Reading Notes – ‘The Story of Art’ by EH Gombrich

In early lockdown I enjoyed reading this slab of a book on art history. It starts with cave paintings which felt strangely pertinent as we all hunkered down for lockdown. Despite its 700 pages, its actually a pretty pacy whirl through art history. His language is clear and non-pretentious and the layout is impeccable. Full marks for usability – if he talks a bit a painting, he puts a full colour decent sized reproduction in! It’s a pretty ‘conventional’ and mainstream version of art history, and of course there’s barely a woman in it, and the artist is always a ‘he’. But what he does write about is insightful and useful.

As ever my reading notes are the bits I underlined …

Preface & INTRO

Gombrich tries to avoid as he says, “the naïve misinterpretation of the constant change in art as continuous progress ..,subjective progress, in spite of its importance, does not correspond to an objective increase in artistic value”

“For most of the paintings and statues which are now lined up along the walls of our museums and galleries were not meant to be displayed as Art. They were made for a definite occasion and a definite purpose which were in the artist’s mind when he set to work”

001 Strange Beginnings: Prehistoric and Primitive Peoples – Ancient America

“pictures and statues .. are used to work magic”

“pictures, not as something nice to look at, but as something powerful to use

“somewhere there remains the absurd feeling that what one does to the picture is done to the person it represents” [discussing the idea of damaging a photo of a friend]

“they sometimes live in a kind of dream-world in which they can be man and animal at the same time”

“for the primitive there is no such other world to spoil the illusion, because all the members of the tribe take part in the ceremonial dances and rites with their fantastic games of pretence. They have all learned their significance from former generations and are so absorbed in them that they have little chance of stepping outside them and seeing their behaviour critically”

“Many of the artists’ works are meant to play a part in these strange rituals, and what matters then is not whether the sculpture or painting is beautiful by our standards, but whether it ‘works’, that is to say, whether it can perform the required magic”

“the whole story of art is not a story of progress in technical proficiency, but a story of changing ideas and requirements”

“if most works in of these civilizations look remote and unnatural to us, the reason lies in the ideas they are meant to convey”

“image-making in these early civilisations was not only connected with magic and religion but was also the first form of writing … pictures and letters are really blood-relations”

002 Art for Eternity: Egypt, Mespotamia, Crete

“the Greek masters went to school with the Egyptians, and we are all the pupils of the Greeks”

“The king was considered a divine being who held sway over them … Egyptians believed that the body must be preserved if the soul is to live on in the beyond”

“One Egyptian word for sculptor was actually ‘He-who-keeps-alive’ “

“They drew from memory, according to strict rules which ensured that everything that had to go into the picture would stand out in perfect clarity. Their method in fact resembled that of the map-maker, rather than that of the painter”

“Everything had to be represented from its most characteristic angle .. the head was most easily seen in profile .. a full face eye was planted into the side view of the face .. the shoulders and chest are best seen from the front”

“The Egyptian style comprised a set of very strict laws, which every artist had to learn .. no-one wanted anything different, no-one asked him to be ‘original’ … in the course of 3000 years or more Egyptian art changed very little”

“Only one man ever shook the iron bars of Egyptian style .. Amenophis IV .. He did not wish to pay homage to the many strangely shaped gods of his people. For him only one go was supreme, Aten … represented in the shape of a sun-disk sending down its rays, each one endowed with a hand. He called himself Akhnaten, after his god”

“the superstition that there is more in a picture than a mere picture”

003 The Great Awakening: Greece 7th to 5th century

“The Egyptians had based their art on knowledge. The Greeks began to use their eyes … [the artist] no longer thought that everything he knew to be there must also be shown”

“People in the Greek cities began to question the old traditions and legends about the gods .. philosophy first awoke .. the theatre first developed out of the ceremonies in honour of Dionysus “

“the rich Greeks .. perhaps even the poets and philosophers, mostly looked down on the sculptors and painters as inferior persons. Artists worked with their hands, and they worked for a living … they were not considered members of polite society”

“The Olympic Games were .. closely connected with the religious beliefs and rites of the people .. the victor in these games was looked upon with awe as a man whom the gods had favoured .. it was to find out on whom this blessing of victoriousness rested that the games were originally held”

“what the Greeks of the time valued even more was .. the newfound freedom to represent the human body in any position or movement could be used to reflect the inner life of the figures represented .. they should represent the ‘workings of the soul’ by accurately observing the way ‘feelings affect the body in action'”

004 The Realm of Beauty: Greece and Greek world 400BC to 100 AD

“the great awakening of art to freedom had taken place in the 100 years between roughly 520BC and 420BC”

of Praxiteles sculptures, “they stand before us like real human beings, and yet as beings from a different better world .. the typical and the individual were poised in a new and delicate balance”

“their features never seem to express any strong emotion. It was the body and its movements which were used by masters to express what Socrates had called ‘the workings of the soul’ “

“it was in the time of Alexander that people started to discuss this new art of portraiture”

“even in architecture the strong and simple forms of the Doric style and the easy grace of the Ionic style were not enough. A new form of column was preferred, which had been invented early in the fourth century and which was called after the wealthy merchant city of Corinth. In the Corinthian styl, foliage was added to the Ionic spiral volutes to deocrate the capital”

“by this time, the period of Hellenism, art had largely lost its old connection with magic and religion. Artists became interested in the problems of their craft for its own sake”

005 World Conquerors: Romans, Buddhists, Jews and Christians, 100 to 400 AD

“the most important feature in Roman architecture is the use of arches”

“the Pantheon is the only temple of classical antiquity which has always remained a place of worship”

“every Roman had to burn incense in front of this bust [the emperor’s] in token of his loyalty and allegiance, and we know that the persecution of Christians began because of their refusal to comply”

“the importance which the Romans attached to an accurate rendering of all details and to a clear narrative which would impress the feats of [war] campaigns on the stay-at-homes, rather changed the character of art”

“the rise of Christianity, which meant the end of the ancient world”

006 A Parting of Ways: Rome & Byzantium, 5th to 13th Century

“Pope Gregory the Great, who lived at the end of 6th century AD… said ‘Painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read’ “

Therefore in art “the story had to be told as clearly and simply as possible, and anything that might divert attention from this main and sacred aim should be omitted”

“thus Christian art of the Middle Ages became a curious mixture of primitive and sophisticated methods”

“Greek and Roman art provided an immense stock of figures standing, sitting, bending down or falling .. they were assiduosly copied and adapted to ever-new contexts”

007 Looking Eastwards: Islam, China, 200 to 1300AD

“religious art in China came to be employed .. as an aid to the practice of meditation .. devout artists began to paint water and mountains in a spirit of reverence, not in order to teach any particular lesson [or to tell a story], but to provide material for deep thought”

008 Western Art in the Melting Pot: Europe 6th to 11th Century

“Egyptians had largely drawn what they knew to exist, the Greeks what they saw, in the Middle Ages the artist also learned to express in his picture what he felt

009 The Church Militant: the 12th Century

“The church was often the only stone building anywhere in the neighbourhood .. its steeple a landmark to all.. from afar .. the contrast between the lofty building and the primitive humble dwellings in which these people spent their lives must have been overwhelming”

**KB note .. church as economic force, investment fund

“in Romanesque and Norman churches we generally find round arches resting on massive piers . The whole impression.. is one of massive strength”

“the artist was not concerned with an imitation of natural forms, but rather with the arrangements of traditional sacred symbols”

“as with forms so with colours.. artists no longer felt obliged to study and imitate the real gradations of shades that occur in nature they were free to choose.. the intense colours of their book illuminations.. their stained glass windows”

“painting was indeed on the way to becoming a form of writing with pictures .. this freedom from the need to imitate the natural world was to enable them to convey the idea of the supernatural”

010 The Church Triumphant: the 13th century

“a building of stone and glass .. this is the leading idea of the Gothic cathedrals”

the “dimensions seem to dwarf anything that is merely human and petty”

On the stained glass, and gold work .. “everything that was heavy, earthly or humdrum was eliminated. The faithful who surrendered themselves to contemplation of all this beauty could feel that they had come nearer to understanding the mysteries of a realm beyond the reach of matter”

“how important it has become to the artist to show us the feelings of his figures”

“the whole training and upbringing of the medieval artist was very different .. apprenticed to a master, whom he assisted at first by carrying out his instructions and filling in relatively unimportant parts of a picture .. he would learn to copy and rearrange scenes from old books and fit them into different frames “

“there were no portraits as we understand them in the Middle Ages. All the artist did was to draw a conventional figure and to give it the insignia of office – a crown and sceptre for the king .. “

“Giotto’s most famous works are wall-paintings or frescoes.. painted on the wall while the plaster is still fresh, that is wet”

In his work “we see the foreshortening of the arms, the modelling of the face and neck, the deep shadows in the flowing folds of the drapery. Nothing like this had been done for a thousand years”

“Instead of using the methods of picture-writing he could create the illusion that the sacred story was happening before our eyes … we seem to witness the real event as if it were enacted on stage”

011 Courtiers and Burghers: The 14th Century

“In the middle of the 12th century, when the Gothic style was first developed, Europe was still a thinly populated continent of peasants with monasteries and barons’ castles as the main centres of power and learning .. 150 years later these towns had grown into teeming centres of trade”

“In the growing and prosperous cities many secular buildings had to be designed – town halls, guild halls, colleges, palaces, bridges, city gates. One of the most celebrated .. is the Doges’ Palace in Venice” … ie not just churches!!

There is a series of busts of benefactors on Prague’s cathedral “including one of the artist in charge, Peter Parler the Younger (1330-99) which is in all probability the first real self-portrait of an artist known to us”

“the court of the Pope.. not in Rome, but at Avignon in Southern France. France was still the centre of Europe, and French ideas and styles had great influence everywhere. Germany was reuled by a family from Luxemburg who had their residence in Prague .. Bohemia became one of the centres through which this influence from Italy and France spread more widely. Its contacts reached as far as England”

“Artists and ideas travelled from one centre to another, and no-one thought of rejecting an achievement because it was ‘foreign’. The style which arose.. is known as ‘International Style'”

EG. the Wilton Diptych, 1395

and illustrations in prayer books, such as The Book of Hours made by Paul and Jean de Limbourg for the Duc de Berry – ‘Tres Riches Heures’.

‘Now the artist’s job included a different skill. He had to be able to make studies from nature and to transfer them to his pictures’

012 The Conquest of Reality: The Early 15th Century

“perspective .. it was Brunellschi who gave artists the mathematical means of solving this problem”

Masaccio uses this knowledge in his fresco Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St John and donors

The artist whose revolutionary doscoveries were felt from the beginning to represent something entirely new was the painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)

The southern artists of his generation .. had developed a method by which nature could be represented in a picture with almost scientific accuracy.. through their knowledge of anatomy and of the laws of foreshortening .. Van Eyck took the opposite way .. adding detail upon detail .. this differencce between northern anf Italian art remained important for many years”

A good guess is “work which excels in the representation of the beautiful surface of things, of flowers, jewels or fabric, will be by a northern artist, most probably from the Netherlands; while a painting with bold outlines, clear perspective and a sure mastery of the human body, will be Italian”

“Van Eyck… was the inventor of oil painting .. a new prescription for the preparation of paints” [ he wasn’t satisfied with the technical limitations of egg tempera, leading to his innnovation/disscovery with using oil as a medium ]

013 Tradition and Innovation: The later 15th Century in Italy

“Painters and patrons alike were fascinated by the idea that art … might serve to mirror a fragment of the real world” [ and not just be used to tell religious narrative]

“national differences had existed all through the Middle Ages .. but on the whole these were not very important. This applies not to the field of art alone, but also to the world of learning and even to politics. The learned men of the Middle Ages all spoke and wrote Latin”

Of noblemen .. “their loyalty to their king or their feudal overlord did not imply that they considered themselves the champions of any particular people or nation. All this had gradually changed towards the end of the Middle Ages when the cities with their burghers and merchants became increasingly important .. the merchants spoke their native tough and stood together against any foreign competitor or intruder”

“as soon as the cities gained importance, artists, like all artisans and craftsmen were organized into guilds .. it was their task to wathc over the rights and privileges of their memebers and to ensure a safe market for their produce .. the artist had to .. reach certain standards”

“the guilds and corporations were usually wealthy companies who had a say in the government of the city .. but also did their best to make it beautiful .. they watched anxiously over the interests of their own members and therefore made it difficult for any foreign artist to get employment or to settle among them”

“the International style is perhaps the last international style Europe has seen – at least until the 20th century. In the 15th century art broke up into a number of different ‘schools'”

“Mantegna rather uses perspective to create the stage on which his figures seem to stand .. he distributes them as a skilled theatrical producer might have done, so as to convey the significance of the moment”

Eg. St James on the way to his execution, Mantegna c. 1455

Piero della Francesca .. “But to these geometrical devices suggesting the use of space, he has added a new one of equal importance: the treatment of light. Medieval artists had taken hardly any notice of light. Their flat figures cast no shadows”

Eg. Constantine’s dream – Piero della Francesca, c.1460

“Each [technical] discovery in one direction creates a new difficulty somewhere else .. as soon as the new concept of making the picture a mirror of reality was adopted ..there was a danger that the new power of the artist would ruin his most precious gift of creating a pleasing satisfying whole”

(ie freedom to ‘design’, decorate, choose pleasing colours etc recedes … subsumed by concern with reality)

014 Tradition and Innovation: The 15th century in the North

“the difference between the north and Italy is most clearly marked in architecture. Brunellschi had out an end to the Gothic style .. by introducing the Rennaisance method of using classical motifs for his buildings”

Invention of printing in Germany by Gutenberg in mid 15th century .. “just as the invention fo printing hastened the exchange of ideas .. so the printing of images ensured the triumph of the art of the Italian Renaissance in the rest of Europe”

015 Harmony Attained: Tuscany and Rome, early 16th century

“This pride of the cities, which vied with each other in securing the services of the greatest artists to beautify their buildings and to create lasting works of fame, was a great incentive to the masters to outdo each other – an incentive which did not exist to the same extent in the feudal countries of the North, where cities had much less independence and local pride”

“the artist’s horizon widened. He was no longer a craftsman .. he was a master in his own right.. exploring the mysteries of nature and probing into secret laws of the universe”

“it came about that artists could frequently choose the kind of commission which they liked and they no longer needed to accommodate the whims and fancies of their employers .. at last the artist was free”

“Bramante’s plan for St Peters (Basilica in Rome) was not destined to be carried out. The enormous building swallowed up so much money that, in trying to raise sufficient funds, the Pope precipitated the crisis which led to the Reformation”

Leonardo Da Vinci’s discovery .. “the painter must leave the beholder something to guess .. Leonardo’s famous invention .. sfumato – the blurred outline and mellowed colours that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination”

“he made his own research into human anatomy, dissected bodies, and drew from models, till the human figure did not seem to hold any secrets for him.. soon there was no posture and no movement which he found difficult to draw”

“by the time he was thirty, he was generally acknowledged to one of the outstanding masters of the age”

“Raphael’s teacher, Perugino belonged to the generation of highly successful artists who needed a large staff of skilled apprentices to help them carry out the many commissions they received”

“Perugino’s angels .. all follow, more or less, the same type. it is a type of beauty which Perugino invented”

“Raphael .. to many he is simply the painter of sweet Madonnas … [he] proved his mastery of perfect design and balanced composition .. movement answers movement, and form to form” in his frescoes eg. The nymph, Galatea, 1512-14

“Raphael has achieved constant movement throughout the picture, without letting it become restless or unbalanced .. supreme mastery of arranging his figures .. he did not copy any specific model but rather followed ‘a certain idea’ he had formed in his mind .. he deliberately used an imagined type of regular beauty”

In ancient times, eg Praxiteles .. ” an ‘ideal’ beauty grew out of a slow approximation of schematic forms to nature. Now the process was reversed. Artists tried to modeify nature according to the idea of beauty they had formed when looking at classical statues – the ‘idealized’ the model”

016 Light and Colour: Venice and northern Italy, early 16th century

“Venice whose trade lined it closely with the East”

“the painters of the Middle Ages were no more concerned about the ‘real’ colours of things than they were about their real shapes .. they loved to spread out the purest colours and most precious colours they could”

Giorgione – The Tempest, c.1508 – first painting about people in a place – nature, environment not treated as a background.

“the picture is clearly blended into a whole simply by the light and air .. for the first time, it seems, the landscape before which the actors of the pcture move is not just a background. It is there, by its won right, as the real subject of the painting”

(KB note – it hasn’t been ‘othered’ as it had so far in Western canon of art)

“Giorgione has not drawn things and persinse to arrange them afterwards in space .. he really thought of nature, the earth, the trees, the light, air and cloulds and the human beings with their cities and bridges as one”

“from now on, painting was more than drawing plus colouring”

“Titian .. was principally a painter .. [his] supreme skill enabled him to disregard all the time-honoured rules of composition, and to rely on colour to restore the unity which he apparently broke up”

Eg. Madonna with saints and members of the Pesaro family, Titian 1519-26

“it was almost unheard of to move the Holy Virgin out of the centre of the picture and to place the two administering saints .. not symmetrically on each side”

He “dared to upset the old-established rules of composition .. the unexpected composition only serves to make it gay and lively … Titian contrived to let light, air and colours unify the scene. The idea of making a mere flag counterbalance the figure of the HOly Virgin would probably have shocked an earlier generation”

“Titian’s greatest fame with his contemporaries rested on portraits” Eg a Young Englishman.

“he gave [his subjects] the conviction that through his art they would go on living”

017 The New Learning Spreads: Germany and the Netherlands, early 16th century

Albrecht Dürer “followed the customof all young medieval craftsmen and travelled about as a journeyman to broaden his views and to look for a place in which to settle.

He was “experimenting with various rules of proportion .. deliberately distorting the human frame by drawing overlong, or overbroad bodies in order to find the right balance and the right harmony”

“Albrecht Altdorfer .. went out into the woods and mountains to study the shape of weather-beaten pines and rocks. Many of his watercolours and etchings, and at least one of his oil-paintings, tell no story and contain no human beings. This is quite a momentous change”

“Hieronymous Bosch .. became famous for us terrifying representations of the powers of evil .. for the first and perhaps only time, an artist had succeeded in giving concrete and tangible shape to the fears that had haunted .. the Middle Ages”

018 A Crisis of Art: Europe, later 16th century

“Tintoretto wanted to show things in a new light.. to explore new ways of representing the legends and myths of the past.. a smooth careful finish did not interest him .. on the contrary it might have distracted our attention from the dramatic happenings of the picture”

“His painting of St George’s fight .. shows how the weird light and the broken tones add to the feeling of tension and excitement … the hero is removed, against all the rules, far into the background”

eg. St George and the dragon by Tintoretto

“In Spain too .. El Greco’s art surpasses even Tintoretto’s in its bold disregard of natural form and colours and in its stirring dramatic vision”

eg. The opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse by El Greco

“In the North the question soon faced them whether painting could and should continue at all. This great crisis was brought about by the Reformation”

When Hans Holbein the Younger “settled in England for good .. [he] was given the official title of Court Painter by Henry VIII … He designed jewelerry and furniture, costumes for pageantries and decorations for halls, weapons and goblets. His main job, however, was to paint portraits of the royal household.”

“the only branch of painting that survived the Reformation was that of portrait painting”

“there was only one Protestant country in Europe where art fully survived the crisis of the Reformation – that was the Netherlands”

“the northern artists, who were no longer needed for the painting of altar-panels and other devotional pictures, tried to find a market for their recognized specialities and the paint pictures the main object of which was to display their stupendous skill in representing the surface of things”

“particularly scenes from daily life, later became know as ‘genre pictures’ “

019 Vision and Visions: Catholic Europe, first half the 17th century

“In Rome, in particular, there were cultured gentlemen who enjoyed discussions on the various ‘movements’ among the artists of their time”

and in particular the hot topic was Carracci from Bologna vs. Caravaggio from near Milan

Carracci ” In Rome, he fell under the spell of Raphael’s works … aimed at recapturing something of their simplicity and beauty … the battle cry of his party .. was the cultivation of classical beauty”

Eg. The Virgin mourning Christ – by Carracci

“to be afraid of ugliness seemed to Caravaggio a comtemptible weakness .. he had no liking for classical models, nor any respect for ‘ideal’ beauty.. some people thought he was mainly out to shock the public .. he was condemned as a ‘naturalist'”

vs. Eg. Doubting Thomas by Caravaggio

“Caravaggio’s ‘naturalism’, that is, his intention to copy nature faithfully .. was perhaps more devout than Caracci’s emphasis on beauty. Caravaggio must have read the Bible again and again and pondered it’s words … ‘Reach hither they hand, and thrust it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing” (St John XX.27) “

“He did everything possible to make the ficures of the ancient texts look more real and tangible”

“Rome at the time was the centre of the civilised world. Artists from all parts of Europe came there, took part in discussions on painting, took sides in the quarrels of the cliques, studied old masters, and returned to their native contries with tales of the latest ‘movements'”

“art had been developed to such a point that artists were inevitably conscious of the choice of methods before them “

“Carracci, Reni and their followers.. formulated the pogramme of idealizing or ‘beautifying’ nature, according to the standards set by the classical statues. We call it the neo-classical or ‘academic’ programmes”

“Nicolas Poussain .. studied the classical statues with passionate zeal”

Claude Lorraine “was a perfect master of the realistic representation of nature … it was Claude who first opened people’s eyes to the sublime beauty of nature”

“the one northern artist to come most directly into contact with the Roman atmosphere of Carracci’s and Caravaggio’s days .. was the Fleming Peter Paul Rubens”

“all his admiration for the new art developing in Italy does not seem to have shaken his fundamental belief that painter’s business was to paint the world around him”

“he had acquired such facility in handling the brush and paint, in representing nudes and drapery, armour and jewels, animals, landscapes .. he had learnt the art of arranging figures on a vast scale, and of using light and colours to increae the general effect”

In Ruben’s madonna, Virgin and Child “there is more movement, more light, more space, and there are more figures in this painting than in any earlier ones”

” a master who could plan such vast pictures .. it would be the task of his pupils or assistants to transfer these ideas on to the large canvas “

” he was confident that his brushwork could quickly impart life to anything.. his paintings are no longer drawings carefully modelled in colour – they are produced by ‘painterly’ means”

During “the 30 years war on the Continent.. on one side stood the absolute mnarchs and their courts, .. supported by the Catholic church – on the other the rising merchant cities, most of them Protestant”

“it was as the painter of the Catholic camp that Rubens rose to his unique position .. when travelling from court to court as an honoured guest, he was often charged with delicate political and diplomatic missions, foremost among them that of effecting reconciliation between England and Spain”

Eg. Allegory on the blessings of peace, “a gift to Charles I… [with] Minerva, the goddss of wisdom and civilising arts, drives away Mars.. the Fury of war .. under the protection of Minerva the joys of peace are spread out before our eyes”

“Velázquez had been profoundly impressed by the discoveries and the manner of Caravaggio, which he got to through the work of imitators”

020 The Mirror of Nature: Holland 17th century

“many local committees and governing boards, prominent in the life of Dutch cities .. followed the .. custom of having their group portraits painted for the boardrooms and meeting-places of their worshipful companies”

Frans Hals .. “compared to earlier portraits [his portraits] look almost like a snapshot”

But despite this skill, he earnt very little and lived a precarious existence

“the painters of protestant Holland, unlike the masters of the Middle Ges and of the Renaissance .. had to paint their picures first, and then try to find a buyer .. thus it came about that the trend towards specialization which had begun in the northern countries in the 16th century was carried to even greater extremes in the 17th century … these specialist were real specialists”

“Rembrandt .. left us an amazing record of life in a series of self-portraits ranging from his youth .. to his lonely old age”

“he claimed the artists’ right to declare a picture finished – as he said – ‘when he had achieved his purpose'”

“he valued truth and sincerity above harmony and beauty”

Despite this, he wielded “much artistic wisdom and skill… [for example] this art of distributing a mass of people, in apparently casual and yet harmonious groups .. owed much to the tradition of Italian art”

eg. Christ preaching – by Rembrandt

Jan Steen .. “could not support himself with his brush. and he kept an inn to earn money”

Suitably he specialised in scenes of revelry, building in Breghel’s work. Life imitating art or vice versa??

Still life .. “became a wonderful field of experiments for painters’ special problems . [like] the way light is reflected and broken by coloured glass”

“without knowing it themselves, these specialists began to demonstrate that the subject of the painting is much less important might have been thought”

Eg. Still life with drinking horn – by Willem Kalf

“with Vermeer.. his paintings are really still lifes with human beings .. they make us see the quiet beauty of a simple scene with fresh eyes”

021 Power and Glory I : Italy, later 17th and 18th century

Churches as ” the framework for the splendid ritual of the Roman Church.. the candles alight on the altar, when the smell of incense fills the nave, and when the sound of the organ and the choir transports us into a different world”

“it is not so much the details that matter.. as the general effect of the whole”

On Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s ceiling fresco The worship of the Holy Name of Jesus .. “in letting the picture thus break the frame, the artist wants to confuse and overwhelm us, so that we no longer know what is real and what illusion. A painting like this has no meaning outside the place for which it was made”

Tiopolo’s ‘The Banquet of Cleopatra” shows the story that Cleopatra ‘took a famous pearl from her earring, dissolved it in vinegar and drank the brew”

“the painting and engraving of views. The travellers who came to Italy from all over Europe to admire the glories of her past greatness often wanted to take souvenirs with them”

eg Guardi’s View of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice we see “the spirit of Baroque, the taste for movement and bold effects .. he has learned that once we are given the general impression of a scene we are quite ready to supply and supplement the details ourselves .. his gondoliers .. are made up simply of a few deftly placed coloured patches”

022 Power and Glory II : France, Germany and Austria, late 17th and 18th centuries

“kings and princes of 17th century Europe .. they too wanted to appear as beings of a different kind, lifted by the divine right above the common run of men”

On eg Prince Eugene’s palace in Vienna and or the Weißenstein Castle in Bavaria .. “we cannot do justice to these interiors unless we visualize them in use – on a day when the owner was giving a feast or holding a reception, when the lamps were lit and man and women in the gay and stately fashions of the time arrived … the contrast between the dark, unlit streets of the time, reeking of dirt and squalor and the radiant fairy world of the nobleman’s dwelling must have been overwhelming”

“the buildings of the Church made use of similar striking effects”

“once more we must imagine what it meant for a simple Austrian peasant to leave his farmhouse and enter this strange wonderland”

eg. the Melk monastery .. “when you are in the midst of it all it envelops you and stops all questioning”

“Antoine Watteau .. began to paint his own visions of a life divorced from all hardship.. a dream-life of gay picnics in fairy parks where it never rains, of musical parties.. dressed in sparkling silk”

“the taste of the French aristocracy of the early 18th century .. known as Roccoco: the fashion for dainty colours and delicate decoration”

eg. Fête in a park by Watteau

023 The Age of Reason: England and France, 18th century

“the ideal of the English 18th century was not the palace but the country house … Palladio’s [textbook from renaissance times] came to be considered the ultimate authority on all rules of taste in architecture … the ‘Palladian manner””

“the whole temper of the country was opposed to the flights of fancy of Baroque designs and to an art that aimed at overwhelming the emotions”

“their idea of what nature should look like was largely derived from the paintings of Calude Lorraine”

“William Hogarth .. knew that there was no public for contemporary art in England .. in order to impress people brought up in the puritan tradition, art must have an obvious purpose. Accordingly, he plannned a number of paintings which .. would show a ‘Rake’s progress'”

“Hogarth himself compared this new type of painting to the art of the playwright and the theatrical producer”

But he was also proud of his understanding of Italian tradition an “wrote a book, which he called ‘The Analysis of Beauty’, to explain the idea that an undulating line will always be more beautiful than an angular one”

“Sir Joshua Reynolds .. the first president of the newly founded Royal Academy of Art, he expounded this ‘academic’ doctrine in a series of discourses .. [he] believed in the rules of taste and the importance of authority in art. He believed that the right procedure in art could, to a large extent, be taught, if students were given facilities for studying the recognized masterpieces of Italian art”

“artists had to struggle against social snobbery which made people look down on painters and sculptors because they worked with their hands .. artists had to insist they their real work was not handiwork but brain work”

“English institutions and English taste became the admired models for all people in Europe who longed for the rule of reason. For in England art had not been used to enhance the power and glory of god-like rulers “

“Painters began to look at the life of the ordinairy mean and women of their time… Chardin like these quiet glimpses of life .. he resembles Vermeer in the way in which he feels and preserves the poetry of a domestic scene, wihtout looking for striking effects or pointed allusions”

eg. Chardin – Saying Grace

024 The Break in Tradition: England, America and France in the late 18th and early 19th century

“the large mass of artists wre still organized in guilds and companies … [the] purpose was to supply beautifu; things to people who wanted them and enjoyed them”

“in the age of Reason, people began to become self-sonscious about style and styles .. among the most sophisticated connoisseurs there were some who wanted to be different from the others”

Hence Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill country house, that dramatically abandons the norm of a Palladian villa

“it was one of the first signs that self-consciousness which made people select the style of their buildings as one selects the pattern of a wallpaper”

“painting had ceased to be an ordinary trade the knowledge of which was handed down from master to an apprentice. Instead it had become a subject like philosophy to be taught in academies”

“but for the arts to flourish .. there should be enough people willing to buy paintings or sculptures by living artists”

“as a remedy, the academies .. began to arrange annual exhibitions of the works of their members … these annual events became social events .. and made and unmade reputations”

“some artists despised the ‘offical’ art of the academies … [and] found themselves excluded”

“it is curious how rarely artists before the middle of the 18th century strayed from the narrow limits of illustration [of biblical stories and classical myths] .. all this changed very rapidly during the period of the French Revolution. Suddenly artists felt free to choose as their subjects anything from a Shakespearean scene to a topical event”

“John Singleton Copley .. was to paint [in 1785] the famous incident when Charles I demanded from the House of Commons the arrest of five impeached members, and when the speaker challenged the King’s authority and declined to surrender them [in 1641]”

“he acted as a conscientious producer might act otday when he has to reconstruct a scene for a historical film or play .. [a] type of antiquarian research, which should help people visualize decisive moments of history”

“the meaning of Copley’s evocation of the previous rebuff to royal pretensions was perfectly understood by all” …. he was an American artist … the Queen supposedly said “You have chosen, Mr Copley, a most unfortunate subject for the exercise of your pencil”

“the French revolutionaries loved to think of themsleves as Greek and Romans reborn .. the leading artist of this neo-classical style was .. Jacques-Louis David, who was the ‘official artist’ of the Revoltionary Government, and designed the costumes and settings for such propagandit pageantries as the ‘festival of the Supreme Being’ “

“the most outstanding effect of the break in tradition – that artists felt free to put their private visions on paper as hitherto only poets had done”

eg. Goya and William Blake …

“Blake was so wrapped up in his visions that he refused to draw from life and relied entirely on his inner eye .. like medieval artists he did not care for accurate representation”

“nobody could reconstruct a 19th century steamer from Turner’s seascape. All he gives is the impression of the dark .. of a battle with the raging seas .. we almost feel the rush of wind”

Constable “went out to the countryside to make sketches from nature, and then elaborated them in his studio.. painted with restraint .. refusal to be more impressive than nature”

“the break with tradition had left artists with the two possibilities which were embodied in Turner and Constable. They could become poets in painting, and seek moving and dramtic effects, or they could decide to keep to the motif in front of them, and explore it with all the insistence and honesty at their command”

“the spirit of Chinese landscape paintings .. also comes so close to the idea of poetry”

025 Permanent Revolution: The 19th century

“The academies and exhibitions, the critics and connoisseurs, had done their best to introduce a distinction between Art with a capital A and the mere exercise of a craft”

“The amount of building done in the 19th century was probably greater than in all former periods taken together”

[KB] ?? really … note look at population history again ..

On the rebuilding of the UK Houses of Parliament in 1800s after a fire

“It was felt, however, that England’s civil liberties rested on the achievements of the Middle Ages, and it was right and proper to erect the shrine of British Freedom in the Gothic style”

In the past an artist’s ‘work had always been as well defined as that of any other calling. There were always altar-paintings to be done, portraits to be painted; people wanted to buy pictures for their best parlours, or commissioned murals for their villas …. the break in tradition had thrown open to them an unlimited field of choice”

“artists began to see themselves as a race apart, they grew long hair and beards, they dressed in velvet or corduroy, wore broad-brimmed hats and loose ties and generally stressed their contempt for the conventions of the ‘respectable'”

“for the first time, perhaps, it became true that art was a perfect means of expressing individuality – provided the artist had an individuality to express”

On a woman choosing a hat – “it always has something to do with the way she sees herself and wants others to see her”

“the idea that the true purpose of art was to express personality could only gain ground when art had lost every other purpose”

An audience that “wanted art to bring them into contact with men who it would be worth while to converse”

[kb] art that has a point of view

The western canon of art as “the history of a handful of lonely men who had the courage and the persistence to think for themselves, to examine conventions fearlessly and critically and thus to create new possibilities for their art”

“it was Paris that became the artistic capital of Europe in the 19th century, much as Florence had been in the 15th century and Rome in the 17th century. Artists from all over the world came to Paris to study with the leading masters and, most of all, to join in dicsussions about the nature of art that never ended in the cafés of Montmartre, where the new conception of art was painfully hammered out”

“the leading conservative painter in the first half of the 19th century was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres “

“Delacroix .. had no patience was all the talk of Greeks and Romans, and the insistence on correct drawing, and the constant imitation of classical statues. He believed that, in painting, colour was much more important than draughtsmanship, and imagination than knowledge.

“Delacroix really admired a French landscape painter … Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875)

“Colour often comes into conflict with gradations of tone on which Fragonard could rely”

Contrast Corot’s Villa d’Este vs. Fragonard’s earlier drawing of the same view

“the next revolution was mainly concerned with the conventions governing subject-matter”

Eg. Millet’s ‘The Gleaners’

“there is no dramatic incident.. just three hard-working people in a flat field .. they are neither beautiful nor graceful. There is no suggestion of the country idyll in the picture. These peasant women move slowly and heavily.. his three peasant women assumed a dignity more natural and more convincing than that of academic heroes”

[KB note contrast this to other opinions eg. Berger’s interpretation… also accounts of the artist colony at Barbizon – future posts on these to follow!]

“Manet and his followers .. discovered that if we look at nature in the open, we so not see individual objects each with its own colour but rather a bright medley of tints which blend in our eye or really in our mind”

” in the full light of day, round forms sometimes do look flat, like mere coloured patches”

“new theories did not only concern the treatment of colours … but also that of forms in movement .. in actual life we can only focus on one spot with our eyes”

See contrast of Manet’s The races at Longchamp and Frith’s Derby Day

Press reviews of the first Impressionist shows, often went something like this, written on 1876

“The rue le Peltier is a road of disasters. After the fire at the Opéra, there is now yet another disaster there. An exhibition has just been opened at Durand-Ruel which allegedly contains paintings. I enter and my horrified eyes behold something terrible. Five or six lunatics, among them a woman, have joined together and exhibited their works”

[KB – who was the woman???]

critics of impressionism let ‘their knowledge of what ‘belongs’ to a man [or whatever the subject maybe] interfere with their judgement of what we really see”

“this conspicuous failure of the public to recognize novel methods .. is as important in the history of art as was the ultimate victory of the Impressionst programme”

With the invention of photography … “there was no need for painting to perform a task which a mechanical device could perform better and more cheaply .. in the past the art of painting served a number of utilitarian ends. It was used to record the likeness of a notable person or the view of a country house “

“the second ally which the Impressionists found .. was the Japanese print…. The Japanese prints helped them to see how much of the European conventions still remained with them without their having noticed it”

“the Japanese relished every unexpected and unconventional aspect of the world”

(aspect in the literal ‘view’ sense, eg Hokusai’s Mt Fuji seen behind a cistern and Utamaro’s Rolling up a blind for the plum-blossom view, where he is not concerned about chopping off the human figures, or making them central)

“why should a painting always show the whole or a relevant part of each figure in a scene?”

026 In Search of New Standards: The later 19th century

“men like John Ruskin and William Morris dreamt of thorough reform of the arts and crafts … that the regeneration of art cpi;d be brpugh about by a return to medieval conditions. But many artists saw that this was an impossibility”

“They longed for a ‘New Art’ based on a new feeling for design and for the possibilities inherent in each material … Art Nouveau was raised in the 1890s”

“the new architecture of iron and glass that had grown up”

“the Impressionists did not differ in their aims from the traditions of art that had developed since the discovery of nature in Renaissance. They, too, wanted to paint nature as we see it”

“Cezanne.. was a man of independent means and regular habits and was not dependent on finding buyers for his pictures”

“outwardly he lived a life of tranquility and leisure, but was constantly engaged in a passionate struggle his painting”

“the old masters .. did not feel bound to respect nature as they saw it. Their pictures are rather arrangements of forms they had learned from the study of classical antiquity”

“there was one thing he was prepared to sacrifice if need be: the conventional ‘correctness’ of outline .. “

“he wanted to convey the feeling of solidity and depth, and he found he could do that without conventional draughtsmanship”

“Van Gogh was not mainly concerned with correct representation. He used colours and forms to convey what he felt about the things he painted .. he had arrived by a different road at a juncture similar to that .. of Cezanne”

“Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gaugin were three desperately lonely men, who worked on with little hope of ever being understood”

[and who were the equivalent women of that time?]

“the swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) boldly simplified. his native scenery even further to achieve a poster-like clarity”

eg Lake Thun by Hodler, 1905

“it is no accident that this painting reminds us of posters, for it turned out that the approach which Europe had learned from the Japanese proved particularly suited to the art of advertising .. such an economy of means for the new art of the poster”

eg. Henri Toulouse Lautrec and Aubrey Beardsley

“Art Nouveau was decorative .. Fidelity to the motif or the telling of a moving story no longer mattered so much”

027 Experimental Art: The first half of the 20th Century

“the break in tradition .. beyond the French Revolution .. it was then , as we know, that artists had become self-conscious about style”

“if Morris had been right in thinking that the machine could never successfullu emulate the work of human hands, the solution was obviously to find out what the machine could do and to regulate our designs accoridngly”

eg in Architecture Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius’ buildings and The Rockefeller Center – 1931-39 by Reinhard and Hofmeister

“no artist can always ‘play safe’ and nothing is more important that to recognize the role that even apparently extravagent or eccentric experiments have played”

“the simple demand that should ‘paint what they see’ is self-contradictory”

“this idea dawned only during the age of the Renaissance.. at first all seemed to go well .. but every generation discovered that there were still unsuspected ‘pockets of resistance’ , strongholds of conventions which made artists apply forms they had learned rather than paint what they really saw”

“if the ‘Egyptian’ or the child in us remains stubbornly there, why not face the basic facts of image-making honestly?”

“our feelings about things do colour the way in which we see them and, even more, the forms which we remember”

…. -> Expressionism – Munch, Kollwitz, Die Brucke group

‘in the past, a child in a painting had to look pretty and contented. Grown-ups did not want to know about the sorrows and agonies of childhood.. But Kokoschka would not fall in with these demands of convention”

eg. Children Playing 1909 by Oskar Kokoschka

“it was legitimate to ask whether art could not be made more pure by doing away with all subject matter and relying exclusively on the effects of tones and shapes .. the dream of pure visual music”

… -> Kandinsky

“Matisse went much further in the transformation of the sight before him into a decorative pattern”

Eg. The dinner table (Red) – Matisse 1908

“Picasso .. learned how it is possible to build up an image of a face or an object out of a few very simple elements” .. from studying ‘primitive art’

… a very fast whizz around Cubism and various movements … read another book for a better sense of 20th C evolution …

“the modern artist .. wants to feel that he has made soemthing which had no existence before … not just a piece of decoration .. butsomething more relevant and lasting than either”

eg Henry Moore .. “he did try to make a woman of stone, but a stone which suggests a woman”

“Giacometti … thought what he was after was .. the achievment of expression by minimal means”

“the Surrealists .. agreed with Klee that an artist cannot plan his work but must let it grow”

028 A story without end – The Triumph of Modernism

On the support the US govt gave to Pollock .. “official sponsorhip of extremist rebels in the Western camp might not have been so eager had it not been for the opportunity to drive home this very real contrast between a free society and a dictatorship”

“it is more than ever necessary to remember that art differs from science and technology”

“the more we generalize about art the more likely we are to go wrong”