Arts - Summer 2014

The Music of Painting

Seventeenth-century debates over content and form, color and line, and artifice and reality are as relevant today as ever

By Lincoln Perry | June 9, 2014


After World War I, Aristide Maillol, famous for his sculptures of classicized female figures, was asked to create a monument in memory of France’s war dead, her costly victory, her assertion of the values of civilization over darkness and strife. “Do you want her standing or sitting?” he is reputed to have said. When I used to teach studio art, my brain could retain any number of similar quotations—short, to the point, and easily memorable, such as Rodin’s definition of sculpture as the art of bumps and hollows. Certainly Rodin cared for the meaning inherent in subject matter, from the Bible’s Eve to the Inferno’s Paolo and Francesca, but his wry reduction of his art to simple formal issues spoke less of the lofty academy and more of the utilitarian studio. My teachers also concentrated on such hands-on specificity, making sure their comments were concrete and visual, assuming that though our work would eventually reflect our worldview, in the meantime we needed practical help to actually make anything worthwhile.

After the death of Edgar Degas, the poet Paul Valéry bemoaned the end of a fundamental practice, that of the artist engaging in the careful, Leonardesque drawing of a leaf or hand, taking “pleasure in a slow, disinterested, close-up communion with any object, drawing therefrom a degree of self-knowledge and a sense of the collaboration between his intellect, his motive, his vision and his hand in relation to a given thing, and with no thought of the public.” Valéry continues:

We have developed the curious habit of supposing that any artist who fails to begin by shocking, by being sufficiently laughed at and insulted, must be third-rate. If he fails to stagger us, or raise our eyebrows, he is non-existent. Whence the necessity of shocking becomes a sacred task. … Pleasure is dying out. Enjoyment is a lost art. Now the thing is intensity, enormity, speed, direct action on the nerve centers by the shortest route.

That was written more than three quarters of a century ago, in 1936, yet it has implications for the contemporary art world, which so many of my friends and I find mysterious, if not incomprehensible. Of course, intellectual battles over how art should be made have been waged for far longer than this. Leaving aside any temptation to think of our age as sui generis, I take comfort in this sense of continuity.

A poet friend found himself called on to lecture on 20th-century art and asked me for a quick outline, since he was in the dark. An hour and a half later, he took away the idea that in the largest possible purview you could see two divergent currents in the art of the past century: form and content. The Impressionists had no interest in what had been considered the hierarchy of genres, with history painting at the top and landscape and still life at the bottom. They self-consciously explored those qualities peculiar to their art, such as light and color, even drawing attention to the daubs of paint used for their illusions and asking us to see both surface and space. Cézanne craved fictive solidity using these means, and he built complex formal structures that had immediate appeal. Though he would have disapproved of how the Cubists made use of his approach, they also stressed the formal building blocks of pictorial space at the expense of content: make a configuration, then see if it evokes a pipe or a nude.

This formal thread wove through Abstract Expressionism, an approach many called visual music, art for art’s sake, the painting as pure artifact. The art historian Bernard Smith suggested we name the period from 1890 to 1960 the Formalesque, presumably a play on the term Romanesque. In any case, a distinct counter interest in content existed during the same period, from Symbolism to Dada, an entirely understandable response to the shattering effect of World War I on the culture of beauty and rationality cultivated in the West. Surrealism advertised the unconscious as clearly as the Formalesque stressed the picture plane and its theater of shapes, line, and color. Duchamp considered “retinal art” and its formal mechanisms to be deeply uninteresting, and whether or not he himself was surprised by the incredible influence his ideas came to wield, much of the art ranging from Warhol to Koons is Duchampian. Imbued with a certain intellectual panache, his Fountain, an unretouched urinal left to speak for itself, inaugurated an entire century of debate about whether anything put in a gallery, or touched by an artist, is art. Dada’s disdain for and distrust of beauty were subsequently codified in the academy, where beauty was rejected as a distraction from suffering, whether our own or others’. Recently, authors such as Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, have questioned such an equation, but the argument goes on.

To boil all this down to form and content, as I did for my poet friend, was a wild oversimplification, but by identifying locations on a continuum, it helped organize an elusive and complicated history. Those poking their heads into the art world are particularly perplexed by how little seems to hold their visual interest, how questions of politics or sociology seem to take precedence over aesthetics. But this lack of emphasis on the pleasures of sight has prevailed at other times, too, during the extensive history of Western art.

The first art historian, Giorgio Vasari, was a friend and admirer of Michelangelo’s and believed his hero had so profoundly understood the human body that there was little need to pursue what we would call perception, a careful study of vision itself. Convention, which Vasari embraced in his own work, became the default, helping to usher in Mannerism, calling on formulas to invent the loftiest of narratives. Art began to aspire to rise above craft and take its place among the liberal arts, and there followed arguments on such subjects as line versus color, Florentine versus Venetian approaches, and northern Gothic versus southern Classicism. Over time, this intellectualizing led to quite a bit of bad art, and only a re-immersion in the tradition, as well as close observation from nature, provided an escape from Mannerism’s stultification. The Carracci, a family of artists from Bologna, advocated the study of such reliable masters as Raphael while also working from life and low subjects. Caravaggio took these innovations and ran with them, exerting influence over generations of subsequent painters. It took an artist of Caravaggio’s genius to deal a deathblow to Mannerism, to cut the Gordian knot not with words and theories, but with pigments.

Caravaggio, who died young in 1610, was not highly regarded in the French Academy: founded in 1648 by Louis XIV, it was charged with glorifying the culture of France and formalizing painting and sculpture as liberal arts. Classical texts were invoked to bestow intellectual credibility and authority on the Academy’s members and their work, as well as to aid in the creation of a specifically French art of painting. In the absence of any surviving Greek text on the visual arts, Aristotle’s Poetics, which had been recreated from fragments not long before, became a model for how paintings were to be conceived.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), one of France’s greatest painters, had asked his patron, M. Chantelou, to read his paintings through the filter of Aristotle’s Poetics and its discussion of drama. Living in Rome, Poussin had carefully followed the debates in the early part of his century between those urging total clarity, restraint, and a limited number of figures and who frescoed large ceilings by subdividing them into comprehensible units, and those who came to typify what we think of as the Baroque: lots of figures swarming around a seemingly limitless field, almost overwhelming the eye. I have painter friends who consider Poussin crabbed and literary, a hectoring control freak, and can’t understand my love for his work. But I consider him the Bach of painting, one of the clearest thinkers ever to pick up a brush, fashioning spaces of crystalline beauty. Cézanne, another clear thinker, famously said he wanted to redo Poussin after nature, to discover order in the visual world through extremely careful observation, emphasizing finding over making. Sharing an awareness of the potential for measureless chaos, both men sought pictorial order that would satisfy a deep need to comprehend the protean world. To get an idea of how truly great Poussin is, consider the work of his near contemporary, the eclectic Sébastien Bourdon, who borrowed many styles, including Poussin’s. As a wag once said, Bourdon had the key to Poussin’s prop cabinet, meaning that the amazingly reassuring order of the one is subtly lacking in the other. I suppose Poussin is an acquired taste, and many are put off by his subject matter, though while I can’t read music or speak German, I listen repeatedly to Bach’s cantatas, enthralled.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), the head of the French Academy, cited Poussin’s The Jews Gathering the Manna in the Desert in defining how to read a painting. We move from the left of the painting, where the Israelites are suffering from hunger, to the right, where they start to gather food fallen from the sky, to a central Moses, all in clear episodes that walk us through the space, related to each other like the parts of our body or the wonderful rationality of French itself, whose word order seems to match the way we think. One of my teachers, the artist Gabriel Laderman, would speak of reading paintings, which meant showing how pictorial pressures within the rectangle would give our eye a push, slow it down or speed it up, deflect it, and eventually return us to the surface where we had started, all to serve meaningful metaphoric ends. Le Brun meant something quite different by reading, for his priority was subject matter, and he never spoke of structural dynamics as consciously formal elements.

In the roughly three centuries between Le Brun and Laderman something crucial had happened, and a good deal of it can be attributed to Le Brun’s opponent in the French Academy, Roger de Piles. In the late 1600s, fierce debates broke out between de Piles, who championed Rubens, and those who lionized Poussin. An amateur painter and thoughtful theoretician, de Piles turned things on their head; rather than borrowing the terminology and thought processes of Aristotle’s Poetics, he saw painting as a self-sufficient artform, enjoying certain properties, such as a flat surface, which with the addition of color open up into fictive space and convey its subject in one fell swoop, instead of being read sequentially. Rather than start with a careful, rational ordering of subject, why not start with an overall picture, an immediate, sensual, spontaneous vision? Sweep the viewer away, and his heart and mind will follow. Others, such as Leonardo, had spoken of a viewer’s initial impression of a work of art, but again, in terms of subject matter. De Piles’s insistence on the evocative power of the process itself was revolutionary and became so integrated into our thinking that it seems natural and obvious. But he was the first to articulate such subtle but persuasive ideas, and he had to fight hard for them.

Illusion, like beauty, is a word that raises hackles among those who think it translates as “lies,” yet we speak of an actor maintaining the illusion of being King Lear, respecting his skill in getting us to suspend disbelief. Initially de Piles found tromperie appealing and even bought a Rembrandt of a woman who, in seeming to lean out a window, could fool passersby, but the theorist in him came to see such illusionism as neither desirable nor really possible. He opted for the suspension of disbelief, having your cake and eating it too. De Piles’s opponents thought the picture as artifice was beside the point, not worth speaking of, its illusion merely in service of subject matter. Many people assume that painting was done out of a job with the invention of photography, unaware of de Piles’s insistence on artfulness, on a dual awareness of means and ends. In his brilliant book The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space, John White gives at least 14 ways in which Renaissance painters, highly aware of our need to be subtly reminded of surface rather than fooled by transparent illusionism, consciously limited perspective’s tendency to zoom us into depth. Much of what is most interesting about painting involves the profound dialogue between reality and artifice, and when the balance tips too far in one direction, the work suffers.

Painting has had an extended and intimate interaction with the techniques of rhetoric. De Piles was not comfortable creating a new vocabulary for his ideas, and to this day we have trouble addressing art, whether visual or musical, in words. But he made use of rhetorical categories, some of which suggested ways to catch the public’s attention by calling on art to hide art, a kind of artificial naturalness. Other aspects of rhetoric were less supportive, such as the disparagement of verbal ornamental embellishment as being analogous to color. The Academy had looked down on color as subservient to drawing, suspecting color’s charms to be deceptive, like a woman’s cosmetics. But color was the centerpiece of de Piles’s whole theory, central to the overpowering success of the illusion. Color in nature is transient and relative, which makes the whole issue thorny; one can’t just take the local color of an object and transfer it to the canvas. There is the color of the paint, the inherent color of the object as observed, as well as the color of the light that bathes it, and then there is the process of harmonizing all the colors on the canvas in context.

Another rhetorical figure enters here: the analogy to music and its emotional effect. As de Piles writes in his Principles of Painting (1708), “True painting therefore … not only surprises us, but, as it were, calls to us; and has so powerful an effect that we cannot help coming near it, as if it had something to tell us.” Subject matter is still there, and an element of education might exist, but as with music, if it ain’t got that swing, it don’t mean a thing. The total effect—l’effet du tout-ensemble—had to immediately seduce and transfix us, or we would never be tempted to read the relation of individual parts, which should be more like a harmonized choir of voices than a text to be read.

For de Piles, the viewer’s eye should focus on one object or area, letting the rest be peripheral; if Le Brun stresses unity of subject, de Piles looks for unity of visual effect. Intellect yields to the senses. Still, there are problems: Isn’t the mind involved, converting sensations to perceptions? And if composition is natural, why do we need the artist?

Any number of my teachers still had de Piles’s faith that science and art could engage in fruitful interaction. Alfred Russell placed haunted-looking Hellenistic figures in topological landscapes, drawing on the mathematics of rubber-sheet geometry. Robert Birmelin experimented with canvases shaped to draw attention to the goggle-shaped field of vision we subliminally eliminate. We still debate the interface between art and science: Do Monet’s paintings mirror the innocent vision of the newborn baby, a sea of inchoate color and collapsed space, or do babies quickly conceptualize mommy as a way to survive? De Piles involved himself in the actual process of vision; his advocacy of the first glance—au premier coup d’oeil—still finds distant echoes in artists as diverse as Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella. In the 1950s a subschool of art called for “fast painting,” images that could be taken in all at once. (This may have morphed into what gallery owners call wall power.) The critic Clement Greenberg saw a pattern in contemporary painting in what he called overallness, an equal distribution of visual events in a homogenized field, and though this has an immediate visual impact, de Piles can’t be associated with overallness because he called for a visual focus, a center of attention. Indeed, de Piles would have been mystified by all abstract painting, since he saw the subject as essential to our emotional involvement with the work of art. But he still might have had things to share with Greenberg, who was drawn to art for art’s sake. If ever there was someone revolted by the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the universal synthesis of the arts sought by Wagner in his operas, it was Greenberg. He argued for the opposite, a purification of each art, such that painting would concentrate solely on its inherent defining characteristics as pigment on a flat surface. Pictorial space was out, imagery was out, reference to the world we inhabit was out. De Piles would have been horrified by this, and he also shied away from making rules. Nevertheless, if we map territories of form and content, both men choose to dwell in the districts of form.

De Piles worried over, and continued to revise, most of the basic tenets of his theories, including those regarding beauty. Beauty had been called rational, and he felt the need to add grace as a separate category, as a quality we can’t engineer, the famous je ne sais quoi that has to be felt rather than reasoned. But how to reconcile the call for an immediate visual coup d’oeil with the need for a sophisticated eye, sensation with conception, emotion with rationality? De Piles saw Longinus’s text on the sublime, translated from Latin to French in 1674, as a way out of this particular quandary. The sublime sweeps us away regardless of our sophistication. As the term is never really defined, it was a bit iffy for de Piles to put so much weight on it, but he adopted the sublime as a subset of a property he called enthusiasm—the eye as gateway to the mind, with our whole being swept away. This found fertile ground more than a century later in the writings of Delacroix:

There is a kind of emotion which is entirely particular to painting; nothing (in a work of literature) gives an idea of it. There is an impression which results from the arrangement of colors, of lights, of shadows, etc. This is what one might call the music of the picture. … You find yourself at too great a distance from the painting to know what it represents; and you are often caught by that magic accord.

Again, de Piles thought in terms of objects represented, as opposed to our modern idea of an abstract art that emulates music, but we are well on our way. And one could argue that certain kinds of emotion are part and parcel of imagery; Picasso certainly thought so, and never opted to paint purely abstract paintings. In any case, for de Piles, this enthusiasm is not the means to an end but the end itself, a visual music that can make masterpieces of the formerly low subjects of landscape or still life.

By the time of his death, in 1709, much of what de Piles stood for had made converts, especially in his valorization of color. Without him, could Pierre Bonnard have said the artist paints not from nature but from his paintbox? But in general, change is not that easy or immediate, and de Piles’s theories were almost immediately either misinterpreted or turned on their head—in a word, academicized. If anything, the situation deteriorated, for de Piles’s earlier opponents had said very thoughtful things about reading a painting. But subject matter and the hierarchy of genres came to be lionized more firmly than ever in the 18th century. Any talk of the sublime or enthusiasm now referred to the heroes in the painting, not the painting itself.

We seem to have a proclivity for only reading subject matter in a work of art and have to be educated to think in terms of the artifice involved in crafting it. As with rhetoric, there is an art to concealing art, and in much of literature, it is perhaps so well hidden that beginning writing students think that all they have to do is tell their story. Such students would have felt right at home with those Academicians who treated paintings as somewhat imperfect versions of the “real thing.” Like naïve viewers of reality TV, they would take a painting’s characters literally and talk about their actions as if they were transparently “there.” Theorists such as the Abbé Dubos admitted that painting had its nonimitative qualities and effects but dismissed them as of minor importance. This made the critic’s job much easier: no need to talk about how a painting is actually constructed, just its contents; no need for artistic sophistication, because everyone could tell whether Achilles was proving himself brave by his actions. De Piles’s ordre artificiel was considered a dismissible nuisance, smelling of unintellectual studio practice and workshop tricks. Even Diderot, the great critic of the later 18th century and champion of Chardin, had trouble discussing how that artist worked his magic. As Delacroix later said, writing about visual art with verbal tools is problematic: the painting should speak, or sing, for itself.

De Piles’s lack of interest in art’s role in educating the public, in elevating our moral standards, was yet another threat to the establishment. The Academy was, after all, meant not just to protect the intellectual credentials of the visual arts but also to keep France morally pure and noble. All this talk about the je ne sais quoi smacked of irrationality and hedonism. Painters as diverse as Watteau and Chardin (and perhaps even Tiepolo) read de Piles’s work to great effect, but Academicians were a much harder sell. Anyone knowledgeable about today’s art world can find parallels; art post-Duchamp favors intellect and disdains the senses, has no real interest in the formal aspects of pictorial art, and has a subtext of educating the viewer in an oblique way. On one level, this approach is democratic: anyone should be able to grasp the content of a conceptual or installation piece because it is actual, real, right there, without illusion. Such art can also be seen as elitist, since one needs to be initiated into the arcanum of recent art history to recognize the strategy involved. In any case, there is no need for those rejected categories—the artificial, the formal, the elusively aesthetic.

Poor de Piles; his ideas were caricatured. His speculations about how vision functioned and how the physiology of the eye might find expression in the structure of the painting were shoehorned into that old favorite, subject matter. He had said we perceive a center by the very nature of vision, and that ideally pictures might borrow a circular field, curving away from us like a convex mirror or a bunch of grapes—the grappe de raisin—in such works as Rubens’s Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, which does indeed appear to bulge toward us, falling away to the periphery of our vision and to the edges of the rectangle. This soon came to be applied to the hero; put him in the center, light him the brightest, let all roads lead to his head like the eye at the top of our dollar’s pyramid. The subtleties of structure and moral choice found in Poussin are dead and gone, and you get almost a century of quite tedious French art. It took a painter of the caliber of Jacques-Louis David to overthrow this stultification, for in his wildly popular painting of Brutus and his sons, he has two centers of interest (!), one of which is in the dark rather than the light (!!), and there is no pyramid of narrative importance (!!!). Furthermore, the painting’s moral message is not clear, in that it presents a frighteningly difficult choice between the loyalties and duties of family and state.

One possibility regarding our art world is the role of the academy. There were no American studio art departments before World War II, but returning GIs began to be offered classes in painting and sculpture about the time that Abstract Expressionism became triumphant. The formal aspects of painting have always been difficult to verbalize, but the AbEx painters (who became the new professors) explicitly distrusted words. I was lucky enough to study under a second generation of painter-professors who rebelled against what they considered the intentional anti-intellectualism of their own teachers. They combined the best of Le Brun and de Piles, how we might read a painting (Laderman was said to read paintings to his boys at bedtime) as well as conceive of a pictorial music of enthusiasm. They found a fruitful middle zone on the spectrum of form and content, skeptical of Greenberg’s extreme views on pure form and dismayed by the later, and perhaps inevitable, swing toward pure content.

Like de Piles, my teachers knew one had to find graspable metaphors for pictorial structure, such as the bunch of grapes, and then make sure these tropes served not just mechanical but also emotional objectives. As artists, they knew that the kind of painting they were interested in and practiced called for an arduous process of self-education. Time in the studio behind the brush, time in the museums taking in all that might help in this often lonely process, time finding one’s own voice or vision. It clearly couldn’t be done in a few hours in a few classes a week at the university, no matter how good the teachers.

The next generation of professors found another way around the problem of verbalizing pictorial structure and meaning, as well as that of the paltry hours available for actual painting: Do away with painting! Many birds could be killed with the same stone; as with the French Academy and its liberal art ambitions, intellect could displace the senses, words could replace images, craft could be disdained, reality could displace art. Positions of power in the larger art world would be filled with graduates of this system; artists, critics, gallery and museum directors, potential buyers—all could be on the same page. If the academy defines the conversation, then the university becomes a service industry for the larger art world. A painter–art historian friend has pointed out that though the art world prides itself on its subversive undermining of the status quo, it might just as well be considered a marketing research tool to determine what can be sold under late capitalism. Answer: pretty much anything.

So what is going on in the art world? The most sanguine view might be that there have always been pendulum-like swings, and as long as we don’t do ourselves in, this process will continue. LeBrun’s insistence on line did yield to de Piles’s emphasis on color, only to swing back in the late 18th century to a preference for neoclassical line. If Ingres was a purist in this department (asserting that everything, even clouds or fog, could be drawn with line), Delacroix answered such arguments by explicitly returning to de Piles and his celebration of color, and by specifically emulating Rubens. Such oscillations are the stuff of art history, though if some see a hidden hand, a determinist necessity at work, others insist that nothing is as reassuringly ordered and directional as a number of artists making all the decisions. Greenberg lived to witness and be outraged by Pop, conceptual, graffiti, and installation art, though he may have had a hand in giving their practitioners a rigorous formalism to rebel against. Abbé Dubos would spin in his grave to be compared to, say, Duchamp or Richard Prince, but in the latter’s joke paintings (deadpan jokes printed on solid-colored rectangles: “Man walks into a bar …”) we are given only a text, the joke being that there is no longer anything worth looking at.

I find it reassuring when the dead speak to us. An art historian with the unlikely name of Thomas Puttfarken speaks to me through his lovely little book Roger de Piles’ Theory of Art, which I discovered while teaching art courses at the University of Virginia some years ago and which led me to read everything else he had written. (I had intended to write him a fan letter, only to find out that he had died of an aneurism a few weeks before.) De Piles, a kindred spirit, speaks to me, too, as Rubens speaks to me through his paintings, which are beautiful, and which I love. Perhaps I am odd in that Poussin speaks to me with just as much force; I apparently have catholic tastes. As a painter, I look to steal everything that moves me, anything that can suggest ways to solve the problems a painter faces. In fact these people are not dead, or not dead to me. I had a wonderful student who worked hard to promote his conception of justice, dismayed about the state of the world. He organized recycling efforts, insisting we stop our profligate destruction of the earth’s resources. All good. Yet over lunch I heard him reject the art of the past as irrelevant, an idea I suspect he had picked up in UVa’s art department, and I suggested that one might also think of the tradition of art as a resource to be valued, protected, and even recycled.

The large Robert Mapplethorpe photography retrospective that toured in 1989 sent many reviewers and viewers into a tizzy. Are we to see a large erect black penis cutting diagonally across a square format as informing us about the gay, or black, or artistic subculture? Or is it to be seen purely as a diagonal, a formal move devoid of implication, text or subtext? The extremity of these choices, the need to take sides reminded me of the battles so passionately fought in the French Academy over content versus form, thought versus the senses, moral education versus poetic or musical pleasure. Clearly, times do change, and this is not a simple case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. But we might gain perspective by seeing humane, even amusing, consistency rather than automatically endorsing radical discontinuity, often so lonely and self-isolating. Do we live in an age unconsoled or uninformed by the past? Are Sappho, Praxiteles, or Giotto so foreign to us, to our thoughts and feelings? To alter the maxim that those ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat it, perhaps those artists ignorant of art history miss a chance to enjoy communality, to share in the tradition, to be more fully human. A long-dead Roger de Piles may speak to us in our own language.

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