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Many years ago, I attended a photo staff meeting at my newspaper and the photo editor was complaining about a picture that a very talented staffer had made. For him, it was too arty.

“This is a newspaper,” he said. “Our photographs must be clear. We cannot have any ambiguity in them. If it is a picture of a house, I want it in the center of the frame, and I want the whole house. Like a real estate photo. We are not making images for a gallery; we are showing readers what the story is about.”

I remember cringing, but I said nothing. I was not on the staff, but just a travel writer who made my own photographs for my stories. I was in the meeting by default. 

The idea that a photograph was merely an illustration to back up words bothered me then, and it bothers me now. Instead of a supplement, I thought of them as amplification. 

Some things can be said better visually than verbally. The photo might very well be able to stand on its own. 

But, in a culture of verbal people — as a newspaper tends to be — a picture is a stand-in for words. You should be able to point to something in the photograph and name it: “House.” The name then, takes over, and any visual information is immediately rendered moot. Very like when you head to a rest room at a McDonald’s and the pictures on the doors tells which one to open. The image becomes a pictogram. 

This is the way many people regard photographs. They look and they name. “Aunt Julia.” “The house I used to live in.” “Niagara Falls.” Then they turn the page in the album. “Here is me at my prom.” 

Much of the visual information in the picture is passed over, not registering. Was that a blue tux at the prom? Did those horn-rim glasses make you look dorky? Were the shoes cropped out of the picture? Can you remember, then, what shoes you wore? 

Details matter. When you name the image rather than see it, you miss the majority of what is pictured; you miss all the pleasures you could enjoy — the colors, shapes, textures — and all the information that is there to mine. I am reminded of those impatient people I have seen in art museums running from painting to painting and reading the tags next to them. “This is a Renoir. Oh, this one is a Picasso.” 

Naming things often gets in the way of seeing them. Naming is a very low form of intellectual activity, but one it is too easy to become proud of. It does not actually indicate your intelligence if you can name ever painting in the gallery, or the make and model of every car you spot on the highway. It just means you can memorize. 

When, before I was a writer, I was a teacher, I would sometimes draw two shapes on the blackboard and ask, “Which of these shapes can you draw more accurately?” Most students would pick the square. It had a name and they could see the square, translate what they saw to a word, and then retranslate that word onto the paper with their pen. In the process, details of the original are obliterated.

Notice that the square here is not a perfect square. It has some sketchy lines and it is not completely closed up, and, in fact, it isn’t even a square, but a low-aspect-ratio rectangle. All of that visual information is expunged when you replace it with the name, “square.” The amorphous shape, on the other hand, would require you to look at it and attempt to follow its contours with your pen, forcing you to pay attention visually. 


Your blob would be drawn more accurately than your square. 

In his groundbreaking book, Principles of Art History (1915), Heinrich Wölfflin described the differences between Renaissance and Baroque art with a series of oppositions. Among these is the contrast between art which emphasizes the unity of the whole, which may suppress detail to the benefit of the overall design; and art which revels in a multiplicity of detail, even if it confuses the overall design. 

It isn’t that the classic art doesn’t pay attention to detail. In fact, it often takes pains to make everything equally easy to recognize, well lit, well placed in the frame. But the whole is more important than the parts. 

Balancing that is art that may even obscure some detail to make others more prominent. 

This dichotomy occurs repeatedly in art history — from Classic Greek art to Hellenistic Art, from Renaissance to Baroque, from Neoclassic to Romantic, from Modernism to Postmodernism. In Nietzschean terms, classic and romantic, Apollonian and Dionysian. 

The 20th Century, which we are most recently heir to, unity was valued as supreme. Artists, writer and poets who filled their work with profusion of detail were denigrated. The most concise poets were held superior. Painters who reduced their subject to basic forms were extolled. Musicians who subdued florid detail in order to render the overall form of the music more clear were applauded. They had a “grasp of the structure.” 

The complaint lodged against pianist Vladimir Horowitz, for instance, was that he never fully expressed the form of longer pieces of music, such as sonatas, getting lost in multifarious musical volutes and whorls. Of course, when you listen to the ancient recordings of the great pianists of the early 20th century — an era of romantic piano playing — all of the pianists focused on details. It is where the fun was to be found, the flavor of the ingredients rather than the melange of the whole.  

Romanticism in general relishes the detail, and can often get lost in it. That’s what makes it Romanticism. (Well, one of the things). Detail is where we find the pith, the essential oils, the meat. 

Classic painter Joshua Reynolds taut the “grand style,” and recommended choosing the general over the particular: a stylized tree over the quirky oak in the back yard. Romantic artist William Blake read Reynold’s book and wrote in the margin: “To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit.” You can also imagine him chasing kids off his lawn. 

But his point is that the world is made up of details, and meaning is found in them. The collection of details fills out the impression we get from the quick overview. It is the detail that we know the whole. 

Through this essay, I have sprinkled photographs of the details of a house in Maine. It is one I know and love very well. 

If you look closely at them and absorb all the tasty detail, you can have a much fuller understanding, not only of the house, but of the style of Down East Maine, its economy, its culture, the nature that grows green in profusion everywhere. 

Crumbs to make a cake. 

If there is one theme that overrides the whole set of notes on our trip to France in 2002, it is that of the French love of “logique” and systemization, versus the older Gothic love of “the things of this world.” Even the Baroque in France is oddly static and toned down. So, when we finally got to the megaplex that is the Louvre, it is hardly surprising that the same questions arose again.

As usual, click to enlarge any photo.

Louvre and pyramid

Louvre
Friday April 5

After nearly two weeks, we finally made it to the Louvre. It isn’t that we weren’t interested, but we’ve had a lot of other stuff on our agenda, mostly dealing with Gothic churches.

Hall of RubensTo say the Louvre is big is to say the Pacific Ocean is wide. It hardly covers it. We spent the whole day there and saw maybe a 20th of it. We saw parts of the Greek statuary, the northern European late Medieval painting, the big hall of Italian Renaissance and Baroque painting and a few halls of French Baroque painting, to take in the Poussins and Claudes, which I was hungry to see.

That not only wore us out, it took from about 10 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m., when, exhausted and with throbbing feet, we finally set our course back to the hotel.

There is a problem seeing so many “hall of fame” paintings, so many “greatest hits” in one go round. You cannot do much but cover the highlights and you look at one famous painting after another and take notes on this small aspect or that: the way the brushstrokes feather in Leonardo’s La belle jardiniereVirgin and Saint Anne; the overall bluish caste to Ingres’ Odalisque; the tricolor reflections of the water drops in Delacroix’s Dante in the Boat.

It isn’t just that there wasn’t time to spend an hour or two with each masterwork, but that just being in the Louvre, with the crowds of tourists, and the hugger-mugger of Jansen regulars, the occasion of it all, prevents you from being able to concentrate.

Here is Raphael’s Belle Jardiniere, there is the Mona Lisa. Here is the Avignon Pieta, there is the Bust of Homer. You take them in with the instantaneity of an art appreciation slide show, one after the other. Even if you wanted to spend a few extra minutes with the Wedding at Cana, there is Liberty on the Barricades calling to you.

Which is all a terrible shame, because even with the little time you get to spend with each painting, you recognize once and again, deep in your eye sockets, how different the real painting is from the picture in the book. The looking at libertythickness of the layer of oil paint, the fineness of detail, the actuality of the color — uncaptured by the cyan, magenta and yellow inks in your Jansen text — gives you that sense of quiddity, that sense of thusness, of actualness, of event, of richness, of sense experience, that the pictures in the book can never deliver.

It is probably the ubiquity of reproduction that has led to the pathetic and word-ridden French philosophies that rule art criticism currently. All you can get out of the reproduction is the iconography, which is the intellectualized part of the painting, and if that is all you get, you miss the sense experience, which subverts the intellectualization and renders it shallow.

For me, this is most evident in the northern Medieval and Renaissance paintings, which have a textured surface of paint, mimicking the damasked cloth being represented, or the gold leaf which sits atop the oil paint.Van Eyck Rolin Madonna

And what a deep and satisfying green Van Eyck has found. You can practically see it as ground up emerald or other jewel, suspended in the oil. The green is dark, intense as a clear night and transparent as stained glass. Louvre guardWhen one sees a real painting, one knows great beauty, and great joy in its apprehension. Though it soaks in through your eyes, you feel it in your fingertips, smell it, taste it, and almost hear it. It makes all your senses buzz.

Part of it is taste, certainly — gout. Others may prefer the Italian Renaissance to the Northern one, or may really like the sweeping flesh tones of Rubens or the sausage fingers of Ingres. But whether it is the vermilion in the cloth painted by Poussin or the ultramarine of Mary’s robe in a million other paintings, the direct, uninterpreted experience is the primary gift of great art.

Of course, not all the great art in Paris is paint.

Chez Alexis&DanielWe went back to Chez Daniel et Alexis for dinner tonight. The tiny toy pinscher met us at the door and followed us to the table. He must have remembered my petting him the other night, because he was all affection. He climbed up on the seat next to me and nuzzled his little nose in my coat the whole time we ate supper.

Which was, again, magnificent. Carole’s asparagus in melted gruyer was heaven in a dish. Our chicken plat, stuffed with mushrooms, was tres bien, and our desserts — well, we couldn’t finish them.Louvre lunch

And this is only dinner. For lunch, we ate at one of the Louvre restaurants and had quiche with tomato and chicken in it, and desserts: Carole had three little custards, and I had chocolate.

It is embarrassing to keep on about the food, but food by itself is sufficient reason to visit Paris. Everything else is gravy — I mean, sauce.

Carole’s take on things:

Felt good all day because I wore black, like the French women. And fashionable shoes, rather than the athletic shoes I’ve been wearing.

Thrilled to be going to the Louvre. I still can’t believe we went.

Carole & LaurenWe got a beautiful bouquet of lilacs for Lauren, our waitress at Le Petit Cardinal and she was very pleased.

Now, at the Petit Cardinal, no one even asks us what our breakfast order will be. This morning, it was simply delivered to our table.

Richard hugged me on the way down the steps to the metro and smiled at me.

There’s no highlight better than that.

The Louvre was vast and I was amazed. I thought it would be like the old Smithsonian, with paintings from the floor to the ceiling, and the interior spaces jammed with objects, but it was very open and some rooms had only three paintings. I saw the son of god crucified for probably four continuous hours and then a lot of rosy flesh flying through the air (Rubens). A whole lot of satin flying through the air. But the first part of our visit to the Louvre was my favorite, seeing the northern European late Medieval paintings of the Virgin and child, and other religious subjects.

I like them because they’re fervent.Avignon Pieta

Winged VictoryNear the end of the day, after seeing all of the extravagant paintings on biblical subjects and historical paintings, the museum began to smell funny to me, at first it seemed like the bathrooms, then I thought maybe it was the restaurant. Then I became disgusted with what I thought might be the smell of all the people. And then, because I was getting so tired, I began to have a horrible feeling that I was smelling death around the old Grecian tombs and I was very happy to go out into the air.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a perfumerie and I had a wonderful time there and got some Lalique for Paul, Jolie Madame for mother and a little tube of cologne for Aunt Veosie and a bottle La Nuit for myself. Jasmine.

I chose perfumes you could only get in France. These are not exported.

We came back and rested. And the sweetest part of the day was seeing the little dog nestled against Richard in the restaurant.

Richard’s version of events:

Carole wanted to see northern European late Medieval paintings. I wanted to see Claude and Poussin. We did both, but in the end, I had to agree the northern European art was better, or more enjoyable, with a deeper commitment to real life.

I was a bit surprised at how loose much of Poussin’s paintings are, and especially, how dark, brown and gray they are. How much of the dinginess comes from too much varnish over too many centuries and how much was by design, I cannot tell.

I wanted to love the Poussins more. But I have to admit, on the whole, they seem constipated, both in subject matter and in execution.

The Claudes fared a bit better, although they also seemed yellowed with ancient varnish. Perhaps the film of yellow suits him better than it suits Poussin.

But, ultimately, the Claudes disappoint, too. They are simply too far removed from real experience, too stylized, too fantasized. Too intellectualized, and not immediate enough.

Unlike the Memlings, Holbeins, van der Weydens and — hallelujah — van Eycks in the northern European section, which bristle with real experience.Graces recto et verso

Constitutionally, I also respond to the textures of those early Flemish and German paintings, with their tight patterns and brilliant color, so unlike the artificially brown and slate tones of the French Baroque.

Gericault dans le LouvreIt wasn’t really a big surprise to see how vast the Louvre is. I knew it was big. But I was surprised by several familiar paintings that are much bigger than I ever imagined: Veronese’s Wedding at Cana; Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa; David’s Rape of the Sabine Women; Gros’s Napoleon at the Pest House of Joffa. They would have taken scaffolding to paint.Twin Venuses

Oh, and Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus. Another giant.

I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the Big Noises in Hellenistic sculpture: the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Yes, they’re nice enough, but a little too deracinated for my taste. I want either the Classical Hellenic sculpture of the Elgin marbles, or the really over the top Hellenism of the Laocoon. These marquee pieces at the Louvre seem a bit tame, and the stylization of the nude female figure bothers me: No real woman was ever built the way the Venus de Milo is — and I’m not referring to her missing arms.

arrow earth
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote John Keats. He may have intended that ironically, although it has been taken literally by many. Truth is beauty — well, at least in this: that artists have always sought to express the truth, at least as they have known it.John Keats

Art is, in large part, an attempt to discover truth in the welter of the chaos and confusion that is our lives. We write a play and test whether the ideas our characters believe can hold up under scrutiny. We paint canvasses in an attempt to discover what the world looks like. We write music to explore our emotional coherence.

In short, science is the test we give to hard fact; art is the test we give to everything else.

If you look at the broad expanse of cultural history (including art, literature, music, architecture — even politics and religion), you find each generation attempting to ameliorate the fallacies, misconceptions and naivete of their parents’. It is an ongoing march.

(The 20th century was deluded into thinking that there was a directional arrow to this process, and that they were the conclusion of the historical process, the end result of all that dialectic. That was their naivete.)

But the process continues: Our children see right through us. Their children will see through them.

The real “truth” is that our experience is too multifarious, to contradictory, ever to be summarized by a single cultural moment. This does nothing to minimize the efforts of all those generations before us to attempt to understand their lives. Each attempt is heroic in its own way. And each is truthful in its own way.

This constant shifting can be seen in the back-and-forth of certain cultural constants, which I call the pendulums. They swing back and forth. In gross outline, they are the classic and romantic ideas, the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses. But the pendulums are more complex than that simplicity implies. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of competing and repeating ideas that jostle each other out of the way temporarily, only to reappear in their turn and push back.

In the previous blog post, I discussed one of these ideas — the primacy in their turns of the generalized, universalized image, versus the individualized and particularized.

But there are many more oppositions, many more pendulums, swinging back and forth over our shared history.

(My survey encompasses primarily Western art tradition, because it is the one I know best, the one I swim in, but other cultures share the dynamic, albeit with differing permutations. Just consider the Chinese art that swings from the formality of Chen Honshou to the spontaneity of Mu-Ch’i or Pa-ta-shan-jen).chen hongshou and bada sharen

Society or Cosmos

I wanted to look at just a few of these other oppositions in Western culture.

A second large group of oppositions concerns the subject matter, and whether the artist is concerned with man as a social being, an individual set in a welter of humanity — or whether he is concerned with the individual against the background of nature or the cosmos.

In the 18th Century, for instance, Alexander Pope wrote that “The proper study of mankind is man.”

The novel, which investigates human activity in its social setting, came from the same century. Fielding and Defoe come from that century.Prometheus

The succeeding century is concerned more with man in nature, or man in his loneliness, or fighting the gods and elements. One thinks of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Manfred.

Such poetry would have been considered utter nonsense 50 years earlier. One hundred years later, and they were taken for nonsense once again.

One only has to look at Pope and Wordsworth to see the difference.

I said these pendulums swing at different rates: After Romanticism in writing, we swing back to the social nature of Flaubert or Thackery or Dickens. The pendulum tends to remain social through the early part of this century. Eliot, despite his religious conversion, is eminently concerned with man and man, and sees religious conviction as a social good.

But when we hit the mid-century, the pent-up spirituality bursts out with the Beat writers, with the Abstract Expressionists, with Existential philosophy

The social-cosmic pendulum does not swing in synch with the general-particular pendulum.

Social — Cosmic

Limits — No limits

This world — The next world

Political — Apolitical

Regional — International

Active participation — Retreat from world

Rational — Magical

Emblem — Myth

Incarnation — Transcendence

Society — Nature

Nature as desert — Nature as cathedral

Dramatic — Lyric

Irony — Sincerity

Clarity and Ambiguity

The third large category is the fight between clarity and ambiguity. One age likes its art simple and direct; the next likes it textured, complex and busy.

The classic example, of course, is the shift from Renaissance classicism to Baroque emotionalism.

In a Renaissance painting, the artist made sure everything could be seen clearly. He lined everything up with the picture frame, lit it with a general illumination so that confusing shadows would be minimized.

Look at this Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno.

castagno

See how clear it all is. But the Baroque painter Tintoretto had a different vision of the same biblical event. It is writhing, twisting out into deep space, with deep shadows and obscure happenings.

tintoretto

The Renaissance liked stability and clarity, the Baroque, motion and confusion.

Like the David of Michelangelo and the Bernini statue of Apollo and Daphne.

david and apollo and daphne

Or the Birth of Venus of Botticelli

botticelli

and the Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio.

caravaggio

In buildings, you can see the shift from the Gothic, with its infinite variety and crenelated detail, obscuring the larger structural designs to the clarity of ornament and design in Christopher Wren’s  St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.st pauls milan cathedrals

You can hardly see the actual walls of the Gothic cathedral, so overwhelmed are they by buttresses and sculptures.

But St. Paul’s is a monument to line and form, clearly seen and designed.

Clarity — Ambiguity

Limits — Freedom

Simplicity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Drawing — Painting

Stasis — Energy

Regulation — Impulse

Overall — Detail

Formal — Organic

Codify — Explore

Stability — Change

Rules — Anything goes

Clarity — Obscurity

Old form — New form

Discrete disciplines — Mix and match

Relevant or Isolated

Another shift concerns whether art should serve some wider function, like moral instruction or a search for scientific truth, or whether art has no purpose but to stimulate our esthetic tastes. Art for art’s sake.

Should the art hang on the wall to be looked at, or should it decorate the handle of the shovel or spoon? Should it remain outside the mores of its time, or should it be used as propaganda for a righteous cause? Is it merely to look at, or should a Madonna teach you something about your religion?

This is a concern that has become important in the art of our time. A whole herd of artists arose in the 1960s who saw art as divorced from life. Color Field painters preached the gospel: “Art can make nothing happen.”

noland kruger pair

But Postmodernism is largely about inserting political thought into the paintings. Art for art’s sake is declared “elitist” and “irrelevant” and the new art must be judged on its political truth.

 

Art as Art — Art for Function

Entertainment — Edification

Style — Content

Apolitical — Political

Ignore past — Embrace past

Retreat from world — Active participation

Art on wall — Art on implement

Technical — Visionary

Vocation — Inspiration

Contemplation — Propaganda

Ideal — Practical

Tribal or Cosmopolitan

The history of art also pulsates with the shift from nationalistic to international styles, from that which is specific to an ethnic or identity group, and that which seeks to transcends those limitations. The Gothic style as an international style, but the Renaissance is either Italian or Northern. The Baroque breaks up further into French, Dutch, Italian, Flemish.

In music, Bach imitated the national styles in his English and French suites and his Italian Concerto.

But the Galant and Classical styles that replaced it vary little from country to country. Perhaps the Italian is a little lighter and the German a little more complex, but you can’t get simpler or more direct than Mozart.

Nationalism reasserted itself in the next century, so that you have whole schools of Czech music, French, Russian.

In the early 20th Century, internationalism took charge once more and for a while, everybody was writing like Stravinsky.

The main architectural style of the first half of this century is even called “The International Style.”

But ethnic identity is back, and art is once again seen as a key to identity.

Exclusionary — Syncretic

Limits — No limits

Theocratic — Humanistic

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Regional — International

Nationalism — Cosmopolitanism

Discrete disciplines — Mix media

Ajax Defending Greek Ships Against Trojans

All of us or just me

One of the big shifts is between what I call “ethos” and “ego.”

That is, art that is meant to embody the beliefs of an age, thoughts and emotions that everyone is believed to share — or art that is the personal expression of the individual making it.

We have so long taken it for granted that an artist is supposed to “express himself,” that we forget it has not always been so. Did Homer express his inner feelings in the Iliad? Or are those emotions described the emotions he expected everyone would understand and share? He tells of what Achilles is feeling, or Ajax or Hector or Priam — and they are deep and profound emotions — but they give no clue to what Homer was feeling.

In music, Haydn’s symphonies were written about as being powerfully emotional. Nowadays, we think of Haydn as a rather cerebral composer. If we want emotion, we go to Beethoven or Schubert. You cannot listen to Schubert’s string quintet and not believe it expresses the deepest emotions that its composer was suffering at the time. It is his emotion. We may share it, but it is his.

Ethos — Ego

General — Particular

Investigate world — Investigate self

Chorus — Individual

Rectitude — Bohemianism

Anonymous creator — Signed art

Vocation — Inspiration

Atelier — Single creator

Talent — Genius

Depiction of emotion — Expression of emotion

Head or Heart

baudelaireThen, there is the fight between wit and sentiment.

To some generations, art needs to take a cool, ironic view of the world. Cervantes in his Quixote, or Pope in his Rape of the Lock.

To other generations, art is about human emotion. The more a person feels, the better the art.

Wit was the hallmark of the 18th century. Sentiment of the 19th. It was a common issue of discussion. Everyone knew just what you meant when you used the terms.

Did you wish to write “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”? or did you want to release pent up emotions, creating something new, never felt before? That’s what Baudelaire did.

Wit — Sentiment

Irony — Sincerity

Universal — Particular

Intellect — Emotion

External — Internal

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Artifice — Naturalism

Social — Cosmic

Verbal — Sensuous

Society — Nature

Emblem or Myth

Penultimately, there is the swing from art which uses its symbols emblematically and that which uses it mythologically.

That is, if you use a symbol, does it stand “for” something else — as cupid stands easily for love in so much pastoral poetry — or does it partake of that which it expresses — that is, in photographer Minor White’s wonderful formulation: “what it is and what ELSE it is.”faerie queene

Cupid is an emblem. The Cross on the Knight’s shield in The Faerie Queene is an emblem. Moby Dick is a myth. One is easily translatable, the other is not and opens itself to investigating that which cannot be put in mere words or images.

A Classic age tends to be emblematic, a Baroque or Romantic age tends to be mythic. The one uses symbols as shorthand, the other as incredibly convoluted mental images that point at, but don’t touch, what it means. It is the opposite of shorthand.

Ovid is the acme of the emblematic. Homer of the mythic. Homer’s gods — for all their occasional silliness — are actual divinities. Ovid’s are puppets playacting for our amusement.

Emblem — Myth

Universal — Particular

Intellectual — Emotional0 R

Simplicity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Stasis — Energy

Regulation — Impulse

External — Internal

Secular — Religious

Style — Content

Synthetic — Organic

Miniature — Epic

Ironic — Sincere

Mimesis or Poiesis

And finally, there is the issue of whether art should imitate the appearance of nature, or should imitate the processes of nature. That is, whether art is mimetic or poetic. Should it copy or create from whole cloth?

We have seen in our century the change from abstract art to images. Abstraction once seemed unassailable. It was the serious art; anything else was trivial.

kandinsky mondrian pair

lichtenstein 2Well, we got over that. From the time of Pop Art, art has increasingly attempted to look, in some form or other, like the world.

It hasn’t done this in imitation of the look of paintings from earlier centuries. That look cannot come back, or cannot be used without irony.

But artists today paint images of people and things. They are identifiable. Some are almost like the old paintings.

Richard Diebenkorn was hailed as an abstract artist in the 60s.

When he began returning to the figure, he was at first castigated.

diebenkorn before and afterNow he is seen as a prophet.

Abstraction wasn’t only in painting. Waiting for Godot is an abstract play. Gertrude Stein wrote abstract prose. Carl Andre wrote abstract poetry.

Mimesis — Poiesis

Imitation — Abstraction

Particular — General

Individual — Universal

Observed –Stylized

Detail — Overall

Edification — Entertainment

Content — Style

Naturalism — Artifice

Investigate world — Investigate self

Scientific realism — Emotional realism

Stretching the frame

Before we leave the subject, we should point out that oppositions are entirely dependent on context. Baptists and Lutherans are opposites until we pair them as Protestants against Catholics, and we pair those against, say, Islam as the opposite of Christianity, or those paired as religions of the book against, let’s pick, Hinduism, but then we can pair those as religions against atheism, and pair them as belief systems against thoughtlessness, and pair them as philosophies against — well, whatever is the opposite of philosophy.

There are an uncounted number of oppositions; I have listed a few I have considered. I could elaborate blogs about each of pair them.

But you get the picture.

 

Romeo and Juliet in frame
“All great love ends in death,” Stuart said.

“Maybe in literature, but not in real life,” I said.

“Yes. All love ends in death. On one hand, sometimes it’s love that dies and then you are stuck. But even if love doesn’t die, the lovers do.”

“You mean like Romeo and Juliet?” I asked.

“Yes, like Romeo and Juliet. Like Tristan and Isolde.”

“But can’t love end happily?” I put forward that possibility; I’ve been married 30 years.

“Yes, but even the most successful love ends in death,” Stuart said. “Either for one or the other and eventually, both. They may be 80 years old, but eventually, love ends in death.”

“Oh. I see what you mean. It’s a trick. Like a trick question.”

“No, it’s not a trick, except that it is a trick the universe plays on all of us. I don’t mean it as a trick.

“Romeo didn’t have to die the way he did,” Stuart went on, “but he had to die eventually. Even if they got married and lived long lives, he would have to die some time, and then, Juliet loses him anyway.”

It is the underlying metaphor of all tragic love stories, he thought. His own, for instance. Stuart had never seen a great gulf between literature and his own life. Others, well, they may be banal and ordinary, but his own life had all the electricity of a great book or epic myth.

The one thing that separated Stuart most from the accountants and dentists of the world was that he recognized in himself the hero of his own life — the sense that he was the main character in a story of infinite significance. When something happened to Stuart, it happened to the universe.

The joke was, of course, that this is true. But there was a stinger, too: Although it was true, the universe is so vast that no matter how big it was to Stuart, it added up to zilch in the big picture.

“That is truly depressing,” I made a sour face.

“But that is not the real issue,” Stuart said. “The real issue is the frame.”

“The frame?”

“Yes. This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Every comedy ends in a marriage, it is said. The curtain drops and the audience goes home enjoying the happy ending.

“But, if we followed Beatrice and Benedick after the end of the play, in a few years, at least, there would be divorce — or more likely, murder. Happy endings are always provisional. So, there is an artificiality to comedies that is ineradicable. The happiest comedy, if drawn out to the uttermost, ends in dissolution.”Raphael

“So, you’re saying that the frame — the curtain — reveals any art as an artifice.”

“Yes. And not just in theater. Take the photographs of Garry Winogrand. We are meant to see the frame — the edge of the photograph — as an arbitrary border drawn around some episode, but beyond the frame, there are other people doing other things. This has become something of a trope in photography.

“It used to be that we understood the frame in a painting — say a Renaissance crucifixion, or a Madonna — as merely the point at which our interest in the visual matter evaporates. It is the Christ or Virgin that sits in the middle that is meant as an object of contemplation. A frame could be larger or smaller and still contain the essential action.Tintoretto, La crocifissione, Sala dell'albergo, Scuola di San R

“In Baroque painting, there is often the growing sense that the frame cannot contain the action, but that there is something worth knowing just beyond the edge. That sense has become central in certain strains of contemporary photography. winograndA photograph may contain an image of someone looking back at the camera, over the photographer’s shoulder, at something behind him that we can never see.

“The first kind of frame serves as a kind of fence, or corral in which the important information is contained. The second is more like a cookie cutter, which sticks into the welter of existence and excises this small bit for us to consider.

“That is the frame, the ‘beginning, middle and end’ that gives us such satisfaction in a play or opera.”

My concern at this point is that I could see that Stuart was unwinding his own life from the bobbin, and holding it out in his fingers to examine, and what he was finding was deflating. What set Stuart apart from most people was about to be undone. siegfried

I had known Stuart since college, and what made him glow from the inside was not just his energy — or jittery intelligence — but his sense that he was the star in his own movie. Or rather, that he saw in himself a larger, mythological version of himself playing out among the chess pieces of the universe. He was Siegfried voyaging down the Rhine; he was Odysseus; he was stout Cortez.

Don’t misunderstand, please. He was never grandiose — in his exterior behavior, he was as normal as you or me. But inside, was something larger, bursting to get out. He saw the world swirling the way Van Gogh did. For Stuart, every bush was the burning bush. Take away that internal furnace, and what would be left of Stuart? He would have grown up. Not something that any of us who knew him would wish for.van gogh

“This is the fundamental fallacy of American conservatism,” he went on, making another 90-degree turn.

“They seek to enforce a static vision of society, of law, of human behavior. They keep telling us, that if only we would do things their way, everything would finally be peach-hunky, into eternity — the happy ending that we know (and they don’t admit) is always provisional. They see a — excuse me for the exaggeration — ‘final solution’ for something that has no finality to it.

“Politics — real politics — is always the flux of contending interests. You want this, I want that, and we wind up compromising. Conservatives see compromise as surrender, precisely because they see politics with a frame. Get the picture right, and then it is done. Deficits are erased; the wealthy get to keep what is rightfully theirs; order is established. It is the underlying metaphor of all Shakespeare’s plays: The establishment of lasting, legitimate order, final harmony. stew

“Only, we know that after Fortinbras takes over, there will be insurgencies, dynastic plots, other invasions, a claim by mainland Danes over island-dwelling Danes, or questions of where tax money is going. It is never ending. Fortinbras is only a temporary way-station.

“Existence is a seething, roiling cauldron and sometimes this bit of onion and carrot comes to the surface, and sometimes it is something else. It is never finished, there is no frame, no beginning, middle and end.”

“So, where does this leave poor Juliet?”

“Juliet?”

“Yes, where does this leave us all, we who are all bits of carrot. We who are married for 30 years, we who entered the field of contention, worked for our required decades and left the battlefield to become Nestors — or Poloniuses. All this washes over us and we see that, in fact, we have a frame. Existence may not have one, but I do. I am getting old. 67th birthdayI just turned 67 and I feel it. And I know that my Juliet will die, or I will go before her. We do have, in fact, a frame, a curtain that draws down and leaves us — as Homer says — in darkness.”

“Exactly,” Stuart said, “and this is my point. Every one of us lives two very different lives. You can call them the external and internal lives. The first is the life in which we share the planet with 7 billion others. We are a tiny, insignificant cog in the giant machine. The second is the mythic life, the life we see ourselves as central to, in which we are the heroes of our own novels or movies, and everyone we know is a supporting actor. If we live only in the first life, we are crushed and spit out. But if we live only in the second life, we are solipsists. Sane people manage to balance the two lives. A beautiful counterpoint.

“We are most engulfed by that second life when we fall in love. We are certain that we invented this condition. No one else has ever felt what we feel. It’s comic, of course, but it is also profound. Without this feeling, life is unbearable. We have to have meaning, and meaning is created by how we imagine ourselves.

“Politics hovers oddly in the intersection of these two worlds. We need to sober up and consider the other 7 billion people if we are to create useful policy, but we mythologize those who lead us, and those who lead do so most effectively when they mirror back some version of mythology. The most extreme example I can think of is Nazism in Germany. A whole nation bought into the fantasy. Disaster follows.

“But all ideology is ultimately built on mythology: on a version of the world with one or two simple dimensions, when existence is multi-dimensional. The political myth is always a myth of Utopia, whether right-wing or left-wing. And it is always a static myth: Racism ends and everything is great, or government spending is curtailed and everything is great. That simply isn’t the way existence is.”

“The world is always bigger and more varied than our understanding of it, and it will always come back to whack us upside the haid.”

“Right. The conservative sees the world only with his ego eyes, not from outside himself. That frame — his death — is something he cannot see beyond. There is something egoistic about conservatism. Often selfish, also, but the selfishness isn’t the problem, it is the egoism — the frame they put around the world, the static sense of what is finally right — the so-called end of history. In this, the conservative — or at least the tin-foil-hat variety — is no different from the dyed-in-the-wool Communist. Both see the establishment of their Utopia as the endgame of human existence.” hubert robert

“You’ve been reading Ovid again.”

“How did you know?”

“The Pythagoras chapter.”

“Right again. Panta Horein, as Heraclitus said: ‘Everything is flowing.’ As Ovid has it, even landscapes change over time, and Hercules’ brawn withers and Helen’s breasts sag. Cities grow and are demolished; Mycenae gives way to Athens, to Alexandria, to Rome, to Byzantium and Baghdad, then to London and now to Washington, with Beijing waiting in the hopper. ‘Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ “

“How’s that?”

In saecula saeculorum: World without frame.”

 

Palmezzano from PAM

The Italian Renaissance is littered with unfamiliar names. Sure, there are the Leonardos, the Raphaels and the Michelangelos, but there are dozens of others from the Trecento through the early 16th century that we need an encyclopedia to look up.Forli map

Just take the small town of Forli in northern central Italy along the Montone River. It produced such painters as Livio Agresti, Ansuino da Forli, Guido Cagnacci, the two Baldassarre Carraris, father and son, Francesco Menzocchi and foremost among them, Melozzo da Forli and his student, Marco Palmezzano. All of them competent if conservative artists without which museums (and churches) around the world would be the poorer.

It is Palmezzano that drew my interest.

In an age of giants, Marco di Antonio Palmezzano (1458-1539) was merely human. He was a good but lesser painter in a Renaissance backwater. So little was his life noted that even his dates are approximate.

Born in the middle of the Quattrocento, 25 years before Raphael, he died in his 80s, about 20 years after his great countryman’s death. It was a life that spanned the most exciting years of the Renaissance.

He was born and died in Forli, a small town at the back of Italy’s knee, remaining there for his entire professional career. During his long life, he provided the necessary religious paintings for the churches and monasteries of the region.

His teacher was the better-known Melozzo di Forli (1438-1494), who had studied with Piero della Francesca (1416-1492), one of the great masters of the early Renaissance. Palmezzano’s youth was spent apprenticed to Melozzo, and his first signed paintings indicate his debt to his mentor: He called himself Marcus de Melotius, or ”Melozzo’s Marco.”

We know he visited Rome with Melozzo in 1489 and, after Melozzo’s death, he visited Venice, where the most advanced painters were to be found.

But the latest techniques and styles didn’t seem to interest Palmezzano, or maybe they didn’t interest his clients. At any rate, he remained an artistic conservative and his paintings look back rather than forward.

The exact date of Palmezzano’s death is disputed, but a self-portrait as an old man is dated 1536.

More than 90 of his works are still in existence, mostly in Forli, but his frescoes for the Feo Chapel in Forli were destroyed in World War II.

There is a Holy Family by Palmezzano at the Phoenix Art Museum, and it is a painting that I kept coming back to over the 25 years I lived and worked in that city.

A Right-Hand Man

One day, I noticed that Marco Palmezzano was right-handed.

It wouldn’t be any big deal, but Palmezzano has been dead for 400 years. And because I discovered it myself, this minor bit of information seems much more personal than the few cold facts in the painter’s biography. It brings him to life for me: Even the grave couldn’t hide this datum. It’s there in the painting.

Discovering things for yourself is what art is all about. Doing research is fine, but it is your personal interaction with a painting that is the real point.

The painting I’m talking about is the Holy Family with Infant St. John, which can be seen at the Phoenix Art Museum. It is a fairly standard oil-on-panel Madonna-with-her-entourage painted by a fairly standard middleweight Italian painter of the middle Renaissance.palmezzano madonna combo

These are a few of Palmezzano’s Holy Family paintings

Palmezzano himself painted dozens of similar works, fulfilling commissions for various churches and monasteries. You have to think of the painter as a small business owner, providing needed objects for the prevailing institutions of the day. Whatever was called for, he was contracted to provide — and his studio would have been not a simple artist’s studio, but a small factory with a variety of employees or apprentices helping out.palmezzano genre examples

Palmezzano produced most of the usual religious genre paintings, including this Virgin Enthroned, Annunciation and Crucifixion.

There are many things you could notice about this painting, or any painting you are willing to put the time and effort into.

”Noticing” is the operative word. Many museumgoers zip past the pictures on the wall, stopping a few seconds in front of one or another that catches a rushed eye. But artists who spend weeks or months on a painting have put more into their work than you can squeeze out in a moment.

It is a case of slowing down to see the roses.

So I want to take some time to dissect Palmezzano’s right-handiwork, and to walk you through the process of looking at a painting.

I’ll get back to Palmezzano’s right hand later.

Sensuous pleasure

First, why have I chosen this painting?

Primarily because I liked that intense, mineral green that makes up so much of Palmezzano’s Holy Family. It is a hue and an intensity that cannot be seen in reproduction. You can swim in this green.

There is nothing intellectual or difficult about the mindless sensuous pleasure that this green gives me, but it got me to slow down and decide to spend some hours with the painting.phx infantphx joseph

On second glance, the painting didn’t seem too promising. It is a very ordinary Madonna and child, with a rather awkwardly drawn child, with short, skinny arms and a set of hips that might have done Mae West proud.

But there was something that caught my eye and held it. After a few moments I realized what it was. The painting was staring back at me.

If you look around the museum gallery at the other paintings hanging there, the people in them look at each other or off into space. But in Palmezzano’s Holy Family, Joseph is looking at . . . me.

Noticing details

There are dozens of things to notice in this painting, from its complex structure of diagonals to the fact that the painter seems to have used no blue. Then, there is the peculiar Hebrew inscription at the bottom, the gold-leaf halos and an oddly gray landscape in the background. All these things are worth noticing, and all contribute to the final effect of the painting, but it is Joseph that gives this painting its particular emotional resonance.

In that gaze is the secret of the painting: There are two levels of reality being described here. Mary, Jesus and John are divine or semi-divine. Joseph, like you or me, is merely human. Mary or Jesus could not pay attention to us, it would break the spell, make them too human, too fallible. But Joseph can make the connection.

That distinction is enforced by the style in which Palmezzano paints them. Mary is idealized, a perfectly formed human with a look of unmoved serenity in her face. Jesus and John make stylized hand gestures that infants their age couldn’t understand, let alone perform.

The Madonna and children are iconic rather than real. We are meant to ”behold” them as symbols of religious faith.

But Joseph, all alone in the back of the painting, is not idealized, rather he is a portrait of someone real. We don’t know who, possibly the person who paid for the painting to be made. He is old (a convention for Josephs), and his hands rest arthritically on a walking stick.

Mary and the babies are involved with each other; Joseph looks at us. He is one of us.

Humanity speaking

Whatever the painting meant when it was new, it is Joseph’s humanity that speaks most clearly to us today.portrait of a man palmezzano

Portraiture was not an important art form during Palmezzano’s day; no one in Italy could make a living doing only portraits. That is too bad, because it is Palmezzano’s one notable talent. (Here is his Portrait of a Young Man). His Joseph is more real than most of the idealized figures we run into from the Renaissance, an age when what should be was more valued than what was.

What was required of Pamezzano were religious paintings. A Raphael or Michelangelo could bring life to their faith. Palmezzano could only imitate the patterns. His sense of color was average, his ability to create design was average, but his ability to draw a human face was above average. It is too bad that it was a talent that wasn’t particularly valued during his life.

In another time, in another place, Palmezzano might have been a more important artist.

Artistic conservative

Which brings us back to Marco’s right hand.

We know that Palmezzano was something of a conservative, artistically. His figures are a bit stiff, like those in Quattrocento paintings, despite the sinuous contrapposto he has given the Christ.

And although he is painting in oil, he continues to use techniques better suited to the earlier tempera painting.

In egg tempera, the paint dries almost immediately, so it is difficult to blend paint together on the panel. What an artist must do is lay down tiny brush strokes one next to the other, building up shades and tones. When you look closely, you can see those tiny lines, called ”hatching.”scribbles

Oil’s great advantage over tempera is that paints can be blended right on the panel or canvas and smooth gradations of tone are possible.

Palmezzano still uses hatching in this painting. It can be seen as the tiny lines in the shadows of the figures’ faces. Across the entire canvas, the hatching goes from upper right to lower left.

Take a pencil and scribble on a pad. If you are right-handed, the lines will run from upper right to lower left. If you are left handed, they will run the opposite. Try to draw them opposite and you will see how awkward it feels.

The hatching proves

Palmezzano was right-handed.

Ker-blue-ee

Perhaps the oddest thing about Marco Palmezzano’s Holy Family is that there is no blue in it. Because blue is one of the primary colors, its lack is unusual, though not unprecedented.

There are a few reasons we might expect to find blue. First, there is a sky, an ocean or lake and the receding mountains of the painting’s landscape, which we might expect to go bluish in the distance. But in this painting, they are iron gray.

Then there is the Virgin, who is garbed traditionally in a blue robe or hood. Blue was the color of the heavens, of which Mary was queen. Blue is so traditionally Mary’s color that probably 80 percent of the early Renaissance images of her conform to the blue scheme. In this painting, Mary’s robe is emerald green.

Blue was a special color in the Renaissance. Artists had no tubes of Grumbacher to squeeze back then. Their colors were prepared meticulously from the chemical or mineral pigment stock.

Color from stone

The best, most permanent blue was made by grinding rare and expensive lapis lazuli on a stone. When it was pulverized sufficiently — a long and arduous process — it was processed in chemicals. It was called ultramarine, and it was the most expensive color after gold and silver leaf.

During the Italian Renaissance, painters did not create canvases and then sell them to people who wanted them. Rather, a client or patron commissioned an artist to make a Madonna and child, or a Crucifixion or a Nativity, of such and such a dimension, with a certain number of figures (some artists were paid according to how many figures were in the painting) and with a certain quality of pigment and skill.

Ultramarine cherished

Of the hundreds of surviving contracts between painter and client from Italy during those years, about half mention ultramarine specifically, and what quality of ultramarine the artist is required to use. No other pigment is named regularly. Reds, greens, yellows can take care of themselves, but ultramarine would add significantly to the final cost of the painting, and so the client wished to protect himself contractually against inferior substitutes. It was a case of caveat emptor.Porta_schiavonia Forli

Well, Palmezzano, in a small town not so rich as neighboring Florence, Bologna or Venice, well may have been given a commission for an inexpensive Holy Family, with minimum gold leaf and no requirement for ultramarine.

This is pure speculation and should not be taken as gospel. But it well may be that Palmezzano, to keep the painting’s cost low, avoided blue altogether, or he may have used a cheap, impermanent blue that 400 years later has decomposed into the hueless gray of the sky and water.

Other things to notice

In writing this story, I spent about four hours with Palmezzano’s Holy Family, spread over several visits to the museum. It was time I enjoyed immensely.

While contemplating the painting, I began to notice things. These bits of information or insight came quite randomly and I noted them on a legal pad as they occurred. Some were thoughts on the iconography or the symbolic meaning of the images, some concerned the design or visual construction of the panel, and some were mistakes that Palmezzano made.

Here are a few of them:

— Joseph is leaning on a walking stick that in an apocryphal story once sprouted flowers and designated him worthy to marry the Queen of Heaven. The story was traditional in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Nowadays, it is obscure to all but Catholic scholars and art-history students.

— All four characters in the painting look surprisingly like Renaissance Italians. They are wearing contemporary clothes and jewelry. Mary and the Christ child are blond. Joseph wears a familiar Italian hat.

The landscape behind them is certainly not Levantine, but more like that part of central Italy where Palmezzano lived.

Either Palmezzano had no sense of historical accuracy, or accuracy was not the point. I suspect the latter; the story is supposed to be eternally true.

Strange signature

— Then there is that strange Hebrew calligraphy at the bottom of the panel. If you parse them out, reading from right to left, they spell MRRQW PLMZZANN FWRLWVISI, roughly, given the lack of precise Hebrew equivalents to European languages. That is, ”Marco Palmezzano Forlovisi,” or Marco Palmezzano of Forli. Forli was his hometown.

Why he signed his name in a Hebrew transliteration of Italian is not known. Maybe he just liked the biblical look of it.

— The peculiar curtain rod that holds up the backdrop is not attached to anything; nothing holds it up. There is a chance that the painting used to be bigger than it is and that the rod had some visible means of support. But the edges of the panel, hidden behind the frame, are even and don’t suggest the panel ever was trimmed. (Sometimes paintings were trimmed by their owners to fit smaller frames or, as in the case of the Mona Lisa, to cut away a damaged portion.)

— But that rod does something else. It is artificially parallel to the picture plane, as is the balustrade at the bottom on which the Christ child stands. And midway up on the picture, so is the castle in the background. Those three horizontal lines divide the rectangle of the panel into smaller rectangles.Palmezzano zee

— As a counterpoint to that is the diagonal of heads and shoulders that cut the painting from upper right to lower left. Seen against the three horizontals they make a great big ”Z” out of the painting, with a line through its center, as is customary in Europe.palmezzano diagonals

— But there are other diagonals, too. The Christ child stands in front of Mary, who stands in front of Joseph. As we move from left to right, we recede at an angle into the painting. This is also a counterpoint to the strict parallel of the three horizontal lines.

— Even more radical is the depth we are asked to absorb from the figures in the front to the landscape in the back. This diagonal moves right to left into the distance, making the opposite diagonal.

— That same crossing diagonal is mirrored in the crossed arms of John. Design-wise, a great deal is going on in the painting.

Hands hold interest

— You also might notice that although the figures are overlapped, all eight hands are visible and all are expressive.

Joseph’s hands seem cramped and arthritic. Mary’s hands support her son. John’s hands are crossed in reverence, and Jesus raises one hand symbolically while touching his thorax with the other, as if to point to his mortality.

— It is Joseph’s eyes that first make us take notice of him, but his ear can’t be ignored. It is a peculiar ear, oddly orange. It is bent over by his cap and forms a shape that imitates his mouth.

That orange tint and odd shape are repeated in Christ’s ear, contradicting the idea that Joseph had nothing to do with the birth. This is family resemblance.

That may not be too odd, if we remember that Joseph, Jesus and Mary were understood then not only as themselves, but also as allegorical of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Joseph can be understood as a stand-in for God the Father.

— Yet, there are mistakes in the painting, several if you can find them.

Mary’s hands are out of proportion, much too big for her body and head.phx hand feet

And her left hand can be no thicker than paper for it to slide under Christ’s left foot on the balustrade. Palmezzano has poorly drawn that space, making something of an unconformity there.

— Other mistakes are more technical. The most glaring is the triangle of orange behind the Christ’s ear: The artist has painted Mary’s mantle first ocherish yellow, as an underpainting, and then green on top. This underpainting helps make the green seem all the more glowing; it is a standard artist’s device. But he misdrew the mantle with the ocher and forgot to cover it up with green in this small area.

Unusual coloring

— You can see more of this orange, on purpose, in the brocade borders of Mary’s mantle, as Palmezzano scratched into the green to expose the orange underneath, making a golden pattern.

— In another place, the back of Mary’s neck is artificially circular, from her ear to her shoulder. The shape is geometric rather than organic.

The perspective of his castle isn’t too well thought out, either.

— And if you crouch down in front of the painting to see the glare of the museum’s lights on the glazed surface of the painting, you will see the painting is pieced together from large, outlined sections, something like puzzle pieces, or, more accurately, like the giornata, or daily working sections that a fresco painter creates in wet plaster.

We know Palmezzano worked in fresco. Did he bring his fresco habits to oil paint?

There are many more things to notice, but I will leave them to you, hoping you will spend your own time with this painting or another — they all are worth close examination and contemplation.

 

 

Three graces Louvre

The Renaissance is finally ending.

That great rebirth of Classical learning sparked the greatest growth of art, science and technology, but it seems to have run its course: Science is now suspect; pseudoscience gains enthusiastic converts every day. Democracy, misunderstanding the dictum that no one is better than anyone else, has come to believe that the lowest common denominator is also the highest possible intellectual achievement and that the idea of learning from our betters is somehow ”elitist” — or at any rate will depreciate our self-esteem.

Listen to the illiterate sentences of bystanders interviewed on the evening news — heck, listen to the local news anchors themselves — and you wonder whether anyone still knows that sentences require both nouns and verbs, and that together they make for articulate thought.

What has changed, more than anything else, is that we have begun losing touch with that Classical learning that undergirded those 500 years of human glory. Another Dark Age is setting in.

The real problem is the loss of the influence of Classics on the general population. For 500 years, art, culture, even technology, were based on a general acceptance of Greek thought. When we lose that, we lose our connection to our culture — and not merely European culture, but the widening world culture. If Asia or Africa once had cultures without roots in Greece, it is no longer true. Sony could not make electronics equipment without the rational, scientific turn of mind made possible by Greek ideals; budding African democracies owe their politics to the same ideals. Not solely, certainly. And we gain from them as they gain from us. But the world culture is at bottom Classical.

It is not merely, or primarily, a body of knowledge that is important, although that has its place. What is more important, and what is most Greek, is a method of approaching knowledge rather than the mere facts of it. It is the Greek skeptical approach that demands rigorous proof. We owe our medicines and our TVs to such an approach.

SONY DSC

Multiculturalists — and I usually count myself among them — sometimes denigrate the Greeks, blaming them for racism, sexism and a host of other ”isms.” And the Greeks are guilty. They were not perfect.

But that misses the point. All human endeavor is imperfect.

We should not be so quick to condemn the failings of our ancestors; better to try to learn from those failings.

The critics are themselves guilty of an ”ism,” which is the moral arrogance of ”presentism,” the belief that the current state of morals and intellect is somehow the ”correct” one and that they may judge the failings of the past from their own certainties. The radical feminist argument is not fundamentally different from that of the Spanish priests who burned the Pre-Columbian codices on the grounds that those writings were harmful to ”their” present.

A little humility, please.

What’s more, even the critics use the dialectics of Classical thought to deconstruct what they object to. It is always ironic to hear a feminist use Greek argument to berate the Greeks. Feminists disparage the Classics as being misogynist — and make no mistake about it, the Greeks valued what they considered ”masculine” virtues and often made little place for women in their theory.

Yet, one only has to open Homer’s Odyssey to see a wealth of women — strong women — and feminist virtues. Other plays, such as the Antigone, present strong, thoughtful women. Greek actuality is much less coercive than is sometimes thought. And that aside, even if we take account of some of the cultural peculiarities of the ancient Greeks, inherent in their thought — and more importantly, in their thinking processes — are the seeds of all current thought, including multiculturalism. It isn’t Eastern thought or Third World thought that values diversity: It is the Greeks who gave us that.

There are at least four important reasons for maintaining our connection with Classical learning.

From least to most important, they are:Derek Walcott

-› Knowledge of Classical myth and literature. Losing the Classical references means that our literature will become increasingly undecipherable, and in consequence, we will lose tradition, our connection with our past — all our pasts — and we will be in danger of repeating old mistakes. It isn’t only Milton: We cannot read Derek Walcott’s Omeros without understanding Homer.

–› Clarity and precision in discourse. Greek thought is about clarity of language, if nothing else. Greek (and Latin) language does not easily permit sloppiness. We would be better writers and speakers if we were exposed regularly in grammar school to the Classics and Classical languages. The anti-Classical cabal is led by the trendily popular deconstructionists. The postmodernists and deconstructionists: Why read them, since, by their own argument, what they write is meaningless?

–› Acquaintance with the tragic view of life, which is the true view. Americans are becoming a nation of slack-jawed optimists who seem to think life is perfectible, whether they are liberals and think government can perfect it, or conservatives and think that private enterprise can perfect it. Both are wrong. Life is made up of impossible choices. We can only make the best choices in the future if we acknowledge the worst choices of the past. Choices made from ignorance or denial breed more bad choices.

The tragic view is that life causes pain, that there is no alternative, that you must do your best to make moral choices, knowing that whatever choice you make will turn out in the end to be immoral. People will die, suffer or at least be disenfranchised. You cannot act without injuring someone, yet act you must. The Greeks can toughen our hides.

The Mahabharata

–› Finally, the Classics can provide us with the deep, satisfying enjoyment that makes life worth living. If we open ourselves up to the Classics, we will find a deep well of pleasure, the powerful aesthetic experience that illuminates our lives. The Iliad, for instance, is the best book I have ever read, and I have read some good ones, including the Mahabharata of India and the Old Testament of the Levant, both of which have their own power.

Still, compared to them, the Iliad is more aesthetically complete. It makes a world from the greatest panorama down to the smallest detail, all filled in by Homer in just the right proportions to convince us of its reality.

In the end, it has nothing to do with dead white males: The Classics include Sappho, to say nothing of the Odyssey, which convincing arguments say was written by a woman. It matters nothing to me. Sappho and the Odyssey have given me some of the greatest pleasure of my life.

Perhaps we must give up the Classics: It is happening de facto if not by choice. But I dread what will replace it: superstition, intolerance, confusion and chaos.

It is a lesson of history: Clarity breeds uncertainty, which in turn leads to humility and therefore tolerance. On the other hand, confusion and chaos tend to invite political takeover by arrogant tyranny: Inclarity in discourse, public and private, masks the sloppy thinking of the self-righteous.

The Classics are not irrelevant.

myron diskobolos

turn here 1

A reader once asked me what I thought were the major turning points of art – by which he meant the Euro-American tradition in art from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Of course, he had his own list already prepared to share with me. On it were 20 items. He wanted to know what would be on my list. He had the enthusiasm of a puppy dog, and it would have felt churlish to refuse him.

Making it a list of 20 is, of course, arbitrary: There are hundreds, maybe thousands of “turning points” in art history.

Also, we must confess this is a parochial list, when you have the rest of the world and antiquity — to say nothing of prehistory — to consider. But that bobsled ride from the Renaissance to Postmodernism can be seen as a single unit, and that is what my reader wanted me to consider.

Off the top of my head, then, are the 20 most pivotal pieces of art, each of which could be a chapter heading in an art history text.

Admittedly, they function as epitomes. It is rare a single piece of art can change the course of art history; instead, they are stand-ins for whole movements in art, entire changes of esthetic outlook and purpose that propel the eras they helped codify or inaugurate.

But even given my guidelines, I had to start a bit earlier, because the reawakening of Europe after the Dark Ages doesn’t happen in Renaissance Italy, but in Gothic northern Europe.

Chartres north rose window

My list begins with the north rose window at Chartres – the single most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen from the hand of humankind. Actually, the list should begin with the basilica of St. Denis in Paris, the first truly Gothic church, and the inspired conception of Abbot Suger, one of the most important clerics of the 11th century. His Neoplatonist idea was that God was light and that a church, to capture the spirit of divinity, must be opened up with windows and color. The engineering was a breakthrough: He realized that you don’t need walls – the heavy stone walls of the Romanesque – to hold up a roof, but you could put the roof on pillars and fill in the space between the pillars with curtains of colored glass. It was a huge step forward esthetically and technologically. But St. Denis was a first draft: It is in Chartres that the ideal finds its apotheosis.

Giotto

Second, Giotto’s interior frescoes for the Arena Chapel in Padua, for waking up to the idea that painting not only could, but should try to capture something of the feel of reality.

Masaccio trinità

Third, the Trinity of Masaccio at the Sta. Maria Novella in Florence. It’s impossible to choose the single image that represents the triumph of Renaissance perspective over the Gothic style, but Masaccio is as good a choice as anyone.

ghiberti abraham 2

Fourth: The bronze doors of Ghiberti to the Baptistry in Florence, an astonishing display of inventiveness and naturalistic imagery.

three davids

Fifth: The David of Donatello, and the final destruction of the Gothic schema in Western art.

Sixth: The David of Michelangelo Buonarroti, and

Sistine ceiling detail

Seven: The Sistine ceiling. No artist so defined his age and the two hundred years after him more than Michelangelo, the single most influential artist in history.

caravaggio

Eight: Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew, although most of the crazy guy’s central paintings would do: The Invention of the Baroque. “Energy is eternal delight,” as Blake says.

Nine: The David (above) of Gianlorenzo Bernini (although I actually prefer the Apollo and Daphne), and the perfection of the Baroque, and the most proficiently perfect sculptor in history. I choose the David only for the symmetry with Donatello and Michelangelo. Look at the three Davids together and see the direction of the 15th and 16th centuries.

rembrandt

10: Rembrandt Portrait of the Syndics of the Cloth-maker’s Guild, (chosen over the more flamboyant Night Watch) to show how the psychological acumen of the Dutchman could bring life to an otherwise utterly conventional group portrait. This sense of psychology, that there is a real person behind the eyes, is what Rembrandt brought to painting, as Shakespeare brought it to the stage.

benjamin west

11: The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West, which manages to turn the conventions of the mythological painting onto not merely the historical event, but the current event. In a way, each of these choices is a step on a road from stylization and convention to a more aware and awake attempt to engage with the experience of being alive, with what we might call a more “real” vision of the world.

delacroix

12: Liberty on the Barricades by Eugene Delacroix, although you could also use Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, as the symbolic use of politics and the rise of the democratic spirit in the world.

Turner

13. Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Slave Ship as another political comment, but more important as the first glimmerings of a kind of Impressionism in paint, and the turning point where what we now call Modernism has not its birth, but at least its conception.

Manet

14. Edouard Manet, The Fife Player, as the birth of that Modernism, flat, ironic, oblique.

Gauguin

15. Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? and the continuing flattening of picture space, at the same time as opening up to non-Western pictorial influences — to say nothing of questioning the values of European civilization, and it’s about time.

picasso demoiselles

16. Pablo Picasso, Demoiselles d’Avignon as the source of Cubism, and the sense that the picture is a canvas and not a window. It was the single most revolutionary painting of the 20th century, although in retrospect, not Picasso’s best.

duchamp

17. Fountain by Marcel Duchamp – the “found object” urinal – and the single most influential sculpture of the 20th century, and an influence that is still oppressive today. Now, everyone thinks he’s Duchamp.

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18. I would also include Picasso’s Guernica in this list, as his most ambitious work and the single most powerful image of the 20th century. I grew up with this mural size scream, when it was at MOMA in New York and I was a kid. It is the perfect meld of technique, imagery, symbol and “message.”

warhol soup can multiples

19. Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Can and the rise of Pop. Warhol is the most serious postwar American artist, despite his public antics. Art is about the world we live in; Warhol reminds us that the world we currently inhabit is the one of commercial signage and media imagery.

beuys

20. Finally, Joseph Beuys How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, or any of a dozen other Beuys pieces, angry yet detached, symbolic yet utterly there physically as a presence. The most influential European artist of the postwar years.

This list is, of course, just off the top of my head. I’m sure if I gave it deeper thought, I’d switch out some of these choices. But this is a good enough start.

I’m sure you can think of things I’ve missed.

cun 18th century

What does the midday sun look like?

That may sound like a simple question, but it’s not. You can’t really look at the sun: If you try, the result is sensory overload, like the distortion of loud music on cheap speakers. You can even go blind, rather quickly.

Yet, everyone thinks he knows what the sun looks like. It’s everywhere in art, beginning with the tempera paintings kids make in elementary school: They so often put a wedge of sun in the corner of the painting, with rays spread out below like sea urchin spines.

kid turtle

But the sun doesn’t look like that: The child’s version of the sun is a symbolic representation of the solar disk.

But then, so are all adult representations.

So we also recognize the gilt centrifugal rays of Louis XIV’s Sun King symbol and the terra cotta sun face of Mexico and the red ball and rays of the World War II Japanese “Rising Sun” naval ensign.

sunmosaic

The sun is the paradigm of art problems, because it can never be portrayed accurately as it looks. Paint cannot be so bright.

But that doesn’t stop artists from attempting it. Van Gogh painted the solar disk over and over in his landscapes. Usually, the sun is a yellow circle surrounded by concentric brushstrokes in a darker ocher. The only way he could make the sun seem bright was by making the sky unnaturally dark.

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Ansel Adams had a photograph he called The Black Sun, in which a long exposure caused the image of the sun to solarize, making it a dark dot in the picture, surrounded by a halo of rays. It looks almost like an eclipse photo.

 

Ansel Adams' "Black Sun"

Ansel Adams’ “Black Sun”

In Picasso’s Guernica, the sun is an edgy elliptical disk with spiked rays, in the middle of which is a light bulb.

guernica detail

Each of these is an attempt to portray something that cannot be portrayed.

On a piece of paper or a canvas, the brightest white is no more than 40 times brighter than the deepest black. In the Arizona summer, the sun is thousands of times brighter than the shadow under a mesquite. A canvas just cannot accommodate that brightness range. We compress that range and accept it.

But the emotional effect of the sun’s brightness is just as hard to portray. When artists attempt it, they have to leave the realm of naturalism and create a fiction, a symbol for the sun instead of its snapshot.

So, what does the world look like? The sun is only one minor example of the complexity of this question. It is a question that has been at the core of art for 30,000 years and has still not been answered in any finality.

The problem in formulating an answer is that human perception is both so complex — scientists keep finding more astonishing whirligigs in the brain’s apparatus — and at the same time, so universally believed simple. We all have eyes; and seeing, after all, is believing.

We see with our eyes, most people think. The world looks the way a photograph makes it look.

But of course, we don’t see with our eyes, but with our brains – and even more difficult, with our minds, which means we see through the haze of emotions, culture and individual life experience. We so thoroughly process the data that our eyes collect that the final result barely matches the patterns on the tickled retina.

Seeing doesn’t just happen; it is a complex mental process. And it is a learned process, as any of hundreds of studies have confirmed. One of the ways it is learned is through art — or, to use the more modern term, through media.

Which is why, until the Modernist revolution in this century, artists concerned themselves with attempting to accurately depict the world around them.

It was to this end that such men as Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi attempted in the 15th century to devise a mathematical formula for creating the illusion of three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional canvas. The linear perspective they created became the mother tongue of European painting for four centuries.

But perspective wasn’t the only question: We’ve all seen the obsessive drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, attempting to get down on paper the swirl of water in motion.

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Or Michelangelo’s attempts to show every anatomical muscle under the marble skin of his statuary.

The Italian Renaissance was so thorough in its quest for realism, and so successful, in contrast to the Romanesque and Gothic art that came before it, that we have on some level considered the question answered ever since: This is what the world looks like.

Yet, it isn’t so. There are gross distortions built into perspective: Its grid of parallel lines is pure fiction. Leonardo’s water looks more like masonry than fluid, and Michelangelo’s muscles are a little too manic to be visually true.

Yet, the schematic system of image-making they came up with was so persuasive that we still accept the look of it.

Photographs, for instance, which are often taken for the ultimate in realism, are actually made through lenses carefully designed to mimic Renaissance perspective. Rectilinear imagery doesn’t happen naturally.

No art is ultimately realistic. What we tend to call realistic art, whether it is 200 years old and hanging on a museum wall, or hanging in the “starving artist” corner of your shopping mall, is more properly called ”conventional” art. It partakes of the conventions of art that we have, for the moment, accepted.

But those conventions are just as stylized – just as unrealistic – as the ”King Tut” angular figures on an Egyptian frieze, or the misty landscapes on Chinese scrolls.

Take any so-called realistic piece of art and ask just how like life it might be.

When a British cleric, Dr. Thomas Church, visited Rome in 1816, he sat to have his portrait drawn by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, one of the leading French artists of the time. The 6- by 8-inch pencil drawing Ingres made is now owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is a drawing almost everyone would call a realistic likeness. Certainly, if you knew the drawing, you could have picked out Church from a police lineup.

Ingres' Dr. Thomas Church

Ingres’ Dr. Thomas Church

Yet, the drawing is realistic in only a conventional sense; we are so used to those conventions, we don’t even think about them. We are fish, the conventions are water. It almost seems silly if I point them out. But it isn’t silly; it is profoundly important for us to think about them.

First of all, I doubt the good reverend was only 15 inches tall, as he is in the drawing, or would be if he stood up and his legs hadn’t been cut off by the edge of the paper. We have no trouble believing that a small likeness is realistic, any more than we have trouble with Georgia O’Keeffe’s larger-than-life flowers.

Second, Church probably had a little more color in his cheeks than in this monochrome drawing. We accept black and white as realistic.

We even accept his high-collared coat as black because we know such coats, even though in the drawing, it is the same blank-paper color as his nose and cheek.

Third, the real doctor was three-dimensional; the drawing is not. We could walk around the real person and see his back; the verso of the drawing is just blank paper.

Then, too, the real person moved and the drawing is frozen still.

The real person moved through time, too. It should also be noted that the drawing still exists; the same cannot be said for the good cleric. Ars longa, vita brevis.

The real person made noise — I cannot imagine such a cleric not talking constantly, even prattling. The only noise the drawing can make is a crinkling sound if you were to crush it in your hands — a sound to draw the immediate attention of the museum guard, no doubt, but not exactly conversation.

The drawing also has no odor of humanity about it. Then, too, the drawing is made up of pencil lines. Examine as you will the world around you, you will not discover lines in it that outline the borders of objects. The use of line in drawing is one of the most persistent, and least realistic conventions.

And the last thing I’ll mention: There is a frame, an edge of the picture that cuts off the bottom half of the good reverend. Real experience does not come with a frame line.

All these things we look right past and accept the drawing as an accurate rendering of reality. I’m sure you can come up with a dozen other hidden conventions I have passed over. But that is the power of convention. And it is all the more reason we should be concerned with the question: What does the world look like?

A century of Modernism has taught us not to ask such a question, and we have largely bought into the propaganda. Instead of asking the question, “What does the world look like, from the time of Cezanne on, art has primarily asked, ”What does art look like?” When a visitor looked at one of Jackson Pollock’s swirls of paint drippings, he asked, wondering what the picture’s subject might be, ”What is it?” Pollock answered, ”A painting.” He wasn’t just being cute. All of art critical theory at the time asked us to consider the effects of colors against other colors, forms against form, line against line.

But as great as some of the century’s art is, the overall effect is of a mirror held up to a mirror. It is intentionally mute: ”Music can express nothing,” said the arch-Modernist composer Igor Stravinsky. He was wrong, but he summed up this century’s own unacknowledged provincialism.

Art must regain its connection with the life we live. There is no better way to do this than attempt to answer the basic question about the appearance of the world.

For seeing is active, not passive. It is something we do, not something that happens to us. Each generation must keep up this dialogue with the world.

It is still a noble goal of art: to discover the difference between the schematic and the mimetic, between convention and experience — between what is and what has to be.

To parse it all out.

What is called Postmodernism doesn’t effectively do this. If Modernism is a mirror looking at a mirror, what has followed is a TV set looking at a TV set.

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A generation of media-savvy savants has created an art that is self-referential, and its main reference is The Brady Bunch.

I am certainly not calling for artists to imitate the look of Norman Rockwell. I hope I have made clear that Rockwell is not realistic.

I am calling for artists to take a really close look at the world around them — actually, I am calling for them to love the world, to caress the things of the world with their eyes.

The most effective way of doing that is to draw. Not until you have drawn something have you really seen it, felt its texture in your mind, tasted its color on front and back of tongue, known its shape and the shape of the air around it.

You can see this in Ingres’ drawing again. The coat, the pose, the chair arm — they are all merely conventional. But look at the eyes. They fairly swell with life, there is a softness to the bags underneath, a bristliness to the eyebrows and a live intensity to their gaze. The eyes are the animated center of the drawing, a jewel in a supportive setting.

In the coat, one sees the artist’s training; in the eyes, his connection with the world. There is no doubt which is more important.

So I ask the question of artists, what does the world look like?

Take take just one of those issues: motion, for instance. In the early Renaissance, it was not unusual to repeat a figure several times in a painting, depicting action as it is shown in the frames of a comic strip – showing the same figure in different parts of the frame at different moments in the action.

salome

One depicts Salome dancing in one part of the picture and John the Baptist in his cell in another. Another corner of the picture shows John bent over the block with an executioner’s ax raised over his head and a final portion has Salome watching John’s head on a platter.

Even God appears twice, from front and back, in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Creation.

An entire century of art grappled with this problem as Baroque artists painted violent action at its most unstable point in time, suggesting the motion even when the figures are still as statuary.

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is an attempt to portray the motion itself.

nudedescendingstair

Jackson Pollock’s action paintings are visually active with the result of the painter’s own motion.

Jean Tinguely created kinetic sculpture that actually did move.

Which of these is most “realistic”?

The depiction of visual reality is only one of the purposes of art, but it is a great and noble purpose that has been in eclipse as artists have been seduced by the cleverness of conceptual art.

As though the problem of mimesis in art had somehow been solved, freeing us for other endeavors.

But every time an artist picks up a pencil and tries to get the proportions of a figure right, every time an artist mixes a rose madder with an alizarin crimson to match the color of a landscape, she is tackling the biggest and most intractable question of art.

Looking is hard work, worthy work for an artist.

The sun streams in through the window, I go to it, look out at the world beyond and wonder what it looks like.

Astonish us.