Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and the Body at Berkeley Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, May 2018)


Suffering for Art in Historical Prints
Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and the Body at Berkeley Art Museum 

The Keatsian notion that “'beauty is truth, truth beauty,' – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" has been a cultural imperative for almost two hundred years now, and it still shapes the thinking of many people when it comes to the visual arts; vide Matisse’s notion of a painting as a comfortable armchair for a tired businessman. But beauty is not the only truth we need to know, any more than “happy talk” is all the local TV news we can use. There is room in the capacious planet of art for many truths, including the inconvenient or upsetting ones. Goya’s etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” reveals the flipside of Keatsian aestheticism: that turning a blind eye to the darker side of life—say, being amused by sinister buffoons—allows the rot to spread. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, indicts the willful ignorance of the comfortably insulated: “Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists ... has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.”

Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain, and the Body explores (despite its punning title, recalling The Agony and the Ecstasy) the fraught aesthetic territory of depictions of pain, with its various messy complications, in prints from its permanent collection.  In devotional illustrations of Christian martyrdoms, death and suffering are horrific yet inspiring, as in works by Ribera and Baldung Grien depicting, respectively, the tribulations of St. Jerome and Christ.  (Jean de Gourmont’s depiction of the Flagellation reveals as much interest in architectural perspective and multiple views of motion as in the Passion.) Works by Jacques Callot in the seventeenth century and Goya in the nineteenth depict violence without the religious gilding, in tragic, secular terms more aligned with our contemporary worldview, expressed by

W.H. Auden, in “Musée des Beaux-Arts,” inspired by a Breughel painting, “About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood. Its human position: how it takes place. While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and The Body runs through June 17, 2018; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, 510/642-0808; —DeWitt Cheng