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16 August 2014

Emulation and the “Grand Manner”

Or, Why Realism Isn’t the Only (or Best) Way To Be “Classical”

I Quattro Compagni Martiri, S. Cresci in Valcava, Borgo S. Lorenzo, FI

I recently had the pleasure of painting a modest fresco for a rural church in Tuscany, a place where I’ve painted several others over the last decade and a half. While the actual painting process was rocky—from a first giornata that went from bad to worse, to a second (and ultimately only) giornata in a raging wind and rain storm—the reception two weeks later was lovely. Indeed, the communal dinner al fresco on 20 July was Italy at its best, from the community pitching in for everything from food to table setup (and cleanup), to the local priest singing vespers with harpsichord accompaniment, then to his blessing of the fresco, to his de-vesting for the subsequent concert of 18th century music where he played a fine violin duet with the harpsichordist. Beautiful, tasteful, exuberant, faithful, this is the Italy I romance and remind myself of constantly when I’m otherwise made aware of all her problems. Despite what some might say, the problem isn’t the Italians, it’s Italy (whatever that “geographical expression” means).

But since my stormy giornata resulted in a particularly painterly exercise in compressing four heads into one niche, I feel compelled to say something about the painterly, the Grand Manner, and the classical. And first I must acknowledge the truly remarkable flowering of realist technique happening mostly in America. It suits our “know-how,” “git-‘er-done”, demystification-of-everything mentality, recently in evidence in the frankly weird film Tim’s Vermeer. But it has almost nothing to do with what was understood as classical painting from the dawn of the Renaissance until perhaps J-L David at the end of the 18th century. While realism had a place in that tradition, a better word for what was valued was naturalism, the sense that what was represented appeared credible, natural. This was because most of what was painted, apart from portraiture, was actually invented—there was nothing in fact “real” about Correggio’s ceiling frescoes or Titian’s monumental canvases. They were, first of all, paintings, and secondly they were of scenes that had to be imagined, since they came from the Bible, or the lives of saints long gone, and not ordinary life out in the street. What mattered was that the paintings were beautiful (reality often is not), that they were iconographically decorous, and that they fit their architectural context.

The reason so few today think in these terms (I can’t even count on one hand the artists who think like I do) is that success is much more nebulous, and risky, when one privileges the act of painting instead of depicting follicle by follicle the hair on the head of a portrait from life. But, I’m sorry to say, that is rendering, not painting. One has only to get up close to a great Italian Baroque fresco to see the artist’s hand at work, creating from a distance the illusion of form but up close reveling in the act of painting itself. I suspect the reason so few artists today care to work that way is that so few connoisseurs are out there, unlike three hundred years ago, who can appreciate the art of it. Instead, most customers for realism want what the painters offer, something tending toward the photograph, but with just enough paint to suggest a human being made this: but not too much of that hand at the expense of counting the hairs on the figure’s head; or too much rhetoric to get in the way of a kind of quasi-puritanical minimalism.

Instead, my heroes are those titans of three hundred years ago who were in demand all over Europe—Baccicio, Giaquinto, Ricci, Pittoni, Tiepolo. Their work still impresses for its verisimilitude, but not its veracity. They were painters, and even the harbinger of doom for the Grand Manner and its regime of taste, Denis Diderot, said about painting:
"The value of creating resemblance is passing; it is that of the brush[stroke] which causes us to marvel in the moment, and then renders the work eternal."
—Denis Diderot, "Salon de 1763"
(Le merite de ressembler est passager; c'est celui du pinceau qui emerveille dans le moment et qui eternise l'ouvrage.)

Forthcoming: The Power of Images: The Iconography of the S. Cresci Frescoes

16 July 2014

Emulation and Invention

Disruption and the Can(n)on

A bit of filler blog until I have some art to post…

From The New Yorker recently, which, like a stopped clock, is occasionally correct:

Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readers—obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors.

Forget rules, obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal. If you start a business and it succeeds, Linkner advises, sell it and take the cash. Don’t look back. Never pause. Disrupt or be disrupted.

“The Disruption Machine
What The Gospel Of Innovation Gets Wrong.”
by Jill Lepore
The New Yorker
June 23, 2014

Here's Harper’s, less recently, and slightly less often wrong:

In a word, Marcus and Sollors are wrong. “Literary” does not refer to “what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form,” and literature does not encompass every book that comes down the pike, however smart or well-made. At the risk of waxing metaphysical, one might argue that literature, like any artifact, has both a Platonic form and an Aristotelian concreteness. Although examples of imaginative writing arrive in all sizes and degrees of proficiency, literature with a capital L, even as its meaning swims in and out of focus, is absolutist in the sense that all serious writers aspire to it. Although writers may be good or bad, literature itself is always good, if not necessarily perfect. Bad literature is, in effect, a contradiction. One can have flawed literature but not bad literature; one can have something “like literature” or even “literature on a humble but not ignoble level,” as Edmund Wilson characterized the Sherlock Holmes stories, but one can’t have dumb or mediocre literature.

“What Is Literature?
In Defense Of The Canon”
By Arthur Krystal
Harper’s Magazine
from the March 2014 issue

And from The Atlantic, some wrong-headed analysis of truisms about the modern mind:

When Joseph Schildkraut, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, studied a group of 15 abstract-expressionist painters in the mid-20th century, he found that half of them had some form of mental illness, mostly depression or bipolar disorder; nearly half of these artists failed to live past age 60.

“Secrets of the Creative Brain”
Nancy Andreasen
The Atlantic
June 25, 2014

To put it in perspective, how many artists committed suicide before the nineteenth century?

Finally, did you know that Leonardo was a loser? Never mind that the filmmakers use Michelangelo’s Last Judgment to illustrate a piece on Leonardo:

Allora, tutto chiaro?

30 May 2014

Healthy Rivalry


And it seems to me that there would not have been so fine a bloom of perfection on Plato's philosophical doctrines, and that he would not in many cases have found his way to poetical subject-matter and modes of expression, unless he had with all his heart and mind struggled with Homer for the primacy, entering the lists like a young champion matched against the man whom all admire, and showing perhaps too much love of contention and breaking a lance with him as it were, but deriving some profit from the contest none the less. For, as Hesiod says, 'This strife is good for mortals' (Works and Days 24, at Perseus). And in truth that struggle for the crown of glory is noble and best deserves the victory in which even to be worsted by one's predecessors brings no discredit.[1]

One of the dangers of describing what figurative artists or classical architects do as “traditional” is that it carries a whole lot of baggage from the nineteenth century about ego-less artists, pre-Renaissance craftsmen toiling away by habit and diligence. Apart from the fact that this accords little even with what actually happened in the Middle Ages (see my post from 2011), it doesn’t account for the change (or better, evolution) in the arts or architecture that is the very meat of what constitutes their history. If Modernism presumes, and I think it does, a preoccupation with being modern, its supposed antithesis traditionalism presumes instead stasis, “timelessness” in the sense of being disconnected from time. Now, if you’re one of those who thinks the Renaissance was the beginning of Modernism, read no further; but if you, like me, think that the Renaissance and Baroque offer the best alternative to both Modernist ugliness and traditionalist mediocrity, I would like to account for and encourage our competitive streak.

To see that competition in action there is no better place than Florence. While it’s fashionable to disdain the idea of the city on the Arno as the birthplace of the Renaissance, I think it indisputably is that (even though one has to acknowledge the role of cities like Ferrara, Milan, and Venice). And beyond the place of humanist studies in Florence I would accord that city the palm for reinvigorating classical art because of its relentless critical culture. The Florentines were famous for their “good eye and evil tongue,” which meant they could spot both the good and the bad, and they knew how to say it devastatingly. This did not hurt artists’ self-esteem as we would be so afraid to do, but it gave them pause before they put their work up for criticism. Implicitly, we are talking about a public art—even the art of the Medici’s private realm was seen by many, especially those who wielded a public pen. And we are talking about having rational standards of accomplishment and judgment.

But competition in a city like Florence wasn’t primarily about tearing down, it was about pushing, stretching, advancing. In a competitive culture with actual standards of Beauty artists know what they’re aiming for, and their predecessors and colleagues provide measures of achievement (not today’s data-driven “metrics”). I can tell you from my own experience that, whether it is in learning a language, drawing the figure, or designing an urban plan, having someone to aspire to makes me better. Some thoughts on how this worked (and didn’t) in Florence can be found in my book from Ashgate, and as of 4 June on the Artist Daily blog.

[1] Longinus, On the Sublime, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, XIII, my italics

01 May 2014

Learning from Pienza

Pius Emulation

TASIS has posted a series of videos about their campus design here. This one discusses the role of Pienza as a model for thinking about the relationship of buildings to landscape, of urban space and community, and the role of rhetoric in architecture. All in 2 minutes and 41 seconds.

Shoutout to Michele Josue for making the video.

16 March 2014

Back to the Opera

Haymarket Opera company’s Actéon

altar dedicated to Diana on the rightmost periaktos
Once again I had the pleasure of painting sets for a Haymarket Opera company production, this time of Charpentier’s Actéon with a pastoral prelude of Le Jugement de Pan and an interspersed divertissement (all orchestrated by Ellen Hargis). For Actéon a new set, a woodland scene, complemented the reused pastoral set from Orphée. Research into the cult of Diana in the Roman world informed details like the ruined altar, and the woods were meant to be understood as the other side of the temple-crowned hillock of the pastoral. The Chicago press appreciated the performance, and with regard to the audience’s appreciation I quote John Van Rhein’s review, a hopeful metaphor for the possibilities of public appreciation of classical imagery and culture generally:

The urge to breathe fresh contemporary life into these forgotten musical gems from the late 17th century speaks directly to the artistic mission of Haymarket Opera Company. The enterprising Chicago troupe did so again with its super-stylish performances of two delightful pastorales by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, "Acteon" and "Le Jugement de Pan," over the weekend at Mayne Stage in the city's Rogers Park neighborhood...

As with every Haymarket recreation, there was an interesting paradox at work. While the performers adhered to an artificial vocabulary of declamation, movement, gesture and facial expression – meticulously drawn from French singing and acting manuals of the period – everything was done with such fluid elegance that it didn't come off as musty or quaint – indeed, the studied poses and other period refinements took one directly into Charpentier's world. It was a nice place to visit.

The Chicago Tribune review is available here

the Chicago Classical Review here

and the Sun Times review here

You can see a clip from the forthcoming video about the Actéon production by Garry Grasinski here.

09 February 2014

London Talks About Emulation

I’ll be speaking in London next Monday at INTBAU’s conference Unpacking and Rethinking “Pastiche”, and Tuesday at Notre Dame’s London Center. Both talks are open to the public, but Notre Dame requires reservations (see flyer image), and INTBAU’s talk will be the last of a group of three.

21 January 2014

Kitsch. It’s very much alive and well.

Why emulation isn’t (kitsch, or so alive and well).

I will be speaking on The Challenge of Emulation (An Antidote to Pastiche) at the INTBAU College of Traditional Practitioners conference in London on February 17:

Pastiche and Kitsch are out there, they are real, and classical artists and architects should worry about them. They seem to flourish in a culture seduced by both technology and realism:

Why are these supposed marvels of digital manipulation, to my mind at least, pointless, saccharine and just plain awful? Is it the music? The chirping birds? The choice of Bouguereau? The 19th century paintings generally? Arguably those paintings, with or without the digital manipulation, are already kitsch. But techno-kitsch is the modern version. It fits right into our engrained predilections for realism, sentimentality, and titillation. Our emulative culture ended partly because art became industrialized and replicable: blame Josiah Wedgewood, or Sévres. Combine that with Romantic sentimentalism, a rather base penchant for realism (“You can see every hair on her head!”), and a growing sense that anything digital is good, and you get hyper-real, sentimental, pseudo-classic art. We marvel at technical achievement. We seem to have a limited capacity to appreciate the nuances of manmade imperfections, the multi-sensory aspects of a phenomenal world, the notion of critical distance—no matter how verisimilar—that Old Master classical art establishes between us and the subject. What, in the end, ever happened to taste?

And hasn’t anyone read Umberto Eco’s “Travels in Hyperreality”? Or didn’t they get it? I find all digitally-generated imagery kitsch—architects’ “renderings,” cgi filmmaking, Photoshop collages—because they feign reality in such a naïve way. Bernini, instead, knew that his remarkable portraits in marble could never (despite what his acolytes said) re-present their subjects. He said himself that if we covered a person in white powder (made them look like marble) we wouldn’t recognize him or her. He simultaneously strove for remarkable verisimilar rendering of flesh in stone, and acknowledged that, in the end, we are still looking at a block of marble worked into an image.

The producers of kitsch—and they are now legion, empowered, and seemingly undeterable—don’t recognize that their screens are not paintings, their digital images are not substantial, or that there is some value in acknowledging the presence of an actual medium—as the painter who favors brushstroke does vis-à-vis the canvas.

Kitsch is the industrialization of tradition. Its antidote is craft. Its nemesis is emulation, not imitation, of venerable Masters.

For a dose of poetic reality, watch Roberto Benigni pay homage to Dante. Brilliant.

And for a slightly different take on what’s wrong with the 3D digitizing of paintings, from Jonathan Jones:
A new film animates classic artworks by Caravaggio and others to try and shake them out of passivity. But isn't that where their power lies?