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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)…

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations David. I can't wait to see the final painting.