Modernist and Medieval Art

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While those paintings from my post “We Didn’t Start the Fire” are fresh in your mind, I want to talk about the relationship between modern art and medieval art. Modern art is often thought of as something new, but in many ways it is a return to the medieval artistic tradition. It began with a strong influence from primitive art [1], and it is not at all coincidence that primitive art, medieval art, and modern art share so many defining characteristics. They’re all based on philosophies situated at one extreme of what I call the principle dimension of art, which for the moment I’ll call idealism versus realism.

Cycladic head, Greece, circa 2500 BC

That’s not all there is to it, but rather than explain that, which will take many posts, let’s look at similarities between modern art and medieval art.

Color

Note the symbolic choice of face colors in Munch’s 1895 Jealousy from my previous post, Picasso’s use of blue throughout his blue period to show misery and despair, and the use of colors associated with death, disease, mold, and corruption rather than the colors of wolves for Jackson’s The She-Wolf.

Perspective


Fresco, St. Georg Church, Reichenau, Austria, 10th century A.D.


Picasso, Factory, 1909

Note the pseudo-perspective on the buildings in “Factory”, painted as as a child paints a building, where no one perspective is privileged, but each side looks more like it would if you were looking more directly at that side. This is called Cubism, and is the same approach used to draw the buildings in the Reichenau frescoes. The general multiple-simultaneous-perspective approach is also common in primitive art and is strictly mandated in ancient Egyptian art.

Essences govern medieval and modern art

A standard explanation is that Cubist painting and related styles depict the different sides of objects simultaneously, to give a truer picture of the object than one would get from a realistic drawing using perspective. I think this reveals the underlying motivation: All such paintings are made by people whose philosophies say that a realistic picture of an object is not a true picture. They are attempts to convey more of the “essence” of a subject than you could perceive simply by looking at it.

This principle governs medieval art. That’s why it’s so unrealistic. Principles of medieval art include:

– Instead of perspective, draw the most-important side of each figure.
– Size is used to show importance rather than distance.
– Colors are used for their symbolic meanings rather than to be realistic.
– Space is not represented, as it is unimportant.

All these principles recur in modern art.


Medieval painting, possibly of the Ark, source unknown


Cezanne, Four Bathers, 1890


Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

Size and space

Cezanne’s painting places the bathers in a three-dimensional scene. There is space between them, and you can tell where they’re standing. Their sizes have been curiously inverted: the one farthest from the viewer, but most-central to the picture, is drawn the largest, while the one closest to the viewer, but compositionally least-important, is the smallest, as in medieval art.

In Picasso’s painting, size varies at random throughout each figure. Not only can’t you tell how to place these women in three dimensions, you can’t tell whether the central two are standing up or lying down. All five are scrunched together unnaturally closely, their figures filling the canvas. Space, and relations between people or things, are no longer important.

In the medieval painting, the largest figures are, perhaps, Noah and his wife, not because they are closet, but because they are most-important. They look upwards because they are closer to God than the other figures are. The sky is gold to indicate they are performing the will of God (see Benton p. 70). It’s hard to say where the other people are, or where the boat (Ark?) is. The green squiggles signify more than depict water.

In medieval paintings, every person was drawn in a position and posture indicating their relationship to God. In modern art, there is no God. The world has lost its center, and so positions and postures should remain ambiguous and unlocatable, adrift in a space without coordinates.

If you scroll through all the paintings in my previous post, you’ll see there is no space in Modernist painting, even if they’re representational. This is not AFAIK adequately accounted for by modern art critics, because their perspective does not allow them to notice that it’s missing. Space is not shown in modern art because space is not a property of objects. Modern artists, and the continental philosophy it’s based on, focus on what the essence of an object or the meaning of a word is, and have forgotten about the question of how objects or words relate to each other, or combine to give meaning.

Structure and creativity

Modern art rejects the notion of structure, whether the structure of natural objects, the composition of a painting, the dramatic or logical structure of a story, or the graceful and efficient load-bearing structure of a dome or arch as opposed to the structurally-indifferent brute power of right-angled steel bars. This rejection of structure is known as Structuralism. The idea is that rather than being aware of structures, relationships, and measurements, you need only be aware of contrasts. Mark Rothko’s paintings are the apotheosis of this notion:

It originates in Saussure’s linguistic theory, which says that words are defined not by properties of the things they denote, nor by algorithms, but by the set of words which contrast with or bound them. For instance, “tall” is not defined by an understanding of physical properties that make an object tall, but by being the opposite of “short”. “Wrist” is defined not as a particular anatomical feature, but as that word which lies semantically between “hand” and “forearm”.

Structuralism, however, is purely topological, uninterested in the metric space words lie in or the set-membership functions one might use to define them. That means they don’t care about how far apart the meanings of words are, the fuzziness or interpenetrability of their boundaries, or any unclaimed space between them. Philosophically, they’re reverting to Aristotelian logic, in which only first-order predicates exist, there are no quantifiers and no measurements, no action at a distance, and all reality conforms to a kind of Law of the Excluded Middle in which everything must be This or That. Re. the Law of the Excluded Middle, we may also observe that they’re reverting to a belief in Aristotle’s claim that empty space is impossible [2, 3].

Art of the High Middle Ages, similarly, had no notion of compositionality–the idea that a composition is more than the sum of its parts, or has some property other than the collection of the properties of its parts. I’ll give detailed support for this claim in a later post.

Ancient and medieval philosophy was focused on the idea that the answers to mysteries lay in the essences of objects, not in relationships between objects. Aquinas’ theory of imagination was that it produced images of remembered objects, and could construct a new image either by putting together multiple objects which had never been seen together, or by putting together formal properties from different known objects, “as when from the imaginary form of gold, and the imaginary form of a mountain, we construct the one form of a golden mountain, which we have never seen” (Eco p. 110).

There was no allowance in the medieval scholastic theory of the imagination or creativity to conceive of, say, a wheel, other than through having formerly seen a wheel. That would be a creative act, and to suggest that humans were creative would have been heresy.

Much of post-modern theory can be described as making the heresy of creativity unthinkable. This is why post-modernists like fan-fiction. Well, not enough to actually read it, but enough to write articles about it. They think it’s inherently uncreative (e.g., Coppa p. 231, 232, 245; Jamison 2013b; Wershler), and that it validates their claims that proper literature is not creative (Barthes 1971), but merely recombines elements of previous literature, the way Aquinas thought ideas simply recombine things people have seen before. (This belief may be technically true, but it is more misleading than informative due to the inability of humans to conceive of the degree to which the human brain decomposes sensory information.)

Summary

If you compare all the paintings in my previous post to 19th-century paintings, you’ll notice stylistic or technical differences. Modern art [4]:

– is crudely drawn
– uses a small number of colors, usually a subset of red, yellow, white, blue, black, green, and brown
– chooses colors for their symbolic or emotional values
– does little blending or shading of colors, and only for one-dimensional gradients–it never blends three colors to show realistic shadows, or shadows and a color gradient at the same time
– does not use perspective or uses multiple simultaneous perspectives
– does not depict empty space; stuffs the picture full (unless it’s an empty-canvas conceptual piece)
– does not try to depict objects realistically
– does not show people having emotions (a trend which began with Manet and Seurat’s coolly dispassionate evening parties and picnics, and harks back to neo-classicism and classical Greece)

This is nearly the same as the list of differences medieval paintings have from Renaissance paintings! Modern art, conceptually and technically, rolled back the Renaissance. This is because it’s based on a philosophy which rolls back the Enlightenment and Renaissance to return to medieval conceptions of the world. More on that later.


[1] “Primitive” is a controversial word now. In most cases it’s more precise to say “hunter-gatherer”, but we can’t for art, because we often don’t know whether an ancient society was a hunter-gatherer society. We can, however, usually look at its technological artifacts, and its art, and say whether it was primitive. If anyone is offended by the term, their presumption that the term is an insult only proves their own prejudice against primitive societies.

One good source for the influence of primitive art on modern art would be a biography of Picasso, but that’s just scratching the surface. (McGill 1984) describes a large art exhibition arguing that the influence of primitive art on modern art was more philosophical than formal and that Picasso wanted to return to irrationalism and ritualism. I would say philosophy and form always go hand-in-hand.

[2] Aristotle’s claim is cleverer than it at first appears, and might be correct in two senses. One is that a vacuum must have quantum fluctuations; the second has to do with how space is created by mass in general relativity.

[3] Much of deconstructionism can be concisely described as the claim that reality is unknowable because Aristotelian logic and physics don’t work in real life, but that’s also a topic for a separate series of blog posts.

[4] Of course there are exceptions–probably thousands or even tens of thousands of exceptions. Matisse, a Fauvist, maintained a sense of space. Georgia O’Keefe blended 3 colors to show color-realistic shadows. But these rules probably hold for more than 90% of modern art.


References

Roland Barthes, 1971. “From Work to Text.” In Leitch et al., pp. 1326-1331.

Janetta Rebold Benton. Materials, Methods, and Masterpieces of Medieval Art.

Coppa, Francesca. “Writing Bodies in Space.” In Hellekson & Busse 2014, pp. 227-246.

Umberto Eco 1959, translated 1986. Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press.

Hellekson, Karen, & Kristina Busse 2014. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2014.

Jamison, Anne E. Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking over the World. Dallas, TX: Smart Pop, an Imprint of BenBella Books, Inc., 2013.

Jamison 2013b. “An Interview with Jonathan Lethem.” In Jamison. (No page numbers in e-book.)

Leitch et al., eds., The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. New York: Norton, 2010.

Douglas McGill 1984. “What does modern art owe to the primtives?” New York Times September 23, 1984.

Wershler, Darren. “Conceptual Writing as Fanfiction.” In Jamison, pp. 408-417.

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