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Friday 21 March 2008
No, not chocolate eggs and Easter bunnies, though I have no objection to either, but no, I am thinking of larger treats than these, the sort I like to give myself at such times. Just as at Christmas I like to listen to Handel's Messiah or Britten's St Nicholas Cantata, so at Easter Bach's Matthew Passion sets the mood, as does standing among Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua or before da Vinci's Last Supper.... seasonal treats indeed! Of course, since I got rid of the private jet as part of my green contribution, I am reliant on reproductions for such pleasures. Given the standard of present-day reproductions, this represents a relatively small diminution of the aesthetic experience. It is true that there are losses; of scale, for example, but there is modern technology and imagination to come to our aid, and all-in-all not so much is sacrificed that the artist's vision is lost. Not in the case of the da Vinci, at any rate, though the Giottos present a rather more severe problem - but more on that anon. For now I should confess that my favourite Easter treat is Bellini's Agony in the Garden. Once, for a short time, for personal reasons, it was Salvador Dali's Crucifixion, and that being so, the Dali will always have a special place in my affections. But for the moment, and because life is, I think, the poorer for being deprived of the occasional digression: a small diversion. There is currently a photographic exhibition running at The Photographers' Gallery in London. On show are the entries for The Photography Prize. Worth £30,000, it is awarded annually to an international photographer who is judged to have made the greatest contribution to photography over the previous year. This year's finalists are John Davies (UK), Jacob Holdt (Denmark), Esko Männikkö (Finland) and Fazal Sheikh (USA). Founded in 1996, the Photography Prize has become one of the most prestigious international arts awards. What caught my attention was a remark made by Adrian Searle, the art critic: Half the photographers up for the Deutsche Börse prize have a moral point to make. But it's the ones who don't that are the most interesting. No, actually, it didn't catch my attention, not immediately, for when you think about it, it is a pretty okay remark, an orthodox viewpoint, uncontroversial. Moral points got themselves a bad press thanks to the Victorians, and although some aspects of Victorian taste are making a bit of a come-back, moral points in art are still not fashionable. So if I registered anything at Searle's remark it was a big indifferent, "You don't say!" It was just what most of us (I suspect) would have expected.
I suppose the discussion hangs on what you term as a moral point, but although Searle's remark is in key with today's thinking and would not raise an eyebrow (not even one of mine) in the normal run of things, when I applied it to the works I have mentioned (and, of course, I could have applied it to many more), it seemed just fatuous. It certainly would not always have been the case. In the Middle Ages art was very much a practical craft, but one that served a spiritual end. The artist was a kind of auxiliary priest, tilling the sensual fields the priest could not touch, and bringing forth from them his spiritual harvest. The eventual disassociation of church and artist and the rise of genre painting took a long time to mature - and, arguably, was never completed. So we have Giotto at the beginning of the fourteenth century painting his frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua. What perhaps is not sufficiently appreciated is that Giotto's fame rests squarely on his genius for picture cycles, and a picture cycle is what he gives us in the Arena Chapel. The cycle is a form of art quite distinct from that of the single picture, or even a series of single pictures, and as such is unfamiliar to us. We tend to see them in isolation, even discuss which one we like best, but cycles do not work like that. They obey their own laws and form a continuous narrative in which each is influenced by the rest, and in its turn casts its own influence. It may be easier to see the difference if we think about their origins: they represent the end result of a long development from the friezes of ancient Greece and Rome, through the mosaics and illuminated manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries. In one such manuscript we find several versions of the Genesis story side by side. It was not until much later that the highlights would be selected out and isolated in frames of their own.
The painter of frescoes such as Giotto was as circumscribed in what he could and could not do as any painter of eikons. Today's artist would probably brush in a landscape or a building and then place the figures in it. The artist of Giotto's day would start with the figures and then contract the background. Even if they were supposedly in the building shown, it would be positioned behind them. The figures were actors who were always stage front with the scenery behind them. The dramatis personnae for these actions had been developed by the painters of Byzantium, in whose works they were mask-like figures, but Giotto mastered the principles behind their use and breathed new life into them, using them for his own purposes.
Meanwhile, poetry was following an almost parallel course, with Dante describing journeys undertaken beyond the known worlds of life and death, journeys frightening enough to be thought of as the Star Treks of their day. Line by line he was creating verses equating to Giotto's picture cycles and following many the same principles.
We have, though, largely lost the feeling for Giotto's art and for the art of all those like him who worked in picture cycles. Perhaps it was inevitable, sad, but a sadness over which we should not linger, merely wipe away the occasional tear and move on. Even in these days of the installation, when we may find ourselves actually walking into an art work, our focus remains very much on the single picture, yet the cycle was, in a sense, the installation of its time. Perhaps if we could try to see it that way we would be drawing closer to the way it would have been seen by its creator. Maybe before we wipe away that tear and move on, we should make one last effort to rediscover the laws of the picture cycle. You stand at the centre of a chapel and the figures are part of the setting, as much so as the pillars in a cathedral. And as part of the purpose of the pillars is to lift the mind to heaven, the figures are there to draw you into a divine narrative. A useful analogy might be drawn with our modern surround sound.
There is a sense in which the picture cycle was never to surpass the achievements of Giotto, but there is another in which it was to reach its zenith in the work of Bellini, and yet another in which the feeling for it was already beginning to be lost. As always there was a demon at the heart of the tragedy. In this instance the demon was the altar piece, which would increasingly become the focus for the congregation's attention. And as the altar piece grew in importance, the power of the cycle could not be sustained. Focus is not always a goodly (or a Godly)thing.
image of Arena Chapel from Web Gallery