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