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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.

And for a slightly different take on what’s wrong with the 3D digitizing of pairings, 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?

25 December 2013

XII.1 Buon Natale

Balthasar, Madonna & Child
Season’s greetings to the emulation-curious. The image of a relief is my attempt to match actions to words, part of a career-long struggle to embody Alberti’s multi-faceted artist. But it is, more importantly, a musing on Peace, on Cusa’s concordance of differences, and an homage to a new Pope who seems to be uniquely capable of matching mission and message. As I wrote upon his election, there is no inherent conflict between a poor church and Beauty; St. Francis himself knew that. For a sobering take on what happens when there is too much money sloshing around in the arts, I offer this from Jed Perl:


24 November 2013

XI. The Challenge of Emulation

Between Imitation and Invention

When settling on a title for my book on emulation in art and architecture, I wanted the publisher (Ashgate UK,) to include the word “Challenge.” Emulation is a challenge: it is challenging to understand, since most people don’t understand how it differs from imitation; it is challenging to adopt as a method, since those who discern in themselves (or are taught) a love of the past tend to revere it to the point of pessimism, not able to imagine how one might actually rival Bernini or Bramante; and it is challenging to practice, because the standard of achievement is not the pale approximation that most “traditional” artists and architects are satisfied with, but at least parity with a model, if not exceeding it. The point, as Quintilian suggested for orators, was that if one didn’t try to surpass a model, he or she would always be behind. And, for pre-Modern cultures, that was never enough. This aspiration to exceed explains everything from Roman sculpture to Gothic architecture to Renaissance painting to Baroque opera.

I hope this new book, now available, will recover for our culture that optimistic relationship with the past we once had, which has been lost since the late eighteenth century. It is the way out of a cultural morass that pins us between pessimistic imitation and naïve invention (there is certainly a form of invention that is not naïve, but that is for another book…).

I welcome comments on the book from engaged readers.

10 November 2013

Intermezzo: Real Problems

Classical realism, and other confusing epithets in the way of emulation...

With my book The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture due to be available from booksellers by the end of the month, I thought it might be useful to distinguish its argument from the current confusion about the aims of art and representation that has arrived with burgeoning figurative art movements....

Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s pendentives in the Gesù, spectacular examples of the 
painterly, idealizing mode of the grand manner of classical painting. 
They are not realistic, but they are compellingly verisimilar. 
They are also, paradigmatically, Painting.
Realism is a modern problem for the classical tradition. Opposed to the classical in so many ways—human form, subject matter, composition—realism is still for many an appealing alternative to inaccessible Modern art. Yet it is not itself a real alternative to Modernism, but its corollary, and in some sense its precursor. That contemporary realists call themselves “classical realists” betrays the confusion that creeps in when one sees all pre-Modern figuration as broadly “classical.” Confusion is there wherever the old distinctions—between classicism and realism, idealization and documentation—are treated as inconsequential. 

Confusion about means and ends is rife in this artist’s TED talk:

That body-painting is self-evidently different than painting the body is lost on a TED audience ready to burst boundaries. To them, no doubt, crying “foul” here would be pedantry. A parallel to this confusion is the current (small) wave of interest in art so real it can’t be distinguished from a photograph. As if human craft has been reduced to a pale simulacrum of what machines can do, and so we are amazed when the human artist can achieve a level of precision otherwise only possible by our machine-masters:

One should be suspicious that our culture so readily embraces both the excesses of Realism and the confusion of what “painting” actually means: it suggests some affinity, rather than opposition, between these artists' work and the current worldview. Given our worldview, that can't be a good thing.

The realists themselves are not much interested in what stood for centuries as the pinnacle of the figurative arts: history painting and its attendant idealization of the human figure, schematization of the individual figure within a larger compositional framework, and understanding of naturalism as a means, not an end. Before the nineteenth century, documentation of mere reality was primarily a form of training, never more than a technique or a tool, and never an end in itself.

Emulation in the classical tradition was about artists relating to artists. A modern artist friend recently asked me whether artists emulate Nature? But if we accept the definition of emulation as primarily rivalry, albeit by imitation, how in fact could an artist “rival” Nature? Frankenstein attempted to emulate Nature, and we know how that turned out. In terms of representation, and the invention of formal landscapes, artists and architects only emulated Nature in striving to perfect it, not replicate it or its processes. Artists primarily saw themselves vis-à-vis other artists, whether living or dead. Nature, and representation, was one of the means of emulating other artists, but never an end in itself.

Watch for The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture from Ashgate later this month.

07 October 2013

Emulation X.1 The Theater of Aspirations

The Carracci and their Models I

[The Carracci’s] art was not exclusionary, but synthetic, seeking to identify various excellences, identifying their different perfections, and then to assimilate them. They did not reject the canonical status of Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto, or Raphael, each of whom in his different way represented a classical and idealist art. They instead sought to assimilate to this canon the naturalistic and illusionistic canons of Venice and Emilia, exemplified with the examples of Titian and Correggio, and in so doing render the ideal with convincing verisimilitude.[1]

Annibale Carracci, Pietà
Perhaps no body of artists so substantively reshaped artistic practice and discourse as the two Bolognese brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci, along with their slightly older cousin Ludovico. The practice of emulation in the work and studies of the Carracci academy is, without a doubt, its most singular characteristic. While their reform of painting centered on drawing from life, that seemingly neutral exercise was not unmediated by artistic precedent and experience. On the contrary, their particular approach to disegno was rooted in connoisseurship, in which the ways one made contours and indicated shadow were shaped by a profound knowledge of the possibilities discovered by artists over the preceding century. The way they taught in their academy of Gl’Incamminati (those on the way) was competitive among the students, but also competitive with respect to the past and present; Agostino designed their impresa, whose motto Contentione Perfectus, ‘through competition perfected,’ suggests that the competitive aspect was an essential aspect of learning. Students were compared and evaluated vis-à-vis each other, and having one’s drawing recognized as the first, or second, or third in the group clarified without further comment what the standards were.[2]

            [T]he stylistic polemic in which the Carracci were engaged did not revolve simply around an opposition of naturalism to idealism as such, and that indeed their art sought to incorporate within itself both terms. On the one hand their painting was conceived as an optical technique for giving the illusion of reality, and on the other as an imaginative technique for presenting an idea.[3]

            It was in disegno that they apprehended and synthesized what they perceived to be the best of art until their time, and this mode of apprehending, a taste for particular aspects of drawing—like a firm, lively contour and nuanced hatching of shadows—gave them the tools to extend their art and potentially exceed all who had come before them. And while they trumpeted their own Emilian heroes like Correggio and among the Venetians especially Paolo Veronese, the paragons upon whom they turned these retooled artistic guns were inevitably Raphael and Michelangelo. In the Roman palace, that of the Farnese family, Annibale and Agostino had the opportunity to take on both.

            Annibale Carracci’s rivalry with Michelangelo and Raphael was not so much eristic as aspirational, in the sense that he was not interested so much in overturning as exceeding them. Part of this depended on separating out in their oeuvre those works that were exemplary by his standards from those that either went astray or led others astray; for example, with Michelengelo there was a perceptible gulf between his work before and after the Sack of Rome. Michelangelo’s own struggle with where to go with his art after a series of universally acknowledged peaks did not, for the Carracci, inevitably lead to different but equally good avenues, as modern historiography might want it. When artists achieve the stature of a Michelangelo, there is every impetus for us to justify whatever they did, even if it is not consistent with their other work and philosophy. Artists in their opinions of others are not so constrained. If one wanted a classical ideal of the figure in proportion, contour, and modeling, one found it on the Sistine ceiling but less so in the Last Judgment.

            The very clear impression created by Annibale’s Pietà is of Michelangelo’s Pietà existing in time, as though the Virgin, emotionally drained or unconscious, has released the body of Christ, allowing Him to slide from her lap. In other words, those parts of Annibale’s Christ that are different from Michelangelo’s Christ are consistent with changes occurring in real time and space: Were Michelangelo’s Virgin to relax her hold on Christ’s body, that side would fall precisely the way it does in Annibale’s Christ, and the same for the other arm and the rest of the figure.[4]

            Annibale’s respect for Raphael and Michelangelo at their best is evident in works of his that draw directly on those heroes of Vasari’s Third Age. A clear case is his painting of the Pietà, now in Naples, which derives quite deliberately from Michelangelo’s canonical sculpture in St. Peter’s. Carl Goldstein has clearly elucidated the way in which Annibale began with the marble (or his brother Agostino’s print of it), and then activated it, or rather set the scene in motion: Christ slides off of the exhausted Madonna’s lap, and now his head rests there, facing us rather than facing up; and she, for her part, while retaining her proper left hand in a position of pleading or supplication, now adopts a more mournful pose and expression than the somewhat passionless Mary of the marble. Much changes inevitably from marble to paint: from a highly polished and deeply undercut Carrara stone to saturated hues and chiaroscuro in oil; from the unity of two figures in stone to a distinct, beautifully complementary palette of Mary’s complex blue drapery and Christ’s still warm flesh tones, which begin to give way subtly at hands and feet to a deathly pallor (reinforced by the beginnings of rigor mortis in toes and fingers). Carracci also adds two rhetorical putti, one supporting Christ’s left arm while looking toward his companion pained by the crown of thorns. The latter, oddly enough, seems to be referencing Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard, which predates the Pietà by at least three years. The dark background may as well owe something to Caravaggio’s manner, whose paintings in the Contarelli Chapel in S. Luigi dei Francesi were being painted at roughly the same time. Those references are likely to be eristic, as the two artists were already perceived as representing opposing camps in early Baroque Rome.

            What is “better” about Annibale’s interpretation of the scene, by something like his own standards, than Michelangelo’s? His Madonna’s drapery ripples, folds, and follows her body more naturally and less obtrusively, reinforcing and focusing the composition (this is something which Bernini would later develop to even greater effect). He sustains Michelangelo’s rocky outcrop (a hint of the later non finito), but turns it from something ostensibly naturalistic (the raw stone of which the figures are carved) into more severe, cut blocks of the implicit tomb: these function as clear contrasts to the supple figures, heightening their relevance both compositionally and meaningfully. Mary is slightly older than her marble model, and her mournful expression (derived in part from the study of Correggio’s ability to capture emotion) makes of her a more expressive actor and makes the painting as a whole, therefore, more expressive. At some point, likely in the seventeenth century, two bronze cherubs were added hovering over the marble group, a Baroque response to what by then must have seemed a somewhat unanimated mise en scène (and may in fact have been motivated by Annibale’s painting).

drawings by David Mayernik

[1] Dempsey, C. 1986.  “The Carracci Reform of Painting,” in The Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Washington: National Gallery of Art. 247
[2] Flick, G.-R. 2008. Masters & Pupils. London: Hogarth Arts. 107–108
[3] Ibid., 246
[4] Goldstein, C. Visual Fact Over Verbal Fiction. 142–3