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08 March 2015


And Art Today

Recently the artist Nelson Shanks revealed a secret in the shadows of his painting of Bill Clinton:

The story rippled around the web, some reveling, some reviling. Apropos emulation, let me just offer as an antidote to Shanks’ rather too subtle, for-artists-only joke about the color of shadows, Titian’s famous portrait of Pope Paul III and his two nephews. A portrait for a sitting pope, kept in the family for centuries (thus its arrival at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples), with such almost painful depictions of the natures of each subject, involves cojones on par with Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner in 2006, and is hard to imagine pulling off today. But when artists thought more about the art of representation, its rhetoric and poetics, and dealt with the implicit decorum of classical portraiture, such inside jokes were not (as in the Shanks) the most interesting part of the painting. The Clinton portrait lacks any sense of composition (look how it slides off to the left, clipping the ionic column of the mantel), is rather blandly or neutrally lit, and seems almost obsequious in its youthful portrayal of its subject. Not here the penetrating portraiture of a Velazquez and his painting of Pope Innocent X, who exclaimed upon seeing it, “Troppo vero.” Too true, indeed. Realism has killed portraiture.

Instead, classical painting’s privileging of allegory, narrative, and the classical ideal makes for much more interesting, long-lasting stuff:

And once upon a time art had a meaningful relationship with the other arts, because they participated in a larger, comprehensive cultural weltanschauung:

So, save us from ourselves, or from those who want to save us, like Alain de Botton’s idea of what art is for:
He suggests a fifth way, therapeutic, so that in future the Tate could have as an objective to meet the psychological needs of the nation. He even goes so far as to outline seven psychological needs which could be met by art; remembering, hope, sorrow, re-balancing, self-understanding, growth, appreciation. But the key message repeated in different guises throughout his work is that we could all benefit from regular guidance; “despite the powerful elite prejudice against guidance works of art are not diminished by being accompanied by instruction manuals art has a clear function: it is a therapeutic tool to help us lead more fulfilled lives”. - See more at:

On where we are vis-à-vis the canon, here is Arthur Krystal, “What We Lose if We Lose the Canon”. But like most people today (obviously not attuned to his canonical authors' ways of thinking), he confuses imitation and emulation:
Too much veneration for Homer, Pindar, and the Greek playwrights; for Seneca, Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid would only compel modern poets to emulate them.
“Only” emulate them? I think the author means imitate, because there is no such thing as only emulating, emulation primarily being about rivaling, exceeding in some way or another. Dante “only” emulated Virgil...

One could argue architecture has a similar canon, in so much as it has affinities to the liberal arts; and while I don’t endorse the particulars I do wish more schools of architecture thought a bit like Harvard does about what they were doing.

Finally, what the camera did to painting the computer is doing to architecture:
The camera didn’t, in fact, kill painting. It begged the question of the value of realism, not of representation per se; but because realism and representation were becoming conflated and confused around the time the camera emerged, it was thought ceci tuera cela. Only when you lose the sense of what your art does, do you, in fact, let it die…

23 December 2014

Untrodden Territory

The Challenge of Emulation

Many art historians will be taken aback by the unapologetic nature of these proposals, but one can appreciate Mayernik’s book even while rejecting some of his premises because it offers something essential to discussions of Renaissance imitative practice: an insistence on the artists’ creative engagement with tradition.
Elena Calvillo, review of The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture, in Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2014, p. 1332

I’m pleased The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture was recently reviewed in Renaissance Quarterly (Winter 2014). The reviewer argues that what I cover in the book is “well trod,” but in fact during my research and since I have not come across much, if any, Renaissance or Baroque scholarship that explicitly and correctly uses the term “emulation,” with its sense of rivalry (i.e. aiming at victory, in the words of Erasmus): certainly no studies on the visual arts, apart from those on ancient Roman sculpture and Napoleonic painting, where emulation is the primary theme. I don’t think, in fact, historians are attuned to an emulative mode of thinking, precisely because, as the reviewer notes, the notion of advancement in the arts is foreign to them; historians are good at tracking down artists’ sources and precedents because it is not unlike what they do in the archives, but they don’t allow themselves to think in terms of better or worse, and don’t recognize artists’ competitive streak because they don’t share it (not to imply that historians aren’t competitive with each other, but it’s not as dominant a trait as it was for the artists they study). Anthony Grafton and James Grossman’s recent essay in The American Scholar is quite good on the humility required of the historical researcher.

Robert de Cotte, Palais Rohan, Strasbourg
Sine it’s been a year since the book appeared, it may be worth commenting on the difficulty I’ve found in getting the book reviewed, and even being invited to lecture on it by ostensibly sympathetic organizations like the ICAA (their Washington DC chapter being a notable exception, for which I’m grateful). I was also surprised to find at last February’s INTBAU conference Unpacking Pastiche that some of my colleagues, leaders in “traditional” architecture, weren’t troubled by the concept of pastiche, indeed proudly claim to practice it. Clearly, then, the notion of emulation is, if not only foreign to most contemporary classicists and traditionalists, in fact troubling. It seems to fly in the face of the deference they display to past heroes, even minor ones.

If pastiche is not as problematic as it should be for classicists, what about kitsch? Roger Scruton can’t help reveling in kitsch’s durability in the face of modernist condescension (recently for the bbc magazine, 15 years ago for City Journal), but surely an argument for tradition or the classical shouldn’t cozy up to the vulgarities of kitsch. Modernists were indeed right that, by the early twentieth century, much academic and representational art had become either maudlin or cloying, drained of intellectual force and inventive energy. That, though, is a problem of the nineteenth century, but does not apply to art of the eighteenth or earlier. So reconstituting representational art from its nineteenth-century residue is not the thing to do, and certainly claiming kitsch as a defense of representational art’s appeal doesn’t help either.

An unjustifiably forgotten book is Michael Greenhalgh’s The Classical Tradition in Art (1978)[1]. Greenhalgh argues for the idea of the classical tradition as effectively a product of the Renaissance; defines a living classical tradition as not slavishly devoted to the past; and locates the death of the tradition with Ingres (I might located it slightly earlier, but I too would position Ingres outside the idea of a living classical tradition). For some reason the Renaissance and Baroque are not today the defining periods for the classical that they were for Greenhalgh and his generation, even as they were for Gromort; and it is in large measure this that makes the idea of emulation anathema to contemporary classicists.

As we end a year and embark on another, here’s to the hope that the Renaissance and Baroque are re-appreciated for their essential role in the classical tradition. And that emulation is not feared, but embraced.


13 December 2014

The Cast Party

 Shadows of the Past 

The Bartolini Collection at Florence's Accademia Museum
The week after my talk at the British Institute’s Harold Acton Library on 3 December, I visited the Charles Cecil Studios in Florence, where wonderful work is being done in the legacy of Charles’ mentor R. H. Ives Gammell and his forebears. On my way to the train later in the afternoon I stopped by the Accademia Museum, happily relatively empty at this time of year. After the monumental Michelangelo work, the room of Bartolini casts had new resonance for me, with its recollection of the Romanelli casts connected to the Cecil Studios in Borgo San Frediano.

Casts have become, in the contemporary parlance, “a thing;” there is a site dedicated to them qua artifacts:
The Passagli Collection on Display at
Lucca's Palazzo Ducale

Once upon a time casts were models of excellence, the choicest examples of ancient and modern sculpture available in 3D for students, like the Passaglia collection at Lucca’s liceo artistico:

But at some point in the second half of the nineteenth century, they became white forms with complex shadows and reflected lights to be drawn meticulously in the academies; they were no longer models to aspire to, paragons of Bellori’s l’Idea del Bello, but merely forms in light to serve aspiring drawing students. That, in the end, is the difference between classicism and realism: the extent to which casts are 1. ideal models to imitate and emulate, and 2. more than stable figures without color. The casts are back after their near-eradication in the middle of the twentieth century, in particular at the many ateliers and so-called academies that have sprouted in the last two decades; but are they, in a paraphrase of the title of Michael Baxandall’s book, shadows or enlightenment?

POSTSCRIPT: The V&A's cast collection recently reopened, the media have their usual nonsensical take on things:
"Originally opened in 1873, the galleries were conceived as a definitive collection of great works from Europe, full-size fragments of exotic cathedrals and palaces, duplicated in London for all to see. It was an aristocratic grand tour for the armchair explorer, conveniently compressed into two rooms."

I'm sorry, but who ever entered the V&A's cast gallery and was deceived into thinking he had been transported to Florence, or thought that the Florentines had sold the David to the British? I suppose calling them "fakes" imparts an edge of, well, edginess that The Guardian is expected to deliver to its readers. Never mind the reality, here's the past.... Plus, the casts were, technically, not "duplicated in London" but in Paris, where some of the greatest casters were. And aristocrats still went on actual Grand Tours to Florence itself. Whatever.

17 November 2014

Emulation Talk at the British Institute in Florence

Emulate the Best

In anticipation of my upcoming talk at the Harold Acton Library of the British Institute in Florence, I thought I’d post this apposite extract from my favorite English poet, John Dryden:

Kneller's portrait of Dryden
Of various Parts a perfect whole is wrought;
Thy pictures think, and we Divine their Thought.
*Shakespear, thy Gift, I place before my Sight;
With awe I ask his Blessing e’re I write;
With Rev’rence look on his Majestick Face;
Proud to be less, but of his Godlike Race.
His Soul Inspires me, while thy Praise I write,
And like Teucer, under Ajax Fight;
Bids thee thro’ me, be bold; with dauntless breast
Contemn the bad and Emulate the best…
—John Dryden, “To Sir Godfrey Kneller, Principal Painter to His Majesty”, from Miscellanies (1694), in The Poems of John Dryden, ed. John Sargeaunt, Oxford Editions of Standard Authors, 1948, p. 168.
*Shakespeare’s Picture drawn by Sir Godfrey Kneller, and given to the Author

The talk is open to members of the Library, but joining the Library is rather straightforward, in person at the Institute.

An encouraging review of The Challenge of Emulation has been published by the Sacred Architecture Journal:

And here are some links to recent articles of interest: