Onwards

It followed me home (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I sense a breakthrough on the horizon. I reflect that there must be few people who really attempt the transition from the new world to the old—few native English speakers make more than a half-hearted effort to learn another language; most find Europe quaint but of inferior living standards. In short, it seems more forward to have moved on from the old continent and its old-fashioned ways. The chasm between analytical and Continental philosophy is no mere physical border that one simply crosses by plane, but a dramatic shift in mindset, as I begin to experience first-hand at the Universität Wien.

In Vienna, there is an immense investment in and reverence of the history of philosophy, which is no real surprise given much foundational philosophy was written in German, and I immediately find myself thousands of years behind with my light smattering of Descartes and Plato, my utilitarianism and political theory, my if A then B. I expect history to be full of dry consecutive names; instead a rich forest of ideas towers before me, its immovable trunks mellow with age, its foliage swaying slowly and heavily, conscious of its own import. I tread slowly, leaf by leaf, dictionary in hand, eyes and mind open. In the face of my rigorous training, Deleuze and Guattari (1996: 22) assure me that philosophy ‘does not link propositions together,’ and caution against the false equivocation of philosophy and science that logic encourages. Paul de Man (1986: 19) politely suggests that I am under the tyranny of logic.

It is mildly amusing that the Anglo world holds so fast to the rigid linguistic frameworks they have built up around their ideas, precisely because of their clumsiness with language. Perhaps it is the very linguistic agility of Europeans—the ability to swing from language to language in a heartbeat, deftly expressing themselves in two, three, four or more languages without shyness or reserve—that makes them less precious about language. Language, indeed, is far from a monolith the way the monolingual tend to worship it. It bends and flexes under the demands of each moment; it changes flavour with each speaker, each a product of a unique mix of hereditary, educational and experiential backgrounds. Language is not God; it is an ever-mutating and stretching membrane that exists between individuals trying to make meaningful contact with one another.

My bewildered self, however, a strange (liquid) solution of (non-equal parts) English and German, confronts these wordplays with no small amount of confusion. De Man (1986: 16) wants me to ponder potentially but not definitively recasting the title of Keats’ The Fall of Hyperion in the genitive case, though my natural impulse is to think of titles as identifying handles that are a matter of convention, an afterthought to the real work, which is where we most probably ought to focus our attention. Deleuze wants me to remember a string of metaphors—meat, scaffold and cosmos—and to remember that ‘house’ and ‘scaffold’ are interchangeable, in a seemingly arbitrary game of free-association, but is fiercely insistent that other related words play absolutely no part here. That though the Greeks philosophised via dialogue, philosophers in fact run from discussion, and communication is decidedly irrelevant (Deleuze & Guattari, 1996: 28, 29). What am I to do with these sudden and pervasive contradictions, these unexpected associations and dissociations? Does this English word really capture that French word, and does German have a more precise distinction between reason and understanding, or a finer delineation of existence? Should many words and all their shades of meaning be available, since we all speak different tongues; or should we defer to the language that best picks out the thought we want to express?

Learning another language, of course, makes you take more notice of your own. For I remember being uninterested in the etymological background of the word ‘express,’ which I believe Dewey (1934) spends some time elaborating, to draw attention to the way we squeeze meaning out, or press the essence of our thoughts of feelings from our bodies. German, with particular crispness, makes me confront that I am engaged in a struggle of Ausdruck, of pressing out, which makes this whole enterprise of wringing out the language much more plausible. Perhaps we would do well to mince our words rather than pride ourselves on clarity—arrogantly hiding the duplicity of words behind a fragile screen of necessity.

My tentative steps into the cavernous history of philosophy lead me to concepts wholly unfamiliar to my Anglo ears: such as the apparently familiar trivium, the historical partitioning of language into its three sciences (de Man, 1986: 13). I start to suspect some sort of British intellectual imperialism that kept such pedagogical categories on the quiet on Anglo turf, all the while parading around to the beat of irrefutable, incontestable, unconquerable logic. The trivium, I belatedly learn, breaks language down into grammar, rhetoric and logic (all of which look more pleasing with k’s: Grammatik, Rhetorik und Logik), which exist in an uneasy tension. De Man (1986: 14) points out the ‘natural enough affinity’ between logic and grammar, and the discomfort that rhetoric tends to introduce to this delicate balance. Why resist (Continental) literary theory? Precisely because it resists your concept of language, but from within language itself. It reclaims the rhetorical aspect of language and brings it to centre stage, instead of flicking it aside as unnecessary ‘ornament.’ Were language scientifically precise, we could find in it a solid epistemological foundation. And, as monolinguals, that is the understanding of language that we develop and nurture and protect. When the polylinguals arrive with their freewheeling interchangeability, with their ‘literariness,’ drenched in their clouds of loosely connected pretty words, our chests grow tight and our eyes narrow with suspicion.

Yet our common Greek heritage esteems this more seductive layer of language. ‘How did he entertain you?’ Socrates asks his friend Phaedrus. ‘Can I be wrong in supposing that Lysias gave you a feast of discourse?’ Plato (2010) reports the two stirring each other to higher and higher planes of ecstasy, enraptured in turn by the written speech prepared and recorded by the brilliant rhetorician Lysias, and by Socrates’ spontaneous responses on the theme of love. Having worked each other into a ‘phrenzy,’ they try to knuckle down just what this art of rhetoric is, and how it is to be mastered. Phraedus voices the concern that echoes across the millennia in the doubts of the logicians: ‘I have heard that he who would be an orator has nothing to do with true justice, but only with what is likely to be approved by the many who sit in judgement … and that from opinion comes persuasion, and not from the truth.’ Socrates imagines Rhetoric herself reproaching such Spartans: ‘Mere knowledge of the truth will not give you the art of persuasion.’ Certainly, those who cling fast to grammar and logic suspect this ‘art of enchanting the mind by arguments’ of being ‘a mere routine and trick, not an art.’

Plato’s meta-story concludes with the observation that souls come in all kinds, and must be persuaded on their own terms; a good rhetorician, then, does not pound him with a stick of logic but learns to systematise and recognise types and have her method of argument polished and at the ready. ‘He who knows all this, and who knows also when he should speak and when he should refrain, and when he should use pithy sayings, pathetic appeals, sensational effects, and all the other modes of speech which he has learned’ is a skilful practitioner of the art.

While we risk dullness and lifelessness in delivery if we place all our confidence in the irrefutability of technical correctness (de Man, 1986: 19), clear and logical expression certainly need not be so dry. The elegant and amiable writing of David Hume attests to this, and I recall the deep impression he had on my friend and philosopher colleague Mark Hooper, and in turn on me. In Hooper’s reading of Hume it suddenly struck him that all writing could be beautiful, that one must simply apply a little thought and make a concentrated effort to construct a tight, meaningful and pleasing sentence. ‘Why are there bad sentences?’ Hooper demanded to know, though probably putting it more elegantly. The sentiment has remained with me, and propelled my own writing, which I have always seen as more than a vehicle for ideas. I relish the deftness and precision with which one can summon words, with a little care, the poetry that one can extract from them—ever trembling at the brink of pretentiousness but never (intentionally) sacrificing clarity. Hume’s Scottish pride drove him to France rather than to England, and the example of this self-professed cosmopolitan glows warmly in my mind.

When I began to seriously study drawing, I took a brief but intense string of classes with the formidable David Paulson. He was renowned for breaking pencils and students. He broke my pencil, and my brain, but his intensity stirred my spirit rather than broke it. Yet I left his class feeling utterly adrift. My lines became cruder, more abrasive. I tread hesitantly, my lines faltered. But with time I regained my composure and drew with greater vigour, more poetically, finding expression in bold, calligraphic lines that cut deep into the page. Paulson barks at me still, from the back of my mind. He left an indelible impression on me as a draughtsperson, he left a trace of his marks in mine.

And so it must be with philosophy. When we confront that ancient, disconcerting, but compelling, thickly-grown forest, when we meet with something that seems to tap some deep source just beyond our reach, the important thing is to keep on pushing. To latch on to the people who can guide us through this unfamiliar territory, and to relish the feeling of being cracked open and pieced back together in a new way. That’s what life does with us anyway, and there’s nothing for it but to go on.

 

De Man, Paul. 1986. The Resistance to Theory. Vol. 33. Theory and History of Literature. Manchester: Manchester University.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1996. What Is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Plato, and Benjamin Jowett. 2010. Plato’s Phaedrus. 2.0.0 edition. Actonian Press.

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Representation: Some groundwork

Veronese Hercules

(After Veronese)

To establish some groundwork for my investigation into painting as language, I want to linger a while on the concept of representation, at the same time considering its intimate connection with expression. In the studio, I have seen the word ‘representational’ used passionately, dogmatically, often loosely, but sometimes also cautiously—generally to single out a particular kind of painting that pitches itself against ‘abstract’ painting, though it is also sometimes the preferred term of painters who are equally opposed to ‘realistic’ painting of a more photographic flavour. In such circles, ‘representational painting’ roughly categorises the kind of painting that recognisably looks like something, even if, as in the case of, say, Vuillard, the eyes must linger a while and actively search. Among such artists, there are always some (myself included) who would assert that all painting is an abstraction to some degree—or perhaps better: even the paintings that most closely approximate reality are still an interpretation of things seen.

I like this barrier between painting and the world itself that abstraction and interpretation insert, because it reinforces the idea that an artist never tries to and indeed never can duplicate the physical world, but humbly models her own take on it, a version of it mingled with her own thought and with her own labour—with her very body. Thus, there is only a certain kind of abstraction that such artists would distance themselves from, and it is one that shuns the physical world entirely, expelling it even from memory; a kind of painting that removes all content and distils painting to an exercise in formal properties like shape, colour, tone and the physicality of the surface of the paint. And even then, these representational artists are already very well-versed in such abstractions and use them as jubilantly as their opponents—and usually much more knowledgeably and subtly. The difference, then, must come down to a desire for content, or for the lack thereof.

Thus, we might crudely say that representation implies content—some thing represented. And it may be represented with a high degree of abstraction, though the artist risks being misunderstood the further she strays from the recognisable, or from interpretations of reality that we are already familiar with. The Impressionists took just such a risk, though they finally succeeded when we learned to make sense of their organisation of light (in Gombrich 1959: 275). But much philosophical work has been done on the finer points of representation. It is certainly not enough to appeal to the level of similarity between a picture and that which it represents. Plato (in Gombrich, 1959: 99) decried art for deceiving the mind with illusions, but we are certainly not so taken in by paintings that we believe ourselves transported to another realm, or that we believe the person portrayed to be standing before us. Likeness or resemblance was thus a very early explanation of representation, a crude equivalence of which we have both nothing to fear (in terms of deception) and little to gain. For while Velázquez’s portrait represents Philip IV of Spain, Philip IV does not represent his portrait.

(After Van Dyck)

(After Van Dyck)

Goodman (1976: 4) points out this simple observation in Languages of Art, and I think it is a good place to start, if only to remind artists themselves that likeness is not the Promised Land, and that representation opens up a much more generous, exploratory realm. To capture this idea that representation implies content, but that the implication only goes one way, Goodman (1976: 5; 233) appeals to the term ‘denotation.’ When a picture represents some object, the picture denotes the object, that object is denoted by the picture. Denotation introduces symbolism into representation. The picture operates as a symbolic reference to the object, but the object does not symbolically refer to the picture, whatever similarity exists between the two. ‘Denotation is the core of representation and is independent of resemblance,’ explains Goodman (1976: 5). Denotation more explicitly conveys the asymmetry of representation, since we naturally think of a symbol as somehow dependent on the thing it signifies. Denotation runs in one direction.

We thus need another term to capture the relation in the other direction: Goodman (1976: 52; 233) chooses ‘exemplification.’ The object exemplifies what is represented in the picture. With such a relation, we can identify a particular object in a painting, though it was not the very same painted by the artist. We might even align our own private emotions with the content of the picture, finding the picture to be expressive of an emotion we personally feel. The artist surely did not seek to paint our emotion, but our emotion exemplifies that embedded in the painting. More complex than plain symmetry, Goodman has developed a system grounded in symbols comprised of two opposing currents, markedly different in character.

Representation, for Goodman (1976: 40), bears some similarity to verbal description. It runs in the same direction with respect to the object: both verbal descriptions and visual representations denote the object. But for Goodman, the emotional tint of the picture runs counter to this cold, symbolic summary of the object. The emotions come from the side of the viewer, who apprehends the picture ‘through the feelings as well as through the senses’ (Goodman 1976: 248). The expressiveness of the picture is then a subjective experience, coming from the way the spectator identifies with the content of the picture. He integrates its symbols into his own symbol system, and finds his own emotions reflected back at him.

(After Pacetti)

(After Pacetti)

Gombrich (1959: 310) openly questions the division of expression from representation in Art and Illusion. Writing almost two decades earlier than Goodman, he is more liberal with his language analogy, pointing out that not only is verbal language descriptive, it can at the same time be highly charged with emotion, and every shade in between (1959: 310). He suggests a simpler blending of the two, rather than a fundamentally and logically opposed relation. Thus, representation is not simply comparable to verbal description, not simply a record of information by translatable symbols, but it is the very means by which we convey a broad spectrum of descriptive and expressive content. ‘Representation,’ argues Gombrich (1959: 319) ‘is the instrument of information and expression.’

But what can this ‘instrument’ really refer to other than the way paint itself is used? By which I mean the body of the artist mingling, through movement, with the substance of the paint to give both physical form and visual presence to things thought, seen, or imagined. To remove the paint, or other medium, is to force a reliance on something purely conceptual that may take on any physical guise: probably symbols, which may be more readily substituted for words. And this is a mistake that Gombrich falls into. Continuing the analogy with language, Gombrich (1959: 326) argues that ‘all human communication is through symbols.’ Painting, then, may be blanched of its paint, may be stripped to its pictorial skeleton, dissected, analysed, and thus understood. My complaint with him (and with Goodman) is that symbols are not enough; representation consists in so much more: that when we represent something visible by visual means, every physical element is necessary and contributes in some way, even if ever so slightly, even if with such feathery nuance, even if so delicately integrated with other elements that it cannot be individually extracted and examined. Representation may indeed serve description and expression in such a blended way, but always via the medium invoked.

kaninchen_und_ente

(from the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter)

Gombrich’s appeal to illusion is grounded in a very simple example, which I think demonstrates this fundamental problem in his position on representation. He cites the optical illusion of the duck-rabbit—a picture that at some times resembles a duck, but which by effort of the attention transforms its beak into the long ears of a rabbit. Gombrich’s argument is that one cannot experience illusion at the same time as one experiences reality. It is either rabbit or duck. Thus we cannot be absorbed in the illusion of the picture and at the same time consciously aware of the painted surface. What Gombrich disregards is that we can indeed simultaneously see that the rabbit, drawn in fastidious lines, is printed in black ink on paper, and that likewise, the duck, comprised of the same lines, even as it appears as a duck is evidently printed in black ink upon a page. It is the duck and the rabbit—the content of the representation—that we cannot see at the same time. In fact, the illusion works precisely because of the printed ink: paint would destroy the trick, for colours would suggest different creatures and tone would give greater or lesser volume to beaks and ears than our eyes would believe. In each case, the representation is bound up in the simplicity of the medium of pen and ink, which can conveniently leave out information that would detract from the other representation. The analogy is misplaced: we certainly cannot see simultaneous competing representations, but we can see a representation and at the same time be aware of its physical extension.

(After Delacroix)

(After Delacroix)

Better than illusion, then: let us follow Wollheim (1987: 185) in finding in representation a call to imagination. We are too aware to be fooled into thinking that representations are reality, or that we do not notice what the representation consists in. But we can gain immense satisfaction from picking up the hints a picture drops and adventuring along a train of thought that it sets in motion. For Wollheim (1987: 101), representation does more than communicate something, and more than stimulate some private daydream. It coaxes us in a particular direction, at the urging of the artist, who inscribes her very trails of thought in wandering streaks of paint. For Wollheim (1987: 7, 15) the medium is indispensable; one cannot divorce the meaning of a painting from the paint. For thoughts are worked through, laid up, reconsidered through the medium. And representation and expression—by means of the medium—‘are the two basic forms of pictorial meaning’ (Wollheim 1987: 305). Rather than looking for a dialogue between painter and spectator, Wollheim grounds everything in a kernel of meaning buried deep in a picture, discoverable, moving, compelling, but not linguistic, not ceremoniously imparted from ‘speaker’ to ‘listener.’ A painting does not speak, but guards a thought.

The medium shows its significance in a more primitive visual experience that logically precedes representation: that of ‘seeing-in.’ Wollheim (1987: 306) finds it most expedient to explain what it is to represent by this simple and familiar experience. It is exactly that cited by da Vinci (in Gombrich 1959: 159) as a stimulus to imagination—of seeking forms and faces, even battles and civilisations, in the coarse textures of crumbling walls—and exactly that deemed impossible by Gombrich, of seeing at the same time the suggestion of a figure and the ragged plaster. These simple fancies are the result of imagination, but exist by chance, moulded by the ravages of nature and not carefully crafted after human intentions, and so they are not representations. But the same thing happens when we look at a crafted picture: we are both ‘aware of the surface and [see] something in it’ (Wollheim 1987: 46). When the artist makes use of this feat of vision and applies her paint with the intention that a spectator should discover some particular thing in those marks, this intention, says Wollhem (1987: 101), is representation.

the artist

Expression, for Wollheim (1987: 89), colours representation. Emotions are crucial to painting, and expression describes the way they weave through the application of paint, the organisation of the picture, the deliberate colour choices and the atmospheric decisions, to list but a few variables, in order to provoke a particular emotional response from the viewer. This means the painter in fact steers away from ‘cold’ naturalism, from faithful visual description, and imbues her representation with visual qualities that imply something intangible. It means that we are invited to see emotion, as it plays out in the delicate interplay of painterly techniques. Something in reality is sacrificed, some accuracy or disinterested depiction, in order to co-opt expression into representation. The two are woven together with paint into one visual output. Expression abstracts representation into a more emotional variation on things seen or imagined.

But the viewer needs to bring a certain sensitivity to the expressive tint of the picture, a type of perception even, which Wollheim (1987: 80) calls ‘expressive perception.’ As Wollheim (1987: 82) elaborates, there are mirrored means of transferring emotions between ourselves and the external world; either our own mood alters the way we perceive what is around us—what we would commonly call projection—or we are affected by our surroundings. It is true that we could project our own feelings, likewise, onto a painting, but since the artist has mixed emotional content into the paint, a greater receptiveness promises to yield something specific from the painting. It is our own ability to project emotions onto what we see that enables us to sympathise with a painter doing the same in paint. She asks us to forget ourselves for a moment and to see through her eyes, through her sunny disposition or her fog of melancholy.

tinyryans

Wollheim’s demand for expressive perception is rather nice, because it requires a certain kind of attention from the viewer, but does not permit him to read just anything he likes into a painting. Viewers like to have something to do (Gombrich 1959: 169), and we will grant them this responsibility without giving away the creative authority of the artist. Wollheim’s (1987: 305) demand means that a standard of correctness accompanies both representation and expression. The artist intends to convey certain content laden with certain emotions, all of which is accessible to the viewer by direct communion with the picture, with the implication that he can be correct or incorrect about what he discovers there (Wollheim 1987: 85, 101).

But such standards hardly remove the pleasure of looking at a painting. Wollheim (1987: 98, 100) is eager to convey that seeing the paint is a delightful experience in itself, and that simple visual delight in a painting, provoked by the deliciously expressive qualities of paint and its handling, comprises no small part of our encounter with painting. Wollheim sends us in the direction of Proust for a lovely elucidation of this experience. Chardin, Proust (1988: 102) describes, has seen serene beauty in a humble arrangement in a kitchen, and has painted it with palpable tenderness; his ‘pleasure was so intense that it overflowed into smooth strokes, eternal colours.’ The viewer, utterly seduced by Chardin’s vision, thenceforth notices that a fresh charm falls over ordinary domestic scenes. This delight, notes Wollheim (1987: 99), is stirred up by Chardin’s expert control of his own emotional projection that he invites us to sample. ‘Your awareness had to wait until Chardin entered into the scene to raise it to his level of pleasure’ (Proust 1988: 102).

sebastians

And so Wollheim (1987: 185) hopes to persuade us that representational paintings do not ‘trade on illusion,’ but rely on, rather, ‘in a supplementary role, imagination.’ Representation does not simply hand us a likeness, it does not forge a strict equivalence with the world, or simply stand in for it symbolically; nor does it seek to deceive us. Instead, it appeals to our pleasure in discovering that guarded thought in the lather of paint. This underlines the irrevocable importance of the paint, the matiére, the medium that carries the thoughts of the artist via her movements.

Representation, in a sort of self-conscious way, hopes to draw attention to its physicality while seducing us with a hint of something recognisable shot through with emotions. It invites us to linger on the interlocking cues in the way the paint is applied and in the content, to discover something of the artist’s insight. We are asked to imagine the world intentionally reconfigured in muddy paste on a flat surface; we are asked to imagine the way one feels if one looks at the world and projects emotions that colour the world this way or that. Representation is more fundamentally grounded in the technical than in resemblance, symbols or illusion. In bringing us ever back to the way paint is applied, it offers a firm starting point for a theory of a visual language.

plants-in-window

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion. Phaidon: London.

Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 2. ed. Hackett: Indianapolis, Ind.

Proust, Marcel. [1954] 1988. ‘Chardin: The Essence of Things,’ trans. Mina Curtiss, in Against Saint-Beuve and Other Essays. Penguin: London.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. 1. publ. Thames and Hudson: London.

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A rich inheritance

The enabler (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The enabler (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

It is, of course, extremely unpopular to paint the way that I do—representational pictures, ‘stuff that looks like stuff,’ images thoroughly stripped of their purpose by the speed and apparent accuracy of photography. Though I’m finding pockets of representational painters around the world, we are undeniably on the periphery, and perhaps rightfully so. Different demands are made of art now, and art must adapt accordingly. I cling to what I do because it is the most satisfying thing I know to do, and because the roots of it run deep and strong all the way back through our Greek heritage, a heritage of which I’m proud and a willing inheritor. I see this akin to a respect for our philosophical tradition and its Platonic genesis. This is where we have come from; this Greek impulse is part of our cultural and intellectual makeup.

Enabler (composition study)

Enabler (composition study)

And the Greeks, as Gombrich points out in a chapter on ‘Reflections on the Greek revolution,’ may be credited with a truly remarkable deviation. ‘There are few more exciting spectacles in the whole history of art than the great awakening of Greek sculpture and painting between the sixth century and the time of Plato’s youth toward the end of the fifth century B.C,’ he (1959: 99) writes with palpable enthusiasm. It is no coincidence that at the very time Plato was penning his timeless philosophical observations, Greek artists were asking new questions of the physical world and expressing wholly new observations of it in their work. Plato himself challenged this frighteningly unbridled power art was summoning, famously equating illusion with delusion, for this revolution unfolded during his own lifetime.

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For until the Greeks invented mimesis—the attempt to ‘match’ the visible world, which Gombrich (1959: 99) contrasts with the more widespread and primitive impulse simply to ‘make’—equally impressive civilisations were demanding something wholly different from art. The Egyptians, the Mesopotamians and the Minoans were concerned with a fixed, eternal art. Uninterested in particulars, their art rather ‘held out a promise that its power to arrest and to preserve in lucid images might be used to conquer’ the ‘irretrievable evanescence of human life’ (Gombrich 1959: 107-8). Keats expresses the deliciousness of such a timeless power in his ‘Ode on a Grecian urn’:

‘Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.’

And, indeed, such ritualistic art never lost its attraction. ‘In the time of Augustus,’ Gombrich (1959: 124) notes, ‘there are already signs of a reversal of taste toward earlier modes of art and an admiration of the mysterious shapes of the Egyptian tradition.’ The middle ages, rather than a period of decadence and darkness, might be seen as a time of reaffirmation of this powerful mode of art. Clear, schematised, generalised, symbolic motifs executed with primitive clarity work a sort of magic that is difficult to resist. Gombrich (1959: 124) argues that it is misleading to describe art’s history in terms of progress or decline, and considers the Greek ‘revolution’ a true innovation, a notable break in the story, but he argues that the reclamation of schematic art ought not ‘be interpreted as a fresh revolution in favour of new ideals. What happened here looks much more like another process of natural selection, not a directed effort by a band of pioneers, but the survival of the fittest; in other words, the adaptation of the formulas to the new demands of imperial ceremony and divine revelation. In the course of this adaptation, the achievements of Greek illusionism were gradually discarded.’ Artists overwhelmingly produced what they were required to.

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The appeal of such ‘conceptual art,’ as Gombrich classifies it—and this arguably applies equally to the reductive abstract art of our own time and more recent history—is not difficult to account for. ‘What is normal to man and child all over the globe is the reliance on schemata, on what is called ‘conceptual art’ (1959: 101). The art which today holds sway appeals to universals, to the general, to broad human experiences in an amusingly primitive way. ‘With the beholder’s questioning of the image, the artist’s questioning of nature stopped’ (1959: 124). It is the Greeks alone who have demanded something altogether different of the image: ‘[Egyptologist Heinrich] Schäfer stressed that the ‘corrections’ introduced by the Greek artist in order to ‘match’ appearances are quite unique in the history of art. Far from being a natural procedure, they are the great exception’ (Gombrich 1959: 101).

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The nude is central to the Greek tradition, and has survived in western art even until our own time. Yet I am not clear on what its role should now be, stripped of its Greek philosophies of embodied ideas, of godlike perfection in supple human form. The role of the nude has changed dramatically since its invention by the Greeks. As Clark (1985: 337) writes, the workshops of the middle ages which trained artisans—manual workers—gradually gave way to academies which urged more intellectual pursuits. ‘When this old discipline of grinding colours, sizing panels and copying approved models was removed … what new discipline took its place? Drawing from the nude, drawing from the Antique and perspective.’ The nude became inextricably linked with cleverness in art, with intellectual abstractions (Clark 1985: 337-8):

‘Instead of the late Gothic naturalism based on experience, [drawing from the nude] offers ideal form and ideal space, two intellectual abstractions. Art is justified, as man is justified, by the faculty of forming ideas; and the nude makes its first appearance in art theory at the very moment when painters begin to claim that their art is an intellectual, not a mechanical activity.’

The Greeks made an unprecedented leap in grasping after mimesis, in matching their observations. But as Gombrich (1959: 121) argues, ‘we mistake the character of this skill if we speak of the imitation of nature. Nature cannot be imitated or ‘transcribed’ without first being taken apart and put together again. This is not the work of observation alone but rather of ceaseless experimentation.’ Here the Italians emerge, smug in their mastery over nature, with their newly intellectualised painting, built around the worship of the nude: ‘there is no doubt that the Florentines valued a demonstration of anatomical knowledge simply because it was knowledge and as such of a higher order than ordinary perception’ (Clark 1985: 340).

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The nude persisted throughout the twentieth century, but she was shamefully ravaged. The fact that the nude became almost exclusively female is significant, and Clark (1985: 343) links this change to the Florentine pride in knowledge. ‘No doubt this is connected with a declining interest in anatomy (for the écorché figure is always male) and so is part of that prolonged episode in the history of art in which the intellectual analysis of parts dissolves before a sensuous perception of totalities.’ Art, of course, grew in its intellectual aspirations, forced its way (perhaps unjustifiably) into the universities, and discarded anything tainted by technique, scrambling instead after a pitiable faux-philosophy, loosely held together by sensual feminine curves.

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What are we to make of the nude and of mimesis in our own time? Can we turn back to our cultural origins and embrace the Greek intent? This feels false in the wake of Christianity and its accompanying shame for our bodies, our gothic repulsion to the human form, our appetite for punishment and decay. And there is something surprisingly appealing in the ruthlessly grotesque German representations that Greek perfection never touches. The Judeo-Christian tradition is equally a part of our cultural fabric and our western attitudes. Perhaps, then, the nude is a private and academic exercise, and once mastered it serves only as a support to our other representational endeavours. Perhaps the interest in the nude that has resurfaced in the modern ateliers is a propitious start, but is not justified in being considered art. Ryan has spoken warily of the present-day ‘cult of the student:’ the misdirected celebration of studio nudes as ends in themselves. I’m inclined to agree.

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Certainly, the Greeks began something wholly European, a complete anomaly in the story of art. Our thoughts, our perception are unavoidably influenced by their invention. I will be so bold as to say there is something worthwhile in this, something worth preserving and carrying forward. Something beyond the schematic, conceptual art that even children are capable of, that every other culture has independently produced. ‘What most of us lack in order to be artists,’ argues Dewey (1934: 75), ‘is not the inceptive emotion, nor yet merely technical skill in execution. It is capacity to work a vague idea and emotion over into terms of some definite medium.’ Far from teaching us how to be human cameras, the Greeks taught us how to override the schematisation and simplification our brains naturally strive for and gave us an intelligent way to think with our hands. And I have no desire to abandon such a rich inheritance.

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Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.

Keats, John. 2006. Selected poems. Ed. Deborah West. Oxford University: Oxford.

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