Breathe in

Madonna with the blue diadem – Raphael

Several years ago I visited the prints and drawings room at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh and was treated to my own little exhibition starring a lovely Raphael drawing. While it’s nice to get close to such pictures, to take one’s time with them, to meet them as individuals, it is also extremely rewarding to get positively drunk on a rich and steady stream of Raphaels. An undeniable advantage of living in Vienna is that our galleries treat us to exhibitions that are far from modest; our ample imperial collections are embellished but hardly outshone by guest appearances from the Louvre and the National Gallery in London. Such frenzied visual gluttony leaves one with very different impressions of the overall trajectory of Raphael’s work than calm meditation on a single piece.

Allegorical figure of poetry – Raphael

For one thing, it struck me how important tone is to his compositional strategy. Right from the early preparatory stages (and from his early years), his torsos and legs are offset simply and elegantly by plain slabs of tone. The effect is remarkably spatial: tone really does work, it is by no means a filler. One watches him carve an arched back deep into the picture by means of crude but deliberately-placed tonal contrast. In more complex drawings with many figures, this same simple strategy becomes meaningfully elaborate. Tone relates each figure to every other, especially in terms of depth. Plain, round heads and simple arcs of arms are woven in and out, set back at different distances, and curled gently towards us by rolling rhythms established largely tonally. Gently undulating movements ripple through tranquil and otherwise crisp, idealised figures. The masterful, airy sense of space informs us that we are emerging from the stilted Dark Ages into the spacious, glistening pastures of the Renaissance; it invites us to suck in a deep breath of that heady air.

Raphael

The force of this tonal organisation carries over into his painting, which is luminous. The brightness of his figures still gleam against the bright jewel-blue landscapes. Rather than dull them to grey, Raphael neutralises them with white, keeping their contrast limited but their colour otherwise pure. Without invoking da Vinci’s atmospheric haze, Raphael offers us sharply-drawn cities that recede by fading to an icy blue; they retreat into the distance but glow as lavishly as the radiant figures.

It is a sheer delight to observe his methodical approach. Seemingly uninterested in the peculiarities of individuals, he treats them with egalitarian lines that harmonise their quirks into balanced lines and forms. Thus subdued, each ideal human becomes a conduit for graceful forces, and Raphael can make them dance, can animate these soft puppets with a living movement that courses through them with the steady and mesmerising will of flowing water. One observes again and again that he often draws whole scenes of nudes: thoroughly inappropriate nudes in solemn religious settings. Drawing is a tool of understanding, and Raphael acquaints himself with every aspect of his figures as he works variations of the picture.

Raphael

Alongside these careful nudes are painstaking drapery studies. A cloth hangs over a chair, as though it might be wrapped around a waist, and is reproduced faithful to life. Then it is redrawn, less stiff, with more emphasis given to the imagined meaty masses beneath. One sees immediately that he combines these two separate studies, these two firm foundations, into a meaningful amalgam of fabric and flesh–that each enhances the other, describes the other, that they move together. And his draperies are incomparably airy, infused with a lightness that only such sure knowledge of both figure and folds of cloth can achieve. The truly inspired pictures augment his understanding. Air blows up under garments and lifts them lightly, it teasingly curls their hems. The billowing, swelling folds extend the figures into otherworldly forms with a magical presence about them. What Raphael draws is too perfect to be real, and yet so natural as to seduce us into believing it anyway.

Raphael (print of a fresco)

Raphael’s drawing is perhaps most mesmerising for its delicacy. That simple chalk marks can produce such textural differences between skin and fabric is astounding. A supple arm or face can be as fine and smooth as porcelain, nestled into a rustling bed of hatching that describes those carefully-observed folds. There are some exquisite passages of hatching that run counter to the folds of the fabric, opening it out in a radiating fashion. Such control shows us where his attention lay, and while it might be far from the throbbing muscles of Michelangelo, or from the frenzied swirls of Leonardo, we appreciate that his own emphasis is equally compelling and equally distinct. Raphael delights us with a clarity that rings like crystal, with an enveloping vision of humanity that softens and perfects his figures into more noble and gracious manifestations thereof.

Raphael

Artists are often called upon to produce endless novelty, to demonstrate their ‘creativity’ by producing something entirely unexpected. Raphael’s tendency toward ideals or universals in his figures suggests a rather an urge to perfect each previous attempt, to take up the idea again and refine it. His inventiveness is the truly inquisitive kind that attends very carefully to its subject, seeking to extract the most pleasing and elegant and finally effortless solution that comes out of deep familiarity with that subject. This genuine inquisitiveness uncovers endless variety on a single theme, as is evident in his Marys. His parameters are tight–circular rhythms, pinks and blues, babies cradled in crescents of arms–but each new iteration probes the possibilities in a breathlessly fresh manner, the glowing and trembling air positively wet with dew.

Three graces – Raphael

The Albertina, swarming with visitors, gives one something else to reflect upon, which is the way people fear the art, and the way they talk about it. Whether a tour group or a pair of friends, two roles tend to emerge: one type stands helpless and intimidated before the Raphaels, the other speaks with authority. While one follows in silence, the other puts on her ‘tour voice,’ a dreadful monotone that indicates she doesn’t quite appreciate her listeners to be humans; or talks with adamant certainty about Raphael’s technical aims and his motivations as if they were solid facts. This last, particularly, strikes me: an appeal to the formal properties, but a very arrogant one that seems to impose more on the picture than it extracts from it. Or one overhears an appeal to formal properties that is infuriatingly empty: a teacher solemnly tells his students to come nearer to the drawings, and finally to ‘schauen Sie die Hände und die Füße an, wie die gezeichnet sind,’ (‘Look at the hands and feet, at how they are drawn,’) with no further comment, no indication of particularly successful or unsuccessful strategies, no disappointment that in these instances the hands are rather weakly drawn and clearly not the emphasis of these more compositionally-oriented drawings that incline rather more towards neglecting the details.

My humble artist companion and I enter the gallery with another attitude altogether. We come, admittedly, with our familiarity with certain Raphael paintings, of that single drawing (now on loan to the Albertina), filled with our predilection for Michelangelo, but with our eyes open, ready to greet the pictures as they are. Our conversation–sparse, because of our private absorption in the pictures–is quietly observational, relishing a confident mark, joying in vivid colours, delighting in the judicious variety of the mark-making, in an unexpected and strong row of square knuckles, but also regretting the careless sections, the limp passages that lack conviction. The longer we stay with the pictures and the more we think about his choices, we start to appreciate what makes Raphael distinctive, why Ingres would later strive after his elegant fastidiousness, how classical it feels, yet at the same time coloured with the jewel-like hues of the Middle Ages. We are always sharing, wondering, noticing. If these humble comments can give you some handle on Raphael, give you some way to think about the formal properties in a concrete way, open your eyes to the simple delight a picture can awaken in you, I sincerely hope they might bring you a step closer to genuine appreciation. For as Aristotle opens his Metaphysics: ‘By nature, all men long to know. An indication is their delight in the senses. For these, quite apart from their utility, are intrinsically delightful, and that through the eyes more than the others.’

Raphael

 

Aristotle. 2004. The Metaphysics. Trans. Hugh Lawson-Tancred. Penguin: London.

Advertisements
Standard

Good art

The October night © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The October night © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

When one is persistently critical, sometimes people tire of you at parties, and they demand a positive explanation rather than a judgement. I’m in favour of such a broad, visionary task, but it depends on the genuine interest and attention of the questioner, because it is far more demanding and far-reaching than simply dealing with the artwork to hand. Nevertheless, when you are at a party, and someone impatiently drops the question, ‘What is good art, then?’ you feel an immense weight descend on your weary shoulders, and the magnitude of the task makes your beer-soaked brain tremble with fatigue. You scratch around desperately for somewhere to begin, but you are gripped by the certainty that you cannot bring this person to the place where you are— (T. S. Eliot):

And would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
‘That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.’

Wittgenstein felt the futility of expounding such an explanation. When we talk about the arts, he (1966: 7) says, ‘the word we ought to talk about is “appreciated.” What does appreciation consist in?’ What happens to us when we stand before a painting, and it weaves its spell on us, and the mysterious effects that belong to good art take possession of us? ‘It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation consists in, but impossible,’ Wittgenstein (1966: 7) declares without apology. ‘To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment.’ He knows that this question is facetious, that the questioner cares little for the totality of the environment, and turns decisively to criticism as a more productive approach. He is correct, of course. But perhaps we can magnanimously respond to the genuine questioner with the beginnings of a broad, positive conception of things that contribute to the ‘goodness’ of art.

Copy after Titian

Copy after Titian

I would propose three categories of ‘goodness’ in painting (my favourite art, you’ll forgive the preference), each of which would demand long treatises to clarify just what their whole environment consists in. But their domains are helpfully distinct. The first is the technical brilliance of the work, the second is its poetic brilliance, and the third is its successful communion with the viewer.

Technical brilliance encompasses an understanding of all the elements of painting: composition, colour, texture, form, line, tone, properties of light, gesture, design, perspective, anatomy—it would be no small task to give an exhaustive list, and to deal with each component in turn. Nathan Goldstein has given much attention to this task, with admirable results. But this colossal body of knowledge is only that which any serious artist applies herself to, and finds that she needs a lifetime to master and to integrate.

Copies after Ryan Daffurn; Titian

Copies after Ryan Daffurn; Titian

It is in this domain that we might speak of a painting as being ‘correct’: ‘A good cutter won’t use any words except words like, “Too long,” “All right.” ’ (Wittgenstein, 1966: 7). And a good painter makes similar corrective remarks at the gallery, consumed as she is by the technical construction of a painting. Thanks to her immense conceit, she can look at any Old Master as a mere human rival, and lament his shortcomings. But we would do well to name her an expert in this domain, since her judgements are based on knowledge of and experience in her craft.

Technical brilliance seems to be in some way evident to non-painters, but perhaps they are unable to explain exactly why. And perhaps, because of this, the real genius of a work will forever elude them. Perhaps they ought to take responsibility for learning something about the building blocks of painting in order to be able to intelligently engage with paintings, and to be able to tell a poorly-constructed painting from a well-constructed painting: ‘We want to be able to distinguish between a person who knows what he is talking about and a person who doesn’t,’ says Wittgenstein (1966: 6) unceremoniously. ‘If a person is to admire English poetry, he must know English.’

Copy after Van Dyck

Copy after Van Dyck

But technical brilliance should be at the service of some loftier aims. Ideally, a painter has such skills at her disposal when she has some profound poetic insight—perhaps in being deeply moved by an observation or an experience. Then she is fully equipped and fully prepared to capture, to notate, to describe that insight. Her work is not simply well-executed, nor merely expressive: like an elegant equation it gracefully and satisfyingly grasps the essence of that insight. It is poetically brilliant for expressing it in an eloquent way. There is nothing forced, or stilted, or lacking; nothing fussy, nothing overstated. All the technical elements that are used weave seamlessly into each other and strengthen each other in a wholly integrated way.

Importantly, as the ever exacting Adrien reminds me, it is not only artists who are capable of such insights. But as he explains his painfully recognised inability to grasp the significance of such moments, of lacking a means of savouring them and perhaps saving them and sharing them, I begin to see that the artist has some responsibility to meditate on these themes on behalf of everyone else. She is no more insightful than anyone else, but perhaps she is particularly attentive to the profound in the mundane, particularly sensitive to the poetic in life, and, as noted, has a means of distilling them into an object, with the aim of planting these insights into souls of others.

Copy after Adriaen de Vries

Copy after Adriaen de Vries

And here is the final measure of ‘goodness:’ the painting’s capacity to work some effect in the viewer. We speak in metaphor: the painting moves us, it touches us. That insight, so poetically captured in the luscious strokes of paint, carried in the marks, is recreated in the mind of the viewer. Wittgenstein is firm in separating the satisfying way something is constructed from the profound way in which reaches into us. He writes (1966: 8):

When we talk of a Symphony of Beethoven we don’t talk of correctness. Entirely different things enter. One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art. In certain styles in Architecture a door is correct, and the thing is you appreciate it. But in the case of a Gothic Cathedral what we do is not at all to find it correct. It plays an entirely different role with us. The entire game is different.

Ideally, the good painting, too, transcends its technical proficiency, and does more than record a private contemplation, reaching into the thoughts of the viewer and having an irresistible sway over them, moving the viewer and giving his thoughts a heretofore unrealised expression. And this two-way communion is significant: the painting does not simply implant a thought in the viewer, but merges with the thoughts of the viewer. He needs to close the circuit: he needs to make the connections, be they technical or poetic. He needs to seek out the linear rhythms, acknowledge the deliberate variation of edges, perhaps, or consider the subdued contrast in tone; he needs to recognise with what economy and fluency the picture was created, to read the sure hand of the painter. But he should equally bring his own thoughts to the painting, for it is this private reverie that the painting seeks to connect with.

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens–tracing them connections

We undoubtedly share common mental experiences, and a good painting unites us in savouring the grandeur of these private moments. A good painting speaks for all of us, where ‘es fehlen uns die Worter’—‘our vocabulary is inadequate’ (Wittgenstein 1953: 159). Good paintings constitute a different language for those quiet but shared insights for which ‘we lack the words.’

Copy after Brueghel

Copy after Brueghel

Eliot, T. S. 1966. Selected poems. Faber & Faber: London.

Goldstein, Nathan. 1989. Design and composition. Pearson: Boston.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Wittgenstein, L. 1966. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Ed. Cyril Barrett. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Standard