22 April, 2007

Against the Eye

In 1880, an unknown Russian art connoisseur named Ivan Lermolieff published a landmark study entitled Italian Painters: Critical Studies of their Works. The book opens with a preface, 'Principles and Method', which takes the form of a dialogue between the author, currently a tourist in Florence, and an eccentric Italian art-lover—the latter is never named, but is in fact a transparent portrait of the book's real author, the physician and amateur critic Giovanni Morelli. In conversation, the arch and assured Italian convinces his Russian interlocutor that the common method of identifying paintings—by an uncritical use of documentary sources—is flawed, and must be replaced by his own technique of minute formal analysis. The Italian is dismissive of art history as an academic discipline, insisting that 'art must be seen, if we are to derive either instruction or pleasure from it'. The narrator, eager to agree, replies:
A very different view is taken in Germany, my dear sir; there people will only read, and art must be brought to public notice, not through the medium of brush or chisel, but through that of the printing press.
Discounting the irony of this sentiment's appearance in a printed textbook, the argument, especially as presented here in such a one-sided manner, might seem a closed case—for who could possibly argue that art is better to read about than to see? Who would want art history, art criticism, before art itself?

Perhaps some of my readers have an inkling of the answer.

*

Morelli's position, and his vehemence, remind me of the attitudes of my long-time comrade on this site, Chris Miller, who has lately been showcasing Inuit sculpture on his own blog. Chris is a sculptor himself. He is, in fact, one of three sculptors I have met while blogging. (I have, on the other hand, only met one painter.) The other two are the eccentric Dorset gentleman Robert Mileham, and Amanda Sisk, who now teaches at the Florence Academy of Art—both of whom have blessed us with their comments. All are remarkably accomplished; figure sculpture, a medium necessarily stable and traditional, clearly demonstrates the technical abilities at their disposal.

Chris and I once argued about the visual psychology of sculpture. He wrote:
I don't think that the views of a sculpture have anything to do with each other—and they are usually of different qualities—with, hopefully, at least one that is memorable, with the rest being acceptable.
He cited the influential theories of Adolf von Hildebrand to support his views. I found the whole idea rather hard to understand. To me, the power of a sculpture came from the fact that it is a unified body, something beyond a group of views. Even better than a single sculpture—I argued—is the figure-group, where one's spatial relation to the group determines one's degree of involvement in its drama. Different views are not better or worse, merely different: each has its own pathetic resonance. My example was the stunning Compianto di Cristo of Niccolo dell' Arca. Chris retorted, dismissing my argument,
My guess is that as a 6-piece ensemble, this Dell' Arca piece probably offers no more than one good view—the one shown in your photograph above—but each of the individual sculptures probably offers several views—including lots of good close-ups.
I forgot to respond to Chris's comment that time. Well, lately my reading has taken me back to the fertile fields of art psychology, and its history. Let's see if we can have another go at addressing the issue. Perhaps in doing so, I'll manage as well to answer the first question posed by this post.

*

Seeing and Touching.

F. David Martin's 1981 book, Sculpture and Enlivened Space, opens with an overview of historical opinions of sculpture. He notes the salient fact that it has almost always been considered inferior to painting—the Renaissance, for instance, looked down on sculpture as manual labour, not befitting the nobility of the artist. In the Treatise on Painting, fadged up from Leonardo's notebooks after his death, can be found a series of arguments for the superiority of painting—less physically tiring, more intellectually taxing, and so on. Martin remarks that 'It never occurred to anyone in the Age of Enlightenment. . . to defend the autonomy of sculpture'. Criticism, he thinks, is dominated by the tradition that sculpture is an art for the eye, and one inferior to painting—he refers constantly to the 'eminence of the eye'.
The tradition has been so dominated by the eminence of the eye that it never occurred to anyone before Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi in the twentieth century even to raise the question whether a blind person was able to perceive sculpture.
He attributes this tradition partly to the fact that most critical knowledge of sculpture has come through engravings and now photographs—a medium which reproduces painting well, for obvious reasons, but sculpture badly. For Martin, as for Morelli before him, a true art criticism must be experiential, and so when he inevitably goes on to argue for the sculptural primacy of touch over sight, he opens with an account of an actual encounter with art—a painting by Rembrandt and a sculpture by Hans Arp:
I found myself reaching toward the statue rather than keeping my distance. . . Whereas my perceptual relationship to the Rembrandt required my getting to and setting in the privileged position, similar to choosing what I consider to be the best seat in a theater, my perceptual relationship to the Arp was much more mobile and flexible. I wanted to touch and caress the shining bronze. . . The smooth rounded shapes with their swelling volumes moved gently out into space, turning my body around the figure and controlling the rhythm of my walking. . . the Arp seemed not only three-dimensional but four-dimensional, because it brought in the element of time so discernibly—a cumulative drama, a temporal gestalt. . . each aspect was incomplete, enticing me on to the next for fulfillment.
For Martin, no one view of the Arp can be privileged—'each aspect was incomplete'—rather, its power comes from the interplay of an infinity of views and aspects. In this he agrees with Naum Gabo, whom he quotes: 'To think about sculpture as a succession of two-dimensional images would mean to think about something else, but not sculpture'. Martin feels the sculpture, rather, as a spatial and even temporal body.

(Are tactile sensations limited to sculpture? Berenson would have disagreed: for him, the Florentine genius was for generating just such responses in painting—'I must have the illusion of varying muscular sensations inside my palm and fingers corresponding to the various projections of this figure'.)

Martin is arguing that the two-dimensional images produced by a sculpture are less important than the sense of 'whole' that it engenders in us. In trying to articulate this 'whole' he is forced back on the inarticulate jargon of the French philosophaster Merleau-Ponty: 'Sculpture reveals our physical "withness" with things'. This is a shame, because I think that Martin's insights would be better realised by turning away from phenomenology, and towards Platonism.

*

Seeing, Touching and Knowing.

We all know that Plato pried sight apart from its etymological cousin, knowledge—idein, 'to see', from oida, 'to know', and eidon, 'Idea' or 'Form'. For Plato, seeing is believing but certainly not knowing:
SOCRATES: Then knowledge does not consist in impressions of sense, but in reasoning about them; in that only, and not in the mere impression, truth and being can be attained?

THEAETETUS: Clearly.
Plato was distrustful of images. He did not have much to say about sculpture; but one of his intellectual descendants did. For when Martin writes that 'It never occurred to anyone in the Age of Enlightenment. . . to defend the autonomy of sculpture', he is completely wrong. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Johann Gottfried Herder—
As soon as a single rooted viewpoint takes precedence, the living sculpture becomes a mere canvas and the beautiful rounded form is dismembered into a pitiful polygon. . . Sculpture creates one living thing, an animate work that stands there and endures. . . sculpture is truth, whereas painting is a dream.
The Varieties is already a friend of Herder's; we much prefer his imaginative cultural nonsense to the obstreperous metaphysik of his inheritor Hegel. I wrote about his views on history here. Herder's treatise on sculpture, substantially written in 1771 but published only in 1778, is fascinating in so many ways. Like modern writers on psychology (eg. Jakobson, Damasio) he analyses the mind by reference to defects and abnormalities—the synaesthete, the congenitally blind, and so on. He develops the argument of Lessing's Laocoon (discussed here), and anticipates the Romantic revival of Plato. He engages with the perception-theory which was of such interest to 18th-century philosophers; his argument, for instance, is implicitly conditioned on Berkeley's proposition that touch, not sight, conditions spatial awareness:
An ophthalmite [eye-stalk] with a thousand eyes but without a hand to touch would remain his entire life in Plato's cave and would never have any concept of the properties of a physical body.
In 1764, Thomas Reid had poked fun at these debates, imagining a race of 'Idomenians' who have one eye and no sense of touch; the race has no concept of depth, believing that two objects occupy the same space when one passes under the other, and its philosophers have descended into fruitless squabbling.

For Herder, likewise, mere visual sensation is inadequate to an understanding of space, and therefore of Being: 'sight is but an abbreviated form of touch. The rounded form becomes a mere figure, the statue a flat engraving. Sight gives us dreams, touch gives us truth'. Sculpture is greater than painting because it is not confined, as painting is, to the image, to the eye—in Platonic terms, its subject is truth, not dreams or impressions. It cannot be reduced to a series of views, 'dismembered into a pitiful polygon'. Where the painter merely depicts, the sculptor, like God fashioning Adam, creates. The spiritual power of sculpture, as Herder explains towards the end of his treatise, is witnessed by primitive idol-worship; the ancients were aware, he thinks, that the statue must always be an image of the soul, of the world of Forms, bodied forth.

*

Where does that leave us? If we are going to accept the philosophical dogmas of a fin-de-siècle aesthete such as Hildebrand, who asserted that art is valid only insofar as it progresses beyond the limitations of nature, then we ought to be equally receptive to the Platonic aesthetics of Herder and Martin. In Herder's case, this outlook tends towards an appreciation of classical sculpture; in Martin's case, towards a taste for Arp and other abstracts. For me, it finds expression in my delight in the unfinished, fragmentary and deliquescent, for instance these Nubian lips:


Or Donatello:


Or Rodin:


Or even our friend, Amanda Sisk (more images here), whose shapes have barely emerged from the primordial ooze:


Why? Because in being (or appearing) incomplete, these sculptures call into question the primacy of the eye. If visual beauty arises from perfect form, these works decline such standards; rather they invite the mind to complete them—what Gombrich called the 'beholder's share'. The intellect, not the eye, is entertained. And this intellectual sculpture, this 'virtual' sculpture, cannot be considered in terms of views or images, not even three-dimensional ones. It cannot even be visualised—to do so is to compromise, to break the spell, just for a moment. It is, in fact, very much like another sort of intellectual construction: the castle of words, which must, again, remain ever incomplete.

Is it any surprise, then, that I, who prize the intellectual above the visual, the unseen above the seen—I, who greedily want my share of the work—should prefer the history of art to art itself? For me, art is always something remote, which I can do no more than admire, like a woman, silent and beautiful, but not for me. How I should like to walk in the world of Gentile's Adoration, or Uccello's Hunt, or Seurat's Grand Jatte! But I cannot: they are separated from me by the accursed plane of their surfaces. Art history, on the other hand—the history of ideas—is like a fluid that percolates coldly in my body. It plays with me, and lets itself be played with, always open and receptive to my touch. Thinking, truly, is the aesthetic experience.

Update: John B. offers his further thoughts here.

11 comments:

chris miller said...

Thankyou, Conrad, for introducing me to Herder (again) , Martin (I hate him) but especially to Giovanni Morelli ( whom maybe I'll read some day)

Of course, I can't dispute that you take delight in the "unfinished, fragmentary and deliquescent" --- or that you you prefer "the history of art to art itself" --- or that for you
"the two-dimensional images produced by a sculpture are less important than the sense of 'whole' that it engenders in us".

We all must take our pleasure wherever we can find it.

But I would like to direct attention to that process of engendering (that eventually arrives at a sense of whole)

What can we use to get there ?

I would suggest that all we have is what we can remember of each of the separate views -- and the visual memory is too weak, blurry, and flimsy to hold what is
beautiful - valuable - distinctive about a visual image. In other words, the aesthetic quality of a piece disappears as soon as you stop looking at it. (but if, of course, that aesthetic quality was barely felt in the first place -- it would hardly be missed)

For me -- looking is a highly charged balancing act -- recreating the sense of whole from all its unique and unlikely disparate parts -- as if I had just set them in order myself and were querying "is this right ? ---or-- "why would anybody do it this way ?" ---or -- "Is this a ledge from which I can momentarily hang above the great abyss of meaninglessness?

And once I stop looking -- I let go from that ledge -- and return to the world of ordinary mental activity -- like "wow,nice perfume" or "does my scalp itch?" or "is there enough
time to get back to the library before it closes?"

Of course, sometimes, visual images are set into a prescribed, narrative sequence -- like comic books or the cycle of frescos in the Scrovegni chapel or those oriental scrolls that are too long to fit into one field of vision -- and there we must strive mightily/repeatedly to reach for interconnectedness (if it seems to be worth it)

But though there might be a single preferred view for a free standing sculpture (as it might fit, for example, into the design of wall into which it has been set, there's never been a prescribed sequence for it's various possible views --- has there ?

The only reason I would query the sense of whole -- among multiple possible views -- would be to answer the question "do I want to live with it ?" --- "do I want to make it part of my familiar environment -- where it might, casually , be seen from many sides?" --- so I'm not concerned with a composite sense of whole --as I am trying to avoid the unhappy experience of seeing something ugly for which I am responsible. (which is why I can spend a year working on a single small piece -- trying to get a few great views without incurring any terrible ones -- which sometimes feels like trying to solve a Japanese puzzle box)

But --- mine is probably the minority view --- or at least the under-priveleged view in a world where, as mentioned last week, intellectual activity is currently at the zenith of prestige, and aesthetic at the nadir.

The Spring edition of "News and Events" of the Art Institute of Chicago just arrived -- announcing on the cover -- and elsewhere -- the separate, upcoming exhibits and
lectures by various contemporary artists -- Jeff Wall, Richard Misrach, Angela Strassheim, Sarah Hobbs, Jana Gunstheimer -- all of them the photographers (or photo copiers) of puzzle images:

"What's happening here ?" -- "why is this image important ?" --- "why is this art ? why is it especially contemporary ?" -- all of which are questions addressed by art history -- for a community which, like you, prefers "the history of art to art itself"

Obviously, I'm not in that community -- and as it has assumed control of the great art museums -- I feel much as the Byzantine Christians must have felt when
Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque in 1453.

Amanda Sisk said...

There is much to digest here, Mr. Roth, and I thank you for feeding my mind in my current environment(one void of intellectual stimulation and rife with weary eyes). Firstly, please allow me to correct you on one minor point...I do not instruct at the FAA; I have student status here. I have and will continue to instruct figurative sculpture.

“A very different view is taken in Germany, my dear sir; there people will only read, and art must be brought to public notice, not through the medium of brush or chisel, but through that of the printing press.”

Mr. Roth, you may safely say you have met another painter, a printmaker, and a minor art historian in myself (trained as painter, degree in printmaking/art history). Perhaps your author was writing not only of reading words in print, but of reading the images produced from printing presses? In a time when the masses could not easily cross the world and see painting and sculpture for themselves (was the visual output in the community greater for the Italians/lesser for the Germans when your author wrote?), the print world was instrumental in bringing etchings, engravings, and (later) lithographs into the homes of the masses. Stained glass windows and icons were narratives comprised of pictures for the people “to read.” But I do not have the full context of your reading...

“I found the whole idea rather hard to understand. To me, the power of a sculpture came from the fact that it is a unified body, something beyond a group of views….”

Perhaps a difficulty may be that there are two languages within one discussion here: one of you writes primarily from the point of observation and the other as a maker. This is, incidentally, something that frustrated me in my undergrad years. I feel art historians and artists do not understand each other's languages. Should they? I often received negative feedback for my desire to be bilingual. That aside, a painter paints from one view. A sculptor must constantly circle his or her work, birthing something coherent from multiple, rather than a single, views. The viewer can choose one or many vantage points, but in the creation, the work must come from a group of infinite views.

The Dell’Arca!!! In Bologna??? I think it has more than six figures - seven or eight, in fact. I saw this my first time abroad - my fingers had yet to find clay. I wept. Remarkable gesture, I recall…a figure with her robes swept out behind her and her face contorted in lament...these are life size terracotta, and thus highly unusual, no?

“Different views are not better or worse, merely different…”

Again, it may be an observer vs. maker opinion. I would argue that some views in any given piece could benefit from greater compositional unity or interest.

I have not read Herder, but I am excited by your discussion of sight/touch/knowledge. Sculpture -the creating of it and then the viewing of it by naughty sensualists in museums (Sir Gawain? I am sure he is guilty of running his hands along some fine marbles…he writes about how he would like to sink his teeth into a Canova.) is very much a physical act. It is sight, your abbreviated form of touch, taken all the way. Seeing/Knowing is an ongoing discussion in an artist’s training. An exercise I devised for my students was to sculpt three studies of the human eye - one exercise by mirror (which “flattens” an image much the way a camera does), one by looking at the eye of a classmate (this a traditional approach - it is the view an artist has for a portrait bust, for example), and then to close their own eyes, feel the shape of their own orbital cavities, etc., and sculpt a third study without ever seeing the subject! Guess which was the best study (Mr. Roth, you should like this…)? The third and last. The study in which the mind took precedence over the eye actually had not only greater accuracy, but a greater life to it.

“The intellect, not the eye, is entertained…”

I hope that my fragmented wall paintings and fragmented figurative sculptures invite the mind as well as the eye in. When one has fragments, the missing aspects are the invisible puzzle pieces - even chess pieces - for the viewer. The audience has a power to engage and create. I do not believe that visual beauty arises from perfect form - bah, how dull - even the Greeks gave us the Venus toe (a convention carried well into the Renaissance and beyond of the second toe as slightly longer than the big toe so that the work would benefit from an imperfection - the French have a name for this that refers to the intelligence of the person with the longer second toe...hah...intellect and eye again...). In "whole" works, a sense of atmosphere is vital for me to engage with the work...just as the evocative in literature holds both my eyes to the page and my mind to the images beyond it, so does the very rare, atmospheric, complete work embrace both the mind and eye.

Mr. Roth - if you were a working artist, I take it you would label yourself as Conceptual? :)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, both, for your long and thoughtful comments. I can sympathise with Chris's lament that he is in a minority; he is also in the minority of people who have actually considered this issue, and who are honest about it. How many of the critics he mentions would admit that they prefer criticism or history to art itself? I suspect that 'community' is self-deluding.

"the visual memory is too weak"

Yes, but the intellectual memory is strong, isn't it? When we cannot keep hold of distinct images, we can at least retain something that goes beyond them?

"Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque in 1453."

Yes, Mrs. Roth weeps whenever she recalls this sacrilege.

Amanda, yes, I think Morelli was referring to images in print too. It is amazing to me to think that Ruskin, who so famously championed Turner, knew that painter's works primarily through engravings. Can you imagine a painter less suited to engraved copies? In 1880 the German (and other) tourists were still flocking to Italy to see the Old Masters (many of them still in situ), just as the historians like Ranke had descended in their hordes upon the priceless and almost-untapped archives in Florence, Rome etc. Morelli's second volume deals with Italian paintings in German galleries, however.

"one of you writes primarily from the point of observation and the other as a maker."

This is true, although I think a strong part of my feeling (aesthetics) comes from a desire to cease being an observer (who, after all, sees images) and become again like the maker (who is more profoundly involved with the 'whole' underlying the images). You might read this as a secular version of religious belief (which in intellectual terms stems largely from Plato in the West)--the desire to achieve unity with God.

The Dell'Arca has six figures not including the supine Christ. You can see it here.

Your art-experiment sounds interesting and just the sort of thing that would have interested Herder, who, contra Martin, deals with the appreciation of sculpture by the blind.

"the Venus toe"

I was not aware of this, thank you for mentioning it.

"if you were a working artist, I take it you would label yourself as Conceptual?"

Funnily enough, I can't stand 'conceptual art' (by which I assume you mean installations etc.). I'm not entirely sure why this is, as one would expect me to admire it. Maybe sometime in the future I'll try to write a post on why.

Robert said...

Thank you Conrad for this post; one obviously very close to my heart.
I am flattered to be described as eccentric. Sir Patrick Moore is usually described as such, but unlike him my R s usually work and my tie (when on) is usually done up and rarely will you see my shirt hanging out!
http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=patrick+moore&btnG=Google+Search&meta=
I am far more of a visual, practical mind, I am certainly not an academic and my Art History is to say the least patchy, but nevertheless I will add my tuppence worth if you will allow me.
Amanda has beaten me to it, answering nearly all the points that I was hatching even to the vision of Sir Gawain’s touching Canova’s marbles, which I thought she just might have disapproved, (not on marble protection I might add!).
Now I do agree with Chris’ comment in part at least;
I don't think that the views of a sculpture have anything to do with each other—and they are usually of different qualities—with, hopefully, at least one that is memorable, with the rest being acceptable.
I understand what he means but it should not stand up. The greatest works can be viewed with absolute confidence from all angles despite the Venus toe and your “mind’s need to complete”. I think it was Bernini who is usually attributed with that comment. It is true however that many works have weaknesses; views that are aesthetically weak; demonstrate a mistake or even accurately represent a weakness in the subject matter. The fact that Leonardo and Gustinus Ambrosi have “made up anatomy” for aesthetics’ sake will support their attempt to amend that. See the latter in Chris’ last post:
http://mountshang.blogspot.com/2007/04/use-and-abuse-of-anatomy.html
On painting being superior to sculpture, these quotes are usually from painters; the best illustration and best known was by a jealous Leonardo aimed at his great rival Michelangelo.
I delight in your quoting Herder;
As soon as a single rooted viewpoint takes precedence, the living sculpture becomes a mere canvas and the beautiful rounded form is dismembered into a pitiful polygon. . . Sculpture creates one living thing, an animate work that stands there and endures. . . sculpture is truth, whereas painting is a dream.
He has put it rather better than I have on my website.
I also think one could justify the statement; “it was Marble that set the Renaissance alight”.
Co-incidentally, if you are to visit Birmingham (England) this summer and to visit the great Art Gallery ,“The Barber”, you will see an exhibition entitled “Dual Nationality” which my younger daughter is responsible for on the subject of European prints. She is lucky to be both a competent painter as well as an newly graduated Art Historian.
Again I am especially glad that you mention the physical asset that sculpture possesses, the touch and feel sense is of course of immense importance but so are two other assets that sculpture can carry which are very rare in paintings.
Sculpture possesses presence; it is actually there, it is not an illusion, one can sometimes feel it “looking “ at one, or feel its presence in the room beside you. This is especially noticeable when good works are properly exhibited. If a life size work is standing on the floor beside you and not on a plinth the sensation can be extraordinarily bizarre ; the same tingling sensation of their own hair standing on end that models mention when I am moulding the clay version of their neck or head!
Sculpture also possesses the sensation of movement a kin to deja vu . I have seen people turn round to see if Diana has released her bow yet. Another good example is a different “Diana” with a straining hound on a lead, you can sense the enormous effort both girl and dog are putting in and the tension in the lead is all that is holding it from bounding past you in the corridor. The movement is suspended in reality not as an image on the wall. See McCartan
http://www.ilovefiguresculpture.com/masters/american1/mccartan/mccartan.html
Twice in the last week I have heard women say that when they were young they have been emotionally affected by sculpture, one of them to tears! I wonder if many paintings did the same? The works you have chosen are not my favourite (leaving Amanda’s apart). None of them work for me but I can accept your reasons and your joy in “the need to complete” this is so to many people including myself when it come to Impressionism and similar styles.
Conceptual Art is a different subject altogether it incorporates other feelings we may have like actual claustrophobia which is not a normal emotion which one might get from a traditional painting or sculpture.
Conrad before handing this in I must ask the question; as in “Desert Island Disks”, you are allowed to take either a sculpture or a picture-less book on Art History covering one century. When you are rescued you may keep one of them which you may not sell. Which would it be?
PS. I am planning a top 100 sculptures blog for your entertainment soon!

John B. said...

In rereading this, in particular the observations about "figure-group" sculptures, I was wondering what you would make of Rodin's Burghers of Calais. For me, who has so far seen only pictures of it, what frustrates me about it is also the source of its appeal to me: the fact that it doesn't have a single "memorable" side. It's as though the viewer has to take on the role of a citizen of Calais in order to see it as its form requires of its viewers.

Erik said...

Thank you Conrad for this interesting essay, I find many of them worth being published as a book, together with the comments. It has been a long time since we had contact and I owe you an apology: my time is (far) more restricted than I first thought. I agree with the view (!) that sculpture has long been underestimated but I think that painting and sculpture cannot be compared just like music and literature differ from each other. The Arp-feelings, the offerings of an endless series of viewpoints, the material experience etc. are a sensation of their own. I never get, however emotionally touched to tears when involved in a sculpture, a portrait by Rembrandt or Holbein can hit my emotion just as music can. But this doesn't mean that painting is "higher level" art because artistic experience is more than only being touched to tears.
I hope, despite my very limited time, - due also to my photoblog which I have to dedicate less time - to meet more often. As for the Google discussion group, I'll write a goodbye for I really can find the time, how interesting it may be.

chris miller said...

35 years ago I saw the complete "Burghers of Calais" on display at Laon -- and thought that -- like the "Gates of Hell" it was a cluttered mess -- completely defeating the power of each individual figure.

(But then - since I have been talking recently about the weakness of visual memory -- maybe that memory cannot be trusted!)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Robert: "by a jealous Leonardo aimed at his great rival Michelangelo."

Yes, but a) his remarks on painting and sculpture probably date from 1490-1500, before his rivalry with Michelangelo, and b) more importantly, Leonardo was considered a great sculptor, for instance the brilliant equestrian statue (1498) he planned for Sforza. The rivalry was not one of painting and sculpture, but rather of bronze (casting) vs. marble (carving).

Perhaps I will go to Birmingham this summer, then.

"If a life size work is standing on the floor beside you and not on a plinth the sensation can be extraordinarily bizarre."

In a square near the centre of Bristol there is a bronze statue of Cary Grant, lifesize and at ground level; in the dusk it can be somewhat startling to come across it and take it for a real man.

"You are allowed to take either a sculpture or a picture-less book on Art History covering one century. When you are rescued you may keep one of them which you may not sell. Which would it be?"

If I've only got one item on the island, how can I only keep 'one of them'? Anyway, I'd take the book, naturally. Any book, in fact, over any sculpture. (Sorry!)

John: "the fact that it doesn't have a single "memorable" side. It's as though the viewer has to take on the role of a citizen of Calais in order to see it as its form requires of its viewers."

Yes, I think this describes my attitude to figure-groups quite well. I don't have any particular opinion on the Rodin piece as I haven't seen it.

Erik: thanks! I must confess that I've never been moved even nearly to tears by either painting or sculpture, so perhaps I'm not the best person to consult on this matter.

Robert said...

A bronze "Burgers of Calais" is in the Gardens outside the House Of Lords on the Thames embankment if you wish to see it. They give me no feeling at all let alone a memorable side, they are wishy-washy from all round! Now I really like some of Rodin’s stuff but this is not his best.
I am sure you are right Conrad on the pre-dating issues of Leonardo’s remark, but I dispute the rest. He was primarily a painter a good one but his sculpture represented only a fraction of his work and not of the same standard in my opinion. You can argue that he believed that painting was superior to sculpture so he stuck to painting, but I am more cynical. With the evidence of my own eyes and my understanding of human nature he knew he was good at painting and not so good at sculpture so there is some “sour grapes” and jealousy here. He was after all a vain man in all accounts, especially if you believe that he posed as David for Verrocchio.
To be fair he is allowed an opinion but that does not make him right, as you have inferred in you post! Also it must be said that we have sight of sculpture after his death so we can see he is wrong even clearer. Imagine being a great writer and never having read Shakespeare or a musician and missed Mozart, you may well see things differently.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ah, good--debate!

"A bronze "Burgers of Calais" is in the Gardens outside the House Of Lords on the Thames embankment"

Really? How embarrassing; I've walked past there a thousand times. I must admit that I tend not to look much at all the heroic sculpture around the Houses and Parliament Square--it bores me. But I'll have another look when I get home in June.

"He was primarily a painter a good one but his sculpture represented only a fraction of his work and not of the same standard in my opinion."

In quantitative terms, yes; but his horse-statue was his pride and joy (as well as being a considerable technical accomplishment), and contemporary estimates ranked him very highly as a sculptor. Sadly we don't have the horse, so it is difficult to judge this, except by copies.

In any event, with all due respect your opinion (and mine) of Leo's talents are not relevant to the historical facts of the Leo / Michelangelo dispute. I was perhaps hasty in saying that it was merely bronze vs. marble, although for instance Leonardo did decline to work on the block that would become Michelangelo's David; but the contest was not painting vs. sculpture. Consider that one of the principal rivalries was over the Battle frescoes for Soderini--both were paintings.

Still another matter is why Leo would have put sculpture above painting in his writings. I suspect that it was ultimately just a trope of the period; it is quite probable that Leo preferred his painting even above his sculpture, and could marshall plenty of reasonably bogus arguments towards justifying this preference, but in the wider view, the superiority of painting was a commonplace, and would remain so largely until Winckelmann and Herder in the 18th century.

John B. said...

"[The Burghers] give me no feeling at all let alone a memorable side, they are wishy-washy from all round! Now I really like some of Rodin’s stuff but this is not his best."

Chris, above, seems to be saying much the same thing. My question isn't intended as a challenge to your opinions--I don't know enough to be able to do that--but to know what you're basing your opinions on: Is the problem with the Rodin, as you see it, the fact that its figures convey a range of emotions, that it lacks a singular effect? Or is that even a goal of sculpture, in your opinion?

Also, Conrad, the Burghers are also at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena CA, and in a commons area at Stanford. At Stanford they are dispersed in such a way that the viewer can walk among them. The Stanford people claim that that was Rodin's intention for them. More here.