naive and sentimental art

These are two works of European Gothic architecture that epitomize the charm of the middle ages.

Bonafatius Bridge, Bruges

Chimères on the roof of Notre Dame de Paris

The Chimères were made and placed on Notre Dame in the 1800s. The Bonafatius Bridge was designed and erected in 1905. There are, of course, thousands of other examples of Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture from all over the world that were built between 1820 and 1950. Big Ben, Yale University, the National Cathedral in Washington, and the Cinderella Castle in Walt Disney World are famous examples. But most people presumably realize that an American cathedral was not actually built in the middle ages. The examples shown above are notable because they can easily fool viewers; one could almost call them “counterfeit Gothic.”

I used to regard authenticity as a high value, and I would dismiss a Victorian Gothic structure while admiring even a rather crude work genuinely made before 1200. If that preference is defensible, I think the underlying principle is some version of Schiller’s idea of naive and sentimental art. Naive artists do what they think is right or best. They don’t see themselves as having a “style” but as making objects that are beautiful and true. In contrast, sentimental artists imitate the styles of other times, admiring their authenticity. After sentimental art arises, naive art becomes impossible.

Thus nineteenth-century European and American architecture is almost all “revivalist” (neogothic, neoclassical, neo-Egyptian, etc.), with the exception of structures that were perceived as functional, such as railway stations and bridges. We see those functional buildings as naive but impressive; we recognize that the Gare du Nord has a style even though its builders just thought they were covering railway tracks. As for the neogothic works, we reject them as sentimental fakes–especially when they infiltrate genuinely medieval places like Bruges or Notre Dame. They may be OK in Orlando, but not in Paris.

But that judgment is contestable. Schiller’s distinction between naive and sentimental art is itself a product of a certain time. Placing a high value on authenticity (as he did) is characteristic of Romanticism. One could instead see Victorian Gothic art as very fine, at its best. One could celebrate the spirit of play that sometimes animates it. And one could recognize an authentic impulse in the devout attempt to replicate a defunct culture.

I write all this now because I am reflecting on my visit to the Palácio Nacional da Pena, near Sintra, Portugal, which appears Moorish/Gothic but was really built in 1842-1854. Crowning a steep mountain, it overlooks a real Moorish castle that was itself heavily reconstructed in the same period (deliberately to look like a Romantic ruin).

Pena is fun. Because it was meant for play, everything is designed for maximum entertainment, not for any serious purpose. For instance, there are fortifications meant simply to be walked on for the view; they have no defensive purposes. Inside, concrete walls are painted to look like wood. Even the trees on the mountain’s slopes were carefully planted by a monarch of German extraction, to resemble a Teutonic forest.

This kind of example exposes the decadent currents in revivalism, the real pitfalls of inauthenticity. Play is fine; we are homo ludens. Gothic woodcarvers engaged in play when they depicted magical beasts on misericords. But when you tax people to build expensive seats of government, you had better be at least somewhat serious. Pena is furnished in a cluttered, Edwardian style, just as the last royal family of Portugal left it when they fled republican rebels. They deserved to be kicked out of a place so frivolous and so costly. I thought the parts of Pena that remain from a medieval monastery (namely, a small chapel and a cloister) were far more satisfying that the pseudo-Gothic additions, not because the craftsmanship was better in the former, but because excellence requires a degree of seriousness.

My bottom line: fine art needs an authentic motivation, but imitating another culture can be done with authenticity.