Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Form and spirit in art

Piero della Francesca
And now for something completely different— I can't just dump 50 pages of practice materials all at once. So here is a piece of art writing that has been very important to me. It's a portion of a longer piece by Aldous Huxley, Meditations on El Greco; the excerpt released in Huxley's collected essays was entitled Form And Spirit In Art:

A painter or a sculptor can be simultaneously representational and nonrepresentational. In their architectural backgrounds and, above all, in their draperies, many works even of the Renaissance and the Baroque incorporate passages of almost unadulterated abstraction. These are often expressive in the highest degree. Indeed, the whole tone of a representational work may be established, and its inner meaning expressed, by those parts of it which are most nearly abstract. Thus, the pictures of Piero della Francesca leave upon us an impression of calm, of power, of intellectual objectivity and stoical
Cosimo Tura
detachment. From those of Cosimo Tura there emanates a sense of disquiet, even of anguish. When we analyze the purely pictorial reasons for our perception of a profound difference in the temperaments of the two artists, we find that a very important part is played by the least representational elements in their pictures—the draperies. In Piero’s draperies there are large unbroken surfaces, and the folds are designed to emphasize the elementary solid-geometrical structure of the figures. In Tura’s draperies the surfaces are broken up, and there is a profusion of sharp angles, of jagged and flame-like forms. Something analogous may be found in the work of two great painters of a later period, Poussin and Watteau. Watteau’s draperies are broken into innumerable tiny folds and wrinkles, so that the color of a mantle or a doublet is never the same for half an inch together. The impression left upon the spectator is one of extreme sensibility and the most delicate refinement. Poussin’s much broader treatment of these almost non-representational accessories seems to express a more masculine temperament and a philosophy of like akin to Piero’s noble stoicism.

In some works the non-representational passages are actually more important than the representational. Thus, in many of Bernini’s statues, only the hands, feet and face are fully representational; all the rest is drapery—that is to say, a writhing and undulant abstraction. It is the same with El Greco’s paintings. In some of them a third, a half, even as much as two thirds of the entire surface is occupied by low-level organic abstractions, to which, because of their representational context, we give the name of draperies, or clouds, or rocks. These abstractions are powerfully expressive, and it is through them that, to a considerable extent, El Greco tells the private story that underlies the official subject matter of his paintings.

Continued after the break:

At this point the pure abstractionist will come forward with a question. Seeing that the non-representational passages in representational works are so expressive, why should anyone bother with representation? Why trouble to tell a high-level story about recognizable objects when the more important low-level story about the artist’s temperament and reactions to life can be told in terms of pure abstractions? I myself have no objection to pure abstractions which, in the hands of a gifted artist, can achieve their own kind of aesthetic perfection. But this perfection, it seems to me, is a perfection without rather narrow limits. The Greeks called the circle “a perfect figure.” And so it is—one cannot improve on it. And yet a composition consisting of a red circle inscribed within a black square would strike us, for all its perfection, as being a little dull. Even aesthetically the perfect figure of a circle is less interesting than the perfect figure of a young woman. This does not mean, of course, that the representation of the young woman by a bad artist will be more valuable, as a picture, than a composition of circles, squares and triangles devised by a good one. But it does mean, I think, that Nature is a richer source of forms than any textbook of plane or solid geometry. Nature has evolved innumerable forms and, as we ourselves move from point to point, we see large numbers of these forms, grouped in an endless variety of ways and thus creating an endless variety of new forms, all of which may be used as the raw materials of works of art. What is given is incomparably richer than what we can invent. But the richness of Nature is, from our point of view, a chaos upon which we, as philosophers, men of science, technicians and artists, must impose various kinds of unity. 
El Greco
Now, I would say that, other things being equal, a work of art which imposes aesthetic unity upon a large number of formal and psychological elements is a greater and more interesting work than one in which unity is imposed upon only a few elements. In other words, there is a hierarchy of perfections. Bach’s Two-Part Inventions are perfect in their way. But his Chromatic Fantasia is also perfect; and since its perfection involves the imposition of aesthetic unity upon a larger number of elements it is (as we all in fact recognize) a greater work. The old distinction between the Fine Arts and the crafts is based to some extent upon snobbery and other non-aesthetic considerations. But not entirely. In the hierarchy of perfections a perfect vase or a perfect carpet occupies a lower rank than that, say, of Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, or Rembrandt’s Polish Rider, or the Grande Jatte of Georges Seurat. In these and a hundred other masterpieces of painting the pictorial whole embraces and unifies a repertory of forms much more numerous, varied, strange and interesting than those which come together in the wholes organized by even the most gifted craftsmen. And, over and above this richer and subtler formal perfection, we are presented with the non-pictorial bonus of a story and, explicit or implicit, a criticism of life. At their best, non-representational compositions achieve perfection; but it is a perfection nearer to that of the jug or rug than to that of the enormously complex and yet completed unified masterpieces of representational art—most of which, as we have seen, contain expressive passages of almost pure abstraction. At the present time it would seem that the most sensible and rewarding thing for a painter to do is (like Braque, for example) to make the best and the most of both worlds, representational as well as non-representational.

I don't agree with those concluding paragraphs: that there is a “hierarchy of perfections”, within which representational art is necessarily deeper and of greater value than non-representational work, or any other kind of work— a painting vs. a subway map, a coffee cup, a freeway overpass, or whatever. For me it's all about fulfilling a purpose, on the scale of that purpose. Yes, any given painting by Caravaggio is rarer and more special and historically important than the lava rock I have sitting in my office. The rock, blasted out of a volcano in central Oregon 7000 years ago, is not unspecial either, and I get to see it every day. The Caravaggio is not a replacement for it, and I don't need to render a judgment about the Caravaggio being “better” than it. The only standard I really care about is how well is this thing fulfilling its aesthetic purpose for me right now? 

And I don't see representational art as “abstract art plus”— as having added depth because of the literal subject matter. For me, that can actually degrade the work. I've seen many things that look great as long as I don't know what I'm looking at— when I figure out “what it's a picture of”, things that were suggested are resolved, and the subject matter begins to dominate the experience, and the picture falls apart. Of course, this happens with abstract work too, when the materials are too obvious— “Oh, this is just paint on canvas.” It's why sculpture generally doesn't do much for me. I need there to be a little bit of mystery.

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