Conference: Jacques Maritain's Aesthetics and Modern Art

From Rajesh Heynickx in Belgium comes the following conference announcement:

Jacques Maritain’s Neo-Thomist Aesthetics and European Modernist Art Circles during the Interwar Period

International Conference, 12-13 May 2006
Royal Flemish Academy of Arts and Sciences of Belgium
Paleis der Academiën, Hertogstraat 1, 1000 Brussels

In recent literature on cultural history and art theory, modernist art of the first half of the twentieth century has not been viewed purely as a product of rationalism. That all too simplistic reading has been replaced by a dissection of the cultural, social and also religious background of modernist aesthetics. For modernist artists, a belief in instrumental reason, order and functionalism did not preclude the importance of myth, history and spirituality. Less well known is the fact that, besides esoteric mysticism or theosophical movements, a traditional religious frame of reference as Catholicism - often in a non-conformist version - appealed to the imagination. This is evident in the influence wielded by the French philosopher Jacques Maritain [1882-1973] on many European modernists. In the 1920s and 1930s, his cultural criticism [Antimodern, 1922, Religion et Culture, 1930] and certainly his reflections on aesthetics [Art et Scolastique, 1921] enjoyed wide interest in artistic and intellectual circles.

The Neo-Thomist philosophy promoted by Maritain, and specifically his philosophy of art, seems to have spoken to many modernist artists. The composer Igor Stravinsky consulted Maritain before formulating his theory of art and considered converting to Catholicism. The French poet, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau did also that in the 1920s. For the painter Gino Severini, a pioneer of Futurism, and otto Van Rees, one of the first Dadaists - both converts - Maritain played the
role of spiritual counsellor. And when the promoter of abstract art Michel Seuphor embraced Catholic faith in the early 1930s he, too, had extensive contact with Maritain. For these artists, the dictum of the Irish modernist poet Brian Coffey, once a doctoral student under Maritain, applied: modern art needs a Thomist conceptual framework.

However, besides admiration, Maritain also provoked irritation with his theories. He was accused by some of being a charlatan who sought to appropriate the work of others, and for this reason surrounded himself with artists in his house in the Paris suburb of Meudon. Maritain, so the story went, was out to place modern art under the glass bell-jar of Catholicism. The fact that Maritain met with both praise and vilification speaks volumes. It reveals how the Catholic religion continued to be an important factor within the development of modern art. The protest and the adoration that arose around the figure of Maritain lays bare a crucial debate about the role of religion in modern art [and art
theory]. In order to arrive at an understanding of the main issues and the development of that debate, Maritain’s conceptions must be approached from a double perspective. This entails the analysis of the networks [friendships and his indirect aderents] that he developed through Europe, and of his criticisms [views of criticasters].

Maritain can function as a lense for examining, comparing and understanding a number of crucial dimensions of the aesthetic theories and religiously-inspired cultural criticism of European modernists. Research into the reception and the perception of Maritain not only tells us something about Maritain the person; an analysis of the many kinds of perception and reception which Maritain’s ideas met, can also shed light on the hybrid character of the modernism of the first half
of the twentieth century. To begin with, it can be shown that modernist art often depended on a metaphysical conception of beauty. In the second place, an insight can be gained into the fact that within modernism, a regressive utopia, based on neo- Thomism, was able to make its presence felt. Archaic, even reactionary elements such as an interest in the pious Middle Ages, were seen to be compatible with a belief in progress. An analysis of the reception and perception of Maritain therefore offers the opportunity to re-write the history of modern art and culture by relating it to aspects that are too often separated from it.


Friday 12 May 2006

09:00 Registration
1. Les grandes amitiés
Belgium: Wallonia [1], Flanders [2], beyond Flanders [3]

09:30 Welcome by Carlos Steel [K.U.Leuven] Introduction and programme outline
09:50 [1] Cécile Vanderpelen-Diagre [ULB] "Codifier la littérature?" Maritain and the Catholic Writers in French Speaking Belgium
10:30 [2] Jan De Maeyer [KADOC-K.U.Leuven] Towards a Modern Religious Art: the Limit Case of Albert Servaes
11:10 Break
11:40 [3] Rajesh Heynickx [K.U.Leuven] “Ma seule nostalgie de Paris”. Michel Seuphor in his mid-thirties: a missionary of Jacques Maritain
12:20 Discussion
13:00 Lunch


France [4], England [5], The Netherlands [6]
02:30 Rajesh Heynickx [K.U.Leuven] Introduction and Programme outline
02:40 [4] Stephen Schloesser [Boston College, USA] “Ernest Psichari m’a précédé sur votre terre de Belgique”: Mystic Modernism as réparation
03:20 [5] Alex Davis [University College Cork, Ireland] Neo-Thomism and Modernist Poetry: the Case of Brian Coffey
04:00 Break
04:30 [6] Mathijs Sanders [Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, The Netherlands] Literature and the Cult of Youth: Pieter van der Meer de Walcheren
05:10 Discussion

Saturday 13 May 2006: Confrontations

09:00 Dirk De Geest [K.U.Leuven] Introduction and Programme outline
09:10 Carlos Steel [K.U.Leuven] The Thomistic Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain
09:50 Stephane Symons [K.U.Leuven] Artistic Theology: Walter Benjamin and Jacques Maritain
10:30 Break
11:00 Michael Einfalt [Universität Freiburg, Germany] Jacques Maritain, Ernst Robert Curtius and André Gide: Literary Autonomy and Cultural Criticism
11:40 Jason Harding [Âbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland] “The Just Impartiality of the Christian Philosopher”. Jacques Maritain and The Criterion
12:20 Discussion
12:50 Carlos Steel, Jan De Maeyer, Rajesh Heynickx General Conclusions and Debate

Practical information

Venue: Royal Flemish Academy of Arts and Sciences of Belgium, Paleis der Academiën, Hertogstraat 1, 1000 Brussel [beside the Royal Palace]

Dates: Friday 12 & Saturday 13 May 2006
Languages: Lectures will be given in English. No simultaneous interpreting is provided.
Proceedings: The proceedings of the conference will be published.
The Fee: Participating in the whole symposium costs EUR 25,- if you register before April 23, 2006. After that date the fee will be EUR 35,-. This includes the symposium brochure, lunch on Friday, coffee and light refreshments, but NOT housing.

Reduced student fee:
EUR 10,-. Fee per day
EUR 20,- on Friday
EUR 15,- on Saturday

Payment: Payment can be made on the spot in cash or with a credit card [Visa or Euro card].
Accomodation: For accommodation in Brussels, contact:
Grote Markt, 1000 Brussel
T + 32 [0]2 513 89 0 - F + 32 [0]2 513 83 20
E-mail : or

More information: Magda Pluymers  T +32 16 32 35 11 - F +32 16 32 35 01


Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson is an associate professor of Theology at Marquette University, and founded on Squarespace in November of 2004. He studied with James Weisheipl, Leonard Boyle, Walter Principe, and Lawrence Dewan, at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (Toronto, Canada).