In the Light of Reality
Wessel Huisman, Dieren
In my essay ‘The Generous Space’ I wondered how it is that, during a few periods in the history of painting, artists were able to suggest spatiality on a flat surface that has a meditative effect and confronts the viewer with a metaphysical reality cloaked in a figurative image. This may sound pretentious but, considering the limited space of this text, there’s no harm in immediately calling things by their name. In a nutshell I presented the Etruscan painters around 500 B.C., the Chinese painters in the 14th century, the Flemish and Italian painters during the 15th century, Hokusai/ Japan in the first half of the 19th century and the early Impressionists during the first decades after 1850. One comment should be made here: the Etruscan paintings do not show the pulsating effect. However, given the exceptional spatiality of the tomb paintings found in Tarquinia and surroundings made in a short period, they do deserve a place in this list.
How is it that over the years the special balance between illustrative harmony on the one hand and the mental blessing it evokes on the other has faded away to the background in favour of other qualities? The works of the young Raffaello Sanzi still clearly show the characteristics of his teacher Perugino – a clear structure of image elements as well as a degree of stylization of the scene – but in his later paintings the focus shifts to a true-to-nature representation of the persons, their movements and emotions, which makes these paintings seem more realistic.
The developments that started initially in Italy and Flanders in the 15th century bring me to the following hypothesis. In that period artists find themselves in a transitional phase as regards their view and interpretation of reality.Their orientation towards heavenly things, supplied by the Christian faith, gradually gives way to a horizon at eye level. Knowledge partly based on rediscovered classical writings becomes the basis of a more scientific approach of reality. Mathematics in particular is highly esteemed as a source of true knowledge. For the painters it becomes more and more important to copy earthly reality in a natural way and to locate biblical scenes in recognizable local surroundings. Human figures are portrayed with more lifelike, anatomically correct features. Emotions, too, are represented more realistically. However, this rational approach of reality is at the expense of the usual stylization that goes with a certain degree of objectification. Emotional considerations and intuitive decisions fade into the background. The emphasis on measurability and manufacturability of reality makes the paintings lose their contemplative space.
Finding hard evidence for this hypothesis proves difficult. The question is: is this possible at all when it comes to interpreting the effect of paintings. Isn’t it, in the first instance, a matter of experiencing and only later developing consciousness about what you see? Just as with my study on the generous space, my ideas are based on experiencing paintings for years and years, paintings that are accessible to everyone. My sources are open for anyone to see.
Looking at the development of figuration from Late Medieval to Early Renaissance painting, the following catches the eye. With Giotto di Bondone (1267 – 1337) the paintings become more realistic: ‘His biblical figures are no longer the figures of Romanesque art determined by strict gestures and iconographic formulas, but natural, lifelike characters plastically represented by light and shadow .. ‘ . They move in a plausible image space, which is represented in perspective by architecture and landscape …’
Around 1420 two painters in particular, Masaccio in Italy and Jan van Eyck in Flanders, add a new dimension to this realism. They are both looking for a concrete and tangible reality. In this context Liana Castelfranchi talks about ‘the conquest of reality’.
With the rediscovery of the laws of perspective, in which the Florentine architect Brunelleschi plays a crucial role, the representation of three-dimensional space on the flat surface is given a scientific basis. The study of Euclidian geometry is now part of a renewed interest in classical art and science in general.
For centuries the Christian faith had given explanations for the how and why of human existence without the need of any evidence. The paternalism based on biblical interpretations of reality now gives way to knowledge-based knowing. Truth and truthfulness present themselves as knowable and verifiable quantities.
In other words, there is a change in orientation, which can be summarized in a symbolic movement. Whereas the gaze used to be fixed on heaven, now the human dimension and the human horizon determine the view of and the place in the world. Nolthenius describes it as follows: ‘For centuries detachment had been the priority for a human … Now he flops down on the earth and experiences gravity for the first time … The earth: no longer primarily transitory and sinful, but our mother and nurse who is entitled to our subserviant love’.
Therefore it can’t be coincidence that the gaze, once directed upwards, now chooses a different perspective. Instead of the indefinite golden space artists, architects and mathematiciens discover the horizon. There they find the vanishing points of an existence at eye level, which mark the new space where life takes place. And the laws that desribe this space are increasingly becoming the subject of study.
The rise of science also has a dark side, comparable to Pandora’s box: man, curious and exploring, being the guardian and the ruler of creation, bends reality to his will. The optimism linked to the prestige of scientific mores, at the present time has given way to concern for the consequences of boundless exploitation of the earth. The seeds for this development can, in my opinion, be found in the 15th century.
Reality and truth
At this stage it is useful to consider concepts like reality, realism, naturalism, truth and truthfulness in relation to the art of painting. In using these terms there seems to be no room for what is subjective, emotional or intuitive. It is suggested that they express generally accepted notions comparable to the laws of physics or axioms of mathematics. It is questionable if these terms are useful when it comes to analyzing and interpreting the expression and meaning of paintings. What kind of reality does Van Eijck proclaim when he paints a Madonna and Child, flanked by a canon known by name. What kind of truth does Masaccio refer to when he depicts Adam being expelled from Paradise? Is the term realism as bright as we think it is? According to the online art magazine Fahrenheit the French painter Gustave Courbet was ‘founder and maximal representative of realism’.
In his work he opposed the fruitless academic way of painting and the exotic designs of Romanticism. But also in the case of Courbet his work is determined by countless subjective personal motives that can not or hardly be named. Indeed, each decision in favour of the development of a painting implies a choice that refers to the unique fingerprint of the maker.
Is it possible for a painting to be what it suggests? When Monet, in his paintings, claims that reality is his central aim, he seems to be objectifying reality. But it was his perception, his impression of reality. Jean Baptist Corot is regarded as the herald of the movement that, around 1860, uses the principle ‘back to reality’ as a starting point. It is therefore at least paradoxical that his work is appreciated for its personal atmosphere.
What do you expect from a painting? That it is true, that it reflects reality as it is? We need to realize that each picture is an illusion in paint referring to images that are perceptible with the senses, that each person faces reality from his own history, sensitivity and nature.
Why is it that Magritte’s lesson – Ceci n’est pas une pipe – is rarely recognized in all its consequences? What is true, what is truthful, what is what it claims or suggests to be?
The reality of a painting is called paint. The material side of the object ‘painting’ is the only thing that is entitled to this. Even photorealistic or hyper-realistic paintings cannot escape it, no matter how seductively and indisputably the truthful image presents itself. In the developments that take place in the 15th century I find parallels with my own artistic development. Discoveries that fall into your lap while working can, the next moment, be part of your consciousness. By reflecting on what has intuitively developed before your eyes, you get a better view of new possibilities. At this stage of euphoria thinking may completely dominate your approach. It’s good to know where you stand, but devising the next steps as well as their meaning, only on the basis of reasoned achievements, suffocates your emotion and intuition. In other words, reason, the rational component, consciousness play a paradoxical role in the creative process. It is essential to recognize that while working you are constantly making choices on the basis of preferences linked to your own character. You are much more than your mind. You can only do justice to your existence when you address everything that shapes you.
In ‘Landschap en Wereldbeeld’ Boudewijn Bakker discusses Jan van Eijck’s painting ‘Madonna of Chancellor Rolin’ . When ‘reading’ the landscape depicted in this painting one should not proceed logically and rationally, says Bakker. The best thing to do is what ‘is common when reading a poem or – to remain somewhat closer – a meditative reflection, in which, likewise, thoughts and feelings are expressed in a relatively loose connection of words and phrases, of concepts and images, a connection that can only be understood through the common operation of reason and intuition.
In the introduction I indicated that, in terms of consciousness, 15th century artists found themselves in a transitional stage. They received their training in a period that metaphysics and daily life were still closely connected. This context or basis changed in the course of the century. Reason played a crucial role in this. The 15th century Florentine architect Alberti, for example, no longer took painting as just a craft, he also regarded it as an intellectual activity. For him reason plays a decisive role during the creative process.
Paradoxically, this created a devilish dilemma. Indeed, despite the sobriety that is characteristic of a logical person, man’s perception of reality is much more complex than what can actually be analyzed. If you’re not careful, your thinking about reality, your view on what is will define your experience of it. You become alienated from essential signals that mark your position in life and give meaning to it.
From the 15th century it’s no longer the aesthetic patterns that are paramount but concepts of beauty and how to represent them. Thus the Early Renaissance is the birthplace of the -isms: Mannerism, Baroque, Classicism, Rococo etc. until in the 20th century movements and ideas tumble over each other in rapid succession. They all claim to have a patent on an adequate representation of reality, not excluding Surrealism, which in this respect distinguishes itself only by taking precisely the irrational as a starting point. This movement, too, owes its emergence to the supremacy of reason, albeit as a countermovement.
It’s only in the second half of the 19th century that we find, in the works of a number of impressionist artists like Pissaro, Sisley and the early Monet, an exceptional brightness and the evocation of an unselfish space. They tear themselves away from the straitjacket of ideas about beauty and imposed meanings. With an open mind and without any prejudice they deal with reality as the rich domain of light and colour. For a short time we see the reappearance of the wholeness of intuition, emotion and reason, with the heritage of Perugino and Piero dell Fransesco echoing in paintings derived from the Seine-landscape.
For completeness’ sake it should be noted that this outline doesn’t do justice to those individual artists who manifest themselves outside the set pattern of movements. As I indicated earlier my inspiration for my conclusions comes from my years-long practice of observing the works of my colleague-painters. And of course from my own experiences, as shown by the following recent experience. In the early morning I was walking along the river in my hometown Dieren. Something I do at least two times a day when walking my dog. Every day the sun, though not always visible, puts the river landscape in a different light. Although I realise that my mind is inadequate, I often wonder what I experience when I’m walking there. But this time my experience was a step ahead of me: I was overcome by a sensation of presence. Before any conscious receptivity could emerge – look what there is – reality presented itself as true. That it is there, that’s what it’s all about. That it takes shape in reality, while evrything is involved in making the metaphysical side of life tangible and visible. Meaning is, like life is, like I am. I was reminded of the small text that I wrote for my final exam…
without eternal value
not being part of ‘history’
each next moment unscripted
except that it is eternal
that it has to be experienced and
created over and over again.
Nothing is new or innovative
not even what stems from the
soap powder ideology of art critics.
In that instant of life that transcends
death, there I find that which
I don’t want to name
that which I only experience.
What remains is the realization that it is not different
from what it is