Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Western art: Two grand narratives

Viewed in the broadest possible terms, the story of Western art since the end of the Middle Ages reveals two grand narratives. The first is naturalistic, the second antinaturalistic.

It is generally accepted that the Renaissance is marked by a series of devices that made depictions more lifelike. For the relatively flat, unmodulated presentations typical of medieval art, the new artists substituted a series of technical devices that created greater verisimilitude. Among these are linear perspective and aerial perspective, achieving a successful simulation of depth, and chiaroscuro, which served to model figures in the round.

Masters of the seventeenth century, preeminently Caravaggio and Velázquez, Hals, and Rembrandt, achieved a fuller presentation of light and shade, capturing the complexity inherent in many varied scenes.

In the view of E. H. Gombrich, author of Art and Illusion (1960), the most sustained analysis of the development, the final achievement occurred in the art of John Constable. That painter developed a technique of recording light that revealed showed the English countryside with a new and convincing verisimilitude.

Others would say that Constable did not go far enough, and that the full potential of light in nature was not captured until the work of the French impressionists. Here, though, there is a paradox, for while the Impressionist technique of plein-air painting did capture the effect of light with new vividness, the division of the brushstrokes brought a new sense of art as artifice. By directing our attention to what was happening in the picture plane Impressionist practice opened the way for the second great narrative. Unlike the first, this was antinaturalistic. Its final goal, some came to believe in the early years of the twentieth century, was abstraction.

The Impressionist enlivenment of the surface was to be continued by most other movements of advanced art. It contrasted with the established academic practice of the glassy, “licked” surface, which created the effect of looking through a window at reality. With the new brushwork the window itself became the theme.

In his “Little Fifer” Edouard Manet had shown that it was possible to break the unity of figure and ground, as his figure floats almost effortlessly against a neutral background.

Paul Gauguin and especially the Fauve artists coming after him used color for its own sake, feeling free to use colors that did not naturally occur in the motif.

Paul Cézanne began to depart the accepted norms of perspective, though in a subtle way. His example was the basis for the much more radical experiments in spatial fragmentation.

These changes coming-—so it seemed—-pell-mell constituted the second great narrative, which in effect repealed the results of the first. They signified that a painting was not a window into reality but an artifact the essence of which lay in its physical being.

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