I liked Sheila's idea of a cyber-fireside chat, so here we are! And, if you're not in the picture, please join us :)
My existential journey continues as we all gaze into the fire and contemplate the fuzz in our navels. For those of you who are just now joining us, I'm looking into the roots of Western art theory in order to better understand the influences on my own thoughts and work so that I can examine them, evaluate them, and advance to improve my work. So far, we've covered the Ancients, Medieval art, and part of the Renaissance. The "map" for my journey is the book Art Theory: An Historical Introduction by Robert Williams. Someone, please put another log on the fire and pass the wine ...
When I last wrote, Alberti had laid the foundation for modern art theory way back in 1435 A.D. Now, there's a man with a vision! For today's post, I'll finish the Renaissance. Obviously, I'm leaving out a great deal of Williams' facts and ideas from his book to cherry-pick what is relevant to influences on my art.
This brings us to Leonardo daVinci (1452 - 1519 A.D.). He extended Alberti's theories to elevate the status of painting to a "science." By that, he meant a philosophical activity that combines inductive and deductive reasoning. This was a big deal, because, prior to this time, the status of painters was beneath that of poets and philosophers. As the late, great Rodney Dangerfield would say, those artists "don't get not respect!" Leonardo claimed that painting could arrive at "truth" - which is something that philosphers had claimed that only philosophy could do. Don't we think that way today? Don't we believe that painting reveals a "truth" and that artists should be held in high regard? We have Leonardo to thank for that.
Then, along came Humanism - the cultivation of universal values inspired by the study of classical antiquity. Among the Humanists was an Italian named Giorgio Vasari, who published the book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1550. In it, Vasari demonstrated that the progress of art up to that point includes increasing naturalism, increasing beauty, more persuasive storytelling, and greater expression of abstract ideas. He concluded that DESIGN is what unites the visual arts and makes them unique to all other disciplines. His contribution to us through this work is to formalize and contextualize the history of art which elevates its status even more. So, it looks like we artists today are standing on a pretty good foundation. But, these are only the first few stones.
Another Italian named Giavanni Paolo Lomazzo published a book entitled Treatise on Painting in 1584 that further defined and formalized art. He divided painting into seven elements:
Sound familiar?? Yup, even today we consider these elements important when we construct a work of art.
All this came from Humanism. According to Williams: Humanism gave art the tools with which to extend its reach into and over culture as a whole, to establish itself as the necessary and uniquely privileged activity it has remained. The genie was out of the bottle.
So, what is the natural outcome of all this? The artistic academy! This formalized way of teaching art sprung up in the early 16th Century in Europe, and exerted a powerful iinfluence over artistic life for centuries. These academies were the most important means by which artists were able to win widespread recognition for themselves as professionals and intellectuals rather than craftsmen. We got respect! Academies were also a means for the standardization and internationalization of artistic culture, spreading a system of theoretical values that remained remarkably uniform until into the 19th Century. Oh ... this is definitely a part of my roots!
I won't go into the long history of how academies got started and spread throughout Europe, but it's interesting if you ever want to read about it. However, there was a down side to the academy: student work became formulaic. So, there were many attempts throughout this period to reform artistic education in order to eliminate the problem. These efforts weren't entirely successful.
I should mention the grandest of all academies: the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris (est. 1648). This academy marked the transition from Italian-dominated art theory to French, although the French art theory was derived from the Italians. The Acadamie actually created a hierarchy of the various genres of painting. I'll list them from the most "important" (top of list) to the least (bottom):
- histoire - paintings dealing with historical scenes
- portraiture - the human form
- everyday life - a.k.a. "genre"
- still life
Here's a question for you: does this hierarchy still stand today? Is there a hierarchy?
So, I'll end the Renaissance here. I've definitely identified some influences on my own work from that time. Next ... the Enlightenment!