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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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Gombrich : Plato's Preferences

Gombrich: - Plato's Preferences

This is Chapter One of E.H. Gombrich's "Preference for the Primitive"

Quoted text is in YELLOW. Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN *************************************************************************** ****************************************************************************

Lysippus "Apoxyomenos"
Roman copy of Greek original from 330 BC

Praxiteles "Apollo Sauroktonos"
Roman copy of Greek original from 350 BC

Polyclitus "Doryphoros"
Roman copy of Greek original from 440 BC

Polymedes of Argos "The Youth Biton"
615-590 BC

What critic who devotes his attention to the lesser arts does not recognize that the statues of Canachus are too rigid to reproduce the truth of nature? The statues of Calamis again are still hard, and yet more lifelike than those of Canachus. Even Myron has not yet fully attained naturalness, though one would not hesitate to call his works beautiful.  .. Cicero

We cannot identify the artists mentioned by Cicero with any degree of assurance, knowing only copies of some works, but we have no difficulty in exemplifying the type of progress he had in mind from extant works of Greek sculpture. In fact there is no history of art in which some such sequence is not demonstrated. We know the type of sixth—century statue that is, in Cicero’s words, ‘too rigid to reproduce the truth of nature’.We can imagine the next phase, ‘still hard but yet softer’ as represented by one of the kouroi of around 500 BC. We have also a sufficient idea of the art of Myron, through copies and accounts of it, to appreciate what Cicero meant when he said, ‘one would not hesitate to call his works beautiful’, though they are not yet quite sufficiently close to the truth. We can see finally why he called Polycleitus more beautiful still and attaining perfection — an academic verdict which was no doubt also connected with the fame of Polycleitus as the sculptor who had established the canon of proportions. Praxiteles in the fourth century added grace; and Lysippus at the time of Alexander the Great brought the imitation of nature to its highest pitch 

Cicero looked at art in the light of its technical powers to achieve certain ends, those ends being truth and beauty. It is important to distinguish this instrumental view of progress from those interpretations with which we are familiar in our own day.

I have two queries:

*To what extent can we see a progression towards "truth to nature" in the four examples shown above ?

*Are there any counter-examples to "there is  no history of art in which some such sequence is not demonstrated"

The oldest piece, the one by Polymedes, stands quite apart from the others - the only one, I'm guessing, that actually had a cultic rather than civic or private application.

It seems to be more about the inner life of the figure than  flesh and bone.  The sculptor seems to have been cutting back from an outline on the front of the block. He seems less concerned with three dimensionality or looking at the piece from any view other than directly frontal.

But none of the other three pieces seem more natural than the others -- though some feel more masculine and some more feminine.

So even in this group of statues, from 600 to 330 BC,  I don't see a progressive development of naturalism.

 I'm wondering where else in world art history Gombrich has found it.

Here's an example of not-stiff,  naturalistic painting from about 17,000 years ago.

Were there less naturalistic examples that preceded them in that culture ?

That's difficult to determine -- but it does seem  that "truth to nature" is available at all times in all places to anyone who wants to pursue it.

Here's an example of naturalism as a brief episode (the Amarna period) 
in the 2,000 year history of Egyptian art.

Like Cicero, most  Greco-Roman philosophers are mostly concerned with the aesthetics of oratory rather than the visual arts - and I won't address Gombrich's discussion of them.

But here's another  exceptional passage - this one from  from Quintilian (35-100 AD):

 Calon is rather hard, Calamis less rigid, Myron softer. Polycleitus surpassed all others for industry and beauty, but it is said that he is lacking in weight. For while he is said to have added more beauty to the human form, even beyond the truth, he does not seem to have endowed the gods with enough authority. It is true that Phidias had what Polycleitus lacked, but he in his turn was more successful with gods than with men. They say that Lysippus and Praxiteles came closest to the truth, while Dernetrius is accused of having gone too far in this direction and having been more enamoured of truth than of beauty. (XII.x.9)

Here, we might note that "truth to nature" is one of several criteria, and is opposed to 'beauty'.

But as with the text from Cicero, the above comments have been excerpted from  a discussion of rhetoric -- and I wonder how seriously either orator was about  the visual arts.

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