This is the textbook from the Art History course my wife took in college. Why did I read it? Because I like art. Here’s the stuff that speaks to me:
This is Sumerian, from about 2,600 B.C. It’s one of the earliest examples of assembled sculpture, in which the artist adds materials together rather than subtracting stone from a solid block to achieve his vision. It is “…an offering stand in the shape of a billy goat rearing up against a flowering tree. The animal, marvelously alive and energetic, has an almost demonic power of expression as it gazes at us from between the branches of the symbolic tree. And well it might, for it is sacred to the god Tammuz and thus embodies the male principle in nature.”
This is from a balustrade erected around the small temple of Athena Nike c. 410-407 B.C. It shows a procession of winged Nike figures (personifications of victory). “One Nike is taking off her sandals, in conformity with an age-old tradition, indicating that she is about to step on holy ground. Her wings—one open, the other closed—are effectively employed to help her keep her balance, so that she performs with consummate elegance of movement what it ordinarily a rather awkward act. Her figure is … strongly detached from the relief ground … and her garments, with their deeply cut folds, cling to the body as if they were wet.” What’s amazing about this to me is that it is stone, but that it looks exactly like wet fabric draped over a nude female figure. This was a particular style that was developed around this time. How did they do this?
This is the Barberini Faun, believed to be a Roman copy after a Hellenistic work of the late third century B.C., and an exploration of uncontrolled bodily responses. “A drunken satyr is sprawled on a rock, asleep in the heavy-breathing, unquiet manner of the inebriated. He is obviously dreaming, and the convulsive gesture of the right arm and the troubled expression of the face betray the passionate, disturbing nature of the dream. Here again we witness the partial uncoupling of body and mind...” I think what I like best about it is what I like best about all the sculpture I like. It’s realism, coupled with its underlying message.
This is Nike of Samothrace, a victory monument from the early second century B.C. “The goddess has just descended to the prow of a ship; her great wings spread wide, she is still partly air-borne by the powerful head wind against which she advances. This invisible force of onrushing air here becomes a tangible reality; it not only balances the forward movement of the figure but also shapes every fold of the wonderfully animated drapery. As a result, there is an active relationship—indeed, an interdependence—between the statue and the space that envelopes it, such as we have never seen before. Nor shall we see it again for a long time to come. The Nike of Samothrace deserves all of her fame as the greatest masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture.”
This (above) is a portrait head of an unknown Roman from around 80 B.C. It serves as a fine example of a unique but short-lived Roman style of sculpture that flourished around this time. The style contrasts strongly with the Hellenistic style also in use at that time. “Whereas the Hellenistic head (below) impresses us with its subtle grasp of the sitter’s psychology, the Roman may strike us at first glance as nothing but a detailed record of facial topography—the sitter’s character emerges only incidentally, as it were. And yet this is not really the case: the wrinkles are true to life, no doubt, but the carver has nevertheless treated them with selective emphasis designed to bring out a specifically Roman personality—stern, rugged, iron-willed in its devotion to duty. It is a “father image” of frightening authority, and the minutely observed facial details are like individual biographical data that differentiate this father image from others.”
This is the Milan Cathedral, by far the largest Gothic church on Italian soil, begun in 1386. There’s a lot of information in this book about church architecture. Almost too much from my point of view, but this is by far my favorite. “Its design was the subject of a famous dispute between the local architects and consulting experts from France and Germany. What they achieved can hardly be termed a genuine synthesis of Northern and Southern traditions; it strikes us, rather, as an uneasy—though ambitious—compromise, burdened with overly elaborate Late Gothic decoration but devoid of any unity of feeling. The façade in particular reveals its shortcomings very plainly…it…strikes us as little more than mechanical piling-up of detail.” An uneasy compromise, burdened with overly elaborate decoration but devoid of any unity of feeling. What a perfect metaphor for modern religion.
This is a Pieta from the early 14th century. Pieta is an Italian word derived from the Latin pietas, the root word for both “pity” and “piety”, which is used to describe any representation of the Virgin grieving over the dead Christ. “No such scene occurs in the scriptural account of the Passion; it was invented, rather—we do not know exactly where or when—as a tragic counterpart to the familiar motif of the Madonna and Child.” This Pieta “…is carved of wood, with a vividly painted surface to enhance its impact. Realism here has become purely a vehicle of expression—the agonized faces; the blood-encrusted wounds of Christ that are enlarged and elaborated to an almost grotesque degree; and the bodies and limbs, puppet-like in their thinness and rigidity. The purpose of the work, clearly, is to arouse so overwhelming a sense of horror and pity that the beholder will identify his own feelings completely with those of the grief-stricken Mother of God.” And that is does, I think, exquisitely well.
This is the Moses Well (1395-1406) by Claus Sluter at the Chartreuse de Champmol, a symbolic well surrounded by statues of Moses and other Old Testament prophets and once surmounted by a crucifix. The majestic Moses (all too blurry in the below photo found on the Internet) epitomizes the same qualities we find in Sluter’s portal statues: soft, lavishly draped garments envelop the heavy-set body like an ample shell, the swelling forms seem to reach out into the surrounding space, determined to capture as much of it as possible.
History of Art is both an art lesson and a history lesson. The book is organized into four main parts: (1) The Ancient World, (2) The Middle Ages, (3) The Renaissance, and (4) The Modern World. Each part is prefaced with a (relatively) short introduction setting the historical context of the art about to be explored. I’m going to quote the full introduction from The Renaissance because I love it.
In discussing the transition from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages, we were able to point to a great crisis—the rise of Islam—marking the separation between the two eras. No comparable event sets off the Middle Ages from the Renaissance. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to be sure, witnessed far-reaching developments: the fall of Constantinople and the Turkish conquest of southeastern Europe; the journeys of exploration that led to the founding of overseas empires in the New World, in Africa and Asia, with the subsequent rivalry of Spain and England as the foremost colonial powers; the deep spiritual crisis of Reformation and Counter Reformation.
But none of these events, however vast their effects, can be said to have produced the new era. By the time they happened, the Renaissance was well under way. Thus it is hardly surprising that the causes, the extent, and the significance of the Renaissance have long been a favorite subject of debate among historians, and that their opinions vary like those of the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant. Even if we disregard the minority of scholars who would deny the existence of the animal altogether, we are left with an extraordinary diversity of views on the Renaissance. Every branch of historic study has tended to develop its own image of the period. While these images overlap, they do not coincide, so that our concept of the Renaissance may vary as we focus on its fine arts, music, literature, philosophy, politics, economics, or science. Perhaps the only essential point on which most experts agree is that the Renaissance had begun when people realized they were no longer living in the Middle Ages.
This statement is not as simple-minded as it sounds; it brings out the undeniable fact that the Renaissance was the first period in history to be aware of its own existence and to coin a label for itself. (Those who believe that there was no such thing as the Renaissance admit this fact, but claim that the people who thought they were no longer living in the Middle Ages were deluded.) Medieval man did not think he belonged to an age distinct from classical antiquity; the past, to him, consisted simply of “B.C.” and “A.D.,” the era “under the Law” (that is, of the Old Testament) and the era “of Grace” (that is, after the birth of Christ). From his point of view, then, history was made in Heaven rather than on earth. The Renaissance, by contrast, divided the past not according to the Divine plan of salvation, but on the basis of human achievements. It saw classical antiquity as the era when man had reached the peak of his creative powers, an era brought to a sudden end by the barbarian invasions that destroyed the Roman Empire. During the thousand-year interval of “darkness” which followed, little was accomplished, but now, at last, this “time-in-between” or “Middle Age” had been superseded by a revival of all those arts and sciences which flourished in classical antiquity. The present, the “New Age,” could thus be fittingly labeled a “rebirth”—rinascita in Italian (from the Latin renasci, to be reborn), renaissance in French and, by adoption, in English.
The origin of this revolutionary view of history can be traced back to the 1330s in the writings of the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, the first of the great men who made the Renaissance. Petrarch, as we call him, thought of the new era mainly as a “revival of the classics,” limited to the restoration of Latin and Greek to their former purity and the return to the original texts of ancient authors. During the next two centuries, this concept of the rebirth of antiquity grew to embrace almost the entire range of cultural endeavor, including the visual arts. The latter, in fact, came to play a particularly important part in shaping the Renaissance, for reasons that we shall have to explore later.
That the new historic orientation—to which, let us remember, we owe our concepts of the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, and classical antiquity—should have had its start in the mind of one man is itself a telling comment on the new era. Petrarch’s plea for a revival of antiquity is extraordinary not for his veneration of the ancients—classical revivals, we recall, had been far from unknown in the Middle Ages—but, rather, for the outlook, strangely modern for his time, that underlies his plea, revealing him to be both an individualist and a humanist. Individualism—a new self-awareness and self-assurance—enabled him to proclaim, against all established authority, his own conviction that the “age of faith” was actually an era of darkness, while the “benighted pagans” of antiquity really represented the most enlightened stage of history. Such readiness to question traditional beliefs and practices was to become profoundly characteristic of the Renaissance as a whole. Humanism, to Petrarch, meant a belief in the importance of what we still call “the humanities” or “humane letters” (rather than Divine letters, or the study of Scripture); that is, the pursuit of learning in languages, literature, history, and philosophy for its own end, in a secular rather than a religious framework. Here again he set a pattern that proved to be most important, for the humanists, the new breed of scholar who followed him, became the intellectual leaders of the Renaissance.
We must not assume, however, that Petrarch and his successors wanted to revive classical antiquity lock, stock, and barrel. By interposing the concept of “a thousand years of darkness” between themselves and the ancients, they acknowledged—unlike the medieval classicists—that the Graeco-Roman world was irretrievably dead. Its glories could be revived only in the mind, by nostalgic and admiring contemplation across the barrier of the “dark ages,” by rediscovering the full greatness of ancient achievements in art and thought, and by endeavoring to compete with these achievements on an ideal plane.
The aim of the Renaissance was not to duplicate the works of antiquity but to equal and, if possible, to surpass them. In practice, this meant that the authority granted to the ancient models was far from unlimited. Writers strove to express themselves with Ciceronian eloquence and precision, but not necessarily in Latin. Architects continued to build the churches demanded by Christian ritual, not to duplicate pagan temples; but their churches were designed all’antica, “in the manner of the ancients,” using an architectural vocabulary based on the study of classical structures. Renaissance physicians admired the anatomical handbooks of the ancients, which they found very much more accurate than those of the Middle Ages, but they discovered discrepancies when they matched the hallowed authority of the classical texts against the direct experience of the dissection table, and learned to rely on the evidence of their own eyes. And the humanists, however great their enthusiasm for classical philosophy, did not become neo-pagans but went to great lengths trying to reconcile the heritage of the ancient thinkers with Christianity.
The men of the Renaissance, then, found themselves in the position of the legendary sorcerer’s apprentice who set out to emulate his master’s achievements and in the process released far greater energies than he had bargained for. But since their master was dead, rather than merely absent, they had to cope with these unfamiliar powers as best they could, until they became masters in their own right. This process of forced growth was replete with crises and tensions. The Renaissance must have been an uncomfortable, though intensely exciting, time to live in. Yet these very tensions—or so it appears in retrospect—called forth an outpouring of creative energy such as the world had never experienced before. It is a fundamental paradox that the desire to return to the classics, based on a rejection of the Middle Ages, brought to the new era not the rebirth of antiquity but the birth of Modern Man.
“The Temptation of St. Anthony (c.1480-90), one of [Martin] Schongauer’s most famous works, masterfully combines savage expressiveness and formal precision, violent movement and ornamental stability. The longer we look at it, the more we marvel at its range of tonal values, the rhythmic beauty of the engraved line, and the artist’s ability to render every conceivable surface—spiky, scaly, leathery, furry—merely by varying the burin’s attack upon the plate. He was not to be surpassed by any later engraver in this respect.” And from the British Museum website: “According to his biographer, the rigorous asceticism practised by St Anthony in the Egyptian desert allowed him to levitate in the air, where he was attacked by devils trying to beat him to the ground.”
The fifteen century rediscovered the sensuous beauty of the unclothed body, but by way of two separate paths. The Adam and Eve of Jan van Eyck, or the nudes of Bosch, have no precedent in either ancient or medieval art; they are, indeed, not “nude,” but “naked”—people whose normal state is to be dressed and who for specific reasons appear stripped of their clothing. Jacopo’s Adam, on the other hand, is clearly nude, in the full classical sense. So also is Donatello’s bronze David (above), an even more revolutionary achievement, the first lifesize nude statue since antiquity that is wholly free-standing. The Middle Ages would surely have condemned it as an idol, and Donatello’s contemporaries, too, must have felt uneasy about it; for many years it remained the only work of its kind. The early history of the figure is unknown, but it must have been meant for an open space where it would be visible from every side, probably standing on top of a column.
“The key to its significance is the elaborate helmet of Goliath with visor and wings, a unique (and implausible) feature that can only refer to the dukes of Milan, who had threatened Florence about 1400 and were now warring against it once more in the mid-1420s. The statue, then, must be understood as a civic-patriotic public monument identifying David—weak, but favored by the Lord—with Florence, and his wreathed hat as the opposite of Goliath’s helmet: peace vs. war. Donatello has chosen to model an adolescent boy, not a full-grown youth like the athletes of Greece, so that the skeletal structure here is less fully enveloped in swelling muscles; nor does he articulate the torso according to the classical pattern. In fact his David resembles an ancient statue only in its beautifully poised contrapposto. If the figure nevertheless conveys a profoundly classical air, the reason lies beyond its anatomical perfection; as in ancient statues, the body speaks to us more eloquently than the face, which by Donatello’s standards is strangely devoid of individuality.”
This is the Tomb of Leonardo Bruni by Bernardo Rossellino, c. 1445-50. It is a tribute to a great humanist and statesman. “…the deceased reclines on a bier supported by Roman eagles, his head wreathed in laurel and his hands enfolding his won volume, History of Florence, rather than a prayer book—a fitting tribute to the man who, more than any other, had helped to establish the new historical perspective of the Florentine Early Renaissance. On the classically severe sarcophagus, two winged genii display an inscription very different from those on medieval tombs; instead of recording the name, rank, and age of the deceased and the date of his death, it refers only to his timeless accomplishments: ‘At Leonardo’s passing, history grieves, eloquence is mute, and it is sdai that the Muses, Greek and Latin alike, cannot hold back their tears.’ The religious aspect of the tomb is confined to the lunette, where the Madonna is adored by angels.” Here’s what I like best about it. “The entire monument may thus be viewed as an attempt to reconcile two contrasting attitudes toward death—the retrospective, commemorative outlook of the ancients, and the Christian concern with afterlife and salvation.”
“Michelangelo’s magnificent assurance in handling such projects as the Campidoglio and St. Peter’s seems to belie his portrayal of himself as a limp skin in the Last Judgment. It is indeed difficult to reconcile these contrasting aspects of his personality. Did he, perhaps, toward the end of his life, find greater fulfillment in architecture than in shaping human bodies? In his last piece of sculpture, the Milan Pieta, he is groping for new forms, as if his earlier work had become meaningless to him. The group is a fragment, destroyed partly by his own hand; he was still struggling with it a few days before he died. The theme—especially its emotional content—suggests that he intended it for his own tomb. These two figures have no trace of High Renaissance rhetoric; silently hovering, they evoke the devotional images of medieval art. Like the master’s self-portrait, the Milan Pieta occupies an intensely private realm. Its plea for redemption is addressed to no human audience, but to God.”
Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley. “Watson, attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana harbor, had been dramatically rescued; much later he commissioned Copley to depict this gruesome experience. Perhaps he thought that only a painter newly arrived from America would do full justice to the exotic flavor of the incident: Copley, in turn, must have been fascinated by the task of translating the story into pictorial terms. Following [Benjamin] West’s example, he made every detail as authentic as possible (here the black man had the purpose of the Indian in The Death of General Wolfe) and utilized all the emotional resources of Baroque painting to invite the beholder’s participation. The shark becomes a monstrous embodiment of evil, the man with the boat hook resembles an Archangel Michael fighting Satan, and the nude youth flounders helplessly between the forces of doom and salvation. Copley may also have recalled representations of Jonah and the Whale: these include the elements of his scene, although the action is reversed (the prophet is thorwn overboard into the jaws of the sea monster). This charging of a private adventure with the emotional and symbolic qualities of myth is highly characteristic of Romanticism.”
“The Slave Ship is one of [Joseph Mallord William] Turner’s most spectacular visions, and illustrates how he transmuted his literary sources into ‘tinted steam.’ First entitled Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon Coming On, the painting compounds several levels of meaning. It has to do, in part, with a specific incident that Turner had recently read about: when an epidemic broke out on a slave ship, the captain jettisoned his human cargo because he was insured against the loss of slaves at sea, but not by disease. Turner also thought of a relevant passage from The Seasons, by the eighteenth-century poet James Thomson, that describes how sharks follow a slave ship during a typhoon, ‘lured by the scent of steaming crowds, or rank disease, and death?’ The title of the picture conjoins the slaver’s action and the typhoon—but in what relation? Are the dead and dying slaves being cast into the sea against the threat of the storm (perhaps to lighten the ship)? Is the typhoon nature’s retribution for the captain’s greed and cruelty? Of the many storms at sea that Turner painted, none has quite this apocalyptic quality. A cosmic catastrophe seems about to engulf everything, not merely the ‘guilty’ slaver but the sea itself with its crowds of fantastic and oddly harmless-looking fish.”
“Some ‘environments’ can have a shattering impact on the beholder. This is certainly true of The State Hospital by the West Coast artist Edward Kienholz (born 1927), which shows a cell in a ward for senile patients, with a naked old man strapped to the lower bunk. He is the victim of physical cruelty—his body is little more than a skeleton covered with leathery, discolored skin—which has reduced what little he had in him of mental life almost to the vanishing point: his head is a glass bowl with live goldfish, of whom we catch an occasional glimpse. The horrifying realism of the scene even has an olfactory dimension: when the work was displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum, it exuded a sickly hospital smell. But what of the figure in the upper bunk? It almost duplicates the one below, with one important difference: it is a mental image, since it is enclosed in the outline of a comic-strip balloon rising from the goldfish bowl. It represents, then, the patient’s awareness of himself. The abstract devices of the balloon and the metaphoric goldfish bowl are both alien to the realism of the scene as a whole, yet they play an essential part in it, for they help to break the grip of horror and pity—they make us think as well as feel. Kienholz’ means may be Pop, but his aim is that of Greek tragedy. As a witness to the unseen miseries beneath the surface of modern life, he has no equal anywhere today.”