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20 June 2013

Emulation: VI.3 America and Europe


the bozzetto or model
submitted for the competition
I’m winding up my last stab at edits of my book The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture (due out from Ashgate in November). And I am happy to say I won the competition to paint this year’s Palio for Lucca’s feast of San Paolino (to be celebrated with a crossbow competition on 12 July). Having a foot in both the US and in Italy is a privilege, and being able to contribute in some way to the culture that sponsored the Renaissance is at once daunting and invigorating. Lucca’s Compagnia Balestrieri may have recreated the palio competition only 39 years ago, but the commitment and pride they bring to their reconstituted tradition speaks of a connection to their past that is centuries old. Sometimes traditions have to be recreated from scratch. It is just so for classical artists.

I came across an article in the recent Vanity Fair by A. A. Gill on some Europeans’ penchant for bashing Americans. While I agree with the author that the bashing is blunt and ill informed, I might disagree with the assumptions that underlie his defense of Americans. Although he rightly makes a case for America’s European roots, like many on both sides of the Atlantic he sees the US’ great cultural accomplishment as extending the Enlightenment project to greater liberation from the Old World’s supposedly worn-out classical culture; and while we contributed much that was new to the visual arts and music, he also naturally makes the case for America’s preeminence in the sciences. Radical arts and progressive science are, in defense of America against European disdain, powerful arguments.

America has also produced great scholars of European culture, like architectural historians Henry Millon and James Ackerman; has valorized and helped sustain European culinary traditions in the persons of Julia Child and Burton Anderson; has been a major contributor in both sweat equity and money for the restoration of Europe’s cultural heritage; has built classical buildings that merit consideration as part of the Western canon; and has produced art in the context of the great figurative traditions of European painting in the persons of Benjamin West and John Singer Sargent.

Yet if those traditions that many still endorse are European in origin, so too is the radical Modernism that has so relentlessly worked at (and mostly succeeded in) obliterating them. America’s native architectural modernism was of a Sullivan and Wright kind, pragmatic in terms of technologies but still rooted in traditional forms, until European exiles brought something much more abstract to those shores. Our modern painting was ashcan realism until we became seduced by cubism and abstraction. If we embraced the imported architecture wholly—because it satisfied our pragmatism at least as much as our preferences for simplicity—and applied it on an unforeseen scale, it is no less European for that.

And about that there are not a few regrets. Artists in particular over the last couple of decades have striven to recover what we once knew about representation, and while England has a number of very able figurative artists, the US is home to a miraculous, burgeoning realist movement. Ateliers are everywhere, and publications like American Artist magazine disseminate a broad body of knowledge that has been recovered when it had not been sustained.

But if that recovery is colored by a decisively American penchant for pragmatism and mechanics—how to paint water, tricks for painting at night, five common mistakes in drawing the human form—there are some of us who want to recover the whole of the figurative tradition, whose pinnacle is the classical. One major impediment to that recovery is that there are precious few opportunities, clients, or markets for that kind of work.

the modified design
Which is why it is so exciting for me to be able to paint the palio for Lucca this year. Here is not only a subject—the patron saint, the fourth centenary of the city walls’ completion, crossbowmen in costume—but a public purpose to art that we mostly lack in America. The banner will be carried around town all day leading up to the nighttime competition, a display that challenges any artist to give her or his best. And many artists once did: Raphael’s first major independent commission was for a processional banner for Città di Castello, and Guido Reni painted an important one for Bologna, the Pala del Voto.

When the Palio is presented to the pubic sometime before the actual event I will share the final painting here. In the meantime, I am sharing the bozzetto, or model, submitted for the competition, along with some progress photos of the final work which I'll publish periodically. Some changes to the model were requested, not the least of which was the image of a crossbow (balestra)…

09 June 2013

Emulation: VI.2 Sights and Sounds

Concert in the Cathedral of Lucca Marking the Restoration of a Painting

Last evening, in the cathedral of Lucca, an incredibly beautiful concert was given by the relatively newly-formed group VoxAlia. What I found especially notable was the integration of the visual and aural, first by the presentation of the newly restored painting and altar of The Visitation (the painting by Jacopo Ligozzi, 1596), the altar surround a revised version of a design by Giorgio Vasari. Standing by the altar, adjacent to the chapel of the Volto Santo, the new cathedral rector Don Mauro Lucchesi first introduced Archbishop Benvenuto Italo Castellani with some apposite words on the arts and culture in the church; after the bishop spoke, the scholar in charge of the restoration, Dott.ssa Antonia D'Aniello presented a bit of its history; she was followed by a spokesman for the restoration team. Then we moved on to the pews for the concert, under the direction of Livio Picotti. 

The singers entered from the sacristy singing a solemn chant (not in the program), after which they assembled at the altar in a circle to sing Hildegard von Bingen’s O Viridissima Virga, the musical quality highlighted as much aurally as visually by their formation. The program was organized around readings from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Life of Mary, and while the music was mostly Monteverdi and before a discordant note was introduced with Poulenc’s Litanies a la Vierge Noire (why must modern sacred music be so anguished and harsh, even ugly?). Each section of the program was introduced by the readings, which were accompanied by the presentation of a relevant icon painting to the assembled, processed from the altar down the central aisle. Finally, with the inevitable encore (they are de rigueur in Italy) the group moved again, singing as they went, to the altar to conclude the evening.

Maestro Picotti’s credits list him as architect-musician, and his dual background showed in his attention to the spatial and visual dimensions of the music. With Early Music the recovery of something like the original effect of the music is usually confined to the musical, but the spatial and visual accompaniment are no less essential to revivifying music that deserves to be heard as often, and as well-performed, as possible. To imitate the lost original sense of the music one almost must, perforce, emulate—attempt to rival by working to integrate as much information and sense experience as possible.

03 June 2013

Emulation: VI.1 Humanism, Humanities, and the Utilitarian

Let Others Rail...

Two recent essays, in the very different sources of The New Republic and The New Criterion, say many of the same things about the state of the humanities and humanism in contemporary, dare I call it, culture. I recommend them, and in some ways wish I had written them myself. But I would only offer, vis-à-vis the arts, that the same utilitarian mentality that seems to be driving our universities, public policy, and even philosophy (how often is an intellectual position justified on the basis of its utility?) is just as prevalent in the arts, where the mechanics of realism and the coding of urbanism substitute for the richer culture of art and building we once had (albeit centuries ago).

"Perhaps Culture is Now the Counterculture"
A Defense of the Humanities
by Leon Wieseltier | May 28, 2013
For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life….

JUNE 2013
Ave atque vale
I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness, as though not only the students but also the world was born yesterday, a feeling that they are attached to the society in which they live only incidentally and accidentally. Having little or no sense of the human experience through the ages, of what has been tried, of what has succeeded and what has failed, of what is the price of cherishing some values as opposed to others, or of how values relate to one another, they leap from acting as though anything is possible, without cost, to despairing that nothing is possible. They are inclined to see other people’s values as mere prejudices, one no better than another, while viewing their own as entirely valid, for they see themselves as autonomous entities entitled to be free from interference by society and from obligation to it….