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12 April 2012

Inventing the Sublime

For many men are carried away by the spirit of others as if inspired, just as it is related of the Pythian priestess when she approaches the tripod, where there is a rift in the ground which (they say) exhales divine vapour. By heavenly power thus communicated she is impregnated and straightway delivers oracles in virtue of the afflatus. Similarly from the great natures of the men of old there are borne in upon the souls of those who emulate them (as from sacred caves) what we may describe as effluences, so that even those who seem little likely to be possessed are thereby inspired and succumb to the spell of the others' greatness.
—Longinus, On the Sublime, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, XIII, 2.

Andrea Lilio, from an Allegory of Confidence
catalogue cover
The Art Institute of Chicago has mounted a spectacular show of Italian Renaissance and Baroque drawings (until 8 July). Many collected over the last decades by amateur aficionada Anne Searle Bent, these records of the inventive process are eloquent testaments to the importance of graphic facility in arriving at solutions to paintings and architectural compositions. Calling the show “Capturing the Sublime,” the museum has implied, and reinforced often in the magnificent catalogue, the notion that artists “captured” beauty by means of observational drawing. While drawing from the life was certainly an indispensible part of an artist’s formation and ongoing training, it simply is not true that credible figure drawings were always, or even primarily, drawn from the live model. On the contrary, the phenomenal foreshortenings required of ceiling frescoes, for example, precluded posing a model; or consider cherubs, like the spectacular sheet of five animated amorini by Baciccio that graces the back cover of the catalogue—what child would ever sit still long enough to capture such contrapposto? The Baciccio drawing in the show of a shackled slave seen in foreshortening, and meant for a curved ceiling surface, is perforce a work of the mind, not the model.

Baciccio, from the catalogue back cover
No, artists of the Renaissance and Baroque were obliged to know the figure well enough to be able to invent it, spin it around and suspend it in the air or drop it in a valley. It is this that sponsored those drawing books of parts of the body to learn by heart, and inspired Tiepolo to invent his Fantastic Heads (of which there is a lovely example in sanguine in the show). I may be one of the few figurative artists out there who would rather train students to invent the figure than become themselves “slaves to the model” (as Pietro Bellori called Caravaggio). I would have also called the AIC show Inventing the Sublime, since these sublime works can not be “captured.” They can, though, be emulated.

Baciccio, Ceiling of the Gesù