Theories on the Essence of Art and the Problem of Mannerism

Paul van den Akker
Paul van den Akker

This article tells the story of a complex, unfinished history. A history of how, for a very long time, art historians have approached the works of the Old Masters from a modern point of view. It is the story of the widespread assumption that art is defined by the two opposing forces of figuration and linear stylisation, whose relationship to one another has allegedly changed throughout history.

It is also the story of Italian Mannerism, that sixteenth-century style which, due to this modern approach, gradually began to be aesthetically reappraised during the twentieth-century. However, whether this favourable interpretation would have made sense to anyone in the sixteenth-century remains to be seen. But allow me to begin with a funny German poem that dates from 1845.

It is a children’s poem written by Robert Reinick about a market stand that sold pictures — the so-called Bilderbude — and is included under the letter “B” in his ‘ABC-Buch für Kleine und grosse Kinder’ (‘Abecedarium for Children Young and Old’).

Shouting “Kermis here, Kermis here! Lovely time of the year!” (“S’ist Jahrmarkt heut’, s’ist Jahrmarkt heut’! Das ist doch eine lust’ge Zeit!”), the poet lures his young readers to the picture stand. It is the most beautiful stand at the fair.

‘The Picture Man’ (‘der Bildermann’), portrayed by the painter Ludwig Richter in the accompanying print, tells us why. Wrapped in a stylish, mended jacket, a pointed cap on his head, a feather duster under his arm and a sort of beggar’s bowl in his hand, he entices the curious to buy his wares.

‘The Picture Man’ tells the children that they have come to the right place to learn about what the world has in store for them because his images present an accurate view of, for example, a variety of different animals, ‘Mount Vesuvius’, a storm at sea, and the four seasons. Moreover, they offer the viewer some unique opportunities: one can laugh at a lion without risking one’s life, no matter how loud it is roaring; observe a battlefield scene without ever being hit by a bullet, and even visit royal treasuries and the most beautiful cities without having to walk for miles.

Who would disagree with the gentle ‘Picture Man’s claims? They may be illusions, but representational pictures can be entertaining and informative about things we rarely, if ever, will actually see in real life, let alone with such ease. To be sure, they are more than a mere child’s distraction.

This was apparently Ludwig Richter’s conviction as well because, about ten years later, he drew a less caricatured version of another image vendor, now in the guise of a young man travelling about the world with his easel on his back and a bag full of paintings. This youngster is obviously able to entice people of all classes and ages to gather around him in the street as the poem that accompanies the image also points out: “I have the prettiest things for all classes, high and low” (“Für alle Stände gross und klein, Hab ich die schönste Sachen”).

‘The Picture Stand’ falls within the tradition of pictures we have of the so-called street criers and barkers; that is, of various vendors who in earlier times strolled the cities loudly extolling the virtues of their goods. At the same time, Reinick’s ode to pictures can be seen as a translation into the child’s world of the common praise for art as it was formulated for centuries in serious art theory.

For example, by the French art theorist Roger de Piles, who in 1699 had extolled the great usefulness of prints as a way of gathering and storing knowledge in every possible field in his Abrégé de la vie des peintres in which prints were referred to as ‘Depositories of all that is Fine and Curious in the World’ as an English edition from 1706 translated it.

Reinick’s poem also echoes another art theory notion in the last stanza: Here, the ‘Picture Man’ requests that the children remember and greet the artists whose portraits hang from the wooden frame of his stall.

It reminds one of the high levels of esteem that was accorded to painters who could professionally conjure up complicated visual illusions no matter how easily the beholder seemed to be seduced by them. For example, the table of contents of De Piles’ treatise alone, must have been enough to awe the reader with the immensity of the painter’s task.

The table reads like an extensive list of essential ingredients for an artist with separate chapters devoted to the human figure, perspective, landscape and chiaroscuro — to mention just a few — as elements that were necessary for the creation of visual illusions that would be tasteful and convincing enough to deceive the beholder’s eye.

De Piles and most art theorists since Alberti were convinced that art was seldom just a meaningless game of deception. Illusion was not a goal in itself, but a means to an end to show us, for example, a realistic image of Paradise, to warn us of an existence of hell and damnation, or to memorialise rulers and their deeds, or to give us insights into nature, human behaviour and customs.

In short, the visual medium in principle revealed everything there was to reveal about life. Of course, no viewer would ever allow himself to be completely fooled. Moreover, an increasingly large group of art lovers and collectors admired the ingenuity and dexterity that went into the creation of images so that their awareness of the painting’s artificiality became an essential aspect of their viewing pleasure.

That Reinick and Richter expressed their admiration for the wonder of illusion in a children’s book was probably no accident. By the mid-nineteenth-century, the art of illusion was no longer the topic of adult discussions about art. The interest in illusion did not disappear altogether, but it gradually became more associated with areas of image-making other than serious art with a capital “A”.

The world of illustrations, among others, including children’s books like Reinick’s ‘Abecedarium’, or scientific studies that were dependent on accurate, true-to-life renderings. Charles Darwin, in ‘The Origin of Species’, for instance, referred to drawings of plants as proofs of his theory about the effects of constant selection by floriculturists.

“We see an astonishing improvement in many florists’ flowers,” he wrote in 1859, “when the flowers of the present day are compared with drawings made only twenty or thirty years ago”. Obviously, these drawings were a reliable source of information for Darwin. But what if the level of realism had been as high in mid-nineteenth-century art as it had been, for example, in early fourteenth-century art, which, in terms of natural evolution, is not much more than a millisecond in the course of time.

There is no doubt that Darwin would have been shocked rather than amazed by the difference between the real and the depicted flowers. Yet, as with many of his observations, there was nothing wrong with Darwin’s interpretation of the drawings as fossils. It probably just did not occur to him that the realistic quality of the drawings resulted from an evolution of skill in rendering images, which had begun several centuries earlier. After all, he was not shocked by the evolution of art, but by the changes, the real flowers had undergone in the hands of floriculturists.

The question of how much these drawings could be considered art was totally irrelevant to Darwin. For art scholars and artists during Darwin’s time, it was quite a different story because they were increasingly likely to answer this question in the negative.

Despite being so important since the beginning of the Renaissance, the effect of visual illusions no longer excited them. And thus, neither did the skill it required to produce these images. For example, August Wilhelm Schlegel, in his discussions of the paintings in the Dresden museum of 1799 (‘Die Gemählde’), had one of his characters ask why Jacob Hackert’s landscapes lacked that great and sublime nature — why “one is lured purely as if by a soft siren’s song into the real world, which the painting tries to depict” — to which the immediate response was that Hackert’s paintings showed nothing more than camera obscura images.

“Its effect is less powerful than nature’s”, Schlegel continued, “and yet not powerful enough as art”. Similarly, Karl Friedrich von Rumohr in 1827 argued that if we want to fully comprehend art “we should begin by totally abandoning all existing or conceivable themes”.

Von Rumohr thought that too many people were accustomed to interpreting the history of art as an evolution towards perfect realism, which was the result of the increased mastery of “design, colour, chiaroscuro, composition, expression”. He believed this interpretation was incorrect because it tended to confuse “the merely technical with the spiritual in art”.

Statements like those of Schlegel and Von Rumohr were in sharp contrast to the promises that the Picture Man made to the children in Reinick’s poem, or, for that matter, De Piles’ earlier notions of art.

These views show a completely different notion about what makes an image a work of art, in the fact that they had very little room left for illusion. This was to remain the opinion of many critics into the twentieth-century, including such influential advocates of modern art as Walter Crane and Theo van Doesburg, who will be discussed later in this book. But it was also the opinion of many other, now-forgotten, writers from the first half of the twentieth-century.

Their innumerable publications must have familiarised the broader public with the notion that illusion, or even figuration, was irrelevant to art. Among them was a certain Hans Cornelius, who, in following Crane and Heinrich Wölfflin in his 1906 ‘Elementargesetze der bildenden Kunst’.

‘Grundlagen einer praktischen Ästhetik’ (‘Elementary rules for visual art: Foundations of practical aesthetics’), was particularly interested in teaching his readers to observe lines, colours and the formal relationships in works of art, apart from their figurative results.

He considered this “artistic way of looking” (‘künstlerische Betrachtungsweise’) as the only correct way. After all, anyone who based his appreciation or rejection of a work of art on the value of its figurative content was thought to be distracted by something that “just doesn’t concern its artistic value” (“eine solche, die eben nicht seinen Kunstwert trifft”).

For instance, Veronese and Tiepolo’s ceiling paintings were considered to be masterfully rendered, yet artistically inferior (“kuenstlerisch minderwertig”) because they belonged to “illusion painting” (“Illusionsmalerei”), as Cornelius disparagingly called it, which created confused spectators because they expected to see depth but were instead unpleasantly deceived.

This opinion continued to reign until after the Second World War. In his 1954 book Art and Visual Perception, Rudolf Arnheim anathematized, so to speak, the principle of illusion in art. He spoke of “the illusionistic doctrine” that had been held for so many centuries (and even on into the contemporary period, as he pointed out), which was based on the erroneous notion that “deceitful illusion” is the primary goal of all art. Thus, works of art that did not necessarily conform to this principle — which, Arnheim added, basically included all art because the perfect illusion was essentially impossible — were being interpreted in every conceivable way.

Any deviations were understood as being the result of an artist’s physical or mental shortcomings, or his violation of the rules of illusion, whether done willfully or not. Arnheim, however, rejected this as a misleading notion, which was based on “what is known in philosophy as ‘naive realism’”.

After all, anyone who believes this is making the incorrect assumption that the material world is identical to the mental image formed by perception and that — for this reason — a painting or a sculpture is nothing more than a replica of what the artist has just witnessed.

An artist is at most accorded the power to manipulate reality and depict things in a manner more beautiful than they actually are. But, Arnheim believed that this did not mean much because it effectively reduces artistic creativity to nothing more than a “cosmetic” act or a form of “plastic surgery”, which could just as well have been performed on real models in a studio.

Several years later, in 1961, the influential art critic Clement Greenberg also warned against the age-old idea that art is similar to illusion. “Free-standing pictorial and sculptural art […]”, he wrote, “was until a short while ago identified wholly with the representational, the figurative, the descriptive”.

Greenberg criticised this age-old notion in order to promote the modern works of abstract art of his time. He did this not by rejecting all painting and sculpture that had come before it, but just the old theories that had supported them.

Greenberg was attempting to minimise the importance of the recognisability of the object or scene and thought that the figuration found in old art no longer had any artistic relevance. Instead, a painting should be understood as “a complex of shapes and colours to behold”.

Greenberg even went so far as to predict that future connoisseurs, once convinced of this truth, would eventually understand the value of old art much more than at that time — 1961 — and discover how it was similar to modern art.

He hoped they would also discover the real reason why nature was imitated in old art: not to produce beautiful illusions, but to offer “above all, a wealth of colors and shapes, and of intricacies of colour and shape, such as no painter, in isolation with his art, could ever have invented”.

When David Hockney, in a 1979 interview, was asked about his fondness for Piero della Francesca’s paintings, he praised his ancient predecessor in a similar manner. Although the paintings have “an explicit subject, often a Christian theme”, Hockney explained, it is not “the story which makes them so exceptional, but the always exciting composition”.

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