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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Kemp : Seeing, Knowing, and Creating

(this is Chapter 5 of Martin Kemp's "The Science of Art".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

There are three parts to this chapter:

*The continuities and developments in perspectival geometry

*Optical, perceptual and philosophical issues which were raised by the juxtapositions of nature, vision, the mind, and geometrical knowledge.

*Articulation of aesthetic attitudes as various authors – to define in a systematic way the specific emotional and intellectual areas of valid operation for the “Arts’ in contrast to the “sciences”

When a painter like Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750 – 1819) also writes about perspective or optics, Kemp may also discuss specific paintings:

Valencienne’s own paintings, rather underrated today, show how his fresh studies of views in nature are informed by his understanding of spatial structures and cast shadows, while his set-piece compositions which are often controlled by strongly perspectival motifs, betray the eye of an artist who has responded directly to natural effects.

But what about the subject matter here ? Can't Kemp discuss the importance of ruins in so many paintings of that period, and how Valenciennes treats it so differently in these two ?. The cow-shed in the second painting is located beside palatial ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome, and what a powerful painting it seems to be, especially compared to the rather saccharine fantasy shown above it.

The next artist shown is Etienne Louis Boullee (1728-1799), who was actually an architect, but today is best remembered for drawings of structures that were never built.

... like this memorial to Isaac Newton.

He wrote:

Weary of the in-eloquence and sterility of irregular volumes, I proceeded to study regular volumes. What I first noted was their regularity, their symmetry, and their variety, and I perceived how this constituted their body and their configuration. What is more, I realized that regularity had alone conveyed to man a clear conception of the shape of volumes, and thus he gave them descriptions which resulted not only from their regularity and symmetry but also from their variety.

I'm not sure what designing with geometric forms has to do with "the continuities and developments in perspectival geometry" (what about the 'moon gate" in Chinese architecture?) , but it does seem that Boulee is reacting against the Rococo as much as the early 20th C. modernists were reacting against the complexity of the late 19th C.

And while David's "Oath of the Horatii" may echo the aesthetic of a geometry text book, Kemp is really stretching to pull it into this discussion, noting that it was "returning to the simple grandeur of elemental forms described by the directional play of light within canonical boxes of space”

Kemp adds that:

David’s oath possesses a simple austerity of pictorial structure which looks back beyond the revered example of Poussin to the earliest ideas on the use of perspectival space in the service of narrative. The emphatic lines of the construction focus our attention on the point of harsh tension at which the three swords are held aloft by the father, while his sons swear to defend the Roman ideal to the death"

And after noting the technical discrepancies in the perspective projection (example: the diagonals formed by the tiles on the floor), he quotes David as follows:

….. other artists know perspective better than I do, but they do not feel it as well”

So now I'm wondering... just how differently David handled perspectival lines than Poussin did.

I suppose you could say that such lines were not as emphatic in the above painting. Poussin doesn't put a grid on the floor or walls of his pictorial stage. But his groups of figures seem to measure back into space just as if they were architectural features. And his vanishing point still seems to be the center of action and convergence of of several other lines.

The next section ventures into 18th C. European philosophy and natural science.

But it also touches upon the painting of Sir Henry Raeburn "the Scottish portraitist who developed short-hand brushwork of great bravura to evoke the appearance of planes of colour, can be be seen as a visual ‘equivalent’ to the perceptual theories of Thomas Reid, whose portrait he painted near the end of the philosopher’s life"

Though Kemp doubts whether Raeburn's painting was at all affected by Reid's philosophy, and bravura brushwork certainly precedes both of them.


And that's the last painter that Kemp mentions in this chapter, so I'll skip to the next one.

His survey of 18th and 19th C. European optics and philosophy does not interest me at this time.

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