Thursday, February 11, 2010

Paintings I Like, pt. 48

Hans Holbein the Younger, "The Ambassadors," 1533. Oil on wood, 81" x 82"

Edouard Manet, "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere," 1882. Oil on canvas, 40" x 51."

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Team No Hassle at the Castle recently took an action-packed trip to Paris and London, looking at art every single day. I'd seen the Parisian collections before, but it was my very first visit to the Mecca of fish and chips, and I must confess that I just didn't know so many paintings from art history 101 texts have their permanent address in London. This was made all the more surprising by the fact that so few of the important pictures were made by British artists - after Turner, the quality and notoriety tends to drop off quite a bit. The depth of the collections gives you a sense of just how much money and power England had when they took their turn running the world.

Two pictures that I've always wanted to stand in front of are in London: Manet's "A Bar at the Folies Bergere" is at the Courtauld Collection, and "The Ambassadors" by Hans Holbein the Younger is at the National Gallery. There were both marvellous, fabulous, wonderful, and so on, and I couldn't possibly skip them in Paintings I Like (FYI: my rule for the "Paintings I Like" series of posts is that I will only write about paintings I've seen in person, not solely in reproduction).

But what is there left to say? These paintings along with Las Meninas, Luncheon in the Grass, The Mona Lisa, and the Arnolfini Portrait have already had thousands of gallons of ink spilled over their every detail and mystery.

After thinking about what my angle would be, I decided that I would contrast the vastly different ways that Holbein and Manet painted stuff, or more specifically the surfaces of stuff. I'm not going to talk about the iconography of the stuff, I'm not going to say much about the skull in the Holbein, and I'm going to essentially skip the skewed perspective in the Manet along with the shadowy figure in the mirror.

Looking at the pictures in this way says a lot about how painters of different eras depicted the physical world and what devices they took to be best suited to naturalism in their particular moment in time. The following is from Rudolph Arnheim's "Art and Visual Perception:"

"Boccaccio tells in the Decamerone that the painter Giotto 'was a genius of such excellence that there was no thing of nature... that he did not depict with the pencil or the pen or the brush in a manner so similar to the object that it seemed to be the thing itself rather than merely resembling it; so much so that many times the visual sense of men was misled by the things he made, believing to be true what was only painted.' The highly stylized pictures of Giotto could have hardly deceived his contemporaries if they had judged lifelikeness by direct comparison with reality. Compared with the work of his immediate predecessors, however, Giotto's rendering of expressive gestures, depth, volume, and scenery could indeed be considered very lifelike, and it was this deviation from the prevailing norm level of pictorial representation that produced the astonishing effect on Giotto's contemporaries."

In spite of the different eras and modes of representation, both the Holbein and the Manet have a very similar spatial arrangement: shallow and frontal, they have the feeling of stage sets. The curtain in the Holbein is an especially strong reference to theatrical staging, but the mirror in the Manet which reflects people watching a show also emphasizes theatricality, and flattens the space even as it depicts people and things at a relatively large distance.

The stars of the two shows are the men in the Holbein and the barmaid in the Manet (with the mystery man acting as co-star, more so perhaps in the literature about the picture than in the picture itself). But the supporting cast in both paintings is a large catalog of surfaces - In the Holbein: fur, wood, marble, bone, skin, gold, hair, paper; in the Manet: marble, velvet, glass, gold, foil, orange peels, flower petals, organza, skin, hair, paper, wood.

High renaissance painting concerned itself largely with naturalism, and painters from different regions achieved it in different ways; the Florentines were intoxicated by perspective and the Venetians gravitated to the depiction of light and atmosphere, but the northern renaissance painters used the lushness of oil paint to depict things with obsessive accuracy; not just in terms of shape and proportion, but with a special emphasis on surface. The Holbein must be counted as the apotheosis of this approach. The marble is hard and somewhat reflective, but not so much so as to be mistaken for glass. The wood is hard, but not quite as hard, and throws off less reflection. The satin is satiny, the furs are unbelievably furry, and there are several grades of sheen in between, from shiny to matte, on the various textiles in the painting. And the skin, what DeKooning said that oil paint was made to paint, looks like skin. Brushstrokes are meticulously suppressed.

This last point is where Manet's catalog of surfaces and Holbein's diverge drastically. Holbein was trying hard to play the role of the yet to be invented camera, recording and cataloging reality with the greatest possible faithfulness. Manet actually lived in the era of the camera, and his depictions of the various surfaces took advantage of how the eye, as opposed to the camera's lens, records reality. A close inspection of the Manet shows that the glass, the foil, the marble, the semi-transparent ruffle on the girl's neckline and cuffs, the orange peels, and all the other surfaces in the pictures are made up of rough scumbles - no attempt is made to hide materiality, and in the near view these things just look like hastily applied paint.

But at the optimal viewing distance, these things all magically transform in to the varied surfaces listed above, all in their way as convincing as those in the Holbein. How can this be?

I would like to lay claim to the following explanation, but an excellent art history professor of mine from grad school pointed this out to me in relation to a particular Velazquez: When you stand at a comfortable viewing distance from a given picture, there are actually two different measurements at play; one actual, one optical. The actual distance is the one between your eyes and the surface of the picture. In the case of the Manet, this was, if memory serves, about six or seven feet. Then there is the fictitious distance between the picture plane and figures and objects in the painting. If you imagine that the surface of the Manet is not a painting, but a real window looking into the Bar at the Folies Bergere, then girl and the things on the bar would have probably been anywhere from six to ten feet back from the surface of the window. This would make the total distance between you and the girl, the glass, the foil, etc. anywhere from 12 to 17 feet. At that distance, your eye cannot record detail as well as a camera or Hans Holbein - the seemingly hasty, sketchy approach is a lot more like what the eye would actually record. By using this loophole, Manet's realism rivals Holbein's with an incredible economy of means.

Different eras call for different approaches to the same issues. One of the many things that I love about painting is the huge variety of methods there are to skin the proverbial cat.