Pre-Raphaelite flash

August 29, 2009

drop of milk

In an earlier post, I commented on Art Spiegelman’s remark that comics are time turned into space. Different moments in time are disposed across the page in separate units, or panels.  This idea popped up again in my head as I read what John Ruskin had to say about the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an independent self-styled group of painters who were not “recognized” by the Academy.  Ruskin was very sympathetic to their aims.

William_Holman_Hunt_-_Valentine_Rescuing_Sylvia_from_Proteus

In a letter to the London Times in 1854, Ruskin praises the PRB by saying, “…[it] has but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does..,” and he discusses William Holman Hunt’s painting, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia in detail.  Looking at the picture, it’s attention to detail is obvious and remarkable, but it struck me as somehow stiff and unrealistically staged.  That’s when Spiegelman’s comment came to mind.

The Hunt painting shows us what we can never see because the elements of the world are always in motion.  Not until the development of the strobe light was it possible to “freeze” motion completely, or nearly so, in a photographic image to show us the “reality” behind the blur.  Anyone who has been in a disco with a strobe can testify to how bizarre and unreal the dancers look in the light, yet it is their real movement one sees.

Well, what is the real?  For the medieval thinker, and those were the ones the PRB would favor, the real, the essence of something was outside of time.  A Platonic ideal, not the mere appearance one percieved in everyday life.  For an artist, the decision is always, shall I show how things are, or how they appear?  In medieval art, the choice was for the former.  For the Impressionists and Futurists, to name two, it was the latter.  (Of course, each group thought it was depicting the real…)

eat_the_bookSo, in medieval art, the Idea is the real, and that’s what is shown.  Figures are often not to scale – important subjects are bigger, the better to represent what they are. Perspective was not unknown, but not used much, because that was mere appearance.  (The renaissance was preoccupied with mathematically precise perspective.)  Different moments in time are shown in the same picture, as in my favorite from the apocalypse where we see John both receiving and eating the same book, two chronologically sequential events, in one frame. (To us moderns, it seems he’s eating one book and greedily grabbing for another!)

Fabriano_Magi_Uffizi_4764Magi_detail

In later art, the juxtaposition of multi-times is often less explicit.  In this famous painting of the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile de Fabriano, the (earlier) procession to seek Jesus is seen in the back of the picture, while the Magi, at their goal, are shown in front.  Here, in the detail, we see the three Magi in different stages of adoration:  standing, bending to the knee; and on the knees in front of the infant Saviour.  It is almost like a sequence of animation frames, and the juxtaposition is intended to refer to motion and the reality of time.

Hunt’s painting shows us one moment, and one moment only. The figures are frozen as if they had been captured in movement by a strobe flash, and the artist achieves this revelation of the reality by his fidelity to truth, and his shunning of mere appearances.

Do comics, with their straightforward acceptance that the artist must depict the idea, and their more realistic way of representing time, direct us to higher truths?  Does the matrix of time degrade all ideas to falsity?  Is the preoccupation of The Decadents with “the moment” not a decadence, but an aspiration?  What do we see?

I think that practically every thought in my muddled head since I was ten years old has been a variation on this merry-go-round of ideas…


Division of Opinion

August 27, 2009

ruskin Adam Smith - Enlightenment

I have been reading The Lamp of Beauty, a selection of John Ruskin’s voluminous writings on art.  The preface states that one reason for reading him is to find the source of so many ideas about art that we take for granted these days, and that’s true.  Even when I come across a theme with which I am familiar as one of his, say, the importance of craft, I am struck by the force of his statements and the depth of his critique of industrial society.

Here’s a little face off between Ruskin, the romantic godfather of the English Arts and Crafts movement, and Adam Smith…you all know who he is.  The topic is the division of labor in industrial production.  For Smith, an unalloyed good; for Ruskin, the source of mental and physical slavery and aesthetic degradation.

from the beginning of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor.
. . .
In every other art and manufacture, the effects of the division of labor are similar to what they are in this very trifling one [the making of pins]; though in many of them the labor can neither be so much subdivided, nor reduced to so great a simplicity of operation. The division of labor, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labor. The separation of different trades and employments from one another, seems to have taken place, in consequence of this advantage. This separation too is generally carried furthest in those countries which enjoy the highest degree of industry and improvement; what is the work of one man in a rude state of society, being generally that of several in an improved one. In every improved society, the farmer is generally nothing but a farmer; the manufacturer nothing but a manufacturer. The labor too which is necessary to produce any one complete manufacture, is almost always divided among a great number of hands. How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woollen manufactures, from the growers of the flax and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth!
. . .
This great increase in the quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labor, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labor, and enable one man to do the work of many.
. . .
I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labor is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we may falsely imagine the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must, no doubt, appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so such exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.

from The Stones of Venice: The Nature of the Gothic

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished, — sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is — we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, — that we manufacture everything there except men . . . It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.

And how, it will be asked, are these products to be recognized, and this demand to be regulated? Easily: by the observance of three broad and simple rules:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which  Invention has no share.
2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.


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