This is Chapter Five of E.H. Gombrich's "Preference for the Primitive"
Quoted text is in YELLOW. Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN *************************************************************************** ****************************************************************************
In the introduction to his 1998 book "Modernism's History", the Australian art historian, Bernard Smith, coined the phrase "Formalesque" for the period of 1890-1960, and referenced Gombrich as the prominent defender of the Greek tradition of naturalism in the visual arts, "given to a defense of a humanist, international ideal of civilization"
In this chapter, Gombrich returns the favor by disputing the origins of "the notion of form". Smith locates it in philosophical systems of Kant an Schelling.
Gombrich asserts that they were connected to "the situation in which artists find themselves"
But I'm not quite sure whether Gombrich is referring to the artists of 18th C. Western Europe -- or to all artists from all times and places. Even if a visual artist, like Leonardo, writes about art but never mentions anything like "formal values", it would appear that he was applying some, since the formal qualities of his work appear so distinctive. He didn't (and couldn't) paint like Leonardo one day, and then like Giotto or Cezanne the next.
And that would apply to every person, artist or even non-artist, who has ever made anything, wouldn't it ? Every thing has distinctive formal qualities and is made to represent/resemble something - whether it's a tea cup or Laocoon being attacked by a serpent..
Gombrich tells us that Goethe "was one of the first to discern and articulate this conflict of values" (between mimetic accuracy and formal values)
But wasn't Goethe just following the footsteps of Aristotle who offered mimesis as just one of the qualities sought in dramatic poetry ?
And speaking of the Laocoon, that's the example that Goethe discussed (Propylaen 1, i, 1798 "Observations on Laocoon" - English translation available online from Google Books)
Goethe ventured to claim that the group exhibited all the marks of artistic perfection, including charm (Anmuth). Admitting that this verdict was likely to be found paradoxical, considering the terrible subject—matter, Goethe went on to explain that the ancients were far removed from the modern delusion that a work of art had to look like a work of nature. Instead they marked their creations by an orderly arrangement that enabled the eye to grasp it easily. Thus any work of art, even if seen from a distance from which the subject-matter was no longer visible, would still impress us as a decoration, a quality which the earliest vase paintings shared with the Laocoön group.
Every work of art must announce itself as such, which can only be done by what we call sensual beauty or grace. The ancients, far enough in this respect from the modern opinion that a monument of art should become again to appearance, a monument of nature, would characterize their works of art as such, by a select order of the parts; they assist the eye to investigate the relations by symmetry, and thus an embarrassed work becomes easy to comprehend. From symmetry and oppositions resulted the possibility of striking out the greatest contrasts by differences hardly sensible.
BTW - in this essay Goethe also asserts that "every work of art must announce itself as such, which can only be done by what we call sensual beauty and grace.”
What a fine and outdated opinion ! Without the the 2,000 year multiplicity of cultural expression that would have been evident to 18th C. art lovers like Goethe, Aristotle did not need to concern himself so much with the question of whether something is or is not a "work of a art". While, unlike the art lovers of today, Goethe did not need to concern himself with the canonization of anti-art.
The Laocoon is a curious choice for any discussion of formal values in design because it's such a pastiche of original and restored parts -- and some parts look much better than others - many of which Goethe notes as follows:
The right leg of the eldest son is of a most agreeable elegance. The expression, and the turn of the members in general, and of the muscles, is admirable in the entire work. In the legs of the youngest son, which are not remarkably elegant, there is something so natural, that we find nothing like it under this relation; the legs of the father, especially the right leg, also possess great beauty.
A considerable part of the serpents, and probably the two heads, are of modern workmanship.
The left arm of the father, up to the juncture of the shoulder, and the five toes of the left foot, are restorations: the right foot, however, has suffered nothing. In the eldest son, the end of the nose, the right hand, the three first toes of the left foot, the end of the great toe in the right foot have been restored; the belly having been somewhat damaged on the right side, this part has also been restored. The end of the nose, the right arm, two fingers in the left hand, and the five toes in the right foot of the youngest son have been restored.
It is only the right arm of Laocoon which has been well restored in burnt earth, and as most say, by Bernini who, nevertheless, if it be really his work, has herein surpassed himself. The other restorations, which I have just mentioned, are in marble; they are carefully done, but with little art, and with convulsive contortions, in the taste of the school of Bernini. It is thought they were done by Cornachini
The formal values that Goethe discusses are mostly those of dramaturgy: the relative position and expression of all the actors in this tableaux.
Rogier Van Der Weyden, Adoration from the Columba Altarpiece, 1460
Both Goethe and Hegel were thinking about the above painting around 1820 - and like Hegel, Goethe thought that it "failed to satisfy the highest demands of art" -- though for different reasons.
Apparently Goethe thought that, though it had moved beyond the "rigid, obsolete, and artificial manner" of earlier painting, it lacked their symmetry.
St. Veronica, 1410 (Pinakothek Munich)
Remarkably enough, here's the kind of symmetry that Goethe preferred.
Perhaps it will be discovered one day that as far as the composition and design is concerned, this painting followed a traditional Byzantine religious idea. The dark brown countenance with its crown of thorns, probably also darkened with age, conveys a wonderfully noble expression of pain. The corners of the cloth are held by the saint, who emerges from behind it, hardly one third of life-size. Her expression and gestures are both exquisitely graceful.The cloth rests on the merest adumbration of a floor, while in the corners on either side we see, sitting, three tiny singing angels, who, were they standing, would be hardly a foot high. So beautifully and skilfully are they grouped that they perfectly satisfy the highest demands of composition. The whole points to a traditional, elaborated practice of art. What a degree of abstraction must have been necessary to represent these figures in three different scales, and to turn the whole composition into a symbol. The little bodies of the angels, particularly their little heads and hands, are so well related to each other that one could not ask for more. If all this gives us the right to postulate a Byzantine origin for the image, the charm and tenderness with which the Saint and the children are painted entitles us to date the execution of the picture into that period of the art of the lower Rhine which we are discussing. Combining, as it does, the dual elements of a strict convention and a pleasing execution, the painting exerts an incredible power over the beholder, an effect to which the contrast between the fearful Medusa-like countenance [of the Christ] and the delicate gentleness of the Saint and the charm of the children make no small contribution. ... Goethe, 1814-15
I share his enthusiasm for the the effects of scale (too big, too small, just right) -- but am puzzled by Goethe's taste for symmetry. There's an awful lot of glorious painting that must disappoint him.
In thus attempting to spell out Goethe’s position I may have overdrawn his importance, but it may be no accident that it was in Germany that historians of art first began to ponder the profit-and-loss account of the progress of art as traditionally attributed to the masters of the Renaissance.
I also ponder a profit-loss account of art history. With every change, one quality is gained, while another quality is lost. (though I see no profit at all in the last hundred years of Dada )
John Flaxman, "Fury of Athamas", 1794
And here we may remark, that as by the term style we designate the several stages of progression, improvement, or declne of the art, so by the same term, and at the same time, we more indirectly relate to the progress of the human mind, and states of society; for such as the habits of mind are, such will be the works, and such objects as the understanding and the affections dwell most upon, will be most readily executed by the hands. Thus the savage depends on clubs, spears and axes for safety and defense against his enemies, and on his oars or paddles for the guidance of his canoe through the waters: these, therefore, engage a suitable portion of his attention, and, with incredible labour, he makes them the most convenient possible for his purpose; and, as a certain consequence, because usefulness is a property of beauty, he frequently produces such an elegance of form, as to astonish the more civilized and cultivated of his species. He will even superadd to the elegance of form an additional decoration in relief on the surface of the instrument, a wave line, a zig-zag, or the tie of a band, imitating such simple objects as his wants and occupations render familiar to his observation — such as the first twilight of science in his mind enables him to comprehend. Thus far his endeavours are crowned with a certain portion of success; but if he extend his attempt to the human form, or the attributes of divinity his rude conceptions and untaught mind produce only images of lifeless deformity, or of horror and disgust.....we consequently find in most countries attempts to copy the human figure, in early times, equally barbarous, whether they were the production of India, Babylon, Germany, Mexico, or Otaheite. They equally partake in the common deformities of great heads, monstrous faces, diminutive and misshapen bodies and limbs.We shall, however, say no more of these abortions.... John Flaxman, 1829
A fine diatribe that displays a distinct preference for the sophisticated. (BTW - "Otaheite" was the contemporary English spelling of "Tahiti")
It's ironic that Flaxman's first reference to the primitive means of "the savage" refers to the weapons of war -- which though ever more sophisticated, can hardly be said to improve the human condition.
By way of comparison with the violent scene portrayed by Flaxman above, here is an Etruscan relief - one of my favorite pieces from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Flaxman would probably find the size of the man's head monstrous.
I've never seen Flaxman's piece in person --but I suspect that melodrama would be the only satisfaction that it provided.
( note: He has apparently been reborn as Alexander Stoddart )
As Gombrich notes, Flaxman concedes some value to the savage's fondness for decorative patterns. Is this the first small victory in the eventual triumph of abstract art ?
The Autonomy of Decoration
This issue arose in a severely practical context, the decline of the craft tradition in consequence of the Industrial Revolution. It was in England that the development was felt most poignantly, so that the reform of design became a matter of public debate.
The ball was set rolling by Augustus Pugin (1812—52) who extolled the superiority of medieval tiles and wall decorations over the more recent styles. What his argument amounted to was that the values of decoration were not only distinct from those of mimesis but they were really incompatible with them. Mimetic art aimed at the illusion of depth while decoration should emphasize the plane. Expressed in other terms, familiar from previous chapters, the purity of decoration had been corrupted by irrelevant mimetic skills much as the spirituality of medieval art had been corrupted by pagan sensuality.
Here are some examples of tiles, windows, and church interiors designed by Augustus Pugin, whose importance in Britain's Gothic Revival can hardly be overstated.
More can be found here
I like this one -- but overall Putin seems a bit heavy handed.
Medieval spirituality has apparently eluded him.
BTW, his work was severely criticized by John Ruskin.
While the Gothic revival in France was led by this fellow.
There are two radically different operations of the mind:: one is to achieve a striking effect in a picture by means of cunning sacrifices, the exaggeration of certain tones found in nature, the very delicate blending of half—tones, as a Titian, a Rembrandt or a Metsu were able to do. The other is to produce a Tibetan shawl. There is only one Titian, one Rembrandt and one Metsu, while all the weavers of India succeed in producing woollen scarves which, without exception, give a harmony of colours. It needs an extremely civilized environment for a Titian or a Rembrandt to develop; while the most ignorant Tibetan who lives in a wooden hut with a family as poor as he is will weave a shawl whose rich assemblage of colours will charm our eyes, of which even our best-organized factories can only produce an imperfect imitation, What we consider the more or less barbarous condition of a nation is therefore no obstacle to the development of certain aspects of the art of painting applied to monumental decoration ... The only conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that the art of painting an easel painting and the art of painting when applied to architecture proceed very differently; the desire to mix the two arts is to attempt the impossible for what is an easel painting? ... An easel painting presents a scene to the beholder as if the frame were an open window There is only one point from which it should be viewed, witness the excruciating effects of the illusionistic stage seen from a wrong position... Viollet-le-Duc, 1854-68
I can't imagine mentioning Metsu in the same breath as Titian and Rembrandt - except that in that period, several paintings by Vermeer were attributed to him. So ironically -- it turned out that there really was "more than one Metsu" in the early 19th C.
Viollet-le-Duc seems to be disparaging those "most ignorant" Tibetan weavers -- and yet he concedes that a modern factory cannot produce the "rich assemblage of colors" that they achieve. So perhaps they're not so ignorant after all. They're just doing something, like a dialect, which they -- and many generations of their families -- have been practicing for a long time.
BTW - it's interesting to note that so far, all of the writers about art have been artists (except Hegel) and most have been professional (except Ruskin and Goethe). It's only in our time that the making and theorizing about art became such separate practices.
Chartres Cathedral, Bay 44
The great art of the stained-glass window soon became the standard example of the need to keep the devices of mimesis under control. After all, it was only too apparent to visitors of Gothic cathedrals that the glories of twelfth- and thirteenth—century Chartres had never been surpassed, and that later examples of the craft declined in quality the more the examples of easel painters were followed. Again it was Viollet—le—Duc, who, in his extensive article ‘Vitrail’, diagnosed the causes of this ‘decadence’: ‘the search for realism and for dramatic effect’ contradicted the principle of’la peinture translucide’; and though new devices, such as the doubling of panels, contributed to the technical perfection of later windows, these could not save an art that had abandoned its true principles. ‘The latest fine windows of the Renaissance that one can see at Bourges and Paris ... are nothing but the cartoons used by painters transferred to stained glass; such works might have great qualities of composition, of design and modelling, they have none from the aspect of decoration. They look blurred, pallid or harsh. The eye searches painfully for a design that it would prefer to see on an opaque surface ... Perspective, the recession of planes, fail absolutely in their desired effect and merely result in fatigue.’
I certainly agree with the above - though I'm not sure that mimesis is entirely to blame.
Nothing is more disappointing than the pictorial stained glass windows found so frequently in American churches, even though they resulted from the Gothic Revival.
The lively excitement of the windows from Chartres seems to have eluded them.
The situation did not improve until modern approaches to design, like those taught at the Bauhaus, were introduced in the 20th C.
Here, for example, is a detail from the Gropper windows installed in the 1950's in Temple Har Zion, River Forest, Illinois (about a mile from where I live)
Walter Crane, Illustration for Shakespeare's "Tempest", 1893
One of the most vocal spokesmen of this movement was Walter Crane. In one of his essays he describes the reaction of a designer who has decided to turn for a moment from his all—engrossing studies in stained glass and tapestry to visit an exhibition of painting. He is appalled by the futility of an ‘aimless, and therefore inartistic, imitation’, by the witchery of imitative skill which leads painters astray. Crane never ceased to drive home the distinction between the imitation of accidental effects and the constructive art of the decorator, depending for its beauty on qualities of line, form and tint. What gives this pursuit its fascination is precisely that there are no scientific rules to determine its success: ‘The way is perpetually open for new experiments, for new expositions, and new adaptations and applications:’
Yet Crane's experiments still use elements of perspective and anatomy - and visual power has been sacrificed to the articulation of minute detail, leaving the piece to feel heavy, soggy, cluttered, and exhausted.
Utamaro, Scenes on Ryogoku Bridge, 1795
There is something disquieting in the fact that Japanese art is so beautiful, and at the same time so altogether different from ours, so much so as to cause a momentary thought whether it is not finer. But whether or no, we must keep on our own road, for our traditions and practice do not lead us to render nature like the Japanese
Our art appeals through representation or imitation, creating an illusion of nature in its three dimensions; while Japanese representation of nature is not imitative, but selective, certain things being chosen and the rest ignored. And their art seems, in this respect, to have developed to its final perfection on the hnes of the earliest forms of art, without changing its direction. If we go back to the beginnings; to the Egyptian wall—paintings, to the Greek vase—paintings, or to the earliest Italians, or even if we look at the drawings of children, we find they are alike in this, that they draw the thing they want to express, and leave out the rest. The Japanese make their selection in the same way; their art has developed, but has not changed.
But in our art this simple method of selection is no longer possible; figures must have their backgrounds and surroundings, and the appearance of nature must be studied in order to give, by light, shade, or colour, the necessary emphasis to the principle parts. We agree that this is the proper way to represent nature, but the art of the Japanese brings home to us the fact that it is not the only way....George Clausen, from a lecture on painting, Royal Academy of Arts, 1904
George Clausen, "Noon in the Hayfield", 1897
What a wonderful quote Gombrich has dug up from a George Clausen lecture! Clausen was, himself, quite a painter.
He acknowledges that the Japanese are, indeed, representing nature - but he might add that they are also creating a kind of pictorial space, and he might add that European painters have also been quite selective about reality..
The issue of "the representation of nature" barely begins to discuss the differences between Japanese and European visual art.
His defense of his kind of painting is, however, rather feeble - amounting to nothing more than:
We agree that this is the proper way to represent nature, .... with no reasons given for why we SHOULD agree.
What bright student in the audience would not conclude that Clausen's kind of art was definitely on the way out ?
By the time these lectures were delivered many Western artists had been converted to the decorative values of Far Eastern art. Not that the vogue for Japanese art or the cult of the decorative can be equated with a preference for the primitive — But what is particularly significant in this taste is that this comparatively Westernized art could form a bridge to the understanding and appreciation of more remote art forms.
....In other words,Japonisme comes into our story mainly because it undermined and subsequently broke the resistance to the appreciation of non-naturalistic styles. For, once mimesis was no longer accepted as an indispensable value, there was no reason why even the human figure could not be made to obey the alternative rules of formal discipline, at the expense of organic laws.
The issue of "the representation of nature" also barely begins to address the differences between late 19th C. academic art and various kinds of post-Impressionism -- but apparently Gombrich would disagree.
He is building a "slippery slope" kind of argument: 15th Century to Medieval to Japonisme to folk art to abstract art -- and I'm guessing that he will take it all the way to Outsider art, minimalism, and Dada -- inexorably leading to a museum exhibit of artist shit in a tin can.
It mirrors the standard canonical narrative of art history - except that it emphasizes the loss of naturalism instead of the triumph of free expression.
Paul Gauguin, "Green Christ", 1889
Calvaire de Nizon
Gauguin would have been classed by Lovejoy and Boas as a cultural primitivist who set out in vain to seek his happiness in the never-never paradise of the South Sea islands. But in my context he must figure as one of the artists who broke through the barrier of the Pre-Raphaelite compromise and discovered the power of earlier, more primitive styles to which the Japanese may have shown him the way.
His composition Green Christ embodies memories of Breton Romanesque calvaries in all their simple majesty. Note that here the fidelity to natural appearances is abandoned, if only in the background quotation.
Apparently the Nizon Calvary is dated to the mid-16th Century - about 500 years after Romaneque morphed into Gothic - so even the original sculptors may have showed a "preference for the primitive".
One website claims that such calvaries were erected in this period in response to catastrophic pestilence - a kind of public cry for help from the Holy Family that says something like "You lost Your Son - now we're losing ours"
It's expressive simple forms, absent the evident virtuosity of the late Gothic, might also be found whenever self-taught sculptors execute work in stone -- especially the very hard stone like the granite used for this monument.
500 years of weather, and some anti-clerical abuse, have left it somewhat ruined -- but enough basic sculptural qualities have survived to overwhelm Gauguin's flat, cartoonish rendition - suitable for a poster in a travel agency that announces something like "Visit Authentic Brittany"
Gauguin "Tahitian Women Bathing", 1892
Gauguin "The Delightful Land", 1892
Gauguin, "The Royal End", (detail) 1892
It was but a small step from this recognition of the values of rustic sculpture to his habit of incorporating in his paintings from the South Seas real or imaginary works of the natives, whose style of life he coveted. Even in his paintings from the South Seas, however, Gauguin never stylized or distorted his models.The studies he made of tribal carvings were not intended to modify his way of representing the human figure in his paintings. Only in his sculpture and in some of his woodcuts did such an extreme assertion of formal values affect the human form.
The back of the bathing woman feels like it was drawn from life - with the artist's eyes at the same level as the woman's shoulders, so we're looking down at her lower legs. But even if we're closer to them, her arms feel unusually long - to fit his expressive purposes.
The front of the woman picking flowers does not seem to resolve into a single POV - indeed the legs feel like they were later added to a study of the torso.
These effects would have to qualify as "the assertion of formal values" on the human form - but when has some kind of formal value not been asserted ?
Chartres, West Portal, 1136-1141
The Intrinsic Values of the Romanesque
Maybe it was easier to tolerate stylized figures in murals and stained glass than in solid stone, but the trends we saw favouring such licence in two-dimensional media were almost bound to be applied to sculpture — if only, initially, to sculpture in the service of architecture. I believe some credit for having apphied it consistently for the first time should go to the German art historian Wilhelm Voge who was to become one of Erwin Panofsky’s admired masters. In 1894 Voge pubhshed his first book entitled The Beginnings of the Monumental Style in the Middle Ages - meaning the great art of cathedral sculpture, both Romanesque and Gothic. The art-historical conclusions of this book have not stood up to later criticism, but the aesthetic sensitivity with which Voge analysed the great western porch of Chartres Cathedral should not therefore fall into obhvion . The foundation of his analysis is the conviction that figurative decoration and architectural structure must be seen as two sides of the same artistic process: whatever the shape of individual figures they were not allowed to obscure the architectural organization of the whole. This insight leads him to reconstruct what the stonemason’s procedure must have been, to look at the individual building blocks and visualize the structure before its sculptural treatment. The task of the sculptor was, in fact, simply to create his figures within these stereometric shapes.
Chartres, West Portal detail
Reims, west portal detail, 1225-1245
Elsewhere on the internet, we read that Voge proposed that Christian sculpture first moved from Romanesque to Gothic on the western portal of Chartres -- and that must be the "art historical conclusion" that is no longer accepted.
The standing figures in the jambs certainly differ from their counterparts at Reims which have further emerged from the wall behind them and demonstrate a sense of gravity and human stance that makes them feel even more independent.
Here's a portal that's called Romanesque
Here's a portal that's called Romanesque
Some of these figures from both Chartres and Vezelay do seem to have a life of their own, independent of the building behind them.
Rather than being asked to visualize their figures within a building block - the sculptors might have been following drawings done by the architect, and like soloists within a large ensemble, they would have a feeling for how their expression enhanced the sound of the entire orchestra.
Brancusi, The Kiss, 1908
"The Kiss" in Pere Lachaise
Voge’s analysis harmonized with the aesthetic creed of ‘truth—to—material’ that came to dominate the art of sculpture in the early twentieth century — a slogan which was intended to devalue the variety and virtuosity of Auguste Rodin’s dazzling creations. The contrast between Rodin’s group of The Kiss and that of his erstwhile pupil Constantin Brancusi has been paradigmatic of this revolution.
Rodin, The Kiss, 1883
Brancusi’s Kiss was made for a tomb in the Paris cemetery of Pere Lachaise — in other words, it was destined for a context in which what we referred to in the preface as ‘kitsch’ was generally allowed to run riot. Whatever we may think of this innovative conception, sentimentality is not a failing it can be accused of.
Within the context of this book the sculptor’s reference to primitive traditions may therefore be explained as an avoidance reaction. Indeed, I would venture to propose that what Bernard Smith calls the ‘formalesque’ might be seen in terms of this artistic motivation. Conceivably Smith even underrated the support this movement received from examples of other styles and traditions.
Elsewhere , the story of Brancusi's "Kiss" is somewhat different. Several versions were carved, with the second being placed at the grave of his friend, Tania Rachevskaia. . The artist also made and sold several plaster casts -- so his commitment to "truth-to-material" is questionable -- even if far greater than Rodin's, who oversaw his "Kiss" being scaled up, scaled down, cast in bronze and carved several times in marble. As can be seen in the two versions shown above, the stone carvers performed something like classical musicians as they interpreted the score in different ways. .
Gombrich asserts that Brancusi's "primitivism" was a reaction to what Rodin had done 20 years earlier - but can't it also be seen as the expression of a very different, kind of romance, one that's more about personal than sensual intimacy.
It's too bad Gombrich did not bring Rodin into this story as anything but a counter-example to the "emancipation of formal values" because the sensual fury of his surfaces differs so dramatically from the beaux arts sculpture of his day.
Adolph Von Hildebrand, 1870-73
And it's too bad Gombrich did not bring "The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture" (1893) , written by the sculptor, Adolph Von Hildebrand.
Sculpture and painting are, indeed, imitative in as much as they are based on a kind of study of Nature. And this in a way ties down the artist ; for it follows that the problems of form with which he has to deal when imitating emanate directly from his perception of Nature. But if these problems and no others be solved, i. e., if the artist's work claims attention merely on these grounds, it can never attain a self- sufficiency apart from Nature. To gain such self-sufficiency the artist must raise the imitative part of his work to a higher plane, and the method by which he accomplishes this I should like to call the Architectonic Method. Of course, I do not here use the word architectonic in its ordinary special significance. As in a drama or symphony, so here our perception enables us to realize a unity of form lacking in objects themselves as they appear in Nature. It is the quality essential to this realization which I wish to denote by the term architectonic. The problems of form arising from this architectonic structure, though they are not given us immediately and self-evidently by Nature, are yet the true problems of art. Material acquired through a direct study of Nature is, by the architectonic process, transformed into an artistic unity. When we speak of the imitative aspect of art, we are referring to material which has not yet been developed in this manner. Through architectonic development, then, sculpture and paint ing emerge from the sphere of mere naturalism into the realm of true art.
Doesn't this call for "The Emancipation of Formal Values" ?
Though it's clear, by the example shown above, that Hildebrand's preference could only be for the "primitive" if that term were applied to Greco-Roman and Renaissance figurative bronzes.
In the twentieth century a man of his piety would probably have looked for a paradigm among the images of the Romanesque or those of the Byzantine tradition. He would have been impressed by the hieratic figures, not so much for their devout expression as for their solemn otherworldliness.Twentieth—century artists learned indeed to tap that source of awe and mystery, the contrast between monumentality and the sentimentality of the ‘virtuous’ style. Remember, by way of example, Epstein’s tomb of Oscar Wilde, or his Lazarus. Henry Moore in England was also a past master in conjuring up the mysterious aura of primitive images and so was Graham Sutherland in the tapestry for the choir of Coventry Cathedral. It appears that the Catholic Church had all but turned away from the sweet and ‘kitschy’ devotional aids distributed at Sunday schools in favour of more austere, Byzantinizing pictures, preparing the ground, intentionally or not, for the preference for the primitive.
Aren't the formal elements of historical styles an indispensable component of any art practice? It's just that so much various world historic art was being made available to artists of this period, and there was, in some circles, encouragement to use whatever to create a radically new look for a radically new era.
Epstein has certainly captured both the lightness and the heaviness of the comic dramatist, hasn't he ?
Danny Osborne, "Oscar Wilde", 1997
Here's a post-modern rendition that draws more on the formal qualities of amusement park figures rather than any other historic style.
No "mysterious aura" here -- just hah-hah funny.
Illustration from "Vision and Design" by Roger Fry, 1923
‘What a comfortable mental furniture the generalizations of a century ago must have afforded! What a right little, tight little, round little world it was when Greece was the only source of culture, when Greek art, even in Roman copies, was the only indisputable art, except for some Renaissance repetitions! And now in the last sixty years, knowledge and perception have poured upon us so fast that the whole well-ordered system has been blown away, and we stand bare to the blast scarcely able to snatch a hasty generalization or two to cover our nakedness for a moment.’... Roger Fry, 1920
Gombrich quotes Roger Fry making the same observation I just did.