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, May 3, 2011

Norris Kelly Smith : My conclusions

Here are the chapters in order:

The Lost Tavolette
On the Relation of Perspective to Character
Two Allegiances
Perspectives on the Last Supper
An Eccentric Stance
Family and Church
End of the Matter

I like N.K. Smith because he has taken something of an "eccentric stance", himself.

Flying in the face of convention,he considers the Renaissance innovations in pictorial art (specifically, perspective) as the response to a specific situation (the need to "take a stance" regarding the competing claims of church and state), rather than one of the technological advances that accompanied the rebirth of the naturalistic, scientific, secular world view as formulated by Aristotle in the 4th C. BCE, and which dominates public educational institutions today.

And as it turns out , he decries the application of that scientific world view to human affairs, as it replaces morality with therapy and the public man with the private hedonist.

Regarding Chapter One,The Lost Tavolette , those innovative, ground-breaking examples of one-point perspective, the "Lost Tavolette", do happen to represent separate images of two buildings, one owned by the church, the other by the state, thereby suggesting the conflicting allegiances that are the major theme Smith finds in them. As Smith notes, one-point perspective can be drawn from observation; no mathematical construct is necessary. Smith's approach to these lost paintings contradicts the entire historiography on this subject, beginning with Vasari and Manetti, but that doesn't mean he's wrong.

Regarding Chapter Two, On the Relation of Perspective to Character, Smith examines the next ground-breaking example of the use of perspective, Masaccio's "Tribute Money", and argues that it's illusion of real space is appropriate for its real-world theme: the paying of taxes. It calls for the viewer to be a good citizen rather than a supplicant before the divine mysteries, while, in general, such illusion invites the viewer to witness real events in the world, and as such, challenges the viewer to respond to them. Of course, that also invites the viewer to question whether such events actually did occur, and so this kind of realistic illusion can also serve to promote a more scientific, less faith-based, approach to the world. And in another one of Smith's examples, Veneziano's St. Lucy Altarpiece, it does seem that an Albertian grid has been introduced mostly because it had become fashionable to do so.

Regarding Chapter Three, Two Allegiances (Church and State) , Smith discusses various paintings which he thinks best exemplify that conflict. Mostly, I find his explanations convincing, especially for Van Eyck's Madonna of Chancellor Rolin . But what about counter examples? ( which I'm sure could be found as well)

Regarding Chapter Four, Perspectives on the Last Supper ,
it's fascinating to compare so many representations of the same scene, from north to south, and from the 14th to 16th Centuries, and contemplate what kind of ethical concern might be suggested by the architectural stage within which the characters are acting. Smith's discussion of Leonardo is a disappointment, but his explanation of Fouquet is quite compelling.

Regarding Chapter Five, An Eccentric Stance , Smith suggests that Paolo Uccello was using perspective to take some kind of "eccentric stance" other than just his obsession with perspective itself, as Vasari and almost everyone else ever since has believed. Once again, I find some of his interpretations convincing ("The Deluge") and others off-the-mark ("Battle of San Romano"), but still I would agree that perspective was only one of Uccello's many concerns, and the accuracy of an Albertian grid was not a primary concern (if it were even attempted at all)

Regarding Chapter 6,Family and Church , Smith adds the family to his discussion of church and state, and looks at how painters have depicted it from the 8th C. onward. I found all of his explanations to be unconvincing, except for his contrast between Altdorfer and Van Der Wyden , as it announces the emergence of the Prostestant Reformation. And who can ever forget this wacky painting within a painting by Emmanuel De Witte. Though, as with many of Smith's examples, his discussion of architectual details seems marginal to the dramatic effect which the painting has upon me.

Regarding chapter 7,The End of the Matter "the binding and legitimizing functions of institutions" is shown to fade along with the carefully measured architectural stage congenial for well-purposed human activity, both as depicted by paintings and in architecture itself. Though, of coure, it's not really the "end of the matter", since civilization continues with new institutions, and Smith has ignored the cultures of the great totalitarian super-states as well as the modern university, both of which have assumed and expanded upon the role of the Medieval Church. But again, it's in the details that Smith is most fascinating, in his dicussion of both Piranesi and Monet.


In conclusion, Smith has done a good thing.

He questioned why a new kind of pictorial space was developed in the 15th C., and he followed through by looking for specific reasons in several examples, noting how the space changed as the reasons changed from one time and place to another.

Sometimes I found his explanations convincing -- usually I did not. Sometimes, as with his discussion of Leonardo's "Last Supper", I disagreed with his analysis of the perspective. Other times, as with Emanuel De Witte's family portrait, I felt differently about the painting as a whole.

Overall, he seems to focus on ethical more than aesthetic sensibility.

I am just the reverse, but I do appreciate that ethical concerns need to be voiced and have been far more important than they are made to appear when the history of art is written as a history of technology.

Next up, we'll take a look at Smith's Bete Noire, John White and his "Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space"

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