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)


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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Norris Kelly Smith : Epilogue

So what happened to perspective, that it should have disappeared from twentieth-century art?

Disappeared? Only if you're not looking beyond the narrow confines of contemporary museums, and even then, it's not completely gone.

Smith's argument only applies to what certain institutions have recognized as important art -- and those institutions and that category did not exist until the 20th Century.

In the foregoing chapters I have tried to elucidate its meaning—to find out what made it compelling as a pictorial device—for artists of the Renaissance. It is not hard to see why those same factors are no longer operative within the modern artist’s frame of reference.

The most important factor of all, I believe, has to do with the radical change in the status of membership institutions, which are no longer accorded the kind of Platonic reality they once possessed, a kind and degree of reality that was closely related to that of the buildings that were erected for those same institutions—the buildings that housed the great majority of the perspectival images that were produced during the Renaissance, most of which incorporated within themselves pictures of buildings. Both the public edifices and the pictures that adorned them continuously challenged the member to “take his stand” with reference to a body of narrational and iconic subject matter that served to authenticate the real and enduring being of the institutions and their power to give order and meaning to the life of the community. That orderliness and meaningfulness were undergirded and sustained by the rhetorical and elevated modes of speaking that once obtained among educated Europeans (and later among Americans such as Washington and Jefferson, though hardly any longer). We have seen that painters, too, employed rhetorical devices in similar ways.

But what about before the Renaissance? Didn't the institutions of church and state "give order and meaning to the life of the community" in that period as well?

Why doesn't Byzantine or Carolingian painting use perspective?

Nothing has done more to undercut the claims of any institution to ultimate reality than has the burgeoning of a radical nominalism that owes much to the triumph of science and the “scientific outlook.” That triumph has quite changed the balance in our thinking between a physical and a spiritual duality within the very nature of the world. That balance, in turn, is crucial to the relation of self-consciousness to world-consciousness that sustained the concurrent development of portraiture and landscape painting between the fifteenth century and the end of the nineteenth—a linkage that remained intact for Courbet but that was dissolved away by Cezanne,

Portrait of Victor Chocquet, 1875

Portrait of a Peasant, 1905

portrait of Gustave Geffroy, 1895

...who was increasingly given in his later years to masking the faces of his sitters and to painting landscapes that are devoid of mood, atmosphere, weather, sunlight, and chiaroscuro.





I don't see that change, except in the pieces from the last two years of the artist's life, when it seems that his personal condition overwhelmed his sense of charactor or place.

The old balance between self and world depended in good part upon the conviction that all things, human and nonhuman alike, are God’s creations, a conviction we see most beautifully expressed in Giovanni Bellini’s painting The Stigmatization (or Ecstasy) of St. Francis now housed in the Frick, in which the artist avows that St. Francis, Moses, and the rocky bluffs of Mt. Laverna have all been created by the same hand and in the same style.

What a wonderful painting!

No trip to NYC is complete without seeing it.

I enjoy Cezanne landscapes,
but this painting lifts me into a higher world
which looks very much like our own,
only so much sharper, clearer, and better purposed,
with the sense that every thing can be known
as it is, rather than how it appears just to you.

It provokes the same thought
that occurred to Rilke
when viewing the archaic torso of Apollo:
"You must change your life"

I stressed in chapter 2 the importance of the idea of character that I found to be closely bound up with a conception of the Christian citizen as a responsible, role-playing participant in the life of the community, the arena of “public man.” The representation of such members/characters persisted throughout the careers of Courbet and of Eakins, both of whom were given also to grouping persons in ways that were charged with meaning (as in Courbet’s Burial at Ornans and Eakins’s clinic pictures).


Such a relationship between character and community was always found to be problematical by Cezanne who, in his later years, liked to group anaphrodisiacal female nudes, often faceless (compare Philadelphia’s Great Bathers), in positions that owe no more to personal volition on their part than do the positions of stone statues on medieval church facades.

Aren't those women doing what people usually do at a beach? Do naked women always have to be sexy? Do people always have to be performing a job or a ritual?

The end of that matter was reached with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in which any effort at defining a common emotional bond or even a shared physique that might link the painted figures with the gallery-going observer within a perspectival context is abandoned, since then themes of character, personhood, and community have all but disappeared from modern art, along with the use of perspective.

If "perspectival context" means things as they might appear as seen through an actual window on the world, yes, Picasso didn't offer that.

But he does make feel like a frightened boy in the presence of whores just as Byzantine painters make me feel like an awe-struck pilgrim in the presence of God.

Let me conclude by taking note of two very different uses of Perspective in twentieth-century art. The first is to be found in Eugene Berman’s 1941 painting entitled View in Perspective of a Perfect Sunset, which reveals an understanding on the artist’s part of something that was elaborated upon at length in Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic —to wit, that human personalities are shaped by traditional beliefs, by faith, by enduring institutions, and that when those things fail, when people have only the abandoned and meaningless monuments of dead civilizations but no cities, no citizens, no public beings, no shared purposes or goals, then the creation of a perspectival stage only intensifies our awareness of how much has been lost —for on this stage, as on that of Beckett’s Wailing for Godot, nothing has happened or is going to happen.

This is my introduction to the Rieff book, and I'm inclined to agree with the quotes from it that have ended up on the Amazon page. But again, if Smith wants to "take his stand" about these issues, he needs to either write about something other than art history --- or --- write about the non-modernist art of our time (of which there is plenty -- just as there are many people of faith who have not subscribed to the dominant trends of academia.

The second image I have in mind is one of Le Corbusier’s drawings from the early 1920's, A Contcmporary City. The work, in perfect Albertian perspective, seems to me as deeply disheartening as Berman’s, even though it had great influence upon the thinking of the young architects who gravitated in the 1920s and 1930s toward ClAM, the Congrès Internationale de Architecture Moderne, and who were later caught up in an international enthusiasm for Siedlungen (“settlements”) and “housing projects” that lasted until the destruction of St. Louis’s ill-fated Pruitt-lgoe project in the 1970s. Such projects, sometimes vast in scale, were not grounded in history, in any existing patterns of community or of political or economic structure. Behind these rows and rows of identical buildings there lies no conceivable imago hominis—and, consequently, no imago civitatis. Both those imagines were of critical importance to Brunellesuhi as he devised his tavolelle and to subsequent generations of perspectivists. Le Corbusier’s, on the other hand, does not result from his having taken his stand with regard to anything that exists “out there” in the world; it is a projection from the mind of a lonely, friendless young Swiss expatriate who had abandoned all hope for the historical traditions of Western civilization and who imagined that architects alone could lay the foundations of a New World Order, one that would entail no loyalties to subsidiary institutions of any kind—and that would therefore constitute the kind of monism that, as Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy observed, can lead only to tyrrany.

Does any public housing -- anywhere --- anytime --- look good?

I'm waiting to see my first example.

So, I'm thinking that Le Corbusier, and international modernism, are not to blame for the outcomes.

If I'm building a house for me -- I want it to look good. If I'm building a house for some nameless, faceless person who's not going to pay for it -- I would just want it to cost as little as possible. A warehouse would be fine.

Architects cannot be pessimists, cannot give way to despair.

Nor should historians.

They can devise ways of making us more comfortable, or moving traffic more expeditiously, but they cannot, any more than can deracinated painters, install the institutions that must, in the long run, be more important and more enduring than any work of art can possibly be.

Those who agree with Smith should not be artists or architects.

It's too bad Smith has ended this tome with so much hand wringing about the fall of civilization - without turning a critical eye back toward the institution which cultivates the modernist ideologies of which he is critical, and in which he has spent a successful career.

1 comment:

  1. Norris Kelly Smith was Professor of the History of Art at Washington University in St Louis for decades retiring in 1982. I had the opportunity to take his survey course on the history of art during his last year teaching.

    It was a superlative lecture course, but Prof Smith's penetrating insights came with " much hand wringing about the fall of civilization" exactly as you observe. I've not yet read this book but it is surely a statement of his views at the end of his career.

    His 1966 "Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Architectural Content" is, I'd say, a seminal text on Wright. If he had some admiration for Wright when he wrote that book it had waned as his views on the demise of art and Western civilization had formed. When I asked to sign my copy he told me he now "despised" Wright. Regardless, it is an extraordinary book.