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Saturday, 7 February 2009

Faking it!


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.

The Epilogue

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.

45 comments:

Natalie said...

Delightful, Dave! I so relate, Ha, Ha!

I am with you more than you know! Thanks for the memories.

Wonderful post for sure.xx

Rachel Cotterill said...

That's a fabulous story. If you'd only changed your essay into a novel, you could have faked your way to Dan-Brown-style money as well! :)

Bee said...

This was a fascinating story, although I confess to getting lost a bit in the artistic details (of which I know little).

Having been a graduate student myself, and having been under pressure to think of new things to say about canonical literature, I can relate well to the games-playing. Some people love an argument argued well, no matter how specious; others (like your lay brother) don't. I don't really think you needed to confess, but it made a fine and illustrative story.

Jeanne said...

What a fascinating essay (both this one and that one). My retirement plans include taking classes in art and music appreciation (they're free after you turn 65). I love both art and music, but from the standpoint of a total barbarian, I'm afraid.

Well done!

Elizabeth said...

One of the Hunts by Night hung -- and still hangs as far as I know -- in the Ashmolean where I was at art school in the late 60's. How many hours I spent pondering the not very terrifying battle and observing the horses' rumps.
Luckily our written examinations weren't the least rigorous as I recall. Yours seem terrifying indeed, and you very clever to think up things to say.
Yes, as someone else suggested: Dan Brown look out!
Needless to say, although Dan Brown made pots of money - something I have a grudging admiration for -- his 'symbology' was silly indeed.
Umberto Eco much more fun in that line.

Have you thought of doing a novel? I'm sure you could do a wonderful one.

David C. said...

Thanks for this delightful reminiscence. It conjured up a memory of a test question in a neuroanatomy class during my first year in medical school. I don't recall the question, but it concerned a nerve pathway I had somehow completely overlooked in my study. My answer was something like "It runs from the rectum to the optic nerve and gives people a sh**ty outlook on life." Fortunately, my professor had a sense of humor, but I still didn't receive any points for the answer.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Good stuff Dave. Glad to say it did not destroy my love of The Rout - one of my favourite pictures. I think we have all been there to some extent - not sure it is necessary to assuage our guilt.

Stephen Dell'Aria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen Dell'Aria said...

Great writing Dave. I feel like you and Stephen Dedalus went to school together somewhere in a mytical past

Stephen Dell'Aria said...

Jeez!!! sorry for spamming your comments box, Dave. First I found I misspelled Dedalus so I thought I'd delete that comment and post it again (didn't know it would leave a removal stamp) then I find I've misspelled mythical...haha!!! I've been told Hemmingway couldn't spell either. I wonder if he used only two fingers to type. The Uccello insight is very interesting. I knew none of this and find it very interesting. The focus about Uccello when I was in school was for his abstract patterns and almost cubistic use of space.

Jenn said...

Outstanding! One of the best real stories I have read in a very long time. You may have felt a moderate bit of guilt but I was cheering for your A- because you took your mind to the outer limit and clearly crafted one heck of a well written essay. You deserved such a fantastic grade!

ELAINE ERIG said...

A change to the optical impression of the world of objects by a transcendal arithmetic---or progression of the inner being -or the imamagination dream´s of space - (in principle any alteration of the objcet is allowed which has a sufficiently strong creative power behind it) that is the peceptthe , the transformation of dept, widht and height into (excitement or boredom) two dimentions,
It´s a good one, I see by my uninterrupted labor of my eyes

Lyn said...

What a fun post!
Uccello was directing a movie. He came back as the Director of Ben Hur, William Wyler, and hired Andrew Marton to direct the Chariot Race. Now, which artist can he have been?
A good "impostor" somehow slips into the truth. If you didn't write the "truth", who did?
Brilliant!

Artist Unplugged said...

Interesting and detailed account, I found it fascinating!

Lynda Lehmann said...

Fascinating and well developed post! A compelling read and an endearing admission, too. So well written--far better than most of what we read these days, even in publications.

Have you read Leonard Schlain's bood ART and PHYSICS?

Totalfeckineejit said...

Entertaining post Dave.As for Picasso , well, we all know life is a lie so if Art imitates life?.........

SUSAN SONNEN said...

ah, the lessons we learn...do you think perhaps that he knew of the extreme guilt he would incur with that A-? I wonder.

SweetTalkingGuy said...

Hi Dave, another wonderful story, you certainly haven't lost your touch. I was thinking what a great publication (book) a collection of your stuff would make.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Great tale, Dave!

I've been intrigued by Uccello ever since I saw his 24 hour clock (1443) at the Duomo in Florence. Hmm...I think I'll write about that on Monday. Thanks for the inspiration!

Mistlethrush said...

Art is a lie.... interesting thought. How much of a lie is debatable but the best art is certainly well researched and presented as a musing or interpretive response.

Dave King said...

Natalie
Very enigmatic, but glad you liked it.

Rachel
The very thought of it....

Bee
Well, guess I was a little lost, too. Which was the problem in the first place. Thanks for letting me off so lightly.

Jeanne
Hardly a barbarian! More power to you in your studies.

Elizabeth
I rather suspect that my symbology, if I could remember it in any detail, would be at least equally silly. Yes, I'm for Umberto Eco, too! I did try my hand, but not successfully, I fear.

David C
That is fantastic. Thanks - though I guess there was no chance your professor would think you were hoping to be taken at face value!

Weaver of Grass
I view The Rout much more kindly these days! Back then it just didn't fit with what I thought a picture should be.

Stephen
No probs, not to worry about the deletions. Uccello's abstract patterns are something I have never got into. Thanks for that.

Jenn
That is very cheering to hear, but looking back, and remembering thesort of " Prinny" that we had, it was a high risk strategy. Thanks for your very supportive comment.

Elaine
I'm not sure I follow all that, but maybe I get the general drift. Thanks.

Lyn
Slipping into the truth... I like that, like it very much!

Artist Unplugged
Thanks for that.

Lynda
Much appreciate those very kind comments.

Totalfeckineejit
Maybe imitates it with the truth, no? What do you think?

Susan
Good thinking! Yes, it would not surprise me in the slightest to discover that. Still, in that case, wouldn't he have done a better job with the A+?

SweetTalkingGuy
That's a very endearing thought. Persuading someone else, though... Ta muchly for that!

Fantastic Forrest
I shall look forward to reading that. Thanks.

Abraham Lincoln said...

Looking at something and seeing what the artist intended is not an easy thing to do. Having been an artist and a teacher I am trying to imagine having to explain some of my work to myself. I just did it. LOL

I found this to be one of the more interesting posts of this day, for me.

Dave King said...

Mistlethrush
I wonder if great art is a bigger or a smaller lie than poorer art.

Art Durkee said...

What's to be guilty about? Nothing. You had a genuine insight into a possible interpretation of the artist. People have had similar insights into Durer, for one, and the study of sacred geometry is a venerable one, running from ancient history all the way to fractal art. (Do a search for "Buddhabrot" on the Net to discover something sublime and lovely.)

I've had many, many experiences in music school and art school where I've had run-ins with the authority figures, whenever I had an insight that wasn't on the curriculum, and gave them what they didn't ask for. I got a few A marks for that, like you did. My point in mentioning this was that I grew to understand that the curriculum was limited, and I came to feel no guilt for exceeding it, or for going off on a parallel track.

I don't think have anything to feel guilty for. The only source of guilt I can perceive from this story is that you failed to conform to expectations, but rather thought outside the box. And that, my friend, is never anything to be ashamed of.

Barry said...

Brilliantly written and highly entertaining except...

Now I feel guilty for about a dozen exam papers and am starting to feel the need to confess all.

But, perhaps it is enough for the salvation my soul to just live vicariously through your own?

I'm looking forward to part two.

Dick said...

Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat; et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolvo ab omni vinculo excommunicationis et interdicti in quantum possum et tu indiges. Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

Adrian LaRoque said...

Exceptionally writen, I enjoyed the story.

Maggie May said...

what a delightful blog you have here!!! i will be back. top of the day to you.

Dave King said...

Abraham
That is a very reassuring take on my post, for which much thanks.

Art
"Buddhabrot" is new to me, I shall certainly look that up. Durer, of course, I do know and I see where you are going with that one. Thanks for a very generous interpretation.

Barry
Please. B e my guest. Live vicariously - I've done it often enough.

Dick
Amen, indeed!

Adrian
Thanks. That satisfies.

Maggie
Welcome and, as my Gran would have said, the top brick off the chimney for you!

Carl said...

Great story Dave.

You probably sent the prof scrambling for his dictionary of Masonic Mystic Symbols. Very Cheeky.

Cheers,
CS

Michelle said...

There is a reason I haven't finished my art diploma.....art history would be part of it...I wish you had been my teacher :0)

Louise said...

What a marvellous story, Dave. For the art theory, of which I am an almost total ignoramus (the almost comes from having been married once to a struggling artist), and for the lovely ending. Enjoyed it thoroughly!

david mcmahon said...

My first visit here, Dave. I enjoyed the entire read.

Perhaps it's because I enjoy a good story - or perhaps it's because I paint as well.

Bravo!

Dave King said...

Carl
Thanks for that. Yes, actually I could have done with that dictionary in the exam room!

Michelle
I didn't actually shine there myself, but thanks for the compliment.

Louise
I suspect you are quite a way from the almost, but the comment is much appreciated.

David
For whichever reason you are welcome, for all of them thrice welcome! Thanks.

hope said...

Ah, you won because art IS open to interpretation and interpret you did. Just because it didn't conform with his notion, didn't make it wrong.

Be proud of the A, Dave. ;)

willow said...

Very witty, Dave. You have a fabulous imagination. A well deserved A, in my book. Anti-Christ or not!

Mary-Laure said...

Thanks for a beautiful post.

By the way, Paolo Uccello is one of my favorite painters.

CLAY said...

Brilliant, I am becoming strangely proficient at "table talk" as a result of all of this history. Mr. King, I salute you for educating me! (The Picasso quote is fabulous by the way, excellent choice).

Sapna Anu B.George said...

This is true education in itself and great to meet you and greet you here,Mr.King.

Merisi said...

"What drives the painting?"

You certainly proofed that one can not only survive a teacher who asks questions like that, but go on to greater things!

Congratulations on winning David's Post of the Day award, well deserved. I am glad he sent me over here. Good luck! :-)

Carolina said...

Came here through David McMahon's Post of the Day. Really enjoyed your confession. Big smile!

Jim Murdoch said...

I feel exactly the same about my Applied Mechanics O-Level. In the prelim I scraped by with 54% but I ended up with an A in the final exam and came top of the year. Till this day I don't know what went right but the guilt lives on.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Such confessions are cathartic :)

Rebecca said...

I really enjoyed this. I can remember studying Uccello (briefly) in my second year, although I don't think I ever had to write an essay on it. Our questions were not so specific, but tailored more to broad themes and movements.

I particulary like Scene 2.

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