The meaning behind those old masters

Taken from a talk given by Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery as part of its Thursday lunchtime lecture series
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Imagine that the creation of kites occupied the same exalted place within European culture that painting does. Imagine that kites had been made, flown and avidly collected for hundreds of years. Imagine, too, that in the early 20th century a group of daring young kitists started to make kites too elaborate and heavy to fly; kites that looked good, carried important symbolic messages and so on but hung in the corner of a room. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the idea caught on so completely that flying kites became the preserve of museums.

Imagine that the creation of kites occupied the same exalted place within European culture that painting does. Imagine that kites had been made, flown and avidly collected for hundreds of years. Imagine, too, that in the early 20th century a group of daring young kitists started to make kites too elaborate and heavy to fly; kites that looked good, carried important symbolic messages and so on but hung in the corner of a room. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the idea caught on so completely that flying kites became the preserve of museums.

The old guard would say that these modern kites weren't kites at all. They would claim that the purpose of a kite is to fly. They would probably be wrong, since what else would these things be if not kites, and who is to say that they could not be incredibly beautiful, meaningful and important? Yet what would happen to the understanding of the kites of the past?

I would suggest something along the following lines. "Yes," it would be said, "of course these kites were made to fly, but that is not the important thing about them. What really matters is their design, their symbolic messages. Flying was just a stage kitism had to go through." I hope you agree that this is unlikely to be a very intelligent view of our imaginary tradition of kite manufacture. If a kite is made to fly, then its aerodynamics are clearly fundamental to it, not because somebody says so, but because flying a kite is a pleasure. To deny the pleasure is to misunderstand the thing.

What does this analogy tell us? It tells us that the radical transformation of modern kite design might or might not produce beautiful non-flying kites, but it would almost certainly produce a complete and militant misunderstanding of the kites of the past.

Common misconceptions about pre-20th-century painting derive from a similar source. Consider, for example, the need to maintain the unity of "flying" and "non-flying" art. Art-lovers do not want to accept schism any more than those theologians who worked so hard to maintain the unity of the one true catholic and apostolic church. One way of doing this is to stress the artist and not the art. If art is "people-centred", if it is about striving, daring, creating, suffering and innovating, then it can be the same for all ages, whatever the outcome of these states of mind may look like. Hence Gombrich's astonishing claim: "There is no such thing as art, only artists." But why should someone be induced to say such a thing? We can safely say that artists of the past were tormented geniuses whose daring attempts to shock the complacent public of their time were greeted with persecution and neglect.

On the other hand, the art historian's retreat from the agony of this aesthetic reconciliation is history. Paintings were different then, because life was different then. This painting is more important than that, because they thought it was. The art historian's study is historical context.

But the real misconception - the "flying" of the analogy - concerns the capacity of painting to remind the viewer of the natural world. Ruskin writes: "The object of the great Resemblant Arts is and has always been to resemble; and to resemble as closely as possible." Not any more, it isn't. The idea that "all art is abstract" is now so widely accepted that it is almost a truism. When applied to one of the "Old Resemblants", what can this statement mean? Presumably that a painting which seems to depict a tree has elements of brushwork, design etc that may depart from the strict duty of describing the branches and leaves. But does that make the painting abstract? By the same argument, all poetry that contains some deliberate ambiguity is without meaning.

In fact, I would maintain, whatever the old masters did keeps coming back to resemblance. To put it another way: if painting were a song, the verses might contain a range of different qualities, but resemblance is the refrain.

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