Wednesday, February 1, 2012
John White: My conclusions
The academic discipline of art history is not about how the art historian feels when looking at art.
He must earn the right to stand side-by-side with the rigorous techniques of the modern historian who must earn his right to stand beside the theory driven, proof required, mathematically based physical sciences.
"The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space" was, for a while, considered a good example of just that kind of art history, so it was widely used as a college text book, and can be still found in practically every college library in the English speaking world.
But not so much any more.
Have it's assertions been dis-proven ?
I don't think so.
Some of the paintings discussed have been re-attributed to other artists, but it still works as a catalog of how solid rectangles have been presented in European art.
The problem is that it's no longer fashionable to so drastically limit a discussion of pictorial space.
This book was written in 1957, at the height of a post-war formalism that sharply rejected the narrative arts of the great totalitarians states, as well as their analogs in pre-war American and European art.
White's primary aesthetic interest was the reconciliation of the picture plane and spatial illusion -- in response to a then-dominant ideology which asserted that spatial illusion did not belong in a painting at all.
And then, there's the rather uncomfortable truth that despite his recurring claims to the contrary, White presents so much evidence that elements of natural perspective (i.e. size proportional to distance) are sometimes picked up and sometimes ignored for empirical rather than theoretical reasons.
As Norris Kelly Smith later noted, even Brunelleschi's famous lost tavolae could have been drawn simply by observation. No mathematical system was required.
White introduces us to many interesting paintings -- and in the chapter about Pompeii, they were almost completely new to me.
But since he almost completely ignores their narrative qualities, he has very little of interest to say about them.
What he does offer, with all of his youthful idealism, is a very passionate plea for his discipline, which then, now, and forever, simply does not belong under the same roof as physics, chemistry, and biology.
And I'm not surprised that though this book was very successful, and he subsequently had a long career in university art history departments, he never published another book about visual art.
I don't think it interested him all that much.