When two men of the sixteenth century as widely disparate as Luther and Michelangelo turned their conversation to painting, they thought only two schools worth mentioning, the Italian and the Flemish. Luther approved of the Flemings, while Michelangelo did not; but neither considered what was produced outside these two great centers.
Erwin Panofsky’s defense of Flemish art is witty and ironic, but what is really at stake in this statement is the concept of tradition, the commingling of style, geographic location, and history. Panofsky’s sixteenth-century spokesmen believed that there were really only two styles of painting, an idea that may fill us either with nostalgia or pity, but which defines the difference between that world and our own.
Our Romantic heritage, with its emphasis on originality and defiance of convention, tells us that artists must find their own style. But where? American painters since the nineteenth century have either imitated or rejected European models because they lacked their own artistic inheritance; by contrast, a Belgian painter like Marc Maet has a tradition that is part of his language, his culture, his everyday life. Again, Panofsky provides an insight:
This shift (during the fifteenth century) of artistic activity from feudal Bourges and Dijon to the bourgeois centers of the Netherlands was conducive to local diversity, on the one hand, and to national consolidation, on the other. The very fact that even the greatest of painters were identified with established communities and subjected themselves to the rules of a strict guild system facilitated the formation of local ‘schools’ which we are still accustomed to connect with places rather than with persons, as when we speak of the schools of Tournai, Bruges, or Ghent, of Brussels, Antwerp, or Haarlem.
What happened in Northern Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is now happening everywhere. Instead of a homogeneous or universal style, we see in today’s Europe a proliferation of styles that derive from local or national traditions. A resident style is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it provides artists with a series of aesthetic options, models to emulate; on the other, it places a burden on the individual talent, the "anxiety of influence" Harold Bloom has contributed to our critical vocabulary.
Seen strictly from the point of view of evolving style, Marc Maet embodies the process by which the individual artist appropriates a given style, adapts himself to it even as he molds it to himself, then, having achieved aesthetic identity, moves on to self-generated styles.
The use of such apparently naturalistic artifacts as Gothic windows, Romanesque columns, Classical hunting reliefs and monkey-shaped consoles for purposes of allegorical signification bears witness to a type of symbolism virtually unknown to the High Middle Ages. A non-perspectival and non-naturalistic art, not recognizing either unity of space or unity of time, can employ symbols without regard for empirical probability or even possibility.
Jan van Eyck paints naturalistic scenes in which we can identify every object, but he suffuses every centimeter of the painting with symbolic meaning. Therefore, to understand the meaning of all those objects, we must ‘read’ the painting in terms of the religious literature known to the erudite artist and his contemporaries.
Western painting, except for overt propaganda, has, since the nineteenth century, tended to subordinate explicit messages to plastic image—hence Georges Bataille’s declaration that Manet, in The Execution of Maximilian (1867), “wrung the last drop of meaning out of the subject.” Retreating, in some sense, from the void into which he has cast the content of painting, Bataille quickly adds: “To suppress and destroy the subject is exactly what modern painting does, but this does not mean that the subject is altogether absent.” However, his initial, radical statement is, in fact, true.
Marc Maet is in the forefront of those artists restoring the idea of intellectual content to the act of painting. Not explicit meaning—Maet is not seeking to communicate a particular aesthetic or political message, but to deploy “symbols without regard for empirical probability or even possibility.” Maet leaps back over time to pre-naturalistic art.
The changes that have taken place in Maet’s art from the time of the urn paintings to this collection of new paintings and drawings does not entail any notion of progress or evolution from something lesser to something greater. What Maet has discovered, again taking his cues from the tradition of ‘early Netherlandish painting’, is an affinity for seeing nature as a vast book and art as an act by which thought becomes visual images. Whose thought? Maet’s, certainly, but Maet’s rethinking of the ancient tradition given to him by his culture.
Four Moons and The Mouth of the Sky take us beyond allegories explicitly related to the Christian experience and bring us face to face with the concept of liminality, the moment in human life when transition to a higher state of existence is at hand, when there must be a terrifying instant of chaos before we are reconstituted. By the same token, both these paintings allude to Flemish landscape painting, with the difference that the eye here is turned upward toward the night sky and not on plains and mountains.
Marc Maet’s new paintings confront us with the artist meditating on his own act of creation. To create, in an Existentialist sense, is to be; but to finish a painting is, metaphorically, to die. Creation entails sacrifice: Just as the early saints would withdraw to the desert to purify themselves, the artist withdraws from society to paint. The result in both cases is, or should be, a transfiguration. The man or woman becomes one of the blessed; the artist becomes the work of art. The new paintings represent the creative act, which ordinarily we do not witness. In that moment, the work of art comes into existence, takes its place in a tradition, and attains a life of its own. The living, mortal artist is left behind.
We know the artist through his work, which is the artist insofar as we are concerned. Communication between us is limited, the medium unfit for direct contact. Thus it is that we achieve communion, if not communication, with the artist by appropriating his work. He comes alive, changed in meaning if not in image, in our mind’s eye. This is why Maet often inscribes the word est (he, she, or it “is”) backward in his paintings: We look at the paintings and they look back at us. They express an intention, which we make ours through interpretation. We are what we see through Marc Maet’s paintings.
Marc Maet is revitalizing his culture by simultaneously preserving and changing it. He is the individual artist and, at the same time, he is many generations of artists. The future, Maet shows us, leads to yesterday as well as to tomorrow.
Alfred MacAdam, 1990
Light, Leather and Tradition, 1987, acrylic and leather on canvas, 280 x 340 cm
FAX, 1992, acrylic and felt on canvas, 130 x 100 cm
Faces of the Moon, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 250 x 250 cm