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Saturday, 7 February 2009
We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth. Picasso
Scene 1 for My Confession, a play in one act, is set in an art school in the early fifties. The curtain rises to reveal a large hall in which an End of Year Examination is in progress. Art Theory. This is not an externally administered exam, but is important as it could decide whether I continue my studies or not. On the paper before me are five questions of which three must be attempted. One is compulsory and will attract the bulk of the marks. I cannot now recall the exact wording, but it is concerned with Paolo Uccello and with his painting The Rout of San Romano - of which there are in fact three versions extant. The examiner wants me to explain what drives the painting, what, in common parlance, makes it tick.
I stare alternately at the question paper and at the pile of foolscap papers topped by Answer Paper 1 on which I have carefully written,in their appropriate squares, my name and examination number. Apart from these small but essential additions, though,I have not ventured to spoil its virgin whiteness. I have been considering it for some five or more minutes. No doubt the invigilator, if he is looking in my direction, sees a student without a clue, gazing in blank dismay, waiting for inspiration to strike. He would be wrong. I am trying to gather together in my mind all that I know of Paolo Uccello and his three Battle pictures; and more than that, as each new piece of information swims into my mind I am trying to visualise it on the answer paper, trying to see how much space can be filled by the total of all I know, how far down I can move the bottom line of my essay, and how much more will be required.
So what do I know? Paolo Uccello, fifteenth century. Two things drive these battle paintings: Uccello's fondness for decoration, acquired during the early years of his career, five of which he spent working on mosaics; and his absolute passion for perspective, not so much the perspective that we all learnt in our art classes at school, the perspective that Massacio used to such good effect in representing nature. No, not that, for Uccello missed out on that particular trick, having been abroad when Massacio was thrilling the art world. Instead, here is Uccello forging ahead with the new thing he is turning into the new Big Thing in art: the science of foreshortening. Fantastically difficult, involving not just vanishing points, but also calculation points for complex mathematical formulae which he had begun to develop earlier, when commissioned to copy in paint a sculpture of a horse and rider. So realistic did he contrive to make the painting, that from a cursory glance, a viewer might have thought it another piece of sculpture. One thing, though: it was burdened (some would say) with two sets of vanishing points, one for the pedestal and another for the sculpture itself. It was a problem he never solved: foreshortening involves applying perspective to various parts of a subject individually. How, then, to devise a coherent system of perspective for the whole?
Furthermore, after the equestrian painting, he seems to have gone out of his way to paint whatever was most difficult. There is a famous painting of The Flood, for example, in which he has placed mazzocchi on two of the figures. Mazzocchi were hoops of wood or wicker which were used as foundations for
headdresses. The thing about them was that because they had a multitude of facets depicting them would challenge the draughtsmanship of the most able of artists. They were used as test pieces for those at the top of their profession. There was no reason for the two figures in the painting of the flood to be wearing them other than the difficulties they would cause Uccello in painting them.... hmmm... might be able to work that into the answer. I will have to see! But it is as I ponder how much padding it might provide that the dread thought strikes: what is really being asked of me is some evidence that I have at the very least, a passing knowledge of the formulae involved. And of course, I don't. On one level I know the work well. It hangs in The National Gallery where I am a regular visitor and so have frequently passed it. But that, alas, is exactly what I have always done: passed it - without a second thought. A massive painting, massively boring, a rather strange affair, indeed, all those huge wooden steeds like so many rocking horses and on their backs those men in armour looking more like robot figures from some sci-fi film. A different tack is called for. So what do I know that I might not know I know until I start to ask myself some leading questions?
Let's see how close I can get to the four to six sides of foolscap expected of me. I start to write something about Uccello and his obsession with mathematical formulae... that is, my brain dictates the words mathematical formulae, but my hand writes mystical formulae and I am away. Uccello is no longer a master of foreshortening and pattern, he is art's high priest of mysticism. It's all in the numbers. Numbers are the life blood of mysticism, I decide, and with so many horses, lances, bodies and whatnot, I can conjure almost any number I fancy out of the picture. And conjure is what I do, what Uccello did, what the mystics of old did. But it doesn't even have to be all numerical: the jumble of lances and other fallen weapons on the ground are no longer exercises in perspective or an intricate patterning, they are carefully camouflaged mystical signs, symbols of the occult. The background becomes a section of the lower slopes of a pyramid; there are all-seeing eyes everywhere on the harnesses that the horses wear; the chopped-up and carefully arranged fragments
of lance are broken triangles, pentagrams and squares; the lances carried by the riders on the left form inverted compasses; there is even an ankh, cut into small sections and distributed throughout the picture. Even the symbols shown in my two small images, which I now know are symbols used in the Bahai faith, were miraculously (we are talking about mysticism, remember) found by me, their fragments scattered throughout the painting. How I found them I now have no idea, but that I did I do clearly remember.
It is an excellent essay, as good as any I have written. I am pleased with it as a piece of writing, but... and the but is obvious, I think.
Scene 2: Two days later. A corridor outside the Principal's office. The Principal is a dapper man, tall and with a military-type bearing. He has a beard almost too extensive to be called a goatee, though that is what he insists it is. He is reputed to have been a monk, though my guess is that he was a lay brother. At any rate, he was the order's calligrapher. He carries a silver-topped walking cane and appears with it now at the end of the corridor, motioning me to precede him into the office, but it doesn't work out that way: we meet at the door. His big thing is truth, truth to materials, not trying to make a wood carving look like a bronze casting, that sort of thing. He must be seeing me as the Anti-Christ just now, for he will not have been deceived by my essay, that's for sure. So I am expecting a rough passage. By the thunder, King, he roars under his breath - a skill he has mastered and often uses - and by the forty-thousand purple beards of the Most Holy Prophets of Doom, what is a fellow who can write like that, doing in a place like this? Of course, you do not believe a word of it, and neither do I, but then the fact of your non-belief in what you yourself have written is something I cannot prove, and that being the case, I am bound to take it at face value. Ergo, dear boy, I am bound to give you an A-grade. It should have been an A+, but at that, I regret to say, my spirit baulked. And with that he marches off into the sunset - well, the printing room - noisily prodding the ground before him with his silver-topped cane.
I would have been well satisfied with a C. Chuffed to bits, in fact. But that A-grade pricked my conscience and left me with a feeling of guilt that to this day I have not satisfactorily expunged.
Confession is good for the soul, they say, and so with this admission (and one other - watch this space!) I make my joint bid for whatever form of heaven eventually awaits us all.