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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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Meyer Schapiro : Frontal and Profile as Symbolic Forms

(this is Chapter Four of Meyer Schapiro's "Words, Script,and Text".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

I shall discuss further in this last part the role of the style of representation in the form of the symbol, and more specifically the frontal and profile positions. Meaning and artistic form are not easily separated in representations; some forms that appear to be conventions of a local or period style are not only aesthetic choices but are perceived as attributes he represented objects. What is called frontality may be one of severa1 natural appearances favored in a given style, all rendered with the same kind of line and modeling; or it may be a dominant even exclusive posture, applied to figures with different meaning, and by its distinctive qualities and accord with other features of the work it may stand out as a pronounced characteristic of the style. The same alternatives hold for the profile position.

'Style', 'form', and 'symbol' are three important words for art historians, and I won't claim that I know a more correct way to use and understand them. But I will note that 'form' may refer to a visual experience of an object that is much broader and more intense than an analysis of specific features, like whether the dramatis personae are presented in frontal or profile positions -- and that an exclusive focus on specifics may be too reductive to be very useful.

How the viewer feels about depicted characters is certainly affected by where they are facing -- but feelings are affected by so much more.

The frontality, symmetry, and central place of Moses in some of our examples belong to life as well as art. We know them as features of a ritual, a domain of the real in which every detail is a sign

Is the exact height, girth, and vocal timbre of the priest celebrating Mass a sign ?

And what about the exact tones, lines, and compositional rhythms of illuminations in ancient manuscripts?

This is the problem that semiotics has with visual art --- the potential number of signs in any one piece is infinite -- and who gets to choose which are more important than others?

So Schapiro immediately modifies 'every detail is a sign' by adding:

Once they have been established, the dramatic and voiced forms of the liturgy created for invocation and reminder of the sacred undergo little change, while furniture, vessels, and vestments are continually redesigned to satisfy a new taste in art"

So whatever changes is presumably following a 'new taste in art', and whatever remains the same is presumably a sign relating to the sacred.

In the next sentence, Schapiro discusses that sacred art by writing:

But pictures of the same ritual vary from age to age and show the influence of a style of art.

Since language is always changing, doesn't everything about a ritual eventually change -- and don't new tastes in sacred art, in both vestments and paintings, reflect different understandings of sacred things ?

I'm guessing that Schapiro wanted to separate out the "influence of a style of art" because its the job of the art historian, as he knew it, to trace the influences of artistic styles.

Which brings us to these two examples taken from the Sacramentary of Marmoutier at Autun.

In the scene of the abbot Reginaldus blessing the monks and laity, all the figures, including the abbot, are in profile; but in the picture representing the hierarchy from bishop to acolyte the differences of rank are made visible through differences of position with respect to the center and through elevation, size, posture, and glance - ranging from the seated bishop, strictly frontal in the center, to the profiles of the lowest and outermost figures"
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The first of these two examples, both presumably by the same artist, is supposed to demonstrate the then-current style committed to "a clear view of the figures in a scene with little or no spatial depth" -- while the second example shows what can be do to present differences in rank.

Though I see shallow spatial depth and differences in rank presented in both scenes.

Schapiro concludes as follows:

In Medieval art, basically different modes of composition coexist within the same personal or collective style

But he hasn't done any more to define these different 'modes' than to note the above details -- and if that defines a 'mode', what would keep us from assigning a separate mode for every kind of feature we can observe?

To exemplify the difference between frontal and profile, Schapiro offers the above examples:

In the two Bodleian miniatures (Schapiro's figure 20, shown above) the contrast of frontal and profile, though less strongly marked than before, is a means of distinguishing a past symbolic event and a present symbolized one, the first a unique historic action and the second a recurrent liturgical performance.

Above, Schapiro tells us that these two scenes are distinguished by frontalilty to accommodate the scene at the top as a 'past symbolic event' (Moses with the Amelikites), and scene below it as a recurrent liturgical performance (the priest at an altar).

But almost all of the faces in both scenes are in the same degree of 3/4 view -- with only two exceptions, which are in profile. Now it is true that those 2 exceptions are both in the upper scene and none are in the lower --- but does that really establish a significant difference ? Would Schapiro suggest that those two soldiers shown in profile are symbolic of something which the 3/4 view soldiers are not?

In medieval art certain figures were presented either in profile or frontally, and we can gauge through them the different effects of the two views as expressive means. In relief sculptures of the Adoration of the magi above church doors of the 12th century the Virgin is often enthroned in the center of the field like a cult statue, while the Magi and other figures are set in profile on both sides. A tympanum at Saint-Gilles is an example of this type -- but in some works, as on the delightful portal of Neuilly-en-Donjon , the Virgin is off-center and turned to the approaching magi. She is part of a historic action and not an immobile transcendent figure with a distinct axis of her own.

Unfortunately, the Virgin's face has been knocked off in both of these examples, but as Schapiro notes, it still seems like she is engaging the viewer at St. Gilles, while she engages the Magi at Neuilly-en-Donjon.

Gerona Beatus On the Apocalypse, 10th C.

Another and more striking example of the change is the rendering of the story of Danile in the Lion's Den. In Early Christian art and in the first centuries of the Middle Ages, Daniel is a standing figure, frontal and orant, flanked by two lions.

Beatus Manuscript of St. Sever, Paris Biblioteque Nationale, mid 11th C.

When the same subject was illustrated by a painter of naturalistic tendency in southern France during the mid-11th century.... he showed Daniel with arms raised in profile as if to receive food from Habbakuk above him. The gesture of prayer has become ambiguous. The seated position, new in pictures of the scene, was based on a passage in the Bible that had been ignored by artists until then, like the reference to the seven lions.

And here's a bunch of other versions taken from this wonderful webpage

Pavement mosaic of Bordj El Loudi (Tunisia), 5th century.

This one is my favorite -- Daniel feels so --- so --- vulnerable.

This guy is in really big trouble -- and only a very big miracle is going to get him out of it.

Church of the Holy Cross of Aghtamar (Armenia), c. 915-921

4th Century, Toulouse, Musée Saint-Raymond

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 359. Rome, Museo della civiltà romana

Saint Jerome, Explanatio in Prophetas et Ecclesiastes, Cîteaux, first third of the 12th century.

West portal capital of the cathedral of Jaca (Huesca, Spain), end of the 11th century

Abbey church of Sant’ Antimo (Tuscany, Italy), second half of the 12th Century

I've found a Rembrandt drawing, Bernini sculpture, and Rubens painting, but mostly this theme seems to have disappeared after the middle ages, and completely vanished by the 20th Century except in Sunday School books.

My father, Richard J. Miller, did do the version as shown above - with a rather nonchalant Daniel.

These examples and others confirm our belief that the changed illustration of the Moses story is the outcome of more than a change in exegesis. It depends on new norms of representations well as on a fresh understanding of the text.Though we speak of it as an aesthetic change in a style of art, we recognize in it also a change in general outlook an din the attitude to the particular class of objects represented.

I can see how Schapiro's two examples might confirm his belief (though they are only a hundred years apart)

But I also notice that a 3/4 view of Daniel appears in the two of the examples from the 4th Century.

I do feel that when a face is turned towards the viewer, the piece is saying "this is me" --- while, when that face is turned to the side, the piece is saying "this is him" --- and "this is me" seems to have been more common in early Christian art, or in the Spanish Mozarabic example which Schapiro provided and characterized as "folkloric provincial"

Schapiro goes on to discuss frontal/profile combinations in images from other times and places - offering the above example from the Museo Nazionale in Naples, where the important figure, Dionysus, is frontal, while the minor figures, the maenads, are in profile.

In contrast, he then shows a Lekythos vase that depicts a frontal servant with a profile mother - his point being that frontal/profile expresses some kind of duality, but not necessarily ranking one character over another.

But how do we know that some kind of duality was intended?

The mixed combination might also serve to invite a viewer into to a scene. If all the figures are in profile or frontal, the viewer is kept outside looking in.

Profile and full-face may be regarded as frameworks within which an artist can reinforce a particular quality of the figure through associated features, while exploiting an effect latent in that view. One could also achieve a powerful expression of polar meanings in opposing to each other two profiles with contrasted features and subtly distinguished glances.

So Giotto in representing the Betrayal of Christ as a dramatic actuality, physical and psychic, replaced the old contrast of profile and frontal, traditional in this subject, by a poignant confrontation of two intensely interacting dissimilar profiles.

It's so exciting to finally get around to discussing facial expression in the Arena Chapel instead of the images of architecture that so fascinated Smith, White, and Kemp.

And the above painting is filled with it, as Schapiro points out, even in the narrow space between the heads of Christ and Judas.

For comparison, here's an earlier version by Cimabue that Giotto must have seen while he was working in the St. Francis basilica.

Yes, Christ is face-frontal while Judas is in profile -- but crazy Judas seems to be staring out at the viewer, while Christ has turned his eyes away and is looking to one side. Which might suggest that the direction of the glance is at least as important as the orientation of the face.

As he makes the comparison, Schapiro notes that:

Christ's Solemn frontal posture detaches him from the profiled Judas and affirms his divine serenity in this turbulent menacing crowd. But the pair lack entirely the inwardness of Giotto's image of the fateful encounter of two men who look into each other's eyes and in that instant reveal their souls. The uncanny power of the glance in a strictly frontal head is transferred to the profile as an objective natural expression, fully motivated in the situation.It is the perhaps the first example of a painting in which the reciprocal subjective relations of an I and You have been made visible through the confrontation of two profiles

Was it really the first time? It never happened on the surfaces of Greek pottery? From now on, I'll have to keep this mind when looking at earlier images.

The detail from Assisi is quite remarkable - and effectively compels the attention, and maybe even the inward looking of the viewer. Christ is relating to the viewer more than to Judas, who is just an annoyance.

But I'd have to agree with Schapiro about the "uncanny power" of that glance between the savior and his wayward disciple.

I share his fascination with faces and how they relate to each other - and but these relationships are far more complex than a binary of frontal/profile -- perhaps even too complex to categorize. The relationship between the Christ and Judas up on that wall is not just about where they are facing, or even all the details of their faces. It's also about what the rest of the painting is doing.

And here's a 6th C. version from Apollinare in Ravenna.

Looking for some earlier examples, I found this one. The cast of characters are facing in a variety of directions. Christ is certainly more frontal than Judas, but he still is turned a bit one side --- though actually, I've got another kind of problem with this piece. It just doesn't seem to be up to the same high level that can be found in the Giotto or Cimabue pieces shown above, or elsewhere in Justinian Ravenna. Perhaps it's a bad restoration.

Schapiro then launches into a general discussion about complexity:

The plurality of meaning in each of these two appearances of the head would seem to exclude a consistent explanation based on inherent qualities of the profile and the frontal of full-face view. It is like the difficult of finding in colors a universal culturally unconditioned ground for their symbolic use, though we experience colors as strongly charged with feeling. -- the familiar argument from these discrepancies - that color symbolism is entirely conventional - ignores that a color is not a simple elementary feature but a complex of qualities of which certain ones become more or less pronounced in a particular setting and according to a perceivers experience and attitude.

This is sounding so complex -- I'm wondering why we are trying to discuss generalities of profile/frontal at all. Wouldn't it make more sense just to discuss this issue, and others, only within the context a specific art work?

But held back by what he perceives as "the real qualities of the symbols", Schapiro will not go that far. If an art historian is not going to discuss symbols across paintings, periods, and cultures -- what is left for him to do ?

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