Why do we like and not like?
On our list for today, we have among the artists one artist I adore, and one who leaves me cold. And some others. Masaccio: Tommaso the big, the clumsy, so called to distinguish him from his frequent collaborator, Masolino, or Tommaso the small. Read this short biographical entry on Massaccio at the Web Gallery of Art. When I look at his paintings, I don't feel. I see the purpose he serves. His work demonstrates a tightly focused return to the interest in anatomy, proportion, and especially mathematical perspective that the Greeks achieved and that in some large part give the Renaissance its self-conscious name.
Artists who learned from Masaccio and critics who looked at Masaccio came to rediscover the possibilities for representation when you sought, above all other formal quests, to represent three-dimensions on a flat 'canvas.' They saw that you need not exaggerate gesture in order to demonstrate emotion, that subtlety could serve.
In his painting of the Tribute Money, Masaccio illustrates a passage from the Gospel of Matthew,
24. And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? 25. He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? 26. Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. 27. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.Where Christ sees through the tricks of the Pharisees, and I see the great links between subject and style, especially, in the reasoned, clear, and intelligent way he laid out the figures, the way the site lines all lead to Christ's face; he becomes the visual power center of the painting just as it is of the story. Christ right hand leads the eye to Peter taking the coin from the mouth of the fish, and the site lines open to Peter paying the tax collector on the right. Elegant, coherent, intelligent work.
– Matthew 17:24–27
Well, except for this one, which is pretty over-the-top emotionally and compositionally, what with Adam and Eve weaping and wailing and the angel swooping down on tiny, fleshy swallow-shaped wings to enter the couple's space and chase them away like mockingbirds attacking hawks.
But, it has no power for me. I just can't like Masaccio, his paintings don't stir me or interest me or surprise me. I can appreciate the paintings attributes, but can't like it.
Then, we have the so-called Arnolfini Wedding Portrait. By the 15th century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. You can read his biography here. And see his self-portrait below.
So what do I do about that, or what does that say about me, or about the art of painting, or Should I be able to find interest in any artist of historical significance. Should I be able to read about and come to understand this painter without immediately succombing to boredome, or is it right that I should find some artists simple a yawn?
In his important essay Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (Durham: Duke UP, 1991.) Frederic Jameson described how an emotional depthlessness pervaded postmodern art (the art between about 1970 and today, and that lack of emotion serves as one way of understanding the art of our time. (Many, including me, believe that today we are seeing a swing back to emotion in art)
Dino Felluga explains Jameson's point here, and we'll look at it in regards to Andy Warhol's "depthless" Diamond Dust Shoes from the 1980's and Vincent van Gogh's very 'deep' Peasant Shoes from the 1880's to express this point. And, indeed, I see Jameson's point. van Gogh's shoes seek everywhere to express the particulars of a personality; Warhol's shoes express a mask. Yet each of these works might
and then. The brothers van Eyck. Good gracious I want time to linger over their paintings, to sit in their section in one of the great libraries of art, to find many of their works in an exhibition. Jan van Eyck's very signature impresses me. (you can see it as the header for this blog.) I retain interest in the questions that interested me the first time I saw the Arnolfini wedding portrait, and new questions arise each time I look at it.From the first: is she pregnant? (no) and why is she so shy? how can they be so pail and frail? did people really wear these clothes, or only to be painted? What is going on with that mirror? How does he paint fur, and velvet, and paneling, and skin so entirely convincingly? What pigment gives that remarkable green?
Notebook Assignments: Choose one of the following and work with the ideas in your notebook:
A. Convince me to like a painting by Masaccio or dislike a painting by Van Eyck. Why should I feel differently? What problems does my taste create for me as your teacher?
B. Choose two artworks from this year (Fall ok too), one that you like very much, one that you either don't like or just don't care about at all. Try to pinpoint the aesthetic, conceptual, and content components that contribute to your liking or disliking. Is it possible to understand your taste? How does affect (emotional response) effect learning and understanding? Can you learn as much from the two works you've chosen. Do you think LIKING an artwork or NOT LIKING it presents more obstacles to understanding it? Can you understand an object of art if you don't have any feeling for it one way or another?
C. Make a piece of work that reacts to a piece of work on the keyworks list from this whole year that you like, and one that reacts to a piece of work that you actively dislike. How and what can you learn from this exercise? Spend some time analyzing these questions.
D. Find another way to deal with the relationship between taste and learning, taste and knowledge, taste and understanding. Use any materials you like, and help me understand your whole project. Reading: Honour and Fleming, 416- 430
Key Works: Massacio Holy Trinity (10.5), Tribute Money (10:6), and Expulsion from Eden (10:7), Ghiberti, Porta del Paradiso (10:8 and 10.9), Jacopo della Quercio, Expulsion from Paradise (10.11), Jan van Eyck, Adam and Eve (10.12), Ghent Altarpiece (10.12, 14 and 15), Piero, An Ideal Town (10.24),
Key Concepts: perspectival realism, altarpieces and storytelling
Jan Van Eyck was here.