Dimensions

Copy after Van Dyck; Hermann Joseph, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Copy after Van Dyck; Hermann Joseph, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

What is perhaps most fascinating for me in viewing old master paintings, and what seems to be lost on people distracted by clouds of angel babies and voluptuous nudes being fawned upon by the gods of Greek or Christian persuasion, is the representation of the wholly natural third dimension.

Upon first noticing it, one has not words for this, and thinks it must be something in the paint, in the mixing of colours, in the adeptness with tone. Perhaps exotic ancient pigments. But when your eyes at last adjust to the idea of pictorially representing three-dimensional space, the image suddenly alters under your gaze, like the illusions of Gestalt psychology in which a single image may be viewed as either a rabbit or a duck but never at the one time. Of these duck-rabbit switch images, Gombrich (in Kandel p. 208) thought it significant that ‘the visual data on the page do not change. What changes is our interpretation of the data.’ Your eyes flicker, and you suddenly see that Van Dyck thought not only of the harmonious arc of figures and the sloping, hierarchical diagonal through their hands, but that he also saw depth, and, indeed, has depicted this illusion so convincingly on a  completely flat surface. Our modern eyes, however, are actively trained to resist this representation, and conform to flattened compositional devices, colour, symbolism, and—most of all—subject matter. Blinded by our disdain for religion, our modern eyes miss the plane of depth extending back into the picture and fail to recognise just how rare this is in modern painting.

Duck-Rabbit_illusion

While it’s interesting to take a historical viewpoint of painting and note the evolution from deep to flat, it’s startling to realise precisely where one is situated in this history and to realise the implications this has on one’s understanding of paintings made in ages past. This flattening in art was certainly an intentional educational progression. Viennese painter Adolf Hölzel wrote an influential essay Über Formen und Massenvertheilung im Bilde and introduced the ideas contained within as part of the school curriculum from 1906. We have grown up in the wake of this tradition; we have been trained to see this way, to appreciate our flat canvas for the two dimensions it has, and not to manipulate it to contain more, nor to try to read more than two into it. In this respect, something previously integral to painting has not merely been forgotten but intentionally erased. While Nelson (p. 178) alludes to techniques of looking and making being ‘revised and reworked, gained and lost and rediscovered afresh, over centuries,’ it is clear that some things were not simply forgotten but thrust aside, and the implications of this hang heavily in the air of the gallery today.

Belvedere, Wien

Belvedere, Wien

A current exhibition at the Oberes Belvedere, Wien, sheds light on but one aspect of this intentional shift. Die Formalisierung der Landschaft (Shaping of the landscape) exhibition traces the efforts of Hölzel and his contemporaries and followers in the late 1890s to embrace the flatness of the pictorial space, and the general move in the German-speaking countries away from the illusionism that had propelled artists since the Renaissance. Books emphasising negative space in Rubens and the like started to permeate schools—these are the very ideas I recall being plied with, without having the depth-dependent alternative demonstrated to me. To my generation, and perhaps a few before, painting simply is flat, and if one cares to model form one ought to turn to sculpture or installation. Lacking this historical contrast, we have failed to see just how striking this two-dimensional shift was, and, I would venture, have even been cheated out of a fuller understanding of the painting of earlier times. When one can’t see past the plump nudes reclining in courts or the heavy religious topics of Rubens, it probably has a lot to do with lacking the perceptual abilities needed to see the multi-axial compositional genius of his paintings.

Nevertheless, just before 1900, compositional ideas were shifting, and the rise of photography seems to have played no small part in this. Rather than concentrating on illusionistic compositional devices to do with depth or perspective, the fading neutrals of the distance, or the convincing volume of objects, painters and photographers alike were investigating the idea of flat shapes delineating a single-planed composition. The Belvedere exhibition specifically offers the work of the painters Ludwig Dill, Emilie Mediz-Pelikan, Theodore von Hörmann, Rudolf Ribarz, Karl Mediz and Carl Moll as examples, as well as that of the Viennese photographers Heinrich Kühn, Hugo Henneberg and Hans Watzek. The paintings and prints are remarkably alike in their stiff stillness, their solemn but hazy tree silhouettes against the Dachau moors echoing (and intentionally so) the positive and negative ink blots of the Gestalt psychologists.

Taken in this historical context, the paintings are fascinating—just how much were they influenced by psychology, or psychology driven by art? And did photography lend its tone-simplifying characteristics to the thought-process of painters, despite arguments that with the advent of photography painters were forced to diversify, and turn to ornamentation? As Gombrich (in Kandel, p. 109) suggested, ‘The photographer was slowly taking over the functions that had once belonged to the painter. And so the search for alternative niches began. One such alternative lay in the decorative function of painting, the abandoning of naturalisms in favour of formal harmonies.’ Klimt was a prominent Viennese convert to flatness and ornamentation in the face of the possibilities of photography (Kandel p. 115). Nevertheless, the New Dachau artists provide a nice counterpoint of perhaps some of the earliest painting directly influenced by the aesthetics of photography. These aesthetics endure with us today, and not merely through the slavery many a painter has come to have to her camera as a convenient way of freezing her subject, but through the lack of understanding of light and shadow zones and compositional construction when one has done so much of one’s visual learning from the flat, pre-framed and tonally compressed picture plane of the photograph.

Heldenplatz mit Flieder, Carl Moll 1900-1905

Heldenplatz mit Flieder, Carl Moll 1900-1905

Carl Moll stands out in this Belvedere exhibition for his ability to integrate these new ideas without completely sacrificing the old. The gaudy, brightly-coloured and texture-driven paintings of Mediz-Pelikan and Von Hörmann don’t come marginally close to Moll’s delicate representation of lakes and trees and gardens of Vienna. His globes of pruned plants are full and round; their dampened purples vivid in his intelligently considered context, unlike the more crude primaries of his contemporaries. The distance recedes in a harmonious haze of neutralised colours not unlike the true dusty fuzz of a Wiener summer sky. And yet, the shapes dominate and tell the real story, with vast stretches of grass filling broad swathes of the canvas, or expanses of shimmering lake filing the entire foreground. Moll expertly manipulates the modern ideas of flatness without giving up any illusionism. Does he cling to fast to the old? Perhaps, if one only measures success by progress. But I find Moll far more intelligent for his ability to discern between the valuable aspects of all ideas at his disposal to make truly beautiful and engaging paintings. The other paintings may simply be glanced at as examples of their school, but do not stand alone as strong and memorable images.

The march of history need not mean we abandon the powerful techniques left to us by those before. Flatness and ornamentation have been exciting and visually stimulating approaches, and much of the illustration I admire clings fast to these impulses. But to discard other tools simply because they have a longer history is perhaps to deny oneself the tools one needs to truly express something significant.

Heldenplatz, Wien

Heldenplatz, Wien

Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The age of insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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Die Gestalt des Menschen

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

In Vienna, a little romance has blossomed between me and sculpture. It’s hard to say how this happened; it unfolded slowly, and now I am irresistibly drawn to these three-dimensional creatures that transform before my eyes as I circle them. So rich in possibilities! So imaginative in design! Endless drawings grasp after these bronze, marble and terracotta constructions, with each viewpoint a new vision, a new insight.

In one of his more lighthearted moments, Kafka, too, relished the magic of sculpture. Of a trip to the Louvre he writes in his diaries (p. 459-60):

‘Even when you walked around the Venus de Milo as slowly as possible, there was a rapid and surprising alteration in its appearance. … I should need a plastic reproduction to remember them, especially one about the way the bended left knee affected her appearance from every side, though sometimes only very slightly. …

The front view of the Borghese Wrestler isn’t the best one, for it makes the spectator recoil and presents a disjointed appearance. Seen from the rear, however, where for the first time you see his foot touching the ground, your eye is drawn in delight along the rigid leg and flies safely over the irresistible back to the arm and sword raised towards the front.’

The sculptor must be a mannerist, for in sculpture the figure stands alone, no background to compositionally support it. Perhaps a lute or some drapery bend space in the desired way, but these too mustn’t stray too far from the figure, and must be supported somehow. This is the human form at its most expressive! Extended arms in theatrical gestures; cocked hips and crunched abdomens; exaggerated sweeps of legs and improbable stacks of pelvises and rib cages supported by ruthless gravity but given wings by imagination.

Kenneth Clark (p. 357) surprisingly suggests that ‘to use the body as a means of expressing the anguish of the human soul is no longer a possible enterprise.’ He concludes his book The Romantic Rebellion with a chapter on Rodin, whose Eve I have been fawning over in the Upper Belvedere, seeming to situate Rodin at the end of an era in the expressive relevance of the human form. Perhaps he is historically correct in this; as Kandel (p. 215) argues, the emergence of modernism was signalled by the advent of ‘two broad, sometimes overlapping types of experiments, both designed to enlarge the viewer’s experience in ways that photography could not’: specifically, one loose camp of artists proceeded to dissect the physicality of painting, toying with perspective and form and such representational tools to produce something visually challenging. The second broad camp of artists used all available tools to explore the psyche, and the visual representation of emotions. Historically, then, there seems, in the wake of Rodin, no place for the realistic representation of the human figure when abstraction, symbolism and expressive distortions have picked up where he left off.

However, Clark (p. 357) offers an insightful reason for the impossibility of continuing Rodin’s powerful tradition: ‘We do not know how to represent the body and do not believe in the existence of the soul.’ The first contention seems fair, yet surmountable. It’s certainly more difficult now to learn solid draughtsmanship, and to be guided on points of form and anatomy, but schools exist, and individuals persevere. The second point is more difficult to dodge, and seems to resonate with Nietzsche’s fearless observation of the beliefs of his fellow human beings that God is dead. We are crying out for a new metaphor, a new way to describe that restlessness within us, that feeling intellect, that thoughtful sentience. We are wed to this earth by our bodies of dirt, held fast by gravity. But we feel more than mere pain and pleasure, and are propelled by more than instinct.

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Rodin’s Eve clings to the old metaphor but in a way unlike any other I’ve seen: her belly beginning to bulge, she clutches herself in shame and misery at the wounded world she is to birth. She shields her head, hung low and dark, with a hastily-sculpted hand, shying from the blame she is to wear for all of womankind for her curious and defiant actions. Not a seductive temptress proffering jewel-like fruit to her unsuspecting and guileless male companion, not a sparkling goddess of fertility; Rodin’s Eve probes the devastation of the first act in the tragedy that is our western metaphor and reveals that metaphor for the failure that it is, and the failure that it has forced us to be from the beginning.

Egon Schiele, The Family, Belvedere Wien

Egon Schiele, The Family, Belvedere Wien

Rodin’s truth is ugly, but apt and timely. The man himself says (in Kandel, p. 103), ‘There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say that which offers no outer or inner truth.’ Rodin himself begins to turn inwards in a way that aligns with the Viennese expressionists, including Schiele and Kokoschka, who ‘produced work that boldly challenged the aesthetic focus on beauty and the association of beauty with truth’ (p. 102), and who themselves turned inwards. Interestingly, however, while their paintings distorted the human figure, they relied heavily on gestural symbolism within the figure, returning again and again to the expressiveness of human hands, as well as playing with the meanings implied by awkward angularities and physical relations between figures. I return again and again to Schiele’s The Family in the Belvedere, where Schiele, ape-like, drapes his protective but awkward arms around his wife Edith, who sits serenely between his legs, where she received the fruit of his loins, and her own legs are parted, knees raised high, to introduce their inquisitive child into the world from between her own fruitful thighs. There is a vulgarity in this, but a beautiful honesty relevant to the age. And it is not thoroughly severed from the knowledgeable representation of the human form (Schiele’s anatomical knowledge is always prominent), though it distorts and in some ways caricatures.

Schiele, then, provides an apt example for Nelson’s (p. 179) admonition ‘that we acquire no more technical sophistication than we need,’ or, rather, that we make use of it no more than we need. In this sense, academicism in our drawing is only relevant insofar as we need it to achieve our ends. ‘The purpose is always the nub of the discussion’ he continues; ‘and a focus on technique without a corresponding dedication to the purposes which it might serve strikes me as idle.’ Nelson is right to emphasise the motivation for our learning, though it is difficult to see how a thorough education could be ‘idle’ in any sense. Setting our goals and aiming no higher precludes what we might have gone on to achieve if we’d only allowed ourselves the resources. It seems far less limiting to me to learn all you can, and watch your own purpose emerge out of your unfettered abilities.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

And as Scott Breton argues, these age-old skills do not confine the artist to endless similitude: ‘Drawing the figure in the classical sense, is not copying.’ Rather than agreeing on a standardised visual notation, artists with such training are each attempting to use the most convincing tools at their disposal to fulfil their individual visions: ‘It is an attempt at integration, a kind of improvisation and simplification in real time, that brings together gesture and body language, anatomy, design, form and character. … From beginning to end, good painting is a process of creative integration of elements such that the alchemy of their mixture makes the gold the artist was grasping for: the gestalt, the intangible story.’

Kandel (p. 103) notes that art, throughout history, has appealed to the same emotions in people, and yet we are never satiated, we continue to be enthralled by art. New art finds new ways to ignite old passions in us, and we don’t feel deceived by this, but rather seek it out. Riegel (in Kandel, p. 104) suggests that it is the task of the artist to teach people to look afresh, to find the truths—age old or relevant to our own age—for themselves.

The figure remains as prominent in art—fine art, commercial art; digital art, photography, painting, sculpture—as ever. The body speaks to us in profound ways, through facial expression and body language, through idealisation and imperfection, through age and gender. Let us hold fast to the expressive figure and our ability to represent it, but let us forge new metaphors and search out new truths. God is dead; man is not.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Clark, Kenneth. 1973. The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus classic art. John Murray: London.

Kafka, Franz. 2009 [1959]. Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken.

Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The age of insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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