In spite of the grand title of this article and the very arguable point of any work of art objectively placed in value above others, the exercise of the examination of the works most personally influential provokes such an examination in others.
The following list is totally biased and as subjective as I can possibly get. Nonetheless, and for what it is worth, I will present them and beggar a brief exposition on why I elevate them to Olympian heights.
The Beethoven Symphonies.
Beethoven’s symphonies are completely remarkable. The textural quality and the interwoven themes have been composed with an incredible facility beyond the ability of many other composers. Although Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Rossini (and others) possessed such great genius, Beethoven produced music hard to imagine coming from any human being.
As with music, this is a tough decision and one that might be constantly evolving due to a large number of buildings being thrown up. Yet someone from Victorian times might make the same decision as someone from our own era. One could easily choose the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Parthenon, the Pantheon, the Chartres Cathedral, the Washington Monument, the Houses of Parliament, the Winter Palace, the Alhambra, or the Grand Mosque. However, my choice comes from the modernist era, the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York City.
Spread out in graceful wings, the building’s facade expresses flight and lightness with beautiful curves and walls of glass. Unlike the jumbled confusion and clumsiness of a Gehry construction, the Flight Center is ordered and rational without repression even though on a grand scale.
While the exterior is a delight to behold, the interior is amazingly beautiful. Adorned with delightful curves and welcoming lyricism, the play of the abundant light on exquisite interiors leaves one incredibly satisfied.
Eero Saarinen also created the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, another structure of incredible beauty.
In this category, it almost seems senseless to pick one. Jaque-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, Velazquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja, the Bust of Nefertiti, Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1, or Dali’s Persistence of Memory, plus hundreds more feature unique and ingenious arrangements of form and color. My choice is a painting which I previously have written about, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent.
The structure, the rendering, the use of light and color make this a brilliant and superior work. See my original article here.
If you knew me, you might right off the top say Virgil’s Aeneid or The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus or The Twelve Ceasars by Suetonius. Yet I have enough depth to realize that all the great writers not only existed during the Roman Republic and the Imperial period but also during other times. Many came afterword through to modern times.
Realizing all the great works of literature from cultures throughout the world and down through the ages, I have excluded the great works of science and learning such as Principia Mathematica by Newton, the General and Special Relativity Theories by Einstein, The Voyage of the Beagle by Darwin, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith and all those amazing works of discovery that have advanced human knowledge and limited myself to choosing instead writings of fiction or biography.
At one time, I was intently fascinated by Russian writings such as Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevski, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy. Nevertheless, my interests moved west to Germany and France with Kafka and Maupassant and settled in the British Isles with Thackeray, Tennyson, and Dickens before moving onto American literature, so young yet so well developed and seasoned. I gobbled up Emerson’s Essays, Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, James’ The Turn of the Screw, and The Red Badge of Courage by Crane. The number of great American works is as innumerable as stars in the sky. Life on the Mississipi by Clemens, The Golden Bug by Poe, The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne, The Call of the Wild by London, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck…the list is a long and inspiring one.
Well, call me Ishmael. Although Tales of the Alhambra comes in a close second, the works of Herman Melville top my list. I don’t boil down my choice to one, such as the great Moby Dick, but begin with Typee and Omoo and continue through to Billy Budd. The simple three-word beginning in Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael”, so pregnant with meaning to the reader, exemplifies the works of Melville. I keep going back to the enigmatic Bartleby the Scrivener which I have read so many times. So rhythmic like a long poem, it engages the mind with the strangeness of the scrivener who defies common understanding but imparts a sense of the narrow line between insanity and reason.
One is drawn into the world and mind of his unusual characters such that one feels as though the experiences in his works inform one of a deeply personal illumination which would not occur otherwise.
When thinking of sculpture, my mind quickly turns to the ancients. Some of the most beautiful sculptures have come from Egypt (The Bust of Nefertiti), Greece (Lacoon and His Sons), the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon frieze, and the Aphrodite of Milos.
At the top of my list is a work that is part architecture and superb sculpture. Done during the Hellenistic Period, the Altar of Pergamon features the most vibrant and incredible sculptural works.
This very subjective examination provoked a lot of thought and brought back a considerable number of memories which, of course, was the reason for this little piece of self-indulgence. What would your list look like? I am absolutely certain it would look nothing like mine. Possibly next year mine will have changed…again.
Note: I did not include theater or film simply because, believe it or not, in general, I have never admired them. I rarely see movies and know little to no celebrities or so-called “stars”. My favorite films are documentaries.