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ORGANIC DEVELOPMENT AND ART

STYLES, a lecture delivered at The University of Malta, December 16, 2005.

By Paul Henrickson, Ph.D. ©2005

Maestro John Galea has asked me to do something I have wanted to do for some for
some time so no volitional problem exists.

The problems that do exist are ones of approach and condensation. Since these
factors are enveloped in “time” we will begin now.

At a time when Europe wasn’t really “europe” but a collection of small communities
more or less successfully trying to emerge from the cataclysmic collapse of the
Roman Empire and the arrogantly emerging presence of “Barbarian” consciousness
upon the world stage the history of the visual arts inform us that “civilized” man
took refuge in hieratic “divine” and cultic images. Well, that response is not
surprising in itself for the drawn or made (sculpted) image has been with man from,
it seems, the very beginning. Certainly it must have been with man since before God
told him not to make any.
Page from the Book of Kells, c.596 AD
Venus of Willendorf, c.23,000BC

From the comparisons of these two works the artists’ attitude toward representation
of the human figure seems not to have followed a single line of development. The
intervening 23,596 years give no evidence supporting a view that the artistry applied
to the representation of the human figure had undergone refinement. In light of the
fact that somewhere between those two dates the technical ability to render the
human form had achieved an impressive level of accomplishment
However, in the case of the situation in which we find European man in the 9th
century, the same approximate time that we learn that the blood type AB first
appears in Europe coming out of the East, an odd and very intriguing coincidence,
we think we might see how man is represented as emerging, somewhat stiffly, out of
a northern world-view entanglement. We might, as well, equally observe that the
“classical” Mediterranean mind was as well aware of its own dis-ease and
conceptually collapsed support when it created works such as the “Laocoon” as
excellent as its technical execution is it urges us to accept some irrational and
unacceptable provisions. n.b. the ways in which the artist had chosen to represent
generational differences. We are asked to accept the proposition that our
grandfathers should be three times our size since they are thought to be older, wiser
and more important than we.
The Laocoon, c.160 BC
To jump several centuries forward to the time when Michelangelo conceived the
imagery for the …..where, he too, has employed a rationally inconsistent imagery to
make a point..although the point is not the same and may be found doctrinally
unacceptable. The real point that we must make is that the artist selects to distort,
whatever reality there may be, for reasons of expressive force.
Michelangelo Buonarroti: “The Pieta”, 1499 A.D.

Between the 9th and 15th centuries, approximately a half millennium artists were
making a series of highly creative adjustments to their perceived social
environments. One of these is fortunately preserved in the sixth century San Vitali
in Ravenna where we see the severely hierarchical mosaic work presenting the
Emperor Justinian during a ceremonial function.

San Vitali mosaic: Emperor Justinian, 6thC A.D.

The Baroque is believed to have emerged out of the Renaissance. It did, of course,
do exactly that, but how is the emergence demonstrated in the works available to us.
From my point of view it is the Sistine Chapel that very dramatically demonstrates
the creative power of an age as exemplified in one individual, Michelangelo
Buonarotti and specifically in two works, the ceiling of that chapel and its altarpiece
“The Last Judgment”.

Out of the disciplined and contained awareness expressed by Renaissance formalism
comes the boisterous self-confidence and adventurous spirit of the Baroque. In the
life’s work of Michael Angelo we see somewhat hesitant, cautious explorations into
the possibility of sending a more emphatic message by showing how the simple
device of overlap (see diagram overlay)* can show us to think “out of the box”. The
basic structure of Michael Angelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
shows a strong architecturally painted grid within whose spaces occur various
depictions of Biblical scenes. Only occasionally has the artist allowed a figure to
overlap, obscure or otherwise break into the purity of the geometric shape he had
created as a container for the subject of the work within.
Michael Angelo: Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-1512.

I need to divert somewhat in this discussion at this point and to make an effort to clarify some
misconceptions. It is often stated that in the sophisticated development of graphic representation
certain graphic devices succeed certain others. For example, the making of a stick figure generally
precedes that of making a figure having a certain breadth to the body (see illustrations 1. & 2.). Such
changes in representation, it is thought, indicate a growth in the individual’s awareness and in his
technical ability to solve certain graphic goals. I have no problem with that explanation except when
it is used inflexibly as an absolute.

The mention of the overlapping device in Michel Angelo’s Sistine chapel would appear to be a novel
graphic invention in an effort to depict one object in front of another as, for example where it does
not take place in the 6th Century Byzantine mosaic of the Emperor Justinian. One might conclude
that in the intervening millennium the use of this device had not been known. That would be an
error. For an indication of that we need only look at the frescos of Massaccio, or the wall painting of
Ancient Rome that pre-date the Byzantine by several hundred years. For that matter we may wonder
about the level of graphic sophistication in the artist who chiseled the petroglyph of the two flying
birds that lies just a few miles south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. While we do not know, for sure, the
date of this petroglyph we do know that, in general, there had been no evidence of a large body of
work in the area during our historical period structure which dates from the 15th century onward
that would suggest this device had been in general use. Consequently, the conclusion that it was a
happy accident, and a timely fluke, is acceptable. The discovery that one can indicate spatial depth
by means of overlap was not taken up then and, in general, not during the Byzantine period and, by
an large, not done so until Michelangelo resorted to it in the Sistine chapel with the very notable
exception of Massaccio’s “The Tribute Money” of 1427 which predates the Sistine Chapel by nearly a
century. This evidence allows us, I believe, to discard the idea of an organic development of graphic
representation as a measure of aesthetic sophistication. By the way the cautious use of overlap in
Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel can be seen in those draped and seated or lounging figures which
punctuate either side of the central longitudinal panel the runs the length of the chapel.
Petroglyph south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Date unknown.

The choice to use overlapping forms and human forms in spiraling or in opposing
positions was made, however, in the following century and it is the job of the art
commentator to try to figure out why that change was made when it was made when
the option had been there all along.

About a century after Michelangelo along comes Gian Lorenzo Bernini 1598-1680
who really dispenses with the containing parameters of the Renaissance
composition. I do not have the images to illustrate this concept in painting but I do
in sculpture with two Davids and one Daniel.
Michel Angelo: David
Bernini: David
Bernini: Daniel, 1650

Certainly one of the outstanding changes in the relationship between the observer
and the sculpture is that the politer distance between the two that is established with
Michelangelo no longer exists with Bernini who, by his energetic disposition of the
body in motion has now presented the observer with some sort of potential threat. Is
David going to forget that we, the observers, are not the Goliath he is destined to
slay? The spectators’ involvement is much more intense with the work of Bernini
than with Michelangelo and, to the degree that that is so Michelangelo is much
closer to the classical Greek representations of two millennia earlier than he is to the
man who came a century later.

I can accept the claim that in the century which followed Michelangelo the zeigeist,
to borrow a term from the Germans, allowed this expository, theatrical behavior,
perhaps, it was even needed, as some have suggested because of the reformational
threat the intellectual work of the monk Martin Luther presented to the continued
dominance of the Roman Catholic church.

Schematic cube image diagramming the progress of aesthetic approach to
composition both prior to and during what is known as the Baroque period,
generally the 17th Century. In general, figure one shows the containment of the
subject matter, figure two illustrates the beginnings of a break-up of the
containment principle and #3 shows us the dissolution of the containment principle.

Greek Kourii (archaic)

I believe that now I have presented enough data for you to obtain the understanding
that it is not the artist’s technical ability that makes the difference in his work but
his understanding of what is possibly given his concept of his work. Although, it
should be stressed that there are numerous “beginnings” of representational
attempts taking place in widely separated sites and at different times. The one thing
that the works such as the Venus of Willendorf, the Laocoon and the Bernini had in
common is that the artist-craftsman had made close visual observations of natural
phenomena. While all these efforts are admirable and the results, in some cases
astonishing, we should not suppose that they constitute the major virtue in artistic
Roman portrait: unknown

expression for were factual visual representation to be accepted as the primary end-
goal of such activity we would find ourselves, as did the Romans of the Empire in an
artistic dead-end. (see portrait above). As a matter of fact since it seems now quite
within the human being’s grasp to make very exact duplicates of himself in both
physical appearance and motor behavior that the real purpose of human existence
might come more sharply into focus.

It is in this regard as well, that we must now consider why it is that throughout the
history of artistic production we see periods where the technical prowess of an artist
to represent the reality perceived as the outside world is the supreme measuring tool
by which the merit of his work is measured.

On the other hand we seem to detect periods where other considerations dominate
and the viewers’ attentions are drawn to other qualities of artistic production. It
would seem, then, that fidelity to the appearance of things is really not the only and
certainly not necessarily the primary objective of image making, nor is it, from time
to time, even considered relevant. For that matter, it is quite often considered to be
undesirable. It is the reason for these responses that should be of concern to the art
critic and the art historian.

In the conventional view of a linear interpretation of art history the next remarkable
development or, perhaps, some might term it “decline” in popular expressively
interpretative styling was a period called the “Rococo”. I do not know precisely who
coined that term nor what exactly he had in mind, but the accepted explanation of
the term is to be found in the French word “rocaille”, meaning “shell-like”. I would
suppose that one’s use of any descriptive term would have its origins in one’s
experiences and to the extent that one’s experiences with shells might have been
limited to the delicate mother-of-pearl like color nuancing sometimes associated
with shells the appellation is acceptable. If, however, one has ever shaved a beard
with a sharp shell or had one’s arm or leg caught by the vise-like grip of a giant
clam, or poisoned by the cone shell one’s view might be altered and the entire
history of art changed in its terminology by those experiences.

As we look at the works of Watteau and Fragonard and compare their aspects to the
work, say, of Caravaggio a century earlier we can easily detect the dramatic
influences the Frenchmen accepted from the Italian, but we can, as well, take note of
the obvious attempts at what realtors refer to as a “gentrification” of a
neighborhood.

Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721); “Mezzetin”
Caravaggio( 1571-1610) “Amour”

Here there should be little argument that the major figure stands out in sharp relief
from the darkened background in an obvious effort to underscore that figure’s
importance to the artist’s intent. It might also be possible to say that the intent of
both artists was to picture a moment of seduction. In the Watteau the mode of this
seduction is more by music and verse, which, as viewers, we do not experience, than
it is by the human body, which, as viewers, we do experience at least vicariously in
the Caravaggio.

This reduction in the force and manner of the message of seduction is mirrored even
further in the work of Fragonard where the reality of the persons depicted
(“Minerva”, for example) is reduced to the image of a beautiful young girl wearing
the costume of the Warrior Goddess. The Warrior Goddess is not there except by
some highly remote reference.
Fragonard: “The Goddess Minerva”

This portrait of exhausted passion as it got played out over the course of two or
three hundred years may have been one of the causes for a turn toward what some
theorists have called the “classical” Greek and Roman imagery.

Some of this alleged “classical” influence, very minor indeed in its importance in
Rococo works, limited, in this work by Gianbaptist Tiepolo (1696-1770), “The
Banquet of Cleopatra” to largely merely the title of the work
and perhaps four columns with elaborate Corinthian capitals. Certainly this
Cleopatra was not the other Cleopatra and the entire image speaks of a tremendous
conceit on the part of its patrons. The major formal accomplishments, by formal I
refer to the means by which an artist achieves his effects and not to the subject
matter as such, is an astonishingly effective contrast in values in the Tiepolo
painting showing Brutus and Asruns Porcena in conflict. (see below) and in thee
sculpture of Falconet (1716-1791) of the unwise and boastful Milo of Croton. I am
certain that in this last example, there was no moral lesson intended by the sculptor
directed toward his audience, on the contrary, the sculptor was probably offering up
what was intended to be a delightful, dilitantische diversion…. so was part of the
ambient mindset which, in part, may account for this period’s political movements
in both France and the United States.

I will have to give Breshnjev credit for his observation to the American Realist
painter Jaime Wyeth not to misjudge the power of an image when Wyeth enquired
why this Communist leader was so disapproving on non-objective art. Now, it is up
to us as art critics and observers to pursue that suggestion even further
Falconet: Death of Milo of Croton
Tiepolo,G.B. Death of Brutus
Jaime Wyeth: “Wolf fish”

Some of these so-called “returns” took on some rather surprising characteristics.

There are some historical commentators, art historians, that is, who are content to
refer to the art productions of the 19th century as “the neo-classical”; “neo” to
distinguish this (generally the late 18th through 19th centuries) from the earlier
“classical” period, that is the period of Greece and Rome.

I have never been comfortable with the term “neo-classical” although I have used it
as a matter of convenience in casual reference only. My contention is that this entire
period, which continues, even to day by the way, as an intensely “romantic”
period…”romantic” in the “classic” definition of that term because it refers to a
mind set distant in both time and space. Many of these works were produced in
France, and in America as well as Britain referring to an historic period in the
central Mediterranean area some two millennia earlier. The term “classical” or
“neo-classical” can be used mainly to describe the subject matter references and not
the dominating organizational characteristics except with two major exceptions:
Puvis de Chevanne and Paul Cézanne. Most artists do not seem to care as intensely
about the classical structural organization of the works they produce as these artists
do. Here the terms “classical” and “formal” tend to merge and to become less clear
in the ways in which they are used in discourse.
Puvis de Chavanne (1824-1898)

Paul Cézanne: (1839-1906)“The Mill Stone”

Whereas the mature work of Puvis de Chavanne and Paul Cézanne who admired
him can be said to be characterized by a degree of remote analysis others, such as
the American Benjamin West, the Frenchman Eugene Delacroix and the Norwegian
Dahl and the German can be to have involved themselves with their subject matter
and presumably intended to involve their observers in the subject matter with a
remarkable degree of passion. This passion is essentially unclassical and for that
reason alone the use of the term “neo-classical” should be avoided as it can have
only a very imprecise meaning.
Eugene Delacroix, (1798-1863) “The Barque of Dante”

Caspar David Friedrich, (1774-1840): “Two Men Looking at Moon”
J.C.Dahl: “View of Bergen”

Benjamin West: “Moses and the Promised Land”

It may seem a bit of a conceptual stretch to compare West’s painting with Charles
Sheeler’s photograph of the Park Row Building in New York, but NOT if what one
understands that in both cases the artists have withdrawn an interest in the literary
subject matter and applied it to
the formal aspects of composition. Or, if some prefer a purer (because it is a painting
and not a photograph) comparison with his painting of the New York urban
environment.

Sheeler “The Church Street El”

One of the characteristics of creative artists, especially, in these later, more recent
periods, seems to be that they may respond with some rapidity and with some
palpable feeling to earlier solutions of other artists, and, in some cases to their own.
An example of this last shift is the work of the Norwegian Edvard Munch.

In Munch’s portrait of Hans Jaeger he has proved himself quite undeniably
technically competent. In his “portrait” of the “Dead Mother” and “Puberty” he
had abandoned the use of technical proficiency, which may have, had he employed
it, distracted the viewer from the message of awesomely deep despair in the first
instance and fearful and questioning confusion in the second. If Munch has
contributed anything creative to the vocabulary of vision it is that the material
evidence of the artist’s actual physical mobility in placing pigment to canvas is as
intrinsically as much a part of the message as any gesture a mime might make in
transmitting his meaning. This discovery has, I believe, permanently separated
technique as practiced perfection from technique as message carrier.
Edvard Munch: “Portrait of Hans Jaeger”
Munch: “The Dead Mother”
Munch: “Puberty”

Now, having broken the connection between artistry and subject matter some artists
followed what they thought were some of the logical extensions of this divorce. One
of them, Barnett Newman, is represented by the following two works:
Barnett. Newman: “Voice of Fire”
Barnett Newman: “Being”

Well, like the young man standing in a concentrated gaze we may be left considering
what it is we should be looking for and, if nothing else, Newman has left us with
several questions of a philosophical nature which may lay the ground work for a
serious reconsideration of the purpose of art and the nature of aesthetic response.
Should one ask the question that if there is little evidence of sensual stimulus in the
work of art is it the responsibility of the observer to search for it?