It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


The Index is found here

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Norris Kelly Smith : On the relation of Perspective to Character

And now begins the delightful part of this book: an examination of the perspective used in specific European paintings from the 14th-20th Centuries, as related to the narrative content of each, as Smith understands it.

I have to admit that I'm not really used to this kind of discussion. I stand before a painting -- I start to dream -- and that's as far as I go.

And even if perceived narrative content had been a matter of life-and-death back when the paintings were made -- I'm an aesthete, not a cultural historian -- and only a few, highly select historical artifacts interest me (the ones that look good).

But any excuse to look again at a good painting is welcome.


The first two paintings that Smith selects are:

View of Florence, c. 1360, a detail from the Madonna Della Misericordia, Loggia Del Bigallo

All that Smith has to say about this one is that the artist has moved the Palazzo Vecchio a few blocks north and shoved it into the Piazza Del Duomo, where it can stand beside the Cathedral and the Baptistery -- while "fifty years later it had become fully evident, at least to Brunelleschi, that these buildings did not consitute a unified group that could be comprehended from a single standpoint, that they entailed two different perspectives upon the nature and purpose of the citizen's life"

Which makes some sense to me -- although, this is clearly such a heart-felt plea for divine protection (from the ever-mercyful holy mother whose coat tails appear at the top) that all details of geography as well as civic responsibility seem irrevelant as well as irreverant.

"Temptation of Christ" by the Limbourg Brothers, c. 1416

"Let me propose that the unintegrated perspective we see here is closely related to the lack of integrity that was so obvious an aspect of the Duke's nature - a virtue to which the painters themselves were indifferent, for no one had ever brought to their attention the possibility that Christian illustrations might have a higher order of meaning"

Smith is referring to the fact that the patron here, the Duc de Berry, possessed not only the castle here shown, but 15 others as well "to say nothing of tapestries, jewels, exotic animals, 1500 dogs and costly furnishings of every kind, all of which he periodically loaded onto wagons as he migrated from chateaux to chateaux in the manner of Merovingian kings"

But perhaps this book of hours was a private commission, intended only for contemplation by the owner -- and might well have served as a kind of confession - as he could see how precariously Christ was balanced on top of all that worldly magnificence - and perhaps only the son of God could choose to reject its appeal.

So I wouldn't necessarily mark this as "lack of integrity" - so much as admission of sinful nature, and at least the Duc is not a hypocrite - and, indeed, he seems to have been the perfect courtier - cultivating peace and arts that attend upon it.

But still -- I can see how Albertian perspective would be less appropriate for this kind of private contemplation.

In contrast to the Duc's preferred imagery - Smith offers the above, Donatello's statue of Jeremiah:

"Faces such as these are to be found in ancient Roman portrait busts, the severe, gravely serious, unsmiling faces of responsible public men, each one the face of a distinctive person"

And one might note that Smith himself is taking a stand here -- against the private arts of aristocratic courts and in favor of the public arts of urban republics.

Though I would ask -- why can't we have both?

Masaccio, "The Tribute Money" 1427

"Just as important as the facial types is something else that appears for virtually the first time... the contrapposto pose... of the man who is capable of self directed action, of making choices among alternatives, of playing a resposible role in the public square"

(in this case, the choice is to pay Caesar his taxes-- a sensitive issue then, now, and always)

"The group of Christ and his disciples forms the original Christian community, laying the basis for the community ... yet by placing his figures in a deep landscape, Massacio affirmed his belief in the naturalness of human community"

And how does one-point linear perspection relate to this theme?

"Though the small number of short orthogonal lines in Masaccio's architecture do converge to a single point located in the area of Christ's face, that is a thoroughly minor factor in this early example of the new Florentine perspective. If the lines did not converge to one point... we would still see the figures to be standing in a deep landscape that closely resembles the Arno valley in which Florence lies"

Masolino (1383-1440),"Martyrdom of Saint Catherine" San Clemente, Roma,1428

"Masaccio's much older associate, Masolino, learned the method of vanishing-point perspective but, as we can see in his frescoes in San Clemente in Rome, he never grasped the relation of the technique to ethical integrity and dialogue"

Which wouldn't make him any less of a painter - at least as far as I'm concerned.

But still .... I've got to agree with Smith. Masaccio's painting is more like real space with real mass, light, and people. While Masolino's painting is more like the sacred space of a visionary's dream.

And wouldn't "The Tribute Money" have been the model for social realism 500 years later:

Chaim Livshitz
Lenin addressing the first Soviet Congress in June, 1917

But what I really like about Masaccio are detail areas like this one,
where the volumes are given a peaceful space to breathe,
instead of being pulled into dramatic tension
as in the Soviet painting shown above.

An enjoyable effect which seems somewhat at odds
with the purpose of "taking a stand"
other than to enjoy a view.

Social realism seems much more amenable to the kind of
commitment that Smith wants painting to present,
though, regretfully he never discusses it in this book,
even when his historical narrative moves into the 20th C.

Domenico Veneziano (b. 1405-1410), St. Lucy Altarpiece (1445-47)

Smith then introduces the above piece as an example of "the dialogue between Man and Nature or between City and Nature" through an "essentially architectural composition" where "the artist has assumed his observer to be standing at so great a distance as to cause a pictorial space of considerable depth to appear so shallow that the head and shoulders of the Virgin seem almost to be enclosed within a niche that lies nearly twenty feet beyond her" -- beyond which -- " lies a sunlit garden, one of the traditional symbols of Mary's virginity" -- and where -- "two saints. Francis and John the Baptist are directly associated with the countryside and wilderness and the other two saints, Zenobius and Lucy, are related to urbanity and urban institutions"

All of which is plausible -- but how does it relate to "taking a stand" or "perspective and character"?

And even Smith wonders whether it was the art historian, Warman Welliver, who was the first person to read the space in that way.

While it feels to me that the design, especially in color, effectively collapses that space and makes the entire painting feel like a low relief. Smith brings two of the predella panels into consideration to further explore this Man/Nature theme -- but that just wanders further off-topic and would invite the counter argument that the one point, architectural perspective was just offered for its own sake, perhaps to prove that the artist could do it.

While these areas are so beautiful, it seems to me that artist is mostly concerned with offering a delicious, vernal, completely imaginary world for us to enter in the company of saints.

Whew! -- what beautiful drawing

And here's another beautiful, courtly world into which one would like to disappear.

Doesn't the Veneziano St. Lucy have more in common with this Persian masterpiece than, say, with Socialist Realism?


To close out this chapter, Smith returns to "our inquiry into the relation of perspective and character", and follows Erich Auerbach in comparing Pagan to Biblical literature - specifically descriptive passage from the Odyssey to the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis. The Odyssey "does not claim for itself the absolute and universal significance that the biblical writer knew his story to possess".

"No Biblical writer ever invites us to "look at" anything, to play the role of an "observer". His purpose is rather that of bearing witness, though his witnessing is not of a visual order".

"Between 1300 and 1430 a small number of extraordinarily gifted artists discovered a new way, not of seeing, for we all see in perspective, but of relating optical observation to religious witnessing - eye witnessing. As Renaissance perspective improved between the time of Giotto and that of Van Eyck, the vividness of that experience of witnessing steadily increased - a kind of witnessing for which there was simply no analogy in either the experience or the practice of the ancient Greek or Roman artist"

Do you agree ?

I would certainly agree with Smith that talk about Renaissance perspective as "a new way of seeing" is nonsense, since objects will appear proportionally smaller as they move into the distance for every creature that has an eye.

But I would hesitate to assert that "the Odyssey does not claim for itself the absolute and universal significance"

Even for Aristotle, Mimesis was a technique, not the purpose itself of storytelling.

And to my eye, the "religious witnessing" of Romanesque sculpture or Byzantine painting is no less vivid than that which came later.

So .. how can we account for the characteristics of Renaissance art which:

*"defines for us an enclosing room"
*"has a gridiron floor plan that would enable us to locate objects in depth"
*"systematizes the rate at which equal intervals seem to diminish with recession into depth"

A common, alternative explanation is that this characterizes a more objective, less mystical way of thinking about the world -- and it accompanies the rise of science and the willingness to accept secular explanations for natural phenomena.

And one may note how often it gets ignored when artists, like Michelangelo or Caravaggio, want to present a sacred event.

To conclude this chapter, Smith notes that Masaccio, his proto-typical "take your stand" artist, was also the first one known to include a self-portrait within a larger work - so that he might "claim credit for the integrated wholeness of is act of envisioning: "This is the way I understand this subject from my standpoint""

Smith notes that Botticelli, Ghiberti, and Van Eyck followed suit And I can't recall it happening in the centuries that followed ( other than , Michelangelo putting himself into his last judgment) - so maybe its practice was related to the development of linear perspective- as well as landscape.

Smith throws that in, too: "All of the painters who included self-portraits, so far as I know, made extensive use of landscape... which ... affords the painter an occasion for avowing his grasp of the "wholeness of things" that corresponds to the integrated wholeness of his own self-conscious mind and being..which has never been portrayed more vividly than in the Mona Lisa".

Which Smith then relates to a passage from Petrarch, who does a bit of spiritual self-assessment while viewing the landscape from the top of Mt. Ventoux.

And it does serve to re-affirm Smith's point by noting that Petrarch was both a humanist and a priest - and his concerns were more those of a committed Christian than a serious naturalist.

1 comment:

  1. my dear fellow

    i am unable to follow the words of the distinguished professor... somehow... it feels as if they were written in a language i do not understand... it must be the wine of which i am so very full these days... but your pictures are -- divine... let me lick them...