17 May 2010

travelog II: craft and history

as my wife and i viewed uncounted paintings, sculptures, ceramics, carvings and precious objects in dozens of hallowed old piles -- in venice (accademia, ca' pesaro, ca' rezzonico, ca' d'oro, ca' mocenigo, pinault's palazzo grassi, santa maria della salute church, scuola grande di san rocco, scuola di san giorgio delgi schiavoni, doge's palace, santi giovanni e paolo church, san pantalon church, i frari church, santo mois church, san sebastiano church, querini stampalia foundation, jewish ghetto museum, naval museum, guggenheim museum, pinault's punta della dogana museum), verona (museo castelvecchio, palazzo forti, area archeologica del teatro romano), zurich (kunsthaus zürich), berlin (gemäldemuseum, kunstgewerbemuseum, neue nationalgalerie, german history museum, guggenheim gallery, pergamon museum, altes museum, the east side gallery), potsdam (sans souci palais, neues palais), amsterdam (rijksmuseum, van gogh museum, heritage amsterdam, rembrandt house) and london (national gallery, national portrait gallery, victoria & albert, hampton court house, tate modern, tate britain, british museum, kensington palace, windsor palace, foundling house museum, soane museum, royal art academy ["the real van gogh" exhibit and a fine exhibition of paul sandby watercolors], banquet hall, saatchi gallery) -- my sense of art broadened and ramified. the lockstep sequence of art history crumbled under the variety of regional schools, individual styles, personal talents and materials availability.

behind every item was a human life, a karmic path, a career. i discovered vigorous, superb, delicate, attentive talents completely unknown to me and omitted from the standard art indexes i consulted ... careers that spanned great style diversity or marched dutifully along a perfected path. art of high reputation that was awful, art of no reputation that was breathtaking. art in which the use of materials was alchemical and mystical, and art in which the use of materials was brutish and stupid.some of these items were flawlessly made and even after centuries were flawlessly preserved. others were not made to last, or had suffered neglect or damage that could not be repaired.

the effect of personal influence, via guilds, collections and museums, came into the foreground. copying and the study of individual artists by individual artists was rampant, from cranach copying bosch to rubens copying titian to lucien freud copying chardin. there was enormous variation in drawing skill, especially in portraits, and in coloring, especially in still lifes and landscapes: different artists emphasized different achievements. a whole rainbow of flesh harmonies, tokens of very different strategies for building and modeling paint color. "realist" styles that displayed an inventive mixture of realism, caricature, shadow drama, clinical light, decorative color or subdued palettes.

a hall of cast, sculpted, plated and handchased silver that extended along one entire side of the victoria and albert museum, and a museum of ceramics that brought together hundreds of items from the greeks to the modern britons in four large interconnected rooms -- each item a treasure in itself. a stone mason's clay pipe in a display case, dug out from a wall at hampton court that had collapsed in a fire and was rebuilt. a quilt composed entirely of alternating red and white, 3/4" hexagonal tiles of fabric, sown together in perfectly straight rows in all six directions, made as a convalescent diversion by a wounded soldier in a hospital in early 20th century england.

hundreds, thousands, millions of hours of labor, diligently completed for single clients in small communities, for large institutions, for famous collections ... all gradually handed down, consolidated and preserved as one more item in a display case or on a wall. hundreds of portraits of real people, real hearts and souls, now all dead. the sense weighed on me that time would eventually erase all things, and silence the praise of every excellence, and bring down the walls of every building.

i've mentioned the regrettable results of van gogh's negligent use of paint materials, but this is a theme that goes all the way back to leonardo's mummified "last supper" fresco in milan, which has been stripped of conservation additions and is now only bits of paint chips on a crumbling wall. frequent examples are the paintings by joshua reynolds completed after c.1790.



you might say, "wow, that's a crummy photograph. she's too yellow." but actually it's a pretty fair reproduction of the painting. reynolds was an extremely talented artist who was one of the first to get sucked into the materials experimentation that appears also in blake, in turner, and in many other english and french artists of the 19th century. (the germans, italians and spanish were more immune to the fads.) late in his career he adopted a carmine formulation that has disappeared entirely from dozens of his paintings. in london and berlin, you can spot a late reynolds portrait from across the room.

once i started looking for these mishaps, they turned out to be common. i found a large madonna and child by quentin massys (circa 1450), which at first glance was an extraordinarily cunning achievement in color realism -- the bread on a small table looked so real you could almost smell it. but beside the bread, some curiously pale and translucent cherries. again, the red (whatever it was) had faded over the centuries.

[detail, about 2 feet wide]

with a few clues like these, i began to see the "lateral craft" of individual painters -- not their "vertical craft" in the historical succession of styles, or career periods early and late, but in their use of materials and methods. some painters failed miserably across many paintings for many reasons (van gogh), some painters repeatedly failed in a single component (reynolds), and some painters in occasional details (massys). craquelure, varnishing, paint consistency, tonal balance (some paintings were inexplicably dark), edge control, pigment permanence; crude overpainting or painting in of objects and figures; the queer blueness of medieval distant mountains; the tint and depth of shadows; eyes that sat squarely in a man's skull or that seemed about to crawl out of their sockets. portraits by holbein that were crudely drawn and portraits that seemed traced in every detail from a photograph (yes, i believe hockney's thesis). i found dozens of ways in which painters could be distinguished from each other that had little to do with "art history" but a lot to do with personal innovation and skill, and the artist's economic resources within regional traditions of craft.

i recognized historical trends that i have not seen treated as a separate topic. the gradual coarsening of the brushstroke, accompanied by an incremental thickening of paint viscosity and density, was a kind of tectonic development across centuries. at first the transition from a flat picture surface to a fulsome impasto appears only occasionally, within the career evolution of painters like titian, tintoretto, rubens, hals and rembrandt; with hals the hasty brushstroke is more common in small works, with rembrandt it's more evident in his large works, such as his "jewish wedding". but it gradually becomes a pervasive feature of painting in the 19th century, and a hackneyed and limiting element of technique in the 20th century, coming to a disreputable terminus in the meretricious use of splatter and drip, and the concept that brushstrokes, by themselves and separate from representation and color, are a sufficient painted image.

oh cy twombly, how do you do what you do? [format: enormous]

many artists specialized in trademark challenges -- elegant fabrics, dewy flowers and reflective metals, stormy seascapes, twilight skies, animal portraits, estate portraits, political commentaries, dutch "guild" group portraits, full figure society portraits, children, domestic interiors, landscapes at night, cityscapes of specific cities, biblical stories, classical allegories, mythical scenes, social satire or sardonic commentary, the effect of candlelight in a dark room.

even after the late renaissance, when linear perspective was completely understood, it was not always used with good effect, but when it was, it often included a machinelike, manufactured quality. canaletto is astonishingly good at building a breathing, delicate and convincing illusion of aerial and optical perspective; but on close inspection one finds that he uses very simple, economical and efficient methods of delineation, coloring and simplification, applied systematically. by 1750, strategies of industrial manufacture intrude into the painting esthetic, not just as an optical image but as an assembled surface.

now the trend is the other way: in the venice punta della dogana and in the neues galerie in berlin, we saw several canvases by rudolph stingel that mimic on enormous scale what seem to be common, tiny amateur or tourist black and white photographs -- down to the scratches, fingerprints and creases. these were gradually built up of tiny blossoms of paint applied with a soft bristle brush, the reassertion of handicraft inducing an unexpected nostalgic, ominous and prophetic atmosphere.

[format: enormous]

at the other extreme, gerhard richter has recently turned to industrial paintings made by thickly and unevenly layering paint colors on a rigid surface and then scraping the paint down with a steel bar dragged back and forth, hundreds of times, over the painting. this parodies and automates the brushstroke, softening and partially compacting colors together, shearing down layers to the layers below, pulling color, "action" and representation from initially hidden variations in the density of successive paint layers.

[format: very large]

from canaletto to stingel, there is a long, complex and dynamic tension between handicraft and industrial esthetics, production methods and product applications. the workshop process too, just like the collaborative practices of printing and weaving, has been transformed behind the scenes -- from titian and rubens to dr. munro and ackermann to koons and murikami. many top drawer artists no longer produce their works entirely themselves: they delegate and administer the works as products of an organization.

the marvelous carved wood panels in the scuola san rocco, each representing a different theme, or iconic virtue or vice: who carved them? no one could tell me. yet there they are, full of life and humor, warm with centuries of careful polishing and refinishing by hands whose contribution was care and conservation rather than creation. astonishingly fluent and delicate carvings by grinling gibbons were sometimes placed high out of sight, tucked along the wainscoting of a pulpit, or sequestered in a private room.

the architectural interiors created an atmosphere that pulled some attributes into sharper view. the dim 18th century rooms in the querini stampalia, ca' rezzonico, ca' mocenigo or ca' d'oro, door jambs askew and creaky floors slightly tilted toward exterior walls, emphasized how difficult it must have been to make the diminutive sculptures and darkened paintings they had on display. the vast interior spaces of the punta della dogana, filled with artworks of huge scale or mind boggling repetition, felt desperately empty. the oppressive and dispiriting gloom of the "decadent" art on display in the berlin modern art gallery was amplified to an almost intolerable pitch by the arid and clinical museum building, designed by mies van der rohe. the same solid architectural craft that made the victoria & albert and british museums seemed to tame and scale down the wild perfection of the ceramic and silver galleries, and comfortably accommodate the huge exhibits of greek, egyptian and asian architecture. the rooms of the gemäldegalerie were color coded by art historical epoch -- a weird touch, since individual works (such as the van der weyden portrait in the previous post, some holbein portraits, a vermeer, and so on) seemed to float in a timeless space, fresh and immediate.

there is in humans an unrelenting urge to craft -- no matter that it's jeweling a silver chalice or or setting the stones in a church floor or pulling the last weed out of the garden or carving a flower out of cherry wood or making a madonna that seems to breathe or baking bread that scents a home -- craft is something we pursue almost without calculation of personal cost.

all those artists that we see from the outside, as a link in the chain of history ... they lived history from the inside just as we do, dimly aware of the past, unsure of everything far away, keeping close to routine, relying on family and friends, doing good work in spite of hardship, want and fatigue, and entirely ignorant of the future or the ultimate fate of their handiwork.

i had to discipline my cultural prejudice to "judge art" and instead see paintings from the individual and circumstantial point of view. these are not the products of movements or ideas, but of lives. i set myself to reconnect with the craft spirit, the joy of the hand, the cunning and patience instead of the reputation, and set aside the color codes and creaky floors of the critical and art historical rooms to which the artists have been ranked and consigned.

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