Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

A Context for Art History

Posted in art by Jason Gray on December 15, 2009

We are all no more or no less than the sum of each of our histories. Our potential in this life is never greater than our ability to understand the past, and in art it is no different. What each generation of artists accomplishes is a veritable link to those artists’ work who came beforehand, whether immediately or 10,000 years ago. Too much of art today is about rebelling against the establishment (or the supposed act thereof); artists no longer embrace their predecessors, they are no longer the culmination of a discipline with a lineage of disciples. Therefore, art stands still, it is stagnant. With every artist searching merely for their own individuality within the media, the greater ideals of the profession are unfortunately lost into the abyss.

Nevertheless, my goal for this article is not just to comment on what I regard sometimes to be the twilight of a fading empire; rather, I hope to espouse somewhat on the connections between artists, who were beyond consigning themselves to being mere individualists. These are artists who sought linkage to the ghosts on the tip of their brushes or the fossils embedded in their heavy slabs of clay, and in doing so, pushed their own medium to its limits. Whether the artist is Michelangelo, pursuing the Greek ideals of form and content, or Pollock, conjuring the essence of Native American sand painting, and combining that with an esoteric wisdom of surrealism and the cubist grid, or finally, whether the artist is the purveyor of modern art himself, Picasso, whose new vision was locked in the firmest embrace with the history of art (both western and primitive), the conclusion will be the same, to trace the significance of understanding the past, while also culminating it into a unique future vision.

Barnett Newman once said, “Greece named both form and content; the ideal form—beauty, the ideal content—tragedy.” Possibly no artist in history was better suited to employ the research of the Greeks than Michelangelo. Whether or not Michelangelo would have had access to Greek writings is speculative, but even he suggested that he learned how to sculpt by examining up close, the classical statues in the Medici Collection of Florence. A relationship such as this, between a young artist, developing his/her notions about art, and the powerful sculptures of this collection (which at the time might have had either originals or copies of such classical Hellenistic works as “Nike of Samothrace” or the “Dying Gallic Trumpeter”) leads one to believe that Michelangelo must have had a powerful churning deep within as even his perspective of the world began to shift. No one can argue that, for him at least, the lessons of art history had impressive consequences, and what better time for those lessons than at the beginning of the High Renaissance, in Florence no less. For anyone viewing his subsequent works, it is easy to note the connections with classical Greek art, and those ideals that Newman had speculated upon previously.

Take for instance, Michelangelo’s “Pieta” that he completed around 1500 CE.

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The emotions of this piece, and the moment of those emotions, may well have been written in a tragedy by Euripides nearly 2,000 years earlier. In addition, the height and positioning of this sculpture put the viewer at eye level with Mary, affording them with the vantage of looking down into the face of the dead Jesus. Definitely this would have been a startling realization for the viewer who was used to seeing their deities up on high, but more importantly, it was an ingenious example of Michelangelo employing tragedy, in its greatest capacity, to increase the emotional impact of the piece (Greek ideal of content). As for form, there has perhaps never been a more attractive image of Mary rendered since. She and Jesus are each at their peak of youth, where beauty reaches its utmost, and where the characters stand at the precipice separating adults from adolescents. This is assuredly Michelangelo employing form (beauty) to maximize the reach of content (tragedy), for we are certainly fascinated and compelled to pay attention to the most beautiful among us, are we not? Hollywood has built an industry upon selling beauty; it’s just too bad that they have rarely reached the level of content of Michelangelo (or the Greeks who he pays homage to).

Perhaps one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of art is Jackson Pollock, who with his heroic, drip paintings rode the crest of Western art to the shores of America, for perhaps the first time significantly. At the height of his career, New York was maybe even more enigmatic than he was; it was a melting pot for more than ten million, cross-cultured, inhabitants and each of them represented the romance with the “big-city” that pervaded the rest of the country and even the world. After World War II, it wasn’t just the “American city” alone that turned the heads of the world, but it was America cumulative, the giant of military, industry and culture that had awakened from slumber. American artists, New Yorkers particularly, were primed for that attention, but Jackson Pollock was the first to catch it. The artists of the “New York School” were as evasive to pin down, style-wise, as the city’s inhabitants were ethnically. Each artist had a sense of individual liberation to paint whatever they pleased, “art-for-art’s sake”, but the sense of not needing to owe something to the past did not originate until much later (with the “Neo-Dadaists”). Artists as diverse as Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning, and Robert Motherwell painted differently but drew from common sources, those of Cubism, Surrealism, Post-Impressionism and beyond. Jackson Pollock was no different; his work originated outside of his own experiences, but filtered through them. In a radio interview, Pollock once said, “There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment.” This idea of having a cycle was present everywhere for him. It is still hotly refuted as to whether or not Jackson Pollock had ever come into the contact of Native Americans performing a sand-painting ritual, but he has made reference to it in multiple interviews and it is easy to draw the comparisons to his work. Whether he had or not, is almost inconsequential, for the history of the practice, with its languid, trance-like movements is evident in both his paintings and his approach. An interesting method that Pollock employed was painting in the air; he would paint, from a stream of consciousness, about three or four feet above his canvases. The resultant splatter of paint onto the surface of the painting was therefore not the painting itself, but a trace of the activity of it, a hint at the mystical place where painting originates. It is certainly obvious that Pollock was strongly influenced by the Surrealists, in fact his approach alone might make him the best employer of the dialectics which Andre Breton had outlined (originally, and always subversively, for literary aims). What’s more, Jackson had been in a non-public form of competition with Picasso for decades; he always felt that Picasso beat him to the punch. Picasso, before Pollock began to drip, had been filmed a couple of times “painting with light”, where he used a sparkler or flashlight to draw an image quickly in the air. No doubt, this would have had impact on Pollock, but probably for him, it was the esoteric, native religions of the American southwest that penetrated his psyche so deeply that it bubbled to the surface of his paintings.

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The Navajo sand-painters have inhabited the world for possibly as long as 5,000 years, yet probably Jackson Pollock was the most famous extension of their otherwise private practice. This is not to mention the fact that in his time, Jackson saw the origination of new painting mediums (acrylics), and was merely one of many to experiment with how to apply in an equally new manner.

For Pablo Picasso, the world of art was as ingrained in his character as the ability to breathe. His mother alleged that his first words were, “Pencil, pencil!” Looking over the diverse body of work that he left behind, it is not easy to see why the young Picasso would be so eager to get started. Perhaps what is best known about him was his ability to adapt to new styles so effortlessly and how he stormed so easily into new territory, but this ability does not come without a firm assertion of and investment in the history of his predecessors. Art is a lineage, and perhaps Pablo Picasso knew this better than anyone else. He could look at a painting and trace its origin back to Reubens or Tintoretto, and it should be no surprise that his work is likewise traceable. Beyond the obvious origination of Cubism in Cezanne’s skewered planes, an early Picasso owes infinitely to African Tribal Masks, and even to El Greco, in my opinion. Also, Picasso’s breakthrough in Cubism came from painting landscapes in the same region of Europe as many of the Byzantine painters. Is there a correlation between those paintings produced before the confining principles of one-point perspective and Picasso works like “Factory at Horta” or “Peasants and Oxen”?

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I would say that certainly there is. Later in his life, in his etchings and lithographs particularly, Picasso demonstrates an astute grasp of Ingres’ line. Picasso even went through a period to which he referred to himself as, “Classical”. Throughout his long body of work, the comparisons to earlier paintings and artists is pervasive, evidence of course, to his strong knowledge and embraced interest in the history of art.

Hans Hofmann, the infamous artist/teacher of New York, whose firm grasp of European Modernism he transcended on pupils as diverse as Lee Krasner and Arshile Gorky once said that, “As an artist, you love everything of quality that came before you.” This is an important statement not because, as an artist, you must know all about art history, but rather because, without that knowledge, your art cannot be the fulfillment of all of that history. As time presses on, and communication technology usurps art for its impact on society, having as its representation, a significant population of artists disembodied from the knowledge of past art can only be destructive to the future of that art. There is a reason that art has not generated a new movement in almost twenty years; it is because artists are competing only with themselves and not with their pasts. After all, we can only become the sum of our history if we choose to execute the equation.

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