Reply To: Painting
EncycliosOrganizerApril 24, 2023 at 9:12 AM
Aesthetics: critical notes
In Western culture, the evolution of the concept of painting is directly related to the development of art criticism and aesthetics, in which it has taken on an autonomous role starting with Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting (but first among the arts is still architecture), and a guide to aesthetic sensitivity only with Romanticism. As far as the classical world is concerned (in regard to which we can only judge the generally workshop production of vase painting and very few frescoes), we know from Roman and Greek writers (Pliny, Lucian) only the general concept of painting, understood as mimesis, i.e. imitation of reality, which seems to limit its function to decorative tasks, below architecture and sculpture. The Platonic doctrine, however, speaks of a philosophical function of art in general (and therefore also of painting) as the realization of the “idea” of the world present in the human mind, from which derives the concept of “ideal beauty” in the writers of the imperial age: choice of particular beauties that, all together, form the absolute beauty (for example, to achieve the perfect human figure, the most beautiful nose, the most beautiful shoulder, etc.. chosen on real models).
With the advent of Christianity, painting fulfilled, throughout the early Middle Ages, tasks related to sacred rites: in the early Christian catacombs is mostly the representation of religious symbols, such as fish, in the Romanesque period wall frescoes in churches and crypts (and the first miniatures) assume the function of images that offer the faithful meditation on some fundamental themes of Christian spirituality. From the writings of the ecclesiastics of the time, it appears that an aesthetic appreciation of painting (and of art in general) is not admitted as a pleasure of the senses, that is, only earthly (and Saint Bernard bans from the churches of his order every “temptation” of this kind). The situation changed radically in the fourteenth century, when art developed considerably (especially painting) because it was promoted for reasons of social prestige and culture by the new ruling classes, the aristocracy and the merchant bourgeoisie, both individually (patrons) and collectively (courts, municipalities, guilds).
Cennini’s Libro dell’arte, equating painting with poetry and science, already heralds the Renaissance theories of painting as a “liberal art”: no longer a purely technical craft activity, but an exquisitely intellectual one, the realization of a meditated previous thought which, starting from observed reality, uses the science of perspective to organize knowledge (L. B. Alberti, Piero della Francesca, Vasari, Leonardo). The painting, for the expressive means that are proper to the other arts, becomes cognitive tool par excellence, thus assuming an autonomous dimension with problems and forms exclusively its own.
Throughout the sixteenth century proliferate treaties, writings, controversies, in a continuous relationship of mutual influence between criticism and artistic work. The rediscovery of the classical texts is particularly fruitful for the diffusion of neoplatonism, which develops the concept of “idea” with different nuances (Raphael, Michelangelo, F. Zuccari), giving precedence to intellectual activity (the so-called “invention”) for which it is preeminent in the artistic work the design and absolutely avoid a painting that is only optical trickery (Michelangelo condemns en bloc the Flemish art). The relationship with reality is no longer cognitive, but selective, as the end of painting is the “ideal beauty” of Platonic matrix, enriched by the imitation of those masters who had already followed this process: it is in this context that develops first of all the Mannerism of central Italy (Tuscany-Emilia-Rome) and then the “official” classicist art, which spread the academies of the seventeenth century throughout Europe (Agostino Carracci, Poussin). A more direct relationship with the actual work of the artists led the Venetian writers (Pino, Dolce, Boschini) to support the validity of a painting that through color achieves a direct relationship with reality. Behind this conception are both the pro-Aristotelianism of the Venetian culture of the early fifteenth century, and the acceptance of Leonardo’s theories on painting technique. Leonardo is also the inspirer of the writings of Lomazzo, who, theorizing on the emotional potential of painting, implemented through color and expressiveness of gestures, attitudes of figures, etc.., should be seen in direct relation to the art of religious propaganda advocated by the Counter-Reformation, from which develops much of Baroque painting.
Seventeenth-century painting, in its complexity (from the courtly magniloquence of aristocratic decorations to “bourgeois” genre painting, from Rembrandt’s psychological analyses to Rubens’ sensuality), is the consequence of the contradictions already manifest in Mannerism, which take different paths of development according to the various historical and cultural situations. There are many lively writings in defense of every kind of painting, but the most significant controversy is the one that takes place in France between poussinistes and rubenistes; between the supporters of the ideal (classical) beauty, realized with drawing, and the supporters of the natural beauty, realized with color; between those who consider the purpose of painting the intellectual pleasure and those who consider the illusion of the senses. This dichotomy continued throughout the eighteenth century, with the development of English painting and the Rococo, which assume as categories of beauty even the deformed, the picturesque and finally the sublime, from which descend much of Romanticism.
The concept of painting in neoclassical culture (after an archaeological and decorative beginning) is developed in the paintings and writings of David (in Italy by Bossi) not so much in form, which are largely derived from the academic tradition, but especially in content, postulating the political function of painting as a representation of history, past or contemporary, offered to meditation and stimulation of the public, which will remain a constant of the avant-garde from Delacroix, Picasso, the various nineteenth and twentieth century realism. Also in the early years of the nineteenth century, as a direct result of the romantic faith in individuality (the “genius”), painting takes on a dominant role as it is the most immediate and flexible means, along with poetry, for the representation of feelings: at the formal level it follows the acceptance, indeed the necessity of individual style, experimentalism.
A characteristic phenomenon from the nineteenth century to the modern age is also the formation of artistic movements, of programmatic tendencies, significant of a different relationship between artists, who act in close relationship with political and literary movements, and society: the common thread that binds the most diverse avant-garde movements up to Cubism is in fact the search for a language that expresses the reality of the contemporary world. Moreover, in the relationship between artist and public, an ineliminable role of mediation is assumed by both the critic, who has the function of ideological interlocutor with the painter (the Delacroix-Baudelaire or Picasso-Apollinaire relationship is canonical) and of interpreter and guide with the public, and the art dealer, who is configured as the instrument of an economic structure that regulates artistic production according to the laws of the market.
The fracture that is thus determined between the artist and the public distinguishes the numerous and opposing currents of contemporary painting, whether they accept it, in the name of an increasingly refined and individual search for language (e.g. abstractionism, informal art) or try to overcome it by reaching the public directly through emotional impact (e.g. expressionism, surrealism, dada and new dada) or even through the rejection of painting itself (e.g. conceptual art, arte povera). But at the same time painting is also taken up, in the context of mass media, as an instrument of criticism of the system (e.g. neo-realism, pop-art).