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16 August 2014

Emulation and the “Grand Manner”

Or, Why Realism Isn’t the Only (or Best) Way To Be “Classical”

I Quattro Compagni Martiri, S. Cresci in Valcava, Borgo S. Lorenzo, FI

I recently had the pleasure of painting a modest fresco for a rural church in Tuscany, a place where I’ve painted several others over the last decade and a half. While the actual painting process was rocky—from a first giornata that went from bad to worse, to a second (and ultimately only) giornata in a raging wind and rain storm—the reception two weeks later was lovely. Indeed, the communal dinner al fresco on 20 July was Italy at its best, from the community pitching in for everything from food to table setup (and cleanup), to the local priest singing vespers with harpsichord accompaniment, then to his blessing of the fresco, to his de-vesting for the subsequent concert of 18th century music where he played a fine violin duet with the harpsichordist. Beautiful, tasteful, exuberant, faithful, this is the Italy I romance and remind myself of constantly when I’m otherwise made aware of all her problems. Despite what some might say, the problem isn’t the Italians, it’s Italy (whatever that “geographical expression” means).

But since my stormy giornata resulted in a particularly painterly exercise in compressing four heads into one niche, I feel compelled to say something about the painterly, the Grand Manner, and the classical. And first I must acknowledge the truly remarkable flowering of realist technique happening mostly in America. It suits our “know-how,” “git-‘er-done”, demystification-of-everything mentality, recently in evidence in the frankly weird film Tim’s Vermeer. But it has almost nothing to do with what was understood as classical painting from the dawn of the Renaissance until perhaps J-L David at the end of the 18th century. While realism had a place in that tradition, a better word for what was valued was naturalism, the sense that what was represented appeared credible, natural. This was because most of what was painted, apart from portraiture, was actually invented—there was nothing in fact “real” about Correggio’s ceiling frescoes or Titian’s monumental canvases. They were, first of all, paintings, and secondly they were of scenes that had to be imagined, since they came from the Bible, or the lives of saints long gone, and not ordinary life out in the street. What mattered was that the paintings were beautiful (reality often is not), that they were iconographically decorous, and that they fit their architectural context.

The reason so few today think in these terms (I can’t even count on one hand the artists who think like I do) is that success is much more nebulous, and risky, when one privileges the act of painting instead of depicting follicle by follicle the hair on the head of a portrait from life. But, I’m sorry to say, that is rendering, not painting. One has only to get up close to a great Italian Baroque fresco to see the artist’s hand at work, creating from a distance the illusion of form but up close reveling in the act of painting itself. I suspect the reason so few artists today care to work that way is that so few connoisseurs are out there, unlike three hundred years ago, who can appreciate the art of it. Instead, most customers for realism want what the painters offer, something tending toward the photograph, but with just enough paint to suggest a human being made this: but not too much of that hand at the expense of counting the hairs on the figure’s head; or too much rhetoric to get in the way of a kind of quasi-puritanical minimalism.

Instead, my heroes are those titans of three hundred years ago who were in demand all over Europe—Baccicio, Giaquinto, Ricci, Pittoni, Tiepolo. Their work still impresses for its verisimilitude, but not its veracity. They were painters, and even the harbinger of doom for the Grand Manner and its regime of taste, Denis Diderot, said about painting:
"The value of creating resemblance is passing; it is that of the brush[stroke] which causes us to marvel in the moment, and then renders the work eternal."
—Denis Diderot, "Salon de 1763"
(Le merite de ressembler est passager; c'est celui du pinceau qui emerveille dans le moment et qui eternise l'ouvrage.)

Forthcoming: The Power of Images: The Iconography of the S. Cresci Frescoes