This is Gustav Dore‘s woodcut of the “Celestial Rose,” which illustrates a scene from near the end of Dante’s Paradiso:
I quite like it and would even go so far as to call it beautiful (or maybe sublime, or maybe sublimely beautiful). It treats a theological theme in an interesting visual way. Frank Burch Brown, however, in his book on “taste,” flags it as getting uncomfortably close to crossing into the territory of “kitsch.” What do you think?
It’s hard to talk about what is “kitschy” and what isn’t because it does depend on the observer. Last semester we read a book by early 20th-century art critic Clive Bell where he discusses the work of then-popular painter Edward Landseer. Bell basically says that if anyone thinks that Landseer’s sentimental paintings are “good art” conceived in “good taste,” there is no use arguing with them as they will never understand what good art really is. As everyone knows, I love dogs, but even I think these paintings by Landseer are “a bit much.”
However, lots of people even today would love these paintings. And Andrea and I did enter our dogs in a Hallowe’en contest. So for me to call these paintings “kitsch” may be insulting AND hypocritical.
Religious art is especially prone to crossing over into kitsch. Dare I provide some examples?
This sort of thing pervades church basements and powerpoint backgrounds across the continent. No wonder theology and art is such a problematic area of study! I think that in this day and age some of the best ‘religious’ art is made by non-religious artists, for the exact reason that they are not tempted to layer their work with sentimentality and nostalgia. Here, for example, is Salvador Dali‘s St. Peter’s in Rome (Explosion of Mystical Faith in the Midst of a Cathedral):
It’s a striking work, dynamic, expressing indeed something mystical and unearthly in a very un-Norman Rockwell-like way. However, Dali also designed the Chupa Chups logo. So it’s not as if contemporary art is “pure,” hermetically sealed to keep out all things bright and garish.
As a matter of fact, the logo looks kind of like a flower… maybe the beatific vision at the end of Paradiso was in fact of a giant, mystical Chupa Chup. The debate continues.