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, November 11, 2015

Alpers: The Craft of Representation

Alpers: ChapterThree : With a Sincere Hand and Faithful Eye - The Craft of Representation

This is Chapter Three of Sventlana Alpers' "The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century", 1983

Quoted text is in YELLOW. Text quoted from other authors is in Orange

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To appear lifelike, a picture has to be carefully made.  Indeed, a second feature of northern art is its extraordinary display of craft.  Here, too, the contemporary interest in the eye, in particular in its active use, is an appropriate way to comprehend the nature of Dutch picturing. Attentive looking, transcribed by the hand - what might be called the observational craft - led to the recording of the multitude of things  that make up the visible world.  In the seventeenth century, this was celebrated as giving basic access to knowledge and understanding of the world

Early in the century, De Gheyn manifests this restless, attentive eye with more persistence than any other Dutch artist. He strives to show the multiplicity of what is seen. A drawing in Berlin represents nine views of the head of a youth with tousled hair. If we feel that the mouse was brought close, intimately viewed, we feel curiously distanced here from the look, character, feeling, or stance that we expect would attract us to the head of a youth. De Gheyn's fascination with the quality of the youth's hair is comparable to Hooke's absorption in the marked surface of the seeds of thyme. What is surprising is that De Gheyn's attentive eye does not credit the head with any human inwardness that would distinguish it from the seed of the plant.

These sketches show us ordinary creatures of the artist's day-to-day world, mice and street folk, but
De Gheyn's "restless, attentive eye" has not delved much farther into  into the vast multiplicity of natural and human forms..

And I do not "feel curiously distanced here from the look, character, feeling, or stance that we expect would attract us to the head of a youth"  That is  the inevitable consequence of human figures portrayed outside of any social setting or composition. This was  intended to be no more than a page of quick figure studies --- wasn't it?

This helps us perhaps to make some sense of a powerful but curious sheet of his drawings in Berlin. Two grapevines executed in pen and ink were placed diagonally across the upper part of the sheet, their finely cut leaves and spiraling tendrils reaching out over the paper's surface. At one place they meet the unlikely figure of a woman, small , round, firm of form, present only to her hip, the red-chalk flesh of her face and hands standing out from the black chalk of her dress. Below rests a pump melon with ample leaves whose firm contours echo the woman above and which, like her, is executed in the soft chalk . De Ghcyn's serious descriptive care deals equally with plants and with the human form. 1t adjudicates between disjunctive shifts in scale: the woman is made small by the vine while her rotund form is strengthened by the presence of the melon. Even if, as it appears, the sheet was executed in stages at different times, and is a set of jottings, not a single invention, this does not contradict our sense that it represents De Gheyn's sense of the world viewed. The most curious feature of the sheet, I think, confirms this. For at the right, nestled among the central leaves, and once again just above this at the right edge of the sheet, an eye is drawn with a sight line marked out across the page. It is a mark of the place of the attentive eye in the making of the sheet.

If the sheet actually was "executed in stages at different times", that would to undercut any sense of what it represents in toto -- leaving it as just a random collection of sketches.

The eye depicted among the vines does reasonably serve as  "a mark of the place of the attentive eye ". But more than that, it also reminds the artist of the height from which that vine had been viewed  so that he may place it at a similar height when  incorporated into a larger composition.  (which is why  I also indicate the height of my eye when sketching figures that will later serve as resource material for other works)

Whatever Dutch art might engage, an attentive eye can surely be said to be a factor in the making of a majority of seventeenth-century Dutch images. It can further be said to be a major theme of De Gheyn's picturing: he often elects to make attentiveness itself the object of representation. A surprising number of his drawings present people looking at or reading books. But the key work is a remarkable painting now in Ham House, Richmond, that depicts the unprecedented subject of Caesar dictating while on horseback.

De Gheyn loosely follows the account in Plutarch’s Lives, which praises Caaear for being abl3 to dictate two or more letters at once while on horseback. The picture is the most eccentric gesture toward an antique world in which De Gheyn otherwise seems to have had no abiding interest. (Aside from the wreathed head of Caesar, his name inscribed at the upper left, and the trophy within the tent, one would not even guess that this work dcpicted the ancient world.) The emperor, seated on his horse at the right, dips his pen into the ink held up by his groom and prepares to write a letter while he glances to our left, where two scribes are at their work and a third reads a completed letter. Each of the other three young men attends either to the dictating, the writing, or to the reading that is going on. The figures arc cut off at the waist to intensify our concentration on the heads and hands that crowd the canvas-inscribing, listening, reading.

The story told of Caesar's dictation became in later times an emblem of attention itself. No less a student of the subject than William James, in a section of The Principles of Psychology entitled "To How Many Things Can We Attend at Once," refers to what is in his view the futile attempt on Caesar's part to attend to multiple directions:

"Where, however the processes are less automatic, as in the story of Julius Caesar dictating four letters whilst he writes a fifth, there must be a rapid oscillation of the mind from one to the next and no consequent gain of time."

In many respects James's discussion of attention fits what we learn from the Dutch pictorial example: its reflective and passive nature, its selectivity, the need to hold attention by rolling a topic over and over incessantly to consider different aspects of it. The major and significant difference is that the roots of the attention for James lie in consciousness of self, while De Gheyn (and the Dutch artists in general) seem to let attention stand for the self. It is not really Caesar's powers that interest De Gheyn as much as the multiplication of attentive behavior manifested in his servants and scribes. In De Gheyn’s picture Caesar-like the artist himself-is the source of attentiveness in others . And it is not only those within the picture, but also the viewer without who is presented with a detailed assemblage of heads (and hands) not unlike the youth drawn nine times on the sheet in Berlin.

This is one strange painting! And maybe even a good one - though it's hard to tell from the small reproductions that are available.  Caesar's remarkable ability to multi-task seems to be the subject - which is rather tangential to the topic of visual attentiveness, isn't it ?  (by the way, to join in Alpers' digression, I would tend to disagree with Henry James concerning "no consequent gain in time" - since Caesar could probably recite more quickly than  scribes could write, and his mind could be ruminating on other issues while he was reciting)

Regarding visual attentiveness, the sizes and location of the various figures does feel quite unnatural to me.  Which is not a pictorial problem as far as I am concerned -- but it might undercut Alpers' emphasis on the attentive eye.

Finally, in the category of the microscopic taste for displaying multiple surfaces, we should consider the common Dutch practice of opening, in order to reveal to our sight, the makings of the objects in their still lifes Whether it is edibles such as cheese, a pie, herring, fruit, and nuts, or collectibles such as shells, vessels, and watches, we are offered the inside, or underside, as well as the outer view. Cheeses are cut into, pies spill out in their fillings beneath the shelter of crust, herring are cut to reveal flesh as well as gleaming skin. Shells and vessels of precious metal or glasses topple on their sides (occasionally we even see the jagged edge of a broken goblet), and watches are inevitably opened to reveal their works to the probing eye not only by the technique of flaying them, but also by reflection: the play of light on the surface distinguishes glass from metal, from cloth, from pastry, and also serves to multiply surfaces . The underside of a vessel's foot is doubled by its reflection in the adjacent pewter plate. Each thing exposes multiple surfaces in order to be more fully present to the eye.

An interesting observation!  The 17th  C. Dutch seem to be unique in this regard - except for those who have imitated them.

Consider the lemon, one of the favored objects of Dutch vision. Its representation characteristically maximizes surface: the peel is sliced and unwound to reveal a glistening interior from which a seed or two is frequently discarded to one side. In the hands of Willem Kalf, particularly, the lemon offers a splendid instance of what I have termed division . The representation of the wrinkled gold of its mottled surface, with the peel here pitted, there swelling, loosened from the flesh and sinuously extended, totally transforms the fruit. We have never seen a lemon in this way before. Modern interpretations notwithstanding, Kalf's lemons are subject not to the ravages of time but to the probings of the eye.

An alternative interpretation would be that the half- peeled lemon is part of a half eaten meal -
along with the half-empty glass.  Which moves the theme from observation to involvement.

"in medias res" are the best moments of every meal: you're no longer famished, but there's still more enjoyment to come.

It's all about enjoying life. Dutch still life  typically did not depict fruits that could not  be eaten.

  Compare the lemons of Kalf to the lemons of Zurbaran. Here is the familiar significant shape: bumpy ovals slightly drawn in at one end and pulled out to a pointed protruberance at the other, the entire form a steady yellow. What is more, Zurbaran’s lemon is a solid object. It would fit into the hand, is graspable, and is piled with others of its kind to confirm its solid nature.

One might also say that Zurbaran's fruit is not there to be eaten.  Possibly it serves some higher, symbolic purpose.

Whatever other aspects there are to such works, it is clear that they are devised as a feast for the attentive eye. "But to resolve nature into abstractions is less to our purpose than to dissect her into parts," writes Bacon in the Novum Organum. The motto applies to Dutch stilllifes. It suggests further what they are willing to sacrifice-the selection of a single, prime, or privileged view ("abstraction," in Bacon's terms) that is empowered to summarize knowledge. In a memorable passage written some years later, John Locke specified the disturbing potentiality of the microscopic view: If that most instructive of our senses, seeing, were in any man a thousand, or a hundred times more acute than it is by the best microscope, things several millions of times less than the smallest object of his sight now would then be visible to his naked eyes, and so he would come nearer to the discovery of the texture and motion of the minute parts of corporeal things ... but then he would be in a quite different world from other people: nothing would appear the same to him and others.

Far from acknowledging that their vision engaged the sublime -for that is the different world" that Locke's remarks suggest -  the Dutch greeted their new sights with wonder and delight as offering new and concrete knowledge of the common world.

But I have yet to see a Dutch painting where objects have been cut too finely to be recognizable as an apple, herring, cheese, etc.

I am skipping most of this chapter because it does not involve works of art -- but the discussion of the Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Johan Amos Comenius is quite interesting.

Comenius has been credited as one of the founders of  modern public education, from kindergarten to post-graduate school -- an education based on understanding the natural world rather than scriptural teachings.  His method was to teach children with a book that distinguished one thing from another with pictures, as shown above.

His "Orbis Sensualium Pictus" is sometimes claimed to be the earliest known book written for children.

De Gheyn

Here's  how De Gheyn illustrates this kind of education. It was not yet institutionalized in the 17th C..

The religiously inclined might note that one orthodoxy has been replaced by another.  And judging from the illustrations in the Orbis Sensualium, the observational  orthodoxy may use images that are awkward and crude.  And they may present humans and human behavior as just one more natural phenomenon.

... especially this page - in the English version - which appears to be listing "creatures that make sounds  from the mouth" -- of which the human is one of many.

Quoting someone from that period, presumably Comenius : "To place the art of intellectual discipline on a firm basis" - one must - "assimilate the processes of art as much as possible to the processes of nature"

The example he offered was the builder and the bird.  Just a bird prepares a next for its chicks, the builder gathers together all of materials before beginning to work.

I'm not sure whether children would learn much from this - other than to practice reading - and the making of analogies - without reference to anything held sacred.  The book does have a chapter on religion - but it's as if God's world and the Natural world were two separate places one might live in.

David Bailly, Self Portrait with Vanitas Symbols,; 1651

A discussion of Francis Bacon ensures, with the above painting exemplifying it as follows:

"an assemblage of materials made by nature and worked by man. A catalogue - worked to reveal, or in Bacon's terms, to betray their nature: wood is shaped, paper curled, stone is carved, pearls polished and strung, cloth is draped -- they squeeze and mold nature to reveal her.. This for Bacon was a working definition of art or of craft: : "seeing that the nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of  art than in its natural freedom"

Art does not simply imitate nature, nor is it a play of the imagination, but rather it is the techne or craft that enables us, through constraint, to grasp nature. Man, humbled, made equal and childlike through the purgation of the idols of understanding,is at once the servant and the interpreter of nature and the prophet of a technology that will bring mastery. In a subtle yet powerful instrumental manner, art can lead to a new kind of knowledge of the world. Like the Baconian program, Bailly's pictorial assemblage resists summation or closure. Crafted objects themselves are subject to replication: the string of pearls discarded on the table reappears around the painted woman's neck; the gathered drapery of her painted dress is sculpted in stone at the breast of the bust beside her and also hangs over head in a swatch that frames our view; the leaves and petals of the rose are wrought in the metal of a tiny box. Such transformations also work through corresponding shapes: the painted lute hung above an empty palette whose oval shape mimics it only to be repeated in the pair of portraits on the table and the cover of the small box. Colors also correspond: a subtle gradation of tans relates the sculpted body of Sebastian, the skull, and the vellum of the book; the youthful bust is gray as is the female face faintly visible on the wall, and both are played off against the ruddy flesh tones of the young artist and the portrait. Set off against bodies of plaster, stone, and metal, the bony skull, and the images in paint, Bailly (for the man in the oval portrait is the painter himself) and the attendant youth appear as living flesh. But as we withdraw from this painted worid we must acknowledge that this youth, though realer again than the portraits is himself an image fashioned out of paint. X-rays reveal that in this picture Baiilly laid painted forms upon completed ones underneath.

The shadow visage on the wall and the portraits placed before it were in turn fully executed before further objects were placed over them. The layered design of the picture thus expresses or mimics the manner of its execution or craft. Bailly shows us art emerging into crafted objects from the shadowy female face against the wall. (Is this perhaps a reference to one version of the origin of painting as found in Pliny?)

By all these intricate devices, Bailly calls attention to various dimensions of craft and produces a dazzling mixture of making and deceit. His work could serve as an illustration of the definition of craft given by John Moxon in The Mechanical Exercises of 1677, his pioneering handbook on trades:

Handycraft signifies Cunning or sleight or Craft of the Hand which cannot be taught by words, but it is only gained by Practice or Exercise.

Moxon's book is famous for offering the first account of the printer'S trade but it contains much more.-- it is his quite casual linking of craft to deceit that calls to mind Bailly's Still Life. It is a nexus that is fully explored by seventeenth-century painters.

After giving more attention to Francis Bacon, Alpers returns to this painting

Bacon's treatment of the human arts serves remarkably well as a definition of Dutch pictorial art. This is in spite of the fact that Bacon does not of course refer to art in the specific sense of painting. But in the world of Dutch pictures, rather than claiming that the notion of experiment is indistinguishable from experience, one would rather want to say that human experience is dealt with in terms of pictorial experiments. What this means will become clear if we now consider the manner in which David Bailly inserts himself and his life into the objects of his still life.

Bailly painted his Still Life in 1651 when he was already sixty-seven, and shortly after he rose to become dean of the newly established guild of Saint Luke in Leiden. The work is a celebration of the artist's craft while also serving as a personal memorial and a legacy. It is possible that Bailly suffered a serious illness at about the time he painted this work. He is unaccountably marked "dead" in the guild records, though he was to live until 1657. It is appropriate to call the picture a memorial because instead of producing a self-portrait at his easel-a common Dutch format-Bailly introduces himself in the form of a portrait. He is one representation among others. The crafting of art and of self is presented as a seamless whole. (We should keep this model in mind later when we look at Vermeer's Art of Painting) Instead of doing a traditional portrait of himself at work, or including himself in the form of a portrait, Vermeer disappears into the very act of observation and painting. It is another way of absorbing the artist into his art.) Bailly's life and work are assembled in the objects on and around this table: the status of the youth and, indeed, the format of the still life with human actor (a format common in Antwerp) recalls his family's roots; the copy of a Venetian statue of Saint Sebastian recalls his Italian journey; the central rose, rolled paper, female portrait, the copy after Hals's Lute-player, the hourglass and skull were all objects previously crafted by Bailly for earlier works and represented here. Other objects as well might have ties to the artist's life. Bially married at a late age, remained childless, and seems to have intended this work as a legacy to a student. He puts himself and his art into the hands of the youth of serious demeanor-a younger artist, it has been suggested-who supports Bailly's portrait with one hand while taking up the maulstick with the other X-rays show that the maulstick was once pointing in the direction of the woman who is now but a dim shadow on the wall .

 The comparison that has been suggested with Sadeler's engraving after Sprangler's tribute to his dead wife confirms the memorial aspect of Bailly'S work, but serves to bring out the tremendous . difference between artistic modes. The Spangler is a work that engages a richly inventive allegorical mode, while Bailly's is one that instead displays craft.

I wish I could find a history of the interpretations of this painting!  Currently, every other interpretation on  the internet identifies the youthful artist as a self portrait and the attendant objects as symbols of mortality.  This makes more sense to me than Alpers' suggestion  that the young fellow is a student protégé of the older artist, and the objects are echoes of things the artist painted in earlier work.

Alpers interpretation may be a better fit for Bacon's notion of "experimentation", but it also may be unique to herself.  It certainly feels unlikely to me that the artist would combine references to his personal history with a portrait of a young,  un-identifiable student.

She might have placed  greater emphasis on the unusual variety of portraiture presented - including the sculpted bust and the  copy of the Hals - as well as that mysterious, ghost-like image peering through the half empty glass.  It seems no less a "richly inventive allegorical mode" than the Sprangler - just less conventional. (no putti)

What anger, envy, hate, or revenge can long torment his breast, whom not only the greatest, and noblest objects, but every sand, every pible, every grass, every earth, every fly can divert? (Thomas Sprat, from his history of the Royal Society)

Sprat here implicitly locates God in the details of His creation. Experiment with those details is thus grounded in creation itself.

I hope that with the picture before us and Sprat’s text at our side we can dispel the notion that Bailly’s painting is intended as a doctrinal assault on human pleasures in general and on the pleasures of craft in particular Yet it would surely be wrong to dispose in this way of the entire issue of mortality and transience that is raised by the paintings. From the rendering of each object to the ordering of the whole, Bailly keeps before our eyes the fact that this is but a picture - therein lies the ultimate fragility and transience. In a haunting way Bailly’s art seems to vie with the very fragility that it courts and admits. The consummation of his art produces bubbles, but bubbles as crafted that they will never burst. Transience is invoked less by the presence of emblems of vanity than by their status as crafted representations. Art is thus not challenged by a moral view, but lies at the very heart of that view. In saying this I am not making a modernist claim but one very much of the 17th Century. We can see Bailly’s Still Life as the pictorial version of a subtle yet powerful formulation of Bacon’s.

The inflated rhetorical style of Thomas Sprat is echoed in the Alpers' assertions - but they are not very convincing. 

What did Bailly present in this painting to assure us that it is "but a picture" ? Did he do anything that could not be found in every other still-life from that era?   How does a "crafted representation" invoke transience more than permanence?

Alpers does not mention the visual effects of design, but there is the uncomfortable feeling that the clutter of  objects in this painting are draining down to  bottom center of it.  Rather than offering a contemplation on what is eternal, the design seems to despair for what is being swept away.

So I would agree that it is not a "doctrinal assault on human pleasures".  It's more like a cry of personal despair.


Bailly's painting belongs in the company of the other great seventeenth-century pictorial meditations on the relationship of craft and art, picture making and deceit: Velasquez Waterseller, his Spinners and Las Meninas, Vermeer's Art of Painting and Dou's Quack. Rather than calling such works pictorial meditations, we should follow Bacon's lead and call them pictorial experiments.

Gerritt Dou, "The Quack", 1651

The phony pharmacist is contrasted with the true artist shown in the window  behind him.

Looks like he's demonstrating a new product on an infomercial. (order now, and we'll send two at no extra charge!)

A rather disgusting reference to the quality of what is being sold

The true artist is in the shadows.

A demonstration of skillful mimicry.

Lust is also lurking in the shadows.

So are thieves.

The artist didn't have to make this table so worn and life like

Endless convolutions in the dead tree - contrasted with the living tree surrounding the artist

Yes, this painting might serve as a "pictorial meditations on the relationship of craft and art, picture making and deceit"

Though I  can only  enjoy it in these magnified areas of detail.  As a whole, it did not capture my attention at last year's trip to the National Gallery.  It feels too small, cutesy, and broken.  Norman Rockwell probably loved it.

Velazquez, Waterseller, 1618

On the other hand, this appears to be a great painting.  I can see why its young artist took it with him to promote his career at the royal court. 

It takes a simple, everyday subject and makes it feel majestic, profound, and timeless.

It continues to provoke speculation concerning some deep, hidden meaning.

But I can't figure why Alpers has mentioned it in this context.

Here's the drops of water that several commentators have mentioned.

Bacon's definition of art among the human arts gives an account of making consonant with the nature of the picture that we have been exploring. It is less valuable as a definition of art than as a program for art as the production of basic knowledge of the world. Although Bacon's somewhat hectoring and repetitious definitions are a far cry from the intimate views given us in Dutch paintings, his program for texts on natural history shares certain basic things with them. Bacon too manifests an intense interest in the minutiae of the world. This is combined with an anonymity or coolness (it is as if no human passions but only the love of truth led him on) that is also characteristic of the Dutch. The world is stilled, as in Dutch paintings, to be subjected to observation. Detailed descriptions, compiled almost without end and fitted into the table, displace time, since each observation is separate from the next. Indeed, despite its title, or, provocatively, in the very face of its title, Bacon's natural history displaces history-at least that history of civil life which admits human activities and time and depends on interpretation. It is, like the Dutch art with which we have linked it, description, not narration.

The same might be said for the early Netherlandish painter, Jan Van Eyck, born 170 years before Francis Bacon, though his description was more concerned with qualities of light and form rather than surface texture. Nor were his works any more narrative. They just told a story that was more cosmic and less personal.

There is a problematic aspect to the painter’s relationship to a craft tradition that we touched on in our discussion of Bailly. The painter does not really weave tapestries, blow glass, work gold, or bake bread. He feigns all these things in paint. This is a source of pride, but it is also a source of a certain unease.

Dutch painters acknowledge this in various ways. Gerard Dou, in what is his largest and arguably his most ambitious painting, depicts himself as a painter, palette in hand, standing beside a quack who is hawking his false wares to a crowd. . It has been shown that a number of the people and objects assembled around the quack are re-presentations of pictured proverbs or maxims commonly found in Dutch books at the time. Dou culled and assembled a group of pictorial quotations with meanings roughly as follows: the seal hanging from a document on the quack's table says "what is sealed is true"; the mother wiping her child's behind, "life is but stink and shit", and the mother in her role as pancake-seller, "the seller's prattle is meaningless immoral talk"; the child vainly trying to trap a bird parallels the vain search for gold; and the two trees, one bare and one in bloom, the anguish of choice. In Dou's hands, the quack's performance becomes a pictorial occasion. But what kind of occasion and what kind of picture is this? The tone is witty and light. The execution is crisp and clear, making everything remarkably present to the eyes. The organization is that of an apparently casual assemblage of individual motifs. In the face of all this, the current argument for the picture as a doctrinal depiction of Aristotelian modes of living-the sensual quack versus the active farmer and the contemplative artist-is unpersuasive. Though it engages moral issues, the work is descriptive, not prescriptive. Dou's visual attentiveness to the individual maxims is the perfect counterpoint to Beeckman's verbal attentiveness to proverbs, which we touched on earlier. Human nature is treated as something visible. And Dou's characteristic way of assembling instances of human behavior has a decidedly Baconian flavor which we can call taxonomic. Each person does, or in the case of objects is, his own thing without any acknowledgment of his presence or, one might say, his narrative effect in the world. "People want to be deceived." As others have done, we might well apply this motto from a contemporarly Dutch engraving of a quack to this picture. But if we do, a strange thing happens. Are we and is the artist himself not also party to deception? It is not clear from Dou's image that anyone is exempt. Leaning out his window, in the shadow of the quack, Dou catches the viewer's eye with his own. The picture alerts us not only to the duplicity of the quack but also to the painterly one. It is another case of the Dutch artist absorbed into his paintcd world . 'I'he canvas is a mock up of the world. Far from disowning it, Dou is a kind of low and comic analogue to the high claims made by Velazquez in Las Meninas, implicates himself and his making of it.

Dou does not question all that we see, he rather alerts us to its circumstances. His dust free surfaces, most likely worked with the help of a lens, make the claim that beguiling surface is the stuff of which life and art are made.

I think Alpers  has nailed what distinguishes this painting - and why I don't like it.  It elevates  the importance of charming, petty, even disgusting detail -- much like the middle-brow  market for collectors' plates in our era.

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