.

Where Picasso paints cause, Repin paints effect. Repin predigests art for the spectator and spares him the effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art, Repin, or kitsch, is synthetic art (15).

The first image I took in was that of the portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin. My heart nearly broke as his eyes met mine. All I can say, Mr. Greenberg, is that – if that makes me a peasant, then so be it. One hardly needs to know that Garshin’s life was tragic, that he ended it by throwing himself down a staircase…the painting tells you everything you need to know. It moves.

Poor Repin got raked over the coals in Greenberg’s essay, but at the very end there is a post script. Literally, “P.S.” haha – oh by the way –

P.S. To my dismay I learned years after this saw print that Repin never painted a battle scene; he wasn’t that kind of painter. I had attributed some one else’s picture to him. That showed my provincialism with regard to Russian art in the nineteenth century (21).

Hrmph. Well….apology accepted.




16 responses to “Emulsion, Emotion: Exegesis.

  1. Having read the title and the first quote and looked at the painting, even through a computer screen, the first though was: where’s the kitch? Good for you.

  2. Thanks for the compliment. I also think ol’ Clem does Repin a disservice. Sure Ilya did a lot of set pieces which do direct the would-be art appreciator to specified feelings, but what artist, from Giotto to Giacometti, didn’t guide–as often as not at the behest of a paying customer–the spectator to some predetermined mental state?
    And odd that one-time Marxist Greenberg’s Avant Garders became boy toys for Mother Capital.
    I’ll not weigh in as to whether Repin is more a Rembrandt than a Rockwell as I am, at times, moved by all three, and I have better things to try to sort out. Do go here though: http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2007/09/repin.html for more.

  3. Unfortunately because of both individual taste and the pretentious presumption of good taste, many still mistakenly regard certain works of fine art as kitsch:


    “I know good art when I see it!” they proclaim as they shell out a ton of coin for a sheet of scrap paper that someone coaxed a dog to leave paw prints on after running through a wet paint tray. I’ve seen it so many times.

    Good post.

  4. “Certainly the only gauge worthwhile is what moves each viewer, I guess people are afraid to trust what they feel – or taught not to
    This strikes me as the start of great post. I’d love to hear more…

    It reminds me of being told years ago much to my amusement, “You can’t possibly like” so and so. My acquaintance then went on to waste his breath explaining why I couldn’t – I guess because Romanticism or whatever school someone had the artist classified in had died.

    • Just as bad, maybe worse?, is being told that you must like so and so….it took me a long time to deeply and unwaveringly understand that you can’t feel what you don’t feel. But, I think a lot about what people feel and why, no good comes of suppressing what we feel. But it seems to me that the educational system, such as it is, strongly favors rational intelligence over emotional intelligence. I can’t see one being of very much use without the other….yes…I think you are right! that is the start of a post….good thing I’m reading Henry James now – the master of suppression!

  5. me again…
    Art is first experience felt. Only later is it labeled “high” or “low,” “outsider” or “in.” And labels only matter to matter to investors and scholars, not they who experience and feel.
    To wander off regarding J.R.’s quoting in another post, art like Eliot’s shadow falls …
    “Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response”

  6. Is there any PDF version available on internet?

  7. An incredible image- almost looks as if he’s gripping the the table to stop from falling backwards.. into what?

    • The abyss. It is really amazing. I have been working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer and I bumped into this painting just last week! You can imagine how much more riveting it is in person…

  8. Just read the Clement Greenberg article on Avant-garde and kitsch with his lament (in 1939) of the decay of art and his dismissal of Ilya Repin. One has to laugh imagining what he would have to say about politics and art in 2016. I am not the only one who, midway through the article, looked up Repin!

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